Browsing the blog archivesfor the day Tuesday, August 22nd, 2006.


Katrina

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Bush Administration, corruption, Hurricanes

I watched the first half of Spike Lee’s documentary on Hurricane Katrina last night. Riveting and gut-wrenching. If you get HBO, be sure to see it.

Among many things revealed by the storm was our ambivalence about federalism and the respective roles of state and federal government. You might remember that as people waited for rescue from the flood, the Bush Administration’s attitude was that the hurricane was a state and local problem.

The President was asked about Katrina during yesterday’s press conference. His response, in short, was that a whole lot of money had been allocated, but that it was entirely up to people at state and local levels to figure out how to proceed. And I agree that governors and mayors and people close to the destruction should be determining what needs to be done and making decisions about allocation of resources.

However, something seems to be seriously out of whack, somewhere. Chris Adams, Jack Douglas, and Sharon Schmickle report for McClatchy Newspapers:

Hundreds of thousands of lives are on hold throughout New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. One year after Katrina devastated the area on Aug. 29, huge swaths of the region are barely beyond the basic cleanup stage.

Life for many survivors is still one obstacle after another:

New Orleanians must contend with the loss of public schools (only 29 percent are open), bus routes (only 49 percent are operating) and child-care centers (only 23 percent are open), according to an index of Katrina statistics compiled by the Washington-based Brookings Institution. Everybody has insurance hassles to deal with or FEMA stories to tell.

Many communities remain scattered; some neighborhoods seem irreparable. And it’s been a year. There’s no excuse for this.

One big flaw in the “it’s the states’ problem” theory is that a big chunk of the federally allocated money is going into the pockets of federally contracted businesses. And these people are doing to the Gulf what they did to Iraq. Justin Park reports for The New Standard:

Taxpayers around the nation who urged the federal government to pay for relief and reconstruction after Hurricane Katrina probably didn’t expect their money to be spent on $279 meals and $2,500 tarps. But according to a newly released report, corporations hired by the federal government have not only inflated costs but committed labor abuses and delayed the reconstruction process, making millions while local companies and workers have been left behind.

The report, released last week by the Oakland-based non-profit CorpWatch, which investigates the private sector, details corporate price gouging, contracting pyramid schemes, labor abuses and unnecessary delays in the wake of last year’s hurricane season. The “disaster profiteers,” as CorpWatch calls them, include Halliburton, Blackwater, Fluor, CH2M Hill and Bechtel – all of which have also received federal contracts for work in Iraq.

“What we found is that rampant disaster profiteering abuses are needlessly slowing down the reconstruction of New Orleans and the rest of the stricken Gulf Coast region after Katrina,” CorpWatch director Pratap Chatterjee told reporters. Chatterjee, who is author of the book Iraq Inc. about contractor abuses in halfway around the world, compared the situation along the Gulf Coast to that of the Middle East.

According to the report, the clearest instances of waste in Gulf Coast reconstruction are the contracting pyramids schemes – layers of subcontracting that turn an easy profit for the many middlemen. This layering creates distance between corporations such as Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown & Root (KBR) and the subcontractor that ultimately performs the work. It allows KBR, for example, to plead ignorance when labor abuses are uncovered, as happened when a subcontractor was caught employing undocumented immigrants late last year and accused of mistreating them.

I like this part:

The report also alleges that many workers, both undocumented and otherwise, remain unpaid. As also reported by The NewStandard, immigrant workers – many of them undocumented – were drawn to the disaster zone by promises of high wages and plentiful work. When they arrive, many face hazardous work conditions and often are stiffed out of pay.

Slavery is the new capitalism.

Let’s look at some of the comments made by the President yesterday:

Q Thank you, Mr. President. As you know, the one-year anniversary of Katrina is coming up. And there are a lot of retrospectives about what went wrong down there last year. Specifically, what has your administration done in the past year to help the folks down there, and what remains to be done?

THE PRESIDENT: Thanks. You know, I went to New Orleans, in Jackson Square, and made a commitment that we would help the people there recover. I also want the people down there to understand that it’s going to take a while to recover. This was a huge storm.

First things — the first thing that’s necessary to help the recovery is money. And our government has committed over $110 billion to help. Of that, a lot of money went to — went out the door to help people adjust from having to be moved because of the storm. And then there’s rental assistance, infrastructure repair, debris removal. Mississippi removed about 97 percent, 98 percent of its — what they call dry debris. We’re now in the process of getting debris from the water removed. Louisiana is slower in terms of getting debris removed. The money is available to help remove that debris. People can get after it, and I would hope they would.

