Resolved: America great! Bin Laden evil! Go Bush!
Not even the inventor of "freedom fries" could stand to be present at the GOP-controlled Congress' absurd "debate" over Iraq.
By Michael Scherer
Rep. Walter Jones, the North Carolina Republican who invented the phrase "Freedom Fries," invited me into his Capitol Hill office Thursday morning, a cluttered space festooned from floor to ceiling with military memorabilia, Pentagon plaques and photographs of soldiers. Then he pulled out an e-mail he had recently received from an Army captain who served in Iraq.
The email quoted another American soldier serving in Iraq, a voice that Jones wanted people to hear. "Tell all those assholes in D.C. to get us the f--- out of here. This is bullshit," Jones said, reading from the email, but choosing not to pronounce the f-word in full. "Either that or tell them to tell Bush to send over the twins. They can bunk with me. That would be useful."
Jones is not a natural dove. He sits on the Armed Services committee and his district includes Camp Lejeune, the home base of nearly 47,000 sailors and marines. But Jones is one of a handful of Republican congressmen to break ranks with President Bush and the GOP leadership over Iraq. In recent months, he has been campaigning for a "full and honest" debate on the Iraq war.
Of course, none of that has happened. In April, Boehner told his colleagues that he would schedule a floor debate on Iraq, apparently bowing to pressure from Democrats and Republicans such as Jones. But this week, when the debate finally kicked off, Boehner and the Republican leadership pulled a bait and switch. Instead of an Iraq debate, they scheduled a debate on a resolution "declaring that the United States will prevail in the Global War on Terror." And then, in an election-year trick that is almost as old as the Congress itself, the GOP leadership barred any amendments on the resolution, effectively forcing Democrats to vote on whether or not they want Osama bin Laden to win.
Jones now says he feels duped by his own party's leadership. "Maybe I should have been less trusting, but I felt it would be a debate that would allow us to talk about policy," Jones told me. "I don't see how we would have gotten hurt if we had allowed members of both parties to go down to the floor to offer an amendment." To express his frustration, he appeared Wednesday at a press conference with Rep. Neil Abercrombie, a Democrat from Hawaii, who bound his own hands in yellow twine to dramatize the bonds under which members of Congress toil.
But such publicity stunts could not prevent the Republican majority from having its way. Just before noon on Thursday, Republicans opened 10 hours of debate, which is set to continue into Friday. It was a move that set a potentially dangerous trap for Democrats less than five months away from the midterm elections. If they vote against the resolution, Democrats will be on record opposing victory in the war on terror. If they vote for the resolution, they will be on record endorsing the president's prosecution of the war on terror. As policy, the resolution is virtually irrelevant -- it changes nothing. As politics, however, it's a powder keg, a spectacle ready-made for televised attack ads during this fall's campaign season. "When our freedom is challenged, Americans do not run," thundered House Speaker Dennis Hastert, openly baiting his Democratic colleagues. "Stand up for freedom, adopt this resolution."'
Just off the House floor, in the gilded speakers gallery, Majority Leader Boehner passed his time just before Hastert's address by chain-smoking his Barclay cigarettes with a small crowd of reporters. When asked how he thought the debate would shape the 2006 elections, Boehner kept his cards close to his well-cut suit. "That's irrelevant to me at this point," he said. "This is the biggest issue in America, and the House of Representatives, the people's house, has a responsibility to debate this issue."
Boehner appeared to have a different view on the politics of Iraq earlier this week. On Tuesday, he sent out a memo to his Republican colleagues advising them to "conduct this debate as a portrait of contrasts between Republicans and Democrats." The memo continued with a call to paint Democrats as defeatists who are not "dedicated to victory" and who lack "a coherent national security policy." In the memo, Boehner even quoted 1960s Democratic President John Kennedy as an example of the high standards of 21st century Republican principles: "The cost of freedom is always high, but Americans have always paid it."
This apparently got the goat of Rep. Rahm Emanuel, of Illinois, who is orchestrating the 2006 campaign for House Democrats. When Emanuel stood up to speak his piece, he quoted his own Kennedy passage about the cost of liberty, before declaring, "Democrats will never put American service members in harm's way without a plan and without support. For that, you need to sit and watch the complacency of the Republican Congress."
This sort of tit-for-tat, at a level that would embarrass most high school debating teams, continued throughout the day. Both sides deftly demeaned each other, stopping just short of hurling spitballs, epithets or wagging their tongues. Pennsylvania Rep. John Murtha took the lead in providing an unending stream of depressing facts and statistics about the war in Iraq. Electricity and oil production are down, he said, while the number of daily attacks, the monthly price tag and the estimated size of the insurgency were all growing. "This is rhetoric," he announced, after one Republican had given his statement. "Things are not getting better."
Hastert, meanwhile, opted for more R-rated fare in an effort to prove that, in fact, things had improved in Iraq. Under Saddam Hussein, Hastert said, "School girls were raped. Iraqi patriots were thrown alive into meat grinders."
For his part, Walter Jones chose to avoid the whole ordeal. "I don't want to give any credibility to what I think is a charade. My two minutes, maybe three, is not going to change anything," he told me in the morning. When called for a vote, he said he planned to vote "present." "It is not an honest debate," he explained. "If it was an honest debate I would vote one way or the other."
Before leaving his office, I asked him what it would take for the House to have a real debate about policy in Iraq. He paused a moment, and then appeared embarrassed by the answer. "I don't want to say this because I'm a Republican," he began. "But if things change, then obviously that could change the rule in the debate."
He was talking about the very real chance that Democrats will retake control of the House on Election Day.
Saturday, June 17, 2006
Records: Press aide knew online chat risks
In Internet and phone chats with someone he thought was a 14-year-old girl, a Department of Homeland Security press aide talked about underage sex, boasted about his job and called President Bush a "liar," according to transcripts released by prosecutors.
Brian Doyle, 56, of Silver Spring, Md., acknowledged his chat room pal — "Ashlynne" — could be a police officer "trapping" him, according to about 400 pages of records released this week. Undercover Polk County sheriff's detectives posed as the girl.
Doyle allegedly wrote that "law enforcement is very good at this ... i have soooo much to lose ... despite your denials that it was rape ... they would prosecute me. and i would go to prison."
Doyle resigned from his job shortly after his April 4 arrest on charges of trying to solicit sex with an underage child. He has pleaded not guilty and is free on $230,000 bond. If convicted on all counts, he could be sentenced to life in prison.
Doyle's lawyer, Barry H. Helfand, said Thursday he hadn't seen the court records and couldn't comment on them. He said Doyle is seeking psychological counseling.
The transcripts say Doyle wrote to the fictitious girl: "hey it is illegal ... and it would be exciting and forbidden ... you are young — illegal — and gorgeous. and it would be great. fun. food, laughter, talk and yes sex."
The transcripts also quote Doyle as saying he met Bush, adding, "nice guy but not a good president ... he is not very bright and it is evident ... bush is a liar ... there were NO weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. total lie to go to war."
After Doyle's arrest, he told detectives he wasn't attracted to children but had explicit conversations as a "kind of a power trip," documents show. He said he never intended to meet with the girl.
Posted by politicalstuff at 12:57 AM
White House Hotheads
By Dan Froomkin
Inspired by my fun-loving colleagues at Wonkette, who are compiling a list of White House Hotties , allow me to put forth today's contenders for the title of White House Hothead.
* There's Tony Snow, who yesterday made a particular mess of things in the White House briefing room.
* There's just-arrived domestic policy adviser Karl Zinsmeister, out with a new interview in which he talks about sex ("it's intense, it's fire"!) and its role in perpetuating what he has previously described as a "morally repugnant" underclass.
* And there's Vice President Dick Cheney making some controversial, unsupported assertions on right-wing talk radio.
Snow on the Rocks
We'll start with Tony Snow, who unleashed what may well have been the most inappropriate answer of his rocky one-month tenure at yesterday's briefing .
Here's a question Snow certainly knew was coming:
"Q Tony, American deaths in Iraq have reached 2,500. Is there any response or reaction from the President on that?"
And here is Snow's initial response:
"It's a number, and every time there's one of these 500 benchmarks people want something."
Yup, they sure do want something. Like maybe some sensitivity to the loss of life from the man speaking on behalf of the White House, for starters.
Snow also apologized yesterday for an earlier stumble: confusing one black congresswoman (Sheila Jackson-Lee, who attended a White House meeting last week) -- with another (Cynthia McKinney, who wasn't even there).
But more importantly, Snow yesterday amply illustrated his emerging -- and highly irritating -- modus operandi: When he doesn't want to answer a question, which is often the case, he either pleads ignorance or gets argumentative -- or both. And an increasingly common tactic: Demanding that reporters define the terms that he himself has just used.
Here's one exchange from yesterday, with Peter Baker of The Washington Post:
"Q Tony, the investigation of Karl Rove is now over. Why is it, then, inappropriate for the President of the White House, three years later, to finally give us some sort of explanation or assessment, judgment, of Karl Rove's actions when it had nothing to do with the Libby trial?
"MR. SNOW: Because, as you know, there is -- well, they may have. There is talk that he may be called . . ."
Rove played an important role in the leak of Valerie Plame's identity, but publicly denied it through then-press secretary Scott McClellan and in television interviews.
Pressing on, Baker noted that "Scott McClellan has nothing to do with the Libby trial, [Rove's] conversation with ABC News has nothing to do with the Libby trial.
"MR. SNOW: Well, that's fine. I will continue my statement first. I can't give you any texture or background on the Scott/Karl stuff, because I wasn't here. But the President made it pretty clear that a lot of this stuff -- and as you know, Peter, once you get up on the stand, and Karl may be called to the stand -- they can ask about anything.
"And so it is our view that we're simply not going to get involved in making comments on something that may be brought to trial, when Scooter Libby is still under indictment and is going to go to trial with the special prosecutor."
Baker of course was correct. His question had nothing to do with the Libby trial. But he moved on:
"Q Let me ask a general question then. In 2000, the President said it wasn't enough to simply not be indicted in the White House, that he had a higher ethical standard. Is that, in fact, still the ethical standard --
"MR. SNOW: Yes.
