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Germs, Viruses, and Secrets: How The Obama Administration is Addressing Biological Threats

December 28th, 2009 admin No comments

When most of us think of “Cold War history”, we think of the Soviet Union and the United States building up massive nuclear arsenals, staring each other down over missiles in Cuba, or former Eastern and Western Europe. We think of the Berlin Wall, Gorbachev, and Reagan.

But what most people don’t remember, or may not even know, is that the United States once had a biological weapons program, and that the former Soviet Union did too. I like to think of this as the “forgotten” legacy of the Cold War arms race. Just because the Cold War is over, doesn’t mean that the weapons programs’ legacy is nothing we need to worry about anymore.

So, let’s look at a little bit of history before we talk about the legacy of these weapons programs, and how they affect the world today.

History: Renouncing Biological Weapons… or not.

In November 1969, President Richard Nixon made the following announcement:

Biological weapons have massive, unpredictable and potentially uncontrollable consequences. They may produce global epidemics and impair the health of future generations. I have therefore decided that:

  • The United States shall renounce the use of lethal biological agents and weapons, and all other methods of biological warfare.
  • The United States will confine its biological research to defensive measures such as immunization and safety measures.
  • The Department of Defense has been asked to make recommendations as to the disposal of existing stocks of bacteriological weapons.

Nixon followed up his announcement with an executive order in 1972, formally terminating the United States’ biological weapons program. The United States, as well as the former Soviet Union both signed the “Biological Weapons Convention“, which formally went into effect in March 1975.

But there was one very big problem with the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), which has not yet been corrected:

The greatest weakness of the Convention has been its lack of mechanisms to verify the compliance of the States Parties. Unlike the NPT [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty] and the CWC [Chemical Weapons Convention], the BWC does not contain verification mechanism. As a result, there is less confidence that all members are in compliance, eroding the overall trust in the effectiveness of the BWC regime.

There are several examples of this “erosion of trust”; the most obvious one is the former Soviet Union’s absolutely massive biological weapons program, which continued beyond the end of the Cold War, into the 1990s. You can read more about it in David E. Hoffman’s recent book, The Dead Hand; he also described it in an interview I did with him several weeks ago.

The Evolving BWC

Since the BWC went into effect, there has been an ongoing effort to strengthen it, as well as to assess how best to address biological security threats through the convention framework. There have been review conferences every five years starting in 1980; you can read about the details of each conference here.

One critical result of these meetings was the establishment of an Ad Hoc Group that, in part, “focused the efforts of States Parties on some difficult issues, in particular the absence of a legally-binding verification mechanism.” In 2001, the chairman of the Ad Hoc Group issued a lengthy document [pdf] that proposed some critical changes:

  • the establishment of an Organization for the Prohibition of Biological Weapons (OPBW), with relevant bodies to monitor the implementation of the Convention and the Protocol
  • mandatory declarations of all relevant facilities and activities, including those in the area of biodefense
  • inspections that would take place at random, in order to make clarifications, and following allegations of noncompliance

However, to make a long story short, in July 2001, the Bush administration completely rejected these ideas, and subsequent talks collapsed that Fall in Geneva.

Then, of course, we all know what else happened in the Fall of 2001. Following the September 11 terrorist attacks, the United States became acutely aware of the concept of biological terrorism, when seven letters laced with anthrax spores were mailed to multiple locations, including the US Senate offices of former Senator Tom Daschle. Ten people died, and millions of dollars were spent on clean-up efforts.

By 2002, “Homeland Security” concerns and US biological defense efforts had become intertwined with their opposition to the protocol proposed by the Ad Hoc Group. The history is obviously complex, and there are no easy answers.

The Obama Administration and the BWC

At this point, it should be obvious why arms control experts have been interested to see how the Obama administration would address the ongoing issues, and they got their answer several weeks ago, when the Obama administration announced its “National Strategy for Countering Biological Threats” [pdf].

In order to better understand the significance and the details of the new national strategy, I had a lengthy chat with Dr. Jonathan Tucker, who is a Senior Fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. He is an expert in biological and chemical weapons, as well as the author of several books, including War of Nerves: Chemical Warfare from World War I to al-Qaeda, and Scourge: The Once and Future Threat of Smallpox.

I asked Dr. Tucker what the difference was between the Bush administration’s approach, and the Obama administration’s new strategy. He said:

Because Bush administration officials didn’t think it was possible to prevent a bioterrorist attack with any degree of likelihood, they focused on mitigating the consequences of an attack by beefing up domestic biodefense capabilities. In contrast, the Obama people view prevention as a major priority and plan to devote a lot of resources to it. That’s an important departure.

A second difference is that the Obama approach involves a much greater emphasis on multilateral engagement.

A third difference is that rather than focusing narrowly on the deliberate use of biological agents as weapons, the Obama strategy covers the full range of biological threats, from natural outbreaks of infectious disease (such as H1N1 influenza and SARS), to accidental releases from high-containment laboratories working with dangerous pathogens, to deliberate use by states or terrorist groups.

The specifics of what’s new and different with the Obama strategy are interesting. Tucker told me that:

One new development is that under the mantle of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), the Obama administration plans to assist poor countries to meet their obligations in the revised International Health Regulations (IHR), which were adopted in 2005 by the World Health Organization (WHO). These rules require all WHO member states to detect and rapidly contain outbreaks of infectious disease on their territories—whether natural or deliberate in origin—that could potentially cross national borders and affect other countries.

The Obama administration’s plan to help developing countries implement their IHR obligations under the auspices of the BWC is a significant departure.
Until recently, the WHO was wary of getting involved with security issues, particularly those involving biological weapons. The organization created a small unit in Geneva responsible for preparedness and response to bioterrorism, from a strictly public health perspective, but didn’t want to be politically tainted by getting involved with the BWC. That attitude now appears to have changed, and it’s a real paradigm shift. Conversely, the BWC process used to focus narrowly on security concerns but is now addressing the full spectrum of biological threats, from natural to accidental to deliberate. The new U.S. strategy document clearly reflects this holistic approach, which is a positive development.

However, there are some critical weaknesses. These, of course, have to do with verification and compliance. Tucker explained:

The main weakness of the Obama strategy is in dealing with BWC compliance concerns. Undersecretary Tauscher’s speech called for building confidence in compliance through greater transparency, but she mentioned only a few token transparency measures that the U.S. is prepared to take, such as inviting an international official to tour the National Interagency Biodefense Campus at Fort Detrick and posting U.S. confidence-building measure declarations on the Internet. Those steps are extremely modest. In fact, much more needs to be done to increase the transparency of the U.S. biodefense program, which has expanded dramatically since 2001 with a cumulative expenditure of roughly $50 billion. In view of growing international suspicions about the U.S. biodefense program, the Obama administration should take more meaningful steps to increase transparency than simply invite one foreign official to tour Fort Detrick.

So efforts toward transparency need to be stronger. Again, the critical weakness has to do with the lack of ability to verify non-compliance. We (or any other nation) can have all the suspicions we want, but there’s no way for us to prove anything. Just to stress his point, Tucker told me more:

A weakness of the Obama administration strategy is that it doesn’t include new measures for addressing the fundamental weakness at the heart of the BWC—the inability to detect and deter non-compliance. Although the U.S. has made public allegations that several BWC members (including China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia) are violating the treaty, at present there are no effective mechanisms for clarifying such allegations and compelling states to comply.

I can’t begin to emphasize how important it is that the BWC is, in some ways, a far more complex issue than discussing nuclear treaties and compliance. Those are relatively clear-cut; since the BWC does not address verification and compliance, it’s not so easy to draw lines in the sand. In particular, Dr. Tucker and I discussed the dual-use nature of biotechnology. He gave a startling example, from personal experience:

Biotechnology is dual-use. Nearly every item of equipment one needs to produce biological weapons has some legitimate, non-weapons-related application. Although a few specialized procedures for weaponizing biological agents are not dual-use, all of the items of production equipment — fermenters, concentrators, spray-driers, and so forth – have legitimate uses in research and industry.

In 1995, as a member of a UN bioweapons inspection team in Iraq, I visited an industrial microbiology plant outside Baghdad called Al Hakam, which was ostensibly producing single-cell protein in yeast as an animal-feed supplement. Just by looking at the facility, there was no way of knowing that it was a bioweapons plant: the fermentation tanks were exactly what you would expect for the declared use. But UN inspectors later determined on the basis of other evidence that before the 1991 Gulf War, the Iraqis had produced large quantities of anthrax spores at Al Hakam for military use. As a result, the plant was razed to the ground in the summer of 1996.

