Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Just Doing His Job

By John Tierney from The New York Times
After I wrote last year about Richard Paey, the wheelchair-bound patient who's been in physical agony for two decades, a lot of readers asked me what kind of monster could have prosecuted him for obtaining painkillers. If you watched "60 Minutes" Sunday, you could see for yourself.

Scott Andringa, the prosecutor in Florida who sent Paey to prison for 25 years, did not come off well on "60 Minutes," but he didn't look dementedly evil, either. He seemed exactly the way I've found him in interviews: earnest, conscientious, convinced he had done the right thing. That's why he scares me.

He's one of the many well-meaning public officials whose judgment has been so warped by the war on drugs that they can't see what they've become. Andringa, echoing the line of the Drug Enforcement Administration, has assured me he would never stop patients from getting medicine for their pain.

"I have the utmost respect for doctors who try to treat pain humanely and responsibly," he told me. "I am not a doctor. I have never claimed to be a doctor."

Yet there he was playing doctor on "60 Minutes" to explain why it was "reasonable" to infer that Paey was a drug dealer. There was no evidence that Paey had sold any of his painkillers (and agents had conducted surveillance of him and his wife for two months). But Andringa inferred that Paey must have been selling them because the prescriptions he received worked out to about 25 pills per day.

"One pill every hour, every day, for two years," Andringa told Morley Safer, as if this feat of math proved his case. It's the same mystic numerology you hear over and over from drug warriors like Karen Tandy, the head of the D.E.A., who prefers to focus on the number of pills prescribed without bothering with details like the patient's needs or the dosage.

Paey had no trouble explaining to me why he was taking 25 pills per day: his doctor cautiously gave him a variety of low-strength pills in order to avoid prescribing the kind of painkillers that tempt drug abusers and invite investigation from the D.E.A. Instead of taking a few high-strength oxycodone pills, Paey took a cocktail of pills containing low doses of oxycodone and other less effective pain killers like Tylenol.

As a result, the total daily dose of oxycodone in all those pills Paey took was less than what he could have gotten in a single high-strength OxyContin pill. And there are some chronic-pain patients who need 10 of those high-strength OxyContins every day because they, like Paey, have developed a tolerance to the drug over the years.

So there was no good medical reason to assume that Paey wasn't taking all those pills. In fact, he says he wasn't getting enough pain relief because of his doctor's fear of the D.E.A. Yet Andringa simply made his own medical diagnosis — too many pills — and proceeded to exploit the extraordinary leverage that prosecutors have been given over doctors and patients.

The typical approach is to put pressure on patients to turn on their doctors, but it can work the other way, too. Paey told me he was offered a deal by investigators: "They said if you're willing to testify against your doctor it would go a long way to having these charges go away." Paey refused, and then found himself facing hostile testimony from the doctor, who said he had not authorized the contested prescriptions.

After the doctor's credibility was challenged in court — he was contradicted both by his own words and by pharmacists who said he'd approved the prescriptions — the prosecutor came up with a mind-boggling new argument against Paey. Andringa told the jurors that even if they believed the doctor had prescribed the drugs, Paey should still be convicted because the doctor should never have written the prescriptions.

Andringa argued that the doctor wasn't practicing proper medicine — according to the prosecutor's standards — so the prescriptions were illegal and Paey shouldn't have filled them. By this logic, instead of listening to his doctor, Paey should have tried to anticipate what a prosecutor would prescribe for him.

I spoke to Andringa yesterday, after he'd watched "60 Minutes" and seen Paey's wife and the three teenage children whose father may die in prison. "I'm not thrilled about this case," he said. "I'm only proud that I did my job as a prosecutor." And self-appointed doctor.

Heck of a job! By Tony Auth

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Monday, January 30, 2006

The Lost Children

By Bob Herbert from The New York Times
The times — as a fellow named Dylan sang more than 40 years ago — they are a-changin'.

This time it's not the emergence of the tie-dyed 60's and the flowering of the boomer generation. But the changes are at least as fundamental.

A generation from now non-Hispanic whites will make up less than 60 percent of the U.S. population, and by 2050 they will be just half. Nine out of 10 American students currently attend public schools. It is likely that within a decade fewer than half of the public school students will be white.

The dramatic changes in public school enrollment will not be a result of white flight, according to a new study by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University: "It is because of a changing population structure created by differential birth rates and age structures and a largely nonwhite international flow of millions of immigrants. Since whites are older, marry at later ages, have smaller families and account for a small fraction of immigrants, these changes are almost certain to continue."

So, with these changes in mind, what's happening with the black and Latino students who already account for more than a third of the public school population, and who should be expected to play an increasingly important role in shaping American society?

Not much that is good.

When Bob Dylan first came on the scene, it was very possible for a young man or woman with energy and a dream and a high school diploma (or less) to actually build a decent life. That's pretty much over.

We are now in a time when a college education is a virtual prerequisite for achieving or maintaining a middle-class lifestyle. "Only the kids who get a postsecondary education are even keeping even in terms of income in their lives, and so forth," said Gary Orfield, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and director of the Civil Rights Project. "The rest are falling behind, year by year. Only about a twelfth of the Latino kids and maybe a sixth of the black kids are getting college degrees. The rest of them aren't getting ready for anything that's going to have much of a future in the American economy."

One of the weirder things occurring in American education is the disappearance of kids — especially black and Hispanic kids — from high school. The San Antonio Express-News, reporting last March on a study by a local research association, said that "more than a third of Texas high school freshman students are disappearing from the system or otherwise failing to obtain a high school diploma in four years."

The Los Angeles Times, for a feature article that same month, interviewed a 17-year-old named Nancy Meza who had quickly made friends with dozens of classmates when she arrived at the Boyle Heights campus of Roosevelt High School. Four years later, as her senior class gathered for its graduation photo, only four of her friends were there. Nearly all of the others had dropped out.

"It really struck me today," said Nancy. "All of my friends are gone."

This is an underrecognized, underreported crisis in American life. Far from preparing kids for college, big-city high schools in neighborhoods with large numbers of poor, black and Latino youngsters are just hemorrhaging students. The kids are vanishing into a wilderness of ignorance. If the dropout rate were somehow reversed in a city like Los Angeles, there wouldn't be enough schools to accommodate the kids.

"The high dropout rate has been built into the regular order of school facilities in our big cities," said Professor Orfield. "They expect that the classes will just shrivel as the kids go through the grades."

Nationally, just two-thirds of all students — and only half of all blacks and Latinos — who enter ninth grade actually graduate with regular diplomas four years later.

This state of affairs in so many of the nation's high schools is potentially calamitous, not just for the students but for society as a whole. "It's really very sad what's going on," said Professor Orfield. "And there's been very little effort to reform it."

Youngsters who drop out of high school are much less likely to be regularly employed, or to escape poverty, even if they work full time. They are less likely to be married and less likely to have a decent home and a decent school for their kids. Their chances of ending up in prison — especially for the African-American and Latino boys — are much higher.

These kids will not be part of the cadre of new leadership for America in the 21st century. They will have a hard enough time just surviving.

Battle Hardened By Tom Toles

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Laid off? By Jeff Danziger

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A False Balance

By Paul Krugman from The New York Times
"How does one report the facts," asked Rob Corddry on "The Daily Show," "when the facts themselves are biased?" He explained to Jon Stewart, who played straight man, that "facts in Iraq have an anti-Bush agenda," and therefore can't be reported.

Mr. Corddry's parody of journalists who believe they must be "balanced" even when the truth isn't balanced continues, alas, to ring true. The most recent example is the peculiar determination of some news organizations to cast the scandal surrounding Jack Abramoff as "bipartisan."

Let's review who Mr. Abramoff is and what he did.

Here's how a 2004 Washington Post article described Mr. Abramoff's background: "Abramoff's conservative-movement credentials date back more than two decades to his days as a national leader of the College Republicans." In the 1990's, reports the article, he found his "niche" as a lobbyist "with entree to the conservatives who were taking control of Congress. He enjoys a close bond with [Tom] DeLay."

Mr. Abramoff hit the jackpot after Republicans took control of the White House as well as Congress. He persuaded several Indian tribes with gambling interests that they needed to pay vast sums for his services and those of Michael Scanlon, a former DeLay aide. From the same Washington Post article: "Under Abramoff's guidance, the four tribes ... have also become major political donors. They have loosened their traditional ties to the Democratic Party, giving Republicans two-thirds of the $2.9 million they have donated to federal candidates since 2001, records show."

