Saturday, April 28, 2007

U.S. officer criticizes generals for Iraq war

U.S. officer criticizes generals for Iraq war

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - An active-duty U.S. Army officer criticized U.S. generals in a journal article published on Friday for failing to prepare the military and the country for war in Iraq, and urged Congress to intervene.

In a rare public airing of a vigorous debate within the U.S. military, Lt. Col. Paul Yingling compared generals' management of Iraq to their conduct in Vietnam and warned of a crisis facing the armed forces due to the "intellectual and moral failures" of U.S. generals broadly.

"For the second time in a generation, the United States faces the prospect of defeat at the hands of an insurgency," wrote Yingling, an Iraq war veteran and commander of an Army unit. "These debacles are not attributable to individual failures, but rather to a crisis in an entire institution: America's general officer corps."

Yingling did not single out any general for criticism.

The mid-ranking officer's cover article in the May issue of Armed Forces Journal reflects the debate among officers about the conduct of the Iraq war as well as the decisions and public statements made by commanders advising civilian policymakers.

Yingling repeated, for example, a widely voiced criticism that generals did not raise publicly the concerns held privately about the level of U.S. troops being committed by policymakers to secure Iraq in the early stages of the war.

Then, with too few troops, they could not devise a strategy to stabilize Iraq, he argued.

Yingling called on Congress to overhaul the way officers rise in rank to the level of general. That, he said, is needed to yield officers who are intelligent, creative and courageous.

He said generals should be subject to reviews that consider the opinions of junior officers. He said Congress also should modify the promotion system by having the Senate review the education and professional writing of nominees for three- and four-star general.

Congress also should exercise its authority to confirm the rank of a retiring general, and reduce that rank for a general who failed to give lawmakers an accurate, candid assessment of strategic probabilities.

(Additional reporting by Joanne Morrison)


U.S. Proposal Would Allow Oil Drilling Off Virginia; Five-Year Plan Would Also Open Alaskan, Gulf Waters
U.S. Proposal Would Allow Oil Drilling Off Virginia
Five-Year Plan Would Also Open Alaskan, Gulf Waters
By Steven Mufson and David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writers

The Interior Department will announce a proposal Monday to allow oil and gas drilling in federal waters near Virginia that are currently off-limits and permit new exploration in Alaska's Bristol Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, according to people who have seen or been told about drafts of the plan.

The department issued a news release yesterday that was lacking details but said that it had finished a five-year plan that will include a "major proposal for expanded oil and natural gas development on the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf." Department officials declined to describe the plan.

Congress would still have to agree to open areas currently off-limits before any drilling could take place off Virginia's coast. Every year since 1982, after an oil spill off Santa Barbara, Calif., Congress has reaffirmed a moratorium on drilling off the nation's Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Last year, after a vigorous push by drilling advocates, Congress opened new waters in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Interior Department might still go ahead with environmental and geological seismic studies off Virginia, but the plan does not envision drilling there before 2011, according to a congressional source who saw an earlier version of the proposal. The sources who described the plan spoke on the condition of anonymity because they didn't want to compromise relationships with people who showed them drafts.

Environmental groups said yesterday that they were troubled by the idea of oil exploration and drilling so near the wildlife refuge on Assateague Island and in an area closely linked to the Chesapeake Bay. Some of the bay's best-known species, such as blue crabs and rockfish, migrate to the ocean.

Activists said that simply looking for oil and gas could cause environmental harm if waste products used to lubricate or cool drill bits are cast overboard. Such materials are often toxic, and could threaten marine life in the area, said Richard Charter of Defenders of Wildlife.

Richard Ayers of the environmental group Virginia Eastern Shorekeeper said he was concerned about development along the state's lightly populated Atlantic shoreline. He said he was worried that oil drilling would create boomtowns, a new influx of people and pollution.

The Virginia shore is dotted with barrier islands and lagoons, most of them largely unspoiled. The Virginia coast has been designated a World Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations, and a National Natural Landmark by the Interior Department.

"This is one of the few places on the East Coast that just never got developed," Ayers said. "A disturbance of any magnitude would be something the place hasn't seen since the '30s," when a hurricane hit the area.

Many drilling advocates say that the oil industry has had a good environmental record in the Gulf of Mexico and that the nation needs to develop domestic oil and gas reserves to bring down prices and reduce reliance on foreign oil.

Advocates of increased drilling have campaigned in several states, many of which are attracted to the prospect of negotiating shares of federal royalties. Bills endorsing more drilling have twice passed the Virginia legislature.

Kevin Hall, a spokesman for Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), said Kaine was "supportive of exploration to see what, if anything, is out there." But Hall said Kaine had received "assurances" from federal officials that the proposed exploration would not violate state law. Last year, the General Assembly and Kaine agreed on a bill to prohibit drilling within 50 miles of Virginia's shoreline.

One place that doesn't need approval from Congress is the area north of the Alaska Peninsula near the Aleutian Islands, known as Bristol Bay. Home to one of the world's largest salmon runs, according to the Sierra Club, Bristol Bay was not covered by the same ban on drilling.

President Bush used his executive power to lift the ban in January. Congress has 60 days to reimpose it, or else drilling preparations could start in Bristol Bay as soon as July 1.

Athan Manuel, offshore drilling expert at the Sierra Club, said, "We need to do more to drill in Detroit by finding more oil efficiency in our cars and trucks rather than drilling off of some of our most sensitive coasts that are important environmentally, but also economically in driving billion-dollar fishing and tourist industries."

Staff writer Tim Craig contributed to this report.


Gore visits U.N., offers help on global warming

Gore visits U.N., offers help on global warming
By Evelyn Leopold

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Former Vice President Al Gore offered on Friday to work closely with the United Nations in furthering programs on global warming, the U.N. secretary-general said.

But Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon did not reveal any initiatives that would involve Gore, who was in New York for the Tribeca Film Festival after his documentary on climate change, "An Inconvenient Truth," won an Oscar.

"He offered strong support and commitment to work very closely with me, and I am going to fully use his very powerful political message to mobilize political will and thus enhance the awareness of the international community with this issue," Ban told reporters.

The secretary-general has given up trying to organize a summit on global warming this year but wants a high-level meeting on the subject shortly before world leaders come to the U.N. General Assembly in September.

Gore did not speak to reporters except to say, "Of course," when asked if the meeting with Ban concerned global warming.

The Democratic presidential nominee who lost to President George W. Bush in 2000, Gore has devoted himself to environmental concerns for decades. The United Nations gave him an environmental award this month.


Friday, April 27, 2007

Panel Seeks Records of Political Briefings at Agencies
Panel Seeks Records of Political Briefings at Agencies
By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer

A House committee chairman asked 27 federal departments and agencies yesterday to turn over information related to White House briefings about elections or political candidates, substantially widening the scope of a congressional investigation into the administration's compliance with the law that restricts partisan political activity by government employees.

Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, made the requests after the White House acknowledged that aides to Karl Rove, President Bush's chief political adviser, had presented 20 briefings on the "political landscape" to senior federal appointees, last year and this year. An undetermined number of briefings were held in previous years, a spokesman said.

Waxman asked that the information be submitted by mid-May, including the dates, times, locations and names of attendees of briefings that occurred from 2001 until this month, as well as any related "communications and documents." Waxman's committee has the authority to subpoena the data if the Bush administration declines to provide them voluntarily. This week, the panel endorsed three subpoenas on unrelated matters.

Waxman's interest in the political briefings was sparked by the disclosure of a January presentation by Rove aide J. Scott Jennings to General Services Administration appointees. After that briefing, according to witnesses, Administrator Lurita Alexis Doan asked how the agency could help "our candidates," and Jennings replied that the matter should be discussed "off-line." Doan has said that she does not recall asking that question.

A law known as the Hatch Act prohibits workplace pressures meant to influence an election outcome, as well as the use of federal resources for partisan purposes.

Asked yesterday if the White House will release copies of the briefings presented to other agencies, spokeswoman Dana Perino responded that she will "take it under consideration, but I sincerely doubt it." She explained that, at the White House, "we don't turn over lots of documents." She said the briefings were appropriate, lawful and ethical.

Perino said that asking why the briefings were given is "a ridiculous question. . . . The reason you're here working for the president is that you want to support his policies and his agenda. So it's good to get information from time to time."

Perino also said that the briefings included descriptions of congressional districts where vulnerable Republicans were up for reelection.


Senators vow to restore rights to detainees

Senators vow to restore rights to detainees
By Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Influential U.S. senators vowed on Thursday to restore to foreign terrorism suspects the right to challenge their imprisonment, saying Congress made an historic blunder by stripping them of that right last year.

Hundreds of suspected al Qaeda and Taliban members held at a U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, could be affected.

The United States has drawn international criticism over its continued detention of terrorism suspects in Guantanamo, with human rights groups demanding the prison be closed and detainees charged with crimes or released.

Last year's Congress, with a Republican majority, passed a law setting specific rules for U.S. military tribunals. It included a ban on non-citizens labeled "enemy combatants" from using "habeas corpus" petitions to challenge the legality of their detention in court, asserting that military panels at Guantanamo were a substitute for court review.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy warned that the rights of some 12 million legal aliens in the United States -- as well as any foreigners visiting the country -- had also been infringed by the new law.