To manufacture a military significant stockpile of chemical weapons, in the hundreds of metric tons, you would need one or more large chemical plants. Producing highly toxic and corrosive chemicals also requires certain types of equipment that are not commonly used in the commercial chemical industry, such as corrosion-resistant reactors and pipes made of a high-nickel steel alloy called Hastelloy, special air-handling systems, and so forth. In contrast, all of the production equipment in a bioweapons plant would be dual-use, although you might want to install specialized air-handling equipment to reduce the risk of accidental releases of deadly infectious agents into the surrounding environment.

Even here, however, Iraq cut corners on safety in order to avoid detection. For example, the Al Hakam factory had no air filters or specialized ventilation systems designed to create negative pressure and prevent dangerous pathogens from escaping. Because the Iraqi regime wanted to minimize the signatures of illicit bioweapons production, they were willing to sacrifice some of their workers and put nearby communities at risk in order to conceal the true nature of the facility. Thus, if countries seeking biological weapons are sufficiently ruthless in the way they go about it, it’s very difficult for outsiders to determine what is going on.

Finally, we discussed a parallel — and very related — concern. Our own biodefense program has the potential to cross some lines. I’ve written about this before, which is why I was curious about Dr. Tucker’s point of view. He said:

The dramatic expansion of the U.S. biodefense research complex over the past decade has raised a number of concerns. The 2001 anthrax letter attacks greatly heightened the nation’s preoccupation with biological threats and caused the Bush administration to make a huge investment in biodefense research, with an emphasis on biological threat assessment and the development of medical countermeasures. This effort soon acquired a life of its own, and states and localities began competing to get one of the expensive new biodefense labs. Yet there was no net assessment of how much high- and maximum-containment research space the nation really needs to deal with the spectrum of biological threats.

In recent years, biodefense has been one of the few areas of science to enjoy a sustained increase in U.S. government funding. As a result, the field has drawn a lot of microbiologists and other scientists away from research on infectious diseases of public health concern, such as AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria, to work on those that are chiefly of biodefense concern, such as anthrax, plague, and brucellosis—infections that don’t kill many people naturally. Thus, one consequence of the biodefense boom has been a distortion of research priorities.

Another concern is that because of the thousands of scientists that have been drawn into biodefense research by the availability of generous funding, there’s a risk that a few of them may be “bad apples.” Indeed, after a seven-year investigation of the 2001 anthrax letter attacks, the FBI now believes that the perpetrator was an insider – a government microbiologist working at Fort Detrick, the Army’s premier biodefense lab. So it turns out that “the enemy is us.”

It’s a great irony is that the anthrax letter attacks apparently came from within the U.S. government biodefense complex, because in response to that incident the Bush administration tripled the size of the complex. Today, some 14,000 people are authorized to work with pathogens and toxins of bioterrorism concern, known as “select agents.” By greatly increasing the number of people who know how to work with dangerous pathogens in order to develop defenses against them, we’ve increased the statistical risk that some of these individuals—for personal or ideological reasons—may decide to use their specialized know-how for harmful purposes. Thus, the biodefense boom has arguably increased the risk of an attack.

Beyond that, the sheer size and scope of the U.S. biodefense program has aroused suspicion on the part of other countries. There’s now a National Interagency Biodefense Campus at Fort Detrick that includes three maximum-containment labs: the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), the Integrated Research Facility run by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and the National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center (NBACC) under the Department of Homeland Security. Because NBACC does classified research, even some people I know at USAMRIID have no idea what goes on there. If U.S. Army scientists have questions about the secrecy surrounding NBACC, then the Russians and the Chinese must assume that the lab is involved in offensive research. I personally believe that those suspicions are unfounded, but they could still cause other countries to start hedging their bets, and soon we could find ourselves in the middle of a biological arms race.

The point is that in our efforts to defend against an attack, we may have increased the probability of one, plus the lack of transparency with biodefense research doesn’t exactly increase the “trust” factor with other countries.

Biological weapons, biological terrorism, and biological defense are all tied together as part of the incredibly complex national security picture that has been etched by the events of the past decade. It’s good to know that the Obama administration has a broader, more multilateral, inclusive approach to addressing biological threats, but the biggest problem remains, and I’ll paraphrase Ronald Reagan’s favorite quote:

Without verification, there cannot be trust.

There’s a lot of work to do in the future.


Blast from the Past. Gene Hasenfus: December 1986

December 28th, 2009 admin No comments

Twenty-three years ago, a complete unknown sprang into the international lime-light. His name was Eugene Hasenfus. Shot down Oct. 5, 1986, while kicking crated cargo to anti-government terrorists from a CIA plane over the back-country of Nicaragua, his capture by Sandinista militiamen led to the exposure of what would become known as the Iran-contra affair. Three other crewmen died in the crash, but Hasenfus, against orders, had borrowed his skydiver brother’s parachute and, luckily for him – his name in German means “rabbit’s foot” – it opened. He landed in a jungle where he would manage to evade a Sandinista militia patrol for less than 24 hours. Upon his arrival at the Managua airport, a Sandinista soldier smiled and asked the sunburned, grime-caked Hasenfus, “What now, Rambo?” With this auspicious event began what should have been the complete unraveling of the Reagan administration.  

José Fernando Canales, who shot down Hasenfus’s plane with a surface-to-air missile, leads his hapless captive through the jungle.

When it came to Central America, that administration, with its ex-CIA Vice President and neo-conservative hatchlings making their early moves to dominate U.S. foreign policy, no deceit was spared the American people. Whether it was Guatemala, El Salvador or Nicaragua, we had your bold-faced lies, crafty lies, lies of the I-don’t-recall variety, revised memorandum lies, exaggerations, omissions, official misstatements, prevarications, phony redefinitions and historical revisions. Not to mention perjury.

From false cover stories about interdicting Sandinista arms shipments to Salvadoran rebels to denials about publishing how-to terrorist manuals, the Reagan-Bush administration observed no boundaries on fictional concoction. When, for example, the original leaders of the contras, the terrorist opposition to the Sandinistas, turned out to be too rough-edged for public consumption, a new set was selected and spit-shined into “freedom fighters.” They were helped in this by CIA-hired journalists in Honduras whose stories found their way back to the U.S. media, a place the CIA had been barred from putting journalists on the payroll since 1977. Various real journalists had for years been hearing hints of contra resupply missions, but they had repeatedly run into dead-ends and had been unable to find any major publications to publish their anonymously sourced, skimpily detailed stories. When queried about whether it was circumventing a congressional prohibition on aiding the contras, the White House denied, denied, denied.

Ultimately, sparked by Hasenfus’s capture and an anonymously sourced article in the Lebanese magazine Ash-Shiraa, it was incontrovertibly shown that the  government’s Central American policy had tendrils snaking all the way to Tehran, with huge profits from arms sales having accrued to ex-military and ex-CIA operatives. Several of the big dogs who engaged in this behavior necessitating those uncountable lies were pardoned by George H.W. Bush, who himself was a key player in the whole affair, but protected by “plausible denial.” One of those pardoned, neoconservative Elliott Abrams – who had been fined $50 and put on probation for his part in Iran-contra – was appointed Deputy National Security Advisor for Global Democracy Strategy by George W. Bush in 2001.

You’d expect that officials with the moral calluses necessary for such lying would also have strong stomachs. On the contrary. Faced by encounters with the truth, administration always took a powder. Whether it was the World Court judging the legality of the CIA’s mining of Nicaragua’s harbors, or President Daniel Ortega criticizing Reagan at the United Nations, the administration ducked out the door. Every time one of the revolving-door ambassadors to Central America suggested diplomacy to resolve U.S.-Nicaraguan differences, the issue was avoided by replacing him. When journalists not on the CIA payroll, such as Ray Bonner, discovered massacres by death squads whose leaders had been trained in the United States, angry phone calls were made to their editors or publishers urging that they be removed from their assignments.

Hasenfus Joins Contra Resupply Effort

Having learned as a Marine how to kick guns and equipment out of CIA-owned Air America planes in Southeast Asia from 1960-65, the out-of-work Hasenfus signed up in June 1986 for the same duty over Nicaragua. His boss far up the secret chain of command was Lt. Col. Oliver North, who had also seen service in Vietnam as part of the infamous assassination program, Operation Phoenix. The colonel had a boss, too. After all, he worked for the National Security Council out of the White House basement. They called the contra resupply operation “Project Democracy.” Its planes were flown under the phantom front of Corporate Air Services, itself owned by the CIA’s Southern Air Transport based in Miami.

