David Sirota, Christy Harvey and Judd Legum

Iraq Spins Out of Control

The mission in Iraq is far, far from accomplished.

A surge in deadly violence this weekend brought the bloodiest day in Iraq in recent months; suicide bombings, mortar fire and fierce battles between insurgents and U.S. and Iraqi security forces, including a firefight between an Iraqi crowd and a U.S. helicopter crew, killed dozens, leaving even more injured. Attacks against U.S. forces now average 87 per day, the worst monthly average, reports Newsweek, "since Bush's flight-suited visit to the USS Abraham Lincoln in May 2003." Casualty figures keep escalating: the U.S. death toll passed 1,000 last week and over 7,000 have been wounded. Secretary of State Colin Powell admitted this weekend, "We did miscalculate the difficulty" of winning the peace in Iraq.

In a significant setback for U.S. efforts in Iraq, Fallujah, one of the nation's biggest cities, is now entirely under the control of rebel insurgents. This weekend, the Iraqi military force put in place in the explosive city by the Marines disbanded. There is strong evidence that many members have been working with insurgents against the U.S. forces that provided them with weapons and paychecks. Last April, the White House withdrew Marine troops from the city, hoping the newly created Brigade would work with the Iraqi government to fight the insurgency. The city quickly fell under the control of the insurgents, as many in the Brigade openly joined the rebel forces against the United States. Today, the city is a safe haven for insurgents, a place to "take refuge, plot attacks and run manufacturing centers for car bombs and other explosives."

Lt. Gen. James Conway, the outgoing U.S. Marine Corps general in charge of western Iraq, said yesterday that he had disagreed with the hasty order that sent his troops to invade Fallujah in April as well as the subsequent decision to withdraw from the city and turn over control to the disloyal Brigade. Conway said the disastrous assault increased tensions while making the region more hostile to U.S. forces: "We felt like we had a method that we wanted to apply to Fallujah, that we ought to probably let the situation settle before we appeared to be attacking out of revenge." Instead, higher ups insisted on the attack, and then demanded troops pull out when the fighting grew fierce: "I would simply say that when you order elements of a Marine division to attack a city, you really need to understand the consequences of that, and not, perhaps, vacillate in the middle of that. Once you commit to do that, you have to stay committed." Marine Col. Jerry Durrant agrees: "The whole Fallujah Brigade thing was a fiasco."

Nineteen months after the invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration has failed to achieve significant reconstruction, contributing to the ongoing frustrations of the Iraqi people. According to Bathsheba Crocker, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, when it comes to economic opportunity, services, and social well-being, "Iraq is actually moving backward." The Los Angeles Times reports the job of restoring electricity to war-torn Iraq is "steeped in errors and misjudgment." Electricity for Iraqis was central to White House reconstruction plans, but today, Iraq's largest source of electricity, the Baiji power plant, "produces less than half the electricity it generated" two years ago. Why is the country still in the dark? Lack of planning, inconsistent leadership and an over-reliance on private contractors. The Bush administration "vastly underestimated the time, money and effort needed to restore the country's power grid." It's indicative of the failures of the entire reconstruction process, still marked by "tainted water supplies, limited sewage treatment and curtailed construction of public buildings." The ongoing failure has dire ramifications for the unstable security situation, producing "a deep reservoir of confusion and anger that feeds the country's deadly insurgency."

The increased violence has serious ramifications for the scheduled elections. "We're dealing with a population that hovers between bare tolerance and outright hostility," says a senior U.S. diplomat in Baghdad. "This idea of a functioning democracy here is crazy. We thought that there would be a reprieve after sovereignty, but all hell is breaking loose." The Bush White House is blithely insisting elections will occur in January as planned. Security concerns, however, have left others less confident. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright stated this weekend on Meet the Press that "It would be lovely if they took place in January, but I sure don't see it." Iraqi officials are also increasingly skeptical. One senior Iraqi official told Newsweek, "I'm convinced that it's not going to happen. It's just not realistic. How is it going to happen?" Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari echoed that thought, saying, "The timetable really depends at the end of the day on the security situation."

Some worry that the Bush administration, desperate to avoid the appearance of yet another setback, will stick to the schedule despite ongoing problems. Ghassan Atiyya, director of the independent Iraq Foundation for Development and Democracy, warns, "Badly prepared elections, rather than healing wounds, will open them."

Wal-Mart Welfare

A new report [PDF] released from Good Jobs First this week shows that Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, has received more than $1 billion in economic development subsidies from states for its stores and distribution centers. The subsidies have come as many states are forced by White House tax cuts and reductions in federal grants to make tough budget decisions. A report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows states are cutting subsidies for publicly funded health insurance, child care, federal employment, both higher and lower education, and programs aimed at public safety and people with disabilities -- all this while ponying up taxpayer dollars to subsidize a retailer that took in more than $200 billion in revenue and netted nearly $9 billion in profits last year, even as it paid workers near-poverty wages, drove out local businesses and violated environmental regulations.

