Thursday, March 27, 2008

If the President Spoke and No One Was There to Hear Him, Would He Still Be Full of Crap?

After months of being assaulted with the insurgent falsehood that "the surge is working" by the President, his administration, and his new BFF, John McCain, it seems that Muqtada al Sadr has thrown a wrench into their new reality. Or so you would think.

To hear Bush tell it, that violence you're hearing about in Basra and the Green Zone, it never happened. And if you don't believe that, well then consider that the renewed attacks are actually a good thing.

Concerning the efficacy of the surge in the first place, the decrease in violence was attributable to many factors, the greatest of which certainly wasn't a couple thousand more troops. The cease-fire called for by al Sadr last August is arguably the most significant factor, taking his formidable Mahdi army (militia) out of the equation. You take the largest Shiite faction and outspoken opponent of the Maliki government off the table and that violence was reduced should come as no surprise.

Additionally, it has been well-publicized that the US government is paying off a large number of Sunni (former) insurgents to not attack us. Of course, they don't call them Temporarily-Bribed Noncombatants, they call them the Concerned Local Citizens.

Another aspect of the drop in violence--one that people seem loathe to address--is the pure logistics of the sectarian violence. Upon the fall of the Hussein regime, sectarian killings were easy due to the mixed neighborhoods which bred close proximity and accessibility. Five years and hundreds of thousands of deaths later, sectarian killings have become harder because the population is mostly segregated along Sunni/Shia lines. That is, it's literally harder to find people to kill (that aren't protected by their own kind.)

So, clearly there is a number of ingredients to the mirage of success, but an increase in troops isn't high on the list of most significant. That said, somehow Gen. Petraeus has become an untouchable among the US government and media, and to question the success of the surge pure blasphemy.

Then came the week of March 24:

Is 'success' of US surge about to unravel?

Clashes spread as US, Iraqi forces attack Shiite Militia

From the first link:

A cease-fire critical to the improved security situation in Iraq appeared to unravel Monday when a militia loyal to radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al Sadr began shutting down neighborhoods in west Baghdad and issuing demands of the central government.

Simultaneously, in the strategic southern port city of Basra, where Sadr's Mahdi militia is in control, the Iraqi government launched a crackdown in the face of warnings by Sadr's followers that they'll fight government forces if any Sadrists are detained. By 1 a.m. Arab satellite news channels reported clashes between the Mahdi Army and police in Basra.

That this renewed violence by Sadr's loyalists is generally considered as a less-than-full-scale rollback of the cease-fire should scare supporters of the the efficacy of the surge. If this is only a slight upturn, the likelihood of the Iraqi forces pushing back successfully against a full-scale onslaught is extremely low.

Basra is Iraq's only port city and contains 80 percent of the country's oil reserves. Not a small tactical region by any stretch.

But when life hands President Bush lemons:

General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker will provide more details about the progress of the surge when they testify before Congress early next month. But this much is clear: The surge is doing what it was designed to do. It's helping Iraqis reclaim security and restart political and economic life. It is bringing America closer to a key strategic victory in the war against these extremists and radicals.

On the security side, the surge has brought important gains, which I discussed in detail last week in a speech at the Pentagon. In Baghdad, we've worked with Iraqi security forces to greatly diminish the sectarian violence and civilian deaths. We've broken the grip of al Qaida on the capital. We've weakened the influence of Iranian-backed militias. We've dramatically improved security conditions in many devastated neighborhoods in what some have deemed a "re-liberation."

In Anbar Province -- which 18 months ago was declared "lost" to al Qaeda -- we joined with (read: paid off) the brave local sheiks who launched the first large-scale Arab uprising against al Qaeda.

This speech was given Thursday, as the situation in Iraq deteriorated into chaos. As that Shiite militia that we've rendered impotent interrupted the functions of government and daily life. As significant instability spread to the all-important oil-exporting port town of Basra.

Besides the obvious unwillingness to look at the situation as it is, and not as he wishes, President Bush continues to stress the impact of al Qaeda at every opportunity. This repetition is clearly his effort to continuously conflate al Qaeda and Iraq as retroactive justification for the war, despite ample evidence that no such relationship existed prior to the US occupation.

While spending plenty of time on al Qaeda--not the group responsible for the most recent uprising--in his speech Thursday, Bush mentions al Sadr and his Mahdi militia by name precisely zero times.

That omission is no accident. The actual situation on the ground is of no significance to Bush. All that matters is his continued desire to make this debate about al Qaeda even when the facts belie his case. No one can read a speech that doesn't once name the actual root of the violence, yet centers on a rival group, and suggest that he has any other goal in mind.

The surge isn't working. It never was. Al Sadr was calling the shots from the beginning, and, admit it or not, this administration knows it.


Update (3/27, 1915):

Glen Greenwald
points to this prophetic article from February in the The Guardian predicting the very outbreak of violence that now threatens Basra.

This indicates two distinct options: One, that Dan Smith, a newspaper reporter, has better intelligence and a firmer grasp on the situation than the US government. Or, two, the US government is not being particularly honest about the reality of the situation.

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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Wheels Come Off on the Tarmac

It didn't take long, but the Bosnia story has completely gotten away from the Clinton campaign. The other day I said that she "forgets other people were there." Well, maybe Sinbad didn't think to record the whole thing, but CBS news did.

As with nearly all of her campaign's backtracking, the spin on this story certainly doesn't fail to dig a deeper hole. First, the campaign claimed that although there may not have been actual fire at the airport, there were certainly warnings and that she was entering a potentially "hostile area." Again, this tends to be the case with areas that have recently ceased to be an official war zone.

But the campaign misses the point. If all she had meant to say was that she had made trips to areas around the globe ravaged by war, she would have been correct, and her rebuttal in this instance would make sense.

But that isn't the case. She felt compelled to make it seem like she'd seen action, as if dodging bullets was somehow a major Presidential criteria for a large portion of the population.

In truth, she's told the story several times. As with John McCain repeatedly 'misspeaking,' the excuse only works if you flub once. She told the story in a slightly-less-embellished fashion before. That prompted Sinbad's comments, and it was after she was refuted that she retold the story in its current--recently-deceased, rather-- incarnation. The exaggerated re-telling came on St. Patrick's Day in a prepared speech. When you screw up on the fly, it's 'misspeaking.' But when you misrepresent the truth in a prepared statement, some may venture to call it 'lying.'

