Respond to this Article January/February 2003

Tilting At Windmills

Rummy's Doomed Reform ... Saddam the Sissy ... Woodward the Protector
Broadway's Bad Review ... The Jameson's of Toxic Waste

By Charles Peters

For years this column has delighted in exposing one flaw of continuing medical education programs. Many of them are merely fronts for a vacation, with far more time spent on the ski slope, golf course, tennis court, and beach than in the classroom. Another problem with these courses is that they are often sponsored by the pharmaceutical industry. The downside of this practice, writes The Wall Street Journal's Scott Hensley: "The courses tilt toward promoting the corporate sponsors' drugs." Continuing medical education was originally conducted by medical societies and medical schools. Now, however, 60 percent of the cost of the programs, $729 million out of $1.18 billion, is paid by industry.

*******

A test of their good faith now confronts Republican congressional leaders. Will they repeal, as they promised Sens. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) they would, the three special-interest provisions that mysteriously crept into the homeland security bill at the last minute? One of the provisions exempts Eli Lilly from lawsuits arising from a vaccine preservative it makes, which may have caused--causation is "biologically plausible," says the National Academy of Sciences--brain disorders in thousands of children.

Another provision exempts the manufacturers of anti-terrorism devices like gas masks, even if, according to Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), "they engage in intentional wrongdoing." And, most galling of all, the bill now permits the homeland security agency to do business with corporations that evade U.S. taxes by maintaining offices overseas, even though in July, the House had voted 318-110 to forbid such contracts.

*******

Another blow to my Anglophilia: In a recent opinion poll, Britons voted that the most significant event of the past hundred years was the death of Princess Diana. Whatever happened to the England of Shakespeare, Dickens, and the heroes of the RAF? Come to think of it, the Brits are probably looking at George W. Bush and wondering whatever happened to the land of Washington, Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt.

*******

Although I dislike Donald Rumsfeld's relentless hawkishness, I do admire his effort to move the armed forces into the 21st century and get rid of the antiquated force structures that have little relation to modern warfare. I fear, however, that one of his reforms is doomed. He is attempting to unify the senior dining rooms at the Pentagon and charge officers a fee, "maybe as high as $300," according to Bill Gertz and Rowan Scarborough of The Washington Times.

These dining rooms are one of Washington's most treasured perks. It is said that when the Coast Guard was transferred from the Treasury Department to the Department of Transportation some years ago, the main sticking point was that Treasury officials couldn't bear to give up the Coast Guard dining room, with its gleaming silverware, white tablecloths, and white-coated attendants. And when it was discovered that lunch in the Pentagon Generals' Mess cost taxpayers an average of six times what the officers paid, the top brass back then, like Rumsfeld today, announced reform: "Meal prices must be sufficient to cover operating expenses and food costs." But the generals refused to be cowed. They simply redefined expenses to exclude waiters' and cooks' salaries, as well as the cost of kitchen equipment.

*******

George W. Bush has not mentioned the fact, but did you know that "Israel ranks second only to Russia as a weapons systems provider to China, and as a conduit for sophisticated military technology," according to a recent report by the U.S.-China Security Review Commission, which was established by Congress in 2000. These sales, reports Reuters, "create an ironic possibility that in the event of war, China, with weapons supplied or enhanced by Israel that may have been supplied by the United States, would face Taiwan, armed with U.S.-made jets and other military hardware." It would be even more ironic if China used the technology against us, or, as seems more probable, sold it to Bush's dear friends in North Korea and Iran, which are regular customers of Chinese military exports.

*******

The generals are not the only Washingtonians to display zeal in defense of their perks. Anyone who has ever worked in a government agency can tell you that the fiercest bureaucratic struggles are often waged over parking privileges and choice office space. The latest example of how a threat to a perk can arouse officialdom to the kind of urgent action otherwise uncharacteristic of this community came when U.S. Airways proposed to close an elite waiting room reserved for top public officials and other celebrities, "away from the masses--and from business travelers, for that matter," in the words of The Washington Post's Keith Alexander. Apprised of the threat, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) immediately called the airline to protest the closing. His staff also called their counterparts in the offices of Sens. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), and John Edwards (D-N.C.), urging them to join in the protest. When the Post expressed interest in why Kennedy had been moved to such an effort, the paper was assured that the senator's interest was certainly not in the preservation of the perk, but in the preservation of the jobs of the employees who manned the facilities. Of course.

*******

As regular readers will have already guessed, I am delighted by the "What Would Jesus Drive" campaign against polluting SUVs and trucks. As a card-carrying member of the Christian Left, I have long urged real Christians to fight the Christian Right by reminding believers that Jesus would favor liberal programs like helping the poor and universal health care.

*******

Under James Lee Witt's leadership, FEMA became one of the success stories of the Clinton administration. Now, after two years under Bush crony Joe Allbaugh, it's not looking so good. The agency, according to David Chen of The New York Times, "has had no end of problems with its stewardship of the September 11 aid programs.

"Congressional leaders have blasted the agency as slow, disorganized, and needlessly restrictive. Victims have complained that FEMA evaluators have been rude, ill-informed, and condescending. Even agency officials have admitted to management blunders."

The latest became known after 300 or so victims who had mailed applications for help got them back stamped "Return to Sender." FEMA, it seems, had failed to pay the rent on its post office box for almost three months.

*******

"Homeland Security Department May Take a Year to Take Shape--Nightmare Seen in Blending 22 Agencies' Cultures and Workforces." That was the headline on a recent story in The Washington Post. You may recall last fall I wrote that while there was a good argument for creating the new agency, precedence should be given to the more urgent need for reform of the FBI and CIA and the reform of some of the worst performers--e.g., the Immigration and Naturalization Service--of the agencies to be consolidated under Homeland Security. But instead of concentrating its energies on the more important tasks, the Bush administration has chosen to diffuse its efforts in this gigantic reorganization.

The reason reorganizations are favored by government officials is that they create the appearance of action. Washington loves make-believe because then you can seem to be doing something without actually doing anything that might offend interest groups. Offices and people are moved. Walls are knocked down. New partitions are created. Innumerable memos are written and countless meetings are held about office furnishing and décor and about who sits where and who outranks whom. It's not hard to see that in this maze of concerns and preoccupations, executing the mission of the agency might not receive the attention it should.

*******

I've written before about the excessive fees collected by many class-action lawyers that contrast with the modest settlements for the plaintiffs they represent. In our November issue, I gave an example of the high fees. I now have an example of the low returns for the victims. As a plaintiff in one of these actions, I just received the check for my share of the settlement. It was for one cent.

*******

Bob Woodward's ability to get big shots to confide in him is quite simply breathtaking. How does he do it? One technique, illustrated by the case of Colin Powell, is to offer himself as protector. While Woodward was doing the reporting for both The Commanders and Bush at War, Powell was partially dissenting from administration positions. His future in the administration may have been in peril, and he needed to see that his side was presented in a way that would protect him against retaliation and, failing that, protect his reputation in history. The CIA's George Tenet, who had even more reason to be nervous than Powell, also had Woodward's protection. And, of course, it's always nice to be depicted as a hero, as Woodward's best sources are assured of being.

Whenever a new Woodward book appears, I pause to pay tribute to Art Levine's parody of Woodward and Bernstein's The Final Days in our September 1976 issue. Art saw what splendid fellows sources Alexander Haig and Fred Buzhardt appeared to be in the book and wondered how Woodward and Bernstein would treat Goering and Himmler if they had been his sources for The Final Days of the Third Reich:

"This was an extraordinary mission. Reichsmarshal Hermann Goering and Heinrich Himmler, the Gestapo chief, settled in for the two-hour train trip to Berchtesgaden. The two sensitive and brilliant aides were leaving behind a hot, sunny Munich. It was Sept. 15, 1943. Ahead of them lay the mountains and lakes of western Germany and Austria. The sun poured in at a 47-degree angle through the windows. For most of the travelers, the trip was an occasion for relaxation, a brief respite from the war. Yet these two public servants were not in a holiday mood.

"Goering and Himmler had heard rumors that the Fuhrer was anti-Semitic. It was all hearsay, innuendo, but, still, the two men were troubled.

"They had reached an inescapable conclusion: they must go to Berchtesgaden, confront the Fuhrer with these allegations, and ask him to put all doubts to rest.