"This new law means that any of these people can be detained forever ... without any ability to challenge their detention in federal court, or anywhere else, simply on the government's say-so that they are awaiting determination as to whether they are enemy combatants," the Vermont Democrat said.

"This is wrong. It is unconstitutional. It is un-American," Leahy said in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, which would share jurisdiction on changing the law.


A Defense Department lawyer and some committee Republicans said the law should be allowed to work and be examined by U.S. courts before Congress acts again.

"Detention of enemy combatants in wartime is not criminal punishment and therefore does not require that the individual be charged or tried in a court of law," said Daniel Dell'Orto, principal deputy general counsel at the Pentagon.

Leahy, along with Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Arlen Specter, has introduced legislation to restore habeas corpus right to detainees. With the help of Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, "I hope we can fix this serious and corrosive problem by this summer," Leahy said.

Levin, a Michigan Democrat, agreed "we have an obligation to act now to establish a process that we can defend."

The writ of habeas corpus -- the phrase in Latin for "you have the body" -- has been a centerpiece of Anglo-American jurisprudence since it was first developed over 300 years ago in Britain. It gives defendants the right to have their imprisonment reviewed by a court.

Administration officials say that some of those at Guantanamo have pledged to attack the United States again if released. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has recommended that Congress discuss with President George W. Bush ways to close the military prison without freeing the most dangerous detainees.

The congressional hearing occurred as civil liberties groups criticized an administration proposal to restrict the number of meetings between Guantanamo prisoners and their lawyers and to limit the attorneys' access to some classified evidence in their cases.

"Creating a legal black hole where rights are denied is as un-American as it is illegal," said Anthony Romero, of the American Civil Liberties Union.

A U.S. appeals court has scheduled a hearing on May 15 to consider the administration's proposed restrictions.


Congress challenges Bush to veto pullout

Congress challenges Bush to veto pullout
By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In an unprecedented slap at President George W. Bush's war policy, the U.S. Congress on Thursday approved legislation that links withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq to paying for the war, ensuring a veto.

By a vote of 51-46, the Senate joined the House of Representatives in backing the bill that would provide about $100 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan this year while setting a deadline to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq over the next 11 months.

It was the first time that the entire Congress, controlled by Democrats since January, has defied the president. Bush has repeatedly said he will not accept "surrender" dates.

"The president will veto this legislation," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said. "The president is determined to win in Iraq. The bill they sent us today is mission defeated."

Democrats might arrange to deliver their bill to the White House on Tuesday, the fourth anniversary of Bush declaring aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln: "Major combat operations in Iraq have ended."

The aircraft carrier was decorated with a large "mission accomplished" banner.

Calling for a "new direction in Iraq," Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat, said U.S. troops "had the courage and the strength to win the war, but the president has not had the wisdom to win the peace."

Democrats, however, doubt they have two-thirds support in Congress to overturn a presidential veto. The House passed the bill on Wednesday 218-208 on a mostly partisan vote.

If there is a veto and it is not overturned, lawmakers would likely craft another bill sending money to the troops in Iraq, possibly with some watered-down conditions that Bush could accept, and leave the withdrawal fight for the future.

Just two Republican senators voted for the withdrawal bill, but Democrats hope that as 2008 elections approach, more Republicans will join the push to wind down the war.

Indeed, one Republican who voted against the bill warned she did not support an open-ended commitment.

"If the president's new strategy does not demonstrate significant results by August, then Congress should consider all options including a redefinition of our mission and a gradual but significant withdrawal of our troops next year," Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who is up for re-election in 2008, said in a statement.


Opponents of the bill passed by the House and Senate said it would make a difficult situation in Iraq worse. Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, a Democrat-turned-independent, said removing combat troops "makes no military or strategic sense."

With this legislation, Democrats are asserting Congress' oversight of the 4-year-old war that has killed more than 3,300 U.S. troops. The bill presents Bush with several tough conditions he has resisted.

The Pentagon would have to begin withdrawing combat troops from Iraq by October 1 at the latest, with the aim of finishing the redeployment in six months. The March 31 deadline is nonbinding, though, leaving it up to Bush and his generals.

With the U.S. military now stretched thin, the bill tries to ensure troops are not sent into combat without proper rest, training and equipment. Bush could waive the mandate, which could be politically embarrassing.

Like the House, the Senate engaged in an emotional debate on the war.

Byrd, a staunch opponent of the Iraq war, accused Bush of trying to "scare the pants off the public by suggesting that our bill could result in death and destruction in America. What utter nonsense. What hogwash."

Bush has said that setting exit dates would undermine troops and allow enemies to make Iraq a base from which to attack the United States.

Senate Armed Services panel Chairman Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, countered that the bill required "the beginning of a partial reduction of U.S. troops, leaving time for Iraqis to make the political compromises they promised to make months ago."

After the House passed the bill, Democratic Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania sketched out the way forward on this dispute. He said House Democrats are preparing two post-veto options: A two-month war funding bill, or a bill providing combat funds through September 30, the end of the fiscal year.

As now written, neither option calls for withdrawing troops by specific dates. But both would set benchmarks for gauging progress in stabilizing Iraq.

(Additional reporting by Tabassum Zakaria and Susan Cornwell)


Ex-CIA chief says "slam dunk" Iraq quote misused

Ex-CIA chief says "slam dunk" Iraq quote misused
By Michelle Nichols

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A former U.S. spy chief accused President George W. Bush's administration of ruining his reputation by misusing a "slam dunk" comment he made during a White House meeting ahead of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

Former CIA director George Tenet told CBS Television's "60 Minutes" that the administration leaked his comment as opposition to the war grew when no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq.

"You don't do this. You don't throw somebody overboard just because it's a deflection. Is that honorable? It's not honorable to me," Tenet said in an interview to be broadcast on Sunday.

Tenet said his comment did not refer to whether Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, but related to what information could be used to make a public case for the war.

The "slam-dunk" comment first surfaced in journalist Bob Woodward's 2004 book, "Plan of Attack," which portrayed Tenet as assuring Bush that finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq would be a virtual certainty.

"We can put a better case together for a public case. That's what I meant," Tenet told "60 Minutes."

"I'll never believe that what happened that day informed the president's view or belief of the legitimacy or the timing of this war. Never!" said Tenet, whose memoirs "At the Center of the Storm" are due to be published next week.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said she had not seen the book and would not comment on it.

The expression "slam dunk," used originally to describe a basketball move, has come to mean something which can be done with near certainty.

The 2003 Iraq invasion was justified largely by intelligence that Saddam Hussein had such weapons. No such weapons were found, and the prewar intelligence effort has since been condemned by a presidential commission as one of the most damaging failures in recent U.S. history.

Tenet, who served under Bush and former President Bill Clinton, resigned in July 2004 amid widespread criticism over intelligence lapses that also involved the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington. Tenet had been appointed in 1997.

Tenet -- whom Bush awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest U.S. civilian award, in December 2004 -- said he does not know exactly who leaked his comment, but that "it's the most despicable thing that ever happened to me."

He said the most difficult part was continuing to hear senior administration officials such as Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice refer to his comment as though they had to hear him "say 'slam dunk' to go to war with Iraq."

"You listen to that and they never let it go. I mean, I became campaign talk. I was a talking point. 'Look at the idiot (who) told us and we decided to go to war.' Well, let's not be so disingenuous," Tenet said.

"Let's everybody just get up and tell the truth. Tell the American people what really happened," he said.


Thursday, April 26, 2007

Paging Dr. Cheney

Huffington Post
Bryan Young
Paging Dr. Cheney

It was announced today that Vice President Dick Cheney will be receiving an Honorary Doctorate in Public Service tomorrow, when he delivers his commencement speech to graduates of Brigham Young University. You read that right. Dick Cheney, chief architect of an energy policy that rapes consumers and the environment, chief architect of no-bid contacts to Halliburton that rapes taxpayers, chief proponent of torture of God's children, is going to receive a Doctorate in Public Service from the University owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

Inviting him to speak at commencement in the first place caused a swell of outrage amongst students of all political stripes (the controversy has been well documented here on the Huffington Post (here, here and here), YouTube and the "This Divided State" Blog) and this is merely going to increase the level of outrage. Students I've spoken to on camera for our documentary piece about this have expressed concern that the invitation is tantamount to endorsement by their church of Cheney's gruff vocabulary, immoral policies and disregard for human life. Both the LDS Church and BYU put enough spin on the story to assuage some concerns of seeming as though they were implicitly endorsing Dick Cheney. By honoring him with a doctorate, in Public Service of all things, the University seems to say that the things Cheney has accomplished as Vice President somehow were to the greater good of the public when even a brief glance at his record says the opposite. Honoring Dick Cheney for public service the day after impeachment papers have been filed seems to me like giving Vladimir Putin an award for his work to liberate a free press in Russia the day after another Russian journalist is found face-up in a ditch.

I spoke with Carl Brinton, one of the chief organizers of the alternative commencement, about how he viewed the honorary doctorate and he said, "I feel that this is as clear as an endorsement as you can get. I'm a little crestfallen that the University would do this, but I do understand that this is common procedure. But this is too much an endorsement for my liking. An honorary doctorate should be given to someone who we honor, but Cheney's actions, rather than meriting honor, merit dishonor."

