Friday's must-reads

Published July 23, 2004 1:49PM (EDT)

1 report, 2 spins
George W. Bush used the issuance of the 9/11 report to defend his counterterrorism policies and insist America is safer on his watch, while John Kerry called for an immediate overhaul of the nation's intelligence system, New York Times reports.

Kerry said that if dramatic changes are not enacted, and he is elected in November, he would "lead." For his part, Bush seemed more intent on downplaying the immediate need for an overhaul and portrayed the actions of his government thus far as effective in reducing the terror threat.

"'If an attack should come,' he said, 'American will be prepared.' Mr. Bush referred several times to the commission report, characterizing it as an important tool in mapping future strategies to combat terrorist activities. He called it 'a serious and comprehensive report with thoughtful recommendations,' and said, 'We will carefully study all their proposals, of course.'"

"Mr. Bush, who was introduced by Tom Ridge, the secretary of homeland security, also said that the report affirmed many steps his administration had already taken. He used much of his speech to review those steps, recalling military efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, disruptions of financial networks used by terrorists and changes that eased the sharing of information by law enforcement agencies."

"War on terror" not helpful
Bush will likely continue to cite the war in Iraq and the "war on terror" as effective responses to the 9/11 terror attacks. The bipartisan 9/11 panel does not agree: The commission questioned the usefulness of the Bush administration's overly broad "war on terror" and its vague identification of "enemies." Also, unlike Bush, the panel did not include the war in Iraq as part of its discussion of the "war on terror," and in fact warns that the invasion of Iraq could ultimately breed future attacks, the Washington Post reports.

"...The commission offered a series of foreign-policy prescriptions to correct what it suggests is an unbalanced global strategy. The effort is to shift the government away from focusing on what the report calls a 'generic evil,' and toward a more precise definition of the threat."

"The report argues that the nation's enemy consists of two parts: al-Qaida, a stateless network of terrorists that is 'weakened but continues to pose a grave threat'; and a radical ideological movement in the Islamic world that 'is gathering and will menace Americans and American interests long after' Osama bin Laden is gone. Thus, the report said, U.S. strategy must focus on dismantling al-Qaida and prevailing over the ideology that fosters Islamist terrorism.' Saddam Hussein's Iraq was a largely secular state. The report notes that a failed Iraq in the wake of the U.S. invasion could become 'breeding grounds for attacks against Americans at home.'"

"The report identifies six areas that it says could be bases for terrorists -- areas with rugged terrain and weak governments -- and says they should be a particular focus of U.S. policy. The report also makes specific recommendations about U.S. policy toward three key Islamic states -- Pakistan, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia -- with the biggest shift in policy recommended for U.S.-Saudi relations."

"No compelling case"
The Washington Post also looks at the report's final word on the non-existent Iraq al-Qaida connection. A week after 9/11, the White House counterterrorism director sent Condi Rice a memo saying there was no 'compelling case' that Iraq and al-Qaida were working together.

"Not only did Osama bin Laden resent the Iraqi government's secularism, Kurtz's classified memo stated, but there was no confirmed information about collaboration between them on weapons of mass destruction."

"Yesterday, after a lengthy investigation, the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States laid out a detailed body of evidence supporting Kurtz's view. Although recent polls have shown that more than 40 percent of the American public is still convinced that Iraq collaborated with al Qaeda and had a role in the terrorist attacks, the commission reported finding no evidence of a 'collaborative operational relationship' between the two or an Iraqi role in attacking the United States."

"It stated that representatives of the two may have been in contact in 1994 or 1995, 1998 and possibly 1999, largely because of what the commission described as a shared hatred of the United States. But the commission found that their interests were largely out of sync, and nothing came of the contacts."

"Al Qaeda ties to Iran appear to have been much more substantial, according to information disclosed by the commission. An agreement brokered by Sudan in 1991 or 1992 led to Iranian training of senior al Qaeda operatives in explosives, for example. Iran also repeatedly assisted the transit of al Qaeda figures into and out of Iran by agreeing not to stamp their passports. No similar evidence of cooperation between al Qaeda and Iraq was cited by the panel."

You can continue to wonder why, then, we have lost more than 900 U.S. soldiers in Iraq along with billions of dollars we could have spent elsewhere.

The accountability question
Paul Krugman wonders whether anyone will ever be held accountable for the mishandling of post-war Iraq:

"Last month we learned that the United States, while it has spent vast sums on the war in Iraq, has so far provided almost no aid. Of $18.4 billion in reconstruction funds approved by Congress, only $400 million has been disbursed."

"Almost all of the money spent by the Coalition Provisional Authority, which ran Iraq until late June, came from Iraqi sources, mainly oil revenues. This revelation helps explain one puzzle: the sluggish pace of reconstruction, which has yet to restore many essential services to prewar levels. But it creates another puzzle: given that the authority was spending Iraq's money, why wasn't it more careful in its accounting?"