"Q -- or, in fact, should we interpret from his comments yesterday that as long as you're not indicted, everything is fine?
"MR. SNOW: Apparently, you've indicted Karl.
"Q No, I'm asking a question.
"MR. SNOW: And yes, the answer is, the ethical standard still applies.
"Q And what is the ethical standard?
"MR. SNOW: You tell me."
But the capper had to be Snow's obstinate obfuscation of the administration's position on permanent military bases in Iraq -- a highly contentious and significant issue.
According to Agence France Presse , Snow had addressed the issue quite directly at the off-camera morning gaggle: "At a morning exchange with reporters, spokesman Tony Snow said it was 'wrong' to say that the United States planned to keep troops in Iraq forever, even after Iraqi security forces are up and running.
"Prodded about the construction of permanent military facilities in the war-torn country, Snow replied: 'No permanent bases. Don't have permanent bases anywhere.' "
Sounds clear, huh? But when Hearst columnist and White House gadfly Helen Thomas brought the issue up again at the briefing, Snow was pugnatiatuis and equivocal.
"Q Would you like to reaffirm what you said earlier today, that the U.S. wants no permanent bases in Iraq?
"MR. SNOW: Well, I think -- let me -- because -- can you define what a permanent base is?"
At the end of the exchange, the administration's position was as unclear as ever.
On Tuesday, Peter Baker wrote in The Washington Post: "While most White House aides carefully trim their public commentary, they can't take back what they said before arriving in the West Wing, and few in this day and age arrive with a more provocative paper trail than Karl Zinsmeister, who started his new job yesterday. . . .
"A review of years of articles reveals a formidable thinker with a powerful sense of what he considers right and wrong. As Zinsmeister sees it, racial profiling by the police makes sense; the military, if anything, treats terrorist suspects too gently; and casual sex has led to wrecked cities, violence and 'endless human misery.' In a 'soft, often amoral, and self-indulgent age,' he warned, some children 'will be ruined without a whip hand,' and he assured that 'things generally go better with God.' . . .
"For Zinsmeister, provocation has been his stock in trade."
Yesterday, another interview with Zinsmeister emerged, adding to a portrait of a firebrand with an outright contempt for both the upper and lower classes of American society. And his contempt for the lower class, in particular, seems intertwined with his passionate interest in sex as a social issue.
In an interview with Ben Wattenberg on PBS's "Think Tank" show, taped before Zinsmeister was named to his high-level White House post, Zinsmeister also acknowledges that he "used to be a Marxist," but now, "if I had to put myself in any label I'd say I'm a militant middle American advocate."
Zinsmeister tells Wattenberg that "family breakdown . . . is the root not only of our poverty problem; it's the root of our crime problem, the root of our drug problem; it's the root of many of our social pathologies."
And he traces the family breakdown, at least in part, to one of his favorite topics: Sex. (Also see his April 2006 article on the topic.)
About sex, he tells Wattenberg: "It's something -- it's intense; it's fire. It drives people to insanity. . . . People fall in love with prostitutes. People kill prostitutes. All kinds of things happen in the heat of sexual passion, so my point is because it's fire it needs to be governed and treated with respect and treated carefully."
And, he says: "An awful lot of what we've been talking about earlier in this show, you know, family structure and crime rates and poverty levels grow directly out of sexual choices."
Just after Bush appointed Zinsmeister to his post, Josh Gerstein of the New York Sun reported that Zinsmeister had altered his own quotes in a Syracuse New Times profile of him, when he re-posted it on his own magazine's Web site.
One of the key quotes Zinsmeister changed was this one: "People in Washington are morally repugnant, cheating, shifty human beings."
Here's the "Zinsmeistered" version: "I learned in Washington that there is an 'overclass' in this country stocked with cheating, shifty human beings that's just as morally repugnant as our 'underclass.' "
But the second version may be an even more shocking and inappropriate thing for the White House's chief domestic policy advisor to say.
As one of my readers, Seth Green, e-mailed me at the time: "Personally, I am much more offended by his describing as morally repugnant all of the 'underclass' (generally a reference to the poor) than describing 'people in Washington' (which can legitimately, if not literally, be read to refer only to politicians) in that way."
Vice President Cheney, who consents to interviews almost exclusively with right-wing talk-show hosts these days, used Sean Hannity yesterday to put forth some highly contestable assertions, some new, some old, knowing he wouldn't be forced to support them.
The White House kindly transcribed the interview and e-mailed it to the press corps.
A new assertion, as reported by Agence France Presse : "Cheney said that the war in Iraq was 'in part responsible' for the absence of terrorist attacks in the United States since the September 11, 2001 strikes."
The full quote: "Iraq was a safe haven for terrorists, it had a guy running it who had started two wars, who had produced and used weapons of mass destruction. Taking down Saddam Hussein was exactly the right thing to do.
"It's also, I think, in part responsible for the fact that we haven't been hit again in nearly five years. That's no accident. The fact is, we've taken the battle to the enemy. That's been the key to the safety and security of the American people these last few years, and we need to continue to do it."
That's quite a claim -- but does he have any evidence to back it up? Hannity certainly didn't ask for any.
An old assertion, as reported by Jonathan Weisman and Charles Babington in The Washington Post: "Vice President Cheney weighed in, taking note of [Sen. John F.] Kerry's statement earlier this week urging fellow Democrats who joined him in authorizing force in 2002 to acknowledge that the war is a mistake. 'I'm not surprised at John Kerry switching his position yet again,' Cheney said on Sean Hannity's radio talk show. Kerry is charging 'that somehow he was misled,' the vice president said. 'He wasn't misled. He saw the same intelligence all the rest of us saw. He knew what an evil actor Saddam Hussein was.' "
But of course it's been repeatedly established that members of Congress did not get to see the same intelligence as Bush and Cheney -- not even close. Just for example, as reported by Murray Waas in the National Journal in March, there was a "classified one-page summary of a National Intelligence Estimate, specifically written for Bush in October 2002. The summary said that although 'most agencies judge' that the aluminum tubes were 'related to a uranium enrichment effort,' the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research and the Energy Department's intelligence branch 'believe that the tubes more likely are intended for conventional weapons.' " Not only did Congress never get to see it, but the White House still doesn't want to acknowledge it existed.
Hannity didn't challenge Cheney's assertion, of course. And Greg Sargent , who writes the American Prospect's blog on political coverage, slams The Post for printing it without debunking it.
The War Over the War
Congress was debating the war yesterday, in a carefully scripted exercise directed by the Republican leadership.
Weisman and Babington write how the House Republicans were "bolstered by a 74-page document drafted by the White House and distributed by the Pentagon, replete with talking points, quotations and timelines to back administration policy."
Al Kamen writes in The Washington Post about how Traci Scott, who works in the Pentagon's legislative affairs office, sent that document out to the wrong mailing list -- one which included Democrats.
Liz Marlantes writes for ABC News: "Thursday afternoon, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) sent a letter to Rumsfeld complaining that his office had spent 'taxpayer dollars to produce partisan political documents.' Lautenberg also suggested that the document may have violated laws prohibiting the Executive Branch from using taxpayer dollars for lobbying and propaganda activities.
"The Pentagon later said the document was produced by the National Security Council -- but did not offer an explanation as to why it was sent out by the Office of the Secretary of Defense."
Americablogger John Aravosis Web-publishes the document .
Froomkin on the Radio
I'll be on Washington Post Radio shortly after 2 p.m. today.
Olivier Knox reports for AFP: "World leaders showered US President George W. Bush in 2004 with gifts including guns, cases of wine and one 'Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook,' the US State Department reported.
"Brunei's Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah gave Bush the $15 paperback guide -- which teaches readers how to escape a mountain lion or killer bees and 'How to Take a Punch' -- as well as DVDs of the classic movies 'Singing in the Rain' and 'To Kill a Mockingbird,' it said. . . .
"Hungarian Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy gave Bush a braided brown leather whip, worth $125."
Brendan Murray and Ryan J. Donmoyer write for Bloomberg: "The vice president of China gave his U.S. counterpart, Vice President Dick Cheney, an out-of-print copy of Sun Tzu's 'The Art of War,' valued at $3,600."
The Smoking Gun Web site has an annotated list.
The Bush presidency is apparently making Bill Clinton's look better by contrast, and Bush's father's look worse by association.
Jeffrey M. Jones writes for Gallup News Service: "A new Gallup Poll finds a significant increase in Americans' judgments of Bill Clinton's performance as president, as well as significant declines in reviews of the elder George Bush. Most other recent presidents' ratings have not changed in the last four years. John F. Kennedy remains the most positively rated of the former presidents tested, while Richard Nixon gets the lowest marks."
Rove on the Internet
Before his public appearance Monday night at a Republican fundraiser in New Hampshire, Rove gave an interview to the conservative VictoryNH.com Web site. One topic that came up was the Internet.
Rove: "I do also think that the Internet has proven to be a more powerful tool on our side than it has been for the other side. It has proven to be a tool on our side to sort of unite Conservatives and have a healthy intra-movement dialogue. But it's essentially been something that has helped us gain in influence and broaden our appeal. Among Democrats, my sense is that the blog world has tended to strengthen the far Left of the Democratic Party at the expense of liberal, but somewhat less liberal, members of their party. It has tended to sort of drive their party even further to the Left rather than focusing on good ideas that would help unite people around common goals and common purposes. Instead, the Internet for the Left of the Democratic Party has served as a way to mobilize hate and anger -- hate and anger, first and foremost, at this President and Conservatives, but then also at people within their own party whom they consider to be less than completely loyal to this very narrow, very out-of-the-mainstream, very far Left-wing ideology that they tend to represent.
"VNH: How do you see this affecting the next couple of cycles?