If anyone that reads this is as outraged by this as I am, you should probably do your best to make it to Utah tomorrow, both to attend rallys and come to the alternative commencement. Maybe Utah can show the world how people really feel about the man I like to envision as the troll under the bridge who eats goats. Only the goats are American ideals.


U.N. raps Iraq for withholding "grim" civilian toll

U.N. raps Iraq for withholding "grim" civilian toll
By Yara Bayoumy

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The United Nations accused Iraq on Wednesday of withholding sensitive civilian casualty figures because the government fears the data would be used to paint a "very grim" picture of a worsening humanitarian crisis.

The criticism was contained in a new U.N. human rights report on Iraq which drew fire from U.S. officials in Baghdad and the Iraqi government. They said it was flawed and contained numerous inaccuracies.

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) said Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government would not release data on civilian deaths amid spiraling sectarian violence between majority Shi'ites and once dominant Sunni Arabs.

"UNAMI emphasizes again the utmost need for the Iraqi government to operate in a transparent manner," the mission said in its latest report on human rights in Iraq.

U.N. officials said they were given no official reason why their requests for specific official data had been turned down. U.S. military commanders now give percentages to express broad increases or decreases for civilian deaths.

"We were told that the government was becoming increasingly concerned about the figures being used to portray the situation as very grim," UNAMI human rights officer Ivana Vuco told a news conference.

Maliki, whose administration has previously accused UNAMI of exaggerating civilian deaths, rejected the report.

"The Iraqi government announces its deep reservation on the report, which lacks accuracy in the information presented, lacks credibility in many of its points and lacks balance in its presentation of the human rights situation in Iraq," said a statement from his office.

U.S. officials in Baghdad said the report was flawed, particularly on the issue of Iraqi detentions and in the interpretation of casualty figures.

"There are numerous factual inaccuracies contained in the UNAMI document ... that undermine its overall credibility," a U.S. embassy official in Baghdad said.


In January, UNAMI said 34,452 Iraqi civilians were killed and more than 36,000 wounded in 2006, figures that were much higher than any statistics issued by the government.

On Wednesday it said Iraq faced "immense security challenges" and a "rapidly worsening humanitarian crisis."

The U.N. report expressed concern at the treatment of thousands of suspects detained under a major security crackdown in Baghdad, and about reports of collusion between Iraqi forces and some militias.

It also said academics, journalists, doctors and members of religious and ethnic minorities were increasingly being killed, intimidated or kidnapped by armed groups.

Iraqi officials say the civilian casualty toll has declined in the capital since the launch of the Baghdad security plan nine weeks ago. U.S. military commanders say a surge in car bombings, however, has pushed up the overall toll countrywide.

Under the crackdown, U.S. and Iraqi troops are sweeping through Baghdad neighborhoods, setting up checkpoints and combat outposts and walling off some flashpoint areas.

But Iraq's military said it was altering a U.S. plan to enclose the Sunni enclave of Adhimiya in Baghdad with high concrete walls, after criticism it would fan sectarian tension. Some residents had likened it to Israel's West Bank barrier.

Violence continued as a suicide attacker walked into a police station in volatile Diyala province and detonated a bomb, killing nine and wounding 16, police said.

The conflict in Iraq will be discussed at an international meeting next week in Egypt of Iraq's neighbors as well as officials from the United States and other countries.

Iran, which attended a similar meeting in Baghdad last month, will decide soon whether to attend, Iran's Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said.

Maliki said during a visit to Kuwait that he hoped Iran would attend. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who will be at the meeting, said this week it would be a "missed opportunity" if Iran, which Washington accuses of fomenting violence in Iraq, stayed away.

Rice has said she would be prepared to speak to the Iranians on the sidelines of the conference but has made clear discussions would be limited to Iraq and would not touch on Iran's sensitive nuclear program.

"We will see what opportunities present themselves and I am sure the secretary will move appropriately on any of them," said State Department spokesman Tom Casey when asked if Rice planned to meet the Iranians if they attended the meeting.

(Additional reporting by Ross Colvin in Baghdad, Sue Pleming in Washington and Inal Ersan in Tehran)


Democrats prepare for 2008 campaign's first debate

Democrats prepare for 2008 campaign's first debate
By John Whitesides, Political Correspondent

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Front-runners Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama go face to face along with six other Democratic presidential contenders on Thursday at the opening debate of the fast-starting 2008 campaign.

With the presidential election in November 2008 still more than 18 months away, the eight Democratic White House candidates meet in Orangeburg, South Carolina, in the earliest presidential debate ever.

Clinton, 59, the senator from New York who is seeking to become the first woman president, has been leading in most national polls. But Obama, 45, a Illinois senator who could be the first black president, has been rising in some polls and matched her in fund raising.

Their face-off comes in an early primary state that holds the first nominating contest in the South in January 2008.

"People are going to be able to see these candidates face to face for the first time and start to evaluate them," said Joe Erwin, chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party. "Each candidate has supporters, but a lot of people are still shopping."

Former first lady Clinton and first-term senator Obama will be competing with the winner of the last South Carolina primary in 2004, former Sen. John Edwards, the man who ended up in that campaign as the party's vice presidential nominee.

Erwin said the win by Edwards would help him "but they have to be careful. It's not 2004. It's a totally different race." Both Clinton and Obama are putting together strong campaign organizations in the state, he said.

In 2004, nearly 50 percent of the primary voters in South Carolina were black, a voting bloc that provides strong support for both Clinton and Obama.

South Carolina is scheduled to hold the fourth nominating contest in the 2008 Democratic race eight months from now, following Iowa, Nevada and New Hampshire, and its economic and racial diversity could offer one of the first broad tests of each candidate's appeal.

Five other contenders who are trying to elbow their way into the top tier also will participate -- Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, Sens. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Joseph Biden of Delaware, Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich and former Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska.

The debate on the campus of South Carolina State University kicks off three days of political activity in South Carolina.

The previous earliest presidential debate was during the last White House campaign, when Democratic candidates met in South Carolina in mid-May 2003.

Republican White House candidates meet in California next week in their first debate.


NY's Cuomo: Education Dept "asleep at switch"

NY's Cuomo: Education Dept "asleep at switch"
By Kevin Drawbaugh

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo took a widening campaign to clean up the student loan business to Washington on Wednesday, urging Congress to reform student financial aid and accusing the Bush administration of being "asleep at the switch."

The son of former Gov. Mario Cuomo told lawmakers that criminal charges may result from investigations he is pursuing into questionable ties between banks that lend money to college students and individual university financial aid officers.

Cuomo and fellow Democrats in Congress, along with other state attorneys general, are racing ahead of federal regulators in an examination of links between lenders and colleges, which critics say pose conflicts of interest or worse.

Investigators have said some college aid officers took payments and perks from lenders in exchange for placing the companies on "preferred lender" lists shown to students.

"There is a possibility of criminal charges in some of the cases we are investigating," said Cuomo, 49, at a House Education and Labor Committee hearing.

Cuomo criticized the Bush administration, saying Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings "has defaulted on her obligation" to oversee the $85 billion student loan industry.

"The failure of the Department of Education to pass adequate regulations is disappointing and irresponsible ... the (department) has been asleep at the switch." he said.

Cuomo was secretary of housing and urban development under President Bill Clinton. He became New York's top cop late last year and is moving quickly to carry on the crusading style of his predecessor, Eliot Spitzer, now the state's governor.


Secretary Spellings said in a statement that she shares Cuomo's concerns about lender practices, but she said his remarks were ill-informed. "The U.S. Department of Education takes its role as steward of federal financial aid very seriously," she said.

She added that the department has taken steps to tighten oversight. Earlier this week, Spellings created an internal task force to work on new student loan regulations.

But California Democratic Rep. George Miller said the Education Department should be doing more. He called on Spellings last week to undertake "emergency reforms."

Both Miller and California Rep. Howard McKeon, the education committee's top Republican, have introduced legislation to overhaul the student loan system. Kennedy is working on a package of reforms in the Senate.

Spellings has agreed to testify before the House education committee, which Miller chairs, on May 10.

Separately, Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy on Wednesday asked Spellings for files and public financial disclosure reports for 27 Education Department employees.

The chairman of the Senate education committee said in a statement that "information has recently come to light which raises serious questions about the impartiality of political appointees working at the Department of Education."

Earlier this month, a manager in the department's financial aid office was put on leave pending a review of his ownership of stock in Education Lending Group Inc., former parent of Student Loan Xpress, now a unit of CIT Group.

As Cuomo's inquiry has progressed, lenders -- including Citigroup, Sallie Mae, JPMorgan Chase & Co., and Bank of America Corp. -- have agreed to abide by a code of conduct recommended by the attorney general. It bans school-lender financial ties, "preferred lender" list payments, and lender gifts to college employees.

In a related matter on Wednesday, the New York State Senate passed a bill barring lenders from making gifts to universities in exchange for privileged treatment. The bill has yet to be approved by the state assembly.

(Additional reporting by Christian Plumb in New York)


Gore, Bloomberg joke about presidential run

Gore, Bloomberg joke about presidential run

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Former Vice President Al Gore and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg traded jokes on Wednesday about running for U.S. president, but neither gave anything away amid speculation they might join the race.

