Tuesday, January 31, 2006

PALESTINE: WHAT’S NEXT?

By William Fisher

That President Bush is a big fan of elections should surprise no one. He’s won a lot of them.

But his simplistic equation -- elections = freedom = democracy = peace -- has been running into a bit of trouble lately.

The president hyped the deeply flawed presidential and parliamentary elections in Egypt as steps toward democracy. But the result was a dramatic rise in votes for the outlawed Islamic brotherhood and Mubarak’s principal contender for the top job sent to jail.

He endlessly spun the purple fingers of the Iraqi elections as victories for democracy. But the result was zero in terms of bringing the Iraqi people together, the coalition of Islamic fundamentalist parties getting most of the votes, and now eagerly cementing their ties to the Iranian theocracy.

He was critical of Iran’s presidential election last June, but attempted to reassure the Iranian people with the declaration, "As you stand for your own liberty, the people of America stand with you." The result was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a Holocaust-denier who proposes deporting all the Israelis back to Europe.

Then came the Katrina of Middle East politics. Beginning In 2002, President Bush began urging the Palestinians to elect new leaders “not compromised by terror" and poured hundreds of millions into keeping Hamas, the militant Islamic movement, from winning. But the result was a landslide for the party dedicated to a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem: The destruction of Israel.

And, even in the face of this electoral disaster, the president simply could not stop spinning. "I like the competition of ideas," Mr. Bush said in a news conference. "I like people who have to go out and say, 'Vote for me, and here's what I'm going to do.' There's something healthy about a system that does that. And so the elections yesterday were very interesting."

Very interesting indeed.

The Bush Administration, along with the even more generous European supporters of “a new, improved” Palestinian Authority, clearly misread the temperature of Palestinian voters. My personal view is that the overwhelming majority of Hamas voters cast their ballots for change, not terror.

But whatever their motivations, the West is now stuck with the facts. The election of Hamas was another stick in the eye of the president’s prescription.

Which leaves the U.S. and its allies without any good options at all. The heads of the American, British and German governments made all the predictable noises: We will not provide funding for a terrorist organization. Hamas must renounce terror, recognize Israel’s right to exist, and negotiate a two-state solution.

So, predictably, did Hamas. Israeli and U.S. policies were responsible for their generations of misery. Unless they changed, Hamas would continue to be Hamas. And it would turn to its oil-rich friends in the Middle East to provide the money the Palestinian people so desperately need.

That development could set the stage for the Arab League to finally agree on something. And, in the process, the U.S. would become even more of a pariah than it is already. No more roadmap. No more ‘honest broker’.
However, let us all remember that these are early days. Both sides are quite likely to gradually back off their incendiary rhetoric over time. Even now, Hamas is toning down its language.

As the Associated Press reports from Jerusalem, “No more screeds against the ‘Zionist enemy’' or threats to ‘plant death in every corner’' of Israel. Since winning Palestinian parliament elections last week, Hamas has moderated its usually bombastic rhetoric in subtle ways that fall well short of Western demands to renounce terror and recognize Israel's right to exist but suggest the group is fumbling for ways to gain international acceptance.”

The problem is that while incrementalism may be the only reasonable expectation, time is on no one’s side in the Israeli-Palestinian debacle. It may take many months to get the parties back to any serious negotiations, but that has to be the goal in getting to the ‘beginning of the end’ of the conflict.

Recall that the negotiators with the infant United Nations in the 1947-48 debate over the establishment of the State of Israel included militant organizations like Irgun and the Stern Gang, whose leaders included such terrorists as Yitzhak Rabin, Ariel Sharon, and Menachim Begin.

But what to do in the meantime? There is an answer to that question that deserves consideration by the U.S. and its allies: increased support for non-governmental organizations in Gaza and the West Bank.

Despite the ravages that followed the Intifada and almost unbearable restrictions imposed by both the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority, there are dozens of NGOs in these areas. They represent virtually all the fields of interest of NGOs elsewhere – education, health, housing, human rights, women’s rights, community development, small business development, environment, and many more.

These organizations are still embryonic and struggling – often against the state. They are short on specialized skills, personnel, public understanding and, most of all, money. But they have demonstrated remarkable zeal and dedication – and some achievements -- in the face of unimaginably difficult conditions.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the World Bank, and other donors are already providing modest support for Palestinian NGOs that promote democratic values and moderation.

According to USAID officials, an earlier decline in financial support hurt the NGO sector and created a vacuum in the West Bank and Gaza that was successfully filled by Islamic institutions. Fearing a "Hamas takeover," as one official put it, USAID felt it was time to begin refunding the Palestinian NGO sector and reprioritizing community development initiatives.

While NGOs have obvious limitations – they can’t build roads or bridges or collect taxes or rubbish – they are capable of making real contributions to education, health, social services and citizens’ rights.

Some of these, for example, human rights, are areas typically opposed by public authorities. Others are in areas now dominated by Hamas. To create a healthy competition to both, donor institutions should dramatically expand their support for these homegrown volunteer groups. And they should do it now, while the opposing parties are sorting out their bargaining positions and polishing their rhetoric.
If they fail to seize the opportunity, the losers won’t only be the donors or Hamas. They will be the Palestinian people, and they have already lost enough.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

THE END OF U.S. AID?

By William Fisher

Foreign affairs experts agree that the Bush Administration is quietly using the Chinese water-torture method to slowly engineer the death of America’s traditional system for delivering foreign aid – and some of them think it’s not such a bad idea.

They point to the creation of the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) and the U.S. Global AIDS initiative outside the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), where such programs would normally be located. And, as further evidence of a shift away from USAID’s traditional international development mandate, they cite the creation of a new democracy promotion apparatus within the State Department and the appointment of the current AIDS coordinator -- who has no development experience – as the new USAID administrator.

The MCA was created in 2004 to provide assistance countries that rule justly, invest in their people, and encourage economic freedom. It has been criticized for the slow pace of its process for approving country applications.

A retired senior USAID official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told us, “This is simply another iteration of the longstanding power struggle between USAID and the State Department, which wants to use development money and leverage to further President Bush’s political agenda, and make democracy promotion and the war on terrorism the centerpiece of America’s foreign aid efforts.”

But the comment of another retired diplomat echoes the sentiments of a number of other foreign aid experts we interviewed. Ludwig Rudel, who spent more than 25 years with USAID, said, “My take on USAID is that it really makes no difference what is being proposed -- except for humanitarian assistance and emergency relief the agency has lost its effectiveness anyway”.

He added, “The bulk of USAID money is used for political purposes, such as in Israel, Egypt, Palestine, and Jordan in the Middle East, and Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia for the drug war. During the Marshall Plan days and for about ten years after, the USAID program had a clear development focus. Now, the political types have full control of the funding and development work occasionally is a serendipitous by-product. So what difference does it make if AID gets absorbed into State?”

Efforts to downgrade USAID are not new. Until 1999, the agency reported directly to the president. During the administration of President Bill Clinton, USAID was ordered to report to the Secretary of State. Periodically there have also been efforts in Congress to totally absorb the aid agency into the State Department.

USAID works in more than 100 countries with a 14-billion-dollar annual budget. Its portfolio is massive, ranging from anti-poverty programs to education to health to private sector development and export promotion to policy reform to disaster and humanitarian relief.

The State Department now says that U.S. money should be used to empower developing countries to strengthen security, consolidate democracy and increase trade.

Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, outlining a plan she called “Transformational Diplomacy” last week, also said that Washington should further link its aid to defeat terrorist threats. She invoked the attacks of 9/11 and noted that the terrorists used the previously failed state of Afghanistan to launch their attacks.

"In the final analysis, we must now use our foreign assistance to help prevent future Afghanistans -- and to make America and the world safer," she said.

She named terrorism, weapons proliferation, diseases, and trafficking in persons and drugs as global threats that require the U.S. to develop new diplomatic strategies. She said that without the new changes, U.S. foreign assistance may be ineffective.

"The current structure of America's foreign assistance risks incoherent policies and ineffective programs and perhaps even wasted resources,” Rice warned.

But some outside the government have warned that Rice’s proposals could result in a greater politicization of foreign assistance. “We’re concerned that the same priority won’t be given to long-term development as resources are siphoned to support shorter-term diplomatic or military objectives,” said Jim Bishop, a senior officer of InterAction, the largest coalition of non-governmental U.S. aid groups.

Veteran foreign policy experts offer various other recipes to improve U.S. development assistance policy and delivery.

Dr. Jack N. Behrman, emeritus professor at the University of North Carolina who served as a senior official in the administration of President John F. Kennedy, told us, “USAID’s 30-plus programs should be separated and put where the primary interest is. For example, all assistance (Israel, Egypt) that is security-based should be put in the Defense Department, economic-private sector aid should be in the Department of Commerce, and should recruit volunteers to do its work, disaster and humanitarian aid should be in the State Department, and all efforts to ‘alleviate poverty’ should be terminated, since there is no evidence that USAID antipoverty funds have been effective anywhere.”

Behrman, a founder of the USA MBA Corps, a private organization of volunteers with advanced business degrees and private sector work experience, adds, “Assistance to democracy and institution building should be in an independent agency, funded directly by Congress, to avoid the ‘smell’ of intervention; programs should be conducted largely with local NGOs assisted by American and European Union volunteers.”

He concludes, “I would eliminate USAID, unless someone can find a serious purpose that is not more effectively put in either independent agencies that fund volunteers or Cabinet departments.”

But Samer Shehata, Assistant Professor of Arab Politics Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, thinks the absorption of USAID into the State Department “certainly sounds problematic, if not simply a bad idea.”

He told us, “Most bilateral aid is certainly somewhat political and our USAID program is not the exception by any means -- in fact, it is much more political than the bilateral aid programs of most European countries. But absorbing USAID into State or making USAID the place of ‘democracy promotion’ – which is not so well thought of when it is the objective of the U.S. government in the Middle East – will only damage other less political USAID efforts and programs.”

