Saturday, October 28, 2006


Most political observers feel that next month's mid-term elections will be a referendum on Iraq, and even on the president's handling of that war. Considering the latest polling data, Republicans, who've been arguing "stay the course" for well over a year, should be worried.

According to the latest Newsweek poll, conducted just last week, a majority of Americans (54%) think that military action in Iraq was wrong and 65% think the U.S. is losing ground in Iraq. In a CNN poll, conducted two weeks ago, 64% of respondents said they oppose the war.

Perhaps with that in mind, this week the White House announced it will no longer use the term "stay the course" in discussions about Iraq. Press Secretary Tony Snow said the White House wants to emphasize its flexibility on achieving its goals and no longer wants to talk about sticking to one approach.

Timing is everything in politics and with elections looming, its difficult to say if the president's timing couldn't be better, or worse. Does this change in semantics make the president seem as if he finally "gets it", or does it simply make him seem out of touch and out of step with the rest of the country?

While many Democrats running for office this fall have been calling for a phased redeployment of U.S. troops from Iraq, Republicans have consistently derided the idea as "cutting and running."

Meanwhile, polling data aside, the recent White House move was likely prompted by the fact that a commission backed by President Bush has agreed that 'stay the course' is not working and that a phased withdrawal is now on the table.

While it weighs alternatives, the 10-member commission headed by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III has agreed on one principle.

"It's not going to be 'stay the course,' " said one participant. "The bottom line is, [current U.S. policy] isn't working…. There's got to be another way."

In a recent television interview, Baker, a longtime Republican and Secretary of State in the first Bush Administration, said, "There'll probably be some things in our report that the administration might not like."

Two options under consideration would represent reversals of U.S. policy: withdrawing American troops in phases, and, incredibly, bringing neighboring Iran and Syria into a joint effort to stop the fighting.

Iran, if you remember, was famously on President Bush's "axis of evil" list, along with Iraq and North Korea. Now the U.S. may use one "evil" nation to help subdue another.

While the president talks of "winning" in Iraq, many wonder just what exactly that means. To spell it out, communications strategists working with House Republicans circulated a three-page memo last week that describes winning as, "helping the Iraqis achieve stability and security and doing it as quickly and effectively as possible in order to bring our troops home.''

Of course that says nothing about democracy, which many thought the U.S. had been fighting for all along. But then again, the reasons for the war have changed numerous times. Now it's about stability and security. Sometimes you take what you can get, if you can get anything at all.

According to Baker, instead of trying to bring democracy to all nations in the Middle East, the U.S. should define success as achieving "representative government, not necessarily democracy."

So much for good intentions. Perhaps we'll have to leave it to the history books to decide why over 2,800 U.S. military personnel have died in Iraq.

Copyright © 2006 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author's consent.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006


No matter how much things have changed through the ages, much remains quite the same.

We still live in a time when Christian conservatives would like to legislate their religious beliefs on the rest of us, though we might not necessarily share their views. These people claim to know God's will — it's in the Bible, they say.

Of course, Muslims think that God's will is found in their holy Koran. Yet, Buddhists and Hindus have their own religious texts and views.

But some of us believe that God is infinitely unknowable to our limited, and comparatively meager, human minds. God is vast; we are small and meek. Who are we to speak for God, and determine His or Her divine will?

None of this deters those who claim to have divine wisdom, or a window into God's heart and mind. They seem to know God's position on matters such as Terri Shiavo, and other unfortunate souls like her. They also know what God thinks about contraception and gay marriage.

But to claim knowledge of God's will certainly isn't a humble position. It is bold and brash, perhaps even insolent.

In fact, some Christian conservatives are so assertive in their views, and so convinced of their own righteousness, that they'd like to force the rest of us to adopt their views — to think like they do. And if we can't — or won't — they'd still like to impose their will on all of us in the form of laws. After all, in their view, those are God's laws. So their religion, by this logic, should dictate the laws for everyone.

Well, not in my view. I prefer a more Libertarian perspective. You live your life, and I'll live mine -- as long as we don't hurt each other.

Here's a fine definition of Libertarianism:

"Libertarianism is a political philosophy advocating that individuals should be free to do whatever they wish with their person or property, as long as they do not infringe on the same liberty of others. Libertarians hold as a fundamental maxim that all human interaction should be voluntary and consensual. They maintain that the initiation (or threat) of physical force against another person or his property, or the commission of fraud, is a violation of that principle."

Laws don't exist naturally. They have to be written and enacted by people. They are not written to allow things, but to disallow them. In the natural state, all things are allowed. People then develop a consensus of what is not allowed and subsequently make laws proclaiming certain behaviors illegal.

For example, people of the same sex marrying wasn't illegal until people decided to make it illegal. That required action.

Those who oppose gay marriage, for instance, might say that its legalization would force them to accept it. But allowing people to exercise their free will is not the same as imposing your will upon them. That's the difference between a Libertarian view, and the views of others who are comfortable telling the rest of us what to do.

I'm not gay, or even a strong supporter of gay marriage, but Libertarians oppose any laws restricting personal or consensual behavior.

I wouldn't force two people, of any persuasion, to get married. And I wouldn't keep two people, of any persuasion, from getting married -- assuming they're both legal adults (it's worth noting that age of consent laws are set by each state and vary from 14-18 years).

But there are people who want to prevent others from getting married. There is a huge difference between those two positions.

Freedom shouldn't be measured in how little we're constrained by authority, or how much we're allowed to do, but rather by how much we're able to do.

Throughout the ages, philosophers and have contended that the paramount natural rights are the rights to life and liberty, which have long been considered the two highest priorities.

The following definition of Natural Law is useful:

"Natural rights are universal rights that are seen as inherent in the nature of the world, and not contingent on human actions or beliefs. The theory of natural rights was developed from the theory of natural law during the Enlightenment in opposition to the divine right of kings, and provided a moral justification for liberalism.

The concept of a natural right can be contrasted with the concept of a legal right : A natural right is one that is claimed to exist even when it is not enforced by the government or society as a whole, while a legal right is a right specifically created by the government or society, for the benefit of its members."

As a society, we must join together in deciding which laws should be adopted. But we must remain free from constraints that have evolved, or resulted, from religious beliefs, sacred myths, patriarchal teachings, or any dogmatic concepts that remain open to interpretation.

If a law is proposed that doesn't suit you, make a rational argument about why it is impractical, or harms somebody, or is in opposition to another useful law; but don't tell me it offends God.

Copyright © 2006 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author's consent.

Saturday, September 02, 2006


The latest Pentagon report on the Iraq war, issued Friday, says that the Sunni Arab insurgency has now been overshadowed by the battle between Shiite and Sunni militias.

That struggle, referred to as the “core conflict”, has the Pentagon quite concerned.

“Conditions that could lead to civil war exist in Iraq, specifically in and around Baghdad, and concern about civil war within the Iraqi civilian population has increased in recent months,” the report stated.

Attacks have increased by 15 percent in the past three months and casualties among Iraqis surged 51 percent. According to the report, the increasing sectarian violence is being fed in part by interference from neighboring Iran and Syria.

Of particular concern is that the militias have become entrenched in various neighborhoods, especially in Baghdad, where they are seen as providers of security as well as basic social services.

The report said the U.S. is currently facing its greatest challenge since the war began in March 2003. “The security situation is currently at its most complex state since the initiation of Operation Iraq Freedom,” it read.

Though notably gloomy in its acknowledgment of the potential for civil war, the report said the current violence does not amount to that just yet and asserted that the momentum toward such a war can be stopped.

But just last week, a statement purportedly from al-Qaida’s Iraqi umbrella group urged Sunnis, who form the majority among the world’s Muslims but a minority in Iraq, to launch a holy war against Shiites.

Many Iraqis fear a divided capital, separated by the Tigris River in the middle as the sectarian boundary, resulting in a Sunni west and a Shiite east. Trying govern under those conditions would be nearly impossible for the fledgling government.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006



In Iraq, the daily barbarism and savagery continue unabated.

And yet, the Bush Administration and Pentagon continue to protest that, despite evidence to the contrary, Iraq is not in the midst of a civil war.

Though the civilian death toll Iraq exceeded 3400 in July, with all signs pointing to at least the initial stages of a civil war -- if not the middle of one -- the powers that be deny it. President Bush, VP Cheney, Sec. Rumsfeld, Sec.Rice, and the top generals in the field, Peter Pace and John Abizaid, think that by denying the truth that they can reassure, and even fool, the American public.

But July was the most deadly month for civilians since the war began, and clearly the fighting is not waning in any way.

With a population of approximately 28 million, it requires quite a leap to suggest that 3400 hundred citizens killing each other in just one month isn't civil war. For comparisons sake, consider the following; the July death toll represented about .012% of Iraq's population. The U.S. has about 11 times Iraq's population. If we were to have suffered a relative civilian death toll in July (.012%), it would have resulted in 36,000 American deaths.