"Rove: You know, I don't know! Again, we're sort of feeling our way along. I do think the Internet is going to continue to be an enormously powerful tool for organization, which we're now only beginning to understand and apply. I think it's going to have a huge impact upon providing alternative means by which people collect political information on which they make decisions -- particularly talk radio on our side and the Internet on both sides. But again, and maybe I'm just too optimistic about it, I think it's going to tend to strengthen the Conservative movement because our focus is so much on ideas; and where, by nature, our movement is optimistic and forward-looking and, if you will, progressive: How can we help expand freedom and democracy? How can we expand markets? What are the game-changing reforms that we can build into public policy that will strengthen the power of the individual over their own lives and destiny? I think that's where our focus is. I think the Democrat focus, or at least the Internet blog world focus, if you will, is, 'How can we punish our enemies and express our anger?' "
The Union Leader on Rove
The fiscally conservative Manchester Union Leader was not impressed by Rove's visit to New Hampshire: "Karl Rove might not have lied to special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald about his role in publicly identifying CIA employee Valerie Plame, but he told one heck of a whopper when he stopped in Manchester on Monday.
"Speaking of what separates Democrats from Republicans, President Bush's top political adviser said, 'They're for more spending. We're for less spending.'
"Republicans for less spending? Less than what?"
A Winning Decision
Bush yesterday signed a proclamation designating 140,000 square miles of sea and uninhabited islands northwest of Hawaii a national monument, affording federal protection for the home of 7,000 marine species.
The New York Times editorial board raved: "An unfamiliar but highly appealing side of President Bush showed itself at the White House yesterday. . . . Mr. Bush made exemplary use of presidential power yesterday. We hope he does more of it.
The Washington Post editorial board raved: "Mr. Bush's action offers an exciting example of assertive action to put essential areas beyond further human destruction."
Cartoonist Tom Toles was less impressed.
Late Night Humor
Jay Leno, via Agweb : "The sad part of President Bush's trip, he's so unpopular, he had to sneak back into this country."
Posted by politicalstuff at 12:54 AM
Land Deal Gives Hastert 300% Profit
Rhonda Schwartz Reports:
Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R-IL) realized an estimated $2 million dollar profit last year on an Illinois land deal that included acreage near a future interstate highway Hastert pushed to build.
The land was sold just five months after Hastert inserted a $207 million appropriation bill for the Prairie Parkway highway during a closed-door Congressional budget conference.
The deal, representing a 300 per cent return on investment, was reported in Hastert's financial disclosure form filed this week, although the role of a secret trust set up by Hastert to sell the land was not disclosed.
A spokesman for Hastert, Ron Bonjean, confirmed the details, which were first reported by Bill Allison of the Sunlight Foundation, an on-line political watchdog group. The Speaker's spokesman said land in the Plano, Illinois area is "booming," and the future highway had no impact on the price.
Hastert and partners sold the land to developers who plan a large residential sub-division about five miles from the new highway.
Local citizens fighting the highway project were outraged to learn of the Hastert deal. "I think he clearly has his own personal interest and not the public's by buying and selling land to developers for personal profit, when it has a negative long-range effect on the community," said Jan Strasma, head of community group Citizens Against the Sprawlway.
Hastert's spokesman said that Hastert had been a proponent of the highway for 20 years, and there was nothing improper in the deal.
According to Hastert's disclosure form and county property records, a 69-acre parcel was put into a trust, Little Rock Trust #225, on May 2, 2005.
Two months later, in July 2005, Hastert pushed the highway appropriation bill through a conference committee.
On Aug. 6, 2005 President Bush appeared with Hastert at a ceremony in Illinois to celebrate the new highway's funding.
On Dec. 7, 2005 the trust sold the parcel of land to the developers.
The spokesman said, for tax reasons, Hastert used part of his $2 million profit to buy a 275-acre farm in Wisconsin that Hastert intends to use as a future retirement home.
Posted by politicalstuff at 12:50 AM
Here is the beginning of my post.
Agency: Cities not prepared for disasters
By LARA JAKES JORDAN, Associated Press Writer
New Orleans is still woefully unprepared for catastrophes 10 months after Hurricane Katrina, and the two cities targeted by the 9/11 attacks don't meet all guidelines for responding to major disasters, a federal security analysis concluded Friday.
Ten states were rated in a Homeland Security Department scorecard as having sufficient plans to respond to disasters: Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New York, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Vermont.
Florida, accustomed to being whipped with hurricane winds, was the only state to meet all of the department's basic requirements for planning for catastrophes. Response plans for Louisiana, still devastated from hurricanes Katrina and Rita, were deemed insufficient to manage huge emergencies.
The shortcomings in emergency planning, including antiquated and uncoordinated response guidelines, are cause "for significant national concern," Homeland Security's analysis concluded.
President Bush ordered the review of state and city emergency plans in a visit to New Orleans last Sept. 15, weeks after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city. The report analyzes response and evacuation procedures for all 50 states, the nation's 75 largest cities and six U.S. territories.
The analysis is based on a complicated scorecard for each state and city, rating their plans for evacuations, medical care, sheltering of victims, public alerts and other emergency priorities.
More than half of New Orleans' plans — 58 percent — were described as insufficient to respond to catastrophes, and only 4 percent met the minimum federal guidelines.
New York and Washington, al-Qaida's targets on Sept. 11, 2001, received lukewarm ratings. Seventy-one percent of New York's emergency plans were described as only partially sufficient. In Washington, 67 percent of the plans were deemed partially sufficient and 2 percent insufficient.
Despite sending $18 billion in Homeland Security grants to spur local preparedness since 9/11, "very little of it has gone to planning, training and exercise," said department undersecretary George Foresman.
The report found that the 18 hurricane-prone states, from Maine to Texas, appeared to be better prepared for disasters than the rest of the country.
Those states hugging the Atlantic and Gulf coasts were judged by peers to have emergency plans "that were more likely to be rated sufficient ... than other states," the review noted. Plans by Hurricane Belt states to manage resources, health and medical issues and communications were noticeably stronger, it found.
Similarly, cities in these states also were more likely to be prepared to issue warnings, manage resources, distribute emergency public information and mass care.
But there was a major exception: The cities were judged comparatively not sufficient in planning for evacuations.
The review is the latest in a series of government and expert analyses since Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29. Nearly all have found preparedness levels lacking for large-scale disasters. The Sept. 11 commission and other panels also have found shortcomings in preparedness for another terrorist attack.
The latest report was released as the Senate sent Bush a $94.5 billion emergency spending bill that included funds for new aid for Gulf Coast hurricane victims.
The review noted several failings on the federal government's part, citing a need for clearer guidance and up-to-date preparedness data to state and local officials. It also urged better collaboration with private businesses to help evacuate disabled people and with charities and other non-governmental services to stockpile aid for disaster victims.
On the Net:
Homeland Security Department: http://www.dhs.gov/dhspublic/
Posted by politicalstuff at 12:47 AM
Friday, June 16, 2006
US military deaths in Iraq hit 2,500
By Fredrik Dahl and Omar al-Ibadi
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The number of U.S. military deaths in Iraq has reached 2,500, the Pentagon said on Thursday, and the military warned it expected the new leader of al Qaeda in Iraq to continue the bloody tactics of his slain predecessor.
Tens of thousands of Iraqis have also been killed since the U.S.-led invasion more than three years ago to overthrow Saddam Hussein, igniting an insurgency by his once-dominant Sunni Arab minority that is showing little sign of easing.
The U.S. military said it believed the real identity of al Qaeda's new leader in Iraq was Egyptian-born Abu Ayyub al-Masri who would adopt the same methods as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
Zarqawi, blamed for a campaign of beheadings and suicide bombings that has killed hundreds of civilians, was killed in a U.S. air strike north of Baghdad on June 7.
"Our initial assessment is that (Masri) will probably continue on the same tactics and techniques that Zarqawi did," said Major General William Caldwell, a U.S. military spokesman.
U.S.-led and Iraqi forces have killed more than 104 "anti- Iraqi elements" in hundreds of raids since the death of the Jordanian-born militant, a U.S. statement said.
On a day when at least 24 Iraqis lost their lives in five separate incidents, an Iraqi official said the security forces had seized documents giving key information about the militant group's network and its leaders in the country.
"We believe this is the beginning of the end of al Qaeda in Iraq," national security adviser Mowaffaq al-Rubaie said.
Rubaie said earlier this year the insurgency against the U.S.-backed, Shi'ite-led government had been defeated.
In Thursday's bloodiest attack, gunmen stopped a minibus taking 10 laborers to work in Baquba, forced them to get off and killed them, police in the town north of Baghdad said.
Reuters Television footage showed the dead men lying on stretchers in blood-soaked clothes. "Is this Islam? Is this Islam?" the father of one victim wailed.
Further west, attackers opened fire on a Sunni Arab mosque near Tikrit, Saddam's home city, killing four worshippers.
In the northern town of Tal Afar, which President Bush has held up as an example of progress in Iraq, three roadside bombs killed five Iraqi soldiers.
Al Jazeera television said an Iraqi group, the Imam Ali Battalion, had kidnapped a Turkish technician and his translator north of Baghdad and given Turkey a week to withdraw its envoy from Baghdad.
In Washington, the Pentagon said 18,490 U.S. troops had been wounded in the war, which began in March 2003. On an average day, about two U.S. military personnel are killed.
"Any president who goes through a time of war feels very deeply the responsibility for sending men and women into harm's way, he feels very deeply the pain that the families feel," White House spokesman Tony Snow said.
"One of the things the president has said is that these people will not die in vain."
About 50,000 Iraqi troops, backed by 7,000 U.S.-led troops, launched a crackdown in Baghdad this week aimed at putting pressure on insurgents in a city that sees daily carnage.
Analysts say al Qaeda militants, though behind some of the bloodiest attacks, only make up about 5 percent of insurgents, which are dominated by Saddam loyalists.
"The government is on the attack now ... to destroy al Qaeda and to finish this terrorist organization in Iraq," Rubaie said.
A copy of one of the seized documents, whose authenticity could not be independently verified, did not mention al Qaeda or give specific information about any planned attacks.