A key justification for corporate subsidies is the idea that a large project will expand overall business in an area; Wal-Mart executives tout their stores as a positive economic force in the community. But the Good Jobs First report argues that, unlike factories which add jobs and export products outside the region, big chain retailers like Wal-Mart "do little more than take revenues away from existing merchants and may put them out of business and leave their workers unemployed. It's quite possible that a new Wal-Mart will destroy as many (or more) jobs than it creates." And "since many Wal-Mart [jobs] are lower-paying and part-time, they will do less to stimulate the economy." Philip Mattera, research director of Good Jobs First, says Wal-Mart's "negative effect on small businesses in the communities where it locates and its contribution to urban sprawl and traffic raise serious questions about the value of giving it sizable financial incentives to expand."

A new USAction report highlights Wal-Mart as a leading advocate for new legislation "designed to kill the use of class action lawsuits, which have resulted in decisions that...provide refunds to consumers and others injured by corporate wrongdoing." The legislation would move class action lawsuits out of state courts, where they have been historically more likely to be successful, and into "defendant-friendly federal courts." The reason Wal-Mart is so excited about the legislation? According to legal analysts, "Wal-Mart is sued more often than any American entity except the U.S. government." The report points out courts in four states have recently certified class action lawsuits involving over 330,000 workers. "By contrast, three federal courts have declined to certify class actions against Wal-Mart for unpaid worker hours." The company's effort to stop workers from challenging their abuses has at least one high-profile backer: Vice President Dick Cheney. In a visit to Wal-Mart's headquarters last month, he trumpeted "litigation reform" as the way to cure America's economic ills.

The Chicago Tribune reports the Windy City has become the newest front "in a sprawling North American struggle between a behemoth company and a union fearful for its future." As Wal-Mart spokespersons take to the streets to convince Chicagoans that two new stores will "'raise the standard of living' for Chicago's working class," a loose coalition of local aldermen and organized labor is "calling up all available manpower to make its case before the City Council's expected decision Wednesday on whether to grant zoning approvals to Wal-Mart for the stores." The 1.3 million-member United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW) is leading the battle, charging "the retailer's low-wage ways will encourage other businesses to follow suit, to the detriment of millions of workers, both union and non-union." The UFCW's fears are justified: in Southern California, the news that 40 Wal-Mart superstores would be opening in the area caused a Supermarket Strike when three chains announced they "had no choice but to cut pay and benefits drastically."

The UFCW, Commercial Workers Union and other Wal-Mart critics in Chicago have presented Wal-Mart with a Community Benefits Agreement that would legally bind the corporation to a dozen demands, under penalty of fines. The demands include "Allowing employees to form a union and agreeing to permanently forgo tax breaks or other government subsidies in Chicago," as detailed in the Good Jobs First Report. So far, Wal-Mart executives have refused to sign.

Bush Speech Widens the Reality Gap

bushFacing polls which show Americans have lost confidence in his ability to manage the crisis in Iraq, President Bush delivered the first in a series of speeches to respond to growing criticism. He offered not one new policy proposal. One administration official acknowledged the growing credibility gap on Iraq, saying the president's speech was needed to dispel "this idea that we don't know what we're doing." But the post-speech headlines reflected just how far the president was from laying out a clear vision: Newsday headlined, "Bush: More of the Same," the Boston Globe pointed out "Bush's Reality Gap" and the Houston Chronicle noted "Iraqi Leaders Say They're Dissatisfied With Post-Occupation Plan." Bush "did not provide the midcourse correction that even some Republicans had called for in the face of increasingly macabre violence." He also did not "try to answer some of the looming questions that have triggered growing skepticism and anxiety at home and abroad about the final U.S. costs, the final length of stay for U.S. troops, or what the terms will be for a final U.S. exit from Iraq." Instead, he "basically repackaged stalled U.S. policy as a five-step plan." While President Bush does not have a plan for Iraq, American Progress does: see our Strategy for Progress in Iraq.

With $166 billion already spent, the speech provided no answers about how much the war will ultimately cost Americans. As senior appropriator Rep. David Obey (D-WI) noted, by the end of this year, "we will have spent on Iraq more than the United States spent on World War I, and that's after it's adjusted for inflation." Instead of fessing up to this reality, the president trumpeted the fact that Iraqi oil revenues had reached $6 billion, expecting Americans to forget that before the war, the administration told Congress Iraq's oil revenues would bring in "between $50 and $100 billion" in the first two to three years, and that Iraq "can really finance its own reconstruction." The president also provided no justification for why he is pushing $1 trillion in new tax cuts at the same time he wants Congress to increase the national debt to finance more spending on the war. According to the LA Times' Ron Brownstein, the Bush cut-taxes-and-war-spend policy is the first of its kind in American history: Every president since Lincoln who faced a major war asked the country to sacrifice by paying more taxes. Brownstein asks: "If Iraq is important enough to bleed for, isn't it important enough to pay for?"

