- February 7: During hearings by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, examining the rampant waste and corruption surrounding government spending in Iraq (see related items throughout the month of February), it is revealed that the private security firm of Blackwater was contracted, secretly, through Halliburton.
Blackwater was the recipient of a subcontract "buried so deeply the government could not find it," as the AP reports. According to the Secretary of the Army, the Blackwater contract was (and is) part of a huge military support operation conducted by Halliburton, which, of course, was formerly ran by then-CEO Dick Cheney. Cheney still maintains close ties with the company, and continues to receive payments from the firm.
- The AP writes, not only about how densely interconnected the various contracts and threads of the Iraq contracting practices, but notes that the Halliburton-Blackwater contract may be illegal: "The discovery shows the dense world of Iraq contracting, where the main contractor hires subcontractors who then hire additional subcontractors. Each company tacks on a charge for overhead, a cost that works its way up to US taxpayers. ...The hidden contract not only cost taxpayers money, it also is illegal. The Halliburton subsidiary's main contract for military support services prohibited hiring subcontractors to provide armed security. That job is left to the US military, unless the theater commander decides otherwise." Committee chairman Henry Waxman grills the various Halliburton representatives over their practice of using multilayered contracts that are difficult to trace and sharply heighten the costs of the war to the American taxpayer; he cites just one example of Blackwater paying employees $600 per day, but charging the government $1500 per day after several layers of subcontractors tacked on their charges to the main contractor. One Daily Kos observer writes that, as far as he can see, there are only three possible reasons for such complex, well-hidden contracts from Halliburton and its subsidiary KBR: "a) Like so much else KBR does, these Mercs were unnecessary 'expense account padding' and did little or no actual work. b) The Pentagon is making MUCH more extensive use of 'non-military' soldiers than it has been willing to admit previously, and is relying on them to actually play key military roles, or c) They thought this line item was buried deep enough that they could use it to fund off the books black ops without anyone noticing."
- Most prominently featured in the hearings are statements by the widows and family members of four Blackwater employees killed in Fallujah in December 2004, about the tragedies they have suffered, as well as their accusations of profiteering by Blackwater, including the company's failure to provide armored vehicles and other critical safety equipment. Democrat Dennis Kucinich demands to know why Blackwater is suing the families of some of its employees who were killed in Iraq, and points out that Blackwater representatives cannot be trusted to tell the truth for the simple reason that they have already lied under oath in previous hearings. Interestingly, several Blackwater representatives refuse to answer Democrats' questions, using the excuse of "ongoing lawsuits" even though the law compels them to testify before Congress regardless of pending lawsuits. Observers familiar with Waxman's style say that he will wait them out, allow them to hang themselves with their own words, then issue further subpoenas and perhaps Justice Department referrals later.
- The hearings also reveal an e-mail sent on March 30, 2004, from Blackwater's Iraq operations manager, Tom Powell, complaining that Blackwater was refusing to send its mercenaries in the field critically needed supplies, including weapons, ammunition, armored vehicles, communications equipment, and more. "Guys are in the field with borrowed stuff and in harm's way," Powell wrote. Hours after Powell sent his e-mail, which is just now being revealed, four Blackwater mercenaries were captured and slaughtered by insurgents in Fallujah. (See the March 30, 2004 item for more information.) The Army also reveals, after months of denials, that it had withheld payment from Halliburton subsidiary KBR to pay Blackwater, because the law does not allow the hiring of private guards, leaving that job to US military forces.
- According to Blackwater's general counsel Andrew Howell, the firm believes that since some of Blackwater's vehicles were protected with "steel plates," that was "believed appropriate by everyone involved." Howell tells the committee, "We have not skimped on equipment." Powell's memo proves that Howell and Blackwater have lied for years about Blackwater's preparation for its mercenaries deployed throughout Iraq. Howell refuses to go into details, saying that the US military has classified the entire incident. The families of the four Blackwater employees slain in Fallujah have sued the firm, contending that was the only way they could learn the circumstances of the killings. One family member says that the Blackwater employees were denied armored vehicles, heavy weapons and maps for their convoy routes, and that the rear gunners were removed from vehicles to perform other duties. "Blackwater gets paid for the number of warm bodies it can put on the ground in certain locations throughout the world," says Kathryn Helvenston-Wettengel, the mother of one of the slaim mercenaries. "If some are killed, it replaces them at a moment's notice." Republican Darrell Issa says that none of the families' testimony, nor the Powell memo, is germane to the hearings, which will scrutinize US companies with Iraq contracts; Howell and several Republicans attack the family members for what they call using the hearing for their own purposes. Howell says the hearings should not go into what he calls an "incomplete and one-sided exploration of a specific battlefield incident."
- During the hearings, Blackwater representatives sing the praises of their company, refusing to even acknowledge that any questions exist; in contrast, representatives from another private contractor, Fluor, acknowledges that questions about contracts and services are legitimate, and say they "welcome" oversight from Congress. A spokeswoman for the US Army refuses to answer a question from Waxman about how many security consultants work for her branch of the military, saying, unbelievably, that she didn't come to the hearings prepared to answer that question.
- Republicans such as Patrick McHenry try, and fail, to pin the blame for Halliburton's, Blackwater's, and other firms' excesses on -- wait for it -- Bill Clinton. McHenry, apparently serving as the Republican's junkyard dog, goes on to accuse Democrats of mounting a "show trial" against the Bush administration. McHenry is apparently not used to functioning with any restraint from his opponents; Waxman, after letting McHenry have his say, shuts McHenry down, saying caustically, "I suggest the Congressman return under his rock." (Daily Kos [multiple sources and links to videos from C-SPAN], AP/Raleigh News and Observer)
- February 7: The Democrats' hearings on corruption and fraud within the Iraq-US contracting system are already bearing fruit: three US Army reserve officers are indicted for taking part in a bid-rigging scam that steered millions of dollars for Iraq reconstruction projects to a contractor in exchange for cash, luxury cars and jewelry.
