Thursday, June 14, 2007

Is this a great country or what?

In the Guardian, Terry Jones takes a look at the "billion-dollar industry" of which Blackwater has only "scratched the surface"--killing, maiming, overbilling and suing. (Our media being what it is these days, it's not that well known a fact that Blackwater has sued the families of the contractors who were killed, burned and dragged through the streets of Fallujah a few years back. For ten million dollars!)

For a more complete look at this most appalling, yet perhaps most archetypal of Bush-era crony companies, you should definitely consult the work of Jeremy Scahill (here's a video
and here's the link to his book).

But for a funny but disturbing summary of the doings of Blackwater, the outfit that perhaps more than any proves Smedley Butler right, here is Mr. Terry Jones....
First you need your father to leave you a billion dollars or so, as happened to Erik Prince, Blackwater's founder. Then use the money to set up a company that specialises in shooting people. Of course, you say the company's vision is "to support security, peace, freedom and democracy everywhere". But your brochure is full of photos of men bursting into rooms with machine guns and shooting from helicopters - and it offers five sniping courses: basic military, advanced military, situation sniper, high angle (shooting people from rooftops) and, of course, helicopter.

Making money out of this sort of violence, no matter how you dress it up in idealistic language, can look a little morally dodgy, so it would be best if - like Erik - you were a born-again Christian and you donate pots of money to the Republicans. Since 1989, the Nation reports, Erik and his wife have given $275,550 to Republican campaigns, and $0 to the Democrats. A White House internship - something Erik did in the early 90s - could also provide enough friends in the right places. The odd no-bid contract, such as the one Blackwater got to guard Iraq's Coalition Provisional Authority, wouldn't go astray.

You should be comfortable with your friends making money. For example, you pay your security guards $600 a day, but bill the Kuwaiti Regency Hotel company for $815. Regency, according to the Raleigh News & Observer, bills defence services company ESS for another chunk of money. ESS sends the bill to Kellogg, Brown & Root, who add a percentage for their services and present the inflated bill to the Pentagon. Senator Henry Waxman says he's been trying in vain to find out what that bill is for two years.

We can again learn from Blackwater in how to keep expenses down. On March 12 2004, Blackwater signed a contract with Regency and ESS specifying that each security mission should have a minimum of "two armoured vehicles to support ESS movements". Blackwater had the word "armoured" deleted from the contract and saved $1.5m.

This had was an unforeseen payoff when four Blackwater operatives were sent into Falluja and both vehicles were overwhelmed by a mob. The men were killed and their mutilated bodies hung on a bridge. Now rather than damage Blackwater's reputation, this incident was to prove the company's making as the US military got behind it. Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt vowed: "We will be back ... We will hunt down the criminals ... It will be precise, and it will be overwhelming." The result was that the US more or less destroyed the town.

The families of the four men decided to sue Blackwater to find out why they died - but the company can seek profit even in this situation: last Friday it was announced that Blackwater is suing the dead men's estates for $10m, according to the families' lawyers, "to silence the families and keep them out of court".

So there it is - more ways to make money out of Iraq than you or I would have dreamt of. And companies like Blackwater are showing us the way.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

The Pentagon's blank check

We need a trillion to fight them islamofascist bastards!

Robert Dreyfuss' Financing the Imperial Armed Forces: A Trillion Dollars and Nowhere to Go but Up on the newly redesigned paints a shocking picture of perhaps the most distressing element of our current national dysfunction--the inability of politicians of either party to say "no" to the hordes of profiteers and bureaucrats in, and serving, the nation's "defense" monolith.

As usual, the Democrats are nose and nose with the Republicans at the trough, and the two leading candidates are "supporting manpower increases in the range of 80,000 to 100,000 troops, mostly for the Army and the Marines"--numbers even larger than those called for by Dubya himself.