"As the pastoral scene outside sped by their windows, Himmler and Goering were in a reflective mood. 'You know, Heinrich,' Goering said, twirling his three-foot gold baton, 'lately, I sure miss having my close Jewish friends around to talk to. There used to be so many of them, and now I can't seem to get them on the phone any more. Where have they gone?'

"'Beats me, Hermann,' Himmler answered. He tugged absent-mindedly on his lapels with their provocative death's-head insignia.

"A fly hovered two inches above the window sill. Goering moved over to crush it, but Himmler reached out instinctively to grab his hand. 'Don't do that, Hermann!' Himmler exclaimed. 'All life is sacred, down to the lowliest animal in God's creation.'"

*******

The Jack Grubman-Sanford Weill-92nd Street Y Nursery School scandal has many delicious aspects, most of which have been pretty thoroughly explored by now. One that has been neglected is what the scandal says about what is happening to Y's. They used to serve average Americans and, with their many worthy programs for the underprivileged, were deemed charitable enterprises worthy of inclusion in United Way fund drives. But, as we pointed out as long ago as December 1978, the Washington Y had evolved into an elite health club. For its part, the 92nd Street Y--which used to be notable for bringing affordable culture to the masses--now has limousines backed up outside, picking up or dropping off the richest kids in Manhattan.

*******

The Bush administration's settlement of the Microsoft suit does not seem to have arrested the corporate giant's tendency to bully. My source is not some lefty publication. It is The Wall Street Journal: "Microsoft is waging a major lobbying and public policy campaign," write the Journal's William M. Bulkeley and Rebecca Buckman, "to stop government agencies in the U.S. and abroad from embracing free 'open source' software, especially the Linux operating system, which poses a threat to Microsoft's Windows." If ever there was a case of the bad guys against the good guys, this is it. You will recall from Nicholas Thompson's March 2000 article "Reboot" that Linux is an admirable example of idealistic and creative entrepreneurship. And doesn't it make economic sense for the government to use something that is free?

*******

An ancient confidence game played by officials of the Bureau of Land Management and real estate developers involves agreements to trade public lands for private ones. What happens all too often is that the government will surrender verdant fertile fields for acres of mountainside or desert wasteland. Bureau officials have been motivated to make these one-sided deals for three reasons: stupidity, bribery, and most often because the developer is well connected with influential congressmen who can express their displeasure with the bureaucrats' non-cooperation by cutting the agency's budget.

A common technique employed in this hustle is an underappraisal by the bureau of the value of its land. "In one trade in Nevada several years ago," writes Joel Brinkley of The New York Times, "a developer acquired 70 acres of public land that the bureau had valued at $763,000, then sold it the next day for $4.6 million."

Sometimes the conflicts of interest involved in these deals are blatant. Not long ago the bureau office in Carson City, Nev., according to Brinkley, "took on an employee of a private developer to work in the land management office as an agency official. His job was to manage land exchanges being pursued by the developer."

*******

Deployment means war. This has not always been the case in military history--but it is usually what happens. One reason is that once you've deployed an army, the pressure to use it rises daily. Soon after the troops arrive, they begin to want to come home. In Iraq, this pressure will be exacerbated by the heat, which will make military operations extremely difficult beginning in April or May. This means the Bush administration will be tempted to not give inspections a fair chance and helps explain why Bush began criticizing them the day after they started.

*******

Although I don't give Iraq the priority the Bush administration does, I agree that making sure Saddam doesn't develop dangerous weapons is a worthy goal. To achieve it, we must find a way of putting continuous muscle behind the inspectors. This doesn't mean we have to maintain an army large enough to invade. What we do need is a commando force with the strength and mobility to go after the country's leadership in the event of noncompliance. For the commandos not to succumb to go-home-itis, they would need to be replaced regularly. I'm familiar with the stories of Desert One and Black Hawk Down, so I'm aware that the raid might not work. But I'm convinced that Saddam is a sissy, and that the mere threat of a raid will be enough to make him behave. And a commando force would be a lot cheaper than a big army and a big war.

*******

Bureaucrats, as George Orwell pointed out, love to find innocuous words to cloak unpleasant facts. Recent examples of this fine art, courtesy of Steve Schultze of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, come from that city's metropolitan sewage district, which calls raw sewage "untreated wastewater." When raw sewage is dumped into Lake Michigan, it's called "bypass." When treated waste is mixed with raw sewage, the process is described as "blending"--just like fine whiskey.

*******

Last month, you may recall that I was bemoaning the loss of Democratic control of committee chairmanships and the resulting loss of interest in investigating the misdeeds and omissisons of the Bush administration. I said the press would have to fill the void, but didn't offer an illustration of what I meant. Here is one: Stephen Labaton's Dec. 1 article in The New York Times that made clear how inadequately funded the SEC was to meet its responsibility to clean out the corporate crooks and restore integrity to Wall Street. He pointed out that although the Democrats, led by Sen. Paul Sarbanes, were trying to increase the SEC budget by 77 percent, the White House was only offering half that. A similar article had run earlier in The Wall Street Journal; Labaton's article was followed by likeminded Times and Washington Post editorials and by an op-ed in the Times. The result: When the White House announced William Donaldson's appointment as SEC chair in mid-November, it also announced that it favored doubling the SEC budget. Labaton and his allies have demonstrated what the press can do to keep the White House honest. But I caution them to keep an eye on the administration. If those guys think no one's looking, they just may decide they can get away with forgetting about that doubling stuff.

*******

When Bill Clinton worked with Congress to socialize medicine for veterans in 1996, I applauded. But again, underfunding means that some VA facilities are terribly overcrowded. Disabled veterans, the ones who were taken care of before the 1996 law, now often have to wait and wait and wait. For disabled veterans like me who never went overseas, this wait is not good, but bearable. But for combat veterans who have shed blood for their country, the delay is unconscionable. They should have priority over the rest of us.

*******

And speaking of unconscionable, how can Ralph Reed--whose smug smiles were a staple of television coverage of the Republican victory in the Georgia Senate race--sleep at night, having engineered a campaign that attacked the patriotism of Max Cleland, who sacrificed three of his limbs in Vietnam!

*******

I agree with the hawks in one respect. It will be relatively easy for American forces to defeat Saddam Hussein. Indeed, I suspect that's why war against Iraq seems so irresistible to George W. Bush. It may not do nearly as much to end terrorism as bringing peace to Israel and Palestine or eliminating al Qaeda might do. But it's going to be a hell of a lot simpler. Bush will then have the same joy his father experienced watching all those victory parades. But it's just possible that before the next election the American people will wake up to the fact that the real terrorists and the real causes of terrorism have barely been addressed.

*******

The Broadway National Bank recently pleaded guilty for failing to file suspicious-activity reports on bank deposits. Were prosecutors being too fussy? Were there just a few cash deposits in excess of the $10,000 trigger? Not exactly: $123 million was involved. "Once the cash was deposited, sometimes in large duffel bags dropped off in the teller area, it was quickly wired to bank accounts in Latin America and the Middle East," reports Robert F. Worth of The New York Times. Yet Broadway National's lawyer, William B. Pollard III, says that "at no time did the bank know, believe, or suspect" that the deposits were related to illegal activities.

*******

Broadway National was the first prosecution under the suspicious-activity law. One wonders why. After all, a rough guess at the number of offenses would quickly go into the thousands. I'm beset by similar curiosity aroused by a recent prosecution against Siebel Systems for violating the rule that companies must disclose key information to all investors, not just a few insiders. This was also a first prosecution, according to The Washington Post's Kathleen Day, though here, too, one suspects a far larger number of offenses.

*******

At my most optimistic, I think of this country as a nation of Hucks and Toms. At my most pessimistic, which often comes after a Republican victory at the polls, I suspect we're probably more like the King and the Duke, a nation of car salesmen and stockbrokers.

Charles Peters is the founding editor of The Washington Monthly.


Mission   Masthead   Features Archive    Writers Guidelines   
Feedback   Customer Service    Subscribe Online    Make A Donation

This site and all contents within are Copyright © 2006
The Washington Monthly 1319 F Street N.W. #710
Washington DC. 20004.
Comments or questions ... please email editors by clicking here