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WEEKLY WONK

Originally Published: 3/29/2008

VP Cheney:  I avoided calling attention to this last week for obvious reasons. But Cheney is so cavalier about other people's lives, I thought it needed to be pointed out. Martha Raddatz of ABC News traveled with him in the Middle East last week. During an interview on March 19th, she asked him about the recent polls that show that about two-thirds of Americans say the fight in Iraq is not worth it. Cheney replied, "So?" There was quite a stink about this and you'd think he'd learn. He didn't. On March 24th Raddatz asked him what effect the grim milestone of at least 4,000 U.S. deaths in the 5-year Iraq occupation might have on the nation. He said: "The president carries the biggest burden, obviously. He's the one who has to make the decision to commit young Americans, but we are fortunate to have a group of men and women, the all-volunteer force, who voluntarily put on the uniform and go in harm's way for the rest of us." Yeah. This from a 5 deferment draft dodger because "he had better things to do."
 
Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey:  He's taking over U.S. Central Command temporarily from Navy Admiral William Fallon who resigned. (See The Weekly Wonk, Admiral William Fallon, 3/15/08) Dempsey has been deputy commander since last August. He will serve as acting commander until a permanent replacement is named, probably sometime after Gen. David Petraeus' report to Congress in early April. (AP)
 
No More Troop Withdrawals:  On the day we marked the distinction of 4,000 Americans killed in the Middle East, Bush had a video conference with Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq. They gave him a plan that would stop any further troop withdrawals after July, meaning the number of troops in Iraq "would remain nearly the same through 2008 as at any time during 5 years of war." (NY Times)
 
Run-Up to Invasion:  In Bush's push for support from other countries for his invasion of Iraq, he "threatened trade reprisals against friendly countries . . ., spied on its allies, and pressed for the recall of U.N. envoys that resisted U.S. pressure to endorse the war" according to an upcoming book by Chile's ambassador to the United Nations Heraldo Munoz. A Solitary War: A Diplomat's Chronicle of the Iraq War and Its Lessons states: "In the aftermath of the invasion, allies loyal to the United States were rejected, mocked and even punished" for their refusal to back a U.N. resolution authorizing military action against Saddam Hussein's government." (Washington Post)
 
Oh, My God:  PBS's Frontline ran a 2-part production on "Bush's War." The LA Times had a review of it. I have to quote this: ". . . Marine Lt. Gen. Michael DeLong's explanation of how he and Army Gen. Tommy Franks decided to endorse the bid by Rumsfeld and Cheney to convince Bush to order an invasion. 'Gen. Franks likes margaritas,' DeLong said, 'and I've got a margarita recipe -- of course, I'm a tequila connoisseur. And so we sat down and had some margaritas and tequila and walked through "Is this the right thing to do for us, for the country? Can we look our troops in the eyes and say, 'You're going to die tomorrow and here's why?'" And the answer was yes.'" So, the generals decided to go along with Rumsfeld and Cheney while they were drunk.
 
Saddam & al-Qaeda:  The Pentagon reported that there were no links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda prior to the Iraq invasion. (See The Weekly Wonk, No Connection, 3/15/08) The Wall Street Journal (subscription required), however, doesn't seem to believe it. It reported that the "new Pentagon report suggests that Iraq's links to world-wide terror networks, including al Qaeda, were far more extensive than previously understood," and accused other news sources of distorting the report.
 
Are We Safer?:  Apparently terrorist organizations are continuing to get lots of money because the Bush administration hasn't been able to cut off its flow. Why? "In some cases, extremist groups have blunted financial anti-terrorism tools by finding new ways to raise, transfer and spend their money. In other cases, the administration has stumbled over legal difficulties and interagency fighting." But the biggest problem is that other countries won't cooperate. "Internationally, the sense of urgency over terrorism financing has waned since the 2001 attacks. As political climates have changed and negative perceptions of the United States have risen, key allies are cooperating less, current and former officials say." [Emphasis added.] (LA Times) Great.
 
Iran:  U.S. officials said the rockets fired into the Green Zone on Sunday were made in Iran and all but accused Shi'ite militias of carrying out the attacks. (Iranians are primarily Shia.) Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr is protesting and ordered some shops to close in a show of strength. (Wall Street Journal, subscription required.) al-Sadr's cease-fire has been widely seen as one of the main reasons why violence in Iraq has dropped. By continuously blaming Shia for violence, in an effort to build a case against Iran, the U.S. is risking an end to the cease-fire and a resumption of unbelievable violence. (Washington Post) Cheney isn't paying any attention, though. He said "obviously" Iran is "heavily involved in trying to develop nuclear weapons enrichment, the enrichment of uranium to weapons-grade levels." (White House) Sound familiar?
 
