Meet Chris Cox, the man who helped produce the Enron scandal. Orange County Weekly reported that "Cox, as part of conservative Republicans' so-called Contract With America, spearheaded efforts to torpedo protections for corporate investors and shield companies -- like Enron -- and their accountants -- like Arthur Andersen -- from investor lawsuits." Cox's sustained effort to provide protections to corporate bad actors was successful; the nation's economy was not. Moreover, Cox pushed his securities reform bill through Congress at the same time he was a named defendant in two lawsuits for securities fraud. Cox's conduct raises serious questions about his ethical suitability for the job. For the last two-and-half years, outgoing SEC Chairman William Donaldson has worked to repair the damage Cox helped produce. But Cox remains committed to his ideological agenda, and, should he be confirmed, is ready to take the country back into the Enron era.
Cox's crusade to weaken investor protections
Cox claimed on the floor of the House on 3/7/95 that securities law was "a legal torture chamber ... more suitable to the pages of Charles Dickens' 'Bleak House' than a nation dedicated to equal justice under law." Cox's efforts to weaken protections for investors culminated in the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995, which provided extensive legal protection to corporate executives, accountants and lawyers who made misleading statements. The bill was enacted into law over President Clinton's veto "after heavy lobbying from Andersen [and] the rest of the accounting industry." Duke University Law Professor James Cox (no relation) called the law "the ultimate in special-interest legislation." Barbara Roper, director of investor protection at the Consumer Federation of America, said Chris Cox's law "made it not only possible but likely that something like Enron would occur."
How the Cox law protects corporate crooks
According to OC Weekly, "[i]ndependent legal analyses and securities lawyers agree" that Cox's bill "significantly raised the bar at several points in the litigation process, making it much harder for plaintiffs to bring lawsuits." Specifically, plaintiffs "would have to prove there was a 'strong inference' that the defendant acted with the required state of mind for fraud. Securities lawyers refer to this requirement as "'scienter' - a mental state embracing intent to deceive, manipulate or defraud." It's an extremely difficult standard to meet. When the standard was interpreted by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals it "even forgave executives who said they forgot to disclose bad financial news to investors."
How the Cox law protects Kenneth Lay
Cox's law provided additional protections for executives who made inaccurate "forward looking statements" about the future of the company to investors. So when, 12 weeks before the company declared bankruptcy, former Enron CEO Ken Lay told a reporter from Business Week, "We think the company is on solid footing, and we're looking forward to continued strong growth," he was unlikely to face legal consequences.
Cox misrepresents the impact of law
Cox has blatantly misrepresented the impact of the law. For example, according to Cox, his law "requires a company and its officers to constantly update and correct any forward-looking statement once made." The official Congressional Research Service summary of the law, however, "[s]tates that there is no duty upon any person to update a forward-looking statement."
Cox was sued for alleged involvement in Ponzi Scheme
Cox's efforts to limit the ability of investors to sue for fraud was informed by his personal experience. Cox worked for the law firm of Latham & Watkins from 1978 to 1986 before leaving to join the White House counsel's office. On 9/17/94, the LA Times reported, Cox was sued for his work at Latham that involved him in a business scheme that robbed nearly 8,000 investors of approximately $136 million. The scheme cheated customers out of their retirement nest eggs by enticing them to invest in phony mortgages. High-level officers at First Pension Corporation, the company at issue, pled guilty to fraudulently diverting funds. The charge against Cox was that he helped write a deceptive plan to sell mutual fund shares. Cox claimed ignorance and said he was only distantly involved in the case, but information uncovered later revealed him to be more involved with the convicted dealer than he previously let on.
Details murky on resolution of class action lawsuit against Cox
Two suits were filed against Cox: a class action by the investors of First Pension Corp. and another by the court-appointed receiver. On 6/15/96, the LA Times wrote that although Cox was dropped as a defendant from the receiver's case (a move that was meant to "streamline the case," according to the receiver), Cox remained a defendant in the class action. The other major defendant, the accounting giant Coopers & Lybrand (now PricewaterhouseCoopers) was found guilty in July 2000 by a California Superior Court jury, according to the LA Times, for having "misrepresented First Pension's condition, concealed material information and abetted the company's managers in the fraud." In August 2000, the LA Times reported that the class action was settled before the damages phase could be entered into, but "terms of the agreement were not disclosed."
Conflict: Cox sought to pass Class Action Reform Bill while named in class action suit
Cox was named in a class-action suit brought by the defrauded investors of First Pension. At the same time he was named in the suit, Cox was holding hearings on the Hill on the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act, a bill that, according to the WSJ, would "sharply limit the circumstances in which investors could bring class-action lawsuits." The AP noted, "Cox was informed one week before the bill was introduced that attorneys were threatening to add him as a defendant in a securities lawsuit." Although the bill did not directly affect the case against him because the case was filed in state court, the AP noted, "it could affect future legal actions brought in federal court against him or his former law firm, Latham & Watkins, which is named as a defendant in the suit." Despite there being an obvious conflict of interest involved with Cox's legislation, the House took no action against him.
