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Saturday, August 16, 2003

 
THE LAST ACTION HERO

In The Washington Post's "World Opinion Roundup," Jefferson Morley surveys the less-than-favorable reviews Arnold Schwarzenegger's candidacy for California governor is getting in the worldwide press.

In the Philippines, where former action hero Joseph Estrada -- who was elected president, deposed and eventually jailed -- was just one of many celebrities turned politician, California's recall has a familiar whiff of shameful buffoonery.

Mar-Vic Caguarangan, editor of a Manila-based online news site writes:

We Filipinos have long discovered the nincompoopery of our politicians and the uselessness of our government. But just the same, we vote during elections, we pay our taxes (we can't evade it anyway), and continue patronizing our government for its sole redeeming value -- entertainment. We watch our politicians dance, sing, eat fire and make fools of themselves. We vote for them. Alas, we make fools of ourselves.

But perhaps the harshest criticisms come from the Arab satellite news service Al-Jazeera, where one commentator notes that Arnold Schwarzenegger's popularity:

... only confirms the world's opinions of Americans ... They like violence, power, revenge, riches, success and fame, and they don't know the difference between real life and fantasy, between real people and characters in an action movie. ...

As for their politics, it amounts to 'looking out for number one.' They don't have a society and don't want one. The world outside America's borders is irrelevant to them except as a threat or a target.


But, the Al-Jazeera writer says, Schwarzenegger is really only following in the footsteps of George W. Bush:

Bush also gets over on his image as a terminator, a blaster of bad guys, a man with a swagger, an action hero who delivers killer one-liners ('Bring 'em on!'). What are his politics? We're good, they're evil. Taxes are evil. Now did you get all that, or do you need some help?

From George W. Bush, then, it's just a half-step down to Arnold Schwarzenegger.


Oops, I'm sorry. My mistake. That last commentator wasn't some anti-American from Al Jazeera -- it was Larry Derfner, writing in the Jerusalem Post.

This isn't just how our enemies see us, it's how our closest allies see us.

"Outside of the United States, there seems to be some doubt that the action hero can live up to the role," Morley writes, summing up the near-unanimous world opinion.

The whole world is amazed that America has fallen under the spell of this cartoonish idiot, this action hero mouthing vapid one-liners. And now we've got Schwarzenegger too.




posted by Fred Clark 3:16 PM


Friday, August 15, 2003

 
FINDING NiMo

Greg Palast offers a fair and balanced account of why the lights went out.

Why did 50 million Americans and Canadians find themselves in the dark yesterday? Why are Californians seriously considering anointing a steroid-infused cyborg as governor? Why do the Astros no longer play at "Enron Field"? Why has the GAO basically given up on its oversight duties? And why was Martha Stewart made the scapegoat for Wall Street's billion-dollar frauds because of her own $40,000 impropriety?

It's the deregulation, stupid.

Greg Palast puts yesterday's biggest-ever blackout in perspective:

California fell first. The power companies spent $39 million to defeat a 1998 referendum pushed by Ralph Nadar which would have blocked the de-reg scam. Another $37 million was spent on lobbying and lubricating the campaign coffers of legislators to write a lie into law: in the deregulation act's preamble, the Legislature promised that deregulation would reduce electricity bills by 20%. In fact, when San Diegans in the first California city to go "lawless" looked at their bills, the 20% savings became a 300% jump in surcharges.

Enron circled California and licked its lips. As the number one life-time contributor to the George W. Bush campaign, it was confident about the future. With just a half dozen other companies it controlled at times 100% of the available power capacity needed to keep the Golden State lit. ...


The result of energy deregulation in California was higher prices and worse service for the world's fifth-largest economy.

Meanwhile, the deregulation bug made it to New York where Republican Governor George Pataki and his industry-picked utility commissioners ripped the lid off electric bills and relieved my old friends at Niagara Mohawk [NiMo] of the expensive obligation to properly fund the maintenance of the grid system.
And the Pataki-Bush Axis of Weasels permitted something that must have former New York governor Roosevelt spinning in his wheelchair in Heaven: They allowed a foreign company, the notoriously incompetent National Grid of England, to buy up NiMo, get rid of 800 workers and pocket most of their wages - producing a bonus for NiMo stockholders approaching $90 million.

