And that's the way Cronkite still is
At USC, the retired anchor says journalists need to pressure owners to focus on quality.
By Scott Martelle
Times Staff Writer
He's in his late 80s, a little unsteady on the legs and, as he describes it, "as deaf as a damn post." Former "CBS Evening News" anchor Walter Cronkite might be a lion in winter, but during a brief visit to Los Angeles earlier this week he showed that he's still a lion.
Cronkite, who retired from the anchor chair in 1980, has had a quarter-century to watch broadcast news from the sidelines, and he doesn't think the current generation of TV journalists is doing a bad job. Corporate broadcast owners, though, are another story, says Cronkite. He believes they are paying more attention to Wall Street than to the health of the democracy at a time when the nation's dedication to education has wavered.
"We [as a nation] are not educated well enough to perform the necessary act of intelligently selecting our leaders," Cronkite, 88, said during a day of speeches and interviews Tuesday at USC's Annenberg School for Communication, where he helped present the biannual Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence in Television Political Journalism.
Cronkite issued a call-to-arms for fellow journalists — primarily broadcast — to pressure "our employers, those who are more concerned with profits than they are with performance," to replace the current roundups of celebrity profiles and personal health and finance pieces with "the news of the day."
"If we fail at that," Cronkite said, "our democracy, our republic, I think, is in serious danger."
On campus, Cronkite met briefly with journalists, spoke at the awards luncheon, then sat for almost an hour of questions from an audience of 200 journalism students in the Annenberg Auditorium (a webcast of that session is available at ascweb.usc.edu/home.php).
Slowly over the past couple of decades, "Uncle Walter" has become "Grandpa Walter," and he shined in that role during his session with the students. Most of the audience hadn't been born when Cronkite retired — an event that happened so long ago that his replacement, Dan Rather, has since stepped down from the anchor chair too. Still, Cronkite was greeted with near-reverence: a standing ovation as he entered the room, warm laughs at wry witticisms, and patience when he meandered and had to ask emcee Judy Muller — a former colleague and now Annenberg instructor — to remind him what the question was.
Cronkite's résumé encapsulates the heart of the American 20th century, beginning his career during the Great Depression, covering World War II in North Africa and Europe — including the Normandy invasion and the postwar Nuremberg trials — and extending through the Vietnam War and Watergate.
"It was inspirational to be with someone who's been around for so many years and who is so prestigious in the field," said Tala Jahangiri, 18, a freshman broadcasting major from Newport Beach. "It's great to hear what he thinks about media and the news today.... it's like a legend sitting in front of you, and we were, like, front row looking at him."
Her friend Amy Strack, 18, a print major also from Newport Beach, was equally impressed. Cronkite's talk, she said, led her to question her belief that print journalism is for journalists and broadcast journalism is for pretty faces.
"I'd always perceived broadcast as putting on the makeup," Strack said. "Hearing all the stories about where he's been and what he's seen, it was inspiring."
For much of the day, Cronkite sounded more like a political candidate pushing education issues than veteran newsman. He's genuinely troubled by a society and government that he believes undervalues — and underpays — teachers, a theme he returned to several times.
Given the criticism Cronkite has leveled over the years, he was surprisingly supportive of current broadcast journalism, though he separates the talking heads of many cable shows from network journalists reporting for the evening news shows. In a brief interview, Cronkite said he fears the blogosphere, still in its "infancy," could threaten the standing of mainstream media as a news source for consumers already confused by cable's "opinion journalism." It is the function of the educational system, he believes, to train people to understand the difference.
And he endorsed the traditional single-anchor format he helped pioneer over some of the alternatives, including multiple anchors in multiple cities, reportedly being considered by CBS news chief Leslie Moonves to make the evening news more palatable to younger viewers.
"I just hope they're careful with it," Cronkite said. "I hope they're not bent on changing the format because they want to be more entertaining. We've got to be on guard constantly to eschew entertainment in the news. That's not our function. If we undertake it ... we're going to be cheating the public."
If you want other stories on this topic, search the Archives at latimes.com/archives.
Saturday, October 01, 2005
Bush threatens defense bill veto, warning on prisoners
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House on Friday threatened to veto a $440.2 billion defense spending bill in the Senate because it wasn't enough money for the Pentagon and also warned lawmakers not to add any amendments to regulate the treatment of detainees or set up a commission to probe abuse.
Last summer, Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and John Warner of Virginia and others sought legislation banning cruel and degrading treatment of prisoners.
The administration has been criticized for holding prisoners at Guantanamo Bay indefinitely. Critics have also questioned whether administration policies led to abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
The Senate legislation, which includes a $50 billion emergency fund to keep combat operations running in Iraq into next year, could be voted on next month.
The measure provides $7 billion less than President George W. Bush requested early this year and is nearly $1 billion below current levels.
"These cuts will either result in deterioration of our force readiness" or will require additional spending requests from the administration later in the fiscal year, the White House budget office warned senators.
The House of Representatives last summer passed a fiscal 2006 defense spending bill supported by the Bush administration, although the White House complained about $3 billion in cuts that it said would hamper regular military operations.
Referring to the Senate bill, the White House statement on Friday noted that Bush's senior advisers would recommend vetoing a bill "that significantly underfunds the department (of defense)" and shifts the money to domestic programs not related to security.
In addition, the White House threatened to veto the defense spending bill if it changes the process for considering military base closures within the United States.
Besides cutting some operation and maintenance accounts at the Pentagon, the Senate bill would cut the Joint Strike Fighter aircraft by $270 million and would reduce the Transformational Satellite Communications program by $250 million. Spending on a missile defense program would be about $800 million below Bush's request.
Posted by politicalstuff at 12:15 AM
Border activist a wild card in Calif. election
By Dan Whitcomb
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - When voters in one of California's most conservative congressional districts go to the polls on Tuesday, they will find a wild card on the ballot: The founder of the Minuteman movement, who has become a lightning rod in the furor over America's borders.
While Jim Gilchrist -- leader of a volunteer border patrol group once slammed as "vigilantes" by President George W. Bush -- is considered a long shot to win the special election to fill a seat vacated by Republican Christopher Cox, he has mined a deep vein of voter anger over illegal immigration.
"I have struck the mother lode of patriotism," Gilchrist told Reuters, referring to polls showing 80 percent of Californians were concerned about immigration.
Experts say that if Gilchrist is a one-issue candidate he has picked the right issue in California -- where immigration has long been the third rail of politics. Democrats have long been unwilling to alienate Hispanics and Republicans are seen as determined to appease businesses that depend on cheap immigrant labor.
"Gilchrist has the most emotional issue. A lot of people hate illegal immigration. And on that issue alone he is going to be able to motivate (voters)," said Republican political strategist Allan Hoffenblum. "There's a lot of frustration and nobody is coming up with any answers."
Gilchrist insists he is not a single-issue candidate: He says the latest wave of illegal immigrants has had a ruinous impact on every facet of life in California, overwhelming schools, bankrupting hospitals and threatening national security.
"I'm running for office to do the job that our Congress has deliberately refused to do: Protect our borders, our communities, our families and our pocketbooks," he said. "This is not one issue."
What makes the special election for the 48th District seat intriguing for Gilchrist is that -- with 17 names on an open primary-style ballot -- no candidate is expected to win more than 50 percent of the vote, setting up a runoff that would include the top candidate from each party.
That means that Gilchrist, an American Independent Party candidate, would make it into any runoff, presumably against the favorite, former Republican state Sen. John Campbell, and former Democratic state Assemblywoman Marilyn Brewer.
Brewer would hope that, in a runoff, Gilchrist and Campbell
would split the Republican vote.
"If its a runoff with Campbell, Gilchrist and Brewer then Gilchrist gets very interesting because he's the most conservative candidate (in a very conservative district)," Hoffenblum said. "But for him to win it would have to be in a runoff and even then it would be a major, major upset."
Gilchrist faces a formidable foe in Campbell, a conservative Republican who, as a wealthy entrepreneur from Newport Beach, is an easy fit in the mostly affluent neighborhoods of the Orange County district that tend to turn out for elections.
Campbell won the endorsement of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and has also taken a strong stance against illegal immigration -- coming out against Bush's controversial "guest worker" program.
"We're on par to win the nomination with flying colors," Campbell campaign manager Jim Terry said. "It remains to be seen what kind of showing Jim Gilchrist is going to make. ... He's talked about one issue and this is a fairly sophisticated district."
Posted by politicalstuff at 12:13 AM
Bush signs stopgap bill to fund government
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush on Friday quickly signed into law a measure to keep funds flowing to federal agencies through November 18, averting any chance of a government-wide shutdown this weekend.
The Senate sent the president the bill earlier in the day and the House of Representatives passed identical legislation on Thursday.
Without the stopgap spending bill, most government agencies would not have money to continue operating after midnight, the end of the 2005 fiscal year.
Before approving the measure, Democrats and Republicans in the Senate skirmished over the level of funding during the next seven weeks for an array of programs to help the poor and elderly.
By a 53-39 vote, Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, failed to restore money cut by the House for those programs, including one that would help poor people buy heating fuel this winter.
Sen. Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican, will try to win passage of Harkin's amendment next week by attaching it to an unrelated bill to fund the U.S. military in fiscal 2006.
During the seven-week period covered by the stopgap funding bill, the House and Senate will try to finish several spending bills to fund government agencies during the fiscal year that starts on Saturday.
Posted by politicalstuff at 12:10 AM
Friday, September 30, 2005
By Eugene Robinson
What's the difference between the Republican Party then and the Republican Party now ? Here's an illustration: Richard Nixon was the president who established the Environmental Protection Agency. Tom "The Hammer" DeLay is the congressman who called the EPA a latter-day "Gestapo."
So pardon me for going way beyond schadenfreude to outright giddiness at the prospect that the Hammer will finally get nailed.
It may be too much to hope that the former House majority leader -- and how good it feels to write "former" -- will actually be convicted and do jail time. The indictment for criminal conspiracy returned by a Texas grand jury on Wednesday is for alleged campaign finance violations that are the rough equivalent of money laundering, which is not the easiest crime to prove in court.