How astonishing are the budgetary numbers? Consider the trajectory of U.S. defense spending over the last nearly two decades. From the end of the Cold War into the mid-1990s, defense spending actually fell significantly. In constant 1996 dollars, the Pentagon's budget dropped from a peacetime high of $376 billion, at the end of President Ronald Reagan's military buildup in 1989, to a low of $265 billion in 1996. (That compares to post-World War II wartime highs of $437 billion in 1953, during the Korean War, and $388 billion in 1968, at the peak of the War in Vietnam.) After the Soviet empire peacefully disintegrated, the 1990s decline wasn't exactly the hoped-for "peace dividend," but it wasn't peanuts either.

However, since September 12th, 2001, defense spending has simply exploded. For 2008, the Bush administration is requesting a staggering $650 billion, compared to the already staggering $400 billion the Pentagon collected in 2001. Even subtracting the costs of the ongoing "Global War on Terrorism" -- which is what the White House likes to call its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- for FY 2008, the Pentagon will still spend $510 billion. In other words, even without the President's two wars, defense spending will have nearly doubled since the mid-1990s. Given that the United States has literally no significant enemy state to fight anywhere on the planet, this represents a remarkable, if perverse, achievement. As a famous Democratic politician once asked: Where is the outrage?

Neocons, war profiteers, and hardliners of all stripes still argue that the "enemy" we face is a nonexistent bugaboo called "Islamofascism." It's easy to imagine them laughing into their sleeves while they continue to claim that the way to battle low-tech, rag-tag bands of leftover Al Qaeda crazies is by spending billions of dollars on massively expensive, massively powerful, futuristic weapons systems.

As always, a significant part of the defense bill is eaten up by these big-ticket items. According to the reputable Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, there are at least 28 pricey weapons systems that, just by themselves, will rack up a whopping $44 billion in 2008. The projected cost of these 28 systems -- which include fighter jets, the B-2 bomber, the V-22 Osprey, various advanced naval vessels, cruise-missile systems, and the ultra-expensive aircraft carriers the Navy always demands -- will, in the end, be more than $1 trillion. And that's not even including the Star Wars missile-defense system, which at the moment soaks up about $11 billion a year.

By one count, U.S. defense spending in 2008 will amount to 29 times the combined military spending of all six so-called rogue states: Cuba, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Sudan, and Syria. The United States accounts for almost half -- approximately 48% -- of the entire world's spending on what we like to call "defense." Again, according to the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, U.S. defense spending this year amounts to exactly twice the combined military spending of the next six biggest military powers: China, Russia, the U.K., France, Japan, and Germany.


And it's important to keep in mind that the official Pentagon budget doesn't begin to tell the full story of American "defense" spending. In addition to the $650 billion that the Pentagon will get in 2008, huge additional sums will be spent on veterans care and interest on the national debt accumulated from previous DOD spending that ballooned the deficit. In all, those two accounts add $263 billion to the Pentagon budget, for a grand total of $913 billion.

Then there are the intelligence and homeland security budgets. Back in the 1990s, when I started reporting on the CIA and the U.S. intelligence community, its entire budget was about $27 billion. Last year, although the number is supposed to be top secret, the Bush administration revealed that intelligence spending had reached $44 billion. For 2008, according to media reports, Congress is working on an authorization of $48 billion for our spies.

Again, when I first wrote about "homeland security" in the late 1990s -- it was then called "counterterrorism" -- the Clinton administration was spending $17 billion in interagency budgets in this area. For 2008, the budget of the Department of Homeland Security -- that mishmash, incompetent agency hurriedly assembled under pressure from uber-hawk Joe Lieberman (even the Bush administration was initially opposed to its creation) -- will be $46.4 billion.

To a rational observer, such spending -- totaling more than $1 trillion in 2008, according to the figures I've just cited -- seems quite literally insane. During the Cold War, hawks scared Americans into tolerating staggering but somewhat lesser sums by invoking the specter of Soviet Communism. Does anyone, anywhere, truly believe that we need to spend more than a trillion dollars a year to defend ourselves against small bands of al-Qaeda fanatics?

