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WEEKLY WONK

Originally Published: 1/19/2008

E-Mail Spying:  National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell "is drawing up plans for cyberspace spying that would make the current debate on warrantless wiretaps look like a 'walk in the park.'" Raw Story tells of an interview in the New Yorker's print edition that is not available on the Internet. "McConnell is developing a Cyber-Security Policy, still in the draft stage, which will closely police Internet activity." Remember, the infrastructure to do this may already been in place. Whistle-blower Mark Klein has told us all about it. (See The Weekly Wonk, AT&T, 11/10/07)
 
De-Baathification:  The Iraqi parliament passed a bill loosening the limits on former Baathists' government involvement. The legislation is being touted as a key indicator of progress and a step toward Sunni-Shi'ite reconciliation. It would allow many low ranking party members back to their government posts, but continues the restriction on government participation of past high-level officials set in place by L. Paul Bremer as head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). It's expected to be signed into law by Iraq's presidential council. "Critics have called the purging of the Baathists, many of them competent administrators, a major blunder of Bremer's leadership, which helped fuel the Sunni revolt against U.S.-led forces and the ascendant Shiite majority." (LA Times) The Washington Post cautioned that the legislation "could lead to a new purge of members of the current Iraqi government," including "influential Iraqi security force officials." The NY Times also noted that hard-line Sunnis are complaining that the measure would shut out many educated professionals like doctors, engineers, and scientists.
 
Troop Drawdown:  Bush said that we're on track to bring home 20,000 of the 30,000 "surge" forces by July. (LA Times)
 
Iran:  Despite the NIE, Bush has ramped up his rhetoric on Iran. Speaking from the United Arab Emirates last weekend, he called Iran "the world's leading state sponsor of terror." As far as I know, there is absolutely no basis for this statement. He said that Iran "sends hundreds of millions of dollars to extremists around the world, while its own people face repression and economic hardship at home." He said that Iran was seeking "to intimidate its neighbors with ballistic missiles and bellicose rhetoric." He knows all about bellicose rhetoric. Mohammed Ali Hosseini from Iran's Foreign Ministry said, "During the past 7 years, the Bush administration has followed a policy to isolate Iran and promote Iranophobia in the region. All regional states adopted a vigilant approach regarding that policy and opposed it." At the same time, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that "Iranian representatives had promised to answer key questions within a month about their nation's past covert nuclear activities." (LA Times) You'll notice that Bush has shifted his position. First he claimed Iran was behind the Iraq insurgency. When he couldn't sell this, he claimed they were a threat because they were attempting to build a nuclear bomb. When the NIE (see more below) shot down this tactic he went to his current allegation that they support terrorism. This allegation is going to be much harder to disprove. And don't forget the trumped up "crisis" in the Strait of Harmuz. (See The Weekly Wonk, Strait of Harmuz, 1/12/08) He's on a march to another war.
 
Iran Sanctions:  A report by the Government Accountability Office questioned the efficacy of sanctions against Iran. "Except for the Treasury, the agencies do not assess the impact of sanctions in helping achieve U.S. objectives nor collect data demonstrating the direct results of their sanctioning and enforcement actions." (Bloomberg
 
That Darned NIE:  After it was released (See The Weekly Wonk, Iran, 12/8/07), Israel publicly challenged it. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said believed that Iran was continuing a nuclear proliferation program. In private meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert this week, Newsweek reported that Bush disowned the U.S. intelligence community's judgments, saying "that he can't control what the intelligence community says, but that [the NIE's] conclusions don't reflect his own views." (As if our credibility in the world isn't in question enough. Now Bush publicly announces that he doesn't believe our intelligence community.) Bush reportedly briefed Olmert about the Iran NIE days before it was publicly released. According to the New Yorker's Seymour Hersh, "The Israelis were very upset about the report. They think we're naive, they don't think we get it right. And so they have a different point of view." (ThinkProgress) But after his private meetings with Bush this week, Olmert -- asked whether he felt reassured about the U.S. stance toward Iran -- replied, "I am very happy." I wonder what Bush promised him to make him happy.
 
Saudi Arabia:  Bush stopped off in Saudi Arabia to check on our oil supply. They want us to sell them "smart bomb" technology and it looks like he's going to do it. The LA Times said that this agreement would "transfer an estimated $20 billion worth of military hardware to 6 Persian Gulf nations. The effort, along with arms sales to Israel and Egypt, is intended to help U.S. allies offset Iran's military power and political clout in the region." The most controversial part of the agreement is the offer to sell the Saudis "Joint Direct Attack Munitions," which is "technology that allows standard weapons to be converted into precision-guided bombs. The deal envisions the transfer to Saudi forces of 900 upgrade kits worth about $120 million." Other nations receiving weapons in the package are the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Bahrain, all of which Bush has visited on his current Middle East trip, as well as Qatar and Oman. "Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East and arms expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the threat posed by Iran was the reason for the deals." Israel is not happy about the deal. I wonder why. It needs to be approved by Congress so he's already sent word that they need to approve it. Congress only has 30 days to disapprove the transaction. If they don't disapprove it, it will go through.
 
Afghanistan:  Defense Secretary Robert Gates approved a plan to send 3,200 additional Marines to Afghanistan. (Wall Street Journal, subscription required)
 
Iraq Reconstruction:  The Iraqi government has been severely criticized for failing to spend billions of dollars of its oil revenues to finance its own reconstruction. In fact, when Congress was deciding whether or not to continue funding the occupation, the lack of reconstruction was cited as reason to withhold funds. However, in the infamous "September Report" (see The Weekly Wonk, The September Report, 9/15/07) Gen. David Petraeus, the top American commander in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, the American ambassador to Iraq, said Iraq had greatly accelerated its spending, that by July 2007 Iraq had spent some 24% of the $10 billion set aside for reconstruction that year. However, a new GAO report said that "official Iraqi Finance Ministry records showed that Iraq had spent only 4.4% of the reconstruction budget by August 2007. It also said that the rate of spending had substantially slowed from the previous year." (NY Times) How this ties into the lost $9 billion (see Where's the $9 Billion?), is anybody's guess.
 
Benazir Bhutto:  CIA director Michael Hayden says they have concluded that allies of Pakistani tribal leader Baitullah Mehsud, with the help of al-Qaeda, were responsible for Bhutto's assassinastion. (Washington PostFunny that Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf reached the same conclusion, but other Pakistanis, including Bhutto's family, arenty buying it. (There was no autopsy and forensic evidence was destroyed. See The Weekly Wonk, Bhutto's Death, 1/5/08) A former Pakistani official said that even if Mahsud's people were involved, it doesn't mean "the Pakistani army or intelligence agencies did not play a role." (LA Times) U.S. and British intelligence officials concur, saying that all evidence points to Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence Agency (ISI). (Raw Story)
 
Voter Caging:  House Judiciary Committee Chair John Conyers (D, GA) has introduced a bill to combat voter caging. (Press Release) (See Vote Caging)
 
PTSD?:  The NY Times did an investigative piece on 121 cases in which veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan committed a murder once they returned to the U.S. It said that in many of these cases, "combat trauma and the stress of deployment -- along with alcohol abuse, family discord and other attendant problems -- appear to have set the stage for a tragedy that was part destruction, part self-destruction."
 
Lost e-Mails:  The White House admitted that it routinely recycled its computer backup tapes of e-mail before 2003, "raising the possibility that many electronic messages, including those pertaining to the CIA leak case, have been taped over and are gone forever." (NY Times) They began deleting millions of e-mails from their servers in March 2003 and started recycling tapes in October 2003, meaning all incoming and outgoing e-mail during that interval may now be permanently lost. "The significance of this time-period cannot be overstated: the U.S. went to war with Iraq, top White House officials leaked the covert identity of Valerie Plame Wilson and the Justice Department opened a criminal investigation into their actions," noted Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), the group whose lawsuit prompted this latest disclosure. If the deleted e-mails cannot be recovered, the White House may be in violation of 2 federal statutes which "require presidential communications, including e-mails involving senior White House aides, to be preserved for the nation's historical record." (Washington Post)
 
Defense Spending Bill:  This is the bill that Bush pocket-vetoed over the holidays. The House of Representatives returned to session this week and started work on this thing. (NY TimesThe reason Bush decided he couldn't sign it was because of the language that allowed for legal claims by victims of Saddam Hussein's government to be compensated from Iraqi assets held in U.S. banks. (See The Weekly Wonk, Defense Funding, 12/8/07) Now we know that there probably isn't any money left in the banks (see Where's the $9 Billion?), and maybe that's what he doesn't want anyone to know.
 
The Pocket Veto:  The issue of Bush's holiday pocket veto had me puzzled. According to the Constitution, the president must either sign or veto every bill that comes to his desk. If the president does not act on a bill for 10 days after it arrives on his desk, and if during that time Congress adjourns, the bill dies. This is the pocket veto. However, in this case, the Senate didn't adjourn over the holidays, continuing to hold "pro-forma" sessions throughout December. (See The Weekly Wonk, No Recess, 12/15/07) So, I was confused about why this would be considered a pocket veto. If these "pro-forma" sessions were enough to block recess appointments, wouldn't they be enough to show that the Senate had not adjourned and to allow Bush to send the bill back to Congress for reconsideration? Then there's the issue that it's a spending bill. Spending bills must be originated in the House and the House did adjourn. However, "it ha[d] designated its clerk to receive communications from the White House, including veto messages, meaning that a bill return was possible." If a bill can be returned to Congress, it cannot die with a pocket veto. Therefore, Bush was wrong in referring to this as a pocket veto. Robert Spitzer, a political science professor at SUNY Cortland, explained, "In misusing his veto power, Bush was attempting to grab a power for himself and his office that the Constitution's framers emphatically and repeatedly denied to the president: a nearly unlimited, absolute veto." (LA Times)
 
Save the Dolphins:  A couple weeks ago I told you about U.S. District Judge Florence-Marie Cooper in Los Angeles ordering the Navy to stop using its submarine-hunting sonar within 12 miles of the coast, "a corridor heavily used by migrating gray whales, dolphins and other marine mammals." (See The Weekly Wonk, Save the Dolphins, 1/5/08) But Bush has decided he doesn't have to follow the judge's order. He has issued a directive to exempt Navy sonar training missions off Southern California from complying with key environmental laws, "an effort designed to free the military from court-ordered restrictions aimed at protecting whales and dolphins." The LA Times said that Bush's action "took on overtones of a struggle between the administrative and judicial branches of government." Naturally Bush said this was necessary for national security.
 
