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Archives for Foreign Affairs and War

I Spy…Nothing Good

Oct
10
2008

Some of these men had become abstrusely entangled with the spying departments of other nations and would give an amusing jump if you came from behind and tapped them on the shoulder.- Vladimir Nabokov, The Assistant Producer

The surprising thing was that it was a surprise. It just goes to show how hard it is to predict who will be embarrassed by disclosures when governments operate outside the law.

Nouri al-Maliki, prime minister of Iraq, was distressed to learn from reading Bob Woodward’s recent book, The War Within: A Secret White House History 2006-2008, that George Bush spied on Iraqi citizens. That should not have come as much of a surprise since George Bush & Co. have had few compunctions about spying on U.S. citizens. There was little reason to think the administration would not have had fewer compunctions about spying on Iraqi citizens. After all, Iraqis lack the veneer of protection of the United States Constitution.

The discreditation of the United States Constitution – in favor of spying and other extra-judicial conduct – began early in the Bush administration and continues in today’s headlines.

But let’s rewind. On December 16, 2005, we learned from the New York Times that George Bush had signed a secret order in 2002 authorizing the National Security Agency to listen in on phone conversations held by citizens and non-citizens alike even though some with old-fashioned ideas of life in the United States believed such conduct was legally proscribed. According to that report the NSA “has monitored the international telephone calls and international e-mail messages of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people inside the United States without warrants over the past three years in an effort to track possible dirty numbers’ linked to Al Qaeda.”

As with much of what George Bush has done during his eight-year tenure, the spying was not without its critics. Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies, said: “This is as shocking a revelation as we have ever seen from the Bush administration. It is, I believe, the first time a president has authorized government agencies to violate a specific criminal prohibition and eavesdrop on Americans.”

On June 25, 2008 the U.S. House Appropriations Committee had approved an amendment denying money for the “National Applications Office.” According reports that office is a Bush administration program expanding the use of Pentagon spy satellites for domestic uses. Rep. Jane Harmon, a California Democrat, chairs the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on intelligence was alarmed and told Newsweek: “We have to make sure this is not a back door for spying on Americans.” She and her colleagues worried that the “Applications Office” might impinge on civil liberties, A reasonable worry since, as with all things in the Bush administration, things that look and quack like ducks often are described by the administration as swans.

In light of the foregoing it is hard to say why the Iraqis are so upset by Mr. Woodward’s book.

According to Woodward, the United States spied on Prime Minister al-Maliki, his staff and other government officials. Not surprisingly, Prime Minister Maliki was very upset at the disclosure. An Iraqi government spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh said if the allegations were true, it would be evidence of a lack of trust. Interestingly, that is the sort of thing that a typical American citizen said when learning that he or she was susceptible to unlawful spying. It’s also what so concerned Rep. Harmon. Mr. al-Dabbagh went on to state that the administration’s activity “reflects also that the institutions in the United States are used to spy on their friends and their enemies in the same way.”

Not all of the Iraqi spokespersons were as concerned as al-Dabbagh. Employing the common technique of telling the press something the speaker is supposedly not authorized reveal, an anonymous “top aide to al-Maliki” told USAToday that “If this is true, then we feel sorry about that. We look upon the Americans as our partners. There’s nothing of real value that would require the Americans to spy on us. On top of that, we have nothing to hide from the Americans to make them have to spy on us.” A less circumspect prominent Kurdish lawmaker, Mahmoud Othman said: “If it is true, it is very dangerous and we will condemn it because how can a friend spy on you? This is unacceptable for us.”

I have news for Mr. Othman. It is unacceptable for American citizens too.

Sadly, George Bush will never be asked to explain how a friend can spy on you. He will never be asked to explain how a United States president can spy on his own citizens. The fact that he did it will simply become part of his legacy.

Posted by Christopher Brauchli at 5:00 AM | Permalink

Six Guns Blazin’

Sep
19
2008

Thy spirit, Independence, let me share;
Lord of the lion heart and eagle eye,
Thy steps I follow with my bosom bare,
Nor heed the storm that howls along the sky. – Tobias George Smallett, Ode to Independence

It was quite a contrast. And that’s not to say that what Russia did was right. It’s just interesting for the outsider to contrast President George Bush’s response to events in Kosovo with his response to events in Georgia. In examining the two responses one is made aware of the fact that Soviet President Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Mr. Bush’s United States have come far since George first met Vladimir and, exercising his parapsychology skills, looked into Mr. Putin’s soul and liked what he saw.

Clearly, what he saw in Mr. Putin’s soul was a reflection of his own Texas-bred cowboy mentality.

The cowboy mentality that enabled George Bush to swagger into Iraq in pursuit of an imagined adversary. Not finding the sought-after enemy, he created one remarkably similar to the one he was chasing. It was George Bush’s cowboy mentality that convinced him to place corrals – called radar installations – inside the Czech Republic and missiles inside Poland, ostensibly to protect Europe from a nuclear strike should Iran succeed in developing nuclear weapons. In the eyes of Vladimir Putin and many foreign policy mavens, the installations were meant to protect Europe from Russia.