Both Gore and Bloomberg, a billionaire businessman and longtime Democrat who switched parties to run for mayor in 2001, have said they have no plans to run for U.S. president, but speculation continues.

At a news conference for the start of the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, Bloomberg described Gore as "the hottest leading man of the moment" and praised his Oscar-winning environmental documentary "An Inconvenient Truth."

"His recent success has even prompted some talk that he might again try for the White House," Bloomberg said.

Turning to Gore, he added: "Al, don't you just hate those rumors about running for president?"

Gore, the Democratic presidential nominee who lost to President George W. Bush in 2000, praised the Republican Bloomberg for announcing over the weekend what Gore called "gutsy" measures to make New York a greener city.

Asked if he thought the presidential candidates were doing enough about issues of climate change, Gore quipped: "I think Mike is."

(Reporting by Claudia Parsons)


Monday, April 23, 2007

Laurie David and Sheryl Crow: Karl Rove Gets Thrown Under the Stop Global Warming Bus

Laurie David and Sheryl Crow
Karl Rove Gets Thrown Under the Stop Global Warming Bus

Last night Thelma and Louise drove the bus off the cliff or at least into the White House Correspondents Dinner. The "highlight" of the evening had to be when we were introduced to Karl Rove. How excited were we to have our first opportunity ever to talk directly to the Bush Administration about global warming.
We asked Mr. Rove if he would consider taking a fresh look at the science of global warming. Much to our dismay, he immediately got combative. And it went downhill from there.

We reminded the senior White House advisor that the US leads the world in global warming pollution and we are doing the least about it. Anger flaring, Mr. Rove immediately regurgitated the official Administration position on global warming which is that the US spends more on researching the causes than any other country.

We felt compelled to remind him that the research is done and the results are in ( Mr. Rove exploded with even more venom. Like a spoiled child throwing a tantrum, Mr. Rove launched into a series of illogical arguments regarding China not doing enough thus neither should we. (Since when do we follow China's lead?)

At some point during his ramblings, we became heartbroken to think that the President of the United States and his top advisers have partially built a career on global warming not being real. We have been telling college students across the country for the past two weeks that government does not change until people demand it... well, listen up folks, everyone had better get a lot louder because the message clearly is not getting through.

In his attempt to dismiss us, Mr. Rove turned to head toward his table, but as soon as he did so, Sheryl reached out to touch his arm. Karl swung around and spat, "Don't touch me." How hardened and removed from reality must a person be to refuse to be touched by Sheryl Crow? Unphased, Sheryl abruptly responded, "You can't speak to us like that, you work for us." Karl then quipped, "I don't work for you, I work for the American people." To which Sheryl promptly reminded him, "We are the American people."

At that point Mr. Rove apparently decided he had had enough. Like a groundhog fearful of his own shadow, he scurried to his table in an attempt to hibernate for another year from his responsibility to address global warming. Drama aside, you would expect as an American citizen to be able to engage in a civil discussion with a public official. Instead, Mr. Rove was dismissive, condescending, and quite frankly a bully.

Ultimately, we were left wondering what on Earth Mr. Rove was talking about when he said "the American people." If more than 60% of American voters, the Supreme Court, over 400 cities, the US National Academy of Sciences, numerous major US corporations, and others don't constitute the American people, then what does? The truth is, if this administration cared one iota about the American people, they would have addressed this problem long ago, and the sad reality is that this problem has been left to us, all of us, since the current administration has abandoned this issue entirely. In the absence of true leadership, we must guide ourselves. We can solve this, but we had better act fast.


FDA aware of dangers to food

FDA aware of dangers to food
Outbreaks were not preventable, officials say
By Elizabeth Williamson
The Washington Post

The Food and Drug Administration has known for years about contamination problems at a Georgia peanut butter plant and on California spinach farms that led to disease outbreaks that killed three people, sickened hundreds, and forced one of the biggest product recalls in U.S. history, documents and interviews show.

Overwhelmed by huge growth in the number of food processors and imports, however, the agency took only limited steps to address the problems and relied on producers to police themselves, according to agency documents.

Congressional critics and consumer advocates said both episodes show that the agency is incapable of adequately protecting the safety of the food supply.

FDA officials conceded that the agency's system needs to be overhauled to meet today's demands, but contended that the agency could not have done anything to prevent either contamination episode.

Last week, the FDA notified California state health officials that hogs on a farm in the state had likely eaten feed laced with melamine, an industrial chemical blamed for the deaths of dozens of pets in recent weeks. Officials are trying to determine whether the chemical's presence in the hogs represents a threat to humans.

Pork from animals raised on the farm has been recalled. The FDA has said its inspectors probably would not have found the contaminated food before problems arose. The tainted additive caused a recall of more than 100 different brands of pet food.

The outbreaks point to a need to change the way the agency does business, said Robert E. Brackett, director of the FDA's food-safety arm, which is responsible for safeguarding 80 percent of the nation's food supply.

"We have 60,000 to 80,000 facilities that we're responsible for in any given year," Brackett said. Explosive growth in the number of processors and the amount of imported foods means that manufacturers "have to build safety into their products rather than us chasing after them," Brackett said. "We have to get out of the 1950s paradigm."

‘Poisonous result’
Tomorrow, a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee will hold a hearing on the unprecedented spate of recalls.

"This administration does not like regulation, this administration does not like spending money, and it has a hostility toward government. The poisonous result is that a program like the FDA is going to suffer at every turn of the road," said Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the full House committee. Dingell is considering introducing legislation to boost the agency's accountability, regulatory authority and budget.

In the peanut butter case, an agency report shows that FDA inspectors checked into complaints about salmonella contamination in a ConAgra Foods factory in Georgia in 2005. But when company managers refused to provide documents the inspectors requested, the inspectors left and did not follow up.

A salmonella outbreak that began last August and was traced to the plant's Peter Pan and Great Value peanut butter brands sickened more than 400 people in 44 states. The likely cause, ConAgra said, was moisture from a roof leak and a malfunctioning sprinkler system that activated dormant salmonella. The plant has since been closed.

The 2005 report shows that FDA inspectors were looking into "an alleged episode of positive findings of salmonella in peanut butter in October of 2004 that was related to new equipment and that the firm didn't react to, . . . insects in some equipment, water leaking onto product, and inability to track some product."

During the inspection, the report says, ConAgra admitted it had destroyed some product in October 2004 but would not say why.

"They asked for some of our documentation and we made the request to them that they put it in writing due to concerns about proprietary information," ConAgra spokeswoman Stephanie Childs said last week. "We did not receive a written request, . . . they filed the report and that was that."

Until February of this year. That's when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notified the FDA of a spike in salmonella cases in states near the ConAgra plant. The agencies contacted the company, which initiated a recall and shut the plant for upgrades.

Brackett said that if the FDA inspector had seen anything truly dangerous the agency would have taken further action. But, he said, the agency cannot force a disclosure, a recall or a plant closure except in extreme circumstances, such as finding a hazardous batch of product.

The problem in 2005, he added, "doesn't necessarily connect to the salmonella outbreak right now. It's not unusual to have it in raw agricultural commodities."

The FDA has known even longer about illnesses among people who ate spinach and other greens from California's Salinas Valley, the source of outbreaks over the past six months that have killed three people and sickened more than 200 in 26 states. The subsequent recall was the largest ever for leafy vegetables.

‘Still problems out in those fields’
In a letter sent to California growers in late 2005, Brackett wrote, "FDA is aware of 18 outbreaks of foodborne illness since 1995 caused by [E. coli bacteria] for which fresh or fresh-cut lettuce was implicated. . . . In one additional case, fresh-cut spinach was implicated. These 19 outbreaks account for approximately 409 reported cases of illness and two deaths."

"We know that there are still problems out in those fields," Brackett said in an interview last week. "We knew there had been a problem, but we never and probably still could not pinpoint where the problem was. We could have that capability, but not at this point."

According to Caroline Smith DeWaal, who heads the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer-advocacy group, "When budgets are tight . . . the food program at FDA gets hit the hardest."

In next year's budget, passed amid discovery of contamination problems in spinach, tomatoes and lettuce, Congress has voted the FDA a $10 million increase to improve food safety, DeWaal said. The Agriculture Department, which monitors meat, poultry and eggs and keeps inspectors in every processing plant, got an increase 10 times that amount to help pay for its inspection programs. The FDA visits problem food plants about once a year and the rest far less frequently, Brackett said.

William Hubbard, who retired as associate commissioner of the FDA in 2005 and founded the advocacy group Coalition for a Stronger FDA, said that when he joined the agency in the 1970s, its food safety arm claimed half its budget and personnel.

"Now it's about a quarter . . . at a time in which the problems have grown, the size of the industry has grown and imports of food have skyrocketed," Hubbard said.


Congress set to defy Bush on Iraq war

Congress set to defy Bush on Iraq war
By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A fight between the U.S. Congress and President George W. Bush over the Iraq war is set to come to a head this week when Democrats are expected to send him $100 billion to pay for continuing combat while setting timetables for withdrawing troops.

Bush has promised to veto any bill setting dates for removing U.S. combat soldiers from the Iraq war, now in its fifth year.

But when a Democratic-controlled panel of Senate and House of Representatives members meets on Monday to iron out differences between their respective bills, the product is expected to contain 2008 withdrawal dates.

