Bush Administration To ‘Skim Off Border Patrol Agents’ For Duty In Iraq
During a visit to the U.S-Mexico border last month, President Bush stated that “securing the border is a critical part of a strategy for comprehensive immigration reform.” Yesterday, Bush claimed that his administration had already “stepped up efforts to improve border security,” touting his attempts to “double the size of the Border Patrol.”
Today, however, such commitments ring hollow as Govs. Janet Napolitano (D-AZ) and Bill Richardson (D-NM) have found that the defense contractor DynCorp has been authorized by the Bush Administration to hire as many as 120 “current and former U.S. Border Patrol agents.”
DynCorp “is offering $134,100 for a one-year stay, plus a $25,000 signing bonus,” a reported 70% pay raise. Further, “[t]he first $90,000 in income is tax free, and housing and food are free.”
Richardson and Napolitano both expressed outrage about the plan, saying in a letter to Bush that the plan “makes no sense“:
[A]t a time when violence is once again flaring up on our own border, it makes no sense for the United States State Department to empower a company to hire away as many as 120 veteran Border Patrol agents to serve as mentors to train Iraqis… We should be focused on supporting our nation’s security efforts along the Mexican and Canadian border instead of hampering [the Border Patrol] by sending our best agents to a war zone in Iraq.
The Bush administration’s attempts to “skim off Border Patrol agents” for duty in Iraq is made worse in light of the recent decision to withdraw half of the 6,000 National Guard troops temporarily stationed at the border.
The Bush administration had promised to replace the Guardsmen with an “equal number of new Border Patrol agents,” but “fewer than 350 new agents have been hired.”
Saturday, May 26, 2007
Bush Administration To ‘Skim Off Border Patrol Agents’ For Duty In Iraq
Bush Ignored Senate’s Pre-War Intelligence Warning of Post-War Fiasco
Yesterday, a White House correspondent candidly asked Bush why the American people should trust him as “a credible messenger on the war,” in light of the major mistakes he has made since first invading Iraq:
Q: The majority in the public, a growing number of Republicans, appear not to trust you any longer to be able to carry out this policy successfully. Can you explain why you believe you’re still a credible messenger on the war?
BUSH: I’m credible because I read the intelligence, David.
Today, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released pre-war intelligence that warned the Bush administration in early 2003 that invading Iraq could create massive internal strife, giving extremist groups like al Qaeda new opportunities to expand their influence.
The U.S. intelligence community’s pre-war clairvoyance is notable. While there was originally no link between al Qaeda and Iraq, they accurately predicted how a U.S. invasion would ignite Islamic sentiment against the U.S., allowing terrorists networks like al Qaeda to resurge elsewhere and disrupt regional stability. Some highlights of the report:
“A stable democratic government in postwar Iraq would be a long, difficult, and probably turbulent challenge.”
“Al Qa’ida probably would see an opportunity to accelerate its operational tempo and increase terrorist attacks during and after a U.S.-Iraq war.”
“Rogue ex-regime elements could forge an alliance with existing terrorist organizations or act independently to wage guerilla warfare against the new government or Coalition forces.”
“A US-led defeat and occupation of Arab Iraq would boost proponents of political Islam and would result in ‘calls for the people of the region to unite and build up defenses against the West.’”
“Funds for terrorist groups probably would increase as a result of Muslim outrage over US action.”
But like several other reports, the Bush administration dismissed these predictions. “The committee also found that the warnings predicting what would happen after the U.S.-led invasion were circulated widely in government, including to the Defense Department and the Office of the Vice President.”
Four years after the invasion, these predictions have become reality. Al Qaeda is resurging in Afghanistan and Pakistan, partly funded by allies in Iraq. Anti-U.S. sentiment in the Middle East continues to rise.
Does Bush really “read the intelligence“?
Read the intelligence report HERE.
Q: After the mistakes that have been made in this war, when you do as you did yesterday, where you raised two-year-old intelligence, talking about the threat posed by al Qaeda, it’s met with increasing skepticism. The majority in the public, a growing number of Republicans, appear not to trust you any longer to be able to carry out this policy successfully. Can you explain why you believe you’re still a credible messenger on the war?
BUSH: I’m credible because I read the intelligence, David.
Posted by politicalstuff at 1:03 AM
CBS Exposes Bush Admin’s ‘Outrageous Delay’ In Providing Marines With Bomb-Resistant Vehicle
While President Bush has been busy politically demagoging funding for the troops, CBS Evening News highlighted a disturbing report tonight that the administration waited over a year before acting on a “priority 1 urgent” request to send blast-resistant vehicles to Iraq, the so-called Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles.
Calling it “an outrageous delay,” CBS noted, “The Marines in the field asked for 1,200 MRAPs in February 2005 — but so far, they’ve received less than 100.” The report also noted that the problem is widespread and systemic:
A Marine Corps document obtained by the Associated Press says that of 100 requests for critical gear sent in last year, less than 10 have been filled. It blames red tape and the failure of bureaucrats to take risks.
“Unnecessary delays cause … deaths and injuries,” the document says — and nowhere is it more true than with MRAP.
For American troops in Iraq, the heavy-duty armored vehicle has proven to be a life-saver. As a testament to MRAP’s effectiveness, top Marine commander Gen. James Conway said recently, “We have yet to have a Marine killed in the al Anbar Province who is riding inside an MRAP.” He added, “How do you not see it as a moral imperative to get as many of those vehicles to theater as rapidly as you can?”
As AmericaBlog noted, the Marine Corps lied about why it had failed to fulfill the urgent request for the priority equipment, claiming it was not “a budgetary decision” when internal documents prove that it was.
In an open letter to President Bush, Sen. Joseph Biden (D-DE) urged the administration to publicly make MRAP production a national priority. He wrote, “How is it possible that with our nation at war, with more than 130,000 Americans in danger, with roadside bombs destroying a growing number of lives and limbs, we were so slow to act to protect our troops? … We need to know how and why this happened so that it does not happen again.”
At least 1,419 U.S. soldiers have been killed by roadside bombs in Iraq.
Posted by politicalstuff at 12:55 AM
U.N. expert faults U.S. on human rights in terror laws
By Evelyn Leopold
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The United States apparently violated international law in its military tribunals by using coercion to extract confessions and writing counter-terrorism laws that restrict immigration on questionable grounds, a U.N. investigator said on Friday.
But Martin Scheinin of Finland, a U.N. rapporteur on rights in countering terrorism, said his findings for the Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Council did not mean the "the United States has become an enemy of human rights."
"It is a country which still has a great deal to be proud of," especially in exercising freedom of the press, Scheinin said in a 12-page preliminary report on a 10-day visit to the United States. His full report will be presented to the Council later in the year.
But U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad rejected the allegations, saying, "We have a different point of view."
"We are doing this under U.S. laws and procedures and legitimate decision-making authorities that exist in the United States," he said. "We are a rule of law country and our decisions are based on the rule of law."
Scheinin spoke to officials from departments of Homeland Security, Defense and Justice, members of Congress, academics and nongovernmental groups. But he did not go to the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, because he was not allowed to interview prisoners in privacy.
Still, he said reports that information was obtained from terror suspects using "enhanced interrogation techniques" amounted to a form of torture or inhumane treatment that is illegal under international law, particularly the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights treaty the United States signed.
His report said the prisoners detained by the military at Guantanamo had been categorized by the United States as alien "unlawful enemy combatants," which Scheinin called a "description of convenience" since there is no such category under international law.
They are either combatants to be released at the end of a conflict as prisoners of war, or people who have to be charged with war crimes and prosecuted accordingly, usually in civilian courts, he said.
In Guantanamo, he said, even an acquittal by a military commission "does not result in a right of release."
"This further undermines the principles of fair trial and would, if immediate release was not provided in an individual case, involve an arbitrary detention in contravention" of the treaty, he said.
Scheinin also criticized several U.S. laws, including the 2001 Patriot Act, enacted by Congress after the September 11 attacks on the United States, for expanding the definition of terrorist acts "beyond the bounds of conduct which is truly terrorist," and tightening immigration restrictions based on the expanded definitions.
Scheinin said his visit supported suspicions that the CIA has flown terrorism suspects from Afghanistan or Iraq to countries where they could face abuse and torture under "extraordinary rendition."
Posted by politicalstuff at 12:53 AM
Friday, May 25, 2007
A Carbon-Neutral House?
Plan Would Offset Emissions By End of Current Congress
By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
A plan by the House to become carbon-neutral by the end of this Congress calls for dropping coal from the fuel mix burned at the Capitol Power Plant to heat and cool House buildings.
"Carbon-neutral," the environmental buzzword of the climate change generation, means measuring the amount of carbon dioxide generated by a home or business in the course of daily operations and finding ways -- through conservation, recycling or use of renewable energy -- to offset it.
House Chief Administrative Officer Dan Beard, who was directed in March by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to devise a strategy to make the House side of the Capitol carbon-neutral, said yesterday that burning natural gas at the power plant instead of coal would go a long way toward reducing the House's carbon emissions.
The power plant, four blocks from House office buildings, has burned coal since it opened in 1910 and is the only coal-burning facility in the District. Carbon dioxide from coal burning is a significant greenhouse gas. Attempts over the years to drop coal from the fuel mix at the plant have been stymied by coal-state Sens. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
Because the power plant is owned by Congress, the House cannot unilaterally ban coal; it can only control the fuel used to heat and cool its buildings.
Despite its name, the Capitol Power Plant has not produced a watt of electricity since 1952; the Capitol complex buys its power from Pepco. Instead, the plant generates steam and chilled water to heat and cool the Capitol, the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress and 19 other structures. Coal accounts for 49 percent of its output; the rest is generated by natural gas and oil.
The daily operation of the House of Representatives, its cafeterias and offices generated 91,000 tons of greenhouse gases in 2006 -- equal to the annual emissions of 17,200 cars.
About two-thirds of that pollution came from electricity the House buys and one-third from the Capitol Power Plant, Beard said.
For the House to go carbon-neutral, Beard is devising a four-point plan.
First, and already underway, is an effort to cut electricity use by converting all 12,000 desk lamps in House office buildings to compact fluorescent bulbs and installing dimmers.
Next, the House expects to buy all its electricity from renewable sources such as wind and solar through an arrangement with Pepco, Beard said. And if the House replaces coal with natural gas at the power plant, it can reduce its annual carbon emissions by 75 percent. To get rid of the remaining 25 percent and become carbon-neutral by 2010, the House could either buy offset credits or invest in conservation projects, Beard said.