Following Russia’s invasion of South Ossetia in support of South Ossetia’s bid for independence from the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, Bush sent his head wrangler, Vice President DIck Cheney – a real cowboy, come to think of it – off to Georgia to let the Russians know who was boss. Of course, that part of the world is more closely related to the Russian cowboy’s sphere of influence than the Texan’s.

During Wrangler Cheney’s visit to Georgia he not only assured the Georgian people of Mr. Bush’s support for Georgia’s insistence that the breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia remain part of Georgia, but promised the Georgians that the U.S. would continue its support for its inclusion in NATO. Both positions were the equivalent of pushing a thumb into Putin’s eye since the Russian opposes Georgia’s entry into NATO and supports the bids of South Ossetia and Abkhazia for independence from Georgia.

What made the pronouncements even more interesting, however was that in opposing independence for the two break-away Georgian republics Cowboy George was taking a position diametrically opposed to the one he took slightly more than one year earlier.

In June 2007 Bush visited Fushe Kruje in Albania before the vote was taken on whether or not Kosovo should be independent of Serbia and become an independent country. There were pictures of a back-slapping George Bush greeting people in Albania and expressing his support for Kosovo’s bid for independence from Serbia. According to a report of his visit in the Guardian, Bush announced that he had made up his mind that Kosovo should be independent from Serbia. He let it be known that if agreement were not soon reached permitting the U.N. Security Counsel to vote on its bid for statehood, he might encourage Kosovo to declare independence. Following that, said he, the U.S. would give Kosovo diplomatic recognition. George said: “Independence is the goal. That’s what the people of Kosovo need to know. If it is apparent that is not going to happen in a relatively quick period of time, in my judgment, we need to put forward the resolution. Hence, deadline.” In a press conference in Tirana, the Albanian capital, Mr. Bush said: “Sooner rather than later you’ve got to say enough’s enough. Kosovo’s independent.”

Russia and Serbia opposed Kosovo’s bid for independence. Among other things Serbia was concerned that if Kosovo were independent Serbia would lose 15 percent of its territory. It also observed that the independence of Kosovo would create a dangerous precedent for secessionists in other places around the world…like South Osseti! Responding to Mr. Bush’s meddlesome statements Mr. Putin said Russia remained firmly opposed to Kosovo’s bid for independence. Kosovo declared its independence in May 2008. Shooting started shortly thereafter.

Now South Ossetia’s independence has been recognized by Russia and Cowboy George has responded by sending warships to unload humanitarian aid to those affected by the conflict. Watching the three cowboys one can only hope that Bush will leave the scene before he is able to sponsor a shootout at the O.K. Corral.

Posted by Christopher Brauchli at 2:00 PM | Permalink

Baked Alaska?

Sep
4
2008

Cosi Fan Tutte – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

It was a wonderful week for women and it more than made up for the fact that Hillary Clinton is neither the Democrats’ presidential nor vice-presidential candidate. Both events took place on the Republican side of the aisle. It is hard to decide which was more significant so I shall relate them chronologically.

In a brilliant move that contrasted sharply with the activities of Michelle Obama during the week of the Democratic convention, Cindy McCain, a major shareholder in a $300 million-a-year beer distributing company started by her father went off to Georgia (the one that used to be in Russia) on her first foreign policy mission. While Michelle Obama was giving her Monday night speech in the safety of Denver’s Pepsi Center, Cindy was flying to Georgia where she planned to meet with Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili and visit soldiers wounded in that country’s war with Russia that had ended – sort of – just a few days earlier. Although reports do not indicate what she intended to talk to Saakashvili about it is safe to say this was a diplomatic mission and that Cindy McCain assured the Georgian president that he would enjoy the same level of support from a McCain administration that it has received from the Bush administration.

For John to send Cindy off on her first diplomatic mission less than a week before the beginning of the Republican convention was a stroke of genius diverting attention, as it did, from the Democrats’ activities in Denver. Cindy said that the trip was really part of the U.N. World Food Program in which she has been active, but her plans to visit the president and wounded soldiers hints that her mission was nothing more than a cover-up for real purpose of the trip.

Indeed, Cindy told Time magazine that she had wanted to visit Georgia for some time and told the magazine that that kind of a trip is “an important part of what I’m about, what makes me tick.” As Nicolle Wallace, a McCain adviser told Time: “While she’s on the phone with the World Food Program, he’s on the phone with Saakashvili. It’s like this great picture of what they’ll be like in the White House.” I got quite a few goose bumps when I read that.

