Friday, April 29, 2005

Iraqi Mass Graves

A mass grave with around 1,500 bodies dating back to the Saddam Hussein regime has been unearthed in Iraq.

Freedom Journal Iraq and the Pentagon Channel -- part of the Pentagon's television service -- broke the story late today. It's one of the largest mass graves found in Iraq since the start of the war in 2003.

The State Department's USAID quotes British Prime Minister Tony Blair on its website that the remains of 400,000 people had been found in Iraqi mass graves as of January, 2005. By that time, investigators had found 270 mass graves around the country dating to the Saddam years.

Human Rights Watch has estimated that as many as 290,000 Iraqis were "disappeared" during the Saddam years. They have an extensive collection of reports on Iraqi mass graves and their importance in all potential war crime trials. (Pentagon Channel)

Mmmm-mmmm. You Can Almost Smell the Pork A-Cookin' in them Books.

Congress has passed a $2.6 trillion budget. That'll leave Uncle Sam with a $383 billion dollar deficit to add to the National Debt. The vote was close, 52-47 in the Senate, 214-211 in the House. The spending plan calls for cutting back Medicaid for the first time since 1997.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) says Medicaid needed cutting because it's "rife with waste."

Some bills get Rep DeLay's scrutiny, others don't. Especially if the money will be spent in Rep DeLay's back yard. Back in January, Rep DeLay prevented the House from looking for any waste in NASA's budget request. He got NASA's full budget request delivered without a separate vote or debate. NASA's Johnson Space Center just happens to be in Rep DeLay's district.

Back in November, USA Today reported Rep DeLay was OK with $15.8 billion in extras slipped into a $388 billion spending plan:

"I'm very proud of the fact that we held the line and made Congress make choices and set priorities, because it follows our philosophy," House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, said.

A look at the fine print in the legislation, however, reveals more than 11,000 earmarks" that add up to about $15.8 billion, or about 4% of the overall spending. Earmarks are money set aside for special projects. These include $300,000 for a parking garage in Auburn, Maine, $8 million to rehabilitate a "historic cafeteria building" in Oregon's Crater Lake National Park and $1.1 million for research into the development of baby food and other products made from salmon.

No word yet from the usual watchdogs on what kind of pork's likely to be hidden in this budget. But it cuts Medicaid to get the deficit under control by 2010. At the same time, it includes $106 billion in tax cuts over the next five years -- $70 billion of which are protected against a Senate filibuster. (Globe & Mail, Washington Post)

Shielding Free Speech

A bill letting reporters protect their sources gets a Congressional Hearing next month. There's been a rash of cases where prosecuters and police seek to rely on forcing reporters to give up sources so they can further their investigations. Lawmakers wanting to protect journalists warn that whistleblowers won't come forward to reporters if they know they could be prosecuted or persecuted by having their names divulged to law enforcement.

Among some of the cases:

  • Judith Miller of the New York Times and Matthew Cooper of TIME magazine have refused to tell a grand jury who leaked the name of a CIA agent to them.
  • Five reporters appealing contempt charges for refusing to reveal sources for stories about nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee
  • TV reporter Jim Taricani of Providence, Rhode Island sentenced to house arrest for refusing to tell who gave him an FBI tape of an undercover investigation

The Free Speech Protection Act of 2005 (S. 369) -- has bipartisan support. (Boston Globe)

Government Crash Tests Hit the Wall

The Government Accountability Office finds that SUVs have skewed the government's crash test rankings. The GAO warns that the system needs to change with the times or it'll become irrelevant.

The system uses five stars to show the safety level of a vehicle in a crash. The GAO report says the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration needs to take into account rollovers, roof crushing, and how SUVs interact with smaller cars in crashes.

NHTSA spent $7.7 million last year smashing, crashing, and rolling over 121 vehicles. Most of the cars tested get four or five stars -- the highest rankings for safety.

The GAO warns that those high rankings for every car are sort of like "grade inflation." They give automakers little incentive for improving safety and don't give consumers enough information about differences in safety between different vehicles. (BaltSun)

Judges Get a Rubber Stamp With Their Gavels

Court approved wiretaps in the US surged by 19% last year -- and records show judges didn't turn down a single request for one. There were 1,710 requests for wiretaps. But they don't include terror related investigations. There's another list for those. That one shows a record 1,754 warrants issued under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Non-terrorist wiretaps shot up 26%, terrorist related taps only increased 13%.

There were about 600 convictions based on the more than 1,400 wiretaps approved, (CNN)

Word for Word: The President's News Conference

In case you missed it, or didn't get to see the whole thing because networks dropped out to get to Donald Trump and Paris Hilton, here's the transcript from the President's April 28 news conference. (The White House)

Thursday, April 28, 2005

In the Numbers

A little over a week after the State Department announced it'd no longer report numbers in its annual terrorism assessment, we find out why.

Stats from the federal government show the number and severity of terrorist attacks climbed dramatically last year. The worldwide death toll tripled over the previous year. But Washington's spinning the math to make the numbers look smaller.

The new numbers come from the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). Here's the trend they reported:

  • 2003 -- 175 incidents, 625 deaths
  • 2004 -- 651 incidents, 1,907 deaths
But the NCTC's head honcho -- John Brennan -- says you can't really compare the numbers accurately -- because Washington didn't accurately count the numbers in 2003. So they missed a bunch of attacks and deaths that should have been reported then. That would make it look like there was a big jump from 2003-2004.

His agency has added intelligence experts and analysts to better classify what counts as a terror attack, since so many suicide car bombings must have been wrongly classified as road rage in 2003.

Meanwhile, the State Department -- true to its word -- put out its terror report clensed of any statistics on the number of attacks and deaths.

If you want to see where the attacks happen, you might also want to look at the "Terrorism Knowledge Base" online. It's sponsored by the National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism. (WashPost)

Reagan -- In His Own Words

HarperCollins touts them as "the most detailed presidential diaries in America's history." What else would you expect from The Great Communicator?

Ronald Reagan's handwritten diaries will be on book shelves next year. HarperCollins has reached an agreement with Mr Reagan's Presidential library to publish the diaries that only a handful of people have ever seen. (MSNBC)

Playing Keep Up

Energy companies and the Bush administration are fond of saying that limited access to public lands is keeping America form getting all the oil and gas we need.