Is tonight's black-out a surprise? Heck, no, not to us in the field who've watched Bush's buddies flick the switches across the globe. In Brazil, Houston Industries seized ownership of Rio de Janeiro's electric company. The Texans (aided by their French partners) fired workers, raised prices, cut maintenance expenditures and, CLICK! the juice went out so often the locals now call it, "Rio Dark."

So too the free-market cowboys of Niagara Mohawk raised prices, slashed staff, cut maintenance and CLICK! -- New York joins Brazil in the Dark Ages. ...


In the days ahead, the discussion will focus on how to prevent the domino-collapse of the northeastern grid from happening again. People will begin to talk about the need for more maintenance of the grid and NiMo and its cronies will say they can do that -- but it won't be cheap. Higher rates, worse service. Sound familiar?

The Washington Post's fine roundup article includes this observation:

"We're a superpower with a Third World grid," said Democrat Bill Richardson, the New Mexico governor and an energy secretary under President Bill Clinton.

It's time to stop letting Enron and its successors rule over that "Third World grid" like the masters of a banana republic.





posted by Fred Clark 2:35 PM


Thursday, August 14, 2003

 
THE FEDERAL DO-NOT-WORK LIST

Say goodbye to a million more jobs.

So yesterday President Bush's message from the ranch was that he was upbeat about the economy. Retail sales ticked up 1.4 percent in July, so therefore the tax cuts were stimulating away and we should soon all expect happy days to be here again and a chicken in every pot.

According to The Washington Post's Mike Allen:

Bush, talking to reporters after a ranch summit with his economic team, did not answer directly when asked whether the nation will have as many jobs when he faces reelection as it did when he took office.

Bush ducked the question, which was weaselly, but shrewd, considering that:

Labor Department figures show the economy has lost 2.6 million jobs since Bush took office, a record Democrats are increasingly comparing to that of President Herbert Hoover (R) during the Depression.

And there's little chance that a slight increase in consumer spending last month will translate to 200,000 new jobs every month from now until next November.

Then there's the matter of the federal Do-Not-Call list, which goes into effect October 1. This list seems like a no-brainer politically. After all, is there anyone who would defend annoying telemarketers.

Actually, there is. These wretched bottom-feeders have their own industry group, called the American Teleservices Association.

That word "teleservices" is a skillfully misleading euphemism, but it does convey one truth about this obnoxious industry -- it's part of the "service" sector. About the only good thing one can say about telemarketing is that it is labor intensive, employing millions of Americans.

These aren't great jobs. I can't imagine anyone working in telemarketing who likes their line of work and wants to make a long career of it. It's probably safe to say that most people working in telemarketing wouldn't be working there at all if they were able to find work elsewhere. But at least it's a job.

Or it was a job, anyway.

The federal Do-Not-Call list will be a severe blow to the telemarketing industry. And that will mean layoffs. A lot of layoffs. How many? According to one report:

The telemarketing industry estimates the do-not-call list could cut its business in half, costing it up to $50 billion in sales each year. Implementing the list could also eliminate up to two million jobs, the ATA said.

The numbers issued by industry groups should not be trusted at face value -- especially when those industry groups are suing the government over the predicted effects of new regulation, as the ATA now is doing over the new list. Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that the ATA has doubled the likely outcome as a scare tactic.

That still means one million fewer jobs in America over the next year.

Like most people, I hate telemarketing. I'm already signed up for the fairly effective Pennsylvania list, and I intend to sign up for the federal list, and I still screen my calls with the answering machine. I have no sympathy for the Telemarketing Industry.

But I do have enormous sympathy for the millions of people forced by circumstance and necessity to work in this awful, universally despised occupation. (It's similar to the very different responses I have to the Tobacco Industry, as opposed to tobacco farmers.)

What will these people do now? Where will another one million people find work when their current job-of-last-resort is eliminated?

President Bush said yesterday that:

We're upbeat about the chances for our fellow citizens who are looking for work to be able to find a job. I firmly believe that what we have done was the absolute right course of action in order to help people find a job.

But there is no actual "course of action." Bush has hope, but hope is not a plan. He offers no specifics for how he expects to find or create work for millions of Americans.