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Unhappy anniversary

Tony Karon's "How the 1967 war doomed Israel" is simply terrific, tracing parallel tracks--personal and political--of post-"Six-day war" history (six days? It was over in one, but six sounds so much more biblical). Karon traces his own path from euphoria to disillusionment with Israel, alongside the growth of the "special bond" between Apartheid South Africa and the Jewish state:
South Africa and Israel became intimate allies in the years that followed the ‘67 war, with unrepentant former Nazis such as Prime Minister B.J. Vorster welcomed to Israel to seal military deals that resulted in collaboration in the development of weapons ranging from aircraft and assault rifles to, allegedly, nuclear weapons.
Karon also examines some "facts on the ground" in 1947/8, which don't come before the eyeballs of most Americans:
The Partition Plan awarded 55% of the land to the Jewish state, including more than 80% of land under cultivation. At the time, Jews made up a little over one third of the total population, and owned some 7% of the land. Moreover, given the demographic demands of the Zionist movement for a Jewish majority, the plan was an invitation to tragedy: The population within the boundaries of the Jewish state envisaged in the 1947 partition consisted of around 500,000 Jews and 400,000 Arabs.

Hardly surprising, then, that the Arabs of Palestine and beyond rejected the partition plan.

For the Arab regimes, the creation of a separate Jewish sovereign state in the Holy Land over which the Crusades had been fought was a challenge to their authority; it was perceived by their citizenry as a test of their ability to protect their land and interests from foreign invasion. And so they went to war believing they could reverse what the U.N. had ordered on the battlefield. For the Jews of Palestine in 1948, a number of them having narrowly survived extermination in Europe, the war was a matter of physical survival. Although in the mythology, the war pitted a half million Jews against 20 million Arabs, in truth Israel was by far the stronger and better-organized and better-armed military power. And so what Israel called the War of Independence saw the Jewish state acquire 50% more territory than had been envisaged in the partition plan. The maps below describe the difference between the Israel envisaged by the UN in 1947 and the one that came into being in the war of 1948.

But maps don’t convey the disaster that befell the Palestinian Arabs in 1948. The war also allowed the Zionist movement to resolve its “demographic concerns,” as some 700,000 Palestinian Arabs found themselves driven from their homes and land — many driven out at gunpoint, the majority fleeing in fear of further massacres such as the one carried out by the Irgun at Dir Yassein, and all of them subject to the same ethnic-cleansing founding legislation by passed the new Israeli Knesset that seized the property of any Arab absent from his property on May 8, 1948, and forbade the refugees from returning.

Run that last part past virtually any American, even a highly educated one, and you're sure to get either puzzlement or downright denial. This kind of thing is more in the mainstream discourse than basic facts...

Chris Hedges also has a good analysis of the appalling anniversary, and Tom Segev has an interesting meditation on "What if Israel had turned back?" in the Times today.

I will add that the "comments" section on the Karon blog is also well worth reading and spectacularly well-behaved, lacking in the nasty flame-throwing crap you see elsewhere whenever this subject is raised. Hope I don't jinx it by saying that....

Monday, June 04, 2007

Surely they're not lying this time

"You're all trying to destroy me!"

In "Unreasoning hysteria as the default condition," Arthur Silber offers some hilarious, insightful, and ultimately just sad commentary on the latest "fearsome plot that might have, maybe, perhaps, in some other world subject to significantly different scientific laws, resulted in the Destruction of All the Universes for All Time Forevermore The End Period (and You and Everyone You Know Will Be Dead, Too!)."

It's been four days after the big announcement that Muslim Terrorists Were Prevented from Blowing Up JFK Airport, so the drill is a familiar one. After a couple of days in which mainstream sources were wetting themselves in the fear and titillation of yet another Evil Plot Foiled, we all know now that the truth wasn't quite so exciting. The "plan" wasn't exactly "operational"--in fact it was "less than mature," according to the Times, and once again, there was a critical, highly motivated informant in the middle of it all ("a convicted drug trafficker, ... his sentence ... pending as part of his cooperation agreement with the federal government." Hmm.)