Many lawmakers have been speculating those dates might be nonbinding, as sketched out by a Senate-passed bill.

"The longer we continue down the president's path, the further we will be from responsibly ending this war," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who on Thursday said the war in Iraq was "lost."

The Nevada Democrat, who called for a change of course in Iraq, made his remarks during a week in which he and Bush traded barbs and as violence and killings in Iraq again spiked.

Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, who holds a Democratic leadership position in the House, said final touches on the Iraq war language ought to be finished by this weekend. That will be the basis for Monday's work session on the bill.

Last month, the House approved a bill setting a September 1, 2008, deadline for all U.S. combat troops to leave Iraq. The Senate's softer approach calls for some troop withdrawals this year leading to a nonbinding goal of having most of the 146,000 soldiers leave Iraq by March 31, 2008.

Nearly all Republicans in Congress voted against the deadlines.

In recent days, however, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said Congress' debate on deadlines was helpful. In Baghdad on Thursday, he also told Iraqi leaders that the United States cannot indefinitely commit troops.

The full House could vote on Wednesday on the controversial war-funding bill, the same day Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, is due to brief senators in a closed session.

Democrats say they are uncertain what will happen after Bush vetoes their war money bill. They know they will have to produce another bill to fund the troops in the war zone but they are split over what conditions they can attach and still win Bush's signature.

Liberal Democrats, who want a quick withdrawal from Iraq, hope their leaders will keep the pressure on Bush by giving him only enough money to conduct the war for another two months or so, instead of for the next six months.

Rep. Lynn Woolsey, a California Democrat, said "in two months it might be really clear" that Bush's 30,000-troop increase was not succeeding in quelling sectarian violence.

She said her hope was that subsequent Iraq funding bills "could be used to bring the troops home."

But that view is opposed by more moderate Democrats, who at least for now do not want Congress meddling too much in Bush's handling of the war.


Presidential debates set for cyberspace

Yahoo! News
Presidential debates set for cyberspace
By BETH FOUHY, Associated Press Writer

The 2008 presidential contenders may soon be slugging it out in cyberspace, with pioneering online-only debates being planned for early next fall, a new media partnership says.

The political blog Huffington Post, online portal Yahoo and Slate Magazine will host the debates — one for Democratic candidates, one for Republicans — sometime after Labor Day, with PBS host Charlie Rose serving as moderator, the sponsors planned to announce Monday.

Voters will be invited to submit questions, and can blog in real time to share their opinions on the candidates' answers.

Arianna Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post, said the idea for online debates was hatched earlier this year at the World Economic Forum in Davos, which bloggers and citizen journalists had been invited to cover.

"It was clear to me, the 2008 campaign was going to be dominated by what's happening on line — new technologies, new media like never before," Huffington said. She then contacted Rose and Slate editor Jacob Weisberg to form a partnership to produce the forums.

Yahoo Inc. (Nasdaq:YHOO - news), the largest provider of online news, will host the debates and provide the technological expertise to produce them.

Candidates will be able to participate from far-flung locations, speaking and interacting with one another before separate video cameras. The video will also appear on the Slate and Huffington Post Web sites.

Major news organizations have already harnessed Internet technology for debates, often Webcasting them and televising them at once. But Web-only debates will be substantively different than televised debates that appear online, participants in the partnership said.

Scott Moore, director of Yahoo's news and information service, compared the debates to the first televised forums between Democrat John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960.

Historians believe voters who watched the debate believed Kennedy was the winner, while voters who listened on the radio thought Nixon had won.

It's a really significant, historic opportunity for the candidates to test their debate skills in a brand new format," Moore said.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean has agreed to introduce the Democratic debate, Huffington said. She said the campaigns had all been contacted about the idea and most had indicated an interest in participating.


On the Net:

Yahoo Inc.:


Huffington Post:


Sunday, April 22, 2007

The New 5-to-4 Supreme Court

The New York Times
Entrances and Exits
The New 5-to-4 Supreme Court

AFTER the 5-to-4 decision last week in which the Supreme Court reversed course on abortion, upholding the federal Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, many court watchers were wondering what to expect next.

For guidance, law professors and Supreme Court specialists looked to lists of 5-to-4 cases in which Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who retired last year, had been the swing vote. One list, compiled by Martin S. Lederman at Georgetown University, had 31 entries, with cases on religion and race, elections and crime, medicine and free speech.

Last week’s abortion decision, Gonzales v. Carhart, demonstrated the court’s new math. With the justice who took the O’Connor seat, Samuel A. Alito, in the majority, and the new swing justice, Anthony M. Kennedy, writing the decision, the court upheld, by a single vote, the abortion act.

Just seven years ago, Justice O’Connor voted with the court’s liberals to strike down a similar Nebraska law banning the procedure, known medically as intact dilation and extraction. It involves removing an intact fetus rather than dismembering the fetus in the uterus. The decision recast the court’s approach to abortion, shifting its emphasis toward fetal life and away from deference to medical judgments about women’s health.

The decision last week brought into focus the greatest hopes of conservatives and the worst fears of liberals. Is the court about to make sweeping changes in important areas of constitutional law, including in decisions expected shortly on the role of money in political campaigns and of race in the schools?

“O’Connor was the swing vote in so many cases, especially in high-profile areas like affirmative action, campaign finance and separation of church and state,” said Erwin Chemerinsky, a law professor at Duke. “Sam Alito is likely to bring about a change in all of those areas.”

In the coming months alone, the court is set to decide two important cases in areas where Justice O’Connor played a crucial role.

One case considers whether the school systems in Seattle and Louisville, Ky., may take into account students’ race to make sure schools remain integrated. Students in both systems are offered a choice of schools, but they can be denied admission based on their race if enrolling in a given school would upset what local school boards had determined was a desirable racial balance.

That is not precisely the same question as the one considered in Grutter v. Bollinger, the 2003 decision in which Justice O’Connor, writing for a 5-to-4 majority, upheld a racially conscious admissions plan at the University of Michigan’s law school. That case involved not integration, but affirmative action, with the court allowing the government to give some groups a boost.

But the two cases are in the same doctrinal neighborhood, and the integration cases will almost certainly give a powerful hint about where the court is headed, not only on affirmative action but also on the use of race by the government more generally.

In Grutter, Justice O’Connor said that society may need affirmative action for another 25 years. Some legal scholars are betting that Grutter will be modified or overruled before that expiration date.

On Wednesday, the court will hear arguments in another case that could start to undo a part of Justice O’Connor’s legacy. In 2003, she was in the majority in McConnell v. Federal Election Commission, which upheld the major provisions of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, including restrictions on some campaign-season television advertising paid for by corporations and labor unions.

The new case considers that same ban in a particular context, in what lawyers call an “as applied” challenge. An anti-abortion group, Wisconsin Right to Life Inc., had sought to run television commercials criticizing a Senate filibuster against President Bush’s judicial nominees and urging viewers to ask the state’s two senators, one of whom was up for re-election, to permit the nominations to come to a vote.

The Federal Election Commission says that the advertisements were thinly veiled campaign commercials, while the group says they are just the sort of speech at the core of what the First Amendment protects.

“If Alito takes the position of the dissenters” in the 2003 case, said Richard H. Pildes, a law professor at New York University, “that would represent a profound transformation in the power of Congress to reach campaign finance practices. The betting line is that he’s likely to go that way.”

After the McConnell decision, Congressional power to drive money from politics, even at the expense of free speech, had seemed settled. Only four years later, the issue is back on the table.

Justice O’Connor also played a central role in religion cases, and in recent years she had shown increasing skepticism in capital cases. It will not be long, legal scholars said, before Justice Alito’s impact is felt in those cases as well.

In 2005, Justice O’Connor was in the five-justice majority in a decision invalidating the display of the Ten Commandments in a Kentucky courthouse. When the issue next comes up, Professor Chemerinsky said, “there is every reason to believe that Alito will join Scalia and Thomas” in allowing displays of religious symbols on government property.

There is more to judicial decision-making than math, of course, and Justice Alito and his colleagues on the court will rule based on the facts and arguments presented to them. The court is, moreover, reluctant to overturn decisions in any event under the doctrine of stare decisis, a Latin phrase meaning “to stand by the thing decided.”

Indeed, in last week’s abortion decision, the majority did not overrule the 2000 decision and maintained that the Nebraska law was distinguishable from the federal one. It is similarly unlikely that the court will overrule many of the cases of the professors’ lists outright.

Nonetheless, there is probably no better guide to where the court is headed than in a careful inventory of where Justice O’Connor has been.


Oversight of Nursing Homes Is Criticized

The New York Times
Oversight of Nursing Homes Is Criticized

WASHINGTON, April 21 — Federal health officials impose only minimal penalties on nursing homes repeatedly cited for mistreatment of patients, Congressional investigators say in a new report.

As a result, they said, some nursing homes cycle in and out of compliance with federal standards and pose a continued threat to the health and safety of patients.

“Some of these homes repeatedly harmed residents over a six-year period and yet remain in the Medicare and Medicaid programs,” said the report, to be issued next week by the Government Accountability Office, an investigative arm of Congress.

The Department of Health and Human Services “fails to hold homes with a long history of harming residents accountable for the poor care provided,” the investigators said.

