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"To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public." Theodore Roosevelt


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Saturday, November 05, 2005

War Crimes

How long, and why, has the New York Times been withholding this juicy bit of information:

A high Qaeda official in American custody was identified as a likely fabricator months before the Bush administration began to use his statements as the foundation for its claims that Iraq trained Al Qaeda members to use biological and chemical weapons, according to newly declassified portions of a Defense Intelligence Agency document.

The document, an intelligence report from February 2002, said it was probable that the prisoner, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, "was intentionally misleading the debriefers" in making claims about Iraqi support for Al Qaeda's work with illicit weapons.

Big Time Trouble

So says John Dean, Richard Nixon's White House lawyer, who I suspect would know a thing or two about this sort of thing:

In my last column, I tried to deflate expectations a bit about the likely consequences of the work of Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald; to bring them down to the realistic level at which he was likely to proceed. I warned, for instance, that there might not be any indictments, and Fitzgerald might close up shop as the last days of the grand jury's term elapsed. And I was certain he would only indict if he had a patently clear case.

Now, however, one indictment has been issued - naming Vice President Cheney's Chief of Staff Lewis "Scooter" Libby as the defendant, and charging false statements, perjury and obstruction of justice. If the indictment is to be believed, the case against Libby is, indeed, a clear one.

Having read the indictment against Libby, I am inclined to believe more will be issued. In fact, I will be stunned if no one else is indicted.

Indeed, when one studies the indictment, and carefully reads the transcript of the press conference, it appears Libby's saga may be only Act Two in a three-act play. And in my view, the person who should be tossing and turning at night, in anticipation of the last act, is the Vice President of the United States, Richard B. Cheney.

Halliburton's Latest Crime Against Humanity

Just when you think this utterly shameless corporation could not be any more deplorable, they lower the bar:

A pattern is emerging as the cleanup of Mississippi's Gulf Coast morphs into its multibillion-dollar reconstruction: Come payday, untold numbers of Hispanic immigrant laborers are being stiffed. Sometimes, the boss simply vanishes. Other workers wait on promises that soon, someone in a complex hierarchy of contractors will provide the funds to pay them. [...] One by one, [four Guatemalan workers] explained that they had cleaned a school for 144 hours at a promised $8 an hour. Then one of their bosses dropped them on the side of the road, without food. Eventually, a church bus picked them up.

Another Smoking Gun

Indeed:

Tomorrow, The New York Times answers the question, with reporter Doug Jehl disclosing the contents of a newly declassified memo apparently passed to him by Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

It shows that an al-Qaeda official in American custody was identified as a likely fabricator months before the Bush administration began to use his statements as the foundation for its claims that Iraq trained al-Qaeda members to use biological and chemical weapons, according to this Defense Intelligence Agency document from February 2002.

It declared that it was probable that the prisoner, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, "was intentionally misleading the debriefers" in making claims about Iraqi support for al-Qaeda's work with illicit weapons, Jehl reports.

"The document provides the earliest and strongest indication of doubts voiced by American intelligence agencies about Mr. Libi's credibility," Jehl writes. "Without mentioning him by name, President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Colin L. Powell, then secretary of state, and other administration officials repeatedly cited Mr. Libi's information as 'credible' evidence that Iraq was training Al Qaeda members in the use of explosives and illicit weapons.

Worst President Ever



Write your own caption...

Halliburton Overcharged $208 Million In Iraq Reconstruction

Oops:
An auditing board sponsored by the United Nations recommended yesterday that the United States repay as much as $208 million to the Iraqi government for contracting work in 2003 and 2004 assigned to Kellogg, Brown & Root, the Halliburton subsidiary. [...] The K.B.R. contracts that have drawn fresh scrutiny also cover services other than fuel deliveries, like building and repairing oil pipelines and installing emergency power generators in Iraq.

Ethics 101

Just how out of touch with reality is the Bush Administration? They are so out of touch with reality, they think this little charade is going help improve public opinion:

President Bush has ordered White House staff to attend mandatory briefings beginning next week on ethical behavior and the handling of classified material after the indictment last week of a senior administration official in the CIA leak probe.

According to a memo sent to aides yesterday, Bush expects all White House staff to adhere to the "spirit as well as the letter" of all ethics laws and rules. As a result, "the White House counsel's office will conduct a series of presentations next week that will provide refresher lectures on general ethics rules, including the rules of governing the protection of classified information," according to the memo, a copy of which was provided to The Washington Post by a senior White House aide.

Excuse me Mr. President, but who the fuck do you think you're kidding here?

Friday, November 04, 2005

Big Time Torture

According to Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell's former chief of staff, Cheney gave the order to torture the detainees:

What happened was that the secretary of Defense, under the cover of the vice president's office, began to create an environment -- and this started from the very beginning when David Addington, the vice president's lawyer, was a staunch advocate of allowing the president in his capacity as commander in chief to deviate from the Geneva Conventions. Regardless of the president having put out this memo, they began to authorize procedures within the armed forces that led to, in my view, what we've seen.

[...]

I'm privy to the paperwork, both classified and unclassified, that the secretary of State asked me to assemble on how this all got started, what the audit trail was, and when I began to assemble this paperwork, which I no longer have access to, it was clear to me that there was a visible audit trail from the vice president's office through the secretary of Defense down to the commanders in the field that in carefully couched terms -- I'll give you that -- that to a soldier in the field meant two things: We're not getting enough good intelligence and you need to get that evidence, and, oh, by the way, here's some ways you probably can get it. And even some of the ways that they detailed were not in accordance with the spirit of the Geneva Conventions and the law of war.

The Broken Promise

Via TIME:

It was part of the American Dream, a pledge made by corporations to their workers: for your decades of toil, you will be assured of retirement benefits like a pension and health care. Now more and more companies are walking away from that promise, leaving millions of Americans at risk of an impoverished retirement. How can this be legal? A TIME investigation looks at how Congress let it happen and the widespread social insecurity it's causing.

The little shed behind Joy Whitehouse's modest home is filled with aluminum cans--soda cans, soup cans and vegetable cans--that she collects from neighbors or finds during her periodic expeditions along the roadside. Two times a month, she takes them to a recycler, who pays her as much as $30 for her harvest of castoffs. When your fixed income is $942 a month, an extra $30 here and there makes a big difference. After paying rent, utilities and insurance, Whitehouse is left with less than $40 a week to cover everything else. So the money from cans helps pay medical bills for the cancer and chronic lung disease she has been battling for years, as well as food expenses. "I eat a lot of soup," says the tiny, spirited 69-year-old, who lives in Majestic Meadows, a mobile-home park for senior citizens near Salt Lake City, Utah.

Whitehouse never envisioned spending her later years this way. She and her husband Alva Don raised four children. In the 1980s they lived in Montana, where he earned a good living as a long-haul truck driver for Pacific Intermountain Express. But in 1986 he was killed on the job in a highway accident attributed to faulty maintenance on his truck, as his company struggled to survive the cutthroat pricing of congressionally ordered deregulation. After her husband's death, Whitehouse knew the future would be tough, but she was confident in her economic survival. After all, the company had promised her a death benefit of $598 every two weeks for the rest of her life--a commitment she had in writing, one that was a matter of law.

She received the benefit payments until October 1990, when the check bounced. A corporate-takeover artist, later sent to prison for ripping off a pension fund and other financial improprieties, had stripped down the business and forced it into the U.S. bankruptcy court. There the obligation was erased, thanks to congressional legislation that gives employers the right to walk away from agreements with their employees. To support herself, Whitehouse had already sold the couple's Montana home and moved to the Salt Lake City area, where she had family and friends. With her savings running out, she applied early (at a reduced rate) for her husband's Social Security. She needed every penny. For health reasons, she couldn't work. She had undergone a double mastectomy. An earlier cancer of the uterus had eaten away at her stomach muscle so that a metal plate and artificial bladder were installed. Her children and other relatives offered to help, but Whitehouse is fiercely self-sufficient. Friends and neighbors pitch in to fill her shed with aluminum. "You put your pride in your pocket, and you learn to help yourself," she says. "I save cans."

Through no fault of her own, Whitehouse had found herself thrust into the ranks of workers and their spouses--previously invisible but now fast growing--who believed the corporate promises about retirement and health care, often affirmed by the Federal Government: they would receive a guaranteed pension; they would have company-paid health insurance until they qualified for Medicare; they would receive company-paid supplemental medical insurance after turning 65; they would receive a fixed death benefit in the event of a fatal accident; and they would have a modest life-insurance policy.

They didn't get those things. And they won't.