The president's message yesterday was that the economy is getting healthier. But the truth is he hasn't even been able to stop the bleeding.








posted by Fred Clark 4:11 PM

 
REVISIONIST HISTORY

Here's Suzanne Malveaux, reporting on CNN's "Lou Dobbs Tonight" about President Bush's comments on the still-struggling U.S. economy:

President Bush wants another four years. He made the argument, the case today that, yes, he believes the economy is on the upswing. He also argued that it was not this administration's fault. He wants voters to know that it was not his administration's fault for the decline, for the recession. He said it began in March of 2000, when the stock market declined, that he inherited the recession the following year. He said it was because of his massive tax cut, that $1.35 trillion tax cut actually helped slow that recession. But then the country was hit by 9/11, corporate scandal. And then, he says, it was a march to war. It started a year ago, during his summer vacation at the Crawford ranch, a sense of anxiety that consumers and buyers had to invest and sell because of the anticipation of the war to come.

Here, by contrast, is a report on when that recession actually began and (sort of) ended:

The National Bureau of Economic Research says the 2001 recession officially ended in November of that year, lasting only eight months. The NBER, which declared the recession that same month, says the downturn started in March of 2001.

In March 2001, George W. Bush was president. He didn't "inherit" his recession from anyone.

I located that article in about 30 seconds via Google News -- does Suzanne Malveaux not have access to Google? Can somebody at CNN please get this woman an Internet connection? Can you also maybe find her a clue?

Please also keep in mind that the Bush recession only "ended" because the NBER decided to change the way it measures such things. Angry Bear had a fine summary of this, including a link to this Slate article from December, which shows: 1) that Bush and his aides have been lying about this recession for a long time, and therefore 2) it's jaw-droppingly dense of Malveaux not to be able to call him on it.



posted by Fred Clark 2:22 AM


Wednesday, August 13, 2003

 
GOING FOR BROKE

Is the record-setting deficit a mistake?

Steven E. Schier, a professor of political science at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., writes in The Hill that President Bush is "a radical with a plan" and calls his presidency "one of the most politically ambitious of all time."

Yet Dr. Schier seems to under-estimate Bush's ultimate goals and the drastic means he may be willing to employ in their pursuit.

What Schier calls the "unusually large scale of Bush's political ambitions" he sees as directed toward "conservative dominance over political institutions, party and interest group alignments and the terms of policy debate," the goal of which is "to create a new Republican political coalition that can dominate national politics long after he leaves the White House."

So far, so good. But where Schier, I think, underestimates Bush is in his contention that the massive and growing federal deficit is an obstacle to -- rather than an integral instrument of -- Bush's plan.

I am referring back to this argument -- which has been put forward by both the liberal Harper's magazine and the conservative Financial Times of London -- that crippling government through massive, structural deficits appears to be exactly what Bush and his advisers have in mind.

Schier says the deficit is a "difficulty" for Bush because:

... high deficits endanger other central policy goals of the administration, such as an increased defense buildup and Social Security privatization.

But the opposite can also be argued -- that the potential for replacing Social Security with some privatized scheme is enhanced by the crippling Bush deficit.

Social Security is a social compact between generations -- one which cannot be "privatized" away without breaking a sacred promise to one or more generations of working Americans.

"Privatizing Social Security" (an oxymoron -- private-social) would require breaking the nation's promise to retired Americans who paid for the financial security of past generations throughout their working years. Or it would require breaking the nation's compact with those currently in the work force -- those who are now paying for the financial security of older Americans, but who would not themselves receive reciprocal assistance when they reach retirement age. Or it might involve breaking both promises and screwing over everybody.

Talk of breaking this compact is therefore politically impossible. It is also deeply dishonorable.

(Frankly, anybody entertaining the idea of "privatizing" Social Security is either an idiot or an asshole. Either they mistakenly think of Social Security as some kind of government-run, mandated collection of IRAs, or else they think it is acceptable to steal from entire generations of working Americans. The former would make them an idiot, blathering about a program they do not even begin to understand. If they do understand the program, and they want to break this trust anyway then, well, they're an asshole.)

The only way a politician could successfully weasel out of this generational compact would be if he were forced to do so because of bankruptcy. Engineering that bankruptcy may well be the unstated goal of Bush's reckless and rapid reversal, converting a massive surplus into the biggest deficit of all time. (Then again, if Bush isn't this devious then he's simply incredibly fiscally irresponsible, doing for America what he did for Arbusto and Harken.)