What's even more amusing to me is that even in a faux-apologetic state, Clinton found a way to insert even more bullshit, saying, "I was also told the greeting ceremony had been moved away from the tarmac but that there was this 8-year-old girl and I can‘t rush by her. I‘ve got to go at least greet her." (Referring to the girl she meets on the tarmac, as seen in the above video.)

There you have it. She was going to worry about her own head, but being the superior citizen and lover of children that she is, she couldn't resist stopping to listen to a poem from a child that somehow made it onto the front lines of a war zone.

She can't resist the urge when caught in a blatant lie to try and construe herself as the sympathetic character in the story.

What really gets me is that somebody as politically shrewd a Clinton is by nearly all accounts could simply bank on no one having footage of the ceremony. Did she really think it wasn't going to end up on You Tube? How is that possible?

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Calling Their Shots, Part 2: The Payoff

Part 1

John McCain, Monday in a speech to veterans:

For the first time, I have seen Osama bin Laden and General Petraeus in agreement, and that is that central battleground in the battle against al Qaeda is in Iraq today. And that‘s what bin Laden is saying. And that's what General Petraeus is saying. And that‘s what I‘m saying.

Karl Rove, in his WSJ op-ed dated March 21:

Almost the same number of Americans (63%) believe al Qaeda "would be more likely to use Iraq as a base for its terrorist operations" if the U.S. withdraws.

So maybe McCain took a couple days longer than I expected, but both Rove and McCain (presumably Petraeus as well) state that Iraq will serve as a base without the recognition that the US is responsible for creating said base.

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Saturday, March 22, 2008

Answering The Fact-Checking Phone

The campaign narratives are well-known by now. Barack Obama is the fresh face full of hope and ideas but short on substance. Hillary Clinton is the experienced candidate with the will, determination, and worldliness to get the job done. The media has been complicit in promoting the Clinton campaign's theme, but don't seem too interested in vetting her claims, merely distributing them as given.

But how much of her claims hold water? She claims her eight years as First Lady as part of her years of experience, but you'd better ask which parts of those she wants you to ignore before advancing any storyline on anything President Clinton pushed through. She claims foreign policy experience on par with that of John McCain, but again you should really check with her before talking to anyone who was there.

NAFTA then and now:

On the domestic front, her recent staunch opposition to NAFTA helped garner primary victories in Ohio and Texas. But in claiming Bill's presidency as her own, she must also lay claim to one of his more successful endeavors (in terms of the legislative process), the passage of NAFTA in 1993. Flying in the face of her claims to the contrary, her recently-released schedules indicate several meetings in which she participated to drum up support for the now-disavowed trade agreement. Two people who were at a November 10, 1993 meeting of the sort have very different impressions of the event than the Clinton campaign has tried to disseminate:

Laura Jones, Executive Director of US Assoc. of Imp. of Textiles & Apparel:

That's ludicrous [to say Clinton wasn't advocating NAFTA.] There was no question that everyone who spoke including the First Lady was for NAFTA, it was a rally on behalf of NAFTA to help it get passed. It's unquestionable. And there are many people out there who were there who remember the incident who work in this industry.

Julia Hughes, VP of the same organization:

This is such a non issue to us, because obviously it was a pro-NAFTA group and a pro-NAFTA event. It was a 100 percent pro-NAFTA event. No one suggested any inklings of doubt since part of the agenda was to promote enthusiasm for passage of NAFTA.

[Clinton] was the highlight of the event. She was absolutely the capper to the event. It was a positive rally. I assure you if there had even been a hint of waffling from her -- because we were in the last days before NAFTA passed and it was a pretty hectic time -- we would have freaked out.

After testing the waters with several rebuttals, most of which crumbled atop the shaky foundation of untruths, Hillary's campaign seems to have settled on the line that she was opposed to passing NAFTA before health-care reform. Well, that's probably true, but that doesn't speak to opposition to the substance of the NAFTA agreement in the slightest. If people were concerned about the timing, they'd have a point.

Like most her campaign, her domestic trade policy is predicated on acceptance of history about 15 months long. That it's possible to examine the events of a decade ago seems to chafe her to an enormous degree.

Sniper fire in Bosnia:

In March of 1996, Hillary embarked on a European trip, stopping off to rally the troops in Bosnia with Sinbad and Sheryl Crow. Her retelling of the event:

I remember landing under sniper fire. There was supposed to be some kind of a greeting ceremony at the airport, but instead we just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base.

Unfortunately for her, she forgets other people were there. Sinbad, for one, doesn't recall ducking sniper fire. I've never been in a situation like that, but I imagine I'd remember it if I had.

Among the kinks in Clinton's story are the fact that the Dayton Peace Accords ending the war were signed in November of the previous year. She says that it was too dangerous for President Clinton to go, but he had indeed gone to Bosnia in January of that year, allowing for even less time after the official cessation of hostilities. (You may note that the President is standing on the tarmac in that picture. He doesn't seem to be ducking sniper fire, either.)

In its defense, the campaign offers contemporary newspaper articles declaring, "the first lady is...traveling to a potential combat zone." Um, yeah, but 'potential' combat zone is different than ducking 'real' sniper fire. What's their point, exactly? Again, we must ignore the pesky fact that Bill was there two and a half months earlier. And if she was taking her 16-year-old daughter into an active combat zone, perhaps DHS should have been contacted. I'll settle for 'okay, we embellished a bit.'

Even if we allowed the juxtaposition of facts as to the urgency of danger, the point of the trip was basically a USO, troop morale operation. Bob Hope for President.

Opening borders retroactively:

Ever the master of international diplomacy, Hillary has also given herself credit-during a debate in January and subsequently-for getting Macedonia to open its borders to Albanian refugees from Kosovo. Again, those meddlesome news archives pin the date of reopening at May 13, 1999. Clinton's visit to 'negotiate?:' May 14.

That's correct. She's so good at negotiations that she can force countries to reverse time and reopen borders retroactively. Now that's a talent Obama can't get his paws on.