Iraq war and occupation
An American businessman in Romania is charged as the go-between for the military officers and the contractor. The husband of one of the reservists is accused of helping smuggle tens of thousands of dollars into the United States that the couple used to pay for a deck and a hot tub at their New Jersey house. Together, the five used the $26 billion Iraqi rebuilding fund "as their own personal ATM machines," says Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty in announcing the charges. "These defendants actually took bricks of stolen cash...and smuggled them out of Iraq and back to the United States for their own personal use," McNulty says. "This indictment alleges that the defendants flagrantly enriched themselves at the expense of the Iraqi people -- the very people they were there to help.
- The 25-count indictment marks the latest development in an investigation of $8.6 million in Iraq contracts awarded to construction mogul Philip Bloom. Bloom, an American citizen who ran construction and services companies under Global Business Group, has admitted to laundering at least $2 million that was stolen from reconstruction funds managed by the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq. He awaits sentencing. In the indictment and in interviews, federal prosecutors describe a series of grand scams designed to plunder a reconstruction program funded by the United States and with money collected from the sale of Iraqi oil. Over time, Bloom and his alleged confederates discussed setting up a private security company and an Iraqi airline to snag more work. The reconstruction program often distributed funds in cash, handing out blocks of currency known as "bricks," and the indictment described how participants in the scam smuggled the bulk back into the United States.
- McNulty says the five people indicted Wednesday stole or otherwise misused $3.6 million from the CPA fund. The three reservists, Colonel Curtis Whiteford, Lieutenant Colonel Debra Harrison, and Lieutenant Colonel Michael Wheeler, were responsible for helping supervise the funding and progress of the CPA contracts in al-Hillah, Iraq, southwest of Baghdad. In return for steering contracts to Bloom between 2003 and 2005, prosecutors say, the reservists and their accomplices shared an estimated $1 million in cash, and were showered with Porsche and Nissan sports cars, a Cadillac SUV, real estate, a Breitling watch, business-class plane tickets, computers and other items. Harrison's husband, William Driver, is charged with helping smuggle over $300,000 into the US, part of which was used for home improvements. One of Bloom's friends, businessman Seymour Morris, allegedly acted as a go-between for the military officers and the construction company by illegally wiring money and securing the goods. Morris is a US citizen who lives in Romania, and owns a Cyprus-based financial services business. Charges against the five include bribery, conspiracy, wire fraud, money laundering and transporting stolen property. Morris has been arrested in Romania, and US officials say they will try to extradite him.
- Three involved in the scheme have already pled guilty in related charges. Robert Stein, a former Coalition Provisional Authority employee, was sentenced last month to nine years in prison and ordered to forfeit millions of dollars for his role in steering contracts to Bloom. Lieutenant Bruce Hopfengardner also admitted to steering contracts to Bloom for money and a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. Bloom himself pled guilty to conspiracy, bribery and money-laundering charges last year. In a January 2004 e-mail, Stein proudly told Bloom that he and Wheeler had secured another contract for him. "I will give you 200K sometime tomorrow afternoon! I love to give you money," the e-mail said. Later that year, Bloom discussed opening an Iraqi airline company and a private security company to be named Anaconda. The "objectives of the company are making money while allowing us to look cool and have cool stuff. That ought to be easy to do," Whiteford said of the private security company in an e-mail. Bloom also handed out expensive cars as rewards for help, including a Cadillac Escalade for Harrison, who served as acting comptroller for the CPA office. In an e-mail, Bloom told Stein that Hopfengardner would receive a GMC Yukon but that Whiteford was only getting a Nissan 350 Z because he "had not been able to get Bloom all the aviation licenses necessary to startup Bloom's airline company," the indictment says. Meanwhile, Whiteford, the second-most-senior CPA official in the region, was very specific about the type of sports car he wanted: a touring model with manual transmission, a cargo convenience package and other high-end vehicle options. He also accepted a $3,200 watch, $10,000 and round-trip tickets home to Utah, according to the indictment.
- US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents helped unravel the scheme by examining money trails and other data gleaned from computers, cell phones, global positioning systems and other devices, said Kumar Kibble, the agency's deputy assistant director for national security. Stuart Bowen, the government's special inspector general in Iraq, says his team of 10 investigators are pursuing 80 cases of waste, fraud and abuse of taxpayer dollars in reconstruction contracts. Last week, former CPA comptroller and funding officer Robert Stein was sentenced to nine years in prison for receiving kickbacks from Bloom in exchange for contracts. Bribery and fraud "has not been a significant component of the American reconstruction experience over there, but where we found it, it has been egregious," Bowen says. "And this is an egregious example of it." (AP/CBS News, Washington Post)
- February 7: The Iraqi newspaper Azzaman wants to know why, when over 5,000 cars have been used as platforms for deadly car bombings, little to nothing has been done either to stop the bombings or even to identify the cars used in the bombings.
Iraq war and occupation
"American authorities and the Iraqi government have failed dramatically to check the violence," the newspaper writes. "All they seem to do is condemn these acts and blame them on al-Qaeda linked terrorists and Saddam Hussein loyalists." The article makes an excellent set of points: "...Iraqis are not persuaded by these naive excuses. They need the Americans and the Iraqi authorities they support to tell them where in the world all these car bombs are coming from. How is it that they manage to sneak through so many American and Iraqi checkpoints and road blocks, especially in Baghdad? Don't these cars have registrations and serial numbers? We have yet to hear of the authorities identifying the owner of a single vehicle used in a car bombing or even where it came from. Before Baghdad fell to US troops, the country had a sophisticated car registration system, and the authorities were able to identify the owner of any wrecked vehicle in a matter of minutes. Iraqis have a right to ask whether the US has any military, intelligence or scientific capacity left in Iraq. What is the government doing? Does it have any plan at all?" (Azzaman/Watching America)
- February 7: NBC Washington Bureau Chief Tim Russert testifies he never discussed a CIA operative with vice presidential aide Lewis Libby, contradicting Libby's version to a grand jury in the CIA leak investigation.