Does anybody really doubt that, if there were that many Americans killed at the hands of fellow Americans, we wouldn't be calling it a civil war?

Since the war started in March of 2003, roughly 2600 Americans have died in Iraq. That death toll is shocking to most of our civilian population, and many of them want out troops out now. Just imagine how shocked we'd all be if there were 36,000 deaths in just one month this summer, and if were the result of Americans killing each other.

Military officials fear that Iraq's civil war -- let's call it exactly what it is -- will spill over into a regional conflict. It could result in more than just country versus country, but could rather be a matter of Shiites versus Sunnis, regardless of borders.

According to U.S. intelligence sources, in recent months the Saudis and Jordanians, who are predominantly Sunni, have quietly moved to support the insurgency with money and intelligence, fearing that Shiite Iran will dominate the new Iraqi government if the U.S. decides to leave.

The Bush Administration has gotten the U.S. into a no-win situation. We are stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place, where none of the choices are very good, and all outcomes are uncertain.

What's most ironic is that the Sunni insurgency, which has long been fighting for a U.S. withdrawal, is now hoping the U.S. will stay put to protect them from the majority Shiites, whose death squads have been indiscriminately, yet methodically, killing Sunni civilians and government officials alike. Who could have imagined that turn of events?

And according to retired Marine Colonel Thomas X. Hammes, author of The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century, that's just what the Sunnis now fear. "They absolutely think we're leaving. This is what happened in Afghanistan when it became clear the Russians were leaving. The factions began fighting each other."

Afghanistan is instructive: civil war led to the Taliban government; the Taliban provided a safe haven for al-Qaeda; and we all know the rest of the story. A U.S. withdrawal from Iraq could lead to far worse consequences, given Iraq's strategic location and potential oil wealth.

But remaining in Iraq in the middle of a civil war is as mad as it is fruitless. Choosing sides would be picking the lesser of two evils. One way or another, the U.S. would be in bed with the devil -- and that's not a good bed partner.

It's time to consider a critical question; might it be in the best interests of the U.S. to let the war rage and allow the participants to exhaust themselves? The old axiom is "the enemy of my enemy my friend." With both groups hostile to the U.S., as long as they're fight one another instead of us, don't they both become our friends? A peculiar logic indeed, but perhaps useful nonetheless.

What if the U.S. military were to "help" the Syrian and Iranian governments by completely drawing back to, and sealing, those borders from the Iraqi side. That way the U.S. could keep out foreign fighters entering from those countries, as well as cutting off supply lines that feed the both the Sunni and Shiite insurgencies. Syria and Iran claim that either there is no problem at all, or that they're doing the best they can. Perhaps our military could do better while staying out of harms way.

Iran clearly sees itself as not only the most powerful nation in the region, but also as a burgeoning counter-balance to the U.S. on the world stage. The Bush Administration aren't the only ones concerned. The Egyptians, Saudis and Jordanians also fear Iranian hegemony in the region and would like to thwart the rise of Shiite dominance.

And over the past few months, the Iranian government has been setting the stage for a showdown with the U.S. over its nuclear program, betting that the Europeans will likely back down, leaving the U.S. to go it alone once again, as it did in Iraq. And they are also gambling that the U.S. is too burdened in Iraq to take them on militarily as well.

A military report earlier this year described the army as a "thin green line" that has already been stretched too far. It claims the U.S. lacks the resources in terms of money, manpower, or conventional weaponry to engage in another simultaneous conflict. Retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey backed the report's conclusions. Perhaps the Iranians read the report too.

That said, might not be in the best interests of the U.S. to pit the Sunnis and the Shiites against one another? It's a question worth asking.

Copyright © 2006 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author's consent.

Thursday, June 01, 2006


At present, the Republicans hold as massive fundraising advantage over the Democrats. In the seven biggest Senate races this cycle, Republicans have a combined advantage of more than $20 million. The Dems will use that as either a rallying cry, or an excuse, but one way or the other, the figure does sound surmountable.

If the Democrats can't bridge the gap, there'll be at least a couple more years of such Republican frivolity as trying to impose further limits on abortion, and passing constitutional amendments against gay marriage and flag burning; Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has said as much himself. Meanwhile the Republicans haven't been able to find the time to work on Universal Healthcare -- the lack of which is making U.S. businesses highly uncompetitive -- or stem cell research, which has the potential to save lives. Instead, they'll continue using inflammatory wedge issues to divide the nation, because that's what's worked in the past.

There is so much important work to be done on behalf of the citizens of this country, yet the Republican leadership has wasted their time and energy pandering to the extreme interests of evangelical Christians and Big Business.

Instead of working on issues such as the growing trade debt, renewable energy, the environment and global warming, education, and paying down the federal debt, the Republican leadership spent their precious time interfering in the private matters of the Shiavo family. What they thought was the moral high ground turned out to be just one more low point among many.

Social Security reform went nowhere, which is exactly where immigration reform and lobbying reform seem to be headed.

The Republicans control the Congress, and thus have budgetary control -- or at least what passes for it. One look at the recent history of Republican spending tells us plenty about the Republican priorities.

According to the Wall Street Journal, when the Republicans took control of the purse strings in Congress in 1995 the federal budget was $1.5 trillion. It is now $2.55 trillion per year - or $ 5 million per minute - and the latest Treasury data reveal that in fiscal 2005 federal outlays grew by another $ 179 billion, an eight percent increase and more than twice the rate of inflation.

In 1995 there were 1439 earmarked federal projects, otherwise known as pork barrel spending, costing $10.1 billion. By 2005 the number had grown to 13,998 earmarked projects, for a total cost of $27.3 billion in taxpayer money.

Republicans controlled both houses of Congress during that decade.

In 2001, unemployment was 4.2% and is now 4.9% -- a 17% increase.

In 2001 the federal budget had a $281 billion surplus, today there is a $400 billion deficit -- a $681 billion loss.

In 2001 the federal debt was $5.7 trillion, it is now $8.2 trillion -- up 44%.

Whatever happened to the party of smaller government and fiscal responsibility?

As an Independent, I don't really have a dog in this fight, ideologically. However, I have nothing in common with the Christian Right or Big Business, so that's where the Republicans and I part company. As someone with a strong Libertarian streak, I fail to see how gay people marrying affects my life one iota. Nor, for that matter, does someone burning the flag. I may not like it, or respect it, but a Constitutional Amendment against it? Please! I'm more concerned about the fact that my health insurance went up 50% in less than 2 1/2 years -- with no claims!

I'm also more concerned about the effect the price of oil will have on our economy. Millions of Americans are already feeling the pinch every time they fill up their gas tanks. Meanwhile, every single day, cars and municipal busses across the U.S. are being run on biodiesel -- which is essentially vegetable oil -- as well as ethanol, and yet we're still paying $3 plus for petroleum. What a racket! How can Brazil, long known as a Third World country, declare itself energy independent, while we're still reliant on foreign countries for 50% of the oil we consume? How can that be? Perhaps the powers that be (i.e. the oil and automotive industries) have shut out these competing and revolutionary technologies in their own interests. As we know, those two industries are good friends of the Republican leadership, and as such any attempts at raising the fuel efficiency standards of autos has gone nowhere.

President Bush and the Republicans spent too much time, and too much political capital, trying to "save Social Security" when in actuality its trust fund is expected to remain funded until at least 2041 -- 35 years down the road. Meanwhile the real fiscal crisis looms in the form of Medicare. The medical trust fund that benefits the elderly will run out of money in 2018 - just 12 years from now. Have you heard any public warnings about that? No, well the Republicans have been shamefully silent about it.

The point is that the Republicans have been the party in control and were expected to lead. But they haven't. Instead they've done virtually nothing except let Big Energy write the energy bill, and the pharmaceutical industry write the massively expensive new entitlement known as the Medicaid Prescription Drug Bill. What a legacy.

The midterm elections are just five months away, and scandals aside, the Republicans have plenty of reason to worry, not the least of which is that they've failed the American people miserably.

Copyright © 2006 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author's consent.

Sunday, May 21, 2006


U.S. lawmakers have renewed an old debate over whether to make English the nation's official language. On Friday, the Senate passed two measures, one declaring English the nation's official language and the other its "common and unifying" tongue.

Interestingly, the White House initially voiced support for both measures. White House officials later waffled, trying to draw a distinction between an "official" language and a "national" language, the latter of which the President is said to endorse. If you're confused, you're not alone.

The proposal declaring English as the national language requires immigrants seeking citizenship to demonstrate a “sufficient understanding of the English language for usage in everyday life.” Sounds reasonable, right? Apparently most people agree. In an MSNBC online poll, 67% of respondents favored recognizing English as the national language of the U.S.