Ending 30 years of fighting with support:

Perhaps more nefarious than her imaginative, if not substantial, tales of Bosnia, is Hillary's claim to have been a major player in ending the fighting in Northern Ireland. Nearly everyone there agrees that she played a role in the peace agreement. Nearly all of those people describe that role as peripheral.

David Trimble
, Nobel Prize winner for his part in the Good Friday Accords:

I don't know there was much she did apart from accompanying Bill [Clinton] going around. I don't want to rain on the thing for her but being a cheerleader for something is slightly different from being a principal player.

Conall McDevitt, chief negotiator:

She was certainly investing some time, no doubt about it. Whether she was involved on the issue side I think probably not.

George Mitchell, another major player, has said things along the same lines. So, the consensus is pretty clear. Hillary played an role greater than your typical First Lady, but was not a significant force behind the diplomacy central to the agreement.

No one disputes that Hillary's interest in politics and diplomacy is greater than most First Ladys, but that isn't her claim. Her claim is that she played a significant role in getting the deal signed, which is a claim that seems at odds with pretty much everyone involved. If 'supporting' peace is a qualification for President, the majority of the country could sign up.

There are two themes at work here. First, HRC loves to claim time spent as First Lady as equivalent to governing experience (at the same time ignoring Obama's actual governing experience in the Illinois Senate) but isn't so fond of having to take credit for the parts of those years which contradict her current stance. Moral: The past is present if it contributes to her current campaign narrative. The past is the past (or non-existent) whenever a conflict occurs.

Second, tea parties with the wives of foreign dignitaries is Clintonese for 'personally negotiating peace agreements and influencing foreign affairs.' No one doubts she took an active role, but having an interest in and being a major player in foreign affairs are not equivalent.

Regardless of interpretations of participation, the Clinton campaign is more than happy to play a game of 'hide the facts.' Buried in almost all of its rebuttals is a tacit admission of misrepresentation.

When questioned about the sniper fire, they claim Bosnia as 'potential' war zone. Potential, as defined, is antithetical to 'active,' thereby taking the rug out from under the claim in the process of trying to support it. At one point, a campaign staffer was even reduced to asking, "Has Barack Obama even been to Bosnia?" If that's not an admission of defeat, I don't know what is.

When confronted with a shifting timeline in Macedonia, they claim that she was influential in allowing more Albanians to cross the border, using the simple fact that publicity of the opening led to greater crossings two days after than the day of the reopening.

Overall, Hillary's claim of experience is central to her campaign, but it is infinitely reliant upon ignorance of the past and obfuscation of the facts. Her folly, though, is in believing that fudging through these claims is to her benefit. Obama is running on the fresh ideas platform with glaring success, and she's chosen to oppose that with a murky, ever-changing tale of politics-as-usual.

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While You Were Out, March 22

A recurring section dealing with the news that happens while the media occupies itself with the horse race.

Meeting Quotas

Street vendor Israel Rodriguez went fishing last month and never came back. Two days later, his family found his body buried in a plastic bag, classified by the Colombian army as a guerrilla fighter killed in battle.

Human rights activists say the Feb. 17 death is part of a deadly phenomenon called "false positives" in which the armed forces allegedly kill civilians, usually peasants or unemployed youths, and brand them as leftist guerrillas.

A macabre facet of a general increase in "extrajudicial killings" by the military, "false positives" are a result of intense pressure to show progress in Colombia's U.S.-funded war against leftist insurgents, the activists say.

Colombia and its President, Alvaro Uribe, are supported by billions of dollars in United States military aid in its ongoing battle with leftist guerrilla group, FARC. And it is in an effort to maintain that support the Uribe government seems to be meeting (intangible) quotas through rather dubious means.

Activists in the US claim that the US is not "doing enough, as required by law, to bar US funding to Colombian military units that have drawn allegations of the killings and other human rights violations."

Sabotaging Anti-Fraud Legislation:

Last May, facing growing cases of fraud and increasing spending overseas, the Justice Department introduced plans to force companies to notify the government about evidence of contract abuse worth $5 million or more. Currently, contractors report evidence of abuse on a voluntary basis, and the number of company-reported fraud cases has declined steadily over the past 15 years.

By November, after it left the Justice Department and was published in the Federal Register, the proposed rule specifically exempted "contracts to be performed outside the United States."

The Justice Department and the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction have asked the exemption be eliminated before the rule becomes law. Additionally, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, has threatened to block the loophole in the federal budget if the administration does not do away with it.

OMB's Office of Federal Procurement Policy has repeatedly declined to comment on the loophole or how it was added to the overall fraud crackdown.

That's right, the administration managed to slip a statute exempting overseas contracting firms from reporting fraud into a bill that was specifically designed to do just the opposite. Ballsy. Do we need any more evidence that the United States as a country isn't the primary concern for this administration? If so, more will probably follow shortly.

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Friday, March 21, 2008

Winter Soldier

This past weekend, Thursday the 13th through Sunday the 16th, members of Iraq Veterans Against the War gathered in Washington to speak out against the war in Iraq.

These men will be called traitors. Their patriotism will be revoked by those who think it is theirs to dole out. Yet, all they've done is recount what they've experienced and done in Iraq. And for this, on the fifth anniversary of the beginning of the war, the media greeted them with silence; the Defense Department with defiance; the public with apathy.

There's too much content to cut-and-paste but I would encourage anyone to either watch the videos at IVAW or read some of the transcripts at Democracy Now.

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Thursday, March 20, 2008

Calling Their Shots

The ever-elusive Osama bin Laden has just released a new tape to al Jazeera in which he calls Iraq the "perfect base to set up the jihad to liberate Palestine."

I'm putting the over/under on days it takes John McCain or the administration to completely misinterpret history and use this as a reason our occupation of Iraq is necessary at two.

While anyone with a basic understanding of history and the region will instantly understand that said base was created by the United States and that as long as foreign forces occupy their soil there will be no peace.

As long as Saddam was in power, bin Laden utilizing Iraq as a jumping-off point would have been impossible. It is only into the vacuum created by the US forces that al Qaeda or other groups can slip into. One need only recall how bin Laden obtained the position he's in in the first place. The United States helped drive the Russians out of Afghanistan in the '80s and the Taliban filled the vacuum, creating a safe harbor for terrorism and bin Laden.

