Sunday, July 13, 2008

Presidential Library scandal (updated again)

At the beginning of March, I blogged about the Bush presidential library (with video) at Southern Methodist University. At that time, the biggest question was whether or not the $200 million for the thing was coming from Our Fearless Leader's good buddies in Saudi Arabia. Bush would not even discuss the source of the funding with the media.

Ironically, the library remembering one of the most corrupt administrations in American history is being funded, at least in part, on bribes. (Aside: why is it that we have to learn about this stuff from the British press?)

Bush lackey lobbyist Stephen Payne was caught on tape offering to arrange a meeting with VP Cheney or Sec. of State Condi Rice for the ousted president of Kyrgyzstan Askar Akayev Kazakh politician Yerzhan Dosmukhamedov, AKA Eric Dos. It would cost as much as three quarters of a million dollars. Apparently, Our Fearless Leader does not meet with former world leaders much anymore.

Here's the quote from the Times of London Online:
The exact budget I will come up with, but it will be somewhere between $600,000 and $750,000, with about a third of it going directly to the Bush library,” said Payne, who sits on the US homeland security advisory council.
As there are no overhead costs involved in this transaction, I am wondering where the other two-thirds of the money is going. At any rate, this sounds a lot like a bribe to me.

Incidentally, Askar blamed the U.S. government for the 2005 coup that swept him from power. He has been living in exile in Moscow ever since. Askar would have had to have been involved in this media "sting." Coincidence? I doubt it. (struck, due to updated information.)

SMU, which is the host site of the library, ought to reconsider and rescind their offer to allow this memorial to corruption to be built on their campus. This will be worse than those recruiting violations.

h/t to Think Progress for staying on top of this.

Update I: The Department of Homeland Security is investigating Payne for possible violations of federal law. Payne sits on the Homeland Security Advisory Council. Separately, House Oversight Committee Chair Henry Waxman (D-Ca.) has opened his own investigation. Bonus: if Payne was authorized by any member of the administration to solicit these bribes donations, that official could be guilty of bribery, too.

Update II: Contrary to the original report, Payne was actually speaking to a Kazakh politician. This is the problem with media speculation. Originally, the Central Asia politician who agreed to be secretly taped did so with the understanding that his name not be made public. The original name was an educated, but wrong, guess.

Bonus: Think Progress is now reporting that a McCain aid may have been involved, too.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Another whistleblower silenced

Journalists and public relations people tend to lead parasitic professional lives. Journalist need PR people to get their information and PR people need journalists to get their messages out to the public. I have many friends in the PR business, but it is always an uneasy professional relationship. Journalists are supposed to report the most accurate version of the story while PR professionals are supposed to promote the version of the truth most favorable to their organization. Believe it or not, sometimes the PR version of the truth is actually an untruth.

This story is not about promoting untruths. This is a story about a government PR professional who believes in reporting the truth. Unsurprisingly from this administration, she got canned. This is also a story about the military's obsession with sanitizing the Iraq War by, among other things, hiding the costs of war by keeping the media away from soldiers' funerals. It took two years just to convince the Defense Department to release some photos of flag-draped coffins.

Keep in mind that there is a dead American in each one of those boxes. No rants about the politics of the war. These men and women fought and died for their country. Their military has actively engaged in keeping their sacrifices a secret. Military funerals are the nation's reminder that there is a war on and that war is terrible, not glorious.

Which brings us to Gina Gray, who has worked for many years as a military public affairs officer. Ms. Gray started a job with Arlington National Cemetery in April and was fired in late June. Dana Milbank reported her story for the Washington Post today.

Gray realized early in her tenure that the military was placing even more restrictions on media coverage of funerals. This is true even after the families had invited the media (which a majority do) to the funeral and thus broadcast their grief to the world.