Lewis Libby perjury trial
Russert testifies to the Libby trial jury about a July 12, 2003 phone call in which Libby complained about a colleague's coverage. Libby has said that, at the end of the call, Russert brought up war critic Joseph Wilson and told Libby that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA. "That would be impossible," Russert testifies. "I didn't know who that person was until several days later." That discrepancy is at the heart of Libby's perjury and obstruction trial. During Libby's 2004 grand jury testimony, he said Russert told him "all the reporters know" that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA. Libby acknowledged later he had learned about Plame a month earlier from Dick Cheney, but says he had forgotten about it and learned it again from Russert as if it were new.
- Libby's lead defense attorney, Theodore Wells, tries without success to shake Russert's testimony. "You have the chief of staff of the vice president of the United States on the telephone and you don't ask him one question about [the Wilson affair]?" Wells asks. "As a newsperson who's known for being aggressive and going after the facts, you wouldn't have asked him about the biggest stories in the world that week?" Russert replies, "What happened is exactly what I told you." Russert originally told the FBI he wasn't sure if he had discussed Wilson with Libby, but didn't recall it being mentioned; in court today, Russert says he is sure he never spoke to Libby about Wilson. Russert adds that he never knew who Plame was until he read Robert Novak's July 14 column that revealed Plame as Wilson's wife, and her status as a CIA agent.
- Russert also testifies that Libby was "agitated" over Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC's Hardball, who at the time was questioning the White House's credibility over the Iraq-Niger claims on a nightly basis. "What the hell is going on with Hardball? Russert recalls Libby saying. "Damn it, I'm tired of hearing my name over and over again." Libby, according to Russert, demanded that Russert rein in Matthews. Though Russert was and is technically Matthews's superior at the network, he told Libby that he had no authority over him. Instead, Russert referred Libby to other, more senior NBC officials -- who themselves asked Matthews to back off of Libby and the White House.
- In Libby's testimony to the Fitzgerald grand jury, repeated in audiotapes for the court today, Libby said that when he told Cheney that he had learned of Plame's identity as a CIA agent from Cheney, the vice president was surprised. He also said that he had asked Cheney twice if he wanted to hear details about Plame and Wilson that he had heard in conversations with reporters: "I would have been happy to unburden myself of it. He didn't want to hear it." According to Libby, Cheney told him, "We shouldn't talk about the details of this case," a claim difficult to reconcile with his own and others' testimony about "daily briefings" in Cheney's office about how to discredit Wilson.
- The prosecution battles defense efforts to force them to reveal the scope of the "deal" they made with Russert about what he would and would not testify about. Russert agreed to testify only about his conversations with Libby, and not reveal any other sources he might have had about the Wilson affair.
- The Los Angeles Times observes that Russert's testimony "struck at the heart" of Libby's defense, as he is the third reporter to directly contradict Libby's tales of failed memory and reporters' own errors. The Times report says that Russert's testimony is "damaging to Libby's central claim that he learned about Wilson's wife from Russert." And CNN's Jeffrey Toobin calls Russert's testimony a "huge blow to Libby's defense." Toobin says, "[T]he prosecution has done what the prosecution always wants to do in a criminal case, which is say, look, this is simple -- Libby testified to the grand jury that he heard about Valerie Wilson's status as a CIA agent from Tim Russert. The first group of witnesses and that included [Ari] Fleischer and [Judith] Miller and several other people in the government, all said, no, we told Libby about Valerie Wilson's status at the CIA, and then Russert finishes the circle and says, I never said a word to him; I didn't even know myself that Valerie Wilson worked for the CIA. So I think the witnesses are coming at Libby from both sides, and it's a big problem for him."
- The Washington Post's Dan Froomkin notes Russert's unprofessionally cozy relations with his buddies in government that come out during his testimony, writing, "If you're a journalist, and a very senior White House official calls you up on the phone, what do you do? Do you try to get the official to address issues of urgent concern so that you can then relate that information to the public? Not if you're...Russert. When then-vice presidential chief of staff Scooter Libby called Russert on July 10, 2003, to complain that his name was being unfairly bandied about by MSNBC host Chris Matthews, Russert apparently asked him nothing. And get this: According to Russert's testimony yesterday at Libby's trial, when any senior government official calls him, they are presumptively off the record. That's not reporting, that's enabling. That's how you treat your friends when you're having an innocent chat, not the people you're supposed to be holding accountable." And Arianna Huffington adds, "This assumption that somehow any conversation with a government official is automatically assumed to be highly confidential...gives the sense to the average citizen that this is a kind of club, to which government officials and major news reporters belong. And that anything discussed between them is automatically off the record, no matter whether it is of public interest or not." (MSNBC ["Fact File"], MSNBC, AP, Los Angeles Times, CNN, Washington Post)
- February 7: Truthout's Jason Leopold and Marc Ash reiterate what could be the one of the central revelations of the Libby perjury trial: that Dick Cheney authorized Libby to leak selected portions of the highly classified October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate to reporters in order to bolster the administration's justifications for invading Iraq, and that Cheney did so at the behest of George W. Bush.
Lewis Libby perjury trial
Libby testified before the grand jury in March 2004 that he had received instructions from Cheney on July 8, 2003, to release portions of the report to New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who had enthusiastically participated in pre-war propaganda campaigns by the administration. "The vice president instructed me to go talk to Judith Miller to lay things out for her," Libby told the grand jury. He added that though Bush did not personally know Miller, he authorized Libby to share the NIE with her. Miller did not publish a story based on the information Libby leaked to her. Libby said that the intent of the leak to Miller was to undermine the credibility of former ambassador Joseph Wilson, who on July 6, 2003, wrote an op-ed for the Times accusing the Bush administration of "twisting" pre-war intelligence on Iraq. Wilson's claims led Libby and other White House officials to leak Wilson's wife's covert CIA status to reporters one week later, in an attempt to show that Plame sent her husband to Niger as part of a CIA scheme to discredit the Bush administration. That allegation is, of course, false. Libby said that the NIE leak was a closely guarded secret and that only he, Cheney, and Bush were aware that some of its contents would be leaked.
- Libby told the grand jury that daily discussions were held in the White House to figure out how to discredit Wilson. Those discussions included Bush. Libby's own notes show that Bush wanted Libby to speak with reporters and to rebut Wilson's charges. He said that the question of leaking classified information -- the NIE -- was settled in his mind because Bush chose to leak it. "If the president tells you to talk about a document, it's declassified," he said.
