Saturday, July 22, 2006

Con Ed: Blackout's 10 times worse than originally reported

Con Ed: Blackout's 10 times worse than originally reported


Con Ed workers hand out ice to Astoria residents at Ditmars Blvd. and Steinway St.
Elena Murphy, who is nine months pregnant, has tossed out $150 worth of food.
Earlier story: Sweat and rage

A blackout affecting an estimated 100,000 people in Queens - which entered its fifth day Friday - is 10 times worse than the power company had previously reported, Con Edison said.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, speaking on his weekly radio show, said he was "annoyed" by the new estimate - 25,000 customers without power - because "we might have thrown more resources into the area." Bloomberg later made the "100,000 people" estimate at a news conference. The term "customer" can refer to more than one household, or even an entire apartment building.

"The sad thing is, this shouldn't have happened," Bloomberg said. "We don't know why, but the most important thing - make sure nobody dies or gets hurt and then help Con Ed to get it back up."

"And then we'll go and try to figure out why and point fingers and beat people over the head and all that sort of thing," added the mayor.

Con Edison said its revised number followed a block-by-block cable inspection in northwest Queens on Thursday night. It said previous estimates came from the number of customers who called to complain.

Similarly, Con Edison said Friday that 35,000 customers in Westchester County - not the 25,000 reported earlier - lost power after Tuesday's storm. About 6,000 were still out on Friday morning.

"They have no way of measuring whether or not there's power to your house" until workers make it to that location, Bloomberg said. "They cannot tell from their computers."

"Their estimates at the beginning were based on how many people called up and said, 'My power's not working.' ... You can question whether that's an intelligent way to do it," the mayor said.

The rhetoric was ratcheted up as other politicians jumped into the fray. Assemblyman Michael Gianaris of Astoria called for a "criminal investigation of Con Edison on the grounds of reckless endangerment."

Bloomberg said he was told the utility now hopes to fix most of the problems by the end of the weekend.

The blackouts started Monday evening. Two LaGuardia Airport terminals were without power Tuesday; the Rikers Island jail complex used backup generators. A number of subway problems around the city this week were believed to be heat or power related, including severe interruptions in Queens on Wednesday, when the temperature hit 100 degrees in some neighborhoods. By Friday, hundreds of Queens businesses remained idle and homeowners had no use of appliances and, sometimes, elevators.

Bloomberg said the city expected to restore traffic lights by the Friday afternoon rush-hour, with traffic agents posted at remaining intersections.

Uniformed officers were showing a "significant presence" and two burglary arrests were made on Thursday night at blacked-out homes, said Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly.

Ambulances and fire vehicles were cruising the streets to speed response times, and a firehouse was handing out water and dry ice to residents, said the mayor and Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta. The mayor said calls to 911 were down 40 percent because police were on the scene, where residents "can grab them."

The Human Resources Administration, the Red Cross, the Small Business Bureau and other agencies will provide assistance to the neighborhood through the weekend or for as long as the blackout continues, Bloomberg said.

People who lost food or had other damage were instructed to call 311 to find out how to get reimbursed.

Bloomberg, who visited the area on Thursday, demanded that the utility investigate and deliver a report on the cause within two weeks.


Report: Investigators Found That Pentagon Allowed Sensitive Military Equipment Sales to Public

ABC News
Report Raps Pentagon Equipment Sales
Report: Investigators Found That Pentagon Allowed Sensitive Military Equipment Sales to Public
The Associated Press

WASHINGTON - Undercover government investigators purchased sensitive surplus military equipment such as launcher mounts for shoulder-fired missiles and guided missile radar test sets from a Defense Department contractor.

Much of the equipment could be useful to terrorists, according to a draft report by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.

In June, two GAO investigators spent $1.1 million on such equipment at two excess property warehouses. Their purchases included several types of body armor inserts used by troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, an all-band antenna used to track aircraft, and a digital signal converter used in naval surveillance.

"The body armor could be used by terrorists or other criminal activity," noted the report, obtained Friday by The Associated Press. "Many of the other military items have weapons applications that would also be useful to terrorists."

Thousands of items that should have been destroyed were sold to the public, the report said. Much of the equipment was sold for pennies on the dollar.

The list included circuit cards used in computerized Navy systems, a cesium technology timing unit with global positioning capabilities, and 12 digital microcircuits used in F-14 Tomcat fighter aircraft.

At least 2,669 sensitive military items were sold to 79 buyers in 216 sales transactions from November 2005 to June 2006.

"DOD has not enforced security controls for preventing sensitive excess military equipment from release to the public," the report concluded. "GAO was able to purchase these items because controls broke down at virtually every step in the excess property turn-in and disposal process."

In the report, the GAO said it had briefed Pentagon officials on its findings but that the Pentagon had no response because it had not had time to perform a detailed review.

Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., chairman of the House Government Reform Committee's national security panel, will hold a hearing on the matter Tuesday. Earlier GAO reports also had found lax security controls over sensitive excess military equipment.

"During previous hearings we learned DOD was a bargain basement for would-be terrorists due to lax security screening of excess military equipment," Shays said in a statement Friday. "Based on GAO's most recent undercover investigation it looks like the store is still open."

The GAO findings were first reported by CBS News and ABC News.


C.I.A. Worker Says Message on Torture Got Her Fired

The New York Times
C.I.A. Worker Says Message on Torture Got Her Fired

WASHINGTON, July 21 — A contract employee working for the Central Intelligence Agency said she had been fired recently for posting a message on a classified computer server that said an interrogation technique used by the agency against some terror suspects amounted to torture.

The employee, Christine Axsmith, kept the “Covert Communications” blog on a top-secret computer network used by American intelligence agencies. Ms. Axsmith was fired on Monday after C.I.A. officials objected to a message that criticized the interrogation technique called “waterboarding,” a particularly harsh practice that the C.I.A. is known to have used on Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who is widely regarded as the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks.

The episode has opened a window into the new world of classified blogging: an experimental effort being carried out in top-secret computer forums where information and ideas are shared across the intelligence community. Intelligence officials said that since last year, more than 1,000 blogs had been set up on classified intelligence servers.

Ms. Axsmith, a computer security expert with a law degree, posted the message this month, shortly after the Bush administration decided to grant some protections of the Geneva Conventions to suspected terrorists in American custody. She said that her message began, “Waterboarding is torture, and torture is wrong.”

Ms. Axsmith’s firing was earlier reported on several blogs including on Thursday, and in Friday’s Washington Post.

“I wanted an in-house discussion,” Ms. Axsmith said in an interview on Thursday in her home in Washington. “Something where I would be educating people on the background of the Geneva Conventions.”

Instead, Ms. Axsmith was fired by her employer, B.A.E. Systems, which has an information technology contract with the C.I.A.

Ms. Axsmith said C.I.A. officials had confronted her and told her that the agency’s senior leadership was angry about the blog, which was housed on Intelink, the classified server maintained by the American intelligence community to aid communication among its employees.

Besides losing her job, Ms. Axsmith also lost her top-secret security clearance, which she had held since 1993 and used for previous work for the State Department and National Counterterrorism Center.

She said she feared that her career in the intelligence world was over. “It was like I was wiped out,” she said.

A spokesman for B.A.E. Systems, Bob Hastings, said privacy issues prohibited him from commenting on Ms. Axsmith’s firing. But Mr. Hastings said that company policy prohibited employees from using computers for non-official purposes.

Paul Gimigliano, a C.I.A. spokesman, said that the blogs were intended to “encourage collaboration” on business issues but that postings “should relate directly to the official business of the author and readers of the Web site.”

The C.I.A. denies that it uses torture to extract information from prisoners, although a 2004 report by the agency’s inspector general concluded that some of its interrogation practices appeared to constitute cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.

In waterboarding, the interrogation technique that Ms. Axsmith criticized, a prisoner is strapped to a board and then made to feel as if he is drowning.

In March 2005, Porter J. Goss, who was then the C.I.A. director, described waterboarding as a “professional interrogation technique”; American military pilots and commandos are known to have been subjected to it during highly classified training regimes designed to prepare them to live in captivity.

The use of the practice, along with the agency’s detention of approximately three dozen “high value detainees” in secret jails, has made some C.I.A. employees uneasy and has prompted a debate within the intelligence community.

Ms. Axsmith said she believed that the “vast majority” of people working for the C.I.A. were opposed to torture.

And, she said that she believed that the classified blogs could be a critical tool to allow C.I.A. employees — who are often prohibited from discussing their work even with other agency officials — to vent frustrations.

“The blogs are a safety valve for people to discuss controversial topics,” she said. “It reduces the chances that people may leak to the press.”

In April, the C.I.A. fired Mary O. McCarthy, a longtime employee, for having unauthorized contacts with the news media.

Though stripped of her security clearance, Ms. Axsmith still maintains her public, unclassified blog: On that Web site on Friday, there were several messages supporting her, including postings from anonymous intelligence officials who said that they would miss her “Covert Communications” blog.

Ms. Axsmith acknowledges that the posting that got her fired was deliberately provocative, and she said that if she had another chance she might have toned down the language.

“I guess I’m just too much of a big mouth for that organization,” she said.


