Friday, February 17, 2006


By William Fisher

“Sir, have you no sense of decency?” asked the bow-tied pixyish lawyer, Joseph N. Welch, of Senator Joe McCarthy fifty years ago as he tried to defend an army officer accused by Joltin’ Joe of being a Communist.

I was reminded of Welch’s show-stopping words as I (reluctantly) watched Bill O’Reilly’s “O’Reilly Factor” on President Bush’s TV house organ, Fox News, a couple of weeks ago.

But I found myself wondering whether O’Reilly’s attack on former vice president Al Gore was a matter of ignorance -- or just Megamouth’s way of getting my adrenalin flowing.

Whatever his state of mind, his outrageous commentary sure succeeded in the adrenalin department. But my conclusion is that the Designated Dissembler must be living in some parallel universe.

The target of the Verminator’s wrath in this particular broadcast was Al Gore, and a speech he made in Saudi Arabia back in December.

O’Reilly quoted Gore as having said, "Arabs in the United States have been indiscriminately rounded up, often on minor charges of overstaying a visa or not having a green card in proper order, and held in conditions that were just unforgivable."

“Wow. Quite a statement,” O’Reilly exclaimed.

But he went on. Ever-true to the investigative traditions of Ida Tarbell, Woodstein and Jeff Gannon (a.k.a.Guckert), Billyboy had his staff call Gore’s office for further information. They wanted to know “exactly where the unforgivable conditions are located and also to provide some names of Arabs who have been abused inside the USA”, adding, “If innocent Arabs are being abused on U.S. soil, we want to know about it.”

Fair and balanced to the end, O’Reilly conceded, “There were a few cases after 9/11 where Arabs were taken into custody by mistake, but just a few, as far as we can tell.”

Well, since Gore’s office wasn’t going to provide “backup”, I thought I’d help out.

In the days and months following the terrorist attacks on 9/11, then Attorney General John (“Let the Eagle Soar”) Ashcroft, with the help of then Assistant Attorney General Michael Chertoff (you’ll remember him from Hurricane Katrina) conducted two sweeps, rounding up some 5,000 – that’s 5,000, Bill -- Arabs and other Muslims, as well as many Sikhs. They were U.S. citizens, residents, visitors, students, and so forth. Osama Bin Laden wasn’t among them.

And here’s a summary of what the Department of Justice Inspector General’s report had to say about these detentions:

None of these detainees were charged with terrorist-related offenses…the decision to detain them was “extremely attenuated” from the 9/11 investigation...the Justice Department’s designation of detainees of interest to the 9/11 investigation was “indiscriminate and haphazard.” and did not adequately distinguish between terrorism suspects and other immigration detainees.

Detainees were subjected to harsh conditions of confinement, including cells that were illuminated 24 hours per day, and confinement to their cells for all but one hour per day. (There was) “a pattern of physical and verbal abuse by some correctional officers at the MDC (Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn) against some September 11 detainees….” Detainees were treated like prisoners, denied access to lawyers and contact with families.

And the terrorist convictions resulting from these manhunts? Zero. That’s zero, Bill. Zippo. Zilch.

A few hundred were deported, some accepting deportation just to escape from U.S. custody.

I hope this is the “backup” Al Gore’s people wouldn’t provide, Mr. O’Reilly. But, of course, a really simple Google search would have produced the same intelligence. It’s public record, presented to Congress, and was probably published in whatever newspaper you read. If you read, that is.

Undeterred by any of these pesky little facts, the Great Rating then uncorked his punchline issue.

Why is Al Gore “saying this stuff in the Middle East? Surely, Gore knows that his words will be used to fuel more Arab anger towards America… you would think he'd be more responsible. I mean, come on. The USA is fighting terrorists all over the world, and Gore is implying that we use terrorist methods against innocent Arabs on the home front?…In a time of war. That would be like an American politician traveling to Japan during World War II and saying FDR was interning Japanese-Americans, which he was.”

Pardon me, oh great drive-by character assassin, but where better to speak out than in the Middle East? After all, that’s where most of these detainees come from. And at what better time than when most of the world hates us?

Hell, even Karen Hughes – surely no hired gun for some vast left-wing conspiracy -- does exactly that when she goes on her “listening tours” of the Middle East and elsewhere.

