Tuesday brings the most anticipated midterm elections in a long time. For that, President Bush and Republican-led Washington deserve much, if not all of the credit. The president's public approval rating, at around 37 percent for the last month, is sunk in the sludge. America's current view of Congress is equally dark. Two out of every three citizens are worried that, under the current regime, their country is headed farther out to sea.
The catastrophe in Iraq is a primary reason, of course. But America's creeping sense of insecurity also flows from the relentless cascade of Washington scandals, only the latest of which was the revelation of a GOP congressman's predatory sexual advances on underage boys.
After Bush was reelected, we pulled together a litany of Republican wrongdoing in our first installment of the Scandal Sheet -- a kind of worst-hits collection from Bush's first four-year tour. By no means did it cover everything, but it was plenty long and ugly. Perhaps we were overly optimistic and even a bit delusional, then, to think that Bush's narrow victory in November 2004 might leave him with a humbler, more sober view of his mandate. That we might see, at last, some letup from the blatant distortions of truth, the fear-mongering, the influence peddling, the incompetence and malfeasance -- the utter lack of accountability and remorse for how badly things had gone.
And yet. Since the start of 2005, Bush and Co. have presided over an astonishing list of further transgressions. For some of the biggest, the word "scandal" does not do justice. Although they are already known the world over, we're including some of them here anyway (and you're free to come up with your own expletive label for them): the horror and national shame that followed Hurricane Katrina, the loss of thousands of lives and billions of dollars in an arrogantly run war, and the further abuses of power in the "war on terror" -- whereby Bush, from secret CIA prisons to military tribunals to spying on Americans, has made a bigger burn pile of the Constitution than of any amount of chopped cedar in Crawford, Texas.
Not that the Democrats, even if they win big on Tuesday, can necessarily be counted on to ride in and save the day. Much has already been made of what they might do if they take control of one or both chambers of Congress. Such rhetorical weapons as "more oversight" and "hearings" and "subpoenas" have been brandished, at least on the campaign stage. But will the party distinguished for its chronic timidity under Bush really be ready to rumble?
For starters, a Democratic majority will have, well, Iraq to deal with -- a critical and daunting problem that will demand enormous attention and resources. Nancy Pelosi, the presumed House speaker, appeared to acknowledge this in October when she yanked the prospect of impeachment hearings off the table, saying, "We don't have time for that." Other Democrats have signaled a mild appetite for confrontation by pointing to the next presidential election. "The '08 contest for the White House will be the major moderating influence," Rep. Pete Stark of California told the New York Times recently. "I don't think we're going to run out and impeach Rumsfeld and Bush, although a lot of my constituents would like to."
One thing is certain: Should an emboldened Democratic majority decide to take Bush and his coterie of loyalists head-on, they'll have no shortage of material to work with.
Here we've gathered many, though certainly not all, of the presidential and Republican evils that have sprung up or come further to light during the last two years. Once again, these items are not arranged chronologically, or in terms of moral or historical weight. We'll get to torture and the war and illegal spying -- but upfront we want to alert you to some of the lesser-known or overlooked or now forgotten scandals. Lost track of all the Bush administration's trumped-up terror busts? Forgotten how the White House coerced government scientists to fudge the facts? Aware of the federal judges Bush nominated who violated ethics law?
Read on for the damning details. Perhaps Nancy Pelosi and her colleagues should, too.
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Science: An Inconvenient Truth
The scandal: The clear and present dangers of global warming haven't just met with a cold shoulder at the White House -- Bush officials have ordered a freeze on the facts. The White House kept a grip on scientists at federal agencies, limiting their contact with the media and issuing reminders to "stay on message" in interviews, according to government e-mails obtained by Salon this year through a Freedom of Information Act request. Employees of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have said that administration officials "chastised them for speaking on policy questions; removed references to global warming from their reports, news releases and conference Web sites; investigated news leaks; and sometimes urged them to stop speaking to the media altogether." The White House also blocked publication of research by NOAA scientists linking global warming with escalating hurricanes, according to a September 2006 article in the journal Nature.
The problem: An overwhelming majority of scientists, scholars -- and heck, even some policymakers -- believe that when it comes to safeguarding the planet's future, we should seek truth, not truthiness.