The idea is to promote assimilation and unity.

Legislation declaring English as a "common and unifying" language would accomplish nothing, other than stating the obvious. It's simply a feel good measure. Everyone already knows that English is the common language of the U.S. And if it's also unifying, then why not make it official? How can anyone argue against unity?

Some 158 nations have included a specific measure in their constitutions proclaiming one or more national languages. The United States is one of the relatively few without such a measure.

Canadian lawmakers have struggled to placate a divided nation by promoting bilingualism. Everything from cereal boxes to highway signs are written in both French and English. Except, that is, in the predominantly French-speaking province of Quebec, where English has been eliminated as the officially sanctioned language.

Culture is not only a unique part of a nation's identity, but an invaluable one as well. Culture has a unifying quality that pulls people together, giving them binding commonalities and collective characteristics. In countries around the world where citizens lack a common culture, there is often tremendous strife, as evidenced in the Balkans, regions of the African continent, the former Soviet Union, and the Middle East, to name a few. In the places where people have been able to identify, and in some cases exploit, their obvious differences, deadly consequences have often ensued. National customs, values and mores are all important aspects of culture, as is language.

In just the last decade alone, our northerly neighbor, Canada, has managed to survive intact despite repeated attempts by residents of Quebec to secede. The reason? They believe, rightly so, that their culture is distinctly different than that of the rest of their countrymen. Quebec is the French-speaking province of Canada, with a uniquely French flavor and flair. The competing languages of Canada, English and French, have long caused national dissension and discord.

When President Bush visited Canada for talks with then Prime Minister Paul Martin, every statement the two leaders made, the subsequent questions from reporters of both nations, and the leaders' responses to those questions, had to be recited in both English and French. This wasn't for the benefit of the citizens of both nations, but for the people of Canada alone. The process not only made the press conference long-winded and exhausting, but it also pointed out the division and lack of national unity in Canada.

The U.S. has never formally made English its official language, but that time has come. While Americans should be encouraged to be bilingual, or even multi-lingual, since that ability is so vital to business and trade, having to cow-tow to immigrants who've refused to be come Americanized is going too far. There are people who have lived in America for more than a generation who refuse to learn and speak English, and who are determined to maintain communities that represent their motherlands, more than America itself. In these communities English isn't even a second language. This is divisive and non-productive. The more things we have in common in America, the greater our unity. A common language is fundamental and critical to that end.

While multi-cultural elements such as food and the arts make America unique and diverse, the ability and willingness for all Americans to speak English and share a larger cultural identity is essential to our long-term success and health a nation. We need look no further than to our northern neighbor for a prime example of the consequences of not doing so.

Copyright © 2006 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author's consent.

Friday, May 05, 2006


Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts has introduced a House bill that would make executive compensation figures for the top three officials at publicly traded companies a matter of public record ⎯ including retirement packages ⎯ and would allow stock holders to vote on these compensation packages.

President Bush even weighed in on he issue this week.

“I am staggered by some of the compensation levels,” said Bush. “And I think it's very important for boards of directors to understand that they represent shareholders and that compensation packages need to be fully transparent, in easy-to-understand language, so that the shareholders can understand whether or not the compensation package is fair or not.”

The following illustrates why this issue is suddenly getting so much attention:

In 1980 the average CEO made 42 times the average worker.

In 2004 the average CEO made 431 times the average worker.

The average CEO of a Standard & Poor's 500 company made $11.75 million in total compensation in 2005, according to an analysis by The Corporate Library.

With a median income of $44,389 in 2004, the average American's earnings pale in relation to the average CEO's salary. If the average American worked for a half century at that income level, his $2.2 million aggregate earnings would still be dwarfed by the annual salary of a typical CEO.

And, sadly, the size of a CEO's salary doesn't always correlate to performance, or a return to investors.

Between 1991 and 2004, the stock of the previous year's most highly paid CEO underperformed the S&P 500 half the time, in some instances quite substantially.

But with the President publicly noting the problem while a bill is quietly working its way through the House, investors have reason for cautious optimism that the days unchecked, wildly outsized, CEO pay may eventually come to an end.

Copyright © 2006 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author's consent.

Monday, April 10, 2006


President Bush finds himself in yet another quandary.

The president has repeatedly stated his opposition to the leak of a CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity.

In September 2003, Bush said, "I don't know of anybody in my administration who leaked classified information. If somebody did leak classified information, I'd like to know it, and we'll take appropriate action." Specifically, Bush said he'd fire anyone who was found to have leaked the information.

But this week, through the release of court papers, it was revealed that Lewis Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's former top aide, told investigators that the president himself authorized the leak of sensitive intelligence information about Iraq.

Before his indictment, Libby told a grand jury investigating the CIA leak that Cheney told him to pass on the information, and that Bush authorized the disclosure. That authorization led to the July 8, 2003, conversation between Libby and New York Times reporter Judith Miller. And according to Miller's grand jury testimony, it was during that conversation that Libby told her about Valerie Plame's CIA status.

Interestingly, the White House has not challenged the statements in the court documents, which state that Libby's passing of information to Miller "occurred only after the vice president advised defendant that the president specifically had authorized defendant to disclose certain information in the National Intelligence Estimate." The filing did not specify the "certain information."

Though the release didn't indicate whether Bush or Cheney specifically authorized Libby to disclose Plame's identity, the disclosure means that the president and the vice president used Libby to secretly provide information to reporters about prewar intelligence on Iraq. And one way or another, the president authorized the leak that led to this whole mess in the first place.

Libby's testimony also puts the president and the vice president in the awkward position of authorizing leaks -- a practice both men have claimed to vehemently detest. In fact, the administration has initiated criminal investigations to hunt down leakers, such as who leaked information about the warrantless domestic surveillance program authorized by Bush. And the president has chastised the Congress about leaks in the past. The White House prides itself on being in lock-step, and for being lock-lipped in its efforts to control the flow of information.

What's critical here is that President Bush has been caught contradicting himself by repeatedly railing against leaks of classified information, while it's now known he approved the release of classified information in an effort to bolster the case for war in Iraq. This illustrates the double standard that exists in the White House; leaks that benefit the President are acceptable, while those that don't are entirely unacceptable.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan argues that the president staunchly opposes releasing classified information that could affect U.S. security. And he pointed out that the president reserves the right to declassify material at will.

However, the President does not have the authority to out a clandestine intelligence operative. Nor does anyone else. The 1982 Intelligence Identities Protection Act makes it a federal offense to intentionally reveal a covert operative's identity. And Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation may uncover other crimes as well, such as perjury or obstruction of justice.

The outing of Plame was highly unscrupulous, irresponsible and apparently vindictive.

The first President Bush, a former head of the CIA, once described anyone who unmasked an undercover agent as "the most insidious of traitors." That seems to be a most apt description.

The president could have headed off this controversy two years ago if he'd just come clean about his involvement. If he believes that he had the authority to declassify intelligence at will, then why didn't he speak up sooner? What was he hiding? Why did he wait for the information to released in court testimony?

Hopefully the nation will soon have answers to those questions. The president clearly owes the country an explanation. His credibility, or what's left of it, is on the line here.

With polls showing that he risked losing his seat in congressional elections this fall, Tom Delay announced that he will not seek reelection in his Texas district.

The shameful announcement was a major, and quite sobering, reckoning for a man not quite accustomed to such things.

Stuart Roy, once an aide to DeLay, said he thought his former boss was deterred by the prospect of a tough fight, and the possibility of life in Congress without a major leadership position - even if he were reelected. Delay came to love power, and in the absence of it, the job of serving his district and the country just wouldn't be satisfying enough.

Once one of the most influential Republicans in Congress, the embattled Delay is facing money-laundering charges in his home state of Texas. Perhaps he felt he needed to give his own defense his undivided attention.

Dropping out of the race allows Delay to use $1.3 million in left over campaign contributions to help bankroll his legal defense. So the move isn't just to save face, but to save his personal finances as well.

In an effort to consolidate Republican power and build a lasting political majority, DeLay engineered the controversial redrawing of Texas congressional district boundaries.

DeLay came to define the style and tone of the GOP over the last decade. He used his political power and influence to raise money from special interests to advance his party's interests. In the end, it is difficult to determine where once begins and the other ends.

DeLay demanded corporate support for the party, not only in terms of fundraising but also in choosing Republicans to fill jobs at lobbying firms and trade associations. Two dozen former DeLay staffers have prominent lobbying jobs around Washington. His tactics helped forge a close relationship between big business and the party.

As a prolific fundraiser for the party and for other members of Congress, DeLay earned the deep loyalty of his colleagues.

But on three occasions in a single week, the House Ethics Committee admonished DeLay for his questionable behavior. And that could be the legacy of the Texas Congressman. His quest for power led to a sense of entitlement and privilege, to being above the rules, and even above the law.