- It seems clear that Bush, while he probably did not orchestrate the smear campaign against Wilson, knew about it and approved of it. Bush himself testified to special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald three years ago, with his lawyer present, but details of his testimony have never been revealed.
- In his own court filing, Fitzgerald wrote, "Defendant [Libby] testified that the Vice President advised him that the President had authorized defendant to disclose the relevant portions of the NIE. Defendant testified that he brought a brief abstract of the NIE's key judgments to the meeting with Miller on July 8. Defendant understood that he was to tell Miller, among other things, that a key judgment of the NIE held that Iraq was 'vigorously trying to procure' uranium. Defendant testified that this July 8th meeting was the only time he recalled in his government experience when he disclosed a document to a reporter that was effectively declassified by virtue of the President's authorization that it be disclosed. Defendant testified that one of the reasons why he met with Miller at a hotel was the fact that he was sharing this information with Miller exclusively."
- Libby lied to the grand jury, and to FBI investigators, when he said that Miller was the first journalist to receive details of the NIE. On June 27, 2003, two weeks before his conversation with Miller, Libby revealed the same information to Bob Woodward of the Washington Post. It is not clear whether the leak to Woodward was authorized. Woodward did not reveal his contact with Libby until November 2005, when he testified to Fitzgerald's investigators and then wrote in the Post, "Libby discussed the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction, mentioned 'yellowcake' [uranium,] and said there was an effort by the Iraqis to get it from Africa. It goes back to February '02. This was the time of Wilson's trip to Niger."
- Leopold and Ash note also that "Last week, a crucial piece of evidence emerged during Libby's trial that also appeared to implicate President Bush in the CIA leak case. Yet the seemingly explosive development was absent from mainstream news coverage of the trial." The reporters are referring to copies of Cheney's handwritten notes that indicate Libby was asked by Bush to deal with media inquiries regarding Wilson's claims. Bush has said publicly that he did not take part in an effort to counter Wilson and that he had no prior knowledge that anyone on his staff was involved in an effort to discredit the war critic. If Cheney's notes are accurate, Bush has repeatedly lied about his own involvement. (See the January 29 item for more information about this element of the affair.)
- The New York Observer's Joe Conason calls for Bush and Cheney to "come clean" about their involvement, writing, "[T]he evidence shows that his bosses George W. Bush and Dick Cheney have misled the public from the very beginning about the vengeful leaking of Valerie Plame Wilson's CIA identity. The question that now hangs over the President and the Vice President is whether they lied to special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald -- the same crime for which their fall guy Scooter now faces possible imprisonment and disgrace. According to published reports, the special counsel interviewed both Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney during the summer of 2004. The only way for them to dispel the suspicion that they may have lied to him is to permit full disclosure of those interviews." He adds, "Did the President ask Mr. Libby to take the fall for others in the White House? Did the President know the extent of the Vice President's involvement in the effort to ruin the Wilsons? When did he learn what Messrs. Cheney, Libby, Rove and Fleischer had done to advance that scheme? Most important, did Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney tell the truth when Mr. Fitzgerald and his investigators interrogated them about those issues? That is the inescapable question at the bottom of this case -- and sooner or later, the Congress and the press must demand answers." (Truthout, New York Observer/Working for Change)
- February 7: Having been forced to abandon their non-binding resolution opposing Bush's troop escalation in Iraq, Congressional Democrats are moving forward with new opposition against Bush's Iraq policies.
Iraq war and occupation
House Democrats plan to push for a symbolic -- i.e non-binding -- rejection of Bush's decision to deploy additional troops, and Senate Democrats have introduced legislation to require withdrawal of US military personnel. "We're going to stand by our soldiers, but we're not going to stand by a failed policy that exposes more of our soldiers to death and suffering," says Democratic senator Dick Durbin, repudiating Republican claims that criticism of the war is undermining the morale and even the safety of US forces. House Minority Leader John Boehner says that, like earlier in the Senate (see the February 6 item above), Republicans will prepare "alternative" proposals to the Democratic resolution. Boehner says the GOP resolution will call for a bipartisan committee to oversee the war effort and lay out a series of standards by which officials could judge whether the Iraqi government was living up to its commitments to help end the violence.
- In the Senate, Democrat John Kerry intends to introduce legislation requiring Bush to "complete the redeployment" of American troops within a year. Fellow Democratic senator Barack Obama joins House Democrats in proposing a measure to block Bush from implementing the troop increase, and to withdraw all combat brigades by March 31, 2008. (Cleveland Plain Dealer)
- February 7: Residents of the small town of St. George, Utah, and the surrounding area are protesting the government's decision to test a huge new conventional bomb in the area that will send a mushroom cloud approximately 4,500 feet into the air.
US nuclear program
The new bomb is not nuclear, but residents worry that the testing will send radioactive debris from dozens of nuclear bombs detonated in the area during the 1950s. The government is assuring residents that they are in no danger -- but they received similar assurances fifty years ago, and thousands of people downwind from the blasts came down with radiation-related cancer. At a series of emotional meetings last month in Las Vegas, St. George, Salt Lake City and the Idaho capital of Boise, people who live downwind of the Nevada Test Site expressed fear that if the government goes ahead with its code-named Divine Strake test, radioactive dust from previous tests will blow their way. "People here have been exposed to radiation already," says St. George native Michelle Thomas. "We don't need any little extra push." Thomas has been stricken with full-blown cancer twice, had a pre-malignant ovary removed, and suffers from polymyositis, a muscle-degenerating autoimmune disease. Ever since she became too sick to work as a teacher, she has spent her time on anti-nuclear activism. "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me," she says.
- The Pentagon plans to test a 700-ton "bunker buster" weapon on the Nevada Test Site, a 1,375-square-mile area of desert. Divine Strake will demonstrate the impact on deeply buried tunnels should a US complex be attacked, or should the United States attack a bunker in another country. No date for the test has been set. The Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) planned to conduct Divine Strake last June, but a Reno lawyer, Robert Hager, got an injunction to stop it. Hager filed suit in April 2006 in federal court on behalf of the Western Shoshone tribe and people living downwind of the test site. A status hearing on the suit is scheduled for March 2.