According to Milbank's column, reporters were positioned where they could at least hear prayers and eulogies during the Rumsfeld era. Ten days into her new job, Gray found that the cemetery's deputy superintendent, Thurman Higginbotham, positioned the media some 50 yards from the funeral of a marine colonel who left behind two little girls. The location made it impossible to hear the service and the view was obstructed, so photographs were out of the question.

Milbank wrote a column on April 24 about the funeral. Almost as an aside, he noted:
Nor does the blocking of funeral coverage seem to be the work of overzealous bureaucrats. Gina Gray, Arlington's new public affairs director, pushed vigorously to allow the journalists more access to the service yesterday -- but she was apparently shot down by other cemetery officials.
Specifically, she pointed out that such treatment of the press was not in accordance with standing policy. Gray was subsequently treated poorly by co-workers and supervisors. She was demoted from public affairs director to public affairs officer June 9. She was fired at the end of June and contends that she would still be working there had she just gone along with Higginbotham and the superintendent John Metzler.

Gray also contends that Higginbotham contacted family members and urged them not to allow the media into the services for their fallen loved ones. Milbank confirmed the charge through an anonymous source at the cemetery. I am assuming that the source requested anonymity in order to keep his/her job.

Gray received her termination letter June 27. The letter accused her of being disrespectful to her supervisors and failing to act in an appropriate manner.

I cannot conclude better than Milbank, so here is his quote:
On June 27, Gray got her termination memo. (Gray's supervisor, Phyllis) White said Gray had "been disrespectful to me as your supervisor and failed to act in an inappropriate manner." Failed to act in an in appropriate manner? The termination notice was inadvertently revealing: Only at Arlington National Cemetery could it be considered a firing offense to act appropriately.

It should be noted that Milbank and the military obviously have differing opinions of appropriate behavior. I tend to agree with Milbank's assessment and applaud a PR professional for fighting for more access instead of less.

Also, the cemetery is now looking for its fourth PR director in three years.

h/t to Think Progress for this one.

Update: I replaced the final quote from Milbank's story. I missed the significance of the word "inappropriate." It was a typo, I hope. Otherwise, this is proof that these people have a culture of acting inappropriately. Thanks to this Dailykos diarist for pointing that out.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Frightening prospects

The news from the last few days has been pretty frightening both in terms of physical safety and preservation of civil liberties. Here's a quick round-up.

First is the biggie. Today is the Senate vote on the FISA bill. Here's Daily Kos' recent take on it with a video from Countdown with guest host Rachel Maddow (give her a show already). I have avoided talking about this issue. (Full disclosure: I work for a cell phone company, but we have not turned records over to the feds.)

I am not particularly enamored with the immunity provision, but have argued that the telecoms were in a bad situation. Initially we heard that the telecoms were reassured by the White House that the telecoms were only helping to spy on suspected terrorists after the attacks of Sept. 11. The White House assured the telecoms that what they were doing was perfectly legal. In the interest of preventing another attacks, the major telecoms complied. The problem is that the spying probably started months BEFORE the attacks. True to form, the administration retaliated against Qwest Communications for refusing to help with illegal spying in February, 2001. Classy!

After discussing it further, I came around to realize that FISA is a bad deal all around. The problem is the warrant-less surveillance provision. While there are some restrictions in place to prevent abuse of the system, a determined CIA/FBI/NSA agent could easily circumvent any restrictions. Then it is only a matter of time before the Nixonian mindset kicks in and honest dissent is equated with active subversion.

Sure, our intelligence services need to be able to listen to the bad guys' conversations, but get a warrant first, please.

This is a clear violation of the Fourth Amendment. Considering the current supreme court, I am not expecting them to strike down FISA, either.

Update: as of the writing of this, it looks like the bill with pass easily and that the immunity will stay. Pennsylvania's own Arlen Specter is the only good guy Republican, according to Kos.

Also h/t to Kos for keeping up to date on this for months.

The next scary proposal of the week comes from the friendly skies and our friends over at the Department of Homeland Security. They are liking a proposal to make all flyers wear something euphemistically called a "safety bracelet." (Remember, this is the same DHS who brought us the color-coded threat level chart. To date the treat level has not yet been in the green or blue range, meaning that we are not much safer now than on 9/11.)

