Saturday, July 28, 2007

Who Really Took Over During That Colonoscopy

July 29, 2007
Op-Ed Columnist
Who Really Took Over During That Colonoscopy

THERE was, of course, gallows humor galore when Dick Cheney briefly grabbed the wheel of our listing ship of state during the presidential colonoscopy last weekend. Enjoy it while it lasts. A once-durable staple of 21st-century American humor is in its last throes. We have a new surrogate president now. Sic transit Cheney. Long live David Petraeus!

It was The Washington Post that first quantified General Petraeus’s remarkable ascension. President Bush, who mentioned his new Iraq commander’s name only six times as the surge rolled out in January, has cited him more than 150 times in public utterances since, including 53 in May alone.

As always with this White House’s propaganda offensives, the message in Mr. Bush’s relentless repetitions never varies. General Petraeus is the “main man.” He is the man who gives “candid advice.” Come September, he will be the man who will give the president and the country their orders about the war.

And so another constitutional principle can be added to the long list of those junked by this administration: the quaint notion that our uniformed officers are supposed to report to civilian leadership. In a de facto military coup, the commander in chief is now reporting to the commander in Iraq. We must “wait to see what David has to say,” Mr. Bush says.

Actually, we don’t have to wait. We already know what David will say. He gave it away to The Times of London last month, when he said that September “is a deadline for a report, not a deadline for a change in policy.” In other words: Damn the report (and that irrelevant Congress that will read it) — full speed ahead. There will be no change in policy. As Michael Gordon reported in The New York Times last week, General Petraeus has collaborated on a classified strategy document that will keep American troops in Iraq well into 2009 as we wait for the miracles that will somehow bring that country security and a functioning government.

Though General Petraeus wrote his 1987 Princeton doctoral dissertation on “The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam,” he has an unshakable penchant for seeing light at the end of tunnels. It has been three Julys since he posed for the cover of Newsweek under the headline “Can This Man Save Iraq?” The magazine noted that the general’s pacification of Mosul was “a textbook case of doing counterinsurgency the right way.” Four months later, the police chief installed by General Petraeus defected to the insurgents, along with most of the Sunni members of the police force. Mosul, population 1.7 million, is now an insurgent stronghold, according to the Pentagon’s own June report.

By the time reality ambushed his textbook victory, the general had moved on to the mission of making Iraqi troops stand up so American troops could stand down. “Training is on track and increasing in capacity,” he wrote in The Washington Post in late September 2004, during the endgame of the American presidential election. He extolled the increased prowess of the Iraqi fighting forces and the rebuilding of their infrastructure.

The rest is tragic history. Were the Iraqi forces on the trajectory that General Petraeus asserted in his election-year pep talk, no “surge” would have been needed more than two years later. We would not be learning at this late date, as we did only when Gen. Peter Pace was pressed in a Pentagon briefing this month, that the number of Iraqi battalions operating independently is in fact falling — now standing at a mere six, down from 10 in March.

But even more revealing is what was happening at the time that General Petraeus disseminated his sunny 2004 prognosis. The best account is to be found in “The Occupation of Iraq,” the authoritative chronicle by Ali Allawi published this year by Yale University Press. Mr. Allawi is not some anti-American crank. He was the first civilian defense minister of postwar Iraq and has been an adviser to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki; his book was praised by none other than the Iraq war cheerleader Fouad Ajami as “magnificent.”

Mr. Allawi writes that the embezzlement of the Iraqi Army’s $1.2 billion arms procurement budget was happening “under the very noses” of the Security Transition Command run by General Petraeus: “The saga of the grand theft of the Ministry of Defense perfectly illustrated the huge gap between the harsh realities on the ground and the Panglossian spin that permeated official pronouncements.” Mr. Allawi contrasts the “lyrical” Petraeus pronouncements in The Post with the harsh realities of the Iraqi forces’ inoperable helicopters, flimsy bulletproof vests and toy helmets. The huge sums that might have helped the Iraqis stand up were instead “handed over to unscrupulous adventurers and former pizza parlor operators.”