As Scott Horton puts it in "I don’t believe ‘em for a second":

Every time this happens, it turns out that the whole damn thing was either made up by the state out of thin air, the idea to do something violent came from the undercover FBI informant or the “truth” was tortured out of the guy.

There’s no al Qaeda in America. As always, the biggest threat to our lives and liberties is the national government of the United States. Now you know how the rest of the world feels.

Partial list of bogus domestic terrorism plots “busted” by the Federal Cops since 9/11 (all the false warnings are too numerous to mention.):

  • Lackawanna Six
  • Detroit
  • Virginia Paintball guys
  • The tortured Abu Ali
  • Jose Padilla
  • Lodi, California
  • Miami plot against the Sears Tower
  • New York subway tunnels
  • New York subway station
  • “Liquid explosives” plot on UK to US flights
  • Ft. Dix Six

But, I’m so sure we can believe them when they tell us to be frightened about a plot at JFK!

What, just because there has not been a single case where they have actually busted domestic terrorists since 9/11?! Surely they’re not lying this time!

Anyway, what a surprise, eh? A plot not what it was drummed up to be.

But not everyone views such Keystone Cops routines with the same degree of skepticism, if any. In fact, there are people out there who jump on every one of these silly cases (not entirely silly, since "enhanced interrogation" and long, Kafkaesque stretches in various prisons are surely in store for the plotters), as proof--proof once again--that "Muslim men" are trying to KILL US ALL. Or as Andrew McCarthy (no, not THAT Andrew McCarthy) put it in the National Review Online, the JFK "plot" is more proof that
War is about breaking the enemy's will. Having laid bare the sorry state of our brains and our guts, jihadists are now zeroing in on the will's final piece: our hearts.

.... They know there's a war out there. Not just Iraq or Afghanistan, but Dar al Islam and Dar al Harb — jihadists versus civilization. Global. For us to win, it will not be enough to stabilize Baghdad, sow democracy and empower moderates. It's about breaking the enemy's will, as they are working feverishly to break ours.
That "abject, ludicrously disproportionate hysteria" is what Silber's talking about when he references an apt monologue from "the climactic breakdown in a genuinely awful Joan Crawford melodrama, after Crawford has slurped up five quarts of cheap scotch and can now only burble incoherently:
You're all trying to destroy me! You're all against me, you bastards! You broke my heart, and now you want to kill me! But I won't let you, do you hear me? I won't let you! I'm going to live, damn you, I'm going to LIVE!
At which point, the sobbing, screaming, disheveled, thoroughly pathetic Ms. Crawford falls to the floor in a dead faint, completely undone by her own self-willed and self-created histrionics.

Silber doesn't entirely play this for cheap laughs, merited though they are. He examines the underlying "psychological disturbance" of ejaculations like McCarthy's, and comes around to discussing Robert Jay Lifton's thoughts on "superpower syndrome" and its oh-so-fragile underlying psychology. He also, interestingly, brings the voice of Cho Seung-Hui into the mix and concludes

It is the perspective and the policies offered by people with views like McCarthy's that have brought us to where we are today, just as they were a crucial part of what led to 9/11. Now, as the solution which will save the United States, the world, and all the universes unto eternity, they demand that we eliminate every conceivable enemy for all time, that we rearrange other countries around the globe as we determine is required on the basis of our sole unappealable judgment, and that we impose our will on all of creation.

As I have said before, their belief system reduces very simply to this:
America is God. God's Will be done.
But that is not the solution, McCarthy. That, and you, are the problem, and a very terrible one it is -- and not just for us, but for the entire world.

Read the entire piece...

Update: Nora Ephron's How to foil a terrorist plot in seven simple steps is a very funny take on all of this. Not to give it away, but here are steps 3 through 5:

3. The fact that you do not know any actual terrorists should not in any way deter you. Necessity is the mother of invention: if you can find the right raw material -- a sad, sick, lonely, drunk, deranged, disgruntled or just plain anti-American Muslim somewhere in the United States -- you can make your very own terrorist.