Congress established stringent standards for nursing homes in 1987. In 1998, the G.A.O. reported that “homes can repeatedly harm residents without facing sanctions.” Since then, President Bill Clinton, President Bush and the nursing home industry have announced many initiatives to improve care.

But in its new report, the accountability office says that little seems to have changed at the worst-performing homes. The Bush administration rarely uses its authority to deny payment to homes with a history of compliance problems and typically imposes fines far less than the maximum of $10,000 a day, the report said.

In Michigan, federal investigators found that a nursing home was still open even though it had repeatedly been cited for “poor quality care,” poor nutrition services, medication errors and employing people who had been convicted of abusing patients.

At a nursing home in California, the report said, a patient choked to death, in part because the equipment needed to save his life, a suction machine, was broken. This home “cycled in and out of compliance four times,” was cited for more than 170 serious deficiencies and was still in operation late last year, the report said.

Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, said the conclusions of the study — an exhaustive review of progress over the last decade — were “very discouraging.”

“After the tremendous reform effort of the last 10 years,” Mr. Grassley said, “the federal agency that’s supposed to coordinate regulatory efforts is taking an approach that is undermining the sanctions that are available to try to improve care in the most questionable nursing homes.” Mr. Grassley, who requested the study, is the senior Republican on the Finance Committee, which has authority over Medicaid and Medicare.

Members of Congress are likely to use the report as a map for legislation requiring stiffer penalties for the most serious violations. Administration officials agreed that higher fines were appropriate in some cases. They said they would ask Congress for the power to collect fines more swiftly, without waiting for all appeals to be resolved.

About 1.5 million people live in the nation’s 16,400 nursing homes on any given day. More than 3 million people receive nursing-home care at some point in the year. Medicaid and Medicare pay for more than two-thirds of patients.

Federal health officials accepted many findings in the report. Leslie V. Norwalk, acting administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said her agency was taking steps to strengthen enforcement.

The investigators said they had purposely focused on nursing homes with a history of compliance problems. Bruce A. Yarwood, president of the American Health Care Association, a trade group, said he believed that care at the average nursing home had improved in the last decade.

The Government Accountability Office said federal health officials hesitated to impose fines of more than $200 a day, in part because they believed that larger penalties “could bankrupt some homes.” Fines are generally so small that nursing homes view them as a “cost of doing business,” with “no more effect than a slap on the wrist,” the report said.

In the rare cases when federal officials try to exclude a nursing home from Medicaid and Medicare, the home often avoids the penalty by making temporary improvements and then lapsing back into noncompliance, the investigators said.

Under federal policy, the government is supposed to take immediate enforcement action against nursing homes that repeatedly cause “actual harm” to patients. But the accountability office said “immediate sanctions are often not immediate” because the Bush administration gives homes a grace period.

As a result, “the immediate sanctions policy does not appear to deter homes from harming residents in the future,” the report said, and “some homes with the worst compliance histories escape immediate sanctions.”

Ms. Norwalk, the official in charge of Medicaid and Medicare, said more fines “may simply not be very effective” in dealing with the worst homes. And she said patients could lose access to care if their nursing homes were denied payment under Medicaid and Medicare. Deprived of such income, a nursing home may decide to close.

Medicaid and Medicare are the largest purchasers of nursing home services, accounting for 60 percent of the $122 billion spent on care in 2005, the most recent year for which figures are available.

The accountability office recommended closer scrutiny and more frequent inspections for nursing homes with a long record of serious violations. Ms. Norwalk agreed in principle, but said, “We must regretfully refrain” from carrying out the recommendation, and she cited budget constraints as a reason.

Federal health officials agreed that it would be helpful for consumers to know which nursing homes had been punished for providing substandard care. They promised to post such data on the Web.

“The history of sanctions may be a good predictor of future behavior,” Ms. Norwalk said.


Timeline: The Frightening Future of Earth
Timeline: The Frightening Future of Earth
By Andrea Thompson
and Ker Than

Our planet's prospects for environmental stability are bleaker than ever with the approach of this year’s Earth Day, April 22. Global warming is widely accepted as a reality by scientists and even by previously doubtful government and industrial leaders. And according to a recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), there is a 90 percent likelihood that humans are contributing to the change.

The international panel of scientists predicts the global average temperature could increase by 2 to 11 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100 and that sea levels could rise by up to 2 feet.

Scientists have even speculated that a slight increase in Earth's rotation rate could result, along with other changes. Glaciers, already receding, will disappear. Epic floods will hit some areas while intense drought will strike others. Humans will face widespread water shortages. Famine and disease will increase. Earth’s landscape will transform radically, with a quarter of plants and animals at risk of extinction.

While putting specific dates on these traumatic potential events is challenging, this timeline paints the big picture and details Earth's future based on several recent studies and the longer scientific version of the IPCC report, which was made available to LiveScience.


More of the world's population now lives in cities than in rural areas, changing patterns of land use. The world population surpasses 6.6 billion. (Peter Crane, Royal Botanic Gardens, UK, Science; UN World Urbanization Prospectus: The 2003 Revision; U.S. Census Bureau)


Global oil production peaks sometime between 2008 and 2018, according to a model by one Swedish physicist. Others say this turning point, known as “Hubbert’s Peak,” won’t occur until after 2020. Once Hubbert’s Peak is reached, global oil production will begin an irreversible decline, possibly triggering a global recession, food shortages and conflict between nations over dwindling oil supplies. (doctoral dissertation of Frederik Robelius, University of Uppsala, Sweden; report by Robert Hirsch of the Science Applications International Corporation)


Flash floods will very likely increase across all parts of Europe. (IPCC)

Less rainfall could reduce agriculture yields by up to 50 percent in some parts of the world. (IPCC)

World population will reach 7.6 billion people. (U.S. Census Bureau)


Diarrhea-related diseases will likely increase by up to 5 percent in low-income parts of the world. (IPCC)

Up to 18 percent of the world’s coral reefs will likely be lost as a result of climate change and other environmental stresses. In Asian coastal waters, the coral loss could reach 30 percent. (IPCC)

World population will reach 8.3 billion people. (U.S. Census Bureau)

Warming temperatures will cause temperate glaciers on equatorial mountains in Africa to disappear. (Richard Taylor, University College London, Geophysical Research Letters:)

In developing countries, the urban population will more than double to about 4 billion people, packing more people onto a given city's land area. The urban populations of developed countries may also increase by as much as 20 percent. (World Bank: The Dynamics of Global Urban Expansion)


The Arctic Sea could be ice-free in the summer, and winter ice depth may shrink drastically. Other scientists say the region will still have summer ice up to 2060 and 2105. (Marika Holland, NCAR, Geophysical Research Letters)


Small alpine glaciers will very likely disappear completely, and large glaciers will shrink by 30 to 70 percent. Austrian scientist Roland Psenner of the University of Innsbruck says this is a conservative estimate, and the small alpine glaciers could be gone as soon as 2037. (IPCC)

In Australia, there will likely be an additional 3,200 to 5,200 heat-related deaths per year. The hardest hit will be people over the age of 65. An extra 500 to 1,000 people will die of heat-related deaths in New York City per year. In the United Kingdom, the opposite will occur, and cold-related deaths will outpace heat-related ones. (IPCC)

World population reaches 9.4 billion people. (U.S. Census Bureau)

Crop yields could increase by up to 20 percent in East and Southeast Asia, while decreasing by up to 30 percent in Central and South Asia. Similar shifts in crop yields could occur on other continents. (IPCC)

As biodiversity hotspots are more threatened, a quarter of the world’s plant and vertebrate animal species could face extinction. (Jay Malcolm, University of Toronto, Conservation Biology)


As glaciers disappear and areas affected by drought increase, electricity production for the world’s existing hydropower stations will decrease. Hardest hit will be Europe, where hydropower potential is expected to decline on average by 6 percent; around the Mediterranean, the decrease could be up to 50 percent. (IPCC)

Warmer, drier conditions will lead to more frequent and longer droughts, as well as longer fire-seasons, increased fire risks, and more frequent heat waves, especially in Mediterranean regions. (IPCC)


While some parts of the world dry out, others will be inundated. Scientists predict up to 20 percent of the world’s populations live in river basins likely to be affected by increased flood hazards. Up to 100 million people could experience coastal flooding each year. Most at risk are densely populated and low-lying areas that are less able to adapt to rising sea levels and areas which already face other challenges such as tropical storms. (IPCC)

Coastal population could balloon to 5 billion people, up from 1.2 billion in 1990. (IPCC)

Between 1.1 and 3.2 billion people will experience water shortages and up to 600 million will go hungry. (IPCC)

Sea levels could rise around New York City by more than three feet, potentially flooding the Rockaways, Coney Island, much of southern Brooklyn and Queens, portions of Long Island City, Astoria, Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, Queens, lower Manhattan and eastern Staten Island from Great Kills Harbor north to the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. (NASA GISS)


The risk of dengue fever from climate change is estimated to increase to 3.5 billion people. (IPCC)


A combination of global warming and other factors will push many ecosystems to the limit, forcing them to exceed their natural ability to adapt to climate change. (IPCC)

Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels will be much higher than anytime during the past 650,000 years. (IPCC)

Ocean pH levels will very likely decrease by as much as 0.5 pH units, the lowest it’s been in the last 20 million years. The ability of marine organisms such as corals, crabs and oysters to form shells or exoskeletons could be impaired. (IPCC)

