Christopher Scheer

Selling Out the Democratic Party

How many times must the public send the message before the Democratic Party decides to stop shooting the messenger? The Gore-Bush contest of 2000, the 2002 mid-term elections, the California recall, and now the astonishing near-defeat of Gavin Newsom in San Francisco's mayor's race, each contain the same crystal-clear message: choosing Republican Lite-weights to represent the Democratic Party makes a lousy political strategy.

But the Democratic establishment would rather blame Nader and the Florida freaks. Blame Arnold and the Recall Repubs. Blame last-second progressive S.F. mayoral candidate Matt Gonzalez and his hipster horde. Blame "Mean" Dean and his Internet machine. Blame 9/11, late-night GOP roll-call votes ... anybody, in fact, but itself.

The sad, mostly unacknowledged fact is that in the shadow of Bill Clinton's enormous charisma and political brilliance, the Democratic Party has been steadily receding in influence across this country for more than a decade. Congress, gubernatorial races, city elections -- you name it, and they've lost it. And the reason is simple: because the Democratic Party is too busy raising money to connect with the American people.

The latest example of this misplaced sense of priorities is the mayoral victory in San Francisco on Tuesday night. The local party machine favorite, millionaire entrepreneur and boy socialite Gavin Newsom, received endorsements from every party heavyweight imaginable. The campaign of the protégé of the ultimate politician's politician and outgoing mayor Willie Brown was favored by dramatic appearances by Clinton, Al Gore and both of the state's senators.

The Democrats have sought to cast Newsom as just another idealistic Mr. Smith on his way to Washington -- with a pit stop in San Francisco. In reality, he is a budding hack who draws his support from the city's most dubious interests: Real estate magnates, landlords, and the bureaucratic crony network created by Brown. Newsom outspent his opponent, Matt Gonzalez -- a Green Party candidate running in a city where only 3 percent of the voters are so identified -- by a factor of 10 to 1. Gonzalez's troops threw an enormous amount of spontaneous energy into an often chaotic and amateurish last-second get-out-the-vote effort. Newsom's well-oiled campaign, which went into high gear a year ago, had the resources to systematically identify supporters across the city and make sure that they made it to the polling booth, or, better yet, voted in advance.

This head start was key in determining the absentee ballots, which favored Newsom by a two-to-one margin, and proved too much for Gonzalez to overcome. Many people had already voted when his grassroots-based campaign caught fire. Only a few months ago, Gonzalez's support in the polls was barely in the double-digits. On Election Day, he managed to receive 47 percent of the total vote -- and won a majority of the votes cast on Tuesday.

To win, Gonzalez needed significant support from the city's minority communities, who would have given him a landslide. But faced with a choice between two thirty-something men -- one represented the wealthy elite (Newsom) and the other (Gonzalez) drew his support from the white hipster nexus -- African Americans, in particular, stayed home in droves.

The Gonzalez campaign was a successful one, despite its flaws and defeat. It mobilized thousands of new and irregular voters, mostly very young, to not only get to the polls but to actively take part in the campaign. Why? Because it stood for something: keeping big money out of politics; taking care of neighborhoods over downtown; and an emphasis on compassionate social programs.

These were all once the home turf of the Democrats, but the party has lost its way. The forces the Democratic Party chooses to nurture and align itself with in San Francisco are parallel to those that Gray Davis rode to an epic defeat: wealthy individuals and corporate lobbies. That Newsom held on (by a slim 52-47 margin) while Davis was smothered can be credited to the fact that there is still a somewhat effective political machine in San Francisco while statewide the party is fragmented and has little if any internal discipline.

The fact is, though, that five years ago the Brown machine dominated San Francisco's politics. But now Newsom takes over City Hall facing a Board of Supervisors stocked with insurgent progressives. Lacking a truly popular base, he must rely on the loyalty of political allies to get anything done. Even in this one-party town -- Greens and Republicans combined have no more than 20 percent of registered voters -- the Democratic Party's fortunes are eroding.

Furthermore, Gov. Schwarzenegger's cynical yet populist move to wipe out the car tax has instantaneously punched a $91 million hole in this year's budget for the City and County of San Francisco, making Newsom's situation more difficult than ever. To be a successful mayor, he needs to find a way to work with these progressives right away.

If he can't, look for him to be San Francisco's version of Gray Davis, buckling to whichever special interest has the most clout. As the saying goes, if you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything.

Christopher Scheer is a staff writer for AlterNet. He is co-author of "The Five Biggest Lies Bush Told Us About Iraq."

A Plague of Bioweapons

In Iraq, a vial of harmless botulinium found in a scientist's refrigerator is cited by the United States' leaders as proof of the righteousness of the occupation of a foreign country, while in Los Angeles women throw Botox parties where participants receive injections of a related toxin to smooth wrinkles.

In Texas, a scientist respected for his decades of work studying and treating infectious diseases in some of the world's more squalid quarters is hauled in front of a court in chains on bio-terrorism-related charges because he didn't follow government regulations with his samples -- while his own university uses military funding to genetically engineer plants to produce even more deadly poisons.