Instead, it suggested ways insurgents could counter U.S. raids and propaganda, for example by infiltrating Iraq's armed forces, recruiting new members and manufacturing more weapons.
It also said the best way to get out of "the crisis" was to foster conflict between the United States and another country, like Shi'ite Iran, and by stirring U.S.-Shi'ite tension in Iraq.
Al Qaeda has vowed to fight on and its new leader in Iraq, which it has named as Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, vowed in a Web statement on Tuesday to avenge Zarqawi's death.
The name rang few bells and the U.S. military said the new leader was probably Masri, who it says trained in Afghanistan and formed al Qaeda's first cell in Baghdad.
(Additional reporting by Will Dunham in Washington and by Michael Georgy and Ibon Villelabeitia in Iraq)
Posted by politicalstuff at 1:44 AM
Thursday, June 15, 2006
The New York Times
Judge Rules That U.S. Has Broad Powers to Detain Noncitizens Indefinitely
By NINA BERNSTEIN
A federal judge in Brooklyn ruled yesterday that the government has wide latitude under immigration law to detain noncitizens on the basis of religion, race or national origin, and to hold them indefinitely without explanation.
The ruling came in a class-action lawsuit by Muslim immigrants detained after 9/11, and it dismissed several key claims the detainees had made against the government. But the judge, John Gleeson of United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, allowed the lawsuit to continue on other claims, mostly that the conditions of confinement were abusive and unconstitutional. Judge Gleeson's decision requires top federal officials, including former Attorney General John Ashcroft and Robert S. Mueller III, the F.B.I. director, to answer to those accusations under oath.
This is the first time a federal judge has addressed the issue of discrimination in the treatment of hundreds of Muslim immigrants who were swept up in the weeks after the 2001 terror attacks and held for months before they were cleared of links to terrorism and deported. The roundups drew intense criticism, not only from immigrant rights advocates, but also from the inspector general of the Justice Department, who issued reports saying that the government had made little or no effort to distinguish between genuine suspects and Muslim immigrants with minor visa violations.
Lawyers in the suit, who vowed to appeal yesterday's decision, said parts of the ruling could potentially be used far more broadly, to detain any noncitizen in the United States for any reason.
"This decision is a green light to racial profiling and prolonged detention of noncitizens at the whim of the president," said Rachel Meeropol, a lawyer for the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represented the detainees. "The decision is profoundly disturbing because it legitimizes the fact that the Bush administration rounded up and imprisoned our clients because of their religion and race."
A spokesman for the government, Charles S. Miller, would not respond to those assertions, saying only that the Justice Department was "very pleased that the court upheld the decision to detain plaintiffs, all of whom were illegal aliens, until national security investigations were completed and plaintiffs were removed from the country." He said the government was reviewing the rest of the opinion to decide whether to appeal the rulings Judge Gleeson made to allow the plaintiffs' other claims to proceed.
In his 99-page ruling, Judge Gleeson rejected the government's argument that the events of Sept. 11 justified extraordinary measures to confine noncitizens who fell under suspicion, or that the attacks heightened top officials' need for government immunity to combat future threats to national security without fear of being sued.
But his interpretation of immigration law gave the government broad discretion to enforce the law selectively against noncitizens of a particular religion, race or national origin, and to detain them indefinitely, for any unspecified reason, after an immigration judge had ordered them removed from the country.
"The executive is free to single out 'nationals of a particular country' and focus enforcement efforts on them," the judge wrote. "This is, of course, an extraordinarily rough and overbroad sort of distinction of which, if applied to citizens, our courts would be highly suspicious."
Yet, he continued, the Supreme Court has repeatedly held that Congress and the executive branch, in exercising their broad power over naturalization and immigration, can make rules that would be unacceptable if applied to American citizens.
In the judge's view, the government has the right to detain people indefinitely as long as their eventual removal is "reasonably foreseeable." If that interpretation stands, it could apply to millions of noncitizens, including tourists removable for visa violations, said Gerald L. Neuman, a law professor at Columbia who is an expert in human rights law and was not involved in the case.
"It doesn't seem to limit the motives the government has to have in being slow in removing them; it could even be just basic neglect," he said.
But Professor Neuman cautioned that "it's only a district judge's decision."
"The decision encourages the government to behave this way without fear of financial liability," he said, but it does not carry the weight of a ruling by an appellate court. "This interpretation is attackable even among other judges in Brooklyn, let alone Lower Manhattan."
But David Cole, a law professor at Georgetown University and a co-counsel in the lawsuit, said the ruling was the only one of its kind and made New York "an equal protection-free zone" because the government can detain immigrants wherever it chooses.
"What this decision says is the next time there is a terror attack, the government is free to round up every Muslim immigrant in the U.S., based solely on their ethnic and religious identity, and hold them on immigration pretexts for as long as it desires," he said. "We saw after 9/11 what the government did in an era of uncertainty about how far it can go. Judge Gleeson has essentially given them a green light to go much further."
The class-action lawsuit, Turkmen v. Ashcroft, is the first and largest of several brought by immigrants held after 9/11. The named plaintiffs in the case include former detainees who came back to the United States this year for depositions and were required to be in the custody of federal marshals at all times. Among them were Hany Ibrahim, a deli worker, and his brother, Yasser, a Web designer, Egyptian Muslims who said then that putting themselves back in the hands of the government they were suing was an act of faith in America.
Yesterday, Yasser Ibrahim, who had lived in New York for three or four years on an expired tourist visa and was delivered in shackles to the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn soon after Sept. 11, said through his lawyers that he was shocked and very disappointed by the judge's decision.
"I can't believe the court would allow this to happen," he said." I am frightened for other Muslims in the United States, who could face the same discrimination and abuse that I suffered."
Posted by politicalstuff at 1:21 AM
Democrats promise more oversight if they win House
By Andy Sullivan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democratic lawmakers said on Wednesday that they would investigate spending in Iraq and require government agencies to comply with accounting rules if voters give them control of the House of Representatives in November's elections.
"The American people deserve to know how their tax dollars are spent," Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, of California, said at a news conference.
Pelosi and other Democrats have begun to lay out the agenda they will enact if they win control of the House in November, an outcome political analysts say is possible.
Democrats highlighted a recent report by the Government Accountability Office that found that most federal agencies do not live up to federal accounting standards and cannot fully explain how they spend their money.
A bill introduced by California Rep. Dennis Cardoza would force agency heads who don't produce a clean audit within two years to appear before the Senate for reconfirmation.
"There is no business in America that would be run the way this country is being run," said Tennessee Rep. John Tanner, like Cardoza a member of the Blue Dogs coalition of centrist Democrats. "The books are so fouled up we can't tell what's going on."
Democrats also said that they would set up a committee to make sure that money given to private companies for support operations in Iraq is spent responsibly.
Other elements of the House Democrats' agenda include raising the minimum wage, making college tuition deductible from taxes, and negotiating lower drug prices for Medicare's prescription-drug program.
New York Republican Rep. Tom Reynolds said in a press release that the Democratic agenda contained no new ideas.
"What Minority Leader Pelosi is calling an agenda today is nothing more than a rehashing of the failed, tax-and-spend liberal policies of the past," said Reynolds, who as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee is responsible for holding on to the Republican majority.
Posted by politicalstuff at 1:19 AM
Top Bush policy adviser leaving White House
By JoAnne Allen
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - One of President George W. Bush's top policy advisers and former chief speechwriter, Michael Gerson, is stepping down to pursue other opportunities, a White House spokesman said on Wednesday.
Gerson was Bush's chief speechwriter during the president's first term and was promoted to policy and strategic adviser in 2005. He had been crafting major speeches for Bush since joining the former Texas governor's presidential campaign in 1999.
Gerson, listed as one of the 25 most influential Evangelical Christians in America by Time magazine last year, is credited with helping Bush give voice to his "compassionate conservative" philosophy, a central theme of his presidential campaigns.
"It is compassionate to actively help our fellow citizens in need. It is conservative to insist on responsibility and on results. And with this hopeful approach, we can make a real difference in people's lives," Bush said in an April 2002 speech in California.
Two years later, Bush returned to the theme in his acceptance speech to the Republican National Convention.
"I am running with a compassionate conservative philosophy: that government should help people improve their lives, not try to run their lives," Bush said.
A White House spokesman said Gerson announced he would be leaving the administration to write and pursue policy work.
"He's been one of the president's closest advisers and he's starting a new chapter in his life after serving his country and this president for seven years," spokesman Ken Lisaius said.
The Washington Post said Gerson planned to step down in the next couple of weeks.
Gerson will be the latest Bush aide to depart in recent months. Chief of Staff Andrew Card, press secretary Scott McClellan and Treasury Secretary John Snow have all stepped down as part of a major shake-up designed to revive the Bush administration as it struggles with slumping approval ratings.
Posted by politicalstuff at 1:15 AM
Senate rebuffs Bush on war budgeting
By Vicki Allen
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate voted unanimously on Wednesday to force President George W. Bush to submit a budget for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars instead of financing them in emergency bills that are pushed through Congress with minimal scrutiny.
As Congress prepared to pass an emergency bill with $65.8 billion the Pentagon urgently wanted for the wars, the Senate voted 98-0 to end the practice and make the administration lay out the wars' expected costs in its annual budget submitted to Congress in February.
The vote came on an amendment to legislation spelling out defense policies for next year that is expected to trigger a broader debate on Iraq. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts said he would push an amendment calling for the withdrawal of U.S. troops by the end of this year, while other Democrats are considering measures calling for a phased withdrawal.
Including the latest emergency bill, the wars' cost will reach $420 billion, said Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican who sponsored the amendment.
"We're adding hundreds of billions to conveniently named emergency expenditures" that do not have to be accounted for in the budget, he said.
The amendment would only apply to war spending and would allow additional emergency Pentagon spending with justification.
The House of Representatives passed its version of the defense authorization bill in May without a similar measure to end the war supplementals.
Democrats and a number of Republicans have complained that the administration has sought to conceal the mounting red ink caused by the wars and diminish Congress' role in budget decisions by rolling the war spending into periodic supplemental bills.