Well, anyone can make a mistake. And when General Petraeus cited soccer games as an example of “the astonishing signs of normalcy” in Baghdad last month, he could not have anticipated that car bombs would kill at least 50 Iraqis after the Iraqi team’s poignant victory in the Asian Cup semifinals last week. This general may well be, as many say, the brightest and bravest we have. But that doesn’t account for why he has been invested by the White House and its last-ditch apologists with such singular power over the war.

On “Meet the Press,” Lindsey Graham, one of the Senate’s last gung-ho war defenders in either party, mentioned General Petraeus 10 times in one segment, saying he would “not vote for anything” unless “General Petraeus passes on it.” Desperate hawks on the nation’s op-ed pages not only idolize the commander daily but denounce any critics of his strategy as deserters, defeatists and enemies of the troops.

That’s because the Petraeus phenomenon is not about protecting the troops or American interests but about protecting the president. For all Mr. Bush’s claims of seeking “candid” advice, he wants nothing of the kind. He sent that message before the war, with the shunting aside of Eric Shinseki, the general who dared tell Congress the simple truth that hundreds of thousands of American troops would be needed to secure Iraq. The message was sent again when John Abizaid and George Casey were supplanted after they disagreed with the surge.

Two weeks ago, in his continuing quest for “candid” views, Mr. Bush invited a claque consisting exclusively of conservative pundits to the White House and inadvertently revealed the real motive for the Petraeus surrogate presidency. “The most credible person in the fight at this moment is Gen. David Petraeus,” he said, in National Review’s account.

To be the “most credible” person in this war team means about as much as being the most sober tabloid starlet in the Paris-Lindsay cohort. But never mind. What Mr. Bush meant is that General Petraeus is famous for minding his press coverage, even to the point of congratulating the ABC News anchor Charles Gibson for “kicking some butt” in the Nielsen ratings when Mr. Gibson interviewed him last month. The president, whose 65 percent disapproval rating is now just one point shy of Richard Nixon’s pre-resignation nadir, is counting on General Petraeus to be the un-Shinseki and bestow whatever credibility he has upon White House policies and pronouncements.

He is delivering, heaven knows. Like Mr. Bush, he has taken to comparing the utter stalemate in the Iraqi Parliament to “our own debates at the birth of our nation,” as if the Hamilton-Jefferson disputes were akin to the Shiite-Sunni bloodletting. He is also starting to echo the administration line that Al Qaeda is the principal villain in Iraq, a departure from the more nuanced and realistic picture of the civil-war-torn battlefront he presented to Senate questioners in his confirmation hearings in January.

Mr. Bush has become so reckless in his own denials of reality that he seems to think he can get away with saying anything as long as he has his “main man” to front for him. The president now hammers in the false litany of a “merger” between Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda and what he calls “Al Qaeda in Iraq” as if he were following the Madison Avenue script declaring that “Cingular is now the new AT&T.” He doesn’t seem to know that nearly 40 other groups besides Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia have adopted Al Qaeda’s name or pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden worldwide since 2003, by the count of the former C.I.A. counterterrorism official Michael Scheuer. They may follow us here well before any insurgents in Iraq do.

On Tuesday — a week after the National Intelligence Estimate warned of the resurgence of bin Laden’s Qaeda in Pakistan — Mr. Bush gave a speech in which he continued to claim that “Al Qaeda in Iraq” makes Iraq the central front in the war on terror. He mentioned Al Qaeda 95 times but Pakistan and Pervez Musharraf not once. Two days later, his own top intelligence officials refused to endorse his premise when appearing before Congress. They are all too familiar with the threats that are building to a shrill pitch this summer.

Should those threats become a reality while America continues to be bogged down in Iraq, this much is certain: It will all be the fault of President Petraeus.

An All-American Summer, Through Young Visitors’ Eyes

This Land
The New York Times
July 29, 2007


A place of cons and diversions called Palace Playland spills its garish lights nightly upon the staid summertime shores of southern Maine. And there, between the bathrooms and the bumper cars, a young Romanian woman sits encased in a ticket booth, taking in America.

