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Iraq: Snow Job Summer

With its report due to Congress in just one week, the Bush administration has used the month of August to mobilize its congressional, military, and other right-wing allies to spin the facts on the ground and create a false impression of progress in Iraq.

September 10, 2007 by Faiz Shakir, Amanda Terkel, Satyam Khanna, and Matt Corley
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IRAQ

Snow Job Summer

With its report due to Congress in just one week, the Bush administration has used the month of August to mobilize its congressional, military, and other right-wing allies to spin the facts on the ground and create a false impression of progress in Iraq. The administration has watered down nonpartisan government reports that undercut the White House’s claims of significant progress. It has also arranged highly-orchestrated congressional delegation trips for conservative lawmakers who come back heralding President Bush’s policies, even though they never leave the Green Zone and are often on the ground for less than a day. With all these attempts to create the appearance of success, it’s no surprise that the administration plans to use Gen. David Petraeus’s testimony before Congress next week to claim that escalation is working. As the Center for American Progress has argued previously in the report Strategic Reset, Iraq is currently engaged in multiple internal conflicts that American military power cannot resolve. A new Center for American Progress report, How to Redeploy, lays out a plan for an orderly and safe withdrawal over a 10- to 12-month period.

CONGRESS’S ‘GREEN ZONE FOG’: Approximately 50 Members of Congress have visited Iraq this summer. While there, the lawmakers rarely leave the Green Zone, are constantly surrounded by the U.S. military, and are subjected to the administration’s presentation of the progress in Iraq. “I will tell you that when you get in the Green Zone, there is a physiological phenomenon I think called Green Zone fog. … It’s death by powerpoint. It’s always that their argument is winning,” said Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-CA), who recently returned from such a trip. Yet the administration has effectively used these trips to impress conservative lawmakers. Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Bob Corker (R-TN), and David Vitter (R-LA) returned from a trip last month and “gave an upbeat report on progress in Iraq” to reporters, saying they saw “clear success, province by province” and believed the “surge is working very, very well.” Unmentioned in press accounts of Alexander and Corker’s trip, however, was the fact that they spent only half a day on the ground in Iraq. Yet as Washington Post correspondent Jonathan Finer points out, there is reason to be skeptical of these “dog-and-pony shows.” “Prescient insights rarely emerge from a few days in-country behind the blast walls,” writes Finer.

MILITARY AS PR FLACKS: The White House continues to employ Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, as a PR flack for failing Iraq policies. Most recently, the White House deployed Petraeus to help the re-election of Australia’s Prime Minister John Howard, who is one of Bush’s few foreign allies on the war and is now suffering in the polls. Last week, Petraeus offered a one-on-one interview with The Australian, timed to coincide with Bush’s visit. In the interview, Petraeus said Bush’s Iraq strategy is working, and there “had been a 75 percent reduction in religious and ethnic killings since last year.” But as numerous reports have indicated, these claims of success are specious. Sectarian and ethnic killings remain very high, running at almost double the rate of last year. Petraeus will be delivering the White House’s report on progress in Iraq to Congress on Sept. 15. Increasingly, however, foreign policy analysts and lawmakers are raising concerns about Petraeus’s “conflicting loyalty” between “the desire to please the president” and to report the unvarnished truth about Bush’s strategy. “We have to be sanguine about the surge, and it’s [Petreaus’s] idea. … I don’t know anybody that doesn’t want to sell their idea and keep selling it,” said Tauscher. A recent Washington Post report found that Petraeus succeeded in altering the key judgments of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) about security in Iraq to reflect so-called “improvements in recent months.”