Meanwhile, two American health workers are killed by a vaccine against a disease which should no longer exist; domestically produced anthrax spores terrorize the nation in one of history's great unsolved crimes; and the writings of respected advisors to our president tout the benefits of developing synthetic viruses that would target specific ethnic groups.

Welcome to the confounding, illogical and sometimes deadly space where public health and raw science meet national security and military secrecy.

This shadowy world, which stretches from a college campus near you to the terror training camps of Afghanistan, from the plague towns of Tanzania to the spotless labs of Ft. Detrick, is haunted by terrors real and imagined, bogeymen employed when convenient to drum up funds, intimidate critics or squelch scandals. In short, it is a conspiracy theorist's dream.

When it comes to talking about biological weapons, first employed three centuries ago when the British gave smallpox-infected blankets to Native Americans, almost nothing is ever black and white.

Just ask Dr. Thomas Butler, who faces the possibility of spending the rest of his life in jail after being convicted Monday on 47 out of 69 federal charges filed after the FBI said he lied to them about missing plague samples and launched an investigation into his research and financial practices. Yet only months ago, according to his peers, this Navy vet and Texas Tech researcher was considered not only a leading medical scientist but something of a hero for his years of work treating epidemics in rough-and-tumble places like Calcutta and wartime Vietnam.

"Butler is probably the nation's most eminent expert on the plague," he added. "Are students going to want to work on tropical medicine if there's a chance they might lose some samples, then be hauled off in the middle of the night?" Peter Agre, a former student of Butler's who won this year's Nobel Prize in Chemistry, told the Los Angeles Times. But where Agre and the leaders of the National Academies believe this is an attack on scientific initiative, the FBI has a decidedly different take. "An incident that could have sparked widespread panic of a bio-terrorism threat in west Texas was stopped clean in its tracks," said U.S. Attorney Jane J. Boyle.

Butler, however, testified that the FBI forced him to lie in a statement and that he is innocent of all charges.

Lost in Lubbock

The story began in January of this year, when Butler reported 30 vials of plague bacterium missing and all hell broke loose. The FBI and local police sent in 60 investigators and soon Texas was abuzz with fears of a plague-wielding terrorist. After being interrogated and allegedly failing a lie dictator test, Butler signed a confession saying he had, in fact, destroyed the vials and lied to cover up his mistake.

After being arrested, however, Butler recanted his confession, saying he had been pressured to lie in order to calm public fears. He said FBI agent Dale Green told him "the FBI investigation pointed toward accidental destruction as the explanation for the missing vials. . . . Because they were destroyed, there was no danger to the public. [Green] wanted a written statement that would help them conclude the case."

The feds then upped the ante, charging Butler with a slew of other unrelated crimes dealing with his financial relationships. He was convicted of fraud and embezzlement based on secret relationships he had with pharmaceutical companies for whom he was doing clinical trials; apparently, he was siphoning off money that was to go to the university. Texas Tech has begun proceedings to fire him.

So is Butler the latest scientist to be framed by an over-exuberant FBI, a la Wen Ho Lee? Or was Butler so irresponsible in his treatment of potentially dangerous substances as to warrant such an aggressive prosecution? It's too early to say. One prosecution consultant, interviewed by the Times, waxed philosophical:

"It struck me how much the world had changed. When you have a change like that, you're going to have some casualties," said Victoria Sutton, director of the Texas Tech Center for Biodefense, Law and Public Policy.

What was Sutton, with such an appropriate "biodefense" specialization, doing there in remote Lubbock, pop. 200,000? As it turns out, Texas Tech is actually a large center for secretive military-funded research on bioweapons, much of it done under the broad mantle of counterterrorism and potentially unacceptable under the world Biological Weapons Convention.

Our guide here is The Sunshine Project, a nongovernmental organization that is devoted to documenting and debunking secrets and myths about biological weapons. Adding context to the Butler case, the group released a statement last week that said, "If life scientists are looking for a cause to symbolize their resentment of new oversight laws, the Butler case may not be the one that wins them public sympathy. There is a 'crime' far more heinous than Butler's bumbling that underlies the prosecution: the gutting of openness in academic institutions by secretive biodefense research."

"What has gone unreported in the Butler case is that Texas Tech's work with bioweapons is far from a little program at an ordinary state school in a flat and dusty corner of Middle America. In fact, Butler worked in the midst of a large and secretive biodefense program supported by the U.S. Army, a program that even many life scientists may not be aware of."

According to Sunshine's investigators, to inject military dollars into the university in order to fund research it needs done, the Army's Soldier Biological Chemical Command funnels money through the Institute for Environmental and Human Health, a biodefense research center located off-campus at Reese Air Force Base that receives four-fifths of its grant money from the Pentagon. From here, some money goes on to the university's Health Sciences Center to fund research on such subjects as, yes, bubonic plague. Texas Tech financial documents current through August 31 list 22 active biodefense contracts totaling more than $7.5 million, according to the nonprofit.