Here's the deal. Every airline passenger would be fitted with a bracelet like the ones they put on you at concerts and other festivals. The festival bracelet lets security know that you paid and are allowed to be there. This safety bracelet would serve essentially the same purpose. It would replace the traditional boarding pass. So far, so good. It would also contain all kinds of personal data (in other words, government surveillance. See above.) Okaaaay. It would also act as a GPS device, meaning that DHS knows when you go to the loo or jump out of the plane. errrr. The GPS is also supposed to track your luggage. I just KNOW that the airlines will never lose another bag again. Snark.

Here's the nefarious part. These bracelets would also have the ability to shock an unruly passenger, rendering him or her immobile. This is how we control ornery dogs. While this thing might work on the shoe bomber, what happens when this thing accidentally goes off and 92-year-old great grandmother dies from the shock? What about indiscriminate use of the things. Is it okay to shock a person who had a little much to drink at the airport bar and is talking (or slurring) a little too loudly?

On the other hand, here is an interesting counter-proposal to keep airline passengers calm without the booze.

I haven't flown since 1999. It seems like every week I find a better reason to take a bus from New York to Los Angeles. I don't think I will be allowing a government agent to fit me with a torture device.

This is an oldie, but goody. Under Our Fearless Leader, liberals and Democrats needed not apply to the Justice Department. Those horrid lefties already working there might just as well clean their desks. If you are a Democrat, keep your nose clean or DoJ might come after for you.

The worst part about the Siegelman case is that Congress just can't get Karl Rove to testify about it. Anyone else who refused to testify before Congress would be arrested and dragged into the hearing.

Next up, is honor killings in Georgia, and I am not talking about the former Soviet republic. In some cultures honor killings to avenge "disgracing" the family are not only okay, but actively encouraged. The offenses that can lead to extra-judicial summary executions: In this case it is a 25-year-old considering divorce to end an arranged marriage to a man she has not seen in months.

I accept multi-culturalism, but this is just simply not okay.

Speaking of "not okay," apparently atheists are not welcome in the U.S. military. It is a Christians-only group, I guess. I remember something from Sunday School about Christianity being a religion of peace. Praise the Lord and pass the ammo, anyone?

We also learned today that there is a fundamental flaw in the Internet that would allow hackers to control all of cyberspace. Here's hoping the experts fix this thing fast.

Finally, even relatively Western-friendly Dubai is not a good place to go on a booze-fueled sex romp. This British woman is facing years in jail for doing exactly that. Of course, this probably won't help her case:
She is alleged to have called the cop a f****** Muslim **** and tried to hit him with her high-heeled shoe before being restrained.
I realize this story is from the UK Sun, but the BBC had a smaller piece about it.

All things considered, I think I am going back to bed. It's scary out there.


Monday, July 7, 2008

Good riddance

Jesse Helms finally did us all a favor. He kicked the bucket on at 1:15 a.m. July 4. MC Hawking finally got his wish. The fact that he died on the nation's birthday is darkly ironic. He stood for few of the ideals of liberty and equality for all upon which this country was based. He probably died thinking he was still a great patriot. He was not. He was the worst of what the Right can offer.

To borrow a sentiment from Hunter S. Thompson's obituary on Richard Nixon, Helm's body should be dumped into one of those open sewage canals in the vicinity of Los Angeles. Jesse Jackson and Carole Mosley-Braun ought to do the honors. No whites invited to the ceremony.

Here's the late North Carolina senator in 1990:

Still think he wasn't overtly racist? Check out this quote from a 1995 article in Mother Jones magazine:
And long after die-hard segregationists like George Wallace and Strom Thurmond began courting black voters, Helms fueled white fears by opposing a national holiday in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whistling "Dixie" while standing next to Senator Carol Moseley-Braun, and supporting apartheid in South Africa.
In fact, the whole article is a good read, even if it is 13 years old.

By the way, he also had a problem with homosexuals, secularists and non-Christians, poor people (euphemistically known as "welfare recipients"), and poor countries (foreign aid recipients). Never mind that the current amount of foreign aid from the United States is less than .1% of our GDP and most of that funds the Iraq reconstruction (such as it is) and the regimes/armed forces in Egypt, Turkey and Israel.

The guy hated homosexuals so much that he refused to vote in favor of money for AIDS research in 1988, saying that not a single case of AIDS cannot be traced back to sodomy. He would not even meet with Ryan White's mom. Ryan was the kid who picked up the disease from a tainted blood transfusion. His case is why the Red Cross vets blood donors so carefully.

Helms had close ties with a guy from El Salvador. Roberto Aubuisson or "Chele" ran right-wing death squads during the Salvadorian civil war. Helms brushed off criticism by noting that Aubuisson was a capitalist and a Christian. I guess that makes it okay to commit mass murder. Helms also supported right-wing dictator Augusto Pinochet in Chile who was no better than Aubuisson.

Helms was an unabashed big government guy when it came to his interests, most notably expanded military spending, but could not be bothered with things like welfare and poverty relief, AIDS funding, and affirmative action programs.

Now, I don't want to bash North Carolina too hard for giving us all the gift of Jesse Helms. He never won more than 54.5 percent of the vote. At least the old man was not universally loved by his state, but there was still just enough support to send him to the Senate for 30 years.

This joker represented everything that was wrong with the past. It's time to progress and reject the worst of Helmsian policy. Bury him and his racist, homophobic elitism and move on. I leave you with this gem from the Onion published upon Helm's announced retirement in 2002.

P.S. I never learned that old adage, "If you have nothing nice to say about someone, don't say anything at all."

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Update on public financing

This is pretty cool. I actually got quoted on another blog. Check it out:

Obama declines public financing

This is the newest addition to the blogroll.

Presidents and war records

Sunday on Face The Nation, retired Gen. Wesley Clark made the accurate, if in-artfully stated, argument that John McCain’s military service does not necessarily qualify him to be the next leader of the free world. Specifically, he pointed out that flying his plane around and getting shot down does not qualify him to be president. Additionally, he pointed out that McCain’s command experience was not in combat, for what little that’s worth. And this from a retired general who ran for president.

Here is the exact quote:
Well, I don't think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president.
He was responding to this question:
I have to say, Barack Obama has not had any of those experiences either, nor has he ridden in a fighter plane and gotten shot down. I mean...
But there's more from Clark:
I certainly honor his service as a prisoner of war. He was a hero to me and to hundreds of thousands of millions of others in the armed forces as a prisoner of war.
To his credit, Clark is not backing down. But, that’s beside the point.

Naturally, the Right are having a hissy fit because they see those comments as an attack on McCain’s war record. (Never mind the effective Swiftboating of John Kerry. Nothing to see here; please move along.) Meanwhile, Barak Obama has distanced himself from Gen. Clark’s assessment so that it doesn’t look like they are advocating a questioning of McCain’s record. (Indeed, Obama has gone to lengths to highlight McCain’s service while still disagreeing with the GOP’s presumptive nominee on pretty much every issue.)

This non-issue does raise an interesting question, though. Is there a correlation between past military service and performance as president? Using Wikipedia I identified the 27 of 43 presidents who had some military service. (Note: normally, I do not like to use Wikipedia as a source, but this was the quick and dirty way to get the information.)

First, though, a quick question. Is this your idea of a great leader...

Or is this more like it...

Here are the presidents who had any kind of military service:

George Washington: Revolutionary War; general of the Colonial Army
James Monroe: Revolutionary War; soldier in the Colonial Army, fought with distinction at the Battle of Trenton
Andrew Jackson: Seminole War/War of 1812; army commander, led the defense of New Orleans weeks after peace was signed (neither side got the memo because no one had invented the Internet yet)
William Henry Harrison: Various wars against Native American tribes; commander of government forces at the Battle of Tippecanoe
John Tyler: War of 1812; member of volunteer military company
Zachary Taylor: War of 1812/Black Hawk War/Second Seminole War; served in various capacities.
Millard Filmore: Peacetime; Served in New York militia
Franklin Pierce: Mexican-American War; brigadier general of volunteer units
James Buchannon: War of 1812; Served in a volunteer dragoon unit in the defense of Baltimore
Abraham Lincoln: Black Hawk War; elected captain of an Illinois militia unit
Ulysses S. Grant: Civil War; General of the Army of the Potomac
Rutherford B. Hayes: Civil War; colonel of 23rd Ohio regiment
James A. Garfield: Civil War; brigadier general in the Army of the Cumberland
Chester A. Arthur: Civil War; quartermaster in New York
(Grover Cleveland: none; paid a Polish immigrant to fight in his place during the Civil War.)
Benjamin Harrison: Civil War; brigadier general in the Army of the Cumberland
William McKinnley: Civil War; army captain
Teddy Roosevelt: Spanish-American War; army captain, commander of the famous Rough Riders
Harry Truman: World War I; commander of a battery unit, later a colonel in the National Guard
Dwight D. Eisenhower: World War II; five star general, commander of allied forces in Europe
John F. Kennedy: World War II; navy lieutenant, commander of PT 109, highly decorated but later admitted that he probably did not deserve the medals.
Richard M. Nixon: World War II; Lt. Commander in the navy (Pacific Theater)
Gerald R. Ford: World War II; Lt. Commander in the navy (Pacific Theater)
Jimmy Carter: Korean War era; lieutenant on the early nuclear submarines, only president to graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy
Ronald Reagan: World War II; served state-side making propaganda films for the military
George H.W. Bush: World War II; navy pilot (Pacific Theater)
George W. Bush: Vietnam era; Texas and Alabama Air National Guard. Just a few notes about George W. Bush: He protected the skies over Texas during the war. He probably even showed up for duty. Meanwhile, people like John McCain (pilot and long-time POW), and Bush’s two main opponents for the presidency Al Gore (military journalist), and John Kerry (Swiftboat commander) and millions of other Americans actually went to Vietnam. More than 58,000 died there.

I hardly need to go to the trouble of quantifying these findings. Just one caveat: leadership skills developed in the military are certainly useful for future political leadership. Conversely, it is up to the individual to translate military leadership to civilian leadership.

That said, some of our greatest military leaders were also great presidents (Washington, Monroe). We have had some real losers with exemplary (Grant), mediocre (Nixon, Buchannon), and nearly non-existent (Bush 43) military records. There were some superb military leaders who had controversial records in the Oval Office (Jackson, T. Roosevelt). Some who had limited military experience (Truman, Kennedy) are regarded as some of the best presidents. We had one (F. Roosevelt) who had no military experience, but led the country to victory in World War II. There is one example (Eisenhower) who had an historic military record, but did very little as president. Two veterans (Harrison, Garfield) did not live long enough to establish their presidential legacies. Personally, I have a lot of respect for Chester A. Arthur as well. He went from being a crooked political appointee to the president who reformed civil service.

To reiterate Gen. Clark's statement on a philosophically logical level, he implied that military service does not necessarily qualify one to be president. However, that logic does not apply in the reverse. Past military service does not necessarily mean that the soldier is not qualified to be president. The two roles (as I have demonstrated) are mutually exclusive.

As for the brain dead media narrative of the whole Clark statement, FAIR's assessment, is right on target. As usual, the media (who have been accused of being McCain's main constituency) always need a new controversy. FAIR's article details how Clark's statements were taken out of context and bent to fit the media's need for a new controversy. My favorite is Fair's statement that the media pounced on this a lot more quickly than the Swiftboat nonsense.