But DeLay's problems are bigger than Texas. His golf-buddy relationship with Jack Abramoff, a fat-cat lobbyist under federal indictment, will face months of scrutiny. DeLay's resignation from the House leadership is supposed to be temporary, but Republicans ignored his wishes and picked a strong successor who could serve out the rest of this Congress if necessary. Clearly they believe their former leader will be distracted for some time.
Which makes me feel like it's morning again in America.
DeLay, because he's such a ruthlessly effective bully, has been as responsible as anyone for pushing his party to the end of the political spectrum previously reserved for the anti-everything, loony-bin far right. His comeuppance is an occasion to remind ourselves just what a long, strange trip it's been.
There was a time when the conservative movement in this country was the preserve of principled eccentrics such as Barry Goldwater. These days Goldwater would be thought of as a libertarian more than anything else, a firm believer that what people really needed was a good leaving-alone. In his prime, he occupied fringe territory that was light-years from the mainstream.
Ronald Reagan changed everything, shifting the nation's center of gravity to the right. In retrospect, whatever you thought of Reagan's policies -- and I didn't like them -- the man at least had a certain generosity of spirit. His idea of the black experience in America may have been Sammy Davis Jr.'s career, his views of women may have been antediluvian and his impression of gay people may have come exclusively from dining with Nancy's friends, but at least he had some experience of people unlike himself and an appreciation of their humanity.
The crowd now in control of Washington, thanks in part to DeLay's undeniable skills, could best be described as Reagan's illegitimate heirs.
Theirs is a greedy, small-minded conservatism. In their policies, they seek not to improve government, and certainly not to shrink it, but to ruin it -- to starve the regulatory agencies with tax cuts, then spend so wildly on pork that there's nothing left to pay for actual government work such as, say, preparing for a hurricane.
The Republican Party's "small government" rhetoric is hilarious, but while you're laughing, keep a grip on your wallet. Since 2000, the number of registered lobbyists in Washington has more than doubled, to an astonishing 34,750. That's a lot of mouths at the trough.
DeLay and Co. don't just want to bankrupt the government, they want to force the whole country to conform to their "moral" prescriptions. On private matters such as abortion, homosexuality, religion, even end-of-life decisions, they demand that all of us do as they say. When it comes to the millions who lack health insurance, though, or to persistent poverty in the inner cities -- well, those problems are for individuals and "faith-based" institutions to grapple with as best they can.
DeLay was clever enough to see that if a few more safe GOP seats could be engineered in Texas, Democrats would need a tidal wave of votes to regain control. The political action committee he formed to get these seats redistricted into existence, Texans for a Republican Majority, came under the scrutiny of the Travis County district attorney, Ronnie Earle, and that scrutiny led to DeLay's indictment.
I like the irony that DeLay may end up a victim of hubris -- that his downfall may result from his efforts to perpetuate his awful legacy. But if it comes from the Abramoff probe or somewhere else, I won't complain. He doesn't even have to go to jail; he can just go back to killing bugs in Houston. Just as long as he goes. This will be a better country when that "former" in front of his title is permanent.
Posted by politicalstuff at 12:31 PM
The New York Times
House Votes for New Limits on Endangered Species Act
By FELICITY BARRINGER
WASHINGTON, Sept. 29 - By a vote of 229 to 193, the House of Representatives moved Thursday to undo some of the central provisions of the 32-year-old Endangered Species Act and to require that agencies enforcing the law reimburse property owners if the law's impact reduces the value of their land.
Environmental groups expressed dismay at the measure, which, if enacted, would represent one of the most far-reaching reversals of environmental policy in more than a decade. Leading House Democrats also said it created an unlimited financial entitlement for landowners.
The prospects for Senate passage are cloudy at best; even the bill's sponsor, Representative Richard W. Pombo of California, the chairman of the House Resources committee, said he did not expect quick action in the Senate.
The vote, which came after the defeat of a rival measure that reworked the law but required enforceable protections for animals and plants in danger of extinction, was the culmination of a 12-year legislative mission by Mr. Pombo. The Bush administration gave its formal support to the measure a few hours before the vote.
A former rancher and City Council member from Tracy, Calif., Mr. Pombo has made property rights and opposition to the Endangered Species Act the lodestar of his political career. "I'm really happy," he said after Thursday's vote.
Under his bill, the process of putting a species on the federal list of threatened or endangered species would become more difficult, with a new requirement for economic analyses of such decisions.
But its core provision - one that was, in some respects, mimicked in the rival bill - eliminates the current system of designating "critical habitat," territory deemed critical to a species' survival. Such a designation can open the door to significant land-use restrictions. But environmental groups argue that the designation of habitat is a crucial prerequisite to the survival and eventual recovery of an endangered species.
The Pombo measure would create "recovery teams" that prepare "recovery plans" based on "the best available scientific data." The teams could delineate lands that would help a species. But as compared with the current system of critical habitat, federal agencies would have less obligation to take a species' needs into account in making land-use decisions. And such teams would not always be required; the law also allows the political leadership of the Interior Department to undertake this function.
The legislation also has provisions for the reimbursement of property owners whose land values are reduced by the law and financial incentives for those who work for species conservation, which several Democrats derided as federal payments for obeying the law.
Mr. Pombo argued that under current law, federal wildlife management agencies had little incentive to negotiate.
"With this bill, there is a cost," he said in an interview on Thursday. "So the incentive is there not just for the property owner but for the Fish and Wildlife Service to work out a deal."
But Jamie Rappoport Clark, the executive vice president of Defenders of Wildlife and the director of the Fish and Wildlife Service in the Clinton administration, said the Pombo measure was "a deadly blow to the protections of the Endangered Species Act."
"This is an irresponsible developer's dream," Ms. Clark said, and she noted that the bill "makes it easier to use deadly pesticides" of the sort that were implicated in the previous declines of the bald eagle and peregrine falcon.
The decline in such species - a focus of Rachel Carson's book "Silent Spring," one of the first major tracts of the environmental movement - has long since been reversed.
The debate on the House floor between supporters of the Pombo bill and those backing its rival, a measure sponsored by Representatives Sherwood Boehlert, Republican of New York and chairman of the House Science Committee, and George Miller, Democrat of California, provided competing views of the act's effectiveness.
Those supporting the rival measure, which gave federal agencies more power to manage land use to benefit species than Mr. Pombo's bill did, argued that species like the bald eagle, the manatee, the sea otter and the grizzly bear were saved from extinction by the act. Those in the Pombo camp argued that barely 1 percent of the more than 1,200 listed species had recovered to the extent that they could be removed from the endangered species list.
The 1973 law allows federal wildlife agencies to regulate directly only federal lands, but it also requires these agencies to sign off on federal permits - like Army Corps of Engineers permits for development in wetlands - that govern private property.
The act has been a particular lightning rod in California, where farmers, ranchers, developers and advocates for endangered aquatic species, like the fairy shrimp, are in bitter competition over scarce water resources.
Representative Nick J. Rahall II, a West Virginia Democrat who is the ranking minority member on the House Resources Committee, said in an interview that the $10 million estimate on the cost of the bill's provisions for compensating property owners would prove to be a significant underestimate.
"Who knows how high it will reach?" Mr. Rahall said.
Chuck Cushman, founder and director of the American Land Rights Association, a property rights group in Washington State, said in an interview: "We're excited that they've taken the first step toward updating and modernizing the Endangered Species Act so that for a change it will actually recover species and be less threatening to landowners. It goes a long way to make landowners allies in recovering species."
Posted by politicalstuff at 12:30 PM
Judge orders release of Abu Ghraib abuse pictures
By Christine Kearney
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A federal judge on Thursday ordered the Defense Department to release 74 photos and three videos depicting prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib, some of which may have already been published worldwide.
Judge Alvin Hellerstein of the U.S. District Court in Manhattan ordered the Defense Department to release photos provided by Sgt. Joseph Darby, some of which were leaked more than a year ago and set off the Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal.
The Defense Department had sought to suppress their release, saying publication of new images could incite more violence in Iraq.
Among Darby's pictures already published were one that outraged the world showing Pvt. Lynndie England with a naked prisoner on a leash. England was sentenced to three years in jail for her part in the scandal. It is not known if this picture or other famed images are among the 74 being contested.
The written ruling came in response to a Freedom of Information Act suit filed in 2003 by civil rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, over treatment of U.S.-held detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay.
The judge had ordered the release of the photos in June, but the Department of Defense appealed the decision, warning the judge in oral arguments that releasing the pictures could incite more violence among insurgents in Iraq.
But in a strongly worded ruling on Thursday, the judge noted that "the terrorists in Iraq do not need pretexts for their barbarism" and that America "does not surrender to blackmail and fear of blackmail is not a legally sufficient argument."
The judge said withholding the photos that show American soldiers forcing prisoners "to pose in a manner that compromised their humanity and dignity" would be contrary to the democratic freedoms that American troops were fighting for.
"Indeed, the freedoms we champion are as important to our success in Iraq and Afghanistan as the guns and missiles with which out troops are armed," Hellerstein said. "As President Bush said, we fight to spread freedom so the freedoms of Americans will be made more secure."
In hearing oral arguments in August, the judge hesitated to release the pictures, wondering aloud how he could ignore "the expert opinion of (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) General (Richard) Myers" and "how quickly they would be put on the 6 o'clock or 11 o'clock news?"
WILL INITIATE DEBATE
But in his order the judge said releasing them was in the public interest because their publication would initiate debate on the conduct of American soldiers and about the U.S. Army's command structure, poor training and lack of supervision.
The judge gave the government 20 days to appeal before releasing the pictures, which are edited so the faces of prisoners are not shown.
Lt. Col. John Skinner, a Pentagon spokesman on detainee issues said the Department of Defense, "continues to consult with the Department of Justice on this litigation, to include additional legal options."
A defense official who asked not to be named said the ruling does not necessarily mean the immediate release of the images, noting the possibility of appeal.
ACLU lawyer Amrit Singh said the ruling was a victory for government accountability.