Conflict: Cox amended the legislation after learning of his own liability
Though Cox claimed he only performed a small amount of legal work for one of the convicted securities dealers, the AP uncovered documents that showed Cox had actually worked with the felon in another major transaction. When confronted with the new evidence of the relationship, Cox said, "I don't have any independent recollection of that work." Back on Capitol Hill, Cox added an additional protection for targets of securities fraud lawsuits. "The day after the AP questioned Cox about [the relationship between him and the convicted dealer,] the congressman amended his legislation to prevent lawyers and others from being sued if they 'genuinely forgot to disclose' important information."
Cox's questionable campaign contributions
Throughout his career in Congress, Cox has received more than $254,000 from the securities and investment industry, the fourth-largest industry contributor to Cox. He received another $206,000 from the accounting industry. Taken together, the securities and accounting industries combine to form the largest industry contributor to Cox. Cox's single largest contributor is the law firm of Latham & Watkins, the former employer that both involved him and absolved him of his personal legal troubles. Cox received $2,000 from William Cooper, owner of First Pension, but was forced to return the funds as controversy surrounding Cox's involvement in the scandal grew. Cox received a campaign contribution from ethically challenged lobbyist Jack Abramoff in 1996. He also received $2,000 from an Andersen Accounting executive in the 2001-02 cycle.
To deal with the skyrocketing insurgency, the Pentagon is considering creating secret death squads in Iraq. Now, the Pentagon's brave new solution for democracy in the Middle East is to revisit the reprehensible "Salvador Option," the clandestine operation implemented by the Reagan White House in the 1980s in El Salvador. According to Newsweek, "Back then, faced with losing a war against the Salvadoran rebels, the United States government funded "nationalist" forces that allegedly included so-called death squads which killed scores of innocent civilians." Today, according to an explosive new article in Newsweek, the Pentagon dusted off that model and has a proposal on the table to "advise, support and possibly train" secret Iraqi squads, "most likely hand-picked Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and Shiite militiamen, to target Sunni insurgents and their sympathizers, even across the border into Syria."
It's unclear whether the current proposed policy would direct the Iraqi squads to assassinate their targets or "snatch" them and send them to secret facilities for interrogation. In plain language: the squads would be either hit men or kidnapper/torturers. The United States has recently come under serious criticism for whisking suspects to countries with questionable interrogation techniques. Recently, for example, a German national was allegedly kidnapped by Macedonian authorities, turned over to the United States and flown to a prison in Afghanistan where he claims to have been repeatedly beaten, all because he shared a name similar to one of the 9/11 suspects. Other reports show the CIA has employed a secret private jet to ferry terror suspects to places with terrible human rights records, such as Egypt, Jordan, Afghanistan and Libya.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has held El Salvador up as a model for Iraq. And during the recent Vice Presidential debates, Vice President Dick Cheney stated, "Twenty years ago we had a similar situation in El Salvador. We had a guerilla insurgency that controlled roughly a third of the country, 75,000 people dead. And we held free elections ... And today El Salvador is a whale of a lot better because we held free elections." According to a 1993 U.N.-sponsored truth commission, however, up to "90 percent of the atrocities in the conflict "were committed by the U.S.-sponsored army and its surrogates, "with the rebels responsible for 5 percent and the remaining 5 percent undetermined." These death squads "abducted members of the civilian population and of rebel groups. They tortured their hostages, were responsible for their disappearance and usually executed them."
John Negroponte, the current U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, is no stranger to death squads. In the 1980s, Negroponte served as the U.S. ambassador to Honduras. At the time, he was cozy with the chief of the Honduran national police force, Gen. Gustavo Alvarez Martinez, who also ran the infamous Battalion 316 death squad. Battalion 316 "kidnapped, tortured and murdered more than 100 people between 1981 and 1984." According to Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, "Negroponte publicly adopted a see-no-evil attitude to this army death squad."
President Bush also appointed neocon Elliot Abrams to be his senior adviser on the Middle East. Abrams was also a staunch supporter of the Salvador Option in the 1980s: when newspapers "reported that a U.S.-trained military unit had massacred hundreds of villagers in the tiny Salvadoran hamlet of El Mozote, Abrams told Congress the story was nothing but communist propaganda." When confronted with the United Nations report that the vast majority of "atrocities in El Salvador's civil war were committed by Reagan-assisted death squads," Abrams's response: "The administration's record on El Salvador is one of fabulous achievements." Abrams was convicted of lying to Congress about Iran-Contra in 1987 – he was pardoned by George H.W. Bush in 1992.
Today is the 56th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The United States has long provided global leadership on human rights. Today, however, that influence is starting to wane. The Bush administration is sending mixed signals about its commitment to defending human rights at home and around the world. The White House is undermining America's moral authority, as more nations begin to see the United States as a part of the problem instead of part of the solution. Moral leadership starts at home.