The booth’s metal mouthpiece tends to mute her accented English, so her slender arms often gesture through the money slot while she explains how many tickets it takes to ride the Matterhorn, or why a youth with beard stubble is ineligible for a children’s pass. Her name is Elisabeth Tuzes, and she is one of many foreign students toiling in the riotous field of American amusement.

Volodymyr Nykyforets, from Ukraine, runs the balloon-dart game. Aika Nurkassinova, from Kazakhstan, supervises the Yo-Yo ride. And Gulin Kutlu, from Turkey, tends the Frog Bog, where customers use mallets to catapult rubber frogs toward rotating lily pads, again and again, as if spellbound.

Ms. Kutlu spends much of her time fishing errant frogs from the tepid pond, but every now and then one lands on a pad, allowing her to shout with joy, “We have a wee-nir!”

For years now, waves of foreign students have supplemented this country’s summer work force. They clean the rooms at Western resorts, process the fish at Alaskan canneries and, especially, manage the attractions at places like Palace Playland, where they are paid in part with a daily parade of that curious species, Homo Americanus.

Just as the park’s mascot, a happy-scary clown called Palace Pete, seems to be everywhere, watching us, so too are these students, with names like Olga and Ozge and Boris. They study us as we devour our fried dough, pop our balloons and waddle about in our vacation-time, wartime stupor.

“You have to say, ‘Hi, do you want to play?’ And if they say yes, I take the money,” explains Ms. Kutlu, 22, who studies English at Uludag University in Turkey when she is not tending to the bog. “I say: ‘This is what you’re playing for. Ready?’ They play, and I ask, ‘Do you want to play again?’ ”

Meanwhile, Ms. Tuzes, 22, a tourism and geography major, sees little more than the funhouse lights from her glass booth. “I’m always yelling at people, ‘It’s $2.20’ ” a ticket, she says. “Two-twenty. It’s the same routine every day.”

This summer, hundreds of foreign students populate and support Old Orchard Beach, cleaning rooms at the Kebek 3 Motel, parking cars at Jimmy’s Lunch, making the pizza at Little Caesars and keeping to themselves any negative feelings they might harbor about America. Without them, it seems, this resort town’s summer season would end on Memorial Day.

Many find their way here through the efforts of Ray Houde, or Mr. Ray, a retired schoolteacher who works for a nonprofit organization called the Council for Educational Travel, USA. On one 23-day trip last winter, he attended job fairs in the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Lithuania, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Poland, Bulgaria, Ukraine and Turkey — all to sell the virtues of this gaudy speck of Maine.

Well more than 200 university students bought his Old Orchard Beach pitch, obtained the proper work and travel visas and adopted him as their surrogate father. He finds them jobs and housing, and nudges them to call or e-mail worried parents. Along the way he has learned not to order pepperoni on pizza for Muslims, not to mention “Borat” to those from Kazakhstan, and to be especially careful about housing arrangements because, he says, “Certain countries do not tolerate other countries.”

“The draw here is still, ‘We want to go to America,’ ” Mr. Houde says. “And there’s something about Nee-agara Falls. Those freaking falls have such an attraction to them.”

A measure of America’s attraction is found in the back office of Palace Playland, not far from Skee-Ball. Every summer, Michael Verrier, the park’s personnel director, asks the students he hires to pinpoint their homes on a world map that hangs in his office. Nearly 100 pins jut from that map this year, marking places with names like Almaty (Kazakhstan), Novosibirsk (Russia) and Antalya (Turkey).

One of those pins represents Ms. Tuzes, the woman in the ticket booth, who also works several mornings a week as a chambermaid. She cooks goulash at home instead of eating too much pizza, and cannot wait until she has said “two-twenty” for the last time, after which she will head off to see where else but Niagara Falls.

