Tilting at Windmills

It now develops that reports of major flooding from Homeland Security personnel in New Orleans were ignored by the department’s Washington headquarters because the people staffing it were watching television:

“In the French Quarter on television, they were dancing and drinking beer and seemed to be having a party,” Gen. Matthew Broderick, then the director of the Homeland Security Operations Center in Washington, explained to Eric Lipton of The New York Times. Apparently no one at headquarters realized that most of New Orleans is lower and more susceptible to flooding than the French Quarter, so the people could be dancing in their streets there while thousands of their fellow citizens were scrambling to their roofs as their homes were engulfed by rising water.

John McCain isn’t getting away with his switch on the tax cuts. Both the conservative Donald Lambro and the liberal Paul Krugman have criticized his 180 degree change of course from opposing Bush’s tax cuts for the rich in 2001 and 2003 to supporting them today. Not to mention his discovering this year that “I’ve never agreed with Roe v. Wade,” even though he had opposed overturning it in his 2000 campaign. The senator’s desperate attempt to get right with the GOP base is sad to watch for those who found him personally engaging and admired his heroism in Vietnam and his occasional declarations of independence from the Republican Party line. Ambition now seems to be suppressing his best qualities. This has happened briefly before, most notably when he was attempting to woo South Carolina voters by supporting to have the Confederate battle flag fly over the state Capitol. Unfortunately, the senator’s current surrender to his lesser side has already lasted for several months and threatens to continue through 2008.

We mentioned in a recent issue that Grover Norquist may be in hot water. The latest hint comes from the resignation of his pal Gale Norton, the Secretary of the Interior, which at least a few observers believe was motivated by the fear that the Abramoff investigation could lead to her doorstep. But the big news is that an Abramoff client, Raul Garza of the Kickapoo Traditional Tribe of Texas, says he got his meeting with President Bush after “contributing” $25,000 to Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform at Abramoff’s suggestion. That’s a gun that’s very close to smoking.

In case you missed it, the April issue of Foreign Policy magazine has an article entitled “The Geopolitics of Sexual Frustration.” If this strikes you as a bit frivolous for a publication where one would expect to encounter “The World Economy Today” and “Whither NATO?”, consider the article’s subtitle: “Asia has too many boys. They can’t find wives, but they just might find extreme nationalism instead.” Because of ultrasound examinations, many Asian women–most notably in China but also in South Korea, Taiwan, Bangladesh, and India–now learn the sex of their gestating infant in advance, and many are choosing to terminate female fetuses.

This article reminded me of another way I’ve long suspected that sexual frustration has influenced politics. I fear, as do others like Ian Buruma in a recent issue of The Guardian, that the severe moral strictures of Islam are too much to bear for young men in their teens and twenties, and that this is a considerable factor in the mobs that we see raging in the streets.

Since I’m already pretty deep in the realm of the off-the-wall, I might as well mention another reason for Islamic rage that may seem a trifle bizarre. It is the internet.

Our alumnus David Ignatius, The Washington Post columnist, recently asked Charles McLean of Denver Research if he could explain the violent Islamic reaction to the Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.

McLean explains that the internet is a “rage enabler… rage needs to be fed or stimulated continually to build or maintain it.” The point has been made elsewhere, but Ignatius elaborates: “The Internet provides that instantaneous, persistent poke in the eye. What’s more, it provides an environment in which enraged people can gather at a cause-centered website and make themselves angrier.”

Because the angry are talking to themselves, the website, notes McLean, “eliminates the opportunity for filtering or rage-dissipating communications to intrude.” Needless to say, this unhappy aspect of the internet is not confined to the world of Islam. We have evidence in our own politics.

We have often complained about the failure of the FDA to make sure that once drugs are approved for marketing, there are follow-up studies to see how the drugs perform and to identify whatever unanticipated side effects might develop. Now comes hard evidence to support our complaint in the form of a revelation reported by the Associated Press that 65 percent of the studies of the drugs that pharmaceutical companies had promised to undertake remain “pending.”

Have you ever wondered about those inspection certificates in elevators? I have, especially after a new story about some poor soul falling down an elevator shaft after the door had been left open or the elevator itself suddenly plummeting to the basement. The sign that always leaves me a little nervous is the one that says, “Inspection certificate available in manager’s office.” If I’m already in the elevator, I’d like to see the real thing.

Well it turns out that if you live in Washington, D.C., you’re right to be concerned. A Washington television station, WUSA, has discovered that more than half of the district’s elevators lack valid licenses. The city has only two elevator inspectors, one of whom told a reporter that elevators with “life and limb hazards” are put back in service when owners sign a letter of intent to repair the problem.