Addressing the burgeoning prison abuse scandal, the president said the eventual replacement of the Abu Ghraib prison with a new, U.S.-funded maximum security prison would put the entire controversy to rest. Ignoring the fact that American maximum security prisons are renowned for their poor conditions, the proposal did not modify administration-approved policies that may have led to the Abu Ghraib abuses in the first place. Nor did Bush follow through on pledges to enforce "personal responsibility" and fire senior Pentagon officials. As the NYT reported, in December the administration sent a letter to the Red Cross emphasizing the "military necessity" of isolating and mistreating some inmates at the prison for interrogation. Similarly, Newsweek reported that "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. For a plan to restore American credibility in the wake of the prison scandal check out this American Progress report.

The president claimed the coalition "has a clear goal, understood by all" -- an implication that the U.S. has broad support among the Iraqi people. But Slate's William Saletan points out, even before the prison scandal, "the most reliable Iraqi poll (to which his own Coalition Provisional Authority submitted questions) found that most Iraqis want coalition soldiers to get out." USA Today confirms, " American credibility in Iraq may be at its lowest point since the war began," with "much of the trust desired and needed for a smooth transition" being "replaced by cynicism." According to a nationwide poll by the Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies, whereas six months ago only 1% of Iraqis supported cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his insurgency against American troops, 68% now say they support him.

The President promised that on June 30, "the occupation will end, and Iraqis will govern their own affairs" -- but offered no details as to whom the U.S. would transfer power, and did not mention that there would be "severe limits" on the new government's sovereignty, including "no authority to enact new laws." He also said that "a force of 260,000 Iraqi soldiers, police, and other security personnel" will be able to secure the country -- ignoring the fact that these same forces "are suffering from inadequate training, poor pay, equipment shortages and a serious lack of public support." He said that "we want the Iraqi people to know that we trust their growing [security] capabilities" -- but failed to mention that American forces will continue to assume full responsibility and that Iraqi generals will be forced to serve under an American general.

One of the key points in the president's speech was his promise to "encourage more international support" and attract more international military help. But only moments after that promise, he tried to revise history, claiming "at every stage, the United States has gone to the United Nations to confront Saddam Hussein." The reality is, after promising to hold a U.N. vote on military action against Iraq, he reversed himself, and refused to hold a vote. Now the White House is circulating a new U.N. resolution that was "disappointingly sketchy" on how to internationalize the military operation, and would fail to "commit the Security Council to do anything in particular." While it might be easier to secure more multinational forces by giving the U.N. more control in decisions, that "possibility was ruled out" by the Bush Administration. You can find complete American Progress coverage on Iraq here.

How Far the Mighty Have Fallen

The raids on the residence and offices of Ahmad Chalabi mark the end of warm relations between the former exile and the Bush administration. The genie, however, may not be so easy to return to the bottle. After years of giving Chalabi power, money and influence, he reigns over a web of control "that stretches from the oil industry to the banking system to the purges of former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party."

Analysts say that "unless the Bush administration moves to dismantle his empire, Chalabi will continue controlling much of Iraq's politics from behind the scenes, and he could seriously disrupt American plans for turning over nominal sovereignty to a new Iraqi government on June 30." The fall of the darling of the right from leader of a free Iraq to embarrassing liability is another black eye for the Pentagon, which built its case for war based on unreliable and self-serving intelligence it received from Chalabi. The White House planned for massive stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction; a war which would pay for itself; a small postwar stabilization force; and a population ready to welcome American troops as liberators.

Ahmad Chalabi responded to being jilted by his American protectors with agitated outrage, biting the hand that has fed him so long for so well. Speaking at a press conference after the raid on his complex, "Chalabi said his relationship with the Coalition Provisional Authority 'now is non-existent.'" He also ominously predicted, "If America treats its friends this way, then they are in big trouble."

Friday's papers point to a pivotal moment that pulled the wool from many U.S. officials' eyes. Chalabi had convinced his backers that he would be able to rally large numbers of Iraqis into taking up the sword against Saddam. In 1998, he convinced backers like Trent Lott (R-MS) and Jesse Helms to shove the Iraq Liberation Fund through Congress, which then poured millions into his group, ostensibly to encourage mass defections from Saddam's armies and take control of the country. That never happened, but a year ago, "as U.S. troops swept toward Baghdad, Ahmad Chalabi and about 400 hastily assembled fighters were secretly airlifted into southern Iraq to rally other Iraqis and begin a march toward Baghdad to help topple Saddam Hussein. Chalabi had predicted that he would become Iraq's Spartacus, mobilizing vast numbers behind him, according to U.S. officials." That's not what happened. "Instead of being the warrior-king who liberated town after town, 'he was jeered more than cheered. Iraqis were shouting him down. It was embarrassing,'" said another U.S. official. "We had to help bail him out." Even with this evidence that Chalabi was unable to rally the Iraqis, the White House threw good money after bad and continued to fund him to the tune of $340,000 a month until last week.