Just one problem. Energy companies are getting leases so fast, they're running out of drilling equipment. They've got so much access to federal land they can't keep up.

There's a shortage of oil field workers. And it takes so long to deliver new drill rigs from the factory, that it'll be a year or more before energy companies can drill on all the land they have access to now. (WashPost)

Hammer Time

Tired of the "liberal syndicate" having all the fun? Now you, too, can jump on the bandwagon and hammer "The Hammer." Think of it as "Whak-a-Weasel" on your computer with Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) popping up and popping off some of his best one-liners. ( -- HT: Taegan Goddard's Political Wire)

Blowing Smoke Out Both Sides of His Mouth

In today's edition of "Pile on Tom DeLay," TIME magazine takes on the House Majority Leader for apparent hyprocrisy over Cuba.

First this quote from Rep DeLay (R-TX) during debate over relaxing trade restrictions on Cuba last year:

"Every dime that finds its way into Cuba first finds its way into Fidel Castro's blood-thirsty hands.... American consumers will get their fine cigars and their cheap sugar, but at the cost of our national honor."

Then the photo.

It shows Rep DeLay in Jerusalem in 2003, puffing on a stogie. Zoom in on the cigar band and you see it's a $25 Hoyo de Monterrey double corona -- unavailable in the USA because it's made in "Habana."

While Rep DeLay may have violated his own standards of putting money in "Fidel Castro's blood-thirsty hands," smoking a Cuban outside the US was not a crime at the time.

It would be now. The Treasury Department has declared it illegal not only to buy Cuban cigars while in other countries -- but from even consuming Cuban cigars in other countries.

Penalties are pretty stiff: up to $250,000 in fines and 10 years in prison for a criminal conviction, or $65,000 in civil penalties.

If the Majority Leader's smoked any Cubans since the new rules took effect -- he'd better hope all the evidence went up in smoke. (TIME)

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

International Law Argument Shot Full of Holes

Hey, just because you smuggle guns into Japan doesn't mean you can't own one here.

The Supreme Court has ruled that a foreign court conviction doesn't count as a conviction in the US if you want to go out and buy a gun. Gary Sherwood Small of Pennsylvania was convicted in Japan of violating that country's gun laws. A US law says you can't own a gun here if you were convicted by "any" court.

The Supreme Court says "any" means US courts -- because other countries don't provide the same protections at the US and because something that's illegal there could be perfectly legal here.

Conservatives have been blasting the Supreme Court of late for relying on international law in reaching a conclusion. Oddly, it was three Conservative members of the Court who wanted to give international law the upper hand in this case: Justices Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia, and Anthony Kennedy.

The Bush administration had also come down on the side of international law applying to the US statute. (SF Chronicle)

National Guard and Reserve Mobilized as of April 27, 2005

There are 1,147 fewer Reservists and Guardsmen mobilized than last week. All told, there are 174,662 on active duty. (DoD)

Tax Breaks for Gas Guzzlers

Tired of high gasoline prices? Uncle Sam's ready to pay for your fill ups -- but only if you use a gas-guzzling SUV for business. It's a loophole that encourages businesses to burn gasoline. In the world of supply and demand, it would mean higher gas prices for people driving Priuses -- while Hummer owners get a welfare check to tool around in their "short buses."

Washington has a list of 41 US built and 15 foreign made SUVs that still qualify for a tax break that equals about 5 years worth of gasoline for gas guzzlers.

A tax loophole allowed businesses to deduct the full price of an SUV that weighed over 6,000 pounds -- until October of last year. You may have heard Congress closed that loophole. Not completely.

Take an $86,000 Porsche Cayenne Turbo. Now you can take a $25,000 deduction the first year and keep depreciating the thing at about $13,300 a year. That's $38,000 back the first year your business buys that Cayene.

Scott Burns at MSN Money has a chart of SUVs, the tax break on each, and how many years of fuel the break will pay for. (MSN Money)

Here Kitty, Kitty, Kitty

The other day I suggested that Democrats might next accuse embattled UN Ambassador nominee John Bolton of kicking puppies. A reader, Tom, pointed me to a 2002 article on Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) -- and what he used to do to kittens.

Seems Sen Frist, while a young medical student, would lie to animal shelters about his plans for kittens he was adopting. Rather than giving them a good home, he would give them a good dissectin'.

PETA's on the case -- too late to help the kitties who took their permanent catnaps back in the 70s.

Sen Frist admitted to the cat con in a book he wrote back in 1989. He now calls the idea of lying to get the cats "heinous and dishonest." But apparently it wasn't illegal.

At least he's willing to talk about it. I'd hate to think the cat's got his tongue. (UPI)

Post Mortem on the Pundit Payola Scandal

The Education Department's Inspector General found the Department didn't break any laws with it's role in the "Pundit Payola" scandal involving commentator Armstrong Williams. But he found a lot of waste and general screw ups in the way the whole project was handled.

The Department contracted with the Ketchum PR firm to encourage minority families to take advantage of a tutoring program. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings writes in an op-ed piece in the Houston Chronicle that the idea was a good one -- but bungled.

"This noble goal was sabotaged by a bungling execution. The department didn't get all the ads it paid to produce. In addition, the ad produced was placed in outlets that were unlikely to reach their intended targets; and the language for the task order was written so sloppily as to allow for the impression that Williams' public endorsement of the law as a commentator, as well as the ads his firm produced, would be helpful."

The contract was signed and carried out before Sec Spellings took the helm at the Education Department. (Houston Chronicle)

Monday, April 25, 2005

Blaming the Messenger

If we ignore the horrors of war they won't go away. They'll still be there. We'll just be ignorant. And, as George Orwell's Ministry of Truth told us, "Ignorance is Bliss."

Former Paul Bremer aide Dorrance Smith, in a commentary for the Wall Street Journal, suggests a link between terrorists and US television news networks via Al-Jazeera. His logic is based on a general misunderstanding of how the news media works and the ability to ignore that anyone can buy a video camera these days -- even terrorists.

