Wednesday, August 25, 2004
Editorial: Kerry and the swift boat snipers
Wednesday, August 25, 2004
Two weeks into the face-off between John Kerry's campaign and a group of veterans organized to ambush his candidacy, the argument has turned to the fine details. Was the shrapnel taken from Kerry's arm a battle wound or just a scratch? Was Kerry's swift boat in Cambodia in December 1968 or February 1969? Was Kerry under hostile fire when he pulled Jim Rassman out of the river or was Kerry late in coming to a routine rescue?
Getting at the exact truth of these incidents, especially 35 years later, is likely impossible. If war stories couldn't be exaggerated, things would be awfully quiet at a lot of veterans' gatherings. The fog of war and the toll of years dims combat memories, but this has more to do with attack-dog politics than honest disagreements.
So far, Kerry's critics appear far more inconsistant in their stories than Kerry. Not only do their accounts contradict military records, they often contradict the critics' own previous statements. As more witnesses come forward, Kerry's version of the handful of events in question gets more backing. The "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" is still getting a free ride in the conservative media, but it is increasingly clear that theirs is a smear campaign that has nothing to do with truth.
But the fact-checking exercise misses the point. If Kerry's Vietnam experience is relevant to the choice voters face Nov. 2 -- and we think it is -- what matters are the facts even Kerry's harshest critics don't dispute: He enlisted in the Navy on his own. After a tour of duty on a ship off the Vietnam coast, Kerry asked to be sent back to Vietnam, requesting swift boat duty, the most dangerous assignment the Navy had to offer. There, Kerry experienced three things most who haven't seen combat can only imagine: He had shots fired at him; he watched friends and strangers die; he killed at least one enemy soldier.
Combat experience is not required in a president, but having been in combat most certainly gives a commander-in-chief an important frame of reference. Unlike his opponent, Kerry knows first-hand the toll war takes. Kerry needs to do a better job explaining how that experience would guide his decisions should he reach the White House.
Kerry should also include in his Vietnam story other parts equally important to his political resume. He should defend his vocal opposition to the war, a mission that also involved courage and risk. His work decades later in getting answers to the questions about Vietnam MIAs and restoring diplomatic relations between former enemies show his involvement went far beyond four months captaining a swift boat.
With the U.S. again bogged down fighting an insurgency in a faraway place, the lessons of Vietnam are more relevant to this campaign than in any since the fall of Saigon. It's time the campaigns and the media stopped listening to the swift boat snipers and started focusing on the battles at hand.
What the new Kerry ad should be
I've ben watching the never ending debate over the swift boat ads. It's really disgusting. While watching the newshour tonight, they showed one of the Kerry new ads. I think it's a start, but I don't think it's aggressive enough. For the last year, during the primaries, and through MoveOn, the number one phrase about the president was that he misled about the war at best, and lied at worst.
The Kerry ad should be something like this:
It's that simple - paint the entire episode in terms of the President's inability to keep his word. Tie his policies to his character - his credibility. This can also be the vehicle to discuss his entire domestic police (Clean Skies Initiative, for example, No Child Left Behind for another, the Energy Bill for a third). It allows you to turn the flip-flopper issue on him as well (though not with all of those examples - say one thing, do another).
The Democrats need to go after his trustworthiness more - it's his number one strength with his supporters and it's probably his number one weakness among the informed.
We've got to get Bush out of office.
Tuesday, August 24, 2004
From the horse's mouth
Friday, August 20, 2004
President Bush has an attendence problem
So just how many days has Bush spent down timing?
CBS Radio's Mark Knoller keeps meticulous tabs on Bush's every move and files this report for the cbsnews.com Web site:
"A CBS News tally shows that President Bush is now making his 38th visit to his Prairie Chapel ranch since taking office. Add up the number of full or partial days he has been there -- it comes out to 254.
"That's about 20 percent of his presidency. Add in his time at Camp David and the Bush family home in Kennebunkport, Maine, and the percentage more than doubles. And the White House is self-conscious about it."
Knoller concludes: "Though it's definitely worth noting how much time Mr. Bush spends at his ranch -- it's unfair to say it's all vacation -- it's certainly a vacation atmosphere."
And this is our "war president." Jackass.
Friendly Fire: The Birth of an Anti-Kerry Ad
By KATE ZERNIKE and JIM RUTENBERG
Published: August 20, 2004
After weeks of taking fire over veterans' accusations that he had lied about his Vietnam service record to win medals and build a political career, Senator John Kerry shot back yesterday, calling those statements categorically false and branding the people behind them tools of the Bush campaign.
His decision to take on the group directly was a measure of how the group that calls itself Swift Boat Veterans for Truth has catapulted itself to the forefront of the presidential campaign. It has advanced its cause in a book, in a television advertisement and on cable news and talk radio shows, all in an attempt to discredit Mr. Kerry's war record, a pillar of his campaign.
How the group came into existence is a story of how veterans with longstanding anger about Mr. Kerry's antiwar statements in the early 1970's allied themselves with Texas Republicans.
Mr. Kerry called them "a front for the Bush campaign" - a charge the campaign denied.
A series of interviews and a review of documents show a web of connections to the Bush family, high-profile Texas political figures and President Bush's chief political aide, Karl Rove.
Records show that the group received the bulk of its initial financing from two men with ties to the president and his family - one a longtime political associate of Mr. Rove's, the other a trustee of the foundation for Mr. Bush's father's presidential library. A Texas publicist who once helped prepare Mr. Bush's father for his debate when he was running for vice president provided them with strategic advice. And the group's television commercial was produced by the same team that made the devastating ad mocking Michael S. Dukakis in an oversized tank helmet when he and Mr. Bush's father faced off in the 1988 presidential election.
The strategy the veterans devised would ultimately paint John Kerry the war hero as John Kerry the "baby killer" and the fabricator of the events that resulted in his war medals. But on close examination, the accounts of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth' prove to be riddled with inconsistencies. In many cases, material offered as proof by these veterans is undercut by official Navy records and the men's own statements.