Conservatives were quick to seize on Chalabi as the hope of the future. Sens. Trent Lott (R-MS) and Joseph Lieberman (D-CT), as well as "Sen. Sam Brownback and David Schieffer, the [then] ambassador at large for war crimes," all "pledged their support" at a 1999 Iraqi National Congress summit in New York. Time Magazine wrote on 11/8/99 that Lott claimed, "I have repeatedly stated that the Iraqi National Congress has been effective in the past and can be effective in the future." And according to a 10/20/98 WP article, in 1998, Sen. Trent Lott called the legislation which poured money into INC coffers for an Iraqi revolution 'a major step forward in the final conclusion of the Persian Gulf War." (Nonsense, said Middle East analyst Kenneth Pollack at the time. "I think it would be a bloodbath...It would be criminal for the U.S. to go ahead and back these people...I think the legislation is idiotic.")

Perhaps Ahmad Chalabi's largest backer was senior Pentagon adviser Richard Perle, a major advocate of going to war with Iraq. Instead of admitting the egregious error in handing this power-mad exile so much money and power, Perle defended him to the end, even taking a swipe at the United States. Yesterday, Perle said, "The CIA despises Chalabi; the State Department despises him. They did everything they could to put him out of business. Now there is a deliberate effort to marginalize him." Perle added, "He has devoted his life to freeing his country...He is a man of enormous intelligence, and I believe the effort to marginalize him will fail. They will end up looking ridiculous."

The WSJ reports, "Recent intelligence, including communications intercepts, suggest Chalabi...provided contacts in Tehran with details of U.S. security operations and political plans, the officials said." As the rest of the squalid Chalabi story unfolds, here's the question to ask: How did Chalabi get the top secret information in the first place? The FBI is investigating, but their main interstest "is not in Chalabi," said an FBI official. "Our interest is in how he got the information" that he allegedly gave to Iran. "He wasn't privy to information about our operatives and I don't think we'd trust the guy with the kind of secrets that would get our people killed," he said.

Passing Problems to States

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities today released a report analyzing how the Bush administration's federal policies have affected state budgets -- and the findings are not pretty. All told, states have faced $190 billion in deficits over the past three years, and this year face another $40 billion hole. Of that budget gap, $175 billion has been the direct result of federal policies, including the White House's refusal to fully fund federal mandates like the No Child Left Behind Act and its elimination of various taxes on the wealthy which states rely on for revenue. Make sure to see the report's state-by-state section, detailing how federal policies have affected where you live.

An analysis by the Urban Institute-Brookings Tax Policy Center shows that two-thirds of the Bush tax cuts this year are going to the top fifth of the population, while at the same time, many states have been forced to raise taxes and fees that disproportionately hit the middle class. Under President Bush, states have raised taxes by a total of $14.5 billion, after seven consecutive years of cutting taxes -- all while cutting key health care and education services for the middle class.

The refusal to fully fund the No Child Left Behind Act, special education and other programs has left states facing a $72 billion unfunded mandate. The president tried to defend that underfunding in a visit to Arkansas yesterday, but the local statistics there are grim: Because the president has not fully funded his own education bill, more than 12,000 disadvantaged children from the area Bush visited in Arkansas (the 3rd district) will be left out of Title I assistance, and more than 6,000 will not be able to enroll in the Head Start program. While Bush told the Arkansas audience that he "understands that people need extra help" with education and that "the federal government is responding," his budget leaves a total of 60,000 disadvantaged Arkansas kids out of Title I assistance this year. Meanwhile, Bush's federal policies drain more than $1 billion from the state's revenues. See a congressional district-by-district breakdown of how the White House's underfunding of education affects your area.

The one-two punch of underfunding education and the federal revenue siphon is reverberating in other states across America: In Kentucky, where Bush policies have meant more than $2 billion less in state revenues, the legislature is considering massive cuts to technical colleges. In California, where Bush policies have reduced revenues by more than $23 billion, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) is considering major cuts to higher education. And in Mississippi, where Bush policies have drained $1.8 billion from state revenues (more than 10 percent of the entire state's budget), the legislature recently completed a budget that local newspapers note "leaves deep cuts in many agency budgets, including K-12 education."

The CBPP report also points out that the administration's refusal to enact a serious prescription drug benefit and to address the burgeoning health care crisis is squeezing state Medicaid budgets. States are now spending about $28 billion to provide medicines to low-income elderly. A new report by the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that state, local and federal governments are absorbing $34.6 billion in costs to cover medical care for the uninsured, in the absence of a serious national health care program.

Dubious Celebration

Today is Earth Day and millions of Americans will celebrate by doing something to improve the environment -- cleaning up trash in a local park, planting a tree, or making their home more energy efficient. Meanwhile, the Bush administration will celebrate Earth Day by inviting oil-industry officials to the Environmental Protection Agency to discuss a plan to relax pollution standards for gasoline. The plan would allow higher sulfur content gasoline to be sold during the summer months. According to Frank O'Donnell of Clean Air Trust "because sulfur is a prime contributor to both urban smog and soot, it could also result in an increase in health problems." That is a large price to pay for a plan that would only temporarily "trim oil prices by as much as a nickel a gallon" -- and not necessarily in all markets.