They also represent Olga Andrusiak, 19, and Mariia Melnychuk, 20, both from Ukraine, and their friend Irina Markasova, 19, from Russia. At first they greeted Maine with tears, but gradually they became acclimated to the flashing neon lights, the sugary peanut butter, the frenetic rhythms of a strange country attempting to relax.

They spend their nights making pizza at Little Caesars — “I make ‘Crazy Bread,’ ” Ms. Markasova says earnestly — and their days operating the Matterhorn and the Superstar. And when they get a break, they chat in Russian about the nice people they have met and the strange things they have seen, such as that woman who was wearing a hat that looked like a hamburger.

Soon these students will return to their homes, bursting with stories of wartime America as experienced through the kaleidoscopic prism of a New England amusement park. These Americans talk more about the Red Sox than about Iraq, the students might say. They eat a lot of fried dough. And, for some reason, they love to catapult rubber frogs.

Summer School for Investors Is in Session

Fair Game
The New York Times
July 29, 2007

It’s still summer but as the financial markets declared last week, back-to-school season for United States investors has arrived.

With the equity markets off sharply for the week and the credit markets seizing, investors are being forced to relearn some of the basics forgotten during the private-equity, easy-credit, corporate-buyout boom of recent years.

Our lessons for today:

HIGH GRADE DOES NOT NECESSARILY MEAN HIGH QUALITY Wall Street’s ability to spin straw into gold rivals that of Rumpelstiltskin, to be sure. But that doesn’t mean investors should buy it. They did with gusto, however, as the subprime mortgage mess starkly shows.

WHAT LOOKS LIKE A DUCK MAY NOT QUACK LIKE A DUCK In the burgeoning world of financial derivatives, where mortgage traders and investors play, a security’s structure — especially its use of collateral to cushion buyers from losses — can earn it a blessing from rating agencies. But that structure may not be enough to withstand a credit shock like the one now gathering momentum, which threatens even the higher-grade market for mortgages. These structures look even shakier when the collateral cushion is, as is often the case, risky bonds — not cash.

DON’T SWIM IN THE DEEP END OF THE POOL Investment pools known as collateralized debt obligations have been all the rage, and many of them contain oodles of mortgage-backed securities. (Derivatives of derivatives, in other words.) As Josh Rosner, an expert on mortgage securities at Graham Fisher in New York noted in a research piece last week, the leverage used to put such securities pools together can amplify losses. For example, a 4 percent loss in a mortgage-backed security held by collateralized debt obligations can turn into almost a 40 percent loss to the holder of the C.D.O. itself.

LOSSES CAN BECOME VIRAL Lang Gibson, a Merrill Lynch analyst, characterized the potential for losses in C.D.O. pools in a recent report. After Standard & Poor’s notified investors that it had raised its loss forecast to 11 percent to 14 percent for subprime mortgages made in 2006 (the previous estimates had been 6 percent to 8 percent), Mr. Gibson said that such a rate would put most classes of asset-backed C.D.O.’s at risk of principal loss. The only class not at risk in such a scenario is the highest-ranked securities. But the junior AAA-rated classes, as well as those rated AA, A or BBB, are all at risk as well, he said.

Investors bought into the myth of highly rated securities even though their generous yields should have alerted them to risks. We have not yet seen the downgrades of collateralized debt obligations, because they typically don’t occur until loans in the underlying securities are close to default. But we will.

EARNINGS ACTUALLY HAVE TO BE EARNED Corporate profits are healthy, but that doesn’t mean stock prices can’t drop. As stocks raced to new highs this year, many investors felt their prices were justified by robust corporate earnings. They were only partly right. Other powerful forces were at work as well: corporate buybacks and mergers, both of which require access to E-Z credit. For instance, the Standard & Poor’s Index Services Group estimated that almost $118 billion was spent on stock buybacks during the first quarter of 2007, up 17.5 percent from the $100 billion registered during the first quarter of 2006.

In the first quarter, S.& P. said, 101 companies reduced their actual share count by at least 4 percent, while 72 cut their average diluted shares, used to determine earnings per share, by at least 4 percent. That means that at least 4 percent of the growth at those companies came from share count reductions, not operating earnings.