Every flight into Nicaraguan airspace added a $750 bonus to Hasenfus’s $3000 monthly salary. He had already made 10 trips. On the 11th, however, when a teenage anti-aircraft crew fired their Soviet-made surface-to-air missile and turned the plane into scrap, they killed pilot William Cooper, co-pilot Wallace Blaine Sawyer – both U.S. citizens –  and radio operator Freddy Vilches, a Nicaraguan. Hasenfus hit the silk and escaped with his life.

Within a day of his capture, every executive branch niche-clinger in Washington had disavowed any link to the downed mercenary and his plane’s cargo of 60 collapsible AK-47s rifles, 50,000 AK-47 rifle cartridges, several dozen RPG-7 grenade launchers and 150 pairs of jungle boots. Secretary of State George Shultz said the aircraft “was, for all we know, a plane hired by private people, apparently some of them American. … They had no connection with the U.S. government at all.” Yep. A maverick operation. Ring up retired Major General John Singlaub, some officials told reporters, fingering the right’s leading privateer. Singlaub denied it was his plane. And soon the scheme was being reported for what it was, a CIA and NSC operation from top to bottom, flown out of Honduras and El Salvador. As would also soon become known, the operation was financed by selling weapons to Iran as part of an arms-for-hostages deal with the ayatollah’s regime.

Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Elliott Abrams was the only member of the administration who stood up for Hasenfus, without conceding that he worked for the government. He gamely praised him as an American hero. In the months ahead, it was a label Ronald Reagan would pin on Lt. Col. North.

But just as there had been no Fawn Hall on board to shred the C-123’s incriminating documents before they fell into Sandinista hands, there would be no Hasenfus doll. No Eugeneburger. No lucrative book contracts. No movie producers nosing around. No calls to run for high office. In short, none of the trappings of late 20th Century herodom.

Gene Hasenfus at his trial in November 1986.

Instead, the Sandinistas, following the example of their Yankee tormentors, coaxed every pint of public relations juice they could from their prisoner, finding him guilty of terrorism, violation of Nicaragua’s public security laws and conspiracy. The Reagan administration ridiculed the proceedings before the People’s Anti-Somocista Tribunal as a judicial parody. At the time, the court had tried 243 people without a single acquittal. But no court anywhere could have found Hasenfus innocent. At the end of the trial attended by Hasenfus’s wife and brother came the first hints that he would be shown mercy. One of the nine comandantes of the Sandinista leadership, Daniel Ortega’s brother Humberto, called Hasenfus a “father” and “common citizen” who himself was a victim of the “irrational and unjust policy of the U.S. administration.”

Pleas for a pardon (aided by a swap for Sandinista soldiers held by the contras) were made by former U.S. Attorney General Griffin Bell and Senator Chris Dodd. On a visit to Nicaragua, Dodd told President Ortega that Hasenfus would be helpful in the congressional investigation of illegal arms sales to Iran funding illegal arms deliveries to the contras. “I think he’s got something to say. He expressed a willingness to talk to members of the staff and the members of those committees,” Dodd said. “I think it would be worthwhile to get him home.” So after he had served just 32 days of his 30-year sentence, the Sandinistas packed up their propaganda windfall and sent Hasenfus back to Marinette, Wisconsin, in time to enjoy Christmas with his family, a lucky fellow indeed.

Hasenfus Falls on Hard Times

But expenses from the trial put his house at risk to the bank. On the phone in the months after his return, you could hear the stress in his family’s voices. He’s didn’t feel so lucky those days. So he sued his ex-employers – retired Major General Richard Secord and Secord’s partner, Albert Hakim, as well as three companies, including Corporate Air Services. He sued the government and lost.

So what happened? Why didn’t someone in the network of millionaire contra donors bail Hasenfus out? Could it have been because he told the truth?

He had worked with two CIA agents, Hasenfus said, one of whom he knew as “Max Gomez,” but who was actually Felix Rodriguez, a CIA operative who had been involved in the 1961 fiasco known as the “Bay of Pigs,” wore Ché Guevara’s watch taken from the guerrilla leader’s body in Bolivia in 1967, and in 1986 had become the liaison between the contras and North. The other went by the nom de guerre of “Ramon Medina.” His real name was Luis Posada Carriles, who, with Orlando Bosch, had planned the 1976 bombing of a Cubana plane carrying a fencing team to Venezuela. Seventy-three passengers and crew died. Hasenfus also told his captors that he knew more than 30 other people working for the resupply mission based at the Salvadoran Air Force Base in Ilopango.

In the view of the contra resupply network, it was bad enough that Hasenfus admitted to the world that he was working for the CIA, just as he had done in Vietnam earlier. But then he admitted that he was only doing it to pay his bills, not for patriotic reasons. Most unheroic.

If he had wanted sympathy from the promoters of the contra war he should have lied, just as they had done. Or, as his handlers who told him not to wear a parachute had apparently intended, he should have gone down with the plane. For telling the truth about his mission and his paltry pay, they turned their backs on him. Lt. Col. North, on the other hand, lied under oath, criminally obstructed a congressional committee, destroyed public records to foster a cover-up, and accepted money under the table. He wrapped himself tightly in the flag and emerged a heroic icon who continues nearly a quarter-century later to rake in the dough.

Despite the adverse effects of the Iran-contra affair whose exposure Hasenfus helped catalyze, deceit remained alive and well on U.S. Central America policy. In October 1987, former U.N. ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, one of the original neoconservatives, gave a speech in Managua condemning the Sandinistas and reiterating what a high value she and the Reagan administration placed on democracy. She embraced opposition leaders, some of whom were still engaged at the time in blowing up schools and health clinics.

Six years previously, she was in Argentina praising and toasting the generals of that country’s oh-so-democratic military junta. They were at the time running their “dirty war” against dissidents, dropping them from helicopters into the Atlantic and adopting out their orphaned children to families friendly to the regime. She made no call for democracy. Hugged no opposition leaders. Shortly afterward, the CIA began paying some Argentine “specialists” to train the contras in more efficient killing. And soon. Lt. Col. North and the basement junta were dipping into the treasuries of sheikhs, sultans, ayatollahs and assorted other lovers of democracy to underwrite the contra campaign of sabotage and assassination in the name of undefined Nicaraguan freedom.

That murderous, unscrupulous effort didn’t quite live up to the administration’s wild fantasy of driving the Sandinistas back into the hills. But it nonetheless turned beautiful, impoverished Nicaragua into a garrison state where bullets were easier to come by than beans and the ideals of a flawed but hopeful revolution were shredded in mutual atrocities, vendettas and recrimination. Today, still suffering the after-effects of the U.S.-sponsored contra war as well as government and private corruption, Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the hemisphere, and Daniel Ortega, the fiery comandante who, with his fellow revolutionaries stormed out of the hills in 1979 to topple Anastasio Somoza Debayle’s dictatorship, is again the freely elected president, just as he was when Hasenfus came floating down in his parachute. These days, Ortega is far less fiery, except when he is pushing draconian anti-abortion laws.

And Hasenfus himself? On Friday, I called the number listed for him to see if he would reminisce for a few moments. A man answered.
“Hello.”
“Is this Eugene Hasenfus?”
“Yeah.”
“My name is Timothy Lange, and I’m an editor at …”
Click. Buzz.

Hasenfus’s lawsuits failed and then he faded into his old life in small-town Wisconsin. On July 10, 2000, he was accused of indecent exposure in Brookfield, Wisconsin. On June 1, 2002, he killed a bear without a license and fined $260. He was accused of lascivious behavior a second time in January 2003, after exposing himself in the parking lot at Woodman’s grocery store in Howard, Wisconsin, and received probation. He was accused a third time on May 25, 2005, after exposing himself in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Marinette County, Wisconsin. This violated his probation, and he was forced to serve jail time in Green Bay, Wisconsin, until December 17, 2005, the 19th anniversary of his release from a Sandinista prison.

= = =
Source material was taken from my personal accounts in 1986-87, my hard-copy clip files, the Wisconsin Circuit Court Web site and here, here, here, here and here.
Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters, widely known as the Walsh Report, named for independent Counsel, Lawrence E. Walsh.