Cheney's Photo-Ops Won't Make America Any Safer, Says Democratic National Committee

Cheney's Photo-Ops Won't Make America Any Safer, Says Democratic National Committee

WASHINGTON, July 21 /U.S. Newswire/ -- Vice President Cheney today continues the Bush Administration's futile efforts to use empty photo-ops and rosy rhetoric to mask the ineptitude of its foreign policy and hide the fact that its failed leadership and misplaced priorities have made Americans less safe. Today's remarks at Fort Stewart and the Hunter Army Air Field in Georgia are the latest in a series of speeches intended to use our brave men and women in uniform as political backdrops.

While Vice President Cheney has been traveling the country urging Republican candidates to use the war as a political devise this election year, Republicans across the country are distancing themselves from the President's failed Iraq policy in the face of increased casualties among Iraqi civilians, concerns about civil war from leaders in Iraq, and estimates that the cost to rebuild Iraq has increased by $50 billion. From South Dakota to North Carolina to Connecticut, Republicans in Congress are shying away from the President's commitment to a failed strategy in Iraq. (Washington Post, 7/20/06)

These Republicans are joining the American people, who have made it clear that they are tired of the empty rhetoric that has become the hallmark of the inept and dangerous foreign policies of the Bush Administration. President Bush's mishandling of the War in Iraq and America's subsequent disengagement from a host of military and diplomatic confrontations around the world have made America less safe. And at home, the Bush White House and the "Do- Nothing" Republican Congress have not done enough to keep our borders or ports secure.

"With a record like this, it's no wonder Republicans are beginning to fear a backlash at the polls in November," said Democratic National Committee spokesman Damien LaVera. "When Vice President Cheney comes through Georgia today, he should avoid his usual fear-mongering and scare tactics and offer real answers on why the Bush Administration's failed policies have made America less safe. It's been more than five years since after 9/11, but Osama bin Laden is still on the loose, while the insurgency in Iraq is growing and the cost of the war is escalating. Here at home, the Bush Republicans in the 'Do-Nothing' Congress have consistently blocked Democratic attempts to strengthen our borders and secure our ports.

"Democrats have a new direction for America that includes a foreign policy that is both tough and smart and that restores America's credibility around the world and keeps Americans safe at home."

The Bush Administration Resurrects Hollow And Misleading Election Year Rhetoric...

Vice President Cheney Resurrects Election-Year War On Terror Rhetoric. "Vice president Dick Cheney urged Republicans Friday night to make the war on terror their top issue in the 2006 election, speaking at a fundraiser in a contested upstate congressional district. 'As we make our case to the voters in an election year, it is vital to keep issues of national security at the top of the agenda, Cheney told more than 300 donors to GOP candidate Ray Meier. 'The president and I welcome the discussion because every voter in America needs to know where the president and I stand where every candidate for federal office stands when it comes to the war on terror,' Cheney said." (AP, 7/14/06)

...Even As Republicans are Rejecting Bush Agenda

Sen. John Thune (R-SD): "Don't Embrace The President And His Agenda."... freshman Sen. John Thune (S.D.) told reporters at the National Press Club that if he were running for reelection this year, 'you obviously don't embrace the president and his agenda.' 'The first thing I'd do is acknowledge that there have been mistakes made,' Thune said." (Washington Post, 7/20/06)

Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC): "It's like after Katrina, when the secretary of homeland security was saying all those people weren't really stranded when we were all watching it on TV,' said Rep. Patrick T. McHenry (R-N.C.). 'I still hear about that. We can't look like we won't face reality.'" (Washington Post, 7/20/06)

Rep. Gil Gutknecht (R-MN): "Essentially what the White House is saying is 'Stay the course, stay the course.' I don't think that course is politically sustainable." (Washington Post, 7/20/06)

With a Record Like This, Who Can Blame Them?

America's Top Army Commander: We Are "Closer To The Beginning... Than We Are To The End" In The War On Terror; Won't Say That America Is Winning, Only That We're Not Losing In Iraq. The Army's top uniformed officer said Friday he did not think the United States was losing the war in Iraq but declined to say the nation was winning. Americans should brace for a long fight against terrorism, said Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army's chief of staff. "I believe that we are closer to the beginning . . . than we are to the end," he said during a luncheon on Capitol Hill sponsored by the Defense Forum Foundation. When asked whether the military was winning in Iraq, Schoomaker paused before telling the audience of mostly congressional staffers: 'I don't think we're losing.'" (AP, 7/15/06)

U.S. Commanders: US Troops Will Be In Iraq Until 2016. "U.S. war commanders think some level of American forces will be needed in Iraq until 2016... These were among the points made by Iraq war commanders at a closed-door conference last spring at Fort Carson, Colo., home to the 7th Infantry Division. Maj. Gen. Robert W. Mixon Jr., the division's commander, invited scores of retired generals and admirals in the Fort Carson area to hear the commanders and give them feedback." (Washington Times, 7/17/06)

Report: Army Stretched Thin. "Stretched by frequent troop rotations to Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army has become a "thin green line" that could snap unless relief comes soon, according to a study for the Pentagon. Andrew Krepinevich, a retired Army officer who wrote the report under a Pentagon contract, concluded that the Army cannot sustain the pace of troop deployments to Iraq long enough to break the back of the insurgency. .. "You really begin to wonder just how much stress and strain there is on the Army, how much longer it can continue," he said in an interview." (USA Today, 1/24/06)

President of Council on Foreign Relations: Iraq War "Absorbed A Tremendous Amount of U.S. Military Capacity," "Weakened Our Position." Richard N. Haass, president of the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations and head of policy planning at the State Department during the outbreak of the Iraq war in 2003, said that in hindsight, while history's judgment would depend on how things turned out in Iraq, the impact on U.S. foreign policy at this point was "clearly negative." The war, he said, "has absorbed a tremendous amount of U.S. military capacity, the result being that the United States has far less spare or available capacity, not just to use in the active sense, but to exploit in the diplomatic sense. It has therefore weakened our position against both North Korea and Iran." He said that it had also "exacerbated the U.S. fiscal situation, which obviously has all sorts of economic repercussions." "For all that, a lot of the impact on U.S. foreign policy still awaits how things turn out," Haass says. "It's a very different impact if Iraq suddenly implodes or becomes the venue for not just a civil war but a regional war. Obviously, in such a circumstance, the implications for U.S. foreign policy would be both greater and more negative." (Council on Foreign Relations Interview, 3/14/06)

Newsweek: "America Is Viewed As Weak...Distracted And Drained because of Iraq." According to an article in Newsweek by Michael Hirsh, "America is viewed as weak at the moment, distracted and drained because of Iraq - and everybody out there is taking advantage of it. Too often, Americans tend to see other players on the international stage as merely part of the backdrop, conforming to our movements or remaining stationary while we get our act together. In fact, most of these world leaders are aggressive players in their own right who will push back, and hard, when they see softness...they are betting that George W. Bush is too out of resources and time to protest while they make a mockery of his agenda and his leadership." (Newsweek, 6/15/06)

U.S. Peace Envoy in Middle East: Bush Administration "Preoccupied with Iraq." Middle East experts warned that a weakened Bush administration may be too preoccupied with its problems with Iraq and Iran to deal with the sharply escalating crisis around Israel. Dennis Ross, a longtime U.S. peace envoy in the region, said that "the Bush administration is preoccupied with Iraq and Iran and North Korea, and doesn't seem to have much time for this issue." Ross said that because it was distracted by the other crises the administration appeared to looking at the crisis in Gaza, where one Israeli soldier was being held captive, in narrow terms. In reality, the resolution of that problem "is going to have a very big impact" on future relations between Israel and the Palestinians, he said. (Newsday, 7/13/06)

House Republicans Voted Against Increased Port Security. Since 9/11, Republicans have blocked Democratic efforts to strengthen the security of our nation's ports. In 2005, Republicans voted against an alternative Homeland Security Authorization proposal that would commit $41 billion to securing the nation from terrorist threats - $6.9 billion more than the President's budget. The proposal called for an additional $400 million in funding for port security, including $13 million to double the number of new overseas port inspectors provided for in the President's budget. The proposal addressed the holes in securing the nation's ports by requiring DHS to develop container security standards, integrate container security pilot projects, and examine ways to integrate container inspection equipment and data. Currently DHS, has three very similar container security pilot projects that are not coordinated in any fashion, resulting in wasted money and redundant efforts. Finally, the plan required DHS to conduct a study of the risk factors associated with the port of Miami and ports in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, including the U.S. Virgin Islands. The alternative plan failed, 196-230. (HR 1817, Roll Call 187, 5/18/05; Committee on Homeland Security Minority Office,

DHS Report Card: Bush Administration Gets "C-minus/D-plus" on Port Security; Bush Port Policies A "House of Cards." The Democratic Staff of the Committee on Homeland Security's annual report card on the Department of Homeland Security gave the department a C-minus/D-plus on its port security policies. They called the current port security regime a "house of cards," and noted that containers arriving at American ports are rarely inspected and that the Department "remains unaware of security arrangements at foreign ports and vessels shipping goods to the United States." In addition to the threats millions of Americans face as a result of the Bush White House's failed port policies, it was estimated that "a terrorist attack at a major U.S. seaport would cause $60 billion in economic damages." (Democratic Staff of the Committee on Homeland Security, Annual Report Card, 2/06)

Republicans Opposed Comprehensive Approach to Homeland Security. In 2005, House Republicans voted against an alternative Homeland Security Authorization proposal that would commit $41 billion to securing the nation from terrorist threats - $6.9 billion more than the President's budget. The proposal contained $28.4 billion for border and transportation security, immigration processing, and other security functions -- $4 billion more than the President's budget. It required chemical facilities to conduct vulnerability assessments, and to make security enhancements based on the assessment and mandated that 100 percent of cargo carried on passenger planes be physically inspected for explosives or other dangerous materials within three years.