DeLay came to symbolize corruption in Washington and a 'win at all costs' mentality. DeLay didn't appear concerned about rules, or integrity, or decency. He cared about himself, the Republican Party, and the advancement of both. He is a partisan, not a patriot. And there are plenty of them in Washington these days, on both sides of the aisle.

And that is how he will be remembered. He will be remembered for excess. And depending on how his trial turns out, he could also be remembered as a politician who believed that the government is for sale to the highest bidder.

A shameful legacy indeed.

Copyright © 2006 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author's consent.

GM'S General Malaise

Things haven't been good at General Motors in quite some time and now, perhaps, they are about to get even worse.

GM's troubles are many and, cumulatively, they are potentially leading to a once unimaginable bankruptcy. Case in point, the company lost $10.6 billion last year.

That's a worrisome possibility for many other businesses, as well as the U.S. government, because GM's massive size and sprawling commercial reach make it central to the entire U.S. economy. GM is the world's largest auto manufacturer. It is so big that in the FORTUNE 500's first half-century it ranked No. 1 on the list in 37 years. On the most recent list, it fell to No. 3.

GM has been the world's leading auto manufacturer for 74 consecutive years, a position it is expected to cede to Toyota this year. The longtime industry leader has been reduced to an embarrassing 26% market share. As a result, in November the company announced plans to close a dozen plants and slash 30,000 jobs in North America.

GM is burdened by the highest labor and health care costs in the industry and is responsible for many workers -- both past and present. GM supplies health coverage to a total of 1.1 million employees, retirees, and dependents -- a population bigger than Detroit's.

Its efficient and eminent Japanese competitors, such as Toyota, pay health benefits for their active U.S. employees and dependents too. But Toyota does not have GM's retiree health costs, a massive burden that at year-end totaled an unfunded $64 billion. That cumbersome expense adds about $1,300 to the cost of every car and truck GM produces in the U.S.

GM spent about $5.7 billion on health care last year. That has led to an enormous competitive disadvantage. Foreign automakers that manufacture in the U.S. have a nonunion workforce that is younger and therefore generally more healthy. That results in a huge competitive advantage.

The top pay for a GM hourly employee is $27 an hour, but with benefits and future health care costs GM estimates that hour of work costs the company $73.73.

Though the union has agreed to a "giveback" of health-care benefits, GM still needs many more concessions.

The company entered into some rather unwise deals with the United Auto Workers (UAW), from which it is now struggling to free itself. For example, under one welfare-like agreement called the Jobs Bank, laid-off union members get paid for not working. Many of those employees make $100,000 annually to just stay home. The current union contract isn't up for renewal until September 2007, and in the meantime the UAW wields enormous leverage in its ability to strike.

To get an idea of the union's power, consider this: when GM proposed changing its health plan for retirees to cut $20 billion off its liabilities, the union ordered an independent audit of the company -- at GM's expense -- which the company wasn't even allowed to read upon completion. Eventually, the union got a very clear view of just how bad things are at GM and ultimately conceded.

Additionally, many industry analysts have insisted that GM's eight domestic brands (Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, GMC, Hummer, Pontiac, Saab, and Saturn) are too many for a 26% market share. Those analysts suggest that GM phase at least one, if not two, additional lines out of existence, just as it did with Oldsmobile a couple of years ago. But, unfortunately for GM, dealer franchise laws make that nearly impossible.

Over the years, there was a gradual blurring of the distinctions between GM's numerous divisions. At one time, those distinctions created an orderly upgrade path from one division to the next, leading from the practical and economical Chevrolet to the premium Cadillac nameplate. Customers were passed along, graduating up the product chain, which kept profits flowing to the corporate parent. But eventually the divisions began competing with each other and eating into each other's market share.

Additionally, product design has been weak, or lacking, at GM for many years. In short, they have not built the appealing, desirable cars that car buyers want. And the company has a lopsided number of trucks, pickups, and SUVs, just as gas prices have begun to soar. That is a very bad combo.

GM is also living with a legacy of poorly designed and built vehicles that have soured the American public and lost their confidence. As a result, people have turned to Japanese models for their reliability.

In its April issue, Consumer Reports released the results of its annual car reliability survey. The editors say Asian vehicles are by far the most reliable. Japanese and Korean vehicles had, on average, 12 problems per 100 vehicles. The magazines reports that U.S. makers "have been edging closer to the Asians in reliability," with an average of 18 problems per 100 vehicles. European manufacturers are still "the most unreliable overall," with 21 problems per 100 vehicles.

Dan Neil, the Pulitzer Prize winning editor of the LA Times auto section, says that American manufacturers are building very competitive, high-quality cars, but that past history is still hurting sales. Apparently the public still lacks confidence because of previous experiences.

GM's increasingly burdensome financial difficulties forced it to sell a majority stake in its finance subsidiary, GMAC, in order to gain liquidity. But GMAC is perhaps the most profitable asset that GM holds, and losing that dependable annual revenue stream ($2.83 billion in profits last year) may prove regrettable. Surrendering an asset that's been responsible for such a large portion of earnings is selling the hand that feeds.

GMAC's credit ratings are linked to GM's and therefore have been repeatedly lowered. Perhaps, then, the wiser move would have been to spin off the profitable GMAC into a separate company and raise money through the sale of stock. Too late now.

Then there is the considerable problem of the bankruptcy of GM's parts supplier, Delphi. The wages and benefits it pays exceed other players in the market, making Delphi uncompetitive. The supplier has asked the UAW to accept lower wages, which the union has refused. Instead, there is now talk of a strike, which would cripple GM. What's worse, the union contract would require it to keep paying workers, hemorrhaging as much as $1 billion a week in additional losses.

Things have gotten so bad at GM that, in an effort to cut labor costs and put an end to billions of dollars in losses, it is offering all of its 113,000 U.S. hourly employees as much as $140,000 each to leave the company.

However, it's anticipated that relatively few GM employees will take the buyouts since, under an alternative early retirement plan, most of them are eligible to receive more than $100,000 while still keeping their health care coverage.

This titan of the U.S. industry is now teetering on the precipice of bankruptcy, a notion that would have been unimaginable to almost all previous generations of Americans. Chrysler and Nissan both bounced back from poor sales and near financial ruin.

Now, the biggest player of them all will take on the biggest task of them all, as it attempts to right the ship and set it on a course for both profitability and respectability.

Copyright © 2006 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author's consent.

Dr. Wafa Sultan is a 47-year-old Syrian-American psychiatrist living outside Los Angeles. She is married and has three children. She is the last person one would expect to be at the center of an international controversy.

As a result of her outspoken remarks about the violence associated with Islam, she has been threatened with death by Muslims who are outraged by her comments. Yes, it's as ironic as it is absurd; Muslims threatening to kill a fellow Arab for saying their religion is too violent.

Her trouble began when she wrote an angry essay about the Muslim Brotherhood for an Islamic reform Web site called Annaqed (The Critic), run by a fellow Syrian living in Phoenix. The essay came to the attention of Al Jazeera, which then invited her to debate an Algerian cleric on the air last July.

In the debate, Dr. Sultan questioned the religious teachings that prompt young people to commit suicide in the name of God. "Why does a young Muslim man, in the prime of life, with a full life ahead, go and blow himself up?" she asked. "In our countries, religion is the sole source of education and is the only spring from which that terrorist drank until his thirst was quenched."

Her name became widely known throughout the Muslim world and her remarks initiated debates there and elsewhere. But her notoriety reached a zenith when she appeared on Al Jazeera once again, on Feb. 21. A Middle East Media Research Institute called Memri translated her appearance and distributed it widely, claiming the clip of her February appearance had been viewed more than a million times.

"The clash we are witnessing around the world is not a clash of religions or a clash of civilizations," Dr. Sultan said. "It is a clash between two opposites, between two eras. It is a clash between a mentality that belongs to the Middle Ages and another mentality that belongs to the 21st century. It is a clash between civilization and backwardness, between the civilized and the primitive, between barbarity and rationality."

She contrasted the ways in which Jews and Muslims have reacted to adversity. Speaking of the Holocaust, she said, "The Jews have come from the tragedy and forced the world to respect them, with their knowledge, not with their terror; with their work, not with their crying and yelling."

She went on, "We have not seen a single Jew blow himself up in a German restaurant. We have not seen a single Jew destroy a church. We have not seen a single Jew protest by killing people."

She concluded, "Only the Muslims defend their beliefs by burning down churches, killing people and destroying embassies. This path will not yield any results. The Muslims must ask themselves what they can do for humankind, before they demand that humankind respect them."

She also proclaimed that she no longer practiced Islam. "I am a secular human being," she said.

The other guest on the program, Dr. Ibrahim al-Khouli, an Egyptian professor of religious studies asked, "Are you a heretic?" He then said there was no point in rebuking or debating her, because she had blasphemed against Islam, the Prophet Muhammad and the Koran.