Corporate promises are often not worth the paper they're printed on. Businesses in one industry after another are revoking long-standing commitments to their workers. It's the equivalent of your bank telling you that it needs the money you put into your savings account more than you do--and then keeping it. Result: a wholesale downsizing of the American Dream. It began in the 1980s with the elimination of middle-class, entry-level jobs in lower-paying industries--apparel, textiles and shoes, among others. More recently it spread to jobs that pay solid middle-class wages, starting with the steel industry, then airlines and now autos--with no end in sight.

That's why Whitehouse, as difficult as her situation is, is worried more about how her children and grandchildren will cope. And well she should. For while her story is the tale of millions of older Americans, it is also a window into the future for many millions more. A TIME investigation has concluded that long before today's working Americans reach retirement age, policy decisions by Congress favoring corporate and special interests over workers will drive millions of older Americans--a majority of them women--into poverty, push millions more to the brink and turn retirement years into a time of need for everyone but the affluent. The transition is well under way, eroding efforts of the past three decades to eliminate poverty among the aging. From taxes to health care to pensions, Congress has enacted legislation that adds to the cost of retirement and eats away at dollars once earmarked for food and shelter. That reversal of fortunes is staggering, and even those already retired or near retirement will be squeezed by changing economic rules.

Congress's role has been pivotal. Lawmakers wrote bankruptcy regulations to allow corporations to scrap the health insurance they promised employees who retired early--sometimes voluntarily, quite often not. They wrote pension rules that encouraged corporations to underfund their retirement plans or switch to plans less favorable to employees. They denied workers the right to sue to enforce retirement promises. They have refused to overhaul America's health-care system, which has created the world's most expensive medical care without any comparable benefit. One by one, lawmakers have undermined or destroyed policies that once afforded at least the possibility of a livable existence to many seniors, while at the same time encouraging corporations to repudiate lifetime-benefit agreements. All this under the guise of ensuring workers that they are in charge of their own destiny--such as it is.

The process has accelerated dramatically this year. Two major U.S. airlines--Delta and Northwest--turned to bankruptcy court to cut costs and delay pension-fund contributions. This followed earlier bankruptcy filings by United Airlines and USAirways, both of which jettisoned their guaranteed pension plans. Then on Oct. 8, the largest U.S. auto-parts maker, Delphi Corp., filed for bankruptcy protection, seeking to cut off medical and life-insurance benefits for its retirees. Delphi's pension funds are short $11 billion. To Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard law professor who specializes in bankruptcy, this is just going to get worse, as ever more companies see the value to their bottom line of "scraping off" employee obligations. "There's no business in America that isn't going to figure out a way to get rid of [these benefit promises]."

That may include the world's largest automaker--General Motors. Although GM chairman Rick Wagoner has insisted that "we don't consider bankruptcy to be a viable business strategy," some on Wall Street are skeptical, given the company's array of problems. Their view was reinforced when GM, the company that dominated the American economy through the 20th century, announced on Oct. 17 that it had reached a precedent-setting agreement with the United Auto Workers leadership to rescind $1 billion worth of health-care benefits for its retirees. If ratified by the union membership, the retrenchment will hasten the end to company-subsidized health care for all retirees. From 1988 to 2004, the share of employers with 200 or more workers offering retiree health insurance plunged, from 66% to 36%. The end result: a fresh and additional burden on retirees. Concluded a report by the Kaiser Family Foundation and Hewitt Associates: "For the majority of workers who retire before they turn age 65 and are eligible for Medicare, the coverage provided under employer plans is often difficult, if not impossible to find anywhere else." For retirees over 65, "employer plans remain the primary source of prescription drug coverage for seniors on Medicare ... This coverage is more generous than the standard prescription drug benefit that will be offered by Medicare plans beginning in 2006."

Perhaps the best yardstick to assess the outlook for the later years is the defined-benefit pension, long the gold standard for retirement because it guarantees a fixed income for life. The number of such plans offered by corporations has plunged from 112,200 in 1985 to 29,700 today. Since 1985, the number of active workers covered in the private sector declined from 22 million to 17 million. They are the last members of what once promised to be the U.S.'s golden retirement era, and they are fast disappearing. From 2001 to 2004, nearly 200 corporations in the FORTUNE 1000 killed or froze their defined-benefit plans. Most recently, Hewlett-Packard, long one of the most admired U.S. companies, pulled the plug on guaranteed pensions for new workers. An HP spokesman said the company had concluded that "pension plans are kind of a thing of the past." In that, HP was merely following the lead of business rival IBM and such other major companies as NCR Corp., Sears Holding Corp. and Motorola. The nation's largest employer, Wal-Mart, does not offer such pensions either. At the current pace, human-resources offices will turn out the lights in their defined-benefit section within a decade or so. At that point, individuals will assume all the risks for their retirement, just as they did 100 years ago.

The shift away from guaranteed pensions was encouraged by Congress, which structured the rules in a way that invites corporations to abandon their defined-benefit plans in favor of defined-contribution plans, increasingly 401(k)s, in which employees set aside a fixed sum of money toward retirement. Many companies also contribute; some don't. Whatever the case, the contributions will never be enough to match the certain and long-term income from a defined-benefit plan. What's more, once the money runs out, that's it. If people live longer than expected, get stuck with unanticipated expenses or suffer losses of other once promised benefits, they will have little besides their Social Security to sustain them.

The dawning perception among Americans that when it comes to retirement, you're on your own, baby, is surely a reason that President George Bush ran into so much opposition to his proposal to change Social Security from a risk-free plan into one with so-called private accounts. Critics of the 70-year-old system were determined to chip away at Social Security as part of a larger effort to promote what the Bush Administration calls an "ownership society." As Treasury Secretary John Snow told a congressional committee in February 2004: "I think we need to be concerned about pensions and the security that employees have in their pensions. And I think we need to encourage people to save and become part of an ownership society, which is very much a part of the President's vision for America."

Of course, it's much easier to own a piece of America when you have a pension like Snow's. When he stepped down as head of CSX Corp.--operator of the largest rail network in the eastern U.S.--to take over Treasury, Snow was given a lump-sum pension of $33.2 million. It was based on 44 years of employment at CSX. Unlike most ordinary people, who must work the actual years on which their pension is calculated, Snow was employed just 26 years. The additional 18 years of his CSX employment history were fictional, a gift from the company's board of directors.

Snow is not alone. The phantom employment record, as it might be called, is a common executive-retirement practice in corporate America--and one that is spelled out in corporate filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Drew Lewis, the Pennsylvania Republican and onetime head of the U.S. Department of Transportation, got a $1.5 million annual pension when he retired in 1996 as chairman and CEO of Union Pacific Corp. His pension was based on 30 years of service to the company, but he actually worked there only 11 years. The other 19 years of his employment history came courtesy of Union Pacific's board of directors, which included Vice President Dick Cheney. And then there's Leo Mullin, the former chairman and CEO of Delta Air Lines. Under Mullin's stewardship, Delta killed the defined-benefit pension of its nonunion workers and replaced it with a less generous plan. Now, little more than a year after he retired, the airline is in bankruptcy and can dump its pension obligations. But you need not fret about Mullin. On his way out the door, he picked up a $16 million retirement package. It's based on 28.5 years of employment with Delta, at least 21 years more than he worked at the airline.

HOW SAVINGS CAN BE HIJACKED

At the same time corporate executives are paid retirement dollars for years they never worked, hapless employees lose supplemental retirement benefits for a lifetime of actual work. Just ask Betty Moss. She was one of thousands of workers at Polaroid Corp.--the Waltham, Mass., maker of instant cameras and film--who, beginning in 1988, gave up 8% of their salary to underwrite an employee stock-ownership plan, or ESOP. It was created to thwart a corporate takeover and "to provide a retirement benefit" to Polaroid employees to supplement their pension, the company pledged. Alas, it was not to be. Polaroid was slow to react to the digital revolution and began to lose money in the 1990s. From 1995 to 1998, the company racked up $359 million in losses. As its balance sheet deteriorated, so did the value of its stock, including shares in the ESOP. In October 2001, Polaroid sought bankruptcy protection from creditors.

By then, Polaroid's shares were virtually worthless, having plummeted from $60 in 1997 to less than the price of a Coke in October 2001. During that period, employees were forbidden to unload their stock, based on laws approved by Congress. But what employees weren't allowed to do at a higher price, the company-appointed trustee could do at the lowest possible price--without even seeking the workers' permission. Rather than wait for a possible return to profitability through restructuring, the trustee decided that it was "in the best interests" of the employees to sell the ESOP shares. They went for 9¢. In short order, a $300 million retirement nest egg put away by 6,000 Polaroid employees was wiped out. Many lost between $100,000 and $200,000.