- Responding to the lawsuit and to outcries by lawmakers in Nevada, Utah, and Idaho, the DTRA released a new environmental assessment, and told residents that they would be exposed to no more radiation than they might receive from a smoke detector. The DTRA claims that the area is ideal in terms of meteorology, and says that whatever radioactive debris that might be stirred up will stay on the test site -- or most of it will. "Now, will every single microscopic atom stay on the test site?" spokesman Darwin Morgan asks rhetorically. "No, you can't do that," he answers. "But the bulk of the dust will remain on the test site." Residents can be forgiven for taking Morgan's reassurances with a grain of radioactive salt. Pentagon officials have looked at moving the test to another site, but they say the alternatives would cost $100 million and take three years of planning. Holding it in Nevada could be done this year for $5 million.
- Even Republican senator Orrin Hatch, normally an enthusiastic supporter of weapons programs, is balky when it comes to his own state. "My personal feeling is, rather than have people completely discombobulated, like they're doing, it would be better to have it somewhere else," he says. "If it costs $100 million more, that's better than having people scared to death and worrying they're going to suffer the same afflictions their families did."
- Hager's lawsuit not only cites health concerns, but charges the test would be held improperly on tribal land, and that the government is really seeking to test the effects of a nuclear bomb. James Tegnelia, director of the DTRA, has acknowledged there is now no way to transport a single conventional bomb of the type Divine Strake will test. Also, budget documents from 2005 and 2006 say Divine Strake will simulate a "low yield nuclear weapon ground shock environment." In response to outcries over the description, the DTRA simply removed the word "nuclear" from their documentation and continued to push for the test. Democratic House member Jim Matheson isn't buying the DTRA's line. "There's no such thing as a 700-ton conventional weapon," he says. "Make no mistake about it, there's an effort to move into creating new nuclear weapons." Matheson's family suffered personally from fallout, and he is just as skeptical as some of his constituents about Defense Department assurances. Matheson's father, former Utah governor Scott Matheson, died of multiple myeloma, a rare cancer that can be linked to radiation exposure. Like others in southern Nevada, he speaks bitterly of declassified documents that show the government did not detonate nuclear bombs when the wind blew toward Las Vegas. They waited until the wind blew toward St. George. "The people in Utah have long memories," he says. "They've been lied to before. The people in Utah are so patriotic, they're among the most supportive of the government in the nation, and the government has taken advantage of that. So I'm always skeptical when someone tells me not to worry about the testing of weapons." (Washington Post)
- February 7: Republican legislators on the House Telecommunications Subcommittee will meet with FCC Chairman Kevin Martin in advance of the February 15th FCC oversight hearing with all five commissioners, apparently to orchestrate and plot Martin's testimony before the subcommittee.
Jodi Seith, the communications director of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, dismisses any concerns that Republicans are orchestrating Martin's testimony, saying, "[Democratic] Chairman [John] Dingell is also planning a Members' meeting with Chairman Martin. It's called an oversight hearing, and it's open to the public." (Broadcasting Cable)
- February 7: In what reporters call a "stunning defeat for the prosecution," a judge declares a mistrial in the court-martial of First Lieutenant Ehren Watada, saying that Watada did not understand the meaning of a document he signed in which he admitted to elements of the charges.
Iraq war and occupation
Watada is charged with desertion for refusing to deploy with his unit to Iraq. Prosecutors, who called Watada's conduct "disgraceful," says Watada admitted in the document that he had a duty to go to Iraq with his fellow soldiers, but Watada told the court that he had intended to admit only that he had not gone to Iraq, not that he was duty-bound to deploy to Iraq with his unit. Watada has said he refuses to go back to iraq for his tour of duty because he believes the war is illegal; in June 2006, Watada publicly refused to deploy to Iraq for his unit's assigned rotation because he believes that, under the doctrine of command responsibility, it would make him party to war crimes. (Watada attempted to resign his commission in January 2006, but was refused.) It is likely that Watada be retried, though Watada's lawyer insists that a second trial would be double jeopardy -- more than one prosecution for the same alleged crime.
- Watada maintains that the war violates the Constitution as well as the War Powers Act, which "limits the president in his role as Commander in Chief from using the armed forces in any way he sees fit." He also cites the UN Charter, the Geneva Conventions, and the Nuremberg Principles, which "bar wars of aggression." Watada argues that command responsibility would make him personally responsible and liable for legal challenges for violating international law. He further asserts that the war was based on misleading or false premises such as the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, and that the occupation itself did not follow the Army's own legal rules of conduct for occupying a country. Watada has said he is not a conscientious objector because he is not opposed to all wars as a matter of principle, and he claims he has offered to serve in Afghanistan, which he regards as "an unambiguous war linked to the Sept. 11 attacks." Watada was not allowed to deploy to Afghanistan; he was, however, offered a desk job in Iraq without direct combat involvement, which he in turn refused.
- In the 12-page stipulation of fact he signed last month, Watada acknowledged that he refused to deploy last June with the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, and that he made public statements criticizing the Iraq war. In exchange for what the prosecution considered a confession, prosecutors dropped two charges of conduct unbecoming an officer against him. He remains charged with missing movement, for his refusal to deploy, and two other allegations of conduct unbecoming an officer for comments made about the case. He could receive four years in prison and a dishonorable discharge if convicted.
- When the disagreement over Watada's admission surfaced, the judge indicated he was unsure whether he could accept the document. Since much of the Army's evidence was laid out in it, prosecutors requested the mistrial. Watada's attorney, Eric Seitz, opposed the request, preferring that the judge dismiss the document and continue with the trial. After the mistrial is declared, Seitz says he will seek dismissal of the charges with prejudice so they could not be refiled. "Our hope is, at this point, that the Army will realize that this case is a hopeless mess," Seitz says. On the issue of double jeopardy, law professor Marjorie Cohn says, "When the Army judge declared a mistrial over defense objection in...Watada's court-martial, he probably didn't realize jeopardy attached. Although he faces the possibility of a dishonorable discharge, the judge's grant of a mistrial precludes retrial on the same criminal charges."