The other great news pertained to Senator McCain’s brilliant choice of a vice-presidential running mate, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. Sarah, like Cindy, has quite a bit of foreign policy experience. She comes from Wasilla, Alaska, a town that is not much more than 1,500 miles from Russia as the crow flies. Being in such proximity to Russia has given Sarah a unique perspective and sensitivity to the relations between the United States and that country.

And Sarah is a fast learner.

Politico.com reports that as recently as a month ago Sarah told an interviewer that she didn’t know what the job of vice-president entailed. “As for that VP talk all the time, I’ll tell you, I still can’t answer that question until somebody answers for me what is it exactly that the VP does every day? I’m used to being very productive and working real hard in an administration,” Palin was quoted as saying.

Presumably she was comparing the vice president’s job to the important kinds of things she did as mayor of Wasilla, a town with a population of less than 8,000 and an annual budget of approximately $20 million. Or perhaps she was thinking of her short tenure as governor. My guess is in the interim between first hearing of the job – and its lack of productivity and becoming McCain’s running mate, Sarah had a chance to interview current Vice President Dick Cheney. In his case, he ran the country although George Bush got most of the credit, being president. Sarah no doubt understands that she’d not have quite the same authority being unable to match Dick’s knowledge of how a vice president can make government do what he wants it to do rather than what the framers intended.

Nevertheless, Sarah’s selection is a stroke of genius and provides everyone the opportunity to see the kind of leadership choices John McCain will make if elected. And Sarah will certainly attract many – if not all – of the women who were supporting Hillary Clinton. The only real differences between them, after all, are their positions on abortion, Supreme Court appointees, oil drilling the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, gun control, the death penalty, same-sex marriage and whether to teach intelligent design in the classroom. Those differences – the two women agree on none of these issues – are insignificant given the fact that what they have in common is that they are both women.

If you don’t believe me, ask the Hillary supporters who plan to vote for John and Sarah. If you can find them.

Posted by Christopher Brauchli at 5:00 AM | Permalink

The Wandering Anti-Terrorist Funds

Aug
29
2008

Little Jack Horner sat in the corner,
Eating a Christmas pie.
He put in his thumb and pulled out a plum
And said “What a good boy am I.”
- Nursery Rhyme

One of the purposes of anti-terrorism funds is to fight terrorism. There is, of course, a lot of money available for that purpose, and sometimes it is so tempting to use it for purposes other than those prescribed by Congress, that the temptation cannot be resisted. That’s what two reports in July suggested happened with at least some of the funds. Since the diverted funds were less than $300 million they would not have been enough to make a difference in the fight against terrorism.

Most of the diverted funds went to help out George Bush’s great good friend Pervez Musharraf, who, when the money was diverted, was still the president of Pakistan. Although many terrorist groups are hiding out on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan thus making the border a logical destination for those funds, they did not head for the border. They headed for an airport. Mr. Bush decided that $230 million should not be used in the border fight between Pakistani forces and the Taliban and al-Qaida, as dictated by Congress, but should be used to pay for, among other things upgrading Pakistan’s F-16 airplanes’ radar systems. (A cynical observer might wonder whether the upgrades of the radar will permit the planes to identify NATO aircraft, a feature that was not allowed on the planes when originally sold to Pakistan.)

Congress is upset with the diversion of funds. So is India. Congress is upset because when it says funds are designated for anti-terrorism efforts it expects them to be spent for anti-terrorism efforts. India is unhappy because one of the more obvious uses for the F-16s is to fight India should war erupt between those two countries. Mr. Bush called Manmohan Singh, the Indian prime minister, to let him know of the diversion of the anti-terrorist funds. Mr. Singh was reportedly, “disappointed.”

The other diverted anti-terrorist force funds found a use that has even less to do with fighting terrorism than the use to which Mr. Bush put his dollars. The Air Force diverted funds for the sake of comfort.

The Washington Post reports that Air Force officials have been using anti-terrorism funds to develop and install something initially called a “Senior Leader Intransit Comfort Capsule.” (The name was later changed to call the capsules “conference” capsules rather than “comfort capsules”. One officer suggested that may have been done to avoid the possibility that the word “comfort” would cause those loading the capsules to confuse the capsules with the pallets of latrines that are often loaded on military planes. It would, for obvious reasons, be disastrous if upon boarding the plane a high-ranking officer found himself seated in a latrine for a ride halfway around the world instead of the luxury capsule he had been led to believe would be his.)

The Air Force says that the new capsules are needed so that important officers can “talk, work and rest comfortably in the air.” The folks who are actually going to go into combat do not need such comfort while flying since it would simply remind them that as soon as they got off the plane and went into combat, there would be no comfort capsules to protect them.

The Air Force has been meticulous in its specifications for the capsules. The capsules must be “aesthetically pleasing and furnished to reflect the rank of the senior leaders using the capsule. ” One of the ways this goal was achieved was by spending $68,240 to change the seat color and pockets in the capsule because the officers responsible for deciding on the colors concluded that the colors originally supplied were not as practical as the colors ultimately installed. The entire project is estimated to cost $7.6 million and the money has come from funds that would otherwise have been used in the anti-terrorism effort.