Moss was one of the losers. Now 60, she spent 35 years at Polaroid, beginning as a file clerk out of high school, then working her way through college at night and eventually rising to be senior regional operations manager in Atlanta. "It was the kind of place people dream of working at," she said. "I can honestly say I never dreaded going to work. It was just the sort of place where good things were always happening." One of those good things was supposed to be the ESOP, touted by the company as a plan that "forced employees to save for their retirement," as Moss recalled. "Everybody went for it. We had been so conditioned to believe what we were told was true."

Once Polaroid entered bankruptcy, Moss and her retired co-workers learned a bitter lesson--that they had no say in the security of benefits they had worked all their lives to accumulate. While the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. (PBGC) agreed to make good on most of their basic pensions, the rest of their benefits--notably the ESOP accounts, along with retirement health care and severance packages--were canceled. The retirees, generally well educated and financially savvy, organized to try to win back some of what they had lost by petitioning bankruptcy court, which would decide how to divide the company's assets among creditors. To no avail: Polaroid's management had already undercut the employees' effort. Rather than file for bankruptcy in Boston, near the corporate offices, the company took its petition to Wilmington, Del., and a bankruptcy court that had developed a reputation for favoring corporate managers. There, Polaroid's management contended that the company was in terrible financial shape and that the only option was to sell rather than reorganize. The retirees claimed that Polaroid executives were undervaluing the business so the company could ignore its obligations to retirees and sell out to private investors.

The bankruptcy judge ruled in favor of the company. In 2002 Polaroid was sold to One Equity Partners, an investment firm with a special interest in financially distressed businesses. (One Equity was a unit of Bank One Corp., now part of JPMorgan Chase.) Many retirees believed the purchase price of $255 million was only a fraction of the old Polaroid's value. Evidence supporting that view: the new owners financed their purchase, in part, with $138 million of Polaroid's own cash.

Employees did not leave bankruptcy court empty-handed. They all got something in the mail. Moss will never forget the day hers arrived. "I got a check for $47," she recalled. She had lost tens of thousands of dollars in ESOP contributions, health benefits and severance payments. Now she and the rest of Polaroid's other 6,000 retirees were being compensated with $47 checks. "You should have heard the jokes," she said. "How about we all meet at McDonald's and spend our $47?"

Under a new management team headed by Jacques Nasser, former chairman of Ford Motor Co., Polaroid returned to profitability almost overnight. Little more than two years after the company emerged from bankruptcy, One Equity sold it to a Minnesota entrepreneur for $426 million in cash. The new managers, who had received stock in the postbankruptcy Polaroid, walked away with millions of dollars. Nasser got $12.8 million for his 1 million shares. Other executives and directors were rewarded for their efforts. Rick Lazio, a four-term Republican from West Islip, N.Y., who effectively gave up his House seat for an unsuccessful Senate run against Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2000, collected $512,675 for a brief stint as a director. That amounted to nearly twice the $282,000 paid to all 6,000 retirees. The $12.08 a share that the new managers received for little more than two years of work was 134 times the 9¢ a share handed out earlier to lifelong workers.

LET'S BREAK A DEAL

Washington has a rich history of catering to special and corporate interests at the expense of ordinary citizens. Nowhere is this more evident than in legislation dealing with company pensions. It has been this way since 1964, when carmaker Studebaker Corp. collapsed after 60 years, junking the promised pensions of 4,000 workers not yet eligible for retirement, pensions the company had spelled out in brochures for years: "You may be a long way from retirement age now. Still, it's good to know that Studebaker is building up a fund for you, so that when you reach retirement age you can settle down on a farm, visit around the country or just take it easy, and know that you'll still be getting a regular monthly pension paid for entirely by the company."

Oops. There oughta be a law.

It took Congress 10 years to respond to the Studebaker pension abandonment by writing the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) of 1974. It established minimum standards for retirement plans in private industry and created the PBGC to guarantee them. Then President Gerald Ford summed up the measure when he signed it into law that Labor Day: "This legislation will alleviate the fears and the anxiety of people who are on the production lines or in the mines or elsewhere, in that they now know that their investment in private pension funds will be better protected."

Perhaps for some, but far from all.

Another group that had no pension worries would turn out to be the biggest winners under the bill. Congress wrote the law so broadly that moneymen could dip into pension funds and remove cash set aside for workers' retirement. During the 1980s, that's exactly what a cast of corporate raiders, speculators, Wall Street buyout firms and company executives did with a vengeance. Throughout the decade, they walked away with an estimated $21 billion earmarked for workers' retirement pay. The raiders insisted that they took only excess assets that weren't needed. Among the pension buccaneers: Meshulam Riklis, a once flamboyant Beverly Hills, Calif., takeover artist who skimmed millions from several companies, including the McCrory Corp., the onetime retail fixture of Middle America that is now gone; and the late Victor Posner, the Miami Beach corporate raider who siphoned millions of dollars from more than half a dozen different companies, including Fischbach Corp., a New York electrical contractor that he drove to the edge of extinction. Those two raiders alone raked off about $100 million in workers' retirement dollars--all perfectly legal, thanks to Congress. By the time all the billions of dollars were gone and the public outcry had grown too loud to ignore, Congress in 1990 belatedly rewrote the rules and imposed an excise tax on money removed from pension funds. The raids slowed to a trickle.

During those same years, the PBGC, which insures private pension plans, published an annual list of the 50 most underfunded of those plans. In shining a spotlight on those that had fallen behind in their contributions, the agency hoped to prod companies to keep current. Corporations hated the list. They maintained that the PBGC's methodology did not reflect the true financial condition of their pension plans. After all, as long as the stock market went up--and never down or sideways--the pension plans would be adequately funded. Congress liked that reasoning and, in 1994, reacting to corporate claims that the underfunded list caused needless anxiety among employees, voted to keep the data secret. When the PBGC killed its Top 50 list, David M. Strauss, then the agency's executive director, explained, "With full implementation of [the 1994 pension law], we now have better tools in place." PBGC officials were so bullish about those "better tools," including provisions to levy higher fees on companies ignoring obligations to their employees, they predicted that underfunded pension plans would be a thing of the past. As a story in the Los Angeles Times put it, "PBGC officials said the act nearly guarantees that large underfunded plans will strengthen and the chronic deficits suffered by the pension guaranty organization will be eliminated within 10 years."

Not even close; instead they accelerated at warp speed. In 1994 the deficit in PBGC plans was $31 billion. Today it's $450 billion, or $600 billion if one includes multiemployer plans of unionized employees who work for more than one business in such industries as construction.

Since the PBGC no longer publishes its Top 50 list, anyone looking for even remotely comparable information must sift through the voluminous filings of individual companies with the SEC or the Labor Department, where pension-plan finances are recorded, or turn to the reports of independent firms such as Standard & Poor's. The findings aren't reassuring. According to S&P, Sara Lee Corp. of Chicago, a global maker of food products, ended 2004 with a pension deficit of $1.5 billion. The company's pension plans held enough assets to cover 69.8% of promised retirement pay. Ford Motor Co.'s deficit came in at $12.3 billion. It could write retirement checks for 83% of money owed. ExxonMobil Corp. was down $11.5 billion, with enough money to issue retirement checks covering 61% of promised benefits. Exxon had extracted $1.6 billion from its pension plans in 1986 because they were deemed overfunded. The company explained then that "our shareholders would be better served" that way.

In reality, the deficits in many cases are worse than the published data suggest, which becomes evident when bankrupt corporations dump their pension plans on the PBGC. Time after time, the agency has discovered, the gap between retirement holdings and pensions owed was much wider than the companies reported to stockholders or employees. Thus LTV Corp., the giant Cleveland steelmaker, reported that its plan for hourly workers was about 80% funded, but when it was turned over to the PBGC, there were assets to cover only 52% of benefits--a shortfall of $1.6 billion to be assumed by the agency.

How can this be? Thanks to the way Congress writes the rules, pension accounting has a lot in common with Enron accounting, but with one exception: it's perfectly legal. By adjusting the arcane formulas used to calculate pension assets and obligations, corporate accountants can turn a drastically underfunded system into a financially healthy one, even inflate a company's profits and push up its stock price. Ethan Kra, chief actuary of Mercer Human Resources Consulting, once put it this way: "If you used the same accounting for the operations side [of a corporation] that is used on pension funds, you would be put in jail."

The old PBGC lists of deadbeat pension funds served another purpose. They were an early-warning sign of companies in trouble--a sign often ignored or denied by the companies themselves. "Somehow, if companies are making progress toward an objective that's consistent with [the PBGC's], then I think it's counterproductive to be exposed on this public listing," complained Gary Millenbruch, executive vice president of Bethlehem Steel, a perennial favorite on the Top 50.