One project in which the House may invest is a system under study at the National Zoo that would convert animal waste into fuel, Beard said.
The costs to the House of going carbon-neutral -- buying all electricity from renewable sources, replacing coal with natural gas, investing in offsets -- are still being fine-tuned but will be part of recommendations Beard will deliver to Pelosi by June 30.
But the House is just one part of the equation.
A recent study by the Government Accountability Office found the House accounts for about 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions produced by the entire legislative branch. When the Senate and various support agencies are added in, about 316,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions were created in fiscal 2006. That's equivalent to the emissions produced by about 57,455 cars.
Last month, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) filed legislation to require the entire Capitol complex to be carbon-neutral by 2020. He has been particularly concerned about the Capitol Power Plant.
"It's time the Congress starts to walk the walk when it comes to fighting climate change and saving energy," Kerry said when he filed the bill. "The very plant that fuels our offices and the Capitol is contributing to high levels of pollution and affecting families who live in the city. We need to lead by example on the environment by setting a bold goal of making our Capitol and Congress energy efficient and fighting for clean coal and renewable sources of energy. . . . In the shadow of the nation's Capitol, we should expect more than a dirty power plant that pollutes the air and our communities."
Kerry's bill does not specify the actions that should be taken but talks about a combination of energy efficiency, conservation and using both "onsite and offsite" renewable sources of energy. He does not call for a ban on coal from the power plant but talks about a preference for "clean coal."
Frank O'Donnell, president of the Clean Air Watch, an environmental watchdog group, said the lawmakers are taking steps in the right direction, but he is skeptical that meaningful changes will be made.
"As long as the Capitol Power Plant is still burning a substantial portion of coal, it's hard to believe that these plans will be successful," he said. "It's almost a microcosm of the entire problem of global warming -- Congress is having a debate but not willing to take on the biggest problem in their own back yard because of the connections of several senators, namely Robert Byrd and Mitch McConnell. It's almost as if Tony Soprano had a seat in the Senate to demand that plant burn coal as it did in 1910."
Posted by politicalstuff at 12:58 AM
Mystique of 'America's Mayor' Tarnished
9/11 Firefighters, Families Protest Giuliani's Rise
By RICK KLEIN
The mystique of "America's mayor" shows signs of fraying.
The nation's largest firefighters' union is planning to send out 280,000 videotapes attacking former New York Republican Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and his pre-9/11 record -- including his decision to place New York City's emergency operations center in the World Trade Center before Sept. 11, 2001.
9/11 Families, Firefighters Protest Against Giuliani
In recent months, families of 9/11 victims have planted themselves outside Giuliani fundraisers, and several critical books and documentaries have been released.
Reports have emerged sharply questioning Giuliani's response to the 9/11 attacks, with critics portraying a bullying mayor who, in his zeal for a quick cleanup, brushed aside health concerns about the air at ground zero.
And Giuliani's former emergency management director, Jerome Hauer, is now a prominent Giuliani critic, questioning the former mayor's handling of the turf wars that divided the police and fire departments before 9/11.
"In terms of preparedness, response and leadership, Rudy fell down," said Jeff Zack, a spokesman for the International Association of Fire Fighters, which is preparing the video for distribution to its members.
"Rudy has created an image of himself that he likes to expand upon: that he's the hero of 9/11," Zack said. "And it's not true, especially from the point of view of the firefighters who lived through that day and the families of those who died on that day."
The Giuliani campaign casts the accusations as politically motivated attacks.
While they concede that mistakes were made in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, they express confidence that voters will stick with the image of a strong Giuliani they have in their minds.
"There are groups that for political reasons are going to criticize, but Mayor Giuliani is focused on how the American people can tackle the terrorists' war on us,'' said Maria Comella, a campaign spokeswoman. "There are millions of people around the world who saw the mayor's strong leadership for themselves in the days surrounding Sept. 11."
Firefighters Endorsed Kerry in 2004
Giuliani campaign aides note that the firefighters' union has long closely aligned itself with Democrats. And the campaign issued a statement from a retired New York firefighter, Lee Ielpi, defending the mayor's record.
"It should be no surprise that a politically motivated attack is coming from union leaders who backed John Kerry for president in 2004," Ielpi said. "The sentiments expressed in this video are out of step with the IAFF's membership -- clearly there's a difference between the rank-and-file members and these union leaders."
Raising questions about Giuliani's leadership on and around 9/11 threatens to undercut the central rationale for his candidacy: that he understands the nature of terrorist threats and has shown strong leadership during the worst attack the nation has ever experienced.
Aftermath of 9/11
Yet as Giuliani's campaign has heated up, new revelations continue to pour out.
Wednesday, New York City's medical examiner -- for the first time -- linked ground zero dust to the death of someone who inhaled it: a 42-year-old woman whose office was a block away from the World Trade Center and died five months after the attack.
The Democratic National Committee Thursday cited that fact to argue that Giuliani did not do enough to protect firefighters and other workers at the site.
"The more Americans learn more about Rudy Giuliani's poor decision-making after 9/11 and his role in this tragedy, the more they will question his ability to lead the country," said Karen Finney, a spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee, though the woman who died did not work on the rescue operations.
The Giuliani campaign also pointed out that the former mayor did mandate that Ground Zero workers wear respirators, a point confirmed by city reports filed in the months after 9/11.
"I don't think it's right to blame Rudy Giuliani for what's going on here," Joe Lhota, former New York Deputy Mayor for Operations said on MSNBC last week. "What I think we need to focus on are the people who did work there, who did come down here to work with the rescue effort and the cleanup effort, that we take care of them now."
One strategist for a rival campaign said the other Republicans in the race have an incentive to highlight areas where Giuliani's 9/11 record is less than stellar, though he acknowledged that all candidates have to proceed carefully given Giuliani's wide popularity.
"People don't know much about him outside of 9/11, but over the last couple of weeks and moving forward they're going to become better acquainted with his record," said the strategist, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "He doesn't have much other than this to run on."
Fred Siegel, a Giuliani biographer and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute's Center for Civic Innovation, said he sees an early parallel between the current attacks on Giuliani and the withering campaign organized against Kerry in 2004 by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.
But Siegel added that Giuliani is so well known by the public that it may be impossible for rival campaigns to tar him as an ineffective leader, even if some of the critiques have some validity.
"This is potentially damaging, but I wouldn't overplay it. People saw for themselves what happened, and it's very hard to counteract that," Siegel said. "People have their own experience with how he handled 9/11, and their own experiences visiting New York, and that will make it much harder to 'Swift Boat' him."
Siegel said he views some of the attacks on Giuliani's record as unfair.
He called it "bizarre," for instance, to suggest that Giuliani wasn't focusing on terrorism before 9/11, since he was emphasizing emergency preparedness throughout his tenure as mayor.
Still, his decision to put the emergency command center in the World Trade Center -- which had previously been the target of a terrorist attack, in 1993 -- certainly proved to be an instance where his judgment was "less than acute," Siegel said.
Asked about that decision last weekend on Fox News, Giuliani blamed Hauer, who was then his emergency management director.
"He recommended that site as the site that would be the best site. It was largely on his recommendation that that site was selected," Giuliani said.
But Hauer sharply disputes that account.
"That's Rudy's own reality that he lives in," he told The New York Times this week. "It is not, in fact, the truth."
The accumulation of recent news stories about Giuliani's leadership -- including new information about the health hazards of the air around ground zero -- contribute to a portrait of a mayor whose seminal moment is far more complicated than myth suggests, said Wayne Barrett, a veteran Village Voice editor who co-wrote a recent critical biography of the former mayor, "Grand Illusion."
"We're learning the recklessness with which ground zero was run, and Rudy Giuliani was the king of ground zero," Barrett said. "If this is the rationale for the candidacy of the leading candidate for president, it's about time that this is getting examined."
Ground Zero Campaign
The firefighters' chief complaint is that Giuliani's rush to clean up ground zero prevented the remains of scores of firefighters from ever being recovered.
That complaint is legitimate, Siegel said, but has to be weighed against Giuliani's understandable desire to move as quickly as possible in clearing the wreckage from the World Trade Center site.
The key for the former mayor will be how he handles the questions that are being raised -- whether he takes it in stride and defends his record, or whether he loses his temper with those who are criticizing him, Siegel said.
"In a way, it might not be bad for Giuliani, in the sense that it's already out there and it's early," he said. "If he mishandles it, it can rise to that level of harming his campaign. If he doesn't handle it well, we'll know he can't handle the White House."
For his part, Giuliani has mostly brushed aside criticism of his record, saying he'd rather look forward than back.
"The best way to proceed there is we don't blame anybody; what we try to do is learn from it," candidate Giuliani said last month in Iowa.
Posted by politicalstuff at 12:56 AM
Edwards Foreign Policy Speech Shows He Gets It
In the late 40's and early 50's a Venezuelan child's first experience of America might have been being treated by an American doctor with American anti-biotics. Today a Venezuelan child's first experience of Cuba is probably being treated by a Cuban doctor with Cuban drugs....
In 1956 when Britain, France and Israel conspired to seize the Suez crisis from a Muslim nation it was an American president who gave them the curt order to stop. This was probably the capstone of US/Arab relations, which had probably been the friendliest of any of the great powers for well over a hundred years. Arabs saw America as a foe of colonliasm and as their friend.
John Edwards didn't mention either of these facts in his speech, but it's very clear that he gets it. When one reads the speech what one is struck by immediately is by how much good will there is in it, at how much Edwards is neither scared nor contemptuous of the rest of the world. The speech, with its careful words of reaching out to both allies and enemies; with its promise to make sure that every child in the world is educated (something that should be done not just with American money, but with American teachers in a way similiar to the Peace Corps), is the reasoned manifesto of a man who actually understands that while every nation has to have a military, it really is the last resort, and not the first and that military action is as likely to weaken you and make you enemies as it is to do anything good for you.
More After the Jump
I read the speech expecting to find reasons to quibble - to see language like "all options", to see some token macho posturing. Instead what I found was a speech that takes a razor blade to the idea of a "war on terror" or of a "long war' and surgically cuts them to ribbons.
The war on terror is a slogan designed only for politics, not a strategy to make America safe. It's a bumper sticker, not a plan. It has damaged our alliances and weakened our standing in the world. As a political "frame," it's been used to justify everything from the Iraq War to Guantanamo to illegal spying on the American people. It's even been used by this White House as a partisan weapon to bludgeon their political opponents. Whether by manipulating threat levels leading up to elections, or by deeming opponents "weak on terror," they have shown no hesitation whatsoever about using fear to divide.