Thawing permafrost and other factors will make Earth’s land a net source of carbon emissions, meaning it will emit more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than it absorbs. (IPCC)

Roughly 20 to 30 percent of species assessed as of 2007 could be extinct by 2100 if global mean temperatures exceed 2 to 3 degrees of pre-industrial levels. (IPCC)

New climate zones appear on up to 39 percent of the world’s land surface, radically transforming the planet. (Jack Williams, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences)

A quarter of all species of plants and land animals—more than a million total—could be driven to extinction. The IPCC reports warn that current “conservation practices are generally ill-prepared for climate change and effective adaptation responses are likely to be costly to implement.” (IPCC)

Increased droughts could significantly reduce moisture levels in the American Southwest, northern Mexico and possibly parts of Europe, Africa and the Middle East, effectively recreating the “Dust Bowl” environments of the 1930s in the United States. (Richard Seager, Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory, Science)


An Earth day will be 0.12 milliseconds shorter, as rising temperatures cause oceans to expand away from the equator and toward the poles, one model predicts. One reason water will be shifted toward the poles is most of the expansion will take place in the North Atlantic Ocean, near the North Pole. The poles are closer to the Earth’s axis of rotation, so having more mass there should speed up the planet’s rotation. (Felix Landerer, Max Planck Institute for Meteorology, Geophysical Research Letters)


War Becomes Personal at Private Military Academy

War Becomes Personal at Academy

NORTHFIELD, Vt. — War is what cadets train for at the nation's oldest private military academy.

The grim reality of that career path is hitting home for the officers-to-be in the student body at Norwich University with the deaths of two former students in Iraq, within three days of each other.

"It's kind of like surreal now because before I heard names, you know, and I saw pictures and I didn't know them so it was kind of removed," said senior Cadet Jonathan Pride, 21, who graduates next month and will be commissioned an Army lieutenant. "Now, it's somebody I know. It's kind of like 'Wow, there really is a war out there.'"

Norwich, founded in 1819, has been training officers for battle on its picturesque hilltop campus since before the Civil War.

The school lost at least 52 graduates in the Civil War, 16 in World War I, 86 in World War II, three in Korea and 22 in Vietnam, although college officials say the numbers are imprecise.

And since the war began in Iraq, it has lost four graduates, including two this month:

_Army Capt. Anthony Palermo Jr., 27, of Brockton, Mass., was killed April 6 by an improvised explosive device that detonated near his Humvee in Baghdad. He attended Norwich for four years before graduating from Bridgewater State College in Massachusetts in 2003.

_Army Sgt. Adam Kennedy of Norfolk, Mass., was killed April 8 when he was hit while on patrol near Diwaniyah, Iraq. He graduated from Norwich in 2004.

"For the last three or four days, almost every senior I've talked to that's going to be commissioning in the Army had some kind of different temperance about them," said junior Kim Sorber, of Dallas, Pa., who is due to receive her commission in just over a year. "They've got some kind of, not even hesitance, but just a different, lower, more modest temperance about them."

Last year, Norwich produced more second lieutenants for the Army than any other college except the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Not every student is headed for a military career. Of the 1,950 who attend, 1,150 are members of the Corps of Cadets and only a portion of those are seeking officers' commissions.

It is an "awesome responsibility to prepare them, to guide them," said Commandant of Cadets Michael Kelley, a 1974 graduate and retired Army colonel. "The group that's here today came post 9/11. Every one of them knew the world order had changed."

During his student years at Norwich, five alumni died in Vietnam. But Kelley couldn't remember anything being done for any of them. Today, however, "our students take so proudly the service of others," he said.

Fallen Norwich graduates are remembered on the Harmon Wall, a granite monument on which are inscribed the names of graduates and others who have contributed to the community, not just those killed in action. It is named for former Norwich President Gen. Ernest Harmon.

Kennedy and Palermo, whose names will be on the wall's yet-to-be inscribed 2007 section, also will be remembered by the Corps of Cadets at a May 3 ceremony known as "echo taps."

The entire Corps of Cadets will gather in full dress uniform just before 11 p.m. and be called to attention with whispered orders. Following a salute of 21 shots by a firing party, two buglers at different locations on campus will play taps, a beat apart, just enough to make the sound appear to echo.

Pride and Sorber attended echo taps for 1st Lt. Mark Dooley, a 2001 graduate killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq in September 2005.

Pride was a member of the firing party.

"I was crying on the platform," Pride said. "It can be anybody. It can be him, it can be Kim, it can be anybody. We are all connected in this. We are at a small school. We are all connected in some way. It was almost as if part of me died."


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Iraqi Soldiers Using Torture To Gain Information For US

The New York Times
After Iraqi Troops Do Dirty Work, 3 Detainees Talk

BAGHDAD, April 21 — Out here in what the soldiers call Baghdad’s wild west, sometimes the choices are all bad.

In one of the new joint American-Iraqi security stations in the capital this month, in the volatile Ghazaliya neighborhood, Capt. Darren Fowler was heaping praise on his Iraqi counterparts for helping capture three insurgent suspects who had provided information he believed would save American lives.

“The detainee gave us names from the highest to the lowest,” Captain Fowler told the Iraqi soldiers. “He showed us their safe houses, where they store weapons and I.E.D.’s and where they keep kidnap victims, how they get weapons, where weapons come from, how they place I.E.D.’s, attack us and go away. Because you detained this guy this is the first intelligence linking everything together. Good job. Very good job.”

The Iraqi officers beamed. What the Americans did not know and what the Iraqis had not told them was that before handing over the detainees to the Americans, the Iraqi soldiers had beaten one of them in front of the other two, the Iraqis said. The stripes on the detainee’s back, which appeared to be the product of a whipping with electrical cables, were later shown briefly to a photographer, who was not allowed to take a picture.

To the Iraqi soldiers, the treatment was normal and necessary. They were proud of their technique and proud to have helped the Americans.

“I prepared him for the Americans and let them take his confession,” Capt. Bassim Hassan said through an interpreter. “We know how to make them talk. We know their back streets. We beat them. I don’t beat them that much, but enough so he feels the pain and it makes him desperate.”

As American and Iraqi troops set up these outposts in dangerous neighborhoods to take on the insurgents block by block, they find themselves continually facing lethal attacks. In practice, the Americans and Iraqis seem to have different answers about what tactics are acceptable in response.

Beatings like this, which are usually hard to verify but appear to be widespread given the fears about the Iraqi security forces frequently expressed by ordinary Iraqis, present the Americans with a largely undiscussed dilemma.

The beaten detainee, according to Captain Fowler, not only led the Americans to safe houses believed to be used by Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia but also confessed to laying and detonating roadside bombs along a section of road heavily traveled by American patrols. Just a month ago, four soldiers from Captain Fowler’s regiment died on that road after the explosion of a large, deeply buried bomb, possibly made in the bomb factory that the Americans were able to dismantle because of the detainee’s information, Captain Fowler said.

But beating is strictly forbidden by the United States Army’s Field Manual, as well as American and Iraqi laws. When the Americans learned about the beating, they were quick to condemn it.

The use of torture by American soldiers and contractors at Abu Ghraib only compounded Iraqi hatred of Americans and further undermined American moral claims in Iraq. It also produced little valuable information. Most experts, including in the military, say they believe that coerced confessions are an unreliable way to learn about enemy operations because people being tortured will often say whatever they think it will take to stop the pain.

This joint security station in Ghazaliya opened on March 15, about a month after the latest increase in American troops began. The station, inhabited by about 70 soldiers of Company D of the Second Battalion, 12th Cavalry, and their Iraqi counterparts, is named for Specialist Robert Thrasher, a member of the unit killed by sniper fire on Feb. 11 when the company was scouting for a station site.

Thrasher, as the station is known, sits in the southern part of Ghazaliya, one of the roughest areas of western Baghdad. In the northern part, Shiite militias, led by the Mahdi Army, have been driving out Sunni Arabs through raids and assassinations. Sunnis have pushed Shiites out of the southern part.

Sewage pools in the streets. Water and electricity are almost nonexistent, and fewer than half the houses are occupied. The neighborhood graffiti broadcasts the presence of an active insurgency: “Long live Abu Hamza al-Muhajar,” reads one scrawl, referring to a local insurgent leader.

The outpost’s location, along one of the main arms smuggling routes from Falluja, was chosen because it was next to a litter-filled lot that was a dumping ground for bodies. When they first arrived, the American soldiers found 30 bodies there, among them women and children.

Now it is rare to find more than one or two, said Captain Fowler, who keeps photos of every one on his computer as a reminder of how much worse it was before his company took up residence. He can also point to other signs of progress: children have begun to play outside again, and women walk to the market.

But the area remains far from calm. The radio in the joint operations room crackles all day long with reports of bomb explosions or newly sighted explosive devices that must be scouted by the soldiers. The distance to the next security station is barely half a mile, but it is so dangerous that the soldiers cannot walk there and do not like to drive more often than necessary.