"Supporters of intellectual and scientific freedom who are aligning themselves to Butler's cause would be more likely to earn admiration by challenging the biodefense agenda that is compromising institutions like Texas Tech and that has led to Buler's aggressive indictment," writes Sunshine. "If there can be a positive outcome of Butler's trial, it will be a thorough public exploration of [Texas Tech's] research and of how biodefense is compromising the integrity of institutions like Texas Tech."

Ricin, the Lubbock treat

Another recent Sunshine Project investigative report illuminates how questionable some of this research appears to be.

During his pre-war presentation to the United Nations Security Council making the case that Saddam Hussein's Iraq was an imminent threat to world security, Secretary of State Colin Powell spent several minutes describing the deadly natural poison ricin, the production of which he alleged Al Qaeda operatives might have been exploring:

"The network is teaching its operatives how to produce ricin and other poisons. Let me remind you how ricin works. Less than a pinch -- image a pinch of salt -- less than a pinch of ricin, eating just this amount in your food, would cause shock followed by circulatory failure. Death comes within 72 hours and there is no antidote, there is no cure. It is fatal."

When a few grams of ricin were discovered in Europe in 2002, the Continent was sent into a panic. Yet back in Lubbock, Texas Tech aggie scientists have quietly been working for almost a decade to breed two kinds of specialty castor beans -- one which would produce low levels of ricin (to improve the safety of castor oil produced for human consumption) and one which would have very high levels of ricin. Why they would want to produce this high-ricin-yield plant is not apparent.

Not only were they successful in this dual-purpose endeavor, breeding both low- and high-yield variants, but in a parallel effort the university's chemical engineering department designed and built a machine to automate the extraction of ricin from plant matter. Tech scientists have even developed a way that other plants -- i.e., tobacco -- could be genetically modified to produce ricin, and is willing to sell the technology according to Texas Tech's website.

With all these advances, Texas Tech has now made it relatively easy to produce hundreds of kilos of deadly ricin off a small plot of castor beans. But why? There is no current practical use for ricin, and if one were to appear -- say in a new legal drug -- plenty could be harvested from normal castor beans using previously existing technology. It would appear that the only rational reason for Texas Tech to spend all this time and money doing this is to make it easier to produce biological weapons.

We don't know if the military was funding TTU's ricin projects. But if it wasn't, it might want to shut them down lest it provide more ammunition to those who criticize the United States as being hypocritical when it comes to weapons of mass destruction. After all, the United States insisted one of its key rationales for invading Iraq earlier this year was because it believed the country still had hidden stores and production facilities for ricin, despite ten years of UN inspections and sanctions.

"The effort at [Texas Tech] to develop ways to produce and use ricin involved a coordinated effort across several academic departments and activities that, if conducted in many countries, the US would consider proof of a weapons program," points out The Sunshine Project report. "Because [Texas Tech's] activities relate to production of a toxin subject to severe restrictions under the Chemical and Biological Weapons Conventions, [Texas Tech] should provide a detailed public explanation of all its ricin projects."

(On Oct. 23 of this year, a small metal container found in an envelope in a postal handling facility in Greenville, South Carolina, was determined to contain ricin. The accompanying letter complained about legislation regulating the trucking industry. No suspects have been identified.)

Homegrown Toxin, Homegrown Terror

Whether or not Texas Tech is doing ricin research for the military or just in the name of raw science, the creation of this technology is worthy of public debate, if not censure. After all, this stuff can boomerang back on us; consider, for example, that the deadly anthrax spores delivered through the mail in late 2001 were, according to investigators who have done genetic comparisons, were spawned from an anthrax strain originally produced domestically in a U.S. military lab and "weaponized" using a very advanced technique invented by the United States' Bill Patrick.

Biodefense experts and former employees of the Army medical research institute at Ft. Detrick have charged that sloppy security procedures, disgruntled researchers and secret research into weaponization and delivery techniques could have provided the deadly combination that wrought such terror and paranoia across the country. News reports also claimed that one alleged suspect, scientist Steven Hatfill, had commissioned a report for Science Applications International Corporation a couple years before the attacks on how to deal with an anthrax attack by mail.

"Some very expert field person would have been given this job [of studying the mailing of anthrax] and it would have been left to him to decide exactly how to carry it out," Dr. Barbara Rosenberg, of the Federation of American Scientists told the BBC last year. "The result might have been a project gone badly awry if he decided to use it for his own purposes and target the media and the Senate for his own motives as not intended by the government project." The likely motive? Generating attention and budget funds for the biodefense industry -- which they certainly accomplished.

The details of the mailing of anthrax report are sketchy. Patrick wrote the report, according to ABCNews, describing "a hypothetical anthrax attack, specifying an amount and quality of anthrax that is remarkably similar to what was sent to the offices of Sens. Patrick Leahy and Tom Daschle" in 2001. But Patrick denied writing the report. As for Hatfill, who had received the anthrax vaccine, had ready access to the substance and lost his security clearance for unknown reasons just before 9/11, he called ABC's report "completely inaccurate, scandalous and libelous."