Posted by politicalstuff at 12:27 PM
N.Y. Times Reporter Released From Jail
Miller to Testify In CIA Leak Probe
By Susan Schmidt and Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writers
New York Times reporter Judith Miller was released from jail late yesterday and is scheduled to testify this morning before a federal grand jury investigating whether any government officials illegally leaked the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame to the media, according to lawyers involved in the case.
Miller, 57, has been jailed for contempt of court since July 6 for refusing to testify about conversations with news sources. She was released from the Alexandria Detention Center shortly after 4 p.m. yesterday after her attorney Robert S. Bennett reached an agreement on her testimony with special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald, according to two lawyers familiar with the case.
Miller had refused to testify about information she received from confidential sources. But she said she changed her mind after I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, chief of staff for Vice President Cheney, assured her in a telephone call last week that a waiver he gave prosecutors authorizing them to question reporters about their conversations with him was not coerced.
"It's good to be free," Miller said in a statement last night. "I went to jail to preserve the time-honored principle that a journalist must respect a promise not to reveal the identity of a confidential source. . . . I am leaving jail today because my source has now voluntarily and personally released me from my promise of confidentiality regarding our conversations relating to the Wilson-Plame matter."
New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller said in a statement: "Judy refused to testify in this case because she gave her professional word that she would keep her interview with her source confidential. In recent days, several important things have changed that convinced Judy that she was released from her obligation."
But Joseph Tate, an attorney for Libby, said yesterday that he told Miller attorney Floyd Abrams a year ago that Libby's waiver was voluntary and that Miller was free to testify. He said last night that he was contacted by Bennett several weeks ago, and was surprised to learn that Miller had not accepted that representation as authorization to speak with prosecutors.
"We told her lawyers it was not coerced," Tate said. "We are surprised to learn we had anything to do with her incarceration."
Tate said that he and Bennett then asked Fitzgerald whether their clients could talk without fear of being accused of obstructing the investigation, and were assured that Fitzgerald would not oppose them doing so. After the phone call from Libby on Sept. 19 or 20, Tate said, the lawyers wrote a letter to Fitzgerald indicating Miller accepted Libby's representation that the waiver was voluntary.
In July, when Chief U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan ordered Miller to jail, he told her she was mistaken in her belief that she was defending a free press, stressing that the government source she "alleges she is protecting" had released her from her promise of confidentiality.
Fitzgerald has been investigating whether senior Bush administration officials broke the law by knowingly leaking Plame's identity to reporters as retaliation for an opinion article written by her husband, former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV. Wilson accused the administration of twisting intelligence about Iraq's attempt to obtain weapons of mass destruction in the run-up to the war.
Plame's name first appeared in a syndicated column by Robert D. Novak in July 2003, eight days after Wilson's accusations.
According to a source familiar with Libby's account of his conversations with Miller in July 2003, the subject of Wilson's wife came up on two occasions. In the first, on July 8, Miller met with Libby to interview him about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the source said.
At that time, she asked him why Wilson had been chosen to investigate questions Cheney had posed about whether Iraq tried to buy uranium in the African nation of Niger. Libby, the source familiar with his account said, told her that the White House was working with the CIA to find out more about Wilson's trip and how he was selected.
Libby told Miller he heard that Wilson's wife had something to do with sending him but he did not know who she was or where she worked, the source said.
Libby had a second conversation with Miller on July 12 or July 13, the source said, in which he said he had learned that Wilson's wife had a role in sending him on the trip and that she worked for the CIA. Libby never knew Plame's name or that she was a covert operative, the source said.
Libby did not talk to Novak about the case, the source said.
One lawyer involved in the case said Miller's attorneys reached an agreement with Fitzgerald that may confine prosecutors' questions solely to Miller's conversations with Libby. Bennett, reached last night, said he could not discuss the terms of the agreement for Miller's testimony. Abrams did not return a call seeking comment.
One lawyer said it could become clear as early as next week whether Fitzgerald plans to indict anyone or has negotiated a plea bargain.
Other reporters, including Matthew Cooper of Time magazine and Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post, have provided limited testimony about their conversations with Libby after receiving what they said were explicit waivers of their confidentiality agreements.
In July, on the day he was scheduled to be jailed along with Miller, Cooper agreed to be questioned by Fitzgerald. He said his source, who turned out to be Karl Rove, President Bush's close political adviser, had assured Cooper he had voluntarily provided a waiver of their confidentiality agreement. In recent months, Rove's role in the saga has become more clear. He testified that he discussed Wilson's wife with Cooper and Novak but that he never mentioned her by name.
Lawyers involved in the case believe today's testimony could mark the end of an investigation in which more than a dozen Bush administration officials have testified before a federal grand jury or have talked to FBI agents involved in the nearly two-year-old probe. Bush was interviewed as part of the investigation.
Fitzgerald cast a wide net, interviewing numerous State Department officials and some of Bush's closest advisers, to determine if anyone illegally revealed Plame's name.
Fitzgerald has made it clear for more than a year that Miller was the main obstacle to completing the case and that he was prepared to exert pressure on her to testify. People involved in the case said they began to hear earlier this week that Miller was looking for a way out of jail.
In recent weeks, people close to Miller said her attorneys grew anxious that Fitzgerald would extend her time behind bars. Fitzgerald has the authority to extend the grand jury investigating possible leaks for another 18 months, and he could ask the judge to hold Miller in jail for six more months, lawyers familiar with the case said.
Miller's role had been one of the great mysteries in the leak probe. It is unclear why she emerged as a central figure in the probe despite not writing a story about the case.
Staff writer Carol D. Leonnig contributed to this report.
Posted by politicalstuff at 12:26 PM
Thursday, September 29, 2005
Earle Has Prosecuted Many Democrats
By Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Rep. Tom DeLay dismissed the Democratic Texas prosecutor who spearheaded his indictment yesterday as "an unabashed partisan zealot." But Ronnie Earle's 28-year record is complex and mixed, including a failed bid to convict a big-name Republican and successful prosecutions of many Democrats, big and small.
Earle, the Travis County district attorney since 1977, is unquestionably a Democrat, having won repeated elections on his party's ticket in the liberal-leaning state capital of Austin. And he is no DeLay fan, recently comparing the fallen House majority leader to a bully. One of his favorite sayings is: "Being called vindictive and partisan by Tom DeLay is like being called ugly by a frog."
But Earle also likes to say that power cannot be abused by those who lack it, and for much of his career, Democrats dominated Texas politics. His supporters cite a list of Democratic officials who were convicted or pleaded guilty after Earle prosecuted them. They include a state legislator from El Paso in 2000, and two from Waco in 1995; a San Antonio voter registrar in 1992; and the state treasurer in 1982. Earle even prosecuted himself in 1983, paying a $212 fine for tardy campaign finance disclosure filings.
DeLay, unimpressed, ripped Earle yesterday as "a rogue district attorney" engaged in "blatant political partisanship."
Earle shrugged off the accusations. "My job is to prosecute felons," he told reporters in Austin. The indictment, he said, showed that "the grand jury believed there was probable reason to believe that these offenses occurred."
Paul Burka, senior executive editor of Texas Monthly magazine and a longtime observer of the state's politics, said in an interview, "I don't think Ronnie is seen here as a total partisan." He added that Earle "didn't look the other way in his own party" when public officials broke or bent laws. Burka said Earle is "not your typical DA" who talks tough about wiping out crime and sending miscreants to prison. Instead, Burka said, "he talks about 'holistic approaches to crime,' " sometimes to the bemusement of fellow Texans.
Earle, who practices yoga and quotes the poet W.B. Yeats, has taught a college class called "Reweaving the Fabric of Community."
But his prosecutions of public officials have drawn the greatest attention, and Republicans point to one in particular that went badly for Earle. In 1993, he targeted newly elected U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R), who was indicted on allegations of using state employees for personal and campaign purposes. Hutchison vehemently denied the charges, and when the trial was about to commence in early 1994, Earle announced he was dropping the case. Ever since, DeLay and others have said the case showed Earle to be an unprofessional, partisan-motivated activist.
His defenders, however, cite two high-profile prosecutions of Democrats. In late 1990, Earle went after the powerful Texas House speaker, Gib Lewis, who was his friend. Lewis pleaded guilty in 1992 to filing false financial statements and soon retired.
Earle failed, however, in pursuing a bribery case against then-Attorney General Jim Mattox (D) in 1985. Later, Mattox praised Earle's fairness, if not his prosecutorial skills.
"You might question his competence as district attorney," Mattox told reporters, "but I don't think you could question his motivations as being overly partisan."
DeLay attorney Dick DeGuerin doesn't buy it. "He's attempting to destroy Tom DeLay," he told reporters in Austin yesterday. "Tom DeLay changed the face of Texas politics. Nobody can deny that. But Ronnie Earle wants to destroy him because of that."
Staff writer Juliet Eilperin in Austin and research editor Lucy Shackelford in Washington contributed to this report.
Posted by politicalstuff at 2:28 AM
Blunt Hired Consultant Who's Also Indicted
Temporary Majority Leader Rep. Roy Blunt Hired Consultant Charged As DeLay Co-Conspirator
By LARRY MARGASAK
The Associated Press
Sep. 29, 2005 - The political committee of Rep. Roy Blunt, who is temporarily replacing Rep. Tom DeLay as House majority leader, has paid roughly $88,000 in fees since 2003 to a consultant under indictment in Texas with DeLay, according to federal records.
Keri Ann Hayes, executive director of the Rely on Your Beliefs Fund, said the organization has been has been satisfied with the work done by Jim Ellis, but has not discussed whether he will be retained.
"We haven't had that conversation," she said. So far, she added, Ellis' indictment had no impact on his work.
Records on file with the Federal Election Commission show the fund linked to Blunt retains Ellis' firm, J.W. Ellis Co., and has made periodic payments for services. Political Money Line, a nonpartisan Internet tracking service, places the total at about $88,000.
Ellis is one of three political associates of DeLay, R-Texas, who have been indicted in an alleged scheme to use corporate political donations illegally to support candidates in state elections. Ellis also runs DeLay's national political action committee, Americans for a Republican Majority.
DeLay was indicted on Wednesday, a development that required him to relinquish his leadership post at least temporarily. Blunt was chosen as his successor for the time being.