Yet, the President and his cronies don't see things in that light. They refuse to acknowledge the correlation between the US occupation and the insurgency. To them, that one is the root cause of the other is sacrilege. Instead, they continue to insist that we must stay until the insurgency comes to a halt, illustrating a willfully-blind belief that cessation is possible without vacation.

In that light, I give the administration or John McCain-whichever strikes first-two days at most to say something to the effect of, "just the other day, bin Laden himself said that Iraq would make a good base for terrorism against our friends and allies. We must not let that happen." And no one will stand up and point out that that sanctuary was created by the same people who decry its existence.

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

While You Were Out, March 19

The government makes its case for less oversight:

One of the more overarching themes to the Bush administration is its absolute opposition to any oversight, congressional or otherwise. Whether it's opposing the establishment of a commission to examine the wiretapping policy and activities, refusing to appear when subpoenaed, or just outright gutting other agencies, the administration is demonstrably opposed to anyone paying attention to what they're doing.

Yet, time and again they demonstrate with equal veracity that oversight is sorely needed, if not because of illegality then for the shear incompetence.

Enter this report from Monday, providing us with yet more proof that silly balance-of-power thing in the Constitution might have been a good idea after all.

The government's terror watchlist includes inaccurate and outdated information, increasing the risk that innocent people will be misidentified as terrorists while terrorists are overlooked, a government audit reported Monday.


Although agents describe the watchlist as invaluable in helping them detect terrorists, high-profile blunders have underscored its flaws, such as when agents repeatedly blocked Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., from boarding a plane because his name was similar to that of a terror suspect.


[JDIG Glenn] Fine's audit is his second in less than a week to find fault with the FBI's handling of national security matters.

On Thursday, the inspector general found that the FBI had abused privacy laws when seeking records without court approval. However, Fine noted that the FBI had improved its processing of so-called "national security letters" after his office had issued an earlier critical report.

I'll assume that detaining Senator Kennedy was just a coincidence. But, really, forgetting the illegal activities of the national security process, these agencies have proven time and again that their incompetence, here stretching over the course of six years, presents more of an imminent threat.

Those meddling Clintons are at it again:

Continuing on her theme of "caucuses don't really count," Hillary Clinton has asked the Texas Democratic Party to verify every signature (that's 1 million of them) of the people who voted in the Texas caucuses. One wonders why she didn't request the same of the primary voters. The Party declined her request.

Ron Paul hasn't left yet:

From the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch:

On Saturday, [Missouri Rep. Party Chmn. Jon] Bennett learned why [an abnormal influx of inquiries about the caucuses were coming in.] Dozens of avid supporters of Ron Paul, a Texas congressman who is running a renegade quest for the presidential nomination, staged a political guerrilla attack. At that caucus at St. Peters City Hall — as well as others across the state — party regulars like Bennett were overwhelmed.

Caucuses in Missouri, held only in presidential election years, are typically low-key affairs attended mainly by party diehards. But this year, the pro-Paul activists commandeered gatherings in the city of St. Louis, St. Louis County, Kansas City and Springfield. Paul supporters also controlled caucuses in at least a half dozen rural counties.

The result: Paul's supporters predict they have snagged roughly a third of the 2,137 state Republican delegates. Those delegates will determine the state GOP platform this spring and help select the presidential delegates to the national Republican presidential convention in Minneapolis in September.

This, of course, makes the people who didn't show up angry, and the Party will be examining the names to make sure there weren't any of those dirty Libertarian interlopers. Assuming there were (which wouldn't be a surprise), the take-over still illustrates that those who don't participate still feel they are owed inaction by everyone else.

They fling 'activist' around like it's a dirty word, but apathy is the enemy of democracy. (No, I don't support Ron Paul, but I refuse to degrade people who participate or favor those who don't.)

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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Shorts: Campaign Roundup

Michigan and Florida revisited:

Florida has already thrown in the towel on a re-vote, and the latest out of Michigan has the Democratic leaders in that state proposing a likely-untenable do-over scheduled for June 3. Among the many issues surrounding these two states which continue to exasperate:

  • The Michigan plan calls for the DNC to pay for the new primary, something Howard Dean has repeatedly stated will not happen. If the two states exhibited folly in ignoring the DNC's warnings before, they have raised the bar beyond reach in continuing to do so now. To go on so unbudgingly requires either an enormous set of something or a complete lack of rational thought. I'm banking on the latter.

  • Several weeks into this conversation, there are still pundits and candidates who call the March 4 elections fair. Again, they ignore the obvious. The DNC stripped the delegates before the primaries were held, nobody campaigned in those states, and Obama wasn't on the ballot in Michigan. To suggest that Obama should have kept his name on the ballot carries the same weight as suggesting he put it on a Canadian ballot. As far as he and everyone else-including the voters-knew, the Michigan ballot counted for just as much. Clinton seems to be chastising Barack for lacking the foresight to see an attempted mid-stream rule change in the future. (Although, considering the opponent, maybe he should have.)

On delegate counts; and ignoring them:

March 4 signaled a turning point in the Democratic race. Not because Clinton put together an impressive set of wins and closed the gap between her and Obama, but because that was the day the pundits forgot about the delegate count.

By all accounts, Hillary netted less than ten delegates on Super-de-duper Tuesday-bowl-mania, but somebody forgot to alert cable news. Obama has more than made up that ground by winning Wyoming and Mississippi as well as gaining some of Edwards' Iowa delegates. Obama's increased his lead since March 3.

Yet, if the actual state of the race hasn't changed, the narrative sure has. But given that the delegates are awarded proportionally and that Clinton would have to win every remaining state by preposterous margins, it's glaringly obvious that she can't catch Obama short of a riot-inciting convention battle.

Will someone please alert the MSM to pay attention to how the delegates are counted and divided up. It's kind of important to your narrative, even if it doesn't sell as well as a soap opera.

Eliot Spitzer redux:

As expected, opinion as to the significance of private affairs on public office is trending on party lines. Clinching the achievement of farce, David Vitter goes as far as to say that he and Spitzer do not share similar tales.

