Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Unintentional Wit And "Wisdom" Of Philip Atkinson, Pt 1

Atkinson is deluded beyond belief, and, tellingly, some of the FSM links no longer work, or go to a scrubbed page, so the following quoted post comes from a different site altogether

Think Tank Suggests Bush should be President For Life

Exclusive: Conquering the Drawbacks of Democracy
Philip Atkinson

Author: Philip Atkinson
Source: The Family Security Foundation, Inc.
Date: August 3, 2007

While democratic government is better than dictatorships and theocracies, it has its pitfalls. FSM Contributing Editor Philip Atkinson describes some of the difficulties facing President Bush today.

Conquering the Drawbacks of Democracy

By Philip Atkinson

President George W. Bush is the 43rd President of the United States. He was sworn in for a second term on January 20, 2005 after being chosen by the majority of citizens in America to be president.

Yet in 2007 he is generally despised, with many citizens of Western civilization expressing contempt for his person and his policies, sentiments which now abound on the Internet. This rage at President Bush is an inevitable result of the system of government demanded by the people, which is Democracy.

The inadequacy of Democracy, rule by the majority, is undeniable – for it demands adopting ideas because they are popular, rather than because they are wise. This means that any man chosen to act as an agent of the people is placed in an invidious position: if he commits folly because it is popular, then he will be held responsible for the inevitable result. If he refuses to commit folly, then he will be detested by most citizens because he is frustrating their demands.

When faced with the possible threat that the Iraqis might be amassing terrible weapons that could be used to slay millions of citizens of Western Civilization, President Bush took the only action prudence demanded and the electorate allowed: he conquered Iraq with an army.

This dangerous and expensive act did destroy the Iraqi regime, but left an American army without any clear purpose in a hostile country and subject to attack. If the Army merely returns to its home, then the threat it ended would simply return.

The wisest course would have been for President Bush to use his nuclear weapons to slaughter Iraqis until they complied with his demands, or until they were all dead. Then there would be little risk or expense and no American army would be left exposed. But if he did this, his cowardly electorate would have instantly ended his term of office, if not his freedom or his life.

The simple truth that modern weapons now mean a nation must practice genocide or commit suicide. Israel provides the perfect example. If the Israelis do not raze Iran, the Iranians will fulfill their boast and wipe Israel off the face of the earth. Yet Israel is not popular, and so is denied permission to defend itself. In the same vein, President Bush cannot do what is necessary for the survival of Americans. He cannot use the nation’s powerful weapons. All he can do is try and discover a result that will be popular with Americans.

As there appears to be no sensible result of the invasion of Iraq that will be popular with his countrymen other than retreat, President Bush is reviled; he has become another victim of Democracy.

By elevating popular fancy over truth, Democracy is clearly an enemy of not just truth, but duty and justice, which makes it the worst form of government. President Bush must overcome not just the situation in Iraq, but democratic government.

However, President Bush has a valuable historical example that he could choose to follow.

When the ancient Roman general Julius Caesar was struggling to conquer ancient Gaul, he not only had to defeat the Gauls, but he also had to defeat his political enemies in Rome who would destroy him the moment his tenure as consul (president) ended.

Caesar pacified Gaul by mass slaughter; he then used his successful army to crush all political opposition at home and establish himself as permanent ruler of ancient Rome. This brilliant action not only ended the personal threat to Caesar, but ended the civil chaos that was threatening anarchy in ancient Rome – thus marking the start of the ancient Roman Empire that gave peace and prosperity to the known world.

If President Bush copied Julius Caesar by ordering his army to empty Iraq of Arabs and repopulate the country with Americans, he would achieve immediate results: popularity with his military; enrichment of America by converting an Arabian Iraq into an American Iraq (therefore turning it from a liability to an asset); and boost American prestiege while terrifying American enemies.

He could then follow Caesar’s example and use his newfound popularity with the military to wield military power to become the first permanent president of America, and end the civil chaos caused by the continually squabbling Congress and the out-of-control Supreme Court.

President Bush can fail in his duty to himself, his country, and his God, by becoming “ex-president” Bush or he can become “President-for-Life” Bush: the conqueror of Iraq, who brings sense to the Congress and sanity to the Supreme Court. Then who would be able to stop Bush from emulating Augustus Caesar and becoming ruler of the world? For only an America united under one ruler has the power to save humanity from the threat of a new Dark Age wrought by terrorists armed with nuclear weapons. Contributing Editor Philip Atkinson is the British born founder of and author of A Study of Our Decline. He is a philosopher specializing in issues concerning the preservation of Western civilization. Mr. Atkinson receives mail at

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Note — The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, views, and/or philosophy of The Family Security Foundation, Inc.


Wednesday, September 12, 2007

W Kisses The Ring Of, And Up To, Muqtada al-Sadr

U.S. seeks pact with Shiite militia

The military is in talks with elements of cleric Sadr's powerful group, which is accused of attacks against soldiers but which holds sway in much of Baghdad and parts of Iraq.

By Ned Parker
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

September 12, 2007

BAGHDAD — -- U.S. diplomats and military officers have been in talks with members of the armed movement loyal to Muqtada Sadr, a sharp reversal of policy and a grudging recognition that the radical Shiite cleric holds a dominant position in much of Baghdad and other parts of Iraq.

The secret dialogue has been going on since at least early 2006, but appeared to yield a tangible result only in the last week -- with relative calm in an area of west Baghdad that has been among the capital's most dangerous sections.