General Robert McMahon, who is overseeing the project, explained that he wanted to “create an environment that whoever was riding in that would be proud of”, the government would be proud of and “the people of the United States would be proud of.” He has certainly got that right. I can’t imagine anything that would make me prouder than knowing that high-ranking officers were flying in ultimate luxury. Unless it was knowing that funds were diverted from the anti-terrorism effort to give returning troops the best possible medical care. There’s no sense spending time imagining that. It won’t happen on George Bush’s watch.

Posted by Christopher Brauchli at 2:38 AM | Permalink

Border Patrols

Aug
22
2008

All persons born . . . in the United States . . . are citizens of the United States. . . .
- 14th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States

August 2008 was a banner month for passports. They played a significant role in world events that garnered them rare publicity. Two of the events demonstrated how easy a government can make it to get passports and one demonstrated how difficult it can be.

In August, Russia and Georgia got into an argument over whether Abkhazia and South Ossetia should be allowed to leave Georgia and become independent or should remain part of Georgia. For the last several years Russia has been issuing passports to residents of South Ossetia, thus bestowing Russian citizenship on the holders. Thus, when invading South Ossetia, Russia was simply going to the aid of its citizens, albeit many of them Russian-come-lately. Which makes one wonder what would have happened if George Bush were clever enough to have issued passports to Iraqis prior to invading their country. He might then have announced he was simply acting to protect United States citizens.

China, too, issued passports in furtherance of national objectives. In November 2007 an Associated Press report described the success of a young girl gymnast, He Kexin. He was one of the stars at China’s Cities Games in November 2007. Xinhua, the Chinese Government’s news agency reported on her success in those games and said she was 13 years of age. Olympic rules require that for a gymnast to compete in Olympic games the gymnast must attain age 16 in the year in which the games take place. For He to leap over the years that separate 13 from 16 in a mere 9 months was a distance that not even a gymnast as accomplished as she could hope to span. The difference was bridged instead by issuing a passport. In 9 months He aged three years and her team became the first Chinese women’s team to win a gold medal in gymnastics.

Passports can, of course, be withheld in furtherance of a country’s foreign policy, as the United States demonstrates. In the passports are being used to create, not bridge, gaps. A law that goes into effect next year requires anyone crossing between the United States and Canada or Mexico to present a passport instead of a birth certificate or driver’s license. As a result the thousands who cross borders daily because of employment must now obtain passports. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that many United States citizens who were born in South Texas are having difficulty obtaining passports.

Ordinarily a passport can be obtained by furnishing the issuing authority a certified copy of a birth certificate, acceptable identification and the appropriate fee. Russia made it easy for people in South Ossetia to get passports but the U.S. State Department has made it difficult for people in South Texas to get theirs. A birth certificate is not always accepted because the State Department has learned that some people in South Texas have fake birth certificates. Those people were delivered by midwives and some of the midwives were convicted of forging birth certificates for children born not in South Texas but in Mexico. The forgeries may have affected as many as 15,000 people. Although people in South Texas can vote, become border patrol agents or president of the United States, they may not obtain passports without additional proof that they were born in the U.S.

The additional proofs include obtaining affidavits or testimony from the midwives who delivered them, assuming the midwives can be found and can remember whom they delivered dozens of years after the birth. They can produce newspaper announcements of their births or they can produce hospital records going back dozens of years to show they were treated in the hospital if, indeed, they were.

Juan Aranda is someone who has been unable to get a passport and here is what he has done. Juan submitted all the required documentation and when he was turned down sent in school records going back 38 years showing that his kindergarten records recited that his birthplace was Weslaco, Texas. He sent in a picture of his kindergarten class that included him. He sent in a baptismal certificate with a church seal reciting he was born in that town. He explained that pre-natal medical history was unavailable because his mother was too poor to have pre-natal care.

The State Department told Mr. Aranda that he hadn’t “fully complied with the request for additional information” and he should start the process to become a naturalized citizen. Instead, Mr. Aranda hired a lawyer.

If his lawyer is successful it may soon be as easy for an American citizen to get an American passport as it is for a Georgian citizen to get a Russian passport and Mr. Aranda’s success would be remembered as another example of the courts being invoked to protect the citizens of the United States from the administration of George W. Bush.

Posted by Christopher Brauchli at 4:00 PM | Permalink

Bush, Babes and Human Rights

Aug
15
2008

I hate [slavery] because it deprives the republican example of its just influence in the world-enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites-causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity. – Abraham Lincoln, 1854 speech at Peoria, Illinois

It was a dreadful coincidence and no one felt sorrier for George Bush than I did. He gave a perfectly wonderful speech in Thailand and was done in by the timing. Since he made the speech the same day that the military tribunal in Guantánamo rendered its verdict in the case of Salim Ahmed Hamdan timing made him sound the perfect fool.