Time proved Millenbruch wrong. The early warnings about Bethlehem's pension liabilities turned out to be right on target. Bethlehem Steel eventually filed for bankruptcy, and the PBGC took over its pension plans--which were short $3.7 billion. The company, once America's second largest steelmaker, no longer exists. In the Top 50 pension deadbeats of 1990, the PBGC reported that the funds of Pan Am Corp., operator of what was once the premier global airline, had only one-third of the assets needed to pay its promised pensions. Pan Am does not exist today.

Contrary to the assertions of company executives, PBGC officials and members of Congress, one company after another on the 1990 Top 50 disappeared. To be sure, many are still around. Like General Motors. That year, the PBGC reported a $1.9 billion deficit in GM's pension plans. Today, by GM's reckoning, the deficit is $10 billion. The PBGC estimates it at $31 billion. As for the pension-fund deficit, if GM or any other company can't come up with the money, the PBGC will cover retirement checks up to a fixed amount--$45,600 this year--or until the agency runs out of money. That's projected to occur around 2013. At that point, Congress will be forced to decide whether to bail out the agency at a cost of $100 billion or more. When judgment day comes, other economic forces will influence the decision. Medicare, which is in far worse shape than Social Security, already is in the red on a cash basis. In what promises to play out as a mean-spirited competition, Congress has laid the groundwork to pit individual citizens against one another, to fight over the budget scraps available for those and all other programs.

WHO'S LEFT HOLDING THE BAG?

In the meantime, pension plans that companies are dumping are so short of assets that the PBGC's financial position is rapidly deteriorating. In 2000, the agency operated with a $10 billion surplus. By 2004, the surplus had turned into a $23 billion deficit. By the end of this year, the shortfall may top $30 billion. As the Government Accountability Office put it earlier this year: "PBGC's accumulated deficit is too big, and plans simply do not have enough money in the system to back up the long-term promises many employers have made to their workers." To add to its woes, the agency has a record 350 active bankruptcy cases, according to Bradley D. Belt, executive director. Of those, Belt told Congress, "37 have underfunding claims of $100 million or more, including six in excess of $500 million."

Congress idly watched United Airlines and USAirways unload their pension obligations on the PBGC. Now Delta and Northwest are positioned to do the same. That increases the likelihood that other old-line carriers like American and Continental will be forced to do likewise. Northwest's CEO, Douglas Steenland, bluntly told the Senate Finance Committee last June, "Northwest has concluded that defined-benefit plans simply do not work for an industry that is as competitive and vulnerable from forces ranging from terrorism to international oil prices that are largely beyond its control, as is the airline industry." In that, he merely echoed Robert Crandall, former chief of American Airlines, who told another Senate committee in October 2004: "All the [older] legacy carriers must get rid of their defined-benefit pension plans." In all, the pension funds of those airlines are short $22 billion.

The sudden shift from annual pensions of a guaranteed amount for a lifetime to a lesser and uncertain amount for a limited period is taking its toll on workers. Robin Gilinger, 42, a United flight attendant for 14 years, sees a frightening financial picture. She has another 14 years to go before she can take early retirement. Under the old pension plan she would have received a monthly check of $2,184. Because of givebacks, that's down to $776--a poverty-level annual income of $9,312 by today's standards, even before inflation takes its toll over the coming years. And there is the distinct possibility it could be less than that. Her husband lost his pension in a corporate takeover.

Gilinger, who lives with her husband and 9-year-old daughter in Mount Laurel, N.J., is not planning on early retirement and certainly couldn't afford it in the current situation. But she has concerns reminiscent of Joy Whitehouse's experience. "It's scary. What if something happened to my husband or if I got disabled?" she asks. "Then I'm looking at nothing. Above all, what's frustrating is that we were told we were going to get our pension and we're not. The senior flight attendants, the ones who've worked 30 years, they're worried how they're going to survive." Each time the PBGC takes on another failed pension plan, it makes the pension-insurance program more expensive for the remaining businesses. That in turn prompts other companies to unload their plans. The PBGC receives no tax money. Its revenue comes from investment income and premiums that corporations pay on their insured workers. As a result, soundly managed companies with solid retirement plans are compelled to pick up the costs for plans in mismanaged companies as well as those that just want to unload their employee benefits. A proposal by the Bush Administration to overhaul the system, critics fear, would actually increase the likelihood that more companies will kill existing plans and that other companies considering establishment of a defined-benefit plan will choose a less expensive option. An analysis of 471 FORTUNE 1000 companies by Watson Wyatt Worldwide, a global consulting firm, concluded "healthy companies would see their total PBGC premiums increase 240% under the proposal, more than double the 113% increase for financially troubled employers."

Barring a reversal in government policies, the PBGC could require a multibillion-dollar taxpayer bailout. The last time that happened was during the 1980s and '90s, when another government insurer, the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corp., was unable to keep up with a thrift industry spinning out of control. The Federal Government eventually spent $124 billion. Unlike the FSLIC, which was backed by the U.S. government, the PBGC is not. That means an indifferent Congress could turn its back on the retirement crash. By the agency's estimate, that would translate into a 90% reduction in pensions it currently pays.

WHERE THE 401(K) FALLS SHORT

The universal replacement to the pension, by the consensus of the Bush Administration, Congress, Wall Street and corporate America, is the ubiquitous 401(k). As Bush explained at a gathering at Auburn University in Montgomery, Ala., earlier this year, "When I was young, I didn't know anything about 401(k)s because I don't think they existed. Defined-benefit plans were the main source of retirement. Now they've got what they call defined-contribution plans. Workers are taking aside some of their own money and watching it grow through safe and secure investments."

Tell that "safe and secure" part to the folks at Enron, who lost $1 billion in their 401(k)s. Or WorldCom employees, who also lost $1 billion. Or Kmart employees, who lost at least $100 million. Welcome to the 21st century version of Studebaker.

Truth to tell, the 401(k) was never intended as a retirement plan. It evolved out of a tax break that Congress awarded to corporate executives in 1978, allowing them to defer part of their salaries and cut their tax bills. At the time, federal income-tax rates were much higher for upper-income individuals--the top rate was 70%. (Today it's half that.) It wasn't until several years later that companies began to make 401(k)s available to most employees. Even then, the idea was to encourage saving and provide a tax shelter, not to substitute the plans for pensions. By 1985, assets in 401(k)s had risen to $91 billion, as more companies adopted plans. Still, the amount was only about one-tenth that in guaranteed pensions.

All that changed as corporations discovered they could improve their bottom lines by shifting workers out of costly defined-benefit plans and into much cheaper (for companies) and more risky (for workers) uninsured 401(k)s. In effect, employees took a hefty pay cut and barely seemed to notice. Lawmakers and supporters advocated the move by pointing to a changing economy in which employees switch jobs frequently. They maintained that because defined-benefit plans are based on length of service and an average of salaries over the last few years of work, they don't meet today's needs. But Congress could have revised the rules and made the plans portable over a working life, just like a 401(k), and retained the guarantee of a fixed retirement amount, just like corporations do for their executives.

As it is, 401(k) portability often impedes efforts to save for retirement. As today's job hoppers move from one employer to another, most succumb to the temptation to cash out their 401(k)s and spend the money, a practice hardly reflective of a serious retirement system. Today $2 trillion is invested in those accounts. But to understand why the 401(k) is no substitute for a defined-benefit pension, look beneath that big number. Earlier this year the airwaves crackled with announcements that the value of the average 401(k) had climbed to $61,000 in 2004. Noticeably absent from many accounts was any reference to the median value, a more accurate indicator of the health of America's retirement system. That number was $17,909, meaning half held less, half more. Nearly 1 in 4 accounts had a balance of less than $5,000.

So it is that in the end, all but the most affluent citizens will have two options. They can join Joy Whitehouse in the can-collection business, or they can follow in the footsteps of Betty Dizik of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who is into her sixth decade as a working American. She has no choice. Dizik did not lose her pension. Like most Americans, she never had one, or a 401(k). After her husband died in 1968, she held a series of jobs managing apartments and self-storage facilities, tasks that brought her into contact with the public. "I like working with people," she said. But none of the jobs had a pension.

Hence the importance of her monthly Social Security check, which comes to less than $1,000. The benefit barely covers her medications for heart problems and diabetes, which she says can cost her as much as $800 a month. The new Medicare prescription-drug benefit, she estimates, will still leave her with substantial out-of-pocket expenses. To pay rent, utilities, gas for her car and other living expenses, Dizik has continued to work since she turned 65. For 10 years, she was with Broward County Meals on Wheels, which provides meals to seniors, some younger than she is. But three years ago, when she turned 75, driving 100 miles a day began exacting a toll.