Dr. Sultan said she viewed his words as a formal fatwa, or religious condemnation. Since then, she said, she has received numerous death threats on her answering machine and by e-mail.

Because her mother, who still lives in Syria, is afraid to speak with her directly, she will contact her only through a sister in Qatar. And it is the safety of her family members here and in Syria that she worries more about more than herself.

"I have no fear," she said. "I believe in my message. It is like a million-mile journey, and I believe I have walked the first and hardest 10 miles."

Some Islamic reformers have proclaimed her as a voice of reason and have praised her for speaking out boldly, in Arabic no less. From her extraordinary platform - the most widely viewed television network in the Arab world - she dared to discuss a topic few Muslims will broach even in private.

Yet there are others who view her as as a heretic and an infidel who deserves to die.

"I am questioning every single teaching of our holy book," Dr. Sultan says. "I believe our people are hostages to our own beliefs and teachings,"

One thing is certain, she is a woman of great courage and strong convictions. "Knowledge has released me from this backward thinking. Somebody has to help free the Muslim people from these wrong beliefs."

But, unfortunately, Dr. Sultan is a woman and an American; the two things Muslims respect the least. As a result, it's unclear how enduring her message will be, or how weighty it will be in the Muslim world. But if others, particularly men, jump on her bandwagon instead of abandoning her, then perhaps a movement can be started that will continue this much needed debate.

However, trying to debate rationally and reasonably with the irrational and the unreasonable is a fool's game.

"When the President does it, that means that it is not illegal." -- President Nixon during the Watergate scandal.

It's been said that Sept. 11 changed everything.

In 2002 President Bush issued a secret Executive Order allowing the NSA to eavesdrop without a warrant on phone conversations, e-mail and other electronic communications, even if one of the parties was in the U.S.

The program was so secretive that a legal review panel -- comprised of fewer than half a dozen government attorneys that review top-secret intelligence programs for the National Security Council -- was bypassed. Instead, the legal vetting was done by just one person - then White House counsel Alberto Gonzales.

The problem is that the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), forbids the NSA to conduct surveillance inside the U.S. without a warrant. Despite this, the White House chose to ignore the law, which has lead to a firestorm of controversy.

The President says that he had to ignore an act of Congress to prevent another terrorist attack. He also argues that the NSA is only spying on the communications of people who have known links to al-Qaeda.

Most Americans seem to favor the President taking aggressive steps to root out terrorists and thwart their murderous plans, but many seem to worry about the President making up, or ignoring, the law as he goes along.

The FISA court has an 11-member secret panel that hears NSA warrant requests. In the event of circumstances that require immediate action by the NSA, the law permits the agency to eavesdrop without a warrant so long as it applies for one within 72 hours.

And the court has essentially acted as a rubber stamp. According to the Justice Department, from 1979 to 2004 the court approved 18,724 wiretaps and denied only three - all in 2003. The government almost always gets what it wants.

But the Administration argues that technological advances have made FISA outdated. They claim that the law hamstrings the NSA from being able to adequately handle the immense flood of electronic communications that presently pass in and out of the U.S., which the agency says it can now capture and analyze more effectively. And Justice Department officials complain that a FISA surveillance request can take up to a week to prepare - even for some seasoned department lawyers. The warrant requests are said to be too long and complex, and officials protest that they are required for each individual number recovered from a terrorist's cell phone. Intelligence officials also complain of having to stop surveillance in order to get approval.

The NSA performs data mining, in which computers sort through billions of phone calls and Internet messages looking for patterns that may indicate terrorist activity. That requires sifting through massive numbers of individual communications to get a hit. Under FISA, the NSA is supposed to obtain a warrant for each suspect phone number it gathers. Authorities argue that the FISA process is too slow to cover a situation in which a known terrorist calls a number in the U.S. not already covered by a FISA warrant.

Such is the conundrum that lawmakers now find themselves in. They may not want the President ignoring, or breaking, the law, but they don't want to hinder intelligence efforts or be seen as "soft on terrorism" either.

Into this breach leapt Democratic Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, who has proposed a resolution to censure President Bush for breaking the law - specifically, illegally wiretapping Americans.

According to the latest NEWSWEEK poll, four in ten (42 percent) of the adults in the general public say they would support Congressional censure of the president, while half (50 percent) say they would not. Censure wins majority support from Democrats (60 percent) and one in five Republicans (20 percent) say they'd support it.

Meanwhile, twenty-nine of 201 Democrats in the House have signed onto a bill that calls for a bipartisan investigation of the president's actions to determine if there are grounds for impeachment. The bill was introduced in December by Representative John Conyers Jr., a Michigan Democrat.

One in four American adults (26 percent) say they think Congress should actually impeach President Bush and consider removing him from office.

By comparison, the level of public support for impeachment today is below the 32 percent support for President Clinton's removal in October 1998, before he was impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives. Support for the impeachment of President Nixon had reached 52 percent in a June 1974 Harris poll shortly before he left office.

The NEWSWEEK poll also gives President Bush just a 36 percent approval rating, matching the low point in his presidency recorded last November.

What's surprising is that no Democrat has moved to censure the President for lying about his prior knowledge that the levees in New Orleans could be breached during Hurricane Katrina. That effort would seem much less fraught with political peril, and certainly far less controversial.

Earlier this month, the Associated Press released secret transcripts and video footage showing President Bush being personally briefed the day before Hurricane Katrina reached land. The predictions he heard were quite accurate — including the failure of the levees. He was clearly warned of exactly what was coming.

The video and transcripts show that federal and local officials discussed threats clearly, reviewed long-made plans and understood Katrina would wreak devastation of historic proportions. "I'm sure it will be the top 10 or 15 when all is said and done," National Hurricane Center's Max Mayfield warned the day Katrina lashed the Gulf Coast.

Michael Brown told the president that if New Orleans flooded the Superdome emergency shelter would likely be under water and short on supplies, creating a "catastrophe within a catastrophe."

Experts and officials implored the President to prepare for, "devastation of historic proportions."

The chief scientist of the National Hurricane Center warned that a major levee breach was "obviously a very, very grave concern."

Yet four days after the storm Bush declared, "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees" that resulted in the historic flooding of New Orleans. But the transcripts and video show there was plenty of talk about that possibility.

And President Bush didn't ask a single question during the briefing.

Ultimately, Katrina ended up being the worst natural disaster in American history, killing over 1,300 people and displacing hundreds of thousands.

And yet, much like Katrina, that storm of controversy quickly blew over and passed. Absent was the outrage that seems to have taken root in the illegal wiretaps issue. Perhaps the illegal wiretap issue can be debated, as well as whether or not the President deserves to be censured. But one thing is certain; the president lied to the public regarding his prior knowledge of the potential consequences of Katrina. For that, if not for dereliction of duty, he certainly deserves to be censured.

Copyright © 2006 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author's consent.

Are You Retirement Ready?


The statistics look grim. Only about 60 percent of eligible workers over 40 participate in their 401(k)s (rates are even lower for young workers), and the number of workers covered by a defined-benefit pension has been in steady decline.

In 1980 there were 95,000 such plans, but by 2004 the number had fallen to just 30,000. Since that time, the percentage of private sector workers covered by defined-benefit pensions has fallen from about 35 percent to under 20 percent.

As a result, most workers under 50 likely won't have a traditional pension.

In recent years, numerous reasonably healthy companies — Verizon, NCR, Lockheed Martin, Hewlett-Packard, Motorola, and most recently IBM, to name a few — opted out of their pension plans. That means the workers at these companies will need to save more to make up for the lost accrual of benefits.

So, earlier this month, government leaders, retirement experts and financial services executives met in Washington to discuss what employers, lawmakers and workers can do to help Americans better prepare for retirement.

The summit was sponsored by the Department of Labor, which is concerned about the ability of Americans to adequately fund their golden years. That concern drove the Department to recently publish a booklet called 'Taking the Mystery Out of Retirement Planning' to help educate the public.

Congress is considering legislation that would encourage all employers to offer automatic enrollment in 401(k)s and set the default contribution rate at 3 percent of pay, increasing one percentage point every year until 6 percent of pay is reached.

The legislation would also encourage companies to offer a 50 percent matching contribution or contribute 2 percent of pay for all employees whether they contribute or not.

The first wave of Baby Boomers will begin to retire in just two years, when they turn 62. Then, in 2011, an onslaught of retirements will begin, lasting nearly twenty years. But, according to research by Fidelity Investments, only 57 percent of Boomers expect to receive a pension.

And Fidelity says that Boomers only have enough in savings and other income sources to replace 59 percent of their pre-retirement income. Of those with 401(k) accounts, the average account balance is just $80,000, and many typically save just $2,750 a year toward retirement.