Q What —

THE PRESIDENT: Let me finish. Thank you.

We provided about $1.8 billion for education. That money has gone out the door. We want those schools up and running. As I understand, the schools are running now in New Orleans, a lot of schools are.

Only 29 percent of those schools are open, according to the McClatchy Newspapers report quoted above.

Flood insurance, we’re spending money on flood insurance. There is more work to be done, particularly when it comes to housing. We’ve spent about — appropriated about $16 billion, $17 billion for direct housing grants to people in the Gulf Coast and in Louisiana.

I’m not sure to which “$17 billion for direct housing grants” the President refers. I googled and learned that there is a program called “Road Home” that has $7.5 billion for individual grants to Louisiana homeowners who want to rebuild and repair, and another $1.7 billion for relocation. And as of today, guess how much of the housing grant money has made it into the hands of homeowners?

Zero. However, 42 homeowners should get checks by the end of this week.

The program was delayed at several points. It took Congress ten months to allocate the money, and Governor Kathleen Blanco held it up a couple more months to make sure safeguards were in place to prevent fraudulent claims.

But I bet Franklin Roosevelt wouldn’t have let Congress dither for ten months over an appropriation like this. He would have shoved it through Congress. Personally.

Bush says he wants “local folks” to be in charge:

I thought it would be best that there be a local plan developed and implemented by local folks. And so there’s now, as I mentioned, $16 billion of direct housing grants. Each state has developed its own plan, how much money goes to each homeowner to help these people rebuild their lives. And so I think the area where people will see the most effect in their lives is when they start getting this individualized CDBG grant money.

And that sounds grand, but if most of the recovery money is going to contractors, and the contracts are being made in Washington, and all these federal contractors are operating without oversight, then seems to me those local folks don’t have much control over what’s getting done. And from what I can tell not much is getting done, except where private capital is available to get it done.

And it also seems to me that there is more to be considered than just rebuilding homes and businesses. IMO there should be a master, multi-state plan that takes meta-issues like flood prevention, wetlands and ecosystems into consideration. Otherwise, decisions made by local officials now might create big problems later. I’m not saying the feds should dictate every detail of the recovery, but they should be providing some general oversight and parameters. A big chunk of the United States was damaged; and the success or failure of the recovery will have long-term effects on the entire country. The feds should have some responsibility beyond allocating money.

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The Mission Creep

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Bush Administration, Iraq War, War on Terror

Reactions to yesterday’s press conference, in which the President vowed repeatedly to “complete the mission” in Iraq:

PRESIDENT BUSH EMPHASIZED no fewer than 10 times in his news conference Monday that U.S. forces would not leave Iraq “before the job is done.” It’s a clever piece of rhetoric, appealing to Americans’ sense of duty as well as their pride. Just one question: What was that job again?

Is it to end the sectarian violence in Iraq? Prevent terrorists from flocking to the United States? Bring democracy to Iraq and thus provide a beacon for reformers throughout the Middle East? …

… At times, the loudest noise at his news conference was the sound of mission creep. [Editorial, Los Angeles Times]

***

For a moment there, I was almost encouraged. George W. Bush, the most resolutely incurious and inflexible of presidents, was reported last week to have been surprised at seeing Iraqi citizens — who ought to be grateful beneficiaries of the American occupation, I mean “liberation” — demonstrating in support of Hezbollah and against Israel.

Surprise would be a start, since it would mean the Decider was admitting novel facts to his settled base of knowledge and reacting to them. Alas, it seems the door to the presidential mind is still locked tight. “I don’t remember being surprised,” he said at his news conference yesterday. “I’m not sure what they mean by that.”

I’m guessing “they” might mean that when you try to impose your simplistic, black-and-white template on a kaleidoscopic world, and you end up setting the Middle East on fire, either you’re surprised or you’re not paying attention. But that’s just me. [Eugene Robinson, “President on Another Planet,” Washington Post]

***

One exchange did not inspire confidence. A reporter asked,

    Mr. President, I’d like to go back to Iraq. You’ve continually cited the elections, the new government, its progress in Iraq, and yet the violence has gotten worse in certain areas. You’ve had to go to Baghdad again. Is it not time for a new strategy? And if not, why not?

Bush responded,

    You’ve covered the Pentagon, you know that the Pentagon is constantly adjusting tactics because they have the flexibility from the White House to do so.

The reporter–who was not asking about tactics–interrupted:

    I’m talking about strategy.

Bush then said:

    The strategy is to help the Iraqi people achieve their objectives and their dreams, which is a democratic society. That’s the strategy.