While nobody has been charged with perpetrating the anthrax attacks, a clear profile of who could have done it has emerged. Col. David Franz, who was in charge of Ft. Detrick for 11 years, through 1998, believes the anthrax attacks were carried out by a person or persons who knew their stuff. "It's not someone who just got on the Internet or went to the library and got a book and led the book in one hand and a big wooden spoon in the other and stirred up batches," Franz told the BBC in the same report, adding that they would have needed a lot of experience to understand how to grow, purify and dry anthrax spores.

So why are we making this awful stuff? Less than one-millionth of a gram is a deadly dose, and it is proscribed by international conventions. Furthermore, the United States was supposed to have ended its production of biological weapons three decades ago. In fact, though, the line between "biodefense" and "bioweapons" is so blurry as to be nearly useless. Just days before 9/11, the New York Times published an investigative article that reported a military contractor called Battelle had actually been commissioned to create genetically altered anthrax.

Another secret project, according to Rosenberg, writing in the Los Angeles Times "involved the construction of bomblets designed for dispersion of biological agents, although the Biological Weapons Convention explicitly prohibits developing, producing or possessing 'means of delivery designed to use such agents or toxins for hostile purposes.'"

Rosenberg, a biodefense expert who believes the bioterror threat is increasing and that the American public is the most likely target, is frustrated that under the Bush administration, "the U.S. has opposed every international effort to monitor the ban on the development and possession of biological weapons by states or to strengthen the toothless Biological Weapons Convention in any way."

This is odd, since we were supposed to have the moral high ground when it came to Iraq, which had produced, according to President Bush, "more than 30,000 liters of anthrax and other deadly biological agents. The inspectors, however, concluded that Iraq had likely produced two to four times that amount. This is a massive stockpile of biological weapons that has never been accounted for, and capable of killing millions."

To be fair, President Clinton's Republican Defense Secretary William Cohen had been similarly apocalyptic when it came to describing Iraq's anthrax potential, noting in 1998 "a five-pound bag, properly dispersed, could kill half the population of Columbus, Ohio." And a month after 9/11, it was Clinton's ex-CIA director James Woolsey who announced on TV that "If we see the use of biological agents such as smallpox or anthrax, that would strongly suggest to me that a state is involved with the terrorists because the state would be the likely producer of such weapons. I personally believe the most likely state to be involved in something like this would be Iraq."

This would make sense in more ways than Woolsey acknowledged: The Commerce Department under Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush had long permitted U.S. companies to sell anthrax and other biological and chemical supplies to Iraq, the Senate Banking Committee has documented. If Iraq had used anthrax, these U.S. companies and leaders should surely bear some of the moral responsibility for whatever tragedies might have ensued.

Within days of Woolsey's statements, five people would be dead from anthrax poisoning in the United States in one of the most amazing unsolved crimes of the past century. Meanwhile, hundreds of U.S. inspectors have found no signs of anthrax in Iraq despite more than a half a year of looking.

A Big Threat From a Smallpox

When, in the wake of 9/11, our president and noted "counterterrorism experts" (who make a living off fear, it should be remembered) decided to add a new bogeyman to the list of terrors we should worry about, the exterminated disease smallpox, it raised disturbing questions. Since the only known living smallpox virus was supposedly held by Russia and the United States, it would seem that somebody would have to really have goofed up for smallpox to have found its way into the hands of terrorists who had, as yet, never successfully (or unsuccessfully, as far as we know) employed biological or chemical weapons in an attack -- even those much easier to produce. Did the president know more than he was telling?

Chaotic, corrupt Russia was trotted out whenever smallpox came up in the media: Those poor Russian scientists might have sold some to Al Qaeda for some hard currency, reporters and experts said. While this was simply speculation, it was loosely based on the fact that in 1989 a Soviet defector claimed his country had weaponized and produced up to 20 tons of smallpox.

But if it wasn't understood before, the anthrax attacks should have been a wake-up call that our own security surrounding these dangerous substances was rather lacking. The stricter controls that have tangled up Dr. Butler are an attempt to batten down the hatches. It would seem there's more to be done: An Associated Press report on Nov. 21 told the scary story of a vial of one of the most deadly plagues ever discovered sitting in an unlocked freezer controlled by an undergraduate lecturer.

The question few asked, even as close to 40,000 Americans -- health and emergency workers, mostly -- were subsequently vaccinated for smallpox at the government's instruction, was whether the whole scare was nothing more than an irresponsible, panicky reaction to the 9/11 attacks. Or, far worse, a cynical attempt to increase our already soaring national fear levels. After all, the smallpox vaccine itself was known to be somewhat dangerous.

In fact, two women died after receiving the shots, killed by "adverse cardiac events" of a kind associated with the vaccine. Since then, the civilian program has basically ceased functioning, although the military continues to vaccinate soldiers; one died of a mysterious "lupus-like" disease last week after receiving the smallpox, anthrax and other vaccines on the same day.