In West Virginia, the Charleston Gazette found that seven of the 14 elevators in three state office buildings were not working, and riding in the others was “scary” and “herky-jerky, like bouncing on a bungee cord.” Only two elevators had up-to-date inspection certificates. All of this despite the fact that a Pennsylvania contractor had been hired by the state in May 2003 to advise on how to fix its elevators. The contractor, Richard A. Kennedy, charges $105 per hour, and $1,000 per day in expenses. His services do not seem to have enjoyed spectacular success.

“By the fall of 2003, the [Baghdad CIA] station had just four officers who could speak Arabic.” This was two years after 9/11, 10 years after the first attack on the World Trade Center by terrorists whose plans were revealed in documents possessed by the FBI since well before the attack, but which the FBI did not have the language competence to translate, and after frequent criticism by this magazine and others of the linguistic inadequacies of both the FBI and the CIA. Furthermore, “many [of the staff] were rookies, often on their first overseas assignment.”

These facts come from James Risen’s new book, State of War, which also reveals that, for the first nine months after we took Baghdad, instead of concentrating on intelligence, the CIA station was pressed by Washington to search for those non-existent weapons of mass destruction. As late as January 2004, the CIA’s Washington headquarters was worried about David Kay’s allegations that there were no WMD in Iraq and about how George Tenet could answer McCain when Tenet testified before Congress. This message went out from Langley to Baghdad: “The Director is on the Hill in seven days, let’s refocus on finding the WMD.”

Another new book about our follies in Iraq, Cobra 2, by Michael Gordon and Lt. Gen. (ret.) Bernard Trainor, makes clear that both Donald Rumsfeld and Tommy Franks were obsessed with demonstrating that Baghdad could be taken faster and with smaller forces than many military experts thought prudent. They were right about that, but unfortunately it made them not want to face the danger of bypassing fedayeen irregulars along the way. They were warned that these forces posed a dangerous threat by Maj. Gen. William Wallace, who was threatened with dismissal for his trouble.

Rumsfeld himself decided to cancel deployment of the first cavalry division, which would have been of important help in preventing the chaos immediately following our “victory.”

Since John Tierney, the New York Times columnist, tends to tilt right, some of my liberal friends have stopped reading him. That is a mistake. Consider two recent columns. One explains how a liberal bugaboo, school vouchers, were actually working in Milwaukee, working so well that they have been endorsed by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, a paper that supported John Kerry in 2004.

In the other column, Tierney takes Larry Summers’s side against the Harvard liberal arts faculty, accusing the university of being run for the benefit of the faculty and not the students. He is right. Full professors do little teaching. A three-hour a week classroom load is not atypical. They often seem to spend most of their time making money on the outside–even though they are already among the nation’s best-paid academics. They avoid freshman survey courses like the plague. By contrast, when I went to Columbia in the late 1940s, the great teachers taught, and professors like Lionel Trilling and Mark Van Doren would regularly teach the basic courses because they knew how important these courses were to a student’s development.

Still, Tierney’s critics–e.g. The New Republic‘s Noam Scheiber–make a couple of legitimate points. Tierney does not exactly lean over backwards to acknowledge evidence contrary to his point. Related to this is a failure to display very often the sense of humor that his friends all say he has. His problems would be solved if he just directed that humor at himself.

Tim Cavanaugh, writing in the libertarian magazine Reason, recently set out to debunk the argument that a military draft was needed so that “it wasn’t just the poor kids going to war.”

He cites figures supplied by the Heritage Foundation that show only 5 percent of the new recruits in 2003 came from neighborhoods with average household incomes of $20,000 or less, and points out that the largest group, 18 percent, came from neighborhoods with average household incomes from $35,000-$40,000 to clinch his case.

Let us leave aside suspicions aroused by the fact that the source of the research is the conservative Heritage Foundation and by the fact that it is the average income of the neighborhood rather than that of the actual recruit that is used. The crucial question remains unasked by Cavanaugh: How many recruits come from households making $200,000 or more?

The answer is, of course, hardly any. And that is the true tragedy. The rich are shirking their duty to serve their country and leaving the dirty work to the poor and the lower-middle class. And to compound their sin, they not only refuse to serve, but also demand that their taxes be cut.

Democrats are threatening to add four more early primaries and caucuses to compete with Iowa and New Hampshire. This strikes me as madness. We’re already selecting political nominees too fast. By the first of April, the winner has emerged. The most notable illustration of why this is not a good idea is that the candidate who turned out to be the Republicans’ best man in 1940 was at 0 percent in the polls on April 1. Wendell Willkie had not entered any primary. But by the day convention delegates voted, June 27, he had become not only the choice of the delegates but, according to a Gallup poll, of a majority of Republican voters as well. By that time, thorough scrutiny had revealed how unsuitable for the challenges of the time were the two Republicans leaders as of April 1, Tom Dewey and Robert Taft, who were then isolationists and would never have provided the support Willkie gave FDR for the draft and for the aid to Britain–support that proved critical to our victory in World War II.

