Tilting At Windmills

With everyone distracted for months by the Iraq war and its build up, I fear Wall Street and the business community may have been falling back into their bad habits. Remember how investment banking companies were supposed to stop pressuring their analysts to give favorable ratings to their clients’ stocks? Well, here’s what’s happening: The stock analysts employed by the top investment banking firms, writes The Wall Street Journals Randall Smith, “still consistently give higher ratings to stocks of their own banking clients.” For example, at Goldman Sachs, 79 percent of the stocks with “outperform” ratings were those of clients.

As HealthSouth’s stock was plunging last year, its most enthusiastic backer was UBS Warburg analyst Howard Capek, who refused to lower his rating below “buy.” The investment banker for HealthSouth is–guess who?–UBS Warburg, of course.

As for the rights of shareholders, here’s how, according to the Times’ Floyd Norris, Verizon answered a shareholder who wanted the company to have competing candidates in corporate elections: “If there were competing candidates, it would be difficult to predict which individuals would be elected.” In other words, are you crazy?! How could we be sure of winning and keeping control?! So much for the cause of corporate democracy.

Each time I read of innocent Iraqis being shot at checkpoints because they hadn’t heeded orders to halt–one Marine said, “Everyone should understand ‘stop'”–I recalled a story I had read shortly before the war started. The military, it said, was continuing to enforce its policy of discharging known gays. Among those recently discharged, the article noted, were five fluent Arabic speakers.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the administration’s march to war was the dubious intelligence used to justify it. The most conspicuous examples were the forged Niger documents cited by Bush to justify his assertion that Iraq had tried to buy uranium from Africa and the aluminum tubes he kept insisting were being used for nuclear programs, even though the U.N. inspectors said there was no evidence the tubes were being used for anything but missile production. Earlier, the administration had tried desperately to inflate the thinnest evidence into a case that Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden were in cahoots. Remember that al Qaeda operative who was supposed to have met an Iraqi diplomat in Prague? And don’t forget the other al Qaeda agent who was supposed to have been treated in a Baghdad hospital.

This kind of stretching reached the outer limits of absurdity when the Bush gang compiled a list of nations involved in the “coalition of the willing.” Among the coalition’s members with no troops and scarcely a dime to spare for a military adventure are Costa Rica, Palau, Iceland, the Marshall Islands, and Micronesia. The administration’s list also included the Solomon Islands and Slovenia, even though neither had agreed. Slovenia apparently got on the list because the State Department confused it with Slovakia, which had agreed to join the coalition. After all, the first four letters of each are the same. Besides, one suspects some of the State Department officials compiling the list found the exercise so embarrassing they got a tad careless putting it together.

As we were going to war in Iraq over the dedicated opposition of French diplomats and Francophobia was rearing its head across America, I happened to have lunch at Les Halles, a French restaurant in downtown Washington. As I was being served, I noticed that all the waiters were wearing the identical tie–one emblazoned not only with an American flag, but also a screaming eagle, the symbol of the 101st Airborne.

Concerned that its readers might not be up to snuff on matters of military rank and organization, The Washington Post recently ran a chart designed to make everything clear. What it showed, however, was that it definitely wasn’t clear to the Post. Two important ranks, major and brigadier general, were completely omitted, as was a very sizable organizational unit–the regiment.

“Money Problems Made Airlines Safer,” was the headline over a recent article by Matthew Wald in The New York Times. The reason is that “airlines with money problems have retired some planes, leaving active fleets of ‘newer, state-of-the-art’ airplanes,” according to Nicholas A. Sabatini, the FAA’s associate administrator for regulation and certification. Another factor is that fewer planes to fly means less need for pilots, which, because of seniority, means, “what you have on the flight deck is a very highly experienced combination of crew members.” I did not find this news totally reassuring. The implication seems to be that the more prosperous the airline, the more likely we are to be flying decrepit planes crewed from the bottom of the barrel.

“For a Supreme Court Graybeard, States’ Rights Can Do No Wrong,” was another recent Times headline, this over an article by Linda Greenhouse describing Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s more than 20 years of dedication to the principle of judicial deference to the authority of the states. The question I wish Greenhouse had explored was just what happened to that principle in the case of Bush v. Gore, in which the Rehnquist court reversed a long judicial tradition of deference to the states on election issues, handing Bush a victory in Florida without the recount that might have changed the result and that had, in fact, been ordered by the state’s highest court.

John Ashcroft take note: In a recent survey designed to determine the percentage of government employees who hold the leadership of their agency in high regard, the figure for the Justice Department was 38.7 percent.

Although Matthew Wald argues that airline poverty may be improving safety, the opposite may be true according to The Wall Street Journals Andy Pasztor, who sees a danger that cutbacks will adversely affect maintenance. The airlines have dropped or targeted for elimination more than 7,000 maintenance employees. The head of the pilots’ union of United Airlines complains about “an alarming trend” of deferring maintenance or overlooking potential safety problems, writes Pasztor, who concludes “what’s clear is that the nation’s largest airlines are rushing to slash maintenance costs.”