Furthermore, the proposal addressed the holes in securing the nation's ports by requiring DHS to develop container security standards, integrate container security pilot projects, and examine ways to integrate container inspection equipment and data. Currently DHS, has three very similar container security pilot projects that are not coordinated in any fashion, resulting in wasted money and redundant efforts. Finally, the plan required DHS to conduct a study of the risk factors associated with the port of Miami and ports in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, including the U.S. Virgin Islands. The alternative plan failed, 196-230. (HR 1817, Vote 187, 5/18/2005; Failed 196-230; R 1-227; D 194-3; I 1-0; Committee on Homeland Security Minority Office,

Republicans Voted Against Fulfilling 9/11 Commission Recommendations on Border Security and Immigration. In 2005, House Republicans voted against an alternative proposal to improve border security and immigration enforcement by fulfilling the 9/11 Commission's border security recommendations. On December 5, 2005 the 9/11 Commission issued its final report card that highlighted the many failures of the Republican Congress and Administration in implementing the commission's recommendations. As Chairman Thomas Kean and Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton said in a joint statement on December 5, "There is so much more to be done...Many obvious steps that the American people assume have been completed have not been...Some of these failures are shocking...We are frustrated by the lack of urgency about fixing these problems." The alternative proposal would have hired more border agents, ended the "catch and release" practice by authorizing 100,000 additional detention beds and incorporated state-of-the art surveillance technology, including cameras, sensors, radar, satellites, and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles in order to ensure 100 percent border coverage. (HR 4437 , Vote 660, 12/16/2005; Failed 198-221; R 0-219; D 197-2; I 1-0; Reps. Conyers, Thompson and Reyes Dear Colleague, "Fulfilling the 9/11 Commission's Recommendations," 12/16/05)


Gaps in bird flu plan leave US vulnerable-senators

Gaps in bird flu plan leave US vulnerable-senators

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Agriculture Department's failure to develop a "comprehensive" program to monitor for bird flu could leave the country unprepared if an outbreak happens, a bipartisan group of senators said on Friday.

In a letter to Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns, six lawmakers said some states were not as prepared as they should be for the disease.

To better protect public health, they said, the department should provide states with a protocol for developing avian influenza response plans.

The letter also expressed concern that the U.S. Agriculture Department has not done enough to prepare for an outbreak in multiple states or raise awareness among backyard poultry owners for symptoms of the virus.

"We need leadership from USDA in preparing for the arrival of avian flu," said Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee.

"USDA's failure to develop a comprehensive monitoring program leaves us in the dark about areas of the country where better surveillance is needed. And USDA's inadequate assistance and cooperation with states and industry leaves our nation unnecessarily vulnerable," he said.

The letter also was signed by Democratic Sens. Harry Reid, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer and Republican Charles Grassley.

Last month, USDA's inspector general said the United States did not have adequate measures in place to survey and monitor for avian influenza, including the deadly H5N1 strain.

The inspector general's audit began before USDA received $91 million in supplemental funding from Congress in December. Much of that money went toward boosting its bird flu surveillance program.

USDA and the inspector general later agreed on recommendations made in the report.

"We have been working expeditiously to ensure that our plans for using these funds address the most critical aspects of (avian influenza) surveillance and emergency preparedness and response," Ed Loyd, USDA spokesman, said in a statement.

The latest bird flu strain is known to have killed more than 130 people and forced hundreds of millions of birds worldwide to be destroyed.

H5N1 has remained largely an infection of birds as it has spread through Asia, Europe and Africa. This strain has not been found in the United States so far.

Some experts believe the H5N1 virus could mutate so that it could spread easily from person to person, potentially killing millions of people.


US okays $276 mln Saudi military spare parts deal

US okays $276 mln Saudi military spare parts deal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Pentagon on Friday approved an agreement that will let Saudi Arabia buy up to $276 million in spare parts for its M1A2 Abrams tanks, M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicles, and other equipment from U.S. stocks.

In a mandatory notification to Congress, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, which oversees major arms sales, said the deal would help improve the security of Saudi Arabia.

Congress has 30 days to block the deal, although such action is rare.

"The uninterrupted supply of spare parts will allow Saudi Arabia to keep its vehicle fleet at the highest state of readiness," said the agency, which oversees major arms sales.

On Thursday, DSCA notified Congress that it had approved the sale to Saudi Arabia of 24 UH-60L Black Hawk helicopters, radios, armored vehicles and other military equipment worth more than $6 billion.

DSCA said the spare parts deal would take place under a Cooperative Logistics Supply Support Agreement. Under the deal, Saudi Arabia pays for options worth up to $276 million, which it can then use to place orders for spare parts.

It approved $461 million under a similar logistics deal with Saudi Arabia in March 1991 during the first Gulf War.

It said the spare parts would be procured from the many contractors providing similar items to U.S. forces.


Govt defends Pakistan jet sale to angry Congress

Govt defends Pakistan jet sale to angry Congress
By Paul Eckert, Asia Correspondent

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The proposed $5 billion sale to Pakistan of F-16 fighter jets will help shore up ties to a key American ally in the war on terror, a senior State Department told a Congressional hearing on Thursday.

John Hillen, assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, came under fire from lawmakers who cited Pakistan's past nuclear proliferation record and raised fears that warplane technology could be leaked to China, a close military ally of Pakistan.

"This sale will send a very clear signal of our commitment to a long-term relationship with Pakistan ... and strengthen the hand of President (Pervez) Musharraf and his government in supporting us in the war on terror," Hillen said.

He told the U.S. House of Representatives International Relations Committee that concerns about leakage of technology from Pakistan were being addressed by "an extraordinary security plan" imposed on the planes and components and accepted by Pakistan's Air Force.

Despite the assurances and safeguards, New York Democrat Gary Ackerman, introduced in the House of Representative on Thursday legislation to block the sale, his office said.

"I have a hard time believing that whatever security arrangements Pakistan has agreed to won't be violated by someone with an interest in earning a little ready cash," he said in a written statement.

Congress has the power to block such a sale by enacting a resolution of disapproval in both houses within 30 days of the notification date. It was not clear if Ackerman's legislation could be passed before that deadline, which falls next week.


On June 28, the Bush administration formally notified Congress of plans to sell Pakistan up to 36 F-16C/D Block 50/52 Falcon fighters built by Lockheed Martin Corp. in a deal worth up to $5 billion if all options are exercised.

Henry Hyde, the Illinois Republican who chairs the House panel, said he was "troubled" by the idea that the deal would help China and by extension Chinese arms customers such as Iran and Iran's clients in the Middle East, including Hizbollah.

"We don't think China will be advantaged by this sale at all," said Hillen.

"In fact, the best thing that could happen for the Chinese military is for a sale like this not to go through because then it is they who will have access to influence the Pakistan military as opposed to the United States," he said.

"We want to build this relationship precisely to help them get better at combating terrorism, Hillen later added.

Rep. Tom Lantos, the top Democrat on the Committee, said he supported the sale to Pakistan but had concerns about how to "protect the U.S. technology in these aircraft and missiles to a country that produced the A.Q. Khan nuclear network."

Khan is the Pakistani scientist who confessed in 2004 to flouting international safeguards and selling banned nuclear technology to states including North Korea and Iran. Pakistan pardoned Khan, whom it said acted on his own.

Hillen faced bi-partisan anger for ignoring a traditional 20-day "pre-notification" period for conferring with Congress on arms sales in addition to the 30 days in which the sale can be blocked.

Lantos, of California, who lambasted what he called the "arrogance" of the State Department, joined Hyde in introducing a bill requiring quarterly updates on possible arms sales and formal enforcement of the 20-day pre-notification period.


Friday, July 21, 2006

Terror Database Tracks University of California Protests; U.S. agent reported on '05 rallies against military recruitment

San Francisco Chronicle
Terror Database Tracks University of California Protests
U.S. agent reported on '05 rallies against military recruitment
by Demian Bulwa

A federal Department of Homeland Security agent passed along information about student protests against military recruiters at UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz, landing the demonstrations on a database tracking foreign terrorism, according to government documents released Tuesday.

The documents were released by the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a Freedom of Information Act request on behalf of student groups that protested against recruiters who visited their campuses in April 2005.

The students were angry when they turned up in the database of a Pentagon program called Threat and Local Observation Notice, or TALON, which the government started in 2003 as a way to collect data that could help stop terrorist attacks. Officials have acknowledged that the reports on protests should not have been included.

In the Santa Cruz and Berkeley reports, the source of information was listed as an agent for Homeland Security's Federal Protective Service. The reports were filed by the 902nd Military Intelligence Group, the Army's largest counterespionage unit.

"This raises questions about whether the Department of Homeland Security tasked somebody to gather information about anti-war activities," said Mark Schlosberg, police practices policy director for the ACLU's Northern California office.

Dennis O'Connor, a spokesman for the Federal Protective Service, said his agency protects 9,000 federal sites. Agents disseminate publicly available information about protests, he said, but do not investigate them or their organizers, spy on them or try to hinder them. He said he did not know how the information ended up in the terror database.