Categories: Politics Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Midday open thread

December 28th, 2009 admin No comments
  • Via Think Progress, we learn that Mary “Time Warp” Matalin thinks 9/11 happened during Bill Clinton’s second term:

    MATALIN: I was there, we inherited a recession from President Clinton and we inherited the most tragic attack on our own soil in our nation’s history. And President Bush dealt with it and within a year of his presidency within a comparable time, unemployment was at 5 percent.

  • Obama orders a review of watch lists and other airport screening procedures in the aftermath of the failed attempt to bring down a Detroit-bound Northwest plane yesterday. Here’s a report on the possible Yemen connection. The BBC has a backgrounder on the Nigerian student under arrest for the failed bombing.
  • In Day Two of  ”Republicans Politicizing Failed Explosion,” Jim DeMint bashes unions and throws around accusations of “appeasement.” Upping the ante, Pete Hoekstra directly blames Obama, with extra points given to Fox News for leading questions:

    Asked by Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace if it is fair to blame the Obama administration for the attacks, the Michigan Republican replied “”Yeah, I think it really is.”

  • Joe Lieberman’s got the war itch and it looks like Yemen’s shaping up to be the scratch.
  • You had to see this one coming — the attempted terrorist attack on Christmas Day “could complicate” shutting down the prison at Guantanamo Bay.
  • Deaths begin to mount in Iranian protests, and the New York Times is providing near-hourly updates on AP wire reports. In the past hour, the White House released the following statement on the protests:

    Statement by National Security Council Spokesman Mike Hammer on violence in Iran

    We strongly condemn the violent and unjust suppression of civilians in Iran seeking to exercise their universal rights.  Hope and history are on the side of those who peacefully seek their universal rights, and so is the United States.  Governing through fear and violence is never just, and as President Obama said in Oslo – it is telling when governments fear the aspirations of their own people more than the power of any other nation.

  • Sherlock Holmes film breaks box office record for Christmas Day debut, while Avatar is No. 1 in the “highest grossing film weekend ever,” according to Business Week.
  • Watchdog groups give the Obama administration high marks for ethics during the first year in office.
  • The end of an era:

    Percy Sutton, the pioneering civil rights attorney who represented Malcolm X before launching successful careers as a political power broker and media mogul, has died. He was 89.

  • Robert Gibbs tells Jake Tapper that President Obama prefers the Senate bill’s language regarding abortion funding.
  • As we enter the final stretch of passing a health care reform bill, the fight continues over $50 million for abstinence only education — even though studies (and common sense) have shown that it doesn’t work.
  • Ezra Klein talks to Tom Harkin about ending the filibuster.
  • Tomorrow at 9 a.m., C-SPAN will begin broadcasting classes from the Campaign Management Institute at American University. Helping lead the discussions will be Assistant Director of the CMI Chris McGann, known to you as fellow Kossack and Congress Matters Contributing Editor Casual Wednesday. Tune in between 9 and 9:30 to catch him helping to kick things off, and check the C-SPAN schedules to see when you might catch some of the other interesting speakers they’ve lined up for classes between tomorrow and the program’s conclusion on Jan. 7.
  • The top 10 political tweets of the year?

Update: And apparently there’s another Northwest Airline Amsterdam/Detroit incident, this one currently being reported as problems with a “disruptive passenger,” according to CNN:

A Northwest Airlines jet was met by police at Detroit, Michigan’s airport Sunday after its flight crew reported a “verbally disruptive” passenger, airline and airport officials said.

The crew of the Amsterdam, Netherlands-to-Detroit flight requested assistance two days after a man was accused of attempting to set off an explosive device aboard a jet flying the same route. Passengers were being let off the jetliner after landing, according to Susan Elliott, a spokeswoman for Delta Air Lines, which owns Northwest.


Exits, 2009

December 28th, 2009 admin No comments

There’s a sad tradition of looking back at the end of the year to see the toll that time has taken of our friends and heroes.  We may never had met some of those we most admired, may never have stood in the same place with them.  But we shared time with them.  Shared an era.  Some of them not only shared our time, but helped to shape it, and 2009 is the last year we hold in common.

So here, as last year, is an eclectic gathering of just a few of those we lost during the last twelve months.  I invite you to add other names and stories to the list.

When you think of baseball, Billy Werber may not be the first name that comes to your mind. For three seasons in the 1930s, he lead the league in stolen bases, but with a .271 career batting average and only 78 home runs spaced across 11 seasons, he wasn’t exactly an offensive powerhouse.  But if Werber wasn’t that famous, he shared both time and space with someone who was. Werber was the last living teammate of Babe Ruth.  He was also Ruth’s last living opponent.

Who was so cool that he not only turned down the chance to be The Saint, but passed on the chance to say “Bond, James Bond”? It was Secret Agent man, Patrick McGoohan. McGoohan was born in Queens, New York City, but he cemented his position as an international icon when, during the 4th season of Secret Agent (Danger Man in the UK) McGoohan created a new series which he produced, wrote, directed and starred in. More than forty years later, fans are still puzzling out all the messages of The Prisoner (and trying to avoid the remake).

You may still have leftover holiday ham today, but sooner or later you’ll grab another hot dog, and when you do, thank Alan Geisler for the red onion sauce he invented.

Rabbit came to rest in 1990, but it took nearly two decades more before Rabbit’s creator put down his pen. Multiple Pulitzer winner, John Updike, wrote about characters in crisis — ordinary Americans caught in hard spots. He did it with prose that celebrated directness and plots that were as whimsical as Estwick, as ordinary as those surrounding Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, and as familiar as our own lives.


Andrew Wyeth

Mr. Rogers kept an Andrew Wyeth painting next to the door of his home, visible in every episode of his show. What higher endorsement can there be?

In these days of CSI and Bones, it’s easy to forget where the character of the forensic scientist appeared on American TV. But there would have been far fewer chances to say “Book’em, Danno” if Che Fong, played by actor Harry Endo had not been there with all the answers.

Figure eight is double four. Figure four is half of eight. If you skate, you would be great. If you could make a figure eight. And if you sing, you would be great if you could achieve the crystal purity of singer Blossom Dearie. Dearie was a well-known jazz artist since the 1940s, but for a generation of Americans, she’ll be remembered as the voice of “Mother Necessity” and well as the spokeswoman for “Figure Eight.”

9/11 widow and victim’s advocate Beverly Eckert died in a plane crash only days after meeting with President Obama. And if you’re wondering, that’s not ironic.

And then there were five, after munchkin Clarence Swensen was gone.

It wasn’t just Hollywood script writers who ended up on the black list during the McCarthy era. William Price was one of 35 journalists called before the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee in 1955. He refused to invoke the fifth amendment to protect himself. Instead he declared that he was protected by the first amendment. He was fired the next day.

You may be wondering why the “economic indicators” and the conditions you see around you rarely seem in alignment. But you won’t be able to ask Raymond Saulnier who devised the indicators while at the National Bureau of Economic Research during the Eisenhower administration.

Robley Rex was my distant relative (you’ll have to excuse me for not being able to follow the combination of X-removed and Nth-degree of cousinhood).  On his death, Frank Buckles became the last surviving World War I veteran from the United States.

If your Chatty Cathy is ailing, you may need to count on home remedies. Irving Chais, owner of the New York Doll Hospital, is no longer available.

His stories ranged from the painfully realistic recollections of his childhood internment in a Japanese prison camp, to jungles made of glass and future worlds were songs compose themselves. Whatever the venue J. G. Ballard fixed his subjects with searing insight and unflinching clarity.

If you wandered away from the Big Two during the 2004 election season, you might have been enticed to vote for the Personal Choice Party, especially if you had fond teenage memories of the vice-presidential candidate and, um, multi-talented former “Ivory soap girl” Marilyn Chambers.

Everyone remembers Gygax, but if you’ve ever rolled a 20-sided die, you owe equal thanks to Dave Arneson who was the co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons and the originator of many of the basics behind every RPG that followed.

In 1993, George Tiller was shot in both arms. He did not let this stop him from returning to work and helping women caught in the most difficult of circumstances. He continued in his work despite daily harassment. He continued in his work despite being labeled a “baby killer” no less than 28 times by Bill O’Reilly. He continued despite lies told about him by O’Reilly and others. He continued until an anti-abortion activist entered the church where he was attending worship, and shot George Tiller through the eye at close range.

It’s easy to think of a nun as someone who has stepped away from society, but Carol Anne O’Marie not only ran a shelter for homeless women, she was the author of 10 mystery novels — novels that featured an elderly nun who solves crimes.