Schier is correct, however, in noting that even this deliberate strategy of budget-busting carries some political risk:

... deficits hand Democrats a national issue with which to put the GOP on the defensive. Bush’s own father -- an orthodox innovator who failed -- found both Bill Clinton and Ross Perot effectively hammering him on the issue in 1992.

Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.

(P.S.: Matthew Miller cuts to the quick of the budget basics behind the Bush deficit here.)

posted by Fred Clark 5:54 PM

 
"MIGHT BECAME WILL."

That's Roy Hattersley, writing in The Guardian, and summarizing in three words the British government's "sexed-up" interpretation of the evidence it relied on in its predetermined march to war on Iraq.

This summarizes the Bush administration's belligerent misuse of its own intelligence too, but it also carries a tidy double-meaning when applied to the world's only superpower and it's desperate-seeming quest to find or create a conflict worthy of its awesome military prowess.

Might became will.

That about sums it up.



posted by Fred Clark 5:50 PM

 
DISTINCTIONS AMID DESTRUCTION

Michael Walzer on "The Four Wars of Israel/Palestine."

This AP article on the latest Palestinian violence against Israelis highlights the similarities between the two suicide bombers who struck Tuesday.

Both were 17 years old and grew up in Nablus, where both worked as street vendors. Yet despite the similarities in their backgrounds, and despite their attacks occurring within an hour of one another, the strikes were apparently not coordinated, Israeli military officials said. And according to their relatives, the boys had never met.

More significant than their similarities are their differences.

One bomber struck within Israel -- blowing himself up outside of a supermarket near Tel Aviv. He also killed an Israeli civilian -- a man going to buy breakfast for his two children.

The other bomber struck in the West Bank, at a bus stop near the Jewish settlement of Ariel. He killed himself and an Israeli soldier. (The bus stop attack also wounded several others. Reports did not say whether these others were also soldiers. Nor did they say whether the slain soldier, 18, was or was not in uniform -- that is, whether or not he was at that bus stop in his capacity as a soldier, which seems unlikely.)

Do such distinctions matter? I think they do.

Without wanting to excuse or condone any act of violence in the insane cauldron of the Middle East, I still want to maintain some distinctions -- distinctions which do not seem to be regarded as important to most journalists or politicians discussing the Middle East.

Palestinian attacks on Israeli soldiers are different from attacks on civilians. Palestinian attacks within the West Bank are different from attacks within Israel itself. Likewise, Israeli strikes against "militant" (i.e. "combatant") Palestinians are different from nondiscriminate actions against whole communities.

But how, exactly, are these differences important? And do such attempts at moral niceties even matter in a place so thoroughly enmeshed in violence and enmity?

Eric Alterman linked to this interview with Michael Walzer -- author of the seminal Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument With Historical Illustrations. Walzer offers some helpful guidance with his discussion of what he calls "The Four Wars of Israel/Palestine."

Walzer explores this more fully in this article in Dissent magazine, but his summary in the interview is pithy enough to quote here:

These are the four wars: there is a Palestinian war to destroy and replace the state of Israel, which is unjust, and a Palestinian war to establish a state alongside Israel, which is just. And there is an Israeli war to defend the state, which is just, and an Israeli war for Greater Israel, which is unjust.

When making particular judgements, you always have to ask who is fighting which war, and what means they have adopted, and whether those means are legitimate for these ends, or for any ends. Most of the people attacking Israel or defending it, and most of the people attacking the Palestinians or defending them, don't even begin to do the necessary work.

I can't do that work here, but I will suggest some of the judgements that I think it leads to – most crucially these two: Palestinian terrorism, that is, the deliberate targeting of civilians, should always and everywhere be condemned. And Israeli settlement policy in the occupied territories has been wrong from the very beginning of the occupation. But this second wrongness doesn't mitigate the first: Palestinian attacks on the occupying army or on paramilitary settler groups are justified – at least they are justified whenever there is an Israeli government unwilling to negotiate; but attacks on settler families or schools are terrorist acts, murder exactly. ... And similarly, Israeli attacks on Hamas or Islamic Jihad fighters are justified; dropping a bomb on an apartment house in Gaza was a criminal act.


One way of paraphrasing some of this would be to say "You're not allowed to kill civilians." Walzer's phrase for the deliberate targeting of noncombatants -- "murder exactly" -- is correct.