Because the emergency bills are not offset by spending cuts, they add to the burgeoning federal debt.
The administration has resisted putting war spending through the regular budget process, arguing that the uncertainty of war means it cannot foresee many costs.
"The White House has shown no sign that it will take the fiscally responsible course of beginning ... to budget for the cost of the wars," said Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee that oversees federal spending.
McCain has frequently complained that the war supplementals
-- nine since the September 11, 2001, attacks -- have become vehicles for billions of dollars in spending on lawmakers' pet projects. Routine military spending also increasingly has crept into the emergency bills, he said.
Bush threatened to veto the Senate's version of the latest emergency bill that had swelled by $14 billion beyond the $94 billion Bush wanted for the wars and for rebuilding in the hurricane-ravaged U.S. Gulf Coast. But lawmakers trimmed the costs in a House of Representatives-Senate negotiation.
Posted by politicalstuff at 1:14 AM
NY Daily News
2 top schools cheat students on AP test fees
BY ERIN EINHORN
DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITER
Two of the city's most elite high schools - Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Tech - cheated their poorest students out of thousands of dollars by wrongly charging them for Advanced Placement exams, investigators revealed yesterday.
A third top school, Bronx High School of Science, made the same mistake, but gave refunds to kids after discovering the error, its principal said.
Bronx Science's decision was in stark contrast to Brooklyn Tech, where Principal Lee McCaskill - who quit his job amid an unrelated scandal in February - allegedly said refunding students' money would be too difficult.
"I was horrified," said Peggy Blau, the Brooklyn Tech administrator who blew the whistle on McCaskill - launching a probe by special schools investigator Richard Condon.
"For many of these kids, [test fees] are a tremendous hardship, especially in their senior year when they have many expenses like ... the prom, the ring, the yearbook. To add to that a couple of hundred dollars for AP exams when they can't afford them is criminal."
A high score on the tests can translate into college credit for many students. To make sure all kids can afford to take the exams, the state has a program to subsidize the $52 fee for low-income students.
Last year, Blau already had collected fees from her students when she learned the state had written a check directly to the test maker for her low-income kids. When McCaskill refused to refund the money to the kids, she reported him, she said.
Investigators said Brooklyn Tech owes $76,678 to low-income students who have taken 1,511 exams since 2002. At Stuyvesant, kids are owed $71,000 for tests taken since 2002, Condon said.
A Stuyvesant administrator told investigators that the school needed the cash to pay for exam chairs and proctors.
Stuyvesant officials referred questions yesterday to city Education Department spokeswoman Margie Feinberg, who said all eligible students will get refunds.
"We will make sure that this doesn't happen again," Feinberg said.
Bronx Science Principal Valerie Reidy already had started issuing refunds. "We caught it on our own," she said. "We've issued about 200 checks."
McCaskill resigned in February after an investigation by Condon's office found that the principal had lied under oath and forged documents in a failed bid to hide his New Jersey address so his daughter could attend a city school.
McCaskill did not return calls yesterday.
Posted by politicalstuff at 1:12 AM
Wednesday, June 14, 2006
Strapped States Try New Route, Lease Toll Roads To Foreign Firms
By Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
ELKHART, Ind. -- Its official state motto is "the crossroads of America." Yet Indiana is about to turn over its entire toll road for the next 75 years to two foreign companies, making it more expensive to drive.
The decision to hand the Indiana Toll Road to an Australian and Spanish team for $3.8 billion at the end of this month has blown up into one of the biggest brawls here in a generation. It has unsettled the state's politics in the months before the November elections, pitting a governor who was President Bush's first budget director against the people of northern Indiana, which the highway passes through.
The decision also places Indiana at the leading edge of a nascent trend in which states and local governments are exploring the idea of privatizing parts of the United States' prized interstate highway system. The idea goes beyond projects, such as Northern Virginia's Dulles Greenway, in which states have turned to private companies to build or widen toll roads. Now, they are considering selling or leasing some of the best-known and most-traveled routes across America.
The trend started 1 1/2 years ago, when Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley (D) pushed through a 99-year lease of the Chicago Skyway, nearly eight miles of elevated highway across the South Side, for $1.8 billion.
Since then, a New Jersey lawmaker has proposed selling a 49 percent interest in the New Jersey Turnpike and the Garden State Parkway. New York Gov. George E. Pataki (R) is trying to persuade the legislature to let investors rebuild or replace the Hudson River's Tappan Zee Bridge. In Houston, Harris County officials are studying leasing 57 miles of toll roads.
Locally, Virginia transportation officials announced last month that they would lease a debt-ridden toll road outside Richmond, the Pocahontas Parkway, to a private firm for $522 million.
Half a century after President Dwight D. Eisenhower persuaded the nation to build the interstate highway system, the allure of privatization is a rethinking of the relationship between the government and its roads. It reverses the view of highways as a public responsibility, ingrained since the first half of the 19th century, when states took over roads, bridges and canals that had gone bankrupt in private hands.
The Bush administration advocates the new view. "We are like a poker game," Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta said in an interview. "We are inviting more people to the table and saying, 'Bring money when you come.' " Such eagerness for private investment stems from the financial strains on an overburdened highway system at a time when the White House and the Republican-controlled Congress want to curb domestic spending. The interstate system is decaying, and traffic congestion has worsened. Inflation in the price of building and improving roads is rampant.
Most significantly, money from federal and state gasoline taxes that pay for roads are falling further behind the need, with no political appetite in an era of record gas prices to increase the rates. According to U.S. projections, the part of the federal Highway Trust Fund devoted to roads is to run out of money for the first time in its history in 2009.
In response, the administration persuaded Congress last summer to take steps to make it easier for the private sector to finance new roads -- and take over existing ones. Lawmakers removed several legal barriers to charging tolls on interstates and gave private investors new access to tax-free bonds for transportation projects.
Mineta has been urging U.S. financial institutions to get involved. "This type of dialogue really didn't exist two years ago," said Mark Florian, a managing director at Goldman Sachs Group Inc., which was paid $19 million to negotiate the Indiana deal and has discussed similar possibilities with officials in more than 35 states.
Still, skepticism abounds: Will companies take good care of highways? Will toll roads become too expensive to drive? Will investors pluck profitable routes, leaving others to crumble? What will happen to public toll-road workers -- including 600 in Indiana who have been promised interviews by the new operators, but not the same job?
In Elkhart, resistance to such change runs deep. At a rest stop here on a recent day -- at Milepost 77 near the midpoint between Illinois and Ohio -- both Indiana drivers and interstate truckers were almost uniformly against what the state has done. "I heard that foreigners were going to lease it, and that sounds like a bad deal to me," said Kreig Eberle, 36, a truck driver from Chillicothe, Ill., who uses the toll road nearly every day. "I think it is kind of baloney. Indiana ought to run it itself."
Dankia McLaren, 22, a kitchen designer from nearby South Bend, said: "It is sad. . . . It is just going to make it more expensive to drive."
The passionate opposition has astonished the architect of the deal, Gov. Mitchell E. Daniels Jr. (R), Bush's first budget director.
Daniels said he had his "little epiphany" about the toll road in 2004, after he returned from Washington and was campaigning for governor. At a barbecue in rural western Indiana, a veteran of the state highway department came over and said: "You understand it's a joke, don't you."
The joke, he told Daniels, was that the state for years had a list of promised transportation projects that would never be built. Running on a platform of economic development, Daniels immediately viewed a roads program as a means of creating jobs and attracting business to spur Indiana's sagging economy.
Soon after taking office last year, the governor ordered his staff to compute the price of the pent-up projects -- $2.6 billion more, it turned out, than the state could afford -- and propose ways to pay for them. Of more than 30 options, Daniels said in an interview, generating money by leasing the 157-mile Indiana Toll Road was the only "real bold stroke that could substantially close this huge gap."
In the shower one morning, he came up a name for his plan: "Major Moves," borrowed from the title of a Hank Williams Jr. country song. The governor announced Major Moves in September, saying the state was open for bids on the toll road to raise money for a 10-year transportation plan.
Late in January, he invited legislators, builders, manufacturers, mayors and trade union leaders to his office in Indianapolis to disclose that the winning bid was $3.85 billion, more than enough to fund the state's road projects. The crowd burst into applause. "Everybody thought, that was that," Daniels recalled. "We can stop dreaming and start digging all these big projects."
But, Daniels had not anticipated what he calls "the x-word" -- for xenophobia -- or the protests or the bumper stickers that say, "Keep the Toll Road, Lease Mitch."
"This was an authentic, spontaneous, very emotional reaction," the governor said, "and no interest group caused it."
The proposal stirred up one of the biggest fights the Indiana legislature had ever seen, with rallies and expensive media campaigns on both sides, and the governor unable to change minds at jammed town hall meetings in communities along the toll road where opposition was most fierce.
"Never in my legislative career will I ever again be faced with a [bill] quite like this," said the chief sponsor, state Rep. Randy Borror (R) of Fort Wayne, who walked the statehouse with thick notebooks filled with figures showing how much transportation money each legislator's district would get from the plan.
The winning bidders were Macquarie Infrastructure Group of Sydney, the same firm that controls the Dulles Greenway, and Cintra Concesiones de Infrastructures de Transporte S.A. of Madrid. Under the lease, the companies got the right to raise tolls -- which have not been increased in two decades -- for cars and trucks right away, and eventually to keep pace annually with inflation. The 103-page lease spells out the companies' responsibilities in meticulous detail, including clearing snow and road kill within specified times, and granting state police the right to patrol.
Steve Allen, Macquarie's chief executive, said the company, which operates toll roads in nine countries, has an incentive to improve the highways to attract more drivers. Since it took over the Chicago Skyway, he said, the company has built electronic toll booths sooner than required and made lane changes that reduce backups.
Indiana legislators were not reassured. Daniels and his allies made big compromises: extra money for each county along the toll road, a postponement of higher rates for cars until electronic tolls are installed, job-training money for economically depressed Gary. Even so, the plan passed the state House by one vote.