SILENT WITNESS: According to the AP, Federal Bureau of Investigation personnel witnessed Abu Ghraib-style abuse against detainees at Guantanamo Bay as early as 2002. A newly released memo shows Thomas Harrington, the FBI's assistant director for counterterrorism, told the Pentagon that"he witnessed abuses as the leader of a team of FBI investigators that went to Cuba in 2002. It says that FBI agents witnessed at least three cases of 'highly aggressive interrogation techniques being used against detainees.'" It doesn't seem the FBI sounded the alarm. In Harrington's memo, he writes, "I have no record that our specific concerns regarding these three situations were communicated to the Department of Defense for appropriate action."
POST-ABU GHRAIB COVER-UP: Weeks after the abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq was publicly discovered, two Defense Department intelligence analysts witnessed new brutal treatment of prisoners in Iraq. Military investigators immediately tried to threaten the analysts into silence, warning them "not to talk to anyone" about the mistreatment they discovered. The intelligence analysts also had their e-mails monitored, their vehicle keys confiscated and were ordered not to leave the base without express permission. The White House tried to keep the June 25 memo documenting this under wraps, but was recently compelled to release it after a lawsuit was filed by the ACLU. The administration wants to "portray prisoner abuses as isolated events and the Pentagon's response as swift," and has "fought vigorously to keep the new documents from public view." As the Washington Post points out, there still is "no record...that makes clear whether the abuses...have stopped or whether anyone has been held responsible for them."
NOMINATION OF GONZALES: The White House has shown little interest in righting the wrongs of the abuse scandals or holding anyone responsible. Just last month, President Bush tapped Alberto Gonzales, the White House lawyer who was key in creating the policy which fostered the culture of abuse, to be the next attorney general. Gonzales was behind a Justice Department memo which included the opinion that laws prohibiting torture do "not apply to the President's detention and interrogation of enemy combatants." He also characterized the Geneva Conventions - the rules set in place to guarantee the humane, legal treatment of prisoners in war time - as "quaint." (For more on Gonzales's record on human rights, read this backgrounder.)
USING THE FRUITS OF TORTURE: Making matters worse, the administration believes that evidence gained by torture can be used by the U.S. military. For the past 70 years, statements produced under torture have been inadmissible in U.S. courts. According to Principal Deputy Associate Attorney General Brian Boyle, however, U.S. military panels today "are allowed to use such evidence." Attorneys argued holding prisoners solely on evidence gained by torture "violated fundamental fairness and U.S. due process standards." Boyle's response? The detainees "have no constitutional rights enforceable in this court."
GLOBAL LEADERSHIP: A new memo by the Center for American Progress outlines nine critical areas in which the United States must take leadership in promoting human rights abroad. For example, the Bush administration has been reluctant to criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin, counting him as a close ally even as he supports brutal methods of fighting terrorism in Chechnya and backs a rigged election in the Ukraine. The White House also has yet to seriously censure Saudi Arabia, ignoring reports of "unlawful executions, arrests, torture and censorship." Most egregiously, the Bush administration has not provided leadership in ending the genocide in Sudan.
Yesterday, America's troops spoke and their message was clear: they are not getting the support they need from the Bush administration. In a question-and-answer session with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, rank-and-file soldiers didn't ask for tough talk, patriotic anthems or American-flag lapel pins. Rather, they told Rumsfeld they needed – but weren't getting – armored vehicles, modern equipment and adequate supplies. Rumsfeld's responses were disgracefully insensitive and condescending. As of today, 6,530 Humvees in Iraq and Afghanistan lack adequate protection. Our troops deserve better.
Spec. Thomas Wilson told Rumsfeld, "A lot of us are getting ready to move north [into Iraq] relatively soon. Our vehicles are not armored. We're digging pieces of rusted scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass that's already been shot up, dropped, busted, picking the best out of this scrap to put on our vehicles to take into combat." Rumsfeld responded that "you go to war with the Army you have ... not the Army you might want to wish to have at a later time." But the planning for war in Iraq began in late 2001. In a spin session later in the day, Pentagon spokesman Larry Di Rita conceded that as late as the fall of 2003, the military was producing just 15 armored Humvees a month, less than 4 percent of today's production capacity. According to Di Rita, one quarter of Humvees in war zones today are unarmored. The bottom line: soldiers in Iraq today don't have armored vehicles because of poor planning and Rumsfeld refuses to accept responsibility.
Rumsfeld callously attempted to diminish Spec. Wilson's question, saying, "if you think about it, you can have all the armor in the world on a tank and a tank can still be blown up. And you can have an up-armored Humvee and it can be blown up." In response, Paul Rieckhoff, an Iraq War veteran who is now with the soldiers' advocacy group, Operation Truth, said, "Having the armor increases your survivability much more than not having it. For [Rumsfeld] to say that is an indication of how little he understands the dangers of the battlefield."
According to Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.), when Rumsfeld visits Iraq he undoubtedly travels in an armored vehicle. Taylor said, " If it is good enough for the big shots, it is good enough for every American soldier." Col. John Zimmerman, a leader of Spec. Wilson's unit, said, "he and his troops ... could not help fuming at the sight of the fully 'up-armored' Humvees and heavy trucks put on display here for Mr. Rumsfeld's visit." Zimmerman noted, "what you see out here isn't what we've got going north [to Iraq] with us."