The outcome: In September, a group of 14 senators raised the problem with the inspectors general of NASA and the U.S. Commerce Department (which oversees NOAA), who have since launched formal investigations into the alleged coercion.
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Trumped-up Terror Busts
The scandal: It wasn't just the "Lackawanna Six" who got the Kafka treatment after 9/11. In February 2006 director of national intelligence John Negroponte warned Congress about "a network of Islamic extremists" in Lodi, Calif. Two men there were charged -- Umer Hayat, an ice cream truck driver, and his son, Hamid -- but the cases, riddled with faulty intelligence and coerced testimony, crumbled in court. FBI agents had pushed the two men into separate accounts about a training camp in Pakistan, but the confessions didn't square. "You can hear the agents literally dictate to [Hayat] what it is that they thought he was involved in," James Weddick, a 35-year FBI veteran who reviewed the interrogation tapes, told "Frontline" this fall. "And then he mimics back to them what he thinks that they want to hear."
Then there was the highly publicized bust by the feds in Miami this summer: A group calling itself the "Seas of David" stupidly dreamed out loud of blowing up the Sears Tower -- but lacked weapons, means of transportation and the al-Qaida "uniforms" they hoped to purchase from a terrorist-cum-FBI operative. FBI deputy director John Pistole admitted the group was "aspirational" rather than "operational." And then there were the three Arab-Americans locked up this year for the menacing act of buying a bunch of cheap cellphones at Wal-Mart.
The problem: You may be starting to sense a pattern here -- has the Bush administration been exploiting fear of terrorism as a political weapon? (Is the pope Catholic?)
The outcome: In the Lodi case, Hamid Hayat was convicted for attending a training camp and lying to the FBI, though the FBI never did any follow-up investigation in Pakistan; the defense has filed an appeal. Umer Hayat's case led to a mistrial. The seven "Seas of David" members await trial in March. Due to lack of evidence, terrorism charges against the cellphone buyers were swapped out for conspiracy and money-laundering charges -- which were later tossed out by a federal judge.
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Pat Tillman: The Hero Myth, the Ugly Truth
The scandal: Attempting to deceive the American public about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was nothing new from the P.R. department of Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon -- think back to the Jessica Lynch fable or the various Pentagon efforts to hide U.S. casualties -- but the Pat Tillman affair perhaps stands as the Bush administration's most craven and cynical attempt to bury a painful truth while maximizing political spin. When the former football star and Army Ranger was killed in Afghanistan in 2004, the Pentagon put out a press release implying that he'd died while courageously taking "the fight to the enemy forces." It wasn't until long after Tillman was awarded a Silver Star and his memorial service was televised nationally that the truth came out: He'd accidentally been killed by his fellow soldiers. In June 2005, columnist Robert Scheer reported that files from an internal military investigation given to him by Tillman's mother made it "unmistakably clear that the true cause of Tillman's death was known in the field shortly after he was killed and reported as fratricide up through the military command. Yet those facts were systematically kept from the family -- including Pat's brother and fellow Army Ranger, Kevin Tillman, who was serving in the same unit in Afghanistan -- while a markedly inaccurate story played itself out in the world's media."
The problem: The campaign of deception went all the way to the heart of the White House. According to a memo included in the Army's investigation, in late April 2004 -- right as the Abu Ghraib torture scandal was sending shock waves around the world -- a White House speechwriter requested information on Tillman ahead of the president's appearance at the upcoming White House correspondents dinner. There, Bush declared: "Corporal Tillman asked for no special attention. He was modest because he knew there were many like him, making their own sacrifices." By then the White House had already told the press that Tillman was among those who had "made the ultimate sacrifice in the war on terror."
The outcome: The ugly charade -- which the Army later absurdly blamed on "an administrative error" -- remains under investigation by the inspector general of the Defense Department and the Army Criminal Investigation Command. Last month, Kevin Tillman published a scathing criticism of the "illegal" war in Iraq.