Several of those now declaring Mr. Kerry "unfit" had lavished praise on him, some as recently as last year.
In an unpublished interview in March 2003 with Mr. Kerry's authorized biographer, Douglas Brinkley, provided by Mr. Brinkley to The New York Times, Roy F. Hoffmann, a retired rear admiral and a leader of the group, allowed that he had disagreed with Mr. Kerry's antiwar positions but said, "I am not going to say anything negative about him." He added, "He's a good man."
In a profile of the candidate that ran in The Boston Globe in June 2003, Mr. Hoffmann approvingly recalled the actions that led to Mr. Kerry's Silver Star: "It took guts, and I admire that."
George Elliott, one of the Vietnam veterans in the group, flew from his home in Delaware to Boston in 1996 to stand up for Mr. Kerry during a tough re-election fight, declaring at a news conference that the action that won Mr. Kerry a Silver Star was "an act of courage." At that same event, Adrian L. Lonsdale, another Vietnam veteran now speaking out against Mr. Kerry, supported him with a statement about the "bravado and courage of the young officers that ran the Swift boats."
"Senator Kerry was no exception," Mr. Lonsdale told the reporters and cameras assembled at the Charlestown Navy Yard. "He was among the finest of those Swift boat drivers."
Those comments echoed the official record. In an evaluation of Mr. Kerry in 1969, Mr. Elliott, who was one of his commanders, ranked him as "not exceeded" in 11 categories, including moral courage, judgment and decisiveness, and "one of the top few" - the second-highest distinction - in the remaining five. In written comments, he called Mr. Kerry "unsurpassed," "beyond reproach" and "the acknowledged leader in his peer group."
The Admiral Calls
It all began last winter, as Mr. Kerry was wrapping up the Democratic nomination. Mr. Lonsdale received a call at his Massachusetts home from his old commander in Vietnam, Mr. Hoffmann, asking if he had seen the new biography of the man who would be president.
Mr. Hoffmann had commanded the Swift boats during the war from a base in Cam Ranh Bay and advocated a search-and-destroy campaign against the Vietcong - the kind of tactic Mr. Kerry criticized when he was a spokesman for Vietnam Veterans Against the War in 1971. Shortly after leaving the Navy in 1978, he was issued a letter of censure for exercising undue influence on cases in the military justice system.
Both Mr. Hoffmann and Mr. Lonsdale had publicly lauded Mr. Kerry in the past. But the book, Mr. Brinkley's "Tour of Duty," while it burnished Mr. Kerry's reputation, portrayed the two men as reckless leaders whose military approach had led to the deaths of countless sailors and innocent civilians. Several Swift boat veterans compared Mr. Hoffmann to the bloodthirsty colonel in the film "Apocalypse Now" - the one who loves the smell of Napalm in the morning.
The two men were determined to set the record, as they saw it, straight.
"It was the admiral who started it and got the rest of us into it," Mr. Lonsdale said.
Mr. Hoffmann's phone calls led them to Texas and to John E. O'Neill, who at one point commanded the same Swift boat in Vietnam, and whose mission against him dated to 1971, when he had been recruited by the Nixon administration to debate Mr. Kerry on "The Dick Cavett Show."
Mr. O'Neill, who pressed his charges against Mr. Kerry in numerous television appearances Thursday, had spent the 33 years since he debated Mr. Kerry building a successful law practice in Houston, intermingling with some of the state's most powerful Republicans and building an impressive client list. Among the companies he represented was Falcon Seaboard, the energy firm founded by the current lieutenant governor of Texas, David Dewhurst, a central player in the Texas redistricting plan that has positioned state Republicans to win more Congressional seats this fall.
Mr. O'Neill said during one of several interviews that he had come to know two of his biggest donors, Harlan Crow and Bob J. Perry, through longtime social and business contacts.
Mr. Perry, who has given $200,000 to the group, is the top donor to Republicans in the state, according to Texans for Public Justice, a nonpartisan group that tracks political donations. He donated $46,000 to President Bush's campaigns for governor in 1994 and 1998. In the 2002 election, the group said, he donated nearly $4 million to Texas candidates and political committees.
Mr. Rove, Mr. Bush's top political aide, recently said through a spokeswoman that he and Mr. Perry were longtime friends, though he said they had not spoken for at least a year. Mr. Rove and Mr. Perry have been associates since at least 1986, when they both worked on the gubernatorial campaign of Bill Clements.
Mr. O'Neill said he had known Mr. Perry for 30 years. "I've represented many of his friends,'' Mr. O'Neill said. Mr. Perry did not respond to requests for comment.
Mr. O'Neill said he had also known Mr. Crow for 30 years, through mutual friends. Mr. Crow, the seventh-largest donor to Republicans in the state according to the Texans for Public Justice, has donated nowhere near as much money as Mr. Perry to the Swift boat group. His family owns one of the largest diversified commercial real estate companies in the nation, the Trammell Crow Company, and has given money to Mr. Bush and his father throughout their careers. He is listed as a trustee of the George Bush Presidential Library Foundation.
One of his law partners, Margaret Wilson, became Mr. Bush's general counsel when he was governor of Texas and followed him to the White House as deputy counsel for the Department of Commerce, according to her biography on the law firm's Web site.
Another partner, Tex Lezar, ran on the Republican ticket with Mr. Bush in 1994, as lieutenant governor. They were two years apart at Yale, and Mr. Lezar worked for the attorney general's office in the Reagan administration. Mr. Lezar, who died last year, was married to Merrie Spaeth, a powerful public relations executive who has helped coordinate the efforts of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.
In 2000, Ms. Spaeth was spokeswoman for a group that ran $2 million worth of ads attacking Senator John McCain's environmental record and lauding Mr. Bush's in crucial states during their fierce primary battle. The group, calling itself Republicans for Clean Air, was founded by a prominent Texas supporter of Mr. Bush, Sam Wyly.