When Mr. Bush was in Thailand he thought it would be a good time to criticize China’s human rights record, which everyone agrees is terrible. The problem is that the Hamdan verdict reminded everyone that China and Mr. Bush who take pride in their respect for human rights have nothing of which to be proud.

In Guantánamo, a military tribunal convicted Osama bin Laden’s driver, Salim Ahmed Hamdan, of providing material support for terrorism. Mr. Hamdan is the first person in Guantánamo to be tried by the military commissions that were created in 2006. Mr. Hamdan was convicted on a Wednesday and the prosecution asked for a life sentence. On Thursday the commission sentenced him to more than five-and-a-half years in prison with credit for the 61 months he has already spent in prison. Within five months he will have served his sentence.

Unfortunately, that is the end of the good news for Mr. Hamdan unless something unexpected happens. That’s because at the end of the five months he will still be an unlawful combatant and that means Mr. Bush can keep him in prison as long as he wants or until the war that Mr. Bush has declared is declared over by Mr. Bush – whichever happens first

Although the trial does not by itself, do anything to hasten Mr. Hamdan’s release, it serves one useful purpose from Mr. Bush’s perspective. It enables the administration and its supporters to point out that, because the trial has been conducted, human rights are being observed and the military commissions are working in a way that proves the United States is a country that follows the rule of law. The people who believe that, of course, are the ones who invented this new justice system. The rest of the world is less credulous.

Neither the verdict or its timing inhibited the national orator. The anticipation of all the fun to be had in Beijing is one reason Mr. Bush made a really good speech in Thailand.

Mr. Bush relished the opportunity to be the first U.S. president to attend an Olympic ceremony outside the U.S. In part he viewed it as a reward for the tough time he has had during the last eight years. The opportunity came, appropriately enough, during the twilight of his perpetually dark administration. And there could hardly be a better reward for a job poorly done, than to attend the games as the leader of the entire free world (save, of course, for Guantánamo.)

It was clearly a fun time. He took his wife and one of his daughters. There were lots of good parties including a dinner for 300 people to which he and his father, former President and Ambassador to China George H.W. Bush, and other important people were invited. The younger Bush got to play a little beach volleyball with one of the very pretty bikini-clad beach volleyball players, even tapping one on the back and have his picture taken with her with their arms around each other, he wearing a cocky baseball cap and looking every bit the frat boy he was in college.

But still Mr. Bush was mindful of his responsibilities as leader of the free world and took advantage of the trip to make a verbal show of being committed to human rights.

In that speech he expressed “deep concerns” about restrictions on faith and free speech in China. He expressed concern about the detention of dissidents. The detained dissidents of which he spoke are not, of course, the detainees at Guantánamo. Those people are not called dissidents. They are called unlawful combatants. They have something in common with dissidents, however. Both dissidents and unlawful combatants are kept in jail until the country that is holding them decides, in its sole discretion, when they can be released.

Posted by Christopher Brauchli at 5:00 AM | Permalink

The Games, The Smog, The Promises

Aug
8
2008

I stood there in the whirling summer,
My hand capped on a withered heart,
And thought of China and of Greece.
- Richard Eberhart, The Groundhog

Now that the Olympic games have begun, it is time to compare promise with performance.

China’s first attempt in recent memory to host the Olympic summer games was in 1993. At that time its efforts to be selected were Herculean.

The visit by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to evaluate Beijing’s bid took place in March 1993 when smog hangs heavily over the city. The authorities knew that if the committee got wind of the smog it would never select Beijing as a site for the summer games. To reduce coal smoke in the atmosphere the government cut off all heat to large areas of Beijing. Taxi drivers and peddlers with cars were advised to take a vacation so that the IOC members would not be slowed by traffic or offended by seeing people munching on food purchased from street vendors. Three hundred thirty thousand school children were enlisted to clean traffic signs. All buses and 30,000 taxicabs were required to post window-stickers supporting the city’s Olympic bid. The government reduced its surveillance of foreign reporters.

That was not all. It modeled itself after the state of Utah which two years earlier had lost out to Nagano, Japan for the 1998 winter games, Saddened by its loss to Nagano, but determined to do better when bidding for the 2002 games, Utah began wooing African IOC members by offering them and members of their families tuition and athletic training assistance in what some perceived as an attempt to get their votes when the venue for the 2002 games was determined. The effort was enhanced when 5 years later the Salt Lake City bidding committee paid some individuals $500,000 in scholarships, 6 of the recipients being relatives of IOC members. Recognizing what a good idea Utah had struck, the Chinese followed suit. They presented the IOC committee with a pair of cloisonné vases estimated to have a value of about $40,000. In addition, they gave the new Olympic museum in Lausanne, Switzerland, a terra cotta soldier from Xian for which China had earlier reportedly declined a $100 million offer.