The discussions have been complicated by divisions within Sadr's movement as well as the cleric's public vow never to meet with Iraq's occupiers. Underlying the issue's sensitivity, Sadrists publicly deny any contact with the Americans or British -- fully aware the price of acknowledging such meetings would be banishment from the movement or worse.

The dialogue represents a drastic turnaround in the U.S. approach to Sadr and his militia, the Mahdi Army. The military hopes to negotiate the same kind of marriage of convenience it has reached in other parts of Iraq with former insurgent groups, many Saddam Hussein loyalists, and the Sunni tribes that supported them. Both efforts are examples of how U.S. officials have sought to end violence by cooperating with groups they once considered intractable enemies.

In 2004, U.S. officials branded Sadr an outlaw and demanded his arrest, sparking two major Shiite revolts in Baghdad and in the southern shrine city of Najaf that left more than a thousand dead. Last year, as the Bush administration developed its "surge" strategy, military planners said the campaign would also target Shiite militias involved in sectarian killings. U.S. commanders later accused Iranian-backed elements of the Mahdi Army of carrying out deadly bomb attacks against U.S. forces and spearheading sectarian violence.

U.S. officials now feel they have no choice but to talk to the militia. Despite its internal rifts, the Sadr movement is widely seen as the most powerful force in Baghdad. The Mahdi Army's grip is absolute on most of the capital's Shiite neighborhoods, where it sells fuel and electricity and rents houses, and it has reached deep inside the army and police. U.S. soldiers have marveled at the movement's ability to generate new leaders to replace almost every fighter they lock up.

U.S. officials fear that failure to reach a political compromise with the Sadrists could have severe consequences once U.S. forces begin to pull back from their current high levels.

"If there are no American troops and there is no American deal, the Mahdi Army seizes control of Baghdad. That's the vision. It's not a pleasant vision. It's a really bad vision. In situations like this, the most extreme elements tend to predominate," said a U.S. diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.

In his testimony to Congress on Monday, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, underscored the importance of reaching out to the Mahdi Army, deflecting a suggestion that the U.S. declare the movement a terrorist group.

"You're not going to kill or capture all of the Sadr militia anymore than we are going to kill or capture all the insurgents in Iraq," Petraeus said. "Some of this is a little bit distasteful. It's not easy sitting across the table, let's say, or drinking tea with someone whose tribal members may have shot at our forces or in fact drawn the blood -- killed our forces."

The White House is keen for a breakthrough. "There's a part of the Sadrist camp that is extremist and dedicated to killing us, and we need to kill them instead. But there are others who we think we might be able to work with," said an administration official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity.

Officials point to their negotiations with Sunni insurgents as a model. The Sunnis, however, cooperated in large part because they had split with Al Qaeda in Iraq militants and needed U.S. help to battle them. By contrast, the Sadrists have yet to decide that they want a clear break from their more radical and lawless elements.

Contacts with Sadr's followers have included clandestine meetings with U.S. Embassy officials in the fortified Green Zone and encounters on the street between low-level militia commanders and U.S. captains.

This month's breakthrough came when Lt. Col. Patrick Frank, responsible for west Baghdad's dangerous Bayaa, Jihad and Amal neighborhoods, met Sept. 3 with tribal leaders belonging to the Mahdi Army at Camp Falcon, a sprawling U.S. base.

To preserve the movement's posture of not negotiating with Americans, the tribal leaders did not discuss their affiliation, but their identity was well known. "The organization we are extending our hand to is the Jaish al Mahdi," Frank said, using the group's Arabic name. A Sadr follower in west Baghdad confirmed that Shiite and Sunni tribal leaders were in negotiations with the Americans for a truce in the area.

The session, which brought together commanders, community officials and mostly Shiite leaders, was the fruit of talks initiated by the Sadrists in late July, Frank said in an interview.

Moderate Sadrists involved in the Mahdi Army's social service network contacted U.S. forces through intermediaries, Frank said. The region was largely Sunni until the Mahdi Army began driving out residents and replacing them with Shiites last year.

Since then, residents had grown unhappy that their neighborhood was the stage for shootouts and bombings. Some Sadr loyalists started passing tips to the Americans on militants.

An opening for wider talks came with Sadr's announcement nearly two weeks ago that his militia would halt operations for six months to give it time to weed out alleged rogue elements. That call was in response to fighting between Sadr's followers and another Shiite militia in the holy city of Karbala that left 52 dead.

"Once Muqtada Sadr issued his call for six months of nonviolence, we thought that went hand in hand with the initiative we were attempting to start," Frank said. "It did give us an opportunity that was very helpful to the discussion effort."

When they met, Frank proposed the Sadrists stop attacks for two weeks. In exchange, he said the Americans would consider reducing their raids in the district. The Sadr representatives relayed the plan back to Mahdi Army brigade and company commanders and violence dropped last week, the commander said.

Frank has no illusions that peace is suddenly at hand. "We understand that it may be cyclical. Reconciliation efforts may occur many times. We may see a spike in contact between militant Jaish al Mahdi, Iraqi security forces and the coalition forces and then move back into a reconciliation process.

"We have to craft a way ahead. We have to find a workable solution with the community leaders, the religious leaders and essentially the local political leaders within Jaish al Mahdi," he added.

As in the talks with Sunni sheiks and armed groups in Anbar province, in western Iraq, U.S. officials who have met with Sadrists and their intermediaries have sought to convince them that the United States has no interest in occupying Iraq and that cooperating with the military will expedite its departure.