Actually, that’s not a strategy. That’s a goal. A commander in chief should know the difference. A strategy is how one goes about–in a general way–accomplishing goals. Tactics are how one implements the strategy. [David Corn]


I’ve blogged about the Administration’s confusing goals for strategy before
. It’s plain Bush does not know what the word strategy means.

Pretty much regardless of what he was asked, Bush had the same answer: That anything short of his policies is tantamount to surrendering to terrorists and would be disastrous.

Bush seemed much happier reframing the questions than answering them.

“And the question facing this country is, will — do we, one, understand the threat to America? In other words, do we understand that a failed — failed states in the Middle East are a direct threat to our country’s security? And secondly, will we continue to stay engaged in helping reformers, in working to advance liberty, to defeat an ideology that doesn’t believe in freedom?” he asked. [Dan Froomkin, “President on a Mission,” Washingtonpost.com]

In this case Bush confuses execution with intention. If you disagree with his policies, it must be because you disagree with his intentions for Iraq. He can’t admit that whatever we’re doing in Iraq shows no promise of fulfilling those intentions. I’ve written about this disconnect before, too, such as here. And here’s a Washington Post op ed from last May by law professor David Cole, who says that the President’s “war” against terrorism is all about rhetoric and symbolism, not substance. “Tough talk in news conferences, overheated charges that evaporate under scrutiny and executions for symbolic purposes will not make us safer,” Cole wrote. Yet that’s all we’re getting from this President.

The sad thing is that he’s right about what a catastrophe it would be if Iraq became a failed state, or a satellite of Iran, but seems to me it’s heading in that direction anyway.

The exchange I described in the last post, in which Bush tried once again to associate September 11 and Iraq, got considerable attention in the press. Jim Rutenberg writes for The New York Times,

The White House has argued that the Iraq war remains potent politically for Republicans when they cast it part of the broader war on terror, although the administration has found it at times difficult to make that case.

When Mr. Bush referred to the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, in reference to a question about Iraq today, a reporter pressed him, asking, “What did Iraq have to do with that?” Mr. Bush responded somewhat testily, “Nothing,” and added, “Nobody has ever suggested in this administration that Saddam Hussein ordered the attack.”

In the run-up to the invasion in March 2003, Vice President Dick Cheney did call attention to the theory, since discredited, that one of the Sept. 11 hijackers might have met in Prague before the attacks with an Iraqi intelligence officer.

In general, however, Mr. Bush struck a different tone than the vice president has used in recent weeks, including Mr. Cheney’s suggestion two weeks ago that implied that Ned Lamont’s victory in the Connecticut primary against Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut would embolden “Al Qaeda types.”

I watched a little bit of Hardball last night — as flawed as Hardball is, at least it hasn’t been taken hostage by JonBenet Ramsey news, as has Countdown — on which Rick Santorum claimed there was a meeting in Prague, and we did too find WMDs in Iraq, and Chris “Tweety” Matthews sat there like a bump on a log and didn’t challenge him. Grrr. But Tweety and others pointed out Bush’s words — “Nobody has ever suggested in this administration that Saddam Hussein ordered the attack,” leaves open the possibility that Saddam Hussein was associated with the attack, somehow, even though there is no proof (outside of neocons’ fertile imaginations) of such association.

[Update: — Molly Ivins, “Let the Truth-Telling Begin,” Truthdig:

The Bushies are having the hardest time trying to un-lie now. For example, at his Monday press conference the president asserted, “Nobody’s ever suggested in this administration that Saddam Hussein ordered the [Sept. 11] attack.”

How true: What Vice President Cheney in December 2001 said about links between 9/11 and Iraq was that it was “pretty well confirmed” that hijacking ringleader Mohammed Atta had met with Iraqi intelligence. On June 17, 2004, Cheney said: “We have never been able to confirm that, nor have we been able to knock it down, we just don’t know. … I can’t refute the Czech claim, I can’t prove the Czech claim, I just don’t know.”

In July 2004, the CIA’s own report stated the agency did not have “any credible information” that the alleged meeting ever took place. The CIA said the whole concoction was based on a single source “whose veracity … has been questioned” and that the Iraqi official allegedly involved was in U.S. custody and denied the meeting ever took place. The 9/11 commission had already concluded that the meeting never occurred.

Cheney has a consistent pattern of exaggeration on intelligence related to Iraq. The tragedy is that at least half the American people believed Saddam Hussein was connected to the 9/11 plot—and most soldiers serving in Iraq still believe this.

Go, Molly.]

There were several questions about Katrina yesterday, also, and I plan to elaborate in the next post.

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