"If we're not aware of what's going on around us, we can't do our job effectively," he said. "Even if a protest is going to be peaceful, we have to be aware of it."

The reports say the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force in San Francisco had been briefed on the protests. FBI spokeswoman LaRae Quy said the agency had taken no action related to the protests.

The report on the Berkeley protest said the Homeland Security agent received an e-mail on April 18, 2005, announcing a "counter-recruitment" and civil disobedience action three days later, when recruiters would be at a career fair. In a section titled "Agent Notes," the report states, "There is a strong potential for a confrontation at this protest given the strong support for anti-war protests and movements in the past."

NBC News revealed the database in December. The Pentagon acknowledged that the protest reports should not have been included in the database, which now has more than 13,000 entries.

The reports "have been removed," Pentagon spokesman Greg Hicks said Tuesday.

Schlosberg said the ACLU is seeking further information. In the documents released Tuesday, the government blacked out the source of the e-mails to the Homeland Security agent.


Bush's Poverty Talk Is Now All but Silent; Aiding Poor Was Brief Priority After Katrina
Bush's Poverty Talk Is Now All but Silent
Aiding Poor Was Brief Priority After Katrina
By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer

Poverty forced its way to the top of President Bush's agenda in the confusing days after Hurricane Katrina battered the Gulf Coast and flooded New Orleans. Confronted with one of the most pressing political crises of his presidency, Bush, who in the past had faced withering criticism for speaking little about the poor, said the nation has a solemn duty to help them.

"All of us saw on television, there's . . . some deep, persistent poverty in this region," he said in a prime-time speech from New Orleans's Jackson Square, 17 days after the Aug. 29 hurricane. "That poverty has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America. We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action."

As it happened, poverty's turn in the presidential limelight was brief. Bush has talked little about the issue since the immediate crisis passed, while pursuing policies that his liberal critics say will hurt the poor. He has publicly mentioned domestic poverty six times since giving back-to-back speeches on the issue in September. Domestic poverty did not come up in his State of the Union address in January, and his most recent budget included no new initiatives directed at the poor.

Tony Snow, the president's press secretary, said Bush is unlikely to invoke poverty when he addresses the national convention of the NAACP today, and instead will focus on opportunities available to everyone. "After all, the goal is prosperity," Snow said.

Preoccupied by war and the specter of terrorism and threatened with revolt by his core supporters because of what they see as his free-spending ways, Bush has used the bully pulpit of the presidency not to marshal a new national consensus for fighting poverty but to make the case for cutting taxes along with domestic programs. He has never publicly discussed the growing crisis of young, uneducated black men, whose plight has worsened in the past decade even as the economy has generally flourished, according to a recent spate of academic studies.

Meanwhile, his Office of Management and Budget has sketched scenarios that envision deep funding cuts in an array of programs that aid the poor, including housing assistance, food stamps, Medicaid, community development grants and energy assistance. Budget officials minimize the significance of those projections, saying that they are rarely enacted and that expenditures for many poverty programs have increased sharply since Bush took office.

"Does he often talk about poverty? No," Snow said. "There hasn't been a direct discussion of poverty, but he is focused on eliminating the barriers that stand in the way of people making progress."

Many advocates for the poor point out that budget increases in traditional anti-poverty programs are the work of Congress, not the White House. And they see the budget projections as a clear signal of the administration's policy goals.

"I'll never forget the night the president gave that speech from Jackson Square," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), one of the black lawmakers summoned to meet with administration officials in Katrina's hectic aftermath. "He talked about stamping out poverty. He talked about things that showed the compassionate side of his compassionate conservative stance. Since then, what I've found is that he has been long on conservatism and short on compassion."

The number of Americans living in poverty has risen each year Bush has been president, increasing to 37 million in 2004 from 31.6 million in 2000. Overall, 12.7 percent of the nation's population lives in poverty, which for a family of four means an income less than $20,000 a year.

The increases in poverty come after years of decline in the 1990s, which analysts say was largely fostered by a booming economy and revolutionary changes in the welfare system, which required many recipients to go to work, slashing relief rolls by nearly 60 percent. In addition, wider use of the earned income tax credit and other measures to help people in low-paying jobs lifted many people out of poverty.

Bush's critics say that progress on poverty has stopped because the president has not invested much time in championing the issue. While Bush has been outspoken in his support of religious groups' efforts to combat social ills and has moved to shift federal money to their coffers, he has not shown much faith in the power of government to directly help the poor.

"The Bush administration has shown a total lack of leadership on this issue," said former Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards, who has made a new war on poverty his signature issue as he travels the country in preparation for an expected 2008 presidential bid. "He has consistently opposed ideas that would help lift people out of poverty."

Edwards has called for tax credits for first-time home buyers and to help low-income workers establish savings accounts; expanded opportunities for college; and the creation of 1 million temporary government-subsidized jobs. Bush has hurt the poor, he said, with his long-standing opposition to increasing the minimum wage and expanding the earned income tax credit, which supplements the income of low-wage workers with a refundable tax credit.

Administration officials and outside advisers say education accountability and school choice; home ownership; and efforts to encourage marriage and further revamp welfare by requiring more recipients to work -- all efforts Bush supports -- ultimately help the poor.

"The Bush administration has had a consistent, forward-looking strategy on poverty," said Robert E. Rector, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "They have had a consistent effort to raise work levels, reduce out-of-wedlock childbearing and promote marriage."

The percentage of births to unmarried women increased sharply through the 1970s and 1980s before slowing in the mid-1990s. Researchers say the rate has begun to increase again. Meanwhile, marriage rates for women continue to plummet, though not as dramatically as they did in the decades leading up to the mid-1990s.

Bush took a more aggressive stance in the days after Katrina. He laid out an ambitious plan to fight poverty with tax breaks to encourage small- and minority-business development; grants to help storm victims with job training, transportation, child care and other needs; and an urban homesteading program that would turn over unused federal property to poor storm victims who could then build houses on it.

But most of his proposals went nowhere. "I think it has been very difficult for them to move those kinds of things in Congress, so they haven't tried very hard," said Douglas J. Besharov, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "The truth is that all analysts, even liberal analysts, looked in the cupboard for ideas to push after Katrina, and the cupboard was bare. I don't think it was an accident that we haven't gotten a big set of proposals."

Even though Bush's Katrina plan was largely sidetracked, administration officials have been busy instituting long-standing ideas they think will alleviate poverty as they rebuild the Gulf Coast. "This president gets it in spades about how important it is to build a middle class in New Orleans," said Donald E. Powell, federal coordinator of Gulf Coast recovery.

A large number of the low-achieving public schools in New Orleans are being reopened as charter schools. Also, poverty-stricken public housing units are being rebuilt as mixed-income communities, a strategy that officials think will make once crime-ridden neighborhoods more livable.

That effort has spurred a lawsuit from advocates who are angry that New Orleans is losing thousands of subsidized housing units, leaving no place to return to for poor residents who fled the floodwaters -- although federal housing officials say they will eventually be accommodated.

"We've been talking about eradicating poverty in this country since the 1960s," said Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson. "We had the Great Society. If that had worked, we would not have had generation after generation of poverty. The president is trying to address this in a systematic way by addressing the elements that are needed to lift people out of poverty."

Nonetheless, many advocates for the poor insist that Bush has squandered an opportunity presented by Katrina to once again make fighting poverty a national cause. "He had a prime opportunity right after Katrina," Cummings said. "But I'm afraid it just got swept away like so many homes and businesses did in that horrific storm."


HHS Secretary's Fund Gave Little to Charity
HHS Secretary's Fund Gave Little to Charity
By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer

Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt and his relatives have claimed millions of dollars in tax deductions through a type of charitable foundation they created that until recently paid out very little in actual charity, tax records show.

Instead, much of the foundation's money has been invested or lent to the family's business interests and real estate holdings, or contributed to the Leavitt family genealogical society.

The Leavitts used nearly $9 million of their assets to set up the foundation in 2000 under an obscure provision of the federal tax code. But unlike standard private foundations, which are required to give away at least 5 percent of their assets to charitable causes, the Leavitt organization donated less than 1 percent of its assets in 2002, 2003 and 2004. The donations jumped to 6.3 percent of total assets last year, after the sale of family water interests that also allowed the foundation to increase its lending to Leavitt business interests.

While Mike Leavitt alone has claimed about $1.2 million in tax write-offs since 2000, the foundation gave away only $49,000 in 2002 and $52,000 the next year, according to tax returns and other documents filed by the foundation. Meanwhile, the foundation's assets have been used for a $332,000 loan to Leavitt Land and Investment Inc., in which the secretary owns a significant stake, and other secured loans for insurance and real estate deals, said Alan A. Jones, a trustee of the organization.

Leavitt Land and Investment, in turn, extended an interest-free loan to Leavitt in 2002 valued at more than $250,001, according to a recent financial disclosure.

"The foundation's activities are totally legal and proper," Christina Pearson, an HHS spokeswoman, said this week on the secretary's behalf.

But Rick Cohen, executive director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, said that "the Leavitts are using the foundation as a personal piggy bank, and that's not what the public -- or Congress -- ought to tolerate." Cohen reviewed the family foundation's records and tax returns at the request of The Washington Post.