But the worst thing about this slogan is that it hasn't worked. The so-called "war" has created even more terrorism—as we have seen so tragically in Iraq. The State Department itself recently released a study showing that worldwide terrorism has increased 25% in 2006, including a 40% surge in civilian fatalities.
By framing this as a "war," we have walked right into the trap that terrorists have set—that we are engaged in some kind of clash of civilizations and a war against Islam.
The "war" metaphor has also failed because it exaggerates the role of only one instrument of American power—the military. This has occurred in part because the military is so effective at what it does. Yet if you think all you have is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail.
Edwards reaches back in his speech to the same place the warmongers do - World War II. But instead of talking about a great crusade, he remembers a man named Marshall - the man who created the Marshall plan and helped rebuild Europe, ensuring that America both had strong allies and good friends. The US, after World War II, was truly mighty, with over half the entire world's industrial production. It didn't have to be generous; it didn't have to be kind - but it was, and in so doing it sowed the seeds for 50 years of American security and prosperity.
Edwards point is not that the swords should be beat into plowshares, or that a military isn't needed. Indeed, he spends about half the speech giving quite specific details on what he will do rebuild the army, take care of soldiers and veterans and reformulate military strategy.
His point, rather, is that the military is only one part of America's power, and that it is not suitable for all tasks. Unlike many others (such as Hilary) he explicitly rejects the idea of necessarily expanding the military "why, if it's leaving Iraq, which it must" without first examinging "what do we need the military for?"
Edwards' speech is perhaps the best I've read in foreign policy terms this electoral season, probably even more so than Richardson's (for all that Richardson gave more specifics), because of the way it strikes right at the foundations of jingoism, fear and militarism in the US. It seeks to make the military just one tool for foreign affairs; it urges America to live up to her own ideals and it rejects the politics of terror which have been used not just to whip up Americans against Muslims, but against each other. Edwards isn't just thinking about what will win (must offer more money to the military, Americans like that) but is thinking about what it takes to rebuild America's influence in the world - hard influence, and soft influence.
This refusal to play into Republican frames; this refusal to pander in any way to the politics of fear that Republicans used to master America is exactly what the US needs. It's time to stop saying the things one "ought" to say and to say the things that need to be said. In attacking the war on terror; in saying the "long war" is a lie; in promising outright to restore habeas corpus, end torture and close Guantanmo; and in promising to reach out to the world not with guns, but with aid and education, Edwards reaches back to the true spirit of the men who lead the war against the Reich - to use force only when you must, and to be fair and generous in your dealings with others.
That was the America that many, myself included, grew up loving.
Hopefully Edwards will stay true to this vision, and hopefully Americans will join with him in restoring America to its place as a beacon of freedom for all in the world to admire. Hopefully in the future we will again be able to say that while the US does ill (as do all great nations), it does much much more good.
Hopefully. In a sense, it's really not up to Edwards. It's up to Americans whether they respond to this or whether fear has made them into the sort of people who need a "strong man" to "protect them".
Posted by politicalstuff at 12:53 AM
We Gave Them Our Hearts, They Gave Him A Blank Check
It is a dark day in our nation's history. That sounds melodramatic - but it is true. Today America watched a Democratic Party kick them square in the teeth - all in order to continue the most unpopular war in a generation at the request of the most unpopular president in a generation at a time polls show a larger percentage of the public thinks America is going in the wrong direction than ever recorded in polling history.
The numbers are not pretty. First, 216 House Democrats cast the key vote to send a blank check Iraq War funding bill over to the Senate. As I reported at the beginning of the day and as the Associated Press now confirms, the vote on the rule was the vote that made it happen. As the AP said: "In a highly unusual maneuver, House Democratic leaders crafted a procedure that allowed their rank and file to oppose money for the war, then step aside so Republicans could advance it." Nauseating.
In the Senate, we saw lots of promises and tough talk from senators telling us they were going to do everything they could to stop the blank check. Some of them bragged that they were going to vote against the bill - as if that was the ultimate sign of heroics. Then, not a single senator found the backbone to stand up to filibuster the bill a la Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. To quote the Big Lebowski, "These men are cowards," because apparently, Senate club etiquette comes even before the lives of our troops.
The blank check sailed through the upper chamber on a vote of 80-14 with 38 Democrats (the majority of the party) voting yes. In all, at a time when 82 percent of Americans tell pollsters they want Congress to either approve funds for the war with strict conditions or cut off all funding immediately, 90 percent of House and Senate Democrats combined voted to give George W. Bush a blank check.
The worst part of it all was the overt efforts to deceive the public - as if we're all just a bunch of morons. House Democrats have the nerve to continue to insist the blank check they helped ram through the House was all the Republicans doing, and that a sham vote on a GOP amendment today - which most Democrats opposed for show - was the real vote for the war. But, again, as the AP reported, it was their parliamentary motion - passed so quickly and under the devious pretenses of mundane procedural necessity - that showed their calculated complicity. Now, tonight, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is actually sending out fundraising emails claiming "the House just passed legislation that will go to the White House that includes critical issues Democrats have been fighting for including canceling the President's blank check in Iraq." Beyond nauseating.
I'm not a purist nor am I a "pox on both their houses" kind of guy. I have worked to elect Democratic politicians and I supported Democratic leaders when they pushed an Iraq funding bill that included binding language to end the war. But what happened today was perhaps the most stunning travesty I've seen in a decade working in Democratic politics. A Democratic Party that six months ago was elected on a promise to end the war first tried to hide their complicity in continuing the war in the House, and then gave a few token speeches as the blank check sailed through the Senate club. And it all happened, as the New York Times reported today, because these Democrats believed criticism from President Bush - the man who polls show is the most unpopular president in three decades - "seemed more politically threatening to them than the anger Democrats knew they would draw from the left."
Democratic politicians, Capitol Hill staff, political consultants and all their lobbyist friends sitting comfortably tonight in their Northwest Washington homes believe the public thinks Democrats are "weak" because they don't more strongly support leaving American troops to be killed or maimed in the middle of a bloody civil war in a country half way around the globe that had no WMD and had nothing to do with 9/11. What they seem unable - or unwilling - to realize is that the public has believed Democrats are weak not because some in the party have opposed the war, but because many in the party refuse to wield the power the public entrusts them with on all sorts of issues. At least on Iraq - the biggest issue of the day - the public's perception has proven right. As I wrote to one congressional lawmaker in an e-mail correspondence we had today: "The spoils go to those who use the power they are entrusted with, while infamy goes to those who squander it."
In the movie "Say Anything," John Cusack famously laments after being dumped that "I gave her my heart, she gave me a pen." The American people gave Democrats their heart in November 2006. In return, Democrats gave George Bush a blank check in May 2007. We gave them our heart, they gave him a blank check. That will make May 24, 2007 a dark day generations to come will look back on - a day when Democrats in Washington not only continued a war they promised to end, but happily went on record declaring that they believe in their hearts that government's role is to ignore the will of the American people.
Posted by politicalstuff at 12:52 AM
Center for American Progress
The Complicated Corruptions of Rupert Murdoch and The Wall Street Journal
It is with considerable reluctance that I address the topic of Rupert Murdoch's takeover bid for the Dow Jones corporation, and with it, The Wall Street Journal. While the point of the Journal's reportorial excellence has been made repeatedly, a no less salient point regarding the irrelevance of the paper's editorial page frequently gets lost.
On the day the takeover bid was announced, I appeared on CNBC's "Kudlow and Company" and heard the claim, made over and over, that a Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal might somehow even out the balance of The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, etc.
The point is misguided in myriad directions simultaneously. First off, those papers all have objective-seeking journalists doing the news, not liberals as Kudlow was implying. The frightening thing about Murdoch's brand of journalism is that he does not merely weight his editorial pages to the right; he purposely corrupts the news pages as well.
Second, the Journal's editorial page is so far to the right that it cannot be compared to that of The New York Times on the left. The Times also carries conservatives like David Brooks and liberals who often sound like conservatives such as Tom Friedman and Nick Kristof, while the Journal's right-wing ideology is perfectly monochromatic and would likely only get more so under Murdoch's direction.
Third, The Washington Post long ago ceased to have a liberal editorial page and is now closer in its views to that of The Wall Street Journal than The New York Times or The Boston Globe.
But perhaps most significantly, the true journalistic objection to The Wall Street Journal edit page's modus operandi is not its politics, but its lack of concern for the truth. Long after the so-called "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" spread demonstrable falsehoods about John Kerry's war record, for instance, Journal editors endorsed these lies as "no doubt contentious, but they are of a piece with the contemporary bipartisan standards of adversarial politics." Excusing lies is not usually considered part and parcel of journalistic editorial ethics, but at the Journal, it's all part of the plan.
After presenting plenty of evidence, my Media Matters colleague Eric Boehlert calls it "The Wall Street Journal Riddle," and writes:
"But therein lies The Wall Street Journal riddle. While cheering each anti-Murdoch statement from the families, I'm left perplexed by the fact that the Ottaways and the Bancrofts are so (admirably) focused on maintaining journalistic integrity at the Journal that they are willing to leave Murdoch's billions on the table, yet they're the same trustees who allowed the newspaper's right-wing editorial page to practice, and perfect, a noxious brand of misinformation that doesn't even qualify as journalism. If owning the newspaper remains such a deep public trust for the families, why have they allowed the editorial page to stain the entire Journal news operation?"
That said, my point is not to dispel the myth that a Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal might "even out" The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and The Washington Post. My point is that most of the cognizant world understands the distinction between The Wall Street Journal's news and editorial pages. Ben Bagdikian, founding dean of the Journalism school at the University of California at Berkeley, explained the dichotomy between the editorial page and the news pages decades ago:
"Executives and stockholders really do want to know the unpleasant truth about corporate life when it affects their careers or incomes. At the same time, however, most of them are true believers in the rhetoric of free enterprise, whose imperfections and contradictions are standard content in The Wall Street Journal. By reporting critical stories about realities in particular industries in the in the news columns, but singing the grand old hymns of unfettered laissez-faire on the editorial pages, the Journal has it both ways."
Murdoch presents the danger that the "news" pages in the Journal will disappear entirely. In other words, it would become like Fox News, The New York Post, The Weekly Standard, and just about any other Murdoch property. This is not to say that they will always be conservative. They will usually be conservative, but if it serves Murdoch's larger business interests, they will sometimes be liberal, sometimes libertarian, and with perhaps surprising frequency, they will on occasion even be Communist (or at least pro-Communist).