SHIFTING REALITY: Perhaps the most dissembling has come from the White House itself, which has used the August recess to plan political spectacles and alter government reports, even though August was the second month in a row that sectarian deaths rose. Over the Labor Day weekend, Bush made a “surprise” visit to Iraq, where he declared, “I have come here today to see with our own eyes the remarkable changes that are taking place in Anbar Province.” As The New York Times noted, Bush’s trip had a “clear political goal” — to “buttress White House contentions that its efforts in Iraq are beginning to produce results.” Yet Bush spent just seven hours on the ground and “never left the confines of the air base.” A draft version of an upcoming Government Accountability Office (GAO) report concludes that “Iraq has failed to meet all but three of 18 congressionally mandated benchmarks for political and military progress” and “the Bush administration’s conclusion in July that sectarian violence was decreasing as a result.” As with the NIE, the Bush administration has already hinted that it will push the GAO to alter its findings in the final report to benefit the President’s policies. Additionally, former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer has teamed up as the spokesman for Freedom’s Watch, a new right-wing front group for the White House that is “funded by high-profile Republicans who were aides and supporters of President Bush.” The group, which is intended to pressure Congress to continue supporting Bush’s Iraq strategy, has so far been little more than fear-mongering ads about an Iraq pullout. It has already gone after Sen. John Warner (R-VA), who believes Bush should announce in September that a few thousand U.S. troops will return home by the end of the year.

UNDER THE RADAR

ADMINISTRATION — NEW BOOK REVEALS BUSH’S HOPE TO ‘STAY LONGER’ IN IRAQ: Robert Draper, a former senior editor for the Texas Monthly, has authored a new book on the Bush presidency, entitled “Dead Certain.” In addition to six interviews with the President, Draper also interviewed outgoing White House adviser Karl Rove, Vice President Dick Cheney, Laura Bush, and many senior White House and administration officials. Bush tells Draper that his Iraq strategy is to “get us in a position where the presidential candidates will be comfortable about sustaining a presence,” and, he said later, “stay longer.” Some other highlights from the book: Rove told Bush he should not tap Cheney for Vice President; Bush hopes to make a lot of cash delivering speeches after his presidency is over; Bush “can’t remember” one of the biggest mistakes in post-war Iraq; the White House staff, including Dan Bartlett and Rove, were “constantly at war” with one another; and Bush cries a lot.

CIVIL LIBERTIES — DESPITE ‘DECLINING EFFECTIVENESS,’ DOMESTIC WIRETAPS UP 25 PERCENT NATIONALLY SINCE 9/11: Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the use of wiretaps in traditional criminal cases has increased significantly across the country. In the five years since 9/11, “state and federal courts authorized 8,122 wiretaps for domestic criminal investigations,” a nearly 25 percent increase over the previous five years. In that period, “judges denied wiretap applications only twice,” according to a review by the Arizona Republic. The paper’s numbers include neither the controversial warrantless wiretaps used as part of the administration’s so-called Terrorist Surveillance Program nor the “thousands of wiretaps in which a secret court approves warrants in counterterrorism and espionage cases.” When he first revealed the existence of the administration’s secret wiretapping program, New York Times reporter James Risen estimated that the National Security Agency eavesdrops on “as many as five hundred people in the United States at any given time and it has potentially has access to the phone calls and e-mails of millions more.” Analysis of court data by the Arizona Republic suggested the wiretaps are “declining [in] effectiveness” as “the federal government has been strengthening its counterterrorism-wiretap powers and increasingly shrouding new surveillance programs in secrecy.”

KATRINA — TWO YEARS LATER, FEDERAL GOVERNMENT STILL GROSSLY MISMANAGING NEW ORLEANS RECONSTRUCTION: Newsweek reports this week that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is still “bungling” projects related to the reconstruction of New Orleans. “Local officials complain bitterly that FEMA is still a bureaucratic mess,” seen, for example, in how a FEMA employee must sign off on the details of any project costing more than $55,000 in federal funds. “They’ll come in and say something costs $4 million that costs $40 million,” said Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-LA). “When FEMA does sign off on a project, it doesn’t distribute the money directly. It ‘obligates’ it to the state.” Furthermore, FEMA permits the city to rebuild city sewers “only as they were, not to upgrade them into a more modern system that officials want,” with such rules further hindering progress in reconstruction. The failings of FEMA are indicative of wider neglect and mismanagement of post-Katrina New Orleans. A report from the Southern Education Foundation highlights how the Bush administration has grossly shortchanged the region. For example, the estimated cost of hurricane-related destruction in K-12 and higher education in Mississippi and Louisiana is $6.2 billion, but “the federal government has provided only $1.2 billion.” Furthermore, just two percent of the federal government’s reconstruction funding went toward education recovery. Instead of education, “rich federal tax breaks designed to spur rebuilding are flowing hundreds of miles inland to investors who are buying up luxury condos.”