Ms. Spaeth had been a communications official in the Reagan White House, where the president's aides had enough confidence in her to invite her to help prepare George Bush for his vice-presidential debate in 1984. She says she is also a close friend of Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, a client of Mr. Rove's. Ms. Spaeth said in an interview that the one time she had ever spoken to Mr. Rove was when Ms. Hutchison was running for the Texas treasurer's office in 1990.
When asked if she had ever visited the White House during Mr. Bush's tenure, Ms. Spaeth initially said that she had been there only once, in 2002, when Kenneth Starr gave her a personal tour. But this week Ms. Spaeth acknowledged that she had spent an hour in the Old Executive Office Building, part of the White House complex, in the spring of 2003, giving Mr. Bush's chief economic adviser, Stephen Friedman, public speaking advice. Asked if it was possible that she had worked with other administration officials, Ms. Spaeth said, "The answer is 'no,' unless you refresh my memory.''
"Is the White House directing this?" Ms. Spaeth said of the organization. "Absolutely not.''
Another participant is the political advertising agency that made the group's television commercial: Stevens Reed Curcio & Potholm, based in Alexandria, Va. The agency worked for Senator McCain in 2000 and for Mr. Bush's father in 1988, when it created the "tank" advertisement mocking Mr. Dukakis. A spokesman for the Swift boat veterans said the organization decided to hire the agency after a member saw one of its partners speaking on television.
About 10 veterans met in Ms. Spaeth's office in Dallas in April to share outrage and plot their campaign against Mr. Kerry, she and others said. Mr. Lonsdale, who did not attend, said the meeting had been planned as "an indoctrination session."
What might have been loose impressions about Mr. Kerry began to harden.
"That was an awakening experience," Ms. Spaeth said. "Not just for me, but for many of them who had not heard each other's stories."
The group decided to hire a private investigator to investigate Mr. Brinkley's account of the war - to find "some neutral way of actually questioning people involved in these incidents,'' Mr. O'Neill said.
But the investigator's questions did not seem neutral to some.
Patrick Runyon, who served on a mission with Mr. Kerry, said he initially thought the caller was from a pro-Kerry group, and happily gave a statement about the night Mr. Kerry won his first Purple Heart. The investigator said he would send it to him by e-mail for his signature. Mr. Runyon said the edited version was stripped of all references to enemy combat, making it look like just another night in the Mekong Delta.
"It made it sound like I didn't believe we got any returned fire," he said. "He made it sound like it was a normal operation. It was the scariest night of my life."
By May, the group had the money that Mr. O'Neill had collected as well as additional veterans rallied by Mr. O'Neill, Mr. Hoffmann and others. The expanded group gathered in Washington to record the veterans' stories for a television commercial.
Each veteran's statement was written down as an affidavit and sent to him to sign and have notarized. But the validity of those affidavits soon came into question.
Mr. Elliott, who recommended Mr. Kerry for the Silver Star, had signed one affidavit saying Mr. Kerry "was not forthright" in the statements that had led to the award. Two weeks ago, The Boston Globe quoted him as saying that he felt he should not have signed the affidavit. He then signed a second affidavit that reaffirmed his first, which the Swift Boat Veterans gave to reporters. Mr. Elliott has refused to speak publicly since then.
The book outlining the veterans' charges, "Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against Kerry," has also come under fire. It is published by Regnery, a conservative company that has published numerous books critical of Democrats, and written by Mr. O'Neill and Jerome R. Corsi, who was identified on the book jacket as a Harvard Ph.D. and the author of many books and articles. But Mr. Corsi also acknowledged that he has been a contributor of anti-Catholic, anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic comments to a right-wing Web site. He said he regretted those comments.
The group's arguments have foundered on other contradictions. In the television commercial, Dr. Louis Letson looks into the camera and declares, "I know John Kerry is lying about his first Purple Heart because I treated him for that injury." Dr. Letson does not dispute the wound - a piece of shrapnel above Mr. Kerry's left elbow - but he and others in the group argue that it was minor and self-inflicted.
Yet Dr. Letson's name does not appear on any of the medical records for Mr. Kerry. Under "person administering treatment" for the injury, the form is signed by a medic, J. C. Carreon, who died several years ago. Dr. Letson said it was common for medics to treat sailors with the kind of injury that Mr. Kerry had and to fill out paperwork when doctors did the treatment.
Asked in an interview if there was any way to confirm he had treated Mr. Kerry, Dr. Letson said, "I guess you'll have to take my word for it."
The group also offers the account of William L. Schachte Jr., a retired rear admiral who says in the book that he had been on the small skimmer on which Mr. Kerry was injured that night in December 1968. He contends that Mr. Kerry wounded himself while firing a grenade.
But the two other men who acknowledged that they had been with Mr. Kerry, Bill Zaladonis and Mr. Runyon, say they cannot recall a third crew member. "Me and Bill aren't the smartest, but we can count to three," Mr. Runyon said in an interview. And even Dr. Letson said he had not recalled Mr. Schachte until he had a conversation with another veteran earlier this year and received a subsequent phone call from Mr. Schachte himself.
Mr. Schachte did not return a telephone call, and a spokesman for the group said he would not comment.
The Silver Star was awarded after Mr. Kerry's boat came under heavy fire from shore during a mission in February 1969. According to Navy records, he turned the boat to charge the Vietcong position. An enemy solider sprang from the shore about 10 feet in front of the boat. Mr. Kerry leaped onto the shore, chased the soldier behind a small hut and killed him, seizing a B-40 rocket launcher with a round in the chamber.
Swift Boat Veterans for Truth describes the man Mr. Kerry killed as a solitary wounded teenager "in a loincloth," who may or may not have been armed. They say the charge to the beach was planned the night before and, citing a report from one crew member on a different boat, maintain that the sailors even schemed about who would win which medals.