Round Table:  5 former U.S. Secretaries of State are urging the next presidential administration to close Gitmo and open a dialogue with Iran. Colin Powell was joined by Henry Kissinger, James Baker, Warren Christopher, and Madeleine Albright at a round-table discussion sponsored by the University of Georgia. (LA Times)
 
Saudi Preparations:  VP Cheney met with Saudis last week. Now, this appears in the DPA wire service: "The Saudi Shura council will secretly discuss national plans to deal with any sudden nuclear and radioactive hazards that may affect the kingdom following experts' warnings of possible attacks on Iran's Bushehr nuclear reactors, media reports said Saturday." [Emphasis added.] Ya think he told them a secret?
 
Pakistan:  The new prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gillani, ordered the immediate release of the judges who had been detained by President Pervez Musharraf. (See The Weekly Wonk, Pakistan, 11/10/07) He's also going to seek a formal U.N. investigation into the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. (Washington Post)
 
DoD Contractors:  As we all know, the Department of Defense (DoD) uses lots of contractors. Did you know that they also contract out their contract specialists? Yup. They contract with someone to bid out, let, and oversee our contracts. It started in 2003 (surprise) and they "work side by side and perform the same functions as their government counterparts." Only 42% of contract specialists are employees and the contract contract specialists cost us 27% more than the employee contract specialists. The GAO looked at this. One of its findings is particularly interesting: "[T]he potential for the work being done under a personal services contract, which the Federal Acquisition Regulation generally prohibits because of the government-contractor relationship it creates, was clearly present." [Emphasis added.] The GAO lists many more problems and, in general, disapproves of the policy. Ya think?
 
More on Contracting:  The NY Times did an investigation into a weapons contractor that has been providing Afghan security forces with ammunition that is "40 years old and in decomposing packaging." "Much of the ammunition comes from the aging stockpiles of the old Communist bloc, including stockpiles that . . . have [been] determined to be unreliable and obsolete." The company is AEY Inc.; the president is Efraim E. Diveroli, a 22-year-old who has no experience in military procurement and has had problems with the law; and the v.p. is a licensed masseur. The company operates out of an "unmarked office in Miami Beach." The ammunition AEY provided the military was stuff that the State Department and NATO have spent millions of dollars trying to destroy. So, AEY bought it and sold it to the military. Great. Also "tens of millions of the rifle and machine-gun car-tridges were manufactured in China, making their procurement a possible violation of American law," and AEY appears to have done business with people whom the federal government sus-pects of illegal arms trafficking. To top it all off, a conversation between Diveroli and an Albanian businessman, which was secretly recorded, suggests that Diveroli was aware that his purchases involved lots of kickbacks and corruption. After the paper began making inquiries, the Army decided to suspend AEY from any further contracts, but it seems clear the problems with the munitions were fairly obvious to anyone who was bothering to pay attention. Maybe the contract was being watched by one of the contract contract specialists. (See above.) The paper pointed out that AEY is only one of many small contrac-tors that seemed to rise out of nowhere (like Blackwater, see Where's the $9 Billion?) when federal dollars started flowing for the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.
 
Mistaken Delivery:  Remember the nukes that were "accidentally" flown across the U.S.? (See The Weekly Wonk, Nukes Over U.S., 2/16/08) Well, the military has screwed up again. This time they "accidentally" sent Taiwan 4 secret nuclear missile fuses, used to trigger nuclear weapons, rather than the helicopter batteries they ordered. What's worse is the military didn't discover the mistake until a year and a half after the shipment was sent out. The fuses contained no nuclear material, but the error "showed a serious deterioration in the safeguards and controls that the U.S. military has over its nuclear warheads." (LA Times) Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has ordered a full inventory of all nuclear weapons and related materials including assessing inventory control procedures. (AP) Wouldn't you think they'd do this on a regular basis? Even Walgreen's regularly inventories its aspirin and we don't regularly inventory our nuclear weapons?
 
The Supremes:  The newspapers are all touting the fact that the Supreme Court ruled against Bush. I'm not so sure this was a good idea since the decision, in effect, said that the federal government cannot force the states to honor our international treaties. Several years ago Texas prosecuted Jose Medellin, a Mexican citizen, for murder and he was given the death sentence. The Vienna Convention requires the U.S. to notify countries when one of their citizens is arrested and charged with a serious crime. Texas prosecutors failed to tell Mexico about Medellin. So, Bush intervened and said Texas prosecutors should reopen the case, along with several others serving death sentences without Mexico being notified. A 6-3 decision "rebuffed" Bush "for exceeding his powers under the law, ruling he does not have the 'unilateral authority' to force state officials to comply with an international treaty." (LA Times)
 
DOJ Shenanigans:  Last week, the U.S. Attorney for the central district of California in Los Angeles Thomas O'Brien announced that the Justice Department was going to disband the public integrity and environmental crimes section. In a brilliant display of double-speak, spokesperson Thom Mrozek said eliminating this section "would actually enhance the effort to prosecute such cases." (LA Times) Remember, this is the office that is handling the investigation into Rep. Jerry Lewis's (R, CA) ties to a lobbying firm and earmarks its clients have received. (See The Weekly Wonk, Earmarks, 2/16/08; Earmarking, 11/10/07; U.S. Attorney Carol Lam) Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D, CA) sent a letter to Attorney General Michael Mukasey, asking him to explain the decision. (The Hill)
 