The tax structure used to create the foundation is called a Type III supporting organization. The Internal Revenue Service has said the category is rife with abuse, designating "supporting organizations" this year as one of its "Dirty Dozen" top tax scams, along with Internet identity theft and offshore banks. Use of the tax structure could be significantly reined in under a tax provision that was inserted into pension legislation passed by the Senate and now under negotiation with the House.

Leavitt and his brother Dane have defended the family's actions as both legal and ethical.

Dane Leavitt said his family would change the operations of the foundation if Congress enacted the legislative changes, which were proposed by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa).

"That's a public policy decision," Dane Leavitt said. "If Congress makes that decision, we will abide by it."

From its early roots in the settlement of Utah, the Leavitt family has built up a considerable fortune in land and business. The family created the Leavitt Group and built it into one of the largest insurance brokerages in the country. Before he was elected Utah's governor in 1992, Mike Leavitt was the group's president and chief executive, amassing holdings valued at $5 million to $25 million. He sold off those assets when he joined President Bush's Cabinet.

In August 2000, Leavitt's parents, Dixie L. and Anne O. Leavitt, established the supporting organization under their names. The family then donated nearly $8.1 million worth of water rights that it was using to irrigate its land in southern Nevada. It donated another $540,000 in stock from the Leavitt Group.

Under the regulations governing Type III supporting organizations, the Leavitts could then claim huge charitable deductions from their taxes using the fair market value of those assets. As owner of roughly 15 percent of the water rights, Mike Leavitt was entitled to around $1.2 million in tax write-offs, Jones said.

Unlike standard private foundations, the Dixie & Anne Leavitt Foundation was not required to invest its funds in a diverse array of assets. It kept the assets in the Bunkerville (Nev.) Irrigation Company, in which the family retained significant control, and the Leavitt Group, whose board includes Dane, David, Dixie, Eric, Mark, Matthew and Rod Leavitt.

According to tax documents, the Leavitt Foundation donated $49,087 of its $9 million trust -- or 0.5 percent -- in 2002 and $52,312 -- or 0.6 percent -- in 2003, the only years of tax data available.

"They're basically sitting on all this money, getting a charitable write-off and doing nothing with it," Cohen said.

The small percentage used for donations went largely to causes closely tied to the Leavitts. The bulk of the money has gone to the Southern Utah Foundation, under rules set out by the Leavitts under what is known as a donor-advised fund. Thousands of dollars more in donations have gone to Southern Utah University, Mike Leavitt's alma mater, and the Western Association of Leavitt Families, which promotes genealogical research and religious activities for the descendants of the first Leavitts, who helped establish Utah as a Mormon state.

"Secretary Leavitt's parents are generous people who are supportive of the people and causes in southern Utah. Organizations like Southern Utah University, which Secretary Leavitt attended, and the Southern Utah Foundation have provided services to thousands of people," Pearson, the HHS spokeswoman, said.

Dane Leavitt said the foundation's bylaws set strict limits on the contributions it can make to Leavitt family organizations.

The foundation maintains its holdings in the Leavitt Group, but last year it sold off the family's water rights to the Las Vegas Valley Water District for $11.9 million, Jones said -- substantially more than the $8.1 million originally claimed as a charitable deduction.

If the family had to pay out 5 percent of those assets a year, the foundation would have had to liquidate some of those water rights for less money. Now, it will have more money to give in the future, Dane Leavitt said. The proceeds from the sale should earn $800,000 in income, 85 percent of which will go to charities to "do some significant good," he said. Indeed, giving has increased substantially this year.

"It was a good thing to not liquidate that water stock until the time was right," he said, "and the time was right last year."

"Those limitations are in place," he said, "and I'm confident they are abiding by them."

But selling the water rights opened the foundation to a new criticism. Jones said some of the proceeds have been farmed out to secured loans to Leavitt-related interests, such as real estate investments and insurance businesses. Even before the asset sale, the Leavitt Foundation's 2002 tax return noted an outstanding loan of $332,000, which Jones said went to Leavitt Land and Investment Inc., secured by the water rights.

Mike Leavitt's stake in Leavitt Land and Investment -- which owns commercial and residential buildings, land and livestock -- was valued at $1 million to $5 million in his 2005 financial disclosure form. In the same year that the foundation made its loan to the company, the company gave Leavitt an interest-free loan valued at $250,001 to $500,000, the disclosure form states.

Dane Leavitt, the chief executive of the Leavitt Group, insisted it was not a loan but a promissory note from each of the six Leavitt brothers pledging to give the company funds and was "completely unrelated" to the loan the foundation gave the company that year.

Such loans -- from a family foundation ostensibly set up for charity to the family's business interests -- are precisely what IRS Commissioner Mark W. Everson labeled as an abuse last year when he excoriated Type III supporting organizations as personal piggy banks for the rich.

"Some promoters in this area have encouraged individuals to establish and operate supporting organizations . . . that they can control for their own benefit," Everson said. "There are a variety of methods of abuse, but a common theme is a 'charitable' donation of an amount to the supporting organization, and a return of the donated amount to the donor, often in the form of a purported loan that may never be repaid."

Jones said the Leavitt foundation's loans were nothing of the sort. The LL&I loan was repaid in full on Oct. 5, 2004, he said, and the more recent loans were approved by an independent trustee, who set the interest rates and repayment terms.

"This was not an abuse of the process," he said.


Diversity in bees and wild flowers is declining together

Bees and flowers decline in step
By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News website

Diversity in bees and wild flowers is declining together, at least in Britain and the Netherlands, research shows.

Scientists from the two countries examined records kept by enthusiasts dating back more than a century.

They write in the journal Science that habitat alterations, climate change and modern industrial farming are possible factors in the linked decline.

There is a chance, they say, that the decline in pollinating bees could have detrimental effects on food production.

"The economic value of pollination worldwide is thought to be between £20m and £50m ($37m and $91m) each year," said Simon Potts from the University of Reading, UK, one of the scientists involved.

While declines in Britain and the Netherlands might not indicate a global trend, the team says, it is an issue deserving serious future research.

Costs of specialism

Study leader Koos Biesmeijer from the UK's University of Leeds is not the first biologist to note the value of amateur enthusiasts to British conservation studies, and will not be the last.

"We have relied here on records kept by enthusiasts; just like bird-watchers keep records of bird-sightings, they keep records of bees and hoverflies and plants," he told the BBC News website.

"In the UK, insect records come from the Bees, Wasps and Ants Recording Society (BWars) and the Hoverfly Recording Scheme (HRS), while in Holland the Dutch Entomological Society does something similar.

The ultimate drivers are changes in our landscapes; intensive agriculture, extensive use of pesticides, drainage, nitrogen deposition
Koos Biesmeijer
"The records go back even into the last part of the 19th Century, and then some of these enthusiasts have gone back into the scientific literature and verfied records."

From these records comes a picture of reducing diversity among bees and wild flowering plants.

Bee species which rely on certain plants, and plants which rely on certain bees, have fared worse; more flexible species of both have done better.

In Britain, bee species which have increased since 1980 are those which were already common before.

The researchers also looked at hoverflies, and found a mixed picture, with diversity remaining roughly constant in Britain but appearing to increase marginally in the Netherlands.

Hoverflies do pollinate plants, but are less choosy than many bee species, and do not depend so directly on nectar to feed their young.

Overall, plants which pollinate via wind or water appear to be spreading, while those which rely on insects decline.

Holistic handling

If the diversity of bees and plants is decreasing, one question is: which declined first?

This study cannot provide an answer, though it appears the fates of both are intertwined; but the root causes of the decline are clear, Dr Biesmeijer argues.

"The ultimate drivers are changes in our landscapes; intensive agriculture, extensive use of pesticides, drainage, nitrogen deposition.

"All of these factors favour subsets of plants and subsets of bees.

"And if you want to prevent them you have to look at the ecosystem level, protecting the habitat and the groups of species."

Where habitats have been restored, for example under agro-environment schemes, bee and plant diversity has sometimes started to re-emerge, he said.

While such changes may have significant impacts nationally, the team points out that the environments of Britain and the Netherlands, with their high population densities and long histories of agriculture, contain two of the least "natural" landscapes on Earth.

Other countries, with a greater proportion of natural habitat, may not show the same declining trend, they say; but given the importance of bees for pollination, they suggest it would be worth finding out.


Roosevelt, Reagan, Rushmore

Huffington Post
Brent Budowsky
Roosevelt, Reagan, Rushmore

I never agreed with Mr. Fukiyama about "the end of history" but I do worry that we live in an age that represents the end of the heroic leader, at least until the next great President, long overdue, emerges.

In 2004 I published an essay for the National Review online entitled: "Roosevelt, Reagan, Rushmore: A Democrat Crosses the Great Divide".
I state my bias at the outset: Democratic leaders today do not hold a candle to Franklin Roosevelt and Jack Kennedy, and Republican leaders do not hold a candle to Ronald Reagan. Great President's emerge in our history about every twenty years or so; let us hope 2008 moves the nation back on schedule.

While Franklin Roosevelt is widely seen as a genuinely great President, in my view he remains underestimated even with that high praise. This man who grew up wealthy and began a political career characterized by caution, went through the torment of polio, and in his early days at Warm Springs, learned what it was like to be called "a cripple" and even excluded from common dining rooms alongside his fellow patients, because of fear that what they had was contagious.