Prof. Shehata adds, “It is one thing to declare democracy promotion a foreign policy goal, but it is quite another to come up with actual policies that promote democracy -- effectively.”

But U.S. Foreign Service veteran Dr. Richard T. Arndt, President of Americans for UNESCO and author of “The First Resort of Kings: American Cultural Diplomacy in the 20th Century", thinks the paramount issue is not government organization but a continuing commitment to education through technical assistance and exchange programs.

He told us, “In the post-Cold War world, educational-cultural issues matter more than ever in history. Nothing could be more useful than a totally coordinated and carefully calibrated program of U.S. educational outreach around the world, carried on by strong government and private-sector leadership and targeting all levels of education, from K through the universities, technical and professional schools, and in continuing education. The idea of the U.S. giant sharing its educational wealth with the world might help the world forget Shock and Awe and begin refilling the reservoirs of goodwill that have been so fatally drained.”

Most educational exchange programs are currently conducted by the State Department and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice says she is committed to expanding them. But Dr. Arndt points out the “historic disconnect” between USAID-run education programs and those of the State Department, which include the Fulbright scholarships.

The U.S. plan to link security to democracy and development overseas has also drawn criticism from development activists, who fear the new overhaul could be ideologically motivated.

They are particularly critical of the appointment of Randall Tobias as the new USAID administrator, who will also carry the title of Deputy Secretary of State for Development. He previously served as chairman, president and chief executive officer of the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and Company.

"Under his direction, HIV prevention programs have shifted from being based in public health science to being dictated by the abstinence-only-until-marriage ideology of the Bush administration," said James Wagoner, president of the Washington-based Advocates for Youth.

"As head of USAID, Ambassador Tobias will not only be responsible for AIDS funding, but also in charge of population and family planning programs," concluded Wagoner. "How will his anti-science ideology impact programs vital to protecting the health of women and young people around the world?"

Tobias' record in the fight against AIDS has also been marked by accusations he has favored drug companies by displaying a preference for using more expensive, brand-name drugs instead of cheaper, safe generic versions that could have reached many more people in impoverished countries.







.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Destruction Easier Than Reconstruction

By Brian Conley and Isam Rashid

BAGHDAD, Jan 23 (IPS) - While politicians deliberate over Iraq's future, Iraqis are dealing with the reality of the present. They are looking at the debris of a country where reconstruction has come to a standstill.

They are also looking at a situation in which the capital of the oil-rich country has been stricken recently by a dire shortage of gas and kerosene.

Iraqis in Baghdad had been receiving 12 to 13 hours of electricity a day on average over recent months. Over the past few weeks they say supply has fallen to just a few hours a day.

"We have no services at all," Usama Asa'ad, a 31 year-old mechanic told IPS. "Our electricity is on only one or two hours a day."

Many Iraqis thought the United States would improve their situation when the occupation began in April 2003, but those expectations are long over. Iraqis complain that the situation in Baghdad now is worse than it ever was under Saddam.

Electricity supply is inconsistent, and sometimes there is no water for a week or more at a time. After the recent increase in petroleum prices mandated by the International Monetary Fund, the situation has become far more difficult for Iraqis.

"The petrol price became three times more than before, and this makes everything in the market more expensive," said Abdul Sattar, waiting in a queue at one of the petrol stations in Baghdad. "I've been waiting for six hours in this queue and I'm not even sure whether I will get petrol. Yesterday I waited for seven hours but I didn't get anything. The petrol station isn't open at night because there is no security."

Iraqis continue to blame the United States and the occupation for the petrol shortages and the lack of security. President George W. Bush has declared that he would seek no more money for Iraq's reconstruction, further angering Iraqis.

"The water is not clean enough, there is no petrol for our cars, and the occupation forces intend this," said Usama Asa'ad. "They want to make all of Iraq's services for private companies, so that United States companies will take as much money from Iraq as they can."

Zubair, a 33 year-old engineer at the Beiji refinery says production at the refinery is steady. "The refinery is working now the same as before the war. We don't know about it (the petroleum problem), sometimes we hear that terrorists bomb the convoys, and sometimes we hear the petrol is taken by the United States army for their vehicles.. We don't know what is the truth."

Iraqi resentment of the coalition forces is caused by more than the long petrol queues. The failure of the occupation to rebuild Iraq's security and services, combined with recurring night-time raids have left Iraqis angry and cynical.

"Security is the most important thing we need now," Nora, a 25 year-old housewife told IPS. "We need to sleep at night with no one raiding our house. Would you believe, we wear all our clothes at night? You can imagine what it is like for them to bomb the gate of your house, and how you will feel when you have children like me."

Iraq's new government will be formed within the next few months. Most parties appear to be pushing for a government of "national unity."

Iraqis are expecting to see the new government make unequivocal changes over the consequences of the occupation. Usama Asa'ad says they also expect to see the government reconstruct Iraq, since the United States is ending its own aid.

"The United States troops occupied Iraq in twenty days because they wanted to do that, but they didn't rebuild Iraq ever since they came almost three years ago, because they did not care to do that."

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

RUSSIA’S NEW NGO LAW: A CONTRARY VIEW

By William Fisher

Virtually all human rights groups have condemned Russia’s new law governing non-governmental organizations, but the leader of one major NGO disagrees.

“Although the parliament has softened somewhat its original draconian bill,
the legislation still obliges offices of foreign NGOs to inform the government registration office about their projects for the upcoming year, and about the money allotted for every specific project. Russian government officials would have an unprecedented level of discretion in deciding what projects, or even parts of NGO projects, comply with Russia's national interests, as required by the bill,” said Holly Cartner, executive director of the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch (HRW), a major U.S.-based advocacy group.

The organization says, “Officials from the registration office could prohibit foreign NGOs from implementing projects without "the aim of defending the constitutional system, morals, public health, rights and lawful interest of other people, guaranteeing defense capacity and security of the state. If a foreign NGO implements a banned project, the registration office could close its offices in Russia.”

But Sharon Tennison, the American head of a Moscow-based NGO, the Center for Citizen Initiatives, calls such comments “alarmist”, and adds that the new legislation “could cut either way, and it won't become obvious until implementation begins. Heated TV debates are occurring, with (President Vladimir) Putin's harshest critics participating.”

Tennison told me, “There are good and bad NGOs in Russia - both domestic and foreign. Regrettably, some have supported activities that would be illegal in America today.”

Tennison acknowledged that the law was presented, amended and signed by President Putin “with few explanations for its need.” But she contends that “Russia's not-for-profit sector is in serious need of regulation. It still hasn't developed legal underpinnings to assure transparency of expenditures, operations or funder information - all of which are crucial for societal trust and civil society development.”

Tennison’s organization conducts programs to assist Russians in securing economic and political reforms and fosters partnerships and relations between the United States and Russia.

She says, “Putin and many Russians harbor deep concerns that foreign and domestic NGOs may be fomenting a "color revolution" in Russia, as they suspect happened recently in the republics of Ukraine and Georgia.”

“The Kremlin is further challenged by Russia's wealthy oligarchs, who have funneled a great deal of money through NGOs in the past three years to destabilize the Putin government. Foreign and oligarch support in Russia has led in some instances to NGOs' pursuing objectives contrary to those of the average citizen and to the stability of the fragile government. This wouldn't go down well in any country."

Tennison recommends that “to align NGO activities with citizens' interests, the Putin administration needs to legislate tax incentives to encourage support for Russia's NGOs, thereby creating a base for in-country private donations, not foreign or oligarch funding.”

She says that Russia “is inching toward a democratic society, but isn’t close yet. The country's long history and harsh conditioning can’t be radically transformed in two short decades. Pushing Russian society and the Putin government faster than they can go at this juncture, will incur consequences that serve neither Russia nor the west.”

The NGO legislation requires Russia's 450,000 civic clubs to re-register with a state authority in order to remain active. Foreign NGOs will be required to notify the Justice Ministry of the location of any offices. Both foreign and national NGOs will also have to provide detailed reports to authorities of any foreign funding and how such funds are spent. Furthermore, the legislation will give officials the power to close any non-profit organization involved in ‘political activity’, a concept that lacks any clarification or definition in the bill.

Tennison concludes, “I'm head of a NGO in Russia and I'm happy to reregister in order to get some decent laws governing Russia's NGO sector. I have nothing to be concerned about since our work helps Russian citizens - we don't do direct ‘political activity’. Nor do I think that out-of-country NGOs should do political activity when there is a freely elected president and government that still enjoys the goodwill and support of the majority of the country.”

But Tennison’ represents a minority view. Human Rights Watch and other NGOs, as well as members of the U.S. Congress, have seen the new law as another Russian move away from democratic governance and a further effort by President Putin to consolidate power in the Kremlin.

HRW says, “The government is entitled to regulate non-governmental organizations, (but) the broad and ambiguous scope of the law poses a serious threat to the rights to freedom of association and expression, in violation of Russia's obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, The 1998 U.N. Declaration on Human Rights Defenders calls on states to respect the rights of human rights defenders through legislation and administration.”

“President Putin has claimed that the law's limitations on NGOs are necessary ‘to prevent financing political activities from abroad’. But the bill gives no definition of ‘political activism’, raising serious concerns that the term could be interpreted very broadly by government officials,” HRW declared.

The organization also called on leaders of the G8 countries (to) put this issue at the top of their agenda with President Putin."

Several senior officials of the Russian government have recently made statements that appear intended to undermine without basis the legitimacy of foreign NGOs. On December 8, Sergei Lebedev, head of the Russian intelligence service, charged that foreign "NGOs are very attractive for intelligence services.... as covers, masks, screens." On December 1, Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Yakovenko claimed that "Russia's foreign policy is perceived inadequately abroad.... because Russian and foreign media quote opinions and comments of NGOs financed by western money."