- "The problem appears to be that the Army wanted to argue that Ehren had implicitly stipulated he had a duty to deploy to Iraq once he received his orders," says Robert Rusky, a Hawaiian attorney and community advocate. "The stipulation was inadequate, and didn't avoid the real issue in the case, the legality of the Iraq invasion and occupation itself." Rusky feels that the mistrial decision is the result of Judge Head's pretrial ruling that the legality of the war could not be debated during the court martial. "This mess shows that the real issue can't be avoided. How can the Army be allowed to argue Ehren had a duty to comply with the deployment order, which necessarily assumes it was a lawful order, while denying Ehren the right to contest that it was a lawful order? [The ruling] inherently and clearly frames the issue I think we need to emphasize: the legality of the Iraq invasion that the deployment order was part of."
- Prosecutors maintain that Watada abandoned his soldiers and brought disgrace upon himself and the service by accusing the Army of war crimes and denouncing the Bush administration. Seitz countered that Watada acted in good conscience, based on his own convictions. Watada himself gives a clear answer as to why he disobeyed his order for deployment: "When you are looking your children in the eye in the future, or when you are at the end of your life, you want to look back on your life and know that at a very important moment, when I had the opportunity to make the right decisions, I did so, even knowing there were negative consequences. ...I hated to leave my troops, but something had to be done to stop this insanity. How could I order men to die for something I believe is wrong? Wearing the uniform is not, and is never, an excuse. ...It is my duty as a commissioned officer in the United States army to speak out against grave injustices. My moral and legal obligation is to the constitution. Not to those who issue unlawful orders. I stand before you today because it is my job to serve and protect American soldiers and innocent Iraqis who have no voice. It is my conclusion that the war in Iraq is not only morally wrong, but also a breach of American law." (AP/KABC-TV, MSNBC, Reuters, Truthout/Infoshop, Truthout, Nichi Bei Times, Wikipedia)
- February 7: George W. Bush's uncle, William H.T. "Bucky" Bush, is part of a group of outside directors at a defense contractor who were paid about $6 million in unauthorized pay from an options backdating scheme, according to US securities investigators.
William Bush is one of several non-employee directors who served on the board of Engineered Support Systems Inc., now owned by DRS Technologies Inc. Bush and his fellow directors are not yet accused of any wrongdoing in a civil complaint filed by the US Securities and Exchange Commission, but the SEC says that Bush and the other directors benefited from stock options not approved by shareholders. "As a result, the company provided significant additional compensation to its outside directors beyond what shareholders had approved," the SEC complaint says. "These same directors later realized approximately $6 million from the exercise of their addtional stock options." Bush served on the ESSI board from 2000 until last year, when ESSI was acquired by DRS. That firm sells engineering services to the US military. Bush served on ESSI's audit committee and received $2,500 a month in consulting fees, an arrangement that later was ended for him and other outside directors. Bush also received a fixed amount of ESSI shares each year for his work on the board. Before the DRS deal was approved in January 2006, Bush held ESSI shares worth $3.8 million.
- Between 1995 and early 2005, ESSI's stock climbed nearly 900% as the company sold cargo loaders, generators and trailers to the Pentagon. ESSI's board was politically connected to the Bush administration and the Pentagon, and included several retired generals.
- The SEC accuses ESSI's former chief financial officer, Gary Gerhardt, and former controller, Steven Landmann, of orchestrating a backdating scheme that spanned six years. In all, executives and directors netted $20 million in unauthorized pay. Outside directors received backdated options issued in 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2001. Landmann has agreed to give back about $519,000 in option-related compensation while paying $367,585 in penalties and interest. He did not admit or deny the SEC allegations, and will be permanently barred from serving as an officer of publicly-traded company. (Reuters/ABC News)
- February 7: The conservative smear campaign against Nancy Pelosi continues. Recently, Republicans and their conservative mouthpieces have lied that Pelosi, who lives in San Francisco, has demanded the use of a "luxury" military transport plane to fly to and from Washington.
Conservative smear campaigns
The story finds a foothold in the mainstream media today, when CNN's Carol Costello repeats unsubstantiated claims that Pelosi specifically requested a large and lavish military jet to fly between her home in San Francisco and Washington. Costello opens by saying, "The charges against Nancy Pelosi are strong -- an abuser of power who desires a luxury taxpayer-funded Pelosi One to ferry her family and friends," and that she "want[s] not only a military plane that could fly coast to coast without refueling, but one of the most luxurious planes in the Air Force's fleet." Costello does not bother to ask Pelosi about the truth of the matter. Costello's segment is introduced by CNN host Wolf Blitzer, who notes that Pelosi's GOP critics "accuse her of first-class ambitions." Blitzer does note that the information about Pelosi's supposed request comes "from the conservative Washington Times through unnamed congressional sources," but neither Costello nor Blitzer bother to try to confirm any of it. (The Washington Times is the source of recent false accusations that Democratic senator Barack Obama was educated at a radical Islamic madrassah, and that Senator Hillary Clinton's office is responsible for spreading that tale. Both Times stories are heinous lies. Yet Blitzer and Costello, and by extension CNN, seems perfectly willing to spread more lies from the same tainted source.)
- The Pelosi story is, of course, false. Pelosi merely asked for a plane that could fly nonstop cross-country between Washington and San Francisco. She never asked for a specific plane. She requested such a plane for security purposes as recommended to her by the House sergeant-at-arms; she also said that if she couldn't get a plane capable of flying nonstop to San Francisco, she has no problems flying commercially: "I said well, that's fine, I'm going commercial," she says after learning on her first trip home that the flight would not be nonstop. "I'm not asking to go on that plane [the 757]. If you need to take me there for security purposes, you're going to have to get a plane that goes across the country, because I'm going home to my family." It is worth noting that Pelosi, as Speaker, is third in line for the presidency behind Bush and Cheney, and warrants serious security procedures. And the entire negotiations for a plane for Pelosi were conducted by the House sergeant-at-arms and the Pentagon, with no involvement whatsoever by Pelosi. The guidelines provided by the Pentagon say Pelosi could be accompanied by family members, provided they pay the government coach fare. The plane could not be used for travel to political events. Members of Congress could accompany her on the plane if the travel is cleared by the House ethics committee.