According to testimony by the Army's vice chief of staff late last year, the military needed 8,400 armor kits for Humvees in Iraq and Afghanistan. President Bush responded by submitting a budget in early 2004 that proposed "exactly zero dollars" for Humvee armor kits.
The military is preventing thousands of people who have completed their service obligation from leaving the military through the "stop loss" program. Rumsfeld expressed no regret that poor planning has forced him to keep troops in war zones involuntarily. Rumsfeld called the program "basically a sound principle" and told the troops that "it will continue to be used." There is so much frustration with the stop loss policy that eight soldiers are suing the government from their camps in the conflict zone.
When an Army specialist asked Rumsfeld what he planned to do about the disparity in equipment between the National Guard and Reserve and the active duty army, Rumsfeld was "taken aback by the question and a murmur began spreading through the ranks." Rumsfeld told the troops to "settle down, Hell, I'm an old man, it's early in the morning and I'm gathering my thoughts here." He then went on to explain that some "element of the Army is going to end up, at some point, with – you characterize it as 'antiquated' [equipment]."
Sinclair Broadcasting Group – the same group which forbade its ABC affiliates from showing Ted Koppel's 40-minute tribute to fallen troops in Iraq because the programming appeared to be "motivated by a political agenda" – is ordering its stations "to preempt regular programming just days before the Nov. 2 election to air a film that attacks Sen. John F. Kerry's activism against the Vietnam War." Sinclair, the country's largest owner of TV stations, has told its stations to air "Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal," produced by Carlton Sherwood, former Washington Times reporter, Bush administration official and close friend to Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge.
The film features "former POWs accusing Kerry – a decorated Navy veteran turned war protester – of worsening their ordeal by prolonging the war." Sinclair is claiming exemption from a law prohibiting corporations from spending money to influence a federal election because they say the documentary qualifies as "newsworthy."
Even before refusing to run ABC's Nightline in April, Sinclair had amassed a long record of partisan bias passed off as news. In September 2001, the group required its affiliates to air messages "conveying full support" for the Bush administration, including requiring some news, sports and even weather anchors to read messages saying they stood "100% behind our president." In July 2003, Sinclair banned a DNC advertisement that featured a clip of President Bush making the false claim, "Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa" in his 2003 State of the Union address. And earlier this year, Sinclair sent "a vice president who has called John F. Kerry a liar to Iraq to find good news stories that it said were being overlooked by the biased liberal press."
Sherwood claims not to be a political activist, but he has strong ties to the Bush administration. He directed Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge's TV and radio operations when Ridge was governor of Pennsylvania, and he has "recently been tapped to create and manage a new Fed website – FirstResponder.gov – a key Bush administration public outreach program."
Asked about the motivations behind his film on Monday, Sherwood said, "I don't want a damn apology. I want [Kerry's] feet held to the fire. I want him to answer for his lies and for his smear on us 33 years ago." But nothing Kerry said during his 1971 testimony to Congress has been proven to be a lie or a smear. Kerry related faithfully the stories of "over 150 honorably discharged and many very highly decorated veterans [who] testified to war crimes committed in Southeast Asia" during "Winter Soldier" meetings in Detroit. The testimonies of many of those soldiers are on record here. Read Kerry's entire testimony here.
Sinclair is owned by Baltimore businessman David D. Smith and his three brothers. The Smith brothers and their executives have made 97 percent of their political donations during the 2004 election cycle to Bush and the Republicans. The brothers alone have given $121,000 to the Republican Party since 1999, and each of them has contributed the maximum $2,000 to the 2004 Bush campaign.
In a highly unusual news practice, Sinclair requires many of its affiliates to feature nightly commentary by corporate Vice President Mark Hyman, entitled "The Point." In recent months, Hyman has used his time on air to gear viewers up for Sherwood's film: On 9/20/04, Hyman accused Kerry of violating his oath to the U.S. Constitution because he led a group of Vietnam veterans who had fought and been wounded for their country to "defy U.S. Park regulations" and camp on the National Mall during 1971 protests. Two days later, Hyman baselessly accused Kerry of " supporting Communist forces opposed to the U.S. in Vietnam [and] in Nicaragua." Hyman used "The Point" as a platform to denigrate Kerry's Vietnam service nine times in September alone. See a different interpretation of Kerry's post-war activities in the new film, "Going Upriver.
Asked why Sinclair decided to air the film after it was rejected for airing by the major broadcast networks, Hyman told the Washington Post, "This is a powerful story... The networks are acting like Holocaust deniers and pretending [the POWs] don't exist. It would be irresponsible to ignore them."
According to USA Today, "many believe Sinclair's provocative decision shows how much the company has riding on the election." Currently, "Sinclair is barely profitable and laden with debt." Sinclair hopes to change that by taking advantage of relaxed media ownership restrictions – for instance, it wants the FCC to ease restrictions barring a company from owning stations reaching more than 35 percent of all homes. "FCC Chairman Michael Powell, a Republican, has made media deregulation a priority... Kerry says he'll clamp down on changes that promote consolidation."