Social Security:  The Social Security trustees released their annual report. Good news. The trust is not in a crisis. It pro-jects that it will pay full benefits for more than 30 years. After 2041, it will pay only 78%. Yes, some changes need to be made, but the situation is not dire and we certainly don't need to cut benefits. Paul Krugman said that the report shows that "the actuarial balance has been improving rather than worsening" and that "Social Security's financial problem is relatively minor." However, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson said the "rising costs will drive government spending to un-precedented levels, consume nearly all projected federal revenues and threaten America's future prosperity."  (Washington Post) Other Chicken Littles joined in. House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R, MO) claimed the report proves that Social Security is in a "crisis." (Sun Herald) Watch what the pundits say.
 
PFIAB:  Bush is going to appoint General Peter Pace to the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. (White House)
 
Passport Peepers:  Okay. We've all heard about the State Department contract employees looking at the passport files of the presidential candidates. But what about OUR passport files? How safe are they? Not very. In fact, no information retained by the government is safe. McClatchy reported that the GAO testified before Congress recently that "poor information security is a widespread problem with potentially devastating consequences." Great. Just think about all that information they're sucking up and storing.
 
Regulation:  The credit crisis is causing Congress to look at re-vamping regulation "to oversee practices across the entire array of commercial banks, Wall Street firms, hedge funds and nonbank financial companies." As expected, the Bush administration is "opposed to restrictions and requirements that might hamper economic activity." (NY Times) Think about it. You screw up and you lose your house or your credit card interest goes to 30%. A bank or financial institution screws up and we, the taxpayers, spend billions bailing them out.
 
Bear Stearns:  Bear Stearns shareholders started screaming about the sale at $2 a share. Who was it that said that home-owners needed to be responsible for their poor financial decisions? Doesn't this apply to investors? It sure doesn't apply to financial institutions. We taxpayers will bail them out. The NY Times reported on Monday that JP Morgan was considering paying $10 a share, which would be 5 times more than the original deal. The Fed wasted no time approving the deal. The NY Times' Andrew Ross Sorkin said, "Adam Smith’s invisible hand has a puppeteer: the Federal Reserve." The American people are against this maneuver. A Washington Times/Rasmussen poll found that 61% oppose "moves by the Federal Reserve Board and other federal agencies" to provide "assistance to investment banks and a troubled mortgage industry."
 
The Credit Crisis:  A new analysis by Goldman Sachs Group found that "Wall Street banks, brokerages and hedge funds may report $460 billion in credit losses from the collapse of the subprime mortgage market, or almost 4 times the amount already disclosed." (Bloomberg)
 
Inflation?:  Premiums for family health coverage have increased an average of 78% since 2001. It's really cutting into the wages of workers whose productivity increased, but "inflation-adjusted median family income has dipped 2.6% -- or nearly $1,000 annually since 2000." (Washington Post)
 
Immigration Policy:  The Washington Post had an amazing story on denying Iraqi translators' requests for green cards. These people have lost family members and been marked for death for collaborating with us. I posted a blog on the issue.
 
Land Swap:  There's a plan to swap 110,000 acres of oil rich land in the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge, just south of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, for 150,000 acres of bird-friendly wetlands now owned by Doyon, Ltd. plus 56,500 acres on which Doyon has pending land claims. Bush is pushing for the swap, so you know it's got something to do with oil. Opponents say the swap "could open portions of an Alaska wildlife refuge to oil drilling, dividing Alaska natives and stoking opposition from environmentalists seeking to protect the bears, moose and birds that live there." Rep. Don Young (R, AK), "a staunch backer of the plan," said "We'd like to have an executive order out of the administration before they leave office." (Reuters)
 
Endangered Species:  Bush appointees have changed the rules for placing animals and plants on the endangered species list, creating "bureaucratic obstacles" in order to limit the number of species protected. Interior Department workers are not allowed to use information in agency files that might support placing animals and plants on the list. Senior officials repeatedly override the views of its scientists, rejecting new listings or seeking to remove some from the existing list. "Officials also changed the way species are evaluated under the 35-year-old law -- by considering only where they live now, as opposed to where they used to exist -- and put decisions on other species in limbo by blocking citizen petitions that create legal deadlines." As a result, an unprecedented number of lawsuits have been filed. (Washington Post)
 
Global Warming:  The American west is warming up at a faster rate than the rest of the world. (LA Times) Check out the map. Amazing.
 
Wilkins Ice Shelf:  One of the Antarctic's largest floating ice platforms the size of Northern Ireland has finally succumbed to global warming. "Scientists say it is breaking apart at an unprecedented rate after warmer temperatures weakened it." (The Independent)
 
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