Tennison also takes exception to the findings of the U.S. Congressional Human Rights Caucus. The group contends that “When the Soviet Union disintegrated in the early 1990s, Russia under President Boris Yeltsin began to move toward a democratic society…Since Vladimir Putin became President of Russia in 2000, however, there has been serious regression in democratic governance. The Russian president and government have become increasingly authoritarian, freedom of the press no longer exists, government authority has been increasingly centralized in the Kremlin, and democracy has been declared a luxury not suited for Russia. One of the most disturbing trends has been the government's effort to eliminate or strictly control NGOs and other institutions that make up civil society.”

Tennison told IPS that the caucus report “is the traditional hype by those who see Russia from only one lens”. It's myopic and dangerous. It’s another smoke screen to divert attention from Iraq.”

She added, “Yeltsin's period wasn't democracy, it was oligarchy. The press was oligarch-owned and an article on any topic, whether untruthful or vengeful, could be placed on front pages for several thousand dollars. This isn't what we call freedom of the press. There was no such thing as real investigative journalism. When journalists wrote anything against the oligarchy they got bumped off. Young, brilliant communist leaders raped the country of its wealthiest enterprises and left Russia bankrupt with nothing to rebuild the country. Is this democracy?”

DEPORTEES’ SUIT

By William Fisher

Four Muslim men who were detained without charge for months in the weeks after September 11, 2001, eventually cleared of any connection to terrorism, but then deported to Egypt, have been allowed to return to the U.S. to pursue their class action civil lawsuit against the U.S. government for unlawful imprisonment and abuse on behalf of 1,200 other Muslim and South Asian men rounded up and jailed following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Yasser Ebrahim, the first of the men allowed to return from Egypt under strict conditions, gave his deposition in New York on Monday.

The men, who charge they suffered inhumane and degrading treatment in a Brooklyn detention center, are being allowed to participate in the case under strict conditions, including confinement to their hotel rooms and a ban on their speaking to anybody outside the case for the duration of their stay.

The three other plaintiffs are expected to arrive in the U.S. over the next two weeks. Four other deportees are parties to the suit but are not expected to return to the U.S. for depositions

The plaintiffs charge that they were placed in solitary confinement, and suffered severe beatings, incessant verbal abuse and a total blackout on communications with their families and attorneys.

The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), a civil rights advocacy group handling the case, said the conditions for their return to the U.S. are highly unusual in a civil case and a sign of what he called government "paranoia over Muslim and Middle Eastern men."

The case names former Attorney General John Ashcroft, FBI Director Robert Mueller, immigration officials and prison officers among defendants. The suit, originally filed in 2002, seeks compensation and punitive damages.

CCR legal director Bill Goodman told me, “Shortly after 9/11, the Department of Justice detained approximately 2,000 Muslim men, primarily from the Middle East and South Asia. Not one of these men was ever found to have been guilty of any form of terrorism, or even linked to terrorism. These men were held for many months longer than necessary, in solitary confinement, often physically abused and under degrading conditions. The government fought tooth and nail against any judicial oversight of what was going on. This was the beginning of what has been shown to be the U.S. policy of indefinite detention without due process, often involving torture. This lawsuit seeks to challenge and to rectify the illegal actions of the government.”

The plaintiffs’ claims will be bolstered by a 2003 report by Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General (IG), who found that some prison officers slammed detainees against the wall, twisted their arms and hands in painful ways, stepped on their leg restraint chains and punished them by keeping them restrained for long periods of time.

The IG’s report also cited videotapes he said showed that some detention center staff "misused strip searches and restraints to punish detainees and that officers improperly and illegally recorded detainees' meetings with their attorneys."

The Federal Bureau of Prisons said it had fired two people, demoted two more and six had been suspended for periods from two days to 30 days.

"It means a lot to our clients that finally someone is being held accountable for the brutality they experienced," said CCR attorney Matthew Strugar.

"But we believe the responsibility for these abuses goes further up the chain of command at the Bureau of Prisons and we are disappointed more individuals have not yet been held accountable."

A spokesman for the Department of Justice declined to comment on the case.

The New York Times, which interviewed Yasser Ebrahim and his brother Hany in Egypt last week, reported that the two had lived in New York for several years before Sept. 11. Yasser ran a Web site design business and Hany worked in a delicatessen.

The two were arrested on Sept. 30, 2001 and held for around eight months, even after an FBI memo from Dec. 7 stated they were cleared of links to terrorist groups, the lawsuit claims.

"I'm seeking justice," Yasser Ebrahim reportedly told The New York Times. "It's from the same system that did us injustice before. But I have faith in this system. I know what happened before was a mistake."

The case is likely to draw more media attention than most civil lawsuits because it comes at a time when the Bush administration is being accused of ignoring constitutional rights and laws passed by congress by carrying out secret interceptions of international telephone calls and emails by the National Security Agency, part of the Defense Department.

Last week, the CCR and the American Civil Liberties Union filed lawsuits asserting that President George W. Bush's authorization of the wiretaps of U.S. citizens without court warrants was illegal. They say it violates the provisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), passed by congress in 1978. The FISA law established a permanent court that alone has the authority to issue warrants for surveillance of U.S. persons. The law defines U.S. persons as those in the U.S., whether citizens or not.

The Bush Administration contends it has “inherent” constitutional authority to protect the people in time of war, as well as implicit authority in the resolution passed by congress that authorized the president to take military action to win the “Global War on Terror”.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to convene a hearing on the wiretap issue early next month, when Attorney General Alberto Gonzales will testify.

Before he became Attorney General, Gonzales served as White House Counsel and played a significant role in crafting post 9/11 administration detention policies and practices. So did the current head of our Homeland Security department, who was a senior official in the Ashcroft Justice Department before he was promoted to a lifetime appointment as a federal judge.

Little has been done to fix the grossly dysfunctional and highly secretive immigration prison system that is now part of our Homeland Security apparatus. It was dysfunctional before 9/11 and it remains dysfunctional today.

So it seems fitting that the lawsuit brought by the deportees should be heard at this particular point in history. It will be yet another test of whether our justice system can work in an environment of war, fear, and executive power.

Monday, January 23, 2006

WHO SAYS GOVERNMENT CAN’T HUSTLE?

By William Fisher

Since Hurricane Katrina smashed into the Mississippi Gulf Coast last December, the U.S. Government has come under scathing criticism for being slow to respond.

But the Administration of President George W. Bush has recently showed it is more than capable of hustling on issues it considers top priorities.

Little more than a month after the Senate voted to ban appeals to the Supreme Court by suspected terrorists detained by the U.S., the Department of Justice (DOJ) asked the high court to dismiss an appeal already pending from a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Salim Ahmed Hamdan was captured in Afghanistan in late 2001, during a time of hostilities in that country that followed the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001 mounted by al Qaeda.

He was detained by American military forces and transferred to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, sometime in 2002. In July 2003, President Bush found “that there is reason to believe that [Hamdan] was a member of al Qaida or was otherwise involved in terrorism directed against the United States,” and designated him an enemy combatant to be tried by military commission. In April 2004, Hamdan’s counsel filed a habeas corpus petition, which is now pending.

In July 2004, Hamdan was formally charged with conspiracy to attack civilians and civilian objects, murder by an unprivileged belligerent, destruction of property by an unprivileged belligerent, and terrorism.

But on the basis of a Supreme Court ruling in June 2004, in a case involving another Guantanamo detainee, that federal district courts have jurisdiction to hear habeas petitions filed by Guantanamo Bay detainees, Hamdan’s military lawyers asked the court to consider the legality of his detention.

His defense alleges he was denied a speedy trial, challenges the nature and length of his pretrial detention as a violation of the Geneva Convention, and the legality of Military Commissions as a violation of the separation of powers doctrine and of the equal protection guarantees of the Fifth Amendment.

But, in its recent motion, the government argued that when Congress passed the Graham/Levin/Kyl amendment at the end of 2005 -- The Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 -- it stripped the Court of jurisdiction to hear Hamdan’s case – as well as all other pending Guantanamo appeals.

The “court-stripping” measure was a last minute amendment to the “must pass” Military Authorization Bill. The amendment was introduced by Republican Senators Lindsay Graham of South Carolina and John Kyl of Arizona, and Democrat Senator Carl Levin of Michigan.

“The government’s motion seeking to deny the Supreme Court the power to review a habeas case it has already taken up to review is one of the most serious challenges to Supreme Court authority since the Civil War,” says Deborah Pearlstein, the Director of the U.S. Law and Security Program of Human Rights First, a legal advocacy group.

“The Constitution itself gives the high court the power to hear challenges to the legality of executive detention through the writ of habeas corpus, and neither the President nor Congress can take that away,” the organization asserts.

Another major advocacy group, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), notes that “the first task this Administration has chosen to undertake in the New Year is the dismissal of all pending Guant√°namo habeas corpus petitions.”

President George W. Bush has “made perfectly clear its intent to create a gulag at Guant√°namo Bay, Cuba - a permanent black hole into which the Administration will toss any person it chooses to disappear forever, without a trial, without hope, and without justice. If the government's position is adopted, no longer will victims of torture be allowed to sue, or to even air the fact of their abuse in any court. The attempt to dismiss these cases is a crude and flagrant violation of the laws and Constitution of the United States and the treaties and human rights laws of the nations of the world,” the organization charges.

It adds that most Guantanamo detainees “have no ties to Al Qaeda, many were turned over to the U.S. for bounty, and even more were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. If they have no way to appeal their innocence or their status, they will be left to rot in detention indefinitely.”

Brian J. Foley, a professor at Florida Coastal School of Law, charges that Congress “was foolish to pass this law, because these enormous presidential powers can so easily be turned against U.S. citizens. What if a U.S. citizen is rounded up and never given a hearing to test whether he's an enemy combatant -- or even a U.S. citizen? Well, he can't access the courts, thanks to this statute.”

Prof. Foley says the new law makes it clear that Congress “doesn't want to give these prisoners a way to 'complain' about conditions of confinement, including torture. It doesn't want to give them a way to 'complain' that they are not being given a hearing, or that getting a decision in a hearing is taking too long.”

“That's the upshot of this law, which gives prisoners a right only to appeal actual determinations of Combatant Status Review Tribunals, which decide whether the prisoner is an 'enemy combatant' in the first place, or the determinations of military tribunals, which are convened if an enemy combatant is tried for a particular crime, if the sentence is for death or for more than 10 years. Appeals of lesser sentences are at the D.C. Circuit's discretion,” he says, adding, “There is no other way that the prisoner has a right to go to court, any court.”

“The only hope is that the Constitution's right to habeas corpus transcends this statute. That will ultimately be a major issue in the Supreme Court, and we can only hope that the justices don't simply side with the Administration,” Prof. Foley says.

The Bush Administration’s court action is of a piece with its expansive view of the power of the Executive Branch of U.S. Government, and comes amid the media tsunami triggered by revelations that the Defense Department’s National Security Agency (NSA) – the largest of America’s 16 intelligence organizations – has been conducting secret surveillance of telephone and internet communications between U.S. citizens and people overseas who are alleged to have connections to Al Qaida.

Congress, which zealously guards its Constitutional role as one of the three co-equal branches of government, passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) in the post-Watergate era of the late 1970s. The Act established a FISA court, which empowered its judges to issue warrants for Federal law enforcement agencies to conduct secret surveillances of U.S. citizens.

While President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and other senior administration officials defend the president’s actions, many in Congress reject the Administration’s claim of inherent power and insist that no surveillance involving U.S. citizens can take place without a warrant issued by the FISA court. FISA court judges are all sitting Federal Judges – one of whom recently resigned as a protest of the president’s apparent effort to ignore the court’s authority.

The powerful chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, has announced he will convene a hearing on the NSA program early next month, and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales announced he will appear to defend the Administration’s position.

The reach of executive power was one of the recurring themes in the Senate hearings on the nomination of Judge Samuel Alito to become a Justice of the Supreme Court. At many points in the three-day hearing, Judge Alito appeared to favor a deferential view of presidential power. But he refused to be drawn into detailed discussion of the subject, saying that it was an issue that might come before the Supreme Court.

Many legal scholars believe that the Bush Administration and the Congress have aggressively exceeded their authority by restricting the access of detainees to the courts. Still, it’s comforting to know that the Department of Justice is not paralyzed by bureaucracy or by fact or tradition either.

As President Bush famously said, they’re doing a heck of a job!

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

WHY SHOULD WE BE SURPRISED?

By William Fisher

Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, launched a media tsunami when he declared the Holocaust a myth.

But we shouldn’t be all that surprised. The Middle East is chockablock with Holocaust-deniers and Holocaust-minimizers. And it is not only the so-called Arab Street that has been infected. The disease has spread to many members of the Arab intelligentsia and to some of the area’s privileged elite.

I learned just how deeply embedded this attitude is during a conversation I had with members of my staff when I was managing a U.S. aid program in Egypt a few years ago.

Sitting with me in our luxurious offices overlooking the Nile on a steamy, smoggy Cairo afternoon were three of Egypt’s “best and brightest” – all from affluent families, all with master’s degrees from what is arguably the premier international educational institution in the Middle East, the American University in Cairo. These were no ordinary proxies for the Arab Street; they were Egypt’s future leaders.

I’ve long since forgotten what aspect of geopolitics we were talking about, but the subject soon turned to Israel. All three made excellent and accurate points about that country’s deeply myopic policies vis a vis the Palestinians. Then we seemed to segue effortlessly from Israel to the Holocaust.

“The Holocaust is mostly a myth,” declared one. “It’s an idea that’s been pushed by the Jewish lobby in America to keep U.S. support for Israel.”

“How do you know that?” I asked.

“Everyone who studies the truth knows it”, my staffer responded.

”How about all the photos of American GIs liberating the concentration camps,” I asked. “Were they faked?”

Another staff member joined the conversation. “No, they weren’t faked, but the numbers were purposely exaggerated”, she said, adding, “The camps were there, but only a million or so were killed.”

“Have you read Irving’s book about it?” my third colleague chimed in. “He’s a well respected historian and he proves it never happened.” He was referring, of course, to the writing of one of more outrageous Holocaust-deniers, David Irving (whose ‘history’ has been reliably refuted by virtually all reputable historians).

Where did these exceptionally smart, exceptionally competent, thoroughly Western-oriented young people get their information? For more than a generation, their views have been fuelled by a non-stop stream of inaccurate and distorted statements by their leaders, by the “reporting” of mostly-State-owned newspapers, magazines and television channels, by uninformed teachers, and by textbooks from kindergarten through university.

A few years ago, I wrote an article on these textbooks for The Daily Star, a highly respected newspaper based in Beirut.

I found that in Syria, for example, school children from the fourth grade up are taught that Zionism is a form of colonialism similar to Nazism; Zionism endangers the Arab world and prevents its unification; Israel is an aggressive and expansionist enemy and is responsible for the backwardness of the Arab world; and when young readers grow up, they must engage in holy war ­ jihad ­ against Israel and seek martyrdom. The texts also underline that Arab leaders who negotiate with Israel, even in third countries, are spies and traitors and that Jews are a menace. Books containing these passages are published by the Syrian Education Ministry and are part of the official school curriculum.

And in Saudi Arabia, texts for government-financed and private religious schools declare that God’s wisdom mandates continuing the struggle between Muslims and Jews until the Day of Judgment; Jews and Christians, as enemies of Islam, will never be pleased with Muslims, so Muslims must beware of them.

This kind of vitriol was equaled only by the inaccurate, disrespectful and totally scurrilous caricatures used in Israeli textbooks to portray Arabs.

And, while the authors of most Israeli textbooks were ordered to clean up their act in recent years, far too much Arab writing on Israel and the Holocaust remains unchanged. Arab governments continue to use their control of the media and their educational systems to magnify their messages of hate -- while professing solidarity with President Bush’s “Global War on Terror” and happily accepting huge sums in American aid.

For example, Egypt – the Middle East’s most absurd example of “pretend democracy” -- owns an evening newspaper called Al-Masaa. In a recent article titled "Israel's Lies", columnist Hisham Abd Al-Rauf wrote that there were no massacres of the Jews during World War II, and that the gas chambers were intended for disinfecting clothing. Hitler, he wrote, was not against the Jews, and had even permitted Jews to emigrate to Palestine during his first years in power.

This kind of message is repeated on a daily basis throughout the Middle East – in schools, in newspapers, on television, in coffeehouse conversations, and in government-financed textbooks.

So we shouldn’t really be surprised by what Iran’s new president has to say. His voice is only one added to many others. The problem is that he is the president of a proud and important country. When he calls his faithful to an “international conference on the Holocaust”, people will actually attend, speak, and be reported in the world’s press with the straight face of journalistic objectivity.

The profound sadness of all this is that it does nothing to help anyone solve anything. It adds nothing to facilitate understanding or conversation. It is a roadmap to nowhere. It simply provides yet another convenient crutch that democracy-denying authoritarian leaders can keep using to prop themselves up.

It may generate lots of heat, but if you’re looking for light you won’t find it here.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

BUSH’S NEW MULTILATERALISM

By William Fisher

With the billions of dollars appropriated by the U.S. for Iraqi reconstruction almost all spent, Japan, Australia and other nations in President George W. ush’s “coalition of the willing” are likely to be asked to shoulder much of the burden for funding the large number of unfinished projects.

Getting others to take up the slack is reportedly high on Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice’s agenda when she visits the Far East in March. Her trip, originally scheduled for this week, was postponed because of the current crisis in Israeli politics caused by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s recent stroke.

The new initiative comes barely a month after President Bush appointed Rice to take over the leading role in supervising and coordinating the U.S. reconstruction program in Iraq. The American administration has signaled that it will not seek further funding for these efforts.

"The U.S. never intended to completely rebuild Iraq," Brig. Gen. William McCoy, the Army Corps of Engineers commander overseeing the work, told reporters at a recent news conference. In an interview, McCoy reportedly told The Washington Post, "This was just supposed to be a jump-start."

However, Gen. McCoy’s assertion seems to be at odds with previous administration statements. For example, in a speech on Aug. 8, 2003, President Bush said, "In a lot of places, the infrastructure is as good as it was at prewar levels, which is satisfactory, but it's not the ultimate aim. The ultimate aim is for the infrastructure to be the best in the region."

Relatively little of the $30 billion allocated for reconstruction since the
invasion remains to be spent, and spending authority is scheduled to run out in June 2007. A decision not to renew the reconstruction program leaves Iraq with tens of billions of dollars in unfinished projects, and an oil industry and electrical grid that have yet to return to pre-war production levels.

It also leaves the State Department with a mandate to provide a “focal point” for reconstruction efforts and to supervise and coordinate reconstruction programs not only in Iraq, but also in other countries emerging from civil strife. These include Afghanistan, but Bush Administration officials have announced they will henceforth rely more on the Afghan Government, NATO, and contractors from other countries.

Steven Aftergood, head of the Government Secrecy program of the Federation of American Scientists, told me the switch from the Pentagon to the State Department was “a belated recognition that existing policy on reconstruction and stabilization has been woefully inadequate."

That switch came in a little-noticed December 7 Presidential National Security Directive that said, “The Secretary of State shall coordinate and lead integrated United States Government efforts”, coordinating these efforts with the Secretary of Defense to ensure harmonization with any planned or ongoing U.S. military operations across the spectrum of conflict.”

The State Department will lead U.S. Government efforts to prevent countries at risk “from being used as a base of operations or safe haven for extremists, terrorists, organized crime groups, or others who pose a threat to U.S. foreign policy, security, or economic interests,” said the Bush directive.

Some administration observers say the switch from the Pentagon to the State Department was a product of increasing frustration with the pace of reconstruction work in Iraq. They also believe the cutoff in reconstruction funding is part of a new White House narrative that also includes reduction in the number of U.S. troops in Iraq before U.S. mid-term elections in November 2006, when the entire House of Representatives and a third of Senators will stand for reelection.

According to a report by the special inspector general for Iraq (IG), reconstruction officials cannot say how many planned projects they will complete, and there is no clear source for hundreds of millions of dollars a year needed to operate the projects that have been finished.

The IG’s report describes some progress but also a number of projects that have failed. For example, expensive electrical substations were built but not connected to the country's electrical grid.

Much of the reconstruction funding has been diverted to other projects. At least $2.5 billion earmarked for infrastructure and schools was diverted to building up a security force. Funds originally intended to repair the electricity grid and sewage and sanitation system were used to train special bomb squad units and a hostage rescue force. The U.S. has also shifted funds to build 10 new prisons to keep pace with the insurgency, and safe houses and armored cars for Iraqi judges.

Hundreds of millions of dollars from the reconstruction fund was also used to hold elections and for four changes of government, and establish a criminal justice system, including $128 million to examine several mass graves of Saddam Hussein’s alleged victims.

In addition to the diversion of funds to other types of projects, the reconstruction efforts have been plagued by substantial corruption and overcharging by contractors.

While 3,600 projects will be completed by the end of the year, the cost of security has eaten up as much as 25% of each project, according to the IG. A U.S. congressional report last October forecast that many reconstruction projects were unlikely to get off the ground because of security costs. Iraqi authorities estimate that 10 billion dollars are needed for the health sector alone, to build or rehabilitate and provide equipment for hospitals and clinics.

Production by Iraq's national electrical grid remains at 4,000 megawatts, 400 megawatts below pre-war levels, with the average Iraqi receiving less than 12 hours of power a day. Oil production, which according to the Pentagon's prewar planning was supposed to provide the funds for Iraqi reconstruction, also remains well below prewar levels. The shortfall has been attributed mainly to sabotage by insurgents. Iraq's refineries are currently producing approximately two million barrels of oil a day, compared with 2.6 million barrels on the eve of the invasion.

The ending of reconstruction funding appears to mark a change from a promise the president made in 2003 to provide Iraq with the best infrastructure in the region.

But just how far the U.S. intended to go in that process has always been murky. While President Bush gave the impression that Iraq was slated for a complete makeover, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld appeared less certain. He told the Senate Appropriations Committee in March 2003, “I don't believe that the United States has the responsibility for reconstruction, in a sense (reconstruction) funds can come from those various sources I mentioned: frozen assets, oil revenues and a variety of other things, including the Oil for Food, which has a very substantial number of billions of dollars in it.”

On the other hand, that view seems to contradict a report submitted the same year by the prime consulting contractor hired by the Pentagon to lay out the future of Iraq’s economy. The company, BearingPoint Inc. of McLean, Virginia, said, “The reconstruction of Iraq has begun. Not the reconstruction of vital public services such as water, electricity or public security, but rather the radical reconstruction of its entire economy.”

Clearly, this has not happened. And the Administration’s recent funding decision suggests it is not likely to happen any time soon.

And with many of Iraq’s key ministries in disarray and some dogged by persistent corruption, observers say it is doubtful that the country’s government will have either the resources or the expertise to manage the many remaining large-scale reconstruction projects.

Friday, January 06, 2006

COORDINATE WHAT?

By William Fisher

Barely a month after appointing Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice to take over the leading role in supervising and coordinating the U.S. reconstruction program in Iraq, President George W. Bush announced he would not seek further funding for these efforts.

Relatively little of the $30 billion allocated for reconstruction since the
invasion remains to be spent, and spending authority is scheduled to run out
in June 2007. A decision not to renew the reconstruction program leaves Iraq
with tens of billions of dollars in unfinished projects, and an oil industry
and electrical grid that have yet to return to pre-war production levels.

It also leaves the State Department with mandates to provide a “focal point” for reconstruction efforts and the supervise and coordinate reconstruction programs not only in Iraq, but also in other countries that are emerging from civil strife. These include Afghanistan, but Bush Administration officials have announced they will henceforth rely more on the Afghan Government, NATO, and contractors from other countries.

The switch from the Pentagon to the State Department came in a little-noticed December 7 Presidential National Security Directive that said, “The Secretary of State shall coordinate and lead integrated United States Government efforts”, coordinating these efforts with the Secretary of Defense to ensure harmonization with any planned or ongoing U.S. military operations across the spectrum of conflict.”

The State Department will lead U.S. Government efforts to prevent countries at risk “from being used as a base of operations or safe haven for extremists, terrorists, organized crime groups, or others who pose a threat to U.S. foreign policy, security, or economic interests,” said the Bush directive.

Some administration observers say the switch from the Pentagon to the State Department was a product of increasing frustration with the pace of reconstruction work in Iraq. They also believe the cutoff in reconstruction funding is part of a new White House narrative that includes reduction in the number of U.S. troops in Iraq before U.S. mid-term elections in November 2006.

According to a report by the special inspector general for Iraq (IG), reconstruction officials cannot say how many planned projects they will complete, and there is no clear source for hundreds of millions of dollars a year needed to operate the projects that have been finished.

The IG’s report describes some progress but also an array of projects that have gone awry, sometimes astonishingly, like electrical substations that were built at great cost but never connected to the country's electrical grid. With more than 93 percent of the American money now committed to specific projects, it could become increasingly difficult to solve those problems.

Much of the reconstruction funding has been diverted to other projects. At least $2.5 billion earmarked for infrastructure and schools was diverted to building up a security force. Funds originally intended to repair the electricity grid and sewage and sanitation system were used to train special bomb squad units and a hostage rescue force. The US has shifted funds to build 10 new prisons to keep pace with the insurgency, and safe houses and armored cars for Iraqi judges.

In addition to the diversion of funds to other types of projects, the reconstruction efforts have been plagued by substantial corruption and overcharging by contractors.

Hundreds of millions of dollars from the reconstruction fund was also used to hold elections and for four changes of government, and establish a criminal justice system, including $128 million to examine several mass graves of Saddam's victims.

While 3,600 projects will be completed by the end of the year, the cost of security has eaten up as much as 25%-30% of each project, according to the IG. A U.S. congressional report last October forecast that many reconstruction projects were unlikely to get off the ground because of security costs.

Production on Iraq's national electrical grid remains at 4,000 megawatts, 400 megawatts below pre-war levels, with the average Iraqi receiving less than 12 hours of power a day. Oil production, which was supposed to provide the funds for Iraqi reconstruction, according to the Pentagon's prewar planning, also remains well below prewar levels. The shortfall has been attributed mainly to sabotage by insurgents. Iraq's refineries are currently producing approximately 1.1 million barrels of oil a day, compared with 2.6 million barrels on the eve of the invasion.

The ending of reconstruction funding appears to mark a change from a promise the president made in 2003 to provide Iraq with the best infrastructure in the region.

But just how far the U.S. intended to go in that process has always been murky. For example, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told the Senate Appropriations Committee in March 2003, “I don't believe that the United States has the responsibility for reconstruction, in a sense…[Reconstruction] funds can come from those various sources I mentioned: frozen assets, oil revenues and a variety of other things, including the Oil for Food, which has a very substantial number of billions of dollars in it.”

On the other hand, that view seems to contradict a 2003 report from the consulting contractor hired by the Pentagon to lay out the future of Iraq’s economy. The company, BearingPoint Inc. of McLean, Virginia, said, "It should be clearly understood that the efforts undertaken will be designed to establish the basic legal framework for a functioning market economy; taking appropriate advantage of the unique opportunity for rapid progress in this area presented by the current configuration of political circumstances. Reforms are envisioned in the areas of fiscal reform, financial sector reform, trade, legal and regulatory, and privatization."

The report added, “The reconstruction of Iraq has begun. Not the reconstruction of vital public services such as water, electricity or public security, but rather the radical reconstruction of its entire economy.”

Clearly, this has not happened. And the president’s recent funding decision suggests it is not likely to happen any time soon.

With many of Iraq’s key ministries in disarray and some dogged by persistent corruption it is doubtful that the current government infrastructure will be competent to manage the many remaining large-scale reconstruction projects.

DOBSON’S CHOICE

By William Fisher

The news stories chosen as the top ten of 2005 by members of the
“righteous-wing” of the Republican Party offers significant insight into what U.S. religious conservatives consider most important.

The nominations came from readers of CitizenLink, a web page of Dr. James Dobson’s “Focus on the Family”. Dobson’s organization has become one of the most influential conservative voices in shaping a wide range of U.S. policies. Dr. Dobson is known to be close to the Bush White House, particularly to the president’s chief political advisor, Karl Rove.

Close to a third of respondents nominated the Terri Schiavo case as their number one choice. Editors of the website explained the story this way:

“The disabled Florida woman, whose tragic story moved and motivated
pro-lifers nationwide, passed away in March after 14 days without food and water -- a death sentence imposed by court order. Even Congress, which worked late into the night to pass unprecedented legislation that could have saved Schiavo, was unable in the end to blunt the efforts of her estranged husband -- who battled in court for years to have his wife's nutrition and hydration suspended, even though she was not brain dead, only disabled.”