In a letter to members of the Bancroft family, which controls Dow Jones, Murdoch promised that "maintaining the heritage of independence and journalistic integrity" of the Journal "would be of utmost importance to me and to News Corp." But as Andrew Neil, a former editor of the now Murdoch-owned London Sunday Times noted in the Journal's own reporting, "I think he would want the news to be informed by the editorial agenda." If Murdoch did not use a media product to promote his larger business interests, it would certainly be a first.
His publishing company, HarperCollins, for instance, once offered a $4.5 million book advance to U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (who was forced to give it up) while waiting for Murdoch's favored telecommunications bill to pass. (The book, a collection of Gingrich speeches, barely earned back its printing costs.)
Murdoch handed over a million bucks to the daughter of Chinese Communist leader Deng Xiaoping's for another HarperCollins book for which commercial appeal barely extended beyond her immediate family. Of course the deal took place when Murdoch was hoping to receive official Chinese Communist approval to expand his satellite broadcasts into China. When he agreed to remove the BBC from Star TV's offering there, he explained, "We're trying to get set up in China. Why should we upset them?" He later added, "The truth is--and we Americans don't like to admit it -- that authoritarian societies can work."
And then there's The New York Post. Nobody--at least no one who's speaking about it--will explain just how much money Murdoch flushes down the drain on that bathroom-unworthy scandal sheet. One reads estimates that range from 10 million to 50 million a year. Politically and commercially, he is determined to put "synergy" to work.
Murdoch's magazines and newspapers support his television programs and movies, and vice versa. His reporters make up news that other companies would have to pay public relations firms millions to try to place. No newspaper in America is less shy about slanting its coverage to serve its master's own agenda--be it commercial or political--than The New York Post. Judging by the Post, almost every Fox program is either "jaw-dropping," "mega-successful," "highly anticipated," or all three.
Columnist Gersh Kuntzman once revealed that editors consider page two to be the "Pravda Page." "When there's a major [Murdoch] business deal going down, with no interest to readers," he explained, "it's on page two. Or when [then-conservative New York Sen. Alfonse] D'Amato makes a pronouncement of no particular interest to readers, it's on page two." Oftentimes, this tendency turns the paper into kind of an extended inside joke in the media, where it is carefully read because of its obsessive media-oriented gossip.
For instance, The New York Post declared that that the film Titanic, a Murdoch property, was expected to receive "the first endorsement of any Hollywood movie by a Chinese official." The paper did not mention just who believed it or why this mattered. The entire article was based on a premise so far-fetched--that the entire Chinese nation was agitating to see the sappy film a full month before it was scheduled to open--that the article read as a kind of satiric self-criticism session of the kind Maoists used to undergo in the days when they plotted to overthrow the evil government of "Amerikkka."
Last week, we woke up to yet another fresh example of Murdoch-style journalistic ethics when The New York Post's Page Six ran a column that described an affidavit from Ian Spiegelman--a former writer for Page Six who was fired three years ago. In it we learned--or were reminded--that Spiegelman's superior at Page Six, Richard Johnson, accepted cash-filled envelopes for favored treatment from restaurateurs and received a gift of a $50,000 bachelor party from Joe Francis, the felon responsible for the "Girls Gone Wild" empire. (Everyone at the Post apparently gets into the act. According to Spiegelman, the paper's editor, Col Allan, even accepted unknown favors at Scores. Something tells me they didn't include tea and scones.) Slightly more seriously, Spiegelman also argued that New York Post coverage alleged that the gossipers were instructed to lay off the Clintons after Murdoch decided he didn't hate them so much after all.
No big deal, you say? It's only The New York Post?
But as New York Times media columnist David Carr asks, "What would [people] say if it appeared in The Wall Street Journal?"
They'd say America lost a great newspaper (with a lousy editorial page).
Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow of the Center for American Progress. His weblog, "Altercation," appears at www.mediamtters.org/altercation, and his seventh book, Why We're Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America, will appear early next year.
Posted by politicalstuff at 12:49 AM
Tuesday, May 22, 2007
Halliburton shifts focus toward Mideast
By JIM KRANE, Associated Press Writer
Halliburton Co., the Houston, Texas-based oil services company, is shifting the company's focus and capital investments away from North America and toward the oil and gas-rich Middle East, its chief executive Dave Lesar said here Tuesday.
Lesar, starting his first week running the company from his new headquarters in Dubai, said Halliburton would quickly expand its Mideast operations as it targets $80 billion in new business over the next five years — 75 percent of which lies in the eastern hemisphere, mainly the Middle East.
"Halliburton is committed to this part of the world," Lesar told a group of Dubai-based reporters.
The company seeks Arab investors and a share listing on Dubai's new international stock exchange, Lesar said. Halliburton has already hired 4,800 of the 14,000 new workers it plans to bring aboard this year, many of them in the Arab world, he said.
"We're looking for as many young Arab and Asian engineers, technicians and professionals to come and join our organization," Lesar said while swigging a Coke in a swanky hotel meeting room.
"As we build up our headquarters offices here it's not going to be by transferring people from the U.S., it's going to be by hiring locals," he said. "Unlike the States, there are more people in this part of the world who are interested in careers in the oil and gas industry."
Lesar said his goal was to achieve a 50-50 split between Halliburton's business in the Western Hemisphere and the booming new markets in the Eastern Hemisphere, primarily the Mideast. Currently, 65 percent of Halliburton's business and as much as 70 percent of its capital spending lie in North and South America.
Lesar said the company will shift some 70 percent of its capital investment over the next five years to the Eastern Hemisphere, which includes oil and gas zones in the Middle East, Russia, Africa, the North Sea and East Asia. There is already great regional demand for Halliburton's drilling and exploration tools, he said.
Lesar said the company was relieved to have shed prickly relationships that brought unwanted scrutiny. In April, Halliburton completed the sell-off of its KBR construction and services unit, which has been under fire for overcharging the U.S. military in Iraq.
"It was purely a commercial decision that has been well-reflected in the marketplace," Lesar said. "Halliburton is an oilfield services company. That's where we started 80 years ago and that's what we're back to."
With KBR gone, Halliburton has no current business in Iraq. But Lesar said Halliburton would look to partner with oil firms doing exploration in Iraq once an investment law is in place.
Security permitting, he said, "sure, we'd be interested in going in there. But I'm not going to put my people at risk."
Also in April, Halliburton stopped work in Iran, where a Dubai-based Halliburton subsidiary operated for years. Lesar said the company wasn't taking any more Iran business.
"Iran and Iraq are clearly two countries with big opportunities but our broader base is in countries outside of those two," he said.
And, in a year and a half, the company's much-discussed ties to the Bush administration will end when Bush leaves office. U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney was Halliburton's previous chief executive.
"We do have a link to the current administration that will cure itself in the very near future," Lesar said.
Lesar arrived in Dubai on Saturday to begin his stewardship of the company from this Persian Gulf boomtown, home to dozens of international banks and corporations, including U.S. giants like General Electric, Microsoft, Goldman Sachs and Citibank. Halliburton is the first major western corporation to move its chief executive here.
The Dubai office allows him to be closer to the world's largest oil companies, like Saudi Aramco and the Abu Dhabi National Oil Co., whose leaders he seeks to court.
Lesar said the company is negotiating for a new Dubai headquarters office while he shops for a home in the city's cutthroat housing market.
Halliburton's remaining top executives will probably stay in Houston, although the company plans to hold some of its board meetings in Dubai, Lesar said.
"This isn't a giant transplant from Houston to Dubai," Lesar said. "I don't see the need to have my senior executives sitting 10 feet from me."
Halliburton will continue to pay U.S. taxes on its global earnings, although Lesar and other Americans may have personal tax savings from working in tax-free Dubai and the company could save on capital purchases made here.
Posted by politicalstuff at 2:13 PM
Monday, May 21, 2007
The New York Times
The Unkept Promise on Voting
Congress has done a terrible job of regulating electronic voting: It allowed A.T.M.-style voting machines to proliferate without requiring them to produce a paper trail that can be audited to ensure that the results are accurate. That has meant wasted time and money for the states, confusion for voters, and questionable election results. Fortunately, the nation’s delinquent lawmakers have a chance to set things right — through a bill introduced by Representative Rush Holt, Democrat of New Jersey, that would finally impose a paper trail requirement. There are some details that need fine-tuning, but Congress should move quickly to pass it.
After the 2000 election debacle, Congress gave the states large grants to replace faulty voting machines, including the kind that produced hanging chads. But in too many cases, states and localities rushed to buy electronic voting machines that do not produce paper records. Voters have to trust the numbers they spit out on election night, but the numbers cannot be independently verified, and that is unacceptable.
Aside from intentional vote theft — which is not hard to do on paperless electronic voting machines — glitches are all too common in these machines. A disturbing one that keeps occurring is “vote flipping,” in which machines record a vote for one candidate as a vote for his or her opponent.
While Congress looked the other way, many states responded to popular demand and imposed their own paper trail requirements. More than half, including such large ones as California, New York and Ohio, have adopted this critical reform. But some still have not, which means that a presidential election could be decided by votes cast on paperless electronic voting machines.
Mr. Holt’s bill would require a voter-verified paper ballot in all federal elections, which means that every vote must be recorded on a piece of paper that the voter can examine to ensure that it was properly recorded. It would also require that a suitable percentage of the paper ballots be audited to verify the tallies produced by the machines. The bill allocates $1 billion for the upgrades, and has other important reforms, including tougher requirements for the testing labs that certify voting machines, which have been rife with conflicts of interest.
In the Senate, Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, is putting together a parallel bill. Hers is expected to go further in some areas, by including such reforms as barring secretaries of state, who count the votes, from participating in partisan politics, and requiring fairer procedures for purging voters from the rolls. Since Congress gets around to reforming election law so rarely, it makes sense to include these.
The hardest issue is likely to be deadlines. Mr. Holt would require some of the states that still do not have paper trails to put them in place for the 2008 presidential election. He is right to push them to act quickly, and to make money available as soon as possible. But some states may rightly feel that they would be inviting chaos if they rushed to comply. They should be allowed to apply for partial or full waivers, with the understanding that they still must push forward as quickly as possible.
Congress vowed to fix the nation’s election system after the 2000 vote. Mr. Holt’s bill, with some modifications, would go a long way toward keeping that promise.