4. Now the good part begins. Money! The FBI will give you lots of money to take your very own terrorist out to lots of dinners where you, wearing a wire, can record yourself making recommendations to him about possible targets and weapons that might be used in the impending terrorist attack that your very own terrorist is going to mastermind, with your help. It will even buy you a computer so you can go to Google Earth in order to show your very own terrorist a "top secret" aerial image of the target you have suggested.

5. More money!! The FBI will give you even more money to travel to foreign countries with your very own terrorist, and it will make suggestions about terrorist groups you can meet while in said foreign countries.

Friday, June 01, 2007

True American Hero

Matt Taibbi, God bless him, does it again, this time to Mr. 911.

Taibbi is so good at this kind of savage, but fair, profile of American pols, he should be verbalized -- as in "he taibbi'd him" or "he gave him the full taibbi." That's so much better than "fisking," which never really made sense, even at the time. Now, far from that immediate post-911 American righteousness/victimology moment, it makes no sense at all.

A footnote, at any rate. For contemporary first-rate evisceration, we must look to Taibbi, whose first foray into the genre, a brilliant takedown of Tom Friedman, it must be said, occurred in an atmosphere where the Times columnist was still somewhat respected. It wasn't like an Andrew Sullivan smelling blood in the zeitgeist and joining the chorus savaging anyone (Fisk, Barbara Kingsolver) who dared question the unleashing of untold (and still unfinished) carnage on the basically defenseless populations of Afghanistan and Iraq.

After Taibbi's piece, in the New York Press, mind you, it became O.K. to say "I always thought Tom Friedman was an idiot, but was sort of afraid to say so."

Not that anyone needs to be hesitant about expressing disgust at the Rudy monster. Most Americans hate the little creep, but it takes a Taibbi to pick out the perfect details that demonstrate just WHY we hate him, and should fear him.

From "Giuliani: Worse than Bush" in Rolling Stone:

Rudy Giuliani is a true American hero, and we know this because he does all the things we expect of heroes these days -- like make $16 million a year, and lobby for Hugo Chávez and Rupert Murdoch, and promote wars without ever having served in the military, and hire a lawyer to call his second wife a "stuck pig," and organize absurd, grandstanding pogroms against minor foreign artists, and generally drift through life being a shameless opportunist with an outsize ego who doesn't even bother to conceal the fact that he's had a hard-on for the presidency since he was in diapers. In the media age, we can't have a hero humble enough to actually be one; what is needed is a tireless scoundrel, a cad willing to pose all day long for photos, who'll accept $100,000 to talk about heroism for an hour, who has the balls to take a $2.7 million advance to write a book about himself called Leadership. That's Rudy Giuliani. Our hero. And a perfect choice to uphold the legacy of George W. Bush.

Yes, Rudy is smarter than Bush. But his political strength -- and he knows it -- comes from America's unrelenting passion for never bothering to take that extra step to figure shit out. If you think you know it all already, Rudy agrees with you. And if anyone tries to tell you differently, they're probably traitors, and Rudy, well, he'll keep an eye on 'em for you. Just like Bush, Rudy appeals to the couch-bound bully in all of us, and part of the allure of his campaign is the promise to put the Pentagon and the power of the White House at that bully's disposal.

Rudy's attack against Ron Paul in the [South Carolina Republican] debate was a classic example of that kind of politics, a Rovian masterstroke. The wizened Paul, a grandfather seventeen times over who is running for the Republican nomination at least 100 years too late, was making a simple isolationist argument, suggesting that our lengthy involvement in Middle Eastern affairs -- in particular our bombing of Iraq in the 1990s -- was part of the terrorists' rationale in attacking us.

Though a controversial statement for a Republican politician to make, it was hardly refutable from a factual standpoint -- after all, Osama bin Laden himself cited America's treatment of Iraq in his 1996 declaration of war. Giuliani surely knew this, but he jumped all over Paul anyway, demanding that Paul take his comment back. "I don't think I've ever heard that before," he hissed, "and I've heard some pretty absurd explanations for September 11th."