Out of this was forged a profoundly powerful character, compassion, wisdom and judgment that empowered this spectacularly great leader to lead our country out of the Depression and into the Second World War. He was not an ideologue, he was an experimenter, taking what failed, and discarding it, taking what worked, and building on it.

If only George Bush and Democratic leaders had taken from Roosevelt and learned from experience, and knew, as Roosevelt knew, that we have nothing to fear but fear itself. How tragic to have a Republican President fomenting fear for partisanship, and Democratic Leaders, immobilized by their fear of speaking out with conviction.

While historians are understandably divided about Reagan, my view is that he does indeed deserve to be ranked as a truly great President. During much of Reagan's term, I worked at the epicenter of the Loyal Opposition, with the Democratic Leadership in the Congress. For certain: there are many things then, and now, that I vehemently disagree with, that Reagan did.

But he has one monumental achievement that will be measured in historical greatness for centuries: his willingness to combine the military and diplomatic together, and, when the moment of truth came, to be magnamimous and bold with Gorbachev resulting in historic agreements that dramatically reduced the danger of world extinction from thermonuclear war and paved the way to ending and winning the Cold War.

A thousand years from now, that achievement will be seen as an inflection point for humanity.

To be fair: American history from FDR to G.H.W. Bush involved a long continuum of American President, some great, some average, some poor, all of whom played with role in the triumph of the Cold War. In my view both JFK and Eisenhower remain very underestimated today, historically.

And: Mikhail Gorbachev is a gigantic historic figure who deserves far more credit that he is given today; Margaret Thatcher, who said "we can do business" with Gorbachev; and members of the Loyal Opposition, particularly Tip O'Neill, who had an important respectful relationship with Reagan, among many others made major contributions.

But when the hour came, Reagan did, what only Reagan could do.

Particularly progressives who might be skeptical could read the highly important book about Reagan by historian Paul Lettow, about Reagan's question for nuclear disarmament. Reagan believed in nuclear disarmament throughout his life, from his liberal days to his conservative climax. He did not look for opportunities to launch preemptive wars. There was the contra war, which I did not agree with, and Grenada, which our Lady of the Sacred Hearts volleyball team could have invaded. But nothing like the war fever stirred to a boil by the ideologues of Bush.

President Bush not only has little in common with Reagan's greatest assets, in the key regards, he is the exact opposite, looking unwise wars to fight, refusing for six years to take diplomacy seriously and, where Reagan listened carefully to commanders, our incumbent at key moments has treated their advice with contempt.

Lettow chronicles Reagan's drive for nuclear disarmament, traces how he combined hard line rhetoric and strong defense with genuine and creative diplomacy with Gorbachev.

Similarly, Richard Reeves in his excellent book dramatizes Reagan's having the power of imagination, driving for disarmament as well as democracy in his own way. We can fault Reagan for many things; but his ultimate achievement was monumental and its impact was lasting, and while there is much credit to be shared, both Roosevelt and Reagan, in far different ways, were Indispensable Americans.

Contrary to the convenient conservative and neoconservative revisionism, when Reagan was acheiving his greatest legacies, many on the right were demonizing and demeaning even Reagan. George Will, Richard Perle, Jesse Helms and a long list compared Reagan with Gorbachev to Chamberlain with Hitler at Munich, and Pearl Harbor 2.

Finally for now, Nancy Reagan deserves profound gratitude for steering Ronald Reagan towards greatness, towards lasting legacies of arms control and world peace through agreements with Gorbachev that only Reagan had both the political capital and vision to reach. Various Presidents had one or the other: Reagan had both, and when the moment came, he delivered.

So: I hope folks will glance at my National Review essay, and think about where we have gone wrong today, with leaders who lack the substance and stature of Roosevelt and Reagan. America is overdue for the next great President. Here's hoping.


The Immoral Veto

Huffington Post
Terry Curtis Fox
The Immoral Veto

Bush’s veto of the Stem Cell Research bill is being cast as a classic conflict between science and religion, with the hope that the clear medical benefits will make this a potent campaign issue.

It’s the right issue, but the wrong approach.

Once again, the Republican right has cast their actions in a moral light, and when posed as a conflict between morality and science, science nearly always loses, even when science is in the public’s best interest.

Going back to the revolution, the American left has won when it has cast its arguments in moral terms. Looks at the Declaration of Independence for starters, move on to abolition, the enfranchisement of women, Roosevelt’s “four freedoms” and the ensuing New Deal, the civil rights movement, and then to the early success of feminism and recent acceptance of at least some gay rights. All were expressed in specifically moral language.

Geoffrey Stone correctly points out that while the American Communist Party was never an electoral power, Eugene V. Debs’ Socialists were once a force with which to be reckoned. I would add that socialists nearly always expressed their philosophy in moral terms, while Communism billed itself as “scientific socialism.” I don’t think that it’s an accident that the moral approach was more persuasive in this country.

When scientific ideas are coupled with a moral imperative, they gain widespread acceptance. Thus the broad-based support for environmentalism: when we talk about the responsibility of caring for the planet and preserving it for future generations, we gain adherents across the political spectrum.

This may explain, at least in part, why Americans are so reluctant to embrace evolution. There’s no question about the science: forget the fossil record, sequencing DNA makes the theory irrefutable. However, evolution is by its nature amoral: it describes a process which has a single, implacable, uncaring imperative. Even worse, it was used to support “Social Darwinism” which was fundamentally immoral. The opponents of evolution have no scientific ground on which to stand, but that’s nearly irrelevant. The truth is not the question. The question is whether evolution itself is a challenge to the opponents’ morality. Those who do not find it incompatible accept the science; those who do, ignore the evidence.

What’s particularly galling about the Democrats’ response to the stem cell veto is that support for the bill can so easily be expressed in moral terms.

It is immoral to allow your sectarian beliefs to stop research which can save lives.

It is immoral to impose your religion on non-believers. In fact, this is a sin.

It weakens the country to send life-saving research overseas.

It is a moral imperative to pursue research which can save lives and does no harm.

When Bush vetoed the bill, he was not making a difficult choice. He was not reasonable. He was not worthy of respect even by those who disagree. He was morally wrong. The veto was immoral.

We have the arguments. Why are we afraid to use the language which will make them win?


Israel-Hizbollah fight is policy windfall for Bush

Israel-Hizbollah fight is policy windfall for Bush
By Caroline Drees, Security Correspondent

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Israel's campaign to destroy Hizbollah is a foreign policy windfall for the Bush administration, which hopes it will boost the U.S. war on terrorism and heap pressure on its nemesis Iran, analysts say.

"It's not just Israel that doesn't want a ceasefire here," said David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think tank.

Long a stalwart ally of Israel, the White House has repeatedly voiced support for Israel's right to self-defense and denied the nine-day-old Israeli bombardment could be considered America's war too.

But administration officials admit the current fighting, triggered by the Islamic militants' capture of two Israeli soldiers and rocket attacks into northern Israel, is also furthering some U.S. goals.

"To the extent that this is part of the war on terror, we certainly have an interest in it," White House spokesman Tony Snow said on Wednesday.

He said the attacks by the Iran- and Syria-backed Hizbollah had forged a sense of international determination to rein in the militant group, while encouraging international progress toward a U.N. resolution curbing Iran's nuclear ambitions.

While some experts say the escalating bloodshed may fuel Arab resentment and trigger an anti-U.S. backlash, several analysts say the fighting is a chance to let someone else's military promote what are also U.S. objectives, while gaining leverage for Washington's own diplomatic efforts.

"This seems like the perfect opportunity for the United States to bang the drum and say to people, 'Look, you need to wake up and smell the coffee,'" said James Carafano, a security expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation, which is considered close to the administration.

"The people who are causing evil in the Middle East are Syria, Iran, Hizbollah and Hamas. These people are just as bad as al Qaeda and we've got to stand together and deal with this if we want peace in the Middle East," he said.


Several experts including Makovsky said the conflict helped the United States show Iran it could not scare the world or divert attention from its nuclear program by using Hizbollah as a military proxy.

Influential conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer called the current conflict a "golden, unprecedented opportunity" to try to promote the U.S. goal of dismantling Hizbollah.

"Everyone agrees it must be done. But who to do it? No one. The Lebanese are too weak. The Europeans don't invade anyone. After its bitter experience of 20 years ago, the United States has a Lebanon allergy," he wrote in the Washington Post, referring to a 1983 Beirut bombing which killed 241 U.S. servicemen.

The campaign against Hizbollah also fits squarely into the Bush administration's long-held position that the war on terrorism it declared after the September 11 attacks cannot be limited to al Qaeda, but must include a broad spectrum of militants it says hate America's way of life.

The United States has long included Hizbollah on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations.

"What's under attack is liberal democratic civilization, whose leading representative right now happens to be the United States," William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, wrote in the magazine's current issue.

The administration may disagree, but Kristol concluded, "This is our war too."


Judge rejects US request on eavesdropping lawsuit

Judge rejects US request on eavesdropping lawsuit
By Adam Tanner

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - A federal judge rejected on Thursday a request from the head of U.S. intelligence and other government officials to dismiss a lawsuit against AT&T which alleges the firm illegally allowed the government to monitor phone conversations and e-mail communications.

AT&T asked the court in late April to dismiss the case, and two weeks later the U.S. government also asked the federal judge to dismiss it, citing its state secrets privilege.

U.S. director of intelligence John Negroponte told the court in a filing that disclosing the information in the case "could be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security of the United States."