"When a foreign power takes control of an oil-rich nation's resources, it inevitably faces suspicion about its motives. Fairly or not, the locals are all too ready to believe that the invaders came to steal their oil. The way to deal with such suspicion is to let in as much sunlight as possible by appointing financial officials with strong reputations for independence, keeping meticulous books, and welcoming and cooperating with international audits."

"What actually happened was just the opposite. Every important official with responsibility for Iraqi finances was a Bush administration loyalist. The occupying authority dragged its feet on an international audit, which didn't even begin until April 2004."

Incomplete report on Army abuses
A new Army IG report on prisoner abuse cites 94 confirmed and alleged cases, including 20 deaths -- more than the Pentagon has ever admitted. But there are a couple serious flaws with the report, which contradicts the Red Cross by saying there was no systematic abuse at Abu Ghraib or other military prisons. First, the report uses creative accounting, and conflates incidents of abuses at Abu Ghraib. Several incidents of abuse somehow became one abuse case, the Los Angeles Times reports. Also, the report ignored the question of "ghost detainees" hidden by the Red Cross and failed to look up the chain of command.

"[Some] members of the committee complained that the inspector general's examination did not thoroughly investigate some of the more explosive allegations detailed in an earlier report by Army Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba on conditions at Abu Ghraib, as well as charges that top U.S. policymakers and senior commanders created an atmosphere that allowed the abuses to occur."

"'I don't think there was much attention paid to higher headquarters' in the report, said Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.). 'Which begs the question: To what extent did higher headquarters influence the decision-making.'"

"During the hearing, Reed criticized Mikolashek for not investigating Taguba's findings that 'ghost detainees' were shuttled from prison to prison in Iraq to avoid oversight by the Red Cross. 'We did not go back and do a postmortem on that particular issue,' Mikolashek said."

"'Well, General, I just think the premise of your report that there's been no systemic problems is undercut by the fact that you didn't look at some systematic problems. That was one,' Reed responded. During a later session, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) continued the questioning about ghost detainees, asking the inspector general at the end of a pointed exchange: 'And  the question then springs to mind: What else didn't you investigate? If we didn't investigate a gross and egregious violation such as that, then I mean I'm curious what else you didn't investigate.'"

More White House aides knew of Berger probe
Feeding into Democratic suspicions about the timing of the leak that Sandy Berger had a sticky finger problem in the National Archives last year, it has been revealed that yet more White House aides knew about the investigation long before this week. The Washington Post reports:

"A senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that some National Security Council officials knew Berger -- who has resigned from his position as informal adviser to Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry -- was suspected of mishandling National Archives documents that were being sought by the commission."

"National security adviser Condoleezza Rice, meeting reporters to discuss the commission's report, would not say when she was told of the probe ... The senior official said that a few NSC staff members who also report to the counsel's office had known about the inquiry."

"On Wednesday, a day after saying he learned about the investigation from news reports, White House press secretary Scott McClellan added that 'a few individuals' in the White House counsel's office had known about the inquiry. He said that was because the counsel's office was coordinating document production with the Sept. 11 commission."

"Former Clinton press secretary Joe Lockhart, who is serving as a spokesman for Berger during the controversy, said the expanding circle of officials who the White House acknowledges knew of the criminal investigation heightens his suspicion about the timing of the disclosure that Berger is under investigation.'This is the third day in a row that the story has changed,' Lockhart said. 'Did the political operation know? Did [adviser] Karl Rove know? I think it's time for them to come clean, say what they knew, when they knew it, and what role if anything they had in leaking it.'"

Halliburton to whistleblowers: Go F*ck yourselves
Reuters reports on the Hill hearing on Thursday that featured former Halliburton employees accusing the oil services company of serious waste and abuse in Iraq.

"Halliburton defended its giant government contracts in Iraq on Thursday at a rancorous hearing on Capitol Hill at which ex-employees accused Vice President Dick Cheney's old company of wasting taxpayer money. Appearing at a House of Representatives committee hearing, executives from Halliburton unit Kellogg Brown and Root tried to squash accusations from whistle-blowers who said the corporate culture was one of waste, theft and misuse of funds."

" ... In a gloves-off, partisan hearing, the Rep. Tom Davis, the chairman of the House Committee on Government Reform, said many of the whistle-blowers' accusations were 'flat out wrong' and the goal was to embarrass Cheney during the presidential election campaign. Cheney headed Halliburton until he joined the race for the White House in 2000 and Democrats have accused the Bush administration of giving the company special treatment."

Cheney did not attend the hearing, but you know he was there in spirit with some choice words for the whistleblowers.

By Geraldine Sealey

Geraldine Sealey is senior news editor at

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