Hayes said Ellis analyzes House campaigns for Blunt's PAC, which supports Republican challengers and incumbents in House races.
Blunt has been the majority whip since 2003, a position that made him the chief vote counter for his party's conservative agenda.
DeLay's indictment capped a quick rise for Blunt, first elected to Congress in 1996. His district in southwestern Missouri includes Branson, a town of a few thousand residents that draws millions of country music fans each year to its performance stages.
Posted by politicalstuff at 2:23 AM
Arctic ice 'disappearing quickly'
By Richard Black
Environment Correspondent, BBC News website
Part of what we're seeing is the increased greenhouse effect; I'd bet the mortgage on it - Mark Serreze, NSIDC
The area covered by sea ice in the Arctic has shrunk for a fourth consecutive year, according to new data released by US scientists.
They say that this month sees the lowest extent of ice cover for more than a century.
The Arctic climate varies naturally, but the researchers conclude that human-induced global warming is at least partially responsible.
They warn the shrinkage could lead to even faster melting in coming years.
"September 2005 will set a new record minimum in the amount of Arctic sea ice cover," said Mark Serreze, of the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), Boulder, Colorado.
"It's the least sea ice we've seen in the satellite record, and continues a pattern of extreme low extents of sea ice which we've now seen for the last four years," he told BBC News.
September is the month when the Arctic ice usually reaches a minimum.
The new data shows that on 19 September, the area covered by ice fell to 5.35 million sq km (2.01 million sq miles), the lowest recorded since 1978, when satellite records became available; it is now 20% less than the 1978-2000 average.
ARCTIC SEA ICE EXTENT - SEPTEMBER TREND, 1978-2005
The straight line tracks a more than 8% decline per decade
The current rate of shrinkage they calculate at 8% per decade; at this rate there may be no ice at all during the summer of 2060.
An NSIDC analysis of historical records also suggests that ice cover is less this year than during the low periods of the 1930s and 40s.
Mark Serreze believes that the findings are evidence of climate change induced by human activities.
"It's still a controversial issue, and there's always going to be some uncertainty because the climate system does have a lot of natural variability, especially in the Arctic," he said.
"But I think the evidence is growing very, very strong that part of what we're seeing now is the increased greenhouse effect. If you asked me, I'd bet the mortgage that that's just what's happening."
One of the limitations of these records is that they measure only the area of ice, rather than the volume.
"One other factor could be movements of sea ice," said Liz Morris, of the British Antarctic Survey, currently working at the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, UK.
"If it all piles up in one place, you might have the same total amount of ice," she told the BBC News website, "and there is some evidence that ice is piling up along the north Canadian coast, driven by changes in the pattern of winds and perhaps ocean currents."
Most data on sea ice thickness comes from records of military submarines, which regularly explored passages under the Arctic ice cap during the Cold War years.
Submarines can cross the Arctic Ocean along tracks taken decades before, and note differences in the ice thickness above; but that may mean little if the ice itself has moved.
Professor Morris is involved in a new European satellite, Cryosat, which should be able to give definitive measurements of ice thickness as well as extent; its launch is scheduled for 8 October.
But she also believes that the NSIDC data suggests an impact from the human-enhanced greenhouse effect.
"All data goes through cycles, and so you have to be careful," she said, "but it's also true to say that we wouldn't expect to have four years in a row of shrinkage.
"That, combined with rising temperatures in the Arctic, suggests a human impact; and I would also bet my mortgage on it, because if you change the radiation absorption process of the atmosphere (through increased production of greenhouse gases) so there is more heating of the lower atmosphere, sooner or later you are going to melt ice."
Arctic warming fast
Though there are significant variations across the region, on average the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, according to a major report released last year.
The Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, a four-year study involving hundreds of scientists, projected an additional temperature rise of 4-7C by 2100.
If the current trend can be ascribed in part to human-induced climate change, Mark Serreze sees major reasons for concern.
"What we're seeing is a process in which we start to lose ice cover during the summer," he said, "so areas which formerly had ice are now open water, which is dark.
"These dark areas absorb a lot of the Sun's energy, much more than the ice; and what happens then is that the oceans start to warm up, and it becomes very difficult for ice to form during the following autumn and winter.
"It looks like this is exactly what we're seeing - a positive feedback effect, a 'tipping-point'."
The idea behind tipping-points is that at some stage the rate of global warming would accelerate, as rising temperatures break down natural restraints or trigger environmental changes which release further amounts of greenhouse gases.
Possible tipping-points include
* the disappearance of sea ice leading to greater absorption of solar radiation
* a switch from forests being net absorbers of carbon dioxide to net producers
* melting permafrost, releasing trapped methane
This study is the latest to indicate that such positive feedback mechanisms may be in operation, though definitive proof of their influence on the Earth's climatic future remains elusive.
Story from BBC NEWS:
Posted by politicalstuff at 2:18 AM
Wednesday, September 28, 2005
DeLay Indicted in Campaign Finance Probe
By LARRY MARGASAK, Associated Press Writer
A Texas grand jury on Wednesday charged Rep. Tom DeLay and two political associates with conspiracy in a campaign finance scheme, an indictment that could force him to step down as House majority leader.
DeLay attorney Steve Brittain said DeLay was accused of a criminal conspiracy along with two associates, John Colyandro, former executive director of a Texas political action committee formed by DeLay, and Jim Ellis, who heads DeLay's national political committee.
GOP congressional officials said the plan was for DeLay to temporarily relinquish his leadership post and Speaker Dennis Hastert will recommend that Rep. David Dreier (news, bio, voting record) of California step into those duties.
Some of the duties may go to the GOP whip, Rep. Roy Blunt (news, bio, voting record) of Missouri. The Republican rank and file may meet as early as Wednesday night to act on Hastert's recommendation.
The indictment against the second-ranking, and most assertive Republican leader came on the final day of the grand jury's term. It followed earlier indictments of a state political action committee founded by DeLay and three of his political associates.
The grand jury action is expected to have immediate consequences in the House, where DeLay is largely responsible for winning passage of the Republican legislative program. House Republican Party rules require leaders who are indicted to temporarily step aside from their leadership posts.
However, DeLay retains his seat representing Texas' 22nd congressional district, suburbs southwest of Houston.
DeLay has denied committing any crime and accused the Democratic district attorney leading the investigation, Ronnie Earle, of pursuing the case for political motives.
Democrats have kept up a crescendo of criticism of DeLay's ethics, citing three times last year that the House ethics committee admonished DeLay for his conduct.
Earlier, DeLay attorney Bill White told reporters, "It's a skunky indictment if they have one."
As a sign of loyalty to DeLay after the grand jury returned indictments against three of his associates, House Republicans last November repealed a rule requiring any of their leaders to step aside if indicted. The rule was reinstituted in January after lawmakers returned to Washington from the holidays fearing the repeal might create a backlash from voters.
DeLay, 58, also is the center of an ethics swirl in Washington. The 11-term congressman was admonished last year by the House ethics committee on three separate issues and is the center of a political storm this year over lobbyists paying his and other lawmakers' tabs for expensive travel abroad.
Wednesday's indictment stems from a plan DeLay helped set in motion in 2001 to help Republicans win control of the Texas House in the 2002 elections for the first time since Reconstruction.
A state political action committee he created, Texans for a Republican Majority, was indicted earlier this month on charges of accepting corporate contributions for use in state legislative races. Texas law prohibits corporate money from being used to advocate the election or defeat of candidates; it is allowed only for administrative expenses.
With GOP control of the Texas legislature, DeLay then engineered a redistricting plan that enabled the GOP take six Texas seats in the U.S. House away from Democrats — including one lawmaker switching parties — in 2004 and build its majority in Congress.
Posted by politicalstuff at 12:57 PM
Brown shifts blame for Katrina response
By LARA JAKES JORDAN
Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) -- A combative Michael Brown blamed the Louisiana governor, the New Orleans mayor and even the Bush White House that appointed him for the dismal response to Hurricane Katrina in a fiery appearance Tuesday before Congress. In response, lawmakers alternately lambasted and mocked the former FEMA director.
House members' scorching treatment of Brown, in a hearing stretching nearly 6 1/2 hours, underscored how he has become an emblem of the deaths, lingering floods and stranded survivors after the Aug. 29 storm. Brown resigned Sept. 12 after being relieved of his onsite command of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's response effort three days earlier.
"I'm happy you left," said Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn. "Because that kind of, you know, look in the lights like a deer tells me that you weren't capable to do the job."
"You get an F-minus in my book," said Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss.
At several points, Brown turned red in the face and slapped the table in front of him.
"So I guess you want me to be the superhero, to step in there and take everyone out of New Orleans," Brown said.
"What I wanted you to do is do your job and coordinate," Shays retorted.
Well aware of President Bush's sunken poll ratings, legislators of both parties tried to distance themselves from the federal preparations for Katrina and the storm's aftermath that together claimed the lives of more than 1,000 people in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.
Brown acknowledged making mistakes during the storm and subsequent flooding that devastated the Gulf Coast. But he accused New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, both Democrats, of fostering chaos and failing to order a mandatory evacuation more than a day before Katrina hit.
"My biggest mistake was not recognizing by Saturday that Louisiana was dysfunctional," Brown told a special panel set up by House Republican leaders to investigate the catastrophe. Most Democrats, seeking an independent investigation, stayed away to protest what they called an unfair probe of the Republican administration by GOP lawmakers.
"I very strongly personally regret that I was unable to persuade Governor Blanco and Mayor Nagin to sit down, get over their differences and work together," Brown said. "I just couldn't pull that off."
Brown also said he warned Bush, White House chief of staff Andrew Card and deputy chief of staff Joe Hagin that "this is going to be a bad one" in e-mails and phone conversations leading up to the storm. Under pointed questioning, he said some needs outlined to the White House, Pentagon and Homeland Security Department were not answered in "the timeline that we requested."
Blanco vehemently denied that she waited until the eve of the storm to order an evacuation of New Orleans. She said her order came on the morning of Aug. 27 - two days before the storm - resulting in 1.3 million people evacuating the city.
"Such falsehoods and misleading statements, made under oath before Congress, are shocking," Blanco said in a statement.
