If you have attended Harvard Law School, or seen the movie Reversal of Fortune, you know that modesty is not one of Alan Dershowitz’s more conspicuous traits. Those who have been denied these experiences can, however, get a feeling for the man from this line in his recent book review in The New York Times: “I wondered how [the author]managed to capture the ambiance of this orthodox Jewish neighborhood in which I grew up, until I noticed that he lists my book, ‘Chutzpah,’ as one of his sources.”
When asked about the congressional delegation that Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) recently led to the Paris Air Show, often called “the biggest junket there is,” the Senator’s office “refuse[d] to disclose how many members came along, how much it cost taxpayers, and offered few details about the event,” according to James G. Lakely of The Washington Times. The staff’s excuse: “Security reasons.” Stevens, it seems, is president pro tempore of the Senate. “It’s very unusual for us to comment on trips that Sen. Stevens makes,” the staff explained, “because they are confidential because he’s in the line of succession.”
As we’ve often pointed out, the junketeers on these trips include not only the members of Congress, but also members of their staffs. The New Republic‘s Michael Crowley recently interviewed a female staffer who enjoyed paid trips to China, Taiwan, Hawaii, New York, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New Orleans. “We always stay at the nicest hotels and eat out at super-nice, trendy restaurants.”
What disturbed me most about the recent revelation about the investigation of the guests on Bill Moyers’s television show “Now” arranged by Kenneth Tomlinson, the chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, was that, according to The New York Times, it was focused on the “political leanings” of the guests. It would be legitimate to investigate whether the facts provided by the guests were true, or whether the segment in which they appeared was fair and accurate. But examining the guests’ political beliefs sounds like an assignment Joe McCarthy would have given Roy Cohn. To get an idea of the quality of intellect behind the report to Tomlinson, consider that it called Sen. Chuck Hagel, the Nebraska Republican, a “liberal” because he had some doubts about Bush’s Iraq policy. It also classified a segment on Pentagon waste as “anti-defense.”
By the way, did you notice that one of the lobbyists hired by Tomlinson is none other than Brian Darling? As an aide to Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), Darling wrote the memo telling Republicans how to make “a great political issue” out of the Terri Schiavo life-support case.
If you have doubted the depth of Wall Street’s corruption, consider that the recent settlement by Citigroup and JP Morgan Chase, in which they agreed to pay Enron investors $2 billion and $2.2 billion respectively, followed by only a few months the agreement by those same two banks to pay WorldCom investors $2.6 billion and $2 billion, respectively. In other words, each of these respected pillars of the financial world were up to their ears in two of the greatest financial scandals of the era.
By the way, be sure to catch Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. George H.W. and George W. can be seen cozying up to Enron executives. As you leave the theater, you might reflect on W.’s recent nomination of Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.), an apostle of deregulation, to head the SEC. If it does nothing else, this film demonstrates the folly of the deregulation zealots, showing that they let Enron manipulate the California energy crisis and revealing how they abused their freedom from oversight to make one shady deal after another.
Have you suspected that a good many of those pharmaceutical ads you see on television exaggerate the benefit of the drug being peddled? According to USA Today, 36 percent of FDA complaints to drug companies about their promotional materials concern “unsubstantiated or misleading efficacy claims.” Fifty-seven percent of the complaints say that the ads “minimized or omitted risk information or made it hard to read.” Unfortunately, the FDA does not complain or demand changes in ads nearly often enough. The agency has only 40 people to review more than 30,000 promotions every year.
I continue to be scared to death of those giant semi-trailer trucks. And with good cause. A recent check in Texas of 5,500 of these behemoths found that more than 1,500 were unsafe, according to a report by Jim Cummins of “NBC Nightly News.” Was this unusual? Not at all. The national figures for last year were 24 percent unsafe. The most common problem is bad brakes.
Speaking of safety, did you know that although up to 90 percent of airline maintenance is performed at night, FAA inspectors spend only 3 percent of their time conducting night-time inspections? This and other troubling facts turned up by the Department of Transportation’s Inspector General prompted Margaret Warner of the “Jim Lehrer Show” to interview Marion Blakey, the FAA administrator, on June 9.