The S.& P. data also show that information technology companies were the biggest buyers of their own shares, accounting for almost 23 percent of the total buybacks and 15 percent of the market value of that stock during the first quarter. Consumer goods companies were another major player in the repurchase arena last quarter, accounting for almost 15 percent of stock buybacks and 10 percent of the market value.

Merger frenzy has also contributed mightily to the bull market. According to Thomson Financial, $3.1 trillion in deals have been announced so far this year, almost as much as the $3.6 trillion conducted during all of 2006. Many investment banks, including Lehman Brothers and Deutsche Bank, have already advised on more deals, on a dollar basis, than they did during all of last year.

Private equity investors played a major role in this mania. During July, United States private equity investors did $90 billion worth of deals, Thomson reported, the second-highest monthly number on record.

DIVERSIFICATION IS NOT A PANACEA Many investors who bought securities backed by prime mortgage loans made to creditworthy borrowers thought that they would be fine no matter how disastrous subprime loans turned out to be. But as officials at Countrywide Financial confirmed in their quarterly results last week, mortage problems are now firmly in “prime” territory.

“There is no diversification,” declared Steven Eisman, a portfolio manager at FrontPoint Partners, during a July 19 conference call the investment firm sponsored on the subprime mortgage debacle. “If there is a problem with underwriting, there will be problems everywhere. The entire capital structure from equity all the way to AAA can go to nothing.”

Not one to mince words, Mr. Eisman added: “It is going to be many months before this market clears. The freakathon is yet to come.”

EVERY CLOUD HAS A SILVER LINING There are still bright spots in what looks like a very dark market scenario. Shutting off the credit spigot means profit opportunities for investors who were awaiting a return to sanity in the debt markets, especially those looking to pick up damaged goods. And with fewer acquisitions being made, the insider trading that seems to occur ahead of almost every deal will no longer produce easy profits for chiselers.

Finally, the slowdown in the credit market may mean that we will be spared some of the gushing accounts of merger deals and the brilliant stars who make them. Financial engineering is fun and all, and so delightfully lucrative. But reporting on the people who actually run companies is surely of greater value to the world at large.

My House, My Rules. Or So One Might Think

Our Towns
The New York Times
July 29, 2007

It began with a door that had the wrong paint color.

That was in 1993, the first time Margaret and Haim Bar-Akiva ran afoul of the Twin Rivers Homeowners Association, which oversees the community of about 10,000 people where they live in East Windsor Township, N.J.

Along the way was another dispute over bars on a storm door, which, Mrs. Bar-Akiva said, led the association to spend $100,000 in legal fees. But that’s another story.

It all culminated, sort of, in a ruling on Thursday by the New Jersey Supreme Court, which went as far as any court has gone in defining the rights of the ever-growing number of people who live in private communities regulated by homeowners’ associations — even if it left an awful lot up in the air.

We may not all end up soaking up the sun like the elder Seinfelds did at Del Boca Vista, and we may not stop in Twin Rivers, a square mile of condominium duplexes, town houses, single-family homes, apartments and commercial buildings in central New Jersey. But one of the immutable long-term trends in American life seems to be that more and more of us at some point will live in the Neverland of places that are not quite public, but not entirely private either, where the rights you might expect in your own home or even at the mall are not necessarily guaranteed.

So, in New Jersey, about 1.3 million residents, nearly 40 percent of all private homeowners, live in communities where homeowners’ associations set and enforce the rules. Nationally, it’s more than 50 million people.

This, as many have come to know, can put one in an inscrutable world where maybe you can put out a yard sign for a favored candidate, distribute leaflets and knock on doors, or maybe you can’t. Maybe you can fly a flag, or maybe not. There can be restrictions on fences and paint colors, shutters and lawn art. Maybe you can drive a pickup truck or motorcycle, maybe it’s against the rules.

