Tuesday's must-reads

By Geraldine Sealey
Published March 23, 2004 2:30PM (EST)

Testing the 'steady leader'
The Financial Times reports that the most important hearings yet by the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks will test the image George W. Bush is putting forth in his re-election campaign: "A steady leader in times of change."

"The commission will hear from Mr. Bush's top officials and their predecessors in the administration of Bill Clinton, the former president. But the keenest focus will be on a man whose career spanned both those administrations and the two before it: Richard Clarke. Mr. Clarke, who for nearly a decade led the White House counter-terrorism effort, contends in a new book that the Bush administration's obsession with Iraq has debilitated the war on terrorism and threatened security."

" Bush administration officials fought back on Monday, with Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, calling the charges 'deeply irresponsible, offensive and flat-out wrong' and claiming the attack and its timing were politically motivated. Condoleezza Rice, the White House national security adviser, said on CNN she was 'flabbergasted' by the book, and implied that Mr. Clarke was taking revenge for being passed over for a senior homeland security job. But the White House will have a difficult time dismiss ing its former counterterrorism tsar, who worked for two Republican presidents before Mr. Bush and was considered so highly by Ms Rice that she let him co-ordinate the immediate response to September 11."

"The book describes the efforts by Mr. Clarke and others, including George Tenet, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, to warn the incoming Bush administration of the dangers posed by al-Qaeda. But the new administration, led by people who had been out of government since the cold war, put missile defence and Iraq at the top of its priorities. The cabinet did not meet on the al-Qaeda threat until September 4, one week before the attacks."

Conflict of interest?
The magazine Government Executive reports that two groups of families of 9/11 victims are calling on the director of the federal commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks to resign "after information surfaced over the weekend that he participated in Bush administration briefings prior to Sept. 11 on the threat al Qaeda posed to the country."

"The 9-11 Family Steering Committee and 9-11 Citizens Watch, two separate groups, are demanding the resignation of Philip Zelikow, executive director of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States  'We believe that the very integrity of the commission is at stake here, and that he should resign immediately,' Kyle Hence, co-founder of Citizens Watch, said Monday. On Saturday, the Family Steering Committee wrote a letter to the commission arguing that Zelikow has a conflict of interest because he could potentially be held culpable for failing to heed warnings about al Qaeda prior to Sept. 11."

"Zelikow was a member of the team that helped with the Bush administration transition to office. When he became executive director of the commission, he recused himself from participating in any part of the investigation that dealt with the time he served on the Bush transition team. Critics have previously called for Zelikow to resign because they believed he had at least an appearance of a conflict of interest. He co-wrote a book in 1995 with Condoleezza Rice, who is now Bush's national security adviser. Additionally, only Zelikow and commission member Jamie Gorelick are permitted to read classified intelligence reports known as the presidential daily briefs in their entirety."

"Citizens Watch also launched an advertising campaign Monday demanding that Bush, Cheney, Clinton, Gore and Rice testify publicly under oath before the commission. The group is running billboard advertisements in the Washington metro rail system for four weeks, as well as quarter-page ads in The Washington Post."

Indictment looms for energy company
The Web site Common Dreams is running a story by Jason Leopold, who reports that a company with ties to Dick Cheney's secretive energy policy task force faces a looming criminal indictment for its alleged role in manipulating energy prices in California -- a development that could hurt Bush and Cheney as they run for re-election.

Leopold reports: " Cheney's denials that his friends in the energy sector weren't to blame for the power crisis are sure to come back and haunt him and could hamper President Bush's reelection campaign. Later this month, the United States Attorney's office in the Northern District of California is expected to issue its first criminal indictment against an energy company for manipulating wholesale energy prices in California that could boost the state's claims that it's owed billions in refunds for overcharges. The company at the center of the probe is Houston-based Reliant Resources, Inc."

"Reliant said in a news release March 8 that it was notified by the US Attorney's office about the pending indictment, which stems from allegations that the company deliberately shut down its power plants in California for a few days in June 2000, creating an artificial shortage and causing wholesale prices to skyrocket. A spokesman for the US Attorney's office said he could not comment on pending cases, but he confirmed that his office is also seeking criminal indictments against several current and former Reliant employees whom he would not name. A Reliant spokesman said 'the actions that are the subject of the United States Attorney's investigation were not in violation of laws, tariffs or regulations in effect at the time and intends vigorously to contest any charges.'"

"The evidence the US Attorney's office will use against Reliant is a recorded transcript of a conversation between a Reliant electricity trader and a power plant operator that first emerged publicly a year ago. The conversation between the two employees seemed to settle the three-year long debate about the nature of Californias energy crisis. '[We] started out Monday losing $3 million... So, then we decided as a group that we were going to make it back up, so we turned like about almost every power plant off. It worked. Prices went back up. Made back about $4 million, actually more than that, $5 million,' the Reliant trader says in a tape-recorded conversation on June 23, 2000."

Kerry gets GOP boost
The Washington Post reports that John Kerry is getting unexpected help from former Bush administration officials and Republicans in Congress who are either criticizing the president and his policies or defending Kerry from attacks by Bush and his allies.

"In the past week, GOP Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Chuck Hagel (Neb.) have broken ranks and defended Kerry against President Bush's assertion that the Massachusetts senator is weak on national defense. Over the weekend, Richard A. Clarke, Bush's former counterterrorism coordinator, said Bush focused too little attention on al Qaeda before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and too much on Iraq afterward."

" Republicans are unintentionally assisting Kerry on the domestic front, too. Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and other congressional conservatives are accusing Bush of driving up deficits, a top Kerry campaign message, and misleading the country about the cost of the new Medicare law, another Kerry target. Kerry's campaign is circulating Flake's recent remark that Congress would not have passed the Bush Medicare law if members had been told of its projected cost. The Office of Management and Budget estimated the law would cost about $130 billion more than advertised, but those numbers were kept secret until well after the House passed the legislation by one vote. The flap over the Medicare number threatens to turn the law into a campaign liability for Bush."

"Yesterday, Bush's new assault on Kerry's spending for his proposals prompted Democrats to highlight the large number of Republicans and conservative groups that have chided the president for his record-setting spending  Some Bush campaign officials privately fumed about the GOP comments as party strategists expressed concern.  For Bush, who rarely ran into criticism from within his party during his first three years in office, the timing and tone of these GOP defections are undercutting his reelection message just as the presidential campaign is heating up."

Clear Channel funds GOP
The USA Today provides a breakdown of political contributions by Clear Channel and it will probably come as little surprise that the radio giant likes Republicans. "Clear Channel, rejecting Howard Stern's claims that he was canned for slamming President Bush, says its radio network does not have a political agenda. But new political contribution data tell a different story about Clear Channel (CCU) executives. They have given $42,200 to Bush, vs. $1,750 to likely Democratic nominee John Kerry in the 2004 race. What's more, the executives and Clear Channel's political action committee gave 77% of their $334,501 in federal contributions to Republicans. That's a bigger share than any other entertainment company, says the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics."

"Clear Channel says it suspended talk-show king Stern from six stations Feb. 24 because of his show's racy content  not because of politics. 'We are simply trying to comply' with anti-indecency laws, says Andy Levin, executive vice president. Since his suspension, Stern, who has 8 million listeners, has boosted his attacks on Bush and on Clear Channel officials, who he says favor Bush."

Geraldine Sealey

Geraldine Sealey is senior news editor at Salon.com.

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