Tilting at Windmills

If you doubt the Bush administration’s commitment to the welfare of private business, consider the recent deal the Department of Labor made with Wal-Mart. It promised to give 15 days advance notice before inspecting for child-labor violations. You can see the scene now: Sam, we gotta hide these kids. Actually, considering that it’s Wal-Mart, it probably has some super-efficient method of keeping the minors out of sight until the inspector leaves.

What has happened to all the money from the $250-billion tobacco settlement? If you thought it was being used to keep kids from smoking, or to help the addicted kick the habit, you are wrong. Less than 3 percent has been used for these purposes, according to ABC’s Brian Ross. How has the money been used? In New York, some of it was invested in golf course sprinklers. In Virginia, a large portion went to improve an auto speedway. Andyou won’t believe thisin North Carolina, tobacco warehouses were built with the money.

CIA is likely to avoid charges in most prisoner deaths was a recent headline in The New York Times. It is truly amazing how the higher-ups have avoided punishment despite one prisoner-abuse scandal after another, while Lynndie England gets slammed with three years. What outrages me even more is that all the evidence at the England trial related to her mental and emotional suitability demonstrated conclusively that the Army should never have assigned her to Abu Ghraib, and probably should not have recruited her in the first place. There is a terrible cruelty in the Army’s misusing a human being and then blaming her for the consequences.

Those who scorn socialized medicine might ponder two recent findings from a study by the Commonwealth Fund of 6,957 recently hospitalized patients from the United States, Britain and five other countries with state-run health care. Thirty-four percent of Americans were victims of medical errors, but only 22 percent of Britons. Half of the Americans reported going without medical treatment because of its cost, but only 13 percent of Britons. The United States came out worst of all the countries in these two categories.

Another category in which the United States led was in the number of patients reporting problems with coordination of their care. In the case of my seriously ill friends, this has been the most maddening problem of all: Physicians who don’t bother to talk to each other even though they’re treating the same patient.

Michael Bloomberg’s campaign may have found a way out of the interest group politics that have divided this nation in recent years. Or at least they may have broadened the groups. What Bloomberg’s consultant, the firm of Penn, Schoen, and Berland, has done is emphasize finding common interests among voters instead of classifying them on the basis of racial, cultural, and ideological differences. They hope this method will help transcend the differences between red and blue states. I pray they’re right. Anyway, it’s good to see someone trying it and seeing it seem to work in at least one election. Since Hillary Clinton is one of the Penn firm’s clients, this approach just might soon make it to the national stage.

To keep you up to date on the District of Columbia’s government, the latest unsettling news to emerge involves Jeffrey DeWhite Edwards, described by The Washington Times as one of the district’s top asbestos regulators. According to court records, Edwards offered this deal to an asbestos removal company: He would soften the rules governing asbestos removal in return for $10,000 cash. The company, in an unusual display of ethical corporate behavior, went to the FBI, and Edwards was arrested.

Before we leave D.C., we should bring you up to date on the local ambulance dispatchers. Their latest fiasco came when they had a choice of two ambulances to send to a serious auto accident. One ambulance was 12.4 miles away; the other just 1.8 miles away. Guess which one the dispatcher chose? The first, of course, which proceeded to fight its way through traffic all the way from far Northwest Washington to far Southeast.

I have not been one of Condoleezza Rice’s big fans, but I very much admired her recent effort, including an all-nighter, in the negotiations that brought about the agreement giving the people of Gaza access to the outside world. This is the first time that I can recall that the Bush administration has done anything but give lip service to the cause of peace between Israel and the Palestinians, usually offered as part of brief meetings at the White House, or equally short stopovers on presidential trips. You can see Bush saying, I’m really concerned as he looks at his watch. There has been nothing like the noble effort that Bill Clinton made to bring the parties together.

In general, Rice seems to be performing better in her current role than she did on the White House staff. Maybe putting a little distance between herself and that gang has been good for her.

I opposed the invasion of Iraq and have been pretty much in the cut-and-run camp since then. The counter-argument that gives me the most trouble is that, having upset the applecart, we have an obligation to stay until we put it back together. I was troubled by a similar argument about Vietnam: Even if we shouldn’t have gotten involved, or never have escalated that involvement, we had led freedom-loving South Vietnamese to rely on us, and we should not bail out on them.

This argument had little resonance on the left because its basic article of faith was that all but the most corrupt South Vietnamese were closet Vietcong. The hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese who fled after the North took over have constituted a fact of history the left has never wanted to acknowledge.

I’m sure that a similar situation exists today. There are probably millions of Iraqis who, even though they don’t like us, would prefer our staying to a civil war between the Shi’a and the Sunni that could follow our exit. So I do not doubt that unfavorable consequences may follow from our leaving. But I’m sure there are millions of other Iraqis who really, really hate us, and will keep on trying to kill our soldiers as long as we stay. I’m also sure that they and Islamic extremists everywhere will treat our departure as a victory, just as communists all over the world celebrated North Vietnam’s triumph. Still, I think that we were right to leave Vietnam, and we will be right to leave Iraq.