In a 72-page ruling, Judge Vaughn Walker rejected that request regarding a case that has highlighted the domestic spying program acknowledged by President George W. Bush.

"The very subject matter of this action is hardly a secret," the U.S. District Court for Northern California judge wrote. "Public disclosures by the government and AT&T indicate that AT&T is assisting the government to implement some kind of surveillance program."

"The compromise between liberty and security remains a difficult one," he continued. "But dismissing this case at the outset would sacrifice liberty for no apparent enhancement of security."

The judge cited what public officials, including Bush, and the media have already said in public about the eavesdropping program.

"If the government's public disclosures have been truthful, revealing whether AT&T has received a certification to assist in monitoring communication content should not reveal any new information that would assist a terrorist and adversely affect national security," Vaughn wrote.

"Confirming or denying the existence of this program would only affect a terrorist who was insensitive to the publicly disclosed 'terrorist surveillance program' but cared about the alleged program here.

"AT&T could reveal information at the level of generality at which the government has publicly confirmed or denied its monitoring of communication content."

In its February lawsuit the privacy rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation said the program allows the government to eavesdrop on phone calls and read e-mails of millions of Americans without obtaining warrants.

The plaintiffs are seeking an injunction that would order the government to stop the program.


Tom DeLay fundraising group to shut down, pay fine

DeLay fundraising group to shut down, pay fine

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's fundraising committee will shut down and pay a fine for improperly reporting financial activity, according to the U.S. agency that oversees money in politics.

DeLay's group, Americans for a Republican Majority, has agreed to pay a penalty of $115,000, the U.S. Federal Election Commission announced late on Wednesday.

DeLay became one of the most powerful Republicans in Congress by aggressively raising money for the group, known as ARMPAC, and spending it on his fellow party members' election campaigns.

DeLay resigned from Congress in June after being indicted on separate campaign-finance charges in his native Texas.

ARMPAC did not accurately report how it raised and spent nearly $250,000 in 2001 and 2002 and did not accurately report its debts during that period, the FEC said.

Committee officials told the FEC that they have since fixed their reports. The money in question amounted to less than 2 percent of the amount raised and spent during that time period, officials said.

Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington, the nonpartisan watchdog group that prompted the FEC to launch the investigation, said the settlement showed a pattern of abusing campaign-finance laws and called for a more in-depth investigation.


Senate panel OKs ban on banks in real estate

Senate panel OKs ban on banks in real estate

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday approved legislation that would permanently ban U.S. banks from engaging in real estate activities, a protection long sought by the real estate industry.

The permanent ban, pushed by Senate Banking Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican, was attached to a fiscal 2007 bill funding transportation and housing programs as well as the Treasury Department.

It is unclear when the legislation will be considered by the full Senate.

The National Association of Realtors (NAR) has been pressing the issue on Capitol Hill for months following letters issued by the U.S. Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) that let two banks make real estate investments that involved hotels and a third to develop and partially own a wind-energy project.

NAR in May said that it would press for a permanent ban on banks entering real estate. Last year, the Senate appropriations committee approved a one-year prohibition.

The real estate group said banks should be barred from investing in potentially risky commercial investments like hotels or apartment buildings.

But banks and the regulator often dismiss the Realtors' concerns, saying banks' real estate investments are well founded in precedent and do not involve brokerage activities.

U.S. law restricts banks' real estate activities, and U.S. banks do not develop or own properties beyond those associated with their business operations.


Thursday, July 20, 2006

Does Anyone Care?

Does Anyone Care?
At the end of the day, President Bush’s veto of stem-cell research doesn’t really matter.
By Patti Davis
Special to Newsweek

July 19, 2006 - During the height of the Vietnam War, a bumper sticker asked, WHAT IF THEY GAVE A WAR AND NO ONE CAME? Here’s a 2006 alteration of that: WHAT IF THE PRESIDENT VETOED A BILL AND NO ONE CARED?

On Wednesday, President Bush handed down his first veto ever, for a bill that would have allowed federal funding for stem-cell research on embryos left over after in vitro fertilization procedures—embryos that would otherwise be destroyed. The bill passed both the Republican-controlled House and the Senate, although it fell several votes short of the number needed to override a presidential veto.

The veto comes as no surprise; that battle line was drawn years ago. But it’s hard to believe that the 70 percent of Americans who support stem-cell research really care what President Bush does. I’m not suggesting they won’t notice, or be bothered—even annoyed. I’m certainly not suggesting that federal funding couldn’t move research along at a faster pace. But caring is an emotion of a deeper kind. When we truly care about another’s opinion, it’s because we value that person and hold in some esteem their judgments and pronouncements. It also might mean we believe that individual can influence the tide of the future with their opinions.

This is a president who has no currency left with the majority of Americans who, polls have shown, do not trust him. We won’t totally shrug off his intransigence, but we won’t waste too much time mulling over his reasons either. Why? Because we don’t care.

White House Press Secretary Tony Snow said, about the impending veto, that President Bush “thinks murder is wrong.” But apparently, the destruction of fertilized eggs—flushed away as if they’re useless—doesn’t count as murder. Only using those fertilized eggs for valuable scientific research that could eventually save people’s lives counts as murder in this president’s mind. No one in this administration, with all their wordplay and posturing, has been able to dance around that stunning lack of logic.

We are being asked to believe that this president’s opposition to embryonic stem-cell research has deep moral, religious and ethical roots. As we heard, the word “murder” is tossed around freely.

Yet this is a president who led us into a war with a patchwork quilt of lies. Thousands of American soldiers have died. Thousands more have returned horribly wounded, and we don’t even know yet what toll posttraumatic stress disorder will take on those who obeyed their commander in chief and went to fight in Iraq. We may never know the complete death toll of Iraqi citizens, but we certainly know that some were raped and brutally executed. There have been many beheadings, sometimes of Americans who simply went to Iraq to help the people there, not to fight. Let us please not forget 26-year-old Nick Berg who was beheaded in May 2004. Where is President Bush’s grief over all those deaths? He directs his moral outrage instead to the idea of using fertilized eggs, that would otherwise be destroyed, for potentially life-saving scientific research. He tells us it’s because he cares so deeply about life.

Where was his care in the aftermath of Katrina? This president, when he finally did touch down in Louisiana, made a smirking remark about the good times he used to have in New Orleans. As if alluding to his hard-partying past was appropriate while people were suffering and dying in the Superdome, while bodies were lying bloated in the streets.

We won’t care about this veto because we don’t really believe this president cares about us. Stem-cell research is going to go forward, obviously without this administration’s help. People like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet have shown us that there is some serious money in this country and there are dedicated, humane citizens willing to put their money where their beliefs are. If anything, President Bush’s veto of the stem-cell bill may galvanize people even more.

The future of this scientific research doesn’t rest in the world of politics, but rather in the committed hearts of people who long to see diseases like Parkinson’s and diabetes, possibly even Alzheimer’s, become treatable conditions. People who believe that the day will come when victims of spinal cord injuries will stand up from their wheelchairs and walk again. People who trust the scientists who are working so passionately on what will be, and already is, the next frontier of medicine.

No president can veto the will of people’s hearts.

Davis, the daughter of Nancy and Ronald Reagan, is a writer based in Los Angeles.


Experts Differ About Surveillance and Privacy

The New York Times
Experts Differ About Surveillance and Privacy

WASHINGTON, July 19 — Legal experts squared off before Congress on Wednesday about the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance program, offering radically different views on whether changes in the law are needed to allow eavesdropping on terror suspects without violating Americans’ privacy.

Judge Richard A. Posner, an author on intelligence, told the House Intelligence Committee that the requirement for court warrants under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was “obsolete.”

To get a warrant from the secret court that oversees such eavesdropping, said Judge Posner, who sits on the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, the government must already know who the terrorists are. “The challenge for intelligence is not to track down known terrorists,” he said. “It’s to find out who the terrorists are.”

Michael S. Greco, president of the American Bar Association, sharply disagreed, saying the FISA statute and its requirements for warrants remained a crucial protection for civil liberties. The courts and Congress must have a role in governing intelligence wiretaps, he said.

“The awesome power to penetrate Americans’ most private communications is too great a power to be held solely by the executive branch of government,” Mr. Greco said.

Mr. Greco, along with other witnesses, urged Congress not to act until the Bush administration provided more information on its electronic surveillance programs and how they might be hampered by existing laws. The Intelligence Committee chairman, Representative Peter Hoekstra, Republican of Michigan, said administration officials would be asked to clarify such problems at a later hearing.

Wednesday’s hearing was the latest sign that Congress was reasserting its role in overseeing sensitive counterterrorist surveillance programs, despite President Bush’s argument that he has the inherent constitutional authority to order eavesdropping without court approval.

Several bills related to the security agency are pending in the House and Senate. One, proposed by Senator Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, would ask the FISA court to rule on the constitutionality of the eavesdropping program. That idea has the support of the White House, but has been criticized as a surrender to the administration, and its fate is uncertain.

Under the program, the agency intercepts international telephone calls and e-mail messages of Americans and others in the United States who are believed to have links to Al Qaeda. But the agency does not first get warrants from the FISA court, as the law ordinarily requires for eavesdropping inside the country.

Administration officials have suggested that the warrant requirement is too cumbersome to allow the rapid pursuit of possible terrorists. But some lawmakers who have been briefed on the secret program say there is no reason the program cannot operate in compliance with the FISA statute.