Mr Smith zeroes in on videos of hostages and terrorist attacks -- notably the recent shoot down of a civilian helicopter and execution of it's sole survivor. The whole thing shot on tape by terrorists who carried out the attack.

He criticizes Al-Jazeera for airing such graphic video in its entirity. But then jumps to the conclusion that they and the terrorists must be in cahoots with US networks because the same video turns up there within minutes:

"In addition to being subsidized by Qatar, Al-Jazeera has very strong partners in the U.S. -- ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, CNN and MSNBC. Video aired by Al-Jazeera ends up on these networks, sometimes within minutes."

Mr Smith seems to have missed the revolution of videotape -- about forty or fifty years ago. Networks monitor each other, roll tapes on each other, and air competitors' images with proper credits on the screen. Just watch any sportscast and you'll figure it out.

The Tough Call

While he has valid questions about Al-Jazeera's ties to terrorists, simply not airing video shot by terrorists does not make the event that was videotaped go away. Nor does itt make terrorists give up and never launch another attack.

Anyone with a videocamera can shoot anything from tornadoes to car crashes to their terrorist cell's operations. The video does not fuel the act -- merely record it in detail. And if it's newsworthy -- in the eyes of newsmen, not the government -- then it will make air.

While there are ethical questions in airing any such video, Mr Smith suggests there's a blanket issue of "aiding and abetting the enemy" by airing all such video. That's debatable, since it's easy to argue that these kinds of images have had more of an impact of rallying the homeland than aiding the enemy.

The Ostrich Approach

But his call on the networks to ban video simply because it was shot by terrorists is confusing. Should the History Channel not use any combat footage from German cameras to tell the story of World War II -- simply because the bad guys shot it?

More accurately, Mr Smith's opinion reflects the current Washington attitude of sweeping things under the carpet for political reasons.

This "out of sight, out of mind attitutude" is rampant in Washington. You can see it in the Bush administration's decision to scuttle State Department terrorism assessments after they showed an increase in terrorist attacks. Or Washington's sudden passion for classifying everything down to phone books as "sensitive" or "secret" information.

Truth is the First Casualty in War, Its Aid Station is the Fourth Estate

War is dirty and bloody and messy and the media should never be hamstrung to the point of hiding the true nature of war. The American people deserve to know -- good or bad -- what mess they're in.

As difficult as it is to watch -- even with the most graphic portions edited -- video can be the fairest depiction of the truth you'll find. Keeping that truth intact in the editing process is the duty of a strong, aggressive, and free press. It must never be the job of a government with a stake in what the people know and don't know.

But for the life of me, I can't figure out Mr Smith's argument that terrorist-shot video of a crash survivor forced to walk on a broken leg and then executed on the spot provokes any sympathy for terrorists.

It only fuels the resolve against such inhuman behavior. (Watching Washington)

[Crossposted at]

The High Cost of a Free Press

At last count, at least 39 journalists have died while covering the Iraq War. (Boston Globe/AP)

Payback's a Bitch

When you make a living talking on the floor of Congress, maybe you just really want the last word. It seems that so much of politics in Washington is simply a vicious cycle.

Just last week, retiring Rep Henry Hyde (R-IL) told WLS-TV in Chicago the Clinton Impeachment was in part political payback for Richard Nixon's troubles. From the WLS website:

The veteran republican is also admitting for the first time that the impeachment of Clinton may have been in part political revenge against the democrats for the impeachment proceedings against GOP President Richard Nixon 25 years earlier.

"Was this pay back?" asked Andy Shaw.

"I can't say it wasn't. But I also thought that the Republican Party should stand for something, and if we walked away from this, no matter how difficult, we could be accused of shirking our duty," said Hyde.

What's Good for the Goose...

Democrats are handing out some payback of their own with President Bush's judicial nominees. They won't back down on their threat to filibuster the nominations they've blocked before.

The President and Senate GOP leadership have launched a full court press to get 10 rejected judge nominees on the bench. Mind you, Democrats have gone along with 205 of his other nominations. The Senate confirmed 367 of President Clinton's nominees -- but Sen Patrick Leahy (D-VT) says more than 60 of President Clinton's nominees were blocked by proceedural roadblocks Republicans threw up in the Senate.

On Sunday, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) said, "If what Democrats are doing is wrong today, it won’t be right for Republicans to do the same thing tomorrow."

But What About Yesterday?

Back in 1999 and 2000, Sen Frist was one of the pack of Republicans who tried blocking Clinton court appointee Richard Paez. Sen Frist even voted to keep a Republican filibuster against Paez going.

That kind of thing had Sen Leahy ponder back on March 9, 2000:

“Whoever the next president might be, if it is a Republican president, do we start doing the same things to him the Republicans have done to President Clinton?”

The battle cry of Democrats of the day in those waning days of the Clinton years was "Give us an up-and-down vote." Exactly what the Republicans are saying today.

What goes around comes around -- and it's all around those 10 judicial nominees the President wants and Democrats don't -- and years of partisan one-upsmanship. (MSNBC)

[Crossposted at]

Washington's Hiding from Americans

Washington's using 9/11 and the threat of future terrorist attacks to hide information that used to be open to the American people. On top of that -- no one's tracking the trend to classify material. It's not just the President or military brass that can break out the "Classified" stamp. Low level bureaucrats have power, too.

Among the things now on the list:

  • The Defense Department phone directory -- formerly available at the Government Printing Office, now "For Official Use Only"
  • The EPA's web-based data base -- formerly warning Americans about the dangers posed by nearby chemical plants (a reaction to the Bhopal disaster). Fear trumps the 1986 Emergency Planning & Community Right to Know Act
  • The Justice Department rectroactively classified news releases it'd already made public -- suddenly deciding the releases already sent to TV, radio, and newspapers now present an "unwarranted invasion of personal privacy"

The fear is a boon to rubber stamp makers. It's not just "Top Secret" and "Classified" being slapped on documents that were once for your eyes as well. Washington has cooked up as many as 60 designations to hide information from you. Terms like "For Official Use Only" and "Sensitive but Unclassified."