Blakey: “Well I think it’s fundamentally flawed. In fact, we see it as a very old-fashioned approach to looking at safety oversight because, in fact, these days it’s not about standing over someone’s shoulder in the middle of the night and seeing if they’re turning the wrench in the right direction. It’s really about looking to see that the carrier, that the repair stations, those who are providing this kind of service, have very strong safety systems in place. And it’s about analyzing the data to see what the data tell us about where there really is risk.”
Lazy administrators and lazy inspectors love to hide behind this kind of bureaucratic B.S. When a couple of years ago, I asked the Deputy Director of the Department of Homeland Security about what appeared to be several obvious holes in the nation’s security, I was told, don’t worry, “we have a system of systems.” You learn in Washington to ask, exactly what is the system? And what is the data you’re going to analyze? If the system is no good, good data doesn’t help. And if the data is not reliable, the greatest system won’t work. And how can you know the data gives a true picture without looking over some real shoulders as real wrenches are being turned?
I had thought pill-splitting was a dangerous practice born of financial desperation. People, I feared, were only getting half the dose they needed. Not necessarily, reports Ryan Nakashima of the AP. It depends on what pill you split. If you’re supposed to take a 20-milligram dose of Lipitor and split the pill, that’s not good. But if you buy a 40-milligram Lipitor pill and split it, that’s fine. What is lovely about this is that the 40-milligram pill and the 20-milligram dose cost exactly the same.
One hole in the FAA’s system appeared in May, when a 69-year old pilot caused near-chaos in Washington by penetrating the restricted air space around the nation’s Capitol. The pilot took off from the small airport in Smoketown, Pa., without checking weather reports and without reading the FAA’s “Notice to Airmen” which pilots are supposed to read before taking off and which would have told him about the restrictions. He then proceeded to get completely lost, penetrating three layers of restricted airspace–“we have a system of systems”–becoming confused and failing to respond to several warnings by pursuit planes before finally answering.
Why was this pilot flying? He was supposed to have his piloting skills reappraised every two years and have frequent physicals. But what the system fails to provide is a check to see that he actually does what he is supposed to do. No one knows unless he happens to be seen doing something wrong. Then, he may be reported to the FAA. It is also possible that he could have been spotted by one of the very occasional “ramp checks” that FAA conducts to check pilot credentials. There does not, however, appear to have been a ramp check in Smoketown.
Did you see the story in June about the drunk who stole a plane from the Westchester County Airport and flew it away? He could have been a terrorist–as could the pilot from Smoketown.
Although oil companies like BP and Royal Dutch Shell have begun to acknowledge that fossil fuels are the major source of global warming and are investing in alternative fuels, the industry’s giant, Exxon, refuses to go along. Its CEO, Lee Raymond, is firmly opposed to the idea that fossil fuels cause global warming, and to proposals in Congress to cap emissions. Indeed, according to Jeffrey Ball of The Wall Street Journal, as a younger executive in the mid-1980s Raymond shut down Exxon’s renewable-energy program. Needless to say, as CEO, he has not revived it.
When that test pilot strayed into the restricted space around Washington, “it was not until the scare was nearly over,” reports The Washington Post, “that [a sergeant] got word to police commanders.” On the other hand, the Capitol building and the White House had received timely warnings. It’s just the general public that got left out. The Post‘s Colbert King points out that F-16 fighters were prepared to shoot down the plane. If the plane had been loaded with explosives, the danger to those in its path could have been great. Shouldn’t at least the schools have been warned, asks King, so that the children would have had the same chance to take cover that Dick Cheney and the congressmen had? They still would have been killed by a direct hit, but anything less could have spared them if they had been able to take cover.
Congressmen and their staff members are not the only government officials to live well while traveling. Consider the 19 American intelligence agents who angered the Italian government by snatching a Muslim cleric in 2003. Italian prosecutors and police have uncovered credit card and hotel records that show the agents running up bills as much as $500 per person a day at hostelries like Milan’s Hotel Principe di Savoia, which calls itself “one of the world’s most luxuriously appointed hotels,” where the total tab came to $42,000. After they had dispatched the cleric to Germany, several of the agents felt the need for some further R&R. “Four of them,” writes Craig Whitlock of The Washington Post, “checked into luxury hotels” in Venice.