Walzer's longer Dissent article begins:

The great simplifiers are hard at work, but Israel/Palestine has never been a friendly environment for them, and it is especially unfriendly today. They are bound to get it wrong, morally and politically, and that is a very bad thing to do, for the stakes are high. There isn't one war going on in the Middle East, and there isn't a single opposition of right and wrong, just and unjust. ...

Go read the whole thing.



posted by Fred Clark 4:11 PM


Tuesday, August 12, 2003

 
FOX NEWS

The theory that right-wingers have no sense of humor received further support this week when Fox News announced that it is suing Al Franken and the Penguin Group over the title of Franken's forthcoming book: Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right.

Lisa de Moraes summarizes in The Washington Post:

The use of "fair and balanced" in the title and the resemblance of the cover to the O'Reilly book is "likely to cause confusion among the public about whether Fox News has authorized or endorsed the book and about whether Franken is affiliated with FNC." They are referring, of course, to the large segment of the population that still counts with its toes.

In solidarity with Franken, Atrios was inspired to change his own title, and others (me included) are following suit (so to speak).

(The Atrios link may be bloggered, so you may have to scroll down to the post appropriately titled "Fair and balanced.")




posted by Fred Clark 4:48 PM

 
LIES IN THE PUBLIC RECORD

The Washington Post belatedly skewers the White House's case for war.

Nothing can match the zeal of the convert. That may account for the way in which The Washington Post, after a year of naive credulity and saber-rattling enthusiasm leading up to the war on Iraq, has now taken the lead in seriously seeking the truth behind the Bush administration's claims in support of its war.

The latest example of this is Barton Gellman and Walter Pincus' encyclopedic article this weekend which should finally put to rest the nonsense about Iraq's purchase of the infamous aluminum tubes.

One is tempted to point out that much of the information Gellman and Pincus present was already a matter of public record before the war began, and that it might have been nice for them to have published such an article then -- but why be unsporting. Gellman and Pincus do marshal some interesting new evidence, further supporting the debunking that began nearly a year ago, and some of what they report should, finally, lay to rest some of these falsehoods that the administration has continued to assert months after they should have been laughed off of the stage.

Review some of these highlights with me:

1. The aluminum tubes. G&P debunk this claim thoroughly throughout their piece. The insurmountable blow is this, from Houston G. Wood III of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, "widely acknowledged to be among the most eminent living experts" on the subject of nuclear centrifuges.

Speaking publicly for the first time, Wood said in an interview that "it would have been extremely difficult to make these tubes into centrifuges. It stretches the imagination to come up with a way. I do not know any real centrifuge experts that feel differently."

As an academic, Wood said, he would not describe "anything that you absolutely could not do." But he said he would "like to see, if they're going to make that claim, that they have some explanation of how you do that. Because I don't see how you do it."


This confirms what the International Atomic Energy Association said back in March. It also represents the opinion of the majority of American experts. Yet in his February 5 speech before the U.N. Security Council, Secretary of State Colin Powell said that "Most U.S. experts" believed just the opposite.

Colin Powell said something that he knew was not true.

2. Meetings with scientists.

Bush and others often alleged that President Hussein held numerous meetings with Iraqi nuclear scientists, but did not disclose that the known work of the scientists was largely benign. Iraq's three top gas centrifuge experts, for example, ran a copper factory, an operation to extract graphite from oil and a mechanical engineering design center at Rashidiya.

"Bush and others" said things that they knew were not true.

3. What's under the roof?

The National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) of October 2002 cited new construction at facilities once associated with Iraq's nuclear program, but analysts had no reliable information at the time about what was happening under the roofs. By February, a month before the war, U.S. government specialists on the ground in Iraq had seen for themselves that there were no forbidden activities at the sites.

Those who continued to repeat this claim from the NIE -- including Bush and Powell -- said something they knew was not true.

4. The testimony of Hussein Kamel.

"We now know that Saddam has resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons," [Vice President Dick Cheney] said. "Among other sources, we've gotten this from firsthand testimony from defectors, including Saddam's own son-in-law."

That was a reference to Hussein Kamel, who had managed Iraq's special weapons programs before defecting in 1995 to Jordan. But Saddam Hussein lured Kamel back to Iraq, and he was killed in February 1996, so Kamel could not have sourced what U.S. officials "now know."