Putting these tragedies aside, the questions remain: Did the threat demand this? Was there even a realistic threat at all? Colin Powell, speaking at the UN, seemed to think so. "Saddam Hussein has investigated dozens of biological agents causing diseases such as gas gangrene, plague, typhus, tetanus, cholera, camelpox and hemorrhagic fever, and he also has the wherewithal to develop smallpox," Powell claimed.

Powell didn't explain this last sentence. There are two likely ways smallpox, a truly devastating disease which is estimated to have killed 30 million people in the last century, could be reintroduced to humanity: From a strain kept in a lab somewhere, or through a synthetic version of the virus made by gene wizards. However, the latter is very unlikely, especially in the case of a rogue state like Iraq, since the complex variola virus that causes smallpox is quite large and complex, and would be a major challenge to recreate in a lab.

What is not clear is who might have kept a smallpox strain and why. The World Health Organization had recommended that all virus stocks be destroyed by 1999, but this almost certainly did not happen. And while the virus was supposedly only held in two locations in the United States and Russia, it is possible that other nations kept secret stashes of it taken in the years before it was eradicated in the populace. Donald Henderson, a science advisor to the U.S. government, noted last month in the Independent that the countries of Iraq, Syria and Iran could theoretically have retained smallpox samples from a natural outbreak there in 1972.

The government's official position on smallpox, which has no cure, is simply that "the deliberate release of smallpox as an epidemic disease is now regarded as a possibility." No smallpox samples have been discovered in Iraq.

It Gets Uglier

Even as we fear the resurrection of one of the few plagues mankind has completely defeated, some of those who advise and work for President Bush have talked warmly of possibilities even more horrifying.

A decade ago, neoconservatives like Paul Wolfowitz and Lewis Libby who now occupy powerful positions in the White House wrote a draft policy paper that, among other calls for aggressively increasing U.S. power in the world, argued that the government consider the development of biological weapons that "can target specific genotypes [and] may transform biological warfare from the realm of terror to a politically useful tool."

Nobody who has living through the astonishing medical and scientific advances of recent decades can doubt that such a horror might be possible. But to suggest we develop such diseases to add to our arsenal in defiance of international covenants and human decency is abominable.

This month, the CIA convened a gathering of life sciences experts who warned that genetically engineered diseases "could be worse than any disease known to man." The report generated by the scientists, "The Darker Bioweapons Future," argues, "The same science that may cure some of our worst diseases could be used to create the world's most frightening weapons." They also noted the possibility that these monstrous creations could potentially be released secretly, and thus avoid any international "blowback."

"One panelist cited the possibility of a stealth virus attack that could cripple a large portion of people in their forties with severe arthritis, concealing its hostile origin and leaving a country with massive health and economic problems," the report says.

Is this just more fear mongering, or the sci-fi fantasies of a researcher who is dependent on federal funds for his research? We won't know for a while, of course, but just this week, scientist L. Craig Venter, one of the key players in the mapping of the human genome, posted on the Internet instructions for how to build a synthetic virus (he is working on the artificial creation of living organisms that could clean up pollution).

In any event, if such nightmares should come true, it is likely to be in the United States, the birthplace of bio-terrorism, which will have had the scientific ability, bureaucratic organization and research money needed to create them.

Christopher Scheer is a staff writer for AlterNet. He is co-author of "The Five Biggest Lies Bush Told Us About Iraq."

The Lesson of Samarra

"U.S. Sees Lesson for Insurgents in an Iraq Battle," is the headline of a New York Times news report on Tuesday. Detailing the violent ambush in the Iraqi town of Samarra over the weekend, the first sentence of the article reads, "American commanders vowed Monday that the killing of as many as 54 insurgents in this central Iraqi town would serve as a lesson to those fighting the United States."

But what, exactly, are those "lessons?" The answer to that question spells more bad news for both Iraq and the U.S. occupation.

It is still unclear as to what actually happened in Samarra. The military brass' story is that dozens of Hussein-allied fedayeen pseudo-ninjas were picked off with surgical precision in a pair of wild gunfights fought on crowded city streets. Angry Iraqi witnesses and medical personnel, however, claim that innocent civilians were caught in the crossfire. But it doesn't matter which of the two wildly divergent versions of what happened in this particular Biblical town on this particular day is closer to the truth.

For all who plan to mount an armed resistance to the occupation, for whatever reason, the lesson remains the same: Force the U.S. military to fight on crowded streets. The inevitable result will be dead civilians and a surge in anger and alienation among the populace.

The narrow Anglo coalition that sort of runs Iraq now has failed to heed this lesson, one it should have learned in Vietnam, and again in Somalia. Instead, they are again speaking the language of body counts and "winning" the battle, the same mindset that so confused America 40 years ago. "They attacked, and they were killed," said Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Samarra insurgents. "So I think it will be instructive to them."

The U.S. military's reports claimed that 54 guerrillas were killed, but did not mention if any of these might have been civilians. But that's nothing new. Nobody talks about the many innocent Iraqis who have been killed since the invasion, most of whom die in fog-of-war encounters that go uninvestigated by any official beyond the lower echelons of the military. Nobody talks about the nightly raids conducted by U.S. troops who don't speak the language and who are, after all, soldiers and not policemen. Nobody talks about how the death of a single child can turn an entire clan completely and irrevocably against the United States, even if they don't give a hang about Saddam Hussein, al Qaeda or anything else beyond making a living and raising a family.