Trailing by only a few percentage points was what the website called the “Supreme Court Shakeup”, explaining to readers, “After more than a decade with the same roster of justices, the highest court in the land underwent major changes. Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor announced her retirement July; Chief Justice William Rehnquist passed away in September. In their place, President Bush nominated two judges deemed by family advocates to be precisely the kind of "strict constructionists" the court desperately needs: new Chief Justice John Roberts and associate justice nominee Samuel Alito (tapped after Bush's original choice, White House counsel Harriet Miers, withdrew her nomination in the wake of criticism from many pro-family groups.)”

The third top nominee was “The battle for marriage”. The organization said, “There were several victories, and a few disappointments, in the fight to preserve traditional marriage. On the upside, voters in Kansas and Texas came out in record numbers to overwhelmingly approve marriage amendments in their state -- and four other states passed measures to put such amendments before voters in 2006. In California, meanwhile, the Legislature passed a bill to allow same-sex marriages, but Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger promptly vetoed it. On the downside, Connecticut passed a civil-unions law and a federal district court struck down Nebraska 's marriage amendment, claiming it was unconstitutional, a decision that underscored the need for a federal marriage amendment.”

But not all Christian leaders agree. Rev. Tim Smith of the year-old Christian Alliance of Jacksonville, Florida, called the Dobson list “a wonderful window into the vacuous worldview of American fundamentalism, its petty peeves and prejudices collected for all to see.”

“Apart from Katrina, there is hardly a matter of substance on the list,” he told IPS, asking, “Where on this list are the dead of the Iraq war and the tens of billions sunk into that money pit? Can one imagine a war being left off the top ten stories of the year in 1943, 1953 or 1968? Where is the story of the traitor discovered in the White House or any of the other scandals involving the GOP, which these people brought to power? They cry a river over a couple of slabs of marble that the Supreme Court took down and get fighting mad when Macy's wishes people "Happy Holidays, " but why isn't the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Christians in Darfur on their radar?”

He added, “I think Jesus said something about straining on gnats while swallowing a camel that might apply here.”

Other issues Dr. Dobson’s readers rated as important included:

(Bad news): Failure to establish an “xxx domain” for pornographic Web sites;

(Good news): Defeat of a hate-crimes amendment extending special protections to homosexuals; the agreement among 14 Senate "moderates" to “allow a handful of blocked nominees to receive up-or-down confirmation votes -- in exchange for leaving the filibuster on the table for liberals to use again in "extraordinary" circumstances”;

(Bad news): New Air Force Academy guidelines that told the chaplains to “stop sharing their faith with cadets”, stopped short of banning all public prayer and worship, but limited it to ‘brief, nonsectarian prayer’ at special ceremonies”;

(Bad news): The Supreme court's rulings on a pair of cases involving public display of the Ten Commandments “failed to set a national standard for what's constitutional and what isn't” and created “further confusion about what forms of religious expression are allowable”;

(Good news): The “battle for Christmas” and the attention paid by the mainstream media to local governments and major retailers banishing "Merry Christmas" on the grounds that it's not "inclusive" enough;

(Good news): Hurricanes and the Christian response – “Christian ministries and everyday believers were indispensable to the recovery process”.

CitizenLink summed up its findings by noting that “2005 was a whirlwind year
for pro-family causes is the very definition of understatement. From the courts to the Congress, from public policy to the public square, the 365 days of the past 12 months were filled with miraculous victories and heartbreaking defeats for Christian Americans who advocate for righteousness.”

In contrast, the website of another major religious group, The Sojourners, listed its own 2005 achievements. These included:

Participating in the G-8 Summit, where it helped convene a religious forum with more than 50 prominent Christian leaders from the U.S. and the U.K. and pressed senior U.S. and British officials to cancel of 100% of the debt owed by 18 of the world's most impoverished countries and double foreign assistance to sub-Saharan Africa;

Campaigning at the U.N. World Summit for “breaking the silence on the tragic deaths of 30,000 children daily due to poverty-related causes.” The campaign successfully pressed the U.S. government to meet its commitments toward achieving the Millennium Development Goals by 2015;

Standing up for people most affected by “misguided spending priorities” by generating 100,000 calls and e-mails to Congress to influence political leaders, the media, and other faith groups to speak out against “cutting billions of dollars in health care, child care, food stamps, and student loans”;

Mobilizing members to sign a “Katrina Pledge”, containing “both a personal and political commitment to rebuild the devastated region while also reordering our national agenda to prioritize the needs of people living in poverty”;

Sending more than 50,000 e-mails to Congress and the president opposing privatization of the Social Security system;

Working to organize five interfaith worship services targeting Washington, D.C.'s key media and policymaking institutions to generate pressure to end the crisis in Darfur;

Mobilizing more than 900 vigils “to count the deadly human and political cost” of the Iraq war;

Urging Congress to support the successful efforts of Sen. John McCain, Republican of Arizona, to prohibit torture of prisoners held by the U.S.

Speaking out against “attempts by the religious right to hijack Christianity for their own agenda” and cautioning Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Republican of Tennessee, not to “play the faith card by telling people of faith that we must align ourselves with one narrow set of policies."

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

On Father's Day, Send Your Cards to Tom Instead of George

By Jason Miller

Our history books tell us that George Washington was the father of the abomination America has become. Many around the world, including some Americans, have written off the possibility that the United States is capable of acting with morality and sanity. Yet hope remains on the horizon for our country. Harvey Kaye's Thomas Paine and the Promise of America rekindled my fading belief in the United States as a potential home to true freedom and justice. Thomas Paine's spirit burns as an intense beacon lighting the way toward his envisioned "asylum for mankind". Paine, in contrast to Washington, is the intellectual father of an America which does not yet exist, but is still very possible.

Washington epitomized the aristocracy which has dominated our nation both socially and politically since its inception. It is time for the cultural descendents of Thomas Paine--the poor and the working class---to awaken from our slumber and lay claim to our share of the wealth and power in the United States. In so doing, we can remake this nation in the image that Paine envisaged:

When it shall be said in any country in the world, "My poor are happy; neither ignorance nor distress is to be found among them; my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars; the aged are not in want,
the taxes are not oppressive; the rational world is my friend, because I am a friend of happiness": when these things can be said, then may that country boast its constitution and its government."

Something is Very Rotten in Denmark

I have written reams about the social and political ills of our ailing nation, which have risen to disturbing heights under the Bush Regime. Given the courageous defiance of tyranny displayed in the American Revolution and the noble principles embedded in our Constitution, it is virtually inconceivable that our King George II could make King George III look like a "Bush-league" tyrant. Yet he has managed such a feat.

Consider the following:

1. Over 100,000 innocent Iraqi civilians and over 2,000 US military personnel are dead as a result of our illegal, imperial occupation of Iraq

2. The "Gulag of Our Times", including Guantanamo Bay, Abu Gharib, "secret" CIA prisons, and the extraordinary rendition program (before you write the prisoners of the Gulag off as "terrorists", remember, the crucial issues are due process and justice....most of those in custody have not even been charged with a crime, let alone had a trial. You could be next!)

3. The rise of Social Darwinism which has led to tax cuts for the rich, corporate welfare, and the diversion of our tax dollars from social programs to benefit humanity to an obscene war machine (which catalyzed the Diaspora in New Orleans).

4. The frightening attacks on Habeas Corpus and Posse Comitatus.

5. Wiretapping and eavesdropping by "Big Brother"

6. Increasingly unregulated corporations running roughshod over consumers and the environment (just keep telling yourself that big corporations have your best interests "at heart" and that Global Warming is a myth)

7. Continued unflinching support for the state terrorists in Israel who are committing a form of genocide against the Palestinians

8. A widening wealth gap, an unconscionable concentration of wealth in the hands of 1% of the populace, 45 million Americans without health insurance, one million homeless Americans, and 13% of Americans living below poverty level

9. Neocolonial policies which perpetuate corporate America's capacity to exploit the people and resources of other nations (i.e. Bolivia)

10. A declared policy of attaining global domination

11. Flagrant violations of international law

12. An Orwellian "Patriot Act" which violates four of the ten Amendments in the original Bill of Rights

Newsflash: The American Revolution Is Still Happening

While a fair number of Americans still suffer from the delusion that we are a benevolent superpower, painful realities poking us in the eye scream otherwise. Thankfully, Harvey Kaye's book awoke me to the fact that the dreams and ideals embodied by some of our Founding Fathers, particularly Thomas Paine, are not dead. The fact that America has evolved into a nation ruled by corrupt, bloated plutocrats is not a reason to despair. Our Constitution is more than "just a goddamned piece of paper". It is the embodiment of true freedom and a mechanism for the preservation of the rights of all members of society. As Kaye's tome chronicles the life and times of Thomas Paine, and the impact of Paine throughout the history of our nation, Kaye reveals some powerful aspects of America which transcend the sewer in which we are mired. The America Paine visualized has been a work in progress from the beginning. Despite the regression we have suffered in recent times, the "Promise of America" is not dead.

Paine's words remind us that while the ongoing Revolution is daunting, it is well worth the effort and risk:

"Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered. Yet we have this consolation with us: That the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly. 'Tis dearness only that gives everything its value."

Kaye's book has inspired me as I continue my writing and activism on behalf of global social justice, economic justice, human rights, and intellectual freedom. The true value of this book is that it is that it serves as a reminder that America can still rise to Paine's aspirations. Throughout our history, champions for the down-trodden have sacrificed their blood, sweat, tears, and even their lives to progress toward the goal of conquering the tyranny of America's plutocracy. The Populists, Progressives, Women's Suffragists, Abolitionists, Anarchists, Wobblies, Socialists, and members of the civil rights and anti-war movements were each influenced by Thomas Paine in some fashion.

Who Was Thomas Paine?

According to Professor Kaye's depictions, Thomas Paine, a British immigrant to the American colonies prior to the Revolutionary War, was the common man incarnate (who happened to have some uncommon gifts). Born in Thetford, England in 1837 to a Quaker father and an Anglican mother, Paine grew up in an environment of severe social and economic inequality. His Quaker father forged young Paine's deep suspicion of state and religious authority. At thirteen, his parents withdrew him from school so that he could learn his father's trade of corset or stay making. The local economy prevented him from making his living in this field, so in 1756 Paine became a privateer on a mercenary vessel called the King of Prussia. An avid reader and student, two years later he found himself in London where he often attended lectures by self taught, working class dissidents. In London, he learned the philosophy of John Locke and the art of rhetoric. He opened his own business as a stay maker and was married in 1759. Sadly, his wife and baby died in child-birth shortly thereafter.

Over time, Paine developed a reputation as a formidable debater and "wordsmith". Thomas Clio Rickman, Paine's long-time friend, said of Paine:

He was tenacious of his opinions, which were bold, acute, and independent, and which he maintained with ardour, elegance, and argument.

After a second marriage, which did not last, and a stint as an excise officer, Paine utilized his friendship with Benjamin Franklin to emigrate to the American colonies in 1774. Fortunately for the colonists, according to Kaye, "he had acquired skills and knowledge, tested his courage and intellect, made friends and contacts, and developed an intolerance of hypocrisy, injustice, and inequality along with a budding sense of working people's political potential."

January 10, 1776 marks an intellectual watershed for the American Revolution. It was on that day that Paine's unsigned pamphlet called Common Sense began circulating the streets of Philadelphia. His scathing critique of Great Britain's government and compelling argument for the colonies to break ties with their imperial master ignited a revolutionary flame throughout the fledgling nation.

By December 4, 1776, the colonies had declared their independence and the American army was dogged by defeat and hopelessness. Thomas Paine responded with another powerful dose of writing. The American Crisis buoyed sagging spirits and reinvigorated the colonists as they fought to forge a sovereign nation. Paine spurred on his fellow revolutionaries with this opening line:

THESE are the times that try men's souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country but he that stands it NOW, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.

Having done his part to spark and perpetuate the American Revolution, remaining true to the way he defined himself ("my country is the world, and my religion is to do good..."), Paine left America in 1782 to return to England. There he continued to wage the battle for the common man by publishing The Rights of Man, which supported the French Revolution and decried monarchy. Charged by the British government with seditious libel, Paine fled to Paris. He became a French citizen and became involved in politics. When he opposed the execution of Louis XVI, he was imprisoned and sentenced to death. It was from his cell that he penned The Age of Reason, which incurred the wrath of many Christians because of its exposure of the contradictions, untruths, and immoralities contained in the Bible. Despite his professed Deism, Paine's memory is dogged to this day with charges of atheism.

James Monroe managed to secure a stay of execution and freedom for Paine. In 1802 he returned to America to discover that The Age of Reason had ruined his reputation with many Americans. Paine's stubborn commitment to the working class, human rights, spiritual freedom, and reason had cost him dearly. He died in New York in 1809, poverty-stricken and a pariah.

Which Father Knew Best? The Answer Depends on Your "Pedigree"

Thomas Paine and the Promise of America by Harvey Kaye (a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay), serves as a powerful reminder that the American Revolution may not have started without Common Sense or may have failed without The American Crisis. It also reminds us that the ongoing American social and political revolution (which has advanced the rights of women, minorities, workers, the poor, farmers, and consumers) embodies the spirit of Thomas Paine rather than that of those Founding Fathers who were wealthy aristocrats, owned slaves, opposed the Bill of Rights, and limited the inclusion of the "common people" in the nation's power structure.

With the advent of the Bush Regimes (both I and II), an amoral plutocracy (or Miscreant Dynasty) has seized virtually absolute power in our nation. While most of our presidents have represented America's aristocracy first and foremost, virtually all of them advanced the cause of the poor and working class to some degree. Bush I and II and their myriad criminal accomplices, including Rove, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Rice and a host of plutocrats quietly working behind the scenes, have hijacked the America that Thomas Paine had foreseen. Meanwhile, a majority of Americans (largely pacified by consumerism, popular culture, and propaganda) have stood idly by as unwitting victims and accomplices.

A nation is an abstraction, a complex and intricate set of dynamics involving many people and processes. It is in a constant state of flux and is not easily definable. However, in recent history, generally speaking, the United States has morphed into a social and political cesspool viewed contemptuously by most of the world. We have strayed woefully far from the "Promise of America", but as Kaye's powerful analysis of Thomas Paine and his impact on the evolution of our nation reveals, it is not too late to fulfill that promise. George Washington is the father of a country ruled by the wealthy elite. The spirit of Thomas Paine is poised to become the father of a nation ruled by all Americans. It is time that "We the People" adopt a new father and wrest the power away from a group of narcissistic, avaricious malefactors who are the enemies of humanity.

As Sinclair Lewis warned in It Can't Happen Here, tyranny can arise in highly unexpected places. And it has. If enough of us join together, exhibit fortitude and patience, and take action, we can put an end to this nightmare. For a motivational jump-start and an awakening to what America was meant to be (and still can be), I highly recommend Thomas Paine and the Promise of America by Harvey Kaye.

Jason Miller is a 39 year old activist writer with a degree in liberal arts. When he is not spending time with his wife and three sons, researching, or writing, he is working as a loan counselor. He is a member of Amnesty International and an avid supporter of Oxfam International. He welcomes responses at willpowerful@hotmail.com or comments on his blog, Thomas Paine's Corner, at http://civillibertarian.blogspot.com/.

Monday, January 02, 2006

THE UNITER AT YEAR-END

By William Fisher

My editors, as well as many friends around the world, have been urging me to write something about how I think about George W. Bush as 2005 ends and a new year begins.

I was reluctant because I have been reading dozens of year-enders on this subject, and wondering if I had anything to add.

What I have to add is not exactly new. Many others have expressed similar views. To which I will now add my own perspective.

As I thought about our president, I wondered: Do I hate him? Do I think he is a liar? Do I think he is a provincial and poorly informed scion of a privileged family? Do I think he embarrasses our country by mangling the English language? Do I think he has placed unnecessary and unproductive restrictions on our liberties? Do I think his promise of a more “compassionate conservatism” was merely an election-year slogan? Do I think he is an incompetent manager of our affairs of State?

The answer to all of the above is either “No” or “We don’t know yet”.

But the more I pondered the question, the stronger grew one overwhelming feeling: Profound disappointment.

I am sad for George W. Bush. The instant those planes flew into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the president was presented with an opportunity few presidents have enjoyed.

It was the opportunity to unite our country. On September 11, 2001, GWB could have asked the American people to “pay any price” – and we would have done it.

Not since Pearl Harbor has any other president held the unity of the nation in his hands.

I found myself thinking of Franklin Roosevelt in the days after Japan attacked us. The American people were asked to make real sacrifices, and we made them. We sacrificed our drafted men and women in uniform. We sacrificed our appetites to food rationing. We held scrap metal drives, rubber drives, paper drives. We bought War Bonds, though this was not by any means the most efficient way to raise money for the war effort. We even sacrificed, at least temporarily, our strong views about FDR’s ever-closer relationships to big business because they were the folks who had to build the tanks and the ammo and the planes that could win the war.

In short, FDR connected all of us to the war effort. And we all rose to the challenge.

When Lyndon Johnson failed to learn FDR’s lessons, his Vietnam project collapsed. Looking back at those days, it seems unthinkable that any American president would ever again believe he could win a war absent the support of ordinary people.

But that is what President Bush did.

He told us we were engaged in a “Global War on Terror”, but he didn’t ask us to sacrifice anything to help win it. On the contrary, our wealthiest people reaped large tax cuts while the divide between our rich and our poor became a chasm.

Still, we were all behind the president when he attacked the Taliban in Afghanistan. We thought that action was necessary and justified: They were the folks who killed almost 3,000 of us – more than we lost at Pearl Harbor – and we felt vindicated when that effort succeeded.

Yet the vast majority of ordinary Americans weren’t really connected, even to that war we all supported. The connected people were our men and women in uniform and their families. The rest of us rejoiced, but we sacrificed nothing because we were never asked.

Then came the sharp left turn into Iraq – a war promoted on dubious evidence by people who routinely denounced “nation building” and whose motivations remain murky to this day.

That’s when the president began slowly to lose popular support. What is now left of that support is crumbling. Most of us were happy when Saddam Hussein’s regime fell. But some of us, even in the early days of the Iraq war, believed that war to be unwinnable. Now, most of us have come to believe that our subsequent prosecution of the war exposed the embarrassing incompetence of our military to understand that there are no military avenues to nation-building.

And today, as in the past, the American people think of the war as something we watch on our TV sets. We are not personally invested. We are increasingly disconnected. The president hasn’t really talked to his people – until his plummeting poll numbers scared the pants off his advisors. So we still have difficulty understanding why there were no weapons of mass destruction, why we were not greeted as “liberators”, and why most Iraqis want us out of their country.

The opportunity of 9/11 is gone. Missed. Bullhorn in hand, hardhat on head, standing in the ruins of Ground Zero, George W. Bush had every chance of bringing our country together – remember, even before 9/11, how he told us he would be a “uniter”? Well, he blew it.

It is much too early to write the history of the Bush years. But, regardless of how our Iraq adventure ends, my guess is that the Bush presidency will be remembered as one that left us divided, diverted, and uncertain of our country’s future and its role in the world.

It will take a generation of yet-unknown leadership to bring us together.

That’s why I’m disappointed. That’s why I feel such a deep sense of sadness and loss for our president.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

A mixed year for a valiant Arab people

By Rami G. Khouri

A look back at eventful 2005 in the Middle East shows three broad and significant developments in historical terms, related to the citizen, the state and the foreign powers that intervened in the region. Important changes are underway at all three of these levels of identity discernable today, though we need not predict where they will lead.

The most positive development has seen the citizen in many Arab countries start to rebel against the many indignities and inequities that he or she has endured in silence for decades - mostly variations of abuse of power by unelected, unaccountable elites from their own country or abroad. In Lebanon and Palestine, large-scale popular resistance and opposition were expressed, respectively, to Syrian domination and Israeli occupation.The citizenry's rebellion in other Arab lands primarily took the form of small vanguard groups of democratic activists who openly but peacefully challenged the state's monopoly on power (in Syria, Egypt, Bahrain, and Morocco), or mainstream Islamist parties that challenged the ruling elite through democratic elections to Parliament or to local councils (in Palestine, Egypt, or Lebanon).

Changes at the level of states were largely negative this year, the most troubling one being the continued fragmentation of 20th-century sovereign Arab states into much more brittle collections of ethnic, religious and tribal groups. The most common new trend I encountered throughout the 12 different Arab countries I visited this year - without exception - was the tendency to analyze each country in tribal rather than national terms. Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Sudan, Bahrain, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and most other Arab lands are now routinely seen through the prism of Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds, Alawites, Druze, Palestinians, Darfurians, Turkmen, and assorted Christian groups such as Maronites, Copts or Greek Orthodox.

The Arab state is in the midst of being fractured, retribalized and redefined into much smaller configurations. Three principal causes of this process would seem to be: the largely incompetent, often brutal rule practiced by the reining Sunni Arab-dominated power elites during the past half century, a clear Israeli penchant for weakening Arab states and promoting the emergence of smaller, weaker minorities with whom it can engage to its advantage (as it has done for years with Kurds in Iraq and some right-wing groups in Lebanon), and, the current American formalization of ethnic politics in Iraq as a possible model for the entire region.

This leads to the third important trend that has defined the Middle East this year, but without clear indications of whether the end results will be positive or negative for the people of the region. This is the stepped up international direct engagement in the internal affairs of countries, including Arab states, Iran and Turkey. (Sorry, a small but necessary aside: peculiarly, and running against the dominant trend, foreign intervention tends to vanish when it comes to intervening in the policies and conduct of the Israeli government, even when Israeli actions are explicitly and repeatedly condemned by the international community through respectable institutions such as the World Court and the United Nations Security Council. A thought for the cold months of early 2006: if freedom and democracy are universal values, and should be spread around the world by diplomatic muscle and occasional force, if necessary, does the same apply to the rule of law, and the state of Israel?).

The enduring exception of Israel aside, the international community's intervention inside the Middle East this year has been striking for its audacity, but imprecise in its legitimacy and consequences. I would identify four dominant patterns of such intervention.

The first was the essentially unilateral American brute use of force, with window-dressing hangers-on, as happened in Iraq. We will need more time to discover if this epic intervention proves to be valiant or catastrophic for the people of Iraq and the region. The second was the multilateral, diplomatic, patient, focused, consensus-driven UN Security Council-based approach used in Lebanon to pressure Syria after the murder of Rafik Hariri last February. A variation on this deliberate approach is also being used to engage Iran on its nuclear plans.

The third form of foreign intervention was the painstaking, step-by-step prodding of domestic institutional and legal reforms of Arab societies championed by the European Union since 1995, and more recently in a slightly more inept form by the U.S.-dominated G-8 group of industrial nations. Gains have been thin to date. The fourth, and most intriguing, intervention technique, also dominated by the U.S., was the pressure exerted on individual countries over specific issues, using a combination of public statements by American senior officials and private warnings and cajoling. The best examples of this were the quests to push forward electoral reform and expanded voting in Egypt and Kuwait. Activists in both countries say privately that Washington's pressure played an important role in pushing these two Arab systems to evolve somewhat.

The cumulative lesson from this year's three political trends, it seems, is that under certain conditions there is indeed a middle ground where Arabs and Westerners can meet and work together for common political goals. Indigenous Arab

activists and those behind external diplomatic efforts can fortify each other if they jointly define a common set of goals that respond to reasonable demands on both sides; and if they anchor the entire process of change in legal and political legitimacy, whether in the UN, in international law, or in negotiated accords.

My hunch is that the good trends of the past year, including citizen activism and small steps to democracy, tend to result from sensible cooperation between Arabs and Westerners; conversely, the bad news from Iraq, Palestine, Sudan and aspects of the Lebanese situation usually reflects the consequences of unilateralism, gangsterism, and militarism. Why Israel consistently gets a free ride from all this remains more than intriguing; it often also drives some of the resentment that translates into extremism and violence throughout this region. Some grad student in Belgium should look into this for us this year.

Happy New Year to all, especially to my fellow average Arab citizens, whose stoicism, heroism and impregnable humanity remain the defining characteristic of these troubled but valiant lands.

This aticle appeared in the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut. It is reprinted with permission. Rami Khouri's work is distributed by Agence Global.

THE STATE DEPARTMENT’S MIXED MESSAGES

By William Fisher

Amidst undenied charges that the Pentagon is paying Iraqi journalists to write “good news” stories about the country’s progress, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice has announced a new international exchange program for journalists named for famed broadcaster Edward R. Murrow and emphasizing “the democratic principles that guided Mr. Murrow's practice of his craft: integrity and ethics and courage and social responsibility”.

Rice added, “We all know that the bedrock pillar of a free society is a free press and that it is crucial for the foundation of any democracy.”

The new initiative -- The Edward R. Murrow Journalism Program -- is a partnership of the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, the non-partisan Aspen Institute, and the journalism schools of six American universities. It will invite up to 100 international media professionals to visit leading journalism schools in the U.S., “honing their skills, sharing ideas, and gaining first-hand understanding of American society and democratic institutions,” the Institute said.

The goal, it said, “is not only to inform the journalists about the United States, but also to promote journalistic freedom and excellence around the world.”

Edward R. Murrow is best known for his radio reporting from London during World War Two, and later for exposing on television the demagoguery of Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose communist-hunting in the 1950s led to his censure by the senate.

Unveiling the program, Secretary Rice said, “The Department of State is determined to forge partnerships with our private sector so that Americans of all stripes, all traditions, all ethnic groups and also all walks of life might be able to help to carry the story of democratic progress and the progress of liberty.”

Announcement of the new program was strangely juxtaposed with the furor surrounding recent disclosures that the Pentagon hired a contractor, a PR firm called The Lincoln Group, to pay Iraqi journalists to publish articles written by the U.S. military that put a positive spin on developments in Iraq. The published articles do not identify the U.S. military as the source.

Earlier this week, The Washington Post newspaper reported that U.S. Marines, frustrated by the coverage they were receiving from the mainstream news media, had invited a retired soldier who writes a weblog, or blog, about the military to travel to Iraq to cover the war from the front lines.

The blogger, Bill Roggio, a computer technician from New Jersey, raised more than $30,000 from his online readers to pay for airfare, technical equipment and body armor. A few weeks later, he was posting dispatches from a remote outpost in western Anbar province, a hotbed of Iraq's insurgency.

Roggio told the Washington Post in an email, "I was disenchanted with the
reporting on the war in Iraq and the greater war on terror and felt there
was much to the conflict that was missed." Roggio, who is currently stationed
with Marines along the Syrian border, said, “What is often seen as an attempt at balanced reporting results in underreporting of the military's success and strategy and an overemphasis on the strategically minor success of the jihadists
or insurgents."

After military officials in Baghdad said Roggio could not be issued media credentials unless he was affiliated with an organization, the American
Enterprise Institute, a conservative-leaning research organization in
Washington, offered him an affiliation. His weblog is called "The Fourth Rail" (http://www.billroggio.com).

At the same time, The Post disclosed that the U.S. military has paid to place favorable coverage on television stations in three Iraqi cities, according to an Army spokesman.

The military, he told the newspaper, has given one of the stations about $35,000 in equipment, is building a new facility for $300,000 and pays $600 a week for a weekly program that focuses positively on U.S. efforts in Iraq.

The Post said a local U.S. Army National Guard commander “acknowledged that his officers ‘suggest’ stories to the station and review the content of the program in a weekly meeting before it is aired. Though the commander, a lieutenant colonel whose name is being withheld because he is based in the same area, denied that payments were made to the station, the Iraqi television producer said his staff got $1,000 a month from the military. It does not disclose any financial
relationship to viewers.” There was no explanation of the discrepancy between
that amount and the figure of $600 per week, the Post added.

The State Department’s new international journalism program may have to confront the same issue. Geoffrey Cowan of the University of Southern California (USC) said, “Democracy cannot work without the free flow of information and ideas that is made possible through an independent and effective press.” He said, “All of our schools expect the international journalists to learn from our courses — and we all expect our students to learn from our visitors.”

In addition to USC, the journalism schools involved in the new program are the University of Kentucky, the University of Minnesota, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Oklahoma, and the University of Texas at Austin.

As part of the Murrow program, the Institute is planning a major symposium in April featuring prominent working reporters, commentators, editors and columnists discussing practical and ethical issues inherent in the journalistic process. It will also include key government spokespeople, who will discuss the relationship between media and government. Among the themes of the symposium will be the importance of diversity of opinion, an informed public, and challenges facing journalists around the world.

But one observer sees the Iraq “payola” issue and the new Murrow program as “an example of the difference between democracy in theory and practice.” Prof. Beau Grosscup of the University of California at Chico, told IPS, “The same people who set up a program to promote 'independent journalism' are the same folks who defend funding public relations firms, conservative think tank connected jingoist individuals and embedded journalists as 'independent' media. It's all about public relations and media control. Joesph Goebbels would be proud.”

Numerous opinion polls in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East have reported that people are skeptical of U.S. motives and tactics because of what they perceive is a discrepancy between what America says and what it does. The juxtaposition of Pentagon payola and journalism training in ethics and freedom of expression is likely only to muddy the water further.