Email Sinclair President David D. Smith and tell him to stop airing partisan propaganda.
Last week, President Bush dismissed a bleak assessment on Iraq prepared in July by the National Intelligence Council (NIC) as "just guessing as to what the conditions might be like." (Bush later said he should have used the word "estimate" instead, but continues to insist that Iraq is on a path of steady success. Note to media: please ignore this vacillation when discussing the president's "clarity" and "resolve.")
But the record shows that estimates on post-war Iraq prepared by the NIC – a group White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan dismissed as pessimists and naysayers – have been extraordinarily accurate. An NIC report prepared two months before the war began, and first reported in the New York Times this morning, "warned of a possible insurgency against the new Iraqi government or American-led forces, saying that rogue elements from Saddam Hussein's government could work with existing terrorist groups or act independently to wage guerrilla warfare." The report also warned that a war "would increase sympathy across the Islamic world for some terrorist objectives." Twenty months later, "the warnings about anti-American sentiment and instability appear to have been upheld by events."
Speaking yesterday at George Washington University, Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) said, "The Bush administration's failure to shut down al-Qaeda and rebuild Iraq have fueled the insurgency and made the United States more vulnerable to a nuclear attack by terrorists." Kennedy said the shift in attention from al Qaeda to Iraq "has made the mushroom cloud more likely, not less likely."
On Thursday, President Bush claimed that "nearly 100,000 fully trained and equipped Iraqi soldiers, police officers, and other security personnel are working today." But last Monday, the Pentagon said that "only about 53,000 of the 100,000 Iraqis on duty have now undergone training." According to Pentagon documents obtained by Reuters, of the 90,000 in the police force "only 8,169 have received full training." The White House, inexplicably, stands by its 100,000 figure.
President Bush has long insisted that Iraq is now the central battle in the global war on terrorism. But, according to the U.S. military's own assessment, "the Iraqi insurgency remains primarily a home-grown problem." (Even as scores of foreign terrorists pour across the border.) According to top military officials, "loyalists of Saddam Hussein's regime – who have swelled their ranks in recent months as ordinary Iraqis bristle at the U.S. military presence in Iraq – represent the far greater threat to the country's fragile 3-month-old government" than foreign fighters. According to the U.S. military, "Iraqi officials tended to exaggerate the number of foreign fighters in Iraq to obscure the fact that large numbers of their countrymen have taken up arms against U.S. troops and the American-backed interim Iraqi government."
In an interview with the French newspaper Le Figaro, Jordan's King Abdullah – one of the Bush administration's closest allies – said, "It appears to me impossible to organize indisputable elections in the chaos currently reigning in Iraq." Abdullah stressed that "partial elections which excluded cities such as Falluja could isolate Sunni Muslims, saying that could create even deeper divisions in the country." Last week, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld raised the possibility that elections could be excluded from dangerous parts of the country.
Brutal fighting over the past week brought a new, grisly milestone in Iraq, as the number of troops killed in Iraq passed the 1,000 mark. Also, as an indication of the intensity of battles in urban areas, about 1,100 U.S. soldiers and Marines were wounded in Iraq last month, "by far the highest combat injury toll for any month since the war began." So far, over 7,000 soldiers have been wounded in combat. Attacks in sovereign Iraq have been on the rise: Since the transfer of power on June 28, U.S. forces have been attacked an average of 60 times a day, up 20 percent from the three-month period before the transfer of power on June 28; more troops have died in the months after the transfer of power than in the months just before. Condoleezza Rice admitted yesterday, "Not everything has gone as we would have liked it to." And in a press conference yesterday, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld acknowledged that the situation in Iraq is likely to get worse, not better, in the coming days. The efforts of American troops, the Wall Street Journal writes, have "been made all the harder by the hesitancy of their civilian leaders in the White House." (Americans can remember our fallen soldiers with a new, poignant exhibit, "Eyes Wide Open.")
President Bush's leadership in Iraq is often hesitant. This has huge ramifications for the war, as now, according to top Pentagon officials, insurgents are in control of crucial sections of central Iraq. According to the New York Times, the U.S. military has decided to pull out or stand back from many of these towns, even if that means the town will fall to rebels. "That certain Iraqis believe their cities and neighborhoods would be better off without American soldiers is neither new nor surprising; that is what the guerrillas' insurgency, now in its 17th month, is all about. What is new, however, is that the Americans, in certain cases, appear to agree or have decided that the cost to prove otherwise would be too high." As the WSJ writes, the hesitance in towns like Fallujah has set a terrible precedent, as "other Sunni towns like Ramadi and Samarra now appear to be slipping away from the control of legitimate authority, and Fallujah continues to serve as a haven for the terrorists and bomb-makers targeting American forces and Iraqi civilians."