A major airline trend is to “outsource” maintenance, with the airlines contracting with another company to take care of its planes –which I nervously recall is just what ValueJet did with the plane that went down in the Everglades several years ago. The crash of a U.S. Airways turboprop as it took off from Charlotte, N.C., last fall is suspected of being due to an inexperienced mechanic who was working not for U.S. Airways, but for a contractor.

Only in New York Department: In a recent article attacking breast feeding, The New York Observer’s Leora Tanenbaum cited as one of the “sacrifices” required by the practice is that women have to wear “loose-fitting, unfashionable nursing shirts.”

The loophole you can drive a truck through in the new House ethics rule is the one that permits all-expense-paid trips by congressmen to charity fundraising events. “Under the new rule,” write The Washington Posts Jim VandeHei and Juliet Eilperin, “a corporation could anonymously underwrite a charity event on the greens of, say, Pebble Beach … and provide accommodations at a five-star resort. The corporation then could send its top executives and lobbyists to the event for a weekend of schmoozing with lawmakers.”

Another ethics tidbit: The boxes at the MCI Center where the Washington Wizards and Capitals play offer the most luxurious accommodations. The next-best seats sell for $90 each, yet the House Ethics Committee permits the MCI Center to declare that the box seat is worth less than $50 when it is occupied by a congressman.

A recent survey of Pennsylvanians, reported in the February issue of Governing magazine, shows that “the majority favored higher prescription drug subsidies for the elderly, more money for public education, and better funding for higher education.” Sounds like they’re a bunch of liberals, doesn’t it? But wait a minute. “They also, however, opposed any increase in the state sales tax or income tax.” When it comes to paying the bill, they suddenly become very conservative.

The average civil servant in the Washington area now makes $72,670 a year. When you consider that federal employees also have health, retirement, vacation, and sick-leave benefits more generous than is usual in the private sector, it is clear that reforming federal pay does not require raises for everyone, but raises targeted to performance and to hard-to-fill positions.

By the way, there has been a major breakthrough on the pay-for-performance front. Washington-area congressmen usually move in lockstep with the civil service unions, but Rep. Tom Davis, a Republican from suburban Virginia, is said by The Washington Posts Stephen Barr to favor a system that would “remove longevity as a key factor in decisions on pay” and be based on performance ratings. And what’s more, low-performing employees could be fired. This is definitely not going to be an easy sell to the unions, but it is heartening that Davis doesn’t seem to feel he is committing political suicide by proposing it.

Many people buy cell phones for the sense of security they provide. Nearly 30 percent of 911 calls are made with cell phones, according to Jim Goerke of the National Emergency Number Association. But what actually happens when the calls are made?

“When the windows shattered in the little white house in Chillum and flames lapped upward to the children’s bedrooms, a neighbor grabbed her cell phone and dialed 911,” writes The Washington Posts Petula Dvorac. “Her call flew through the skies of Prince George’s County–only to land at the wrong fire department.” Chillum is in Maryland, but the call had been picked up by a tower in the District of Columbia, which sent it on to a District firehouse. The blaze killed a woman and two of her children.

Sometimes cell phones just don’t connect, and often a call is picked up by the wrong cell-phone tower. The result is that 15 percent of 911 calls made by cell phones don’t get through, according to a test that Dvorac writes was conducted by Consumer Reports. Even when the caller gets to the right place, “most 911 call takers do not have access to automatic addresses or call-back numbers, as they do with calls from traditional phones.”

The most maddening story is of an 18-year-old woman who called 911 to report that she was being kidnapped and sexually assaulted. The 911 operator simply could not tell where she was. She was not found until her assailant had killed her.

By 2005 there’s supposed to be a system in place that will use Global Positioning System technology to pinpoint a phone’s location. Until then, the bad news is that you can’t count on your cell phone to do what you thought it would.

According to a Pew Research Center poll, 46.4 percent of Fox News viewers see themselves as “conservative” or “very conservative” and only 17.7 percent as “liberal” or “very liberal.” Considering that we’re talking about Fox, that’s not exactly astounding. But the figures for CNN and MSNBC aren’t that different–39.7 versus 16.1 and 40.4 versus 15.8, respectively. Even the figures for ABC, NBC, and CBS are similar.

I was reminded of these facts last month by Slate’s Jack Shafer, who used them to explain Phil Donahue’s rapid demise. What worried me is that this confirms my memory of what it was like on C-SPAN before Brian Lamb put in the liberal-conservative and the Republican-Democratic lines. Back then, the questions struck me as tilting roughly two-to-one conservative.

One explanation of this phenomenon is that television news watchers are mostly older people. But whatever the reason, the danger is that television news will consciously or unconsciously slant its coverage to please its viewers’ prejudices. The largely rah-rah coverage of the war against Iraq is a disturbing illustration of this tendency. For example, Judy Woodruff was one of only a handful of newscasters who seemed at all concerned about dead and wounded Iraqis. If all these conservatives hear only what they want to hear, it seems probable that we will be governed more and more by George Bushes and Tom DeLays.

To the lefties who are now and then permitted token appearances on these networks, I urge them to think of ways to shake up the rigidities of their audience. For example, whenever I’m on one of these shows, I try to make my case that Jesus was a liberal.