In New Orleans, Nagin said that "it's too early to get into name-blame and all that stuff" but that "a FEMA director in Washington trying to deflect attention is unbelievable to me."
White House spokesman Scott McClellan urged Congress to undertake "a thorough investigation of what went wrong and what went right and look at lessons learned."
Brown, who remains on FEMA's payroll for two more weeks before he leaves his annual $148,000 post, rejected accusations that he was inexperienced for the job he held for more than two years during which he oversaw 150 presidentially declared disasters. Before joining FEMA in 2001, he was an attorney, held local government posts and headed the International Arabian Horse Association.
"I know what I'm doing, and I think I do a pretty darn good job of it," he said.
He said FEMA coordinates and manages disaster relief, but the emergency first response is the job of state and local authorities. Brown also said the agency was stretched too thin to respond to a catastrophe of Katrina's size. "We were prepared but overwhelmed is the best way I can put it," he said.
Brown described FEMA as a politically powerless arm of Homeland Security, which he said had siphoned more than $77 million from his agency over the past three years. Additionally, he said Homeland Security cut FEMA budget requests - including one for hurricane preparedness - before they were ever presented to Congress.
Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., who oversees House spending on homeland security operations, said Congress has approved spending levels for FEMA and other preparedness programs far above requests.
In Miami, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told reporters that Brown "speaks for himself and he's entitled to his point of view, and I don't have anything to add."
Brown's defiant demeanor Tuesday mirrored his comments after being dismissed from overseeing the Katrina response, when he accused the news media of making him a scapegoat and blamed local officials for the uncoordinated response.
He had been "just tired and misspoke" when a television interviewer appeared to be the first to tell him that there were desperate residents at the New Orleans Convention Center, and testified he had already learned the day before that people were flocking there.
No longer needing to maintain a cordial relationship with Congress, Brown didn't hesitate to punch back at lawmakers who questioned whether the government would learn from mistakes before the next disaster strikes.
"I know what death and destruction is and I know how much people suffer," Brown told Taylor. "And it breaks my heart. I pray for these people every night. So don't lecture me about knowing what disaster is like."
Yet Brown struck a conciliatory tone with Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, who chastised him for not seeking fiscal or oversight help from Congress before the storm.
"I don't know how you can sleep at night," Granger said. "You lost the battle."
Brown, his voice dropping slightly, responded: "I probably should have just resigned my post earlier and gone public with some of these things because I have a great admiration for the men and women of FEMA and what they do, and they don't deserve what they've been getting."
Posted by politicalstuff at 1:56 AM
God versus science debate continues in court
By Jon Hurdle
HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania (Reuters) - Members of a Pennsylvania school board were motivated by their religious beliefs when they decided "intelligent design" should be taught to biology students along with Darwin's theory of evolution, witnesses testified in federal court on Tuesday.
Eleven parents are suing the Dover Area School District to stop the teaching of intelligent design, saying it violates the constitutional separation of church and state.
Proponents of the intelligent design theory say life is so complex it could only have been designed by a higher, intelligent being and not via the Darwinian natural selection theory widely accepted by scientists. Critics argue it is a thinly veiled version of creationism.
Bryan Rehm, a Dover physics teacher until June 2004, told the court about a meeting where former school board member Bill Buckingham championed the introduction of the alternative to evolution.
Buckingham complained the ninth-grade biology textbook being used was "laced with Darwinism," Rehm testified in U.S. District Court.
Rehm recalled Buckingham making a reference to Jesus' crucifixion: "Two thousand years ago, somebody died on a cross. Can't somebody stand up and do something for him?"
Aralene Callahan, a former school board member and one of the plaintiffs, said Buckingham told a board meeting, "You can't expect me to believe that I was ever descended from apes and monkeys."
The trial over teaching man's origins in U.S. schools pits Christian conservatives against teachers and scientists in what is seen as the biggest test of the issue since the late 1980s. It also echoes the famous Scopes Monkey trial of 1925, when lawyers squared off in a Tennessee courthouse over the teaching of Darwin's work.
Callahan also said another board member, Alan Bonsell, had argued the biology curriculum should contain equal measures of evolution and creationism.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1987 that creationism -- the belief that Earth and its beings were created by God and not by natural selection -- could not be taught in public schools since it violated the separation of church and state.
More than 30 U.S. states are considering measures to teach alternatives to evolution. The Harrisburg case is the first to challenge such initiatives in court and is widely expected to end up at the U.S. Supreme Court, regardless of the outcome.
President George W. Bush has said schools should teach both evolution and intelligent design.
The Dover school board's policy, implemented in January, requires that students are read a four-paragraph statement saying there are "gaps" in the theory of evolution and that students should consider alternative explanations of the origins of life, including intelligent design. The statement advises them of a textbook available in the school library that delves into intelligent design.
The board argues its policy does not amount to teaching intelligent design, but merely makes students aware of an alternative to evolution.
"This had absolutely nothing to do with balance or fairness," Callahan said during the second day of the trial. "It was merely intended to introduce religion into the biology curriculum and to pretend otherwise is preposterous."
Another of the Dover parents, Tammy Kitzmiller, told the court that she allowed her 14-year-old daughter to drop the biology class because she was concerned over the policy.
The trial is expected to last five weeks.
Posted by politicalstuff at 1:52 AM
Green rules seen on "chopping block" post-Rita
By Chris Baltimore
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - House Republicans on Wednesday will launch a rapid-fire assault against environmental protections on the pretext of helping the U.S. oil and gas industry recover from hurricane damage, environmental groups charge.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee and the House Resources Committee are holding separate meetings to finalize legislation on Wednesday, with the aim of combining them into a single energy bill for the full House to debate next week.
The resources panel, led by Richard Pombo of California, wants to lift a ban on Florida offshore drilling, promote oil shale and sell a dozen national parks for energy development.
"This really has very little to do with the hurricanes or relief efforts or even refiners. This is deregulation pure and simple," said John Walke of Natural Resources Defense Council.
Texan Joe Barton's energy committee wants to expand U.S. gasoline production by loosening federal rules that limit pollution when refineries or coal-fired power plants are expanded. U.S. gasoline supplies have tightened since hurricanes Katrina and Rita roared across the U.S. Gulf Coast, closing up to one-fourth of the nation's refining capacity.
House Republicans received a thumbs up from President George W. Bush on Monday when he said environmental rules and paperwork are obstacles holding up U.S. refinery expansions.
Bush specifically criticized the relatively obscure "new source review" rule administered by the Environmental Protection Agency as part of the Clean Air Act. It aims to protect public health by ensuring that refinery expansions do not increase acid rain and smog.
Environmentalists perked up their ears at Bush's remarks, noting that he rarely mentions the program.
"You know darn well that the president doesn't have a clue what new source review is," said Frank O'Donnell of Clean Air Watch. "It's clear that there's a coordinated effort between the White House and Congress to put key environmental protections on the chopping block."
Barton said his bill would help U.S. refiners gird against another natural disaster like the recent hurricanes, which highlighted the U.S. dearth of refining capacity.
In an interview, Barton said new source review "was a tool to blackmail industry" into deferring plant upgrades.
"We don't want more emissions but we do want to give existing industrial facilities the ability to retrofit and modernize without going through a laborious permitting process," Barton said.
A draft copy of Barton's bill would codify an EPA proposal that allows plants to expand their facilities without triggering anti-pollution rules, NRDC'S Walke said. That proposal was frozen by a federal judge in a lawsuit brought by New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer.
"If the new Barton rule were adopted it would set us back 40 or 50 years," said Judith Enck, a Spitzer aide.
It would also adopt a utility-friendly strategy that says the anti-pollution rules only apply if expansion projects boost hourly emission rates, not overall plant emissions. Using that test, a federal appeals court in June ruled that Duke Power did not violate the law by expanding eight North Carolina plants without adding expensive anti-pollution devices.
Pombo's separate bill would open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling as well as letting states opt out of an offshore oil leasing ban. He also wants to sell 15 national parks for energy or commercial development, including the Mary McLeod Bethune House in Washington, D.C.
Posted by politicalstuff at 1:49 AM
Hurricane Rita, like Katrina before her, made clear that government preparedness plans are hardly up to snuff.
By Tom Masland
Sept. 24, 2005 - Americans often assume that taking steps to be ready for unforeseen emergencies is a deeply-rooted tradition, like the Scout motto: “be prepared." The organization's Web site reports that someone once asked Baden-Powell, the founder of Scouting, "Be prepared for what?" Baden-Powell replied: "Why, for any old thing." But now two hurricanes on the Gulf Coast have shredded the assumption that government officials necessarily share that view. Part of the long aftermath to this hurricane season will be new attention to what went wrong--and to the adequacy of preparations for threats of all kinds that could lie ahead.
As if nearly 1,000 deaths to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans weren’t sobering enough, the chaotic flight before Hurricane Rita on Friday offered a fresh object lesson in disaster planning. As Rita neared the Texas coastline, some three million residents got in their cars and made a run for it. Among the results: a 100-mile-long traffic jam outside Houston, hundreds of motorists stranded when their gas ran out, and a deeply peeved public. “This has been a nightmare,” said evacuee Lillian Brown, 46, of Beaumont, whose family was stranded along I-45 for two hours Friday afternoon before rescue workers brought her gas. “This is sad. It should have been better organized.”
Once again, public officials mainly pleaded guilty. “Clearly, the evacuation did not work as the plan was designed,” Harris Country Judge Robert Eckels, the highest elected official in Harris County surrounding Houston, told MSNBC. “There are things we have learned that we need to do differently next time.”
This was no cataclysm. Even in Houston, where the snafus were worst, the job of evacuating the city ultimately got done. The main problem was that far more people heeded warnings to evacuate low-lying areas than authorities expected. The question still remained, though: if things came so unstuck because of a storm that officials had seen coming for three days, what happens when a terrorist sets off a dirty bomb in downtown Cleveland? Or in Times Square. What if there’s a major San Francisco earthquake? Or a rocket attack on the refineries and tank farms massed around Elizabeth, N.J.?