This is not an entirely new world, but it’s still a vexing one, where the rules are still being sorted out and where many homeowners feel the field is tilted in one direction: associations with a phalanx of lawyers, the dues of members and the lobbying clout of the powerful Community Associations Institute, a national trade group, on the one hand, individual homeowners on the other.

“Boards have all the powers of mini-governments but none of the corresponding accountability that goes with it,” Mrs. Bar-Akiva said. “They can fine you, assess taxes in the form of maintenance fees, put a lien on your house, but there’s nothing that balances those powers on the side of homeowners.”

Which is why the New Jersey case was viewed as so important. Fought over fairly small issues — an ordinance that originally allowed only one political sign in a flower bed or a window, use of the community room, access to the association’s monthly newsletter — it was followed closely nationally as the most concerted challenge to the notion that communities run by homeowners’ associations should be seen as businesses largely exempt from constitutional protections on issues like free speech.

After all, Twin Rivers feels like a town with its multimillion dollar budget, more than 20 employees, parks and swimming pools, and services that include lawn maintenance, snow removal and street lighting.

Indeed, the earth seemed to move last year when a New Jersey appeals court ruled that homeowners did not give up their constitutional rights when they moved into a privately governed community. And it held that in terms of free speech, board members were “constitutional actors,” not representatives of an exempt private enterprise.

But industry representatives said that was too sweeping and imposed quasigovernmental standards on private enterprises. The State Supreme Court largely agreed, saying that residents of the communities must accept limits on their free speech rights and that private developments, no matter how ambitious or powerful, were not the same as towns. Not that anything definitive was settled. The court threw a bone in the other direction, saying homeowners might have valid claims against “unreasonable” restrictions of their rights to free speech.

Which means, for the most part, that the issues don’t go away. They become grist for state legislatures, like a proposed national code for homeowners’ associations being considered by many states, including New Jersey. Or else they play out as narrow legal spats that have made this the hottest new area in property law litigation.

The industry representatives say people are overwhelmingly satisfied with their experiences in private communities, and, after all, they can choose where they live.

But here’s the catch. Increasingly, there isn’t an option. Many municipalities now require new developments to have homeowners’ associations. If you want to retire to many communities, there’s often no option other than ones run by homeowners’ associations.

Once rare blooms, places like Twin Rivers are becoming, if not quite the new normal, a new normal. Governments and courts are only now figuring out just what that new normal should be.


For Bonds, Swings of Mood and Bats

Sports of The Times
July 29, 2007


His pendulum mood swings can be hypnotic. Back and forth Barry Bonds went Friday night after he moved to one home run behind Hank Aaron, swaying from edgy to indifferent, from introspective to terse, from clarity to confusion.

You feel yourself getting sleepy, very sleepy.

This is what Bonds does to people, even those close to him. He wears them down, leaves them spent. There is an attrition factor to Bonds’s inner circle of supporters that apparently includes the Giants’ owner, Peter Magowan. He remains devoted to his most lucrative ballpark draw but appeared almost fatigued when describing the drain Bonds’s record pursuit has put on the rest of the Giants.

“I think we’ll start winning more consistently once this is behind us,” Magowan said.

You put fender benders and bad dates behind you, but historic journeys?

Magowan longs for the end. The Giants crave closure. But the one Bonds confidant who could have expedited or terminated what has been a slow-drip plod toward the inevitable statistical sham is behind razor wire. Greg Anderson has been cut off from his A-list client, imprisoned across the San Francisco Bay in Dublin, Calif., since November for refusing to divulge for the feds the secret recipe behind Bonds’s body.

His loyalty is baseball’s loss. If Anderson had chosen to dish dirt instead of peeling prison potatoes, a grand jury would most likely have handed up an indictment against Bonds, allowing Commissioner Bud Selig at least an opportunity to keep Aaron’s record safe.

His loyalty is also Bonds’s loss. Anderson’s eight-month absence from the scene — actually, it’s about a year given the three months he served in prison for steroid distribution in connection with the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative — has paralleled the sporadic breakdowns of Bonds’s body.