And more than 4,000 bureaucrats have the power to use the stamps. I'd give you a list -- but it's probably "Not for Public Dissemination." (Boston Globe)

Undersecretary Bolton and Baby Formula

It's the kind of fodder a politician craves. The latest claims of UN Ambassador nominee John Bolton's verbal abuse involves baby food.

Sen Barbara Boxer (D-CA) has a letter from former Bolton legal adviser Lynne Finney. She writes that Mr Bolton "screamed I was fired."

Her infraction? Refusing to lobby for weaker restrictions on selling infant fomula in poor countries.

Now, if someone can just get him kicking puppies -- he's toast. (USAToday)

Big Brother's Got Your Name

The National Security Agency listens in on all kind of electronic communications all over the world -- including here in the US. Kinda like the whole world's a party line and they just listen in.

Turns out, US government officials call up the NSA and ask for the names of Americans the agency finds in their intercepted phone calls and e-mails.

Under federal law, your name and identity are supposed to be protected from curious bureaucrats. But the NSA has been turning over all this information without much fuss. The Los Angeles Times reports that since January, 2004, the NSA has fielded 3,000 requests.

That's come as a surprise to your hired hands in Congress.

The practice is in the spotlight because John Bolton -- President Bush's stalled UN Ambassador nominee -- was big into requesting the info himself.

During confirmation hearings, Mr Bolton said he'd made such requests only a couple times -- "maybe a few more."

Turns out, he made at least 10 requests since 2001 personally.

Considering the heat the Bolton nomination has already generated,

But then, the requirements for being a UN Ambassador apparently don't include the ability to count to 10. (LAT)

The "Successful Failure" 25 Years Later

It was a low point for the Carter administration in 1980 -- but a wake up call for the Pentagon that is now credited with victories in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq -- and other hotspots around the world.

Operation Eagle Claw was a mission to rescue the American hostages held in Iran. It was launched with poor intelligence, inadequate resources, limited communication, and no dress rehersal.

At a refueling stop in the Iranian desert, a Navy helicopter collided on the ground with an Air Force tanker. Five Airmen and three Marines died.

It's now credited with spurring the military -- focused at the time on the Soviet Union -- to take terrorism more seriously. And to develop plans to deal with terrorism scenarios. (Philadelphia Inquirer)

Friday, April 22, 2005

Cashing in on Terri Schiavo

While winter battered his home state, Sen Rick Santorum (R-PA) was raking in cash from the Sunshine State.

The Pennsylvania Senator raised $100,000 from contributors in Florida while keeping a high profile in the Terri Schiavo case in the first three months of the year. In fact, the folks at dug up campaign finance records showing the bulk of the money came in a four city swing through Florida on March 29-30 -- netting him $84,300.

That was when Sen Santorum prayed outside Ms Schiavo's hospice -- and in front of TV cameras.

He's not the first conservative to cash in on the Schiave Case.

There's the somewhat infamous "Schindler's List" -- an e-mail and mailing address database that Ms Schiavo's parents turned over to Response Unlimited. That's a company that sells mailing lists to conservative fundraising efforts. That list was compiled from people who contributed money to the Schindler family's efforts to keep their daughter on a feeding tube. (AP via Yahoo!)

Pulling the Plug

The Senate has decided to cut your losses and close down the decade long investigation into former HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros.

The probe has cost you $21 million and netted a whopping $10,000 in fines. You spent $1.26 million during the six months ending September 30 of last year.

Mr Cisneros can't even be prosecuted if the investigation turns up anything. He got a Presidential pardon more than four years ago. (WashPost)

Dang Environment: "Hail (& Thunderstorms) to the Cheif"

President Bush had to cancel his Earth Day, environmental photo-op because the environment wouldn't cooperate with him.

The President planned to pose with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park as a backdrop ("Smoky" playing into his "Clear Skies" initiative). But hail and thunderstorms were predicted.

So the President changed to an airport stop with some Earth Day remarks, delivered amid the wafting smell of jet exhaust.

Environmentalists -- always critical of the President's policies -- say you push nature far enough and nature pushes back. No sense in adding fuel to their fire by letting Mother Nature rain on his parade. (WashPost)

Saving Daylight

Buried away in the 1,000 page energy bill that's cleared the House is a plan to extend Daylight Savings Time by two months. The Transportation Department figures that'll save Americans about 100,000 barrels of oil each day of the extension -- about 1% of what we use every day.

Farmers ain't none to pleased. They say it messes with livestock and makes it harder to tend crops. Cows stay on the same natural clock regardless of what time the folks down at the dairy are on. (ABC)

Attacking Health Care

Washington's beginning to figure out what working Americans and our bosses have been complaining about for years -- that medical costs are out of hand.

It's finally hitting people in Washington, now that health care costs for the Pentagon doubled in the past four years. Taking care of 9 million active-duty and retired service members and their families shot up from $18 billion in 2001 to $36 billion this year. Estimates are that they'll hit $50 billion a year by 2010.

In typical Washington logic -- Congressional leaders decided not to find ways to bring rising costs under control. They've reccomended the Pentagon start cutting out some of the benefits for people defending the country and their families.

Sen Tom Coburn (R-OK) -- a doctor when he isn't in the Senate -- appears to grasp the problems America's health care system faces: "It's broken for our military; it's broken for everyone else." (WashPost)

[Crossposted at]

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Everyone Talks About the Weather, and this Senator is Going to Do Something About It

Right now, you can get all the weather info you need for free -- from the National Weather Service. Your tax dollars pay for it.

But Sen Rick Santorum (R-PA) wants to get rid of the freebies.

He's introduced a bill to bar the National Weather Service from competing with outfits like The Weather Channel or that Puxatawney-Phil-loving AccuWeather bunch.

The bill could ban certain information from the NWS website. Critics say that could include tornado and hurricane warnings. It would leave it up to the Commerce Secretary to decide what to pull off the site.

Sen Bill Nelson (D-FL) says it'd take the country's weather prediction services to a "pre-Internet era."

Sen Santorum and the bill's supporters say it would let the Weather Service continue issuing warnings, just not providing the same info commercial providers put out there -- like daily forecasts.

But the Weather Service's Ed Johnson says you can't issue those warnings unless you constantly update forecasts to see the danger approaching. He says, "You don't just plug in your clock when you want to know what time it is."