Although one tenet of the Baghdad security plan is that soldiers should patrol on foot to get to know local residents, it was on just such a patrol that Specialist Thrasher died. Now, said Sgt. Trevis Good, 34, “foot patrols don’t exist; they are not something we do.” The company’s partner is the Third Battalion, Fourth Brigade, of the Iraqi Army’s 10th Division. The soldiers come from Amara, the largest town in rural Maysan Province in the far south, a mostly peaceful area where in a year of active duty they never had an injury, much less a fatality.

In just three weeks in Ghazaliya, the battalion has lost two officers and a soldier; 16 troops have been wounded. A few hundred Iraqi soldiers live in three attached houses just over a brick wall from the Americans. The houses, beefed up only by sandbags, lie outside the station’s fortified area. Visiting their quarters means crouching down and running behind vehicles until entering one of the houses.

The Iraqi soldiers have their own network of informants, and they picked up the detainee who was later beaten, Mustafa Subhi Jassam, after seeing him loitering around a main patrol route twice in the same day. The other two insurgent suspects were picked up separately.

After interrogating Mr. Jassam, a thin young man wearing a blue and red warm-up outfit, for much of the night, the Americans took him to point out one of the houses where the Qaeda militants made bombs. When the Americans arrived, a half-eaten lunch was on the table next to a couple of detonators and some blasting wire. The insurgents appeared to have been gnawing on chicken and flat bread while making fuses for I.E.D.’s, improvised explosive devices, the military’s term for the roadside bombs found here.

On the table and in bags on the floor were mountains of soap, which can be used in homemade explosives. Blasting wire lay in coils. Buried in the garden were two large antiaircraft guns known as Duskas, three propane tanks, and an oxygen tank that was partly cut in preparation for being turned into a huge bomb, probably similar to the one that killed the four soldiers. On the roof a large pile of homemade explosives was drying in the sun.

The Iraqi soldiers were ecstatic. They had delivered. They snapped photos of each other in front of the cache with the blasting cords in their mouths, grinning. The Americans were nervous. “One spark will blow this place up,” said First Lt. Michael Obal as an Iraqi soldier flicked a lighted cigarette butt within inches of one cache of explosives. “It’s highly unstable TNT.”

Later, the Americans plotted into their computers the location of each of the Qaeda safe houses that Mr. Jassam had pointed out. “He was singing like a songbird,” said First Lt. Sean Henley, 24.

After the prisoner was returned to the Iraqis, Captain Fowler was asked whether the Americans realized that the information was given only after the Iraqis had beaten Mr. Jassam. “They are not supposed to do that,” he said. “What I don’t see, I don’t know, and I can’t stop. The detainees are deathly afraid of being sent to the Iraqi justice system, because this is the kind of thing they do. But this is their culture.”

Later, Captain Fowler said that he thought Mr. Jassam had talked because he hoped to be released. The captain wanted him let go so that he could act as an informant. The Iraqi soldiers vetoed the idea.

Mr. Jassam is now being held in an Iraqi government detention center, widely rumored to be places where suspected insurgents are abused.

Lieutenant Obal, the captain’s deputy, was distraught at the thought that the detainee had been beaten. “I don’t think that’s right,” he said. “We have intelligence teams, they have techniques for getting information, they don’t do things like that. It’s not civilization.”

About 30 yards away, on the other side of the wall, the Iraqi soldiers suggested that the Americans were being naïve. The insurgents are playing for keeps, they say, and force must be answered with force.

“If the Americans used this way, the way we use, nobody would shoot the Americans at all,” Captain Hassan said. “But they are easy with them, and they have made it easy for the terrorists.”

“I didn’t beat them all, I beat Mustafa in front of the others. We tell him we’re going to string him up.” He demonstrated, his arms spread wide. “And, I made the others see him,” he said.

Captain Hassan and his colleagues said they knew the Iraqi Army had rules against beatings, but “they tell us to do what we have to do,” he said.

“For me it’s a matter of conscience, not rules,” he said.

Captain Fowler’s proposal to release Mr. Jassam in the hope he would become an informant struck Captain Hassan as useless and quite possibly dangerous.

“It’s kind of not a good idea,” he said carefully, as if explaining something to a child. “He’ll never become an informant. Al Qaeda will know he’s been captured. He’ll go back to them and say, ‘The Americans wanted me to be an informer, but I will be loyal to you.’ He will be more afraid of Al Qaeda guys than of the Americans.”

But some detainees may have a simpler motivation: survival. The Iraqi soldiers say many of the insurgents are paid for their attacks, and they gain respect and protection from other militants.

Another officer in the Iraqi unit, Major Hussain, who would not give his full name, said the only way to lure such militants out of the insurgent life would be to offer them a comparable standard of living.

“Ziad, over there, wanted to come work with us,” Major Hussain said, indicating one of the insurgent suspects, Ziad Sabah Jasim, who became cooperative after witnessing the beating of Mr. Jassam. “He said, ‘Just let me join you,’ ”

“Most of them don’t believe in this insurgency,” he said. “They are young people. They are having to stay home without employment. They want food. They want money. They want to be able to marry. But there are no jobs. If you offered them jobs, most of them would not be working with Al Qaeda.”

The American soldiers would agree, but they also are clear that the only way to bring jobs is first to make the neighborhood secure. “You need a J.S.S. every kilometer or so,” Captain Fowler said. For now, there are nowhere near that many security stations on Baghdad’s west side.

Ashley Gilbertson contributed reporting.


Gore campaign team assembles in secret

Gore campaign team assembles in secret
By Tim Shipman in Washington, Sunday Telegraph

Friends of Al Gore have secretly started assembling a campaign team in preparation for the former American vice-president to make a fresh bid for the White House.

Two members of Mr Gore's staff from his unsuccessful attempt in 2000 say they have been approached to see if they would be available to work with him again.

Mr Gore, President Bill Clinton's deputy, has said he wants to concentrate on publicising the need to combat climate change, a case made in his film, An Inconvenient Truth, which won him an Oscar this year.

But, aware that he may step into the wide open race for the White House, former strategists are sounding out a shadow team that could run his campaign at short notice. In approaching former campaign staff, including political strategists and communications officials, they are making clear they are not acting on formal instructions from Mr Gore, 59, but have not been asked to stop.

His denials of interest in the presidency have been couched in terms of "no plans" or "no intention" - politically ambiguous language that does not rule out a run.

One of his former campaign team said: "I was asked whether I would be available towards the end of the year if I am needed. They know he has not ruled out running and if he decides to jump in, he will have to move very fast.

"He hasn't asked them to do this, but nor has he told them not to."

In an interview on Thursday, which touched on the prospects for next year's presidential election, Mr Clinton commented: "You've got the prospect that Vice-President Gore might run."

The most recent opinion polls show Mr Gore as third favourite to take the Democratic nomination, on about 17 per cent support, only a whisker behind Barack Obama, 45, who is aiming to become the first black US president, and ahead of John Edwards, 53, the senator whose wife was recently diagnosed with cancer.

Vice-President Gore's allies believe that Hillary Clinton, 59, the frontrunner, is unable to win the presidency. The most recent poll shows a growing number of voters think negatively of her, in contrast to Mr Gore, who enjoys far greater popularity than when he lost the 2000 presidential race despite polling more votes nationally than the eventual winner, George W Bush.

The second aide approached by Vice-President Gore's allies said: "There is no love lost between Gore and Hillary. They don't think she can win and they're probably right. If Gore runs, he's got a really good chance of getting the nomination. And he has a good chance of pulling off the election, too."

Gore-watchers believe that a new book he is publishing next month on the state of US politics will keep his name in the public eye. Many of his supporters helped to run the unsuccessful presidential campaign of John Kerry in 2004. But since Sen Kerry abandoned his presidential aspirations this year, many of his leading advisers have yet to align themselves with any of the other candidates.

They were expected to join the campaign of Sen Edwards, who was Sen Kerry's running mate last time.

The former aide, who has himself signed up with Sen Edwards, said: "The question is: where have all the Kerry people gone? The answer for most of them is nowhere. Now ask yourself why."

Among the senior officials not yet committed is Michael Whouley, who was national field director for the successful Clinton-Gore 1992 presidential campaign, national campaign manager for Mr Gore when he stood for re-election as vice-president in 1996, and then a senior adviser to Mr Gore in 2000.

Considered one of the most talented Democratic "ground war" experts, he masterminded John Kerry's political resurrection in the New Hampshire presidential primary three years ago, putting him on course for the nomination. Last year, he oversaw the Democratic victory in the mid-term elections.

Two months ago, a former Gore aide, Elaine Kamarck, convened a group of former aides in Boston to consider the possibilities of a Gore campaign.

James Carville, President Clinton's former strategy chief, suggested last week that Mr Gore, who has piled on the pounds, could shed weight over the summer to make himself more media-friendly for a White House run.

"I wouldn't be surprised if he lost 15lb or so," said Mr Carville. "And I think if people thought he could get us out of the mess we're in with Iraq, they wouldn't care how fat he is."

A poll of leading Democratic and Republican strategists found that one in four thought Mr Gore would emerge a strong contender. "He already has emerged - he just has to announce," a Democrat told the magazine Opinion Journal.

A Republican said: "Gore could be the toughest Democrat to beat."

At least eight websites are campaigning to "Draft Gore" into the election. More than 70,000 people have signed an online petition, and more than 120 groups of Gore supporters meet each month around the country to promote the case for a Gore presidency. One website offers the chance to download a song called Run Al, Run!