Many put-out residents in places like Houston are likely to focus their anger on local officials. Undoubtedly pulp trees will die as experts revamp their disaster-preparedness studies in the aftermath of the storms. But the federal government’s new super-agency for such matters, which bears the reassuring title Homeland Security, remains in the crosshairs. The director of FEMA, a Homeland agency, resigned after Katrina left hundreds of New Orleans refugees on their own in an increasingly fetid public arena. American voters know how to complain. Ian Porsche, 22, endured five days in the New Orleans Superdome before leaving with his girlfriend-for Houston. Stuck by the side of the road on I-45 Friday, he turned down a Conroe school bus driver who offered him a lift to another shelter. “I’m not gong to another shelter after what I’ve seen,” he said. “I’m just really stressed out.” Undoubtedly, his congressman feels his pain.
With Staci Semrad in Houston
Posted by politicalstuff at 1:41 AM
Tuesday, September 27, 2005
Able Danger as elusive as ever
As the story of the Pentagon’s top secret mining program that some claim linked the 9/11 ringleader to al-Qaida well before the attacks on the US becomes increasing foggy, reporters are having a hard time getting the truth to the public.
Commentary by Shaun Waterman in Washington, DC for ISN Security Watch (25/09/05)
The story of Able Danger - a top secret Pentagon data-mining program that some claim linked the 9/11 plot ringleader to al-Qaida more than a year before the attack - is the kind conspiracy-mongers love.
It has everything: the destruction or loss of important documents, an inquiry accused of ignoring evidence, and a gag on key witnesses.
Did a secret data-mining project really link 9/11 ringleader Mohamed Atta and three of the other hijackers to Islamic extremists in Brooklyn - and from there to al-Qaida - in early 2000?
Did the project - which used proprietary software to trawl through massive amounts of information culled from the internet, purchased from data brokers or, like certain travel and other records, obtained in some cases by means that are still classified - really fall afoul of some legal interpretation of the protections against spying on Americans or military involvement in law enforcement? And was it closed down, and all its data destroyed, as a result?
Did Representative Curt Weldon (Republican-Pennsylvania), who first made Able Danger public this summer, really hand the last copy of a “proof of concept” chart from that time, bearing Atta’s name and likeness - the key document that would prove the truth of the allegations - to National Security Advisor Steven Hadley at a White House meeting on 25 September 2001?
And did the 9/11 Commission, charged with providing an unassailable official account of the failures of the US government to protects its citizens from the attacks, ignore evidence of Able Danger’s success?
The story is also long on colorful characters and heated rhetoric.
“I have witnessed denial, deception, threats to (Department of Defense) employees, character assassination, and now silence,” Weldon said at this week’s hearing on Able Danger held by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
This reporter, who had been tracking the story all summer, was looking forward to the Senate hearings.
From a reporter’s point of view, the story has been a nightmare: the sources initially anonymous and now silent, with cagey lawyers; the whole tale shot through with misinformation, much of it the product of careless retellings. But worst of all, the inevitable struggle between the fourth estate and the executive branch over information was waged on the bureaucratic terrain of the Pentagon - the most vast, labyrinthine, and secretive organ of the US government.
In common with others, I had been hoping to get some ground truth from the hearings – “Just one actual fact that I can check”, in the words of a colleague.
Instead, the “X-Files” plotline thickened.
Judiciary Chairman Senator Arlen Specter (Republican-Pennsylvania), told the hearing he was “surprised to find that the Department of Defense has ordered five key witnesses not to testify”. The five were serving and reserve military officers and civilian contractors who had worked on Able Danger and who say they remember the chart.
Specter added that his staff had been in negotiations with Pentagon officials, and that many of the documents that they had requested had only arrived the previous evening.
“That looks to me as if it may be obstruction of the committee’s activities,” Specter warned, “something we will have to determine.”
Friday afternoon, Specter’s committee announced it would hold another hearing in October, at which the five would testify. But in another twist, Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman told reporters later that day, that the department was still insisting that the five could only testify in a closed hearing.
One of the senior Democrats on the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Joseph Biden (Democrat-Delaware), said he was disappointed at the Defense Department’s decision.
“I think that’s a big mistake,” he said.
Why the witnesses had been denied permission to testify was unclear, Specter said. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, asked later that day by reporters about the decision, referred to the issue of jurisdiction. The Defense Department jealously guards its relationship with the Armed Services Committees in both chambers - and only grudgingly cooperates with other panels. One Pentagon tactic is to use the turf conflicts between competing chairmen to play their committees off against each other.
“The Senate Intelligence Committee, as I understand it, has jurisdiction over this matter and is looking into it,” said Rumsfeld, adding: “The department, I'm told, offered a classified briefing because the subject matter is classified. And as I understand it, the Judiciary Committee preferred to have an open hearing on a classified matter, and therefore the department declined to participate.”
But Specter told the hearing that, on legal advice he was “instructing the witnesses not to disclose any classified information”, adding that if they had secrets they wished to discuss, the committee could go into closed session.
He needn’t have bothered. As they were all keen to stress, none of the witnesses who actually testified knew any of the classified details of the Able Danger program.
“I have not had access to classified information on this,” said Mark Zaid, an attorney who represents and testified on behalf of two of the former Able Danger operatives. “I haven’t even had access to the full scope of unclassified information,” he added.
“My knowledge of Able Danger is very limited,” said the sole Pentagon witness, William Dugan, Rumsfeld’s special assistant for intelligence oversight.
“He’s a piñata,” said one congressional staffer, referring to Dugan and the hollow papier-mâché animals filled with sweets which are hung from trees and beaten with sticks until they break open.
“I understand that you were sent over in a very limited capacity with perhaps a calculation that you didn’t have this information,” Specter told Duggan at one point.
Instead of witnesses, the committee took hearsay evidence about what they might have said had they been allowed to testify, from Weldon and Zaid.
As a result, not much of the “ground truth” some reporters had hoped for ever materialized.
Zaid told Senators he would try to put the record straight on some issues. He said, for instance, that the project had never identified Atta as being in the US in early 2000 - only linked him with US-based Islamic extremists in that timeframe.
But that only begs another question, and reveals that there was a problem with the Judiciary Committee inquiry that could not have been solved by more or different witnesses. Zaid was never asked how it came to be reported - in at least three different places - that the project had identified Atta as being in the country at that time.
Weldon even said - on the floor of the US Congress - that military intelligence had been barred from keeping information on Atta because he had a green card.
He actually did not have a green card, but Weldon has never admitted his error.
We’ll have to hope for better next month.
Shaun Waterman, a British journalist based in Washington, DC covers homeland and national security for United Press International. In June, he won the Society of Professional Journalists' Dateline Washington award for his coverage of last year's intelligence reform debate.
Posted by politicalstuff at 12:15 AM
(And this one is from the Washington Times!! Have conservative news organizations [the majority of news organizations in the USA] finally awakened after a 5 year coma?)
The Washington Times
Probing Able Danger
originally published September 20, 2005
Tomorrow's Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the Pentagon's top-secret military intelligence unit known as Able Danger should be quite a show. Rep. Curt Weldon, who deserves most of the credit for bringing the formerly forgotten unit to public attention, is promising as much with a list of potential witnesses who he says will be able to testify that Able Danger identified ringleader Mohamed Atta and several other terrorists inside the United States at least a year before the September 11 attacks.
The list includes:
• Naval Capt. Scott Philpott, an Able Danger team leader, according to the Pentagon, who approached the September 11 commission with what he knew about Atta in 2004.
• Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer, the Defense Intelligence Agency employee who acted as liaison with Able Danger team members. Col. Shaffer was the first to come forward with allegations that Pentagon lawyers rebuffed his attempts to coordinate a meeting between Able Danger analysts and the FBI.
• An FBI agent, who, according to Mr. Weldon, will testify under oath that she organized the meetings between the FBI and Able Danger analysts to discuss Atta.
• A Pentagon employee, who will testify that he was ordered to destroy 2.5 terabytes of information Able Danger had compiled, which is roughly equivalent to one-fourth of all the printed material in the Library of Congress. According to Mr. Weldon, this person, as yet unidentified, will also name the officer who gave the order.
As the Pentagon acknowledged earlier this month, destroying sensitive intelligence is not in itself unusual, because the Pentagon is forbidden to spy on Americans. "In a major data-mining effort like [Able Danger], you're reaching out to a lot of open sources and within that there could be a lot of information on U.S. persons," said Pat Downs, a senior policy analyst in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense. We can only assume that the Able Danger chart identifying 60 known terrorists including Atta was lost in this destruction. So far, this chart is the only known material evidence that would corroborate Mr. Weldon's claims. The Pentagon has found similar charts, but none which include Atta.
However, as with nearly everything related to Able Danger, there is some confusion. The employee who will testify that he destroyed the data will apparently also allege that a Special Operations Command general, who was in the Able Danger chain of command, was "incensed when he found out that material that he was a customer for was destroyed without his approval," said Mr. Weldon. If true, this might mean that the order to destroy the Able Danger data came from elsewhere in the Pentagon, which could lead one to speculate that it was not part of normal procedure.
We hoped the Pentagon would clarify some of the particulars regarding Able Danger, and so it has. It has acknowledged that Able Danger existed as well as discovered three other defense employees who recall the unit's identification of Atta before the September 11 attacks. Its confirmation of Able Danger, the existence of similar charts and Mr. Weldon's witness list, do, however, place further pressure on the September 11 commissioners to explain why they didn't mention the unit in their final report.
A new thread concerning the worst attack on U.S. soil is beginning to come to light. Although it is far too soon to conclude that this is a major scandal, it should be pursued with vigor and complete transparency.
Posted by politicalstuff at 12:11 AM
'Able Danger' Could Rewrite History
This article was originally published August 12, 2005
(and yes, believe it or not, this is from Fox News!
Also see additional articles on this subject in this blog.)
WASHINGTON — The federal commission that probed the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks was told twice about "Able Danger," a military intelligence unit that had identified Mohamed Atta and other hijackers a year before the attacks, a congressman close to the investigation said Wednesday.
Rep. Curt Weldon (search), R-Pa., a champion of integrated intelligence-sharing among U.S. agencies, wrote to the former chairman and vice-chairman of the Sept. 11 commission late Wednesday, telling them that their staff had received two briefings on the military intelligence unit — once in October 2003 and again in July 2004.