So Mr. Abramoff is a movement conservative whose lobbying career was based on his connections with other movement conservatives. His big coup was persuading gullible Indian tribes to hire him as an adviser; his advice was to give less money to Democrats and more to Republicans. There's nothing bipartisan about this tale, which is all about the use and abuse of Republican connections.

Yet over the past few weeks a number of journalists, ranging from The Washington Post's ombudsman to the "Today" show's Katie Couric, have declared that Mr. Abramoff gave money to both parties. In each case the journalists or their news organization, when challenged, grudgingly conceded that Mr. Abramoff himself hasn't given a penny to Democrats. But in each case they claimed that this is only a technical point, because Mr. Abramoff's clients — those Indian tribes — gave money to Democrats as well as Republicans, money the news organizations say he "directed" to Democrats.

But the tribes were already giving money to Democrats before Mr. Abramoff entered the picture; he persuaded them to reduce those Democratic donations, while giving much more money to Republicans. A study commissioned by The American Prospect shows that the tribes' donations to Democrats fell by 9 percent after they hired Mr. Abramoff, while their contributions to Republicans more than doubled. So in any normal sense of the word "directed," Mr. Abramoff directed funds away from Democrats, not toward them.

True, some Democrats who received tribal donations before Mr. Abramoff's entrance continued to receive donations after his arrival. How, exactly, does this implicate them in Mr. Abramoff's machinations? Bear in mind that no Democrat has been indicted or is rumored to be facing indictment in the Abramoff scandal, nor has any Democrat been credibly accused of doing Mr. Abramoff questionable favors.

There have been both bipartisan and purely Democratic scandals in the past. Based on everything we know so far, however, the Abramoff affair is a purely Republican scandal.

Why does the insistence of some journalists on calling this one-party scandal bipartisan matter? For one thing, the public is led to believe that the Abramoff affair is just Washington business as usual, which it isn't. The scale of the scandals now coming to light, of which the Abramoff affair is just a part, dwarfs anything in living memory.

More important, this kind of misreporting makes the public feel helpless. Voters who are told, falsely, that both parties were drawn into Mr. Abramoff's web are likely to become passive and shrug their shoulders instead of demanding reform.

So the reluctance of some journalists to report facts that, in this case, happen to have an anti-Republican agenda is a serious matter. It's not a stretch to say that these journalists are acting as enablers for the rampant corruption that has emerged in Washington over the last decade.

Bow Down By Ben Sargent

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Sunday, January 29, 2006

Spying on Vegans

ACLU Releases Government Photos

Jon Shirek

A government photo shows Caitlin Childs protesting.

January 26, 2006

​​​​The ACLU of Georgia released copies of government files on Wednesday that illustrate the extent to which the FBI, the DeKalb County Division of Homeland Security and other government agencies have gone to compile information on Georgians suspected of being threats simply for expressing controversial opinions.

Two documents relating to anti-war and anti-government protests, and a vegan rally, prove the agencies have been "spying" on Georgia residents unconstitutionally, the ACLU said. (Related: ACLU Complaint -- PDF file)

For example, more than two dozen government surveillance photographs show 22-year-old Caitlin Childs of Atlanta, a strict vegetarian, and other vegans picketing against meat eating, in December 2003. They staged their protest outside a HoneyBaked Ham store on Buford Highway in DeKalb County.

An undercover DeKalb County Homeland Security detective was assigned to conduct surveillance of the protest and the protestors, and take the photographs. The detective arrested Childs and another protester after he saw Childs approach him and write down, on a piece of paper, the license plate number of his unmarked government car.

"They told me if I didn't give over the piece of paper I would go to jail and I refused and I went to jail, and the piece of paper was taken away from me at the jail and the officer who transferred me said that was why I was arrested," Childs said on Wednesday.

The government file lists anti-war protesters in Atlanta as threats, the ACLU said. The ACLU of Georgia accuses the Bush administration of labeling those who disagree with its policy as disloyal Americans.

"We believe that spying on American citizens for no good reason is fundamentally un-American, that it's not the place of the goverment or the best use of resources to spy on its own citizens and we want it to stop. We want the spies in our government to pack their bags, close up their notebooks, take their cameras home and not engage in the spying anymore," Gerald Weber of the ACLU of Georgia said during a news conference.

"We have heard of not a single, government surveillance of a pro-war group," Weber said. "And I doubt we will ever hear of a single surveillance of a pro-war group."

The ACLU wants Congress and the courts to order government agencies, including the FBI, to stop unconstitutional surveillance.

Weber said the ACLU of Georgia may sue the government, in order to define, once and for all, what unconstitutional surveillance is in a post-911 America.

The FBI in Atlanta declined to comment. According to the Associated Press, FBI spokesman Bill Carter in Washington, D.C. said that all FBI investigations are conducted in response to information that the people being investigated were involved in or might have information about crimes.

As for Caitlin Childs' protest against meat eating, the files obtained by the ACLU include the DeKalb County Homeland Security report on the surveillance of Childs and the others. The detective wrote that he ordered Childs to give him the piece of paper on which she had written his license tag number, telling her that he did not want her or anyone else to have the tag number of his undercover vehicle.

The detective did not comment in his report about why his license tag number was already visible to the public.

The detective wrote that Childs was "hostile, uncooperative and boisterous toward the officers."
Childs said today that the agents shouldn't have been there in the first place, squelching legal dissent.

"We have the right to gather and protest and speak out."
(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

Return to The Era Front Page

Spies, Lies and Wiretaps

Editorial from The New York Times
A bit over a week ago, President Bush and his men promised to provide the legal, constitutional and moral justifications for the sort of warrantless spying on Americans that has been illegal for nearly 30 years. Instead, we got the familiar mix of political spin, clumsy historical misinformation, contemptuous dismissals of civil liberties concerns, cynical attempts to paint dissents as anti-American and pro-terrorist, and a couple of big, dangerous lies.

The first was that the domestic spying program is carefully aimed only at people who are actively working with Al Qaeda, when actually it has violated the rights of countless innocent Americans. And the second was that the Bush team could have prevented the 9/11 attacks if only they had thought of eavesdropping without a warrant.

Sept. 11 could have been prevented. This is breathtakingly cynical. The nation's guardians did not miss the 9/11 plot because it takes a few hours to get a warrant to eavesdrop on phone calls and e-mail messages. They missed the plot because they were not looking. The same officials who now say 9/11 could have been prevented said at the time that no one could possibly have foreseen the attacks. We keep hoping that Mr. Bush will finally lay down the bloody banner of 9/11, but Karl Rove, who emerged from hiding recently to talk about domestic spying, made it clear that will not happen — because the White House thinks it can make Democrats look as though they do not want to defend America. "President Bush believes if Al Qaeda is calling somebody in America, it is in our national security interest to know who they're calling and why," he told Republican officials. "Some important Democrats clearly disagree."

Mr. Rove knows perfectly well that no Democrat has ever said any such thing — and that nothing prevented American intelligence from listening to a call from Al Qaeda to the United States, or a call from the United States to Al Qaeda, before Sept. 11, 2001, or since. The 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act simply required the government to obey the Constitution in doing so. And FISA was amended after 9/11 to make the job much easier.

Only bad guys are spied on. Bush officials have said the surveillance is tightly focused only on contacts between people in this country and Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. Vice President Dick Cheney claimed it saved thousands of lives by preventing attacks. But reporting in this paper has shown that the National Security Agency swept up vast quantities of e-mail messages and telephone calls and used computer searches to generate thousands of leads. F.B.I. officials said virtually all of these led to dead ends or to innocent Americans. The biggest fish the administration has claimed so far has been a crackpot who wanted to destroy the Brooklyn Bridge with a blowtorch — a case that F.B.I. officials said was not connected to the spying operation anyway.

The spying is legal. The secret program violates the law as currently written. It's that simple. In fact, FISA was enacted in 1978 to avoid just this sort of abuse. It said that the government could not spy on Americans by reading their mail (or now their e-mail) or listening to their telephone conversations without obtaining a warrant from a special court created for this purpose. The court has approved tens of thousands of warrants over the years and rejected a handful.