Also on the Earth Day agenda: the administration is pushing to exempt the Defense Department from "the Clean Air Act and from hazardous waste laws at thousands of firing and bombing ranges nationwide." If Congress grants the exemption, "state and federal authorities would be helpless to prevent more perchlorate contamination in Southern California drinking water" and other locations across the nation. The move would also make it harder to purify water supplies after they became contaminated because it would "make it more difficult for local governments to obtain reimbursements either from the Pentagon or local defense contractors." As a result, cash-strapped states would have to try to scrape together cash for cleanups.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is making Earth Day news in California. While a candidate, Governor Schwarzenegger responded to environmental critics by promising to retrofit one of his six "gas-swilling Hummers to run on eco-friendly hydrogen power." Seven months after the promise, " the high tech Hummer has yet to hit the road." David Caldwell, a Hummer spokesman, said the hydrogen Hummer is "not something that exists currently. It's not something you would expect to see in the near future." Caldwell added ominously: "We would never do a Hummer on any energy source that would not perform like a Hummer is supposed to perform." The latest version of the Hummer weighs 6400 pounds and gets 8 to 10 miles per gallon. Gov. Schwarzenegger has also yet to produce a strategy to meet his promise to reduce California air pollution by 50 percent. Meanwhile, the Bush administration pushed through a tax break actually giving consumers an incentive to buy bigger, more fuel-inefficient cars, according to the Washington Post.

Think you are not getting the straight story from the left? Just want the straight facts about the environment? Here's what you'll get from the right: Edwin J. Feulner, President of the Heritage Foundation, in a piece cleverly entitled " Down to Earth Day," comes to the stunning conclusion that cars "helped...clear our air." Feulner chides his readers "not [to] forget what autos replaced: horses." If not for cars, our streets would be "filled with manure." Also, "horses required tons of hay, which meant thousands of acres of farmland were needed to grow food for animal use, not human consumption." Another benefit: "cars enabled people to move out of crowded cities into suburbs where they are in closer contact with nature."

One Giant Step Back for Mankind

A Giant Step Back
The NYT Magazine's cover story this week details how the Bush Administration, through subtle regulatory changes, scuttled what would have been "one of the greatest advances in clean air in the nation's history." In 1977, Congress passed an amendment to the Clean Air Act requiring older power plants to use the best available pollution-control technology when they upgraded their plants. The industry has flouted the requirement for years but in the late 1990s "E.P.A. investigators had caught them breaking the law" and filed suit against a number of large power companies. The violations have profound implications on public health - "researchers estimate that fine-particulate pollution from power plants shortens the lives of more than 30,000 Americans every year." As the Bush Administration took office, "the power companies were on the verge of signing agreements to clean up their plants." But the White House immediately went to work drafting new rules and the power companies "lost their incentives to cut deals." Eventually, the Administration settled on rules allowing companies to spend up to 20% of a plant's replacement cost without triggering the requirement to install pollution control equipment. The regulations set the threshold "so high that pollution-control requirements would almost never come into effect." After the new threshold was set, "investigation into 70 companies suspected of violations of the clean air act were abandoned" and the agency decided to "newly 'evaluate' and perhaps choose not to pursue, existing...investigations."

THE PRICE OF ENVIRONMENTAL ROLLBACKS:
Executives of companies that ran afoul of the Clean Air Act before the Bush Administration's revisions were major contributors to the President. FirstEnergy President Anthony Alexander, Reliant Resources CEO Steve Letbetter and Reliant's Chairman Don Jordan, whose companies were sued by the EPA, were Pioneers on Bush's 2000 campaign -- meaning they raised at least $100,000. Six other Pioneers were lawyers or lobbyists for companies sued by the EPA for failing to install pollution-control technology in their power plants. Author Lisa Heinzerling writes the Administration is creating an environment of deception when it comes to the environment.

CONSERVATIVE STRATEGY - IGNORE THE PROBLEM:
In February 2004, conservative leaders in Congress sent an email to all House Republicans advising them on what to say about the environment in the months ahead. The email directs members to say "global warming has not been proved, air quality is 'getting better,' the world's forests are 'spreading, not deadening,' oil reserves are 'increasing, not decreasing' and the 'world's water is cleaner and reaching more people.'" The claims are "supported" by circumspect research bankrolled by industry. The email's Pollyannaish attitude towards the nation's environmental problems has drawn bi-partisan criticism. Rep. Mike Castle (R-DE) criticized the email for ignoring "the fact that pollution continues to be a health threat," and said "if I tried to follow these talking points at a town hall meeting with my constituents, I'd be booed." Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-VT) said the memo was "'outlandish' and an attempt to deceive voters."

BI-PARTISAN CONSENSUS - ADMINISTRATION'S MERCURY PROPOSAL INADEQUATE:
The Bush Administration's backtracking on regulations to reduce dangerous mercury emissions from power plants is meeting widespread disapproval. 45 U.S. Senators -- including seven Republicans -- wrote a letter expressing their concern to EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt. The group, which included such stalwart conservatives as Sen. Judd Gregg (R-NH) and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), wrote that Leavitt's mercury proposals "fall far short of what the law requires, and they fail to protect the health of our children and the environment." The Senators were joined on the letter by attorneys general from 10 states.