That won't go far.

There may not be much that can be done for workers over 50 who've lost their pensions and haven't prepared adequately, but an automatic 401(k) program could mean a great deal to workers under 40.

History has shown that most people do little, if anything at all, in the way of retirement planning — until it's too late. Young workers have difficulty imagining themselves in 30 or 40 years.

Such is youth.

But most retirement experts contend that adequate retirement planning needs to begin around the age of 30. An IRA is recommended, though they are under-utilized. And with pensions becoming extinct, a more widespread use of 401(k)s could help the nation fend off a looming retirement crisis.

Social Security withholdings are already automatic for most American workers, so an additional two percent to six percent withholding for a 401(k) could be easily executed.

Though it's hard to say just what the Congress would do to "encourage" employers to offer automatic enrollment in such a program, not to mention get them to offer a matching contribution, the good news is that this critical dialogue has finally begun.

Copyright © 2006 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author's consent.

Sunday, March 05, 2006


A recent CBS News poll showed that 62% of Americans think the war in Iraq is going badly, while 36% think it is going well. When asked if the war was worth the cost, 63% of Americans said no, and 29% said yes.

Gen. Peter Pace, the Chairman of the joint Chiefs of Staff, blames the American media. He says they are disproportionately reporting all of the bad news in Iraq, while ignoring all of the good things that are going on.

According to Pace, if the American people had the opportunity to see all that is going on in Iraq, they would understand that "very, very good progress being made." But he admitted that it isn't possible to sustain the war without the support of the American people. "What they're seeing is the same bomb going off every 15 minutes on television."

The great irony is that with 34,131 insurgent attacks reported last year, there is quite literally a different attack happening every 15 minutes. So, it's not the same bomb going off repeatedly that has soured the American public about the war.

As for the risk of civil war in Iraq, on Monday the U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said "the crisis is over" and that "Iraqis decided to come together."

Yet, the very next day, the Washington Post reported that more than 1,300 Iraqis had been killed in sectarian attacks since a Shiite mosque was bombed the previous week. Though there was some disagreement over the actual number -- the Iraqi Cabinet said at least 379 people had been killed in reprisal attacks, and the AP reported that the Baghdad central morgue had received 249 bodies tied to the violence -- the Statistics Department of the Iraqi police put the nationwide toll at 1,020 in just the six days following the attack.

Despite this, Pace says, "I believe that, in the last week to 10 days, the Iraqi people have been showing that they do not want civil war." He went on to say that the reports of attacks on mosques by opposing religious groups have been greatly exaggerated. Sunni leaders charged that more than 100 Sunni mosques were burned, fired upon or bombed in the retaliatory violence after the attack on the Samarra mosque.

Yet, when asked at a press conference this week if Iraq was close to civil war, or could slip into such a war, Gen. George Casey, Commander of the Multi-National Force in Iraq, said, "Anything can happen."

And according to another poll, 73% of Americans believe that Iraq is indeed headed toward civil war.

"The bottom line is, the Iraqi people are still so much better off today than they were under Saddam Hussein, " says Pace. "I mean, no matter what sector of society you look at right now, they are better off today than they were under Saddam Hussein."

That is emblematic of the larger disconnect that the American people are seeing out of the Bush Administration, and the Pentagon. Either the media has banded together in an act of collusion designed to fool the American people, or the Administration and the Pentagon are doing so.

At this point, even conservative opinion makers, such as George Will, William F. Buckley and Bill O'Reilly, have recently admitted to the failure of the war. The war's most ardent supporters are now jumping off the bandwagon.

Pace says that in the last year over 100,000 additional Iraqi troops have been added and that there are now 232,000 police and military members serving the Iraqi government. Additionally, Pace says they are on schedule to be at 335,000 by the end of this year.

But the question is, to what end? What difference have they made so far?

The Iraqi Army seems entirely inept and incompetent. Shiite militiamen from the Interior Ministry -- essentially death squads -- are said to be leading a murderous campaign against the Sunni population. If this burgeoning civil war becomes full scale, the entire U.S. effort will have been in vain.

How can anyone justify the U.S. military taking sides and engaging in another county's civil war? With the specter of Vietnam now more than thirty years behind us the lessons should have been learned, which makes that a difficult argument to engage in.

From the beginning, war planners have viewed this campaign through rose-colored lenses. They still aren't being honest with the American people. Yet it's hard -- as much as it is unsettling -- to imagine they're being dishonest with themselves. They must know the truth. But to admit failure would be politically disastrous, so instead we get the status quo; "stay the course," and "very, very good progress being made."

The events in Iraq are spiraling out of control and gaining momentum. And that momentum will bring change one way or another -- whether it's the type the Bush administration and the Pentagon want, or not.

Copyright © 2006 The Independent Report. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author's consent.

Sunday, February 12, 2006



As the U.S. prepares to mark the third anniversary of the war in Iraq, which still has no end in sight, the national debate is squarely focused on how soon our troops can get out. After all, this is an election year. How can the U.S. military make a dignified exit without appearing weak and without appearing to give up?

But with an ever-brewing civil war growing daily, one that would likely rage out of control without a U.S. military presence, the wisdom of the initial U.S. intervention has to be questioned. It isn't politically correct to ask such questions, but it is reasonable to wonder whether U.S. interests were really served by deposing Saddam Hussein and whether things are truly better in Iraq since then.

The sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shiites plays itself out in an orgy of daily killings and bombings, which simply result in even more reprisal killings. Nothing seems to be sacred or off limits; mosques are frequent targets.

Sure there have been three elections in Iraq, but none of them would have occurred without the U.S. military presence. The parties involved were too busy killing each other to have initiated and carried out those elections without U.S. prompting and assistance. To what end those elections will ultimately result in is anybody's guess.

Anyone who sees a budding democracy in Iraq is blithely, if not naively, optimistic. Furthermore, the valuable counterbalance to Iran has been lost in the Middle East. That poses a whole new set of challenges for the U.S.

The question is, how did it come to this? How did the outcome of the war go so badly? Three years out, its fair and reasonable to start asking those questions, and to be seeking the answers to them. Didn't anyone in charge see this coming?

The answer is, yes. There were adequate warnings from the U.S. intelligence community, but those warnings of instability in Iraq — the power vacuum that would be created in the absence of Saddam — were flatly ignored by the Bush Administration.

Because of key revelations, it is now known that the Bush Administration had an agenda for Iraq and that intelligence was ignored. or even fixed, because of that agenda.

But policy decisions are not supposed to be decided by an agenda, but rather by facts — or at least a well informed, reasoned and objective assessment of intelligence. Clearly, that did not happen.

There have been numerous and repeated accusations and criticisms leveled at the Bush Administration by former insiders, confidants and advisors. Among them are former White House counterterrorism adviser Richard Clarke, former treasury secretary Paul O'Neill, and former U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer.

And the hits just keep on coming. In yet another embarrassing public revelation for the President and his advisors, a critical member of the national intelligence team from the start of the Iraq war has made more damning charges.

Before retiring last October, Paul R. Pillar was the national intelligence officer responsible for the Middle East from 2000 to 2005. Specifically, Pillar had provided the C.I.A. with intelligence assessments on Iraq. And he has now accused the Bush administration of ignoring or distorting the prewar evidence on Iraq to justify the American invasion of 2003.

Echoing the criticisms of Clarke and O'Neill, Pillar charges the administration with using selective intelligence regarding Iraq's unconventional weapons, and the chances of postwar chaos in Iraq.

In an article for the March-April issue of Foreign Affairs, Pillar wrote, "If the entire body of official intelligence on Iraq had a policy implication, it was to avoid war — or, if war was going to be launched, to prepare for a messy aftermath. What is most remarkable about prewar U.S. intelligence on Iraq is not that it got things wrong and thereby misled policymakers; it is that it played so small a role in one of the most important U.S. policy decisions in decades."

Pillar continued, "The most serious problem with U.S. intelligence today is that its relationship with the policy making process is broken and badly needs repair. In the wake of the Iraq war it is clear that official intelligence analysis was not relied on in making even the most significant national security decisions, that intelligence was misused publicly to justify decisions that had already been made, that damaging ill will developed between policy makers and intelligence officers, and that the intelligence community's own work was politicized."

Pillar, now a professor at Georgetown University, said he was not contacted by the Bush Administration for an assessment on post-war Iraq until a year after the war began.

From his standpoint, there are valuable lessons to be learned and what is most important now is to, "Look at the whole intelligence-policy relationship and get a discussion and debate going to make sure what happened on Iraq doesn't happen again."

Pillar's rebukes are just the latest in a string of such accusations from insiders. Yet, the Administration attack machine has attempted to disparage most of them by impugning their credibility.