"I have made a very serious mistake a long time ago and I have to live with that every day," Vitter said, according to Jordan's account. "That's not a flippant statement. I need to spend my whole life making up for that." According to Jordan, Vitter turned "a bit defiant" and added: "Anybody who looks at the two cases will see there is an enormous difference between the two of them. The people that are trying to draw comparisons to the two cases are people who've never agreed with me on important issues like immigration and other things."

What, exactly, the differences are, no one knows. Well, besides the fact that Spitzer resigned and Vitter still serves, even having the cajones to add an abstinence-only clause into an African AIDS relief package. For those scoring at home, that's David Vitter: 2, logic: 0.

On the coverage: Please, no more pontificating on what drives a man to cheat. Ask a 15-year-old and move on with it. Coming to the right conclusion doesn't require a committee.

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Monday, March 17, 2008

The Missing Link

The lead up to the invasion of Iraq in March of 2003 was rife with contradictions, misdirection, pandering to innate fears and outright misrepresentation of facts. As the Bush administration reluctantly tried to give an air diplomacy and present a forthright case for war, it ran through an almost-slapstick comedy of errors and erratic ricochets between various attempted justifications for invasion. Five years on, it has become increasingly clear that the justifications were largely a publicity stunt undertaken begrudgingly by an administration that fells it answers to no one and continues to trade in aggregate deception and rhetorical misdirection.

Among the various reasons for invasion given by the Bush administration were the existence of WMDs in Iraq, the intolerable oppression of the Iraqi people, numerous violations of UN resolutions by Saddam (of course, in this instance the UN was seen as legitimate by Bush), and a baseless allegation of a formal connection between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein's regime. The failure to find any WMDs has been widely documented. That the United States is close allies with plenty of oppressive Islamic regimes (read: Saudi Arabia) became a cumbersome reality when testing the waters with that line of reasoning. The public disdain for the UN by the administration made its sudden reliance upon it seem more than a little disingenuous.

What's left but to conflagrate a fear in the American people that the man responsible for the death of thousands on September 11, 2001 was still in power and capable of even more. Bereft of evidence for its case, the administration relied on empty rhetoric and deceptive end-runs around the intelligence community.

September 2001: The Pentagon creates the Office of Special Plans "in order to find evidence of what [Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul] Wolfowitz and his boss, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, believed to be true-that Saddam Hussein had close ties to Al Qaeda, and that Iraq had an enormous arsenal of chemical, biological, and possibly even nuclear weapons that threatened the region and, potentially, the United States� The rising influence of the Office of Special Plans was accompanied by a decline in the influence of the C.I.A. and the D.I.A. bringing about a crucial change of direction in the American intelligence community." The office, hand-picked by the Administration, specifically "cherry-picked intelligence that supported its pre-existing position and ignoring all the rest" while officials deliberately "bypassed the government's customary procedures for vetting intelligence."

As other justifications were knocked aside by overt reality, the administration gravitated to others, such as the installation of democracy, but still held on to its insistence that there was a link between Saddam and Osama bin Laden. Really, they had to keep up the charade as they still do in order to lump Operation Iraqi Freedom in with the larger War on Terror. This singular claim is all the administration has in its arsenal to claim that the Iraq war was part of, and not a distraction from, the war against the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan.

Enter the recently-released (well, sort of) report on the accounting of 600,000 Iraqi documents captured from the deposed regime which concludes that there was in fact no formal relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda and certainly no active involvement by Saddam's regime in the attack on the World Trade center. It is important to note, because it will be seized upon by the right, that the report absolutely does not suggest that Saddam did not have links to terror. Much of the Iraq Perspective Project's report detailed the various and widespread terrorist groups supported by Saddam both with money and training. It also illustrates the overarching structure surrounding the program. To take away from this report that Saddam and terror were strangers would take an enormous suspension of literacy on the part of the reader.

What the report does say is that Saddam's association with terror was regional in nature and concentrated around achieving his own political aims. Moreover, the report states that the most frequent target of his terrorism were Iraqis, both at home and abroad. Cooperation with groups tied to bin Laden (who had several front groups other than al Qaeda) was undertaken by Iraq insofar as "that organization's near-term goals supported Saddam's long-term vision." So, essentially, Saddam's not going to shy away from supporting an al Qaeda front group if they want to bomb American or Israeli targets in the region or disrupt oil exports, but this support was almost entirely monetary in nature and somewhat tacit. It was not in any way long-term collaboration on a project the size and scale of the WTC attack.

Speaking of a long-term relationship between bin Laden and Hussein, the IPP states:

Both wanted to create a single powerful state that would take its place as a global superpower.

But the similarities ended there: bin Laden wanted-and still wants to-restore the Islamic caliphate while Saddam, despite his later Islamic rhetoric, dreamed more narrowly of being the secular ruler of a united Arab nation. These competing visions made any significant long-term compromise between them highly unlikely. After all, to the fundamentalist leadership of al Qaeda, Saddam represented the worst kind of "apostate" regime-a secular police state well practiced in suppressing internal challenges.

Considerable operational overlap was inevitable when monitoring, contacting, financing, and training the regional groups involved in terrorism. Saddam provided training and motivation to revolutionary pan-Arab nationalists in the region...That these movements (pan-Arab and pan-Islamic) had many similarities and strategic parallels does not mean
they saw themselves in that light.

Empasis mine

If it had characterized the relationship between al Qaeda and Iraq as a fleeting one borne of a common enemy in the United States, the Bush administration would be correct in its assertions and this report wouldn't be getting the press it's receiving. But that isn't the case they've made.

In order to rope Iraq under the War on Terror umbrella, the administration has baldly claimed that Hussein played a significant role in the planning and execution of the 2001 attack, and that is a position which is impossible to undertake given the documents reviewed for the IPP's publication. It's important to realize that the basis for the writings are primary sources from Saddam's own regime and not intelligence reliant upon un-vetted or biased sources.