The group says Mr. Kerry himself wrote the reports that led to the medal. But Mr. Elliott and Mr. Lonsdale, who handled reports going up the line for recognition, have previously said that a medal would be awarded only if there was corroboration from others and that they had thoroughly corroborated the accounts.
"Witness reports were reviewed; battle reports were reviewed," Mr. Lonsdale said at the 1996 news conference, adding, "It was a very complete and carefully orchestrated procedure." In his statements Mr. Elliott described the action that day as "intense" and "unusual."
According to a citation for Mr. Kerry's Bronze Star, a group of Swift boats was leaving the Bay Hap river when several mines detonated, disabling one boat and knocking a soldier named Jim Rassmann overboard. In a hail of enemy fire, Mr. Kerry turned the boat around to pull Mr. Rassmann from the water.
Mr. Rassmann, who says he is a Republican, reappeared during the Iowa caucuses this year to tell his story and support Mr. Kerry, and is widely credited with helping to revive Mr. Kerry's campaign.
But the group says that there was no enemy fire, and that while Mr. Kerry did rescue Mr. Rassmann, the action was what anyone would have expected of a sailor, and hardly heroic. Asked why Mr. Rassmann recalled that he was dodging enemy bullets, a member of the group, Jack Chenoweth, said, "He's lying."
"If that's what we have to say," Mr. Chenoweth added, "that's how it was."
Several veterans insist that Mr. Kerry wrote his own reports, pointing to the initials K. J. W. on one of the reports and saying they are Mr. Kerry's. "What's the W for, I cannot answer," said Larry Thurlow, who said his boat was 50 to 60 yards from Mr. Kerry's. Mr. Kerry's middle initial is F, and a Navy official said the initials refer to the person who had received the report at headquarters, not the author.
A damage report to Mr. Thurlow's boat shows that it received three bullet holes, suggesting enemy fire, and later intelligence reports indicate that one Vietcong was killed in action and five others wounded, reaffirming the presence of an enemy. Mr. Thurlow said the boat was hit the day before. He also received a Bronze Star for the day, a fact left out of "Unfit for Command."
Asked about the award, Mr. Thurlow said that he did not recall what the citation said but that he believed it had commended him for saving the lives of sailors on a boat hit by a mine. If it did mention enemy fire, he said, that was based on Mr. Kerry's false reports. The actual citation, Mr. Thurlow said, was with an ex-wife with whom he no longer has contact, and he declined to authorize the Navy to release a copy. But a copy obtained by The New York Times indicates "enemy small arms," "automatic weapons fire" and "enemy bullets flying about him." The citation was first reported by The Washington Post on Thursday.
Standing Their Ground
As serious questions about its claims have arisen, the group has remained steadfast and adaptable.
This week, as its leaders spoke with reporters, they have focused primarily on the one allegation in the book that Mr. Kerry's campaign has not been able to put to rest: that he was not in Cambodia at Christmas in 1968, as he declared in a statement to the Senate in 1986. Even Mr. Brinkley, who has emerged as a defender of Mr. Kerry, said in an interview that it was unlikely that Mr. Kerry's Swift boat ventured into Cambodia at Christmas, though he said he believed that Mr. Kerry was probably there shortly afterward.
The group said it would introduce a new advertisement against Mr. Kerry on Friday. What drives the veterans, they acknowledge, is less what Mr. Kerry did during his time in Vietnam than what he said after. Their affidavits and their television commercial focus mostly on those antiwar statements. Most members of the group object to his using the word "atrocities" to describe what happened in Vietnam when he returned and became an antiwar activist. And they are offended, they say, by the gall of his running for president as a hero of that war.
"I went to university and was called a baby killer and a murderer because of guys like Kerry and what he was saying," said Van Odell, who appears in the first advertisement, accusing Mr. Kerry of lying to get his Bronze Star. "Not once did I participate in the atrocities he said were happening."
As Mr. Lonsdale explained it: "We won the battle. Kerry went home and lost the war for us.
"He called us rapers and killers and that's not true," he continued. "If he expects our loyalty, we should expect loyalty from him."
Thursday, August 19, 2004
Today is my anniversary
What's more important to understand is the big picture. When President Bush announced the faith based initiatives in 2001-2002, it was with the public understanding that money would be disbursed to organizations of all faiths. THIS HAS NOT HAPPENED.
Nearly all the money has gone to Christian Evangelical groups which support President Bush's radical social agenda. He as turned the federal government into an advertising arm.
What's more damning, in my opinion, is how it was done - all this was accomplished via executive order - this means that the President can act with relatively little scrutiny. President Bush has used similar techniques to overhaul and gut the nation's environmental regulations with little attention (see the article on Appalachia reprinted below).
The worst part of this is that the methods these evangelical groups espouse do not work. Case in point HIV/AIDS: Evangelical Christian groups espouse an abstinence only approach. As part of this, they talk about how condoms do not work. While it is true that there is a statistical chance that a condom will fail, they are more than 95% effective. Numerous studies have shown that 88% of teens who take an abstinence pledge break it, and more than that, most engage in unsafe sex.
President Bush, through is surrogates in the Evangelical Christian right, are putting dogma and ideology ahead of public safety.
Today is a great day
1) John Kerry leads President Bush in Ohio by 10 points (with, the stoodge, Nader in the race). No Republican has ever won the office without carrying Ohio. In 2000, Bush carried the state by ~5%
2) Move On PAC (These guys ROCK!) has gotten their ad on CNN - this makes me really happy. For those of you that missed it, the ad points out that John Kerry went to combat, was decorated, etc, while George W was missing from his National Guard duty, which he got as a result of daddy's (or 41, as they like to call him) connections.
A great day!
Wednesday, August 18, 2004
Why is it?
Earlier today, I decided that I would fill out my profile more completely. All of a sudden, I begin to understand how the community gets built, though it would be nice if Google ("We'll IPO *REAL SOON NOW*) applied its talents to showing the user related blogs in line. It's also cool to see that there are at least some other Deleuze & Guattari readers out there.