If you visit the site of one of America’s great shames, the Manzanar Internment Camp, you can see the desk and typewriter of Togo Tanaka on display. It was at this desk that Tanaka reported on the often ugly conditions inside the camp from the perspective of the people being held there. His work to document what went on at Manzanar made him a target for both the government and his fellow internees.

When Robert Furchgott worked out the factors in endothelial cells that causes blood vessels to relax, he received a Nobel Prize. He didn’t receive any payment from the most famous product of his work — Viagra.

Not only did Wayne Allwine provide the voice of Mickey Mouse for more than 30 years, he was married to the woman who provides the voice for Minnie Mouse.

At 6′7″ former football player Rodger McFarlane didn’t fit the stereotype of a gay man. Starting as a volunteer, he became the first director of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and helped organize many programs in the fight against AIDS.

At a time when America appears to show disdain for international law, it’s worth remembering “the George Washington of modern international law” Henry King. A U.S. Prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials, King continued to work on a legal approach to war crimes for decades. It was at his insistence that the International Criminal Court added starting a war as a war crime.

If you were an African-American reader of romance novels before 1980, the number of books available where the couples were African-American was more than limited, it was nonexistent. Elsie Washington changed that with her novel Entwined Destines.

Martha Mason was only 11 years old when polio forced her into an iron lung. She would remain in the device for the next 60 years. Despite this, she graduated first in her class at Wake Forest, worked as a reporter for her local newspaper, and in 2003 wrote a book about her life.

Whether it was giving voice to numerous characters in animated films, or providing animated comic relief for partners ranging from Burt Reynolds to Dean Martin, Dom Deluise was sure to bring a smile.

The supply-side economics that Jack Kemp championed helped set up decades in which the wages of average Americans stagnated and those at the top benefited. But Kemp’s example in looking at the issues of racism and immigration provide lessons that many Republicans, and some Democrats, should take to heart.

“The Straight Shooter” Joe Bowman performed his amazing feats of marksmanship for rodeo fans, gun show goers, police SWAT teams, FBI agents, NASA astronauts, film stars, and foreign dignitaries.

You’re going to have to come up with a better pitch, because Billy Mays is unavailable to move your product.

By last spring, the face (among other things) that launched a million wall posters was indelibly marked by the long, hard and public struggle with cancer, but Farah Fawcett continued the fight to the end. When Farrah and her fellow Angels appeared on television in 1976, it was easy to dismiss the characters as high-kicking models who often found themselves in scenarios that involved limited clothing. But they were also tough, clever, and constantly outsmarting the men who underestimated them. Farrah went on to show that she had real acting chops to go with the no-so-real karate chops.

If there was any departure in 2009 that both shocked and generated discussion, it was that of the “King of Pop” Michael Jackson. Jackson was… immensely talented.

America’s best-known sidekick had some tough times in his final years, but for many of us Ed McMahon will always be the jovial presence at the edge of the scene, helping to make both host and guests comfortable with a few well-timed words and a booming laugh.

100% of respondents note that Alec Gallup, chairman of the Gallup Poll and son of the founder, handed off his duties this year.

When cruise ships ferry “explorers” to Antarctica with regularity, it’s easy to forget that once Edith Ronne was the only American woman who had ever been there.

There was a period of little to no sunspot activity lasting from around 1645 to 1715. The relationship between low solar activity and the climate is still open to question, but it’s a sure thing that Jack Eddy put the data together and named the Maunder Minimum.

If that Farah poster generated nostalgia, then David Carradine, despite roles in over 100 films, is probably forever wandering the west as Kwai Chang Caine. If not, just let Black Mamba know that no one needs to kill Bill.

David Eddings had a theory about how to create a fantasy novels, an approach that some thought made his work formulaic. To investigate you might want to read just a couple of his novels. Or maybe a couple more.  And a couple more after that, and…

The way the civil rights movement would bring the GOP to power in the South might have been surprising to some politicians, but not to G. Alexander Heard an adviser to both JFK and LBJ, who predicted the change in 1952.

Sure, winning that hundred-yard dash at the Olympics may be tough, but it’s equally tough to set world records the way Waldo McBurney did it — by outliving all competition in his age group. The multiple world record holder in the 100+ category was 106 when he died this year.

Here’s a confession: as a teenager, I wasn’t watching those Marilyn Chambers films, I was reading books by John Keel. Whether it was the inter dimensional beings of Strange Creatures From Time and Space or the unmatched weirdness of The Mothman Prophecies no one sold a UFO conspiracy like Keel.

If you see a wiener-mobile roll past draped in black, it’s because Oscar Mayer, jr. has gone.

No matter how momentous the events, their effect is limited without someone to tell the story. William Emerson was a southerner who understood the southern mindset, and was able to out-talk, out-joke, and out-bluster everyone in range while reporting the often painful and occasionally joyous truth of what was happening in America.

An important chapter in our history has come to an end. Our country has lost a great leader, who picked up the torch of his fallen brothers and became the greatest United States Senator of our time.


If you love the gentle piano work in the background of Brige over Troubled Water that’s the work of Larry Knechtel, who also performed on tracks for Elvis, the Beach Boys, and Bread.

Both science fiction readers and science fiction writers have long been grateful to Donald Grant, who took a chance on books that didn’t always seem commercial and produced volumes of exceptional quality.

Sometimes August is the cruelest month. Not only Ted but Eunice Kennedy Shriver left us in August. Founder of what would become the Special Olympics and one of the founders of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, she was every bit a Kennedy.

Need an expert on the dulcimer? What about the autoharp, banjo, fiddle, mandolin, and guitar? Mike Seeger played them all, and did so beautifully — but never so well as when he joined his family in the New Lost City Ramblers.

The popular princess, the jock, the rebel from a troubled background, the nerd, and the girl sunk into despair. Why are they all hanging around the school together? Because John Hughes wrote them that way on his way to defining the teenage years of a generation.

Budd Schulberg might not have written about teen angst, but with a few little films like On the Waterfront and A Face in the Crowd to his credit, I suppose he can be forgiven.

For proof that you can think that someone is wrong on almost every point, and still find them witty and entertaining, you don’t have to look any further than William Safire. Or should that be “farther”? Without Bill, we may never be sure. Why don’t more conservatives harness the kind of arguments that Safire used to promote his positions? Because none of them has half the intelligence or one tenth the oratorical firepower.

For decades, the source of the best Hollywood inside info wasn’t a web site or even the tabloids. It was Armand “Army” Archerd.

Don’t remember Milton Supman? How about comedian, host, and perennial game-show guest Soupy Sales?  

If the theme songs for the Addam’s Family and Green Acres are still stuck in your head after four decades, you can thank composer Vic Mizzy for these and many more.

This was a bad year for Navajo Code Talkers with at least five of their few remaining members being lost over the course of the summer.

Lester Shubin served in the Army during World War II, which might have been his inspiration in creating the Kevlar vest.

Her list of friends reads like a who’s-who of civil rights, so it’s no surprise that 107-year old Ann Nixon Cooper was featured in President Obama’s speech on election night 2008.

I liked Brittany Murphy darn it. The girl did sassy really well.

If there’s a middle school student (or science teacher) in your home then you’re probably familiar with (and fond of) the characters from Beakman’s World. There’s no actor in a rat suit I’ll miss more than Mark Ritts who played “Lester” on the show — probably not what a guy with an lit degree from Harvard expected to do with his life.

If you passed Andy Hallet in the street, you might not recognize him. In his best-known role, Hallet played the green singing-dancing demon “Lorne” on Angel.

The Clamshell Alliance is one of those names that rings few bells today, but when Guy Chichester help found the group in opposition to the Seabrook Station Nuclear Power Plant, it helped to kick off a new generation of environmental activism.

As always, this is a hugely incomplete list filled more with names that caught my eye than with those who were most important to the world — or to you. I encourage you to add more.


Crossing the Aisle

December 28th, 2009 admin No comments

Arguably the biggest political story of holiday week, outside of the Senate passage of health care reform, was the decision by freshman Democratic Congressman Parker Griffith to jump to the Republican Party.

There are several reasons why a candidate would cross the aisle, as has been evidenced by the recent history of party switches, both in the Congress and at the state level.

The problem for Griffith is that there are several characteristics of his decision to jump sides that don’t fit well with past precedents, and there are unique dynamics to this particular election cycle that might make his decision an ultimately unsuccessful one.

Let’s go through some of the reasons for party switches, weigh them against the facts of the Griffith defection, and see how this nouveau Republican stacks up.