Now she works at a nearby office of H&R Block, the tax- return service. "I do everything there," she says. "I am the receptionist. The cashier. I open the office, close the office. I'm the one who takes the money to the bank. I do taxes." A widow, she lives alone in an apartment building for seniors. Her four children help with the rent, but she is reluctant to accept anything more. "All my children are great, but I do not like to ask them for anything," she said. "I'm waiting for myself to get old, when I will need their help." For the time being, she says, "I'm going strong. I have to."

She doesn't have much hope that Washington will be able to help seniors like her. "They don't understand what it's like to worry: Are you going to be able to make it every month, to pay the telephone bill, the electric bill? How much are you going to have left over for food and other expenses?" Her key to getting by each month is forcing herself to live within a strict budget. "You learn to live very carefully," she said. Although Dizik really would like to retire, she can't. "I will be working the rest of my life." Soon, she will have lots of company.

Read the rest...

Big Time Hunting

As the The New Republic points out, it appears Reid has his sights on Cheney:

This Washington Post article makes it sound as though the plan was rather longer in the making, just that Reid made the final decision on Monday night. Perhaps there was a misunderstanding here.

More dramatically, Reid also made it clear that he believes the delay in the Senate Intelligence Committee's investigation of prewar Iraq WMD -- the underlying issue behind Tuesday's closed session -- is entirely attributable to Vice President Dick Cheney. "Nothing happens regarding intelligence gathering ... unless it's signed off on by the Vice President," he said. "[Senate Intelligence chairman Pat] Roberts couldn't do it"-- i.e., Roberts couldn't conduct a full investigation without Cheney's approval. When I asked Reid whether he meant to state so flatly that Cheney was personally and directly stalling the Intelligence Committee's work, he didn't pause a beat. In fact he almost stood from his chair. "Yes. I say that without any qualification ... Circle it."

The Bug Man vs Bugman



Write your own caption...

Bat Shit Crazy: Las Vegas Edition

How someone like this manages to get elected is beyond me:

Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman has suggested that those who deface freeways with graffiti should have their thumbs cut off on television. Goodman, appearing Wednesday on the "Nevada Newsmakers" television show, said, "In the old days in France, they had beheading of people who commit heinous crimes.

"You know, we have a beautiful highway landscaping redevelopment in our downtown. We have desert tortoises and beautiful paintings of flora and fauna. These punks come along and deface it. I'm saying maybe you put them on TV and cut off a thumb," the mayor added. "That may be the right thing to do."

Goodman also suggested that whippings or canings should be brought back for children who get into trouble.

Winning Hearts and Minds: Argentina Edition



More info via Reuters...

Judging Alito: It's Not So Much That He Hates Widows...

It's that he loves the corporations:

Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. ruled in a 2002 case in favor of the Vanguard mutual fund company at a time when he owned more than $390,000 in Vanguard funds and later complained about an effort to remove him from the case, court records show -- despite an earlier promise to recuse himself from cases involving the company.

The case involved a Massachusetts woman, Shantee Maharaj, who has spent nearly a decade fighting to win back the assets of her late husband's individual retirement accounts, which had been frozen by Vanguard after a court judgment in favor of a former business partner of her husband.

Her lawyer, John G. S. Flym, a retired Northeastern law professor, said in an interview yesterday that Alito's "lack of integrity is so flagrant" in the case that he should be disqualified as a Supreme Court nominee.

Gotcha



Write your own caption...

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Countdown: Heckuva Job, Brownie



Olbermann covers Mike Browne's fashion woes during the Katrina disaster, as well as the ongoing cronyism and incompetence (video).

More of Brownie's emails can be found here.

The Slow Cooked Goose

Yum:

Karl Rove, the president's chief political strategist, may have felt relief last week when he avoided an indictment from Patrick Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor, and instead had a walk-on role under the legal pseudonym "Official A" in the indictment of his colleague, Lewis "Scooter" Libby. But Mr Fitzgerald's record as attorney in Chicago – when he has cited "Official A" in other court filings – is ominous. Official As usually get indicted.

[...]

A former federal prosecutor said: "That suggests that A was within the scope of the investigation and that the grand jury found probable cause to believe the official did what the indictment says. Whether that official will be indicted, there is no way to tell. One reason not to identify them is that you do not wish to injure his reputation when there is little chance of indictment, or you want to disguise the progress of your investigation."

Mr Fitzgerald's record points to the latter. The best example concerns George Ryan, the former governor of Illinois. In May 2002 an indictment referred to a mysterious "Official A", charged with authorising kickbacks in return for a share. Mr Ryan denied he was the official. "I don't believe I am. I sure as hell don't think I am." Fast- forward three years and Mr Ryan has been not only unmasked as Official A but in September went on trial on 22 counts of corruption.

Budget Problems?

Blame the Democrats... Hell yeah!

Republicans may control Congress and the White House, but a leading House Republican says they can't be blamed for runaway federal spending on their watch. Blame it on the war, said Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas. Or the Democrats. [...] He also blamed Democrats, complaining that they haven't offered any suggestions on how to cut spending. He said they created a congressional budget process that makes it difficult to cut spending. "We've been operating off a Congress designed by Democrats," he said.

The Republicans took control of Congress in 1995.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

What else would you call those who steal from the poor:

The food stamp cuts in the House measure would knock nearly 300,000 people off nutritional assistance programs, including 70,000 legal immigrants, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

About 40,000 children would lose eligibility for free or reduced-price school lunches, the CBO estimated.

A separate House measure would scale back federal administrative aid to state child-support enforcement programs, saving the federal government nearly $5 billion over five years but potentially cutting child-support collections even more.

Still another House provision would roll back a court-ordered expansion of foster care support, denying foster care payments to relatives who take in children removed from their parents' homes by court order. That provision would reduce the coverage of foster care payments to about 4,000 children a month and cut $397 million from the program through 2010, the CBO said.

To give to the rich:
Those tax cuts, totaling $70 billion over five years, would more than offset the deficit reduction that would result from the budget cuts.

Words of Mass Deception

Ah, the fear mongering nostaligia of it all:

"Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction." - Dick Cheney, Speech to VFW National Convention, 8/26/2002

"Iraq has stockpiled biological and chemical weapons, and is rebuilding the facilities used to make more of those weapons. We have sources that tell us that Saddam Hussein recently authorized Iraqi field commanders to use chemical weapons - the very weapons the dictator tells us he does not have." - George W. Bush, Radio Address, 10/5/2002

"We've also discovered through intelligence that Iraq has a growing fleet of manned and unmanned aerial vehicles that could be used to disperse chemical or biological weapons across broad areas." - George W. Bush, Cincinnati, Ohio Speech, 10/7/2002

"We know for a fact that there are weapons there." - Ari Fleischer, Press Briefing, 1/9/2003

"We know that Saddam Hussein is determined to keep his weapons of mass destruction, is determined to make more." - Colin Powell, Remarks to UN Security Council, 2/5/2003

"Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised." - George W. Bush, Address to the Nation, 3/17/2003

"We know where they are. They're in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad and east, west, south and north somewhat." - Donald Rumsfeld, ABC Interview, 3/30/2003

"But for those who say we haven't found the banned manufacturing devices or banned weapons, they're wrong, we found them." - George W. Bush, Interview with TVP Poland, 5/30/2003

El Documento De Níger Es Falsificación

Warning after warning, and yet the infamous sixteen words still made it in...
Italian secret services warned the United States in January 2003 that a dossier about a purported Iraq-Niger uranium deal were fake, an Italian lawmaker said Thursday after a briefing by an Italian intelligence chief. "At about the same time as the State of the Union address, they (Italy's SISMI secret services) said that the dossier didn't correspond to the truth," Sen. Massimo Brutti told journalists after the parliamentary commission was briefed. He was referring to U.S. President George W. Bush's speech in the weeks before the start of the Iraq war.

The Reluctant Hawks

The Democrats -- and any reality-based Republicans for that matter -- plain and simple, need to come clean on the case for war in Iraq. Enough is enough. They need to admit they we're wrong: that the war is wrong. Because staying the course will never change the fact that it was, and still is, an unjustifiable war. They were misled by the Bushco war machine, we all know that... And that is pathetic in itself. But there is no redemption for those who cannot admit their faults. If they want our support they need to get off the fence, because sentiment like this runs far and wide throughout the left, and come '06 it will be more prevalent on the right as well, and it will cost them:

As much as I'm infuriated by the Bush brigade's steadfast support of the Iraq horror, I find myself angrier still when pro-war liberals -- the so-called reluctant hawks -- wring their hands over the bloody mess they've wrought with their neo-conservative allies. There are many such handwringers in politics, especially within the leadership of the Democratic Party. Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware is forever asking "tough questions" about Iraq (the torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo upset him terribly), without drawing the obvious conclusion that we never should have attacked in the first place, and need to get out as fast as possible.