Basically, Bonds has about the same work week as some flight attendants — three days on, two days off — and without the duty to be friendly. Throughout his cranky season, Bonds has performed with striking agility in one game and in need of WD-40 during the next.

Or maybe he simply requires a good hit of flaxseed oil. Whatever Anderson once provided Bonds as his personal trainer — a workout regimen or steroid solutions (bingo!) — the missing ingredients to the youth potions have left the expandable slugger without the reliability of resilience.

“Forget the steroid allegations for a moment,” said Victor Conte, Balco’s founder, in an e-mail reply last week. “I believe that Barry Bonds received great benefit from routinely being trained by Greg Anderson. People seem to think athletes can simply take steroids and improve their performance. Steroids don’t significantly enhance muscle size and strength by themselves.”

With Anderson by his side, Bonds ballooned and took off, without looking his age as he neared 40 with spring in his cleats. Now, at 43, Bonds has been aging as if photographed by time-lapse cameras. His size is still formidable as an everyday sighting, but the elasticity of his limbs and levitating power of his swing come and go.

“It’s my understanding that Barry didn’t weight train with anywhere near the same level of intensity before he began working with Greg Anderson,” Conte added.

“It’s my opinion that the effectiveness of Greg’s weight-training methods took Barry to an entirely new level of explosive strength. It’s also likely that having Greg as an everyday trainer helped Barry maintain a higher level of overall strength throughout the season and be less prone to injury.”

Bonds is more vulnerable without Anderson in many ways. Anderson was not only his daily trainer, but also his tolerant friend amid an ever-shrinking network of those who can endure the whiplash of Bonds’s mood swings.

Was Barry’s 754th home run a relief or a burden? It was difficult to tell.

At first, Bonds was not sure what sentiments to assign to the moment he came one home run short of tying Aaron. “It’s very hard to explain right,” he said, “because I can’t really tell you every emotion that’s going in my body right now and everything that’s going on.”

A few minutes later, this brief bout of reflection jackknifed into indifference when Bonds was asked about his fist-pumped reaction as he began his home run trot. “I wasn’t caught up in the moment,” he said.

This is Bonds. He all at once fights fame and courts it, recoils against attention and feeds off it. The contradictions are wearisome to everyone but him. He has no plans to stop, no matter how far ahead of Aaron he may be.

“My last season is every last year of my contract,” Bonds said. “I’ve had a bunch of those last seasons, but this is not going to be my last season. I don’t think so — as a Giant or in baseball.”

What makes Bonds think he has enough resilience in reserve to keep going? Some day, Anderson will be released.


Cycling Fans Retain Passion in Face of Scandal

Sports of The Times
July 29, 2007

One thing I have discovered during the past cataclysmic week of the Tour de France is that thousands of literate and angry cycling fans out there resent the sport’s being linked to suspicions about dog-torturing quarterbacks, steroid-bloated sluggers and crooked referees.

My correspondents, many of them avid cyclists, insist that the heightened testing and the handful of dropouts from this Tour make cycling the cleanest sport around. They say, look at the riders being bounced for the mere appearance of mendacity, to say nothing of a trace of dope.

All the tension of the last three weeks was temporarily obliterated yesterday during the sensational time trial as Alberto Contador, a Spaniard with Discovery Channel, barely held on to his lead going into today’s normally processional final stage.

Contador had supplied the new motto for the Tour on Thursday while assuring reporters, “Yes, I’m clean.” Then he added, “If I were not, I wouldn’t be here.”

Nothing against Señor Contador, but all of us have been burned in recent years by damning samples or suspicions about one rider or another. On Wednesday, Michael Rasmussen, the Dane who was leading the Tour, was bounced for having told his Rabobank bosses he was training in Mexico while in fact he was in Italy.

These suspensions are offered as a good sign by passionate cycling fans, several of whom said that if such high standards for honesty were enforced in other sectors, then members of Congress, Cabinet members, clergy and business executives would be sacked regularly. Maybe even the odd journalist.