Posted by politicalstuff at 3:24 PM
OH: Audit Finds Many Faults in Cleveland’s ’06 Voting; State was pivotal to President Bush's election and re-election
OH: Audit Finds Many Faults in Cleveland’s ’06 Voting
by Bob Driehaus
CINCINNATI - An audit of last November’s general election in the Cleveland area has found that hundreds of votes were lost, that others were recorded twice and that software used to count the ballots was vulnerable to data problems.
In a state that was pivotal to President Bush’s election and re-election, Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland, has seen more than its share of recent election troubles. Lines at polls there were hours long in the 2004 general election. And in the primaries last May, the county’s first experience with electronic voting, poll workers were absent or poorly trained, computer cards on which votes had been recorded were lost, and one polling place opened hours late.
Citing problems like those, Ohio’s newly elected secretary of state ousted the county’s entire four-member Board of Elections a months ago.
The five-month audit, which the board had commissioned, was conducted by an independent committee made up of representatives from the county’s Democratic and Republican Parties, the League of Women Voters and two other citizen groups.
The audit found that some batches of ballots registered in optical scan machines had been scanned twice, producing a double count of those ballots.
Other ballots were deleted because of flawed data and, owing to human error, were not rescanned, the committee found.
The optical scan and touch-screen machines used in the county were made by Diebold Election Systems Inc. The audit committee said Microsoft’s JET file-sharing database system, which Diebold used, was known to have previously had problems that could result in corruption of the database.
Scott Massey, a Microsoft spokesman, said any file-based database was subject to corruption if a connection was lost while a transfer was in progress. He confirmed the committee’s finding that Microsoft recommended a different system for operations as large as Cuyahoga County’s.
The audit committee was allowed only a limited review of the data collected by Diebold. The panel tried to gain access to the raw data, but Diebold claimed that the information was proprietary.
Jennifer L. Brunner, Ohio’s secretary of state, praised the audit as an important step in fixing problems in the county as well as establishing standards to be used elsewhere in the state. Ms. Brunner is considering issuing a directive to all counties to undertake routine audits of elections.
Originally Published on Friday, April 20, 2007 by New York Times
The full report can be found here.
Posted by politicalstuff at 3:19 PM
The New York Times
General Electric to Sell Plastics Division
By CLAUDIA H. DEUTSCH
General Electric agreed today to sell its plastics division for $11.6 billion to the largest public company in Saudi Arabia, the Saudi Basic Industries Corporation.
The deal for the G.E. division, which has 11,000 employees in 20 countries, is one of the largest yet by the Saudi company, known as Sabic. Sabic prevailed in a sometimes crowded race, with other top bidders being Basell, the Dutch plastics maker, and Apollo Management, the American private equity firm led by Leon Black.
In a statement, Mohamed al-Mady, the vice chairman and chief executive of Sabic, said: “This business is complementary to our existing business without any overlaps. Sabic’s intention is to grow the business globally.”
In a separate statement, Jeffrey R. Immelt, the chief executive of G.E., said the sale made equal sense for G.E.
“Sabic is the right owner for our customers and our employees,” Mr. Immelt said. “This transaction will transform the plastics industry by combining Sabic’s low-cost materials position and global reach with GE Plastics’ strong marketing and technology capabilities. Sabic also has a record of investing in acquired businesses and their people.”
Neither the buyer nor the price came as a surprise to analysts who follow General Electric. In January, when G.E. confirmed long-standing rumors that it was putting its plastics business on the block, most analysts expected the unit to go for $8 billion to $10 billion, and for the probable buyer to be a private equity firm.
But in recent months, G.E. executives had signaled to analysts that they expected to get $10 billion to $12 billion for the unit, and that it would likely go to a strategic buyer — that is, a company that would utilize the division and its products, rather than groom it for an eventual public offering or resale. Most analysts quickly honed in on Sabic, because of its access to Saudi Arabia’s vast petroleum supplies. After all, it was the ever-rising cost of benzene, a petroleum derivative and a key raw material for G.E.’s plastics products, that had sucked the profitability out of the unit for G.E. A company like Sabic, with an inexpensive and inexhaustible supply of benzene could far more easily turn a profit.
The sale, which is expected to close in the third quarter, is unlikely to have much of a strategic impact on G.E. In January, G.E. agreed to spend $4.8 billion to buy the aerospace business of the Smiths Group, $1.9 billion to buy the oil and gas operations of Vetco Gray and $8.1 billion to buy a diagnostics business from Abbott Laboratories. G.E. said it will use most of the proceeds from the plastics sale to buy back stock, but analysts expect that some of the money will be used to pay for those acquisitions.
It is also unlikely that the divestiture is heralding a larger-scale trimming of the G.E. portfolio. Many investors have tried to pressure G.E. into selling NBC Universal, the entertainment division that suffered through many quarters of lackluster profits. And there has been widespread speculation that, if G.E. did decide to sell the unit, it would also divest its consumer finance division. The reason is that NBC Universal is part of G.E.’s industrial group, and a sale would skew the company’s portfolio too far toward financial products. Shares of financial services companies generally trade at lower multiples than those of industrial companies, and G.E. would not want to risk having itself recategorized in investors’ minds.
But NBC Universal’s profits have been rising, and consumer finance is a growing area for G.E., and many analysts say G.E. would have no reason to sell either. Still, while plastics seemed to play no role in G.E.’s vision of its future, it played a huge role in the company’s past. G.E. formed its first plastics department in 1930, and by 1941 it had become the country’s largest plastics producer. In 1953, a G.E. scientist discovered a high-strength polycarbonate that the company branded Lexan. To this day Lexan is a huge seller, used for bulletproof glass, water bottles and even Apple iPods. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were wearing Lexan visors on their journey to the moon in 1969. Four years later, G.E. made the booming plastics department an official division of the company.
Since then GE Plastics has become a major supplier to industries as diverse as automaking, electronics and appliances. Both Mr. Immelt, G.E.’s current chairman, and John F. Welch Jr., his predecessor, worked at the plastics group. But competition and price increases in raw materials have squeezed profit margins, even though the unit increased product prices. For 2006, the plastics division reported about $6.6 billion in revenue, virtually unchanged from the previous year. Profit fell to $674 million, down 22 percent from 2005.
Posted by politicalstuff at 2:58 PM
Sunday, May 20, 2007
'Sicko' stars thank Moore for Cuba trip
By Jocelyn Noveck
NEW YORK - It could have been a college reunion: hugs, tears, laughter, photos, and a big friendly guy in shorts and sneakers organizing it all. But the guy in shorts was Michael Moore, whose new documentary, "Sicko," takes aim at the U.S. health care industry with the same fury — laced with humor, of course, and plenty of statistics — that he directed at the Bush administration in his hit "Fahrenheit 9/11."
And the people who'd flown in for this intimate first screening, a day after the film had been shipped to the Cannes Film Festival, included grateful Sept. 11 "first responders," suffering lung problems or other ailments from their days at ground zero. In the film, Moore takes them to Cuba and tries to get them treated at the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay — where, he contends, terror suspects were getting better medical care than the heroes of 9/11.
The Cuba trip actually accounts for just a small part of "Sicko," which aims its wrath at private insurance and pharmaceutical companies and HMOs, while praising socialized medicine in countries like France and Britain. Moore fills it with stories like that of a woman whose ambulance ride after a car crash wasn't covered — because it wasn't "pre-approved."
But Cuba has loomed large in the flurry of prerelease publicity. That's because the director, an unabashed critic of President Bush, is being investigated by the Treasury Department for possibly violating the U.S. trade embargo by traveling to the island nation. Moore has fired back with an open letter accusing the administration of "abusing the federal government for raw, crass political purposes."
At his screening Tuesday evening at a Manhattan hotel, however, Moore was focused on the reaction of his invited guests.
"Three years ago tonight, we had the first screening of 'Fahrenheit 9/11,' with victims' families," he told them. "It was a very powerful experience, and now we're honored to have all of you here. We're very proud of this film. We're confident it will have a significant impact."
When the lights came up, Reggie Cervantes, a former 9/11 "first responder" who now lives in Oklahoma, spoke first.
"It was funny. It was real," said Cervantes, 46, who says she suffers from pulmonary ailments, esophageal reflex, post-traumatic stress disorder, ear and eye infections and other problems stemming from time at ground zero. Of the trip, she said: "It feels surreal. Were we really there?"
"This trip opened my eyes," offered Bill Maher, 54, another former ground zero volunteer from Maywood, N.J., who had extensive dental work in Cuba. "I was uneducated. I remembered the Cuban missile crisis. Now, you know what? I'm going back!"
"I'm going with you," replied Cervantes.
Donna Smith, in from Denver with her husband, Larry, was in tears when she spoke. The film opens with their painful story: Plagued with health problems, they were forced to sell their home and move into the storage room of their daughter's house because they couldn't cope with health costs, even though they were insured.
"Health care is an embarrassment to our nation," Donna told Moore. "You give dignity to every American in this film."
Lost in all the publicity over Moore's trip is the reason he went to Cuba in the first place.
He says he hadn't intended to go, but then discovered the U.S. government was boasting of the excellent medical care it provides terror suspects detained at Guantanamo. So Moore decided that the 9/11 workers and a few other patients, all of whom had serious trouble paying for care at home, should have the same chance.
"Here the detainees were getting colonoscopies and nutrition counseling," Moore told The Associated Press in an interview, "and these people at home were suffering. I said, 'We gotta go and see if we can get these people the same treatment the government gives al-Qaida.' It seemed the only fair thing to do."
So the group, which included eight patients — three ground zero workers and five others — headed off by boat towards Guantanamo. From a distance, with cameras rolling, Moore called out through a bullhorn that he wanted to bring his friends for treatment at the naval base. He got no response.
"So there I was with a group of sick people," he says. "What was I going to do?"
The answer: head to Havana. There, the film shows the group getting thorough care from kind doctors. They don't have to fill out any long forms; health care is free in the Communist nation, after all.
But did the American film crew get special treatment because they were, well, an American film crew? Moore and his producer, Meghan O'Hara, insist not. "We demanded that we be treated on the same floor as all Cubans, not the special floor for foreigners," Moore told The AP. Still, the doctors obviously knew they were being filmed, so it's hard to know — although Cervantes said she went back alone with no cameras and was treated similarly.
Treasury officials will not comment specifically about Moore's case. He has a few more days to provide additional information. Moore originally applied in October 2006 for permission to go to Cuba under a provision for full-time journalists, but never heard back.
