Saturday, June 23, 2007

They’ll Break the Bad News on 9/11

Op-Ed Columnist
The New York Times
June 24, 2007

BY this late date we should know the fix is in when the White House’s top factotums fan out on the Sunday morning talk shows singing the same lyrics, often verbatim, from the same hymnal of spin. The pattern was set way back on Sept. 8, 2002, when in simultaneous appearances three cabinet members and the vice president warned darkly of Saddam’s aluminum tubes. “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud,” said Condi Rice, in a scripted line. The hard sell of the war in Iraq — the hyping of a (fictional) nuclear threat to America — had officially begun.

America wasn’t paying close enough attention then. We can’t afford to repeat that blunder now. Last weekend the latest custodians of the fiasco, our new commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, and our new ambassador to Baghdad, Ryan Crocker, took to the Sunday shows with two messages we’d be wise to heed.

The first was a confirmation of recent White House hints that the long-promised September pivot point for judging the success of the “surge” was inoperative. That deadline had been asserted as recently as April 24 by President Bush, who told Charlie Rose that September was when we’d have “a pretty good feel” whether his policy “made sense.” On Sunday General Petraeus and Mr. Crocker each downgraded September to merely a “snapshot” of progress in Iraq. “Snapshot,” of course, means “Never mind!”

The second message was more encoded and more ominous. Again using similar language, the two men said that in September they would explain what Mr. Crocker called “the consequences” and General Petraeus “the implications” of any alternative “courses of action” to their own course in Iraq. What this means in English is that when the September “snapshot” of the surge shows little change in the overall picture, the White House will say that “the consequences” of winding down the war would be even more disastrous: surrender, defeat, apocalypse now. So we must stay the surge. Like the war’s rollout in 2002, the new propaganda offensive to extend and escalate the war will be exquisitely timed to both the anniversary of 9/11 and a high-stakes Congressional vote (the Pentagon appropriations bill).

General Petraeus and Mr. Crocker wouldn’t be sounding like the Bobbsey Twins and laying out this coordinated rhetorical groundwork were they not already anticipating the surge’s failure. Both spoke on Sunday of how (in General Petraeus’s variation on the theme) they had to “show that the Baghdad clock can indeed move a bit faster, so that you can put a bit of time back on the Washington clock.” The very premise is nonsense. Yes, there is a Washington clock, tied to Republicans’ desire to avoid another Democratic surge on Election Day 2008. But there is no Baghdad clock. It was blown up long ago and is being no more successfully reconstructed than anything else in Iraq.

When Mr. Bush announced his “new way forward” in January, he offered a bouquet of promises, all unfulfilled today. “Let the Iraqis lead” was the policy’s first bullet point, but in the initial assault on insurgents now playing out so lethally in Diyala Province, Iraqi forces were kept out of the fighting altogether. They were added on Thursday: 500 Iraqis, following 2,500 Americans. The notion that these Shiite troops might “hold” this Sunni area once the Americans leave is an opium dream. We’re already back fighting in Maysan, a province whose security was officially turned over to Iraqi authorities in April.

In his January prime-time speech announcing the surge, Mr. Bush also said that “America will hold the Iraqi government to the benchmarks it has announced.” More fiction. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s own political adviser, Sadiq al-Rikabi, says it would take “a miracle” to pass the legislation America wants. Asked on Monday whether the Iraqi Parliament would stay in Baghdad this summer rather than hightail it to vacation, Tony Snow was stumped.

Like Mr. Crocker and General Petraeus, Mr. Snow is on script for trivializing September as judgment day for the surge, saying that by then we’ll only “have a little bit of metric” to measure success. This administration has a peculiar metric system. On Thursday, Peter Pace, the departing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called the spike in American troop deaths last week the “wrong metric” for assessing the surge’s progress. No doubt other metrics in official reports this month are worthless too, as far as the non-reality-based White House is concerned. The civilian casualty rate is at an all-time high; the April-May American death toll is a new two-month record; overall violence in Iraq is up; only 146 out of 457 Baghdad neighborhoods are secure; the number of internally displaced Iraqis has quadrupled since January.

Last week Iraq rose to No. 2 in Foreign Policy magazine’s Failed State Index, barely nosing out Sudan. It might have made No. 1 if the Iraqi health ministry had not stopped providing a count of civilian casualties. Or if the Pentagon were not withholding statistics on the increase of attacks on the Green Zone. Apparently the White House is working overtime to ensure that the September “snapshot” of Iraq will be an underexposed blur. David Carr of The Times discovered that the severe Pentagon blackout on images of casualties now extends to memorials for the fallen in Iraq, even when a unit invites press coverage.

Americans and Iraqis know the truth anyway. The question now is: What will be the new new way forward? For the administration, the way forward will include, as always, attacks on its critics’ patriotism. We got a particularly absurd taste of that this month when Harry Reid was slammed for calling General Pace incompetent and accusing General Petraeus of exaggerating progress on the ground.

General Pace’s record speaks for itself; the administration declined to go to the mat in the Senate for his reappointment. As for General Petraeus, who recently spoke of “astonishing signs of normalcy” in Baghdad, he is nothing if not consistent. He first hyped “optimism” and “momentum” in Iraq in an op-ed article in September 2004.

Come September 2007, Mr. Bush will offer his usual false choices. We must either stay his disastrous course in eternal pursuit of “victory” or retreat to the apocalypse of “precipitous withdrawal.” But by the latest of the president’s ever-shifting definitions of victory, we’ve already lost. “Victory will come,” he says, when Iraq “is stable enough to be able to be an ally in the war on terror and to govern itself and defend itself.” The surge, which he advertised as providing “breathing space” for the Iraqi “unity” government to get its act together, is tipping that government into collapse. As Vali Nasr, author of “The Shia Revival,” has said, the new American strategy of arming Sunni tribes is tantamount to saying the Iraqi government is irrelevant.

For the Bush White House, the real definition of victory has become “anything they can get away with without taking blame for defeat,” said the retired Army Gen. William Odom, a national security official in the Reagan and Carter administrations, when I spoke with him recently. The plan is to run out the Washington clock between now and Jan. 20, 2009, no matter the cost.

Precipitous withdrawal is also a chimera, since American manpower, materiel and bases, not to mention our new Vatican City-sized embassy, can’t be drawn down overnight. The only real choice, as everyone knows, is an orderly plan for withdrawal that will best serve American interests. The real debate must be over what that plan is. That debate can’t happen as long as the White House gets away with falsifying reality, sliming its opponents and sowing hyped fears of Armageddon. The threat that terrorists in civil-war-torn Iraq will follow us home if we leave is as bogus as Saddam’s mushroom clouds. The Qaeda that actually attacked us on 9/11 still remains under the tacit protection of our ally, Pakistan.

As General Odom says, the endgame will start “when a senior senator from the president’s party says no,” much as William Fulbright did to L.B.J. during Vietnam. That’s why in Washington this fall, eyes will turn once again to John Warner, the senior Republican with the clout to give political cover to other members of his party who want to leave Iraq before they’re forced to evacuate Congress. In September, it will be nearly a year since Mr. Warner said that Iraq was “drifting sideways” and that action would have to be taken “if this level of violence is not under control and this government able to function.”

Mr. Warner has also signaled his regret that he was not more outspoken during Vietnam. “We kept surging in those years,” he told The Washington Post in January, as the Iraq surge began. “It didn’t work.” Surely he must recognize that his moment for speaking out about this war is overdue. Without him, the Democrats don’t have the votes to force the president’s hand. With him, it’s a slam dunk. The best way to honor the sixth anniversary of 9/11 will be to at last disarm a president who continues to squander countless lives in the names of those voiceless American dead.

A Vice President Without Borders, Bordering on Lunacy

Op-Ed Columnist
The New York Times
June 24, 2007


It’s hard to imagine how Dick Cheney could get more dastardly, unless J. K. Rowling has him knock off Harry Potter next month.

Harry’s cloak of invisibility would be no match for Vice’s culture of invisibility.

I’ve always thought Cheney was way out there — the most Voldemort-like official I’ve run across. But even in my harshest musings about the vice president, I never imagined that he would declare himself not only above the law, not only above the president, but actually his own dark planet — a separate entity from the White House.

I guess a man who can wait 14 hours before he lets it dribble out that he shot his friend in the face has no limit on what he thinks he can keep secret. Still, it’s quite a leap to go from hiding in a secure, undisclosed location in the capital to hiding in a secure, undisclosed location in the Constitution.

Dr. No used to just blow off the public and Congress as he cooked up his shady schemes. Now, in a breathtaking act of arrant arrogance, he’s blowing off his own administration.

Henry Waxman, the California congressman who looks like an accountant and bites like a pit bull, is making the most of Congress’s ability, at long last, to scrutinize Cheney’s chicanery.

On Thursday, Mr. Waxman revealed that after four years of refusing to cooperate with the government unit that oversees classified documents, the vice president tried to shut down the unit rather than comply with the law ensuring that sensitive data is protected. The National Archives appealed to the Justice Department, but who knows how much justice there is at Justice, now that the White House has so blatantly politicized it?

Cheney’s office denied doing anything wrong, but Cheney’s office is also denying it’s an office. Tricky Dick Deuce declared himself exempt from a rule that applies to everyone else in the executive branch, instructing the National Archives that the Office of the Vice President is not an “entity within the executive branch” and therefore is not subject to presidential executive orders.

“It’s absurd, reflecting his view from the first day he got into office that laws don’t apply to him,” Representative Waxman told me. “The irony is, he’s taking the position that he’s not part of the executive branch.”

Ah, if only that were true. Then maybe W. would be able to close Gitmo, which Vice has insisted he not do. And Condi wouldn’t have to worry every night that she’ll wake up to find crazy Dick bombing Iran, whispering to W. that they have to do it before that weak sister Hillary takes over.

“Your decision to exempt your office from the president’s order is problematic because it could place national security secrets at risk,” Mr. Waxman, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, wrote to Cheney.

Of course, it’s doubtful, now that Vice has done so much to put our national security at risk, that he’ll suddenly listen to reason.

Cheney and Cheney’s Cheney, David Addington, his equally belligerent, ideological and shadowy lawyer and chief of staff, have no shame. After claiming executive privilege to withhold the energy task force names and protect Scooter Libby, they now act outraged that Vice should be seen as part of the executive branch.

Cheney, they argue, is the president of the Senate, so he’s also part of the legislative branch. Vice is casting himself as a constitutional chimera, an extralegal creature with the body of a snake and the head of a sea monster. It’s a new level of gall, to avoid accountability by saying you’re part of a legislative branch that you’ve spent six years trying to weaken.

But gall is the specialty of Addington, who has done his best to give his boss the powers of a king. He was the main author of the White House memo justifying torture of terrorism suspects, and he helped stonewall the 9/11 commission. He led the fights supporting holding terrorism suspects without access to courts and against giving Congress and environmentalists access to information about the energy industry big shots who secretly advised Cheney on energy policy.

Dana Perino, a White House press spokeswoman, had to go out on Friday and defend Cheney’s bizarre contention that he is his own government. “This is an interesting constitutional question that legal scholars can debate,” she said.

I love that Cheney was able to bully Colin Powell, Pentagon generals and George Tenet when drumming up his fake case for war, but when he tried to push around the little guys, the National Archive data collectors — I’m visualizing dedicated “We the People” wonky types with glasses and pocket protectors — they pushed back.

Archivists are the new macho heroes of Washington.

The Capitol Energy Crisis

Op-Ed Columnist
The New York Times
June 24, 2007

When you watch a baby being born, after a difficult pregnancy, it is so painful and bloody for the mother it is always hard to tell the truth and say, “Gosh, that baby is really ugly.” But that’s how I feel about the energy legislation passed (and not passed) by the Senate last week.

The whole Senate energy effort only reinforced my feelings that we’re in a green bubble — a festival of hot air by the news media, corporate America and presidential candidates about green this and green that, but, when it comes to actually doing something hard to bring about a green revolution at scale — and if you don’t have scale on this you have nothing — we wimp out. Climate change is not a hoax. The hoax is that we are really doing something about it.

No question, it’s great news that the Democrat-led Senate finally stood up to the automakers, and to the Michigan senators, and said, “No more — no more assisted suicide of the U.S. auto industry by the U.S. Congress. We’re passing the first bill since 1975 that mandates an increase in fuel economy.” If the Senate bill, which now has to go through the House, becomes law, automakers will have to boost the average mileage of new cars and light trucks to 35 miles per gallon by 2020, compared with about 25 miles per gallon today.