Drug Cards Dissected

The government announced yesterday the names of the 28 private companies picked to provide prescription drug cards to Medicare recipients beginning this June. The prescription cards purport to provide seniors with discounts on their medications. However, no such discount is guaranteed, and the legislation may help pharmaceutical and insurance companies a lot more than the elderly. Little wonder: Remember, the legislation was crafted by the head of one of the companies chosen to provide the card, Bush crony and AdvancePCS chief David Halbert. The 28 private companies, also including such heavy hitters as United Healthcare, Caremark, Aetna, and Express Scripts along with AdvancePCS, worked hard to ensure the law would be in their favor. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the top groups donated well over $150,000 directly to President Bush and Congress since 2000 and Aetna, United Healthcare and Wellpoint alone have spent over $3.25 million to lobby for their interests. See this American Progress examination of how privatization threatens Medicare.

So who are these companies the White House is entrusting with caring for the nation's seniors? One is Medco, a company which has faced lawsuits over market manipulation in the past for "failing to disclose the extent of their financial ties with manufacturers." AdvancePCS, a company in which President Bush himself was an original investor, was sued last year, accused of "not only 'illicitly diverting' seniors from its drug-discount plan, but of actually putting them at risk for potentially dangerous drug interactions." Both were listed in a federal lawsuit along with Caremark and Express Scripts for engaging in "anti-competitive practices" which harmed pharmacies, for entering into "secret deals with drug manufacturers...in return for 'kickbacks' and other 'undisclosed incentives.'"

So where has the AARP been during all of this? Although the AARP is ostensibly a group dedicated to protecting the rights of seniors, the group shocked its members when it supported the drug legislation last November. Now it turns out there may have been a financial windfall in play: AARP is affiliated with -- and receives "marketing royalties" from -- United Health Care, one of the major companies the Administration included in the drug card program.

The theory behind the discount cards is that companies "will have greater bargaining power with drug makers" the more they enroll Medicare beneficiaries. But why use a middle man? Bowing to pressure from the powerful pharmaceutical lobby, which feared for its bottom line, Congress specifically banned Medicare from using bulk purchasing power to negotiate lower prices. Instead, the Medicare population was splintered into these smaller groups run by private companies, thus giving them considerably less influence.

The law does not require the drug card companies to pass the savings along to customers instead of keeping profits for themselves. They don't even have to guarantee a specific level of savings for seniors. And drug companies have gone out of their way this past year to ensure their profits will stay nice and fat: The Wall Street Journal reports companies jacked up prices for drugs most popular with the elderly "nearly 3.5 times faster on average than overall inflation" in the past year since the cards were announced, already eroding any potential savings. Sen. Tom Daschle (D-SD) is trying to ensure seniors get some of the discount; he introduced a bill yesterday which would guarantee that beneficiaries receive at least 90% of any discounts.

Another massive problem with the cards: Seniors are locked into only one card. However, card companies have much more flexibility and aren't required to return the loyalty to clients. Right now, companies are allowed to change the list of drugs they offer every seven days, as well as the size of the discounts, and there is no oversight mechanism in place to stop that from happening. Ron Pollack, of the watchdog group Families USA, fears cards will offer giant savings on popular medicines, then, after seniors sign up, greatly reduce the savings or stop covering the drug altogether. "The potential for bait-and-switch is enormous."

Analyzing the Testimony

In testimony before the 9/11 commission yesterday, top officials from the Clinton and Bush Administrations testified about their counterterrorism policies. The facts that emerged -- both through testimony and two preliminary reports released by the commission -- largely confirm the charges made by the Bush Administration's former chief counterterrorism advisor, Richard Clarke. Though buried beneath an avalanche of doublespeak and word parsing, yesterday's hearing revealed that the Bush Administration subordinated the threat of terrorism prior to 9/11 and, even immediately after the attacks, continued to focus obsessively on Iraq.

The Administration's talking point on its pre-9/11 policy, repeated by Secretary of State Colin Powell before the committee yesterday, was "we wanted to move beyond the rollback policy of containment, criminal prosecution and limited retaliation for specific terrorist attacks. We wanted to destroy al Qaeda." National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan have made nearly identical statements. The language is undoubtedly designed to give the impression that top officials in the Bush Administration wanted to be more aggressive than Richard Clarke, who presented the Administration plans to aggressively target al Qaeda. But the Administration's actual plan, according to a report released by the 9/11 commission yesterday, was quite meek.