Weldon said he was upset by suggestions earlier Wednesday by 9/11 panel members that it had been not been given critical information on Able Danger's capabilities and findings.
"The impetus for this letter is my extreme disappointment in the recent, and false, claim of the 9/11 commission staff that the commission was never given access to any information on Able Danger," Weldon wrote to former Chairman Gov. Thomas Kean (search) and Vice-Chairman Rep. Lee Hamilton (search). "The 9/11 commission staff received not one but two briefings on Able Danger from former team members, yet did not pursue the matter.
"The commission's refusal to investigate Able Danger after being notified of its existence, and its recent efforts to feign ignorance of the project while blaming others for supposedly withholding information on it, brings shame on the commissioners, and is evocative of the worst tendencies in the federal government that the commission worked to expose," Weldon added.
On Wednesday, a source familiar with the Sept. 11 commission — formally known as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (search) — told FOX News that aides who still had security clearances had gone back to the National Archives outside Washington, D.C., to review notes on Atta and any information the U.S. government had on him and his terror cell before the Sept. 11 attacks.
The source acknowledged that the aides were looking for a memo about a briefing given to four staff members by defense intelligence officials during an overseas trip to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia in the fall of 2003.
Staffers apparently did not recall being told of the Able Danger information at that meeting and wanted to double-check their records.
Former commission spokesman Al Felzenberg told The New York Times in Thursday editions that Atta was mentioned to panel investigators during at least one meeting with a military officer. That briefing came in July 2004, less than two weeks before the commission's final report was issued to the public.
Felzenberg said the information about Atta was considered suspect because it didn't jibe with many other findings. For example, the intelligence officer said Atta was in the United States in late 1999, but travel records confirmed that he did not enter the country until late 2000.
"He wasn't brushed off," Felzenberg told The Times about the military officer's briefing. "I'm not aware of anybody being brushed off. The information that he provided us did not mesh with other conclusions that we were drawing."
But Weldon said that argument was not good enough.
"The 9/11 commission took a very high-profile role in critiquing intelligence agencies that refused to listen to outside information. The commissioners very publicly expressed their disapproval of agencies and departments that would not entertain ideas that did not originate in-house," Weldon wrote in his letter Wednesday night.
"Therefore it is no small irony," Weldon pointed out, "that the commission would in the end prove to be guilty of the very same offense when information of potentially critical importance was brought to its attention."
On Thursday, Weldon told FOX News that the military official, who was under cover when he was in Afghanistan for the October 2003 briefing, is certain he told the staffers about Atta at that time.
The military intelligence officer who attended that meeting with staffers "kept notes of that meeting and will testify under oath that he not only told" the staffers about Able Danger's mission, but about Atta.
Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana, told FOX News on Wednesday that if Atta's name had been mentioned in the October 2003 briefing, it would have jumped out at staffers.
He said that the commission did not include the claims by Able Danger in the definitive report of the events leading up to Sept. 11 because it had no "information that the United States government had under surveillance or had any knowledge of Mohamed Atta prior to the attacks.
"It could be a very crucial incident in terms of the lead-up to 9/11. It could reveal flaws in the intelligence sharing or the lack of intelligence that we have not yet focused on," Hamilton said of the military's tracking of Atta and its inability to get domestic intelligence agencies to follow up.
Hamilton told FOX News that the commission team would get to the bottom of the confusion over what the United States knew about Atta and whether it played into the commission's investigation.
"I think the 9/11 commission's obligation at this point is to review our records very, very carefully and make very soon — we hope within the next few days — a complete statement about what happened during our investigation," Hamilton said.
Weldon said that he personally knows five members of the commission and is not attacking the integrity of any of them. He said he discussed the matter with two commissioners who told him they were never briefed about Able Danger.
"I have to ask why. I would hope there was not a deliberate attempt by someone on the 9/11 commission staff to keep this information" from the commissioners, Weldon said, adding "I find no fault right now with the commissioners."
A commission spokesman told FOX News that the panel expected to issue a statement before the end of the week.
Among the most critical facts to be determined, if the information about Atta did exist in 2000, would be who then blocked the intelligence from going to the FBI, which could have tracked down the terror cell.
"Team members believed that the Atta cell in Brooklyn should be subject to closer scrutiny, but somewhere along the food chain of administration bureaucrats and lawyers, a decision was made in late 2000 against passing the information to the FBI," Weldon wrote.
"Fear of tarnishing the commission's legacy cannot be allowed to override the truth. The American people are counting on you not to 'go native' by succumbing to the very temptations your commission was assembled to indict," he added.
Posted by politicalstuff at 12:09 AM
Monday, September 26, 2005
Faulty Body Armor May Have Endangered Bush
By JOHN SOLOMON, Associated Press Writer
Federal prosecutors are investigating whether a maker of bulletproof vests endangered lives, including President Bush's, by concealing potentially deadly flaws in the body armor sold to the government and police agencies.
A whistle-blower from the company, Second Chance Body Armor Inc., of Central Lake, Mich., testified this month that the Secret Service tested and bought some of the defective vests for the president and first lady Laura Bush.
The Pentagon also obtained the same armor for elite troops who guard generals, according to transcripts obtained by The Associated Press.
Many sales occurred well after Second Chance had been alerted that the Japanese-made Zylon synthetic material in the vests was degrading faster than expected from heat, light and moisture exposure, allowing bullets to potentially penetrate the armor, according to the whistle-blower's testimony and other company documents.
Prosecutors have gathered documents showing that Second Chance was alerted as early as 1998 by the Japanese material maker, Toyobo Co., that Zylon had trouble maintaining its protective properties.
By 2001, Second Chance's research chief, Aaron Westrick, was pleading unsuccessfully with his company's president to replace the vests after his own tests showed them degrading, the memos show.
"Lives and our credibility are at stake," Westrick wrote then-Second Chance president Richard Davis in a Dec. 18, 2001, memo. "We will only prevail if we do the right things and not hesitate. This issue should not be hidden for obvious safety issues and because of future litigation."
Westrick urged Davis to "immediately notify our customers of the degradation problems," let those with pending orders cancel them and cease all executive bonuses to save money so the company could pay for a replacement initiative, the memo shows.
But Second Chance customers were not alerted to the problems until September 2003 — after a California police officer was shot to death wearing the vest and a Pennsylvania officer was seriously wounded.
In the interim, the Secret Service paid $53,000 in 2002 to Second Chance for body armor, enough to equip the president and the security detail that protects him and other VIPs, federal procurement records show.
Legal professionals and government officials familiar with the inquiry confirmed Westrick's account about the Secret Service and Bush. They said the criminal investigation is in addition to a Justice Department lawsuit filed last summer that accuses Second Chance and Toyobo of fraud. The officials spoke only on condition of anonymity, citing grand jury secrecy.
Robert H. Skilton, Second Chance's lawyer, did not return calls to his office last week. Some of the company's non-Zylon assets have been sold and others are in bankruptcy.
Westrick's lawyer, Stephen M. Kohn, said Sunday his that client is cooperating with the criminal investigation.
"Greed prevailed over the safety of police, soldiers and even the president of the United States," Kohn said. "The officials who personally profited from selling the defective vests to law enforcement must be held accountable to the fullest extend of the criminal code."
Throughout 2001 and 2002, agencies from the Pentagon to local police bought vests from Second Chance, records show. The company now says more than 100,000 Zylon vests it sold are in question, and the government said it bought at least 40,000.
In summer 2002, company executives prepared a memo for their board of directors recommending two stark options.
"Solution 1: We continue to operate as though nothing is wrong until one of our customers is killed or wounded or Germany, Japan, Dupont or some other entity exposes the Zylon problem," the memo said.
Under a category "Downfalls" for that option, the memo warned an officer wearing one of the vests might be killed. "In the eyes of law enforcement, we will either be stupid for not knowing or greedy and uncaring for knowing and not doing anything about it," the memo said.
The second option recommended the company publish an ad "denouncing" the vests and "decline to make them" unless customers knew of the problem and still wanted them.
While it waited until fall 2003 to alert buyers, Second Chance arranged in the interim for Toyobo to begin paying it refunds in 2002 for the Zylon problems, promising to use the money to fix vests already sold in the United States, according to documents in Second Chance's bankruptcy case.
Toyobo told the bankruptcy court that Second Chance took the money but "failed to implement the corrective actions."
"It is apparent that Toyobo was duped by Second Chance," Kent Jarrell, a U.S. spokesman for Toyobo, said Sunday. "We were shocked by the level of Second Chance's deception when their behavior was finally uncovered because of documents that surfaced in litigation and through investigation."
The Justice Department's suit this summer accused both Second Chance and Toyobo of allowing vests to be sold to local, state and federal police even though they knew their ability to stop bullets was overstated.
But that suit, along with others filed by states, made no mention of a connection to the Secret Service and Bush. Westrick discussed that connection in a deposition earlier this month provided to investigators.
"The president had Zylon Ultima armor and his wife had it, if I recollect, and they took a look at it ... I believe it was the Secret Service put the armor through some special tests and went with it, bought it," Westrick testified in a Sept. 9 transcript obtained by The Associated Press.
Westrick said that while the vest had passed initial Secret Service testing, he warned his company that Zylon would soon degrade and allow bullets to pierce the armor. "I said it would be a problem," he testified.
Secret Service officials declined to say whether Bush ever wore the vest, saying they don't discuss presidential protective measures.
Westrick was told Bush wore Zylon-protection during the 2001 inauguration and during a 2002 event with police that his boss attended, according to legal professionals familiar with the case.
Westrick's testimony this month also identified another potential victim that federal prosecutors may explore — elite special forces who work for the Central Command in protecting generals overseas.
The former research director-turned whistle-blower testified he provided to Central Command several Zylon Ultima vests but warned he feared they were defective.
"Second Chance supplied them, but I also told them I thought the armor was problematic," Westrick said. " ... I thought it would degrade. My research showed that it degraded."
Posted by politicalstuff at 12:25 PM
China Wants Only 'Healthy' News on Web
By AUDRA ANG, Associated Press Writer
China said Sunday it is imposing new regulations to control content on its news Web sites and will allow the posting of only "healthy and civilized" news.