- Liberal blogger and researcher Dave Johnson discovers that there is a nugget of truth in the Republicans' accusations, but not a truth they intend to acknowledge. Pelosi never demanded any of the "luxury airliner" accomodations that she was accused of demanding -- certainly not the "floating pleasure palace," a "luxury 757" with two beds, a bar, and 40 first-class seats, so she can "transport her political cronies, favorite members of Congress, congressional staffers, friends and relatives," as the accusation goes. But those luxury government 757s do exist. They are available for senior Bush White House officials and military brass. So, Johnson notes, apparently the conservatives who are heaping abuse upon Pelosi have no objection to the existence of such flying palaces and their use by government officials -- just not by Pelosi and, by extension, Democrats. Johnson writes, "[P]erhaps part of the right's anger driving this issue can be laid to authoritarian resentment about a member of Congress -- 'the People's House' -- a female Speaker, no less -- being 'demanding' enough to possibly gain use of one of 'their' luxury planes."
- But the Republican allegations, as promulgated by CNN and other even less reliable sources, quickly build into the realm of hateful fantasy. According to Costello, who is repeating almost word-for-word the allegations careening around conservative talk radio, Pelosi demanded "not only a military plane that could fly coast to coast without refueling, but one of the most luxurious planes in the Air Force's fleet -- the C-40 -- which boasts a private bed, an entertainment center, and a crew of 16." Costello even gets her designation wrong: she seems to be referring to the the C-32, a military version of the Boeing 757, which Republicans have specifically claimed Pelosi requested. According to the Air Force, the C-32 usually requires a crew of 16, while the C-40 usually requires 10 crew members. After Costello's regurgitation of the Republican claims, CNN then plays a clip from Republican House member Adam Putnam, apparently the GOP point man in the attack on Pelosi, who asks querulously, "So, why does she need 42 seats? Why do we need an airplane that costs $22,000 an hour to operate?" Putnam, and others, harp on the fact that the 757 has a bedroom on it, and quickly begin calling it "the Lincoln Bedroom," implying that Pelosi has fantasies of usurping presidential perogatives. CNN does air two brief clips from Pelosi's February 7 press conference where she tells reporters, "It has nothing to do with family and friends and everything to do about security," and "The only misrepresentations could be coming from the administration, and one would only have to wonder why." Conspicuously absent from CNN's reporting was Pelosi's insistence during the same news conference that she does not care about the size of the plane, only about whether it can travel from Washington, DC, to San Francisco without stopping to refuel.
- The smear campaign doesn't take long to make its way onto the floor of the House. House Minority Leader says that Pelosi's request is "a bit over the top," and publicly wonders what would be reasonable to charge the taxpayers for Pelosi's flying expenses. A "top Republican leader" (unidentified by MSNBC's Mike Viqueira, who reports this) goes to the House floor and offers an amendment on a completely unrelated bill that says Pelosi shouldn't be allowed to fly on this airplane. Viqueira reports, "So, they're jumping all over this, getting some traction, and they're certainly happy about it -- although, again, there's really no evidence that Pelosi specifically asked for the plane that is in question here -- this 757."
- The AP reports, "[Former House Speaker Dennis] Hastert, an Illinois Republican, flew in a small commuter-sized jet. Pelosi and her aides say that because her congressional district is in California, her security would require a larger plane that can fly coast to coast without refueling. 'It's not a question of size, it's a question of distance,' Pelosi said Wednesday. 'We want an aircraft that can reach California.'" Hastert actually used a smaller military jet that could reach Illinois without refueling. The House sergeant-at-arms advised Pelosi that Hastert had used a military plane and recommended that she use one that didn't need to refuel. That prompted her office to request clarification of the rules, according to her office, which also noted that she never actually requested a specific plane. As Viqueira reports on February 8, "no one here can confirm that she's actually asking for a 757.... [T]here's really no evidence that Pelosi specifically asked for ... this 757."
- The race to smear Pelosi begins almost from the moment the Washington Times publishes its lying accusations against her. The Christian Coalition, joining with their Moonie allies at the Times, accuses the speaker of demanding what it calls "Pelosi One" for her personal travel needs. The New York Post calls Pelosi "air-ogant" and is outraged that Pelosi supposedly wants "regular use of the military's 'Lincoln Bedroom' in the sky -- a luxurious aircraft of the same type that carries Vice President Dick Cheney and First Lady Laura Bush on official trips...." (As Dave Johnson notes above, it seems to be fine if Cheney and Bush lounge around the world in such palatial accomodations, but the line must be drawn with Pelosi.) The Post may be the first conservative media outlet to use the phrase "floating pleasure palace" in regards to the "super-opulent C-32" transport plane. Conservative "heartland" newspapers such as the Evansville Courier Press quickly hop on board, with the Courier Press opining, "She is demanding -- and, given her style, 'demand' is the correct verb -- that the Pentagon supply her with an airliner-size jet, the military version of a Boeing 757, to fly her to and from her San Francisco district. ...Pelosi should know from what happened to the House Republicans last November that voters resent what they saw as the GOP's overweening sense of entitlement and privilege." Conservative military blogger "Blackfive" writes, "Coming from perhaps the least military friendly district in America, it is a little disgusting to watch Nancy Pelosi shamelessly try to use her new power to get as many toys and perks as possible." "Blackfive"'s post receives the following comments, among many, many vitriolic others: "The idea that Speaker Granny is too lofty to stop in Podunkia somewhere and gas up her Gulfstream IV is pathetic. ...They'd have to stop somewhere in 'flyover country,' and exposure to how the real America lives would be too much for HM Queen Nancy to handle." Newsweek may have punctuated the entire sorry media frenzy by calling Pelosi a "757 liberal."