But before you celebrate, pay attention to some fine print in the Senate bill. If the Transportation Department determines that the fuel economy goal for any given year is not “cost-effective” — that is, too expensive for the car companies to meet — it can ease the standard. That loophole has to be tightened by the House, which takes up this legislation next week.

But even this new mileage standard is not exactly world leading. The European Union is today where we want to be in 2020, around 35 miles per gallon, and it is committed to going well over 40 m.p.g. by 2012. Ditto Japan.

There are other things that make the Senate energy effort ugly. Senate Republicans killed a proposed national renewable electricity mandate that would have required utilities to produce 15 percent of their power from wind, solar, biomass and other clean-energy sources by 2020. Twenty-three states already have such mandates. No matter. Making it national was too much for the Republicans.

And the Senate, thanks again to the Republicans, also squashed a Democratic proposal to boost taxes on oil and gas companies that would have raised some $32 billion for alternative fuel projects.

Despite all the new research on climate change, the Senate didn’t even touch the idea of either a cap-and-trade system or a carbon tax to limit carbon dioxide emissions. An effort by Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota to legislate a national reporting (“carbon counter”) system to simply measure all sources of greenhouse gas emissions, which would enable a cap-and-trade system to work if we ever passed one, also got killed by Republicans. We can’t cap and trade something we can’t measure.

Here is the truth: the core of our energy crisis is in Washington. We have all the technology we need right now to make huge inroads in becoming more energy efficient and energy independent, with drastically lower emissions. We have all the capital we need as well. But because of the unique nature of the energy and climate-change issues — which require incentives and regulations to build alternatives to dirty, but cheap, fossil fuels — you need public policy to connect the energy and capital the right way. That is what has been missing.

“We have to work to ensure that the House will at least toughen the provisions that the Senate passed,” said Dan Becker, director of the Sierra Club’s Global Warming Program.

The public wants it. But energy policy gets shaped in the halls of Congress — where wily lobbyists, legacy industries and politicians greedy for campaign contributions regularly sell out the country’s interests for their own. Only when the public really rises up — as it has finally done against the auto companies — do we even get moderate change. Don’t look to the Bush team to lead the revolution.

“We are the only major country in the world where no one even knows the name of the environment minister — the head of our Environmental Protection Agency,” said Representative Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat. “Whoever it is — and most people don’t even know if it is a he or a she — has been in a six-year witness protection program. Until the Democrats took over, no Bush E.P.A. administrator appeared before the House committee in charge of energy and climate change.”

Folks, we’re home alone. So call your House member — especially the Republicans. If you don’t, some lobbyist will.

For Filmmaker, ‘Sicko’ Is a Jumping-Off Point for Health Care Change

The New York Times
June 24, 2007

The cameramen shuffled backward through a Capitol Hill corridor, as reporters from Tokyo and Paris strained to capture the campaigner’s every word. An entourage of handlers, with cellphones to their ears, kept the scrum moving toward the door. A van was waiting, its engine running. “Keep moving, people,” one aide barked. “Keep moving. We’ve got to go.”

Barack Obama in the House? Perhaps Fred Thompson?

Try Michael Moore, the guerrilla filmmaker, his plaid shirt untucked in the back, on the latest stop, held Wednesday, in a Barnumesque promotional tour that has taken on the trappings and purpose of a tightly managed political campaign.

As he moved from Sacramento to New York and on to Washington this week, Mr. Moore has not just set out to sell tickets to “Sicko,” his cinematic indictment of the American health care system. He has also pushed his prescription for reform: a single-payer system, with the government as insurer, that would guarantee access to health care for all Americans and put the private insurance industry out of business.

Whether embracing Mr. Moore’s remedy or disdaining it, elected officials and policy experts agreed last week that the film was likely to have broad political impact, perhaps along the lines of “An Inconvenient Truth,” Al Gore’s jeremiad on global warming. It will, they predicted, crystallize the frustration that is a pre-existing condition for so many health care consumers.

Well before the film’s June 29 national release (it opened Friday on one New York screen), politicians on the left began lining up to associate themselves with Mr. Moore.

Representative John Conyers Jr., a Democrat from Mr. Moore’s home state of Michigan, played host to the filmmaker at a Congressional hearing this week to build support for his bill to establish a single-payer system. Fabian Núñez, the speaker of the California Assembly, who is negotiating a health care package with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, held a closed-door meeting with Mr. Moore last week and then joined him at a crowded news conference. After attending a screening on Wednesday night, Representative Bobby L. Rush, a Democrat from Chicago, promptly swore off contributions from the pharmaceutical industry.

“I think one movie can make a difference; I do believe that,” Mr. Moore said Wednesday, while being driven from the standing-room-only Congressional hearing to a puckishly arranged screening for health care lobbyists. “I’m not doing this to market the film. First of all, I don’t need to market my films. Every time I make a film, it breaks the last record. But I’m doing this because I really want to make a contribution to the national debate on this issue.”

Though few people have actually seen the movie, Harvey Weinstein, one of its executive producers, said it had already set off “a political wildfire.” The film, Mr. Weinstein said, “comes at a time when people are fed up with health care and want reforms — and I believe it will be a catalyst for the type of real change people want.”

Mr. Núñez, a Los Angeles Democrat, said the movie would galvanize support for the reform legislation in the California Legislature. “The conclusion you come to after watching that documentary is that you have a health care system on the verge of collapse,” he said. “It’s either going to fall of its own weight, or people are going to rise up against it.”

The movie’s critics argue that it lacks the credibility to move public opinion in a lasting way, and that it will have no more impact than Mr. Moore’s previous films.

“I think it will be like ‘Bowling for Columbine,’ ” said Michael F. Cannon, director of health policy studies for the Cato Institute. “You remember how we all got together afterwards and decided to ban guns.”

Mr. Moore and his producers have hired a team of experienced political operatives to garner publicity for “Sicko” and to respond to anticipated attacks from the insurance and pharmaceutical industries. They include Chris Lehane, an aggressive consultant for the Gore and Kerry presidential campaigns, and Ken Sunshine, a prominent New York publicist who once served as chief of staff for David N. Dinkins, the former mayor.

At stops on each coast, in scenes that seem made for a sequel, the Moore camp has surrounded its standard bearer with chanting health care workers uniformed in red scrubs. The strategists used full-page advertisements to invite 900 lobbyists — by name — to the private screening in Washington (only half a dozen showed) and held another screening on Wall Street for health care stock analysts. They orchestrated a march on the headquarters of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association in Chicago, and sent Mr. Moore into New Hampshire, the first primary state, to demand pledges of support from presidential candidates.

“It’s being run like a war,” Mr. Moore said. “I mean, we’re in a battle with these corporations who want to maintain their position. They don’t want to give an inch on this, and we’re out to upset the apple cart.”

Mr. Moore agrees that he is merely setting a match to fuel that has been welling for years. Recent polls show that universal access to health coverage is by far the country’s top domestic policy priority, and that nearly half of all Americans say they support the single-payer system extolled by Mr. Moore in “Sicko.”

But the success of Mr. Moore’s previous films guarantees “Sicko” the kind of mass audience rarely associated with health care reform. His last movie, “Fahrenheit 9/11,” became the top grossing documentary ever, taking in $119.2 million domestically in 2004 (five times as much as Mr. Gore’s movie in 2006). “Sicko” has a $9 million budget, Mr. Weinstein said.

Though speaking against the film carries the risk of generating more buzz for it, the opposition is also campaigning hard. Representatives of insurance and pharmaceutical trade groups are countering Mr. Moore’s praise for socialized health systems in Canada, Cuba, France and Britain. And as details have seeped out from screenings, they have started disputing some of Mr. Moore’s anecdotes about rejected insurance claims and unnecessary deaths.

Staff members of America’s Health Insurance Plans, the industry’s leading trade group, handed out news releases at Mr. Moore’s events this week emphasizing the need for “a uniquely American solution” and raising the specter of “long waits for rationed care.”

Free-market policy groups like the Cato Institute have held briefings to rebut Mr. Moore, showing short films that find fault with the Canadian system. Health Care America, a group that is financed in part by pharmaceutical and hospital companies, placed an advertisement in a Capitol Hill newspaper stating: “In America, you wait in line to see a movie. In government-run health care systems, you wait to see a doctor.”

Ken Johnson, a senior vice president for Pharmaceutical Manufacturers of America, predicted the movie was “going to energize activists, but I don’t think it’s going to change anybody’s party affiliation.” Yet, Mr. Johnson said the industry did not feel it could ignore the movie because doing so would “admit tacitly that some of what he says is true, and that’s not the case. He holds the camera, he gets the last say, and that’s the problem for us.”

Leaving the Congo

By Leana Wen
Two For the Road:
In Africa With Nick Kristof
The New York Times
June 22, 2007

I never thought I would be so happy to leave the Congo. Goma never felt right to me; in fact, the more days I spent walking along the dark gray lava-covered ground, being stared at by suspicious and glaring eyes, the more tense and anxious I became. Like Will, I was relieved to return to the oasis of our hotel every night.

Others in the Congo do not have the choice to leave. I keep thinking of the camps I visited full of homeless people living in thatch-roof shacks. One camp is aptly nicknamed “misery camp”: Many have had family members raped and killed, they have no access to education, and they are completely dependent on outside assistance for food. These villagers cannot return home. They have no security anywhere. They are indefinitely stuck in these tiny camps, with uncertain futures and little hope.

“Misery camp” may well reflect the status of the Congo. It’s infinitely sad to me that such a beautiful country endowed with so many natural resources can have such a tortured past and present. I remember driving through a town in Rutshuru province that was absolutely breathtaking, with beautiful greenery and lush vegetation everywhere. No more than 5 km from that town, we came across another one where its crops were neglected and houses burned. Weeds were growing everywhere. This town had been attacked by soldiers, our guide explained. All the people have left and are now living in a displacement camp. Like its crops, the town is completely deserted.

What’s ironic is that the villagers who left are now dependent on the food provided by the World Food Program (WFP), whereas before the attack, the town used to produce food for the WFP. Who attacked the town remains unclear: one rebel fraction will always blame another, and all will say that whatever they did was justified to bring peace to the people. “I don’t think these soldiers understand,” said our guide, “They say they are fighting for the people, but they are actually shooting the people in the head and our country in the foot.”

Perhaps it is in part because of its abundant resources that the Congo has been embroiled in the downward cycle of conflict, poverty, and hopelessness. In his book, “The Bottom Billion,” Paul Collier discussed four traps leading to what he refers to as the poverty trap. These include the traps of conflict, bad governance, being land-locked with bad neighbors, and having abundant natural resources. Many countries have one trap; some have two. The Congo is particularly unfortunate to have suffered from all four traps.

Will the Congo ever break free of these traps? Almost every Congolese I spoke with had little hope for their country. “We just have bad leaders who kill,” said one man. “Good leaders don’t live long in the Congo.” Everyone talked about the erosion of human values. I really felt devoid of hope when a pastor told me, “Nobody here has human values any more. They think it is normal to rape and kill. God cannot even help because the people here no longer have faith in anything.”

Perhaps the most disturbing part of being in the Congo is that I feel myself becoming numb to the ongoing atrocities. I am no longer reacting with horror and shock upon hearing that this town has had 25 people massacred, or that this woman had been raped by five soldiers, or that all these thousands are barely surviving after being kicked out of their village. A week ago, I wouldn’t have thought that I could just shrug and think of deaths and rapes as a statistics.

I learned a great deal from visiting the Congo. Particularly about the pervasive and damaging effects of conflict and insecurity. But it is time that I leave. I don’t want to become immune to human suffering, and I don’t want to lose hope for humanity.


Leana S. Wen was born in Shanghai, China. She came to the U.S. on political asylum in 1991, and grew up in Utah, California and Missouri. Her experiences as an immigrant in diverse communities are driving forces behind her interests in public health and international health policy, and her commitment to fighting for social justice around the world. A recent graduate of Washington University School of Medicine, Leana has served as a Global Health Fellow at the World Health Organization in Geneva; as a National Security Education Program Boren Fellow in Kigali, Rwanda; and as National President of the American Medical Student Association, the nation's largest independent organization of physicians-in-training. Leana is a Rhodes Scholar-elect, and in the fall, she will begin two years of study at the University of Oxford to examine health systems in developing countries. After her return, Leana plans to enter residency training in emergency medicine.


