Respond to this Article June 2004

Tilting at Windmills

Reagan redux ... Nico-teen ... Wolfowith arithmetic ... Homeland insecurity ...

By Charles Peters

Reagan redux

John Kerry is, as everyone knows by now, not gifted in the art of concise formulation. Too many of his thoughts find expression in complicated and meandering sentences and paragraphs that often leave the listener uncertain of his exact meaning. Slate even has a feature called "Kerryisms" that tries to divine Kerry's true verbal intent. Mindful of the senator's need for help, I've been asking friends for suggestions about how Kerry could present issues more vividly. Many of their answers reveal that there are more convoluted Kerrys out there than I had realized. But one response struck me as just the kind of thing that the senator needs to say: "Do you feel safer today than you did four years ago?"

Smoking gun

"The alert came at 10:17 a.m. on a sultry summer morning on the Mississippi. A crop duster circled four times over the river near Natchez, Miss., sending clouds of dark powder down on the tugboat and barges below." Thus began an article in the Post about a day at the Homeland Security operation in Washington. "It was another day, another false alarm," reported Sari Horwitz. "The crews on the boats were monitored for symptoms of poisoning, but none developed. Meanwhile, a deputy sheriff tracked down the pilot. It turned out he had been drinking and doing drugs and was flying out of control. 'We arrested him,' the center's director, [retired Marine Brig. Gen. Matthew E.] Broderick, said simply. 'The guy was just a drunk.'"

There the general, the story's authors and The Washington Post's editors left the matter. Weren't they the tiniest bit alarmed that a pilot in that shape had been permitted to fly a crop duster? The fact is that at many of the thousands of American airports and airstrips serving private pilots, a drunk--or a terrorist--can take off without having been checked out or intercepted by any authority. This is one of the biggest holes in our homeland security net, and did seem to me worth at least a passing mention.

Gay old time

To most of us, Bush's ignorance is scandalous. Even his chief of staff, Andrew Card, admits "he does not dwell on the newspapers, but he reads the sports page every day." But just to show that a sympathetic journalist can find a way to put a favorable gloss on an unfortunate trait, here's how Bill Sammon of the conservative Washington Times puts it in his new book Misunderestimated: "The President is not steeped in the minutiae of individual news articles."

By the way, the first chapter of Sammon's book tells about a night the Bush entourage spent at a Portland hotel with 2,500 players from a gay softball league. In reality, nothing scandalous seems to have happened, but aren't the possibilities fascinating?

The Tegucigalpa threat

If private pilots can avoid security completely, airlines serving small airports come pretty close to attaining the same result. "Many of these airports have no metal detection, no security screening, and no inspection of luggage for explosives," writes The Washington Post's Sara Kehaulani Goo. Yet small airports can serve thousands of people. The North Las Vegas airport had 64,000 passengers last year. And their planes fly into large cities like Dallas with targets like the Cowboys' Texas Stadium that are very tempting to terrorists.

The small airport problem here is another version of one that has long worried me: the Third World airports that, despite lax security procedures, send planes to large cities in the United States today. Passengers from London and Paris may be carefully scrutinized--in fact steps have recently been taken to make sure they are--but just imagine what the security is like in San Salvador, Guatemala City, or Tegucigalpa?

Full sovereignty?

My proposal last October that we should cut and run from Iraq on a fixed date was greeted with such underwhelming response as to put it on life support. Now, I am happy to say that I have been joined by Zbigniew Brzezinski in The New Republic, and as noted by The Washington Post's Peter Slevin, the former diplomat Morton Abramowitz, and former deputy national security advisor James Steinberg. The reason for the fixed date is that it would tend to eliminate from the ranks of those opposing our forces in Iraq the people who just want us to leave as distinguished from the terrorists who want to torment us. Patrick Graham's article in the June Harper's shows that there are many Iraqis who are not terrorists or professional America haters but simply don't want us to occupy their country.

The right sources

I agree with those who have been praising Bob Woodward's new book Plan of Attack. It is a good -- very good-- book, full of fascinating inside dope about the Bush administration and its obsession with Iraq. I worry, however, about the lesson that other journalists will draw from it.

It is based, as have been most of Woodward's books after All the President's Men, on interviews with the big shots. Because of the reputation Woodward has earned over 30 years, these people are now afraid not to talk to him. And because they know other big shots will be talking to him, they are afraid to conceal anything that one of the others might have revealed. An unknown young reporter can't start this way. The big shots will seldom talk to him, and even when they do, they're going to think they can get away with pulling the wool over his eyes. That's why Woodward's--and Bernstein's--All the President's Men was a much better model for young journalists, and indeed for most reporters. Its message is to talk to sources at all levels, from the personal secretary to the cabinet secretary if he'll see you. Indeed, this is really all that most young reporters can do. But as they become more successful, and the big shots become glad to see and seduce them, they can get on the wrong track. They should remember that they're most likely to get the story from the people who are working at the action point. The reporter who went out for a drink with a few Abu Ghraib prison guards last fall would now be framing his Pulitzer.

The cocktail party

Robert Gates, the former CIA director, and Dewey Claridge, one of the agency's most famous case officers, both acknowledged to Frederick P. Hitz, the author of a new book, The Great Game, "that they knew of no significant recruitment of Soviet spies during their long careers. The spies were all walk-ins or volunteers." This is the most devastating of all the disturbing facts I've learned about the CIA. If they never succeeded in recruiting a Soviet spy, what did they do all day? And what was the justification for all those case officers going to all those embassy cocktail parties over the 40 years of the Cold War?

Fortress Wyoming

That things are not exactly going swimmingly in the new Department of Homeland Security is the import of two recent items. "As of April 2004, about 85% of the preparedness grants distributed from the 2003 budget had not been utilized," Christopher Cox, the chairman of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, told reporter John McCaslin of The Washington Times. Some of the money that has been spent has gone for ridiculous purposes--like buying a small Maryland fire department a $350,000 custom-made fireboat or purchasing a new office security system for prosecutors in Prince George's County, Md.--that we pointed out in "Tilting" in January. The committee also found that the money is not being distributed with due regard to the relative risk faced by the recipient states and communities, and that the federal guidelines on how the money is to be spent are inadequate.

"The formula for distributing homeland security money gives a disproportionate amount to less populated places," reports Time's Amanda Ripley. New York has received $24.77 per person while Wyoming got $61.27, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. At least we have the comfort of knowing that Dick Cheney can feel safe when he goes home.

The news is no better at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which was incorporated into the Homeland Security empire. The Post's Al Kamen has come up with a survey of FEMA employees. Asked if FEMA is better since the merger, one respondent said yes, 16 said there had been no change, and 67 said "poorer." Asked if they would move to another agency if they could, 18 said they would stay put, 14 weren't sure, and 51 said yes. This is the same agency that under Clinton appointee James Lee Witt was one of the government's success stories in the 90s. What about the Bush administration leadership? Two recipients said "excellent," eight said "good," 28 said "fair," and 33 said "poor."

What liberal media?

"Kerry Vies for Screen Time: Networks Focus on Iraq, Bush; Democrats Sometimes Ignored" read the headline above an article by Dan Balz and Howard Kurtz in the May 19 Post. Most of the story was about how Bush was getting the lion's share of television coverage. But it also noted that newspapers do run Kerry stories "though usually on inside pages." The Post's editors proceeded to prove the point by placing this story on page 5, and the other Kerry story of the day on page 4.

Shark repellent

One of my disputes with Ralph Nader over the years has concerned his tendency to depict trial lawyers as white knights in shining armor, dedicated to protecting the little guy from corporate abuse. Some of them are knights, but others are more dedicated to lining their pockets with the fat fees that they pick from the little guy's pocket. The class action is a much favored technique for doing the picking. And to realize the maximum take from a class action, it is necessary to be named the "lead counsel" by the court.

Because "the lead firm collects the bulk of the fees and controls how the money is doled out to other lawyers," writes Kara Scammel in The Wall Street Journal, these knights in shining armor spend much of their time "elbowing each other." This tug of war, Scammel explains, "is all about money." And, I would add, not about justice.

The result is that the unhappy losers of the tug of war have created a new species of lawyer. Now,. in addition to the traditional specialists in real property, trusts and estates, torts and criminal law, we have the "objector." Objectors specialize in protesting the fees given to the lead attorneys, and in seeking a bigger piece of the pie for the other lawyers in the case. The Journal's Jathon Sapsford tells the story of "poor" Lloyd Constantine, who a year ago thought he was going to get a class-action fee of $600 million. But he still hasn't collected. Objectors challenging his fee have the settlement tied up on appeal. I must say that it does not break my heart that the sharks are attacking one another. At least they're not stirring up trouble for the rest of us.

Not so swift

Speaking of the Post editors and Kerry, another example of their failure to treat him fairly was provided by a May 5 article headed "Veterans group criticizes Kerry war record." It described how a group of "swift-boat veterans" raised questions about Kerry's service record, quoting one as saying, in regard to the actions for which Kerry received his medals, "I have serious questions based on talking to people who were involved in the incident." Although the article went on for 13 paragraphs, running across six columns at the top of the page, there is not an exculpatory fact in it about Kerry's military record. It seemed to me that here was a place to at least mention briefly the findings of the Post's own April 23 review of Kerry's service in Vietnam in which eight of his nine crewmates were said to have found him "daring and unflinching in combat."