The Economy:   This may not be a traditional economic downturn, one of those cycles that come around occasionally. The U.S. has become prone to "bubbles" -- "huge, seemingly irreversible rises in the value of one sort of asset or another, followed by sudden and largely unforeseen plunges." "Bubbles" are more unpredictable and more damaging when they burst. Economists believe that "economists and policymakers need to develop ways to identify potential bubbles, discourage them from growing, and limit the economic carnage if they do." Unfortunately, traditional tools, like stimulus packages, used by the federal government to turn things around, may not help. Making things worse, most of the financial regulations passed after the Great Depression have been abolished, opening the door for "bubbles" and limiting what can be done to alleviate the problems. (LA Times) The NY Times said that it may be too late to get any help from a stimulus package anyway. "Huge and complex, the American economy has in recent years been aided by a global web of finance so elaborate that no one seems capable of fully comprehending it. That makes it all but impossible to predict how much the economy can be expected to fall before it stabilizes."
 
Inflation:  It's at its highest in 17 years. (AP)
 
Housing Starts:  At their lowest in 27 years. (Raw Story)
 
Economic Stimulus:  Bush announced his plan for stimulating the economy. It's about $145 billion worth of tax relief, most of that going to corporations. Of course, it has to be approved by Congress and I don't think they're gonna go for it. Congressional Democrats, in addition to checks for individuals, want to extend unemployment benefits, give assistance for home heating oil, and increase food stamp subsidies. Congressional Republicans back Bush's tax breaks. (Balitmore Sun)
 
Wall Street:  They weren't impressed with Bush's economic plan. They're not even happy with Bernanke's proposal to cut interest rates again. They're just cranky all the way around. (AP)
 
Citigroup:  It's expected to writedown $24 billion and lay off 20,000 workers "as part of a plan to cut costs and boost capital." (Reuters) Al Meyerhoff, a lawyer specializing in securities fraud cases, wrote an op ed for the LA Times in which he blamed the past 30 years of deregulation for the problems we are now experiencing. A good read.
 
Merrill Lynch:  This is the world's largest brokerage and it lost nearly $10 billion in the last quarter of 2007. It's the "biggest quarterly loss since it was founded 94 years ago, after writing down $14.6 billion of investments slammed by the ongoing credit crisis." (AP)
 
Insider Trading:  The Wall Street Journal (subscription required) ran a piece on the supposedly coincidental stock purchases by investment firms as they were advising that same company on acquisition matters. 2 investment arms of J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. began accumulating shares in Rural Cellular Corp., a small Minnesota provider of mobile-phone service, last spring. Rural Cellular's stock jumped 34% when it announced it was being acquired by Verizon Wireless. J. P. Morgan was the bank that was advising Verizon on the acquisition. J.P. Morgan said that it was just good timing. "These purchases were made on behalf of our clients and were totally appropriate."
 
Economic Freedom:  The conservative Heritage Foundation released its 2008 Index of Economic Freedom in which the U.S. ranked 5th. Not mentioned in the report is the fact that the top 4 -- Hong Kong, Singapore, Ireland, and Australia -- all have universal health care, whereas U.S. businesses are forced to pay health care premiums whose cost rose 98% between 2000 and 2007. (Kaiser Foundation)
 
Antarctica:  Ice sheets previously believed to be impervious to global warming are now found to be melting rapidly, "raising the prospect of faster sea-level rise than current estimates."  (Washington Post)
 
Oil Drilling in Alaska:  "Although Congress and the courts have largely frustrated the Bush administration’s efforts to open up Alaska to oil and gas drilling, Vice President Dick Cheney and his industry friends remain determined to lock up as many oil and gas leases as they can before the door hits them on the way out. They are certainly not going to let the struggling polar bear stand in their way." This is the beginning of a great NY Times editorial. Next month the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service "will sell oil and gas leases on nearly 30 million acres of prime polar bear habitat in the Chukchi Sea." Also, the Fish and Wildlife Service has postponed a long-awaited decision on whether to "place this iconic and troubled animal on the list of threatened species." If the polar bear was placed on the endangered species list, oil and gas leases would be impossible. Another case of destroying the planet so the rich guys can get richer.
 
The Supreme Court:  They turned down an appeal to hear a case that sought the right "for dying patients to try promising and potentially life-saving drugs" that haven't been approved by the FDA. The LA Times said, "If nothing else, the high court's refusal to consider this claim shows how the justices are wary these days of creating 'new rights' under the Constitution."
 
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