The patients he brought had all struggled at home with health care costs. Some, like Cervantes, had lost their health insurance because they could no longer work, and were navigating the workmen's compensation system.
John Graham, a disabled carpenter and EMT from Paramus, N.J., came to the screening with his daughters. On 9/11 he was at his job at the carpenter's union offices, near the World Trade Center. He rushed over before the second plane hit, spending 31 hours at first, then helping out for months after that. He says he was later diagnosed with lung problems, burns on his esophagus, chronic sinusitis and post-traumatic stress disorder, among other things: "I need a notebook to remember everything."
Graham, who stopped working in 2004, now lives on $400 per week in workmen's comp payments. He split from his wife and says he is unable to keep up with childcare payments.
In Cuba, Graham had five full days of medical tests and received medication for his reflux problems. Cervantes was treated for eye and nose infections, among other things, and in a drugstore found pills for only pennies that cost her more than $100 at home. Maher had the longest treatment, to correct dental problems — he said ground zero-related stress and dreams about "people falling from the sky" made him grind his teeth at night.
Moore hopes his latest film will make people stop and think about what he sees as the tragic ills of the health care industry.
"We are the richest country in the world," the director said. "We spend more on health care than any other country. Yet we have the worst health care in the Western world. Come on. We can do better than this."
Posted by politicalstuff at 1:24 AM
Katrina victim Fats Domino performs
By STACEY PLAISANCE, Associated Press Writer
Fats Domino took the stage before a sold-out crowd of hundreds in a New Orleans nightclub Saturday, marking the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer's first public performance since Hurricane Katrina.
Dressed in a snappy white jacket, the 79-year-old New Orleans icon was crisp and energetic as he sang and played the piano. The crowd jumped and screamed when he belted out "Blueberry Hill." Domino was accompanied by his longtime friend and musical partner saxophonist Herbert Hardesty. The pair have been playing together since the mid-1940s.
Fans who for years longed to see Domino perform such hits as "Blueberry Hill," "Blue Monday," "Ain't That a Shame" and "Walkin' to New Orleans" finally got their wish.
Domino, whose real name is Antoine, lost his home, his pianos, his gold and platinum records, and much of the city he loves during Katrina. He was rescued by boat from his flooded 9th Ward home after the storm struck on Aug. 29, 2005.
Domino last performed in public on Memorial Day 2005 at a casino on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, said Haydee Ellis, a close friend of Domino.
The Tipitina's Foundation, which put on Saturday night's show, is working with such artists as Elton John, Tom Petty, Bonnie Raitt, Willie Nelson, B.B. King and others to record a tribute album of Domino's songs.
Proceeds will benefit the foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to providing the city's public schools with musical instruments and helping artists recover from the hurricane. Roughly 25 percent of the proceeds will go toward the restoration of Domino's home, said Bill Taylor, the foundation's executive director.
So far, the house's interior studs and beams have been rid of mold, and workers have begun installing new drywall. The back end of a pink 1959 Cadillac that for years sat in the living area and served as a couch is being restored. The room's walls will be painted to match their pre-storm pink color.
Domino's house is still surrounded by blocks of abandoned homes — many untouched since Katrina. For more than a year, he has been living in a gated community in a New Orleans suburb.
Domino is expected to move back into his 9th Ward home later this year — a sign of hope for many in the heavily devastated neighborhood, which some have said shouldn't be rebuilt.
On the Net:
Tipitina's Foundation: http://www.tipitinasfoundation.org
Posted by politicalstuff at 1:23 AM
Tainted Chinese Imports Common
In Four Months, FDA Refused 298 Shipments
By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Dried apples preserved with a cancer-causing chemical.
Frozen catfish laden with banned antibiotics.
Scallops and sardines coated with putrefying bacteria.
Mushrooms laced with illegal pesticides.
These were among the 107 food imports from China that the Food and Drug Administration detained at U.S. ports just last month, agency documents reveal, along with more than 1,000 shipments of tainted Chinese dietary supplements, toxic Chinese cosmetics and counterfeit Chinese medicines.
For years, U.S. inspection records show, China has flooded the United States with foods unfit for human consumption. And for years, FDA inspectors have simply returned to Chinese importers the small portion of those products they caught -- many of which turned up at U.S. borders again, making a second or third attempt at entry.
Now the confluence of two events -- the highly publicized contamination of U.S. chicken, pork and fish with tainted Chinese pet food ingredients and this week's resumption of high-level economic and trade talks with China -- has activists and members of Congress demanding that the United States tell China it is fed up.
Dead pets and melamine-tainted food notwithstanding, change will prove difficult, policy experts say, in large part because U.S. companies have become so dependent on the Chinese economy that tighter rules on imports stand to harm the U.S. economy, too.
"So many U.S. companies are directly or indirectly involved in China now, the commercial interest of the United States these days has become to allow imports to come in as quickly and smoothly as possible," said Robert B. Cassidy, a former assistant U.S. trade representative for China and now director of international trade and services for Kelley Drye Collier Shannon, a Washington law firm.
As a result, the United States finds itself "kowtowing to China," Cassidy said, even as that country keeps sending American consumers adulterated and mislabeled foods.
It's not just about cheap imports, added Carol Tucker Foreman, a former assistant secretary of agriculture now at the Consumer Federation of America.
"Our farmers and food processors have drooled for years to be able to sell their food to that massive market," Foreman said. "The Chinese counterfeit. They have a serious piracy problem. But we put up with it because we want to sell to them."
U.S. agricultural exports to China have grown to more than $5 billion a year-- a fraction of last year's $232 billion U.S. trade deficit with China but a number that has enormous growth potential, given the Chinese economy's 10 percent growth rate and its billion-plus consumers.
Trading with the largely unregulated Chinese marketplace has its risks, of course, as evidenced by the many lawsuits that U.S. pet food companies now face from angry consumers who say their pets were poisoned by tainted Chinese ingredients. Until recently, however, many companies and even the federal government reckoned that, on average, those risks were worth taking. And for some products they have had little choice, as China has driven competitors out of business with its rock-bottom prices.
But after the pet food scandal, some are recalculating.
"This isn't the first time we've had an incident from a Chinese supplier," said Pat Verduin, a senior vice president at the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a trade group in Washington. "Food safety is integral to brands and to companies. This is not an issue the industry is taking lightly."
New Focus on the Problem
China's less-than-stellar behavior as a food exporter is revealed in stomach-turning detail in FDA "refusal reports" filed by U.S. inspectors: Juices and fruits rejected as "filthy." Prunes tinted with chemical dyes not approved for human consumption. Frozen breaded shrimp preserved with nitrofuran, an antibacterial that can cause cancer. Swordfish rejected as "poisonous."
In the first four months of 2007, FDA inspectors -- who are able to check out less than 1 percent of regulated imports -- refused 298 food shipments from China. By contrast, 56 shipments from Canada were rejected, even though Canada exports about $10 billion in FDA-regulated food and agricultural products to the United States -- compared to about $2 billion from China.
Although China is subject to more inspections because of its poor record, those figures mean that the rejection rate for foods imported from China, on a dollar-for-dollar basis, is more than 25 times that for Canada.
Miao Changxia, of the Chinese Embassy in Washington, said China "attaches great importance" to the pet food debacle. "Investigations were immediately carried out . . . and a host of emergency measures have been taken to ensure the hygiene and safety of exported plant-origin protein products," she said in an e-mail.
But deception by Chinese exporters is not limited to plant products, and some of their most egregiously unfit exports are smuggled into the United States.
Under Agriculture Department rules, countries cannot export meat and poultry products to the United States unless the USDA certifies that the slaughterhouses and processing plants have food-safety systems equivalent to those here. Much to its frustration, China is not certified to sell any meat to the United States because it has not met that requirement.
But that has not stopped Chinese meat exporters. In the past year, USDA teams have seized hundreds of thousands of pounds of prohibited poultry products from China and other Asian countries, Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns announced in March. Some were shipped in crates labeled "dried lily flower," "prune slices" and "vegetables," according to news reports. It is unclear how much of the illegal meat slipped in undetected.
Despite those violations, the Chinese government is on track to get permission to legally export its chickens to the United States -- a prospect that has raised concern not only because of fears of bacteria such as salmonella but also because Chinese chickens, if not properly processed, could be a source of avian flu, which public-health authorities fear may be poised to trigger a human pandemic.
Last year, under high-level pressure from China, the USDA passed a rule allowing China to export to the United States chickens that were grown and slaughtered in North America and then processed in China -- a rule that quickly passed through multiple levels of review and was approved the day before Chinese President Hu Jintao arrived in Washington last April.
Now the rule that China really wants, allowing it to export its own birds to the United States, is in the works, said Richard Raymond, USDA's undersecretary for food safety. Reports in China have repeatedly hinted that only if China gets its way on chicken exports to the United States will Beijing lift its four-year-old ban on importing U.S. beef. Raymond denies any link.
"It's not being facilitated or accelerated through the system at all," Raymond said of the chicken rule, adding that permission for China to sell poultry to the United States is moving ahead because recent USDA audits found China's poultry slaughterhouses to be equivalent to those here.
Tony Corbo, a lobbyist for Food and Water Watch, a Washington advocacy group, said that finding -- which is not subject to outside review -- is unbelievable, given repeated findings of unsanitary conditions at China's chicken slaughterhouses. Corbo said he has seen some of those audits. "Everyone who has seen them was grossed out," he said.
An Official Response
The Cabinet-level "strategic economic dialogue" with China, which began in September and is scheduled to resume on Wednesday, was described early on as a chance for the United States and China to break a long-standing stalemate on trade issues. When it comes to the safety of imported foods, though, they may highlight the limited leverage that the United States has.
It is not just that food from China is cheap, said William Hubbard, a former associate director of the FDA. For a growing number of important food products, China has become virtually the only source in the world.
China controls 80 percent of the world's production of ascorbic acid, for example, a valuable preservative that is ubiquitous in processed and other foods. Only one producer remains in the United States, Hubbard said.
"That's true of a lot of ingredients," he said, including the wheat gluten that was initially thought to be the cause of the pet deaths. Virtually none of it is made in the United States, because the Chinese sell it for less than it would cost U.S. manufacturers to make it.
So pervasive is the U.S. hunger for cheap imports, experts said, that the executive branch itself has repeatedly rebuffed proposals by agency scientists to impose even modest new safety rules for foreign foods.