After eight months of intermittent deliberations, subordinate officials in the Bush Administration's National Security Council ("the Deputies") determined that the appropriate first step was " dispatching an envoy to give the Taliban an opportunity to expel bin Laden and his organization." Only if that failed would "pressure...be applied on the Taliban" diplomatically and the Administration would begin to encourage "anti-Taliban attack[s] on al Qaeda bases." Only if both of those strategies failed would the Administration consider "more direct action." According to Stephen Hadley, the Deputy National Security Adviser, "the timeframe for this strategy was about three years." In other words, had 9/11 not focused the Administration's attention on the problem, the Bush team wouldn't have taken aggressive action.

The White House yesterday claimed it was preparing to apply serious pressure to the Taliban in 2001. But that contrasts with its plan in May of 2001 to give "$43 million in drought aid to Afghanistan after the Taliban began a campaign against poppy growers." As the May 29, 2001 edition of Newsday noted, the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan "are a decidedly odd choice for an outright gift of $43 million from the Bush Administration. This is the same government against which the United Nation imposes sanctions, at the behest of the United States, for refusing to turn over the terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden."

Despite all evidence pointing to al Qaeda and bin Laden as behind the 9/11 attacks, just as Dick Clarke asserted, the Administration immediately discussed invading Iraq after 9/11. Powell testified that on September 15, 2001, "Iraq was discussed, and Secretary Wolfowitz raised the issue of whether or not Iraq should be considered for action during this time." According to Powell, the President said, "first things first...we'll start with Afghanistan." Powell could not rule out the possibility that Wolfowitz suggested attacking Iraq "instead of Afghanistan."

Condoleezza Rice, despite discussing the issue repeatedly on all five morning talk shows, refuses to testify publicly before the committee about the Administration's terrorism policy. She claims that presidential advisers can't appear before Congress because of separation-of-powers concerns. But her argument does not withstand scrutiny. First, the 9/11 commission is not a congressional committee, but an independent committee, signed into law by the stroke of the President's pen. But even setting that aside, according to commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste, a April 5, 2002 Congressional Research Service report shows there are "many precedents involving presidential advisers" testifying before congressional committees. The report reveals that Lloyd Cutler, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Samuel Berger and even American Progress CEO John Podesta appeared before congressional committees while serving as advisors to Presidents.

With counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke set to testify before the 9/11 commission today, President Bush defended himself against well-documented charges of negligence before 9/11, saying, "Had my administration had any information that terrorists were going to attack New York City on September the 11th, we would have acted." While there may have been no information pinpointing the terror attacks to an exact day or location, Bush's statement glosses over the fact that he received repeated warnings before 9/11 that an Al Qaeda attack was imminent. For instance, the President received a CIA warning on August 6, 2001, headlined, "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S." noting the "plot could include the hijacking of an American airplane." Additionally, the White House was warned in July of 2001 that Al Qaeda had considered using hijacked airliners as missiles. The Vice President himself even admitted this, saying five days after 9/11 that "there had been information coming in that a big operation was planned."

Yet despite these warnings, the Administration deemphasized counterterrorism; never once convened its own counterterrorism task force; threatened to veto bills diverting national missile defense funds into counterterrorism; delayed arming the unmanned Predator drone flying over Afghanistan; terminated "a highly classified program to monitor Al Qaeda suspects in the United States"; and downgraded Clarke's counterterrorism office within the White House.

White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan on Tuesday was asked about Clarke's charges that "the President was directing the Pentagon to prepare plans for the invasion of Iraq." He responded, "that's part of his revisionist history." The reporter then asked, "Are you saying it's not true?" McClellan again responded, "Yes, that's right. I am. That's just his revisionist history to make suggestions like that." This denial was echoed by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice as well. But according to the January 12, 2003 Washington Post (which quotes senior Administration officials) "six days after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, President Bush signed a 2-and-a-half-page document marked 'TOP SECRET'" that "directed the Pentagon to begin planning military options for an invasion of Iraq." This is corroborated by a CBS News, which reported on September 4, 2002 that five hours after the 9/11 attacks, "Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was telling his aides to come up with plans for striking Iraq." And it is consistent with the President's thinking. As he said immediately after the attacks, "I believe Iraq was involved" and Iraq "probably was behind this in the end" -- despite having no proof and being told that was not the case.

The White House has brushed aside Clarke's charges -- and hard evidence -- that it was downgrading and defunding counterterrorism in the lead-up to 9/11, claiming that it really was focused on fighting terrorism. But President Bush himself essentially conceded Clarke's point when he told Bob Woodward, "I was not on point" in fighting terrorism before 9/11, and "I didn't feel the sense of urgency" about terrorism before 9/11, despite receiving repeated warnings.

The White House has also claimed that Clarke withheld publishing his book until now in order to maximize its effect on the Presidential election. But as Clarke noted on the Today Show yesterday, "This book could've been published three months ago if the White House had let it. The White House sat on this book for three months as part of their security review of the text, and now blame me that it's coming out in March. The book could have been out in December, which is what I wanted to do. I'm not trying to put it in the middle of the election. They put it in the middle of the election." The White House has also claimed Clarke has partisan motivations for releasing his book, despite the fact he is a registered Republican, was originally appointed by President Ronald Reagan, and served under three Republican Presidents.