"The idea was clearly, 'Your violence is increasing the time we will be here . . . if you want to stop this, lets talk,' " a second U.S. diplomat said. "With the Sunnis, it took over a year and a half for it to generate the kind of momentum it has."

How far the contacts with the Sadrists can go may depend on a debate that militia members say is raging within their movement. Lawmaker and Sadr loyalist Qusay Abdul Wahab said the truce aimed to make a clear distinction between the Mahdi Army and fighters who had used the group as a cover for killings and other crimes.

"Those who do not obey the Sadr office will surface. The Iraqi security forces will go after them," he said, adding it was acceptable for U.S. forces to do the same.

A street commander in Sadr City put the policy this way: "Anyone who fights the Americans now is not from the Mahdi Army. Muqtada Sadr sent this order to freeze the Mahdi Army for just one reason: to distinguish between good and bad Mahdi Army members."

The fighter vowed that the militia would punish anyone who took advantage of the militia's name. "If we catch any of them, they will be tried, interrogated and they will be punished and treated as bandits," he said, adding that the militia recently captured 10 Iranians with Al Qaeda operatives in eastern Diyala province and punished them. "We dealt with them," he said, smiling and refusing to say what they had done.

The fighter's next remarks, however, were a quick reminder of the long road the Americans have to travel before they enjoy a partnership with Sadr's movement.

"Anyone who collaborates with the Americans will be considered a traitor," the fighter warned.

Times staff writers Doyle McManus and Julian E. Barnes in Washington and special correspondents in Baghdad contributed to this report.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

W Sticks It To Katrina Victims Yet Again

July 25, 2007

Agency Erred in Canceling Loans to 8,000 Along Gulf, Audit Finds


WASHINGTON, July 24 — The Small Business Administration, which runs the federal government’s largest program to help disaster victims rebuild their houses, improperly canceled thousands of loans it had promised homeowners along the Gulf Coast after the 2005 hurricanes, a government audit has found.

The agency canceled nearly 8,000 loans without calling the borrowers or mailing them a notice, according to the audit by the agency’s inspector general. The homeowners did eventually receive a letter contending that they had voluntarily given up their loans, the report says, even though many told auditors that they actually needed the money.

The loans were canceled last year, after the agency had come under fire for being slow to give out rebuilding money, according to the audit. Former agency employees have complained that they were pressured to withdraw the loans to cut the number of applicants whose loans had been approved but not paid out.

A spokeswoman for the agency declined to comment on the report.

The Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, which is examining problems with the agency’s disaster loan program, is planning a hearing on the audit on Wednesday.

“We all wanted to see the loans processed and disbursed more quickly and the red tape removed,” said Senator John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat who is chairman of the committee. “Unfortunately, even with good intentions, some disaster victims are still being left behind, and that’s not acceptable.”

The audit is the latest in a series of problems for the troubled agency, which was widely criticized for its slow response to Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma. Earlier audits found that poor planning, low levels of staffing and problems with a new computer system had led to a backlog of hundreds of thousands of loan applications.

Steven C. Preston, the agency’s administrator, made fixing the disaster loans program his top priority when he took office last July.

But the audit found that agency employees might have cut corners to reduce the backlog. In many cases employees made only one call and sent no letters, according to the report. Because of problems with the agency’s computer system, its records indicated that these borrowers had requested that their loans be canceled.

Bones Of Subprime Loan Sharks Victims Legally Picked Clean A Second Time

August 20, 2007

After Foreclosure, a Big Tax Bill From the I.R.S.


Two years ago, William Stout lost his home in Allentown, Pa., to foreclosure when he could no longer make the payments on his $106,000 mortgage. Wells Fargo offered the two-bedroom house for sale on the courthouse steps. No bidders came forward. So Wells Fargo bought it for $1, county records show.

Despite the setback, Mr. Stout was relieved that his debt was wiped clean and he could make a new start. He married and moved in with his wife, Denise.

But on July 9, they received a bill from the Internal Revenue Service for $34,603 in back taxes. The letter explained that the debt canceled by Wells Fargo upon foreclosure was subject to income taxes, as well as penalties and late fees. The couple had a month to challenge the charges.

For those who struggle to pay their bills, who watch their housing payments rise out of reach with their adjustable-rate mortgages, who lose a job or who fall victim to illness, losing one’s home can feel like hitting bottom. But one more financial indignity may await as the fallout from the great housing boom ripples across the United States.

“Getting that tax bill,” Mrs. Stout recalled, “my first thought was that I needed to see my family doctor to help me with my stress, because we had a big mortgage and other debt and then here came the I.R.S. saying we owe this.”

Notices of unpaid taxes, unanticipated and little understood, will probably multiply as more people fall behind on their mortgages, said Ellen Harnick, senior policy counsel at the Center for Responsible Lending, a nonpartisan research and policy center in Durham, N.C.

Foreclosure is one way that beleaguered homeowners can fall into this tax trap. The other is when homeowners are forced to sell their homes for less than the value of the mortgage. If the lender forgives that difference, they are liable for income taxes on that amount.

The 1099 shortfall, as it is called, stems from an Internal Revenue Service policy that treats forgiven debt of all types as income even if the taxpayer has nothing tangible to show for it, unless the debt is canceled through bankruptcy.

The Center for Responsible Lending expects that 20 percent of the home loans made in 2005 and 2006 to people with weak credit, commonly called subprime loans, will end in foreclosure. Because so little money was required as a down payment during the boom, the value of many of these houses may be less than what is owed.