To say so is hardly melodramatic. Life in the so-called Sunni Triangle, which stretches west and north from Baghdad, has been reduced the basic elements of human nature: survival, greed, rage, love. It is no different in other urban war zones around the world, from Liberia to Somalia to the West Bank.

Vivienne Walt, of the San Francisco Chronicle Foreign Service, who has been doing excellent reporting since the start of the war, reports:

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In Defense of Bugging Out

For some months, the conventional wisdom has been that whether or not you thought the occupation of Iraq was a good idea, now that we're there, "we've got to get it right." More troops, more money, better leadership, better decisions -- whatever it takes. We are in a "test of resolve," a "time to come together and meet this great challenge we face." We can't "abandon" Iraq until it's "stabilized" and "democratic."

Columnist Cynthia Tucker, a critic of the war, expressed this clearly Monday, in reaction to the news that the Bush administration has reversed field and is going to, in the vernacular of Texan Molly Ivins, bug out. "If we clear out too soon, we may be setting the stage for Armageddon in the Middle East before 2008," writes Tucker. "And we'll be sending a message to hundreds of American families that their sons and daughters died for nothing."

Unfortunately, the conventional wisdom is dead wrong. It is based on the same confabulation of circular logic, paternalistic neocolonialism, faulty intelligence, fuzzy morality and lack of historical perspective that sucked us into the vortex of war in Indochina 40 years ago. And when it naively supposes that the mainstream hopes for this war -- a defeat for tyranny and terrorism, the spread of peace and democracy -- match up with the goals of those who are actually at the helm of power, it completely collapses.

The documents, arguments and decisions underpinning the White House's big roll of the dice in Mesopotamia make it clear that this war is about projecting raw power to remind the world who is boss and accrue our rewards accordingly. Arab democracy, nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the war on terrorism have always been afterthoughts if not fig leafs for this invasion. The conventional wisdom turns a blind eye to the layer upon layer of phony motives the Administration has lobbed out to defend the war since its marketing campaign was launched in August 2002.

First pitched as a roundhouse blow in response to 9/11, the rationale for invading Iraq was amended by the President at various times to be a mercy mission for the Iraqi people; a defense against the use or proliferation of certain classes of weapons; or a way to bring enlightenment to the benighted Arab world. Skeptics, bless their hearts, thought oil, Israel and hooking up Bechtel and Halliburton with juicy reconstruction contracts were maybe a tad more prominent in the thinking of the war's architects.

Actually, some war supporters are clearer on this issue of motives. They don't much care that Iraq's blowhard dictator turned out to be more Wizard of Oz than Adolph Hitler, that his vaunted weapons programs was a joke and his huge army little more than a week's cannon fodder for the U.S. juggernaut. Nor do they waste much time worrying about the fact that Saddam Hussein had never had an alliance with Al Qaeda, but had been supported for decades by the United States. Many of these folks agreed with neoconservative Michael Ledeen of the American Enterprise Institute, who said, "Every 10 years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business."

There's a certain consistency in this inconsistency, which amounts to something along the lines of, "I don't care what goes on over there -- gas lines, suicide bombings, human rights abuses -- as long as you make sure no more of it gets back here."

But the conventional wisdom is much different. Essentially liberal, it has changed little since the 60s, when it was the position of a generation of Democrats and moderate Republicans who naively endorsed taking the nation down into a muddy trench called Vietnam. This tortuous stance is doomed to failure, predicated as it is on employing brute power and overwhelming firepower in a far-off land to forge something as delicate and diaphanous as democracy and a lasting social compact.

A year ago, we encountered the same mushy thinking, as moderates again prematurely endorsed a war before the country could digest the potential consequences. The results to date of our uninvited and unilateral occupation of a dysfunctional nation were predictable: A whirlpool of confusion, moral ambiguity, opportunism, nihilism, exhaustion and suffering.

Reports in recent days indicate that beneath its relentless bravado, the Administration may be working behind the scenes on a way to get out of Iraq before next year's election and still save face. But our official position is clear: We have promised not just the destruction of a foul regime but also the gift of peace, prosperity and democracy to an entire region. Why do we Americans persist in believing that such a gift is in our power to give?

I believe it is because many of us so badly want to believe it is. Like the utopian Protestant cults that landed here almost four centuries ago, as a people we are a sucker for fantasies of moral progress and our own moral nobility. Having been rewarded by God with the Best Damn Country on Planet Earth, we are used to seeing ourselves as the chosen people of the modern world, and whether it is a time of peace or war we believe our touch is golden. For sentimental hawks, this means using our powers as a cleansing fire, a destroyer of moral pestilence; for tough-talking doves, it is hoped the Marines and Rangers can provide cover for Amnesty International and USAID to do their thing.