- Even the White House refuses to jump on board the airplane flap, with press secretary Tony Snow saying, "This is a silly story and I think it's been unfair to the speaker." As for her own views on the source of the story, Pelosi tells Fox News reporter Greta Van Susteren, "There are probably those in the Department of Defense who are not happy with my criticism of Secretary Rumsfeld, the war in Iraq, other waste, fraud and abuse in the Defense Department, and I guess this is their way of making their voices heard." The Pentagon would, as noted above, supply the plane to Pelosi. (CNN/Media Matters [multiple sources], CBS News, Seeing the Forest [multiple sources])
- February 7: One minor incident in Iraq, occuring in 2004 but just now reported, is emblematic of the US's good intentions but disastrous follow-through in attempting to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people.
Iraq war and occupation
Army soldier Garett Reppenhagen was ordered, along with members of his battalion, to hand out soccer balls to Iraqi kids in the surrounding villages. "You do so much crappy sh*t over there that when you get a mission to actually help people, it's encouraging," Reppenhagen, a veteran of US sniper teams, recalls. Handing out soccer balls to the kids who often ran by the Army Humvees asking for candy, water, or money, might do some good and win some sympathy from the local Iraqis, who then might help the Americans find some of the local insurgents. The operation could be seen, in the parlance of the Army counterinsurgency manual, as maintaining "moral legitimacy" with the Iraqis. And soccer is the most popular sport in Iraq. "There are soccer fields everywhere," Reppenhagen says. "Mostly it is just dirt lots. They don't have goal posts and so use stumps. Sometimes the kids play in the street. I swear, all they do all day long is play soccer."
- The official Army report of the soccer ball giveaway describes it as an unqualified success. "The children were thrilled to receive new soccer balls as soldiers tossed the balls to the boys and girls," says a Pentagon press release from March 2004. And a December 2004 release describes Kiowa helicopter pilots tossing soccer balls to grateful kids in an operation aptly dubbed "Operation Soccer Ball." Specialist Thom Cassidy, who worked in the logistics shop in Reppenhagen's battalion, says that "this was a very, very Army idea. This was the prototypical Army idea."
- And a prototypical Army snafu. At a forward base, when Reppenhagen and his fellow soldiers began to unload a truckload of soccer balls, they found the soccer balls as promised -- uninflated and flat. Reppenhagen scoured the boxes for pumps or needles to inflate the balls. Nothing. The soldiers sought the help of the mechanics in the motor pool, who tried to inflate the balls with tire pumps. It didn't work. The frustrated soldiers asked their commanding officers what to do, but received no useful ideas. Cassidy suggested that they order pumps and needles, which would arrive in about two weeks. The battalion colonel quickly tired of the whole discussion and said he wasn't about to requisition soccer ball pumps. "He decided this was a waste of time," Cassidy recalls. "His thought was, 'Iraqis should be grateful.' Not, 'They will be grateful' -- 'They should be.'" Finally, the lieutenant commanded the troops to deliver the balls to the children. "He was pretty much like, 'Shut up and hand out these soccer balls,'" Reppenhagen says. "We were so pissed," Reppenhagen recalls, but they did as ordered.
- Driving through the Sunni Triangle's war-torn towns, they tossed the deflated balls to children, who crowded the sides of the roads, running beside the canals and lush greenery that lined the banks of the Diyala River. "Kids were swarming us," Reppenhagen recalls. "We went to a couple of schools and delivered stacks of them. Everybody we saw got a flat soccer ball." The kids quickly found that the flat soccer balls were of no use. "They were like, 'What are you doing? What are we supposed to do with this?'" Reppenhagen recalls. By the time the soldiers began returning to base, the futility of the operation was becoming painfully clear. "Kids were wearing these soccer balls as hats," he recalls. "They were kicking them around. They were in trees. They were floating in canals. They were everywhere. There were so many soccer balls."
- Reppenhagen, who is now a board member of Iraqi Veterans Against the War, says to him the entire fiasco says it all about the US occupation of Iraq. (Reppenhagen's battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Christian Kubik, says he doesn't recall the soccer ball operation whatsoever, and says his troops would not have been stupid enough to deliver uninflated soccer balls -- but even if they were, "To focus on the air in the balls, or lack thereof, undermines the American spirit of generosity and completely misses the point of giving".) Reppenhagen says he certainly knows what he and his platoon got when they drove to the base: The Iraqi kids were expressing their hearts and minds with rocks and stones. "On the way back, kids were throwing rocks at us," he recalls. "I assumed it was because we gave them deflated soccer balls. Maybe if we had given them inflated soccer balls, they would have been out playing soccer." (Salon)
- February 7: The conservative smear campaign against Barack Obama continues. MSNBC conservative pundit Tucker Carlson, in attacking Obama, a Democratic senator and presidential candidate, attacks Obama's church, the Church of Christ, as "separatist" and "contradict[ing] the basic tenets of Christianity."
Conservative smear campaigns
Carlson is talking about the "Black Value System" advocated by the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, of which Obama is a member. Conservatives like Carlson have seized on Trinity's "Black Value System" as an avenue to attack Obama. They especially focus on the system's "disavowal of the pursuit of 'middleclassness,'" in Carlson's words, and Carlson and other conservatives call Trinity's teachings a "racially exclusive theology" and "a theology that ministers to one group of people, based on race." He sums up by saying, "it's hard to call that Christianity."
- Naturally, Carlson misrepresents the teachings in order to attack Obama. Carlson says that Trinity's teachings "call...for congregants to be 'soldiers for black freedom.'" In reality, Trinity encourages parishioners to be "soldiers for Black freedom and the dignity of all humankind." According to a Chicago Tribune article, the church's "value system" was adopted in 1981 to hold "black Christians accountable for taking care of their own and for continuing to fight oppression." According to Melissa Harris-Lacewell, a professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University, "the 'disavowal of the pursuit of middleclassness' is simply an argument against materialism and the pursuit of the American standard of wealth. Many white Christian churches also preach against materialism." Former Democratic congressman Tom Andrews tells Carlson, "[L]et's look at what those values actually are. We're talking about hard work, self-reliance, belief in God, and if you have made it to the middle class, you have an obligation to those who have not. Now, those sound like pretty good values to me, black, white, or whatever, and I think that Barack Obama should not be ashamed of having those values and being part of a church." (MSNBC/Media Matters [link to video])