"Sometimes guidances can get through, but not regulations," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group. Guidances, which the FDA defines as "current thinking on a particular subject," are not binding.
Under the Bush administration in particular, DeWaal said, if a proposed regulation does get past agency or department heads, it hits the wall at the White House Office of Management and Budget.
Andrea Wuebker, an OMB spokeswoman, said that the office reviewed 600 proposed rules last year and that it is up to agencies to finalize rules after they are reviewed. She did not tally how many reviews sent agencies' rule-writers back to the drawing board. She noted that some food safety rules have been finalized, including some related to mad cow disease and bioterrorism. Critics point out that the bioterrorism-related regulations were required by an act of Congress.
John C. Bailar III, a University of Chicago professor emeritus who chaired a 2003 National Academies committee that recommended major changes in the U.S. food safety system -- which have gone largely unheeded -- said he has become increasingly concerned that corporations and the federal government seem willing to put the interests of business "above the public welfare."
"This nation has -- and has had for decades -- a pressing need for a wholly dedicated food safety agency, one that is independent and not concerned with other matters . . . to bring together and extend the bits of food safety activities now scattered over more than a dozen agencies," he said in an e-mail.
Legislation to create such an agency was recently introduced, though many suspect that is too big a challenge politically.
But in the aftermath of the recent food scandals, a growing number of companies and trade groups, including Grocery Manufacturers of America, are speaking in favor of at least a little more protection, starting with a doubling of the FDA's food safety budget.
China is talking tough, too. "Violations of the rules on the use and addition of chemicals or other banned substances will be dealt with severely," said Miao, of the Chinese Embassy.
It is a threat some doubt will be enforced with great vigor, but nonetheless it reveals that China recognizes that the latest scandal has shortened Americans' fuses.
Posted by politicalstuff at 1:20 AM
Assessments Made in 2003 Foretold Situation in Iraq; Intelligence Studies List Internal Violence, Terrorist Activity
Assessments Made in 2003 Foretold Situation in Iraq
Intelligence Studies List Internal Violence, Terrorist Activity
By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Two intelligence assessments from January 2003 predicted that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and subsequent U.S. occupation of Iraq could lead to internal violence and provide a boost to Islamic extremists and terrorists in the region, according to congressional sources and former intelligence officials familiar with the prewar studies.
The two assessments, titled "Principal Challenges in Post-Saddam Iraq" and "Regional Consequences of Regime Change in Iraq," were produced by the National Intelligence Council (NIC) and will be a major part of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence's long-awaited Phase II report on prewar intelligence assessments about Iraq. The assessments were delivered to the White House and to congressional intelligence committees before the war started.
The committee chairman, Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), and the vice chairman, Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.), announced earlier this month that the panel had asked Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell to declassify the report for public release. Congressional sources said the two NIC assessments are to be declassified and would be part of a portion of the Phase II report that could be released within the next week.
The assessment on post-Hussein Iraq included judgments that while Iraq was unlikely to split apart, there was a significant chance that domestic groups would fight each other and that ex-regime military elements could merge with terrorist groups to battle any new government. It even talks of guerrilla warfare, according to congressional sources and former intelligence officials.
The second NIC assessment discussed "political Islam being boosted and the war being exploited by terrorists and extremists elsewhere in the region," one former senior analyst said. It also suggested that fear of U.S. military dominance and occupation of a Middle East country -- one sacred to Islam -- would attract foreign Islamic fighters to the area.
The NIC assessments paint "a very sobering and, as it has turned out, mostly accurate picture of the aftermath of the invasion," according to a former senior intelligence officer familiar with the studies. He sought anonymity because he is not authorized to speak about still-classified assessments.
The former senior official said that after the NIC papers were distributed to senior government officials, he was told by one CIA briefer that a senior Defense Department official had said they were "too negative" and that the papers "did not see the possibilities" the removal of Hussein would present.
A member of the Senate committee, without disclosing the contents of the studies, said recently that the release will raise more questions about the Bush administration's lack of preparation for the war's aftermath.
In his book, "At the Center of the Storm," former CIA director George J. Tenet discussed the NIC assessments as well as prewar intelligence analyses his own agency prepared on the same issues. Some of the language in the CIA reports that Tenet describes are similar to judgments in the NIC assessments because the agency is a major contributor to such papers, according to present and former intelligence analysts.
While Tenet admits that the CIA expected Shiites in southern Iraq, "long oppressed by Saddam, to open their arms to anyone who removed him," he said agency analysts were "not among those who confidently expected coalition forces to be greeted as liberators."
Tenet writes that the initial good feeling among most Iraqis that Hussein was out of power "would last for only a short time before old rivalries and ancient ethnic tensions resurfaced." The former intelligence analyst said such views also reflected the views in the NIC paper on post-Hussein Iraq.
The NIC assessments also projected the view that a long-term Western military occupation would be widely unacceptable, particularly to the Iraqi military. It also said Iraqis would wait and see whether the new governing authority, whether foreign or Iraqi, would provide security and basic services such as water and electricity.
Tenet wrote that the NIC paper on Iraq said that "Iraqi political culture is so imbued with norms alien to the democratic experience . . . that it may resist the most vigorous and prolonged democratic treatments."
The senior intelligence official said that the prewar analysis of challenges in post-Hussein Iraq contained little in the way of classified information since it was an assessment of future situations and was almost all analysis. The assessment of regional consequences of regime change in Iraq would require deletions since it contains "comments on the policies and perspectives of some friendly governments."
The committee focused on the two NIC assessments -- rather than analyses by the CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency or the State Department -- because they were written under the supervision of national intelligence officers and coordinated with all intelligence agencies. Such papers are similar to more formal National Intelligence Estimates except they are not finalized and approved by the National Foreign Intelligence Board, made up of the heads of the agencies.
Posted by politicalstuff at 1:18 AM
The New York Times
Bilking the Elderly, With a Corporate Assist
By CHARLES DUHIGG
The thieves operated from small offices in Toronto and hangar-size rooms in India. Every night, working from lists of names and phone numbers, they called World War II veterans, retired schoolteachers and thousands of other elderly Americans and posed as government and insurance workers updating their files.
Then, the criminals emptied their victims’ bank accounts.
Richard Guthrie, a 92-year-old Army veteran, was one of those victims. He ended up on scam artists’ lists because his name, like millions of others, was sold by large companies to telemarketing criminals, who then turned to major banks to steal his life’s savings.
Mr. Guthrie, who lives in Iowa, had entered a few sweepstakes that caused his name to appear in a database advertised by infoUSA, one of the largest compilers of consumer information. InfoUSA sold his name, and data on scores of other elderly Americans, to known lawbreakers, regulators say.
InfoUSA advertised lists of “Elderly Opportunity Seekers,” 3.3 million older people “looking for ways to make money,” and “Suffering Seniors,” 4.7 million people with cancer or Alzheimer’s disease. “Oldies but Goodies” contained 500,000 gamblers over 55 years old, for 8.5 cents apiece. One list said: “These people are gullible. They want to believe that their luck can change.”
As Mr. Guthrie sat home alone — surrounded by his Purple Heart medal, photos of eight children and mementos of a wife who was buried nine years earlier — the telephone rang day and night. After criminals tricked him into revealing his banking information, they went to Wachovia, the nation’s fourth-largest bank, and raided his account, according to banking records.
“I loved getting those calls,” Mr. Guthrie said in an interview. “Since my wife passed away, I don’t have many people to talk with. I didn’t even know they were stealing from me until everything was gone.”
Telemarketing fraud, once limited to small-time thieves, has become a global criminal enterprise preying upon millions of elderly and other Americans every year, authorities say. Vast databases of names and personal information, sold to thieves by large publicly traded companies, have put almost anyone within reach of fraudulent telemarketers. And major banks have made it possible for criminals to dip into victims’ accounts without their authorization, according to court records.
The banks and companies that sell such services often confront evidence that they are used for fraud, according to thousands of banking documents, court filings and e-mail messages reviewed by The New York Times.
Although some companies, including Wachovia, have made refunds to victims who have complained, neither that bank nor infoUSA stopped working with criminals even after executives were warned that they were aiding continuing crimes, according to government investigators. Instead, those companies collected millions of dollars in fees from scam artists. (Neither company has been formally accused of wrongdoing by the authorities.)
“Only one kind of customer wants to buy lists of seniors interested in lotteries and sweepstakes: criminals,” said Sgt. Yves Leblanc of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. “If someone advertises a list by saying it contains gullible or elderly people, it’s like putting out a sign saying ‘Thieves welcome here.’ ”
In recent years, despite the creation of a national “do not call” registry, the legitimate telemarketing industry has grown, according to the Direct Marketing Association. Callers pitching insurance plans, subscriptions and precooked meals collected more than $177 billion in 2006, an increase of $4.5 billion since the federal do-not-call restrictions were put in place three years ago.
That growth can be partly attributed to the industry’s renewed focus on the elderly. Older Americans are perfect telemarketing customers, analysts say, because they are often at home, rely on delivery services, and are lonely for the companionship that telephone callers provide. Some researchers estimate that the elderly account for 30 percent of telemarketing sales — another example of how companies and investors are profiting from the growing numbers of Americans in their final years.
While many telemarketing pitches are for legitimate products, the number of scams aimed at older Americans is on the rise, the authorities say. In 2003, the Federal Trade Commission estimated that 11 percent of Americans over age 55 had been victims of consumer fraud. The following year, the Federal Bureau of Investigation shut down one telemarketing ring that stole more than $1 billion, spanned seven countries and resulted in 565 arrests. Since the start of last year, federal agencies have filed lawsuits or injunctions against at least 68 telemarketing companies and individuals accused of stealing more than $622 million.
“Most people have no idea how widespread and sophisticated telemarketing fraud has become,” said James Davis, a Federal Trade Commission lawyer. “It shocks even us.”
Many of the victims are people like Mr. Guthrie, whose name was among the millions that infoUSA sold to companies under investigation for fraud, according to regulators. Scam artists stole more than $100,000 from Mr. Guthrie, his family says. How they took much of it is unclear, because Mr. Guthrie’s memory is faulty and many financial records are incomplete.
What is certain is that a large sum was withdrawn from his account by thieves relying on Wachovia and other banks, according to banking and court records. Though 20 percent of the total amount stolen was recovered, investigators say the rest has gone to schemes too complicated to untangle.
Senior executives at infoUSA were contacted by telephone and e-mail messages at least 30 times. They did not respond.
Wachovia, in a statement, said that it had honored all requests for refunds and that it was cooperating with authorities.