Right now, you can get hourly updates on temperature, humidity, and the chance of rain from the Weather Service. Same with a seven day forecast or weather data sent straight to your cell phone. All for free.

Sen Santorum's bill would have you paying to run the Weather Service -- but having to pay for those services from commercial providers.

But then what do you expect from a Senator who's state relishes Groundhog Day so much they fought to keep $100,000 in pork for the rodent's museum? (Palm Beach Post)

[Crossposted at]

The latest casualty numbers from the Pentagon show 1,559 American fatalities in the Iraq War. That includes 1,187 killed in hostile actions. The Washington Post has a list of all Americans who've died in the Iraq War and in Operation Enduring Freedom. (WashPost)

You'll Pay Billions -- And It'll Still Cost you More at the Pumps

You'll shell out $22 billion in tax breaks and corporate welfare to big energy companies through Washington's new energy bill. But the bill won't save you a penny at the gas pumps. In fact, it could cause gas prices to rise.

The AAA estimates the national average price of a gallon of gas hit $2.22 this week. And President Bush, while demanding Congress send him the energy bill for his signature -- admits it won't do anything to ease gas prices. Speaking to the US Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the President said:

"I wish I could simply wave a magic wand and lower gas prices tomorrow. [The bill] wouldn't change the price at the pump today. I know that, and you know that."

The New York Times suggests the rising gas prices have cut into the President's approval ratings and his comments on the energy bill are designed to make his administration look more proactive on gasoline prices.

But Rep Steny Hoyer (D-MD) found a report from President Bush's own Energy Department that says the bill will actually raise gasoline prices by 3-cents a gallon at the pumps. (NYT)

[Crossposted at]

Suddenly There's No Delay For the Ethics Guys

Republicans on the House Ethics Committee must be feeling the heat. They're suddenly willing to invvestigate ethics charges against House Majority Leader Tom DeLay -- even as more accusations of shady deals popped up in two major papers today.

But Democrats are holding up the probe. They want the Ethics Committee put back in order before any investigation starts.

The Committee went through a major overhaul at the beginning of this Congress -- all designed to protect Rep DeLay's position in the House. The Chairman got a pink slip and the panel was packed with Congress members who'd taken payments for Rep DeLay's PACs. Then the GOP leadership curtailed the Committee's ability to investigate Congressmen.

Today both the Houston Chronicle and New York Times ran articles detailing Rep DeLay's dealings.

The Chronicle reports that donors to Rep DeLay's PAC got skybox seats to hear the Three Tenors. The tickets for the show were provided by lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The concert payoff came the same month that the Representative was taking a $50,000 trip to Great Britain on Mr Abramoff's dime.

Meanwhile, the Times has gotten its hands on a donor list to Rep DeLay's children's charity -- the DeLay Foundation for Kids. The chairty's been around for 19 years, but has kept its donor list secret.

Rep DeLay claimed that was to protect donor privacy.

But the list shows donors include big corporations who routinely lobby Congress. Among the checks the Times checked out:

  • $100,000 from federal prison manager Corrections Corporation of Nashville
  • $50,000 from AT&T
  • $50,000 from Exxon Mobil
This charity, by the way, has no fancy offices. It operates out of a PO Box and Rep DeLay's home in Texas.

And where's that money going? The Times found building permits for the charity. The biggest single project was a $7 million dollar complex. The contractor is Bob Perry. Sound familiar? He's the guy who put up the seed money for the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth -- the anti-Kerry crew who ran independent ads in the 2004 election.

[Crossposted at]

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

National Guard and Reserve Mobilized as of April 20, 2005

There are 155 fewer Reservists and National Guardsmen mobilized this week than last. In all, 175,809 citizen Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and Coast Guard are on active duty. (DoD)

Dang Judges, Looking at International Law and Using That Internet Thingy

Stepping up the rhetoric against judges -- a bunch he could face if indicted in an ongoing grand jury probe -- Rep Tom DeLay (R-TX) targeted Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy.

President Reagan appointed Justice Kennedy, but on FOX News Radio, Rep DeLay said, "A lot of Republican-appointed judges...are judicial activists."

He blasted Justice Kennedy for relying on international law and using the Internet to research cases.

Rep DeLay has been critical of judges in the wake of the Terri Schiavo case where courts repeatedly struck down legislative attempts to prevent the removal of her feeding tube.

He apologized for his statement seemingly threatening judges -- "The time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior."

Rep DeLay faces a grand jury investigation back home in Texas on his ties to lobbyists, he's been at the center of a political storm that diluted the House Ethics Committee, and now faces new questions about taking trips that lobbyists paid for.

Amid all this heat, DeLay has been criticizing the mainstream media and liberals for his problems. And conservative groups have been busy opening a second front to take some of the political heat off the number two Republican in the House. (LAT)

[Crossposted at]

That Painting Would Defend the Homeland a Lot Better on That Wall

It takes a lot of silk flowers and artwork to keep the Homeland safe. The Homeland Security Department's acting Inspector General has a report out showing the Transportation Security Administration shopping spree for it's new $19 million crisis management center. The report cites nearly $500,000 for artwork, silk plants and other brik-a-brac. The report -- Irregularities in the Development of the Transportation Security Operations Center -- breaks down the expenses:

  • $252,392 for artwork
  • $29,032 for art consultants
  • $30,085 for silk plants
  • $13,861 for lamps and such
On top of that, the vendors added a 20% markup coming to $174,000.

The report also claims workspaces are bigger than normally allowed. The Center has 55 offices, 45 featuring cable TV. The center has 7 seperate kitchens complete with $3,000 refrigerators. The 79 federal workers at the center also got a 4,200 square foot fitness center with towel laundry service. (BaltSun)

[Crossposted at]

Different Reads

Representatives who've seen a classified Government Accountability Office report have different opinions on what it says about airport security.

Rep John Mica (R-FL) says it shows private screeners do a better job of finding dangerous objects than the government's Transportation Security Administration.

Rep Peter DeFazio (D-OR) says the report's findings are statistically insignificant and airports should keep TSA screeners.

The report compared TSA screened airports with work at the five airports still allowed to have private screeners after 9/11. All five have federal government supervision of their private screeners. (BaltSun)

Can You Hear Me Now? We're Big Business and the Customer is Such a Nuisance.

In a sign that big business is used to getting its way, Verizon Communications Chairman and CEO Ivan Seidenberg says we just expect too much from our cell phones.

"Why in the world would you think your (cell) phone would work in your house?' he asked. 'The customer has come to expect so much. They want it to work in the elevator, they want it to work in the basement." (St Pete Times)

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

The Troops Wait While Washington Piles on the Pork

President Bush asked around two months ago for $82 million in emergency money for troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. But the bill's hung up in the Senate where it's been described as a "Pandora's Box of pork."

Among the pet projects tucked into the bill so far:
  • Sen Thad Cochran (R-MS) -- $35 million for a wastewater project in DeSoto County, Mississippi
  • Sen Pete Domenici (R-NM) -- $40 million for three projects involving the National Nuclear Security Administration (with three sites in his home state)
  • Sen Diane Feinstein (D-CA) -- $34.3 million to repair national forest roads in California damaged by winter flooding, $11 million for water projects in southern California
  • Sen Harry Reid (D-NV) -- $4 million for the Fire Sciences Academy in Elk, Nevada, $500,000 for a University of Reno oral history project
  • Sen Conrad Burns (R-MT) -- $5 million for a Fort Peck, Montana fish hatchery
  • Sen Ted Stevens (R-AK) -- $42 million for a new aircraft hangar in his home state
In all, the Senate has stripped $542 million from the President's request for defense requests and tsunami relief efforts and added $406 million for domestic projects. (LAT)

The Seatbelt Liberation Front

ABC News has gotten hold of a secret FBI report showing 22 domestic terrorism outfits at the center of 338 active FBI investigations.

Among them, the Aryan Nations. Their World Chaplain, James P Wickstrom has delivered speeches some hate group watchers claim are as angry and vengeful as Osama bin Laden's rants.

What has Mr Wickstrom and his Aryans so peeved at Washington? As he mentioned in one speech last year, "We don't need to tell them we have to wear a seat belt." (ABC)

Stuck on You

Those "W" stickers you saw in the last election campaign have turned into a sticky problem for the GOP.

Jerry Gossett, a Republican and a George W Bush supporter, says the RNC stole his design for the bumper sticker. His company, Rally Concepts LLC is suing the GOP in federal court claiming copyright infringement.

There are some differences. The GOP's version was oval and read "W '04." Gossett's was rectangular and read "W 43" -- President Bush being the 43rd President. (CNN)

Monday, April 18, 2005

Head of State

A frightening fetish suggested by Jeff at Rigorous Intuition.

I'd say "hair-raising," but.... Well you'll understand why not. (Rigorous Intuition)

While I Was Away 2: Wow, That's Really Bad News. Let's Quit Reporting It

After the latest State Department report on international terrorism showed 2004 was the worst year ever for terror attacks -- the fine folks at Foggy Bottom decided to eliminate the report.

Washington's been tracking international terrorism in annual reports since 1985. Government officials say the criteria for including incidents is flawed so it's no big deal to drop the report.

But critics say the 2004 report raises questions about the Bush administration's claims of progress in the War on Terror.

For the record, the report shows 625 "signifacant" terror attacks in 2004. That compares with just 175 the year before. The numbers last year had been undercounted, causing an embarassing problem for the Bush administration in the middle of last year's Presidential campaign. (Seattle Times)

So Much for Pre-Packaged Surf and Turf

Waiter, there's a hair in my lobster.

The Maine legislature has banned animal scraps as lobster bait -- unless all the hide is removed first. Seems cowhide used as bait was causing lobsters to cough up hairballs.

An unsavory way to eat into profits for the state's $750 million lobster biz. (Village Soup)

Sunday, April 17, 2005

While I Was Away.....

Watching Washington has been on vacation. Sorry I left without warning. I had some glitches with my computer right before the trip -- and vacation was out of range of the Internet. There are still places that peaceful.

Watching Washington returns Monday, April 18. (Terry Turner)

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Pension Plan

Sen Mark Dayton (D-MN) would be eligible ofr a $16,000 a year pension if he retired after his first term in the US Senate. Sen Dayton is a multi-millionaire. He doesn't accept his Senate salary -- and says he won't take the pension either. As hems and haws about how to "save" Social Security, Sen Dayton is blunt about the pension. Calls it too lucrative. (USAToday)

The Big Social Security Check

The Bush administration's Social Security blitz may be one of the most costly taxpayer funded campaigns ever. The President, VP, and four Cabinet Secretaries are just a handful of the people barnstorming America touting his private Social Security accounts.

Thirty-five days into a 60 day campaign, the effort is the biggest since President Clinton's failed health care reform effort. There have been 123 events in 35 states and the cost is well into the millions of dollars.

Rep Henry Waxman (D-CA) has fired off a letter to the Government Accountability Office asking that they look into the cost of the "60 Stops in 60 Days" tour:

"[T]here is a vital line between legitimately informing the public, as the President did in his State of the Union address, and commandeering the vast resources of the federal government to fund a political campaign for Social Security privatization."

The Treasury Department has actually hired four full time employees and set up a new website just to support the blitz. (WashPost)

Schiavo Memo Author Outed

The author of the mysterious "Terri Schiavo Memo" has stepped forward. Brian Darling -- legal counsel to Sen Mel Martinez (R-FL) -- admitted to drafting the memo that was circulated among Republican Senators. It described how to make political hay out of intervening in the case.

Sen Martinez had earlier denied that his office had any involvement in the memo. Conservative bloggers had labeled it a forgery drafted by the Democrats. After Mr Darling stepped forward, he resigned from his post on Sen Martinez's staff. (WashPost)

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Pulled Pork

Citizens Against Government Waste has tallied $27.3 billion in pork barrel spending in this year's edition of their annual Pig Book.

That's the most pork they've ever found in Uncle Sam's budget. The Pig Book this year details 470 of what CAGW consider the most egregious examples. Things like:

  • $10,000,000 for the International Fund for Ireland
  • $3,000,000 for the Cal Ripken, Sr. Foundation
  • $1.7 million for the International Fertilizer Development Center
  • $1,430,000 for various Halls of Fame, including $250,000 for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, Tennessee, and $70,000 for the Paper Industry International Hall of Fame in Appleton, Wisconsin
  • $350,000 for the Inner Harmony Foundation and Wellness Center in Scranton, Pennsylvania
  • $100,000 for the Tiger Woods Foundation
  • $100,000 for the Bach to School Program

Many of the items have social, cultural, or other benefits. But CAWG says all items on the list should have been funded in other ways or sought through more open debate.

For instance, there's $4 million for the Clarksville-Montgomery County School System. It's in Sen Bill Frist's (R-TN) home state. His website says the money's needed to help the district expand for an added 1,000 students. But it's not in the Education Department budget. It's in the Defense budget.

To meet their standards to be declared "pork", a project has to meet one of seven criteria:

  • Requested by only one chamber of Congress
  • Not specifically authorized
  • Not competitively awarded
  • Not requested by the President
  • Greatly exceeds the President’s budget request or the previous year’s funding
  • Not the subject of congressional hearings
  • Serves only a local or special interest

They found an amazing 13,997 projects that met those criteria.

The Pig Book is also available online along with a state-by-state breakdown of how much pork per capita gets spread around. And CAGW has a searchable database of every item they labeled "pork."

You'll also find that the most money goes to the home states and districts of the folks on the Appropriations Committee -- where many of the items are added. The two most senior senators by party got the most cash. Both long serving Senators serve on the Senate Appropriations Committee. Sen Robert Byrd (D-WV) earned CAGW's "Flipping the Byrd at the Taxpayer Award" for the $399 million in pork he got for his home state. And Sen Ted Stevens (R-AK) won the "Hogzilla Award" for bringing home $646 million in bacon for Alaska. (CAWG)

[Crossposted at]

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Cookie Cutter Comments

Dan Froomkin at has a great example of how Presidential mouthpieces can say a lot without saying anything. He takes a simple, clear question and then shows how Spokesman Scott McClellan pieced together answers using stock phrases. Click on any sentence, and Mr Froomkin takes you to other times Mr McClellan used the same phase to answer a question at the White House briefing. (WashPost)

Cause and Effect Claim

Sen John Cornyn (R-TX) linked recent violence against judges to public opinion against "activist judges." Speaking to a nearly empty Senate chamber, Sen Cornyn made reference to court related violence and said:

" I wonder whether there may be some connection between the perception in some quarters, on some occasions, where judges are making political decisions yet are unaccountable to the public, that it builds up and builds up and builds up to the point where some people engage in, engage in violence."

There have been a couple of recent instances where an escaped jail inmate killed three people in an Atlanta courtroom and the murder of a federal judge's husband and mother in Chicago. But both instances were personal -- not political -- grudges.

Sen Cronyn was talking about a US Supreme Court ruling that declared unconstitutional executions of people under the age of 18. Liberal critics have compared Sen Cronyn's comments to some Rep Tom DeLay (R-TX) made in the wake of the Terri Schiavo case. Rep DeLay said that judges who refused to block the removal of her feeding tube would "answer for their behavior." (WashPost)

Jeb & the Scientologists

Scientology may take a lot of criticism, but not from Gov Jeb Bush (R-FL). He honored Scientology volunteers who helped hurricane victims in his state.

The Scientologists picked up a Points of Light Award as Hurricane heroes.

They've been volunteering with their "touch assist" healing at disaster sites of late. It's supposed to heal victims through the laying on of hands. (MSNBC)

The President's (Filing) Cabinet

The President has taken a gander at the Social Security Trust Fund and doesn't like what he sees.

"There is no trust 'fund' -- just IOUs that I saw firsthand," the President says.

The trust fund is the money invested in US Treasury bonds. "IOUs" don't really exist, but the government prints up copies of bonds to put in binders stored in a single, four-drawer file cabinet.

There's about $1.7 trillion invested in the bonds right now.

The President wants to privatize a portion of the withholding taken out of your check. But he has not proposed any plans to deal with the expected shortfall. That happens in 2041, when all those bonds are used up -- paying out more than is taken in. (USAToday)

Nonprofits Costing You

The top man at the IRS says non-profits and charities are at the heart of tax evasion and abuse. They're exempted from taxes, and donations become a lucrative way to cash in on tax breaks.

Commissioner Mark Everson says there's no way to even estimate how much tax money goes uncollected. There are around 3 million non-profits controlling $8 trillion.

Of course if someone has found out how to win questionable tax deductions, you get to pick up the slack. (WashPost)

US Oil Exports

US oil companies -- who've sold Congress on the need to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge -- exported 268 million barrels of US oil last year. Sen Ron Wyden (D-OR) has fired off a letter to the Commerce Secretary demanding a list of the the companies. The Census Bureau -- part of the Commerce Department -- keeps track of the amount of US oil shipped overseas. But they refused to tell the Senator which companies were selling US oil abroad. (Reuters via Netscape News)

Congress Gets Around -- On Your Dime

Members of Congress and staffers have spent nearly $24 million of your money traveling around the world over the last 11 years. has summed up Congressional travel destinations from 1994 to 2004. Some of the trips:

  • United Kingdon -- 701 visits
  • Italy -- 467 visits
  • France -- 409 visits
  • Germany -- 395 visits
  • Belgium -- 250 visits
  • Russia -- 248 visits
  • Turkey -- 185 visits
  • Spain -- 182 visits
  • Kuwait -- 173 visits
  • South Africa -- 166 visits
  • Jordan -- 163 visits
  • Israel -- 158 visits

Former Rep Douglas Bereuter (R-NE) was the most traveled member in PoliticalMoneyLine's report. He took 78 trips to 148 countries over the ten years reviewed. Mr Bereuter also spent the most on taxpayer sponsored travel -- $163,994.

Pentagon Air

The numbers come from commercial travel. But it doesn't include the use of military aircraft used to ferry Congressmen on some of their trips. Those numbers are harder to track down because the Department of Defense defends them quite well from prying eyes.

