Halliburton: U.S. Contract Funds Missing?

31 January 2006 |permalink | email article

Another good reason for public anger about the Bush administrationís fiscal mismanagement of the war in Iraq is a rebuilding scandal involving billions of U.S. contracting money, which may have gone missing. 

The Wall Street Journal (1/17) reported that more than 18 months after the Pentagon disbanded the Coalition Provisional Authority that ran Iraq, neither the Justice Department nor a special inspector general has moved to recover large sums suspected of disappearing through fraud and price gouging in reconstruction. One unit of Halliburton Co., which Dick Cheney ran for five years, is under scrutiny.

The Pentagonís inadequate preparation for war, ranging from insufficient vehicle armor to substandard body armor, each resulting in the deaths of countless Americans, is well known. But less understood is the lack of pursuit to trace what happened to the money or make recipients pay back ill gotten gains. The inspector generalís office said it doesnít plan to ask the Justice Department to file lawsuits or to conduct widespread audits of individual contracts to look for fraud.

The Journal said one question facing the government is whether to seek recovery of funds paid to the largest contractor, Halliburtonís KBR unit, which was awarded multibillion-dollar no-bid contracts beginning shortly before the U.S. invaded Iraq to rebuild oil fields and provide logistical support for the U.S. military.

The Pentagonís audit-contracting arm found expenses of $1.4 billion unsupported by documentation on KBRís two largest contracts, valued at a total of $9.5 billion. The audit agency recently passed its findings on to the Justice Department, to consider whether a criminal complaint is warranted. But the agencyís calls to withhold Halliburton payments have been resisted by Pentagon units that awarded the contracts.

Cheney, U.S. News & World Report reported, has long believed in privatization of some government operations. So itís not surpassing that Halliburton, where he made $40 million, would be the major beneficiary of outsourcing.

Last Friday, increasingly profitable Halliburton said it would offer minority shares in its also profitable KBR unit, even amid criticism of its contracts in Iraq. Former employees have said that the company exposed American troops and civilians at a military base in that country to contaminated water.

With the U.S. deficit rising to $8.2 trillion, the scandal should make good campaign fodder in the mid-term elections. Are Democrats capable of making it a serious corruption issue?

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L.A. Politics: Arriba Villaraigosa

30 January 2006 |permalink | email article

As L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa begins his eighth month in office the speed of his initial ascent into national politics astonishes. Heís already spoken to mayors at Harvardís JFK School and in Washington, D.C. He gives the Spanish-language Democratic response to the Presidentís State of the Union speech on Tuesday.

I view Villaraigosa, who rose rapidly to become Assembly Speaker in Sacramento only to lose in 2000 for mayor to James K. Hahn before crushing him last year, as a charismatic, if restless, Latino political star in a hurry to move upward.

The City News Service budget since last summer is a barometer of his daily appearances across the city, dwarfing outreach by any previous mayor. With multi-faceted goals including homelessness, transit and education, such visibility leads some media critics to question whether he has enough time to govern. 

At Harvard, Villaraigosa outlined his political vision, passionately calling himself a ìproud progressive.î He described cities as ìone place where progressive leaders hold power,î citing mayors that have represented both political parties over the past decade.

He described reforming public schools as the ìcentral public policy issue of our time,î and while never seriously raising the subject until midway through the 2005 campaign, praised mayors Richard Daley in Chicago and Michael Bloomberg in New York City for ìreinventing urban education.î

Reprising much of his Harvard rhetoric before the U.S. Conference of Mayors last week, Villaraigosa focused with equally fresh passion on poverty. As chairman of a national task force on poverty, the ambitious mayor got both media exposure, a national stage and will work with Washingtonís Brookings Institution on a new anti-poverty initiative.

But his bold plan to get the Legislature in 2007 to allow voters to decide whether he, too, can reinvent urban education by taking over the huge Los Angeles Unified School District, reform it and appoint the school board may be a reach too far minus a compelling explanation. His negative rhetoric has angered both elected board members and the powerful teachersí union, which raised over $850,000 to elect him.

Villaraigosaís hubris rests on a single poll his office commissioned private poll showing him with an 82% approval rating. Aping the George Bush re-election boast, the mayor said heíd use his political capital to succeed. But such passion could be in a race against time and higher ambition. His refusal to pledge to serve two terms until 2013 to insure reform suggests a more lofty progressive agenda either in Sacramento or, more likely, Washington.

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Return of a Maverick

27 January 2006 |permalink | email article

It’s refreshing that a famous liberal California Republican maverick, Pete McCloskey, is again taking on the establishment after almost a quarter of a century out of Congress. His June primary target is six-term Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Tracy), chairman of the powerful House Resources Committee. 

Pombo, McCloskey says, has taken more money than any other California congressman from lobbyist Jack Abramoff, stymied efforts to further investigate former Majority Leader Tom DeLay, done nothing to reduce emissions in the Central Valley and has eroded the Endangered Species Act, which McCloskey authored in 1972.

A decorated Marine combat veteran who opposed the Vietnam War a generation ago, McCloskey, who represented Palo Alto, said his party “has shifted away from the values I knew.î Identifying himself with another maverick, Sen. John McCain, his platform calls for “a return to GOP traditional values of honesty, high ethical principles, fiscal responsibility and a reasonable balance between economic balance and environmental protection.î

He calls Pombo, 43, who represents the conservative leaning 11th Congressional District, largely in the San Joaquin Valley ìan embarrassment.î

McCloskey, 78, is a big underdog but heís been there before. In 1972, he challenged President Nixon on Vietnam and finished second in the 1982 GOP Senate primary, which ended his career. Still, despite a huge war chest, Pombo is vulnerable and McCloskey is likely to attract serious free media attention.

In November, Democrats need to win a net 15 seats to regain control of the House of Representatives. McCloskey urged Republicans to support John Kerry for president in 2004. Short of an upset, he could well become an improbable stalking horse to weaken Pombo against the eventual Democratic nominee. George Bush beat Kerry by only 3% in the district.

Maverick is a word in the dictionary associated with one who is unorthodox in political views. It goes back to Samuel Maverick, son of an Anglican minister in England, who settled in Massachusetts about 1624. McCloskey’s reappearance helps encourage serious debate in a nation that needs it.

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Spy Game: Circle 2/6

24 January 2006 |permalink | email article

Bush increases his defense of a secret domestic spying program and denies it violates civil liberties, implying Democrats are not sufficiently committed to national security. But many Republicans and traditional conservatives join Democrats in challenging the surveillance program, skeptical about a precedent-setting bypass of federal courts.

The White House intensifies its campaign to justify warrantless NSA wiretapping - a Rove reprise of the 9/11 card seen as a winning strategy in this yearís elections, a fresh way to bash Democrats and to affirm Cheneyís obsession with more robust presidential power. It is a high-risk, partisan ploy edging on a violation of constitutional provisions protecting Americansíprivacy to justify the war on terror.

John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Richard Lugar are among GOP lawmakers who doubt Bush has the legal authority to conduct such surveillance. David Keene, Paul Weyrich and Grover Norquist are among authentic conservatives who have formed a group, Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances, to press for ìsubstantive oversight hearings.î Arlen Specter, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, will hold hearings starting Feb. 6.

On Monday, Bush spoke at Kansas State University, the same campus where in 1970 Nixon defended his prosecution of the war in Vietnam. He said with a chuckle, ìYou know, its amazing that people say to me, ëWell, he was just breaking the law.í If I wanted to break the law, why was I briefing Congress?î Heís misstating the facts about such briefings and the congressional resolution passed after the 2001 attacks.

The White House defends the lack of briefings for the full House and Senate intelligence committees. It points to secret briefings of the Gang of 8 as evidence of its transparency in bypassing the FISA court to provide the administration with the ìspeed and agilityî to detect Al Qaeda suspects. In fact, two were known to it before 9/11 and escaped apprehension.

The top leadership of both parties was never fully informed of the scope of Bushís assumption of inherent powers after 9/11. When Democrat Jay Rockefeller complained about this to Cheney in a written note he never received a reply. The issue has now been joined.

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Up Periscope

23 January 2006 |permalink | email article

Quick preview: Nuke-prone Iran plays the oil card; stocks tumble; Iraq vote; Roveís tired message, weak Dean response and Osama; Arnoldís re-election problem.

Iranís nuclear intentions escalate. John McCain says itís the most serious threat since the end of the Cold War. The world is vexed with UN sanctions questionable. Would the U.S. stage a military strike to end the threat? Hawk Dick Cheney said last week the option should remain on the table, adding, ìLetís leave it there.î Analysts fret about rising oil costs because of the unresolved stalemate. Prices at the pump could reach $3-a-gallon ñ a political disaster for W. Eleven days after headlines proclaimed that the Dow pushed past 11,000, with investorsí optimism rising, only to tumble Friday in sharpest one-day decline since May 2003.

The Shiite-Kurd bloc fell just short of forming a new government without Sunni Arabs, behind the insurgency. The U.S. challenge: speed the process to form a broader coalition government with Sunni participation - a process that may take months. Donít expect quick U.S. troop withdrawals. Crash focus is to prevent religious Shiite and Sunni religious parties from gaining control of the army and police. Translation: avert civil war. The list led by Ahmad Chalabi, a former Pentagon hero who smoozed with Cheney only weeks ago, failed to win a single seat.     

Karl Rove, still twisting in the wind in the ongoing CIA-leak investigation, tells edgy GOP leaders how to retain control in fall elections. He flays Democrats and, in a tired echo of 2004, makes national security the major difference between the parties, ignoring GOP opposition to both the surveillance program and the Patriot Act. The response by DNC chairman Howard Dean is weak. Trying to fault W. for keeping Rove around while the leak case remains unresolved is not a recipe for winning. Maureen Dowdís biting column said what Dr. Dean failed to say: ìThe White House has always seemed less compelled to capture Osama than to use him and as a pretext for invading Iraq and as a political selling point.î Impressive CBS reporter Laura Logan cut to the chase, and moved past redundant chatter about the new Osama warning, in pressing senators Lieberman and Roberts on ìFace the Nationî about an emerging young generation of jihadists worldwide.

A major Schwarzenegger re-election problem is his base. Conservatives cheer hiring of Steve Schmidt, Cheneyís media brain, and Matthew Dowd, Bushís chief strategist in 2004. But hard-liners threaten withdrawal of the partyís endorsement at their convention next month unless the governor fires liberal Democrat Susan P. Kennedy, his new chief of staff, and architect of his center-left drift. Unspoken but whispered: is the Last Action Hero really a donkey in elephantís clothing? He will survive in San Jose but be forced to pander more to the wing nuts.

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What Makes Arnold Run?

19 January 2006 |permalink | email article

Gov. Schwarzeneggerís surprise appearance Monday at the annual Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast in San Francisco attended by big-name Democrats, labor and community leaders again displayed a lifetime career obsession: the will to win.

Ignoring his fall special election disaster, Republicans and tough talk about labor unions, the governor sounded like a Kennedy Democrat on issues like public service and equal education for children. Yes, heís paddling rapidly back to the center, maybe even left.

A few awed liberals opined that his shift is bad for Democrats. Former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, now a lawyer-lobbyist who facilitated his appearance and offered effusive praise, said his successful re-emergence means Democrats are in trouble. But his last-minute presence caused uproar. The furious head of the cityís labor council said, ìWillie was pimping him in front of us,î noting unions spent over 18 months and millions to defeat the governorís proposals.

Schwarzeneggerís comeback began with his State of the State address when, aping liberal Democrat Pat Brown nearly a half century ago, he introduced a multi-billion construction and innovation program to fix the stateís infrastructure.

Los Angeles Times columnist George Skelton, noting how California has changed, wrote ìItís good to mimic Pat Brownís leadership ñ his political courage, negotiating skills and focused tenacity. Schwarzenegger still hasnít proved heís capable of that.î

His controversial budget has angered Republican fiscal conservatives, liberal advocates for the poor and caused the stateís nonpartisan analyst to say his proposed spending plan means spending more and not reducing the stateís multibillion dollar deficit.

A San Jose State University Survey and Policy Research Institute poll, Jan. 2-6, shows some growth in support for the governor among moderates and a statistical dead heat with liberal Democratic rivals, state treasurer Phil Angelides and state controller Steve Westly.

The bad news in his transparent makeover is that about half of voters say his decision to call a special election and the defeat of his ballot measures has made it less likely they will back his re-election.

So the ìRepublicratî label is fitting ñ recruiting liberal Democrat Susan Kennedy as chief of staff/political guru, and hard line conservative Steve Schmidt, the White House mediameister for Vice President Dick Cheney and Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito. That said, the governor still faces the political equivalent of a steep Austrian Alps climb. Charisma alone wonít cut it with swing voters.

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Iran: Nukes, Holocaust & Iraq

17 January 2006 |permalink | email article

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the hard-line conservative elected president of Iran last June, has made two things perfectly clear: he will continue Iranís controversial nuclear program and further his attempt to destroy Israel.

A defiant Ahmadinejad, saying Iran would press ahead with its nuclear program, told Western governments Saturday that he is unafraid of the threat of economic sanctions because ìultimately they need us more than we need them.î The Iranian oil minister on Sunday issued an oil price warning should sanctions be imposed. 

President Bush has said that an Iran armed with nuclear weapons is ìa grave threat to security.” Russia and China agreed with the U.S. and European allies that Iran must suspend its nuclear program. But both, with strong trade ties to Iran, stopped short Monday of demanding a referral for sanctions to the UN Security Council - a setback for the U.S., U.K., France and Germany. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in Moscow, raised hell with Vladimir Putin who favors a compromise. 

The Washington Post said Ahmadinejad in his news conference described it ìlaughableî that his assertions in October that Israel be ìwiped off the map,î and his reference to the Holocaust as ìmythî may have seeded doubts out the peaceful nature of Iranís nuclear program.

But on Sunday Iran said it would sponsor a conference to examine scientific evidence supporting the Holocaust, the Nazisí slaughter of 6 million European Jews during World War II. This taunting escalation is viewed as Ahmadinejadís next move to threaten the existence of the Jewish state.

His statements reflect the established positions of Iranís unelected officials, ultimately approved by the nationís supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. On Iraq, here is the critical political question: Is Iraqi democracy compatible with Iranian theocracy?

While there are Shiite majorities in each country, it is unclear whether the Shiites in Iraq are a unified force, or if Teheran could exercise suspected undue influence on a friendly Baghdad as the struggling new government unfolds. Iraqi Shiites are Arab, not Persian like their Shiite counterparts. They did not rise up against Saddam or fight for Iran in the 1980 to 1988 Iran-Iraq war.

Donald Rumsfeld alleged Iranian-sponsored fighting forces were inside Iraq during the war against Saddam, presenting a threat to U.S. troops. Shiite domination of the new Iraqi government, coupled with Ahmadinejadís hatred for the U.S., endangers Bushís murky Iraq ìstrategy for victory.î A secular-led Sunni civil war, discounted by Washington, would bring the explosive democracy-theocracy issue quickly to the fore.

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Weekend: Of Many Issues

15 January 2006 |permalink | email article

Al-Qaeda No. 2: Going into the weekend, citing unnamed American intelligence agents, U.S. networks reported a CIA airstrike on a remote border village aimed at killing terrorist mastermind Ayman al-Zawahri. The mission failed but killed at least 17 people, enraged thousands of tribesmen, was condemned by Pakistan. The Pentagon, State Department and National Security Council all said they had no knowledge on reports concerning al-Zawahri. Fresh failure in decapitating Al-Qaeda or just more bureaucratic bungling? To be a fly on the wall when John Kerry meets over the weekend in Pakistan with President Musharraf, Bushís pal and strangely equivocal ally in the failed hunt for Osama bin Laden. Oh wellÖ

Artful New Jersey Dodger: Judge Alito is less like Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. on constitutional interpretation and originalism and closer to Justice Scalia than Thomas. Despite liberal posturing, odds portent a messy full Senate fight but confirmation ñ a big win for ìheck of a guyî Bush, with little else to cheer about, and uncertainty about Senate races this year. ABC News figured Alito over 18 hours responded to 677 questions over three days. A Judiciary Committee tally showed that, in exchanges with 18 members, Alitoís time exceeded the Senatorsí time asking only 9 times in attempting to learn his views of critical issues like presidential power and abortion. It was an ominous Democratic strategy failure - talking more and listening less. The garrulous Joe Biden, for one, talked for almost 47 minutes; Alitoís response: just under 19 minutes. 

Hardball Arnold: New indication the California governor is a Republicrat even as he pretends to move to the center. First, he hires Susan Kennedy, a lifelong Democratic consultant strategist as his new chief of staff. He also dispatches the turncoat liberal to woo wealthy GOP fat cat donors for his reelection effort, giving them private access for cash, And yes, besides a state salary, sheís being paid extra with campaign funds. Second, Schwarzenegger has hired tough guy Steve Schmidt, 35, media guru in Alitoís nomination battle. Part of the ìrapid responseî team in W.ís re-election, Schmidt has since been Vice President Cheneyís PR chief. Has he also been advising Cheney confidante Scooter Libby, indicted in the CIA leak case?

300 Millionth Baby: With the population growing by one person every 14 seconds ñ and a baby born every 8 seconds - the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that the a baby born this year will become the 300 millionth American. William Frey, a demographer with the University of Michigan, predicts the baby ìwill be a Mexican Latino in Los Angeles County, with parents who speak Spanish at home and with siblings that are bilingual.î With conception of a “million-dollar baby” sometime this month, most likely in the West or suburban South, political futurists may already be speculating about the direction of a ìYî generation.


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Sectarian War: Questions for W.

12 January 2006 |permalink | email article

Two stories in the New York Times, one Jan. 7 and another today, raise new questions about the war in Iraq and the present volatile situation. The first said U.S. officials were talking with local Iraqi insurgent leaders to exploit a rift that had opened between homegrown insurgents and radical groups like Al Qaeda, and an opportunity to draw Sunni Arabs more into the political process.

The Jan. 7 dispatch, ignored by main stream media, said the talks have made little progress because of a demand for a timetable for withdrawal of American forces - a Sunni demand, which Bush has repeatedly refused. Todayís story tells of several clashes between local fighters from the Islamic Army and Al Qaeda fighters, including a battle fought Oct. 23 near Baghdad and others across the Sunni Triangle in recent months.

These battles, including mostly Iraqi nationalists and ex-members of Saddam Husseinís Baath Party, suggest an undeclared sectarian war is raging and undercuts explicit or implied links between Saddam and Al Qaeda in the 9/11 attacks ñ Bushís justification for the U.S. invasion.

My November 30 post, ìThe Cover Up Continues,î quoted from a report by Murray Waas the previous week in the nonpartisan National Journal that 10 days after the attacks:

ìPresident Bush was told in a highly classified briefing that the U.S. intelligence community had no evidence linking the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein to the attacks and there was scant evidence that Iraq had any collaborative ties with Al Qaeda.î

Waas also found ìfew credible reportsî of Iraqi-Al Qaeda contacts involved Husseinís efforts to infiltrate Islamic terrorist groups, which he regarded as anathema to his secular regime. Remember that in 1983 Reagan emissary Donald Rumsfeld physically embraced Saddam as a secular ally in the U.S. struggle in the war against Iranís theocratic rulers. Iran today is again a player.

The growing sectarian strife does underscore the importance Bush attaches to involving Sunni Arabs in a national government coalition since Shiite and Kurdish political groups did not win enough seats to form a government coalition of their own. But secular-religious tensions remain high. Shiites accuse Sunnis of encouraging violence, while Sunnis accuse Shiite-controlled security forces of assassination and torture.

That Sunni leaders are known to be discussing setting up armed local militias to protect residents from assaults from Shiite police and troops is another strong indication that internal strife within Iraq is near a tipping point.

Bush insists he will settle for ìnothing less than complete victoryî in Iraq. But he is staring at a no-win possibility unless the Sunni-Shiite situation is resolved: draw down U.S. troops soon, or keep them there for a generation to defend democracy in Mesopotamia, a war-zone graveyard for centuries.


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The Alito Quiz

10 January 2006 |permalink | email article

Today, as hearings begin on the confirmation of Judge Samuel Alito Jr., the expectation was that they would be quite different than those for Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. four months ago. Partisans on both sides thought they would take a sharp ideological turn.

It has not happened because the public is not yet engaged and see the Alito process a lot less like the explosive ideological clashes in the past involving Robert H. Bork and Clarence Thomas and more focused, as in the case of Roberts, on demeanor and substance.

While Alito says he will follow the law, Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee will key on his past statements about such issues as presidential power, abortion and other hot buttons in an attempt to put him on the defensive. And perhaps drop a bombshell in an attempt to derail him.

Short of that, and as recent polls have shown, Alito may be on the path to confirmation. A groundswell of opposition has not yet developed and the Democrats so far have failed to make an overarching argument that his confirmation would move the swing vote held by Justice Sandra Day OíConnor further to the right.

Democratic pollster Celinda Lake told the Washington Post the holiday break worked to the advantage of Alito. Rather than giving opponents time to organize, ìit gave the public time to be complacent.î

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll, completed Jan. 8, indicates a majority of Americans favor Alitoís confirmation and an even bigger proportion believe he would not vote to overturn Roe v. Wade.

There is danger for the Democrats in attempting a filibuster, especially since many must run for re-election in Republican-held states. The biggest problem today for the party opposite is that the rank-and-file has not been galvanized ñ 40% supporting the appointment, and 39% opposed. Even liberals narrowly outnumber supporters in opposition.

Kennedy, Leahy and their colleagues have to hope that the 20% of Americans who are undecided about the nominee get fired up enough by the hearings in the next 72 hours to electrify public interest and force W. back to the drawing board. Possible but not probable.

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NFL Stadium Battle in LA

09 January 2006 |permalink | email article

ìCuriouser and curiouser,î as Alice cried out in ìAlice in Wonderland,î best describes a politically charged game involving negotiations between rival local interests with the National Football League to return professional football to Los Angeles.

A united Coliseum Commission, with the powerful backing of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, supports a reconfigured Coliseum and has worked closely on a stadium deal with the NFL for years. 

Then, on Dec. 29, the Boston Herald dropped a holiday bombshell. It disclosed that Dodgers owner Frank McCourt was in stealth negotiations with the NFL to build a 65,000 seat stadium with an entertainment center and retail space on the parking space surrounding Dodger Stadium ñ a nonpareil site for a crown jewel multiplex.

Bizarrely dubbed ìFive Ton Gorilla,î the proposal cited documents, authenticated by the Dodgers, revealing that McCourtís representatives held secret meetings with NFL officials last fall in Los Angeles even as the league has continued to focus publicly on the Coliseum site. After the story broke, many local political figures expressed outrage at the duplicity of McCourt and the NFL.

McCourt responded that he is a strong supporter of bringing the NFL to the city and made it ìabundantly clear that I support the (Los Angeles) Coliseum as the site for the NFLís new team.î (He unsuccessfully sought to buy the Red Sox in 2001 and build a new stadium on his South Boston land.). But the full story remains to be told.

Among intriguing questions:

* What is the pivotal role and conflict, if any, of Latham & Watkins, the powerful L.A. law firm which represents the Dodgers, the NFL and USC? 

* When NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue met with Villaraigosa last November did he mention the secret McCourt talks and, if so, did the mayor mention them to the Coliseum Commission?

* Did McCourt or his associates brief Villaraigosa about the proposal and, if so, was the Commission informed?

* Is USCís Board of Trustees committed to the Coliseum in adjoining Exposition Park where the football Trojans play, or is McCourtís venue seen internally as a better option?

Trivia note: The fledgling NFL had a history, if not gridiron success, with Brooklynís football Dodgers. Playing in Ebbets Field (1930-1944) the team never won a championship and finished second four times in the NFL East. 

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Language Flaw in Iraq

08 January 2006 |permalink | email article

President Bush says heís impressed when somebody comes up to him and speaks Texan. ìI know they appreciate Texas culture.î

So heís proposed spending over $100 million on educational programs to expand the teaching of Arabic, Chinese, Farsi and other languages typically not taught in public schools. But this fact alone underscores that the lack of such training is a long term weakness in U.S. education; in military terms it exposes a clear and present danger in the ìwar on terror.î

The president told college and university presidents last week the effort would play a critical role in national security and lead to American studentsí gaining a better understanding of foreign cultures. Robert Birgeneau, chancellor at the University of California, Berkeley, told the New York Times he was among presidents last year in Washington who discussed similar language issues with the CIA. His understanding was that ìtheir needs are desperate.î

Such concern remains a major flaw in Bushís questionable ìPlan for Victory.î James Fallows argued in the Atlantic Monthly last month that an orderly exit from Iraq depends on a viable security force and the ability of the U.S. military to solve its major language problems.

He wrote that U.S. forces and trainers should have about 22,000 interpreters instead of just one or two per company. This omission represents another failure of the White House to prepare troops for battle and keep them out of harmís way. A secret Pentagon study has found 80% of marines killed in Iraq could have survived if they had extra body armor. 

The language blunder can only be corrected by crash language training of thousands of military personnel. ìWhen somebody takes the time to figure out how to speak Arabic, it means theyíre interested in somebody elseís culture,î W. opined. Now that it’s been figured out for him, how serious is he about fixing the problem?

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Jack in a Box

05 January 2006 |permalink | email article

Itís not a happy new year for the Washington establishment. In the biggest federal corruption scandal to hit Congress in a generation, superlobbyist Jack Abramoff has pleaded guilty to fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials.

The longtime Republican operative has agreed to spill the beans about powerful congressmen, aides and lobbyists with whom he has done business to reduce a long prison sentence. Emerging from federal court dressed in a black trench coat and matching fedora and looking like a Mafia Don in a remake of “The Godfather,” he represented an extreme outreach of power in trading influence from the time the GOP took control of the House in 1994.

Whatís worrisome to members of Congress about the bribery case is that many of its elements include solicitation transactions that routinely occur daily in Washington. But the flamboyant Abramoff set a new standard for ethical impropriety and government for sale by providing lawmakers with exotic trips, free meals and lavish entertainment.

Nothing better illustrates the uneasy relationship between government and money than the unbelievable reaction of California Rep. Dana Rohrabacher. He represents some coastal cities in southern Los Angeles and Orange counties, has been a pal of Abramoff for two decades and provided a loan reference for his purchase of the SunCruz casino fleet in 2000.

ìI think heís been dealt a bad hand and the worst, rawest deal Iíve ever seen in my life. Words like bribery are being used to describe things that happened every day in Washington and are not bribes.î The feds disagree. 

Rohrabacher, a freebie at Signatures, Abramoffís posh former power restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue ñ and whose name had a FOO (Friend of Owner) Comp designation next to it - dined once or twice a month there and said the meals fell under the friendship designation in House rules. He told the New York Times that he tried to take Abramoff out regularly, paying for the lobbyistsí meals in return.

Although some powerful Democrats received money from Abramoffís clients, Republicans may have more to worry about in the November 2006 midterm elections. Key players in the Abramoff network included indicted former majority leader Tom DeLay; Ohio Rep. Bob Ney; and the conservative lobbyists Ralph Reed and Grover Norquist. House Speaker Dennis Hastert hastened this week to give $60 grand he received to charity.

This scandal raises comparisons with the Teapot Dome bribery scandal in the 1920s that ruined the reputation of Republican President Warren G. Harding and lingered for a decade afterwards. Teapot Dome never reached Harding personally. But it ruined his administrationís reputation. One wonders how far this investigation will extend, how effective Abramoff’s testimony will be and how close it may come to the Bush White House.



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W. and Fourth Amendment

04 January 2006 |permalink | email article

Consider this outrageous presidential statement to justify a questionable legal act: ìIf somebody from Al Qaeda is calling you, weíd like to know why.î Yes, George W. Bush is so obsessed with another Al Qaeda attack that heís authorized warrantless eavesdropping on U.S. citizens ìto find out what the enemy is thinking.î

His first remarks of 2006,  a vigorous defense of the NSA program as a matter of national security, were intended to deflect bipartisan congressional inquiries this month into his authorization of spying as ìnecessaryî to protect the U.S. in the war on terrorism.

The NSA is required to seek permission, on a case by case basis, from a special panel of federal judges before conducting any type of domestic surveillance. But the president insists that the congressional authorization to use force against Al Qaeda, passed after 9/11, allowed him to approve NSA intercepts without a court order.

Did Bush overstep his constitutional authority and violate a law intended to prevent the government from spying on its citizens without court approval? That question took on alarming new meaning New Yearís Day.

The New York Times reported that a top Justice Department official, James B. Comey, in March 2004 objected to aspects of the NSAís domestic surveillance program and refused to sign on to its continued use amid concerns about its legality and oversight. Comey was acting attorney general during Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft’s hospitalization hospitalization for gallbladder surgery.

Two of Bushís top aides, chief of staff Andrew Card Jr. and then-White Counsel Alberto Gonzales, made an emergency visit to Ashcroft ìbecause they needed him for certification.î The Times wrote it is unclear ìwhether the White House ultimately persuaded Ashcroft to give his approval to the program after the meeting or moved ahead without it. Comey could not be reached for comment.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has asked Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), just as concerned, to request testimony from Card Jr., Gonzales and Ashcroft. The nation is approaching another Nixonesque moment. Bush ought to read the Fourth Amendment again, and very carefully.

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Arnold: A Second Close-Up

03 January 2006 |permalink | email article

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger delivers the customary State of the State address this Thursday. After the disastrous failure of his ìyear of reformî ballot crusade, can the one-time bodybuilder overcome his demonized image with a political makeover?

Respected California historian Kevin Starr thinks the governor can recoup. In the Sunday Los Angeles Timesí ëCurrentí he admits a minor role as historical consultant in the address where the governor will outline a bold program of infrastructure construction and innovation, principally financed by a $25-billion-to $27-billion bond issue.

The USC professor sees the reconciliation of Schwarzenneger and former Democratic Gov. Gray Davis as a good bipartisan omen. The dream of a bold new public vision that former Gov. Earl Warren first outlined in 1944, sustained by him and continued by governors Goodwin Knight and Pat Brown into the 1960s is for Starr the key to Schwarzeneggerís comeback.

Less sanguine about a rebound is veteran Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters who thinks the new year raises more questions than answers about Schwarzeneggerís ìseesaw governorship.î

He wonders whether the governor can re-energize his disaffected Republican base, cool to his ballot measure crusade and livid about the appointment of longtime liberal Democratic activist Susan Kennedy (a former Davis operative) as his savvy chief of staff.

Walters questions whether there is any way, short of a tax increase, to balance the deficit-plagued state budget and whether Democrats, interested in a big infrastructure package, would leverage a much weakened governor by demanding that he sign Democratic bills heís rejected in the past.

Democrat Maria Shriver - who abstained from her husbandís doomed campaign, which pandered to business and the hard right, and alienated nurses, teachers, and law enforcement ñ upstaged her party by recruiting the turncoat Kennedy. 

Glimpses of a ìnew Arnoldî are emerging. Nominating state appeals justice Carol Corrigan, a moderate, to succeed ultra-conservative Janice Rogers Brown on the California Supreme Court has won praise. On Thursday heíll propose raising the stateís minimum wage by $1 after vetoing a similar measure two years in a row.

With an unfavorable approval rating below 40%, the repackaged Republicrat needs more than a vision to repair his image. A Democratic gubernatorial primary donnybrook in June between the liberal multimillionaires, Treasurer Phil Angelides and Controller Steve Westly, might help.

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New Year 2006

02 January 2006 |permalink | email article

Political pundits make their predictions; people of good faith agree or disagree; the search for justice, peace and happiness remains unrequited. Consider the value of mindfulness in a turbulent world:

And now let us believe in the long year that is given to us, new, untouched, full of things that have never been.

óThe poet Rainer Maria Rilke

To return to the present is to be in contact with life. Life can be found only in the present moment, because ëthe past no longer isí and ëthe future has not yet come.í

óThe Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh

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Life and Death

01 January 2006 |permalink | email article

A somber W. continues to liberate the “way forward” in Iraq, apparently still believing a military solution in Baghdad will snatch victory from defeat despite the grim conditions on the ground.

But the real news, as 2006 ended,… read full story

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