Are you listening Hillary? Swallow your pride, admit you were duped, and let's get the hell out. Now.

19% Job Approval



Way to go Dick...

Countdown: The World's Worst



Donald Rumsfeld wins the prize for his bird flu pandemic profiteering (video).

Turd Blossomed

It looks like the image meister is going to be cut loose to salvage what's left of the presidency; via the front page of the Washington Post:

Top White House aides are privately discussing the future of Karl Rove, with some expressing doubt that President Bush can move beyond the damaging CIA leak case as long as his closest political strategist remains in the administration.

If Rove stays, which colleagues say remains his intention, he may at a minimum have to issue a formal apology for misleading colleagues and the public about his role in conversations that led to the unmasking of CIA operative Valerie Plame, according to senior Republican sources familiar with White House deliberations.

While Rove faces doubts about his White House status, there are new indications that he remains in legal jeopardy from Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald's criminal investigation of the Plame leak. The prosecutor spoke this week with an attorney for Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper about his client's conversations with Rove before and after Plame's identity became publicly known because of anonymous disclosures by White House officials, according to two sources familiar with the conversation.

Fitzgerald is considering charging Rove with making false statements in the course of the 22-month probe, and sources close to Rove -- who holds the titles of senior adviser and White House deputy chief of staff -- said they expect to know within weeks whether the most powerful aide in the White House will be accused of a crime.

The sweet irony of it all is almost unbearable at this early hour... Almost.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Countdown: Joe Wilson



Wilson sets the record straight as he responds to the his critics' spin (video)

35% Job Approval



Mission Accomplished.

Hardball: Jimmy Carter



The elder statesmen eloquently admonishes the Bush Administration for their immoral policies (video 1, video 2).

Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall...

Who is the fairest of them all?

It's more than a little amusing to hear congressional Republicans worrying about such niceties. Which party likes to hold open five-minute votes indefinitely until the get the results they want? Which party prevents the minority from offering amendments to legislation? Which party forbids the minority from participating in conference committees? Which party shuts down committee hearings went they start to become politically inconvenient? Which party decided that the Senate leader of one party could campaign against the Senate leader of the other party for the first time in American political history?

Republicans want to lecture Dems about decorum and polite floor tactics? Are they kidding?

Bush Has Nothing To Hide...

Right?

If Bush really wanted the public to know what happened (and wanted to save the taxpayers money), he could simply have his White House come clean. He could order all his aides to state publicly what they did or witnessed and what they told the grand jury. (It's not illegal for witnesses to talk about their testimony.) And he and Cheney could do the same. After all, if everyone told the truth, there would be no need for any congressional investigation. Now why wouldn't Bush back an initiative like that?

The White House Criminal Conspiracy

Former federal prosecutor, Elizabeth De La Vega distills the complexity of the White House conspiracy that led us into the war in Iraq; a war that has cost the American people much more than they would have ever been willing to give, if they knew the truth. This passage in particular squarely hits the nail on the head:
From the fall of 2001 to at least March 2003, the following officials, and others, made hundreds of false assertions in speeches, on television, at the United Nations, to foreign leaders and to Congress: President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his Under Secretary, Paul Wolfowitz. Their statements were remarkably consistent and consistently false.
A refresher for some, an eye-opener for many, and yes, blasphemy for the loyalists... But true none the less. Read it. Share it.

Alito Gallupito Flopito

Once again, Bush proves just how out of touch he is with the majority of the American people; via Gallop:

If it becomes clear Alito would vote to reverse Roe v. Wade, Americans would not want the Senate to confirm him, by 53% to 37%.

If most Senate Democrats oppose the nomination and decide to filibuster against Alito, 50% of Americans believe they would be justified, while 40% say they would not.

If the Republicans then decide to eliminate the filibuster on judicial nominations, to ensure an "up-or-down vote" on the nomination, Americans would be evenly divided as to whether that tactic was justified -- 45% say it would be, 47% say it would not.

Positive Reinforcement

Don't forget to send Senator Harry Reid some...

The Daily Show: Senator Barbara Boxer



Stewart and Boxer discuss the Senate's closed session (video).

The Tipping Point?

Mark Schmitt:

I have a theory about Congress, which is that there is often a moment when the effective majority switches, when the minority takes control of the agenda well before an election. It happened in 1994 when Gingrich forced the Crime Bill back to conference. It happened in 1996 when Kennedy forced the Senate to take up the minimum wage increase. After those events, the majority never quite had control of the agenda again.

I think the same thing just happened today when Harry Reid took the Senate into closed session to force a discussion of the delayed Intelligence Committee report on misuse of intelligence.

Bill Frist's ability to run the institution now lies completely in ruins.

This has implications for the politics of Plamegate and Iraq, of course, but it will affect other questions as well. One of them is the Nuclear Option. The conventional wisdom seems to be that if Democrats try to filibuster Alito, the Republicans in the "Gang of 14" will consider the deal broken and vote for the Nuclear Option.

Some of them may. But to pull off the Nuclear Option banning filibusters on judicial nominations will still require an extraordinary exercise of leadership and party discipline to force Senators to do something many of them don't want to do. Frist couldn't quite pull it off five months ago, he sure can't do it now. There are plenty of Republicans who weren't part of the Gang of 14 but who did not want to have to vote for the Nuclear Option back in May and were very glad to see it go away. (Specter and Ted Stevens come to mind.) They definitely don't want to now, and Frist no longer has any leverage to make them do it. And some others might wonder why they would want to end filibusters 13 months before they risk losing control of the institution.

Read the rest

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Countdown: Covering Cover-Ups



Olbermann raises the likely possibility that the Bush Administration deliberately obstructed Fitzgerald's investigation to delay any charges being released until after the '04 election cycle (video).

Media Mea Culpa On Iraq War Buildup



Or at least something that slightly resembles one... Because according to Andrea Mitchell, the role of a journalist is to echo the White House's talking points. Even if it's a trumped up case for war (video).

Boo Hoo



Write your own caption...

Harry Gives 'Em Hell



Video at Think Progress...

SEN. HARRY REID: America deserves better than this. They also deserve a searching and comprehensive investigation into how the Bush administration brought this country to war. Key questions that need to be answered include:

How did the Bush administration assemble its case for war against Iraq? We heard what Colonel Wilkerson said.

Who did the Bush administration officials listen to and who did they ignore?

How did the senior administration officials manipulate or manufacture intelligence presented to the Congress and the American people?

What was the role of the White House Iraq Group, or WHIG, a group of senior White House officials tasked with marketing the war and taking down its critics? We know what Colonel Wilkerson says.

How did the administration coordinate its efforts to attack individuals who dared to challenge the administration’s assertions? We know what happened to them — I listed a few.

Why has this administration failed to provide Congress with the documents that would shed light on their misconduct and the misstatements?

Unfortunately, the Senate committee that should be taking the lead in providing these answers is not. Despite the fact that the chairman of Senate Intelligence Committee publicly committed to examine these questions more than a year and a half ago, he has chosen not to keep that commitment. Despite the fact that he restated the commitment earlier this year on national television, he has still done nothing.

Mr. President, enough time has gone by. I demand on behalf of the American people that we understand why these investigations aren’t being conducted, and in accordance with Rule 21, I now move that Senate go into closed session.

Democrats Force Closed Meeting On Iraq

Harry, give 'em hell!

Democrats forced the Republican-controlled Senate into an unusual closed session Tuesday, questioning intelligence that President Bush used in the run-up to the war in Iraq and accusing Republicans of ignoring the issue. "They have repeatedly chosen to protect the Republican administration rather than get to the bottom of what happened and why," Democratic leader Harry Reid said.

Taken by surprise, Republicans derided the move as a political stunt. "The United States Senate has been hijacked by the Democratic leadership," said Majority Leader Bill Frist. "They have no convictions, they have no principles, they have no ideas," the Republican leader said. In a speech on the Senate floor, Reid demanded the Senate go into closed session. The public was ordered out of the chamber, the lights were dimmed, and the doors were closed. No vote is required in such circumstances.

Reid's move shone a spotlight on the continuing controversy over intelligence that President Bush cited in the run-up to the war in Iraq. Despite prewar claims, no weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq, and some Democrats have accused the administration of manipulating the information that was in their possession.