Of course, we should make every effort to leave in a responsible and orderly manner. But we should start now, and we should be out of there in six months. One certain good result of this policy is that it would end whatever terrorism is motivated solely by a desire to get rid of us.

If we stay, I concede there is a chance a democratic Iraq could emerge, one that respected the rights of its minorities who would in turn agree to practice a policy of nonviolence. But the possibility of all that happening is too remote to justify the loss of life that is occurring every day, and the terrible strain on our Army that is sapping its ability to respond to future threats from the rest of the world.

Late last fall, The New York Times headlined a story by its veteran Baghdad correspondent John F. Burns: [Iraq is] still a mystery, the Americans do not know who or what to believe. The Wall Street Journal found a rare military officer who had a good understanding of Iraqi culture. But guess what? He’s being transferred to Yemen. The Washington Times describes civilian government employees being sent to Iraq to share their expertise with the locals for guess how long? One hundred and twenty days. And The Washington Post‘s Robin Wright, who has visited Iraq in 2003, 2004, and 2005, describes the Green Zone as Baghdad’s shrinking bubble of security. Does this sound like the heartening progress our president sees?

Back to the tobacco settlement. One state, Florida, was actually doing the job rightfor a while. It was spending $70 million a year on anti-smoking commercials, including a brilliantly and bitterly satiric one where smoking was given a mock award for killing the most people each year. Teenage smoking in Florida dropped 38 percent. But then the Florida legislature, obviously shocked that it had done something good for a change, cut the money for the commercials to just $1 million.

Curveball, you will recall, was the CIA’s source for the fiction about Iraq’s mobile biological weapons laboratories that the Bush admin peddled to justify the war. I doubt that in the entire history of espionage, a codename has ever inspired less confidence in the reliability of a source.

Now come Bob Drogin and John Goetz of the Los Angeles Times, with the news that, before the Bush gang trumpeted Curveball’s phony story to the world, his German handlers had warned the CIA that they could not verify the things he said, that he was not a psychologically stable guy, and that his information was vague and mostly second-hand.

After we had invaded Iraq, the CIA found that in 1995, Curveball had been fired from the job in which he could have had any knowledge of biological weapons, that thereafter he had been jailed for an apparent sex crime, and that for some time he drove a Baghdad taxi. His childhood friends called him ‘a great liar’ and ‘a con-artist.’ UN inspectors finally disproved Curveball’s claims in 2004, but by that time, of course, the Bush gang had the war it wanted.

I have tried to warn my fellow liberals that in their understandable zeal to get Libby, Rove, and Cheney, they don’t swallow the CIA line that the covers it has used should be taken seriously. I now have support from Reuel Marc Gerecht, writing in The Wall Street Journal. Gerecht’s views are sometimes too neocon, but he knows the CIA. Here’s what he says:

The vast majority of CIA officers overseas operate with little to no cover and have done so since the foundation of the post-World War II clandestine service in 1947. Most case officers posted abroad carry official cover, which usually means they serve as fake diplomats.

Today, operational camouflage is usually shredded within weeks of a case officer’s arrival at his station, since the manner, method and paperwork of operatives is just too different from real foreign-service officers. . . . Minimally competent foreign security services know a great deal of what occurs within U.S. embassies and consulates since these institutions are completely dependent on local employeesthe State Department calls them ‘foreign-service nationals’who, through patriotism or coercion, often report on the activities of their employers.

The situation is better with nonofficial cover officers who live overseas. . . . [But a]s a general rule, the more dangerous the country, the less likely the NOCs, who don’t benefit from diplomatic immunity, will be stationed or visit there. In other words, the truly covert agents are mostly not where they are most needed.

Back in the mid-’70s, William Colby, who was then the head of the CIA, conceded to me that the Russians knew who our agents were. He was trying to talk me out of running an article that made clear how easy our spooks were to spot. His only argument seemed to be that I would be exposing the agents to weirdos like Lee Harvey Oswald.

The Bureau of Land Management has a program under which ranchers can graze their cattle on public land for a fee. The problem is that the fee is a bit low. Where ranchers have to pay an average of $13.30 to graze a cow and calf on private land, they pay the government just $1.79. Unsurprisingly, this means the government loses money on the program.

Obviously, the private landowners would charge less, if they could afford to do so, in order to compete with the government. Why then does the Bush administration, which is constantly proclaiming its devotion to free markets, perpetuate a program that undercuts the market price? If you guess it has something to do with keeping the western states red, you just might be on the right track.

James T. Patterson points out in the Oxford History of the United States from 1975-2000 that Ronald Reagan alone appointed almost half of all sitting federal judges. Add those appointed by Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and the two Bushes, and you can see that we now have a federal judiciary that is overwhelmingly conservative, which is a big reason why we Democrats must be determined to start winning presidential elections.

