United States News Digest
GOP Blocks Drought Relief Legislation
Farmers who have been suffering from drought and flood-related disasters over the past couple of years are unlikely to see any help from the Federal government this year, because of opposition from both the Congressional Republican leadership and the Bush Administration. The Republican leadership claimed that the $6.5 billion proposed in House and Senate bills is too high, although that amount is approximately the same as what the Bush Administration spends in Iraq each month. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns also complained that farmers not in drought-effected areas would get payments under the legislation. "They're raising those issues just to muddy up the waters," said Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn), the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee.
On Sept. 12, the House Democratic Caucus had sent a letter to House Republican leadership asking for time to be scheduled in the current session, "to debate and vote on emergency agricultural disaster assistance for 2005 and 2006," before the October recess. The letter points out that "Democrats have sought to provide relief several times in the House. Last Fall ... [measures were] defeated by party-line votes.... The Senate included agriculture disaster assistance [for $4 billion] in both of their emergency supplemental bills. Unfortunately, earlier this year, under pressure from President Bush's veto threat, House Republicans failed to stand up for disaster assistance, House Republicans failed to stand up for disaster assistance," and it was eliminated.
Then, on Sept. 25, Rep. John Barrow (D-Ga) began circulating a discharge petition which, if it gains the required 218 signatures, would force drought relief legislation out of the committee of jurisdiction directly to the House floor, bypassing the House Rules Committee. "[T]he effects of this year's drought are putting the squeeze on farmers' bottom lines in my district, and devastating rural communities across the nation," Barrow said. "Congress needs to pass this emergency agricultural disaster assistance bill before we adjourn this week. We can't afford to ignore this crisis." Within three days, the petition had 160 signatures.
House Holds Hearing on Paper Trails for Electronic Voting
On Sept. 28, the House Administration Committee held a hearing on legislation to require auditable, voter-verified paper trials for electronic voting machines, such as those manufactured by Diebold. The hearing featured a demonstration by Princeton University professor Dr. Edward Felten, showing how easily such machines can be tampered with. Felten, along with two graduate students, wrote a paper, earlier this year, for the Center for Information Technology Policy, that details how easy it was to hack the Diebold machine and change the outcome of an election.
Rather than prohibit the use of such machines altogether, Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), along with 215 co-sponsors, is supporting legislation that would provide voters with the opportunity to verify the accuracy of their recorded vote, require that all voting systems produce a voter-verified paper record, ban the use of undisclosed software and wireless devices in voting systems, and require random unannounced, hand-count audits, among other measures. "Voters need to be confident of the central act of their democracy, and voter confidence is unraveling," he said. The last six years have brought us example after example, in state after state, of the problems caused by unverifiable voting machines."
In addition to the voting machines bill, Holt in the House and Senators Barbara Boxer (D-Calif), Russ Feingold (D-Wisc) and Christopher Dodd (D-Conn) introduced emergency legislation on Sept. 26 to authorize Federal funding to the states for the printing of paper ballots to be available for voters in case of problems with the electronic voting machines. Boxer told the New York Times that, "If someone asks for a paper ballot they ought to be able to have it." Neither Holt's voting machine bill, nor the Boxer bill appear to have much chance of enactment, this year, however.
Retired Military Testify vs. Iraq War
On Sept. 24, the Senate Democratic Policy Committee, chaired by Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) held a hearing on the conduct of the war in Iraq. While Dorgan has held numerous hearings on the Bush Administration's policy in Iraq, with a heavy focus on contracting, this is the first time that there's been a hearing on the conduct of military operations. The committee witnesses, retired Army Maj. Gen. John Batiste, retired Army Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, and retired Marine Col. Thomas X. Hammes, as was expected, were all highly critical of the leadership of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
Aside from Dorgan, Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev), and five other Democratic Senators, Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) also participated. "The American people have a right to know how and why we got into Iraq, the truth," Jones said. "I don't want the history to show that I didn't do my job to help the American people know the truth...." When it was his turn to ask questions, he proceeded to ask the witnesses about the Office of Special Plans. General Batiste was the only one of the three witnesses who had a perspective on it, because he was in the Pentagon until June of 2002, when he left to take command of the 1st Infantry Division in Germany. He said about the OSP, "There was a fixation to find some connection between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein," that he found "disturbing," adding, "It went on relentlessly." Batiste added that it's dangerous when you have a system for centralizing, and analyzing intelligence and then making judgments and suddenly it's bypassed a whole bunch of people who are cherry-picking whatever they want. "That, in my judgement, is what happened," he said.
All three witnesses also agreed that Rumsfeld's war plan for Iraq "allowed the insurgency to take root and metastasize to where it is today." He added that Rumsfeld's "dismal strategic decisions resulted in unnecessary deaths of American servicemen and women, our allies, and the good people of Iraq." He said that Rumsfeld "violated fundamental principles of war, dismissed deliberate military planning, ignored the hard work to build the peace after the fall of Saddam Hussein, set the conditions for Abu Ghraib and other atrocities that further ignited the insurgency, disbanded Iraqi security force institutions when we needed them most, constrained our commanders with an overly restrictive de-ba'athification policy and failed to seriously resource the training and equipping of the Iraqi security forces as our main effort."
Army Chief Protests Inadequate Army Budget
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker has withheld an important budget document from the Office of the Secretary of Defense, after protesting that the budget proposed for the Army in 2008 is too small for it to continue to maintain its commitments in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the rest of the world. Schoomaker is seeking about $25 billion more than the $114 billion limit set by Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, and he is reportedly being backed by Secretary of the Army Francis Harvey. According to the Los Angeles Times Sept. 25, Schoomaker confronted Rumsfeld on the budget guidelines, telling him that the $114 billion limit would require cutting one division headquarters and four brigades. Schoomaker has told Congressional committees that the Army needs $17.1 billion next year for repair and replacement of war-damaged equipment. The Army is already facing a situation in which many of its non-deployed units are unable to train for future deployments, because they lack so much equipment.
The Army expects the National Guard to help it relieve some of the strain of repeated extended deployments, but the Guard is under stress, too. Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill) said at the Senate Democratic Policy Committee on Sept. 25, that the Illinois National Guard has one-third of the equipment it had when the Iraq War started in 2003. Lt. Gen. Steven Blum, the chief of the National Guard Bureau, recently told NBC News, "If you want the Guard to do a mission three years from now, no one should be surprised that they're ill-equipped or under-equipped to do the job."
Iraq, Afghanistan Veterans Reporting Stress
One-third of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans seeking medical care at VA facilities are reporting stress or other mental-health problems, a tenfold increase in the last 18 months, says a new report by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Veterans groups are concerned that the huge jump means that the VA won't be able to meet the skyrocketing demand. "This is a very ominous trend, indicating a tidal wave of new patients coming in, and the numbers could go up," said Paul Sullivan, director of programs for the Vietnam Veterans of American Foundation.
Not surprisingly, the VA and the Defense Department are downplaying the significance of the new numbers, saying that the higher numbers might just indicate that the stigma associated with such problems has been reduced. Dr. Michael Kussman, Undersecretary of Veterans Affairs for Health also added, "We're not aware that people are having trouble getting services from us in any consistent way or pattern around the country."
DHS Privatizes Border Security
The Bush team handed off rights to establish high-tech surveillance technology along the U.S. borders to a private consortium headed by Boeing, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced Sept. 21. Chertoff called this scheme a plan to build "a 21st-Century, virtual fence" to keep out illegals. Various private companies submitted plans, but Boeing's proposal to build a network of 1,800 towers equipped with sensors, cameras, and heat and motion detectors, plus unmanned drones, along first the border with Mexico, and later the border with Canada, won out.
Not only are private interests to run this plan, but foreign private interests are involved. Included in the Boeing consortium is the Israeli defense contractor Elbit Systems (the latter through its U.S. subsidiary, Kollsman Inc.).