China’s bid for the games did not succeed in 1993, but the IOC has a long memory and that may explain in part why Beijing is hosting the 2008 games.

When Beijing was awarded the games some, but not all, thought it would enhance human rights in China. In an interview with Ray Suarez on PBS’s News Hour shortly after the games were awarded, Sally Jenkins, a sports columnist for the Washington Post, was asked whether awarding the games would affect China’s human rights policy. She said there was no evidence to support that. She was right. Smog, traffic and press freedom have fared no better than human rights.

Two weeks before the games were to start, Liu Shaokun was sentenced to serve a year of “re-education through labor” because he posted pictures on the web of schools that had collapsed during the recent earthquake. He was charged with “disseminating rumours and destroying social order.” Ye Guozhu was convicted in 2004 of “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble” for trying to organize a group against forced evictions without just compensation in order to make way for construction in preparation for the games. His sentence served, his release was delayed until after the Olymics thus preventing him from being interviewed by visiting reporters.

Smog covered the Beijing during much of July and early August. In 2007 authorities said driving restrictions would not be needed to solve the pollution and congestion problems. July 21 marked the first workday in which car restrictions were imposed on Beijing’s residents.

The press, like driving, were restricted, contrary to earlier assurances that all would be able to operate freely. In 2001, Wang Wei, Secretary General of the Beijing Olympic Games Committee, told the IOC that the international press would have “complete freedom to report when they come to China.” Echoing those comments last month, Jacques Rogge, the International Olympic Committee president and, er, Cheer Leader-In-Chief told Agence France-Presse: “For the first time, foreign media will be able to report freely and publish their work freely in China.”

But on July 31 it was reported that the IOC had failed to insist on unfettered press access to the Internet. On August 2 Kevan Gosper, press commission chief of the IOC said somewhat enigmatically: “We believe we are moving to a point where you will be moving toward a point where you can report in an unfettered way.”

The games have begun, the smog’s in the heavens, the cars clog the roads, activists and the Internet are imprisoned. But in the eyes of the IOC all’s right with the world. As Mr. Rogge said on August 2: “Come the 9th of August the magic of the games and the flawless organization will take over.”

Posted by Christopher Brauchli at 5:00 AM | Permalink

KBR Revisited-Again

Jul
25
2008

For every time she shouted “fire!”
They only answered “Little liar!”
And therefore when her aunt returned,
Matilda and the house were burned.
- Hilaire Beloc, Matilda

At first it seems outrageous. Then the reader puts it in perspective. In a war that has cost millions of Iraqi lives and more than 4000 American lives, a handful of deaths is not that big a deal.

The most recent disclosure that 13 soldier were killed – not because of enemy fire, land mines, defective or inadequate body armor or humvees that were inadequately protected – is literally a shock since the deaths that were caused by a surge. Not the surge in troops of which George Bush was so proud. No, it was an electrical surge that was not planned and, in a well managed war, would never have happened.

The reports of the deaths were almost unnoticed and might still languish in the graveyard of Bush mistakes alongside the corpses he helped create, were it not for the death of Sgt. Ryan D. Maseth.

In January of this year Sgt. Maseth was taking a shower on his base in Baghdad and was electrocuted because of defective electrical wiring. At first the army explained to Sgt. Maseth’s mother that her son had an electrical appliance with him in the shower that caused his electrocution. That, as so much else associated with this war is, was a lie.

Maseth was electrocuted because a water pump in the building was not properly grounded and when the shower was turned on he was zapped with a powerful surge of electricity. The sergeant was not the first person to be electrocuted. According to Pentagon documents more than 12 other people have been electrocuted on U.S. bases in Iraq and many more injured by electrical shocks. In one barracks there were almost daily reports of its inhabitants receiving electrical shocks. And, in early July of this year an electrical fire resulted in the destruction of 10 buildings.

According to the New York Times an Army survey of February 2007 noted “a safety threat theater-wide created by the poor-quality electrical fixtures procured and installed, sometimes incorrectly, thus resulting in a significant number of fires.”

The first thing one is tempted to do when learning of something like this is to assume it is the fault of contractor Kellogg Brown Root. That is because KBR is the poster child for what went wrong with private contractors in Iraq. Among other things, it charged for food it did not serve the troops, it failed to build a pipeline for which it was paid $75.7 million and failed to deliver safe water for hygiene uses.

Some people may wonder how one company can get so much wrong. The answer is since the war began it has been paid more than $24 billion and has 40,000 employees in Iraq. That affords it lots of opportunity to perform incompetently and it has taken advantage of many of them. More are on the way. KBR was recently awarded a part of a $150 billion contract for restoring the oil fields in Iraq. It will develop the southern oil fields while two other companies, one of which, Parsons, which has had its own share of shoddy performance, will develop those in the northern part of the country.