THINK FAST

President Bush’s arrival in Sydney was marked by protests. “An established anti-war group called the Stop Bush Coalition called a small ‘unwelcoming ceremony’ in Sydney to kick off a series of protests culminating in a march by up to 20,000 people on Saturday.” Authorities have locked down the city in the biggest security operation in Australian history.

President Bush’s success rating in the Democratic-controlled House has fallen this year to a half-century low, and he prevailed on only 14 percent of the 76 roll call votes on which he took a clear position. The previous low for any president was in 1995, when Bill Clinton won just 26 percent of the time during the first year after Republicans took control of the House.”

An exchange of letters from 2003, released yesterday by former Iraq envoy Paul Bremer, reveals that President Bush was told in advance of a plan to “dissolve Saddam’s military and intelligence structures.” The letters contradict claims by Bush “that American policy had been ‘to keep the army intact’ but that it ‘didn’t happen.'”

“A warm summer has produced a record melt of the polar ice cap, leaving the Northwest Passage clear enough for a sailboat to pass and prompting nations of the far north to assert claims over the Arctic Ocean seabed.” “This melt is unprecedented, and it’s speeding up,” said Trudy Wohlleben, senior ice forecaster with the Canadian Ice Service.

North Korea’s foreign ministry said yesterday that the Bush administration had decided to remove the country from its list of states sponsoring terrorism. But Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill said today, “No, they haven’t been taken off the terrorism list.”

“Newly released documents regarding crimes committed by United States soldiers against civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan detail a pattern of troops failing to understand and follow the rules that govern interrogations and deadly actions.” The documents, which were obtained by the ACLU, “show repeated examples of troops believing they were within the law when they killed local citizens.”

“World Bank President Robert Zoellick is an improvement over his predecessor Paul Wolfowitz, said Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs, a prominent advocate for aid to developing countries.” Sachs said he’s waiting to hear Zoellick’s agenda. “The main thing is, less ideology, more practical, measurable results,” he said.

And finally: A Capitol Hill aide politely declined to make his boss available for an interview for the “Better Know a District” segment on the Colbert Report. Roll Call reports, “The Colbert producer made a valiant effort to persuade [the aide] to change his mind. ‘We’re gonna get all 355 of you,’ the producer countered. ‘Um,’ the aide said. I think you’re going to be about 80 short.'”

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GOOD NEWS

Just before leaving for its August recess, the House approved a little-noticed amendment to its energy bill “that would allow members of Congress to lease only environmentally friendly cars.” The House energy bill would require all federal agencies to buy only low greenhouse-gas emitting vehicles for their fleets.

STATE WATCH

MARYLAND: Maryland, “the wealthiest state in the union,” prepares to take an unprecedented step to ensure that its workers earn a “living wage.”

MISSOURI: “[M]ore than 100,000 Missourians were added to the ranks of the uninsured between 2005 and 2006,” triple the national rate.

ECONOMY: “After five years of nearly stagnant growth, state employees finally saw a substantial uptick in their earnings in the past year.”

BLOG WATCH

THINK PROGRESS: CNN’s Wolf Blitzer dismantles Rep. Charles Boustany’s (R-LA) assertions of progress in Iraq.

THE HORSE’S MOUTH: The White House’s misleading PR campaign to show progress in Iraq has been enabled by the media.

CROOKS AND LIARS: Former Cheney aide Mary Matalin throws her pen on NBC’s Meet The Press after having her Iraq spin challenged.

AFL-CIO WEBLOG: A new report shows that one-third of the world’s workers are jobless and poor.

DAILY GRILL

“Do you realize that the United States is the only major industrialized nation that cut greenhouse gases last year?”
— President Bush, 8/27/07

VERSUS

“Kristen A. Hellmer, the spokeswoman for the White House Council on Environmental Quality, acknowledged afterward that the White House was unable to substantiate the claim.”
— Washington Post, 9/3/07