Anyway, to the point, I'm amazed that when I clicked on a random element of my own profile, of the 31 matches that came up, only 1 was a woman. Granted, there were several unspecified, but it's stunning to me that at least according to this random sampling was SO lopsided.
Sigh. Outside of a Washington capitol hill intern, are all the bloggers men?!
Tuesday, August 17, 2004
Appalachia Is Paying Price for White House Rule Change
By Joby Warrick, Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 17, 2004; Page A01
Last of three articles
BECKLEY, W.Va. -- The coal industry chafes at the name -- "mountaintop removal" -- but it aptly describes the novel mining method that became popular in this part of Appalachia in the late 1980s. Miners target a green peak, scrape it bare of trees and topsoil, and then blast away layer after layer of rock until the mountaintop is gone.
In just over a decade, coal miners used the technique to flatten hundreds of peaks across a region spanning West Virginia, eastern Kentucky and Tennessee. Thousands of tons of rocky debris were dumped into valleys, permanently burying more than 700 miles of mountain streams. By 1999, concerns over the damage to waterways triggered a backlash of lawsuits and court rulings that slowed the industry's growth to a trickle.
Today, mountaintop removal is booming again, and the practice of dumping mining debris into streambeds is explicitly protected, thanks to a small wording change to federal environmental regulations. U.S. officials simply reclassified the debris from objectionable "waste" to legally acceptable "fill."
The "fill rule," as the May 2002 rule change is now known, is a case study of how the Bush administration has attempted to reshape environmental policy in the face of fierce opposition from environmentalists, citizens groups and political opponents. Rather than proposing broad changes or drafting new legislation, administration officials often have taken existing regulations and made subtle tweaks that carry large consequences.
Sometimes the change hinges on a single critical phrase or definition. For example, when the Environmental Protection Agency announced proposals last year to control mercury emissions, it also moved to downgrade the "hazardous" classification of mercury pollution from power plants -- a seemingly minor change that effectively gave utilities 15 more years to implement the most costly controls. Earlier this year, the Energy Department helped insert wording into a Senate bill to reclassify millions of gallons of "high-level" radioactive waste as "incidental," a change that would spare the government the expense of removing and treating the waste.
The fill rule is one of several key changes to coal-mining regulations that have been enacted or proposed by the Bush administration, which took office promising to ease bureaucratic burdens for the coal industry and expand the nation's energy production. To administration officials and mining companies, the changes are simply clarifications that eliminated ambiguities in the law. To environmental groups, they are the administration's payback to an industry that has raised $9 million for Republicans since 1998. The coal industry is a political force in West Virginia, a vital swing state whose five electoral votes for George W. Bush helped put him over the top in 2000.
One proposed change -- described by administration officials as a "clarification" of the Clean Water Act -- would effectively void a two-decade-old ban on mining within 100 feet of a stream. Another proposal would scale back the federal government's legal obligation to police state mining agencies, by reclassifying certain duties from "nondiscretionary" to "discretionary."
In October 2001, the Bush administration intervened to change the focus of a federal mining study that was poised to recommend limits on the size of new mountaintop mines. And, in an internal policy change this spring, the administration promulgated guidelines that allow ditches dug by coal companies to serve as substitutes for streams that were being buried by debris.
"They call them 'clarifications,' but it's really all about removing obstacles," said Jack Spadaro, who regulated coal mines for 32 years as a federal mine inspector and senior mining safety officer. "They've made it easier for companies to dump mining waste into streams, and harder for citizens to challenge them."
Bush administration officials defend the new policies, saying they are in keeping with a national energy strategy that seeks greater independence from foreign sources without sacrificing environmental safeguards.
"It's hard to strike that balance, but we believe, right down to the core of this agency, that we can do both," said Jeffrey D. Jarrett, director of the federal Office of Surface Mining. Noting that it was Congress that approved the practice of mountaintop mining 30 years ago, Jarrett said the administration's actions have introduced a measure of "stability and certainty" for the mines and their neighbors.
Mining industry officials say the changes benefited ordinary Americans by ensuring a steady supply of cheap, domestic coal at a time of instability in global oil and natural gas markets. "President Bush recognized the value of coal to our economy, and the role it plays in providing electricity," said Jack N. Gerard, president of the National Mining Association. "The administration has been diligent in its efforts to avoid disruptions in our energy supply."
Government studies show that mountaintop mining inflicts a heavy toll. Streams that have not been buried under mining debris carry high levels of silt and toxic chemicals, experts say. About 5 percent of forest cover in southern West Virginia has been stripped away by mines, along with popular mountain vistas that can never be replaced.
With a rebounding industry now seeking permits for more and larger mines, the environmental impact is likely to grow, the reports show. One federal study projects that if current trends hold, over the next decade affected land will encompass 2,200 square miles, an area larger than Rhode Island.
"A huge percentage of the watershed is being filled in and mined out, and we have no idea what the downstream impacts will be," said one senior government scientist who has studied mountaintop mining extensively but insisted on anonymity for fear of repercussions at work. "All we know is that nothing on this scale has ever happened before."
Big Costs -- and Big Payoff
Dismantling something as large as a mountain requires advanced technology, big machines and massive amounts of explosives. Opponents in West Virginia describe the result as "strip mines on steroids."
Rather than tunneling into a mountain's face to reach the coal, mountaintop miners remove as much as 600 vertical feet of summit to get at the coal seams inside. Many of the mines encompass multiple peaks and thousands of acres in between, including large swaths of temperate hardwoods and myriad streams.
After the trees are cleared away, miners detonate scores of explosive charges to shear slabs of rock from the underlying coal. Gargantuan machines called draglines clear away the rock with bucket scoops that can hold 100,000 pounds, or as much weight as 40 Toyota Corollas.
While the capital costs are enormous, so is the payoff to the industry. Traditional mines extract about 70 percent of the coal from an underground seam; the recovery rate for mountaintop mines approaches 100 percent. The new mines also require far fewer workers -- sometimes only a few dozen per mine. Still, those jobs are high-paying and highly coveted, and the mines themselves continue to generate billions of dollars for local economies. For those reasons, many state politicians and even labor unions embrace the technique.
A growing number in central Appalachia despise it. A poll commissioned by a West Virginia environmental group this year found that opponents of the practice outnumber supporters by 2 to 1. "Opposition is broad and deep, traversing all demographic groups and every region of the state," said Daniel Gotoff of Lake Snell Perry & Associates, a Democratic polling firm based in the District.
As more mountaintops disappear and sometimes entire villages along with them, resistance has spread. Coal companies have offered to buy and demolish houses near the mines, effectively depopulating settlements. Residents who remain recite a familiar litany of complaints: dust, truck traffic, constant blasting that rattles nerves and sometimes damages houses. Even more jarring for many is the sight of the destruction of the ancient hills, familiar landmarks and touchstones for generations of families.
"I've been coming up through these mountains since I was 5 years old. Now the place looks like an asteroid hit," Bo Webb, a retired businessman and Vietnam veteran, said of the 1,800-acre mountaintop mine above his house in central West Virginia's Raleigh County. "A lot of us up here have fought for our country. To see what is happening now to our homes makes me so mad."
The state's top elected officials, including Democratic Gov. Robert E. Wise Jr. and his Republican predecessor Cecil H. Underwood, have supported mountaintop mining as critical to the coal industry's existence in West Virginia. Appalachian coal competes not only against other energy sources -- such as cleaner-burning natural gas -- but also against coal imports and other coal-producing regions of the country.
"Intense competition leads to bigger mines," said Mark Muchow, West Virginia's chief administrator for revenue operations. "You need bigger mining operations just to stay competitive."
Coal industry officials also contend the miners are careful stewards of the land, strictly adhering to laws requiring them to rehabilitate sheared-off mountains by planting grass and trees. Some claim a positive aspect to the toppling of West Virginia's famous green peaks: In a region where flat land is at a premium, the industry has created what officials describe as "unique" spaces for commercial development or wildlife habitat. "People have used these sites to build high schools and golf courses -- they see it as an opportunity to stimulate the economy and create jobs," said Gerard, the National Mining Association president. "Some of the sites are so beautifully reclaimed, many people can't tell the difference."
But the environmental damage is hard to miss. In mining areas, the waste rock piles up in huge "valley fills" that are sometimes more than a mile long and hundreds of feet deep. They have buried more than 700 miles of headwater streams across central Appalachia, government studies show.
Other impacts are felt downstream. Federal water-quality studies have found substantially higher levels of selenium, a mineral that is toxic to fish in high doses -- in rivers near the mines. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that as many as 244 species, including several that are endangered, were being affected by the loss of forest and aquatic habitats. "The individual and cumulative impacts to both aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems are unprecedented," the agency's West Virginia field office concluded in a September 2001 report.
Only in the late 1990s did the problems begin to command the sustained attention of federal environmental officials. W. Michael McCabe, a deputy administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency in the late 1990s, recalled feeling astonished during a 1998 plane flight in which he passed over several of the largest mines in the middle of the lush West Virginia highlands. The denuded, flattened hills were a jarring sight, "like landing decks for alien spacecraft," he said.
McCabe said his agency had not anticipated the exponential growth of mountaintop mines. A key factor, he said, was a decision by mining companies in the 1980s to apply the techniques and supersize machines of western strip mines to Appalachia, where coal mines historically had been smaller and less efficient.
"The acreage affected by these mines went through the roof -- from the hundreds to the thousands of acres," said McCabe, now a private consultant. "It was the difference between a hand saw and a chain saw."
Ironically, the fill rule that reopened the door to mountaintop mining grew out of an attempt by the Clinton administration to strengthen government oversight of these dramatically larger new mines. But what happened to the proposal shows how different administrations can bend the policies of their predecessors to meet their own priorities.
By mid-1998, McCabe and other senior EPA officials wanted a broad review of federal policies for mountaintop mines. They were motivated not only by accumulating evidence from the field but also by growing external pressure from local environmentalists and citizens groups, current and former agency officials said in interviews.
A lawsuit filed in 1998 accused federal agencies of violating the Clean Water Act by granting permits for mountaintop mines. The suit, filed by the environmental group West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, cited a little-noticed clause in the regulations of the Army Corps of Engineers, the agency that grants approval for most construction projects involving alterations to streams, rivers or wetlands. While the Army allowed builders to put clean "fill" materials in waterways for purposes such as building bridges or artificial reefs, the rules explicitly forbade the dumping of waste.
As the Army defined it, mining debris was "clearly waste," said Joe Lovett, director of the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment, a nonprofit law firm that represented activists in the suit. Yet, for more than a decade, Army officials had issued the permits anyway.
"The Army was allowing coal companies to use waterways as giant trash heaps, without any environmental analysis," Lovett said. "They did not have the authority to do that."
In 1999, a federal judge agreed with Lovett's interpretation in a decision that called into question the legality of virtually every mountaintop mine in Appalachia. Faced with a potentially disastrous shutdown of the region's most powerful industry, the Clinton administration agreed to an out-of-court settlement: The activists would drop the lawsuit in exchange for a federal promise of closer scrutiny of mining permits and a thorough scientific review, called an environmental impact statement.
The administration would allow mining debris to be deposited in streams, but only as part of a comprehensive approach that would address long-term environmental concerns. "We would not go forward with the fill rule except as part of this comprehensive approach," McCabe said.
But the comprehensive approach went nowhere. Negotiations between the EPA and industry officials on proposals for limiting the size of valley fills stalled and then stopped altogether as the presidential election of 2000 approached. The court ruling that questioned the legality of valley fills was overturned on appeal. Meanwhile, West Virginia coal executives had begun to stake their hopes on an administration change in Washington. The state's coal firms raised $275,000 for Bush. Many West Virginia coal miners, fearing that Democratic contender Al Gore's environmental policies would eliminate coal field jobs, joined prominent business leaders in campaigning for the Texas governor.
After the election, administration officials publicly promised to remove the legal bureaucratic roadblocks to the mining permits. Newly appointed Deputy Interior Secretary J. Steven Griles, a former coal industry lobbyist, made a specific pledge to the West Virginia Coal Association in a speech in August 2001:
"We will fix the federal rules very soon on water and spoil placement," Griles said.
Under the new Bush administration, the "fixes" were rolled out in quick succession. The first was the fill rule, which had been proposed by the Clinton administration but essentially abandoned in the face of harsh criticism from local opponents and environmentalists, who flooded the EPA with 17,000 letters and public comments.
On April 6, 2001, four months after Bush's inauguration, representatives of the National Mining Association met with EPA officials for 90 minutes to argue for reviving the rule -- but with significant changes. For starters, the mining representatives said, the Clinton-era rule set too many limits on the kinds of materials that could be classified as "fill," according to an EPA memo summarizing the meeting.
Industry officials "expressed opposition to adding a definition of 'unsuitable fill material,' " the memo states.
The attempt to revive the rule drew protests not only from environmentalists but also from many Republicans in Congress. Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) joined Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) in sponsoring a bill that would have outlawed dumping mine waste in streams. And, as the Bush administration had not scheduled additional public hearings on the revised rule, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) convened a Senate hearing to decry what he described as a "shameful" attempt to weaken the Clean Water Act. Among those speaking out against the rule at the hearing was Kevin Richardson, a Kentucky native and member of the pop group the Backstreet Boys.
Yet, the final version of the Bush administration's fill rule published in May 2002 contained nearly all the changes the mining industry requested. The definition of "fill" was expanded to include "rock, sand, clay, plastics, construction debris, wood chips [and] overburden from mining." Only garbage was expressly excluded.
As the fill rule moved through the bureaucracy, the administration was taking steps to contain another potential threat to mountaintop mining: the environmental impact study begun under President Bill Clinton to assess the need for limits on the size of future mines.
As part of the study, federal scientists and engineers had spent more than two years documenting damage to Appalachian streams and wildlife. Some panel members had prepared draft recommendations that called for restricting valley fills larger than 250 acres. But Griles, the Interior Department undersecretary, informed panel members in an Oct. 5, 2001, memo that their study lacked the proper focus and needed restructuring. He ordered recommendations for "centralizing and streamlining coal-mine permitting," according to the memo, which the environmental law firm Earthjustice obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
"We do not believe the [study] as currently drafted focuses sufficiently on those goals," Griles wrote.
Scientists who were at work on the report found the change in direction inexplicable, internal memos and e-mails show. "Our proposed approach was subsequently voted down within the executive committee," one Fish and Wildlife Service employee explained to colleagues in a memo, "in part because a decision appears to have been made that even minor modifications to current regulatory practices are now considered to be outside the scope" of the study.
The Bush administration defended its handling of the environmental study. In a written statement, the Interior Department said Griles had not sought to influence the panel. The statement notes that Griles had urged scientists to recommend ways to allow mining to continue "in an environmentally sound manner."
By the time the Bush administration released the study, all proposals for limiting valley fills had indeed been omitted. And, as Griles had urged, the document's main recommendations called for cutting bureaucratic red tape and speeding up the permitting process.
One government scientist complained in an e-mail to colleagues: "All we have proposed is alternative locations to house the rubber stamp that issues the permits."
In January 2004, the administration took another major step to help the coal industry dodge legal obstacles. At the time, mining permits were being challenged in court on grounds that they violated a 20-year-old regulation that banned mining within 100 feet of a stream. Like the fill rule, the "buffer zone" rule, adopted during the Reagan administration, was widely ignored in practice. Owing to the sheer size of the projects, mountaintop mining in Appalachia always entailed destroying streams.
Under the Bush administration's proposal, miners would be exempt from the buffer rule, provided they could show that they took measures "to the extent possible" to protect water quality and avoid harm to fish and wildlife. Administration officials contend that the buffer-zone rule does not weaken environmental protections but merely recognizes a reality that has existed in the coal fields for decades.
The changes have not entirely eliminated legal threats to mining. Last month, a federal judge revoked permits for 11 West Virginia mines, ruling that federal officials used improper procedures in granting fast-track approval for new mines. Industry officials are preparing an appeal while lawyers study the implications of the ruling.
But overall, the cumulative impact of the regulatory changes has been to close legal avenues industry opponents use to challenge the practice that industry officials prefer to call "steep-slope mining," coal supporters and critics agree.
"These changes were unequivocally helpful," Chris Hamilton, vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said in an interview. "By revising certain ambiguous regulations and contorted legal interpretations of the Clean Water Act, the administration has improved regulatory stability and predictability."
Campaigning for Coal
Buoyed by higher coal prices and an improving regulatory climate, West Virginia's coal companies recently took to the road to make their case for increased public support for mountaintop removal. Last month, at a workshop in Shepherdstown, W.Va., co-sponsored by state academic and elected leaders, industry executives argued that increased coal production could even help win the war against terrorism.
The workshop's theme: "The role of coal in economic and homeland security."
Coal boosters at the seminar touted the industry's present and future role as energy supplier to the nation, noting that the United States' vast domestic coal reserve generates half of the nation's electricity supply, and could continue to do so for centuries, at current consumption rates. Officials also played up the economic importance of an industry that pays $1 billion in direct wages in West Virginia and accounts for nearly 13 percent of the gross state product.
"Coal keeps the lights on," said Roger Lilly, marketing manager for Walker Machinery Co., a supplier of heavy equipment for mountaintop mines. "Coal today also is a cleaner, greener fuel, and it's our bridge to the future. We've got to show people what a great job we're doing."
Critics of the industry, however, feel anything but secure.
"It makes me furious," said Janice Nease, 68, a retired teacher who became an anti-mining activist after her village, a settlement of about 30 homes, was bought and destroyed to make room for a mine. "We keep on plugging away, but it's harder."
For years, Maria Gunnoe, 36, a waitress and single mother, watched nervously as coal companies hacked their way north along a ridge of mountains near the town of Bob White, W.Va. Then, three years ago, the first mining crews arrived on what she calls "my mountain," a rocky ridge called Island Creek Mountain directly above her house, her family's home for three generations.
"I sit here in the evening and listen to the equipment ripping and tearing at the mountain," Gunnoe, a coal miner's daughter, said as she sat on her porch on a late spring afternoon. "It's the same as if they were ripping and tearing at the siding of my house."
She has seen flooding wash away a third of her front yard and destroy the only bridge that connects her property to a public highway. Her car has been vandalized and her children have been bullied because of her outspoken opposition to the mine, she said. Her nerves are raw from the near-constant blasting, which continues even on holidays. "It sends the kids screaming, running through the house. The dogs hit the dirt," she said.
Far worse, she said, is the emotional toll. A peak that served as the natural backdrop for her entire life, the lives of her parents, her grandparents and her two young children is vanishing before her eyes. The family has received offers from coal companies to sell the small wood-frame cottage her father built. Gunnoe says she will never sell, but she wonders how long her family can hold on.
"The true cost of coal is here," she said quietly, staring off into the crisp mountain air, at her mountain. "We pay for it with our lives and our future. And also our past."
Bloomberg writes: "Income and capital-gains tax cuts, the fastest economic growth in five years, the creation of more than 1 million jobs, an ebullient outlook from the chairman of the Federal Reserve and victory in Iraq were exactly what most chief executives at America's largest companies and their investors wanted from the president, Congress and the central bank. And they got it all."
So the stock market should be booming, right?
Instead, the reality of record-high oil prices, more than 790 American military deaths in Iraq since Bush addressed soldiers under a banner declaring 'Mission Accomplished,' and the administration's warnings of threatened terrorism in America's backyard have helped depress trading and send the S&P 500, the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the Nasdaq Composite Index to their lows for the year last week."
Monday, August 16, 2004
Lest anyone forget who we're dealing with in this Administration:
The lack of honesty coming out of our leaders is stunning. We are being lied to by our leaders. It's time to take back our American Democracy.
Friday, August 13, 2004
From Today's Whitehouse Briefing at the Washington Post:
Taxes II: The Rich Get the Breaks
Here's an excerpt from the text of Bush's speech in Las Vegas yesterday:
"Just be careful -- all I ask you is be careful about all this talk about taxing the rich. You know how that goes. The so-called rich hire accountants and lawyers to maybe not pay as much, and therefore, in order to meets all these promises guess who gets to end up stuck with the bill?
"AUDIENCE MEMBER: We do.
"THE PRESIDENT: The working people."
Well, it turns out that Bush is certainly right about who gets stuck with the bill -- but the credit doesn't go to the accountants and lawyers. It goes to his tax cuts.
Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post: "Since 2001, President Bush's tax cuts have shifted federal tax payments from the richest Americans to a wide swath of middle-class families, the Congressional Budget Office has found, a conclusion likely to roil the presidential election campaign."
Here's the full CBO report (1.6M PDF).
Edmund L. Andrews writes in the New York Times: "Fully one-third of President Bush's tax cuts in the last three years have gone to people with the top 1 percent of income, who have earned an average of $1.2 million annually, according to a report by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office to be published Friday.
"The report calculated that households with incomes in that top 1 percent were receiving an average tax cut of $78,460 this year, while households in the middle 20 percent of earnings - averaging about $57,000 a year - were getting an average cut of only $1,090."
I point this out specifically to highlight the lies of the Bush administration on tax policy. Bush promised to that the vast majority of his tax relief would go to working class americans. Virtually none of it has.
When John Kerry tried to attach an amendment to the $87 billion dollar authorization for Iraq several months ago that would have repealed the tax cuts for the top 1%, Bush threatened to veto the bill. That amendment would have raised $84-$87 billion dollars.
So, here's the real question: as Americans, is it more important to fund schools, national defense, Social Security, Welfare, Medicare, Medicaid, Headstart, etc. or is it more important to allow the ultra-wealthy to afford yet another Ferrari?
Thursday, August 12, 2004
"So I don't know where he is. You know, I just don't spend that much time on him, Kelly, to be honest with you. . . . I truly am not that concerned about him."
What about the 3000 lives that were taken on 9/11/2001? You're not concerned?! This man, and all of those that stand with him need to be gone immediately.
Wednesday, August 11, 2004
Why is President Bush playing politics with the CIA?
This is what I want to know: We've had two bi-partisan reports that have just come out (9/11 and Iraq Intelligence) that have faulted, among other things, the politicization of the intelligence community.
Can someone explain to me why nominating a partisan Republican Congressman is somehow helping the situation?
President Bush is trying to put the Democrats in a loose-loose situation: If the democrats oppose Gross, they're trying to undermine public safety by paralyzing the CIA. If they confirm Gross, they've allowed a partisan to come to power.
Let's dig into the Gross nomination a little more: Gross became the chairman of the House oversight committee in 1997. That means that he is directly responsible for the failure of oversight of the CIA (also cited as a key problem in both reports). He has done nothing to spearhead reform - he has done nothing to challenge the CIA's work, or lack there of over the last 7 years. This alone should disqualify him from the post.
I really want the Democrats to stand up and point out the bullshit that this is: It is the Bush administration that is playing partisan games with America's safety. Why? To ensure that they remain in power. It's a zero-sum game for these people - no cost is too high for the current administration to remain in power.
Stand up and say the truth: This is nothing more than a partisan game to keep the current incompetent administration in power.