By Will Okun
Two For the Road:
In Africa With Nick Kristof
The New York Times
June 22, 2007

Alice Walker observed, “Black women are the mules of the world.” Traveling across the poor African country of Burundi, we see women doing the majority of the hard fieldwork and, of course, all of the labor in the home.

We also drive by women of all ages transporting insane loads of goods and foods on their backs from village to village or to the market. These women are struggling up endless hills, stooped almost parallel to the ground, traveling miles upon miles.

(Nick Kristof attempted to carry a 50-year-old woman’s bag and nearly toppled under the weight.)

Here in Burundi, the muling process begins early as few girls complete more than a few years of formal education. Why should a family continue to pay school bills (uniforms, supplies, etc.) for a girl when that child could be helping her mother work in the house? The girl’s future is already predetermined: marriage and servitude.

Today we visited a primary school in the province of Kirundo, where the World Food Programme has implemented a new initiative that seeks to address the existing gender disparity in Burundi schools. All female students between the grades of four and six receive a take-home ration of food.

It is now more lucrative for a Burundi family to send their child to school than to keep her at home. The incentive program at this primary school has quickly proved a success as total enrollment has grown sharply.

Perhaps Chicago Public Schools should consider a similar program to address the alarming drop-out rate of black male students (predominately low-income). Currently we expect these students to finish school because it is in their future best interests, and yet less than 50% (numbers vary according to source) graduate citywide, including where I teach at Westside Alternative High School.

Male students drop-out for myriad of reasons, however I believe most leave school because they do not or can not see how their high school classes or the resulting diploma is relevant to their future success. There are few older male role models in these low-income neighborhoods who can demonstrate that an education is essential to personal, career, and financial success.

Plus, school is boring as hell, no one seems to care, there is constant hostility and fights, and there is money to be made now, legally and illegally. So why should they stay in school?

A financial incentive for attendance, grades and behavior would address their current economic situations while simultaneously providing them with a diploma and the framework to enter the workforce or college. More importantly, education will enable young, low-income urban black males, like the girls in Kirundo, to climb off society’s bottom rung in the climb to equality and respect.

I know, I know, it is ridiculous to pay students to attend school, but what is your plan to curb the urban male drop-out rate?


Will Okun has taught English and photography for eight years at Westside Alternative High School in the Austin community of Chicago. He is also the sponsor of the weightlifting club and, at 5' 5" (in boots), claims to still be the best basketball player in the school (unconfirmed). Will spends the rest of his waking hours operating, a Web site that features his portraits of high school students and documentary photographs of the West Side communities of Chicago. The site offers a unique perspective on inner-city youth culture and averages 30,000 views a week from all over the world. Will proudly hails from Carrboro, North Carolina.


By Sandi Austin
Home Fires
Iraq War Veterans on Their Return to American Life
The New York Times
June 22, 2007

I’m sitting on a curb along the edge of the parking lot next to the gym with two duffle bags, a ruck sack, the M249 and a 9mm strapped to my leg. It is hard to believe that all of my personal possessions for the next year can be hand carried.
— Journal Entry, November 11, 2003

It hit me two days ago, as I was unpacking the truck after a camping trip, loading the washing machine, washing the dirty dog, doing the dishes, mopping the floor, and finally driving downtown to pick up dinner, how simple the day to day routine of life in Iraq was. (By no means am I implying that I want to go back.)

Although in Iraq our lives were constantly in danger, everything was laid out for us. At the time, having limited choice felt like prison. Now at times I wish someone would make decisions for me. It has become clear that limited choice in a war zone allows the soldier to focus only on the task at hand.

Arriving with two duffel bags, I didn’t have to worry about material things, everything I was going to wear, wash with, or use for entertainment was packed. During the first few months an M.R.E. (Meal Ready to Eat) was simply tossed to me out of a cardboard box, I didn’t even get to shuffle through that brown box to determine if I wanted the tortellini or the ham slice. We all wore the same thing, so there was no need to fret over what to wear, no putting on an outfit, looking in the mirror, and thinking, “I don’t feel like tan today.”

After we arrived on base, there were Iraqis that did our laundry, kitchen staff that cooked and cleaned the dishes, air conditioning and hot water that was already paid for. Luckily, I had a great friend who was taking care of my finances while I was away, so I didn’t even have to look at my checkbook. All I had to do was wake up, go the gym, go down town, avoid roadside bombs, safely return to base, attend three hours of meetings, eat, and sleep. Although it became extremely routine, it was simple.

At home we are constantly trying to keep up with everybody and everything. Feels like I am spinning on a wheel that never stops turning. When will it rust up, slow down, stop? It took going away and coming back to see all of the unnecessary “stuff” that we clutter ourselves and our lives with.

You wake up, choose what to wear from a wardrobe that would fill ten duffel bags.

Look in the mirror and ensure that it meets the “business-world/professional standard” and looks good. Take a shower with multiple choices of body soap, shampoo, and conditioner. Open a stocked refrigerator, that in order to fill required you to look over hundreds of brands, and decide which of all of these things would make you the happiest. Choose which flavor of yogurt to eat, which juice to drink, which glass to use. Then decide what to drive to work; the van, the truck, the Toyota, the motorcycle, or the bicycle.

In the United State, grocery shopping — what seems like a simple task — can be overwhelming as well. I went to buy body lotion when I first returned and I remember having to choose from 20 different brands … and what makes one better than another?

I have yet to figure that out. It is a luxury that all of our meat is wrapped, and that the vegetables are stacked high in refrigerated bins with water misting over them. Iraqis have meat hanging in the streets, and are lucky to have a refrigerator that is actually running all day in their homes. Then there is the Super Wal-Mart … it is amazing the stuff I never knew that I “needed” until I walked into that store.

Upon reaching the check-out line, we choose which card to pay with. Master Card, Visa, Discover Card, gift card, Albertson’s card, Safeway card. I walked into Pet Smart last week and the cashier said, “Do you have a Pet Smart card?
“No,” I said. “Would I save money if I did?”

He replied, “No, nothing you bought is on sale.”

Why not just mark it as on sale? Simplify things, instead of having to carry another card?

After shopping you may finally decide it is easier to go out to eat. Now we choose which of the 100 restaurants in town to dine at. Sit down, look at an insanely long menu and try to decide what to eat or drink. Simplicity does not exist. Having come back I realize how big, how fast, and how excessive our lifestyle as Americans seems to be.

At times I am envious of the slow pace of life that I observed in Iraq. Simplicity definitely has its appeal; maybe that spinning wheel would slow down if everyone learned to live a little more simply.


Sandi Austin spent 11 months in Iraq as a sergeant with the 445th Civil Affairs Battalion, in Samarra and later Mosul. For most of her tour, she worked as a liaison to the governor of Nineveh Province. She returned to her home in Monterey, Calif., in October 2004.

A Mayor Often Ill at Ease, and Usually Muted on Iraq

About New York
The New York Times
June 23, 2007

The mayor’s lips are pursed. The tuxedo-and-gown dinner crowd in the Pierre hotel ballroom has fallen still, just a few spoons rattling along the rims of dessert plates. At the very front of the room, the spotlight has settled on Michael R. Bloomberg. Someone is reading an award citation for his work as mayor. Mr. Bloomberg oscillates. He bounces on his toes, nods his head. His eyes appear to be pinned open. Though he has not uttered a word, Mr. Bloomberg’s body seems to all but scream: Get me out of here.

It is easy to watch him going through the motions of the routine antics of public officialdom — the giving of plaques, the issuing of proclamations, the receiving of medals — and believe that he shows up only because, somehow, if just through body language, he can sneer at the ceremony. That the soul of a punk-rocker has been wrapped in custom-tailored suits.

By quitting the Republican Party, Mr. Bloomberg has made himself available for a presidential campaign, ready for voters who like their coffee strong. Yet for all his bluntness, Mr. Bloomberg has kept his lips pursed on the defining exercise of American power in the 21st century — the invasion of Iraq — except to offer quiet, unambiguous support.

At the Pierre on Thursday, as the gold medal of the Foreign Policy Association was draped around his neck in honor of his efforts at education reform, Mr. Bloomberg ducked his head and managed the barest of smiles.

Mr. Bloomberg combines frank indifference to ritual with what seems like a full-brained embrace of problems: Here are 158 pages on how the city can cut the amount of carbon fuels it burns. Here’s a new telephone number for all city services. Here’s a reorganized school system.

He raced through his speech Thursday evening without bothering much about the oratory, but still managed to offer a panoramic view on a few topics. He noted that in a global economy, a weak education meant second-class citizenship. Without 400,000 to 500,000 immigrants every year, he said, the country would not have enough people to pay for Social Security, to start new businesses, or to refresh the culture. And how, he asked, could the United States have visa rules that forced brilliant foreign graduate students who had gotten American degrees to leave the country?

“We just have to stop this craziness, and understand who we are, and not be so threatened by terrorism that the terrorists win without firing a shot,” he said.

Although he was speaking to a foreign policy group, Mr. Bloomberg barely mentioned Iraq or the central role that the city was assigned in the justification for the war.

In May 2004, a year after the invasion, Mr. Bloomberg served as host to Laura Bush, who had come to New York in an effort to rally support for the war effort. Mrs. Bush visited a memorial for Sept. 11th victims. Standing next to Mrs. Bush, with the Statue of Liberty in the background, Mr. Bloomberg, right, suggested that New Yorkers could find justification for the war at the World Trade Center site, even though no Iraqi is known to have had a hand in the Sept. 11 attacks.

“Don’t forget that the war started not very many blocks from here,” he said that day in 2004.

Apart from these remarks and other comments about the cruel history of Saddam Hussein, Mr. Bloomberg has said little about the war or other foreign affairs; to do so, he and his aides have said, would be a form of grandstanding for which he has no taste.

A few hours before the mayor gave his speech on Thursday night, American military officials announced that 14 more soldiers had been killed in two days. And for Iraqi civilians, the death toll of 9/11 is not a once-in-an-epoch moment, but often the monthly body count in the morgues. In his speech, Mr. Bloomberg remarked on the sacrifice of soldiers and what he implied was the ingratitude of people opposed to the war.

“We shouldn’t forget that we have young men and women overseas fighting and dying, sadly, so that we can protest,” he said. “I sometimes think young protesters don’t realize that their right to protest is not something that they would have elsewhere, and it’s a right that has to be fought for continuously.”

As for those who made the decision to go to war, Mr. Bloomberg’s lips remained firmly sealed.


Baseball’s Japanese Roots Survive Test of Time and Will

Sports of The Times
June 23, 2007

Chitoshi Akizuki wasn’t sure whether he would travel from San Jose to San Francisco this weekend to watch Hideki Matsui and the Yankees play the San Francisco Giants. But he will be there in spirit.

He always is.

Chi Akizuki is hardly a household name, though he is a baseball hero in San Jose. He is part of a Japanese-American semiprofessional baseball culture that flourished in California beginning in the early 1900s. These players and their leagues built the road that has become a super highway for players like Matsui and Ichiro Suzuki. Akizuki’s journey through baseball, and his connection with the game, is a salt-of-the-earth story.

At a time when Major League Baseball is being forced to look into its soul, Akizuki, 84, illuminates the spirit of eternal optimism at the game’s core.

Akizuki was a freshman at San Jose State on Dec. 7, 1941. His basketball club team, comprising Japanese-American players, was participating in a local tournament when the news came that Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor.

He celebrated his 19th birthday on Feb. 2, 1942. On Feb. 19, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which led to the removal of about 110,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans from the West Coast during World War II.

Along with thousands of other families, Akizuki, his parents and his three younger sisters were sent to the stables and paddocks of the Santa Anita Race Track, which had been hastily converted into a relocation center. Santa Anita was a temporary center for Japanese-Americans throughout California. The families were soon transferred into a camp at Heart Mountain, Wyo., for the duration of the war. “The notice came from the government that we were going to be rounded up,” Akizuki said in a telephone interview earlier this week from his home in San Jose. “All the people of Japanese descent, even American citizens, were told that we had to leave the area where we were living and go to Santa Anita.”

Akizuki did not play organized baseball at San Jose High School or in college at San Jose State. He was a sprinter on the track team and a basketball player.

At the relocation center, he was recruited as a center fielder. He originally played for Asahi, one of the oldest Japanese-American semipro teams. But he became part of a new team, the Azucars, named for the winner of the first Santa Anita Handicap. When he went to Heart Mountain, Akizuki joined the Zebras.

For Akizuki and his friends, the camps were a new adventure. They became a social network that brought together Japanese-American families throughout the West Coast. Baseball provided a measure of freedom, and his team played against other camp teams. On one trip, they traveled from Wyoming to Arizona.