And Kamel's testimony, after defecting, was the reverse of Cheney's description. In one of many debriefings by U.S., Jordanian and U.N. officials, Kamel said on Aug. 22, 1995, that Iraq's uranium enrichment programs had not resumed after halting at the start of the Gulf War in 1991. According to notes typed for the record by U.N. arms inspector Nikita Smidovich, Kamel acknowledged efforts to design three different warheads, "but not now, before the Gulf War."


Dick Cheney said something that he knew was the opposite of what was true. And it was kind of silly.

5. The nonexistent IAEA report.

Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair conferred at Camp David that Saturday, Sept. 7, and they each described alarming new evidence. Blair said proof that the threat is real came in "the report from the International Atomic Energy Agency this morning, showing what has been going on at the former nuclear weapon sites." Bush said "a report came out of the . . . IAEA, that they [Iraqis] were six months away from developing a weapon. I don't know what more evidence we need."

There was no new IAEA report. Blair appeared to be referring to news reports describing curiosity at the nuclear agency about repairs at sites of Iraq's former nuclear program. Bush cast as present evidence the contents of a report from 1996, updated in 1998 and 1999. In those accounts, the IAEA described the history of an Iraqi nuclear weapons program that arms inspectors had systematically destroyed.

A White House spokesman later acknowledged that Bush "was imprecise" on his source but stood by the crux of his charge.


President Bush and Prime Minister Blair said something they knew was not true.

6. Pretending the past is the present.

As Bush did, the white paper cited the IAEA's description of Iraq's defunct nuclear program in language that appeared to be current. The draft said, for example, that "since the beginning of the nineties, Saddam has launched a crash program to divert nuclear reactor fuel for . . . nuclear weapons." The crash program began in late 1990 and ended with the war in January 1991. The reactor fuel, save for waste products, is gone.

Both Bush and the administration's "white paper" said something they knew was not true.

These aren't examples of cases where the evidence was sketchy, partial or unreliable. These are all cases where Bush and his people knew "X" to be true, yet told the public "not-X" instead.

There's a word for that.






posted by Fred Clark 4:19 PM

 
BRINGING BUSINESS TO CALIFORNIA

MSNBC was just reporting on the apparent momentum of Arnold Schwarzenegger's campaign for governor. In this report they showed "Arnold for Governor" T-shirts rolling off an assembly line and being packaged by workers.

The T-shirt factory was in Oregon.

Schwarzenegger has been comically vague about what he would do if actually elected to govern the nation's most populous state, but one thing he has said is that he intends to "bring business back to California." One place to start might be with his own campaign materials. Is there no T-shirt factory in California? Is there any logical/financial/strategic reason he's having T-shirts printed out of state? And is this the sort of contradictory bungling we might expect from a Gov. Schwarzenegger?

= = = = = = = = = = = =

Jason Roth provides a helpful followup in response to this post about "big names in politics" -- and how nearly impossible it is to fit "Schwarzenegger" into a headline.

Jason cites Joel Achenbach's "Why Things Are" as positing that some presidents -- FDR, JFK, LBJ -- became known by their initials largely because of headline-writers' shorthand. "Roosevelt" or "Eisenhower" ("Ike") or "Kennedy" might not fit in a headline, so you use the initials or nickname instead.

Anybody know Arnold Schwarzenegger's middle name? More to the point -- does anybody know if it starts with an "S"?


posted by Fred Clark 2:43 PM

 
SECURITY AND ACCOUNTABILITY

Or, rather, insecurity and unaccountability.

Last summer I had a day job working for a large private security firm in King of Prussia, Pa. My big project there was writing the training manual for what we euphemistically called "emergency preparedness" -- meaning the threat of terrorist attacks.

That project involved reading up on all the potential nightmare scenarios -- from "suicide gunmen" to the full range of chemical and biological terrorism. The literature encourages security personnel to "think like a terrorist" in order to anticipate and prevent potential threats.

All that research became even more frightening when I left my day job and headed south on I-495 toward the newsroom where I work at night.

I-495 is a beltway bypassing Wilmington, Del., and it stinks. Literally. The highway follows the Delaware River, passing by a collection of refineries, chemical plants and the fragrant methane vents of the Cherry Island landfill (which threatens, someday soon, to become the highest point in the mostly sea-level state).

Still creeped out by the nightmare scenarios and the terrorist-eye-view of the security research, I would look over at the chemical plants and refineries with the shuddering realization that any one of them could be turned into a weapon of mass destruction with little more than bolt-cutters, small explosives and a prevailing wind.