Rumsfeld Profiting From Bird Flu

I'm shocked:

The prospect of a bird flu outbreak may be panicking people around the globe, but it's proving to be very good news for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other politically connected investors in Gilead Sciences, the California biotech company that owns the rights to Tamiflu, the influenza remedy that's now the most-sought after drug in the world.

Rumsfeld served as Gilead Research's chairman from 1997 until he joined the Bush administration in 2001, and he still holds a Gilead stake valued at between $5 million and $25 million, according to federal financial disclosures filed by Rumsfeld.

The forms don't reveal the exact number of shares Rumsfeld owns, but in the past six months fears of a pandemic and the ensuing scramble for Tamiflu have sent Gilead's stock from $35 to $47. That's made the Pentagon chief, already one of the wealthiest members of the Bush cabinet, at least $1 million richer.

The Bush Administration would never embellish the probability of a threat just for their own personal gain... No, they would never stoop that low. Not a chance. Move along, there's nothing to see here.

Tick Tock, Here Comes the Flock

The New York Post Suggests Cheney's Direct Involvement In Plamegate

The right leaning New York Post lives up to its reputation with the following nauseating opening line:
Dick Cheney has a long and wonderful record of service to America. As vice president, he's helped carry forward the Reagan focus on making support for freedom central to our foreign policy.
But surprisingly, they raise some good questions about Cheney's role in the outing of Valerie Plame to their readers:

1) Did he discuss with "Scooter" Libby whether to release Valerie Plame's name to the media?

2) When her name did surface in the press, did he ask Libby if he was the source?

3) When a probe was ordered into who leaked the CIA operative's name to the press, did he ask Libby if he was the source?

4) Since he himself had twice told Libby about Plame, what did he say to Libby when he read media reports that Libby had told a federal grand jury that he learned about Plame's role from a reporter?

And even more to the point, for those who need to be held by the hand...

Here we have a vice president sitting quiet while a special prosecutorial inquiry swirls around the White House — and the president demands to know who leaked. A vice president who remains silent about his own role in telling his top aide about his job. It is simply beyond believability that Cheney — with national attention on the matter ratcheting up day by day — never asked his chief of staff about what he'd done, or about the inconsistencies between what Cheney knew and the story Libby was telling.

Cheney's silence is especially hard to understand when we consider the media battering that Bush — his boss — was taking on this. When the president asked for a special counsel, would it not have been reasonable for Cheney, Bush's loyal No. 2, to call in the group that was working on the Wilson/Plame matter to check if any of them was responsible for the leak?

That Libby may have lied before the grand jury came as a surprise to most of us. But it was no surprise to Cheney. He knew full well that his aide was being disingenuous in telling a grand jury that he first learned about Plame from Tim Russert. Cheney knew because he knew that he was the one who had told him, not some journalist.

Once Cheney realized that his top aide may have committed perjury, did he call Libby to account? Demand an explanation? Press him on whether he was, in fact, the leak? And if he didn't, why not? Was his silence a signal that it was OK for Libby to continue to cover up his role?

It's just a hunch, but I'm guessing this is more deflection to insulate Bush from any accountability — just in case the investigation goes that far. But ironically, depending on which way the wind is blowing, and just how hard, it may do just the opposite. Or maybe, just maybe, they have realized defending this administration is a lost cause, and if they continue to shill, they will lose readership. We shall see.

Rove Is Still Being Targeted

And it appears his lawyer is trying to soften the blow, with some well placed leaks to the press:
Rove remains a focus of the CIA leak probe. He has told friends it is possible he still will be indicted for providing false statements to the grand jury. "Everyone thinks it is over for Karl and they are wrong," a source close to Rove said. The strategist's legal and political advisers "by no means think the part of the investigation concerning Karl is closed."

The Daily Show: As You Leak It



Stewart gives his take on Libby's indictment, Fitzgerald's press conference, and the media circus that follows (video).

Monday, October 31, 2005

The Niger Forgeries

I'm a wee bit suspicious of a hidden agenda, and generally just confused; The American Conservative raises the issue of the Niger documents and their relevance to the case for war, as well as the outing of Valerie Plame. And they're not giving the White House a free pass:

On Jan. 28, 2003, over the objections of the CIA and State, the famous 16 words about Niger's uranium were used in President Bush's State of the Union address justifying an attack on Iraq: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." Both the British and American governments had actually obtained the report from the Italians, who had asked that they not be identified as the source. The UN's International Atomic Energy Agency also looked at the documents shortly after Bush spoke and pronounced them crude forgeries.

President Bush soon stopped referring to the Niger uranium, but Vice President Cheney continued to insist that Iraq was seeking nuclear weapons. The question remains: who forged the documents? The available evidence suggests that two candidates had access and motive: SISMI and the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans.

In January 2001, there was a break-in at the Niger Embassy in Rome. Documents were stolen but no valuables. The break-in was subsequently connected to, among others, Rocco Martino, who later provided the dossier to Panorama. Italian investigators now believe that Martino, with SISMI acquiescence, originally created a Niger dossier in an attempt to sell it to the French, who were managing the uranium concession in Niger and were concerned about unauthorized mining. Martino has since admitted to the Financial Times that both the Italian and American governments were behind the eventual forgery of the full Niger dossier as part of a disinformation operation. The authentic documents that were stolen were bunched with the Niger uranium forgeries, using authentic letterhead and Niger Embassy stamps. By mixing the papers, the stolen documents were intended to establish the authenticity of the forgeries.

[...]

It would have been extremely convenient for the administration, struggling to explain why Iraq was a threat, to be able to produce information from an unimpeachable foreign intelligence source to confirm the Iraqi worst-case. The possible forgery of the information by Defense Department employees would explain the viciousness of the attack on Valerie Plame and her husband. Wilson, when he denounced the forgeries in the New York Times in July 2003, turned an issue in which there was little public interest into something much bigger. The investigation continues, but the campaign against this lone detractor suggests that the administration was concerned about something far weightier than his critical op-ed.

Something is just not quite right here. But my initial stab is that the old school conservatives are trying to draw a line in the sand to separate themselves from an administration that they perceive as going down in flames. It is certainly conceivable, and understandable for the survival of the conservative movement over the long haul. I mean, who could blame the old Republican guard for being fed up with the amateurs in the White House who -- through utter incompetence -- are foiling their sacred project for the new American century.

Rumsfeld on Iraq: "Over Time, We'll Get It Right"

Especially in the wake of a month with the most American casulties since January, Rumsfeld's flippant responses on the state of Iraq are utterly appalling. Via an interview with Spiegel, a German news outlet:

Spiegel: But why are you losing public support at home?

Rumsfeld: That's always been true with wars. Go back and look at history. My Lord, Harry Truman who did a wonderful job as president -- even you might admit that. He contributed to the post World War II world structure and he left office with 23 percent approval rating.

Spiegel: Popularity, in other words, is not a reliable indicator?

Rumsfeld: My Lord, if you get up in the morning in a leadership position and you start chasing popularity polls! The center of gravity in the war in Iraq is not in Iraq. We are not going to lose battles; we're not going to lose skirmishes. Look, the places being fought are your country's public (editor's note: Germany) and our country's public and you (editor's note: the media) are the people that are affecting that. Over time, we'll get it right.

I think the final stages of Alzheimer's have taken hold. More than ever, this man needs to be removed from office.

Cheney Gets Two New Scooters

Who knows, maybe they'll take the fall for him as well...
Vice President Dick Cheney on Monday appointed his counsel, David Addington, as chief of staff to replace Lewis Libby, who was indicted in the CIA leak investigation, the vice president's office said. Cheney also appointed John Hannah, who had served on his national security staff since March 2001, as assistant to the vice president for national security affairs. Libby had held both positions.

Patriotism

Paul Krugman:

The point is that this administration's political triumphs have never been based on its real-world achievements, which are few and far between. The administration has, instead, built its power on myths: the myth of presidential leadership, the ugly myth that the administration is patriotic while its critics are not. Take away those myths, and the administration has nothing left.

[...]

Meanwhile, the Plame inquiry, however it winds up, has ended the myth of the administration's monopoly on patriotism, which was also fading in the face of the war. Apologists can shout all they like that no laws were broken, that hardball politics is nothing new, or whatever. The fact remains that officials close to both Mr. Cheney and Mr. Bush leaked the identity of an undercover operative for political reasons. Whether or not that act was illegal, it was clearly unpatriotic.

Shameless



Write your own caption...

Attention: The Smoking Gun

Be on the lookout for Scooter's mugshot:
Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, Lewis Libby, who was indicted last week in a CIA leak investigation, is scheduled to make his first court appearance on Thursday for an arraignment, a court official said on Monday.
Ah, life's simple pleasures.