The move is part of China's ongoing efforts to police the country's 100-million Internet population. Only the United States, with 135 million users, has more.
The new rules take effect immediately and will "standardize the management of news and information" in the country, the official Xinhua News Agency said Sunday.
Sites should only post news on current events and politics, according to the new regulations issued by the Ministry of Information Industry and China's cabinet, the State Council. The subjects that would be acceptable under those categories was not clear.
Only "healthy and civilized news and information that is beneficial to the improvement of the quality of the nation, beneficial to its economic development and conducive to social progress" will be allowed, Xinhua said.
"The sites are prohibited from spreading news and information that goes against state security and public interest," it added.
While the communist government encourages Internet use for education and business, it also blocks material it deems subversive or pornographic. Online dissidents who post items critical of the government, or those expressing opinions in chatrooms, are regularly arrested and charged under vaguely worded state security laws.
Earlier this month, a French media watchdog group said e-mail account information provided by Internet powerhouse Yahoo Inc. helped lead to the conviction and 10-year prison sentence of a Chinese journalist who had written about media restrictions in an e-mail.
As part of the wider effort to curb potential dissent, the government has also closed thousands of cybercafes — the main entry to the Web for many Chinese unable to afford a computer at home.
Authorities in Shanghai have installed surveillance cameras and begun requiring visitors to Internet cafes to register with their official identity cards.
The government also recently threatened to shut down unregistered Web sites and blogs, the online diaries in which users post their thoughts for others to read.
Posted by politicalstuff at 1:55 AM
The New York Times
Many Contracts for Storm Work Raise Questions
By ERIC LIPTON and RON NIXON
WASHINGTON, Sept. 25 - Topping the federal government's list of costs related to Hurricane Katrina is the $568 million in contracts for debris removal landed by a Florida company with ties to Mississippi's Republican governor. Near the bottom is an $89.95 bill for a pair of brown steel-toe shoes bought by an Environmental Protection Agency worker in Baton Rouge, La.
The first detailed tally of commitments from federal agencies since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast four weeks ago shows that more than 15 contracts exceed $100 million, including 5 of $500 million or more. Most of those were for clearing away the trees, homes and cars strewn across the region; purchasing trailers and mobile homes; or providing trucks, ships, buses and planes.
More than 80 percent of the $1.5 billion in contracts signed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency alone were awarded without bidding or with limited competition, government records show, provoking concerns among auditors and government officials about the potential for favoritism or abuse.
Already, questions have been raised about the political connections of two major contractors - the Shaw Group and Kellogg, Brown & Root, a subsidiary of Halliburton - that have been represented by the lobbyist Joe M. Allbaugh, President Bush's former campaign manager and a former leader of FEMA.
"When you do something like this, you do increase the vulnerability for fraud, plain waste, abuse and mismanagement," said Richard L. Skinner, the inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security, who said 60 members of his staff were examining Hurricane Katrina contracts. "We are very apprehensive about what we are seeing."
Bills have come in for deals that apparently were clinched with a handshake, with no documentation to back them up, said Mr. Skinner, who declined to provide details.
"Most, if not all, of these people down there were trying to do the right thing," he said. "They were under a lot of pressure and they took a lot of shortcuts that may have resulted in a lot of waste."
Congress appropriated $62.3 billion in emergency financing after Hurricane Katrina struck. So far, a total of $15.8 billion has been allocated from a FEMA-managed disaster relief fund, of which $11.6 billion has been committed through contracts, direct aid to individuals or work performed by government agencies.
An examination of the contracts granted to date and interviews with state and federal officials raised concerns about some of the awards.
Some industry and government officials questioned the costs of the debris-removal contracts, saying the Army Corps of Engineers had allowed a rate that was too high. And Congressional investigators are looking into the $568 million awarded to AshBritt, a Pompano Beach, Fla., company that was a client of the former lobbying firm of Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi.
The investigators are asking how much money AshBritt will collect and, in turn, what it will pay subcontractors performing the work, said a House investigator who did not want her name used because she was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.
The contracts also show considerable price disparities: travel trailers costing $15,000 to $23,000, housing inspection services that documents suggest could cost $15 to $81 per home, and ferries and ships being used for temporary housing that cost $13 million to $70 million for six months.
For some smaller companies, the recovery work will be an extraordinary test. For example, Aduddell Roofing and Sheet Metal, an Oklahoma City business run by a former steer wrestler, shares with a partner a $60 million contract to install temporary roofing on houses in Mississippi. Aduddell's single biggest contract before this was for $5 million, company executives said.
Some businesses awarded large contracts have long records of performing similar work, but they also have had some problems. CH2M Hill and the Fluor Corporation, two global engineering companies awarded a total of $250 million in contracts, were previously cited by regulators for safety violations at a weapons plant cleanup.
The Bechtel Corporation, awarded a contract that could be worth $100 million, is under scrutiny for its oversight of the "Big Dig" construction project in Boston. And Kellogg, Brown & Root, which was given $60 million in contracts, was rebuked by federal auditors for unsubstantiated billing from the Iraq reconstruction and criticized for bills like $100-per-bag laundry service. All of the companies have publicly defended their performance.
Representative Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, the ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, complained that FEMA and other federal agencies were delivering too much of the work to giant corporations with political connections, instead of local companies or minority-owned businesses.
"There is just more of the good-old-boy system, taking care of its political allies," Mr. Thompson said. "FEMA and the others have put out these contracts in such a haphazard manner, I don't know how they can come up with anything that is accountable to the taxpayers."
As of last week, the federal government was spending more than $263 million a day on the recovery effort.
"There was a crisis situation and a lot of very quick contracting was done," said Greg Rothwell, the chief procurement officer at the Department of Homeland Security. "We will be looking at every invoice we get to make sure we were not paying extraordinary prices."
While several federal agencies have approved contracts, FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers, by design, have spent the most so far, according to the list of contracts from federal government agencies assembled by The New York Times.
Much of the spending has been in large amounts, but the contracts also include entries like $80,000 from a company called Bama Jama for clothing adorned with the E.P.A. logo and $3,300 for Doc's Laundry and Linen in Baton Rouge.
Rapidly buying the goods and services needed to respond to an emergency is difficult for any government agency. Federal contracting rules allow agencies to approve deals without standard competitive bidding in "urgent and compelling circumstances."
To provide some safeguards, federal agencies can hold an open competition in advance for products routinely needed in emergencies. Such agreements are known as "indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity," or I.D.I.Q. contracts.
The Defense Department relied on that type of contract in assigning Kellogg, Brown & Root to perform more than $45 million in repairs to levees in New Orleans and military facilities in the gulf region.
Records show, however, that FEMA did not use this approach for the blue sheeting used to cover holes in roofs, a standard item in the disaster tool kit. Instead, the agency bought $6.6 million of the material from All American Poly of Piscataway, N.J., on Sept. 13, without full competitive bidding.
Before signing contracts with mobile-home and travel-trailer makers worth in excess of $1 billion, FEMA said it did solicit bids. But the awards were made without the standard open competition required for government contracts.
Mr. Rothwell, of the Homeland Security Department, said FEMA needed to expand its number of I.D.I.Q. agreements so that when disasters struck it could bring in contractors more quickly and at a competitive price.
The two most expensive services the government has signed contracts for so far are manufactured housing and debris removal, which alone have totaled $2 billion, according to contracting records.
The debris contracts have attracted the scrutiny of investigators from the House Homeland Security Committee, in part because of the price agreed to by the Army Corps of Engineers.
AshBritt, which has won the biggest share of those contracts, is being paid about $15 per cubic yard to collect and process debris, federal officials said. It is also being reimbursed for costs if it has to dispose of material in landfills.
But three communities in Mississippi, which found their own contractors rather than accept the terms offered by AshBritt, have negotiated contracts of $10.64 a cubic yard to $18.25 a cubic yard, including collection, processing and disposal.
And other experts have questioned AshBritt's fees. "Let me put it to you this way: If $15 was my best price, I would rebid it," said Mike Carroll, a municipal official in Orlando, Fla., with experience in hurricane cleanup.
AshBritt has cleaned up debris for FEMA and other government agencies after other hurricanes. Besides possessing a huge roster of subcontractors and the logistics expertise to route hundreds of trucks, the company is also politically well connected.
According to Senate filings, AshBritt paid about $40,000 in the first half of 2005 to Barbour Griffith & Rogers, the Washington lobbying firm co-founded by Governor Barbour of Mississippi, who is also a former chairman of the Republican National Committee.
AshBritt officials declined to comment on the Hurricane Katrina contracts. Jean Todd, a federal contracting officer who helps oversee the AshBritt deal for the Army Corps of Engineers, said she was determined to ensure that the price was fair.
"We have auditors that will be looking at all of this," Ms. Todd said.
FEMA has led the effort to line up contractors to install tens of thousand of temporary homes. The scale of the job is still unclear - depending on demand, FEMA may downsize its plans - but the agency has been rushing to buy as many travel trailers and mobile homes as it can. It has signed five contracts each worth more than $100 million with major manufacturers. And it has scoured the country, buying up whatever it can find on dealers' lots.
That has turned into a bonanza for businesses like Wagner's RV Center in Suamico, Wis., which sold 69 trailers to FEMA for $1.3 million.
"In a single sale, we cleared out most of our leftover inventory from the 2005 model year," said Leonard Wagner, the owner of the RV center. "That does not happen very often."
For some small businesses, what started off as big contracts have quickly grown into giant ones. Aduddell Roofing, the Oklahoma City business, was first hired with a partner on a $10 million contract. In a matter of weeks, that deal had grown into a $60 million contract.
The project is being run by Timothy Aduddell, the company's president, who until recently was on the professional rodeo circuit, said Ron Carte, the chief executive of Zenex International, the company that owns Aduddell.
"You have to be there to see it," Mr. Carte said of the hurricane work. "As Mr. Aduddell says, 'It's pretty cowboy.' "
Eric Dash and Leslie Eaton contributed reporting from New York for this article.
Posted by politicalstuff at 1:54 AM