It would not be fair to blame KBR for Sgt. Maseth’s death just because it was responsible for the Radwaniya Palace Complex (RPC) where he died. That is because KBR not required to act prophylactically. Reporting on the palace electrocution, CNN reported that KBR said its contract hold KBR responsible for “fixing potential hazards.” It was only required to fix things after they broke down.

KBR and the Pentagon would probably agree that a shower that electrocutes the bather is a shower that has broken down but the only way that can be discovered is after someone has been electrocuted. Heather Browne, a KBR spokeswoman, said the company found no link between its work and the electrocutions. As is sometimes the case when KBR explains what happens, not everyone agrees with its self-analysis.

Ingrid Harrison, an official with the Pentagon’s contracting management agency was quoted in the Times as saying: “KBR has been at [the palace] for over four years and was fully aware of the safety hazards, violations and concerns regarding the soldiers’ housing.” KBR, said she, “chose to ignore the known unsafe conditions.”

Electricians who were formerly employed by KBR said their repeated warnings to their superiors as well as to military personnel about unsafe electrical conditions were ignored. That probably explains why 283 electrical fires took place between August 2006 and January 2007. There should be fewer in the future. The Times notes that “senior army officials have ordered electrical inspection of all buildings in Iraq maintained by KBR. Chris Isleib, a spokesman for the Pentagon said: “We consider this to be a very serious issue.”

He got that right. KBR, as usual, got it wrong. It won’t affect its shareholders – only the soldiers who have died or been injured and the taxpayer who pays the company for its incompetence.

Posted by Christopher Brauchli at 5:00 AM | Permalink

Judging Liars

Jul
18
2008

When you steal from one author, it’s plagiarism; if you steal from many it’s research – Wilson Mizner, Sayingyu

We live in a country run by a consummate liar whose most egregious lies have resulted in the deaths of more than 4,000 American servicemen and women, the infliction of life altering wounds on more than 20,000 servicemen and women, and the creation of millions of refugees in foreign countries.

We live in a country where a general of the U.S. Army whose first concern should be the welfare of his troops, lies to Congress about the quality of water supplied to troops working in the far off land that the consummate liar has done much to destroy. This is a general to whose command the welfare of those he commanded was entrusted.

Yet we whine about a plagiarist.

Early in July it was disclosed by Sen. Byron Dorgan that Maj. General Jerome Johnson misled (a Washington euphemism for lying) Congress in April 2007 when he testified that there were no problems with water supplied to American troops by Kellogg Brown Root, described as the largest defense contractor in Iraq.

According to the New York Times, beginning in 2006 whistleblowers let Congress know that there were problems with the nonpotable water KBR supplied the troops. The Pentagon’s inspector general confirmed that KBR had not provided safe water for hygiene uses at several Iraq bases. The Pentagon learned of this in a communication from the inspector general on March 31, 2007. Three weeks later Gen. Johnson testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that problems with the water supplied by KBR were not widespread.

It was a minor breach of trust by the general. After all, when your commander-in-chief is a man whose lies have ruined millions of lives, a drop or two of bad water is hardly anything to get excited about.

Nor, it seems, is a bit of plagiarism even when the plagiarist has been nominated to a Federal District Court judgeship. It is hardly surprising that an administration that routinely lies would be unperturbed by a bit of plagiarism and would naturally consider confession of misconduct adequate to remove the stain from a reputation.

Michael E. O’Neill, a former to aide to Sen. Arlen Specter is law professor at George Mason University. He is considered a fine legal scholar who has had a brilliant career and is clearly of the sort of cloth from which federal judges are cut. There is only one flaw in the fabric and it would not even be noticeable if some journalist from the New York Times had not only discovered it but then seen fit to hold the fabric up for all to see. Alan Liptak is the journalist. He discovered that Mr. O’Neill has plagiarized on more than one occasion. One of those occasions involved an article he wrote in 2004 for the Supreme Court Economic Review, a journal published by the George Mason School of Law.

The purloined passage dealt with something called “bounded rationality” which, according to Mr. O’Nell “is not a refutation of the rational actor model,” quoting word-for-word from a book review published in 2000 in the Virginia Law Review. Explaining the copying Mr. O’Neill said it was a result of a “poor work method.” “I didn’t keep track of things. I frankly did a poor and negligent job.” He got that right. In 2007 the review issued a retraction of the article.

The White House is unperturbed by a bit of plagiarism sanctioning, as it has, lying to create foreign policy. Emily Lawrimore, a White House spokeswoman said Mr. O’Neill had been completely forthcoming” and had “expressed remorse for his actions. ” She also said that the background searches the White House conducts are “very thorough” and “would capture issues such as this one.” Not everyone agrees with the White House.

Deborah Rhode who teaches legal ethics at Stanford described the retraction of the article in the review as “extremely unusual” and told the Times reporter that plagiarism was a “textbook case of conduct that casts doubt on someone’s fitness for judicial office.”