In the last quarter century, the outcomes of our military engagements have been mixed. Not worrying about the Soviets has allowed the U.S. a freer hand to try its hand at playing a little good cop, even while keeping national and corporate interests at the forefront, of course. In Panama, we recalled our own dictator; in Kosovo, we helped diminished an outbreak of acute misery. It is less clear what we accomplished in Haiti, but it seems to have been a good-faith effort. Beirut and Somalia were disasters for us and them, while the first Gulf War protected a dictatorship in Kuwait and abandoned Kurdish and Shiite rebellions in the north and south after egging them on. In Afghanistan we mildly disrupted a terrorist network and chose warlords over religious fanatics to run the place, which is arguably an improvement.

In Iraq, however, it seems the White House is shooting for the moon -- and paying only lip service to the hallowed ideals of post-WWII nation building and "democratization." For those who disliked the CIA's habit from the '50s through the '80s of casually knocking off progressive-minded, elected foreign leaders and replacing them with kings and generals, it should be noted that Iraq at least is a change of pace. By disbanding the country's military and bureaucracy, then letting the country be systematically looted for weeks on end, L. Paul Bremer and the American Coalition Provisional Authority officials running Baghdad have created a scenario more in keeping with China's Cultural Revolution than the installation of Pinochet as pro-capitalist tyrant in Chile.

Iraqis are not so much being abused by their new, self-appointed ruler as they are being tortured by chaos -- no jobs, no security, nobody to whom they can bring their grievances. Armed troops that don't speak the local language may come to your neighborhood in the night and take away the men in blindfolds. A miscommunication at a checkpoint and you and your family may end up dead. Protests and labor union actions are in most cases illegal. If the occupying troops shoot your brother during a raid, there will be no formal investigation as to why and how it happened. There is still no clear plan or timetable for how power will be handed over to Iraqis (or the UN), or which Iraqis will get to make the key decisions about how to rebuild the country. Because of paternalistic hubris and a lack of security, the occupiers and the contractors they have hired to do reconstruction operate with a bunker mentality, inaccessible and remote from "the natives."

But perhaps this is too negative; our own government would have us believe that there is more good news in Iraq than bad, and that things are improving every day. I cannot personally dispute this, although there are many there who do. But in fact, it doesn't matter: Under Bush's leadership we are not committed to leaving Iraq slightly less beat up and traumatized than we found it. Even if we believe the White House's rosy depiction of progress in Iraq, it is clear we are a long way from delivering peace and prosperity.

In the end, Iraq in 2003 is not Indochina in 1965, and things could turn out differently. But we must acknowledge we are supporting essentially the same goal we pursued to such tragic results for more than a dozen years in Vietnam -- to transform a country into a compliant clone of the United States, despite the fact that said country seems to have very different ideas of what it would like to become, and how it would like to get there.

Christopher Scheer is a staff writer for AlterNet. He is co-author of "The Five Biggest Lies Bush Told Us About Iraq."

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Ten Appalling Lies We Were Told About Iraq

"The Iraqi dictator must not be permitted to threaten America and the world with horrible poisons and diseases and gases and atomic weapons."
-- George Bush, Oct. 7, 2002, in a speech in Cincinnati.

There is a small somber box that appears in the New York Times every day. Titled simply "Killed in Iraq," it lists the names and military affiliations of those who most recently died on tour of duty. Wednesday's edition listed just one name: Orenthial J. Smith, age 21, of Allendale, South Carolina.

The young, late O.J. Smith was almost certainly named after the legendary running back, Orenthal J. Simpson, before that dashing American hero was charged for a double-murder. Now his namesake has died in far-off Mesopotamia in a noble mission to, as our president put it on March 19, "disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger."

Today, more than three months after Bush's stirring declaration of war and nearly two months since he declared victory, no chemical, biological or nuclear weapons have been found, nor any documentation of their existence, nor any sign they were deployed in the field.

The mainstream press, after an astonishing two years of cowardice, is belatedly drawing attention to the unconscionable level of administrative deception. They seem surprised to find that when it comes to Iraq, the Bush administration isn't prone to the occasional lie of expediency but, in fact, almost never told the truth.

What follows are just the most outrageous and significant of the dozens of outright lies uttered by Bush and his top officials over the past year in what amounts to a systematic campaign to scare the bejeezus out of everybody:

LIE #1: "The evidence indicates that Iraq is reconstituting its nuclear weapons program ... Iraq has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes and other equipment needed for gas centrifuges, which are used to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons." -- President Bush, Oct. 7, 2002, in Cincinnati.

FACT: This story, leaked to and breathlessly reported by Judith Miller in the New York Times, has turned out to be complete baloney. Department of Energy officials, who monitor nuclear plants, say the tubes could not be used for enriching uranium. One intelligence analyst, who was part of the tubes investigation, angrily told The New Republic: "You had senior American officials like Condoleezza Rice saying the only use of this aluminum really is uranium centrifuges. She said that on television. And that's just a lie."

LIE #2: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." -- President Bush, Jan.28, 2003, in the State of the Union address.