The New York Times reports that the Bush administration, citing the need to use Iraqi troops, has decided to delay using force in retaking areas in Iraq which have been seized by the insurgents for a couple of months: a two-month hiatus "would also mean a delay until after the American presidential election." Jane's Defense Weekly reports, "a U.S. officer in Sadr City, a restive Shia area of Baghdad, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: 'We're supposed to turn our zones over to the [Iraqi government] by October. They're not ready for that, so unless it's a coincidence it seems politically driven – bearing in mind the presidential election in November...everything we do is driven by political considerations. We don't have enough forces to stay here. We move into Sadr City and then we leave and each time the Mahdi Army comes straight back in."
Another possible casualty of war: elections in Iraq. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan yesterday "warned that violence in Iraq could make it more difficult to create the conditions for successful elections in January 2005. Officials say there is increasing concern that "if significant parts of the Sunni areas cannot be secured by January, it may be impossible to hold a nationwide balloting that would be seen as legitimate. Putting off the elections, though, would infuriate Iraq's Shiite majority."
Vote for Us or Die
Speaking in Iowa yesterday, Vice President Cheney took fear mongering to a new level when he indicated that the United States risked suffering another terrorist attack if voters make "the wrong choice" in November. "It's absolutely essential that eight weeks from today, on November 2nd, we make the right choice," Cheney said, "because if we make the wrong choice then the danger is that we'll get hit again. We'll be hit in a way that will be devastating." In January, 2002, President Bush assured Americans he had "no ambition whatsoever to use [national security] as a political issue."
Madeleine Albright, former Secretary of State, weighed in on Cheney's comments: "I have heard a lot of outrageous statements at various times in my president's elections, but I think this kind of scare tactic by the vice president of the United States is irresponsible."
Last September, Vice President Dick Cheney appeared on national television and denied that he had any advance knowledge of or involvement in lucrative government contracts given to his former employer, Halliburton. Cheney said, "I have absolutely no influence of, involvement of, knowledge of in any way, shape or form of contracts led by the [Army] Corps of Engineers or anybody else in the Federal Government." But Cheney wasn't telling the truth. In a letter to the vice president on Sunday, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) reveals that the vice president's chief of staff, Lewis "Scooter" Libby "was briefed in October 2002 about the proposal to issue the November 11 task order [contract] to Halliburton."
Earlier this month, Time Magazine unearthed an e-mail which indicates that a $7 billion no-bid contract awarded to Halliburton on March 8, 2003 was "coordinated" with Cheney's office. Pentagon officials now acknowledge that Undersecretary of Defense Douglas J. Feith discussed the March 2003 Halliburton contract in advance with Cheney's office. But don't let Dick Cheney have all the fun. Check out Contractopoly -- the new interactive game from American Progress that lets you win billions in sweetheart deals from the Bush administration as you rebuild Iraq.
Feith, a political appointee, was given ultimate responsibility to award the 2002 "task order" contract. Ordinarily, contracting officers, not political appointees, make those decisions "to avoid any appearance of political influence in the outcome." Steven L. Schooner, a government contracting expert at George Washington University Law School, said, "The suggestion that political appointees would be directing that type of investigation does not seem consistent with maintaining the appearance of propriety."
An audit conducted by the Pentagon found "wide-spread deficiencies in the way Halliburton tracks billions of dollars of government contracts in Iraq and Kuwait, leading to 'significant' overcharges." According to the auditors, Halliburton failed "to follow the company's internal procedures or even to determine whether subcontractors had performed work." Earlier audits revealed Halliburton overcharged $27 million for meals and $61 million for gasoline.
Several former Halliburton employees "issued signed statements charging that the company routinely wasted money." According to David Wilson and James Warren, both of whom worked for Halliburton, "brand new $85,000 trucks were abandoned or 'torched' if they got a flat tire or experienced minor mechanical problems." Former Halliburton logistics specialist Marie deYoung has documentation proving "Halliburton paid $45 per case of soda and $100 per 15-pound bag of laundry." According to deYoung, "Halliburton did not comply with the Army's request to move Halliburton employees from a five-star hotel in Kuwait, where it costs taxpayers approximately $10,000 per day to house the employees." Michael West, who worked as a foreman for Halliburton, said "he and other employees spent weeks in Iraq with virtually nothing to do, but were instructed to bill 12-hour days for 7 days a week on their timesheets." Want more? Here's a long look at Halliburton and its numerous transgressions.
Despite the gravity of the allegations by the Halliburton employees, House Government Reform Chairman Tom Davis (R-VA) has refused to allow them to testify under oath during the committee's hearing on government contracting on Tuesday. Davis claims that "the committee staff needs more time to investigate their allegations." But Waxman notes that, in the past, "promises to investigate in the future have served to deflect criticism of the committee's inaction, but the actual investigations have not been pursued as vigorously as the circumstances warrant."
Tenet's departure comes shortly before the Senate Intelligence Committee is expected to release "a still-classified report that...[offers] a scathing assessment of the CIA's prewar intelligence on Iraq." At issue: the belief "that Iraq had chemical and biological weapons [which] provided the basis for the Bush administration's case for war." The core criticism of Tenet is that "he acquiesced to a White House that wanted a certain type of evidence in Iraq and was surprisingly less concerned about evidence that North Korea and Iran were making far more progress toward nuclear weapons than Mr. Hussein." In his resignation speech yesterday, Tenet acknowledged that his record during his seven years as director of the CIA was "not without flaws." Nevertheless, at times, Tenet "was a restraining influence on a White House that often seemed inclined to turn tips into facts, and theories into evidence."