She admits we’re not perfect. We’re human, which means we make mistakes. And she is fond of telling her audiences that the freedom of expression we enjoy as Americans includes the freedom to admit our mistakes, and try to correct them.

It’s one of the bigger things that separates us from them.

So I’m not concerned about what Al Gore chooses to say in the Middle East or anywhere else.

I’m a lot more concerned about what separates us from us. In that department, you’re doing a heck of a job, Billy!


By William Fisher

If Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans today, the government would be no better prepared to cope with it than it was last August when it flooded the city, wrecked much of the U.S. Gulf Coast, and killed 1,400 people.

This is the consensus reached by three new government reports and testimony Monday before a Senate Committee.

The reports detail an almost total failure in planning for and dealing with the devastating impacts of the disaster, massive waste in government procurement practices, widespread fraud by recipients of relief and absence of systems to monitor it, price gouging, and questionable no-bid contracts by companies that often did little actual work.

And, in testimony before a Senate committee Monday, witnesses said that while the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) – which has principal responsibility for disaster planning and relief – has taken some steps to improve, these are likely to fall far short of what is needed before the 2006 Hurricane Season begins.

Two of the reports, released by the Government Accountability Office and the Homeland Security Department's office of inspector general, detail a series of accounting flaws, fraud and mismanagement in their initial review of how $85 billion in federal aid is being spent.

These two audits found that up to 900,000 of the 2.5 million applicants who
received aid under FEMA's emergency cash assistance program -- which included the $2,000 debit cards given to evacuees -- were based on duplicate or invalid Social Security numbers, or false addresses and names.

The third report -- "A Failure of Initiative" -- expected to be issued this week by Republicans in the House of Representatives -- claims that Hurricane Katrina “exposed the U.S. government's failure to learn the lessons of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, as leaders from President Bush down disregarded ample warnings of the threat to New Orleans and did not execute emergency plans or share information that would have saved lives.”

The 600-page report lays primary fault with the passive reaction and misjudgments of top Bush aides, singling out Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, the Homeland Security Operations Center and the White House Homeland Security Council.

The report found that "earlier presidential involvement could have speeded the response" because President George W. Bush alone could have cut through all bureaucratic resistance.

The report paints Chertoff, who took over the mammoth DHS six months before the storm, as detached from events. It contends he activated the Government’s emergency response systems "late, ineffectively or not at all," delaying the flow of federal troops and materiel by as much as three days.

The White House did not fully engage the president or "substantiate, analyze and
act on the information at its disposal," failing to confirm the collapse of New
Orleans's levee system on Aug. 29, the day of Katrina's landfall, which led to
catastrophic flooding of the city of 500,000 people. Some 1,400 people lost their lives in New Orleans and elsewhere along the Gulf Coast.

And on the ground, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) director Michael D. Brown, who has since resigned, field commanders and the U.S. military's commanding general set up rival chains of command.

In testimony before Sen. Collins’s committee last week, Brown claimed he had kept senior White House aides, including the president’s chief and deputy chief of staff, fully informed about conditions on the ground, including the levee breaks.

He shifted blame for his agency’s performance to Chertoff who, Brown said, has chosen defense against terrorist attacks over protecting the homeland from natural disasters.

Chertoff on Monday rejected this criticism. "I want to tell you I unequivocally and strongly reject this attempt to drive a wedge between our concerns about terrorism and our concerns about natural disasters," he said in a speech.

The House Republican report says the Bush administration was informed on the day Hurricane Katrina hit that the levees had been breached. The president and other top administration officials earlier said that they had learned of the breach the next day.

That delay was significant, the report says. "If the levees breached and flooded a large portion of the city, then the flooded city would have to be completely evacuated," the draft report says. "Any delay in confirming the breaches would result in a delay in the post-landfall evacuation of the city." It adds that the White House itself discounted damage reports that later proved true.

"If this is what happens when we have advance warning, we shudder to imagine the consequences when we do not," the draft says, referring to the potential for a
terror attack. "Four and a half years after 9/11, America is still not ready for
prime time."

"It remains difficult to understand how government could respond so
ineffectively to a disaster that was anticipated for years, and for which
specific dire warnings had been issued for days," the report says. "This crisis
was not only predictable, it was predicted."

The homeland security secretary, the report says, should have moved two days before Hurricane Katrina hit — when the National Weather Service issued dire predictions about the storm — to set up a special interagency leadership team to ensure that emergency supplies and rescue squads would be in place ahead of the storm.

His department also should have done more to help evacuate the Gulf Coast, the
report says. The Homeland Security Department, the draft report says, "failed to anticipate the likely consequences of the storm and procure the buses, boats and aircraft that were ultimately necessary to evacuate the flooded city prior to Katrina's landfall."

The House Republican group as well as the Senate committee have charged that the White House failed to provide copies of e-mail messages or other
correspondence by senior advisers to the president.

The report’s criticism also extended to the administrations of Louisiana Governor
Blanco and Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans.

Mr. Nagin, the report says, waited far too long to issue a mandatory evacuation
order. The city and the state also had no reliable system to ensure that people
in nursing homes or hospitals, or the estimated 100,000 residents without
transportation, could get out of harm's way.

"If 9/11 was a failure of imagination," it says, "then Katrina was a failure of initiative," the House report charges.

A report presented Monday to a Senate Committee by the congressional watchdog, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), found that “Thousands of applicants for federal emergency relief money after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita used duplicate or invalid Social Security numbers or bogus addresses.”

The report suggests that the $2.3 billion program was a victim of extensive fraud.

GAO’s examination of the Expedited Assistance program determined that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) failed to take even the most basic steps to confirm the identifies of about 1.4 million people who sought expedited cash assistance, leaving the program vulnerable to the “significant fraud and abuse.

The report says that FEMA itself found that 900,000 of the 2.5 million applications for all forms of individual assistance were “potential duplicates.”

Even when FEMA’s automated computer system picked out what might be fraudulent applications, payments were at times still sent, says the testimony of Gregory Kutz, managing director of the GAO’s forensic audits unit.

The controls were so lax that auditors were able to secure their own $2,000 relief check by using “falsified identifies, bogus addresses and fabricated disaster stories,” and then simply waiting for the money to arrive in the mail, says the report for the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Testimony charged that much of the money disbursed by FEMA was inappropriately used – for such things as bail bonds, payment of prior traffic violations, driver’s license reinstatement, tattoos, massage parlors, alcoholic beverages, condoms, and adult erotica products.

Five dozen Web sites that either asked for money or sought to harvest personal
information for identity theft also have been shut down, the report said.

Thousands of additional dollars appear to have been squandered on hotel rooms
for evacuees that were paid at retail rather than the contractor's lower estimated cost. They included $438 rooms in New York City and beachfront condominiums in Panama City, Fla., at $375 a night, according to the audits.

Almost $900 million was spent by FEMA for 25,000 mobile homes, according to the testimony of the DHS Inspector General (IG), Richard Skinner. But, he said, only about 1,200 have been able to be occupied because they are not suitable for use on a floodplain. The rest are largely standing empty in Hope, Arkansas, where many are deteriorating and others are being cannibalized for parts.

The IG reported that contracts for debris removal, reconstruction and housing, were often hurriedly executed without competitive bids or only limited bidding. He testified that his office is continuing to investigate instances of overcharging and charging for work not performed.

The audits, which are not yet complete, do not try to estimate a total dollar figure on abuse, but GAO auditor Kutz told senators it was "certainly millions of dollars; it could be tens or hundreds of millions of dollars."

The Senate Committee also heard testimony from the Justice Department (DOJ), whose spokesperson said that federal prosecutors have filed fraud, theft and other charges against 212 people accused of scams related to Gulf Coast hurricanes. Forty people have pleaded guilty so far. Many defendants were
accused of trying to obtain emergency aid, typically a $2,000 debit card, issued
to hurricane victims by FEMA and the American Red Cross.

In the Justice Department probe, the largest investigation centered on a Red
Cross call center in Bakersfield, Calif., in which some employees schemed to
steal the emergency money for themselves and others, prosecutors said. Fifty-three people have been charged in this probe.

In a separate but related development, a federal judge ruled Monday that the government could drop some 12,000 families made homeless by the hurricanes from a program that has put them up at hotels. They will receive housing grants instead.

This is a story that's not going away any time soon. Not until the Gulf Coast gets rebuilt -- or until the next hurricane season, whichever comes first. Meanwhile, we continue to wait for Presidential leadership.


By William Fisher

Foreign policy and human rights experts appear to agree with the United Nations report calling on the U.S. to shut down its detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba – but most believe that simply closing it misses a larger point: What to do with the prisoners?

And many of those interviewed by us were fearful that the George W. Bush administration would use the source of the report – the admittedly flawed United Nations Human Rights Commission -- to discredit its findings.

The report found that U.S. treatment of Guantanamo detainees violates their rights to physical and mental health and, in some cases, constitutes torture. It urges the U.S. to close the facility and bring the captives to trial on U.S. territory, charging that Washington's justification for the continued detention is a distortion of international law.

Compiled by five U.N. envoys who interviewed former prisoners, detainees' lawyers and families, and U.S. officials, the report is the result of an 18-month investigation ordered by the Commission. The U.N. team was refused access to prisoners and did not visit the facility for that reason.

The human rights body has been widely criticized because its 53 members include representatives of countries with questionable human rights records. These include Azerbaijan, China, Cuba, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Zimbabwe. The U.S. has been among U.N. member states attempting to reform the Commission, denying membership to countries that are known to commit human rights abuses.

The report concluded that the violent force-feeding of hunger strikers, incidents of excessive violence used in transporting prisoners and combinations of interrogation techniques "must be assessed as amounting to torture" — are likely to stoke U.S. and international criticism of the prison.”

"We very, very carefully considered all of the arguments posed by the U.S. government," said Manfred Nowak, the U.N. special rapporteur on torture and one of the envoys. "There are no conclusions that are easily drawn. But we concluded that the situation in several areas violates international law and conventions on human rights and torture."

Prof. Nowak, a member of the International Commission of Jurists, is Professor of Constitutional Law and Human Rights at the University of Vienna and Director of the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute of Human Rights (BIM). Since 1996, he has served as Judge at the Human Rights Chamber for Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo.

Human rights and legal advocates hope the U.N.'s conclusions will add weight to similar findings by rights groups and the European Parliament.

Prof. Erwin Chemerinsky of the Duke University Law School shares that hope. He told us, “I believe that the existence of the prison in Guantanamo and the treatment of the detainees there violates international law. However, if the base at Guantanamo should be closed, it is essential that something worse not replace it. For example, it would be much worse if the prisoners are then transferred to prisons in foreign countries beyond American courts' jurisdiction.”

This view was echoed by Gabor Rona, International Legal Director of Human Rights First (HRF), a New York-based advocacy group. He told us, “Whether or not Guantanamo stays open or is closed addresses only one symptom of a larger question: What will happen to the detainees? If closure means the U.S. is going to open up its legal environment to respect international human rights norms not only at GITMO but in all its detention facilities worldwide, that would be a step forward. If closing GITMO simply means shipping the detainees off to other places and fates where their rights continue to be violated, that would be no step at all. The U.S. needs to live up to its obligations under both U.S. and international law.”

Barbara J. Olshansky, Director Counsel of the Guantanamo Global Justice Initiative at the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), told us, “With each day (GITMO) remains open, it presents a very ugly picture to the world of the U.S. decision to cast aside the rule of law and trample the most fundamental human rights.”

She added, “Guantánamo has become the symbol for our country’s decision to deny human dignity. At the same time, however, we remain very concerned about the actions the U.S. might take if it were to close the base. It has taken a great deal of effort to ensure that detainees are not transferred to indefinite detention or to detention under torture from Guantánamo. For the many detainees who do not have this judicial protection in place (because until very recently we did not have identifying information for them and/or authorization to represent them) we have no way of ensuring that the men are not rendered to indefinite detention or torture either in their countries of birth or some third country. “

Prof. Jonathan Turley of Georgetown University and a widely recognized authority on U.S. Constitutional and international law, told us, “Closing Gitmo would be a welcomed change. However, it will mean little if the underlying abuses continue at a dozen less visible locations. The problem is the underlying legal claims of the President and the continued failure of the government to comply with domestic and international law. The most important recommendation is that these individuals be given legitimate trials in federal court rather than the meaningless proceedings held at GITMO. The current proceedings have little resemblance to legal hearings. They are controlled by rules written by government prosecutors to guarantee conviction and stand as a fundamental affront to the most basic notions of the rule of law.”

Yale Richmond, a veteran of 30 years in the U.S. Foreign Service, believes that “As long as (GITMO) remains open, it will be used against us. Better to close it.” But, he told us, “That raises the question of whether the prisoners should be tried in US courts, and what Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Bush (in that order) would say if some of them were found ‘not guilty’."

Christopher J. Roederer, Associate Professor of Law at the Florida Coastal School of Law, told us, “I do think that GITMO should be closed, or fully opened up to full inspection and access. The main problem with the report in my view is that there was no visit and no access to the prisoners – but whose fault is that? Did we accept Saddam’s assurances that there were no WMDs on his say-so? Did we not hold his lack of full cooperation against him?”

Experts we interviewed think there is a good possibility that the Bush Administration will try to use the troubled composition of the U.N. Human Rights Commission to discredit or dismiss the findings of the report.

Patricia Kushlis, a retired U.S. Information Agency officer and a specialist in international politics, public diplomacy and national security, told us, “I suspect the Administration will try to use this as a rationale for questioning the report's veracity, or at least credibility. Whether it will stick, or not, is another question.”

Prof. Roederer told us, “I only think it hurts as a rhetorical matter. It may work rhetorically to defend our actions by pointing back at our accusers as coming from ‘bad’ places, but that retort misses the point of the allegation. If the merits disclose violations it is no answer to say that other states are violating human rights or even that members of the Committee are focusing on the U.S. to move the spotlight off of their own countries. The charge is still left intact - two or more wrongs do not make a right.”

CCR’s Olshansky said, “Although the full membership of the U.N. Human Rights Commission includes states with less than ideal human rights records, the report that we have seen is being issued by unimpeachable sources”. She noted that the five individuals who prepared the report are the “foremost authorities” on the issues addressed in the report. “They have no role or responsibility for the actions of their home governments.”

Gabor Rona of HRF agrees. He told us, “ The people who researched and wrote this report are among the world’s most distinguished human rights scholars. They are independent of the countries that are members of the Human Rights Commission. The Bush Administration should consider their findings carefully and not respond by attempting to shoot the messenger.”

In November, the Bush administration offered three of the five members of the U.N. team the same tour of the prison given to journalists and members of Congress. This tour prohibits direct contact with prisoners.

The report focuses on the U.S. government's legal basis for the detentions as described in its formal response to the U.N. inquiry: "The law of war allows the United States — and any other country engaged in combat — to hold enemy combatants without charges or access to counsel for the duration of hostilities. Detention is not an act of punishment, but of security and military necessity. It serves the purpose of preventing combatants from continuing to take up arms against the United States."

But the U.N. team concluded that there had been insufficient due process to determine whether the more than 750 people who had been detained at Guantanamo Bay since January 2002 were "enemy combatants," and determined that the primary purpose of their confinement was for interrogation, not to prevent them from taking up arms. The U.S. has released or transferred more than 260 detainees from Guantanamo Bay.

It also rejected the premise that "the war on terrorism" exempted the U.S. from international conventions on torture and civil and political rights.

The report said the simultaneous use of several interrogation techniques — prolonged solitary confinement, exposure to extreme temperatures, noise and light; forced shaving and other techniques that exploit religious beliefs or cause intimidation and humiliation — constituted inhumane treatment and, in some cases, reached the threshold of torture.

Prof. Nowak also said the U.N. team was "particularly concerned" about the force-feeding of hunger strikers through nasal tubes that detainees said were brutally inserted and removed, causing intense pain, bleeding and vomiting.

Coming on the heels of the release of yet more photos of detainee abuse taken at Abu Ghraib prison in 2003, widely published photos of British abuse of prisoners in Iraq, the U.N. report has helped to make this a pretty uncomfortable week for the Bush Administration. White House press secretary Scott McClellan attempted to blow off the U.N. report by asserting that, since the investigative team did not visit GITMO, it told only one side of the story.

Yet there is virtual unanimity in the foreign affairs community that the so-called “torture issue” has greatly diminished America’s reputation abroad – and not only in the eyes of Arabs and other Muslims. Notably, it has been the issue on which the new German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, publicly disagreed with President Bush during her recent White House visit.

President Bush has dug his heels in on the Guantanamo issue. But his administration has a penchant for publicly exhorting the world to “stay the course” – and then privately changing the course. So there may yet be hope for a more rational policy.