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A Black Hole for Terrorist Suspects
The scandal: In November 2005, the Washington Post exposed an international web of secret CIA-run prisons chillingly referred to as "black sites." In unknown locations from the war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan to Eastern Europe and Asia, terrorist suspects were imprisoned indefinitely without charge, and subjected to brutal interrogation techniques including simulated drownings. The revelation of the prison network sparked international outrage, including from European allies, and further stained America's already Abu-Ghraib-blackened global reputation.
The problem: We all want the Khalid Sheik Mohammeds of the world to be brought to justice. We also want to protect the American principles that distinguish us from the terrorists -- secret kidnappings, torture and kangaroo courts not being among them.
The outcome: The White House refused to confirm the existence of the CIA-run prisons until the landmark 2006 Supreme Court ruling in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld determined that the Geneva Conventions apply to all prisoners, including so-called enemy combatants. Following the ruling, Bush announced the transfer of 14 highly touted prisoners to the U.S. facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, another contemporaneous icon of American abuse. With a relentless Dick Cheney leading the way, the administration has continued battling for legal cover that would allow them to conduct military tribunals and harsh interrogations.
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Hurricane Katrina: One Heck of a Betrayal
The scandal: As one of our treasured cities came under siege from the worst natural disaster in modern U.S. history, where the hell was the federal government? Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff apparently was asleep on the job -- more than a day and a half went by before he deemed it "an incident of national significance." Bush didn't bother to interrupt his vacation in Crawford. Leadership in the Gulf Coast's time of peril was left in the hands of dithering FEMA chief Michael Brown, aka "Brownie," whose qualifications for the job amounted to falsified emergency-management experience listed on his résumé.
The problem: America watched unthinkable horror unfold beneath astounding political indifference and bureaucratic failure. For thousands stranded in New Orleans, hope and human dignity washed away as food, water and medicine ran out, and violence, sickness and death spread. It was four days before the National Guard showed up. Hundreds of firefighters marshaled from elsewhere to help were diverted to Atlanta for days of training. Months later, as evacuees had to begin vacating temporary residences, more than 10,000 FEMA trailers sat unused because of restrictions against use in floodplains. Nearly $1.4 billion in federal aid was fraudulently distributed, paying for everything from "Girls Gone Wild" videos to a two-month-long Hawaiian vacation.
The outcome: Two FEMA officials and a quality assurance rep for the Army Corps of Engineers were convicted in 2006 on bribery charges. While "Brownie" resigned as FEMA chief in the wake of the catastrophe, no federal leaders have been held accountable. Rep. Henry Waxman of California, who would likely serve as a next Democratic head of the House Committee on Government Reform, has vowed at least to review "waste, fraud and abuse of taxpayers' money" in connection with Katrina.
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Iraq: The Central Front for Global Insecurity
The scandal: The Iraq war has poured fuel on the fire of Islamic radicalism and swelled the ranks of militants across the globe, according to the 2006 National Intelligence Estimate, whose findings were leaked in September to the New York Times. Days later, Bush declassified portions of the report that showed that the war in Iraq was indeed a "cause cilhbre" for jihadists. If this trend continues," the report concluded, "threats to U.S. interests at home and abroad will become more diverse, leading to increasing attacks worldwide."
The problem: Where to begin? How about: The Iraq war has poured fuel on the fire of Islamic radicalism and swelled the ranks of militants across the globe. The latest NIE, which is the highest amalgamation of findings from various U.S. intelligence agencies, is directly at odds with Bushs long-running refrain that we're winning the war on terror. It also undercuts findings released by the Bush administration on the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks claiming that "America and its allies are safer" and that much has been done "to degrade Al Qaeda and its affiliates and to undercut the perceived legitimacy of terrorism."
The outcome: Never mind those pesky security concerns abroad -- time to focus on a witch hunt at home! Rep. Peter Hoekstra, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, launched an investigation of minority staff members, hoping to string up anyone involved in the leak of the NIE's contents to the press. Meanwhile, Bush vowed just last week that Rumsfeld will continue to run the show at the Pentagon through 2008. Maybe Bush hasn't noticed that a growing number of active-duty members of the military, who've experienced the Iraq abyss firsthand, are calling on Congress for a major change of plan. And they've got some generals backing them up.