Tenet's resignation comes as the CIA "has engaged in a continuing feud with the Pentagon over Defense officials' efforts to take over important intelligence work." Tensions between the CIA and the Pentagon have flared in recent days "over public accusations that Iraqi exile leader Ahmad Chalabi, a Pentagon favorite, had learned that the U.S. had broken secret Iranian codes and leaked the sensitive information to Iran." Yesterday Chalabi "accused Mr. Tenet of spreading groundless allegations about him" and "backing failed coup attempts against Saddam Hussein that caused the deaths of hundreds of Iraqis." While publicly striking more measured tones, "Pentagon officials privately suggested officials at the CIA...were using the Chalabi furor to mount a smear campaign against individuals in the Pentagon." Pentagon officials also "denied reports that the FBI was conducting lie-detector tests on Pentagon employees who might have disclosed intelligence to Mr. Chalabi" and "suggested these reports were put out by the CIA." It is possible that Tenet's departure "opens the way for the Pentagon to exercise even greater influence over intelligence work."
As the administration's national security apparatus falls into disarray, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice seems oblivious to the problems. Yesterday Rice insisted Bush "will one day rank alongside such towering pillars of 20th-century statecraft as President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill." The comparison to FDR and Churchill -- who forged strong international alliances -- stands in stark contrast to Bush's "go-it-alone approach to diplomacy that has strained U.S. alliances and divided world opinion rather than uniting it." Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN) acknowledged yesterday that, after three-and-a-half years of Bush statecraft, around the world, "Not many people agree with us or like us or, for that matter, are prepared to work with us."
In a massive blow to the stabilization effort, the head of the Iraqi Governing Council was assassinated in a bombing near a U.S. checkpoint in Baghdad today. "Abdel-Zahraa Othman, also known as Izzadine Saleem, was the second and highest-ranking member of the U.S.-appointed council to be assassinated. He was among four Iraqis killed in the blast." This is the latest development in a war hobbled by setbacks, a lack of strategy and rampant mismanagement. The death signifies that one year after the end of "major combat operations," the country is still beset by violence and instability.
New reports in The New Yorker and Newsweek allege the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison wasn't triggered by a handful of errant reservists; it was the direct result of decisions made all the way at the top, by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Newsweek reports, President "Bush, along with Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and Attorney General John Ashcroft, signed off on a secret system of detention and interrogation that opened the door" to the abuse. "It was an approach that they adopted to sidestep the historical safeguards of the Geneva Conventions, which protect the rights of detainees and prisoners of war." Specifically, Seymour Hersh writes, Rumsfeld, as part of his "long-standing desire to wrest control of America's clandestine and paramilitary operations from the CIA," approved a plan in Iraq which encouraged the "physical coercion and sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners in an effort to generate more intelligence."
The Pentagon has been quick to disavow the charges made by The New Yorker and Newsweek as part of a larger attempt to limit blame to low-level soldiers. But the denials are actually a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. Hill Columnist Joshua Marshall points out, if you read the official denial statement by Pentagon spokesman Larry Di Rita, "This is not a denial of anything. It's a classic non-denial denial -- a bunch of aggressive phrases strung together to sound like a denial without actually denying anything."
The latest case in point: the NYT reports, "About 100 high-ranking Iraqi prisoners held for months at a time in spartan conditions on the outskirts of Baghdad International Airport are being detained under a special chain of command, under conditions not subject to approval by the top American commander in Iraq." In this situation, so-called "high value detainees" have been held in strict solitary confinement "in small concrete cells without sunlight, according to a report by the International Committee of the Red Cross." The conditions have been described by the ICRC as "a violation of the Geneva Conventions, the international treaty that the Bush administration has said it regards as 'fully applicable' to all prisoners held by the United States in Iraq." According to the rules, American commander Ricardo S. Sanchez must give his approval to all prisoners held in solitary for more than 30 days. However, "on Sunday, a senior military officer said that statement did not apply to the prisoners being held at the airport, because 'we were not the authority' for the high-value detainees." The military was unable to say who was in charge, and the U.S. has taken no steps to call a halt to the procedure.
Coalition forces are locked in battle with radical Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr's militia in southern Iraq. The Washington Post reports, the fierce fighting is "presenting U.S. officials with a more serious political challenge than the insurgency's still potent strongholds farther north." The ongoing battle "reflects the U.S. strategy of squeezing Sadr militarily while allowing a group of local Shiite leaders to broker a deal, much as Sunni Muslim leaders did this month in the western city of Fallujah." The U.S., however, may want to use a different model of success; the LAT reports this morning that, in fact, the deal that ostensibly brought stability to Fallujah actually handed power over to the guerrillas. Instead of a coalition victory, "Fallujah is for all intents and purposes a rebel town" which serves as "an inspirational ground zero for anti-Western militants in the Middle East, the place that beat back the Marines."