O'Neill, who sat on the National Security Council, had extraordinary access to the President. He says that in the very first Bush Cabinet meeting in January 2001, part of the agenda was for a post-Saddam Iraq.

Even in those early days, deposing the Iraqi leader was already on the mind of the President and some of his advisors.

O'Neill describes a White House poised to overinterpret intelligence:

"From the start, we were building the case against Hussein and looking at how we could take him out and change Iraq into a new country. And, if we did that, it would solve everything. It was about finding a way to do it. That was the tone of it. The President saying, 'Fine. Go find me a way to do this.'"

The events of 9/11 gave them the opening they were hoping for.

O'Neill offers the most skeptical view of the case for war ever put forward by a top Administration official.

"In the 23 months I was there, I never saw anything that I would characterize as evidence of weapons of mass destruction," he told TIME. "There were allegations and assertions by people. But I've been around a hell of a long time, and I know the difference between evidence and assertions and illusions or allusions and conclusions that one could draw from a set of assumptions. To me there is a difference between real evidence and everything else. And I never saw anything in the intelligence that I would characterize as real evidence."

And in his book "Against All Enemies," Clarke revealed that President Bush and senior administration officials wanted to bomb Iraq after 9/11 even though they knew that it had no connection to al Qaeda, and that al Qaeda was responsible for the attacks.

Then, in May of 2005, the Times of London printed the classified minutes of a British cabinet meeting, referred to as the "Downing Street Memo." The memo revealed that, long before the invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration was determined to go to war, intentionally distorting intelligence and lying to the American people.

Taken from a July 23rd, 2002 cabinet meeting — a full eight months before the war — the revealing memo quotes high level British officials discussing recent conversations with the Bush Administration on their decision to invade Iraq, and the manipulation of intelligence to back it up.

Two key excerpts:

Sir Richard Dearlove, Director of the British foreign intelligence service (MI6), reported on his recent meetings in Washington:

Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.

Later British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw added:

It seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military action, even if the timing was not yet decided. But the case was thin. Saddam was not threatening his neighbours, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran.

The British government did not dispute the authenticity or accuracy of the memo.

What the Bush administration told these foreign officials is the exact opposite of what the President repeatedly told Congress and the American people about his decision before the invasion, and what he continues to claim — that he was trying to avoid a war America did not want, and that intelligence about the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction was clear and compelling.

The Bush administration continues to peddle falsehoods about the rush to war and intelligence manipulation, despite overwhelming evidence from former administration officials, and now from our closest allies. Last May, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told troops stationed in Iraq, "This war came to us, not the other way around."

Then, last August, George Washington University obtained a State Department memo — issued a month before the start of the Iraq war — that warned military planners about "serious planning gaps" for the post-war period.

The document, dated February 7, 2003, noted that a lack of focus and preparation for adequate policing after the invasion could have negative consequences. Specifically, State Department officials warned that, "A failure to address short-term public security and humanitarian assistance concerns could result in serious human rights abuses, which would undermine an otherwise successful military campaign, and our reputation internationally."

The memo's authors said they had "raised these issues with top CENTCOM officials" and offered to help the military "develop plans for accomplishing these goals." Obviously their appeals went unheeded and they were ignored.

Finally, Paul Bremer, a critical member of the Bush team in the war's early days, agrees that the war planning was flawed from the start. Bremer said "horrid" looting was occurring in May of 2003 when he arrived in Baghdad to head the U.S.- led Coalition Provisional Authority.

"We paid a big price for not stopping it because it established an atmosphere of lawlessness," Bremer said. "We never had enough troops on the ground."

Earlier, Bremer had said the U.S. could have planned better. "The single most important change ... would have been having more troops in Iraq at the beginning and throughout."

Bremer claimed he "raised this issue a number of times with our government," but allowed that he "should have been even more insistent."

Last fall, Virginia's John Warner, the Republican Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called a meeting with 10 battalion commanders to get an honest portrayal of the situation in Iraq. The Marine and Army officers were quite frank in their assessments.

Contradicting the Pentagon's repeated claims, the commanders said they not only needed more manpower, but that they had also repeatedly asked for it — as recently as last August. Each time, they said, they were denied.

So, it's hard to imagine the withdrawal of U.S. forces from a war in which there have never been enough forces to begin with. Of course there will be vigorous arguments both for and against, just as there have been up to this point, but it will get really interesting, and perhaps even more ugly, in an election year.

These multiple inside accounts are representative of the cavalier and nonchalant attitude that marked the planning and execution of this war from the start.

Pillar's article merely provides the latest example of the irresponsibility and negligence of our war planners.

There has been a total lack of accountability from the outset, and that sort of attitude and behavior is entirely unacceptable. It's time for accountability. It's time for heads to roll. The public should demand it.

With the notable exception of Gen. Eric Shinseki, the former Army Chief of Staff who was wrongly dismissed for having the courage to tell the administration that they didn't have enough troops to successfully fight the war, no key players in the war effort have been fired to date. The General has since been vindicated, but it's too little, too late.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who has mishandled and misjudged this war from the outset, still has his job and that isn't building confidence in anyone — except, perhaps, the equally inept and irresponsible who have managed to keep their jobs as well.

The bungled charade that is the war in Iraq has resulted in the loss of nearly 2300 Americans lives — and there will be more to come. The death toll countinues to mount on an almost daily basis and it is important to remember that the President declared that major combat operations had ended in May of 2006 — just six weeks after the start of the war.

In a time of war, the counry needs — and deserves — more than platitudes and banality. We deserve honesty and truth.

Copyright © 2006 The Independent Report. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author's consent.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Will You Have Enough To Retire?

Last August, the U.S. government reported that the national savings rate is now 0%. It seems incredible, but it's true.

The last time the annual rate was this low was 1934 — during the Great Depression. As recently as 1994 the savings rate was nearly 5 percent, and double-digit savings rates were the norm 25 years ago.

The question is, where did all the savings go? The answer; home purchases. And since household real estate assets have risen by just over two-thirds since 1999, Americans now view their homes almost like ATM machines, using home equity loans and refinancing to pull out cash and support their spending.

In this materialistic and consumer driven society that America is today, people are actually spending more money than they make. So there's nothing left to save.

Every time there is a marginal uptick in incomes, there is a commensurate, or greater, increase in spending. Though this is the height of irresponsibility, it's been the engine for a growing U.S. economy.

In fact, Americans need to keep spending at this frenzied pace just to maintain our economy. Experts say that if everyone were to start saving, the economy would slow considerably — potentially to the point of recession. This is an obvious problem.

Yet, the savings rate will be driven down further when Baby Boomers start retiring and drawing on their retirement savings and the nation will need greater savings to fund the onslaught.

The report about the savings rate is particularly bad news news right now because, coupled with other developments, the retirement future of the average American doesn't look bright. For anyone who thought they could rely on a corporate pension, think again.

Corporate pensions appear to going the way of cassette players and rotary phones.

IBM just opted out, telling employees last month that their pension benefits will be frozen in 2008. And they aren't alone; lots of reasonably healthy companies — Verizon, NCR, Lockheed Martin, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola, to name a few — already did the same.

It won't be long before most other American corporations follow suit and relieve themselves from their pension burdens. There's been widespread speculation that GM could be next.

As it stands, there have been a few dramatic cases of companies going bankrupt and defaulting on existing pension commitments, such as United Airlines. The problem has gotten lots of press, but that won't change a thing. It's a trend that's been underway for many years.

Defined-benefit pension plans, under which workers receive fixed monthly benefits based on their salaries and tenure, declined from 95,000 in 1980 to 30,000 in 2004 as companies either stopped offering plans or switched to 401(k)-type programs.

For the last two decades, more and more corporations have shifted to 401(k)s that automatically set contribution percentages and investment choices for employees.

Under the guidance of investment professionals (who aren't employed by for-profit mutual fund companies or brokerage firms), employees can determine how much money to set aside and how to invest it.

But while 401(k)s may be fine for younger workers, they don't work for older workers nearing retirement.

That said, we are entering a period in which workers and corporations will battle over the demise of pensions, long the primary source of retirement income for many Americans. But the fight will also involve governments at all levels, regulators, accountants and taxpayers. And these battles will be heated because everyone involved has so much to lose.

The primary problem is an aging population that is living ever longer. Pension costs have sky rocketed due to millions of longer-living retirees, and the problem will only worsen in coming years.

In 1950, when pensions first became common, American life expectancy was just 68. But it has now grown by an additional ten years. Meanwhile, American workers, many of whom are union members, are watching as employers dump or cut their pensions at a time when there's reasonable concern about the future of Social Security. For these workers, retirement security is non-negotiable.

But the pension problem is even worse than most American realize.

Public-employee pensions have never been accounted for like those run by private employers. Governments aren't required to reveal their pension liabilities the way a corporation is, on the theory that governments can simply raise taxes to pay retirees.

But the Governmental Accounting Standards Board, which sets the rules for the public sector, has finally decided to change its regulations. State and local governments will now have to reveal their pension liabilities, which may be underfunded by $1 trillion or more. Gulp.

And the private sector has a mess on its hands as well. Its pension funds are underfunded by $450 billion. Right now, 44 million Americans are relying on these private pensions and they have reason for genuine concern.

The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, which insures the defined-benefit plans for all those people and takes over the plans of bankrupt companies, reported a deficit of $22.8 billion at the end of the 2005 fiscal year. It was the fourth consecutive year that a shortfall had been reported. And the PGBC predicted that its troubles would continue well into the future.

The PBGC had to assume responsibility for the pension benefits of an additional 235,000 workers and retirees in 2005, raising the total to 1.3 million. It also paid benefits of $3.7 billion last year, up from $3 billion in 2004.

When United Airlines and US Airways filed for bankruptcy last year, they forced a combined $9.6 billion in pension liabilities onto the PBGC. Delta Airlines and Northwest Airlines , which both filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in September, could follow suit.

And then there's the greatest pension crisis of all: Social Security. The hard truth has been hidden by the so-called trust fund, where the plan's annual surpluses are sent to be invested until future need. But since those surpluses are required to be invested in government bonds, they've simply been handed over to the U.S. Treasury and spent by Congress.

The trust fund is a myth. When Social Security's annual surpluses are exhausted in just six or seven years, there will be a panicked struggle over how to cover the plan's obligations.

And the ugly truth about pensions has also remained undisclosed for decades. Now, as the first baby-boomers turn 60, that reality must finally be confronted — and it will get ugly.

Many financial experts see pensions as an inherently unstable, unfair and economically unrealistic means of providing for retirement.

Though they've existed since the 19th century, the corporate pension became a retirement staple in the United States following World War II. But American corporations didn't foresee pension commitments becoming such a heavy burden for companies dealing with stiff foreign competition and longer living retirees.

Many economists argue that if companies had invested in individual retirement accounts for their employees in previous decades, instead of putting that money into pension plans, they wouldn't be facing this problem. Though IRAs and 410(k)s didn't exist until the 1970's, the general point is true.

The problem with pension plans is that they promise a specific benefit in the future without knowing the affordability of those benefits at that time. In essence, pensions are a contract between current and future generations, much like Social Security. And, as with Social Security, those future generations aren't represented at the bargaining table.

As a result, the current generation of workers are guaranteeing the retirement income of older Americans with no guarantee of anything in return.

When succeeding generations are smaller than the ones whose retirements they are helping to fund, they face tremendous and unfair burdens. As a result, the Social Security system and American corporations are facing similar difficulties.

But there are many more Americans with no pension, no 401(k) and no savings to speak of. And without that additional support, no one will survive on Social Security alone. The American retirement system is crumbling, and not nearly enough is being done to rectify it.

Saturday, January 14, 2006


After claiming that it would not tolerate any more nations becoming nuclear states, the Bush Administration has found itself in a bit of a pickle. On Bush's watch, North Korea announced the development of nuclear weapons, and now Iran is apparently attempting to join the atomic community as well.

The problem is that the U.S. has lost much of its prestige, not to mention its credibility, with the rest of the world in the wake of the ill-planned, and some would say ill-advised, invasion of Iraq. Around the world the invasion is widely considered illegal, and the toppling of a sovereign government viewed as as yet another example of imperial hubris. The American presence in Iraq is seen by many, including a majority of Iraqis, as nothing more than an occupation by a bullying superpower. In essence, the U.S. has developed quite a PR problem with much of the rest of the world.

If the U.S. was looking for a foothold in the Middle East, a place to launch a democracy in lieu of a totalitarian government known to have sponsored terrorism for years, and admittedly developing an ambitious nuclear program, then the Bush Administration might have picked the wrong country. Perhaps Iran would have been a better choice.

Seventy percent of Iran’s population is under 30, and the median age of an Iranian is just 24. Young people in Iran are fairly pro-Western and are fascinated by its culture. They are known to favor more freedom of all kinds, having repeatedly clashed with their authoritarian, ultra-conservative Islamic government in recent years. And, for the most part, they are ethnically and religiously united. They seem like exactly the kind of people who would favor a chance at democracy and a government of, and for, the people.

But the current Iranian government has continued to frustrate the West. On Tuesday, Iran removed some U.N. seals from its main uranium enrichment facility to resume research on nuclear fuel -- including some small-scale enrichment. And now Iran has threatened to end surprise inspections and to stop cooperating with the U.N. nuclear watchdog if it is referred to the U.N. Security Council over its nuclear program.

Britain, France and Germany have spent the past 2 1/2 years futilely negotiating with Tehran over its nuclear program. The three European nations, in conjunction with the U.S., may refer Iran to the Security Council due to its intransigence. They could call for economic sanctions, such as restricting oil and gas sales, but such action would have a negative impact on the world economy.

For that reason, they face resistance from China, which imports 300,000 barrels of oil a day from Iran and holds veto powers at the Security Council. China said it opposes putting Tehran before the world body for possible sanctions. Other nations may feel similarly for the same reasons. Japan imports more than half a million barrels of oil a day from Iran. Russia, another Security Council member with economic ties to Iran, has given mixed signals on how it would react to such a move.

While Iran insists its program is peaceful, intended only to produce electricity, much of the West is skeptical. An OPEC member's claim that it needs nuclear energy is laughable given that Iran controls 10 percent of the world's oil reserves and has the second largest gas reserves, after Russia. Yet, Iran insists it has the right to conduct uranium enrichment, a process that can produce reactor fuel or material for a nuclear bomb.

And with the U.S. bogged down in Iraq, Iran seems to believe that it can get away with continuing its program. They've seen the Bush Administration talk tough with North Korea regarding it nuclear program, but do nothing about it. They may be further emboldened because the U.S. is currently grappling with a nearly three-year-old war in Iraq. The Iranians may be betting that the U.S. is unwilling, or unable, to simultaneously engage in another conflict.

The United States, Britain, France and Germany all fear that Iran aims to develop nuclear weapons. And they have good reason to be concerned.

Hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Iran would not bend before the threat of sanctions.

''Iran is not frightened by threats from any country and it will continue the path of production of the nuclear energy,'' state-run radio quoted him as saying. ''Iranian people do not allow foreigners to block their progress.''

The ultra-conservative President has made a series of outrageous statements in recent months that have provided perfect examples of why many nations are deeply concerned about the possibility of Iran going nuclear.

In October, Ahmadinejad quoted the Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of Iran's Islamic revolution, saying that Israel "must be wiped out from the map of the world."

He insisted that a new series of attacks will destroy the Jewish state, and lashed out at Muslim countries and leaders that acknowledge Israel. "Anybody who recognizes Israel will burn in the fire of the Islamic nation's fury," he boldly proclaimed.

Ahmadinejad said the "new wave of confrontations generated in Palestine, and the growing turmoil in the Islamic world, would in no time wipe Israel away."

The president concluded by saying: "And God willing, with the force of God behind it, we shall soon experience a world without the United States and Zionism."

Most recently, in December, he described the Holocaust as "a myth" and suggested that Israel be moved to Europe, the United States, Canada or Alaska.

Mark Regev, the spokesman for Israel's Foreign Ministry, responded by saying: "The combination of a regime with a radical agenda, together with a distorted sense of reality that is clearly indicated by the statements we heard today, put together with nuclear weapons -- I think that's a dangerous combination that no one in the international community can accept."

The international community doesn't seem to want to accept it, but they may not be willing to anything substantive about it. Iran's regional neighbor Israel, on the other hand, would find its security jeopardized if Iran came into possession of nuclear weapons. According to media reports, before his recent stroke, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered Israel's military to be prepared for possible air strikes on secret uranium enrichment sites in Iran as soon as March.

While on the Fox News Channel last year, Sharon warned, "Israel — and not only Israel — cannot accept a nuclear Iran. We have the ability to deal with this and we're making all the necessary preparations to be ready for such a situation."

Right now some European nations appear reluctant to even refer Iran to the Security Council, much less threaten them with military consequences for their actions. They seem to be as concerned with escalating the current war of words as with the advancing nuclear program in a country that has an unpredictable firebrand for a president. Ahmadinejad has the backing of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the Council of Guardians, the ultra-conservative religious leaders with the ultimate authority in the country.

So it may fall to Israel to do something about the potential Iranian nuclear menace. In the wake of Iraq, the U.S. might find too politically risky to move unilaterally against Iran with a military strike. Israel, on the other hand, has never been politically popular and seems to have given up trying to curry favor with the rest of the world. Their number one concern, for good reason, is their own national security. And with a nuclear Iran, that security would indeed be threatened.

Copyright © 2005 The Independent Report. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author's consent.