Let us hope our reconstruc-tion record in Afghanistan does not forecast our performance in Iraq. “Sixteen months after the ruling Taliban fell and Hamid Karzai took over as president, Afghanistan is still struggling to establish the basics of a working government,” reports Marc Kaufman of The Washington Post. “Virtually every significant system in the country is broken.”

A friend of mine was listening to Mona Charen being interviewed on C-SPAN a couple of weeks ago. He was gratified to hear her hold forth on how important it is to be civil and open-minded to people on the other side of the ideological aisle. Then he remembered that she was discussing her book about liberals entitled, Useful Idiots. Of course, it must be acknowledged that the Left has its Michael Moore who describes conservatives as Stupid White Men.

Justice Charles E. Ramos of the New York State Supreme Court would be wise to avoid bar association gatherings for the foreseeable future. He has dared to question the size of the fee in the five-year-old tobacco settlement, suggesting that $13,000 an hour might be a bit excessive.

If John Grisham’s new book, The King of Torts, has made you aware that the class-action bar is not always typified by Erin Brockovich, you might want to follow what the boys are up to on their own Web site, suitably named BigClassAction.com, where you get access to the group’s newsletter, Class Action and Large Recoveries.

Air marshals sit in first-class seats so they can be in the best position to intercept terrorists headed for the pilots’ cabin. Now, a source of The Washington Posts Sara Kehaulani Goo tells her, “There’s a lot of pressure from congressional committees, from airlines” to move at least one marshal to coach. Why? “To give the airlines more high-price seats to sell.” This is a classic example of how Congress will require an airline-safety measure, then weaken it under pressure from the airlines.

Another troubling sign in the realm of airline security is the report from Time’s Viveca Novak that “because of severe budget problems … 3,000 airport screeners [will] be cut by June 1.” One has to wonder if the budget problems have anything to do with the Bush tax cut.

Of course, some of the screeners may need replacing on competence grounds. One traveler, reports Audrey Hudson of The Washington Times, recently wrote Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) “that he was separated from his group, his billfold, passport, and briefcase taken out of sight, his shoes removed, and he was ordered to stand on one foot.” This was not possible, because the man was recovering from a leg fracture. But that did not deter the screener from the “persistent demand” that he stand on one foot at a time. Last summer, as I was waiting to board a flight from San Francisco, I was asked to remove my shoes not once, which seems reasonable, but twice, which doesn’t–especially since I’m 75 and considerably past my potential terrorist prime.

The push toward leanness among homeland security personnel in the field does not seem to extend to the home office. Among the jobs available there are “travel aide to the chief of staff,” “executive assistant to the deputy secretary,” and “assistant press secretary to the assistant secretary for public affairs.”

One thing is certain: No one seems to be sure how many employees the department has. Bush says 170,000; Ridge has used the same figure, as well as 180,000 and 190,000; Ann S. Tursic, the chief of the department’s personnel security division, who sounds like she might really know, says the correct figure is 210,000.

Last year, as the new department was being created, we warned that reorganizations do not necessarily do anything more than give the appearance of action, with desks moved, walls torn down, and new partitions built. What counted, we said, was that the individual agencies being moved around actually got better. At the Immigration and Naturalization Service, at least, this does not appear to be the case. The headline over a recent article by Jerry Seper of The Washington Times: “INS Tracking of Foreign Students Still Lagging.”

We also said that two agencies not part of the new department were more important to homeland security than any of those that were included, and that reform of these agencies–the FBI and the CIA–was the most urgent homeland security challenge facing the administration. Recent proof of the need for reform at the FBI came with the revelation by the Associated Press that “the Justice Department has identified about 3,000 criminal cases that could have been affected by flawed procedures and skewed testimony by FBI laboratory technicians.”

The laboratory scandal was initially revealed by a senior chemist at the FBI who was repeatedly contradicted by top bureau officials, before they finally had to admit that he was right. Has the bureau’s treatment of whistleblowers improved after 9/11? More than a year later, according to The Washington Posts Dan Eggen, it had not. Last October, Robert Jordan, the head of the FBI’s Office of Professional Responsibility, humiliated a whistleblower and picked someone else to serve in his job. The Justice Department’s inspector general ruled that Jordan had left “the clear appearance of retaliation.” But Jordan has not been fired or replaced. He’s still on the job. His sole punishment: the loss of a salary bonus and the requirement that he undergo “counseling.”

But the FBI farce to top them all is the just-revealed story of how Katrina Leung is said to have spied on us for China while the FBI was paying her $1.7 million to spy on China. Although some in the bureau grew suspicious of her in the early 1990s, the Los Angeles agent who was her handler said not to worry, he knew her well. He had, in fact, been her lover for 18 years. She chose her lovers wisely. Another was a former FBI agent who became director of security for the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, with all its juicy nuclear secrets.

I can see her greeting each of these fellows as they came in turn to her door: “Darling, fix yourself a drink, and let me take your briefcase.”

Washington Monthly - Donate today and your gift will be doubled!

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation

Charles Peters

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly.