Tilting at Windmills

By Charles Peters

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Obama’s Vietnam?

In a haunting reminder of Vietnam’s body counts, the U.S. Army has begun publicizing every Taliban fighter killed, according to the Wall Street Journal. Another reminder of Vietnam comes from a New York Times report that Army investigators have determined that civilians at Granai, Afghanistan, were attacked in violation of the rules of engagement regarding "putting high-density village dwellings at risk."

I’ve been working on a book about Lyndon Johnson, and have had to face the fact that the case against the Vietnam War that seems so compelling in retrospect did not seem nearly so obvious in the war’s early years. Of the thirty or so civilian or military advisers that Johnson consulted in the July 1965 decision to commit enough American troops to take over the ground war, only two dissented: Undersecretary of State George Ball and Senator Mike Mansfield. Even supposed doves like Bill Moyers and Dick Goodwin remained silent. As late as the summer of 1966, Neil Sheehan, who later wrote perhaps the most damning indictment of the war, A Bright Shining Lie, wrote an article for the New York Times Magazine saying that, though no longer a hawk, he was against surrendering.

Similarly, today there is a very persuasive case for staying the course in Afghanistan. Indeed, Peter Bergen makes it in this issue. But it seems to me there is enough reason to doubt success to wonder if it is worth the American and Afghan lives that will be lost in its pursuit. I find it very hard to accept the cruelty of sending soldiers to Afghanistan after they have endured three or four tours in Iraq.

Even if we eradicate al-Qaeda, won’t other terrorist groups arise? I think that our best hope for the withering of the terrorist impulse rests not with war, but with the diplomatic approach that Obama so eloquently expressed in Cairo. To be sure, there will always be just plain bad guys and dangerous lunatics from which society must protect itself. But effective security measures, not war, are the way to do that.

What’s experience got to do with it?

Why is the only senator to have served as a superintendent of schools not on the Senate Education Committee? Michael Bennet, the new senator from Colorado, was in fact such an outstanding superintendent that he was the subject of an article by our former editor Katherine Boo in the New Yorker. Yet Harry Reid decided not to place him on the Education Committee. Reid is said to be saving the seat for Al Franken.

The good news about the bad news about the news

I have often lamented the gulf between the affluent classes and the down-and-out that has developed in this country in the last half century, and the resulting lack of empathy for the less fortunate. I would contrast it to my childhood, where my middle-class parents still identified with their poor relatives on the farm. I could recall that as late as the 1950s, when I was a lawyer for the Charleston Gazette, the newsroom still regarded itself as blue collar, a far cry from today’s newsrooms, dominated by people whose backgrounds rarely involved economic hardship.

Now, as a serendipitous consequence of our current unemployment, the empathy situation may be improving. Barbara Ehrenreich, whose wonderful Nickel and Dimed proved she never lost her capacity to care, said this in a commencement speech to the graduating journalism students at the University of California at Berkeley: "You have abundant skills and talent—it’s just not clear that anyone wants to pay you for them. Well, you are not alone. How do you think it feels to be an autoworker right now? They’ve got skills; they’ve got experience; they just don’t have jobs. So let me be the first to say to you: Welcome to the American working class."

Streeter to greeter

And it’s not just journalists who are waking up. The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article about Carlos Araya, a Wall Streeter who lost his $200,000 job in the meltdown of the finance industry, and is now earning $25,000 as a restaurant host. He tells the Journal’s Mary Pilon: "I used to see unemployed people and think that they were lazy, that it was all on them. Now it’s happened to me."

Deal me out

"Senators Blast Automakers Over Dealer Closings," was the Washington Post’s headline for a story about a June hearing of the Commerce Committee. I found that my heart did not automatically break at the plight of the dealers. Too many of them have made me suffer through hours of pressure in one of those small rooms in which dealers love to imprison the customer—until he agrees to a deal that is much more of a deal for the dealer than for him. In these sessions, numbers are jumbled like shells and peas until the customer surrenders, totally confused but desperate to escape the small room.

Still, there was one dealer whose predicament elicited my sympathy. He had been pressed by Chrysler all through the winter to buy more and more cars, to keep the auto company afloat. Now Chrysler was telling him that he had to sell the eight-month supply of cars he had accumulated not as new, but as used, meaning he almost certainly had to sell them at a loss.

Please let me out!

This item reminded me of one I reported several years ago. "In one remarkable case, a Texas jury found that a Tarrant County salesman trapped a deaf and mute customer for four hours, taking his keys and hiding them. ‘Let me go home,’ the customer pleaded in one note to the salesman, according to court documents. ‘I’m very hungry and if you mail me good deal then maybe I come over here to buy!’"

Maybe if my name were Ahmed Peters …

Last year, one in four Pentagon employees or contractors who were granted top-secret clearances had "significant derogatory information" in his or her background, according to a recent study by the Government Accountability Office. One example: a translator for the U.S. military in Iraq was cleared even though he lied about his name and his biography, and later admitted to taking bribes and removing classified files from his office and having "unauthorized phone and e-mail contact … with Sunni sheiks in the Sunni Triangle." Without knowing more, we can’t of course be sure of how many of the others granted clearance were truly dangerous. I suspect that it was only a few. But even a few is troubling.

My own experience with security clearances does not inspire confidence. When I joined the Peace Corps staff in April 1961, my first assignment was to coordinate and evaluate security investigation reports from the FBI. One problem was that I had not been cleared myself. I never mentioned that fact to my contacts in the FBI, nor did they ever seem aware of it. Nonetheless, each time I got a call from the Bureau, I was apprehensive. I feared that my own background investigation by the FBI’s field agents might reveal that I had had a Communist roommate during my second term at Columbia and that one of my friends was the notorious homosexual Allen Ginsberg, neither of which seemed likely to make a favorable impression on the FBI in 1961. But in the event, neither fact was uncovered by the agents in the field.

In one sense, I find this comforting, since neither fact should’ve cast doubt on my loyalty. But in another sense, I remain troubled by the fact that the investigators failed to unearth facts that would’ve seemed highly significant to them at the time. Today, many of these security investigations are done by people far less skilled than the FBI agents of 1961, so common sense tells you that a lot of relevant facts are missed.

Who’s watching the watch list?

The FBI has mistakenly kept 24,000 innocent people on its terrorist watch list, according to the report of the Department of Justice’s inspector general, Glenn Fine. Even worse, it failed to place on the list people who definitely belong there. This is not only terribly unfair to the people incorrectly named, but it’s frightening in terms of those who should be on the list but are not. Fine’s inspectors scrutinized a sample of 216 FBI investigations of terrorism, and found that thirty-five of the subjects had not been put on the list.

Dangerous cargo

In June, as the luggage from a flight originating in Ethiopia was being unloaded at Dulles Airport, outside of D.C., a stowaway emerged from among the bags. A Customs and Border Protection official assured the Washington Post that "the process worked" because the stowaway had been found before he could do any harm.

Suppose, however, that instead of stowing himself among the plane’s bags, he had planted a bomb designed to explode while the plane was in flight, perhaps even while it was descending on the densely populated Washington area? This should remind us that one of the two main deficiencies of our protection against terrorism in the air—our inability to guard against bombs put aboard in foreign cities—still exists.

So does the other vulnerability, private aircraft, especially private jets that can be flown by terrorists into buildings in a grotesque repetition of 9/11. Several announcements have been made that the government will do something about this problem. But as far as I can determine, nothing seems to have actually been done, probably because the security measures that the rest of us endure at airports are too annoying to be accepted by private pilots, many of whom are rich or influential. They love being able to drive to the door of their plane and board without delay. There is minimal security at the general aviation terminals private pilots use at commercial airports, and those private airstrips they insist on having are practically impossible to make secure. But is there any reason to believe that these pilots are any less likely to be terrorists, or to be subject to blackmail or some other means of control by terrorists, than are you and I? And their unguarded planes are a lure for hijackers.

United we scam

"Let me offer Congress two pieces of advice" about health care, writes Paul Krugman. Both turn out to be the same: "Don’t trust the insurance industry." I agree. Insurance companies are bound to resist any reform that might decrease their profits, and they profit from minimizing the amount they reimburse their policyholders, and by keeping the policyholder from having a choice of less expensive but equally good or better coverage.

I continue to see great danger in the White House’s treating the AARP as a major player in health care reform. The AARP, as I repeatedly go on about, is a front for insurance companies, the main one being United Healthcare. We recently reported how United executives had been forced by a government agency to repay large sums they had improperly paid themselves. Now comes the news that New York’s attorney general has found that United had been a principal player in "a scheme to defraud consumers." Those who watch cable television will recognize the United commercial that plays almost every hour for its Medicare supplement insurance, in which a "regular guy" reassuringly declares, "If it’s good enough for AARP, it’s good enough for me." Or simply, "And it’s endorsed by AARP." As if God has spoken.

Nonprofit in name only

As we pointed out in the March/April issue, most "nonprofit" hospitals do not provide uncompensated care to the poor. Yet they receive the lion’s share of the $12.6 billion of annual tax exemptions given nonprofit hospitals.

Not surprisingly, the American Hospital Association has, according to the New York Times, begun a lobbying campaign to prevent Congress from enacting a proposal before the Senate Finance Committee that would require hospitals to provide "a minimum amount of charitable care" in order to get or keep tax-exempt status.

Doctors on the take

And a final health item: the Vermont legislature has enacted a law that requires drug and medical device makers to, in the words of the New York Times, "publicly disclose all money given to physicians and other health care providers, naming names and listing dollar amounts."

To the best of my knowledge, Vermont is the first state to require disclosure of names. But the dimensions of the scandal are suggested by the figures from a state as small as West Virginia, where amounts but not names are disclosed: last year 574 physicians received payments exceeding $2,500, according to the Charleston Gazette, forty-two got more than $20,000, five more than $100,000. For a general practitioner in West Virginia, none of these sums is chicken feed. And when they reach $20,000, they approach outright bribery. And just imagine the take of physicians in Manhattan.

Can I help you with that golden parachute?

The Washington Post’s Zachary Goldfarb has detailed how George W. Bush’s choice of chairman of the SEC, Christopher Cox, "adopted practices that undermined the enforcement division’s effort to investigate cases of corporate wrongdoing and punish those involved." I would caution, however, that many of the SEC’s problems run deeper than its leadership. Number one among these is a culture remarkably similar to the Pentagon’s, where employees coddle contractors in order to get jobs with the contractor after they retire.

At the SEC, they want their reward to come much more quickly. After a few years at the commission, they expect to get top jobs in the finance industry, which means of course that they have every reason to be indulgent about the foibles of their potential employer. Michael Lewis, whose coverage of the finance industry has been brilliant, recently pointed out on Fareed Zakaria’s CNN show that four out of the last five SEC directors of enforcement had gone straight to Wall Street.

Jobless, foreclosed, but voting

In January, the new administration was telling us that saving the banks was the key to restoring economic health. It appeared to some of us that creating jobs and stopping foreclosures were even more important. Though the administration did not ignore our worries—it soon came up with a stimulus package to create jobs and a program to help homeowners faced with foreclosure—the immediate drama and the main early focus of Timothy Geithner and Larry Summers was on saving their pals on Wall Street. And they now appear to have had at least some success in that effort.

The news on foreclosures, however, is not good. "Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner told a Senate panel Tuesday," reported the Washington Times on Wednesday, June 10, "he won’t know for several months whether a key Obama administration program designed to help homeowners avoid foreclosure will be successful." Numerous news reports confirm that the program has not yet taken hold.

As for jobs, the situation is a little scary. Two weeks before Geithner’s foreclosure statement, the administration announced that thus far the stimulus program had created and saved 150,000 jobs. Unfortunately, the economy has lost about 1.5 million jobs since the stimulus bill was passed. The administration’s prediction that unemployment would peak at 8 percent has already been proved optimistic, as the figure has now passed 9 percent and seems almost certain to reach 10 or more.

In a piece we wrote for Slate in January, and on which I elaborated here in our March/April issue, Tim Noah and I worried that the stimulus plan would not create jobs fast enough to meet the need, and warned that instead of imitating Harold Ickes’s PWA, which took six months to create 100,000 jobs, the administration should follow the example of Harry Hopkins’s Civil Works Administration, which created four million in two months. I now repeat that recommendation, and pray that Obama will not dither long before he acts. High unemployment could easily kill the chances of retaining or enlarging a sympathetic majority in Congress. I believe that despite Obama’s mistakes, he still has the potential to be one of our greatest presidents, and I know that having a sympathetic Congress is essential to achieving that potential.

When dithering breeds dithering

As to the cost of dithering, I know of no better example than Bill Clinton’s hesitating in 1993 to order equality for gays in the military, just as Harry Truman had ordered for blacks in 1948. By leaving it to Congress, which made "don’t ask, don’t tell" the law, he made it at best problematic for Obama to now issue such an order. It would appear that he has to go through Congress, which would mean endless fulminations, not only on the floor of the House and Senate but on the cable channels, stirring up all the extremists. I think in the interest of justice and fair play, Obama has to take a stand on this issue, but I understand why Clinton’s dithering in 1993 makes it extremely difficult.

The agency that dithers

Speaking of dithering, one Washington agency that has excelled in this regard is the FAA. Never quick to act, it usually waits until a plane has crashed before it does anything. Even then, its spinelessness can be maddening. After six fatal commuter airline crashes, including the one outside Buffalo, demonstrated dangerous deficiencies in the commuter airlines, including inadequate rest and compensation for pilots, poor training practices, and pilots continuing to fly after failing several exams, what does the FAA do? It announces that in a few months, according to the Wall Street Journal, it "hopes to draft tougher rules." (Italics mine.)

The reason reform has to be mandatory is that the unsafe practices are a product of competition to keep fares low. Unless all airlines have to obey the rules, those who do so voluntarily risk losing ground in their competition with other airlines.

Empathy for the airlines

Special praise should go to the reporters who dug deep into the story behind the Buffalo air crash: Andy Paszton and Susan Carey of the Wall Street Journal, and Alan Chernoff and Laura Dolan of CNN. Among the facts they dug up: the Gulfstream Air Academy—the one that trained Melvin Renslow, the captain who turned the Colgan Air Continental Connection plane nose up instead of down, as he should have done—gives amateurs 250 hours of on-the-job training, plus 250 hours of flying time, and then installs them as copilots on Continental Connection flights in Florida and the Bahamas. Major airlines require copilots to have 1,500 hours of flying time.

Gulfstream International Airlines, like Colgan, the Buffalo airline, flies as Continental Connection. Congressional investigators say it falsifies flight time records, and forces crews to fly more hours than allowed by federal rules. Even the FAA has complained of its faulty maintenance practices. When a pilot said he wasn’t comfortable flying with a malfunctioning collision avoidance system, the airline fired him on the spot.

Similarly, when an FAA inspector reported before the Buffalo crash that Colgan Air pilots had difficulty operating the aircraft involved, the Bombardier-Q400, and had actually "botched" three landing attempts, according to Matthew Wald of the New York Times, the FAA relieved him of his duties of overseeing Colgan’s operations, and gave him a desk job.

And this is hard to believe, but when the FAA’s head, J. Randolph Babbitt, was asked by Senator Frank Lautenberg whether failing multiple flight tests should disqualify a pilot, the answer, according to the Washington Post, was, "‘people are human,’ and that he had seen situations where pilots had a bad day."

Fox investments in henhouses are up, too

Moody’s stock price is up 44 percent, reports David Gillen of the New York Times. This is frightening. It must represent a Wall Street consensus that Moody’s will escape reform, although it and the other rating agencies failed miserably to warn investors of last year’s financial disaster.

These agencies not only need to be regulated, a system must be devised so they do not rely on compensation from the companies they evaluate. My suggestion is that the corporations who are rated should contribute to a general fund from which raters are paid.

Of bare bottoms and badges

I regret to report that two of my pet peeves remain unchanged. One is those humiliating hospital gowns, which constantly threaten to expose one’s posterior. Despite a grant by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to encourage a new design, the hospitals continue to be wedded to the open-air version. I agree with the Johnson Foundation’s Rosemary Gibson, who calls these gowns "a symbol of what needs to change in health care."

My other pet peeve is the fact that the police never seem to be around when a crime is committed, but once the event has occurred, especially if it seems likely to attract TV cameras, ten to twenty police cars immediately descend on the scene. I actually counted twenty-seven at a recent crime scene in California. Typically, scads of cops stand around, usually with hands on hips, and rarely looking like they are doing anything.

Doing right when it’s hard to do

The city of Baltimore has been a hotbed of witness intimidation. Fear of retaliation keeps witnesses from telling about crimes they have seen. The problem is nationwide, especially in urban areas, of which the worst for many years has been Baltimore, where criminals routinely escape prison by threatening the people who might testify against them.

But here’s good news: in May, a federal grand jury convicted Patrick A. Byers Jr. of arranging the killing of a witness who had been prepared to state that Byers was the gunman in an earlier murder. Byers has been sentenced to life without parole.

This is exactly what he deserves. Witness intimidation prevents justice from being done. It merits the most severe punishment. But it takes real guts to convict a criminal whose pals might not only retaliate against witnesses, but against anyone involved in the conviction. Bless these jurors, the prosecutor, and the judge for having the courage to overcome this fear and do the right thing.


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Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly.  
 
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