Meanwhile, In Iraq...

The deadliest month since January:

Six American soldiers were killed in separate attacks Monday and a Marine died in action the day before, making October the deadliest month for U.S. troops in Iraq since January. U.S. jets struck insurgent targets near the Syrian border and at least six people were killed.

Four soldiers from the Army's Task Force Baghdad soldiers died Monday when their patrol struck a roadside bomb in Youssifiyah, 12 miles south of Baghdad in an area known as the "triangle of death."

Two other soldiers from the 29th Brigade Combat Team were also killed in a bombing Monday near Balad, 50 miles north of Baghdad. The U.S. military also said a Marine was killed Sunday near Amiriyah, 25 miles west of Baghdad.

Those deaths raised the death toll for October to more than 90, the highest monthly total since January when 107 American service members died. The latest deaths brought to 2,025 the number of U.S. service members who have died since the Iraq war began in March 2003.

Freedom is on the march, indeed.

Alito On Civil Rights, Medical Leave, Assault Weapons, Workers' Rights, Reproductive Rights, and Capital Punishment

Via PFAW:

Alito is a leader of the radical right legal movement to prevent the federal government from enforcing civil rights protections and otherwise acting on behalf of the common good. According to one of Alito's opinions, Congress had no authority to require state employers to comply with the Family and Medical Leave Act through payment of damages when they violate the law, a ruling that was repudiated by the Supreme Court. The late Chief Justice Rehnquist, a fellow ultraconservative, wrote the court's decision. Alito also dissented from a ruling by the Third Circuit that Congress has the power under the Commerce Clause to restrict the transfer and possession of machine guns at gun shows.

Alito's record shows an alarming trend toward standing against protections for workers. In a number of dissenting opinions, Alito has taken positions that, if adopted, would have made it more difficult for victims of race and sex discrimination to prove their claims. In one case involving claims of race discrimination, the court majority sharply criticized Alito's dissent, stating that his "position would immunize an employer from the reach of Title VII" in certain circumstances.

Alito wants government to be able to interfere in personal decisions on reproductive rights. In one case, Alito attempted to uphold a provision of Pennsylvania'a restrictive anti-abortion law requiring a woman in certain circumstances to notify her husband before obtaining an abortion. Alito's colleagues on the Third Circuit and Supreme Court disagreed, and overturned the provision.

In one case that came before Alito, an African American had been convicted of felony murder and sentenced to death by an all-white jury from which black jurors had been impermissibly struck. Alito cast the deciding vote and wrote the majority opinion in a 2-1 ruling rejecting the defendant's claims.

SCOTUS 2.0

Here comes the next contender...
President Bush is nominating Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court, The Associated Press has learned, choosing a long-time federal judge embraced by judicial conservatives to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.
Surprise! He's a hardcore conservative white male...

Nicknamed "Scalito" for views resembling those of conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito Jr. is a favorite son of the political right. Appointed in 1990 by George H.W. Bush to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, Alito has earned a reputation for intellectual rigor and polite but frequent dissent in a court that has been historically liberal. His mettle, as well as a personable demeanor and ties to former Republican administrations, has long had observers buzzing about his potential rise to the high court.

[...]

He worked in the solicitor general's office during the Reagan administration and was a U.S. attorney for the District of New Jersey when George H.W. Bush nominated him to the Third Circuit. His 15 years on the bench have been marked by strong conservatism on a case-by-case basis that avoids sweeping opinions on constitutionality.

In 1997, Alito authored the majority opinion upholding a city's right to stage a holiday display that included a Nativity scene and a menorah because the city also included secular symbols and a banner emphasizing the importance of diversity. In Planned Parenthood v. Casey, Alito was the sole dissenter on the Third Circuit, which struck a Pennsylvania law that required women seeking abortions to consult their husbands. He argued that many of the potential reasons for an abortion, such as "economic constraints, future plans, or the husbands' previously expressed opposition . . . may be obviated by discussion prior to abortion." The case went on to the Supreme Court, which upheld the lower court's decision 6 to 3.

Alito's conservative stripes are equally evident in criminal law. Lawrence Lustberg, a New Jersey criminal defense lawyer who has known Alito since 1981 and tried cases before him on the Third Circuit, describes him as "an activist conservatist judge" who is tough on crime and narrowly construes prisoners' and criminals' rights. "He's very prosecutorial from the bench. He has looked to be creative in his conservatism, which is, I think, as much a Rehnquist as a Scalia trait," Lustberg says.

An activist conservatist judge? Funny, I thought George didn't believe in legislating from the bench.

Trick or Treat

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Democrats, Pony Up

Bill Clinton:
You can't say, "Please don't be mean to me. Please let me win sometimes." Give me a break here. If you don't want to fight for the future and you can't figure out how to beat these people then find something else to do.
Amen.

60 Minutes: A Covert Agent Exposed



Ed Bradley covers the national security issues related to the outing of Valerie Plame (video, transcript).

Misprint?

The following italicized text was mysteriously omitted from the front page of today's Washington Post after its initial publish, via Josh Marshall:

On July 12, the day Cheney and Libby flew together from Norfolk, the vice president instructed his aide to alert reporters of an attack launched that morning on Wilson's credibility by Fleischer, according to a well-placed source.

Libby talked to Miller and Cooper. That same day, another administration official who has not been identified publicly returned a call from Walter Pincus of The Post. He "veered off the precise matter we were discussing" and told him that Wilson's trip was a "boondoggle" set up by Plame, Pincus has written in Nieman Reports.

A possible implication of the removed text, via Needlenose:
What I think the Post and Marshall are trying to imply is that those calls from Air Force One were specifically orchestrated by Libby, based on Cheney's instructions on Air Force Two. And special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald has sources on both planes to back that theory up.

Have Patience

Like I would suspect most in the reality-based community, I was initially disappointed with Fitz's offering on Friday. But rest assured, the following will renew your hope that Fitz is going after the big fish. It just might take a little longer than we would like:

In the Illinois corruption case, Fitzgerald raised an investigation into a truck accident in 1998 into a progressively brutal exposure of government corruption. By December 2003, the investigation culminated in an indictment of George Ryan, the former governor.

The case continues — but its course is instructive of Fitzgerald's methods. Beginning with a few indictments, Fitzgerald progressively managed to get witness after witness to cough up more evidence. It took several years and 65 previous defendants before the path of corruption could be clearly traced all the way to the governor’s office. And then the former governor was indicted as well.

If you want to know why there was little relief in the Bush administration when only one official, Scooter Libby, was indicted for obstruction of justice, perjury and lying, this history is instructive. For years in Chicago, because Fitzgerald hadn't yet accumulated enough evidence, Ryan was referred to in the Illinois case as State Official A.

[...]

It’s clear to me that Fitzgerald believes that there was a bigger reason for those little lies, a rationale for the coverup, a larger premise that makes sense of all of this. Part of that premise has to involve the actions and motivations of Cheney. Fitzgerald and his team know this. They have not finished their inquiry and have an important potential source of new information facing a trial under a judge known for hefty sentences. Some kind of plea deal by Libby — a shorter sentence in return for naming names in the underlying case? — is not inconceivable.

The upside is that Bush will most likely be out of office when the case wraps up... Goodbye pardons.

The Road to Iraq

A comprehensive timeline from soup to nuts... Read up.

SNL: Where There's Smoke...



Cheney sets the record "straight"on Libby's indictments (video).

Big Time Resignation

Nicholas Kristof:

Vice President Dick Cheney owes the nation an explanation. According to the indictment, he learned from the C.I.A. that Joseph Wilson's wife worked at the agency and told Mr. Libby that on about June 12, 2003. Why?

[...]

Mr. Libby is now accused in effect of lying to protect Mr. Cheney. According to the indictment, Mr. Libby insisted under oath that he had heard about Mrs. Wilson from reporters, when he had actually heard about her from his boss. You can't help wondering if this alleged perjury was purely his own idea and whether Mr. Cheney was aware of it.

Since Mr. Libby is joined at the hip to Mr. Cheney, it's reasonable to ask: What did Mr. Cheney know and when did he know it? Did the vice president have any grasp of the criminal behavior allegedly happening in his office? We shouldn't assume the worst, but Mr. Cheney needs to give us a full account.

Instead, Mr. Cheney said in a written statement: "Because this is a pending legal proceeding, in fairness to all those involved, it would be inappropriate for me to comment on the charges or on any facts relating to the proceeding."

Balderdash. If Mr. Cheney can't address the questions about his conduct, if he can't be forthcoming about the activities in his office that gave rise to the investigation, then he should resign. And if he won't resign, Mr. Bush should demand his resignation.








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