Even the administration’s critics acknowledge that procedures to get warrants may need to be updated. James X. Dempsey, of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a civil liberties group, called it “ridiculous in the age of BlackBerrys’’ to be applying for warrants on paper.

The discussion on Wednesday underscored the uncertainty, even among experts, about the security agency’s practices at a time when the Internet is reshaping communications. Representative Heather Wilson, Republican of New Mexico, asked whether the agency needed a warrant to intercept an Internet phone call from Sudan to Afghanistan if the call passed through the United States.

“I’m not sure that’s a resolved issue,” replied Kim Taipale, executive director of the Center for Advanced Studies in Science and Technology Policy. Committee Democrats took note of Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales’s revelation on Tuesday that the president personally blocked an internal Justice Department investigation of the lawyers who approved the eavesdropping program.

Representative C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Maryland Democrat whose district includes the security agency’s headquarters, said the president’s action suggested why the courts and Congress needed to oversee eavesdropping.

One goal of any legislation, Mr. Ruppersberger said, should be to clarify the rules so that agency officers “will have no insecurities about what’s legal and what’s illegal.”


Indonesia bird flu deaths hit 42

Indonesia bird flu deaths hit 42

Indonesia has recorded its 42nd human bird flu death, bringing the country level with Vietnam as the worst affected by the disease.

Tests by the World Health Organization showed that a 44-year-old man who died last week had the H5N1 virus, health ministry officials said.

Indonesia has registered more bird flu deaths this year than any other nation.

In contrast the outbreak in Vietnam now seems to be under control, due to a large culling and vaccination drive.

No Vietnamese deaths have been recorded in 2006.


Indonesia has been criticised for its reluctance to cull fowl in infected areas - a measure that experts say is the best way to stem the spread of the disease.

But the government says it does not have enough money to compensate farmers, and has asked for $900m (£495m) over the next three years to tackle the virus.

Indonesia's problems were highlighted in May when the country recorded a large cluster of deaths which the WHO believes were the result of human-to-human transmission.

Experts say this particular incident did not signal a major change in the spread of the disease. But there is a fear that the bird flu virus could mutate to a form which could be easily passed from human to human, triggering a pandemic and potentially putting millions of lives at risk.

Globally, more than 130 people have died of bird flu since late 2003. Most of the deaths have been in East Asia, but the virus has also spread to Europe, Africa and South and Central Asia.

Story from BBC NEWS:


Iraqi Oil Theft Drives Up Reconstruction Costs

The Nation
Iraqi Oil Theft Drives Up Reconstruction Costs
Katrina vanden Heuvel

According to James Jeffrey of the State Department's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, at $21.9 billion the Iraqi reconstruction program is "the largest since the Marshall Plan."

If only it included the PLAN part.

Assessing the Bush Administration's "2005 National Strategy for Victory in Iraq," a newly released Government Accountability Office report criticizes the Bush administration's failure to identify "which U.S. agencies are responsible for implementation" as well as "current and future costs…."

Last Tuesday, U.S. Comptroller General David Walker told a House Government Reform subcommittee of "massive corruption" and "theft" in the Iraqi oil industry – including the stealing of 10 percent of refined fuels, and 30 percent of imported fuels. Walker noted the "tremendous incentive" for theft given that subsidized gas sells for 44 cents per gallon in Iraq, compared to 90 cents per gallon elsewhere in the region. And with oil production down from prewar levels, the invasion-justification-assumption that these revenues would largely pay for reconstruction has proven wildly off target.

Joseph Christoff, GAO's director of international affairs and trade, also spoke of wasted payments to a "bloated bureaucracy" and "ghost employees."

The GAO report concludes with the staggering assertion that neither the Defense Department nor Congress "can reliably determine the costs of war, nor do they have the details on how appropriated funds are being spent or historical data useful in considering future funding needs."

The Congressional Budget Office added to the grim picture revealed last week by estimating that – even in the case of a rapid withdrawal – "an additional $166 billion would be needed… on top of $290 billion already allocated."

But the American people have been misled on the costs of this war at every stage, so why what possible reason do we have to believe that these are real numbers? Nobel prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz places the costs at $1 trillion to $2 trillion, depending on how long this madness continues.

And this is the reckless, uncharted course that the administration and its GOP accomplices (and Joe Lieberman) continue to ask our nation to follow? To use Mr. Bush's own words, unwittingly captured by a microphone at the G-8 Summit, "That seems odd."


Stem cells a vote breaker for some Americans

Stem cells a vote breaker for some Americans
By Andrea Hopkins

CINCINNATI (Reuters) - Debi Martin is a Christian, a Republican and opposes abortion but she is ready to vote against the party in November if President George W. Bush and congressional Republicans limit stem cell research.

"This is a vote breaker for me," said the Cincinnati mother. "I tell people I'm becoming a Republi-crat at this point -- because there are just things wrong in the Republican Party where people's voices are not being heard anymore."

The passage on Tuesday of a Senate bill to fund embryonic stem cell research -- and a presidential veto expected on Wednesday killing the legislation -- hits very close to home for Martin. Her 9-year-old daughter, Jessi, has diabetes and they both hope stem cell research can some day find a cure.

Martin also feels strongly about the use of embryonic stem cells for research because Jessi was conceived by in vitro fertilization -- and Martin and her husband decided years ago to discard nine unused embryos because she could not have another child.

"I would give anything if I could have had those nine cells to give to have a cure for my baby now," she said. "And I think the worst sin of all, and I am a very religious person, I am pro-life, is to look a miracle from God in the face and throw it away."

There are few issues in America quite as emotional as this one, which would expand federal funding for research with unused human embryos that doctors say could lead to breakthroughs against diabetes, Parkinson's disease and spinal cord injuries.

The debate has set Republicans like Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a physician, against Bush, who has threatened to use his veto power for the first time to reject the legislation.

The division among Republicans could have political fallout. Polls show most Americans support the research and Democrats are hoping a voter backlash against Republicans who oppose it will win them enough votes to seize control of Congress at the November mid-term election.


When Bush restricted the use of federal funds for stem cell studies in 2001, several states moved ahead with their own laws to either limit or advance research.

Governors from Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon and Wisconsin sent a letter to senators on Tuesday urging them to support the bill.

The topic is especially hot in Missouri, where Republican Gov. Matt Blunt is backing a November ballot initiative for a constitutional amendment to protect stem cell research.

But Republican Sen. Jim Talent, who won his seat in 2002 by just one percentage point, opposes expanded research and could lose his seat over the issue in November amid heavy campaigning by his Democratic opponent in favor of stem cell studies.

Susan Talve, a St. Louis rabbi whose teenage daughter has a heart defect that may be helped by the research, has seen the debate grip faith communities across the heartland state.

"I've sat with enough people who have been on the fence for religious reasons and watched them come to understand the science and come on board," Talve said. "Even people whose churches are opposed, the people themselves are for it."

But across the state border in Overland Park, Kansas, conservative Republican Lisa Childs said she backs Bush's stand against funding the research.

"There is never a good answer," she said. "I see both sides of the issue. But I'm against it. It's a life."

Even those who may be helped by the research are divided about the use of embryonic stem cells.

"Our constituency is made up of people who have varying political beliefs -- and varying ideological and religious beliefs about what constitutes life," said Clarissa Rentz, executive director of the Alzheimer's Society of Greater Cincinnati. "We get calls all the time and some feel that stem cell research is wrong. And some feel it is absolutely the only answer."

(With additional reporting by Carey Gillam in Kansas City)


House votes to protect "under God" in pledge

House votes to protect "under God" in pledge
By Andy Sullivan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In a move intended to preserve a reference to God in an oath recited by millions of Americans each day, the House of Representatives voted on Wednesday to prevent U.S. courts from hearing challenges to the Pledge of Allegiance.

The 260-167 vote, largely along party lines, was one of several hot-button topics brought to the House floor by Republican leaders aiming to highlight differences between the parties before November's congressional elections.

In the Senate, a similar bill has not advanced since it was introduced a year ago.

Conservatives have sought to keep the phrase "under God" in the pledge since an appeals court ruled in 2002 it amounted to an endorsement of religion in violation of the U.S. Constitution. An atheist had challenged the pledge being recited in his daughter's school. Schoolchildren across the nation commonly pledge allegiance to the flag each morning.

The Supreme Court struck down the appeals court decision on procedural grounds but left the door open for another challenge, causing Republicans to say the pledge must be placed off-limits before "activist judges" tamper with it again.

"We're creating a fence. The fence goes around the federal judiciary. We're doing that because we don't trust them," said Missouri Rep. Todd Akin.

The California man who has led the challenge against the phrase "under God" vowed to fight the new legislation if it became law and said it provided him with new legal arguments against the pledge.

"This is the greatest thing that could have happened," Michael Newdow, who is both a lawyer and a doctor, said by telephone. "They are showing the courts that this is a huge issue and that they want their religious view espoused by our government which is exactly what the Constitution forbids."

Akin and other Republicans said the reference to God, added to the pledge in 1954, did not endorse any specific religion but referred to the philosophy of the country's founders that rights such as freedom of speech were granted by a divine being, not a government.

Democrats said the measure would deprive the courts of their ability to oversee an important form of personal rights.

(Additional reporting by Adam Tanner in San Francisco)