The military has the second largest airline in the US. Only American has more transports designed for carrying passengers. The Government Accountability Office counted 600 passenger planes in the military fleet back in 1995. That same year, a Defense Department official told the Center for Defense Information the fleet was necessary to "provide the perk of flying to those politicians who can help them the most."

And reporting on who they're flying where -- wouldn't help at all.

Your Travel Expenses

But what is reported to the Clerk of the House is still a lot. The cost of Congressional travel has exploded over the last ten years -- from $385,799 in 1994 to $1.13 million last year. In all, 568 Congressmen made 4,691 trips to 219 countries.

And you though you were only sending those guys to Washington. (

[Crossposted at]

Big Game Hunters in the Senate's Sights

Your tax dollars effectively subsidize big game hunters on their safaris. Big game hunters get big tax breaks if they can find the right museum to take their trophies -- even the heads and skins of endangered species.

One such museum that accepts mounted heads and animal skins is Wyobraska Wildlife Museum in Gering, Nebraska. Back in 2000, the museum took in $1.4 million worth of big game trophies. That shot up to $5 million last year. The Washington Post reports they've got a rail car loaded with 800 animals that came in with that batch.

Lobbying for Safari Tax Breaks

The Safari Club International is the big lobbyist for big game hunters. They've been able to fight for tax breaks that have some safari organizers advertising "Hunt for Free." The breaks actually pay for the hunting trips.

SCI's Political Action Committee contributed $203,900 to federal candidates in the 2004 election. Their PAC also made $55,345 in independed expenditures for President Bush's re-election effort.

SCI's IRS Form 990 shows the outfit had a nearly $11 million budget in 2003 to carry out it's lobbying efforts.

The Hunters Become the Hunted

The Senate Finance Committee goes on the big hunt today to see how abuses in "non-cash donations" like the animal heads are appraised. Often, they are appraised for several times their market value when donated to a museum.

That's because they use a "cost of replacement" loophole in the tax code. Hunters quote the price of going back on the trail and killing the same critter all over. But that loophole only applies when there is no market for the goods being replaced. And the IRS says there are auction houses that trade in animal trophies.

That little twist could put hunters in the auditors' crosshairs. (WashPost)

[Crossposted at]

Today In Congress

Congress is back from their Easter recess. Here's what they're up to today. Use the links on the right to write your Hired Hands on the Hill with your ideas and opinions. (WashPost)

An Explosive Report

Hundreds of people with criminal records or other questionable backgrounds were cleared for federal explosive permits over the last two years. A Justice Department report blames a backlog of ATF background checks for more than 25,000 explosive handling applicants. Until ATF clears them, they're allowed to go ahead and work with explosives. (USAToday)

End of the Line for the Voyagers

Nine billion miles from Earth, and 28 years into their missions, the Voyager space probes have hit an unbeatable obstacle -- budget cuts. The probes were only meant to last five years. They've been gathering data from the edge of the solar system as they cruise at up to 63,000 miles per hour. But the latest budget plans call for shutting down the program before they leave our system. (Boston Globe)

The Fix is In

Just about everything under the hood of your car depends on the onboard computer to work. But the Alexandria, Virginia-based Coalition for Auto Repair Equality -- an outfit looking out for the aftermarket car part business -- claims car makers are working that to their advantage -- and costing you in the process. The group says car makers keep diagnostic codes, technical infor, and even tools from independent mechanics. So you wind up having to drive to the more expensive auto dealerships to get your ride fixed. (Boston Globe -- Editorial)

Monday, April 04, 2005

Medal of Honor

SFC Paul Smith has become the first receipient of the Medal of Honor in the Iraq War. The combat engineer manned a gun on an armored personnel carrier (APC) as Iraqi soldiers overran the Baghdad Airport in 2003. Fighting to the death, he bought dozens of Americans time to evacuate. Sergeant Smith was the only American life lost in the attack.

His citation reads in part:

"Sgt. 1st Class Smith fired on the advancing enemy from the unprotected position atop the APC and expended at least three boxes of ammunition before being mortally wounded by enemy fire. The enemy attack was defeated. Sgt. 1st Class Smith’s actions saved the lives of at least 100 Soldiers, caused the failure of a deliberate enemy attack hours after 1st Brigade seized the Baghdad Airport, and resulted in an estimated 20-50 enemy soldiers killed. "

Prior to Sergeant Smith, only two people have received the Medal of Honor for actions since the Vietnam War -- both in Somalia. (NPR)

The Campaign's Unpaid Bills

President Bush left a lot of unpaid bills at hotels and restaurants as he campaigned in southern Oregon last year. All told, the administration's bills add up to nearly $19,000.

The Red Lion Inn is still trying to collect $3,332.72 from the President and his entourage. Hotel accountant Kirsten Yunuba fired off a letter to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave asking:

"My question to you: Is this how you help balance the budget at the White House by ripping off retailers in the towns you visit? If that is the case please do not come back to the Rogue Valley."

Most of the bills are for Secret Service agents traveling with the President. (KPTV)

Friday, April 01, 2005

Case Closed -- Keep Spending Money

Former Housing Secretary Henry Cisneros pleaded guilty back in 1999 to charges he lied to the FBI about paying money to a mistress. He paid a $10,000 fine. That wasn't fine with the investigators. They're still investigating the case -- at a cost of $21 million to taxpayers so far.

To top it all off -- Mr Cisneros got a Presidential pardon more than four years ago.

But 10 years after the investigation opened, independent counsel David M. Barrett is blazing through money at the rate of a cool $1 million every six months.

Let's see: $21 million to get a $10,000 fine. Beware when Washington does math. (Houston Chronicle)

The Cost of War

Troop deaths in Iraq have dropped to the lowest level in a year. The Pentagon says 35 Americans died in March in Iraq. That's the lowest since 21 died in February 2004. The decline began after the fall assault on insurgent stronghold Fallujah and the decline accelerated after the Iraqi elections in January. A total of 1,533 Americans have died in the Iraq War. (USAToday) A Fictional View of the Filibuster calls the Jimmy Stewart filibuster ad "innocence by association." The FactCheck folks take on People for the American Way for championing the filibuster as a noble part of democracy -- while ignoring the "sometimes dark purposes for which the filibuster has been used." (