One would expect that the release of this information will not be accompanied by a lowering in the tone of the rhetoric coming out of the White House. Quite to the contrary, it has already elicited a defensive response customary to the administration marked by refusing to release the report online and launching a PR campaign in the hopes of downplaying or outright mis-characterizing its conclusions. But there is no mistaking the obvious. The Bush administration's case for war in Iraq was based entirely on an endless stream of empty rhetoric backed by a brazen mis-representation of facts and outright lies. That they still cling to dis-proven tenets of a false pretext should surprise no one but enrage all.

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Friday, March 14, 2008

Democrats Begin Bipedal Movement

After a closed session on Thursday, the House passed the Democratic proposal for amendments to FISA on Friday, the specifics of which were in Thursday's post. It appears that the Dems have realized the feeble objections of the Republicans were not unassailable and that they could even ignore or defy them at times.

In passing the bill, which will still have a tough time passing the Senate, the Democrats kept retroactive immunity out and put confidentiality protection for the telecoms in. However, this action only stood to prove that when Bush and his minions say 'compromise,' they mean 'do as we say,' as this seemingly reasonable compromise was met with predictable objections from the right.

In presenting these objections, proponents of blanket immunity only illustrate with ever-growing clarity that their arguments are as baseless as they are erratic. Tony Fratto with the current White House version:

Their bill would make it easier for class-action trial lawyers to sue companies whose only offense is that they are alleged to have assisted in efforts to protect the country after the attacks of September 11.

Sorry, Tony, better luck next time. They're not charged with being helpful, they're charged with doing so illegally. But congrats on the ability to keep this charade of illogical tripe going with a straight face. And about the use of 'alleged.' If you want to cast doubt that the companies actually aided you, you might want to shy away from throwing everything you have into trying to protect them from prosecution. When I was younger, I used to try this by flinging myself on top of my mattress when my mother went to flip it. And it certainly wasn't because I had any magazines under there.

The 'they-we're-being-patriotic' reasoning is only the latest in the White House's series of arguments. This shifting is reminiscent of the lead-up to the Iraq War (Saddam's a bad man. No wait, he's bad and he has WMDs. Non-starter? What if he was responsible for the WTC? Umm...democracy. That's the ticket!).

Once upon a time, it was 'well, if immunity's off the table, the phone companies won't cooperate.' One has to assume that this was dropped as the main talking point once a pre-law student informed the administration that a company can't refuse to comply with a legally-acquired warrant. This is a point that is somehow missed in most discussions of immunity; a tragic failure to include a little common sense.

Then, it was 'well, even if it was illegal, the Justice Department said they weren't breaking the law.' Unfortunately for Bush, the Constitution and laws don't change based on JD advisement. But the Democrats even threw him a bone on this one, allowing the companies to bring those advisements to trial in their defense. So that talking point's out, too, I guess. What do you do when the opposition includes a provision that makes your rationale a moot point?

Bush and the Republicans have tried their best to stir up fear on the intelligence bill, but the more they speak, the more it becomes clear their arguments lack validity or substance. Every legal argument thrown out is shot down post haste, so they gravitate to the emotional. When that, too, fails to elicit the response they desire, they call secret sessions to stall and pretend to have some secret information we're all missing. And that's only after they decide they even want to stay in the room and talk about it.

Although this bill will die either in the Senate or the President's desk, it does succeed in showing just how ineffective the Republican fear machine has become, and that's a win for everybody.

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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Invertebrate Evolution

In a shocking turn of events, House Democrats have indicated that they do indeed have a semblance of a backbone. Granted, when all is said and done, it is unlikely to pass in its current form, but the Dems plan to unveil their version of amendments to the FISA statute on Thursday.

The summary:

FISA Amendments Act

Bill Summary

March 11, 2008

The revised House legislation to amend FISA grants new authorities for conducting electronic surveillance against foreign targets while preserving the requirement that the government obtain an individualized FISA court order, based on probable cause, when targeting Americans at home or abroad. The House bill also strongly enhances oversight of the Administration’s surveillance activities. Finally, the House bill does not provide retroactive immunity for telecom companies but allows the courts to determine whether lawsuits should proceed.

Title 1: Surveillance Authorities

· Provides for surveillance of terrorist and other targets overseas who may be communicating with Americans.

· Requires the FISA court to approve targeting and minimization procedures – to ensure that Americans are not targeted and that their inadvertently intercepted communications are not disseminated. These procedures must be approved prior to surveillance beginning – except in an emergency, in which case the government may begin surveillance immediately, and the procedures must be approved by the court within 30 days. (This may be extended if the court determines it needs more time to decide the matter).

· Provides prospective liability protection for telecommunications companies that provide lawful assistance to the government.

· Requires a court order based on probable cause to conduct surveillance targeted at Americans, whether inside the United States or abroad.

· Requires an Inspector General report on the President’s warrantless surveillance program.

· Prohibits “reverse targeting” of Americans.

· Explicitly establishes FISA Exclusivity – that FISA is the exclusive way to conduct foreign intelligence surveillance inside the U.S. Any other means requires an express statutory authorization.

· Sunsets these authorities on December 31, 2009 (same as the PATRIOT Act sunset).

Title 2: Litigation Procedures for Telecommunication Company Liability

· Does not confer retroactive immunity on telecom companies alleged to have assisted in the President’s warrantless surveillance program.

· Provides telecom companies a way to present their defenses in secure proceedings in district court without the Administration using “state secrets” to block those defenses.

Title 3: National Commission on Warrantless Surveillance

· Establishes a bipartisan, National Commission – with subpoena power – to investigate and report to the American people on the Administration’s warrantless surveillance activities, and to recommend procedures and protections for the future.

Most glaringly, they have not included a clause granting retroactive immunity to the telecommunications companies, a clause demanded by the Bush administration and included in the Senate version of the bill passed in February. As I stated in a previous post, immunity is the most contentious issue surrounding the amendments to FISA. I've already laid out my objections to that particular argument so I won't redress them here.

Instead of immunity, the proposal would allow the defendants in civil trials to present classified evidence in their defense to the presiding judge. This would be done in secret and the documents would not be publicly available. Inclusion of the clause comes from the administration's claim of "state secrets" which would have prohibited the phone companies from presenting these confidential documents in court, which would go a long way in establishing that they acted in good faith and are therefore not liable.