For the very first time, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said on NBC's Meet the Press Sunday evidence that Iraq had mobile biological laboratories, a major claim in his presentation to the United Nations, was faulty. Powell said, "It turned out that the sourcing was inaccurate and wrong and in some cases, deliberately misleading...and for that, I am disappointed and I regret it." The NYT reports, "Taken with past admissions of error by the administration or its intelligence agencies, Mr. Powell's statement on Sunday leaves little room for the administration to argue that Mr. Hussein's stockpiles of unconventional weapons posed any real and imminent threat." (A State Department press aide tried to block the Powell from answering the question; Powell chastised her sharply and continued.) Powell's admission that his assertions were inaccurate provides "a sharp contrast to comments four months ago by Vice President Dick Cheney, who said the administration still believed that the trailers were part of a program of unconventional weapons, and added that he 'would deem that conclusive evidence' that Mr. Hussein in fact had such programs."
Two senators this weekend charged that the White House had made serious errors in the war in Iraq, resulting in a nation grappling with grave security issues. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) said on Meet the Press, "One [mistake] was the lack of sufficient troops there which allowed the looting to take place, which established kind of a lawless environment," as well as the fact that the U.S. didn't "make sufficient plans to turn over the government as quickly as possible." Sen. Biden concurred, saying, "As [McCain] pointed out, too few troops, looting, 850,000 tons of weapons left open, not able to guard them and then we went with too little legitimacy." An additional problem, said Biden, was the White House's inability to admit and fix existing problems: "They seem to be unwilling to acknowledge the mistakes made and trying to correct them."
Show Us the Videotape
There are new allegations that the abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq also occurred at Camp Delta in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Tarek Dergoul, a British prisoner freed from Guantanamo Bay last month, said that Camp Delta's punishment squad, called the Extreme Reaction Force (ERF), "pepper-sprayed me in the face, and I started vomiting. They pinned me down and attacked me, poking their fingers in my eyes, and forced my head into the toilet pan and flushed." Dergoul's description of his treatment was similar to three other British detainees -- Shafiq Rasul, Asif Iabal and Ruhal Ahmed -- released in March. The three alleged that, at Guantanamo, to be "ERFed" meant "being slammed against the floor wielding a riot shield, pinned to the ground and beaten up by five armed men." But there is no reason for speculation and allegation to continue. Dergoul also revealed that "every time the ERFs were deployed, a sixth team member recorded on digital video everything that happened." The Guantanamo spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Leon Sumpter, confirmed that "all ERF actions were filmed" and "are kept in an archive there." Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) said he "would demand that Rumsfeld must produce the videos this week."
According to government officials, the rules for prisoner treatment at Guantanamo Bay "forbid the kind of torture coming to light in Iraq." Officials do acknowledge that techniques at Guantanamo are designed to cause "disorientation, fatigue and stress" and put pressure on the "pride and ego" of the detainees. But Army Col. David McWilliams, spokesperson for the military command that runs Guantanamo, said the facility permits "no physical contact at all...our procedures prohibit us from disrobing for any reason at all." The only way to confirm McWilliams' claim: Release the videotape.
There have already been confirmed cases of prisoner abuse at Guantanamo Bay. Two guards "received administrative punishments for hitting a detainee with a radio and spraying a detainee with a hose." It has been confirmed that "eight soldiers had been punished by being demoted or given less serious administrative punishment for offenses ranging from humiliating detainees to physical assault." But according to Navy Inspector General Thomas Church, who briefly visited Guantanamo to review the treatment of detainees," there's more than eight." Army spokesman McWilliams claims the cases were not part of an interrogation strategy but "the misapplication of force...by a guard to a detainee's action." American Progress has called for the formation of an independent commission to investigate the charges of abuse at Guantanamo and other locations where the United States holds detainees.
Last week the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) "delivered the latest in a series of critical reports on treatment of prisoners held at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay." According to a State Department official who read the report, it is "'critical' of living conditions and interrogation techniques used on detainees at the base." Last October the ICRC said that conditions at the prison resulted in the "deterioration in the psychological health of a large number" of prisoners -- a contributing factor to the 32 suicide attempts that have occurred at the based. In January, their concerns about Guantanamo were so acute that ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger met privately with Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, Secretary of State Colin Powell and national security advisor Condoleezza Rice. According to Wolfowitz, "there are some serious issues between us and the Red Cross about Guantanamo...[but] they have nothing to do with the kinds of abuses that we've been hearing about in Iraq." The only way to confirm Wolfowitz's claim: Release the videotape.
According to Newsweek, "The appeal of Gitmo from the start was, in the view of administration lawyers, the base existed in a legal twilight zone -- or ' the legal equivalent of outer space.'" A memo written by White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales said "the war against terrorism is a new kind of war" and "this new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions." The administration has been adamant that prisoners at Guantanamo are not protected by the Geneva Conventions.