Further reading: "At War, in Denial"; "How the War in Iraq Has Damaged the War on Terrorism"
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Bush's Unethical Judges
The scandal: With the appointment of Justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito, the Supreme Court got most of the attention over the last year -- but the White House has also worked to stack the nation's appellate courts with right-wing, corporate-friendly judges, some of them a little too corporate-friendly. As Salon and the Center for Investigative Reporting uncovered earlier this year, two Bush nominees to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Judge James H. Payne and Judge Terrence W. Boyle, broke federal ethics law by ruling in numerous cases involving corporations in which they owned stock. Meanwhile, a Salon/CIR exposé published just last week revealed that at least two dozen federal judges confirmed under Bush made political contributions to leading Republicans who were influential in their appointments, or to the president himself, while under consideration for their judgeships.
The problem: Federal judges receive lifetime appointments. Discovering that Bush has picked judges who may be in good company with the DeLay-Abramoff gang doesn't exactly inspire confidence in the integrity of the nation's courts.
The outcome: Following Salon's report, Bush withdrew his nomination of Payne, who subsequently had told the president that, among other reasons, he felt obligated to remain at his district court post in Oklahoma to see through an overhaul of that court's filing system. Bush has not withdrawn his nomination of Boyle; his fate still hangs with the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Further reading: Money Trails Lead to Bush Judges; "Controversial Bush Judge Broke Ethics Law"; "Bush Judge Under Ethics Cloud"; the full Salon/CIR investigative series scrutinizing the federal judiciary under Bush.
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Iraq Budget Blown to Smithereens
The scandal: Thanks to a morass of murky contracts and failed oversight, more than half of the budget for some Iraq reconstruction projects -- and we're talking in the hundreds of millions here -- has been burned on overhead costs, according to a report released in October by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction. The overhead costs in some cases were as much as 10 times the expected amount. Sure, security in Iraq is expensive (see above) -- but according to the report, the most money was wasted, incredibly, on idle time. ''The government blew the whistle for these guys to go to Iraq and the meter ran," Jim Mitchell, a spokesman for the inspector general's office, told the New York Times. "The government was billed for sometimes nine months before work began.'' Meanwhile, any guess as to who's leading the pack here? Yep, you got it -- Halliburton subsidiary KBR Inc., with its various oil-facility contracts, tallied the highest level of overhead costs.
The problem: As columnist Paul Krugman noted last week, Baghdad received less than six hours a day of electricity in October, and much of Iraqs population currently lives with untreated sewage and without clean water. If you're still having trouble doing the math here, Stephen Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense added it up recently: "These contracts were to design and build important items for oil infrastructure, hospitals and education, but in some cases more than half of the money padded corporate coffers instead."
The outcome: Soon enough, it will be anyone's guess. Last month President Bush signed the FY2007 Defense Authorization Act, which includes the termination of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, the funding watchdog. The SIGIR will disappear by October 2007, regardless of the status of funds it was designed to oversee. Sen. Russ Feingold, who helped create the watchdog office, is indeed troubled: "American taxpayers deserve to know where their money is going in this costly war," he said last month. "This termination plan means that billions of dollars will go without proper oversight and auditing."
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Uncle Sam Goes Big Brother
The scandal: "Months after the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush secretly authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans and others inside the United States to search for evidence of terrorist activity," the New York Times reported in a Page One bombshell on Dec. 15, 2005. According to "nearly a dozen current and former officials," the report said, the top-secret program was carried out without the court-approved warrants required by law for spying inside the U.S. In the three years since 9/11, the Bush government had secretly monitored the international telephone calls and e-mail messages of "hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people," according to the Times. This spring, USA Today reported the existence of a massive database at the NSA, containing phone call records of tens of millions of Americans provided to the government by major telecom companies. And in June, Salon uncovered evidence pointing to government surveillance of U.S. Internet traffic.
The problem: Bush has plunged America back into Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover territory, and perhaps beyond.
The outcome: In what promises to be a long legal saga, two federal district court judges have so far ruled against Bush: Judge Vaughn R. Walker in San Francisco, and Judge Anna Diggs Taylor in Detroit. In July, rebuking a mind-bending state-secrets claim by Bush administration lawyers, Vaughn allowed a suit to go forward against AT&T for allegedly collaborating with the NSA. In August, Diggs ruled that "The President of the United States, a creature of the same Constitution which gave us these Amendments," had "undisputedly violated" the First and Fourth Amendments, as well as the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. No doubt the Supreme Court will eventually have the last word. Until that time comes, the domestic spying presumably continues.