Three months after the legislation squeaked through, feelings remain raw.
"The whole thing stinks," said state Rep. B. Patrick Bauer, the House Democratic leader. The two companies, he said, "got a heck of an unbelievable deal. We got a bad deal."
Daniels's approval ratings have plummeted, from about 50 percent early last winter to 37 percent in the most recent polls. Borror said the issue "complicates the election" for state legislators in November.
"There are going to be a lot of states that fail at this," Borror said, "because they underestimate the amount of work it takes to get this bill passed." Even so, Daniels said, "I don't believe we'll ever [again] be able to do any one thing that will be as transformative and positive for the future of this state."
Posted by politicalstuff at 1:16 AM
FEMA funds spent on divorce, sex change
By LARRY MARGASAK, Associated Press Writer
The government doled out as much as $1.4 billion in bogus assistance to victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, getting hoodwinked to pay for season football tickets, a tropical vacation and even a divorce lawyer, congressional investigators have found.
Prison inmates, a supposed victim who used a New Orleans cemetery for a home address, and a person who spent 70 days at a Hawaiian hotel all were able to wrongly get taxpayer help, according to evidence that gives a new black eye to the nation's disaster relief agency.
Federal investigators even informed Congress that one man apparently used FEMA assistance money for a sex change operation.
Agents from the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, went undercover to expose the ease of receiving disaster expense checks from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The GAO concluded that as much as 16 percent of the billions of dollars in FEMA help to individuals after the two hurricanes was unwarranted.
The findings are detailed in testimony, obtained by The Associated Press, that is to be delivered at a hearing Wednesday by the House Homeland Security subcommittee on investigations.
To dramatize the problem, GAO provided lawmakers with a copy of a $2,358 U.S. Treasury check for rental assistance that an undercover agent got using a bogus address. The money was paid even after FEMA learned from its inspector that the undercover applicant did not live at the address.
"This is an assault on the American taxpayer," said Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, chairman of the subcommittee that will conduct the hearing. "Prosecutors from the federal level down should be looking at prosecuting these crimes and putting the criminals who committed them in jail for a long time."
FEMA spokesman Aaron Walker said Tuesday that the agency, already criticized for a poor response to Katrina, makes its highest priority during a disaster "to get help quickly to those in desperate need of our assistance."
"Even as we put victims first, we take very seriously our responsibility to be outstanding stewards of taxpayer dollars, and we are careful to make sure that funds are distributed appropriately," he said.
FEMA said it has identified more than 1,500 cases of potential fraud after Katrina and Rita and has referred those cases to the Homeland Security inspector general. The agency said it has identified $16.8 million in improperly awarded disaster relief money and has started efforts to collect the money.
The GAO said it was 95 percent confident that improper and potentially fraudulent payments were much higher — between $600 million and $1.4 billion.
The investigative agency said it found people lodged in hotels often were paid twice, since FEMA gave them individual rental assistance and paid hotels directly. FEMA paid California hotels $8,000 to house one individual — the same person who received three rental assistance payments for both disasters.
In another instance, FEMA paid an individual $2,358 in rental assistance, while at the same time paying about $8,000 for the same person to stay 70 nights at more than $100 per night in a Hawaii hotel.
FEMA also could not establish that 750 debit cards worth $1.5 million even went to Katrina victims, the auditors said.
Among the items purchased with the cards:
_an all-inclusive, one-week Caribbean vacation in the Punta Cana resort in the Dominican Republic.
_five season tickets to New Orleans Saints professional football games.
_adult erotica products in Houston and "Girls Gone Wild" videos in Santa Monica, Calif.
_Dom Perignon champagne and other alcoholic beverages in San Antonio.
_a divorce lawyer's services in Houston.
"Our forensic audit and investigative work showed that improper and potentially fraudulent payments occurred mainly because FEMA did not validate the identity of the registrant, the physical location of the damaged address, and ownership and occupancy of all registrants at the time of registration," GAO officials said.
FEMA paid millions of dollars to more than 1,000 registrants who used names and Social Security numbers belonging to state and federal prisoners for expedited housing assistance. The inmates were in Louisiana, Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and Florida.
FEMA made about $5.3 million in payments to registrants who provided a post office box as their damaged residence, including one who got $2,748 for listing an Alabama post office box as the damaged property.
To demonstrate how easy it was to hoodwink FEMA, the GAO told of an individual who used 13 different Social Security numbers — including the person's own — to receive $139,000 in payments on 13 separate registrations for aid. All the payments were sent to a single address.
Likewise, another person used a damaged property address located within the grounds of Greenwood Cemetery in New Orleans to request disaster aid. Public records show no record of the registrant ever living in New Orleans.
Instead, records indicate that for the past five years, the registrant lived in West Virginia — at the address provided to FEMA, the GAO said.
Posted by politicalstuff at 1:13 AM
New York Observer
A Shameful Silence
On Coulter’s Spewing
By: Joe Conason
With the predictable regularity of a locust plague, Ann Coulter and her enablers at the once-reputable firm of Random House have issued yet another volume of fascistic entertainment. Now the hard-drinking, trash-talking, fortysomething bachelorette bills herself as a Christian moralist, in holy battle against the liberal heathens.
That whiff of brimstone in the air may only be the match she is striking for her next cigarette.
But her version of “Christianity” turns out to be a strangely modern and convenient faith, which encourages heaping scorn on bereaved widows, bearing false witness against them on television and publicly gloating over the ill-gotten profits thus attained. Leaving behind the golden rule of the Gospels to “do unto others as you would have them do to you,” she embodies a new rule of gold: You can never be too rich, too thin or too vicious.
Too vicious, however, is the only way to categorize Ms. Coulter’s attempted assassination of the 9/11 widows known as the Jersey Girls, whom she accuses of “enjoying” the horrific deaths of their husbands in the World Trade Center inferno. She harangues them as “broads,” “witches” and “millionaires,” guilty of being “self-obsessed” and “reveling in their status as celebrities” while they are “lionized on TV and in articles about them.”
Coming from an energetic publicity seeker like Ms. Coulter, who still whines bitterly about her elongated cover shot in Time magazine, those insults are an exercise in self-parody.
She goes on to complain that the widows, by telling their personal stories of loss, were able to shut down their critics with sentimentality. But that charge too is obviously false, since she is now reaping profits and publicity by savaging them. She is also a hypocrite, having freely brandished the name of her late friend Barbara Olson, tragically killed on 9/11, to lend impact to her own arguments.
The truth about the Jersey Girls—Kristen Breitweiser, Patty Casazza, Mindy Kleinberg and Lorie van Auken—is that they loved their husbands deeply, of course. They and their children continue to suffer from the loss that Ms. Coulter so heartlessly mocks. The truth is that in their suffering, these courageous women joined with other widows and family members to demand a serious investigation of 9/11. Together, they organized, researched and lobbied for thousands of hours to win the appointment of an independent commission, against the determined political opposition of the White House. The truth is that their success was an important victory for every American, without regard to party or ideology, and a vindication of grassroots democracy. The nation owes them all a debt of gratitude.
What is most disturbing about this episode is not that these women can be victimized by a brutal bully like Ms. Coulter, nor even that the mainstream media, which abandoned traditional standards of fairness and decency years ago, would eagerly assist her. That is our hideous political culture. What is most disappointing is the abject dereliction of the prominent politicians who worked so closely with the Jersey Girls.
John McCain and Joseph Lieberman, the Senate sponsors of the bill that created the 9/11 Commission, both believed that an independent investigation was essential for reasons of honor and national security. They both know that they could not have prevailed against the White House—and the Republican Congressional leadership—without the help of the widows.
In the fall of 2002, when their bill passed the Senate and the House, Mr. McCain acknowledged the efforts of the widows and their comrades. “I also want to put in a special word for the families,” he said after thanking his fellow statesmen. “Without their unstinting support and efforts, we would not be where we are today.”
In the summer of 2004, when the commission’s reform recommendations were debated, Mr. Lieberman praised all of the 9/11 families, including a special acknowledgment for the Jersey Girls. “I continue to be awed and inspired by your ability to turn your personal tragedies into better public safety for this nation,” said the Connecticut Senator.
And in the fall of 2005, when Mr. McCain needed citizen support for his worthy amendment to ban torture in the war against terrorism, the Jersey Girls rallied to his cause. He was glad enough of their support then.
But that was then, and this is now—and these two pious politicians remain silent in the face of a malevolent attack visited on their erstwhile friends. Both men know that it is a lie to call these women partisans or profiteers. Both know that these women—and the families they helped to lead—brought honor and purpose to a legislative process that is often petty and corrupt.
Shame on the silent Senators. And please, let’s hear no more from either of them for a while about tolerance, respect and decency.
Posted by politicalstuff at 1:11 AM
Christians Who Want Democracy Must Stop Bowing to a Dictator Christ
Whereas American theology was born out of a hope for democracy, much of it is wedded to a picture of Christ as a benevolent dictator. Should we be surprised that a hierarchical cosmology would produce hierarchical churches and nations? Should we be surprised that religious nations that picture Christ as a loving dictator have produced conquistadors, inquisitors and crusaders?
What else could they produce? As the tree is, so shall be the fruit.
The word “Lord” was not in the original Bible. It is an English word from feudal times. Whereas the Greek word “kurios” had a range of meanings, from a title of respect, to a title of leadership, to a name for the sacred, the English translation “Lord” refers specifically to a male European land baron. Many people have softened that interpretation in their own minds, but in times of great stress, such nuance falls away and many Christians seek a white male king. He may be called “Pope”, he may be called “the decider President,” he may be called “televangelist,” but the title only masks what he is, a benevolent (or not so benevolent) dictator.
Neither Calvin nor Luther spoke English, but they helped the Popes lay the groundwork for the view of God as a cosmic dictator. From Popes, Luther and Calvin we have some of the ugliest slurs ever recorded against women, intellectuals, and those who refused the church’s message. How did Christians hold slaves, oppress women and slaughter nonbelievers? Perhaps they could not see Christ in non-male, non-European, and non-Christian people because they were limited by their theology. Their “Christ” was merely a glorification of the most powerful member of their own culture.