1. IF YOU CAN’T BEAT ‘EM, JOIN ‘EM

This particular maxim of party switches has two very distinct components.

The first component is the simple act of moving from the minority party to the majority party. Over the years, a number of Congressmen have made party switches in order to join the newly ascendant majority party. Many of the “Class of 1994″ party switches were predicated on this motivation.

Griffith, of course, is swimming against the tide here. His move is from the majority party to the minority party. Of the sixteen Congressional party switches of the last two decades, only four of them (25%) have gone from the party in power into the minority.

Griffith is the fourth member of Congress to do so–and it is worth noting that the previous three were all out of the Congress within one term of their party switch. Interestingly, all three lost in different ways: Tommy Robinson of Arkansas lost when he tried to move up to Governor, Bill Grant of Florida lost in his first re-election bid in his new party, and Michael Forbes of New York failed to survive his first primary election as a Democrat.

There is a second way “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” fits as a maxim: if your congressional district is no longer hospitable to your party identification, then necessity might dictate that you follow the flow. It is telling, of course, that of the sixteen party switches in the last two decades, full three-quarters of them were Southern Democrats who elected to continue their political careers as Republicans.

Here, in a normal political environment, the Griffith defection might make sense. After all, his district, the Alabama 5th, is ancestrally Democratic, but steadily growing Republican at the federal level. John McCain easily carried the district in 2008 (61-36), and it has literally been decades since a Democrat carried the 5th. Therefore, it is plausible that Griffith saw that he barely beat Wayne Parker in 2008 (which, although not necessarily in Alabama, was a year with a big Democratic tailwind nationwide), and that he could not see a political future as a Democrat in such hostile territory.

If that is the case, Griffith should have realized that this is not a normal political environment. Within hours of his announcement, the two Republicans already exploring 2010 candidacies confirmed that they were staying in, and were less than charitable in their assessment of the newest Republican in the Alabama 5th. Even more unsparing was GOP gubernatorial frontrunner and state treasurer Kay Ivey, who lampooned the party switch as “solely a ploy to cling to his seat in 2010″ and argued further that “political expediency is an insult to every grassroots activist who commits untold hours in devotion to getting candidates elected.”

The Republican/teabagger schism could not come at a worse time for Griffith, as any party switch is going to be met, not with a path of rose petals and a coronation, but an immediate denunciation of the apostate for insufficient conservatism. If oddsmakers laid odds on such things, one would have to imagine that the most likely outcome of Parker Griffith’s political career may well be “defeated in Republican primary.” It is a somewhat painful (for Democrats) irony that the only thing that may allow Griffith to stay alive in the GOP primary is the vast war chest he accumulated while still a Democrat.

2. “I DIDN’T LEAVE THE PARTY, THE PARTY LEFT ME”

Invariably, this is the reason often cited for party switches. It, of course, was the reason that Parker Griffith gave on Tuesday when he said that he would “no longer align myself with a party that continues to pursue legislation that is bad for our country.”

This is the most oft-cited rationale for crossing the aisle, if only because it gives the veneer of being the most intellectually honest reason for doing so. It is rarely, however, the reason why party switches occur.

And in the case of Parker Griffith, it is almost certainly not the reason for his decision to join the Republican Party.

Griffith is not a long-serving legislator who, over the course of decades, watched his national party slide out beneath his feet. To put it simply, Parker Griffith is no Ralph Hall, the octagenarian who finally switched to the Republican Party in 2004 after voting largely in concert with the national Republican Party for years.

Griffith was elected, of course, just last year. While one could argue that the national Democratic Party has changed since Ralph Hall’s election in 1980, it is a little tougher to make the case that the national Democratic Party has changed a lot since last November.

It becomes even tougher, of course, when a little digging reveals that you were advocating health care for all as recently as 2006, and that you were dropping four-figure political contributions to Howard Dean back during the 2004 presidential campaign cycle….

3. PURE, SWEET SPITE

This is less common, but it has been a motivator for party switches in the past. The most relevant one, it can be argued, is Arlen Specter. Opinions will, of course, vary, but I think an argument can be made that Specter’s defection in the Spring of 2009 was one part self-preservation (Pat Toomey was going to clean his clock in the GOP primary) and one part spite (he was tired of being primaried).

The most obvious example of spite as a motivator was the curious case of a rather forgettable California Congressman named Matthew “Marty” Martinez. By the spring of 2000, Martinez, a Democrat, had served nine terms in the U.S. House. A moderate Democrat in a liberal district, he was thumped in the Democratic primary in 2000 by then-state legislator (and current Secretary of Labor) Hilda Solis, who defeated the longtime incumbent by a 62-29 margin. Martinez decided not to exit the stage quietly, announcing a switch to the Republican Party, and drastically changing his voting habits. He even briefly sought a way to get on the ballot as the Republican nominee (the GOP ballot line was vacant), before finally leaving the stage.

Is Griffith being motivated by spite? There is a plausible theory there, one raised by the Plum Line’s Greg Sargent:

It appears [from the Politico report on Griffith's switch] one reason he switched is that he was upset that the President took away his missile defense pork:

“The Obama administration’s decision to scrap plans to build a missile defense shield in Eastern Europe further frustrated Griffith, according to GOP sources, because his district contains the base for Boeing’s ground-based missile defense research.”

No question, Griffith had plenty of other reasons to switch — he voted with Republicans most of the time, and even said he wouldn’t vote for Nancy Pelosi as Speaker. But it’s pretty amusing that a hissy fit over pork was part of the rationale.

In the final analysis, there were probably a number of factors which led Parker Griffith to cross the aisle: an uphill district, a tantrum over getting his share of the federal largesse, trying to put his finger to the wind over 2010 politics.

The bottom line, however, is given the current political environment, it is hard to see a clear path to success for the newest member of the GOP. He is going to have to survive what will be a deeply contentious Republican primary, and then he is likely to face legitimate Democratic opposition. This will not be an easy move for Congressman Griffith, and if the past is prologue, it is a move that may ultimately prove unsuccessful.


Categories: Politics Tags: , , , , , , ,

More detail on what’s next for health insurance reform

December 28th, 2009 admin No comments

Red State readers are apparently over the moon at Jim DuhMint’s objection to the Senate’s appointment of conferees on the health insurance reform bill, in the belief that it somehow dooms the effort. In fact, it does no such thing, and DuhMint’s objections do little more than waste a bit more time in an already drawn-out process.

Before we get to why this probably isn’t such a big deal, it’ll be instructive to talk about the process of moving to conference in general. Going to conference, of course, only happens when the House and Senate have both passed different versions of the same legislative vehicle. I say “legislative vehicle” rather than bill because the casual use of the term “bill” can create confusion. Both the House and the Senate have passed their own versions of the health insurance reform bill, for instance. The House version, though, is embodied in the legislative vehicle known as H.R 3692, whereas the Senate’s version is embodied in the vehicle H.R. 3590. Both houses can therefore be said to have passed their own versions of a health insurance reform bill, but H.R. 3590 is the only legislative vehicle to have passed both houses, and is therefore the only one of the two eligible to go to conference.

It must be noted, however, that if the House and Senate actually went to conference right now on H.R. 3590, it’d technically be to settle the differences between the Senate’s health insurance reform bill and the original H.R. 3590, which was, as you may recall, the “Service Members Home Ownership Tax Act of 2009,” and not a health insurance bill at all. (For an explanation of why, see the explanation of how the Senate gets around the dictates of Art. I, Sec. 7 of the Constitution.)

That leads to a whole range of issues regarding what would ad wouldn’t be eligible for negotiation in that conference, since technically it’s only the differences between the two versions of a single vehicle that are open for discussion. But with the current versions of H.R. 3590, the entirety of the text would be in controversy. But in addition to that, there’s another restriction typically imposed on a conference, which is that the settlements reached are supposed to be bound by the positions the two houses took going in. That means, for example, that if the House version of a vehicle proposed putting $1 million toward some program, and the Senate version proposed $2 million, the conference agreement (under normal circumstances) would have to come in somewhere inside of that range. Now, as with most things in Congress, there are ways around those restrictions. But like all work-arounds, they cause complications, and when you’ve got no margin for error (as is the case when you need 60 votes to move ahead, and find yourself with exactly 60 and no more), complications are to be avoided where possible.

That said, what could be said to be the boundaries between the Senate’s version of the health insurance reform bill on the one hand, and a House bill on a completely different subject on the other? Are the differences said to be infinite, therefore leaving everything open to negotiation? Very possibly, yes. But there’s another consideration. It’s also normally considered out of order for items not included in either bill to be included in a conference report, which would mean that things in the House version of the health insurance reform bill (and remember, that’s H.R. 3692) but not in the Senate’s wouldn’t at this point be eligible for inclusion in the conference agreement, meaning there’d be no opportunity to take any of the good stuff from the House bill — even if the Senate would accept it — and put it in the conference report.

So what to do? Well, the House can easily enough opt to take up H.R. 3590 as amended by the Senate, and further amend it by striking out the text that’s in there now and substituting the text of H.R. 3692 instead. That would finally leave us with one version of a single legislative vehicle (H.R. 3590) that carried the Senate’s health insurance reform langauge, and one version that carried the House’s. And that would be something to go to conference on.

OK, now are you ready to get back to the topic I originally wanted to talk about? Great!

Do you remember what that was? It was Jim DuhMint’s objection to an effort to appoint conferees in the Senate.

Going to conference in the Senate can be done the easy way or the hard way. They were trying to do it the easy way when DuhMint stopped them. But it’s easier to understand why this way was the easy way if you first take a look at what the hard way is.

The hard way is a three-step process that begins, of course, with the passage in both houses of different versions of the same legislative vehicle. After which, the Senate must:

  1. Insist on its version of the bill, and thereby put itself in formal disagreement with the House;
  1. Request a conference with the House to settle the disagreement, and;
  1. Appoint conferees to meet with a House delegation to negotiate that settlement.

What makes the hard way particularly hard is that each of those steps requires a motion be made, and each motion is subject to… you guessed it: the filibuster.

The easy way to deal with this stuff, then, is by unanimous consent — often for a single request encompassing all three propositions: insistence on the Senate position; requesting a conference, and appointing conferees. That saves time and energy, and puts the bill on the path to conference a little earlier than any of the other methods. And that’s apparently what DuhMint objected to.

Now at this point, there’s little reason to believe that there would be any difficulty in holding together the same 60-vote coalition for cloture on motions 1-3 that you saw come together to get cloture on passing the bill in the first place. You’d have to go through a similar exercise, of course. Meaning you’d have to file for cloture on all three motions, waiting for one full calendar day plus one hour to intercede in order for the cloture motions to ripen, then voting on the first motion, running the 30-hour post-cloture clock, then voting on motion #1, followed by a cloture vote on motion #2, another 30 hours, a vote on motion #2, a cloture vote on #3, 30 hours, and finally a vote on #3. But you’d get there eventually. DuhMint succeeds only in killing time, though on the Senate floor is always valuable.

Or, you could just… send H.R. 3590 back to the House, and let the House deal with it.

And if the House deals with it, one of three things can be expected:

  1. the House could opt to just accept the Senate’s version of H.R. 3590, in which case it’s over;
  1. the House could opt to amend H.R. 3590 further (including substituting the text of H.R. 3692), and make its own motion to go to conference, or;
  1. the House and Senate (and presumably the White House) could enter into negotiations with or without calling for a formal conference, and work out the differences without giving DuhMint a second thought.

Which one do you think most likely under the circumstances?

Sending the bill to the House at this point will almost certainly eliminate at least one future cloture vote for the Senate. If the House is the one proposing a conference, the Senate need only vote to agree to a conference and appoint conferees. Both of those motions could be filibustered, of course, but at least it’s just two votes instead of three.

Now as it happens, which house first proposes to go to conference makes a difference in the dynamics of voting on the conference report, and originally I was going to leave that part of the story for another day. But thought it seems much more likely at this point that the bicameral leadership will opt for the simplest possible process, those of you who like to pass the time gaming out every possible permutation will be interested to know that the house that initially requests a conference is usually the last to vote on the conference report when it’s done. The story of why is best left for another time, but here’s the significance: only the first house to consider a conference report has the option to recommit the bill to conference and try to make changes. Would anyone really do that? Not really. But the option is there, and that will make people want to think, even if they’re only fantasizing.

But ultimately, there’s no formal requirement that the differences between the houses be settled in a conference committee. That’s just one vehicle available to them, and one that comports with their preference for formal and transparent process. But there’s nothing that prohibits them from meeting informally and trying to cobble together a package of amendments that they think can pass both houses, and then taking that package to the floor of the House and offering it as an amendment to H.R. 3590 as amended by the Senate. If they’ve calculated correctly, that package would pass the House and be sent back to the Senate, which would have an opportunity to vote on whether or not to accede to the House amendment. And if the House amendment has been pre-cleared in the informal negotiations, then Senate leaders will know that they’ll have the 60 votes it would take even to overcome any threatened filibuster of the motion to take up the House amendment, which would all but seal the deal.

So, did Jim DuhMint kill the bill with his objection? No. The easy path for the Senate to actually be the one to put the bill on the road to conference is blocked, but the Senate can still opt to be the one requesting conference if it wants to, or it can leave that to the House. And even then, the House may not be interested in a formal conference. And not only that, but nothing about DuhMint’s objection delays the option to begin informal negotiations by so much as a nanosecond.

Easy peasy, right?


Categories: Politics Tags: , , ,

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, Detroit Bomber, Came From Elite Family, Top Schools

December 28th, 2009 admin No comments

LAGOS, Nigeria — As a member of an uppercrust Nigerian family, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab received the best schooling, from the elite British International School in West Africa to the vaunted University College London.

But the education he wanted was of a different sort: Nigerian officials say his interest in extremist Islam prompted his father to warn U.S. authorities. As Abdulmutallab was being escorted in handcuffs off the Detroit-bound airliner he attempted to blow up on Christmas Day, he told U.S. officials that he had sought an extremist education at an Islamist hotbed in Yemen.

A portrait emerged Sunday of a serious young man who led a privileged life as the son of a prominent banker, but became estranged from his family as an adult. Devoutly religious, he was nicknamed “The Pope” for his saintly aura and gave few clues in his youth that he would turn radical, friends and family said.

“In all the time I taught him we never had cross words,” said Michael Rimmer, a Briton who taught history at the British International School in Lome, Togo. “Somewhere along the line he must have met some sort of fanatics, and they must have turned his mind.”

Abdulmutallab has been charged with trying to destroy a Northwest flight on Christmas Day with 278 passengers and 11 crew members on board. The detonator on his explosive apparently malfunctioned and he was subdued by other passengers.

Through an official, Abdulmutallab’s father “expressed deep shock and regret over his son’s actions.”

His family home sits in the city of Funtua, in the heart of Nigeria’s Islamic culture. Religion figured into the family’s life: His father, Alhaji Umar Mutallab, who had a successful career in commercial banking, also joined the board of an Islamic bank – one that avoids the kind of interest payments banned by the Quran.

The large house, surrounded by a wall and a metal fence just off the main road running through the city, stood empty, a common occurrence for a jet-set family that sought an education abroad for Abdulmutallab. Family members told The Associated Press they could not comment but expected the family to issue a statement.

Mutallab was working with the FBI and not expected to grant media interviews, Information Minister Dora Akunyili said.

The elder Mutallab was “a responsible and respected Nigerian, with a true Nigerian spirit,” she said. He had been estranged from his son for several months and alerted U.S. officials last month about the youth’s growing hard-line Islamic religious beliefs.

A close neighbor told the AP he believed Abdulmutallab did not get his extremist ideas from his family or from within Nigeria.

Basiru Sani Hamza, 35, said Abdulmutallab was a “very religious” and a “very obedient” to his parents as a boy in the well-to-do banking family.

“I believe he must have been lured where he is schooling to carry out this attack,” Hamza said. “Really, the boy has betrayed his father because he has been taking care of all their needs.”

Rimmer, a teacher at his high school in West Africa, said Abdulmutallab had been well-respected.

“At one stage, his nickname was ‘The Pope,’” Rimmer said from London in a telephone interview. “In one way it’s totally unsuitable because he’s Muslim, but he did have this saintly aura.”

But Abdulmutallab also showed signs of inflexibility, Rimmer said.

In a discussion in 2001, Abdulmutallab was the only one to defend the actions of the Taliban in Afghanistan, Rimmer said. At the time, Rimmer thought the boy was just playing the devil’s advocate.

He also noted that during a school trip to London, Abdulmutallab became upset when the teacher took students to a pub and said it wasn’t right to be in a place where alcohol was served.

Rimmer also remembered the youngster choosing to give 50 pounds to an orphanage rather than spend it on souvenirs in London.

Rimmer described the institution – an elite college preparatory school, attended by children of diplomats and wealthy Africans – as “lovely, lovely environment” where Christians often joined in Islamic feasts and where some of the best Christmas carolers were Muslims.

Abdulmutallab showed no signs of intolerance toward other students, Rimmer said, explaining that “lots of his mates were Christians.”

The Briton noted that he has not seen or heard from his former pupil since 2003 when he was still a teenager.

Abdulmutallab went on to study engineering and business finance at the University College London, where he graduated last year, the college confirmed.

Students at his prestigious university in London, where Abdulmutallab lived in a smart white stone apartment block in an exclusive area of central London, said Abdulmutallab showed no signs of radicalization and painted him as a lax student with deep religious views.

“We worked on projects together,” Fabrizio Cavallo Marincola, a 22-year-old mechanical engineering student at University College, told The Independent newspaper. “He always did the bare minimum of work and would just show up to classes. When we were studying, he always would go off to pray.

“He was pretty quiet and didn’t socialize much or have a girlfriend that I knew of. I didn’t get to talk to him much on a personal level. I was really shocked when I saw the reports. You would never imagine him pulling off something like this.”

Marincola declined further comment when contacted by the AP.

___

Associated Press writers Raphael Satter in London and Salisu Rabiu in Funtua, Nigeria, contributed to this report.

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Nick Mills: Family Feuds

December 28th, 2009 admin No comments

Afghan President Hamid Karzai is having problems with both of his extended families, his blood — and lately bloody – kin, and his extended political family, which includes Afghanistan’s “elected” government, Karzai’s reshuffled cabinet, and the Western governments that are spending blood and billions to prop up the Karzai regime. And as it turns out, it’s all very incestuous

The recent killing of 18-year-old Waheed Karzai, the son of one of President Karzai’s cousins, allegedly by Hashmat Karzai, a first cousin of the President, offers a lesson for the West: Afghanistan is still a nation of men, not of laws, and will remain so for some time to come. Honor killings without legal consequences are accepted practice, notwithstanding the veneer of democracy imposed on the country since the ouster of the Taliban in 2001.

The story, ably reported by James Risen in the New York Times on December 20, is a tale of a spurned fiancé, a revenge killing, and a nearly 30-year wait to balance the books with another murder. No one was ever brought to justice for the earlier killing, which reportedly took place in 1982 or 1983 in Quetta, Pakistan. And no charges have been brought against Hashmat Karzai – who denies any involvement and blames drug dealers and mistaken identity – and probably never will be. The power of the Karzai family trumps any system of written law, especially since the murder took place in President Karzai’s home village, Karz, in an area ruled Mafia-style by the President’s brother Wali Karzai. What’s more, according to Risen (and here’s where the blood-and-politics incest comes in) Hashmat Karzai owns a security company that holds lucrative contracts with the United States military. The family of the deceased, and several Karzais who live outside of Afghanistan are demanding legal action. Spurred no doubt by the Times account, President Karzai has directed the Interior Minister to look in to the killing. But in time the case will probably blow over, and no one with the authority to do so, in either of President Karzai’s extended families, is likely to push very hard for a prosecution.

I can recall a similar case near Peshawar, Pakistan in 1987 when I was training Afghans in journalism. We got a report of a shooting in an Afghan refugee enclave just outside of Peshawar and sent our student journalists there to see what they could find out. They came back with a story of a revenge killing, and although the Pakistani police got involved at the start, it was left to tribal elders to decide the fate of the accused killer, and the police bowed out.

The Western countries trying to tailor a new suit of democratic threads for Afghanistan will be recutting and restitching for many years to come, and will never achieve a perfect fit.

Meanwhile, President Karzai continues to demonstrate his disdain for the Western nations that keep him, however shakily, in office. In the restructuring of his 24-member cabinet Karzai thumbed his nose at the U.S. and other allies who had pushed for the removal of old-guard warlords such as Ismael Khan who keep Afghanistan mired in the politics of corruption and violence.


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PETN, Detroit Explosive, Common And Easily Detectible

December 28th, 2009 admin No comments

WASHINGTON — The explosive device used by the would-be Detroit bomber contained a widely available – and easily detected – chemical explosive that has a long history of terrorist use, according to government officials and explosive experts.

The chemical – PETN – is small, powerful and appealing to terrorists. The Saudi government said it was used in an assassination attempt on the country’s counterterrorism operations chief in August.

It was also a component of the explosive that Richard Reid, the convicted “shoe bomber,” used in his 2001 attempt to down an airliner.

PETN was widely used in the plastic explosives terrorists used to blow up airplanes in the 1970s and 1980s.

Investigators say Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab hid an explosive device on his body when he traveled from Amsterdam to Detroit. They say PETN was hidden in a condom or condom-like bag just below his torso.

Abdulmutallab also had a syringe filled with liquid. One law enforcement official said the second part of the explosive concoction used in the Christmas Day incident is still being tested but appears to be a glycol-based liquid explosive. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the investigation.

PETN is the primary ingredient in detonating cords used for industrial explosions and can be collected by scraping the insides of the wire, said James Crippin, a Colorado explosives expert. It’s also used in military devices and found in blasting caps. It’s the high explosive of choice because it is stable and safe to handle, but it requires a primary explosive to detonate it, he said.

Crippin and law enforcement officials said modern airport screening machines could have detected the chemical. Airport “puffer” machines – the devices that blow air onto a passenger to collect and analyze residues – would probably have detected the powder, as would bomb-sniffing dogs or a hands-on search using a swab.

However, most passengers in airports only go through magnetometers, which detect metal rather than explosives.

Hidden in Abdulmutallab’s clothing, the explosive might have also been detected by the full-body imaging scanners now making their way into airports.

But Abdulmutallab did not go through full-body imaging machines in Nigeria or Amsterdam, said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y. King, the top Republican on the Homeland Security Committee, has been briefed on the investigation.

Both airports have body scanners. The Amsterdam airport has had a long reputation for good security, King said, while Nigeria’s airports have been more of a concern.

The U.S. provided full-body scanners to all four international airports in Nigeria, according to the State Department. The scanners were installed in March, May and June of 2008.

Abdulmutallab was on a broad U.S. terrorist watch list but he was not designated for special screening measures or placed on a no-fly list because of a dearth of specific information about his activities, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Sunday. She said he was properly screened before getting on the aircraft in Amsterdam. Abdulmutallab has claimed to law enforcement officials that he received training and instructions from al-Qaida operatives in Yemen.

The Saudi Arabia assassination attempt was carried out by a Saudi who was on the country’s list of 85 most wanted terrorists. The bomber was believed to have traveled to Yemen to connect with the al-Qaida franchise there. The bomber died in the explosion and is believed to have attached the explosives to his groin or inserted them inside himself.

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Associated Press writers Devlin Barrett in Washington and Donna Abu-Nasr in Saudi Arabia contributed to this article.

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Steve Clemons: Khamenei is the New Shah: There Will Be (More) Blood

December 28th, 2009 admin No comments

khamenei military twn.jpg

Ayatollah Khamenei’s legitimacy as Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran is at a very fragile moment and being challenged by Iranian citizens throughout the nation, according to reports streaming in, despite media controls and a Western press blackout.

To see a very disturbing video in which men who were going to be hanged appeared to be saved by citizens in the streets, watch this clip.

Reform presidential candidate Mir Hossen Mousavi’s nephew was killed today in clashes with police. There is no easy way now for the opposition to back down and wait for a more appropriate time to move their advocates and followers into the street.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has become the new Shah — hated by so many within the country that it seems implausible that Iranian elites will ever be able to operate without much distrust and fear of each other.

The United States needs to be very cautious — and not do anything on the ground in Iran that would allow the incumbent government to to evade “the death to the dictator” chants directed at it by distracting the country with evidence of credible external interventions.

This phase in Iran’s next revolution could subside again before an even larger explosion by embedded protesters. It’s just too hard to tell at this moment.

But as Iran expert Barbara Slavin just wrote to me, things don’t look good for Khamenei and his government. She wrote to me via Facebook: “[Khamenei] is stuck. If he begins to compromise, he’s lost — and if he doesn’t, he’s lost.”

– Steve Clemons publishes the popular political blog, The Washington Note. You can follow Clemons’ writing and work here via twitter.

UPDATE: This video shows that the protesters are trying to win over the police. This is a fascinating clip of police and protesters on the edge — but trying not to go over what would be potentially horrible lines:

– Steve Clemons

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