A recent report by the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security does not inspire confidence in the reorganizations that its creation had brought about. A major step in the reshuffling was the creation of two agencies, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE). But today, according to the Inspector General, most CBP and ICE officials are still puzzled over the decision-making concerning ICE’s structure. According to them, to this day no one has been able to articulate the rationale for the current structure. [Emphasis added].

Speaking of the ICE, the Inspector General also found that it has what the business schools call a resource allocation problem. Of its 14,000 employees, only 51 are assigned to investigate the whereabouts of the estimated 3.6 million people who have overstayed their visas and become illegal immigrants.

I made assumptions about local capability that I shouldn’t have made. That’s what Wallace Stickney, who was director of FEMA under Bush I in 1992 at the time of the agency’s first big failure, Hurricane Andrew, said when asked by Jessica Lee of New England’s Valley News what lessons he had learned from the experience. What is maddening about this is that Michael Brown repeated the very same error when he relied on state and local response to deal with problems arising in the first 72 hours after Katrina.

Most of the reporting about Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s recent ballot measures focused on the politics of winning or losing and the relative power of the governor and the lobbies opposing it. I didn’t see a single article in The Washington Post or The New York Times that made a serious attempt to examine the merits of the proposals. One of the measures would have granted teachers tenure only after five years’ service instead of two. Since the inability to get rid of bad teachers is a major problem today, this proposal made sense to me. Actually, none of the other measures, although more debatable, seemed as easily dismissible as much of the press implied they were.

Read Truth and Duty, Mary Mapes’s new book about the Bush National Guard story that got her fired from CBS News and left a cloud over the reputation of her boss, Dan Rather. Although she clearly does not number a gift for self-criticism among her more conspicuous virtues, she is convincing in her demonstration that her story was essentially true, and that those reporters who focused on her minor errorswhich includes almost everyone who covered the storymissed the major point.

The result was that the press allowed itself to be conned by the right into allowing Bush to escape the truth about his non-service while Kerry was being pilloried with unproved charges of cowardice even though the evidence showed that he was a legitimate war hero. In this case at least, the media was more fascinated by the possible misdeeds of one of its stars than it was committed to making sure the public understood an important difference between two candidates for president of the United States.

I’ve been thinking about the kind of Supreme Court justice I would appointI have a weakness for fantasyand I was surprised to realize that the first question I would ask him is: Can he figure out a constitutional way to get the money out of politics? The number one target should be the manufactured campaign commercial, which is where most of the money now goes.

My best guess as to an approach is to argue that the first amendment means what it says, that the speech that should be free is speech, words spoken by the candidate, not by professional actors and not involving artifice of any kind. The Constitution gives the individual the right to speak his mind, but not to have experts splice film and use sound effects to make him look betteror if he’s the opponent, worsethan he really is. A law professor at the University of Chicago, Cass Sunstein, has developed a distinction between commercial and political speech that could be a starting point.

Anyway, what this reminds me of is that we liberals should be careful not to condemn judges just because they have a point of view. We want judges with a point of viewours. Judges who will not only seek constitutional means of getting the money out of politics but also of protecting public health and safety and the environment and of fighting corrupt and unfair business practices and preserving our civil liberties.

The FAA has finally decided to do something about those fuel tanks we were complaining about in the last issue. But you shouldn’t stop worrying yet. The first half of the work will be finished in four years, reports The Wall Street Journal. And the last of the safety enhancements won’t be fully in place until 2012. That is exactly 16 years after the fuel tank problem led to the crash of TWA Flight 800.

Mystery of the month: Buried in a long Washington Post article about Mark Warner’s recent visit to New Hampshire was a sentence saying he was being driven around the state by a Massachusetts state trooper. Can someone explain what a Massachusetts state trooper is doing driving the governor of Virginia around the state of New Hampshire?

There was something hideous about much of the criticism leveled at Harriet Miers. Her competence to be a judge was, to be sure, a legitimate target. But the concerns expressed about her hair, clothes, and makeup by The Washington Post‘s Robin Givhan were embarrassingly absurd. Even worse was the failure to find out what kind of human being she is, because we do want our judges to be good people. But this was an issue that only the Post’s Dale Russakoff and Marcia Davis attempted to explore. And what they found was a very good woman indeedthe kind of conservative Christian who not only talks the talk, but also walks the walk, performing laudable deeds of private charity.

Her concern for troubled clients is legendary in Dallas. Consider the case of one pro bono client, a nurse’s aide named Caroline Ware. When Ware was wrongly arrested, Miers came to a Dallas jail in the middle of the night to bail her out and get the charge dropped. Miers then paid $700 of her own money to keep Ware and her children from being evicted. When Ware was hospitalized, Miers hired a registered nurse. She also brought clothes and coats for the children at Christmas. I like that a lot.

Charles Peters

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly.