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January 1, 2006 - Getting Ahead on the News

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Between the Tournament of Roses Parade on Monday the 2nd and the Rose Bowl Game on the 4th (the Trojans and the Longhorns) nothing much is scheduled for Tuesday between the two, except for this, as the Associated Press notes here - "Federal prosecutors and lawyers for Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff are putting the finishing touches on a plea deal that could be announced as early as Tuesday, according to people familiar with the negotiations. The plea agreement would secure the lobbyist's testimony against several members of Congress who received favors from him or his clients."

The New York Times puts it this way - "The indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff must decide by Tuesday whether he will accept a plea or stand trial on fraud charges in a Florida case, a judge in Federal District Court told Mr. Abramoff's lawyers and prosecutors in a court hearing on Friday." Or putting it another way - "how far up the chain is he willing to spill the beans to save his own sorry hide from a substantial chunk of time in the federal prison system? How much is he going to pay back in restitution to all those tribal interests that he bilked for his crony pals in Congress and in the Republican money chain?" The hearing should be at 3:30 in the afternoon - regardless of whether the deal is reached or not, presumably to go over with the guy what the ramifications of his decision are, and to take care of any scheduling matters for trial, or otherwise.

We're talking up to twenty criminal cases against congressmen and their staffers. That should be interesting.

But on the last day of the year, it got even more interesting - as it seems Abramoff passed millions from Russian oil and gas interests over to Tom DeLay, the already indicted (on another matter) former Republican house leader. The Washington Post in the last day of the year ran this in the front page - "The DeLay-Abramoff Money Trail - Nonprofit Group Linked to Lawmaker Was Funded Mostly by Clients of Lobbyist."

Say what?

This –


The US Family Network, a public advocacy group that operated in the 1990s with close ties to Rep. Tom DeLay and claimed to be a nationwide grass-roots organization, was funded almost entirely by corporations linked to embattled lobbyist Jack Abramoff, according to tax records and former associates of the group.

During its five-year existence, the US Family Network raised $2.5 million but kept its donor list secret. The list, obtained by The Washington Post, shows that $1 million of its revenue came in a single 1998 check from a now-defunct London law firm whose former partners would not identify the money's origins.

Two former associates of Edwin A. Buckham, the congressman's former chief of staff and the organizer of the US Family Network, said Buckham told them the funds came from Russian oil and gas executives. Abramoff had been working closely with two such Russian energy executives on their Washington agenda, and the lobbyist and Buckham had helped organize a 1997 Moscow visit by DeLay (R-Tex.).

The former president of the US Family Network said Buckham told him that Russians contributed $1 million to the group in 1998 specifically to influence DeLay's vote on legislation the International Monetary Fund needed to finance a bailout of the collapsing Russian economy.


That's amusing. And is Josh Marshall comments here, for five years in the late nineties this the US Family Network did little or no public advocacy on behalf of conservative family issues or much of anything else - "It seems to have been run pretty much as a piggy bank and money pass-through by and for a number of DeLay operators - including Jack Abramoff and Ed Buckham." The Marianas Island put in a half million to protect the sweatshops there, the Choctaw Indians tossed in a quarter million; and shadowy Russian oil and gas interests (also Abramoff clients) came up with a million or more - money laundered through a now-defunct British law firm. As the Post puts it, "records, other documents and interviews call into question the very purpose of the US. Family Network, which functioned mostly by collecting funds from domestic and foreign businesses whose interests coincided with DeLay's activities while he was serving as House majority whip from 1995 to 2002, and as majority leader from 2002 until the end of September."

The US Family Network was supposed to be an advocacy group focused on the conservative "moral fitness" agenda. Right. They never actually advocated anything, and there was never a staff - there was just one person. One of DeLay's fundraising letters for the group calling it "a powerful nationwide organization dedicated to restoring our government to citizen control" by mobilizing grass-roots citizen support. He was funning with us. The Marianas Island folks wanted DeLay's public commitment to block legislation that would boost their labor costs. The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians - Abramoff's largest lobbying client - wanted help in fighting legislation that would allow the taxation of its gambling revenue. You have to pay for these things.

And it's not just Delay. In April last year, a Federal Election Commission investigation found that the US Family Network had illegally received a half million from the National Republican Congressional Committee (see this). The US Family Network was a slush fund to hand out large blocks of money to congressmen who voted the right way - for what the contributors suggested. Cool. As Marshall notes, foreign and domestic corporations pay money into front groups for favors. "And what happens to the money? Lots certainly goes to personally enrich the chief lobbyists like Abramoff and Buckham. But look closely and you'll see that lots gets pumped back in to the machine - the capitol hill 'safe house', political ads, money to the consultancies that no doubt underwrites other political operations, 'grassroots' and otherwise."

Sweet. So that's how things work. If Abramoff is flipped, this will be big, but he may fall on his sword for the Republicans, or he may mysteriously die before Tuesday.

Stay tuned.

And this was just one day after the Post broke another story with this from Dana Priest (again) - "The effort President Bush authorized shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, to fight al Qaeda has grown into the largest CIA covert action program since the height of the Cold War, expanding in size and ambition despite a growing outcry at home and abroad over its clandestine tactics, according to former and current intelligence officials and congressional and administration sources."

Most of the stuff is illegal and violates treaties we have with the rest of the world - torture, kidnapping, "disappearing" people.

But the rationale is still the same –


The administration contends it is still acting in self-defense after the Sept. 11 attacks, that the battlefield is worldwide, and that everything it has approved is consistent with the demands made by Congress on Sept. 14, 2001, when it passed a resolution authorizing "all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons [the president] determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks."

"Everything is done in the name of self-defense, so they can do anything because nothing is forbidden in the war powers act," said one official who was briefed on the CIA's original cover program and who is skeptical of its legal underpinnings. "It's an amazing legal justification that allows them to do anything," said the official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issues.


But too many in the CIA are upset by this, or ticked off because it doesn't get us information, alienates our allies, and seems designed simply so George and Dick can get their macho-jollies. Lots of folks are leaking to the Post.

Here's a cool detail of how the "new" CIA works - "The agency is working to establish procedures in the event a prisoner dies in custody. One proposal circulating among mid-level officers calls for rushing in a CIA pathologist to perform an autopsy and then quickly burning the body, according to two sources."

Well, this whole story may not have legs, as they say. It's too Hollywood. We know, from the movies, that's what the CIA does. It's all what folks expect.

Will the matter of the president's executive order to the National Security Agency - that they bypass all existing laws and check out what Americans citizens say to each other on the telephone, what they send to each other in emails, and what websites they visit, without any warrants or probable cause - continue to be of interest? The president flat-out said he ordered these guys to break existing laws and violate the Fourth Amendment and he'll keep them doing it. He said he's allowed, as he's the president and we're at war, and the congress told him to fight it any way he wanted.

We'll see. Friday the Associate Press reported here and CNN here that the Justice Department has opened an investigation into the leak of classified information about this secret domestic spying program to the New York Times. Oddly this is a year after the Administration knew Times was working the story and tried to talk them out of running it. Retaliation? Michelle Malkin, the right-side pundit who has called for internment camps for all American Muslims just as we "rightly did" with the Japanese in WWII, is pleased. She'd like the Times shut down - treason and all that.

Curiously, on the last day of the year, the White House said it had "no role" in the Justice Department's decision to investigate the leaking of classified information indicating that the president authorized this secret government wiretap program (see this). They just did it on their own? Maybe so. Believe what you will.

This story won't die.

On the other hand, its subset will. As reported in Business Week, if you visited the NSA website, until recently you got a cookie. No, not chocolate chip - one of those bits of code was dropped onto your hard drive that allowed the NSA to follow what websites you visited from then on. Some "cookies" are common - they allow you to retain passwords and registration information, and for Amazon and the like, allow Amazon to track what books you've ordered and offer similar good stuff just for you. You can disable all cookies, so you computer doesn't accept them, but that's a pain. Except for the tracking cookies - watching your surfing habits - they're useful. The problem is the government isn't supposed to use them at all. In a 2003 memo, the White House's Office of Management and Budget prohibits federal agencies from using persistent cookies - those that aren't automatically deleted right away - unless there is a "compelling need."

The NSA folks said this was an accident. They won't do it any more. No cookies. The White House website, by the way, has been passing out cookies, too (see this). That'll stop.

By the way, there is software that allows you to block only the bad tracking cookies, not the useful ones. Here the Lavasoft software has blocked 14,967 tracking cookies so far - since July. There are lots of such tools. This issue is minor.

Is Uzbekistan a minor issue?

Friday the 30th there was this in The Independent (UK) - Ex-Envoy to Uzbekistan Goes Public on Torture


Britain's former ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, has defied the Foreign Office by publishing on the internet documents providing evidence that the British Government knowingly received information extracted by torture in the "war on terror".

Mr Murray, who publicly raised the issue of the usefulness of information obtained under torture before he was forced to leave his job last year, submitted his forthcoming book, Murder in Samarkand, to the Foreign Office for clearance. But the Foreign Office demanded that he remove references to two sensitive government documents, which undermine official denials, to show that Britain had been aware it was receiving information obtained by the Uzbek authorities through torture. Rather than submit to the gagging order Mr Murray decided to publish the material on the internet.

The first document published by Mr Murray contains the text of several telegrams that he sent to London from 2002 to 2004, warning that the information being passed on by the Uzbek security services was torture-tainted, and challenging MI6 claims that the information was nonetheless "useful". The second document is the text of a Foreign Office legal opinion which argues that the use by intelligence services of information extracted through torture is not a violation of the UN Convention Against Torture.


That's curious. Uzbekistan is one of our allies in this War on Terror too, although they are nasty folks, and we probably should have nothing to do with them, as both Fred Kaplan and even mad-for-war Christopher Hitchens point out. Markos at Daily Kos - "The US marriage of convenience with Uzbekistan, perhaps the most repressive regime in the world, gives lies to all the bullshit post-WMD justifications for invading Iraq ('evil regime' and all that jazz). Among other atrocities, Uzbekistan boils its dissidents alive. And no, that's not from Amnesty International or other "do-gooder" organization, but from the State Department's 2004 human rights report."

There's much more here - the documents are all over the web.

Here's an excerpt - "At the Khuderbegainov trial I met an old man from Andizhan. Two of his children had been tortured in front of him until he signed a confession on the family's links with Bin Laden. Tears were streaming down his face. I have no doubt they had as much connection with Bin Laden as I do. This is the standard of the Uzbek intelligence services."

The Brits use these guys. So do we. The coordination between the Uzbek, British, and American governments is quite public (and they have lots of oil and natural gas there too). Last year we gave Uzbekistan half a billion in aid, a quarter of it military aid. Contractors at our military bases there are extending the design life of the buildings from ten to twenty-five years.

A comment from Greg Saunders here


And this is the standard that we're living under with a President who looks the other way while children are being tortured.

To the fools out there who routinely praise the President for having the "moral clarity" to call terrorists evil, how can you reconcile that with the chummy relationship he's made with tyrants? The lesser of two evils argument doesn't really work when you chide anyone whose view of fighting terrorism is more nuanced than "smoke them out of their holes" and you verbally fellate the President for being "right on the only issue that matters". You're either in favor of moral relativism or you're not.

Of course, coming up with a worldview that's logically consistent has it's troubles, since it would naturally lead to having an open, honest debate about whether or not the United States should be torturing people. Which is why the Administration (and their sycophantic toadies) ignore the substance of the seemingly-neverending stream of torture memos in the hopes of running out the clock (ie. news cycle) with their vehement denials to misstated questioning.

But to take things back to square one, it should be repeated again and again that this would all stop if the President wanted it to. With a phone call to the Uzbek government, he could threaten to eliminate foreign aid until human rights abuses ceased. With a stroke of his pen, he could fire Donald Rumsfeld and replace him with a Defense Secretary serious about curbing detainee abuse. Working with Congressional leaders, he could cooperate with stymied investigations into torture. For the most powerful man in the world, the torture of innocent people could be eliminated tomorrow if he cared enough.

Why he hasn't done any of these things leads us back to the eternal debate about the presidency of George W. Bush. Is he so isolated from bad news that he has no idea about the abuses that are happening on his watch? Is he a callous monster who thinks the torture of innocents is justified by the "greater good" of whatever the hell he's trying to accomplish? Or is it a combination of the two? Either way, I don't know how much longer we can afford to have the reputation of the United States tarnished while we ponder the endless "idiot or asshole?" debate.


All very curious.

But all this is on the blog and in the foreign papers. No American media will touch this. Don't expect a January follow-up.

As for other late-year stories that may or may not have legs, there's this - as with all the stories of the CIA abducting (kidnapping) suspects, sometimes on the basis of a mistaken name, flying them off to countries like Egypt or Syria for some "enhanced" interrogation (torture) - "extraordinary rendition" and all that - it now seems the British government may have been doing the same thing, using Greece as its torture chamber, after last summer's London subway bombing. They're learning from us.

Then there's this (via cursor.org) - a recently-passed house bill, introduced by Representative James Sensenbrenner and praised by President Bush, would subject priests, nurses and social workers who render aid to illegal immigrants to five years in prison and seizure of assets. The word is that it will die in the senate. But it is curious. Compassionate conservatism? Would the seized assets go to the Republican National Committee? Put a band-aid on the scrapped knee of some five-year-old and do five in the pen and lose your home? Interesting. Better check his Green Card first.

The first few weeks of the year should be interesting.


Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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