To picture God in terms of power is also one of the great bait and switch gimmicks of all time. People within the power hierarchy proclaim that God is the ultimate authority, and then appoint themselves as God’s interpreters and enforcers. They are God’s humble bullies. It has been one of the most successful con games of all time.
The real Jesus was born illegitimately. He called himself “the human one.” Just like Buddha, his authority came from truth, not power. He taught whoever has love has God. He said those who work for the common good are his church.
The real Jesus was an anarchist. He spent his life refusing to claim power over anyone. He said that God is understood in terms of love not power. We add nothing to the majesty of “the human one” by adding a throne or a crown. If he did not want to rule over others in life, why should he want it in death? That is why Jesus is called “lamb of God,” he spoke not as the king of the universe, but from its heart.
If you want to know why Americans are so frightened and why we are attacking anything that would challenge our dominance over others, read the Bible. Like Cain we have murdered members of our human family. Even when we silence our victims, the ground beneath our feet cries out against us.
Today’s church lifts its arms to praise Christ wearing liturgical garments woven in sweatshops. So called “Christian America” is still a nation built on the work of slaves. We do not see them because they toil invisibly in other countries. Today’s church doles out bits of charity from booty stolen from God’s powerless people the world over. Anyone who claims to believe in a just God, or even in justice itself, has to know at some level that the prayers for liberation coming from third world countries will be heard and answered. At some level, people of faith have to know that unless America repents of the sin of empire we are a doomed nation.
Whatever prophetic voices survive in the church must take a message to the mainstream denominations. “We are guilty of our leaders’ crimes. Just because we are silent and passive does not mean that we are innocent. If we have any status in the power hierarchy, we are partially responsible for its misdeeds.”
I realize that most of the church consists of wonderful and compassionate people, but that does not matter if we turn over our power to those less charitable. The moderate mainstream church is helpless against fundamentalism because it is built on a nuanced version of the same cracked foundation of a theology of power.
Whether or not we can change America in time to avoid a political and ecological apocalypse, it is never too late to do the right thing. All of us can begin to plant seeds of a better future for our children’s children. For Christians today, that means suffering the consequences of refusing to bow to the dictator Christ of this culture.
Posted by politicalstuff at 1:08 AM
US 'biggest global peace threat'
People in European and Muslim countries see US policy in Iraq as a bigger threat to world peace than Iran's nuclear programme, a survey has shown.
The survey by the Pew Research Group also found support for US President George W Bush and his "war on terror" had dropped dramatically worldwide.
Goodwill created by US aid for nations hit by the 2004 tsunami had also faded since last year, the survey found.
The survey questioned 17,000 people in 15 countries, including the US.
The latest in a series of annual polls by the Pew Global Attitudes Project interviewed respondents between 31 March and 14 May 2006.
Its release coincides with a surprise visit by President George W Bush to Baghdad in an effort to shore up support for US policy in the region.
The latest survey shows the worldwide reputation of the US continues to suffer over its prosecution of the "war on terror".
Sharp declines in the public perception of the US were particularly apparent in India, Spain and Turkey.
Goodwill towards the US had fallen from 71% to 56% in India, from 41% to 23% in Spain and from 23% to 12% in Turkey.
A majority of people in 10 of the 14 countries outside the US surveyed said the war in Iraq had made the world a more dangerous place.
Some 60% of people in the UK, which is the US biggest ally, felt the Iraq war had made the world less secure, while some 30% said it had made the world safer.
According to the survey:
* Worldwide support for the "war on terror" has remained the same or declined
* European confidence in Mr Bush has sunk even lower than it was last year
* A majority of people in most countries feel the US will not achieve its goals in the "war on terror"
The survey also found little remaining evidence of the goodwill the US had earned over its aid for victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
In Indonesia, a major recipient of US tsunami aid, favourable opinions of the US had fallen from 38% in 2005 to 30% this year.
"Last year we saw some good news in countries like Russia and India," Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Centre, told the Associated Press news agency.
"That good news being wiped away is a measure of how difficult a problem this is for the United States."
According to the survey, people in the US and Europe have grown increasingly concerned in the last year over Iran's nuclear programme.
The US has accused Iran of seeking to build a nuclear bomb - but Iran says its nuclear programme has a purely civilian objective.
Almost half of the Americans surveyed, 46%, viewed the current government in Iran as a "great danger" to stability in the Middle East and to world peace - a figure that has risen from 26% in 2003.
In Germany, Spain, France and the UK, the percentage of people who regard Iran as a great danger is roughly three times greater than it was three years ago.
However, the poll showed public opinion in predominantly Muslim countries was far less troubled by Tehran's nuclear programme.
Muslim people also appeared less concerned than Europeans and Americans by the victory of the Hamas militant group in Palestinian elections earlier this year.
The survey found concern over bird flu was largely confined to Asia, while two-thirds of people surveyed in each country said they were worried by global warming.
Concern over the greenhouse effect was highest in India and Japan and lowest in the US and China.
The survey interviewed people in China, Egypt, France, Germany, Great Britain, India, Indonesia, Japan, Jordan, Nigeria, Pakistan, Russia, Spain, Turkey and the US.
Its margin of error was two to six percentage points.
Story from BBC NEWS:
Posted by politicalstuff at 1:06 AM
EU-US "partners in crime" on CIA flights: Amnesty
By Ingrid Melander
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Amnesty International urged European states on Wednesday to stop being "partners in crime" with the United States over the alleged kidnapping of terrorism suspects and their transfer to countries that use torture.
In a report and a letter addressed to EU leaders meeting on Thursday and Friday in Brussels, the human rights groups backed accusations that the U.S. Central lntelligence Agency ran secret transfer flights and that European countries were aware of it.
"There is irrefutable evidence of European complicity in the unlawful practice of renditions," Amnesty said in the letter.
"The European Council must therefore put a resolute stop to the attitude of see no evil, hear no evil that has prevailed so far," Amnesty said, referring to the EU summit.
The human rights group urged EU leaders to say in their meeting this week that the so-called rendition flights were "unacceptable" and to make sure their airspace and airports were not used for such flights in the future.
It asked EU leaders to raise the issue with President Bush when they meet him in Vienna on June 21, saying the bloc's credibility was at stake.
Amnesty's report draws largely the same conclusions as those issued by EU lawmakers on Monday, and last week by the Council of Europe, a European human rights watchdog. None produced hard evidence.
Amnesty reports on six suspected cases of CIA abuses in which it says seven countries -- Germany, Italy, Sweden, Britain, Bosnia Herzegovina, Macedonia and Turkey -- have been involved.
All these cases, and eleven others, have already been cited by Council of Europe investigator Dick Marty.
Amnesty does not produce "smoking gun" evidence either. But it says the "converging evidence" should be enough.
"The whole evidence question is overrated, it's a bit cynical," said Dick Oosting, director of Amnesty's EU office, accusing EU states of asking for much less evidence when they criticize abuses in other countries.
Posted by politicalstuff at 1:05 AM
Bush education policy to miss goals: Harvard study
By Jason Szep
BOSTON (Reuters) - U.S. President George W. Bush's signature No Child Left Behind education policy is failing to close racial achievement gaps and will miss its goals by 2014 according to recent trends, a Harvard study said on Wednesday.
It said the policy has had no significant impact on improving reading and math achievement since it was introduced in 2001, contradicting White House claims and potentially adding to concerns over America's academic competitiveness.
Bush's No Child Left Behind Act was meant to introduce national standards to an education system where only two-thirds of teenagers graduate from high school, a proportion that slides to 50 percent for blacks and Hispanics.
The study released by Harvard University's Civil Rights Project said national average of achievement by U.S. students has been flat in reading since 2001 and the growth rate in math has remained the same as before the policy was introduced.
The study follows results last month from the first nationwide science test administered in five years which showed achievement among U.S. high school seniors falling over the past decade -- a time when students in many other developed countries are outscoring U.S. students in science testing.
The Harvard report said only 24 to 34 percent of U.S. students will meet a reading proficiency target by 2014 and 29 to 64 percent will hit a math target under current trends.
Under No Child Left Behind, children in every racial and demographic group in every school must improve their scores on standardized tests in math and English each year. Failure to achieve annual progress can lead to sanctions against schools.
Children in poorly performing schools can switch schools if space is available. In extreme cases, schools can be closed.
But a surge in the number of schools identified as "needing improvement," including many considered top performers in their state, has stirred opposition to the law nationwide -- from a legal challenge in Connecticut to a rebellion by state legislators in staunchly Republican Utah.
U.S. officials counter the reforms are working.
"Across the country test scores in reading and math in the early grades are rising," Deputy Secretary for the Department of Education, Raymond Simon, testified in Congress on Tuesday.
"The 'achievement gap' is finally beginning to close."
That differs from Harvard's study, which predicts less than 25 percent of poor and black students will hit the 2014 target in reading proficiency and less than 50 percent in math, with the overall racial achievement gap barely closing by 2014.
The averages were based on the federal government's National Assessment of Educational Progress, considered the most accurate test for measuring achievement in core subjects.
Posted by politicalstuff at 1:04 AM
Tuesday, June 13, 2006
Redford To Democrats: Show Backbone
WASHINGTON, June 12, 2006(AP)
The Sundance Kid gathered up the nerve to jump off a cliff with Butch Cassidy. Now, he wants Democrats to show similar backbone.
"Democrats need to regain the courage that's lost with political compromises over the last few years," actor and environmental activist Robert Redford said Monday in an interview with The Associated Press. "They've got to get it together. If they don't, it will not only be a tragedy for them, but a tragedy for the country."
The Oscar-winning director was in Washington to discuss energy policy with the liberal group Campaign for America's Future and to present an award to Leo Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers, for his work on energy independence.
Redford addressed the group after Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada made a pitch for using less gasoline and taking global warming seriously. On energy, the actor said the first step is to acknowledge there is a crisis.