It was like the new convict who comes into prison the first day and punches the weakest guy in the cafeteria in the teeth, and the Southern crowd exploded in raucous applause.

....Then there's 9/11. Like Bush's, Rudy's career before the bombing was in the toilet; New Yorkers had come to think of him as an ambition-sick meanie whose personal scandals were truly wearying to think about. But on the day of the attack, it must be admitted, Rudy hit the perfect note; he displayed all the strength and reassuring calm that Bush did not, and for one day at least, he was everything you'd want in a leader. Then he woke up the next day and the opportunist in him saw that there was money to be made in an America high on fear.

For starters, Rudy tried to use the tragedy to shred election rules, pushing to postpone the inauguration of his successor so he could hog the limelight for a few more months. Then, with the dust from the World Trade Center barely settled, he went on the road as the Man With the Bullhorn, pocketing as much as $200,000 for a single speaking engagement. In 2002 he reported $8 million in speaking income; this past year it was more than $11 million. He's traveled in style, at one stop last year requesting a $47,000 flight on a private jet, five hotel rooms and a private suite with a balcony view and a king-size bed.

While the mayor himself flew out of New York on a magic carpet, thousands of cash-strapped cops, firemen and city workers involved with the cleanup at the World Trade Center were developing cancers and infections and mysterious respiratory ailments like the "WTC cough." This is the dirty little secret lurking underneath Rudy's 9/11 hero image -- the most egregious example of his willingness to shape public policy to suit his donors. While the cleanup effort at the Pentagon was turned over to federal agencies like OSHA, which quickly sealed off the site and required relief workers to wear hazmat suits, the World Trade Center cleanup was handed over to Giuliani. The city's Department of Design and Construction (DDC) promptly farmed out the waste-clearing effort to a smattering of politically connected companies, including Bechtel, Bovis and AMEC construction.

The mayor pledged to reopen downtown in no time, and internal DDC memos indicate that the cleanup was directed at a breakneck pace. One memo to DDC chief Michael Burton warned, "Project management appears to only address safety issues when convenient for the schedule of the project." Burton, however, had his own priorities: He threatened to fire contractors if "the highest level of efficiency is not maintained."

Although respiratory-mask use was mandatory, the city allowed a macho culture to develop on the site: Even the mayor himself showed up without a mask. By October, it was estimated, masks were being worn on site as little as twenty-nine percent of the time. Rudy proclaimed that there were "no significant problems" with the air at the World Trade Center. But there was something wrong with the air: It was one of the most dangerous toxic-waste sites in human history, full of everything from benzene to asbestos and PCBs to dioxin (the active ingredient in Agent Orange). Since the cleanup ended, police and firefighters have reported a host of serious illnesses -- respiratory ailments like sarcoidosis; leukemia and lymphoma and other cancers; and immune-system problems.

"The likelihood is that more people will eventually die from the cleanup than from the original accident," says David Worby, an attorney representing thousands of cleanup workers in a class-action lawsuit against the city. "Giuliani wears 9/11 like a badge of honor, but he screwed up so badly."

When I first spoke to Worby, he was on his way home from the funeral of a cop. "One thing about Giuliani," he told me. "He's never been to a funeral of a cleanup worker."

Indeed, Rudy has had little at all to say about the issue. About the only move he's made to address the problem was to write a letter urging Congress to pass a law capping the city's liability at $350 million.

Did Giuliani know the air at the World Trade Center was poison? Who knows -- but we do know he took over the cleanup, refusing to let more experienced federal agencies run the show. He stood on a few brick piles on the day of the bombing, then spent the next ten months making damn sure everyone worked the night shift on-site while he bonked his mistress and negotiated his gazillion-dollar move to the private sector. Meanwhile, the people who actually cleaned up the rubble got used to checking their stool for blood every morning.

Now Giuliani is running for president -- as the hero of 9/11. George Bush has balls, too, but even he has to bow to this motherfucker.

Read the whole piece...