“For me, it was kind of exciting,” he said. “We had things to do, like playing baseball, basketball, even football. There were social clubs. The girls had their own clubs, and the boys had their own clubs. They had dances. For the young guys, it wasn’t bad.”

For many adults, internment was a devastating blow and represented an unspeakable violation. Thousands of Japanese-American families lost homes and businesses virtually overnight.

“Our parents were the ones it hit hardest,” he said. “They didn’t talk, hardly at all, about what happened to them. Most of the families were like that.”

Akizuki met his wife, Kimiko, who was from Los Angeles, in the camp. They married in 1950 and had three children.

For the adults, the internment camp baseball culture became a bright spot in the night. There was a deep and passionate enthusiasm for organized baseball among Japanese-Americans who played in semipro leagues that traversed the West Coast and Pacific Northwest. The game kept them connected to the American ideal; baseball allowed them to keep their faith in that ideal at a time when it was hazy, at best.

Akizuki never returned to San Jose State, and the prospect of playing major league baseball seemed out of the question for him and many others.

Jackie Robinson became the first African-American to play modern major league baseball, in 1947. The first Japanese-born player, Masanori Murakami, didn’t reach the majors until 1964, with the Giants. After the war, Akizuki worked in packing houses, loading vegetables on trucks. He got a job with the Postal Service, where he remained for 30 years.

Chi Akizuki has taken the baseball journey of a lifetime. He was 11 in 1934, when Babe Ruth led a team of major leaguers to Japan for an exhibition against a team of all-stars. That all-star team became the Tokyo Giants, Japan’s first professional baseball team.

He was 12 when those same Giants traveled to California and lost a landmark game against the San Jose Asahi. He was 19 when he entered the internment camp and 65 in 1988, when President Reagan signed legislation apologizing for the internment on behalf of the United States.

In his life, Akizuki has seen Japanese baseball players become stars in the United States.

“It makes you proud,” he said. “These players from Japan, they all want to come and play in the major leagues.”

I wondered if young Japanese players were aware of their Japanese baseball predecessors in the United States. “They probably don’t know about us playing baseball in camps,” Akizuki said. “I don’t think they know.”

His life in baseball and the legacy it represents are part of a timeless essence: Baseball heals; baseball unites.

Chi Akizuki may not see Hideki Matsui in San Francisco this weekend, but he will certainly be there in spirit.

He always is.


A Lifeline of Sorts to Newspapers

Talking Business
The New York Times
June 23, 2007

So I went to Chicago this week to see Sam Zell, the billionaire real estate mogul who not all that long ago sold one of his major holdings, Equity Office Properties Trust, to the Blackstone Group for $39 billion.

In all of human history, there has never been a larger private equity deal. But was I interested in interviewing him about this great triumph? Nah. As a cog in the wheel of the struggling newspaper industry, I wanted to hear what Mr. Zell had to say about his recent — how to describe it? “Takeover?” “Bear hug?” “Assumption of control?”— of the Tribune Company, owner of The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times, a handful of television stations and the Chicago Cubs, among other assets.

As Zell deals go, this hardly ranks among his biggest; he’s putting up a “mere” $250 million to gain control of a company with $5.5 billion in revenue last year. But what it lacks in economic heft, it more than makes up for in complexity. When the deal closes, probably at the end of the year, the Tribune Company will go from being a public company to a private S corporation, meaning it will pay no corporate taxes. Its sole owner will be an employee stock ownership plan, which is essentially a fund, owned by employees, which owns the company’s stock. ESOPs also pay no taxes, meaning that both the company and its owner will no longer be taxpayers. Mr. Zell, who will become chairman of the company, will immediately recoup his $250 million and then reinvest an additional $315 million (don’t ask). He’ll have an option to buy 40 percent of the company for another $500 million to $600 million. (If he does so, he will become the one taxpayer in the deal.)

The Tribune Company will be laden with debt, $13 billion in all, which it plans to pay down in part with the extra cash flow that is generated from not having to pay taxes. If the company does well — or even just decently — everyone will make out, starting with the employees whose stock in the ESOP will be worth a lot more than $28 a share, the discounted price the ESOP paid for it.

But if it continues to sink — and just this week, the Tribune Company announced that May revenue fell 11.1 percent — then the company could wind up in default, which would hurt everyone, starting, again, with the employees, who would lose the value of their ESOP shares.

This state of affairs means that all hands at the Tribune Company have a powerful incentive to figure out some way to stop the bleeding, and start growing again. And all of us who work at the country’s other newspaper companies, which are also bleeding to greater or lesser degrees, have a rooting interest in Tribune’s experiment. Which is not to say we all ought to be racing to set up ESOPs. As is so often the case, one man’s meat is another man’s poison.

A VISIT to Mr. Zell’s Chicago office is always a bit of a trip. A short gruff man with a trim white beard, Mr. Zell, 65, tends toward gold chains, brightly colored shirts and jeans. He is joyously blunt-spoken and quite funny. And his office is festooned with extravagant music boxes he designs each year and sends out at Christmastime. Last year’s version, for instance, features a Frank Sinatra soundalike singing lyrics, written by Mr. Zell, that lampoon Sarbanes-Oxley, while two sculptured hands moved forward, as if to throttle American capitalism. (You can see and hear most of the collection at; it’s worth a visit for the sheer entertainment value.)

But back to the Tribune Company. The newspaper industry, as has been documented ad nauseum, is hurting because the Internet has wreaked havoc on its business model. The once-lucrative classified ad business has been largely destroyed, while circulation has fallen sharply as people have either stopped reading the paper, or taken to reading it online free. Advertising on the Internet, meanwhile, generates only a fraction of the revenue that ads in a newspaper bring in. The trick, which no one has yet solved, is to figure out how to grow as readers and ads continue to gravitate to the Internet.

As it turns out, Mr. Zell doesn’t have a silver bullet either. He seemed to take the view, for instance, that all it would take for the Tribune Company to start generating more ad revenue was a smarter advertising sales approach. And while he said he had ideas he wasn’t ready to unveil until the transaction closed, he didn’t seem to believe, as so many do (myself included), that the news business is going to have to find a different model if it hopes to thrive again. “It is a 160-year-old business that has a lot of history and an opportunity to do a much better job,” he said, speaking of the Tribune Company.

Mr. Zell also made it plain that he did the deal not because he harbored some deep feelings about the role of newspapers in a democracy, but because he was getting a good asset on the cheap. “I looked at this as a business transaction,” he told me. “That’s just who I am. My entry point is $34 a share”— and that low price is why he jumped in. (The ESOP trustee negotiated the lower $28 a share for the employees.) He was just doing what he’s done his entire career: buying an out-of-favor asset.

What most seemed to excite him was the ESOP itself. And why not? As the Lehman Brothers tax expert Robert Willens said, “He is using it in a way that no one has ever done before.” Mostly, ESOPs are set up when family owners want to cash out of privately held companies and turn them over to their employees. Mr. Zell, by contrast, is using it to buy out the shareholders of a large public corporation —and turn it into a tax-free private company.

“If I do it right,” Mr. Zell said, “the Tribune will offer a new kind of example. If I can get people to focus on the fact that they own it, we can make progress towards creating value.” He continued: “Being a private company will be beneficial.” Righting the ship, he thought, would be easier if the Tribune Company no longer had to worry about the pressures of Wall Street.

In that case, I asked him, should Dow Jones and The New York Times Company —two companies where revenue and the stock price have declined in recent years —follow him into ESOP-ville? More broadly, if going private made sense for the Tribune Company, did it therefore make sense for other media companies? This is an idea that gets talked about a lot these days among journalists, who fear that the nonstop cost-cutting demanded by Wall Street will damage even the best newspapers — and who see private ownership as a panacea.

Mr. Zell quickly dismissed Dow Jones from the discussion; its “point of entry” was too high, thanks to Rupert Murdoch’s $60-a-share offer. But for the Times Company, and many other media companies with depressed stock prices, it might well make sense, he said.

But I’m not so sure. The notion of taking a struggling company private is an appealing one on the surface. Brian Tierney, the Philadelphia advertising executive who led a consortium of local investors who bought The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Daily News from Knight Ridder last year, told me that running them as a private enterprise has made a world of difference. “We are spending $14 million to boost marketing and circulation,” he said. “Knight Ridder spent $300,000. If we were publicly traded, we couldn’t do this.” Of course, going private didn’t prevent Mr. Tierney from calling for big layoffs when the papers turned in some dismal numbers shortly after he took them over.

The truth is, the problem is the same for all newspaper companies, whether private or public. They all have to continue groping toward an uncertain future until they find a way to start growing again. If they don’t, they’re doomed. “Badly run newspapers will fail,” said Merrill Brown, a media industry consultant. The Tribune Company may no longer have to face pressure from Wall Street, but it is going to have an enormous amount of debt to service, and that is going to create short-term pressure at least as onerous as anything Wall Street could devise.

However much Mr. Zell admires his ESOP, it’s worth remembering that the Tribune Company acted out of desperation. It had put itself up for sale and had come up empty. Other newspapers companies, despite their problems, aren’t in the same dire place. In the case of The New York Times Company — which has been facing off with an activist investor from Morgan Stanley, who has gained considerable support for his view that the company needs to do much more to bolster its share price — the company has a different kind of shield. Its supervoting Class B shares are held by a family, the Sulzbergers, that is completely united in its desire to continue to own the company, and to see it through to better times.

As infuriating as it may be to the company’s public shareholders, that unity offers just as much insulation as Mr. Zell’s ESOP — without the burden of all that ESOP debt. At Dow Jones, the company ran out of time when the controlling Bancroft family became divided. Indeed, the pressure of the public marketplace might actually be a net plus for the Times Company, because it means that management is constantly being reminded that it doesn’t have time to waste in finding ways to start growing. Otherwise it will end up in the same place as Dow Jones. As it turns out, there are worse fates than having to deal with Wall Street analysts.

“Quality and profitability go hand in hand,” Katharine Graham used to say. These days, that notion is precisely what’s in question — and what is so scary to so many in the newspaper business. If Sam Zell can use an ESOP to prove her right, God bless him. But until then, I’m not jumping on the ESOP bandwagon.

Friday, June 22, 2007

The secret government of Dick Cheney: US vice president claims to be outside the law

By Patrick Martin
23 June 2007

The office of Vice President Dick Cheney has refused to comply with an executive order issued by President George Bush four years ago, requiring all executive branch offices to cooperate in regular reviews of their security procedures for handling documents.

After the security office of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), charged with conducting the review, pressed the issue, Cheney and his aides tried to have the office abolished and sought to gag officials of the National Archives by barring them from appealing the dispute to the Department of Justice.

Even more extraordinary than the fact of this conflict within the executive branch—made public Thursday with the release of documents by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform—is the constitutional rationale advanced by the vice president.

According to Cheney, the office of the vice president is not “an entity within the executive branch,” as specified in the language of the executive order, because the vice president serves constitutionally as the presiding officer of the US Senate, with a tie-breaking vote, and therefore has legislative power as well.

The sophistry of this argument is plain: in case after case over the past seven years, Cheney has invoked “executive privilege” or similar doctrines to shield his office from congressional investigations and Freedom of Information Act requests from the media and liberal pressure groups.

The most famous case involved the energy task force, formed in the initial weeks of the administration, and engaged, among other activities, in poring over maps of the oil fields in Iraq and the concessions awarded to non-US oil companies—all subsequently canceled after the US invasion.

Cheney refused to release any information about his energy task force after a request was filed by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, citing the necessity for complete confidentiality in internal executive branch deliberations. He rejected similar requests from the media and environmental groups, filed under the Freedom of Information Act, and this position was upheld by a right-wing judicial panel.

But after rebuffing Congress’s request for information, on the grounds his office is part of the executive branch, Cheney in now refusing to comply with a similar request for information from an executive branch agency, on the grounds that he is really part of Congress!

What underlies this apparent Catch 22 is a sinister political logic: Vice President Cheney is not to be held accountable to anyone—not Congress, not the executive branch—a position so unprecedented in US political history that reporters at a White House press briefing Friday were compelled to ask whether Cheney had now set himself up as a “fourth branch of government.”

The vice president’s office has long been the focal point of the Bush administration’s drive to utilize the 9/11 terrorist attacks as the pretext for establishing the framework for a police state in America. In the weeks after 9/11, Cheney virtually disappeared from public view, conducting his activities at an “undisclosed secure location,” which turned out to be the headquarters of what became know as the “shadow government.”