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The House That Corruption Built
The scandal: The Jack Abramoff influence-peddling ring began to unravel in 2004, but it was over the last couple of years that the scope of GOP corruption came into view. Among the dozens of players with fingers in the pie: Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana, Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio and David H. Safavian, former chief of staff of the General Services Administration. Perks that politicians and staffers enjoyed ranged from campaign contributions to prime sporting events tickets to luxurious vacations to high-end wining and dining. Meanwhile, Randy "Duke" Cunningham, a GOP representative from San Diego on the House defense appropriations subcommittee, earned investigators' interest in 2005 for dealings with his own circle of friends in the defense contracting industry. Trafficking in cash-stuffed envelopes, luxury houses and yachts, Cunningham was exposed for taking upward of $24 million in bribes in exchange for securing government contracts.
The problem: Anyone who knows politics knows that corruption is part of the game on both sides of the aisle. But this has been a veritable epidemic of sleaze and criminality among the current ruling party.
The outcome: Cunningham pleaded guilty to bribery charges and resigned in November 2005. Abramoff pleaded guilty to charges of federal conspiracy, fraud and tax evasion in January 2006. Safavian was convicted in October of lying to investigators and sentenced to 18 months in prison. Ney pleaded guilty in mid-October to charges of conspiracy and making false statements -- and late Friday, finally resigned. DeLay was indicted on a conspiracy charge back in 2005 and resigned this June, but he has not been convicted of a crime.
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Hushed Up About Corporate Media
The scandal: In September 2006, the L.A. Times reported that during Michael Powell's tenure as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, two internal draft reports exposing the ill effects of corporate media consolidation were quashed. What the agency prevented from getting any airtime: A 2004 report that found locally owned TV stations did a better job covering local news and issues, and a 2003 report pointing out a decrease in the number of radio station owners.
The problem: Powell and his aides denied knowing about the studies -- but clearly his corporate-friendly agenda would necessitate flipping the channel on such troublesome findings. Both Powell and his successor, Kevin J. Martin, supported reduced restrictions on television station ownership and the lifting of a ban preventing companies from owning a newspaper and a television or radio station in the same market.
The outcome: The looser FCC rules backed by Powell and Martin have been put on hold since 2004, after an appeals court said the FCC failed to sufficiently justify them. After getting ahold of the two suppressed reports, California Sen. Barbara Boxer blasted the FCC for "destroying every piece of a document they didn't like." The FCC's inspector general is investigating.
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Republican Hypocrisy, in All Its Naked Glory
The scandal: Former Florida congressman Mark Foley's sexually predatory instant-message and e-mail exchanges with underage congressional pages were exposed by ABC News in late September. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert first claimed to have learned of Foley's behavior only after the story broke -- but later admitted that he had "no reason to dispute" statements by other Republican congressmen that they'd informed Hastert about the Foley problem beginning nearly a year before.
The problem: Could there be anything that strips bare Republican sanctimony more than this story? Foley was in charge of the Missing and Exploited Children's Caucus in the House, for God's sake. The notion that the Republican leadership had no clue about his behavior looked laughable within hours of the initial news. In the words of one former page Foley had in his online sights: "sick sick sick sick sick."
The outcome: Foley resigned the day the story broke, then ducked into alcohol rehab and had his lawyer announce that he was molested by a priest as a youth. ("I'm a victim, not a perp, see?") The House Ethics Committee and the FBI are conducting separate probes. Hastert has refused to resign, with Bush backing him up. Meanwhile, there's little more than a fig leaf left to cover up the truth about the hard-line wing of the GOP. On Friday, another figurehead of anti-gay politics was exposed: Evangelical heavyweight and anti-gay marriage campaigner Rev. Ted Haggard admitted to receiving massages and buying crystal meth from a gay prostitute. He resigned as president of the National Association of Evangelicals, though he denied the prostitute's claims that the two partook in a drug-laced sexual affair for the last three years.