Some people in this predicament are fighting the I.R.S. and winning. Sometimes, lower payments can be negotiated with the I.R.S., tax experts say.

In other cases, bankruptcy or a claim of insolvency can eliminate the tax burden. Sometimes, the bills are sent out erroneously, as banks fail to keep track of home values and what price the properties ultimately sell for.

“The tax laws are far too complex for borrowers to understand,” said Kurt Eggert, a professor at Chapman University School of Law, noting that there are distinctions between selling a house for less than the loan amount and losing one in foreclosure. He says it is crucial to get expert tax advice to sort through the bewildering complications.

The whole concept can be counterintuitive. “Your home has declined in value and you lose it,” Mr. Eggert said. “Then the I.R.S. says you owe tens of thousands in taxes because you got a windfall when the debt was forgiven.”

Mr. Stout has suffered doubly from the downturn in the housing market. He earned $65,000 last year as a salesman for a roofing company. But last winter, his job was cut from a salaried position to an hourly one. Then his hours were reduced, as construction demand eased. Through July he had earned only $25,000, said his lawyer, Stephen G. Doherty, of Bennett & Doherty in Doylestown, Pa., putting him on pace for a pay cut over all this year.

Mr. Doherty set out to appeal the Stouts’ tax bill by arguing that Wells Fargo got the home as collateral so the family did not reap a benefit. The Stouts and their lawyer also hoped to show that Wells Fargo was able to sell the house for far more than $1. Finally, they contended that penalties were inappropriate because they did not receive a tax notice in 2005 or 2006.

After a reporter inquired about the Stout matter, Wells Fargo Home Mortgage said last week that it had reviewed the Stouts’ tax documents and was filing a corrected 1099 tax form to show that no debt had been canceled, because the fair market value of the home was actually more than Mr. Stout had owed.

Mr. Doherty, the Stouts’ lawyer, pointed out that the acquiring lender, in this case Wells Fargo, has some leeway in valuing a house. The fair market value can be the high bid at a sheriff’s sale, or an alternative valuation.

In this case, Wells Fargo’s about-face was tied to an appraisal that Mr. Doherty says he believes was completed before the sale. It set the value of the house at $132,844, eliminating the Stouts’ liability. (Lenders do periodic appraisals once a property is in default, Mr. Doherty said.)

The Stouts found in county records that Wells Fargo had sold the house to U.S. Bank for $106,000 — the same amount Mr. Stout had owed — in March 2006. The house was resold that month for $140,000.

An I.R.S. spokesman would not comment on the Stout matter or how the agency applies the tax rules on forgiven debt, but referred to a document on the I.R.S.’s policies.

Diane Thompson, a lawyer in Godfrey, Ill., for the National Consumer Law Center, says the tax can be a real hardship for some people.

She recalled a client who owed $39,000 to her lender and got a tax bill after her house was sold in foreclosure for $10,000. Ms. Thompson appealed to tax authorities, contending that her client, a part-time waitress, was broke because her debts were greater than her assets.

“If you can prove you are insolvent, the I.R.S. does not treat the forgiveness of debt as income,” Ms. Thompson said. Her client did not have to pay.

Lawyers may also be able to show that the original loan process was so flawed that the borrower is not liable for taxes. Indeed, during the real estate bubble, lenders and mortgage brokers sometimes encouraged homeowners to borrow more based on inflated home values.

Such was the case with Agnes Mouser, a 65-year-old widow who works in the records department in a Houston prison. In 2000, she sought to pay off her credit-card debt with a loan from Beneficial Finance, which sent an appraiser to assess the value of her home.

“A real nice young man came out to see me,” Mrs. Mouser recalled. “He could have been my grandson.”

That appraiser compared her 1977 mobile home with two new standard homes with two-car garages. Using those homes as benchmarks, Beneficial agreed to lend $34,730 on her home, valued at $43,500, in 2000. Mrs. Mouser’s loan carried an interest rate of 14.88 percent, and she paid 7 points, or $2,431, at closing to get that rate, along with $270 to Beneficial for the appraisal.

A spokeswoman for HSBC, the parent company of Beneficial, said it did not comment on matters involving specific customers.

In 2003, when Mrs. Mouser could not meet the payments, she contacted Ira D. Joffe, a lawyer in Houston. He found that her property was valued by the county at $19,970, less than half of what Beneficial had estimated.

“I promised to depose the appraiser’s Seeing Eye dog if there was a lawsuit,” Mr. Joffe recalled telling Beneficial.

Beneficial released the lien. But then Mrs. Mouser got a tax bill for $10,000, or the amount owed on the $29,566 that Beneficial had treated as a canceled loan.

“The tax bill scared her to death,” Mr. Joffe recalled. “It took a letter from an accountant and two letters from me to get the I.R.S. to go away.”

W Fights Terrorists "Over There": Over Here, Nuclear Security Rather Lacking

July 12, 2007

A Nuclear Ruse Uncovers Holes in U.S. Security


WASHINGTON, July 11 — Undercover Congressional investigators set up a bogus company and obtained a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in March that would have allowed them to buy the radioactive materials needed for a so-called dirty bomb.

The investigators, from the Government Accountability Office, demonstrated once again that the security measures put in place since the 2001 terrorist attacks to prevent radioactive materials from getting into the wrong hands are insufficient, according to a G.A.O. report, which is scheduled to be released at a Senate hearing Thursday.

“Given that terrorists have expressed an interest in obtaining nuclear material, the Congress and the American people expect licensing programs for these materials to be secure,” said Gregory D. Kutz, an investigator at the accountability office, in testimony prepared for the hearing.

The bomb the investigators could have built would not have caused widespread damage or even high- level contamination. But it still could have had serious consequences, particularly economic ones, in any city where it was set off.

The undercover operation involved an application from a fake construction company, supposedly based in West Virginia, that the investigators had incorporated even though it had no offices, Internet site or employees. Its only asset was a postal box.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials did not visit the company or try to interview its executives in person. Instead, within 28 days, they mailed the license to the West Virginia postal box, the report says.

That license, on a standard-size piece of paper, also had so few security measures incorporated into it that the investigators, using commercially available equipment, were able to modify it easily, removing a limit on the amount of radioactive material they could buy, the report says.

With that forged document, the auditors approached two industrial equipment companies to arrange to buy dozens of portable moisture density gauges, which cost about $5,000 each and are used to read the density of soil and pavement when building highways. The machines include americium-241 and cesium-137, radioactive substances commonly used in industrial equipment. Auditors, convinced they had enough evidence to prove their point, called off the ruse before the devices were delivered.

But if they had gone ahead with the plot — which would have required extracting the radioactive materials from the machines and combining them, a job that could harm anyone in close contact — they could have built a bomb that would have contaminated an area about the length of a city block, according to the regulatory commission.

As with any dirty bomb, the resulting low-level contamination would not have presented an immediate health hazard. Still, the area would have to have been evacuated and decontaminated.

Edward McGaffigan Jr., a member of the regulatory commission’s governing board, said the agency had taken steps to improve safeguards immediately after learning about the security lapses from auditors. The commission now requires members of its staff to visit any company it is not familiar with before approving a license application. It is also looking for ways to change the license to make it harder to modify or counterfeit, Mr. McGaffigan said.

But he said the danger associated with the amount of radioactive material the auditors were trying to buy should not be overstated. And the operation would have been much more expensive and complicated than pulling off a more conventional attack involving a truck bomb or a chemical tanker truck.

“Why would I not blow up a chemical tanker on a train with chlorine in it or other toxic materials, at a tiny fraction of the cost before doing this very elaborate exercise?” Mr. McGaffigan said.

A nuclear commission spokesman, David McIntyre, said the agency had not inspected the offices of the bogus company before issuing a license because the portable devices the Congressional auditors were trying to buy are considered a lower-level threat than that posed by more dangerous radioactive materials, which it regulates more strictly.

But Senator Norm Coleman, Republican of Minnesota, who has pushed Congressional auditors to investigate nuclear threats since 2003, said the commission was guilty of playing down the threat.

“The economic and psychological effects of a dirty bomb detonating on American soil would be devastating,” Mr. Coleman said in a statement Wednesday. “The N.R.C. has a pre 9-11 mindset in a post 9-11 world focusing just on preventing another Chernobyl.”

The findings by the Congressional auditors are the latest in a series of reports about management and procedural weaknesses at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that investigators have argued make the nation more vulnerable to a dirty bomb attack. In 2003, auditors first recommended that licenses for radioactive materials not be granted without inspections or other means of verifying that the applicant was legitimate.

In 2006, it recommended that the agency take steps to make sure its documents cannot be forged.

The use of undercover tactics is not a new one for the auditors. They used a similar approach last year when trying to smuggle radioactive materials across the border and investigating how effective the government’s protections were against fraudulent efforts to get cash assistance after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The most recent investigation did turn up some reassuring news: a second ploy by the auditors to acquire radioactive material was thwarted.

In 34 states, local regulatory authorities handle license applications. In Maryland, the Congressional investigators sent a similar application for a license to buy construction equipment that relied on a radioactive source. But Maryland officials said they wanted to inspect the bogus company’s offices and storage yard, so the auditors withdrew their application.


Monday, September 10, 2007

Hey Look, A Petraeus "Surge" That Worked-Just Not For The US Troops

August 28, 2007

Iraq Weapons Are a Focus of Criminal Investigations


BAGHDAD, Aug. 27 — Several federal agencies are investigating a widening network of criminal cases involving the purchase and delivery of billions of dollars of weapons, supplies and other matériel to Iraqi and American forces, according to American officials. The officials said it amounted to the largest ring of fraud and kickbacks uncovered in the conflict here.

The inquiry has already led to several indictments of Americans, with more expected, the officials said. One of the investigations involves a senior American officer who worked closely with Gen. David H. Petraeus in setting up the logistics operation to supply the Iraqi forces when General Petraeus was in charge of training and equipping those forces in 2004 and 2005, American officials said Monday.

There is no indication that investigators have uncovered any wrongdoing by General Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, who through a spokesman declined comment on any legal proceedings.

This article is based on interviews with more than a dozen federal investigators, Congressional, law enforcement and military officials, and specialists in contracting and logistics, in Iraq and Washington, who have direct knowledge of the inquiries. Many spoke on condition of anonymity because there are continuing criminal investigations.

The inquiries are being pursued by the Army Criminal Investigation Command, the Department of Justice, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, among other agencies.

Over the past year, inquiries by federal oversight agencies have found serious discrepancies in military records of where thousands of weapons intended for Iraqi security forces actually ended up. None of those agencies concluded that weapons found their way to insurgents or militias.

In their public reports, those agencies did not raise the possibility of criminal wrongdoing, and General Petraeus has said that the imperative to provide weapons to Iraqi security forces was more important than maintaining impeccable records.

In an interview on Aug. 18, General Petraeus said that with ill-equipped Iraqi security forces confronting soaring violence across the country in 2004 and 2005, he made a decision not to wait for formal tracking systems to be put in place before distributing the weapons.

“We made a decision to arm guys who wanted to fight for their country,” General Petraeus said.

But now, American officials said, part of the criminal investigation is focused on Lt. Col. Levonda Joey Selph, who reported directly to General Petraeus and worked closely with him in setting up the logistics operation for what were then the fledgling Iraqi security forces.

That operation moved everything from AK-47s, armored vehicles and plastic explosives to boots and Army uniforms, according to officials who were involved in it. Her former colleagues recall Colonel Selph as a courageous officer who was willing to take substantial personal risks to carry out her mission and was unfailingly loyal to General Petraeus and his directives to move quickly in setting up the logistics operation.

“She was kind of like the Pony Express of the Iraqi security forces,” said Victoria Wayne, who was then deputy director of logistics for the overall Iraqi reconstruction program.

Still, Colonel Selph also ran into serious problems with a company she oversaw that failed to live up to a contract it had signed to carry out part of that logistics mission.

It is not clear exactly what Colonel Selph is being investigated for. Colonel Selph, reached by telephone twice on Monday, said she would speak to reporters later but did not answer further messages left for her.

The enormous expenditures of American and Iraqi money on the Iraq reconstruction program, at least $40 billion over all, have been criticized for reasons that go well beyond the corruption cases that have been uncovered so far. Weak oversight, poor planning and seemingly endless security problems have contributed to many of the program’s failures.

The investigation into contracts for matériel to Iraqi soldiers and police officers is part of an even larger series of criminal cases. As of Aug. 23, there were a total of 73 criminal investigations related to contract fraud in Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan, Col. Dan Baggio, an Army spokesman said Monday. Twenty civilians and military personnel have been charged in federal court as a result of the inquiries, he said. The inquiries involve contracts valued at more than $5 billion, and Colonel Baggio said the charges so far involve more than $15 million in bribes.

Just last week, an Army major, his wife and his sister were indicted on charges that they accepted up to $9.6 million in bribes for Defense Department contracts in Iraq and Kuwait.

Investigations span the gamut from low-level officials submitting false claims for amounts less than $2,500 to more serious cases involving, conspiracy, bribery, product substitution and bid-rigging or double-billing involving large dollar amounts or more senior contracting officials, Army criminal investigators said. The investigations involve contractors, government employees, local nationals and American military personnel.

Questions about whether the American military could account for the weaponry and other equipment purchased to outfit the Iraqi security forces were raised as early as May of last year, when Senator John W. Warner, Republican of Virginia and then the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, sent a request to an independent federal oversight agency to investigate the matter.

But federal officials say the inquiry has moved far beyond the initial investigation of hundreds of thousands of improperly tracked assault rifles and semiautomatic pistols that grew out of Senator Warner’s query. In fact, Senator Warner said in a statement to The New York Times that he was outraged when he was briefed recently on the initial findings of the investigations.

“When I was briefed on the recent developments, I felt so strongly that I asked the Secretary of the Army to brief the Armed Services Committee right away, which he did in early August,” Senator Warner said in a statement.

An Army spokesman declined to comment on the briefing by the secretary of the Army, Pete Geren. In a sign of the seriousness of the scandal, the Defense Department Inspector General, Claude M. Kicklighter, will lead an 18-person team to Iraq early next month to investigate contracting practices, said Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary.

Mr. Morrell said Mr. Kicklighter, a retired three-star Army general, would stay in Iraq indefinitely to investigate contracting abuses, and was empowered to fix problems on the spot or take action if his team identified potential criminal activity.

Congressional officials who have been briefed on the Defense Department inspector general’s inquiry said Monday that one focus would be on weapons, munitions and explosives. In addition, Mr. Geren, the Army secretary, is expected to announce later this week the creation of a panel of senior contracting and logistics specialists to address any systemic problems they identify.

Senator Warner’s request last May for an independent federal oversight agency to investigate the accountability of weapons and equipment given to Iraqi security forces underscored concern about the issue.

That federal agency, the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, responded with a report in October 2006 that found serious discrepancies in American military records of where thousands of the weapons actually ended up. The military did not take the routine step of recording serial numbers for the weapons, the inspector general found, making it difficult to determine whether any of the weapons had ended up in the wrong hands.

In July 2007, the Government Accountability Office found even larger discrepancies, reporting that the American military “cannot fully account for about 110,000 AK-47 rifles, 90,000 pistols, 80 items of body armor, and 115,000 helmets reported as issued to Iraqi security forces as of Sept. 22, 2005.”

James Glanz reported from Baghdad, and Eric Schmitt from Washington.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Katrina: One Reporter's Blur Of Contrasts

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It was America, unhinged

The veteran reporter had seen a lot, but nothing could prepare her for New Orleans after Katrina. Emotions could be overwhelming.

By Ann Simmons
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

September 1, 2007

NEW ORLEANS — Shortly after arriving in New Orleans in March 2006, I took a wrong turn and headed over a bridge into the city's Lower 9th Ward, which was still largely deserted after being devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

A knot tightened in my stomach. I had unintentionally broken my self-imposed rule of not traveling into an unfamiliar area late at night.

Suddenly, something darted in front of my car. A small dog, I thought. It turned out to be a rat. Another one followed shortly afterward.

Then I saw him -- someone standing on the sidewalk ahead of me.

My fingers tightened around the steering wheel. Trapped on one side by a levee wall, there was nowhere to go but forward.

I couldn't drive fast for fear of puncturing a tire. What remained of the buckled road was littered with nail-studded wood, glass shards and spikes from the ruins of destroyed homes.

The figure didn't move. Could he be armed?

As I approached, I saw that my potential assailant was some kind of post or stump.

Why was I so nervous?

I stand over 6 feet tall, a strong black woman from London who is not easily intimidated. My career as a journalist had put me on the front line of conflicts in Eritrea and Liberia. I had been roughed up at a rally in the Democratic Republic of Congo for supposedly resembling a Banyamulenge, a member of an ethnic group then embroiled in Congo's civil conflict. I had walked side by side with gun-toting militia members in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, and I survived a suicide bomb attack in Baghdad.

I hadn't imagined phantoms there. I knew of the risks and had expected danger.

But this was America, and as a Briton by birth, I had a somewhat idealistic view of America the Great. By now, six months after Katrina, there should have been lights in windows, people strolling the sidewalks, the murmur of voices, music wafting from front porches.

Instead, there was the kind of ominous silence that envelops a city under siege until the crackle of gunfire punctures the peace.

The unnatural silence, the nothingness, scared me.

Over my 14 months covering the rebuilding of New Orleans, the city repeatedly brought to mind images and people I had seen in more desperate parts of the developing world.

It was not unusual for the lights to go out, streets to flood, and water pressure in New Orleans neighborhoods to drop to a trickle when it rained. The problem was prevalent at the so-called luxury apartment where I lived, which also served as the Los Angeles Times bureau in the Mid-City area.

Against the background of the enormous physical destruction, such inconveniences should have seemed minor.

But the repeated small indignities mounted and pushed New Orleanians to the edge. Before the storm, everyone took for granted a consistent supply of electricity and potable water, regular mail service, a local supermarket, a bank, a church, a nearby school, and at least one local restaurant, even if it was a fast-food joint.

For long months after Katrina, most neighborhoods had none of these. Some still don't.

It took several months to find a dry cleaner, so I only wore clothes that could be washed in a machine, or by hand. The nearest Rite Aid pharmacy operated out of a trailer until October 2006.

Only five doctors remained of the 120 estimated to have been in practice in the neighborhood before August 2005. I typically let my illnesses run their course rather than face the hassle of trying to find a doctor, or I sought medical attention on trips back to L.A.

Most New Orleans residents could not do that. They had to, and still have to, make do with subpar healthcare. Before Katrina, there were 11 area hospitals offering emergency services. Today, there are fewer than half that.

The storm also destroyed or financially hurt more than 80% of Orleans Parish's small businesses, among them many black hair salons. Managing the short style that I had before moving to New Orleans was a challenge.

One day, I cornered a policewoman shopping at Wal-Mart who was wearing the same style. She gave me her hairdresser's name, but added that her salon was the only one in the Bywater neighborhood that had reopened, and that it was constantly jammed. Newcomers would probably have to book at least a month in advance, or sit and wait all day. This hardly seemed practical.

I started wearing my hair in extension braids. Andrea Shaw, a colleague and friend from the New Orleans Times-Picayune, referred me to Sarone SunRaa, a veteran of black hair care. She plied her trade from a clean and comfortable room in her home.

This seemingly mundane and vanity-driven experience illustrated what many African Americans meant when they said New Orleans was no longer truly "a black city." It wasn't only the physical presence of African Americans that counted, but the many longtime black community institutions, such as barbershops, black-owned corner stores, and traditional Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs -- benevolent societies that are famous for their parasol-twirling, brass-band "second line" jazz parades.

Here we were in supposedly the world's most powerful industrialized nation, yet getting New Orleans back on its feet was so slow. Federal, state and city officials continue to blame each other for the lethargic progress.

My perception of the United States as a democracy that takes care of its own was shattered.

This wasn't Somalia of the 1990s, where the absence of a central government guaranteed a dearth of public services and shoddy infrastructure; or postwar Angola, where broken bridges, land mines and derelict roads and airstrips could be blamed for hampering the transport of supplies or assistance to a populace in need. It wasn't southern Sudan, where aid groups often had to suspend relief efforts because of security concerns.

This was America.

The lack of faith in the government, common among people in the developing world, gradually began to show itself among New Orleanians as they waited in vain for an outpouring of help from authorities.

"It's like no one cares; like we've been forgotten," Marie Benoit, a schoolteacher pre-Katrina, said one day on the way to her home in a park of 500 campers on the campus of Southern University at New Orleans.

It was a sentiment that echoed continually -- feelings of rejection, that New Orleans was not part of the United States, that maybe those internally displaced or living in exile were indeed "refugees." (New Orleanians despise that term.)

Expectation gave way to resignation -- a gradual unconscious acceptance that New Orleanians were essentially on their own. A greater community spirit emerged from that realization. Neighborhood associations were founded, or came back to life. They brought neighbors together, sometimes for the first time, and encouraged people to get involved in the city's future.

"It's going to take everyone who's still left living here to get involved," said homemaker Becky Zaheri as she explained her motivation for launching Katrina Krewe, a volunteer community cleanup group of students, homemakers, retirees, teachers and other professionals. "We need all the citizens to take pride in our city, to take ownership of our city."

Not a day went by during my stay without a mention of the "K" word. No matter the topic, all conversation led back to Katrina: how someone had fared; what they managed to salvage; where they were living; their struggles to rebuild. Many interviews became impromptu therapy sessions.

I always scheduled more time than was necessary just to leave room for the inevitable Katrina tales. Some people had to "talk it out" whenever they got the opportunity.

But being bombarded with raw feelings -- anger and anxiety, denial and defiance, sadness and hope -- was draining. Every day it hit home that Katrina had touched the life of every person in this city, no matter their social or economic standing.

Gordon Natal, a professor of nursing at Loyola University, lived in the city's upscale Lakewood South suburb, which had literally become a lake in the days after the hurricane.

His 3,000-square-foot house had been flooded almost to its eaves. He was trying to renovate the house while fixing up his backyard pool house so his homeless parents could live there temporarily.

Natal spoke with confidence as he expressed his determination to return home. But as he finished talking, his poise gave way to tears.

It was the fifth time that week that someone had broken down and wept during an interview. Three were grown men. I would press a shoulder comfortingly, mutter words of consolation, or sit in uncomfortable silence allowing the person to grieve.

What do you say to someone who has lost everything they ever owned? That you understood how it felt, when you did not? Saying "I'm sorry" just seemed so lame.

Feelings of inadequacy -- my inability to help people -- overwhelmed me. Relief came through the seven-mile run and gym workout each morning -- and often another session each evening.

By the second anniversary of Katrina, Natal had been back in his house for almost a year. His parents had made his pool house their permanent home.

But life was still a struggle: heavy debt from home repairs, higher property taxes, and utility bills that had doubled. The father of three has been forced to take a second job as an emergency room nurse on weekends. "I would not encourage anybody to return here," said Natal. "It's not worth it."

Throughout my months in New Orleans, my accent elicited curiosity, admiration, amusement and sometimes a measure of disbelief. I often had to explain "what I was": "No, I'm not South African"; "Yes, there are lots of black people in England."

Generally, people's interest helped to break the ice.

"Our people be everywhere," Dwayne Holmes, a heavyset African American 16-year-old, said with a grin one day as he and his pals sat on a stoop on a street in crime-plagued Central City.

Holmes wanted to know whether black youth in England also called each other "dog" as a term of endearment.

For the most part, we have our own lingo, I told him.

"They treat black people bad there too?" he continued.

This provided an entree to the subject that had brought me to Central City: that African American youth, like Holmes and his mates, were being blamed for a growing wave of violence.

In the summer of 2006, Louisiana's Democratic Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco dispatched a contingent of National Guard and state troopers after the gunning-down of six people -- five of them teenagers -- over one weekend.

New Orleans has long had a crime problem. Katrina did not create this. But many residents openly acknowledged that they had hoped the storm had swept out the criminals, for good.

The city haltingly crept toward recovery at the outset of 2007, 16 months after Katrina. Annual events like Mardi Gras and the Jazz & Heritage Festival were huge successes.

When the New Orleans Saints qualified for the National Football Conference championship in January, residents were united in their euphoria. Hurt and anxiety over the rebuilding struggle were momentarily swept aside.

The Saints were the first team in the history of the NFL to reach a conference championship after losing 13 or more games the previous season. Their success became a beacon of hope for the city's recovery.

I don't understand the rules of American football, but I watched the game with friends at the Dry Dock Cafe at historic Algiers Point.

Black and whites sat festively side by side. The only colors that mattered here were the Saints' black and gold.

"Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints? Who dat? Who dat?" I yelled out the Saints battle cry as running back Reggie Bush scored a touchdown. My accent elicited a ripple of laughter.

A month after the game, D. Majeeda Snead, a clinical professor and criminologist at Loyola, and a justice system source-turned-friend, extended an invitation to the Zulu Ball, a premier event of carnival season.

The annual dance is organized by the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club Inc., New Orleans' largest, predominantly African American carnival organization. A colleague described the event as "a formal picnic," because guests typically bring their own food and drink.

That frigid February evening, ladies dressed in ball gowns toted foil trays with fried chicken, sandwiches and hors d'oeuvres. Tuxedo-clad men hauled crates and coolers and bags with bottles of wine and champagne.

It took almost two hours to get through the crush of cars and floats to the convention center, where an estimated 15,000 had gathered. Screams of excitement rang out as people who had not seen each other since Katrina embraced and kissed.

Many people were still living outside the city, but had returned specifically for the ball. Revelers shouted "Where you at?" -- a common New Orleans greeting for "How ya doing?" There was a feeling of homecoming as tears blended with laughter.

Throughout the first half of this year, signs of normalcy increased. Many storm-ravaged neighborhoods began to spring back to life: The first new home in the Lower 9th Ward was dedicated in February, though it stood against a backdrop of destruction. By May, more than two dozen businesses had returned to the main commercial strip in the Lakeview area. I left New Orleans the day before the June 1 start of the hurricane season, the second one since Katrina.

The day before, New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin gave his first State of the City address since Katrina. He berated federal and state leaders for breaking promises to provide adequate financial assistance to New Orleans "and people who need it the most." He insisted the city was on the mend.

"New Orleans is coming back, whether you like it or not," Nagin said, "and you might as well deal with it."

I regretted leaving this dynamic and offbeat city, its compelling story and its resilient people.

Their heartbreak and struggles were a reminder to never take for granted the basics of everyday existence.

But overall, there was a measure of hope now. No matter how long it took, New Orleans would come back.

I remembered the mood during the Saints' campaign for the Super Bowl. Although the team lost, the city won. It got a second wind. It simply refused to be beaten.

This was the America I knew.