Mr. O’Neill, in contrast, said the 2004 plagiarism was “fairly insignificant” and asked whether it was “something to kill someone’s career for?” One answer was given by Daniel Polsby, the dean of the George Mason law school. He said as a consequence of the plagiarism Mr. O’Neill “stepped away from tenure and will reapply for it.” That may not be necessary. Mr. O’Neill, answering his own question has refused to withdraw his nomination for a federal judgeship and if an unethical administration has its way, Mr. O’Neill will have life tenure as a federal judge. That’s much better than humbly applying for restoration of a privilege lost through misconduct held up for all the world to see.

Posted by Christopher Brauchli at 12:08 AM | Permalink

Missing Money in Iraq

May
30
2008

In my creed, waste of public money is like the sin against the Holy Ghost. – John, Viscount Morley of Blackburn, Recollections (1917)

A recent Congressional hearing on spending in Iraq put things in a whole new light. And a better light it is.

At a hearing with the catchy title of “Accountability Lapses in Multiple Funds” before the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform all sorts of interesting examples were offered by the representative from the Department of Defense Inspector General’s office that made earlier disclosures as to misspent funds in Iraq seem benign.
“Accountability” refers to the fact that the U.S. government spent an estimated $8.2 billion on Iraqi affairs and either forgot to get receipts or, when it got receipts, forgot put detailed descriptions of how the money was spent on those receipts. The reference to “multiple funds” means that it wasn’t only U.S. taxpayer dollars that were the victims of “accountability lapses.” Monies belonging to the Iraqi government known as “Seized and Vested Assets” were also subject to these lapses. The audit found that $1.8 billion in Iraqi assets over which the United States had authority was paid out in cash with no record of who got the money.

DOD Deputy Inspector General for Auditing Mary L. Ugone (that is her last name – it is not a government pseudonym given someone looking for missing funds) explained the audit was started when the DOD’s Criminal Investigative Service found that there were inadequate controls over disbursement of U.S. taxpayer dollars. Funds belonging to Iraq that were disbursed by U.S. authorities, disbursals the U.S. was able to make because of the very close relationship the U.S. enjoys with Iraq’s money (and leaders) were also not adequately monitored.

Ms. Ugone told the committee that the Defense Department had appropriated $492 billion to support Operation Iraqi Freedom and that $2.8 billion of seized and vested Assets were to be returned to Iraq to “help rebuild its infrastructure and economy.” Ms. Ugone said that $1.4 billion in contract and vendor payments and $6.3 billion in commercial payments lacked minimum supporting documentation and information for proper payment.

Ms. Ugone’s testimony was 29 pages in length. At page 16 she describes the payment of $320 million in cash “to an Iraqi representative for Iraqi salary payments” that carried no indication of to whom the funds were provided or how many people were to receive salary payments. It seems appropriate that Iraqi funds be used to pay Iraqi salaries. It would probably have been helpful to indicate who got the salaries.

An exhibit attached to the hearing showed that David Dial, of Irmo, S.C. (home of the Okra Strut food festival) received a U.S Treasury check for an entity called IAP for $11,122,582.80 with no indication what it was for other than “Public Voucher for Purchases and Services Other Than Personal.” SFC Alderson Williams certified that the “voucher is correct and proper for payment,” according to documents accompanying Ugone’s testimony. Another exhibit: A U.S. Treasury check for $5,674,075 went to Al Kasid Specialized Vehicles Trading Company c/o Federal Reserve Bank in Baghdad without a description of what it was for. Anyone wanting more examples can go to the Washington Post or the New York Times.

The difference between disclosures at the May hearing and earlier disclosures is that there was less embarrassment associated with the earlier disclosures.

We know from earlier reports that Parsons, a Texas construction company had a $243 million contract to build 150 health clinics in Iraq, paid itself $60 million of that amount for administration and management and, using the remainder, completed 20 of the 150 clinics. We know Parsons had a contract for $99.1 million to build the Khan Bani Saad Correctional Facility North of Baghdad that was to be completed by June 2006. When that date rolled around, Parsons said it could not complete it before September 2008 and it would cost an addition $13.5 million to complete. Pocketing what it had been paid Parsons went off to look in the classified ads or the White House for other work. The contract was cancelled.

KBR overcharged for meals served troops in Iraq and delivered unsafe drinking water to those troops. (It has just entered into a new contract enabling it to share in a $150 billion contract to provide services to American soldiers in Iraq.)

The earlier reports were uplifting since they showed that a fiscally responsible Bush administration knew exactly to whom and for what monies were disbursed. Its only failure was insuring that the work for which payment was made was completed. By not tracking the purposes of the disbursements there is no risk of embarrassing anyone because of the failure of the recipient to complete the work for which it was paid.

As any teenager would say, if asked, “That is SO Iraq.”

Posted by Christopher Brauchli at 10:12 PM | Permalink

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