Mr. Guthrie, however, says that thieves should have been prevented from getting access to his funds in the first place.
“I can’t understand why they were allowed inside my account,” said Mr. Guthrie, who lives near Des Moines. “I just chatted with this woman for a few minutes, and the next thing I knew, they took everything I had.”
Sweepstakes a Common Tactic
Investigators suspect that Mr. Guthrie’s name first appeared on a list used by scam artists around 2002, after he filled out a few contest entries that asked about his buying habits and other personal information.
He had lived alone since his wife died. Five of his eight children had moved away from the farm. Mr. Guthrie survived on roughly $800 that he received from Social Security each month. Because painful arthritis kept him home, he spent many mornings organizing the mail, filling out sweepstakes entries and listening to big-band albums as he chatted with telemarketers.
“I really enjoyed those calls,” Mr. Guthrie said. “One gal in particular loved to hear stories about when I was younger.”
Some of those entries and calls, however, were intended solely to create databases of information on millions of elderly Americans. Many sweepstakes were fakes, investigators say, and existed only to ask entrants about shopping habits, religion or other personal details. Databases of such responses can be profitably sold, often via electronic download, through list brokers like Walter Karl Inc., a division of infoUSA.
The list brokering industry has existed for decades, primarily serving legitimate customers like magazine and catalog companies. InfoUSA, one of the nation’s largest list brokers and a publicly held company, matches buyers and sellers of data. The company maintains records on 210 million Americans, according to its Web site. In 2006, it collected more than $430 million from clients like Reader’s Digest, Publishers Clearinghouse and Condé Nast.
But infoUSA has also helped sell lists to companies that were under investigation or had been prosecuted for fraud, according to records collected by the Iowa attorney general. Those records stemmed from a now completed investigation of a suspected telemarketing criminal.
By 2004, Mr. Guthrie’s name was part of a list titled “Astroluck,” which included 19,000 other sweepstakes players, Iowa’s records show. InfoUSA sold the Astroluck list dozens of times, to companies including HMS Direct, which Canadian authorities had sued the previous year for deceptive mailings; Westport Enterprises, the subject of consumer complaints in Kansas, Connecticut and Missouri; and Arlimbow, a European company that Swiss authorities were prosecuting at the time for a lottery scam.
(In 2005, HMS’s director was found not guilty on a technicality. Arlimbow was shut down in 2004. Those companies did not return phone calls. Westport Enterprises said it has resolved all complaints, complies with all laws and engages only in direct-mail solicitations.)
Records also indicate that infoUSA sold thousands of other elderly Americans’ names to Windfall Investments after the F.B.I. had accused the company in 2002 of stealing $600,000 from a California woman.
Between 2001 and 2004, infoUSA also sold lists to World Marketing Service, a company that a judge shut down in 2003 for running a lottery scam; to Atlas Marketing, which a court closed in 2006 for selling $86 million of bogus business opportunities; and to Emerald Marketing Enterprises, a Canadian firm that was investigated multiple times but never charged with wrongdoing.
The investigation of Windfall Investments was closed after its owners could not be located. Representatives of Windfall Investments, World Marketing Services, Atlas Marketing and Emerald Marketing Enterprises could not be located or did not return calls.
The Federal Trade Commission’s rules prohibit list brokers from selling to companies engaged in obvious frauds. In 2004, the agency fined three brokers accused of knowingly, or purposely ignoring, that clients were breaking the law. The Direct Marketing Association, which infoUSA belongs to, requires brokers to screen buyers for suspicious activity.
But internal infoUSA e-mail messages indicate that employees did not abide by those standards. In 2003, two infoUSA employees traded e-mail messages discussing the fact that Nevada authorities were seeking Richard Panas, a frequent infoUSA client, in connection with a lottery scam.
“This kind of behavior does not surprise me, but it adds to my concerns about doing business with these people,” an infoUSA executive wrote to colleagues. Yet, over the next 10 months, infoUSA sold Mr. Panas an additional 155,000 names, even after he pleaded guilty to criminal charges in Nevada and was barred from operating in Iowa.
Mr. Panas did not return calls.
“Red flags should have been waving,” said Steve St. Clair, an Iowa assistant attorney general who oversaw the infoUSA investigation. “But the attitude of these list brokers is that it’s not their responsibility if someone else breaks the law.”
Millions of Americans Are Called
Within months of the sale of the Astroluck list, groups of scam artists in Canada, the Caribbean and elsewhere had the names of Mr. Guthrie and millions of other Americans, authorities say. Such countries are popular among con artists because they are outside the jurisdiction of the United States.
The thieves would call and pose as government workers or pharmacy employees. They would contend that the Social Security Administration’s computers had crashed, or prescription records were incomplete. Payments and pills would be delayed, they warned, unless the older Americans provided their banking information.
Many people hung up. But Mr. Guthrie and hundreds of others gave the callers whatever they asked.
“I was afraid if I didn’t give her my bank information, I wouldn’t have money for my heart medicine,” Mr. Guthrie said.
Criminals can use such banking data to create unsigned checks that withdraw funds from victims’ accounts. Such checks, once widely used by gyms and other businesses that collect monthly fees, are allowed under a provision of the banking code. The difficult part is finding a bank willing to accept them.
In the case of Mr. Guthrie, criminals turned to Wachovia.
Between 2003 and 2005, scam artists submitted at least seven unsigned checks to Wachovia that withdrew funds from Mr. Guthrie’s account, according to banking records. Wachovia accepted those checks and forwarded them to Mr. Guthrie’s bank in Iowa, which in turn sent back $1,603 for distribution to the checks’ creators that submitted them.
Within days, however, Mr. Guthrie’s bank, a branch of Wells Fargo, became concerned and told Wachovia that the checks had not been authorized. At Wells Fargo’s request, Wachovia returned the funds. But it failed to investigate whether Wachovia’s accounts were being used by criminals, according to prosecutors who studied the transactions.
In all, Wachovia accepted $142 million of unsigned checks from companies that made unauthorized withdrawals from thousands of accounts, federal prosecutors say. Wachovia collected millions of dollars in fees from those companies, even as it failed to act on warnings, according to records.
In 2006, after account holders at Citizens Bank were victimized by the same thieves that singled out Mr. Guthrie, an executive wrote to Wachovia that “the purpose of this message is to put your bank on notice of this situation and to ask for your assistance in trying to shut down this scam.”
But Wachovia, which declined to comment on that communication, did not shut down the accounts.
Banking rules required Wachovia to periodically screen companies submitting unsigned checks. Yet there is little evidence Wachovia screened most of the firms that profited from the withdrawals.
In a lawsuit filed last year, the United States attorney in Philadelphia said Wachovia received thousands of warnings that it was processing fraudulent checks, but ignored them. That suit, against the company that printed those unsigned checks, Payment Processing Center, or P.P.C., did not name Wachovia as a defendant, though at least one victim has filed a pending lawsuit against the bank.
During 2005, according to the United States attorney’s lawsuit, 59 percent of the unsigned checks that Wachovia accepted from P.P.C. and forwarded to other banks were ultimately refused by other financial institutions. Wachovia was informed each time a check was returned.
“When between 50 and 60 percent of transactions are returned, that tells you at gut level that something’s not right,” said the United States attorney in Philadelphia, Patrick L. Meehan.
Other banks, when confronted with similar evidence, have closed questionable accounts. But Wachovia continued accepting unsigned checks printed by P.P.C. until the government filed suit in 2006.
Wachovia declined to respond to the accusations in the lawsuit, citing the continuing civil litigation.
Although Wachovia is the largest bank that processed transactions that stole from Mr. Guthrie, at least five other banks accepted 31 unsigned checks that withdrew $9,228 from his account. Nearly every time, Mr. Guthrie’s bank told those financial institutions the checks were fraudulent, and his money was refunded. But few investigated further.
The suit against P.P.C. ended in February. A court-appointed receiver will liquidate the firm and make refunds to consumers. P.P.C.’s owners admitted no wrongdoing.
Wachovia was asked in detail about its relationship with P.P.C., the withdrawals from Mr. Guthrie’s account and the accusations in the United States attorney’s lawsuit. The company declined to comment, except to say: “Wachovia works diligently to detect and end fraudulent use of its accounts. During the time P.P.C. was a customer, Wachovia honored all requests for returns related to the P.P.C. accounts, which in turn protected consumers from loss.”
Prosecutors argue that many elderly accountholders never realized Wachovia had processed checks that withdrew from their accounts, and so never requested refunds. Wachovia declined to respond.
The bank’s statement continued: “Wachovia is cooperating fully with authorities on this matter.”
Some Afraid to Seek Help
By 2005, Mr. Guthrie was in dire straits. When tellers at his bank noticed suspicious transactions, they helped him request refunds. But dozens of unauthorized withdrawals slipped through. Sometimes, he went to the grocery store and discovered that he could not buy food because his account was empty. He didn’t know why. And he was afraid to seek help.
“I didn’t want to say anything that would cause my kids to take over my accounts,” he said. Such concerns play into thieves’ plans, investigators say.
“Criminals focus on the elderly because they know authorities will blame the victims or seniors will worry about their kids throwing them into nursing homes,” said C. Steven Baker, a lawyer with the Federal Trade Commission. “Frequently, the victims are too distracted from dementia or Alzheimer’s to figure out something’s wrong.”
Within a few months, Mr. Guthrie’s children noticed that he was skipping meals and was behind on bills. By then, all of his savings — including the proceeds of selling his farm and money set aside to send great-grandchildren to college — was gone.
State regulators have tried to protect victims like Mr. Guthrie. In 2005, attorneys general of 35 states urged the Federal Reserve to end the unsigned check system.
“Such drafts should be eliminated in favor of electronic funds transfers that can serve the same payment function” but are less susceptible to manipulation, they wrote.
But the Federal Reserve disagreed. It changed its rules to place greater responsibility on banks that first accept unsigned checks, but has permitted their continued use.
Today, just as he feared, Mr. Guthrie’s financial freedom is gone. He gets a weekly $50 allowance to buy food and gasoline. His children now own his home, and his grandson controls his bank account. He must ask permission for large or unusual purchases.
And because he can’t buy anything, many telemarketers have stopped calling.
“It’s lonelier now,” he said at his kitchen table, which is crowded with mail. “I really enjoy when those salespeople call. But when I tell them I can’t buy anything now, they hang up. I miss the good chats we used to have.”
Posted by politicalstuff at 1:03 AM