"It's hitting a tipping point, but so are the opportunities for solutions," Redford told the group.
Redford said efforts to talk with the Bush administration about energy policy is a waste of time. "Things will really improve when they're out of there, so the next elections are going to be very important," Redford said.
The actor, who turns 70 in August, has starred in numerous films, including "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," "The Way We Were," "Out of Africa," and "All the President's Men." He won an Academy Award in 1980 for his direction of "Ordinary People."
Redford argued that Democrats who take a strong stand are often tarred as radicals, but they're just being reasonable.
"Republicans are not about substance, they're about strategy, and they're good at it," he said. "Democrats could learn a lot from the Republicans about strategy."
Redford, who also starred in "The Candidate," laughed when asked whether he's ever considered running for office. "If you saw that movie, you'd know that I would never enter that field."
During his speech to the Democrats, Redford recalled giving a passionate speech years ago about his political views, leaving the crowd silent. As he departed, someone in the crowd came up to him and asked: "Mr. Redford, did they make you jump off the cliff in Butch Cassidy?"
The crowd on Monday laughed loudly.
Posted by politicalstuff at 2:13 AM
'A Sad Way of Doing Big Science'
Two of the nation's top universities recently announced plans to pursue embryonic stem-cell research. An expert explains why the news is so significant—and so controversial.
By Jennifer Barrett
June 12, 2006 - Last week, Harvard scientists announced that they have begun a privately funded program aimed at creating the world’s first cloned human embryonic stem cells. Their goal, they said, is to use the cells to study the development of several devastating diseases like diabetes and genetic blood disorders and, hopefully, to find treatments for them. Scientists say that embryonic stem cells hold the most promise for developing innovative new treatments for diseases, since the cells may be changed into any of the human body’s cells. But the process is not without controversy. To get the cells, scientists destroy days-old embryos, which religious and conservative critics equate with taking human lives. In 2001, President George W. Bush cut off federal funding for new embryonic stem-cell development and research. So Harvard and the University of California at San Francisco, which relaunched its embryonic stem-cell program earlier this year, must depend on private funding. That’s not the only challenge that U.S. embryonic stem-cell researchers face. Late last year, a South Korean scientist admitted that he had falsified research, after he and his team published a paper in the journal Science claiming to have produced 11 stem cell lines from cloned human embryos—an achievement hailed as a major breakthrough in scientific research (that turned out to be a lie). The admission raised concerns about unethical behavior in the field and calls for additional regulation and restrictions, and made it even more unlikely that federal funds would be restored anytime soon. NEWSWEEK’s Jennifer Barrett discussed the controversy and promise of embryonic stem-cell research with Christopher Thomas Scott, executive director of the Stanford University Program on Stem Cells and Society and author of ''Stem Cell Now: From the experiment that shook the world to the new politics of life," published by Pi Press last November. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: Harvard University and the University of California at San Francisco both announced recently that they will pursue embryonic stem cells research through privately-funded programs. How significant are these announcements?
Christopher Thomas Scott: They’re significant because they are the first indication that embryonic stem-cell research is alive and well in the United States despite those who predicted its death after the South Korean scandal. Second, these are two blue chip organizations. These scientists are very good. You couldn’t have picked a better trio. And at UCSF, they’re building a world-leading stem-cell section. It’s all good news.
The Bush administration cut off federal funds for embryonic stem cell research in 2001. How much do you think that set back efforts to find new treatments for some of these diseases?
I think it has created some fairly pronounced effects, but proving it is another matter. It’s only been five years. My group at Stanford is looking really closely at this. We’ve been collaborating with Jennifer McCormick [a postdoctoral fellow at the Stanford University Center for Biomedical Ethics]. She compared the rate of announcements of new results in he United States against the rate of groundbreaking stem cell papers in other countries and found that, right after the 2001 Bush announcements—and, in particular, in 2004 through 2006—the rate of U.S. new results has started to taper off while the rate in other countries has started to increase. That confirms what a lot of us are kind of suspicious about. I go to a lot of international meetings for stem cell research. In 2002, U.S. scientists were prominent. Now, not so much. It’s folks from Israel, the United Kingdom, Australia, Singapore and China—places where stem cell research is permitted, even encouraged. This is just the first blush of effects of the policy. It will have a bad effect on the inventiveness of U.S. researchers. And new ways of doing research create new ways of doing products that become drugs and therapies for our citizens. If the process is thwarted or retarded, we don’t have the benefit of developing therapies at home. They go somewhere else.
What are the prospects for embryonic stem cell research in the United States now that some institutions are raising private funds?
This will go ahead for sure, despite the federal funds ban. The challenge for biologists is to go ahead, despite the current political environment. The good news is that this has always been a worldwide phenomenon. The world is doing a really good job of collaborating and having meetings and trying to figure it out. The bad news—from an American point of view—is that we may be playing a secondary role with this…I don’t think we’ll see government funding for this of any real sort, which means America in may need to take it state by state. It’s a sad way of doing big science but it may be the only way to get it done.
What exactly will the research at Harvard and UCSF entail?
This is embryonic stem-cell research versus adult. Stanford has both varieties, but we’re not doing nuclear transfer like they are. We’re using embryos donated by parents.
What makes nuclear transfer unique?
Nuclear transfer is a technique that produces lines of cells. One cool thing about it is that these cells can just go on and on and on, so you can keep doing tests. It’s a really nifty system for a laboratory… What Harvard and UCSF and some labs in England are doing is trying to duplicate the South Korean result—or the results the South Koreans lied about, to be more specific. It involves something called `therapeutic cloning,’ but it’s actually nuclear transfer [in which nuclei, which contain the cellular DNA or genes from egg cells, are removed from embryos and replaced with the nuclei of donor cells]. When it’s fully developed, it becomes a clone. That’s how Dolly the sheep was born.
But we’re not talking about cloning babies here, right?
Even saying you’re cloning embryos is a stretch. This is a technique that produces lines of cells. You’re making cells, not animals or babies. You’re harvesting the cells and making a stem cell line… When we’re talking about stem cell research, we’re talking about an embryo at 4 days—about 120 to 150 cells. In other countries, the embryo can be up to 12 to 14 days. But it’s certainly not a baby, or even a fetus.
So what is created?
You can actually create diseases in the lab. If you take the nucleus from a person with diabetes and put it into the egg, you’d have embryonic stem cells with diabetes. That’s what Harvard scientists are aiming for.
Why is embryonic stem cell research such a polarizing subject?
A colleague of mine says that it’s all tied to the embryo—to in vitro fertilization, abortion, and other issues. They’re all kind of wrapped in that moral tangle that conservatives use to drive the social conservative movement in the U.S. If you tease it out—the stem cell research—you can see how weak and thin it [the argument] really is. We’re trying to get people on the same page from a biological perspective, and even a moral perspective. We aren’t talking about an embryo with arms and legs.
Why not just use adult stem cells?
Embryonic stem cells are the most powerful cells we have. They can theoretically change into any cell in the body. That’s why they’ve got everybody so excited. You can have a powerful therapy to treat almost every disease. Adult stem cells have already been programmed to be a certain cell type. Blood stem cells, for example, become nine different kinds like white, red, platelets, etcetera. So they are good for some things, but not all things. Embryonic stem cells, in theory, are good for all things…With embryonic stem cells, you can observe how the cells become diseased as they develop. You can compare the processes of diseased cells to healthy lines, see what’s being turned on and off, how the disease progresses from molecular level. Also, you have model system on which to test drugs. You have a laboratory system for certain diseases—you can actually, in the cultured disease, test chemical agents and other drugs to see if you can interrupt the pathways in the disease.
This isn’t really what’s talked about in the press. The stem cell issue gets everybody so worked up, but these are the near-term horizon goals. It’s just stunning what they could do for medicine.
The Harvard scientists said they hope to develop, via nuclear transfer, embryonic stem cells from patients with blood diseases and diabetes. Why focus on these diseases?
Let’s take diabetes. It is a complicated disease. It’s an autoimmune disease—the white blood cells are attacking healthy organs like the pancreas—so it’s complicated and ugly. You have to figure out a way to repair the autoimmune problem and the pancreas. The theoretical treatment would use a combination of bone marrow transplant therapy and cell therapy for the pancreas.
What would it entail?
You give the patient a dose of chemotherapy and radiation or both, which destroys the cells that are attacking the pancreas, and then you transplant into the patient a healthy immune system—or the blood stem cells from a healthy patient. They are not rejected. Both the patient’s existing blood system and the new one exist in a kind of harmony. So you’ve also got an immune system of somebody else who could be a lifelong donor. Then you use the same source of embryonic stem cells to make new pancreatic cells. Get those to regenerate the pancreas that has been damaged from bad white blood cells. It’s dual therapy—embryonic stem cells can make white blood cells and pancreatic cells. This is a ‘Gee, whiz-oh wow!’ therapy. But it’s very possible that in a decade or so you could do something like this for many diseases in the autoimmune categories, like multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis as well as diabetes.
Aren’t stem cells already being used to treat some diseases?
Yes, adult stem cells are being used in joint repair on the East Coast. Umbilical cord blood cells are being used to actually cure certain childhood cancers successfully. But the problem with umbilical cord blood cells is that very small numbers are good for children, and not so much for adults. We need to find a way to make these cells do well in adults too or find a way to amplify these cells so you can use them in millions of patients.
How do these stem cells work to fight or treat diseases?
Stem cells in bone marrow transplants, for example, are the reason those transplants work. We know that now. It’s helping to improve our success, now that we have more information.
When could we see embryonic stem cells being used in treatment?
Embryonic stem cell therapies are still in the gate. And the first trials are expected to start in the next year or so. There’s a corporation in California, Geron, that’s using a line of embryonic stem cells to help patients with spinal cord injuries, for example. They claim to be able to take the line of stem cells into a special chemical cocktail and then change them to a type of adult stem cell that can be used for therapies.
Posted by politicalstuff at 2:12 AM