The Bush administration plans to create two new commissions, the Sunset Commission and the Results Commission, that are designed, according to Charles Hunt of The Washington Times, “to evaluate all federal government agencies and eliminate those that did not perform as promised.” I’ve always believed in the need for this kind of evaluation, but I hate to see it performed by the Bush gang. The same applies to another effort of the administration that I would ordinarily applaud–its attempt to make pay raises more dependent upon performance and less on seniority.
The problem is that what the Bushies regard as effective performance by an agency or an employee is likely to be quite different from what makes sense to many of the rest of us. For example, in the Bush team’s eyes, the more a regulatory agency deregulates the better. And the White House’s idea of an employee who deserves promotion is John Bolton. Employees of the Department of Homeland Security seem to share my concern. In a recent survey, they were asked if they believed that the Department’s personnel decisions were based on merit. Only 20 percent answered yes.
A young college student recently told Jason DeParle of The New York Times that her ambition is to be a pharmaceutical company lobbyist. Ah, the idealism of youth.
The news about the FBI has not been heartening. On June 6 came word that for at least two years before its computerized case management system crashed, there was ample evidence that it was a turkey. On June 7, members of the 9/11 commission, who have formed a private group to continue operating as anti-terrorism watchdogs, said, according to The Washington Post, that “the FBI has stumbled badly in its attempts to remake itself.” On June 10, the Post said that according to a report by the Inspector General of the Department of Justice, “the FBI missed at least five chances to detect the presence of two of the hijackers” before 9/11. On June 20, the AP reported that FBI managers admitted that “expertise about the Middle East or terrorism was not important in choosing the agents they promoted to top jobs.”
George Bald, the FBI’s anti-terrorism chief, said “his first terrorism training came ‘on the job’ when he moved to headquarters to oversee the counter-terrorism strategy two years ago.” When asked about his knowledge of the Middle East he said, “I wish that I had it. It would be nice.”
Lack of expertise was also a problem with the FBI computer project, as were frequent management turnover and design changes–including 36 to the contract alone. What happens is that when new managers come in, they want to put their stamp on the project by making changes before they know what they are doing. Gradually, they realize the project is a disaster waiting to happen, and become determined to get out at least one step ahead of the sheriff: “Send me anywhere, I’ll go to Butte!”
In a recent issue of The New Yorker, Jeffrey Goldberg compared the power of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) to that of the AARP and the National Rifle Association. If that strikes you as incredible, consider a conversation he had with an AIPAC insider in which Goldberg asked if AIPAC’s influence had diminished. “A half smile appeared on his face, and he pushed a napkin across the table. ‘You see this napkin?’ he said. ‘In twenty-four hours, we could have the signatures of seventy senators on this napkin.’”
I was one of those teenagers who took up smoking because I wanted to look sophisticated like the people in the movies of the 1940s. Back then it seemed like all the stars smoked. Even today, smoking is featured in 75 percent of the films. And unfortunately the movies still influence the young. “390,000 kids will take up smoking this year because of what they see their screen idols doing,” reports Rusty Marks of the Charleston Gazette on the basis of statistics from the American Lung Association. Christina Ricci, now a major star herself, took up smoking at age 11. According to Marks, “Ricci… vowed to quit smoking when she hit 20. Five years later… she’s still puffing away.” The statistics for smokers who start that early are grim. Isn’t anyone in the film industry troubled by what they are doing? “We believe that most of the strong, positive images for cigarettes and smoking are created by cinema and television,” said a 1989 Phillip Morris report.
American sugar beet farmers are in the news because they are threatened by CAFTA, which may result in reducing the restrictions on the import of foreign sugar. I must admit I have a soft spot in my heart for sugar beets. The reason is that in my seventh grade geography class, when I was asked about the crops grown in a state or country and was in doubt about the correct answers, I found that “sugar beets” was the one most likely to be accepted by the teacher. It may not have been first, second, or third, but it almost always made the list. Success with that answer meant that “beet sugar” was an absolute lock as an answer to the next question, which was what does the state or country produce?
Whenever the Watergate story resurfaces and its heroes are celebrated, a couple of names are usually left out. One is that of Frank Willis, the guard who discovered the break-in. The other is E.J. Bachinski, the Post police reporter who got hold of one burglar’s address book, which connected the burglars to Howard Hunt and the White House. Bachinski saw the potential dynamite, gave the information to Bob Woodward and the rest is history. But without either of these men, there would never have been a Watergate scandal.