Nico-teen

Did you know that the cigarette companies are making cigarettes with candy, fruit, and other sweet flavors? This is obviously designed to lure kids into smoking--according to the Boston Globe's Stephen Smith, they are being marketed under teeny-bopper brand names like Mandarin Mint and Cherry Cheesecake--and is especially hideous because the earlier smoking begins, the more likely lung cancer will be the result. The guilty parties, by the way, are not fly-by-night companies but big-timers like R.J. Reynolds and Brown & Williamson. At least one state, Massachusetts, is trying to halt this insanity. Christine Ferguson, the commissioner of the Department of Public Health, is the hero. Other state officials around the country should emulate her. And isn't it about time for the federal Food and Drug Administration to take on the tobacco companies?

Picking on Pickering

I applaud the recent media efforts by Mike Wallace and Nat Hentoff among others to tell Judge Charles Pickering's side of the story. He, you will remember, is the federal judge whose appointment to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals by George W. Bush was filibustered by the Democrats, so that he serves only by virtue of a recess appointment that runs out next year. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) accused Pickering of "glaring racial insensitivity." The facts are that Pickering had sent his children to an integrated school while many white Mississippians were doing otherwise, had successfully defended a young black man accused of robbing a white girl at knifepoint, had testified against the killer of civil rights worker Vernon Dahmer and had been rewarded with the Ku Klux Klan's successful opposition to his effort to gain reelection to the state Senate. Deborah Gambrell, who has represented the NAACP in a case before Pickering, says she is "shocked and appalled" at the attack on him by Senate Democrats.

I hope this is not another example of what the Democrats did to Clement Haynsworth when Richard Nixon nominated him for the Supreme Court in 1969. Haynsworth had earned a reputation as a sound, if conservative, judge. The main evidence against him was that he had failed to recuse himself from a few cases against large companies in which he held stock that was far from a major stake. There was no evidence that his holdings had influenced his judgment. Yet the Democrats, fresh from losing the White House to a man they heartily and justifiably detested, were itching to give Nixon a bloody nose. They crusaded against Haynsworth as if he were evil incarnate, and defeated his nomination by a vote of 55-45. Nixon then thumbed his nose at the Democrats by nominating the absurdly unqualified G. Harrold Carswell, and additional months of senatorial efforts then had to be devoted to defeating him. After Carswell was defeated, Nebraska senator Roman Hruska rose to say: "Even if he is mediocre, there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren't they. . . ?" He was serious--for good reason. His own ability, to put it as gently as possible, was a constant source of justifiable modesty.

Homeland insecurity

Back to homeland security: "State and local governments aren't being let in on the national homeland security strategy," writes Donald F. Kettl in Governing magazine. "That may be because there isn't one."

Our man in Fallujah

The American occupation forces in Iraq have not been conspicuously successful in picking Iraqi generals to solve our problems in Fallujah. The first one had to be replaced in less than 24 hours. The second, Brig. Gen. Mohammed Latif, whom we have entrusted with responsibility for disarming the rebels, could not have delighted occupation authorities when he told Reuters news service:
"Weapons are not the problem. They are easy to collect. What we need to do is rebuild our country. There is no need for American soldiers. I'm sure the Americans would be glad to go to their homes."

If our own hand-picked Iraqis don't want us, who does?

Safe seats

In 1992, 19 House members lost elections. Ten years later, in 2002, the figure had dropped to eight, and four of those lost to other incumbents in elections brought about by redistricting. Redistricting by state legislatures to create safe districts for one party or another is a major cause of the excessive incumbent survival rate. Texas, where the Republicans seem to have succeeded in depriving the Democrats of six seats, is the most recent example. The Chicago Tribune's Steve Chapman has an answer to this problem: have redistricting done by independent commissions. I'm ordinarily wary of legislatures delegating their authority to unelected bodies, but this may warrant an exception. Chapman points out that in Iowa, where such a body does the redistricting, three of the five House seats were competitive in 2002. This stands in contrast to the national average of one competitive seat in 10 in 2002. It occurs to me that this may be like closing military bases, something that a legislative body can't do right and that is better left to an independent commission.

Another cover up

Remember James J. Smith, the FBI agent who carried on a 20-year affair with a woman suspected of being a Chinese double agent? At Smith's behest, the FBI paid her $1.7 million to provide us with intelligence while she was using her trysts with him to lift confidential documents from his briefcase and copy them.

In May, he was allowed to plead guilty to a simple charge of having concealed the affair. This will enable him to avoid prison time and keep his pension. Why is he being treated so gently? The speculation is that the FBI wants to protect higher-ups who authorized the payment even though they knew about the affair. A "former senior law enforcement official" tells Eric Lichtblau of The New York Times: "This is a way of silencing J.J., because if you put him on trial he will allege that everyone up the chain of command knew what he was doing." The Times does not mention another FBI agent who played around with the same woman. Doesn't it seem possible that his story is something else the FBI does not want to see further explored?

Bonus everyone?

I seem to be picking on the Post this month--and I apologize to my friends there--but here's another complaint about a recent story. The article's headline did accurately capture its essential message: "Two-thirds of Federal Workers Get a Bonus." And the article went on to quote Paul Light, a professor of government at NYU, as making a point that needed to be made: "I don't think Americans think that 60% of federal employees would be so well above average that they would earn a bonus." But the authors of the article and their editors seem unaware of the main contributing factor to the bonus scandal, which is something called the "step" or "merit" raise that is given to civil servants and is received by, not two-thirds, but 99 percent of those eligible each year. By the way, the step or merit increase is not just a one-year bonus, but a permanent raise.

Kari's narrow escape

Good news from the Portland Oregonian: Remember Kari Rein, the legal immigrant from Norway and longtime resident of Oregon, who was threatened with deportation because she and her husband had been convicted 11 years ago for having six marijuana plants in their home? She has been pardoned by Oregon's governor, Ted Kulongoski. This means her "crime" has been removed from her record, and that she will not be deported. If you want to know who was responsible for even proposing the deportation, look no further than "Tilting"'s government agency of the month, the Department of Homeland Security.

Mail order pay raise

You may have seen the recent stories about civil servants who got their jobs or promotions through bogus degrees that they bought from institutions where the parchment is granted by mail-order. What you may not know is why government employees would go so far to obtain a degree. The reason is that eligibility for most of the better federal jobs is determined, not on the basis of the written tests the public imagines, but on the basis of a paper record. Degrees make a big difference. But personnel evaluators seldom look behind the paper to see if the degree is real and truly reflects the applicant's ability to do a better job.

Even where written tests are given, the civil service does not always work as the public imagines. In Boston, for example, where most police and fire department jobs are supposed to be awarded by merit testing, only six of 200 top scorers were among the 51 recently deemed eligible to fill the available jobs. Eleven of the 51 had been outscored by 2,000 points or more by other applicants. What's at work are "preferences." The most well-known of these are preferences for minority applicants. But in Boston, there are 12 other preferences, according to Common Wealth magazine, which may turn out to be The Washington Monthly of Massachusetts. First among them goes to resident children of police firefighters killed in the line of duty. Then come non-resident children of the same, resident disabled veterans, resident children of police or firefighters injured in the line of duty, non-resident children of the same, resident veterans, resident widows of veterans killed in action or by service-connected disability, and resident non-veterans. Each of these references by itself is understandable. But taken together, they spell the end of hiring on the basis of merit.

Twenty-six words

The Post's lack of enthusiasm for stories that are favorable to Kerry was once more displayed on May 28. After it devoted two front-page stories to Bush's foreign affairs speech that same week, its report on Kerry's first major foreign affairs address ran on page A9. The New York Times put it on page one, as indeed did even the Bush-loving Washington Times. The Post can take comfort, however--ABC "World News Tonight" was even worse. It used only 26 words from Kerry's speech, apparently because they dealt with Iraq. The rest of ABC's account concerned discontent about Kerry's position on Iraq. Actually, if the ABC reporter, Dan Harris, and his producer had paid closer attention to the speech--which struck me as one of Kerry's best--they would have known that much of it had clear implications for Iraq policy. And even the bit they used failed to make Kerry's point about why the administration's Iraq policy had failed.

"They looked to force before exhausting diplomacy. They bullied when they should have persuaded. They have gone it alone when they should have assembled a team. They have hoped for the best when they should have prepared for the worst. They have made America less safe."

Fair share

John McCain recently called for more sharing of the sacrifice during wartime. Dennis Hastert replied: "John McCain ought to visit our young men and women at Walter Reed and Bethesda. There is the sacrifice in this country."

Can you believe it? This man, as speaker of the House, is third in the line of succession for the presidency. His comment makes clear that he is cut from the same cloth as Bush and Cheney, and would be no improvement. All three have pursued a policy of tax cuts for the wealthy, who are the very people who do not serve in the military.

The rich should bear more, not less of the financial burden. During World War II, the top tax rate was 90 percent. The Republicans have cut it to 35 percent, as they send to their deaths young Americans whose parents do not live on Park Avenue or in Palm Beach.

Wolfowitz's arithmetic

Paul Wolfowitz had struck me as a policy disaster but otherwise a nice guy. Not now. When a Congressman recently asked him how many Americans had died in Iraq, he answered, "approximately 500." The actual figure then was more than 700, and is now more than 800. This man does not even have the conscience to care about the harm he has done. Why else would he not have accurate casualty figures engraved in his heart and mind every day?

Charles Peters is the founding editor of The Washington Monthly and president of Understanding Government.


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