White House Tailspin

One day after counterterrorism expert Richard Clarke's well-documented criticism of the Bush Administration's lackadaisical attitude towards terrorism, the White House is deploying top officials in a vicious barrage of personal attacks on a man with 30 years of public service under four presidents. The attacks reveal the vicious tactics this Administration uses to intimidate and threaten truth-tellers, but is so filled with inconsistencies, contradictions and lies that it actually bolsters Clarke's credibility.

As Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE) said, "This is a serious book written by a serious professional who's made serious charges, and the White House must respond to these charges" -- something that, despite the personal attacks, the White House has not yet done. See American Progress's full rundown of the Administration's distortions yesterday, and internal Justice Department/FBI documents substantiating Clarke's claims.

National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice claimed that Clarke "chose not to" voice his concerns about the Administration's counterterrorism policy, or lack thereof. But the White House itself acknowledges Clarke sent a memo to Rice on January 24, 2001 marked "urgent" asking for a Cabinet-level meeting to deal with an impending al Qaeda attack, and that top officials rejected Clarke's request, saying they "did not need to have a formal meeting to discuss the threat." Of course, Rice is the same person who denied ever being warned about putting the false uranium claim into the 2003 State of the Union Speech. When her dishonesty was exposed, she claimed, " I either didn't see the memo [or] I don't remember seeing the memo" from the CIA.

Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley -- the same man who ignored CIA orders to remove false uranium claims from the President's pre-war State of the Union -- defended the Administration by saying, "All the chatter [before 9/11] was of an attack, a potential Al Qaeda attack overseas." But according to page 204 of the bipartisan 9/11 congressional report, "In May 2001, the intelligence community obtained a report that Bin Laden supporters were planning to infiltrate the United States" to "carry out a terrorist operation using high explosives." The report "was included in an intelligence report for senior government officials in August [2001]." In the same month, the Pentagon found out that bin Laden associates "had departed various locations for Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States."

On Fox's Hannity and Colmes, Bush National Security spokesman Jim Wilkinson called Clarke's accusations a "work of fiction," and said the Bush Administration was focused on terror before 9/11. As proof, he claimed "it was this president who expedited the deployment of the armed Predator" (the unmanned plane). But according to Newsweek, it was the Bush Administration which "elected not to relaunch the Predator" and threatened to veto the defense bill if it "diverted $800 million from missile defense into counterterrorism" programs like the Predator. As a result, AP reports, "though Predator drones spotted Osama bin Laden as many as three times in late 2000, the Bush administration did not fly the unmanned planes over Afghanistan during its first eight months." While "the military successfully tested an armed Predator throughout the first half of 2001," the Bush Administration failed to resolve a bureaucratic "debate over whether the CIA or Pentagon should operate" the system, and it did not get off the ground before 9/11.

One of the most odious charges from the White House yesterday was that Clarke was personally responsible for all previous al Qaeda attacks against America. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice -- who oversaw the worst national security failure in American history and yet refuses to testify publicly about it -- said, "what's very interesting is that, of course, Dick Clarke was the counterterrorism czar in 1998 when the embassies were bombed. He was the counterterrorism czar in 2000 when the Cole was bombed. He was the counterterrorism czar for a period of the '90s when al Qaeda was strengthening and when the plots that ended up in September 11 were being hatched." Vice President Cheney echoed the very same criticism on Rush Limbaugh's radio show. Rice and Cheney conveniently ignored the President's own "buck stops here" declaration and desire for a "culture of personal responsibility": Both refused to mention that they were Clarke's bosses in the lead up to 9/11, and that they ignored Clarke's repeated efforts to get the Administration to take terrorism more seriously. They also failed to elucidate why, if Clarke's record was so terrible, they called him an "outstanding public servant" and decided to keep him on board at the White House.

Top Bush officials claimed Clarke's criticism was not credible because, as Vice President Cheney said, Clarke " was out of the loop" after the White House counterterrorism office was downgraded from the top position it occupied under previous administrations. But this attack implicitly acknowledges that counterterrorism was downgraded as a priority at the White House, and thus disproves the Administration's claims that it was taking terrorism seriously before 9/11. And such downgrading is consistent with other internal administration documents. As columnist Paul Krugman notes, before 9/11 not only did the Administration "completely drop terrorism as a priority -- it wasn't even mentioned in his list of seven 'strategic goals' -- just one day before 9/11 it proposed a reduction in counterterrorism funds."

Vice President Cheney claimed "a process was in motion throughout the spring" to develop a "more effective" terrorism policy -- an allusion to the counterterrorism task force he was asked to head in May. But, while Cheney convened his energy task force at least 10 times (and had six other meetings with Enron executives), he never once convened the counterterrorism task force. Similarly, White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett claimed, "President Bush understood the threat of terrorism when he took office." But when pressed to prove this claim in the face of Cheney's task force negligence and internal documents proving otherwise, Bartlett could only muster, "George Tenet personally briefed [the President about terrorism] every single morning."

BRAND NEW STORIES

Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.