This is why I’ve come to believe that we should leave the nomination to convention delegates as it was before 1972. To be sure, there was a good argument for reform back then, in that state delegations were often selected and controlled by political bosses. The way to avoid that problem is to require the delegates be selected democratically, but without a binding commitment to any candidate. That way, they would not be controlled by bosses and would still be free to choose the best man right up to the moment the convention votes.

When the nation’s premier confidence men could no longer sell the Brooklyn Bridge, they moved to university administration. I made this discovery while working for the Peace Corps in the 1960s, where we found one institution of higher learning after another was taking us to the cleaners by adding outrageous charges for “administrative overhead” to the cost of training our volunteers. New evidence comes from the case of Robertson v. Princeton, which you may recall reading about in this column, and where expert testimony has revealed that of the $195 million of Robertson money that was supposed to train graduate students for the foreign service during the period 1990-2003, only $26 million paid for instruction of any kind. Princeton also seems to have double-billed the Robertson Foundation and the federal government, actually managing to charge the foundation twice, for building a building, and for depreciation of the building.

We’ve been warning our readers for years that it’s often too easy to penetrate the cover used by the CIA’s supposedly covert employees. Now, The Chicago Tribune has provided us with new evidence. It found that simply by conducting an internet search, it could discover the locations of two dozens of the agency’s covert workplaces, and the identities of 2,653 of its employees, a number of whom are covert, working, according to the Tribune, “in jobs that could make them terrorist targets.” The CIA’s spokesperson, Jennifer Dyck, explained to the Tribune, “Cover is a complex issue that is more complex in the Internet age.” That’s a new excuse for a failure that unfortunately is not new at all.

I recently reviewed Shooting Star, Tom Wicker’s excellent new book about Joe McCarthy, for the New York Observer. In the review, I made a point that I would like to share with Monthly readers.

There is no question that McCarthy and the larger movement that came to be called McCarthyism did immense harm. Innocent people lost their jobs, talented actors found themselves blacklisted for more than a decade, with few people bothering to ask what difference does it make whether an actor is a communist or not?

There was a time when communism seemed attractive. I am sure some young people in Hollywood and in Greenwich Village became communists because it was hip enough in the ’30s and early ’40s that they thought it might help them get laid. Certainly similar thoughts passed through my mind as I bought my first copy of the Daily Worker at a Sheridan Square newsstand in 1945. And many other liberals were sympathetic to Communism for more elevated reasons: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” was a siren song for idealists.

The result was that liberals have always had a soft spot for McCarthy’s victims and have not only understood the harm he did but have also written books and made movies about it.

What they have not understood as well is the harm done by the myth of McCarthyism–the myth that all the charges made by McCarthy and his allies were false.

There were real spies–not only Alger Hiss at State but Harry Dexter White at Treasury, Lauchlin Currie at the White House, and David Greenglass at Los Alamos, who had been recruited by another Soviet agent, Julius Rosenberg.

We know these spies were real because of what are called the Venona intercepts. These are secret Soviet intelligence messages that were decoded by our government in the 1940s but not made public until 1995. Tom Wicker is a good enough reporter to acknowledge the intercepts, but the fact that he does so only in footnotes tends to minimize their importance. Wicker also cites a Soviet report that 40 of their top American agents had been neutralized by 1950 to argue that whatever real danger of Soviet spying that might have existed earlier “was all but over” by the time McCarthy made his first sensational charge in Wheeling, W. Va.

There were, however, other important Soviet agents who were still on the loose. Of the 344 Americans whose code names were identified by Venona, less than half could be identified by their real names. Of the 200 who could not be nailed, we know that at least two were important atomic spies, one had been a top officer in the CIA’s predecessor, the OSS, one had been a captain in the Navy, and one had been inside enough to have met privately with Roosevelt and Churchill. Did these people continue to spy?

We may never know the answer, but we do know that Russia continued to spy. It did seem, however, to switch from ideologically committed agents to those who spied for money: the U.S. Navy’s Walker family, the FBI’s Robert Hanssen and the CIA’s Eddy Howard, and Aldrich Ames come to mind.

One reason Soviet spies and other hostile foreign agents continued to enjoy success was ineptitude at the FBI and the CIA. A major reason for this ineptitude was the failure of critics to focus on the competence of these agencies. Liberals only criticized them when they threatened civil liberties; conservatives only when they failed to serve right-wing agendas. The result is that both organizations continued to stumble too often, all the way to 9/11 and Iraq. Maybe conservatives will never wake up to the problem, but that is no reason why liberals can’t work for a smarter, more effective FBI and CIA as zealously as they seek to protect our civil liberties from abuse by them.

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Charles Peters

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly.