Thursday, December 28, 2006

HERE ARE THE CHRISTIANS!

By William Fisher

My recent column, “Where Are The Christians?” drew a bundle of answers in emails from Truthout readers. That piece was about the bigoted remarks of Rep. Virgil Goode (R-Va) attacking newly–elected Congressman Keith Ellis, a Muslim, from taking his unofficial oath of office with his hand on the Quoran – and mindlessly predicting that this would somehow lead to a vast increase in illegal Muslim immigration (unless, of course, we close our borders).

It might be instructive to quote a couple of the emails I received.

Reverend Joy A. Bergfalk, of the Life Listening Resources at Labyrinth House Rochester, NY, wrote, “We progressives…do not have the finances of the Religious Right. We do not have Big Business and Sun Jung Moon to back us and the oil industry is certainly not with us. That kind of money goes to those who will let the corporate world take over America. Plus, we tend to try to use our finances to change the world by helping it.”

In answer to my “Where Are The Christians?” question, Rev. Bergfalk wrote, “We are almost all of the places where peacemaking is going on. We are at marches and rallies. We are at our computers writing responses, letters to Congress and whomever we can. I have written a response to Goode's statements. There was no way to e-mail it to him from outside of Virginia, so I have prepared a letter to be sent to each of his five offices.”

She added, “And we are speaking out in churches and from the pulpits. I think my parishioners now realize that Muslims and Christians worship the same God
by different names.”

And she closed with, “We may not be as obnoxious and flamboyant as the Religious Right, but we are here and active. Maybe if people would quit leaving the church in reaction to right wingers, the church would be a stronger force for change in our world.”

Another reader, Rev Jim Altman, Pastor of Cadott, Stanley, and Thorp United Methodist Churches in Stanley, WI, called my article “a cheap shot.” He explained, “There are credible progressive Christian voices out there who are rarely reported by even the progressive media. My response to Mr. Fisher's question is that nobody's asking us. I, for one, would love to give a Christian's response to Rep. Virgil Goode's outrageous rant against his fellow Congressman, Keith Ellison, but media outlets seem only interested in conflating Christianity with the religion of Falwell and Robertson. The majority of Christians in this country do not subscribe to ‘The Old-Time Gospel Hour’’ or ‘The 700 Club’, and do not worship in ‘mega-churches’, yet when journalists look for the American ‘Christian’ response we get Jerry, Pat, or some blow-dried dandy from the Church of What's Trendy. Most of the Christians I know would support Rep. Ellison's freedom of religion and more than a few would argue that the world still has much good to learn from Islam, but in the theater of journalism inflammation trumps reason and cartoon trumps reality.”

Well, that is exactly the point I was trying to make. I wrote, “You might not be aware of it, but there is a robust community of progressive Christians in America, struggling to get its voice heard. That’s a tough task when you don’t have the deep pockets and the cynical White House connections to effectively drown out dissent. Or change the subject. It’s a lot easier for this wedge constituency to get people worried that if same-sex unions become legal, they’ll all be forced to marry a gay or a lesbian than it is to speak out for the homeless, the poor, those who have no health care, and for religious tolerance to find common ground.”

There are dozens of progressive Christian websites and blogs and many of them have spoken out against Rep. Goode. For example, the simple advice from Rev. Tim Simpson’s Christian Alliance for Progress was, “Stand up for religious freedom, tell Rep. Virgil Goode that America is still ‘one nation under God, with liberty and justice for all’."

Or Cross Left’s admonition to its readers to “Stand Up for Religious Freedom, Tell Rep. Virgil Goode to Stop Attacking US Muslims.”

The Christian Alliance’s reader response was plentiful and passionate.

One reader wrote, “The attempt to conflate Islamophobia with immigration reform is laughable, except I can only imagine that we'll only see more of it from the Right. Once they come up with an intellectually unfounded conflation of issues, they tend to use it relentlessly until it takes hold in the minds of enough people for it to enter the cultural discourse (see their attempts to claim that all gays are pedophiles).”

Another wrote, “No matter what nonsense Congressman Virgil Goode spouts, he'll continue to be reelected by his constituency of good-ole-boys from Franklin County, Virginia. I live in a Congressional district adjacent to Goode's so I know whereof I speak. Please, please let's all allow good ole Virge to keep on writing and speaking as he pleases. The more Rep. Goode writes and says to expose his own narrow-minded ignorance, the more progressives will feel emboldened to vote against his willful stupidity.”

And yet another said, “It is truly sad that the people of Goode's district and believe me, their are many, many good people in that district aren't standing up and demanding either a retraction of his remarks or his removal from office… The former bastion of the Confederacy lingers with those like Goode who have no respect or tolerance for anyone different from them.”

Well, I’m afraid these are voices in the wilderness. The websites and broadcasts run by “values” groups like Focus on the Family, the 700 Club, and the Family Research Council, attract many more people and, as one of my readers rightly points out, are routinely turned to by journalists in need of a “religious source.”

It is worth noting that Tony Perkins’s Family Research Council website claims it has “led the way in defending religious freedom in the public square,” yet has been silent on the Goode affair. The websites of the other major right-wing “values” groups have either ignored the issue, or presented it as “straight news”, but using code-words such as references to Goode’s opposition from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) or the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR). The Foundation for Moral Law, led by dismissed Alabama Supreme Court Judge Roy Moore, inveighed that Ellis should not be allowed to take his congressional seat at all.

True, there are some counter-balances with national reputations, like Jim Wallis of Sojourners, the Interfaith Council, and the National Council of Churches, but they attract nothing like the media coverage given to the religious right.

All of which suggests that if religious extremism doesn’t really represent the views of most Christians, the more progressive forces within Christianity – and Judaism and Islam – need to become as unified and aggressive and determined as those who have sadly become the public faces of these great faiths by hijacking. They need to do more to organize nationally, to raise substantial funds, and to be much more proactively media savvy.

That’s not an easy task and it won’t happen quickly. But it’s the only way to at least level the playing field of religious discourse.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

WHERE ARE THE CHRISTIANS?

By William Fisher

It’s not rocket science to understand why Republicans have gone into hibernation on the issue of Rep. Virgil Goode’s outrageous rant against his fellow Congressman, Keith Ellison – the first Muslim ever elected to either legislative house – to want to take his oath on the Quran.

After all, Goode is one of their own. He’s from the same party that brought us George Allen’s “Macaca Moment” and the flirtatious “Call Me” tagline from a cute white blonde in a campaign commercial in the recent senate race against black Rep. Harold Ford.

To refresh your memory, Goode is the congressman who wrote his constituents: 'If American citizens don't wake up and adopt the Virgil Goode position on immigration, there will likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Quran in his personal private ceremony.'

Immigration? What has a single Muslim congressman got to do with immigration? Easy. If you’ve learned anything from Messrs Bush and Cheney over the past six years, it’s that conflating wildly unrelated issues can get people so spooked that it works. The president and the veep did it with Iraq and 9/11. Goode does it with an unofficial swearing-in and dark visions of illegals pouring across our borders. If we don’t stop Rep. Ellison from taking his oath on a Quran, the numbers of illegal Muslim immigrants will become a tsunami.

Never mind that the real swearing-in is administered to new members of Congress enmasse and without any holy book at all. The ceremony at which Ellison wants to use the Quran is a private, unofficial event for friends and family, a kind of memory-book photo-op. Also never mind that Muslim immigration into the U.S. is miniscule and overwhelmingly legal. Unlike the 9/11 hijackers who were in the U.S. legally on valid visas, most Muslim immigrants become citizens and many have been here for generations and more.

An extensive search suggests that only two Republicans have uttered a single word against this no-nothing attack. One of them is Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, who delivered a robust smackdown of this bigot on one of the Sunday morning talk shows. Graham asked why the newly-elected Minnesota lawmaker shouldn’t be allowed to take his oath on a book he believes in?

The other is Sen. John Warner of Virginia, who offered the half-hearted comment that he respects the right of all members of Congress to freely "exercise the religion of their choice, including those of the Islamic faith utilizing the Quran."

California Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter, presidential wannabee, Guantanamo booster, and outgoing chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, dodged the Goode question put to him by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer

Good for Senator Graham. He did the right thing.

But the more important question – particularly at this season of the year -- is “where are all the Christians?” Unless I’ve completely misunderstood the Scriptures, Christ believed in helping “the least of these,” for love, compassion, and tolerance.

But the silent Christians seem to have forgotten to ask, “What Would Christ Do?”

One wouldn’t expect the likes of Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, or Pat Robertson to be caught dead defending a Muslim’s right to be a Muslim. They’ve already made the denigration of this religion a cottage industry for the far right in Christendom.

So have senior military officers like Gen. Jerry Boykin, who has inveighed in uniform that his God is better than their God.

But there are tens of millions of other Christians out there. They ought to know that love of all God’s creatures is at the core of their religion. They ought also to know that an attack against one religion is an attack against all religions. Next week, it could be Jews. Next month, it could be Christian fundamentalists or evangelicals.

You might not be aware of it, but there is a robust community of progressive Christians in America, struggling to get its voice heard. That’s a tough task when you don’t have the deep pockets and the cynical White House connections to effectively drown out dissent. Or change the subject. It’s a lot easier for this wedge constituency to get people worried that if same-sex unions become legal, they’ll all be forced to marry a gay or a lesbian than it is to speak out for the homeless, the poor, those who have no health care, and for religious tolerance to find common ground.

Lately, however, we, the people, have been doing a bit better. As of Nov. 7, voters have sent their message to the Congress, to the White House, and to the religious
far-right. America has grown weary of their divide-and-conquer strategies.

Republicans may find some hope in this message. Now, they might not be quite so terrified of losing their campaign contributions and maybe their seats by taking principled stands against the never-mind-what-Christ-would-do wing of their party.

Mainstream Christians can play a big role here. Expressing their outrage at Virgil Goode’s mindless xenophobia and their support for Keith Ellison would be a good first step.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

WINNING BY LOSING?

By William Fisher

Daniel Sutherland, head of the civil rights division of the Department of Homeland Security, says the government needs the help of American Muslims and Arab-Americans to fight terrorism at home: "Homeland security isn't gonna be won by people sitting in a building inside the Beltway, " he says.

But, five years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, “Islamophobia” -- intensified by the war in Iraq and U.S. government actions at home – has left millions of American Muslims fearful of harassment, discrimination, and questionable prosecutions, and confused about their place in American society.

What is the impact on Muslims and Americans of Arab descent? One, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said, “It sometimes feels suffocating being in the U.S. now. We cannot turn on our TV in the evening to watch CNN or MSNBC or the other ‘news stations’ because of people like Glenn Beck and others who consistently spew hate, nonsense and misinformation about Islam and Arabs on primetime. And if we try to watch mindless drama on TV we are bombarded with shows about Middle East/Arab and Islamic terrorism -- shows like 24, Sleeper Cell, The Agency, etc. It is very difficult being an Arab/Muslim American these days.”

That appears to correctly sum up the feelings of those whose help the government says it is seeking.

Most members of these communities believe that the government is – perhaps inadvertently -- fanning the flames of bigotry by using phrases like “Islamo-Fascist” from the lexicon it has crafted for the “Global War on Terror” and by actions such as high-profile press conferences announcing prosecutions that often collapse.

Recent polls indicate that almost half of Americans have a negative perception of Islam and that one in four of those surveyed have "extreme" anti-Muslim views. A survey by the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) found that a quarter of Americans consistently believe stereotypes such as: "Muslims value life less than other people" and "The Muslim religion teaches violence and hatred."

In 2005, CAIR received 1,972 civil rights complaints, compared to 1,522 in 2004. This constitutes a 29.6 percent increase in the total number of complaints of anti-Muslim harassment, violence and discriminatory treatment from 2004. It is the highest number of Muslim civil rights complaints ever reported to CAIR.

Following 9/11, the U.S. Department of Justice began rounding up Arabs and other Muslims and – mistakenly – anybody who looked “Middle Eastern,” including Sikhs from South Asia. In the months after the attacks, some 5,000 men were held in detention without charges, most without access to lawyers or family members. As confirmed in an investigation by the DOJ Inspector-General, many were held in solitary confinement and physically abused.

There were no prosecutions and no convictions of any of these people. Some, who were in the U.S. with expired visas or who had committed other immigration infractions, were deported.

Since then, the seemingly endless catalog of harassment and infringements on the civil rights of U.S. citizens has grown unabated. A few examples:

Ahmad Al Halabi graduated from high school in Dearborn, Michigan, the center of the nation’s Muslim community. He joined the Air Force and was assigned as a translator for al-Qaeda suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He was accused of spying and spent 10 months in solitary confinement before the spy charges were dropped.

Osama Abulhassan and Ali Houssaiky, both 20 and from Dearborn, were charged with supporting terrorism in Marietta, Ohio, in August after making bulk purchases of cheap, prepaid cell phones from discount stores. The charges were dropped a week later.

Four men were accused after the 9/11 attacks of being part of a "sleeper cell" that was planning terrorist attacks. Two of the men were convicted of conspiring to provide material support and resources to terrorists, but a federal judge overturned the verdicts at the Justice Department's request in 2004 because prosecutors withheld evidence at the trial that could have helped the defendants.

Farooq Al-Fatlawi, a bus passenger en route to Chicago, was put off with his bags in Toledo, Ohio, after he told the driver he was from Iraq.

A San Francisco Bay Area civil rights activist, Raed Jarrar, was barred from a plane for wearing a T-shirt that said, "We will not be silent" in Arabic and English.

A respected upstate-New York oncologist, Dr. Rafil Dhafir, was arrested as a possible terrorist in 2003. Political leaders like then-Attorney General John Ashcroft and Gov. George Pataki happily served as cheerleaders by making inflammatory terror-related public statements. But when their terrorist claims failed to materialize, the government expanded its case. And the judge in his trial granted a prosecution motion to exclude any reference to terrorism from the courtroom. Dhafir was convicted of Medicare fraud and using his charitable organization, Help the Needy, to violate Iraq sanctions to send money to illegal groups in Iraq. He was sentenced to 22 years in prison.

Six imams seen praying in a Minneapolis airport terminal were later removed from their US Airways flight after a passenger passed a note to a flight attendant saying that the men were acting suspiciously. The imams were removed from the plane in handcuffs. They were questioned and released, but the airline says the crew acted properly in having the imams removed, and refused to issue them new tickets the following day. The imams are suing the airline.

Often cited as “Islamophobia Exhibit A,” Canadian Muslim Maher Arar, was abducted by U.S. officials at Kennedy airport in New York in 2002, and then transported to a prison in Syria where he was confined for more than 10 months in a cell that looked like a grave. He was beaten, tortured, and forced to make a false confession about having ties to Al Qaeda. A Canadian commission of inquiry ruled after a two-year investigation that all the charges were unfounded. But Arar was barred from suing the U.S. Government, which claimed that a trial would divulge “state secrets.”

The U.S. government agreed to pay $2 million and issue a written apology to a Muslim attorney in Oregon who was jailed after the FBI mistakenly linked him to the Madrid train bombings. Brandon Mayfield sued the FBI, alleging that his civil rights had been violated and that he was arrested in part because he is a Muslim convert.
Fox television’s hit drama '24' portrayed an American Muslim family as being at the heart of a terrorist 'sleeper cell.' A spokeswoman for CAIR said the show was 'taking everyday American Muslim families and making them suspects.”

When Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, announced that he was planning to take a ceremonial oath of office on a Qur’an, right-wing radio and Internet bloggers went into high paranoia mode. Oh my God, talk show host Dennis Prager fumed, Ellison can't be allowed to do that; it "undermines American civilization."

The American Family Association (AFA), a conservative religious group, posted an "Action Alert" on its Web site requesting that supporters urge lawmakers to pass "What book will America base its values on, the Bible or the Koran?" the AFA said.

The U.S. Treasury Department, in its efforts to cut off financing for radical Islamic organizations, has used a provision of the Patriot Act to designate charities that support Muslim causes as terrorist organizations. Once a charitable organization is designated as a supporter of terrorism, all of its materials and property may be seized and its assets frozen. Thus far, the effort has resulted in the government shutting down five charities. But there has only been one indictment, no trials, and no convictions. Only one official criminal charge has been brought against a Muslim organization for support of terrorism, and that case has not yet made it to trial. Three months ago, Federal agents raided the offices of one of the nation's largest Islamic charities, Life for Relief and Development. Agents seized computers and donor records. But no charges have been filed and the charity remains in business.

While many American Muslims serve in the U.S. Armed Forces, they have less luck trying to get jobs in the civilian agencies involved in national security. When the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) when on a recruiting binge to find and hire new analysts and translators, many Arab-Americans and other American Muslims came forward and applied. But they have met with little success because they are frequently denied security clearances on grounds that they have friends and family back in the Middle East.

Samer Shehata, professor of Arab Politics at Georgetown University, probably speaks for the feelings of most of the U.S. Muslim community, “Quite simply,” he says, Islamophobia “produces an environment that is fundamentally at odds with what the U.S. is supposed to be about; our values for treating everyone fairly and not discriminating on the basis of skin color, race, religion, gender, etc.”

Prof. Shehata adds, “This is damaging certainly for all Americans and it is also damaging for the reputation of the U.S. overseas. One of the questions I hear the most whenever I am in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East is: how is it like now in the U.S. for Arabs? Have you been the victim of discrimination, bigotry, abuse?”

It is obvious that our government has not yet achieved a rational balance between investigation and intimidation. If it doesn’t get it right, it will have lost a critical resource.

Nobody wants terrorists in our midst. But we cannot win by losing.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

DEATH TO INFIDELS VIA VIDEO GAME

By William Fisher

NEW YORK, Dec 13 (IPS) - A coalition of U.S. religious and progressive groups has stepped up a formal campaign to protest a controversial new Christian fundamentalist video game in which players battle the "forces of the Anti-Christ" and kill or convert non-believers.

"This is the first time any Christian religious instructional video has recommended killing all non-Christians who refuse to convert to Christianity. It is unprecedented and dangerous," Rev. Timothy Simpson, president of the Jacksonville, Florida-based progressive advocacy group the Christian Alliance for Progress, told IPS.

The game, titled "Left Behind: Eternal Forces", is packaged with a book explaining its philosophy, and is currently being sold by WalMart, the United States' largest retailer. The chain has thus far has refused demands that it remove it from its shelves, indicating it would continue selling the game online and in selected stores where it felt there was demand.

"The product has been selling in those stores," according to spokeswoman Tara Raddohl. "The decision on what merchandise we offer in our stores is based on what we think our customers want the opportunity to buy."

Nearly 25,000 members of the Campaign to Defend the Constitution, one of the groups critical of the video game, have submitted letters to Wal-Mart, asking the store to stop selling religious violence for Christmas.

Aimed at conservative Christians, the game's story line begins in a time after the "rapture", when fundamentalist dogma contends that Christians will go to heaven. The remaining population on earth must then choose between surrendering to or resisting "the Antichrist", which the game describes as the "Global Community Peacekeepers" whose objective is the imposition of "one-world government".

"Part of the object is to kill or convert the opposing forces," Simpson said. This is "antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ," he said, adding that he was dismayed by the concept in "Eternal Forces" of using prayer to restore a player's "spirit points" after killing the enemy.

In the game, combatants on one side pause for prayer, intoning, "Praise the Lord". A player can lose points for "unnecessary killing" but regain them through prayer.

But Simpson counters, "The idea that you could pray, and the deleterious effects of one's foul deeds would simply be wiped away, is a horrible thing to be teaching Christian young people here at Christmas time."

Troy Lyndon, CEO of Left Behind Games Inc., which is promoting the new video, has defended the game as "inspirational entertainment" and said its critics were exaggerating. The game is based on the popular "Left Behind" novels, a Bible-based end-of-the-world-saga that has sold more than 63 million copies.

Lyndon told the New York Times the game has received a T (for teen) rating, meaning it offers more violence than an E-rated children's game, but less graphically than games rated M (for mature). M games have often been criticised by conservative Christian groups.

The "Left Behind" game is based on the popular series of novels series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins and is based on their interpretation of the Bible's Book of Revelation.

Left Behind Games says the game actually is pacifist because players lose "spirit points" every time they gun down nonbelievers rather than convert them. They can earn spirit points again by having their character pray.

"You are fighting a defensive battle in the game. You are a sort of a freedom fighter," the company says on its web site. "Our game includes violence, but excludes blood, decapitation, killing of police officers."

Simpson, whose group was formed last year to counter the influence of the religious right, told IPS that he and a number of his colleagues would be initiating a conference call to the game's promoter Thursday, to try to persuade the company to withdraw the game from the market.

Another participant in the critics' news conference, author Frederick Clarkson, argued that "Eternal Forces" was less violent than many other video games, but was more troubling in some ways.

"It becomes a tool of religious instruction," he said. "The message is... there will be religious warfare, and you will target your fellow Americans, people from other faiths, people who you consider to be sinners."

Clarkson criticised the Rev. James Dobson's powerful Colorado-based Christian ministry, Focus on the Family (FOF), for publishing a positive review of "Eternal Forces" on one of its web sites. Dobson's group is close to the White House and is considered highly influential in shaping the George W. Bush administration's conservative agenda.

"Eternal Forces is the kind of game that Mom and Dad can actually play with Junior and use to raise some interesting questions along the way," wrote the FOF reviewer, Bob Hoose.

Simpson's group has joined with other progressive Christian organisations to protest the video game. These include the CrossWalk America, the Beatitudes Society, the Centre for Progressive Christianity, and the Campaign to Defend the Constitution (DefCon)

IN DEFENSE OF (SOME) CONTRACTORS

By William Fisher

The past few years have seen the excoriation of contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Bush Administration has been accused of “outsourcing” vital missions for reconstruction and delivery of vital services. Contractors have been accused of finagling no-bid contracts, failing to deliver on these contracts, over-charging our taxpayers, and generally engaging in a free-for-all binge of waste, fraud and mismanagement.

Much of this criticism is painfully true. Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg Brown & Root, and Custer Battles, a private security firm, for example, have – justifiably, in my view – become poster children for everything that has gone wrong with our $20 billion-plus reconstruction programs.

Yet all contractors are not Halliburton or Custer Battles. And in indicting contractors generically, critics do a profound disservice to other kinds of contractors who have struggled to be effective under the most perilous conditions.

I refer here to the many international development contractors – both private,
for- profit companies, and non-governmental organizations – working in these war zones for the U.S. Agency for International Development, USAID. Their work is about improving health systems, education, agriculture, industrial production, good governance, and much more.

My viewpoint is not academic nor is it the result of a Google search. It is informed by my own twenty years of serving as such a contractor in the Middle East, Latin America, Africa and Asia.

Rewind to Egypt, circa 1999-2002, when I lived in Egypt as a USAID contractor. My job was to lead an all-Egyptian team charged with monitoring, evaluating and improving the performance of more than dozen programs dedicated to improving the country’s capacity to take advantage of globalization.

Almost all these programs were managed by U.S.-based international development contractors. There were no no-bid contracts; all had been won on the basis of competitive bidding. Contracting officers were infuriatingly meticulous about dotting every ‘i’ and crossing every ‘t’.

The programs were both diverse and related. For example, one worked with the Egyptian Ministry of Agriculture to reduce policy and practice constraints to increased agricultural production and exports. Another, run by Egyptians, was dedicated to matchmaking between Egyptian businesses and their international counterparts and improving potential small exporters’ access to credit by a banking system that traditionally made loans only to the super-wealthy elites of the country. Another was conceived to foster access to new technologies and encourage technological innovation among smaller entrepreneurs. All were dedicated to pursuing anti-corruption measures because official and private corruption at the time was adding something like 30 percent to every item lucky enough to enter or leave the country – making Egyptian products and services uncompetitive with many other countries around the world.

Much has been written about the pitiful lack of oversight of contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the truth of this has been well documented. In my experience in Egypt, the very existence of the unit I led constituted a rigorous form of oversight.

But that might have been seen as the fox guarding the henhouse. So there was more. Each of these programs had an experienced USAID officer assigned to monitor its progress on a daily basis, produce strategic objectives, detailed workplans with benchmarks and dates, and make frequent reports and presentations detailing their progress and problems. Most of these officers were Egyptians familiar with their country’s customs, constraints and opportunities.

This is not unusual; in fact, it is pretty universally standard operating procedure for USAID projects everywhere in the world. If there were roadblocks, they were more often than not erected by the Egyptian government itself – mostly related to pushing Egyptians to do too much too quickly, or protecting sacred cows from anti-corruption efforts.

There are many such development contractors working in Iraq and Afghanistan. But, unlike my experience in Egypt, they obviously have huge security concerns, and the larger contractors have had to assemble small private armies to protect them – at considerable expense. These concerns have increased with the ever-heightening levels of violence and criminality.

But many of them have told me that, in Iraq, the principal problems they faced initially stemmed largely from the arrogance and lack of development experience of the ideologically-driven political appointees assembled by Viceroy L. Paul Bremer’s original Coalition Provisional Authority – the CPA – widely known among contractors as the “Can’t Provide Anything” authority. Today, many are hamstrung by the lack of experienced officials in the various ministries with which these contractors must interact.

Decisions are delayed for months. When decisions are made, they are often still grandiose and impractical, as in the earlier days of the occupation. Funding does not flow. And development teams, which must travel outside the Green Zone to do their work, cannot get military assistance to protect them.

One project manager in Iraq wrote me: “In my three years in Iraq, I witnessed a U.S. Government unprepared for the challenges present in post-Saddam Iraq and, at times, appeared to deliberately conduct business on the basis of ideology rather than the practical realities of Iraq. Iraqis, who were genuinely happy that Saddam was toppled, deserved better. As the Green Zoners met with each other and made momentous decisions -- or as more often happened, they met with each other and made no decisions -- we were on the outside working with Iraqis figuring out how in the midst of a terrible war we could give hope to the rural population. My greatest hope is that our project will not be judged as an arm of the American government in Iraq. Rather, I hope that we will be looked upon as a group, most of who were against the war, that put ideology and politics aside to work humbly for a better Iraq.”

The U.S. Government has neither the skills nor the experience to take on massive reconstruction and development projects with government employees only. It needs contractors. It needs a competitive bidding process. And the Government has a responsibility to provide personnel equipped to provide informed oversight.

But if these development contractors don’t sound like Halliburton or Custer Battles, it’s because they’re not. They are an entirely different breed. Compared to the now well-known companies who took on big-ticket construction or infrastructure rehabilitation or military services contracts, their cost is infinitesimal. The challenges they face are daunting. Their work is dangerous. But their dedication to development is very real.

To bracket them with those companies that viewed Iraq and Afghanistan as no more than an unpoliced pot of gold does them a huge injustice.

Monday, December 11, 2006

THREE YEARS TOO LATE

By William Fisher

While the Washington press corps chased the nine wise men (and one wise woman) of the Iraq Study Group as they scampered from the White House to Capital Hill to press conferences to a multitude of talk show appearances in their efforts to pull Dubya’s chestnuts from the Iraq fire, some journalists seem to have missed some of its most important findings.

One of the more alarming was that of the 1,000 employees of the massive new U.S. Embassy inside the Green Zone bubble in Baghdad, there are – wait for it – SIX who are fluent in Arabic.

In a very real sense, that pitiful number could be a metaphor for one of the most serious flaws in the entire Iraq adventure. We invaded a country about which the invaders knew virtually nothing. Not only didn’t we know the Arabic language; we knew nothing about Iraq’s religious sects, tribes, culture, sensitivities, customs, traditions, mores, or the Byzantine inter-relationships among all these attributes.

And that predicament is not limited to the State Department, which runs the new embassy. It is also true of the armed services, the CIA, and all the many other parts of our national security apparatus.

This critical deficiency raises serious questions about the practicality of the Iraq Study Group’s recommendation that a greatly increased number of U.S. military trainers be embedded into the Iraqi Security Forces, down to the company level. Is anybody wondering how you go about training a soldier you can’t speak to? Or how you understand quickly enough when one of your Iraqi comrades decides he cares more about his tribe than about his country and makes you ‘the enemy’?

The shortage of Arabic speakers was one of the red flags the State Department sent to Donald Rumsfeld before the invasion. But the outgoing SecDef wasn’t about to listen to any advice from State – or most anyone else. And even if incoming DOD chief Bob Gates is prepared to heed that kind of counsel, it may be too late for it to make any difference. Producing Arabic speakers takes years, and the U.S. doesn’t have years. Like most of the challenges the U.S. now faces is Iraq, there is no quick fix for this one either.

There is only so much translation we can expect from Arabic-speaker Gen. John Abizaid!

Given the importance of the Middle East to U.S. national security interests long before the Iraq invasion, how is it that one of the world’s most multicultural countries is unable to deliver men and women fluent in Arabic?

Some of the reasons are easily explained, others are much more complicated.

Among the simple ones: American education has long neglected foreign language study and American students have for years shown little appetite for learning them; Arabic is a particularly difficult language to learn; some applicants simply don’t want to serve in Iraq; and there are strong indications of the unwillingness of many Arab and Muslim-Americans to apply to agencies they see as having contributed to the ‘Islamophobic’ environment that pervades our country today.

Moreover, while the number of college-level Arabic language students has increased substantially since the attacks of 9/11, many drop out and even those who complete their courses will not come anywhere near qualifying as fluent.

President Bush appears to have understood the importance of the issue; in 2005 he ordered then-CIA Director Porter Goss to increase the number of Arabic-speakers by 50 per cent. The CIA – and the FBI, the DOD, and the Department of Homeland Security – all failed to meet that goal. What they did achieve was an exponential increase in job applications from Arabic speakers.

That was largely the result of a recruiting binge by the national security agencies. For example, they offered generous sign-on bonuses of up to $25,000 for new hires fluent in Arabic and other crucial languages. They participated in college job fairs. The CIA placed ads in local newspapers in communities where there is a heavy concentration of Arab-Americans. One featured a photo of the Statue of Liberty with the words: "For over 100 years, Arab Americans have served the nation. Today we need you more than ever."

Last year’s intelligence reorganization law also authorized the Agency to study so-called ‘heritage communities’ such as metropolitan Detroit’s Arab populations with foreign language abilities. It also earmarked money for a pilot program to recruit foreign-language speakers into a civilian linguist reserve corps.

All these activities resulted in U.S. national security agencies reporting substantial increases in employment applications. But the ratio of applications to job offers remains low.

One result, according to the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, is that analysts at the CIA, the FBI, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the National Security Agency, are “awash in untranslated gleanings of intelligence” in Arabic. The Foundation also said there are not enough interpreters to handle detainees in Iraq.

The FBI says that since Sept. 11, the agency has processed 30,000 applicants for jobs as linguists in Arabic, Farsi, and other tongues. But it points out that "out of 20 applicants, we'd be lucky to get one or two."

So what has happened to these applicants? Many have been rejected after – or before – their first interview. Many more have been waiting years for their security clearances. Among these job-seekers, it should be no surprise that by the time those clearances arrive, the applicants have already found other jobs.

But the key constraint appears to be that Arab and Muslim-Americans are frequently rejected for security clearances on the preposterous basis that they have contacts in the Middle East – like friends and families. Recruiters are particularly hesitant to approve people in this group of applicants; none wants to be the guy who approves the next “sleeping Osama.”

The shortage is no less acute at the State Department. A bipartisan State Department advisory panel on public diplomacy, headed by Edward Djerejian, a former ambassador to Israel and Syria, found that only 54 of 279 Arabic speakers employed by State were fluent. Of those, only six were fluent enough to appear on Arabic television programs.

The Baker-Hamilton group made some 79 recommendations to the president about how to craft a new strategy for our involvement in Iraq. These have been treated with both praise and scorn. But the issue may in fact be moot.

Like the group’s exhortation to increase the number of Arabic speakers in our Baghdad embassy, its recommendations are unlikely to produce a “victory” in Iraq. We needed the ISG three years ago – when there still might have been a few good options. Now there are none.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

BUSH’S SECOND BIGGEST MISTAKE

By William Fisher

The New York Times Sunday ran a series of articles by prominent historians who endeavored to answer the question, “Is Bush Our Worst President?” In the interest of balance, there was a “yes” piece, a “no” piece, and a “we don’t know yet” piece.

Fair enough.

But what struck me about these articles is how little attention they devoted to Bush’s second biggest mistake.

His first big mistake, as we all now know, was turning his attention and our resources away from Afghanistan, the country that harbored those who attacked us on 9/11. We’ll be paying a high price for that mistake for decades to come.

His second biggest mistake was the place to which he then turned his attention and our resources -- Iraq, a country that posed no imminent threat to our national security or that of its neighbors. And he did so on the basis of false, exaggerated, and hyped “intelligence.”

That was his second biggest mistake not simply because the Iraq adventure has turned out to be, as Tom Ricks would say, a fiasco.

Another significant reason is that it totally ignored what is indisputably the most serious and intractable problem in the Middle East: The Israeli-Palestinian issue – the 900-pound gorilla in the room.

For the past six years, this administration has been A.W.O.L on this hair-trigger issue. It is one whose solution cannot be advanced by occasional visits to the White House by Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert, or Abu Mazen. It cannot be advanced by sporadic visits to the area by Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. It cannot be advanced by pronouncements from the White House about the wisdom of a two-state solution. It cannot be advanced by hailing Mr. Sharon’ s Gaza initiative, which has effectively turned that strip of land into a prison. It cannot be advanced by the President’s endorsement of yet more West Bank settlements and redrawing the UN boundaries because of “changing reality on the ground.”

Nor can it be advanced by refusing to talk to Hamas because that bunch won the support of many Palestinian voters in the kind of fair election the President keeps pressing nations to hold. The President needs to ask why the Palestinian people voted for Hamas.

Whatever their reasons, the sorry result of U.S. post-election policy is to legitimize yet more suffering for the people who live in the Palestinian territories, thus turning up the volume of the anti-Americanism that already permeates the region.

So dire is this 50-year-old problem that it cried out for a long-term, sustained, on-the-ground diplomatic effort on the part of the Bush Administration. It required the presence, and the skills and patience, of a Dennis Ross or a Richard Holbrooke.

Now, alas, it may be too late. Our virtually total neglect of the problem, our lopsided support of Israel’s protracted incursion into Lebanon, and our unconscionable delay in pushing the UN for a cease-fire, may have robbed us of whatever credibility we once had as an “honest broker.”

Still, President Bush keeps referring to “the road map,” as if he and his people had expended any energy whatever in trying to lay the predicate for its implementation. There is no roadmap. It’s dead.

No one ever thought it would be easy – maybe not even possible – to persuade Hamas to abandon its refusal to recognize Israel’s existence or to give up on driving its people into the sea. And no one ever thought it would be easy to persuade the Israelis to make real concessions.

But lots of people said similar things when Jimmy Carter set out to establish a peace treaty between Israel and its archenemy, Egypt. That treaty is still in force, as is the one between Israel and Jordan.

Every president over the past thirty years has tried to find ways to resolve the myriad of issues that make up the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Every president, that is, except George W. Bush. His predecessors weren’t famously successful, but at least they tried.

They tried because they understood that the road to Baghdad ran through Jerusalem, not vice-versa.

There is no single issue that energizes the nations and people of the Middle East in the way that the Israel-Palestine cancer does. It is true that many Arab nations in the neighborhood don’t really care if this issue is ever settled, because the longer it festers the easier it is for them to do nothing save using it as a pretext for their anti-American propaganda. Israel always makes a handy agenda item for meetings of the Arab League. But we should by now be used to The Arab League shooting itself in the foot.

Just as the President, now out of all good options, will likely find himself reluctantly having to negotiate with Iran and Syria over Iraq, he will similarly find himself forced to talk with Hamas. That will require tough, sustained, carrot-and-stick diplomacy of a kind that has been sadly absent during the past six years. We can enlist a few credible allies, including the EU and the UN, but the principal responsibility can’t be outsourced. The U.S. still has more leverage over Israel than any other country.

Talking to Hamas won’t be easy or pleasant. But Mr. Bush wasn’t elected to take on the easy or pleasant.

And there is nothing that would offer more promise for a peaceful Middle East than for President Bush to at least be seen to be trying in a really serious way to do something meaningful in his last two years in office.

He may be a lame duck, but that doesn’t mean he has to be a paraplegic.

FOUR HOPEFUL SIGNS

By William Fisher

Amidst the anger, dismay and depression felt by millions of Americans who see their country’s civil liberties being unnecessarily surrendered in the name of “The Global War on Terror”, there are occasional signs that our justice system is still alive and well.

Recent weeks have brought four such signs.

Sign One: Khaled El-Masri, a German citizen, stood up in a U.S. Federal courtroom to challenge the Bush administration's use of "extraordinary rendition," abduction, detention and interrogation in secret overseas prisons. He told the court, "I have come to America seeking three things. An acknowledgement that the United States government is responsible for kidnapping, abusing and detaining me; an explanation as to why I was singled out for this treatment; and an apology because I am an innocent man who has never been charged with any crime."

In a legal maneuver now familiar, the government tried to use the “state secrets privilege” to keep the case from being heard and thus avoid accountability for its actions. But last week, El-Masri’s lawyers argued that the government's official
recognition of the program and information already available about this case show that the lawsuit does not jeopardize national security and must be allowed to continue.

The last time El-Masri tried to come to the U.S. -- to hear his own court
case -- he was denied entry because he did not have a visa, even though German citizens don't actually need visas to enter the U.S.

Sign Two: A group of human rights advocacy organizations filed a ‘Friend of the Court” brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals demanding justice for Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, a Qatari student, who was arrested in Peoria, Illinois, in 2001, detained in New York City for 18 months as an alleged material witness in the 9/11 attacks, and then, in 2003, just weeks before al-Marri's planned trial in federal court, President Bush declared him an "enemy combatant" in the "war on terror" and ordered him transferred to military custody where he was held incommunicado at a Naval Brig for 17 months while being interrogated under allegedly coercive and abusive conditions.

Al-Marri’s lawyers are arguing in court filings that it is unconstitutional for the government to detain as an "enemy combatant" a person who is not captured on the battlefield and who is not a member of the armed forces of an enemy State. The brief was filed in the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

His lawyers argue that the general constitutional rule governing detention, per the Supreme Court decision of Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, limits the definition of "enemy combatant" to persons who are captured on a battlefield or are members of the armed forces of an enemy state. This definition is consistent with the traditions laws of war and constitutional precedent prohibiting military trial and the detention without trial or charge of civilians. Without such protections, United States citizens and immigrants can be arrested, deemed "enemy combatants," and detained indefinitely without due process.

The government’s reply briefs are due in January 2007. Oral arguments are expected to take place at the end of January or beginning of February 2007. In the meantime, al-Marri continues to be held in military custody, without charge or trial.

Sign Three: Five years after Muslim immigrants were abused in a federal jail, the guards who beat them and the Washington policymakers who decided to hold them for months without charges are being called to account. In what could turn out to be a landmark case, a panel of three Federal judges turned down a request by FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III and former Attorney Gen. John Ashcroft to dismiss the lawsuit brought against two Brooklyn detainees, and signaled they believed the case should go forward.

In the months immediately following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, some 1,200 Middle Eastern men were arrested on suspicion of terrorism. Many were held in Brooklyn's notorious nine-story Metropolitan Detention Center. In a special unit on the top floor, detainees were smashed into walls, repeatedly stripped and searched, and often denied basic legal rights and religious privileges, according to federal investigations.

Now the federal Bureau of Prisons, which runs the jail, has revealed for the first time that 13 staff members have been disciplined, two of them fired. The warden has retired and moved to the Midwest.

Two of these detainees sued former Attorney General Ashcroft, FBI Director Mueller, and top federal prison officials and individual guards as defendants, seeking an unspecified amount of money from the government.

The suit hopes to hold federal law enforcement authorities responsible for their open-ended, "hold-until-cleared" policy for detainees. If the lawsuit prevails, it will create precedents that will probably bar authorities from carrying out such sweeping roundups in the future.

The government has already settled with one of the plaintiffs – a rare and surprising move -- former Manhattan deli operator Ehab Elmaghraby, who accepted a federal government payout of $300,000.

Elmaghraby, who has returned to Egypt, said he could not forgive the guards who jammed a flashlight up his rectum. "They destroyed me. They destroyed my family," he said in a recent telephone interview. "So I want the officers to stay one week inside those cells. They would kill themselves before the week was finished."

So the case is proceeding with just one of the detainees who sued.

Sign Four: In a significant development on the right of charitable giving, a federal judge ruled that the Bush administration violated the U.S. Constitution when it froze the assets of more than two dozen alleged terrorist groups after the 9/11 attacks. The ruling held that an executive order President Bush issued on Sept. 24, 2001, designating 27 groups and individuals as "specially designated global terrorists", was "unconstitutionally vague" and flawed because it failed to explain the criteria used to make the designations and included no process to challenge the decision.

The challenge brought to the federal courts was based on the premise that domestic political groups in the U.S. can support humanitarian causes in troubled regions without supporting terrorism. Specifically, U.S. District Judge Audrey Collins ruled against freezing the assets of two political organizations with purported ties to terrorist groups based in Sri Lanka and Kurdistan.

Over the past five years, the Bush Administration has named a number of U.S. charities as "specially designated terrorist groups" under Executive Order 13224. As a result, several have had their operations suspended and their assets frozen by the government without any checks or balances from Congress or the Judiciary. To date, such efforts have not yielded a single conviction of anyone involved with the designated charities for terrorist financing or support.

These are all stories the government doesn’t want us to know about. But thanks to our judicial system – no doubt the neocons will accuse the lawyers of supporting terrorists and the jurists of being “activist judges” – we may find out anyway.

David Cole, the Georgetown law professor and renowned civil libertarian, believes there has always a pendulum effect in American civil liberties. We pass Alien and Sedition Acts, suspend habeas corpus, conduct “Red Raids” to root out anarchists and Bolsheviks, intern Japanese-Americans, and create blacklists and use Congress as a circus stage to find Communists in our midst.

For each of these actions, eventually there has been a reaction. Civil liberties get restored. The pendulum swings back.

But that was history before 9/11. And before George W. Bush. We can’t know yet whether the pendulum is still working. But we should be encouraged by small signs such as these.

UNBENDING BUSH

By William Fisher

As the new Democratic Party majority in Congress considers whether to re-visit the Military Commissions Act of 2006 (MCA), the administration of President George W. Bush is proposing still more restrictions on detainees in American custody.

The government has proposed limiting contact between defense lawyers and detainees at Guantanamo Bay because detainees' communications, such as news of world events, could incite the prisoners to violence.

The U.S. proposal to limit lawyers’ contacts with their Guantanamo was contained in a filing to a federal appeals court in Washington. The case deals with an Afghani detainee but the government wants them to apply to other prisoners at Guantanamo. The prison camp currently holds some 430 detainees.

Among the more controversial provisions of the MCA, which President Bush signed into law in October, is one that strips U.S. courts of jurisdiction to consider writs of habeas corpus filed by detainees classified as enemy combatants. The Administration contends that the president may classify any person, even a U.S. citizen, as an enemy combatant.

But Senator Chris Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat, has already introduced legislation that would restore habeas corpus rights to military detainees and make other amendments to the MCA. Dodd's bill, the Effective Terrorists Prosecution Act, would restore those protections. The amendments would also narrow the class of detainees identified as unlawful enemy combatants who are affected by the MCA's habeas restriction.

The Democratic Party won control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate when they defeated Republicans in mid-term elections last month.

Since its passage, the MCA has come under fire not only from Democrats but also from the judiciary, human rights groups, some Republicans, and foreign countries.

Last month, lawyers representing detainees at Guantanamo Bay petitioned the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to declare the suspension of habeas rights unconstitutional. In an amicus – friend of the court -- brief in the case, seven retired federal judges urged the appeals court to rule that parts of the MCA violate the Constitution.

The principle of habeas corpus, originally contained in the Magna Carta, has been one of the cornerstones of U.S. law since the nation’s founding. It gives a detainee the right to go to court to challenge the authority of the prison or jail warden to continue to hold him or her.

Dodd's bill would also provide for expedited review of the MCA to ensure its constitutionality.

An alternative strategy is being proposed by Prof. Peter Shane of Ohio State Law School and Director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Law and Policy Studies. He told us, “The Constitution limits the suspension of habeas to occasions ‘when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.’ Because our public safety is not now at risk from either rebellion or invasion, the MCA is unconstitutional in suspending habeas. I'd be happy for Congress to amend the MCA, but they may fear a veto. An alternative strategy would be a concurrent resolution proclaiming ‘the sense of Congress that public safety is not now at risk from either rebellion or invasion.’ This could be a powerful aid to anyone bringing litigation to challenge the MCA.”

The proposed new rules for detainee-lawyer contacts would apply to detainees pursuing court challenges to their designations as "enemy combatants," and would tighten censorship of mail from attorneys and give the military more control over what lawyers can discuss with their clients, according to the filing.

The number of face-to-face meetings between defense attorneys and detainees would be limited to four total. There are now no restrictions on the number of times they can meet, although lawyers' access to the base is already hampered because it is so remote.

The government says current rules have allowed detainees to receive books or articles about terrorist attacks in Iraq, London and Israel, as well as details of the prisoner abuse investigation at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison.

In the court filing, a military lawyer said security at Guantanamo Bay has been threatened by the introduction of a book on Abu Ghraib, a speech given at an Amnesty International conference about the war on terror, and other materials.

"Such materials could incite detainees to violence, leading to a destabilization of the camp," wrote Navy Cmdr. Patrick M. McCarthy.

The government petition was filed this summer but only recently discovered by The Boston Globe newspaper, relates to the case of Haji Bismullah, an Afghan who is among several Guantanamo detainees represented by the New York-based advocacy group, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR).

Currently, mail from lawyers is examined only for physical contraband. The proposed rules call for all of a detainee's mail to be examined for forbidden information.

A CCR attorney said he suspects the proposal is aimed at controlling the information coming out of Guantanamo. Accounts from defense lawyers who have visited Guantanamo have cast doubt on government assertions that most detainees are hardened terrorists.

"What's happening is the government wants to hide this indisputable fact," he said "They're not happy we've been able to bring a lot of these developments to light."

Many other human rights organizations have weighed in on this issue. For example, Mary Shaw of Amnesty International USA told us, “With passage of the Military Commissions Act, human rights violations perpetrated by the Bush administration in the ‘war on terror’ have in effect been given the congressional stamp of approval. This raises serious questions about the U.S. government's commitment to due process and the rule of law.”

She added, “The ‘war on terror’ must not be used as an excuse to deny the basic human rights of any person. Amnesty International will continue to campaign for U.S. ‘war on terror’ detention policies and practices to be brought into full compliance with international law, and for repeal of any law that fails to meet this test.”

In 2004, the Supreme Court said detainees can contest the legality of their detentions. But, while the MCA bars detainees from protesting their detentions in court, they still have a right to challenge their designations as "enemy combatants." The new rules would restrict legal representation for those challenges.

Meanwhile, lawyers for dozens of Guantanamo Bay detainees have asked a federal appeals court to declare a key part of President Bush's new military trials law unconstitutional.

The detainees' lawyers challenged the military's authority to arrest people overseas and detain them indefinitely without allowing them to use the U.S. courts to contest their detention.

In written arguments, attorneys for more than 100 detainees who would be locked out of the regular judicial system asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to let the detainees keep their legal challenges going in civilian courts.

President Bush says he would like to close Guantanamo, but shows no signs of so doing. In fact, a new facility for holding trials there is now nearing completion.

In five years, not a single detainee has been charged or tried. And it is extremely unlikely that the fourteen high-value suspects recently transferred to Guantanamo from secret prisons elsewhere will ever come to trial because the evidence against them was probably obtained through coercion.

One can only wonder if President Bush is really being informed by those who advise him of what Guantanamo represents to most of the rest of the world. In simply symbolic terms, it destroys his rhetoric about democracy and the rule of law, and turns against America the very people whose hearts and minds the President says he’s trying to win.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

NOT FLYING WHILE MUSLIM

By William Fisher

The paranoid wing of the blogosphere continues to go ballistic with joy about the six Muslim imams who were removed in handcuffs from a US Airways flight because one passenger thought it was “suspicious” that they knelt on their prayer rugs and prayed in the airport waiting room before boarding their flight.

The six had been attending a conference of imams in Minneapolis and were headed for Phoenix. Like all the other passengers, they had cleared the usual security screenings. But a passenger told CNN she saw the imams praying and thought they had made anti-U.S. statements before boarding and "made similar statements while boarding," according to Russ Knocke, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security.

The bloggers went wild.

“I think it's fairly obvious that these people cannot be trusted in any way
shape or form.... Whomever the passenger(s) was/were who raised a stink about
these jokers, he/she needs to be commended! Great work by US Airways for
being vigilant, too...Let the ‘scholars’ sue...They don't have a case with
this kind of evidence... ” blogged one reader on Jihad Watch.

Another encouraged readers to “phone, email or call and express your support for US Airways.”

Yet another inveighed, “Starting to think the imams were testing security-- otherwise why draw attention to yourself by praying like that? Also one was hamas (sic) linked…”

One conspiracy-theorist blogged, “Their refusal to accept the seats they were assigned makes it appear that they were acting as agents provocateurs, attempting to create a ‘cause celebre’ to arouse radicalism in quiescent Muslims in the USA. That wouldn't surprise me at all.”

Yet another used a “Happy Thanksgiving” blog post to give thanks that “Islam is on the radar screens of some pretty sharp minds...” and for “the small arsenal in my basement.”

So let’s hear it for US Airways. Its vigilance saved the nation from God only knows what catastrophe! And maybe the president should confer the Medal of Freedom on the sharp-eyed passenger who passed a note to a flight attendant about these “suspicious” people. She will then be in the august company of other heroes like George Tenet and L. Paul Bremer.

US Airways said it is investigating the imams’ removal. "We do not tolerate discrimination of any kind and will continue to exhaust our internal investigation until we know the facts of this case and can provide answer for the employees and customers involved in this incident," the airline said in a written statement.

Meanwhile, the airline denied the clerics access to another flight and refused to assist them in obtaining tickets on another carrier. One of the imams told the AP that when he went back to the airport the following morning, he was told by a ticketing agent his payment for the flight had been refunded. He said the agent told him that neither he nor the other imams could purchase tickets from US Airways.

Knocke of the DHS defended the airline's action. "We do not criticize anyone who errs on the side of security," he told CNN, but "we have absolutely no issue with any of these individuals."

"This was a difficult spot for the airport police and for the pilot," he said. "This is an unfortunate circumstance, and we recognize that these six individuals were inconvenienced and delayed about three hours." After the six imams were removed, they and their luggage were re-screened and the plane was checked out with dogs, Knocke said. "Everything checked out. The FBI and Secret Service conducted interviews and everything checked out fine," he said.

Still, authorities told the press they thought US Airways “made the right call.”

Right for everyone but the six imams. And the millions of other American Muslims to whom the FBI, DHS, and other national security agencies say they’re trying to reach out.

But US Airways’ knee-jerk reaction to the six imams simply adds another layer of mistrust to the deep suspicion that still lingers after the treatment of Muslims following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

That’s when the FBI began to round up and detain “suspected terrorists.” Arabs and other Muslims – as well as anyone who looked “Middle Eastern,” including South Asian Sikhs -- became the bureau's top targets. John Ashcroft’s Justice Department scooped up hundreds of people for questioning, an effort led by now-DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff. They were denied lawyers, held in prison-like conditions and, according to a DHS Inspector General’s report, frequently physically abused. The FBI also shut down Muslim charities and froze their assets, monitored mosques for radiation and held refugees for months because of security checks.

That’s the history the US Government is now trying to overcome. But the mistrust persists.

''You never hear the FBI say that part of the reason there has not been another
terrorist attack in this country is because radical extremists have not found a
home in American mosques,'' says Rebecca Abou-Chedid, director of government relations for the Arab American Institute in Washington. “It's as if they believe that we know about terrorist cells and we're not telling them.''

The blogger’s reference to Hamas refers to one of the ejected imams’ alleged ties to a charity known as Kind Hearts, which was founded in Toledo, Ohio, in 2002, after the government shut down and froze the assets of the largest Muslim charities in the U.S. for “providing material support” to terrorists and their organizations.

The Senate Finance Committee conducted a two-year investigation of Kind Hearts, along with two-dozen other U.S. Muslim charities. The Chairman of the Committee, Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa announced that his panel found no evidence of criminal activity.

Thus far, even though the charity shuts-downs began in 2002, only one charity has been charged with any wrongdoing, and none has been convicted of any crime. Nevertheless, their assets remain frozen – sometimes resulting in lack of funds to hire defense lawyers.

Nevertheless, the U.S. Department of the Treasury website proclaims that "Kind Hearts is the progeny of Holy Land Foundation and Global Relief Foundation, which attempted to mask their support for terrorism behind the fa├žade of charitable giving…By utilizing this specialized designation tool, we're able to prevent asset flight in support of terrorist activities while we further investigate the activities of Kind Hearts."

I have no idea whether any of these charities were actually providing “material support” to terrorist organizations. But the place to find out is in court, not on a Treasury Department website.

I do have an idea about what the treatment of the six imams does for the absolutely vital relationships between Muslim-Americans, the U.S. Government, and the “bad guys” that both are eager to bring to justice.

If major corporations such as US Airways and its employees continue to cave on an accusation by a single paranoid passenger, and government officials hand out praise by describing it as “the right call,” then both will have been complicit in crippling real efforts to find terrorists in our midst.

The Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) today called on officials from the Departments of Homeland Security and Transportation to launch of formal review of the incident and the possible violation of passengers' civil rights by US Airways. "We hope that by opening this type of investigation, U.S. corporations can be held accountable by our government and the federal agencies can adequately address the racial profiling that is occurring in our nation’s airports," said Salam Al-Marayati, MPAC Executive Director.

An excellent idea. I hope the government agencies will remember that US Airways had a choice: It could have invited the complaining passenger to leave the flight, thus assuring that she, at least, would not be slammed into the White House.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

GOOD NEWS, BAD NEWS

By William Fisher

The best news to come out of Washington since the mid-term elections is the rumor that Robert Gates, if confirmed by the Senate to be our new Secretary of Defense, will fire all Pentagon political appointees.

If President Bush has heard this rumor, he seems to be stubbornly sticking with his sterling slate of appointments.

Because the worst news to come out of Washington this week was the appointment of Eric Keroack to head family planning programs at the Department of Health and Human Services. He will be heading the federal office that finances birth control, pregnancy tests, breast cancer screening, and other health care services for five million poor people annually, and advising Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt on family planning issues.

Unfortunately, Dr. Keroack’s appointment does not require Senate approval – because come January 4, when the Democratic Party majority takes over, he wouldn’t stand a ghost of a chance.

So if anyone expected a kindler, gentler, more bipartisan George Bush following his election-day disaster, they’re in for a shock. W’s strategy is to circumvent the Congress altogether, wherever possible. Because Dubya’s first appointment since election day rises even beyond the level of Michael Brown to head the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA.

And, somewhere down the road, we can expect to hear The Decider proclaim, “You’re doing a heckuva job, Eric!”

Even before he moves into his new office, he could have earned such high praise from the President simply on the basis of his resume. Kerouack, you see, is, according to the New York Times, “a doctor affiliated with a group vehemently opposed to birth control and someone nationally known for his wacky theory about reproductive health.”

The Times details his qualifications: Medical director of an organization called A Woman’s Concern, which runs pregnancy counseling clinics in Massachusetts. Its counseling consists of trying to persuade women not to have abortions, and includes the totally discredited old wives tale that abortion increases the risk of breast cancer.

Women’s Concern also has a policy against dispensing contraception, even to married women. Its Website claims that the distribution of contraceptive drugs or devices is “demeaning to women, degrading of human sexuality and adverse to human health and happiness.”

Dr. Keroack has also pushed the quack-science argument that sex with multiple partners alters brain chemistry in a way that makes it harder for women to form bonding relationships.

But maybe we shouldn’t be surprised.

After all, didn’t The Decider decide that Ellen Sauerbrey was the most qualified candidate to head the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, a key agency for responding to foreign disasters?

Her qualifications? She is a former member of the Republican National Committee and was Bush's Maryland state campaign chairwoman in 2000. She has been a conservative activist for decades but has no experience mobilizing responses to humanitarian emergencies. The refugee bureau is a complex agency with a broad portfolio. Past administrations, Republican and Democratic, have generally turned to people with technical expertise to head it.

Sauerbrey’s appointment came just about the time Bush decided to nominate Julie Myers to head Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE. ICE is the Homeland Security agency responsible for tracking down money-launderers, people who break U.S. sanctions, and traffic in human being. With 20,000 employees, ICE is the second-largest investigative agency in the federal government, and the sole enforcer of U.S. immigration laws.

Myers' qualifications? She was a former chief of staff to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff (when he ran the Criminal Division at the Department of Justice), is married to Chertoff's chief of staff, and is the niece of the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard B. Myers.

And let’s not forget Dr. W. David Hager to head up the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) Reproductive Health Drugs Advisory Committee. This committee makes crucial decisions on matters relating to drugs used in the practice of obstetrics, gynecology, and related specialties, including hormone therapy, contraception, treatment for infertility, and medical alternatives to surgical procedures for sterilization and pregnancy termination.

Dr. Hager's views on reproductive health care make him uniquely qualified for this job. He is a practicing OB/GYN who describes himself as "pro-life" and refuses to prescribe contraceptives to unmarried women. He is the author of "As Jesus Cared for Women: Restoring Women Then and Now." The book combines Biblical accounts of how Christ healed women with case studies from Hager's own practice.

Not to overlook the naming former Patricia S. Harrison, now president of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Ms. Harrison was the handpick of former Karl Rove pal Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, who sparked controversy by asserting that programs carried by public broadcasters have a liberal bias. Tomlinson resigned under pressure from the CPB board a day after the agency's inspector general delivered a report critical of his use of public funds.

Ms. Harrison’s qualifications? She is a veteran public relations executive who served as co-chair of the Republican National Committee from 1997 to 2001 and served as assistant secretary of state before her CPB appointment.

Also worth honorable mention is Daniel Troy, a former clerk for Judge Robert Bork. Troy was appointed as the Food and Drug Administration’s chief counsel in 2003, after a decade working as a Washington lawyer to restrict the FDA’s regulatory powers.

He won his share of legal battles, taking the side of the tobacco and pharmaceutical industries against the federal agency. A smidgeon of conflict of interest, you say?

Troy held over 129 meetings with drug industry lobbyists during his three years in office – his predecessor held one -- and has helped drug companies defeat lawsuits. In four separate cases since 2002, the government has asked judges to dismiss potentially costly claims against drug makers.

Then there’s Paul J. Bonicelli, Ph.D., appointed to be Deputy Assistant Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, USAID, with responsibility for overseeing the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance. As manager of the Agency's democracy and governance programs, Bonicelli's office focuses on strengthening the rule of law and respect for human rights; promoting competitive elections and political processes; increasing development of a politically active civil society; and implementing transparent and accountable governance.

His qualifications? Before joining USAID, Bonicelli served as Dean of Academic Affairs and Associate Professor of Government at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Virginia. That institution is one of half a dozen evangelical leadership programs making steady inroads into Washington. It was founded five years ago with the goal of turning out "Christian men and women who will lead our nation with timeless biblical values." Nearly every graduate works in government or with a conservative advocacy group, and many of its future graduates have served as interns in the office of Karl Rove.

Bonicelli told The New Yorker magazine last year that he believes in a literal interpretation of the Bible – news that his Muslim audience no doubt finds consoling.

Finally, there’s the return of the Contras. There are now several in the Bush Administration who were implicated in the scandal, the most prominent of whom is Elliott Abrams, a former assistant secretary of state under Ronald Reagan. Abrams was appointed to the White House office for democracy, human rights, and international operations. Abrams's appointment did not need Senate approval. Just plain lucky!

He would probably have been rejected, arguably even by a Republican-controlled Congress. In 1991, Abrams, who once described himself as a "gladiator" for President Reagan's policies in Central America, pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors for illegally withholding information from the investigation into the Iran-contra affair, in which arms were sold to Iran and the proceeds illegally funneled to Contra forces waging war against the leftwing Sandinista government in Nicaragua. He was sentenced to two years' probation and 100 hours of community service, but was pardoned by George Bush senior in 1991. Abrams, whose appointment came on the eve of the Nicaraguan presidential election, was a founding member of the Project for a New American Century, the policy think-tank for the neoconservative movement.

What puzzles many Washington-watchers is exactly why we should expect sound policy and competence in policy implementation from people who are either clearly unqualified or who are driven by ideology rather than inconvenient facts.

As for any new spirit of bipartisanship coming from the White House, forget it. The Decider will keep on deciding – he’ll just try to steer clear of the Senate confirmation process.

Monday, November 20, 2006

SPINNING SCIENCE

By William Fisher

More than a decade ago, former President George H.W. Bush stated that “now more than ever, on issues ranging from climate change to AIDS research . . . government relies on the impartial perspective of science for guidance.”

The problem is he never told his son.

We know that from a multi-year series of findings that the administration of President George W. Bush has systematically manipulated science to comply with ideology – and satisfy the political agenda of his right-wing base.

The latest evidence of this scientific sleight-of-hand is contained in a report by the Government Accountability Office – the Congressionally-mandated oversight agency. GAO found that most abstinence-until-marriage education programs -- which receive about $158 million annually from the Department of Health and Human Services -- are not reviewed for scientific accuracy before they are granted funding.

“Efforts by HHS and states to assess the scientific accuracy of materials used in abstinence-until-marriage education programs have been limited," the GAO report states.

"This is because HHS's Administration for Children and Families (ACF) -- which awards grants to two programs that account for the largest portion of federal spending on abstinence-until-marriage education -- does not review its grantees' education materials for scientific accuracy and does not require grantees of either program to review their own materials for scientific accuracy"

GAO auditors contacted 10 states that receive funding from ACF for their abstinence-until-marriage programs. It found that only half reviewed the programs for scientifically accurate data on contraception, sexually transmitted infections and other information.

The report also found that most state and federal efforts to assess the effectiveness of abstinence-until-marriage education programs "do not meet the minimum scientific standards" that experts say are necessary to be scientifically valid.

The GAO report should not surprise us. President Bush has consistently supported the view that sex education should teach “abstinence only” and not include information on other ways to avoid sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy.

And there are many other examples:

In an earlier action on abstinence education, the Administration changed sex education performance measures to produce the appearance that scientific evidence supports abstinence-only programs. It doesn’t.

Until recently, a Centers for Disease Control initiative called “Programs That Work” identified sex education programs that have been found to be effective in scientific studies and provided this information through its web site. In 2002, all five “Programs That Work” provided comprehensive sex education to teenagers, and none were “abstinence-only.” But the CDC later ended this initiative and deleted information about these proven sex education programs from its web site.

Information about condom use and efficacy was also deleted from the CDC web site. The CDC replaced a comprehensive fact sheet on condoms with one that emphasized condom failure rates and the effectiveness of abstinence.

In banning federal funding for research on new stem cell lines, President Bush stated that “more than 60 genetically diverse" lines were available for potential research. Soon thereafter, then-HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson acknowledged that the correct number was 24 to 25. Still later, National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Elias Zerhouni told Congress that only 11 stem cell lines were widely available to researchers.

Global Warming reports by the Environmental Protection Agency on the risks of climate change have been suppressed. The White House added so many hedges to the climate change section of the EPA's report card on the environment that former administrator Christie Todd Whitman deleted the section rather than publish one that was scientifically inaccurate.

Defense Department officials presented misleading information on whether a functional Missile Defense System could be quickly deployed. An Under Secretary of Defense told a Senate panel that by the end of 2004, the system would be 90% effective in intercepting missiles from the Korean peninsula. But in April 2003, the GAO found the President’s plan unworkable and even dangerous. The Defense Department’s claim of 90% effectiveness “is not supported by any publicly available evidence, and it appears not to comport with the Pentagon’s own classified estimates.”

Comments on Wetlands Policy from scientists at the Fish and Wildlife Service on the destructive impacts of proposed regulatory changes have been withheld. Scientists at Service, part of the Interior Department, had prepared an analysis showing that a new proposal from the Army Corps of Engineers would “encourage the destruction of stream channels and lead to increased loss of aquatic functions.” But the Interior Secretary failed to submit the scientists’ comments to the Corps, which subsequently issued rules that weakened key wetland protections.

After social conservatives campaigned to require women to be “counseled” about an alleged risk of breast cancer from abortions, the National Cancer Institute revised its web site to suggest that studies of equal weight conflicted on the question. In fact, there is scientific consensus that no such link exists.

A report commissioned by Congressman Henry Waxman of California charged that the Bush Administration is manipulating Scientific Advisory Committees to advance its political and ideological agenda. Examples include appointing unqualified persons with industry ties and ideological agendas, while opposing qualified experts.

The Bush Administration contends that these examples are isolated coincidences. Right!

These are legitimate subjects for Congressional oversight. But the Republican-controlled House and Senate have been A.W.O.L. on oversight and have effectively blocked virtually all Democratic efforts to investigate how our tax dollars get used.

Now that Democrats have won majorities – and subpoena power -- in both bodies, voters should hold the feet of Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Leader Harry Reid so that the nation can distinguish truth from spin.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

U.S. v. BUSH, et al

By William Fisher

The scene is a Federal Grand Jury room. There, impaneled ordinary citizens listen intently as a veteran Federal prosecutor asks them to return an indictment unique in American history.

The charge is Conspiracy to Defraud the United States. And the defendants are President George W. Bush, Vice President Richard Cheney, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, and former Secretary of State Colin Powell.

On the first day of Grand Jury proceedings, the Prosecutor addresses the jurors.
“Please remember that you must decide the case based solely on the evidence that’s presented and applicable law, without regard to prejudice or sympathy. In other words, your politics, and any personal feelings you may have toward the defendants – positive or negative – should have no bearing on your deliberations.”

The prosecutor then passes out the indictment, reminding jurors, “don’t forget your reading glasses…”

The indictment charges that the defendants “did knowingly and intentionally conspire to defraud the United States by using deceit, craft, trickery, dishonest means, false and fraudulent representations, including ones made without a reasonable basis and with reckless indifference to their truth or falsity, and omitting material facts necessary to make their representations truthful, fair and accurate, while knowing and intending that their false and fraudulent representations would influence the public and the deliberations of Congress with authorization of a preventive war against Iraq, thereby defeating, obstructing, impairing, and interfering with Congress’ lawful functions of overseeing foreign affairs and making appropriations.”

Over the next seven days, the grand jurors evaluate a 64-point case presented by the Federal Prosecutor. They hear compelling supporting testimony from three FBI agents. They battle their way through thousands of pages of documentation supporting the alleged crime.

Of course, none of this actually happened – nor is it likely to happen. Rather, it is the scenario of a new book about a hypothetical case, presented to a hypothetical Grand Jury, with hypothetical witnesses.

Only the prosecutor is real. She is Elizabeth de la Vega, a retired government lawyer with more than 20 years of experience. She served as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in Minneapolis, and a member of the Organized Crime Strike Force and Branch Chief in San Jose, California.

Her book is titled, simply, U.S. v. George W. Bush et al. It will be published in December by Seven Stories Press. Amazon.com is currently taking orders for the book.

Why did Ms. de la Vega write this book? She says, “The President will not be held accountable for misrepresenting the prewar intelligence unless and until Congress conducts hearings similar to the Watergate hearings. As yet, however, we seem painfully incapable of reaching that point.”

She adds, “Although the evidence of wrongdoing is overwhelming, the facts are so complicated that it’s impossible to have a productive debate about them in the political sphere. One forum where that’s not true is the courtroom.”

Does she believe that her book will lead to making her hypothetical case real? She writes, “Consider this my 911 call. I’m calling on Democrats and Republicans to do the right thing…and convince Congress to do the right thing. I am not talking about bringing people to justice in the vengeful sense that President Bush employs. I am talking about effecting justice…holding out highest government officials accountable for…a criminal betrayal of trust that is strikingly similar to, yet far worse, than the fraud committed by Enron’s top officials.”

She told us, "Many of the victims of the President’s fraud – millions of Iraqis – have no voice in the United States, but the millions of Americans who were deceived by the President’s fraud do have a voice. We should use it, loudly and repeatedly, to pressure Congress into holding the President, the Vice President and their top-level aides accountable for tricking the nation into war."

The indictment takes jurors from the prewar period and the “regime change” influence of the neoconservative group, Project for the New American Century, to the attacks of 9/11, to the formation of the shadowy Iraq Group inside the White House, to the preparation of war plans beginning in September 2001, to the distortion of intelligence information regarding Iraq’s WMD capabilities and programs, to President Bush’s strategy sessions with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, to actions designed to end the United Nations inspections, to the abandonment of multilateral diplomacy, to Colin Powell’s deeply flawed presentation to the UN Security Council, to Congressional authorization of the use of force.

It sets out 19 “Overt Acts” allegedly committed by the defendants to “market” the need for preemptive invasion – based largely on their public statements via the media in which, among other things, Administration officials professed absolute certainty about Saddam Hussein’s WMDs, ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda, use of aluminum tubes to process uranium, to the warnings from then-National Security Advisor Rice and Vice President Cheney that the smoking gun could be “in the form of a mushroom cloud.”

Some of Ms. de la Vega’s readers may be disappointed that we never learn about the decision of the Grand Jury. But that’s one of the points of the book – it’s the reader who is sitting on the jury.

This slender book is a fascinating, suspenseful, fact-based read. It is a volume that should be read by all those who seek truth and clarity – especially those who returned to Congress after November 7.

HOW LONG IS LONG ENOUGH?

By William Fisher

With everyone’s attention riveted on Iraq, Iran, and North Korea these days, it’s difficult to find anyone interested in thinking about the bankruptcy of U.S. policies right here in our own hemisphere.

Grabbing the headlines recently have been Castro’s illness and endless speculation about a post-Fidel Cuba, Hugo Chavez at the UN, calling George W. Bush “the devil,” the election of Evo Morales, a left-leaning president in Bolivia, and the self-reinvention of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua.

But, absent such sensational developments, the U.S. mainstream media is largely silent on hemispheric affairs.

The U.S. response to the more sensational events conjures up memories of the Cold War, when two superpowers split the world into rival camps. Or, more recently, President Bush’s Global War on Terror, where “You’re either with us or against us.”

Underpinning these responses is, in my view, a profound misunderstanding of Latin America and the aspirations of its people.

This is not rocket science. For over a century, the countries of Central and South America and the Caribbean have been plundered and repressed by governmental and corporate colonialism. The tiny elites in most of these countries have grown vastly richer while most of their populations continue to live in poverty. Through successive administrations, our own government has compiled a shameful record of meddling to maintain an unsustainable status quo, of overthrowing governments that don’t agree with our view of the world, of supporting despots who practice torture and “disappearance,” and, to be charitable, turning a blind eye to death squads.

Yet today, we seem surprised that this sordid history sometimes persuades Latin America’s people to accept – even champion -- demagogues. But Latin America has had demagogues for more than a century. Most were brutal dictators on the right. A few on the left expressed the people’s pushback against these repressive tyrannies.

The over-the-top rhetoric of this pushback has, for decades, has made the U.S. the sole villain in the piece. And the U.S. response has been to demonize and attempt to isolate the purveyors of this rhetoric. This approach is acceptable only if one shares George W. Bush’s view of the world as neatly divided into “good” and “evil.”

The inevitable result of this “My daddy is stronger than your daddy” approach is a bunch of children talking past one another, and accomplishing exactly nothing.

A perfect example of accomplishing exactly nothing can be found in a report issued last week by our Government Accountability Office, the
Congressionally-mandated organization that helps our legislators fulfill their oversight responsibilities.

The GAO report found that U.S. funds targeted to promote democracy in Cuba have been used to buy items like crabmeat, computer games, chocolate, and cashmere sweaters.

Reuters reported that the GAO found little oversight and accountability in the program, which spent "$76 million between 1996 and 2005 to support Cuban dissidents, independent journalists, academics and others." It also found that 95 percent of the grants were issued without competitive bids.

The auditors questioned checks written out to some staff members, questionable travel expenses, and payments to a manager's family. One group acknowledged selling books it was supposed to distribute under the democracy-promoting program.

One grantee "could not justify some purchases made with USAID funds, including a gas chain saw, computer gaming equipment and software (including Nintendo Game Boys and Sony PlayStations), a mountain bike, leather coats, cashmere sweaters, crab meat and Godiva chocolates," the report said.

Out of 10 recipients of public money reviewed by the auditors, three failed to keep adequate financial records, the GAO said. A lot of the money was used to pay smugglers, or "mules, to avoid U.S. restrictions on taking goods to Cuba.
Critics have long charged that such grants are aimed more at winning votes in Miami than triggering political change on the communist island, where Castro has ruled since his 1959 revolution. Imagine that!

To protect recipients from prosecution, none of the money from the USAID or the State Department is paid in cash to people in Cuba. A Cuban law can impose jail sentences on citizens who receive money.

Instead, the funds are distributed to Cuban-American groups in Miami, the heartland of opposition to Cuban President Fidel Castro, and in Washington, and are supposed to be used to buy medicines, books, short-wave radios, and other goods that are smuggled into Cuba.

President Bush has proposed increasing spending on Cuba-related programs, including propaganda transmissions by Radio and TV Marti, by $80 million over the next two years.

Which will accomplish what? Exactly nothing. Except more “My daddy is stronger than your daddy” rhetoric.

It has been 45 years since the U.S. severed diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961, and 44 years since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. During that time, our trade embargo has provided foreign companies – many of which are longstanding U.S. allies -- an empty playing field for increasing exports and investments, particularly in agricultural produce and tourism. Having no ambassador in Cuba hinders our efforts to know what’s going on there. It obliterates our ability to exert any influence whatever on the Cuban government or people. It totally forecloses any possibility of rapprochement with this island, 90 miles from Florida. And it negatively impacts many of our relationships with other Latin American nations.
For American presidents, however, Cuba is the third rail of U.S. politics. A few have tried to jump over the rail, but Cuban-American voters have always blocked the tracks.

Meanwhile, the U.S. maintains embassies, ambassadors – and even aid programs -- in countries whose behaviors are arguably far more egregious than Cuba’s. Among them are such models of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe, Burma, and Uzbekistan.
For centuries the criterion for one nation to have diplomatic relations with another has been whether the host country is a sovereign power. These days, the test seems to be whether “you’re with us or against us” in the Global War on Terror. This is America shooting itself in the foot. The time for a serious review of our relationships with Cuba – and many other countries in Latin America – is comically overdue.

Maybe, after the Baker-Hamilton Commission solves all our Iraq problems, we could ask it to take a look at the Western Hemisphere.