As it stands, good faith seems to be what defenders of immunity have gravitated toward, saying that regardless of the legality of their actions, the telecoms were acting in good faith and had assurances from the Justice Department that their cooperation in the Terrorist Surveillance Program was legal and legitimate. The proposal would grant them the opportunity to prove that the Justice Department had steered them as suggested and perhaps limit their vulnerability in civil trials.

Third, the proposed legislation would establish an oversight committee and require and Inspector General to report on the program. Seems good in theory, though we pretty much have evidentiary proof that the Bush administration will obfuscate and obstruct to the full extent of its imagination, so that clause is likely a wash.

In spite of the unlikelihood the legislation is passed as is, the Democrats are at least illustrating a little grit on a significant issue.

A couple of additional thoughts per previous discussion of the misinformation regarding immunity and FISA:

  • Julian Sanchez presents a pretty thorough debasing of the main pro-immunity talking points here.

  • It should be noted that during the period from 1979 through 2006, the FISA court has rejected all of 5 applications for a warrant while approving 22990. The rate of rejection: .022 percent. That's 1/50 of a percent. It seems that the court itself, if the process is seen through properly, is not, and never has been, a hinderance on surveillance authorities.

  • For all their posturing, the Republicans aren't even taking part in this debate short of empty proselytizing and instilling fear in the public. This refusal to take part in the proceedings begs the question: If allowing the PAA to lapse was a tragedy, wouldn't working toward a substitute be a priority? In the US Congress, it's a bit hard to expect the other party to simply accept the other chamber's bill without discussion, and trying to stifle any ounce of debate is reckless.

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Client 9 From Outer Space

What people, politicians or not, do in their spare time doesn't pique my interests in the slightest, so I'm not about to get caught up in the whirlwind of moral posturing surrounding Gov. Eliot Spitzer's implication (note: not arrest) in a prostitution ring. However, one statement he made during his brief press conference on Monday has stuck with me all day:

I do not believe that politics in the long run is about individuals. It is about ideas, the public good, and doing what is best for the [people].

This comment really sums up my thoughts on the matter. Too often in American politics we get caught up, with the help of a sensationalist media, in personality stories and forget about the issues that matter.
If you're a conservative, what matters should be limitation of government largesse, lower taxes, free markets or any number of other conservative issues. Liberals, likewise, should worry about their ideas about social justice, climate change, civil liberties or whatever.

What any particular conservative or liberal does, even if it's illegal, shouldn't stand as an argument against a movement or compendium of ideas and values. What Larry Craig does in a men's restroom can't possibly serve as anything but fodder for satire and personal attacks. It has nothing to do with taxes, trade, abortion or anything else. Certainly, as Glenn Greenwald points out, there's an element of hypocrisy involved, but that again speaks to the individual not the world view.

As the media spends the first half of this week concentrating all its attention on Gov. Spitzer, the battle over FISA continues to go on in the House, new revelations continue to surface regarding the scope of the domestic surveillance program, major lenders are caught in both legal and financial trouble and the economy continues its slide. None of this goes away simply because the media looks the other way.

The amount of hand-wringing over this incident will continue to mount. Republicans who thought private lives mattered in the 90s then changed their minds last year, will once again care. Democrats will have traveled a parallel but inverse path, and still none of it will matter. Because, as Spitzer says, politics isn't about individuals. It's about ideas. We'd all be best served to return to an honest debate over ideas than to continue on this dead-end path of debating personalities and personal narratives.

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Sunday, March 9, 2008

Things I'm Tired of Hearing

Journalists: please stop putting 'maverick' in front of John McCain's name every time he's mentioned.

This has become what I can only describe as dogma among the news and opinion media, and I defy anyone to find a single article or op-ed about McCain that doesn't include the word 'maverick' somewhere in the first two paragraphs. Problem is, it's not at all an accurate depiction of the man.

Clearly, he acquired this moniker from his tendency to buck the party line on issues like tax cuts, torture and often the weight of the Christian Right in the party. But a maverick would not suddenly change his stance on nearly all these issues when it came time for an election. If he did-and McCain has-he would be a politician, and that seems to me a title lacking in distinction.

So enough, already. McCain has done what every other politician running for nomination has ever done, and that's run for his base. He's run this campaign as a Republican, not an independent. Of course, he's just posing for the cameras as a Republican now, but a real maverick would have some principles.

"It's the undecided voters he or she is after."

This statement has the dual effect of sounding as if the speaker has made a point of some significance while simultaneously presenting an argument any first grader could wrap his head around.

Of course it's the undecided voters they're trying to sway. By definition, decided voters have already, well, decided. So what's to sway? This argument is both pointless and popular.

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Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Florida and Michigan Inanity

If there's one thing the March 4th primaries made clear, it's that nothing has been cleared up in the race for the Democratic Party presidential nomination. While the vote counting is still incomplete, most counts have Hillary Clinton chipping away at Barack Obama's delegate lead by single digits. Not nearly the sweeping momentum change she and the media would have you believe. Although she clearly demonstrated through the popular vote that her campaign is still viable, she is on record as saying the only thing that matters are delegates, not popular vote. Having used this line of reasoning to belittle Obama's recent run of 11 straight victories, it's more than a tad disingenuous to cozy up to the popular vote at this stage in declaring her own comeback.

A more blatant blow to the face of logic, though, is Clinton's insistence that the delegates from Florida and Michigan be seated at the Democratic convention August 25-28 in Denver. As has been well-documented, those two states were stripped of their delegates after moving their primaries ahead of the traditional first-run states of Iowa and New Hampshire.

Problem is, in staking out this position, Clinton expects whoever will listen to ignore some very cogent pieces of information. First, the delegates were stripped last year, well before the heart of the campaign season. The two states were given an opportunity by the Rules committee of the DNC to rescind their decisions and chose not to. That is, the legislature of the states were told that failing to comply would render the voters of their respective states voiceless at the convention and chose not to. If the voters are angry, as Clinton proposes, they need look no further than their own legislatures.

Second, Obama (as well as others) removed his name from the Michigan ballot. While all candidates agreed not to campaign in Florida or Michigan, Clinton refused to remove her name from the Michigan ballot, edging out 'uncommitted' by 15 points.

In order to suggest that the voters are being disenfranchised by not having their delegates seated, she has to presuppose that the current results are the complete will of the voters. That seems rather dubious considering Michigan voters weren't even given the chance to vote for Obama and certainly voter turnout was tempered in both states by the evident futility rendered by the early dates. Short of holding new contests, there is no possibility a seating of the current delegates in any way reflects the true will of the people.

While Clinton's faux populism is quaintly charming, it's a false argument. Suggesting that voters are disenfranchised by not seating delegates is to ignore that the contests were not an accurate test to begin with, especially with Obama not even on the ballot in Michigan.

In combination with some of her previous inflammatory suggestions regarding caucasses and which states are important and which aren't, this stance illustrates not a forthright desire to have every vote count, but rather a specious attempt to treat logic and reason as malleable instruments to suit her particular circumstances.

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Monday, March 3, 2008

Contracting Obama

For years, Blackwater USA, a private security company based in North Carolina, has been the target of wide-ranging criticism and a source of contention surrounding the flailing US effort to stabilize Iraq. The September 2007 killing of 17 civilians in al Nisour square in Baghdad is but one of the more recent and well-publicized incidents, but there have been plenty of others. These include standoffs with Iraqi police and shootings of Interior Ministry employees.

Yet, for all of their stirring things up, Blackwater remains completely unimpeded by any law or the slightest regulation. In fact there are no official statistics on the number of contractors currently in Iraq, what companies are there, or even what the use of the contractors is costing the government. Deaths of these contractors are not included in the official war casualty statistics, either.

While members of the US military are bound by US law (as well as International law depending on the administration at the time), private contractors like Blackwater, DynCorp, and Triple Canopy are not. Amidst the furor surrounding Nisour, when the Iraqi government threatened to ban Blackwater permanently, the State Department even saw fit to grant immunity to guards involved in the shootings, though its authority to do so was dubious at best.

WASHINGTON, Oct. 29 — State Department investigators offered Blackwater USA security guards immunity during an inquiry into last month’s deadly shooting of 17 Iraqis in Baghdad — a potentially serious investigative misstep that could complicate efforts to prosecute the company’s employees involved in the episode, government officials said Monday.

The State Department investigators from the agency’s investigative arm, the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, offered the immunity grants even though they did not have the authority to do so, the officials said. Prosecutors at the Justice Department, who do have such authority, had no advance knowledge of the arrangement, they added.

-The New York Times

Enter Barack Obama. Fanfare, celestial choirs and all. For all of his emphasis on his opposition to the war and promise of a quick withdrawal, there has been very little discussion in the primaries about the specifics of one of the most prominent planks in his platform. (Scrutiny of policy has been lacking in general, really.) That is, until Jeremy Scahill released this article and subsequently discussed it on DemocracyNow! last week.

Obama, it seems, will more than likely keep a contingent force of private contractors in Iraq to protect US diplomats and the new embassy, which is expected to sustain upwards of 1500 personnel and be the largest embassy in history. As Scahill indicates, Obama's promise to quickly bring US military personnel home from Iraq or transfer them to Afghanistan does not eradicate the need to protect the diplomats and other personnel left behind in the Green Zone, and the void will almost certainly be filled with Blackwater and other private contractors employed by the State Department.

(Note: In Scahill's analysis, Clinton would have a similar policy, but she has since come out and said she would ban the use of contractors, most likely in reaction to the article in question. Also, Obama has staked out a foreign policy position he proposes is a large diversion from Clinton's, making his use of contractors more of a focal point.)

From Scahill's conversation with Amy Goodman, as he discusses Clinton's and Obama's policies:
And both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have a three-pronged approach to what they see as a longer-term presence in Iraq. They say that US personnel are going to remain in the country to protect diplomats and other US officials in the country...Number two is that they want to keep trainers in place that will train the Iraqi military. At present, there’s 10,000 to 20,000 US trainers, all of whom will require security, so that’s a substantial force. And then the third is that they’re saying that they want to keep a force in place to, quote, “strike at al-Qaeda,” in the words of Barack Obama’s Iraq plan.

When the Institute for Policy Studies did an analysis of what this would mean, they said it’s 20,000 to 60,000 troops, not including contractors. And right now we have a one-to-one ratio with contractors and troops in the country. 20,000 to 60,000 troops indefinitely in Iraq, this is something that over the course of ten years the Congressional Budget Office says could cost half-a-trillion dollars. This doesn’t include the fact that you have to have troops bringing supplies in and out of Iraq. It doesn’t include the troops that Obama and Clinton are going to keep in Kuwait, Qatar, Jordan and elsewhere. I mean, this is actually a pretty sustained indefinite occupation that’s going to be on the table if either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama are in office and take power.

Is Barack, then, taking a private stance which differs from his public canon? While it seems that way on the surface, there is an important facet to the situation which Scahill explored. One senior advisor told him that while he "can't rule out, [sic] won't rule out, private security contractors," he "will rule out private security contractors that are not accountable to US law." Accountability is the crux, then.

On this point, Obama far exceeds Hillary. In February 2007, Obama introduced legislation that would hold private security contractors accountable under US law as Defense Department contractors are. That legislation has yet to pass, and most likely never will, as it is vehemently opposed by President Bush. In September 2007, he attached much of the same to a Defense Department Authorization bill accepted by the Senate that called for a reporting of statistics regarding contractors within a period of 90 days.

In all likelihood, this legislation will not be in effect in January of 2009, leaving Obama in a situation where he may have to eat his words on this issue. Given the choice between no contractors in Iraq or unaccountable contractors in Iraq, it seems that given the logistics spelled out by Scahill, he would have to choose the latter. In doing so, he would swiftly create a perception of violating one of his major campaign promises and likely fuel critics of his foreign policy inexperience. Although, one must figure that given the lack of attention paid to this topic thus far he may escape any flare up as most people will be concerned only with bringing the American military home.

It should be noted that after Scahill's article was published in The Nation, Clinton came out in favor of a ban on the use of private contractors overseas. This baldly-transparent parry is not nearly enough to gloss over the fact that while Obama has fought for accountability-however unsuccessfully-for over a year, Hillary has waited until a few days before what may be the deciding round of primaries before offering us a bit of rhetorical legislation. That disparity cannot be ignored.

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