We invaded Iraq in part because of the (as yet unproven) suspicion that that country may possess chemical weapons. Yet we continue to ignore the existence of massive quantities of such potential "weapons" sitting relatively unguarded on the edges of all our major cities.

The death toll from the Sept. 11 attacks was only a fraction of that of the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal, India, which eventually claimed more than 20,000 lives. Bhopal was a negligent accident, but much the same thing could be made to happen on purpose. (I wrote about all of this back in January, if you're wondering why this sounds familiar.)

In his speech to the U.N. Security Council, Colin Powell raised the specter of VX gas and other nerve agents falling into the hands of terrorists. Such agents are exotic and expensive, and very difficult to manufacture, weaponize and transport. VX is horrifically deadly stuff, but it's much more suited to use by some evil assassion in a James Bond movie than to use by a decentralized terror network bent on killing civilians. A cloud of chlorine gas or sulfuric acid would be just as lethal, and everything needed to create such a deadly cloud sits waiting on the fringes of every American metropolitan area.

Here in Philadelphia, security has been increased and improved at the airport. A short drive north from PIA takes you across the Platt Bridge. Pity poor Platt, the Gettysburg hero deserves a better tribute than this ugly, unlighted industrial span where traffic slows as drivers roll up their windows in a futile attempt to block out the competing stenches of sewage and sulfur.

Look north of the Platt at the vast water treatment plant and refinery complex and consider again the security experts' admonition to "think like a terrorist." If you were a terrorist, what might you do among these dark, satanic mills where vast quantities of deadly chemicals are employed in the heart of a city of more than 2 million? What couldn't you do?

Similar facilities and similar vulnerabilities exist in every major U.S. city. So what is being done to protect them?

Next to nothing.

Here's former Sen. Gary Hart from yesterday's Washington Post:

These assessments are alarming but not surprising. Three years ago former senator Warren Rudman and I co-chaired a commission assessing America's national security. Our bipartisan investigation found, among other things, that the "critical infrastructure upon which so much of the U.S. economy depends can now be targeted by non-state and state actors alike." Chemical facilities are among the potentially most dangerous components of our critical infrastructure. Securing them requires urgent action. ...

The Bush administration's homeland security efforts since the Sept. 11 attacks have ignored this highly vulnerable sector. The White House was silent last summer while industry lobbyists scuttled federal legislation that would have required chemical companies to address their vulnerability to attack. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Jon Corzine (D-N.J.), died in Congress without a vote, even though a bipartisan Senate committee had passed it unanimously. Meanwhile, in March of this year, the General Accounting Office issued a report urging passage of legislation to require the industry to assess its vulnerability to terrorism and, where necessary, require corrective action.

The Bush administration and its congressional allies nevertheless ignore Corzine's security solution. Even worse, the White House and Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) are pushing a separate and far weaker bill, one that would leave millions of Americans vulnerable to chemical terrorism.


Various pundits have pointed to polls showing that Americans "trust" the Bush administration, and Republicans in general, to keep us safe from the threat of terrorism. This trust was misplaced on Sept. 11, 2001 -- which has perversely become a badge of honor for the president -- and it remains misplaced now.

The Department of Homeland Security is a showy sham offering little in the way of substance. The administration cannot be trusted to commit the hard work and resources needed to make this department anything more than a color-coded public relations office.

Too much is at stake to allow this ineffectual charade to continue. But we cannot expect this to change without a real political fight.

Domestic security is a core responsibility of the government, both morally and constitutionally -- "We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity ..."

Republicans have failed in their turn at bat. Democrats must not follow suit. But if they are even to have a turn at bat, they must win the public's trust by beginning this fight now. Democrats must begin now -- in Congress and on the campaign trail -- to fight for substantial improvements to the security of America's refineries and chemical plants, for a real commitment to port security, for screening of airline cargo as well as passengers' luggage, and for supporting first responders in the metropolitan centers most likely to be targeted by terrorism.

These are all important and necessary steps -- first and foremost because of the need to ensure that nothing like 9/11 is allowed easily to happen again. But the secondary benefit -- revealing to the American people that the Bush administration's irresponsibility is largely unchanged from Sept. 10, 2001 -- could help to put the grownups back in charge.

If Bush will not be responsible, at least he can be held accountable.






posted by Fred Clark 2:11 PM


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