As amended after 9/11, the law says the government needs probable cause, the constitutional gold standard, to believe the subject of the surveillance works for a foreign power or a terrorist group, or is a lone-wolf terrorist. The attorney general can authorize electronic snooping on his own for 72 hours and seek a warrant later. But that was not good enough for Mr. Bush, who lowered the standard for spying on Americans from "probable cause" to "reasonable belief" and then cast aside the bedrock democratic principle of judicial review.

Just trust us. Mr. Bush made himself the judge of the proper balance between national security and Americans' rights, between the law and presidential power. He wants Americans to accept, on faith, that he is doing it right. But even if the United States had a government based on the good character of elected officials rather than law, Mr. Bush would not have earned that kind of trust. The domestic spying program is part of a well-established pattern: when Mr. Bush doesn't like the rules, he just changes them, as he has done for the detention and treatment of prisoners and has threatened to do in other areas, like the confirmation of his judicial nominees. He has consistently shown a lack of regard for privacy, civil liberties and judicial due process in claiming his sweeping powers. The founders of our country created the system of checks and balances to avert just this sort of imperial arrogance.

The rules needed to be changed. In 2002, a Republican senator — Mike DeWine of Ohio — introduced a bill that would have done just that, by lowering the standard for issuing a warrant from probable cause to "reasonable suspicion" for a "non-United States person." But the Justice Department opposed it, saying the change raised "both significant legal and practical issues" and may have been unconstitutional. Now, the president and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales are telling Americans that reasonable suspicion is a perfectly fine standard for spying on Americans as well as non-Americans — and they are the sole judges of what is reasonable.

So why oppose the DeWine bill? Perhaps because Mr. Bush had already secretly lowered the standard of proof — and dispensed with judges and warrants — for Americans and non-Americans alike, and did not want anyone to know.

War changes everything. Mr. Bush says Congress gave him the authority to do anything he wanted when it authorized the invasion of Afghanistan. There is simply nothing in the record to support this ridiculous argument.

The administration also says that the vote was the start of a war against terrorism and that the spying operation is what Mr. Cheney calls a "wartime measure." That just doesn't hold up. The Constitution does suggest expanded presidential powers in a time of war. But the men who wrote it had in mind wars with a beginning and an end. The war Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney keep trying to sell to Americans goes on forever and excuses everything.

Other presidents did it. Mr. Gonzales, who had the incredible bad taste to begin his defense of the spying operation by talking of those who plunged to their deaths from the flaming twin towers, claimed historic precedent for a president to authorize warrantless surveillance. He mentioned George Washington, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt. These precedents have no bearing on the current situation, and Mr. Gonzales's timeline conveniently ended with F.D.R., rather than including Richard Nixon, whose surveillance of antiwar groups and other political opponents inspired FISA in the first place. Like Mr. Nixon, Mr. Bush is waging an unpopular war, and his administration has abused its powers against antiwar groups and even those that are just anti-Republican.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is about to start hearings on the domestic spying. Congress has failed, tragically, on several occasions in the last five years to rein in Mr. Bush and restore the checks and balances that are the genius of American constitutional democracy. It is critical that it not betray the public once again on this score.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

The Catastrophe Is Not Over

By Jennifer Moses from the Washington Post
While the rest of the country wakes up in the morning to read about the latest round of Washington scandals, the misery in Louisiana continues unabated. Except for a few older, historical neighborhoods on "high ground," New Orleans is uninhabitable, and Cameron Parish, in the southwest corner of the state, basically no longer exists, having been wiped out by Hurricane Rita.

Meanwhile, though Congress passed a $29 billion aid package for the Gulf Coast region, it's being split between Mississippi and Louisiana, perhaps because, even though Mississippi has fewer than one-fifth the number of affected households Louisiana does, its governor, Haley Barbour, an ex-Republican National Committee chairman, is a pal of the president. But with all the problems Louisiana is facing -- including a new round of budget-slashing -- no one seems to be talking about the looming human crisis: Where will the tens of thousands of evacuees living in hotels go when the Federal Emergency Management Agency stops paying the bills in February?

Here in Baton Rouge, housing experts fear a new storm surge -- this one of people with no jobs, no insurance, no one to take them in and, as of next month, no roof over their heads. In the meantime, the local low-income housing market has never been tighter, as both FEMA and HUD have bid up housing and rental prices, leaving longtime working-class residents of Baton Rouge scrambling to find even minimally decent housing. As soon as their leases expire, rents for apartment dwellers, most of whom are on year-to-year leases, are being jacked up. The St. Vincent De Paul Society (among other institutions that serve the poor) is providing more than 25 percent more meals than it was before the storms. And homeless shelters have gone begging for permission to add beds. As for the thousands of families desperate to move out of government-sponsored hotels: tough luck. Because even if you've managed to find yourself a job, the chances of finding affordable housing are next to nil.

Nationally, the number of families dwelling in FEMA-sponsored hotel rooms is just over 25,000, with more than half of those in Louisiana and Texas. FEMA is paying for some 8,600 hotel rooms in Louisiana, most of which are concentrated in the southern swath of the state and are occupied by more than one person. The government, in its demonstration of Oprah-era sensitivity training, is urging these families to relocate -- to go somewhere far, far away, Minnesota, say, which has generous welfare benefits, or Oklahoma, which has lots of open space -- but for some reason, most of the families living in hotels just want to go home.

Of course, it could be worse. FEMA might have stuck to its earlier cutoff date of Jan. 7, as many hoteliers in New Orleans did, booking rooms occupied by homeless evacuees for the Mardi Gras tourist season, resulting in storm victims being evicted just in time for winter to set in. (A federal judge, hoping to prevent this trend, recently ruled that evacuees in New Orleans will be allowed to stay in government-funded hotels until March 1, the day after Mardi Gras.) And let's give FEMA credit where credit is due: The agency has promised -- in writing, no less -- that it's going to help rehabilitate sections of neglected working-class neighborhoods in Baton Rouge to accommodate the newly and about-to-be homeless. The only problem is, so far at least, the contract is worth just about as much as the paper it's written on. On the other hand, FEMA continues to award storm-cleaning contracts to some out-of-state companies that sprang up just a few days after Hurricane Katrina lunged ashore. So at least someone's being helped.

According to Randy Nichols, executive director of Baton Rouge's Alliance for the Homeless, the real hitch is that FEMA is still treating the disaster in Louisiana as a historic, one-time, one-size-fits-all catastrophe, rather than as a long-term problem that requires a long-term fix. One long-term fix -- not just for residential planning but for flood control in general -- is restoring Louisiana's wetlands, which in the olden days acted as a natural buffer to storm surges, and without which none of South Louisiana would have been inhabited in the first place. But no one's talking much about the wetlands, perhaps because the subject is too, well, environmental. (And we know how the Bush administration regards the environment.)

In the meantime, however, the problem of homelessness isn't just local. All the president of the United States has to do to glimpse the horrors of homelessness up close and personal is walk over to St. John's Church on Lafayette Square, where every night a dozen or more homeless men and women congregate for a good night's sleep. Surely there's room in there for a few thousand more.

Jennifer Moses is a writer.

How Do You Like Your Democracy Now, Mr. Bush?

By Juan Cole
Hamas's stunning victory underlines the contradictions and hypocrisies in Bush's Mideast policies.

The stunning victory of the militant Muslim fundamentalist Hamas Party in the Palestinian elections underlines the central contradictions in the Bush administration's policies toward the Middle East. Bush pushes for elections, confusing them with democracy, but seems blind to the dangers of right-wing populism. At the same time, he continually undermines the moderate and secular forces in the region by acting high-handedly or allowing his clients to do so. As a result, Sunni fundamentalist parties, some with ties to violent cells, have emerged as key players in Iraq, Egypt and Palestine.

Democracy depends not just on elections but on a rule of law, on stable institutions, on basic economic security for the population, and on checks and balances that forestall a tyranny of the majority. Elections in the absence of this key societal context can produce authoritarian regimes and abuses as easily as they can produce genuine people power. Bush is on the whole unwilling to invest sufficiently in these key institutions and practices abroad. And by either creating or failing to deal with hated foreign occupations, he has sown the seeds for militant Islamist movements that gain popularity because of their nationalist credentials.

In Iraq, which is among the least secure and most economically fraught countries in the world, the Dec. 15 elections brought into Parliament a set of powerful Shiite fundamentalist parties and a new force, the Muslim fundamentalist Iraqi Accord Front, which gained most of the votes of formerly secular-minded Iraqi Sunni Arabs. Some IAF politicians are suspected of strong ties to Iraq's Sunni insurgency. In Egypt, last fall's election increased representation for the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood from 17 to more than 70 seats in Parliament, making that group a key political player for the first time in Egyptian history. Decades ago, the party once assassinated a prime minister and attempted to assassinate President Gamal Abdul Nasser, but now maintains it has turned to moderation. It aims at the imposition of a rigid interpretation of Islamic law on Egyptians, including Egyptian women.

Now Hamas, or the Islamic Resistance Movement, a branch of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, has come to power in Palestine. In his press conference on Thursday, Bush portrayed the Palestinian elections in the same way he depicts Republican Party victories over Democrats in the United States: "The people are demanding honest government. The people want services. They want to be able to raise their children in an environment in which they can get a decent education and they can find healthcare." He sounds like a spokesman for Hamas, underlining the irony that Bush and his party have given Americans the least honest government in a generation, have drastically cut services, and have actively opposed extension of healthcare to the uninsured in the United States.

But the president's attempt to dismiss the old ruling Fatah Party as corrupt and inefficient, however true, is also a way of taking the spotlight off his own responsibility for the stagnation in Palestine. Bush allowed then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to sideline the ruling Fatah Party of Yasser Arafat, to fire missiles at its police stations, and to reduce its leader to a besieged nonentity. Sharon arrogantly ordered the murder of civilian Hamas leaders in Gaza, making them martyrs. Meanwhile, Israeli settlements continued to grow, the fatally flawed Oslo agreements delivered nothing to the Palestinians, and Bush and Sharon ignored new peace plans - whether the so-called Geneva accord put forward by Palestinian and Israeli moderates or the Saudi peace plan - that could have resolved the underlying issues. The Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, which should have been a big step forward for peace, was marred by the refusal of the Israelis to cooperate with the Palestinians in ensuring that it did not produce a power vacuum and further insecurity.

Frustrated, the Palestinian public predictably swung to the far right. Their embrace of Hamas does not indicate that most Palestinians are dedicated to destroying Israel; polls show that most support a two-state solution and are weary of the endless violence. Rather, they are sick of the Palestinian Authority and believe that Hamas will be more effective negotiating partners with the Israelis. As a Saudi political talk show host told the Associated Press, "They [Hamas] will be the Arab Sharon. They will be tough, but only a tough group can snatch concessions from Israel."

In a mystifying self-contradiction, Bush trumpeted that "the Palestinians had an election yesterday, the results of which remind me about the power of democracy." If elections were really the same as democracy, and if Bush was so happy about the process, then we might expect him to pledge to work with the results, which by his lights would be intrinsically good. But then he suddenly swerved away from this line of thought, reverting to boilerplate and saying, "On the other hand, I don't see how you can be a partner in peace if you advocate the destruction of a country as part of your platform. And I know you can't be a partner in peace if you have a - if your party has got an armed wing."

So Bush is saying that even though elections are democracy and democracy is good and powerful, it has produced unacceptable results in this case, and so the resulting Hamas government will lack the legitimacy necessary to allow the United States to deal with it or go forward in any peace process. Bush's double standard is clear in his diction, since he was perfectly happy to deal with Israel's Likud Party, which is dedicated to the destruction of the budding Palestinian state, and which used the Israeli military and security services for its party platform in destroying the infrastructure of the Palestinian Authority throughout the early years of this century. As Orwell reminded us in "Animal Farm," some are more equal than others.

President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah had earlier been elected in a separate process and could continue in office if he chooses to work with a Hamas-dominated cabinet. He had earlier hinted that he would resign if his party lost. Asked about a possible resignation, Bush said in his typically tongue-tied way, "We'd like him to stay in power. I mean, we'd like to stay in office. He is in power; we'd like him to stay in office." Khaled Mashaal, the Hamas leader who is in exile in Syria, said that his party would be willing to work with Abbas as president, according to a party spokesman.

But then when Bush was asked if the United States would end aid to the Palestinian Authority if a Hamas government was formed, he implied that it would, unless Hamas changed its platform, which opposes the existence of the state of Israel on the grounds that the territory belongs to the Palestinians. He said, "Well, I made it very clear that the United States does not support political parties that want to destroy our ally Israel, and that people must renounce that part of their platform."

Bush implied that Hamas is dedicated to unremitting violence against Israel. And since 1994 its military wing has launched many suicide attacks against Israelis, killing hundreds of people, most of them civilians. But in fact it has observed a more or less effective truce for about a year - indeed, as an important study carried out by the respected International Crisis Group pointed out, it has observed the truce far more reliably than Fatah. And Hamas' leaders have affirmed that they are willing to continue the truce if Israel refrains from aggressive violence toward them.

Despite Hamas' founding position that the Israeli state is illegitimate, violence is not foreordained. A Hamas leader, Mahmoud Zahar, told the Associated Press that his party would continue what he called its year-old "truce" if Israel did the same. "If not," he added, "then I think we will have no option but to protect our people and our land." More fundamentally, even Hamas' charter could change. As the ICG points out, Hamas "has accepted the principle that there is no religious prohibition against negotiating or co-existing with Israel and that the provisions in its charter providing for Israel's destruction are not indelible." Even President Bush, in his measured response to the elections, seemed to hold out hope that Hamas would adopt a more pragmatic stance.

To be sure, many Israelis believe that Hamas is only using the truce to rearm, that it will never change its opposition to the very existence of Israel, and that any negotiations with the Islamist group will only weaken the Jewish state. And Hamas' failure to speak clearly about its intentions does nothing to allay such fears.

But no one has ever put Hamas to the test. Neither Bush nor Israel have ever made good-faith efforts to resolve the underlying issues, preferring to issue moralistic denunciations that ignore the reality on the ground. The bitter fruits of that shortsighted policy are now evident. In Iraq, Bush has been forced - albeit too late - to act pragmatically, negotiating with the leaders of Sunni insurgents whom his administration earlier denounced as "terrorists." He and Israeli leaders should follow the same course in Palestine and try to engage Hamas in a realistic, good-faith political effort to resolve the conflict.

There is no evidence that either party will do so. Bush announced early in his administration his unwillingness to do anything that would challenge Sharon. For his part, acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is following in Sharon's footsteps. He said that he would refuse to deal with the Palestinian Authority if it was led by Hamas or included Hamas as a partner, and that he would continue to take the high-handed unilateral actions planned by Sharon, including holding on to the large Israeli settlements in the West Bank and refusing to negotiate the status of Jerusalem.

Bush has boxed himself into an impossible situation. He promoted elections that have produced results opposite of the ones he wanted. For all his constant rhetoric about his determination to hunt down and kill terrorists, in Palestine he has in effect helped install into power a group he calls "terrorists." His confusion over whether this is democracy, which should be legitimate, or is an unacceptable outcome - and his unwillingness to address the underlying issues behind the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - suggest that a fatal paralysis will continue to afflict the region.

By Nick Anderson

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Friday, January 27, 2006

Using Our Fear

By Eugene Robinson from the Washington Post
Once upon a time we had a great wartime president who told Americans they had nothing to fear but fear itself. Now we have George W. Bush, who uses fear as a tool of executive power and as a political weapon against his opponents.

Franklin D. Roosevelt tried his best to allay his nation's fears in the midst of an epic struggle against fascism. Bush, as he leads the country in a war whose nature he is constantly redefining, keeps fear alive because it has been so useful. His political grand vizier, Karl Rove, was perfectly transparent the other day when he emerged from wherever he's been hiding the past few months -- consulting omens, reading entrails -- and gave the Republican National Committee its positioning statement for the fall elections: Vote for us or die.

Democrats "have a pre-9/11 worldview" of national security that is "deeply and profoundly and consistently wrong," Rove said. The clear subtext was that Americans would court mortal danger by electing Democrats. Go forth and scare the bejesus out of them, Rove was telling his party, because the more frightened they are, the better our chances.

To cultivate fear for partisan gain is never a political tactic to be proud of, but Rove's prescription of naked fearmongering is just plain reprehensible when the nation faces a shifting array of genuine, serious threats. This is a moment for ethical politicians -- and, yes, these days that seems like an oxymoron -- to speak honestly about what dangers have receded, what new dangers have emerged, and how the imperatives of liberty and security can be balanced.

From the likes of Rove, I guess, we shouldn't expect anything more noble than win-at-all-costs. But we do have the right to expect more from the president of the United States, and while Bush gives off none of Rove's Sith-lord menace, he has made the cultivation of fear a hallmark of his governance.

At his news conference yesterday, Bush was asked again about the domestic surveillance he has ordered the National Security Agency to conduct without seeking warrants -- a program that seems to violate the law. In his meandering answer, the president kept throwing in the phrase "to protect the American people." I suspect that's a line that tests well in focus groups, but it doesn't really say anything. The fact that we expect any president to protect us does not obviate the fact that we expect any president to obey the law.

Bush mentioned the new tape from Osama bin Laden that surfaced the other day, calling it a reminder that we face "an enemy that wants to hit us again." That's certainly true, but the warning would carry more gravitas if Bush and his administration didn't brag so much about how thoroughly al Qaeda has been routed and decimated. Is anybody keeping track of how many "No. 3" or "No. 4" al Qaeda lieutenants U.S. forces claim to have eliminated?

And Americans would be better able to measure the threat from bin Laden if Bush and the rest of his administration didn't argue -- when it gives them an edge -- that Iraq is the "central front in the war on terrorism." If Iraq is the main event, then bin Laden, huddled in some cave in northern Pakistan, must be just a sideshow, right? But of course he's not a sideshow, he's the author of the Sept. 11 attacks, so what does that make Iraq? The answer seems to depend on whether, at any given time, Bush believes that cultivating fear of bin Laden or stoking fear of a terrorist spawning ground in Iraq would better help his administration achieve its ends.

The thing is, fear works. The administration successfully invoked the fear of "mushroom clouds" to win support, or at least acquiescence, for the invasion of Iraq. By the time it was clear there were no weapons of mass destruction, the fear of losing to terrorists on the "central front" had been given primacy. We stopped hearing the name bin Laden so often -- no need to bring attention to the fact that he remained at large -- until reports emerged of secret CIA prisons, torture and domestic spying.

Bin Laden does remain a threat. He would hit the United States again if he could. We do expect the president to protect us. But a great wartime leader rallies his citizens by informing them and inspiring them. He certainly doesn't use threats to our national security for political gain. He doesn't just point at a map and say "Boo."

Health Care Confidential

By Paul Krugman from The New York Times
American health care is desperately in need of reform. But what form should change take? Are there any useful examples we can turn to for guidance?

Well, I know about a health care system that has been highly successful in containing costs, yet provides excellent care. And the story of this system's success provides a helpful corrective to anti-government ideology. For the government doesn't just pay the bills in this system — it runs the hospitals and clinics.

No, I'm not talking about some faraway country. The system in question is our very own Veterans Health Administration, whose success story is one of the best-kept secrets in the American policy debate.

In the 1980's and early 1990's, says an article in The American Journal of Managed Care, the V.H.A. "had a tarnished reputation of bureaucracy, inefficiency and mediocre care." But reforms beginning in the mid-1990's transformed the system, and "the V.A.'s success in improving quality, safety and value," the article says, "have allowed it to emerge as an increasingly recognized leader in health care."

Last year customer satisfaction with the veterans' health system, as measured by an annual survey conducted by the National Quality Research Center, exceeded that for private health care for the sixth year in a row. This high level of quality (which is also verified by objective measures of performance) was achieved without big budget increases. In fact, the veterans' system has managed to avoid much of the huge cost surge that has plagued the rest of U.S. medicine.

How does the V.H.A. do it?

The secret of its success is the fact that it's a universal, integrated system. Because it covers all veterans, the system doesn't need to employ legions of administrative staff to check patients' coverage and demand payment from their insurance companies. Because it's integrated, providing all forms of medical care, it has been able to take the lead in electronic record-keeping and other innovations that reduce costs, ensure effective treatment and help prevent medical errors.

Moreover, the V.H.A., as Phillip Longman put it in The Washington Monthly, "has nearly a lifetime relationship with its patients." As a result, it "actually has an incentive to invest in prevention and more effective disease management. When it does so, it isn't just saving money for somebody else. It's maximizing its own resources. ... In short, it can do what the rest of the health care sector can't seem to, which is to pursue quality systematically without threatening its own financial viability."

Oh, and one more thing: the veterans health system bargains hard with medical suppliers, and pays far less for drugs than most private insurers.

I don't want to idealize the veterans' system. In fact, there's reason to be concerned about its future: will it be given the resources it needs to cope with the flood of wounded and traumatized veterans from Iraq? But the transformation of the V.H.A. is clearly the most encouraging health policy story of the past decade. So why haven't you heard about it?

The answer, I believe, is that pundits and policy makers don't talk about the veterans' system because they can't handle the cognitive dissonance. (One prominent commentator started yelling at me when I tried to describe the system's successes in a private conversation.) For the lesson of the V.H.A.'s success story — that a government agency can deliver better care at lower cost than the private sector — runs completely counter to the pro-privatization, anti-government conventional wisdom that dominates today's Washington.

The dissonance between the dominant ideology and the realities of health care is one reason the Medicare drug legislation looks as if someone went down a checklist of things the veterans' system does right, and in each case did the opposite. For example, the V.H.A. avoids dealing with insurance companies; the drug bill shoehorns insurance companies into the program, even though they serve no real function. The V.H.A. bargains effectively on drug prices; the drug bill forbids Medicare from doing the same.

Still, ideology can't hold out against reality forever. Cries of "socialized medicine" didn't, in the end, succeed in blocking the creation of Medicare. And farsighted thinkers are already suggesting that the Veterans Health Administration, not President Bush's unrealistic vision of a system in which people go "comparative shopping" for medical care the way they do when buying tile, represents the true future of American health care.

Tax Dollars By Ben Sargent

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State of the Union

By Thomas L. Friedman from The New York Times
On Tuesday President Bush will deliver his State of the Union and map out priorities for his last three years. The direction in which America needs to go is obvious: toward energy independence. If Mr. Bush steps up to that challenge, this speech could be a new beginning for his presidency. If he doesn't, you can stick a fork in this administration. It will be done — because it will have abdicated leadership on the biggest issue of our day. Here's the speech I'll be listening for:

My fellow Americans, on May 25, 1961, President Kennedy gave an extraordinary State of the Union address in which he called on the nation to marshal all of its resources to put a man on the Moon. By setting that lofty goal, Kennedy was trying to summon all our industrial and scientific talent, and a willingness to sacrifice financially, to catch up with the Soviet Union, which had overtaken America in the field of large rocket engines.

"While we cannot guarantee that we shall one day be first," Kennedy said, "we can guarantee that any failure to make this effort will make us last."

I come to you this evening with a similar challenge. President Kennedy was worried about the threat that communism posed to our way of life. I am here to tell you that if we don't move away from our dependence on oil and shift to renewable fuels, it will change our way of life for the worse — and soon — much, much more than communism ever could have. Making this transition is the calling of our era.

Why? First, we are in a war with a violent strain of Middle East Islam that is indirectly financed by our consumption of oil. Second, with millions of Indians and Chinese buying cars and homes as they join the great global middle class, we must quickly move away from burning fossil fuels or we're going to create enough global warming to melt the North Pole. Because of that, green cars, homes, offices, appliances, designs and renewable energies will be the biggest growth industry of the 21st century. If we don't dominate that industry, China, India, Japan or Europe surely will.

But to lead, we must impose the highest energy-efficiency standards on our own automakers and other industries so we force them to be the most innovative. I want to inspire girls and boys across America to study math, science or engineering to help our nation achieve green energy independence. President Kennedy said, Let's put a man on the Moon. I say, Let's make oil obsolete.

Finally, my call for spreading democracy will never be achieved if some of the worst regimes on the planet — Iran, Sudan, Venezuela — have so much oil money they can misbehave and ignore the world, and if the rest of us — Europe, America, China and India — are forever coddling them to get access to their crude.

With all of this in mind, I am sending Congress the Bush Energy Freedom Act. It is based on ideas first offered by the energy expert Philip Verleger and it argues the following:

Transportation accounts for most of our oil consumption. And many Americans have purchased big cars and S.U.V.'s, expecting gasoline to remain cheap. That is no longer the case. Therefore, I propose creating a government agency that will buy up any gas-guzzling car or truck in America at the original new or used price, and crush it. This national buy-back program will be financed by a $2-a-gallon gasoline tax that will be phased in by 10 cents a month beginning in 2008 — so people know what is coming and start buying fuel-efficient cars right now.

By removing so many gas guzzlers, we will quickly reduce our oil consumption and create a huge demand for new energy-efficient cars from Detroit, which will rescue our auto industry. We have to do something drastic. The Harley-Davidson motorcycle company is worth more today than General Motors! But by sharply raising the gasoline tax, we'll also make sure that Detroit shifts its fleet to energy-saving plug-in hybrids and hydrogen- and ethanol-burning vehicles, which will force Detroit to out-innovate Toyota. And by generating so much income from a gasoline tax, we will be able to give gas-tax rebates to lower-income folks and have plenty left over to pay for new investment in education and scientific research.

Impossible? Read my lips: Nothing is impossible when Americans put their hearts and minds to it.

One last thing: I have accepted the resignation of Vice President Dick Cheney, who felt he could not be a salesman for the Energy Freedom Act. I am nominating Jeffrey Immelt — the C.E.O. of General Electric, who has focused G.E.'s innovation around "eco-imagination" — as Mr. Cheney's replacement.

Good night, and God bless America.

Our Leaders Are Feeding Us Propaganda

by Molly Ivins
We live in interesting times, we do, we do. We can read in our daily newspapers that our government is about to launch a three-day propaganda blitz to convince us all that its secret program to spy on us is something we really want and need. "A campaign of high-profile national security events," reports the New York Times, follows "Karl Rove's blistering speech to national Republicans" about what a swell political issue this is.

The question for journalists is how to report this. President Bush says it's a great idea and he's proud of the secret spy program? Attorney General Gonzales explains breaking the law is no problem? Dick Cheney says accept spying, or Osama bin Laden will get you?

Or might we actually have gotten far enough to point out that the series of high-profile security events is in fact part of a propaganda campaign by our own government? Should we report it as though it were in fact a campaign tactic, a straight political ploy: The Republicans say spying is good for you, but the Democrats say it is not — equal time to both sides?

Perhaps we have some obligation to try to sift through what it means that our government is spying on us in violation of the law and the Constitution.

Then there's the problem of reporting within the context of this administration's other propaganda efforts. "We do not torture," and, "We are not running a gulag of secret detention centers," are two of the more recent examples, superceding the golden oldies — like the smoking gun in the form of a mushroom cloud.

Furthermore, the Rove offensive is not to admit that we are indeed running a gulag of secret detention camps, but to attack those who point it out and put them under investigation for revealing government secrets and helping the enemy. Even without the intimidation, how do you report something claimed by George W. Bush as though you hadn't recently heard him say he would support John McCain's amendment barring torture — and then turn around and claim that he has the right to violate that law?

I genuinely appreciate the response by real conservatives on this issue. It's called principle. But I am confounded by the authoritarian streak in the Republican Party backing Bush on this. To me it seems so simple: Would you think this was a good idea if Hillary Clinton were president? Would you be defending the clear and unnecessary violation of the law? Do you have complete confidence that she would never misuse this "inherent power" for any partisan reason?

The warrantless wiretaps reportedly covered thousands of calls, and the information obtained was widely circulated among federal agencies. I know one guy who is now on the federal no-fly list. His sin? Co-authoring an unflattering book about Karl Rove. What a menace to national security he is.

One of the odder features of our time is that much of our political debate is cast in "moral" terms, with such helpful authorities as Pat Robertson holding forth on whom we should assassinate next. A more useful contribution from this directbeginion comes from Jimmy Carter in his new book, "Our Endangered Values: America's Moral Crisis." I am a great admirer of Carter's and glad to hear his soft Southern Christian voice once more. But it occurs to me that in his quiet way, many of his arguments are as pragmatic as they are moral.

As one with considerable faith in the common sense of Americans , it occurs to me we may yet rescue ourselves from this bootless skunk match over morality by using plain sense, instead. Many of Carter's points center on the fact that our war on terrorism is not working. Iraq is not working (hard to even count the ways). Major terrorist attacks themselves more than tripled from 2003, to 655 attacks in 2004. Our support in the Middle East sinks lower and lower. The region is not becoming more democratic.

What would happen if we had not a political, but a pragmatic debate about all of this: We have made a horrible mess of this entire war on terrorism, now how do we fix it? What do we do? I realize it's a bit simplistic of me after all this time, but I really think one of the best things we could do for ourselves is deal honestly with the facts. Because we have made a mess of this does not mean we are a pitiful, helpless giant — the United States still has more sheer military power than anyone else on earth. But using it is not necessarily the best way to get the results we want.

Because we are stuck with this administration for another three years, I think it important to to get past the defensiveness and drawing attention away and blame games that big messes provoke. And part of that calls on American journalism to get over reporting the Bush administration as though it were a credible source. We need to face facts.

Broken Laws...from GYWO

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Thursday, January 26, 2006

A President Who Can Do No Right

By Bob Herbert from The New York Times
We should be used to it by now. There are a couple of Congressional committees trying to investigate the tragic Hurricane Katrina debacle, but the Bush administration is refusing to turn over certain documents or allow certain senior White House officials to testify before the committees under oath.

Senator Joseph Lieberman, a Democrat who is by no means unfriendly to the Bush crowd, said this week, "There has been a near-total lack of cooperation that has made it impossible, in my opinion, for us to do the thorough investigation that we have a responsibility to do."

Once again the president has, in effect, flipped the bird at Congress. He's amazing. Forget such fine points as the Constitution and the separation of powers. George W. Bush does what he wants to do. He won fewer votes than Al Gore in 2000 and then governed as if he'd been elected by acclamation. He dispensed with John Kerry in 2004 by portraying himself — a man who ran and hid from the draft during Vietnam — as more of a warrior than Mr. Kerry, a decorated combat veteran of that war.

Reality has been dealt a stunning blow by Mr. Bush. The administration's high-handedness with the Katrina investigators comes at the same time as disclosures showing that the White House was warned in the hours just before the hurricane hit New Orleans that it might well cause catastrophic flooding and the breaching of the city's levees.

That was early on the morning of last Aug. 29. On Sept. 1, with the city all but completely underwater, the president went on television and blithely declared, "I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees."

This guy is something. Remember his "Top Gun" moment aboard the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln? And his famous taunt — "Bring 'em on" — to the insurgents in Iraq? His breathtaking arrogance is exceeded only by his incompetence. And that's the real problem. That's where you'll find the mind-boggling destructiveness of this regime, in its incompetence.

Fantasy may be in fashion. Reality may have been shoved into the shadows on Mr. Bush's watch. But the plain truth is that he is the worst president in memory, and one of the worst of all time. Many thousands of people — men, women and children — have died unnecessarily (and thousands more are suffering) because of his misguided and mishandled policies.

Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser for George H. W. Bush, counseled against the occupation of Iraq at the end of the first gulf war. As recounted in a New Yorker article last fall, he said, "At the minimum, we'd be an occupier in a hostile land. Our forces would be sniped at by guerrillas, and, once we were there, how would we get out?"

George W. Bush had no such concerns. In fact, he joked about his failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Like a frat boy making cracks about a bad bet on a football game, Mr. Bush displayed what he felt was a hilarious set of photos during a spoof that he performed at the annual dinner of the Radio and Television Correspondents Association in March 2004.

The photos showed the president peering behind curtains and looking under furniture in the Oval Office for the missing weapons. Mr. Bush offered mock captions for the photos, saying, "Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be somewhere." And, "Nope, no weapons over there, maybe under here."

This week, as the killing of American G.I.'s and innocent Iraqis continued, we learned from a draft report from the office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction that, like the war itself, the Bush plan for rebuilding Iraq has been crippled by incompetence and extreme shortages of personnel. I doubt that this will bother the president any more than any of his other failures. He seems to truly believe that he can do no wrong.

The fiasco in Iraq and the president's response to the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe were Mr. Bush's two most spectacular foul-ups. There have been many others. The president's new Medicare prescription drug program has been a monumental embarrassment, leaving some of the most vulnerable members of our society without essential medication. Prominent members of the president's own party are balking at the heavy hand of his No Child Left Behind law, which was supposed to radically upgrade the quality of public education.

The Constitution? Civil liberties? Don't ask.

Just keep in mind, whatever your political beliefs, that incompetence in high places can have devastating consequences.

The Boondocks By Aaron McGruder

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ACLU Releases Government Photos

Jon Shirek

A government photo shows Caitlin Childs protesting.

January 26, 2006

​​​​The ACLU of Georgia released copies of government files on Wednesday that illustrate the extent to which the FBI, the DeKalb County Division of Homeland Security and other government agencies have gone to compile information on Georgians suspected of being threats simply for expressing controversial opinions.

Two documents relating to anti-war and anti-government protests, and a vegan rally, prove the agencies have been "spying" on Georgia residents unconstitutionally, the ACLU said. (Related: ACLU Complaint -- PDF file)

For example, more than two dozen government surveillance photographs show 22-year-old Caitlin Childs of Atlanta, a strict vegetarian, and other vegans picketing against meat eating, in December 2003. They staged their protest outside a HoneyBaked Ham store on Buford Highway in DeKalb County.

An undercover DeKalb County Homeland Security detective was assigned to conduct surveillance of the protest and the protestors, and take the photographs. The detective arrested Childs and another protester after he saw Childs approach him and write down, on a piece of paper, the license plate number of his unmarked government car.

"They told me if I didn't give over the piece of paper I would go to jail and I refused and I went to jail, and the piece of paper was taken away from me at the jail and the officer who transferred me said that was why I was arrested," Childs said on Wednesday.

The government file lists anti-war protesters in Atlanta as threats, the ACLU said. The ACLU of Georgia accuses the Bush administration of labeling those who disagree with its policy as disloyal Americans.

"We believe that spying on American citizens for no good reason is fundamentally un-American, that it's not the place of the goverment or the best use of resources to spy on its own citizens and we want it to stop. We want the spies in our government to pack their bags, close up their notebooks, take their cameras home and not engage in the spying anymore," Gerald Weber of the ACLU of Georgia said during a news conference.

"We have heard of not a single, government surveillance of a pro-war group," Weber said. "And I doubt we will ever hear of a single surveillance of a pro-war group."

The ACLU wants Congress and the courts to order government agencies, including the FBI, to stop unconstitutional surveillance.

Weber said the ACLU of Georgia may sue the government, in order to define, once and for all, what unconstitutional surveillance is in a post-911 America.

The FBI in Atlanta declined to comment. According to the Associated Press, FBI spokesman Bill Carter in Washington, D.C. said that all FBI investigations are conducted in response to information that the people being investigated were involved in or might have information about crimes.

As for Caitlin Childs' protest against meat eating, the files obtained by the ACLU include the DeKalb County Homeland Security report on the surveillance of Childs and the others. The detective wrote that he ordered Childs to give him the piece of paper on which she had written his license tag number, telling her that he did not want her or anyone else to have the tag number of his undercover vehicle.

The detective did not comment in his report about why his license tag number was already visible to the public.

The detective wrote that Childs was "hostile, uncooperative and boisterous toward the officers."
Childs said today that the agents shouldn't have been there in the first place, squelching legal dissent.

"We have the right to gather and protest and speak out."
(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

Return to The Era Front Page

The Life and Death of an Iraq Veteran Who Could Take No More

by Andrew Buncombe
By his own admission Douglas Barber, a former army reservist, was struggling. For two years since returning from the chaos and violence of Iraq, the 35-year-old had battled with his memories and his demons, the things he had seen and the fear he had experienced. Recently, it seemed he had turned a corner, securing medical help and counselling.

But last week, at his home in south-eastern Alabama, the National Guardsman e-mailed some friends and then changed the message on his answering machine. His new message told callers: "If you're looking for Doug, I'm checking out of this world. I'll see you on the other side." Mr Barber dialled the police, stepped on to the porch with his shotgun and - after a brief stand-off with officers - shot himself in the head. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

The death of Mr Barber is one of numerous instances of Iraqi veterans who have taken their own lives since the US-led invasion to oust Saddam Hussein in spring 2003. Concern is such that the Pentagon has recently instigated new procedures for monitoring the mental health of returning troops. But his story would not have been told but for a group of determined activists and a British journalism student who was among the handful of people the reservist e-mailed just minutes before he killed himself.

Craig Evans, 19, a student at Bournemouth University, was working on a project about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and had been in regular contact with Mr Barber. But the e-mail message he received on Monday 16 January told him something was terribly wrong. It read: "I have nothing to live for any more - I am going to be checking out of this world." Mr Evans said he tried to contact the US embassy and some of Mr Barber's friends in the US to alert them to what he suspected might happen. "I e-mailed him back and wrote, 'I am going to ring you, don't do anything stupid'.It was an effort in vain: within an hour Mr Barber had used his shotgun to end to his torment.

Mr Evans said: "Doug said he wasn't the same person when he got back [from Iraq] - he was paranoid, had lost his social skills, his marriage was over, he couldn't walk down the street without worrying something was going to blow up. I made a promise to him that I would do everything I could to get his story out there."

Mr Barber was a member of the 1485th Transportation Company of the Ohio National Guard and was called up for active duty in February 2003. He arrived in Iraq in summer 2003, when the initial invasion had been completed and just as the insurgency was gathering strength.

He spent seven months in Iraq, driving trucks and trying to avoid the deadly perils that confronted him. He was haunted by the deaths of his colleagues and by the fear and desperation he saw in the faces of Iraqis. Like many reservists pushed into the front line, Mr Barber said he was not properly trained.

"It was really bad - death was all around you, all the time. You couldn't escape it," he said in an interview after he returned to Alabama with the campaign group Coalition for Free Thought in Media. "Everybody in Iraq was going through suicide counselling because the stress was so high. It was at such a magnitude, such a high level, that it was unthinkable for anyone to imagine. You cannot even imagine it." He was opposed to the war but felt obliged to go because he believed that without the experience his opinion would be invalid.

Friends said that when Mr Barber returned things started to fall apart and he split from his wife of 11 years. He had been prescribed clonazepam, an anti-anxiety drug that can cause depression. One friend of more than 13 years, Rick Hays, a minister from Indiana, said: "He was a really good guy, pretty level-headed ... He liked to have fun. But when he came back from Iraq the difference in him was so sad."

Charlie Anderson, of Iraq Veterans Against the War, said the federal Veterans Administration relied too heavily on the use of drugs for dealing with returning soldiers suffering from stress.

Mr Barber's sister, Connie Bingham, said a funeral was due to take place on Saturday.

'We live with permanent scars from horrific events'

Doug Barber wrote this internet article on 12 January, just before he died

My thought today is to help you the reader understand what happens to a soldier when they come home and the sacrifice we continue to make. This war on terror has become a personal war for so many, yet the Bush administration do not want to reveal to America that this is a personal war. They want to run it like a business, and thus they refuse to show the personal sacrifices the soldiers and their families have made for this country.

All is not OK or right for those of us who return home alive and supposedly well. What looks like normalcy and readjustment is only an illusion to be revealed by time and torment. Some soldiers come home missing limbs and other parts of their bodies. Still others will live with permanent scars from horrific events that no one other than those who served will ever understand. We come home from war trying to put our lives back together but some cannot stand the memories and decide that death is better. We kill ourselves because we are so haunted by seeing children killed and whole families wiped out.

Others come home to nothing, families have abandoned them: husbands and wives have left these soldiers, and so have parents. Post-traumatic stress disorder has become the norm amongst these soldiers because they don't know how to cope with returning to a society that will never understand what they have endured.

PTSD comes in many forms not understood by many: but yet if a soldier has it, America thinks the soldiers are crazy. PTSD comes in the form of depression, anger, regret, being confrontational, anxiety, chronic pain, compulsion, delusions, grief, guilt, dependence, loneliness, sleep disorders, suspiciousness/paranoia, low self-esteem and so many other things.

We are easily startled with a loud bang or noise and can be found ducking for cover when we get panicked. This is a result of artillery rounds going off in a combat zone, or an improvised explosive device blowing up.

I myself have trouble coping with an everyday routine that often causes me to have a short fuse. A lot of soldiers lose jobs just because they are trained to be killers and they have lived in an environment that is conducive to that. We are always on guard for our safety and that of our comrades. When you go to bed at night you wonder will you be sent home in a flag-draped coffin because a mortar round went off on your sleeping area.

Soldiers live in deplorable conditions where burning your own faeces is the order of the day, where going days on end with no shower and the uniform you wear gets so crusty it sticks to your body becomes a common occurrence. We also deal with rationing water or even food. So when a soldier comes home they are unsure of what to do.

This is what PTSD comes in the shape of - soldiers can not often handle coming back to the same world they left behind. It is something that drives soldiers over the edge and causes them to withdraw from society. As Americans we turn our nose down at them wondering why they act the way they do. Who cares about them, why should we help them?

The War On....by Mike Luckovich

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Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Why the Senate should not confirm Alito

By Geoffrey R. Stone from the Chicago Tribune
I supported the confirmation of John Roberts Jr. to the U.S. Supreme Court and, until recently, the confirmation of Samuel Alito Jr. I have reluctantly come to the conclusion, however, that Judge Alito should not be confirmed and that this is a matter of real importance to the nation.

Alito is a smart, experienced and knowledgeable jurist. I have no doubt of his legal ability. On balance, the Senate should give more weight to excellence than judicial philosophy.Why, then, should the Senate deny confirmation to Alito? The most fundamental responsibility of the Supreme Court is to preserve both the separation of powers and the individual liberties guaranteed by our Constitution. They are the bulwarks of our freedom. Yet history teaches that these indispensable elements of our constitutional system are most threatened in time of war. Too often in wartime, the president demands excessive authority in his role as commander in chief and the president and Congress run roughshod over civil liberties in their effort to protect, or appear to protect, the nation.

This was true when Abraham Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus, Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the internment of 120,000 individuals of Japanese descent, Richard M. Nixon ordered unlawful break-ins and wiretaps against those who opposed the Vietnam War, and Congress enacted the Sedition Act of 1798, the Sedition Act of 1918, and the Smith Act of 1940. We hope, of course, that presidents and Congress will act with restraint and wisdom. But we know that, in times of crisis, they frequently overreact to perceived danger, manipulate public opinion and needlessly sacrifice our liberties.

The last line of defense against such excesses is the Supreme Court. With life tenure, the justices are largely insulated from the need to please any particular constituency for personal advancement. And with their unique commitment to long-term principle rather than short-term political expediency, they are well-placed to resist the fears and anxieties of wartime.

Through our history, the court has had a mixed record in fulfilling this responsibility. During World War I, it upheld the convictions of individuals for criticizing the war; during World War II, it upheld the internment of Japanese-Americans; and during the Cold War, it initially upheld the persecution of American citizens because of their political beliefs and associations.

At other moments, however, the court has performed admirably.

During the Korean War, it held that President Harry Truman had exceeded his constitutional authority as commander in chief when he sought to take over the steel industry; in the latter part of the Cold War, it held unconstitutional government actions directed against "disloyal" Americans; during the Vietnam War, it rejected Nixon's effort to enjoin the publication of the Pentagon Papers and his claim that he could constitutionally conduct "national security" wiretaps without judicial warrants; and during the war on terrorism, it rejected President Bush's claims that he had the "inherent" authority to deny habeas corpus to individuals detained at Guantanamo Bay and could unilaterally decide to detain American citizens indefinitely without even a hearing on whether they were in fact "enemy combatants."

The single most critical factor that distinguishes the decisions in which the court failed from those in which it succeeded was the character and constitutional philosophy of the justices serving at the time. Those justices who abdicated their responsibility and chose blindly to defer to excessive presidential claims approved the pervasive suppression of dissent during World War I, the Japanese internment and the rampant abuses of McCarthyism. Those who were determined to ask hard questions and to insist that the president and Congress comply with the Constitution gave the nation the steel seizure decision, the Pentagon Papers decision and the 2004 decision preserving the due process rights of American citizens.

Now, Bush arrogantly asserts that he has the inherent constitutional authority to wiretap American citizens on American soil without first obtaining a warrant, in direct defiance of federal legislation and the 4th Amendment. This is on top of his previous assertions of inherent authority to employ torture, wiretap lawyer-client communications, confine American citizens incommunicado and close deportation and other legal proceedings from public scrutiny.

Given the times in which we live, we need and deserve a Supreme Court willing to examine independently these extraordinary assertions of executive authority. We can fight and win the war on terrorism without inflicting upon ourselves and our posterity another regrettable episode like the Red Scare and the Japanese internment. But that will happen only if the justices of the Supreme Court are willing to fulfill their essential role in our constitutional system.

Whatever else Alito may or may not have made clear about his views on such issues as abortion, federalism and religious freedom, he has certainly made clear that he has no interest in restraining the acts of this commander in chief. That, in my judgment, poses a serious threat to the nation and is a more than adequate reason for the Senate--Republicans and Democrats alike--to deny his confirmation to the Supreme Court.

King George By Ben Sargent

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Delusion and Illusion Worthy of Dickens

By Maureen Dowd from The New York Times
The Democrats will never win the White House as long as they're stuck in Bleak House. They're slipping and sliding in the same crust-upon-crust of mud and caboose-creeping fog and soft black drizzle and flakes of soot that blacken the chamber of law in the opening of the terrific Dickens novel (now an irresistible PBS series).

The lumbering pace of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce will pale compared with the time it will take the cowed and colicky Democrats to yank back power from Republicans skilled at abusing it.

The party simply seems incapable of getting the muscular message and riveting messenger needed to dispel the mud, fog, drizzle and soot emanating from Karl Rove's rag-and-bone shop on Pennsylvania Avenue.

As the White House drives its truckload of lies around the country, it becomes ever clearer that Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry and Al Gore are just not the right people to respond to the administration's national security scare-a-thon.

We got mired in Iraq in the first place partly because Dick Cheney and Rummy thought that, post-Vietnam and post-Clinton, America was seen as soft. One shock-and-awe session, one tyrant stomped on, they reckoned, and the Arab world would no longer see Americans as wimps. That reasoning turned out to be dangerous, flying in the face of warnings from our own intelligence experts.

But Karl Rove is still dishing out the same line, and it's still working: those who want to re-evaluate the strategy in Iraq are soft. Those who want to rein in the Patriot Act are soft. Those who question the Alito doctrine of presidential absolutism are soft. Those who don't want to break the law and snoop on Americans are soft - not just soft, but practically collaborating with the terrorists.

"Republicans have a post-9/11 worldview" on national security, Mr. Rove said last week, "and many Democrats have a pre-9/11 worldview. That doesn't make them unpatriotic, not at all. But it does make them wrong - deeply and profoundly and consistently wrong."

But you only need to check the paper daily to see that this administration has been deeply and profoundly and consistently wrong on everything: from the promise to rebuild Iraq and the consequences of deploying a strained Army this long in an insurgent war to the failure to respond to the aftermath of Katrina, after dissembling about pre-storm alarms.

The bumbling Bush team that ignored the warning "Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States" also ignored one that went something like: "Katrina Determined to Attack New Orleans." And now the White House is trying to inhibit Congressional questions on Katrina, just as it did for the 9/11 inquiries.

The administration's p.r. offensive on warrantless - and questionably effective - snooping is so aggressive that it has even risked exposing the president to an occasional unscripted, but still not tough, question. So he rambles on about steering clear of "Brokeback Mountain" and the therapeutic value of mountain biking. And he calls Barney, the Scottish terrier, "the son I never had." (Barney's dad is all bark and no bite.)

The White House is as skittish about bilked Indians as it is about billing-and-cooing cowboys. It admits it has pictures of the president with Jack Abramoff, but won't cough them up.

While he was out defending his scofflaw behavior, W. had to address the fact that the real nuclear threat (Iran), as opposed to the fake nuclear threat (Iraq), is embarrassing him. He told the Iranian people: "We have no beef with you." (State Department reporters puzzled over how that might be translated into Farsi: "We have no cow with you"?)

You couldn't turn on a TV this week without seeing Torture Guy Alberto Gonzales give all-purpose legal cover to Dick Cheney as that Grim Peeper ravages the Constitution. At a Georgetown University speech, W.'s legal lickspittle ignored a few student protesters, but he might have learned something from their banner, emblazoned with words of Benjamin Franklin: "Those who would sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither."

In their usual twisted way, the Bushies are reducing their abuse of the law to a test of testosterone - knowing that the Democrats will play Judy to their Punch.

The Dems need to drum up a decent message so they look as if they know what the Dickens they're doing before the November election. Otherwise, they'll look like bowed supplicants holding out gruel cups to Karl Rove and pleading, "Please, sir, I want some more."
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