Under the program, officially described as an exercise in “continuity of government,” supposedly a precaution against a terrorist nuclear strike on Washington DC, dozens of top executive branch officials were designated for redeployment to bunkers in the Appalachian Mountains from which they would direct government operations without reference to the legislative or judicial branch, which were excluded from the effort. (See the WSWS editorial board statement, “The shadow of dictatorship: Bush established secret government after September 11”.)

Cheney’s chief counsel, David Addington, now his chief of staff, is the principal proponent of a constitutionally spurious theory known as the “unitary executive,” which claims that since the Constitution gives the president authority over the executive branch, he can direct lower-level executive branch officials to disregard legislative mandates.

Addington was also the most hard-line defender of the “right” of the president to order the torture of prisoners in Afghanistan, Iraq, Guantánamo Bay and at secret CIA prisons around the world, and he spearheaded the removal of military lawyers who objected to the policy of disregarding the Geneva Conventions for prisoners at US detention camps.

So sweeping are the claims of the vice president’s office that even the White House seemed to have difficulty absorbing them. At a Friday press briefing, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino parroted the language of Cheney’s aides in asserting that the vice president’s office was in compliance with the law, but she gave an entirely different legal argument.

The executive order on security procedures did not apply to the president himself, she claimed, and the vice president’s office shared in that exemption. The vice president was not intended to be separate from the president in this regard.

When reporters pointed out to her that Cheney’s office was claiming something entirely different, that he was exempt because of his constitutional connection to Congress, not to the president, Perino simply declared the issue “interesting” and referred all follow-up questions to Cheney’s office.

Cheney’s office actually complied with the requests for documentation by the National Archives and Records Administration in 2001 and 2002. But since 2003, i.e., once the war in Iraq had begun, the vice president’s staff has not cooperated with the NARA or even replied to its annual requests.

The timing is significant, because in May-June 2003, in response to mounting criticism of the invasion of Iraq and the failure to find any trace of weapons of mass destruction—the pretext for the war—Cheney spearheaded a counteroffensive by the Bush administration that involved the systematic leaking of classified documents to journalists selected for their friendliness to the administration and willingness to serve as its conduits.

Among these were Judith Miller of the New York Times, the principal fiction writer in the “Iraqi WMD” media campaign, and columnist Robert Novak, who made public the covert CIA identity of Valerie Plame Wilson, the wife of former ambassador Joseph Wilson, who emerged at that time as a public critic of the administration’s case for war.

It was revealed in the course of the trial of Cheney’s former chief-of-staff, I. Lewis Libby, that Cheney had given Libby authorization to leak portions of a classified National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq to Miller and other journalists. It is likely that Cheney gave direct orders to expose Valerie Plame Wilson in order to punish her husband, but Libby has kept his mouth shut on that subject despite his conviction for perjury and obstruction of justice, and an imminent jail term of two-and-a-half years.

Ultra-right-wing figures in the Republican Party and the media have launched a frenzied campaign for Bush to pardon Libby before he begins serving his prison term—likely to be in August—at least in part because of concern that Libby may feel compelled to turn against his former boss.

Democratic Congressman Henry A. Waxman of California, chairman of the House committee, referred to the Libby case in an eight-page letter to Cheney made public Thursday evening. “Your office may have the worst record in the executive branch for safeguarding classified information,” he wrote, citing also the case of a lower-level Cheney aide, a Filipino-American, who supplied classified documents to military officers in the Philippines who were plotting a coup against President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

Waxman’s letter demands a response by Cheney to a series of questions, beginning with the basis for the claim that the office of the vice president is not bound by Executive Order 12958, the secrecy measure issued by Bush in 2003, and including this inquiry: “Is it the official position of the Office of the Vice President that your office exists in neither the executive nor legislative branch of government?”

“He’s saying he’s above the law,” Waxman told reporters. “I don’t know if he is covering something up or not, but ... when somebody refuses to make this information available, you wonder what they don’t want the inspectors from the National Archives to know.”

Waxman went on to describe Cheney’s position as “very dangerous” and “ridiculous,” but he did not suggest that any serious action by the Democratic-controlled Congress was warranted. Like the rest of the House and Senate Democratic leadership, Waxman put impeachment of Bush and Cheney off the agenda as soon as the Democrats regained control of Congress in the November 2006 elections.

The refusal to cooperate with the NARA is a comparatively minor element in the flagrant lawlessness of the Bush-Cheney administration. This is a government that has defied international law by organizing the invasion and conquest of two sovereign nations, and that claims the right to arrest and detain anyone in the world as part of its “war on terror.” Meanwhile, its definition of “terrorist” is so elastic that it has already been applied to unarmed American citizens arrested thousands of miles from any battlefield.

The House committee released the documents only two days after the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a study on the White House practice of issuing “signing statements” when the president signs a bill into law, specifying what portions of the legislation he intends to enforce and what he will not. These statements are flagrant violations of the Constitution, which gives the president only the power to veto an entire bill, not pick and choose what he wants.

The GAO report examined 19 signing statements, finding that in 10 cases the executive branch enforced the law, in six it did not, and in three the issue was moot because the law required no specific action. This included some major congressional mandates, including the provision in the 2006 military appropriations bill that the Pentagon give a detailed accounting of the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in its 2007 budget request. The Federal Emergency Management Agency likewise defied a requirement that it submit a plan for housing assistance for the victims of Hurricane Katrina and assess the failure of its previous efforts in that field.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, who requested the GAO study, declared, “The administration is thumbing its nose at the law.” But Conyers, like Waxman, has shelved the question of impeachment, although he himself introduced an impeachment resolution in 2005 citing the lies told to the American people in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.

See Also:

Washington Post's Richard Cohen offers "liberal" case for Lewis Libby's freedom [20 June 2007]

Judge orders former Cheney aide Lewis Libby to begin serving prison sentence [16 June 2007]

Mr. Mayor, the Nader of ’08?

Op-Ed Columnist
The New York Times
June 23, 2007

A huge ego and a few billion dollars can cause an awful lot of mischief.

Michael Bloomberg is weighing a possible run for the White House. This is frightening for a couple of reasons. First, consider the prospect of a half-billion-dollars worth of 30-second Bloomberg-for-president ads running all day and all night on television screens in every part of the country.

Americans of every persuasion will have images of the mayor of New York all but burned into their retinas.

For Democrats, the other reason is much more frightening. If Mr. Bloomberg actually decides to run, he risks becoming the Ralph Nader of 2008, drawing votes away from the Democratic nominee and helping to install yet another Republican in the White House.

(Mr. Nader is also making noises about running next year, but it’s generally agreed that Mr. Bloomberg has a much more credible shot at being a spoiler.)

The main thing to keep in mind about Mr. Bloomberg is that he is a Democrat. He changed parties and registered as a Republican for tactical reasons when he ran for mayor in 2001. But he was a Republican in name only. He did not change his political philosophy, and he has continued to pursue the kind of policies you would expect from a Democrat.

As Chris Lehane, a Democratic political consultant, said this week in a reference to Mr. Bloomberg: “If you closed your eyes and you were told that someone was pro-public education, pro-choice, pro-immigration rights, pro-gun control, pro-civil rights, pro-gay rights and pro-women’s rights — you would be pretty happy if you were a Democrat.”

So whatever political banner he may be waving at any given time (he’s now calling himself an independent), Mr. Bloomberg is a Democrat. If he runs for president, he is far more likely to take votes from the Democratic nominee than the Republican one.

That’s why, for all the talk about the feuding between the Bloomberg and Giuliani camps, it’s the leading Democratic candidates who are the most unhappy about the possibility of a Bloomberg candidacy. A number of individuals close to Bill and Hillary Clinton said this week that a Bloomberg presidential run would have an especially harmful effect on Mrs. Clinton’s campaign, which, if anything, has been strengthening of late.

“He definitely hurts us,” said one dismayed Clinton supporter, who added: “You know, sometimes politicians have such big egos they can’t see reality. But Bloomberg is known for seeing reality. So he must know that if he runs he puts a Republican in the White House, which I don’t think he wants.”

The mayor would draw votes from people who want change, who are interested in something different, a new direction. Right now, almost by definition, such voters are Democrats, or independents and Republicans who are inclined to vote for a Democrat. These are voters upset not just by the war in Iraq and the demonstrated incompetence of the Bush administration, but by a variety of other major issues.

“They’re very anxious about a perceived decline in America’s fortunes,” said Mr. Lehane, “about the loss of the American dream for the middle class, the rise of China, global warming, the effect of technology on people’s lives, nuclear proliferation. I think these anxiety voters, who don’t feel that politics is working for them, are going to be the swing voters next year.”

Mr. Bloomberg, a self-made billionaire with a reputation for speaking his mind and a carefully crafted message of political independence, could be very appealing to some of those voters. But not to enough of them to win. And that is the flaw in the enormous trial balloon sent up by Mr. Bloomberg this week when he let it be known that he had abandoned his marriage-of-convenience to the Republican Party and would henceforth officially be independent.

You will find very few people who honestly believe that Mr. Bloomberg can win the presidency. So the crucial issue if he were to run would be the impact he has on the race.

He may not run. He may be enjoying the burst of attention his trial balloon has attracted. He may see this heightened attention as a way to amplify his voice nationally.

There are myriad ways this thing could play out. But the weirdest would be if Michael Bloomberg, who sees himself as such a serious person, plunged headlong into this race with little or no chance to win, and ended up spending $500 million to $1 billion on a venture that undermined the core issues and values he claims to believe in.

This Land Was My Land

Guest Columnist
The New York Times
June 23, 2007


Most Americans don’t own a summer home on Cape Cod, or a McMansion in the Rockies, but they have this birthright: an area more than four times the size of France. If you’re a citizen, you own it — about 565 million acres.

The deed on a big part of this public land inheritance dates to a pair of Republican class warriors from a hundred years ago: President Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, first chief of the Forest Service.

Both were rich. Both were well-educated. Both were headstrong and quirky. Pinchot slept on a wooden pillow and had his valet wake him with ice water to the face. Teddy and G.P., as they were known, sometimes wrestled with each other, or swam naked in the Potomac.

In establishing the people’s estate, they fought Gilded Age titans — railroads, timber barons, mine owners — and their enablers in the Senate. And make no mistake: these acts may have been cast as the founding deeds of the environmental movement, but they were as much about class as conservation.

Pinchot had studied forestry in France, where a peasant couldn’t make a campfire without being subject to penalties. In England, he had seen how the lords of privilege had their way over the outdoors. In the United States, he and T.R. envisioned the ultimate expression of Progressive-era values: a place where a tired factory hand could be renewed — lord for a day.

“In the national forests, big money was not king,” wrote Pinchot. The Forest Service was beloved, he said, because “it stood up for the honest small man and fought the predatory big man as no government bureau had done before.”

A century later, I drove through the Gifford Pinchot National Forest on my way to climb Mount Hood, and found the place in tatters. Roads are closed, or in disrepair. Trails are washed out. The campgrounds, those that are open, are frayed and unkempt. It looks like the forestry equivalent of a neighborhood crack house.

In the Pinchot woods, you see the George W. Bush public lands legacy. If you want to drill, or cut trees, or open a gas line — the place is yours. Most everything else has been trashed or left to bleed to death.

Remember the scene from “It’s a Wonderful Life,” when Jimmy Stewart’s character sees what would happen to Bedford Falls if the richest man in town took over? All those honky-tonks, strip joints and tenement dwellings in Pottersville?

If Roosevelt roamed the West today, he’d find some of the same thing in the land he entrusted to future presidents. The national wildlife system, started by T.R., has been emasculated. President Bush has systematically pared the budget to the point where, this year, more than 200 refuges could be without any staff at all.

The Bureau of Land Management, which oversees some of the finest open range, desert canyons and high-alpine valleys in the world, was told early on in the Bush years to make drilling for oil and gas their top priority. A demoralized staff has followed through, but many describe their jobs the way a cowboy talks about having to shoot his horse.

In Colorado, the bureau just gave the green light to industrial development on the aspen-forested high mountain paradise called the Roan Plateau. In typical fashion, the administration made a charade of listening to the public about what to do with the land. More than 75,000 people wrote them — 98 percent opposed to drilling.

For most of the Bush years, the Interior Department was nominally run by a Stepford secretary, Gale Norton, while industry insiders like J. Steven Griles — the former coal lobbyist who pled guilty this year to obstruction of justice — ran the department.

Same in the Forest Service, where an ex-timber industry insider, Mark Rey, guides administration policy.

They don’t take care of these lands because they see them as one thing: a cash-out. Thus, in Bush’s budget proposal this year, he guts the Forest Service budget yet again, while floating the idea of selling thousands of acres to the highest bidder. The administration says it wants more money for national parks. But the parks are $10 billion behind on needed repairs; the proposal is a pittance.

Roosevelt had his place on Oyster Bay. Pinchot had a family estate in Pennsylvania. Bush has the ranch in Crawford. Only one of them has never been able to see beyond the front porch.

Timothy Egan, a former Seattle correspondent for The Times and the author of “The Worst Hard Time,” is a guest columnist.


Open Wide and Say ‘Shame’

The New York Times
June 22, 2007

It has become a journalistic cliché and therefore an inevitable part of the prerelease discussion of “Sicko” to refer to Michael Moore as a controversial, polarizing figure. While that description is not necessarily wrong, it strikes me as self-fulfilling (since the controversy usually originates in media reports on how controversial Mr. Moore is) and trivial. Any filmmaker, politically outspoken or not, whose work is worth discussing will be argued about. But in Mr. Moore’s case the arguments are more often about him than about the subjects of his movies.

Some of this is undoubtedly his fault, or at least a byproduct of his style. His regular-guy, happy-warrior personality plays a large part in the movies and in their publicity campaigns, and he has no use for neutrality, balance or objectivity. More than that, his polemical, left-populist manner seems calculated to drive guardians of conventional wisdom bananas. That is because conventional wisdom seems to hold, against much available evidence, that liberalism is an elite ideology, and that the authentic vox populi always comes from the right. Mr. Moore, therefore, must be an oxymoron or a hypocrite of some kind.

So the table has been set for a big brouhaha over “Sicko,” which contends that the American system of private medical insurance is a disaster, and that a state-run system, such as exists nearly everywhere else in the industrialized world, would be better. This argument is illustrated with anecdotes and statistics — terrible stories about Americans denied medical care or forced into bankruptcy to pay for it; grim actuarial data about life expectancy and infant mortality; damning tallies of dollars donated to political campaigns — but it is grounded in a basic philosophical assumption about the proper relationship between a government and its citizens.

Mr. Moore has hardly been shy about sharing his political beliefs, but he has never before made a film that stated his bedrock ideological principles so clearly and accessibly. His earlier films have been morality tales, populated by victims and villains, with himself as the dogged go-between, nodding in sympathy with the downtrodden and then marching off to beard the bad guys in their dens of power and privilege. This method can pay off in prankish comedy or emotional intensity — like any showman, Mr. Moore wants you to laugh and cry — but it can also feel manipulative and simplistic.

In “Sicko,” however, he refrains from hunting down the C.E.O.’s of insurance companies, or from hinting at dark conspiracies against the sick. Concentrating on Americans who have insurance (after a witty, troubling acknowledgment of the millions who don’t), Mr. Moore talks to people who have been ensnared, sometimes fatally, in a for-profit bureaucracy and also to people who have made their livings within the system. The testimony is poignant and also infuriating, and none of it is likely to be surprising to anyone, Republican or Democrat, who has tried to see an out-of-plan specialist or dispute a payment.

If you listen to what the leaders of both political parties are saying, it seems unlikely that the diagnosis offered by “Sicko” will be contested. I haven’t heard many speeches lately boasting about how well our health care system works. In this sense “Sicko” is the least controversial and most broadly appealing of Mr. Moore’s movies. (It is also, perhaps improbably, the funniest and the most tightly edited.) The argument it inspires will mainly be about the nature of the cure, and it is here that Mr. Moore’s contribution will be most provocative and also, therefore, most useful.

“Sicko” is not a fine-grained analysis of policy alternatives. (You can find some of those in a recently published book called “Sick,” by Jonathan Cohn, and also in the wonkier precincts of the political blogosphere.) This film presents, instead, a simple compare-and-contrast exercise. Here is our way, and here is another way, variously applied in Canada, France, Britain and yes, Cuba. The salient difference is that, in those countries, where much of the second half of “Sicko” takes place, the state provides free medical care.

With evident glee (and a bit of theatrical faux-naïveté) Mr. Moore sets out to challenge some widely held American notions about socialized medicine. He finds that British doctors are happy and well paid, that Canadians don’t have to wait very long in emergency rooms, and that the French are not taxed into penury. “What’s your biggest expense after the house and the car?” he asks an upper-middle-class French couple. “Ze feesh,” replies the wife. “Also vegetables.”

Yes, the utopian picture of France in “Sicko” may be overstated, but show me the filmmaker — especially a two-time Cannes prizewinner — who isn’t a Francophile of one kind or another. Mr. Moore’s funny valentine to a country where the government will send someone to a new mother’s house to do laundry and make carrot soup turns out to be as central to his purpose as his chat with Tony Benn, an old lion of Old Labor in Britain. Mr. Benn reads from a pamphlet announcing the creation of the British National Health Service in 1948, and explains it not as an instance of state paternalism but as a triumph of democracy.

More precisely, of social democracy, a phrase that has long seemed foreign to the American political lexicon. Why this has been so is the subject of much scholarship and speculation, but Mr. Moore is less interested in tracing the history of American exceptionalism than in opposing it. He wants us to be more like everybody else. When he plaintively asks, “Who are we?,” he is not really wondering why our traditions of neighborliness and generosity have not found political expression in an expansive system of social welfare. He is insisting that such a system should exist, and also, rather ingeniously, daring his critics to explain why it shouldn’t.



Opens today in Manhattan.

Written and directed by Michael Moore; edited by Christopher Seward, Dan Sweitlik and Geoffrey Richman; produced by Mr. Moore and Meghan O’Hara; released by Lionsgate and the Weinstein Company. At the Lincoln Square, 1998 Broadway, at 68th Street. Running time: 123 minutes.

Michael Moore Attacks the Grotesque Profit Motive of the US Health Care System

By Amy Goodman, Democracy Now!
June 22, 2007

Academy Award-winning filmmaker Michael Moore sat down with Amy Goodman ahead of the release of his new film SiCKO. The film is a seething indictment of the US healthcare system. It focuses not on the more than 40 million people who don't have healthcare but on the 250 million who do - many of whom are abandoned by the very health insurance industry they paid into for decades. "They are getting away with murder," Moore said of the health insurance companies. "They charge whatever they want. There is no government control, and frankly we will not fix our system until we remove these private insurance companies."

Amy Goodman: Michael Moore is on the move. The Academy Award-winning filmmaker testified this week on Capitol Hill. And he's making his way to New Hampshire to challenge presidential candidates -- Democrat and Republican -- over the nation's healthcare system.

Oh, and his latest documentary, SiCKO, is being released in thousands of theaters next week. The film is a seething indictment of the US healthcare system. It focuses not on the more than 40 million people who don't have health insurance, but on the more than 250 million who do, many of whom are abandoned by the very health insurance industry they've paid into for decades.

I sat down with Michael Moore at the Tribeca Cinema here in New York, just after he'd done a sneak preview for 9/11 workers who fell ill after working in the toxic environment at Ground Zero. He was then doing a fundraiser for the Center for Justice and Democracy, a tort reform group. I began by asking Michael Moore what inspired him to make the film.

Michael Moore: Well, I actually -- I had a TV show on back in the '90s called TV Nation, and one day I just -- I thought it would be interesting to have like a race. So we sent a camera crew to an emergency room in Fort Lauderdale, a camera crew to an emergency room in Toronto, and then one to Havana. And they would each wait until someone came in with a broken arm or a broken leg. And then they were going to follow that person through and see falthcare Olympics. And so, it was a race between the US, Canada and Cuba. And to make a long story short, Cuba won. They had the fastest care, the best care, and it cost nothing.

We turn the show in to NBC that week, and we get a call from the censor. They're not called "the censor," they're called Standards & Practices. And so, this woman calls. She's the head of Standards & Practices -- Dr. Somebody. I don't know they -- she actually had a "Dr." before her name, but I forget her last name now. But she calls, and she says, "Mike, Cuba can't win." I said, "What?" "Cuba can't win." "Well, they won. What do you mean they can't win? They won." "No, we can't say that on NBC. We can't say that Cuba won." "Well, yeah, but they won! They provided the fastest care. They were the cheapest. And the patient was happy, and the bone got fixed." "No, it's against regulations here." I said, "Oh, well, I'm not changing it."

Well, they changed it. They changed it. Two days later, when it aired, they changed it so that Canada won. And Canada didn't win. Canada almost won, but they charged the guy $15 for some crutches on the way out. So it's bugged me to this day that anybody who saw that episode, you know, where it said, you know, "and Canada won the Healthcare Olympics," and in fact it was Cuba, but that couldn't be said on NBC, because God knows what would happen.

So, anyways, I first started thinking about this issue then, and then when I had my next show, The Awful Truth, we followed a guy who had health insurance, but his health insurance company would not approve this operation he needed, which would save his life. So we took the guy to the headquarters of Humana, the HMO down in Louisville, Kentucky, took him in to see the executives there. They gave us the boot. So we went out on the lawn and conducted the man's funeral, with him present. So we had a priest and a casket and pallbearers, bagpipes and, you know, "Amazing Grace" and the whole deal. And the executives are looking down from the top floor at this and horrified this is going to air on national television. Three days later, they call and tell the guy, "We'll approve the operation." And the man is alive today.

And I thought at the time, geez, you know, a ten-minute piece, we saved a guy's life; what could we do if we did a two-hour movie? And so, that was the sort of the genesis of this, though the movie didn't end up being a bunch of stories about, you know, saving individual people's lives, because as I got into this, I figured there's a much, you know, sort of bigger story to tell about the actual system itself.

Goodman: Well, tell us about the 9/11 workers and how you got involved with all of these people who have gotten sick. We just came from one of your first showings before the premiere of the film, with 9/11 emergency responders who are sick.

Moore: Right. Well, as you know, those of us who in New York here, where, you know, since 9/11, a lot of these workers who ran down there to help on 9/11 who were not city employees or state employees, but were just volunteers -- I mean, some people got across from New Jersey and came and helped. They were maybe volunteer firefighters from New Jersey, some were EMT volunteers, and they went down there to help. Some of them stayed there for months in the recovery effort. And they got all these illnesses, respiratory illnesses and things like that, from breathing, you know, the whole, you know -- while the EPA was saying, Giuliani was saying everything's fine down there. You know, go ahead and breathe away. In fact, as we now know, it was very toxic down there. And hundreds, perhaps even thousands, have suffered as a result of the toxicity in the air at the time.

And then to find out that our own government and all these 9/11 funds won't provide any help to these volunteers, because they weren't employees of the city. So they've been going through all these illnesses -- and some of them not even seeing a doctor or can't afford the operations or the things that they need, the medicines they need, because they don't have health insurance. And they can't work now, so they're disabled, and then they have to go through a whole rigmarole to try and get Medicaid. It's just -- I mean, making them go through hoop after hoop, very sad thing to see. And so, we got to know some of them.

And at the same time, I saw this thing on C-SPAN, where Senator Frist had gone down to Gitmo, because they wanted to show how, you know, we're taking good care of the detainees, you know, where they're getting all top-of-the-line prisoner treatment. And one of the things that he wanted to remark on -- Mr. Frist -- was how good the healthcare was --

Goodman: Dr. Frist.

Moore: Yes, excuse me. Yes, of course, Dr. Frist. There's another doctor. He then presented this list of, you know -- here's all the colonoscopies that we've been doing, you know. And, of course, the first thing I thought when I heard that, I thought, "Colonoscopies? Hey, most of these detainees are, you know, in their twenties and thirties. You know, you're not really -- you don't necessarily have a colonoscopy 'til you're fifty." So that should have been your first clue right there something was amiss at Gitmo. But he has this whole list, Amy, of how many teeth cleanings they've done of the detainees, how many root canals. They do nutrition counseling.

Goodman: Do they talk about the force-feedings of fasting prisoners?

Moore: Yeah, well, of course. That's what's called "nutrition counseling." And so, he made this as part of this big, you know, thing about how wonderful they're treated there, and we shouldn't worry at all about them. Well, of course, irony built upon irony here, you know. And I thought, well, you know, here we have the 9/11 rescue workers who can't get any healthcare. Here they are trumpeting how they have free universal healthcare, dental care, eye care, nutrition counseling, for the detainees. And I thought, well, why don't we just take our 9/11 workers down to Gitmo and see if we can get some of that free healthcare they're bragging about? And so, essentially, when you see the film -- I don't want to give the whole thing away -- but that's essentially what we go to do.

Goodman: How did you get there?

Moore: Geez, I wish I could tell you. You know, I'm being investigated now by the Bush administration for this trip I took, which they said that we went to Cuba, but my point is, no, we were going to Guantanamo Bay, which you claim as American soil, so we never really left America. I mean, we pulled out of Miami in the boat, and we ended up in Guantanamo Bay, which you claim as American waters. And so -- but, of course, you know, we ended up then in, you know, the actual nation of Cuba. And you'll see in the film the wonderful treatment that the 9/11 rescue workers and the others I took got from the Cuban doctors and the Cuban healthcare system. But, so now they're investigating me.

And I mean, you've been there. Have you ever received this letter threatening civil and criminal action against you? Or --

Goodman: I did not.

Moore: Yeah, see? Well, it's not fair! You're Amy Goodman. You should get the first letter. What are you picking on me for? Anyway, so yeah, so I'm in the midst of this, so I'm not really -- I don't want to say publicly yet how we actually got there, but I actually do have a boat in the movie, you see, and we are actually in Guantanamo Bay. And you probably have never seen anybody actually sail into Guantanamo Bay. You will, when you see the movie, see this, you know, for the first time. And, you know, and I'm the skipper.

Goodman: Were you afraid of the mines or what you thought might be mines?

Moore: Yes. Actually, I was more afraid of what they were pointing at us in the guard tower there on the US side of this demarcation line that's in the bay. And I have to say -- I want to tell you -- I think I can say this much: the Cuban government was not exactly happy with my idea here of sailing into Guantanamo Bay, because they did not want an incident that would provoke the Americans or give them an excuse to do something against Cuba. And especially because it was me, you know, the Cubans perceive that Mr. Bush doesn't like me very much, and so here I am suddenly, you know, tweaking their nose in Guantanamo Bay, and anything could happen. So we had to really actually talk quite a bit to the Cubans to letting us use their waters to get up close to the American waters there in the bay.

Goodman: Is that area mined?

Moore: Well, that's what they say, yes. Yes, yes. Well, they believe the Americans have mined it, you know, so that no Cubans can get in there. I don't know what the Cubans --

Goodman: Cubans trying to break into Guantanamo to the prison?

Moore: Sneak into -- yeah. Hey, don't ask me to explain the actions of the US military. I, you know -- I don't know what the Cubans -- I hate to say this, but, you know, when we were there, it doesn't look like there's a huge Cuban defense force, should the Americans ever decide to actually invade again, at least that route. But I'm sure they've got something planned if the Americans ever did that.

Goodman: The emergency workers who you took to Cuba, talk about the healthcare system there.

Moore: Well, you know, when they say that there's a doctor in every block, that's not a cliché. I mean, they're really -- Cuba, per capita, has so many more doctors than we have. You know, there's been a doctor shortage in America for a long time, and it's been pretty much because the AMA doesn't want anymore students in medical schools here, because they believe that if they keep the number of doctors low, those doctors get more money, as opposed to if we had a whole bunch of doctors, you have to share the pie a little bit more, so...

But the Cuban doctors, the Cuban healthcare system, I was very impressed with it. All the people we took down there were extremely happy with the treatment that they received. But they focus a lot on prevention, and because they do that, they end up not having to spend a lot of money on their healthcare. They don't have the money. It's a very poor country, as you know. And I was very impressed. And, you know, with what little they have to use with their healthcare system, they end up living longer than we do. They have a better infant mortality rate than we do. On a number of issues, they're the same or better than us.

Goodman: Michael Moore, you look at three -- really four -- places: France, Britain, Cuba, you spend time in, and then you go visit your relatives in Canada.

Moore: Yes.

Goodman: Talk about these places and what each one has. You talk to, for example, Tony Benn, the parliamentarian, the MP in Britain. Talk about what they have and how they originated. Then we'll talk about how we got what we have here.

Moore: OK. Well, the Canadians, they have a very good system that covers everyone, and the people there are very happy with it. Basically, you pay for nothing. You choose your own doctor. You need to go to the hospital, you choose your own hospital. There's freedom of choice. And, you know, you'll hear the critics of the Canadian system here talk about, "Oh, the Canadians, you have to wait in line, you know, before you can get a knee replacement, or you have to wait x-number of number of weeks, you know, where you don't have to wait in America." You know, when I hear that, I think, well, that's what you do when you have to share the pie. Sometimes you have to wait. You know, it's like, I guess that's not in our American mentality, where, you know -- to wait. You know, I want it now! Well, you know, sometimes when you -- like I said, when you're sharing the pie, you get the first slice, you don't have to wait; sometimes you get the third slice; sometimes you get the last slice. But the important thing to remember is, everyone gets a slice. That's not the way it is here in this country.

Now, the British system is really government-owned, in the sense that the government owns and runs the hospitals, the government employs the doctors. And so, they work for the government, so it's very much a government-owned and -run and -controlled program in Britain. And again, you know, everything is free. And you see the hospitals in the film. People are very happy with it. And, you know, if you know anybody that's ever traveled to these countries, that's had an experience of having to go into a Canadian hospital or British hospital -- I mean, like the one woman says in the film, you know, she thought it was going to be some dingy, horrible -- you know, like out of a Dickens novel or the old Soviet Union or something. And she went in there, and it was like, "Wow! This is incredible!"

France, though, is probably, if not the best, near the best of what we saw.

Goodman: Let's talk about how we arrived at the system we did in this country.

Moore: Well, you know, my grandfather was a country doctor, actually. He was from Canada. He went to medical school in the late 1800s, which was a year then. You know, it's pretty much what they knew back then. They could teach it in a year. And so, the little village where, you know, I was raised, because my mom was from there, too, because he was there, you know, he was paid with eggs and milk and chickens, and things like that. He didn't do it to make any big money. They didn't make big money then. They were comfortable -- the local doctor -- but they weren't the rich man in the community.

We got away from the concept of treating people because it was the right thing to do. The nuns ran the hospital that I was born in. The nuns weren't doing this to turn profit and invest in Wall Street. You know, I mean, they did it because they thought that was their duty to serve God and to serve mankind by opening hospitals and delivering babies. We're a long ways from that now. Somewhere we let profit and greed enter into this.

And in the film, I peg a certain date when the HMOs really got their start. And I got very lucky. I had a twenty-three-year-old researcher in my office who worked on the film, who was actually someone I believe that was recommended by Jeremy Scahill, so there's a Democracy Now! connection to this moment in the movie. But he found this Watergate tape -- has nothing to do with Watergate, it's one of the Nixon tapes -- at the Archives, National Archives, where Nixon and Ehrlichman are discussing whether or not to support this HMO concept. And Ehrlichman says to Nixon, "You're going to love this, because this is private enterprise. This isn't like some freebie thing." Nixon goes, "Oh, I like that. Tell me about it." And then Ehrlichman says, "Well, this is how it's going to work, these HMOs. They're going to make more money by providing less care. The less care they give them, the patients, the more money the company makes." Nixon goes, "Ooh, not bad!" And it's all there on tape.

Goodman: And they're talking about Kaiser Permanente

Moore: Yes.

Goodman: And Nixon says he met Kaiser.

Moore: Yes, yes. Edgar Kaiser.

Goodman: He brought him in to explain it.

Moore: Yes, brought him in to explain the whole thing and the whole -- how the scheme would work. And Ehrlichman and Nixon are just kind of rubbing their hands, going, "Oh, this is great." And the very next day, Nixon announces his new healthcare program, which is, of course, going to include these HMOs that Kaiser Permanente wanted to have included. And there it begins. And it's all in the movie. And so, when he -- when George first brought this in, I thought, "Boy, do all roads lead back to Nixon?" I mean, I know we lay a lot of stuff at Nixon's feet, but the HMOs, too? I mean, is he ultimately responsible for this modern-day profit-greedy mess that we're in? And the answer is yes.

And these health insurance companies are -- they're just -- they're the Halliburtons of the health industry. I mean, they really -- they get away with murder. They charge whatever they want. There's no government control. And frankly, we will not really fix our system until we remove these private insurance companies. I mean, they literally have to be eliminated. They cannot be allowed to exist in this country.

Goodman: Why don't people understand in this country what is offered in other places and that this situation isn't a natural -- you know, just the way things should be, that there is a way to change? What is it about the way the government and the media and the insurance companies work that keeps people so isolated from alternatives?

Moore: It's an enforced ignorance. It's called keeping the American people stupid. Whether it's our educational system or whether it's the mainstream media, it's all about making sure people don't know what's going on in other countries. We know nothing about the rest of the world. I mean, until recently, when they said if you travel to Canada or Mexico you had to have a passport, until then it was 80%-plus didn't even have a passport in this country. So people don't travel. They don't know much. I point out in the film that our high school graduates, when asked where Great Britain is on the globe, 65% couldn't find it. 65% couldn't find Great Britain on the globe. 11% couldn't find the United States on the globe -- 11% of eighteen to twenty-five-year-olds, according to National Geographic. It's like, OK -- you know, we have a problem in this country. We don't want to know about the rest of the world. And, I mean, ask most Americans who the prime minister of Canada is. I mean, seriously. And I don't mean -- and I'm not saying this -- you know, let's go ask a bunch of dumb hicks out in, you know, Whereverville. I'm saying, if I just looked around this room right now and asked this crew, which I would say this is a more aware crew of people who, you know, follow the news and, you know, they work with you.

Goodman: You do talk about Hillary Clinton and what she tried to do under Bill Clinton as president. Explain what she attempted.

Moore: Well, I think she attempted a very brave thing fourteen years ago. She came in and said there should be healthcare for all; there should be no pre-existing conditions; everyone's covered, no matter what you make, what job you have, or whatever. It was a very bold move on her part. And she was destroyed as a result of it. I mean, they put out I think well over $100 million to fight her.

Goodman: And yet, the big insurance companies liked it, because she wanted to preserve the big five. And others said if she had gotten rid of the insurance companies altogether, single payer, it would have been more clearly explainable to the American people.

Moore: And that was her fault, that she didn't go the whole hog, the whole nine yards of what needed to happen with this. I mean, it was the same problem really -- I mean, just to give you another example, this is where the Democrats -- you know, it's like you want to go in there sometimes with a drill and get their -- 'cause kind of their heart is kind of on the right track, you know. It's kind of like I think Hillary's heart is in the right place. You know, she wants all Americans covered, but, hey, we can't really get rid of the insurance companies, so let's try and work out a little deal, kind of like what Edwards is proposing now. It's like Al Gore with the 2000 election: you know, instead of asking for all of Florida to be recounted, which he would have won then, you know, they only want to recount the Democratic counties, where they thought they'd get their votes. And it was like, you know -- it's like, come on! You know, why do you only -- they take these half-step measures, and we're all the worse for it.

So -- but to jump ahead here with Hillary, you know, she's now -- or at least last year, in last year's congress -- was the second-largest recipient of health industry money, next to Rick Santorum. He's gone now. So she may be number one at this point, for all I know. It's very sad to see that she's very much -- they're into her pocket, and she's into their pocket. And I don't expect much from her.

Goodman: Are there presidential candidates that you do feel are putting forward an alternative?

Moore: Well, yes. I mean, there's -- well, first of all, nobody is being very specific, other than Edwards, in terms of an actual plan, and his is not a good plan. You know, Obama's plan is not as specific, and certainly it's full of the same flaws that the Edwards and the Hillary old plan had. Kucinich is closest to the right idea, and, of course, he keeps, you know, saying "nonprofit," or whatever. But I kind of don't want to use that word anymore, and I wish that Dennis wouldn't use that, because Kaiser Permanente is a nonprofit. Blue Cross is a nonprofit.

Goodman: In fact, the Sacramento Bee that criticized you said, "Don't you understand that Kaiser Permanente is a nonprofit? So why say this is a for-profit industry?"

Moore: Well, no. Well, right, yeah. It's not just the for-profit. That's why I say that essentially you don't want any private insurance companies involved and that whether they're for private or nonprofit, because -- but when I say "profit," you have these huge nonprofits that are under the guise of nonprofit, but they're all about profit. They're all about making money for themselves and for their executives, and what they make is obscene. And so, I favor the removal of all private insurance companies. I don't know if Kucinich goes that far. I don't know really if any of the legislation that I've read goes that far, because they all have a component where they will allow the private insurance companies to still be involved.

Goodman: So you're talking about single payer.

Moore: Yes.

Goodman: Do you see a distinction between single payer and universal coverage?

Moore: Well, yes. Of course there's a distinction, because first of all, let me tell you, they're all going to say universal coverage. By the time of the election -- by the primaries, I'm sure all the Democrats are going to be using that word: universal coverage for everyone, coverage for everyone. Listen, a lot of their plans, all they're going to do is they're going to take our tax dollars and put them into the pockets of these insurance companies.

We need to cut out the middleman here. The government can run this program. They do it quite well in these other countries. You know, if you take the top twenty-five countries, and if we were the only one not doing something of the twenty-five, are we trying to say that the other twenty-four are just screwing up and we're the smart ones here? I don't think so.

I think it's -- you take a country like Canada. Their overhead, their administrative cost to run their national program takes up about 1.7% of their whole budget. The average insurance company in this country will spend anywhere from 15% to 30% on overhead, administrative costs, paperwork, bureaucracy. That can be brought way down when the government does it. But, of course, the Republicans and even some of the Democrats have done a good job convincing the American people that government is bad, government will just mess it up. And as Al Franken said a few weeks ago -- I heard him say -- they run on that platform of the government is bad, will mess things up, then get elected and spend the next four years proving themselves right.

Goodman: "Skid row," Michael Moore?

Moore: Yeah, the opposite of the big house doctors live in. Well, as you know -- I mean, I think you've covered this -- patients in Los Angeles who can't pay their bill at the hospital, hospitals have been dumping them on skid row for some time now. They just get them out of the hospital, sometimes right in their hospital gown, put them in a taxi and tell the taxi, "Take them to skid row and drop them off." And sometimes the taxi drivers are having to push them out of the car. And --

Goodman: You got videotape.

Moore: Yes. We have actual security-cam footage of a Kaiser patient being dumped on the side of the curb by the taxi that Kaiser hired to bring this woman and just dump her with no shoes out in the middle of the street in her hospital gown, very sad. And you sit there and you watch this, and you can't believe this is the United States of America. This is what we -- this is how we treat people. I mean, I just -- I think when people see this movie, they're going to go, OK, this has gone too far, and these people are going to have to be stopped.

Goodman: Michael, in the film, you talk about the American Medical Associaition, you talk about the pharmaceutical industry, the insurance industry. On your website, you feature there preparations for this film coming out. How are they dealing with SiCKO?

Moore: Well, they, at first -- I mean, they've been -- I'll go -- I'll jump back to just before we started making the movie, where no insurance company would insure me or the film, because they knew it was going to be about insurance. So I had a difficult time just, you know, getting insurance for this thing. Then they started a number things internally that they did to warn their employees: do not talk to Michael Moore; if you talk to Michael Moore, you're going to be in serious trouble. And, in fact, they did training sessions on how to deal with me, should I show up at their company. They had a -- Pfizer had a Michael Moore hotline. You dial this number if you see him. I mean, this is all this crazy stuff --

Goodman: Have you dialed it?

Moore: Oh, yeah. In fact, last year I put it on -- a couple years ago I put it on the internet, just so -- I told people just dial this number, it's the Michael Moore hotline at Pfizer. Just call them up and just say: "He's in the building. He's in the building!" you know, just to -- they eventually had to shut the line down, because so many people were messing around with them, but...

Goodman: So what do they say? How do they say to deal with you in these memos?

Moore: Don't run, don't flea, don't put your hand over the camera. They hired a psychological profiler at one of the companies to tell the CEO how my mind ticks -- so, in other words, like how to get me off on the subject. So if I happen to show up with a microphone, you know, the psychological profiler said, we've determined if you can just get him to talk about Detroit sports teams, he'll stop talking to you about the HMOs. And I read that, and I thought, that's good. That's pretty good.

So, anyways -- but, see, they missed the whole point, because this film was never going to be about me going after a General Motors or a Pfizer, that I wanted to do something much larger here and not just -- not just go after one company as if, oh, geez, if we just fixed one company, everything would be fine. There's something much bigger that we need to fix in this country. And, actually, it's bigger than the healthcare situation. It's about how we structure ourselves as a society, how we treat each other, and this American mentality of every man for himself, how that has to stop -- this kind of "me" society that we live in has to go to the "we" that the rest of the world lives in.

Goodman: You have a man in the film who's hired by the health industry to challenge people who are filing claims. Explain exactly what he does, how he investigates people.

Moore: The health insurance industry does not like to pay out claims, because they don't make money. The only way they can make a profit is if they don't pay for your operation. If they pay for your operation and your doctor's appointment and your pharmaceuticals, they don't make any money. So their goal is to try and pay out as little as possible, which right away, that just tells you right there, there can't be any room in this healthcare thing for insurance companies, because all it -- health should be about helping people. And the decision should never be based on whether or not, hey, we should -- how can we save our money here, how can we deny that operation?

So they hire these hit men, what we call insurance company hit men, who, after, let's say -- let's say you had to go in, you know, for a broken ankle or whatever, and they get that bill and they go, "Wow, that's like $5,000 for a broken ankle. That shouldn't have cost more than $1,000. We don't want to pay all that." So they hire -- they have these investigators, they have investigative units at the insurance companies, and they say, "You know what? Go dig into Amy Goodman's past. Go find out if maybe on her health insurance application she didn't tell us about something that she had maybe ten years ago." And they literally will go and get these records, and they'll do this incredible research on your health history to where they can then come and say, "You know what? You didn't tell the truth here. You had a pre-existing condition. You know, we didn't know about this. You didn't tell us. And so, therefore, we want the money back from that operation, or we're not going to pay for it.

Goodman: One of the most powerful parts of this film are the people who are coming forward, like the guy who says he couldn't do it anymore, and he hasn't been investigating people for a long time. And then you have Linda Penno.

Moore: Right, the whistleblowers in the film, especially Linda Penno. She's a doctor from Kentucky. She worked for Humana. She was a medical reviewer there. And it was her job as a doctor to go through claims and approve or deny them. And she tells in the film and in testimony before Congress how she was expected to deny a certain percentage of claims that would come in from patients, even regardless of whether they were true or not. They expected, say, a 10% denial rate. The doctor at the insurance company, the doctor, medical reviewer, who denied the most got like a big Christmas bonus. I mean, it's absolutely, again, crazy that --

Goodman: Her salary increased from a couple hundred dollars a week to six figures.

Moore: To six figures, because she kept denying. She couldn't take it any longer. Her conscience got to her, and she resigned, and then went and blew the whistle to Congress, and that testimony is in the film. It's very powerful, and she's a very brave soul for coming forward.

Goodman: How many more people responded in that way? You said 25,000 people responding about all the terrible problems they have had with health insurance, and then you have these people.

Moore: Right. I'd say we had a couple hundred people within the industry -- pharmaceutical industry, hospital corporations, health insurance industry -- that wrote to us, wanting to share with us different things. Some wanted to be on camera, some didn't. Some sent us files, some -- I mean, it was really amazing how many people were -- whose consciences were bothering them, essentially. They just couldn't take it any longer.

Goodman: We're talking to Michael Moore, Oscar Award-winning filmmaker. How does this connect to Fahrenheit 9/11? How does SiCKO link to your previous films and Bowling for Columbine?

Moore: Well, that's a good question. It does -- there is a thread, actually, that goes from Bowling for Columbine through Fahrenheit into this film. Part of it is the use of fear. The reason we don't have a better system is because we've been made afraid of socialized medicine, the Canadian system, whatever, and trying to scare the American people, using ignorance as a way to increase the level of fear in the country. It's these films -- and I've been doing this really since Roger & Me" -- are films about -- ultimately about our economic system. We have an economic system, as I've said before, it's unjust, it's unfair, it's not democratic. And until, ultimately, that changes, until we construct a different form of economy in a way that we relate to capital, I don't think that -- I think we'll continue to have these problems, where the have-nots suffer and the haves make off like bandits.

Goodman: So how are you organizing? As you release this film in thousands of theaters around the country in the next few weeks, you're also working with unions, you're working with YouTube, with Oprah, you're testifying before Congress. Explain.

Moore: Yes. Yeah, it is kind of a weird convergence. But you know what? It's because this issue affects all Americans. And I'm being contacted by all kinds of groups and people now that want to get involved in this. And so, we are going to have a very strong organizing effort through the California Nurses Association, through Physicians for a National Health Plan. MoveOn is going to be very active and involved in this. So, many of the groups and unions that are on the left are organizing around it. But there's also, you know, things, like you said, like YouTube, people like Oprah, who has decided to make this a very important issue, in terms of something that she's very concerned about. I was on her show a couple weeks ago, and she has asked her fans to post their healthcare horror stories on her website when the film opens. She's going to do a town hall on this issue in the fall. So I --

Goodman: YouTube?

Moore: YouTube, again, is asking for people to videotape their stories and put them on YouTube, and there's going to be a whole section on YouTube of people telling what the insurance company did to them or a family member or a friend, or the hospital or the pharmaceutical company, where they have to pay for drugs or drugs they can't get.

So I think this will have what they call a viral effect, in the sense -- and I hope it does -- that people, that these people, are given a voice. And people otherwise are sitting in their homes all across the country suffering and not wondering how can I ever be heard. I hope through my website, through the California Nurses Association, through YouTube, through Oprah's site, through others that are going to be coming into this, and I think that we're going to hear what Americans are really going through. And I've got to believe something good is going to come out of this. And we're going to hold the candidates' feet to the fire on this issue, especially the Democrats.

Goodman: Are you going to be doing a second film dogging them? Are you going to have a man in a chicken suit following them?

Moore: Oh, you're referring to our corporate crime-fighting chicken on our old TV show. Oh, it's so nice you remember that chicken. No, but we are actually going up to New Hampshire at the end of this week. And we are going to release information to the public about just how bought and paid for the candidates are that are running for president and for public office.

Goodman: How bought and paid for are they?

Moore: Well, you'll have to wait 'til the end of the week to hear the answer to that. But let me just say it won't be pretty. I hate to say that, but you know what? And again, I mean, I like a lot of the candidates, for a lot of reasons, that are running. But, you know, if we all throw in with them too soon on this without forcing them to take good positions on these issues, I don't think we're going to get anywhere. The Democrats have already proven that since the November election, that, you know, they will drag their feet if at all possible. And so -- and, you know, we've already seen what Hillary's position is on this, and, of course, with her position on the war, this makes it very difficult for people who otherwise would like to vote for her, would like to see our first woman president, but simply can't support somebody who supported the war for so long and who is taking such large contributions from the health industry.

Goodman: Michael Moore, were you surprised by anything you found in making this film?

Moore: Yes, I was constantly -- here's one thing that really struck me. When I was interviewing that British doctor and I was asking how much money he makes -- you know, he makes like a little under $200,000 a year -- and he said, "But my pay is based on how good of a job I do. If I get more of my patients to stop smoking this year or if I bring their cholesterol down or their blood pressure or their sugar down, I'll make more money. So it's actually based on how healthy my patients are. So I have an incentive to actually do good work here to make money."

And I thought, geez, it's like just the opposite here. It's like the more people that smoke or don't eat well or whatever, who end up with illness and disease, that means more money for the pharmaceutical companies, more money for the doctors, more money for the hospitals. Everybody gains, when you get sick.

And it got me thinking a lot about just myself, personally, because when I was there and I said, you know, maybe one way I should say to people, one way to beat the system, at least this system, is that we should all try to take a little better care of ourselves, and starting with number one here, myself. And so, I started eating fruits and vegetables. I don't know if you've heard of these things, but they come in different colors and they're crunchy, and, you know, they're very good for you, if you haven't tried them. You know, your mother is sitting over there. I don't know if I should point this out, but your mom is sitting over there, and she looks like she did a good job teaching you the importance of fruits and vegetables.

Goodman: She did a great job.

Moore: Yes. And she said that you were an excellent child, by the way. We missed that off-camera here, but I want your viewers and listeners to know that mom pretty much approves of how you've turned out.

And the other thing is, I started going for a walk every day. So I go for a walk for like a half-hour to an hour a day, and I just -- I feel 100% better. I've like lost thirty pounds. Don't worry, I'm not going to -- you're not going to see the Jane Fonda workout video from me or anything. I'm just saying, though, that if we just -- each of us -- if we all just do a couple things just to take better care of ourselves, we can avoid this crazy healthcare system. And you know what? I think it's better for the planet, too. Again, we're over-consumptive on so many things as Americans, and we all need to kind of think about that a little bit in how we behave. So -- and I say that for myself, start with me.

Amy Goodman is the host of the nationally syndicated radio news program, Democracy Now!

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