FACT: This whopper was based on a document that the White House already knew to be a forgery thanks to the CIA. Sold to Italian intelligence by some hustler, the document carried the signature of an official who had been out of office for 10 years and referenced a constitution that was no longer in effect. The ex-ambassador who the CIA sent to check out the story is pissed: "They knew the Niger story was a flat-out lie," he told the New Republic, anonymously. "They [the White House] were unpersuasive about aluminum tubes and added this to make their case more strongly."

LIE #3: "We believe [Saddam] has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons." -- Vice President Cheney on March 16, 2003 on "Meet the Press."

FACT: There was and is absolutely zero basis for this statement. CIA reports up through 2002 showed no evidence of an Iraqi nuclear weapons program.

LIE #4: "[The CIA possesses] solid reporting of senior-level contacts between Iraq and al-Qaeda going back a decade." -- CIA Director George Tenet in a written statement released Oct. 7, 2002 and echoed in that evening's speech by President Bush.

FACT: Intelligence agencies knew of tentative contacts between Saddam and al-Qaeda in the early '90s, but found no proof of a continuing relationship. In other words, by tweaking language, Tenet and Bush spun the intelligence180 degrees to say exactly the opposite of what it suggested.

LIE #5: "We've learned that Iraq has trained al-Qaeda members in bomb-making and poisons and deadly gases ... Alliance with terrorists could allow the Iraqi regime to attack America without leaving any fingerprints." -- President Bush, Oct. 7.

FACT: No evidence of this has ever been leaked or produced. Colin Powell told the U.N. this alleged training took place in a camp in northern Iraq. To his great embarrassment, the area he indicated was later revealed to be outside Iraq's control and patrolled by Allied war planes.

LIE #6: "We have also discovered through intelligence that Iraq has a growing fleet of manned and unmanned aerial vehicles that could be used to disperse chemical or biological weapons across broad areas. We are concerned that Iraq is exploring ways of using these UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] for missions targeting the United States." -- President Bush, Oct. 7.

FACT: Said drones can't fly more than 300 miles, and Iraq is 6,000 miles from the U.S. coastline. Furthermore, Iraq's drone-building program wasn't much more advanced than your average model plane enthusiast. And isn't a "manned aerial vehicle" just a scary way to say "plane"?

LIE #7: "We have seen intelligence over many months that they have chemical and biological weapons, and that they have dispersed them and that they're weaponized and that, in one case at least, the command and control arrangements have been established." -- President Bush, Feb. 8, 2003, in a national radio address.

FACT: Despite a massive nationwide search by U.S. and British forces, there are no signs, traces or examples of chemical weapons being deployed in the field, or anywhere else during the war.

LIE #8: "Our conservative estimate is that Iraq today has a stockpile of between 100 and 500 tons of chemical weapons agent. That is enough to fill 16,000 battlefield rockets." -- Secretary of State Colin Powell, Feb. 5 2003, in remarks to the UN Security Council.

FACT: Putting aside the glaring fact that not one drop of this massive stockpile has been found, as previously reported on AlterNet the United States' own intelligence reports show that these stocks -- if they existed -- were well past their use-by date and therefore useless as weapon fodder.

LIE #9: "We know where [Iraq's WMD] are. They're in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad and east, west, south, and north somewhat." -- Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, March 30, 2003, in statements to the press.

FACT: Needless to say, no such weapons were found, not to the east, west, south or north, somewhat or otherwise.

LIE #10: "Yes, we found a biological laboratory in Iraq which the UN prohibited." -- President Bush in remarks in Poland, published internationally June 1, 2003.

FACT: This was reference to the discovery of two modified truck trailers that the CIA claimed were potential mobile biological weapons lab. But British and American experts -- including the State Department's intelligence wing in a report released this week -- have since declared this to be untrue. According to the British, and much to Prime Minister Tony Blair's embarrassment, the trailers are actually exactly what Iraq said they were; facilities to fill weather balloons, sold to them by the British themselves.

So, months after the war, we are once again where we started -- with plenty of rhetoric and absolutely no proof of this "grave danger" for which O.J. Smith died. The Bush administration is now scrambling to place the blame for its lies on faulty intelligence, when in fact the intelligence was fine; it was their abuse of it that was "faulty."

Rather than apologize for leading us to a preemptive war based on impossibly faulty or shamelessly distorted "intelligence" or offering his resignation, our sly madman in the White House is starting to sound more like that other O.J. Like the man who cheerfully played golf while promising to pursue "the real killers," Bush is now vowing to search for "the true extent of Saddam Hussein's weapons programs, no matter how long it takes."

On the terrible day of the 9/11 attacks, five hours after a hijacked plane slammed into the Pentagon, retired Gen. Wesley Clark received a strange call from someone (he didn't name names) representing the White House position: "I was on CNN, and I got a call at my home saying, 'You got to say this is connected. This is state-sponsored terrorism. This has to be connected to Saddam Hussein,'" Clark told Meet the Press anchor Tim Russert. "I said, 'But -- I'm willing to say it, but what's your evidence?' And I never got any evidence.'"

And neither did we.
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