This loyalty to cycling is touching. Anybody who goes out for a spin identifies with these lean athletes who punish themselves on the highways and mountains of La Belle France. Watching the kaleidoscopic beauty of the Tour in recent weeks, listening to the knowledgeable Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen on the Versus network, made me love the sport even more.

But as a reporter who covers this sport, I have to say this: Even serious amateur riders who put in hundreds of miles are essentially living in another universe from desperate Tour cyclists, who have been allowed — or forced — to cheat, and have paid for it with their lives.

Start with Tom Simpson, who died on Mont Ventoux in 1967 with a supply of amphetamines on him; or Marco Pantani, the 1998 Tour winner, who died alone in a hotel room in 2004 after he had wrecked his career with performance-enhancing drugs. Then there was the plague of more than a dozen sudden deaths around 1990 from a synthetic blood booster, described by David Walsh in his book, “From Lance to Landis: Inside the American Doping Controversy at the Tour de France.”

Walsh writes how the drug erythropoietin, or EPO, “produced more red cells, the blood thickened and caused clots when the flow slowed during sleep.”

“After the clot came fatal cardiac arrest,” he said.

Walsh describes how some cyclists hooked themselves up to pulse monitors at night and, if the alarm went off, they would frantically exercise to save their lives.

Some of the great cyclists of the postwar era died young, including Jacques Anquetil at 53 and Fausto Coppi at 41, both of whom used to joke about the drugs they put in their systems.

For decades, the world cycling body, the International Cycling Union, did not want to know, and neither did the company that runs the Tour. Now the two groups are feuding over who is to blame. The news media and fans also overlooked signs of chicanery over the years. It took upgraded Olympic testing and scrutiny by law enforcement agencies all over Europe, and perhaps profit-related shame of the sponsors to embarrass cycling into taking steps now being applauded.

“In fact, this is really good for the sport,” David Millar told The Times of London last week. “Finally, team management are assuming their responsibilities, which they weren’t before.” Millar, a British cyclist, would know, having confessed to doping in 2004, then serving a two-year suspension. Now he’s a crusader for higher standards.

How clean is cycling these days? On Thursday I angered American cycling buffs by calling for a citizens’ rebellion against drugs. That day, the director of the Tour, Christian Prudhomme, was quoted as saying: “We need a revolution. Only a revolution will change the system. The system doesn’t work. We need to change that system. It’s clear that the system has betrayed the fans.”

Other readers insist that athletes should be allowed to use drugs because they are hurting only themselves. If only that were so. In an age of bulked-up pro athletes, high school coaches have been telling spindly youngsters to put on more muscle, or not make the team. It took deaths of youngsters who tried steroids before Congress shamed baseball officials and union leaders into realistic testing.

As we saw again yesterday, the Tour is still a compelling spectacle. After this last week of ghastly publicity, American cycling buffs insist the sport has moved far ahead of other pro sports. That may be true, but it is hardly a compliment.


War Crimes and the White House

The Dishonor in a Tortured New 'Interpretation' of the Geneva Conventions

By P.X. Kelley and Robert F. Turner
Washington Post
Thursday, July 26, 2007; A21

One of us was appointed commandant of the Marine Corps by President Ronald Reagan; the other served as a lawyer in the Reagan White House and has vigorously defended the constitutionality of warrantless National Security Agency wiretaps, presidential signing statements and many other controversial aspects of the war on terrorism. But we cannot in good conscience defend a decision that we believe has compromised our national honor and that may well promote the commission of war crimes by Americans and place at risk the welfare of captured American military forces for generations to come.

The Supreme Court held in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld last summer that all detainees captured in the war on terrorism are protected by Common Article 3 of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, which prescribes minimum standards of treatment for all persons who are no longer taking an active part in an armed conflict not of an international character. It provides that "in all circumstances" detainees are to be "treated humanely."

This is not just about avoiding "torture." The article expressly prohibits "at any time and in any place whatsoever" any acts of "violence to life and person" or "outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment."

Last Friday, the White House issued an executive order attempting to "interpret" Common Article 3 with respect to a controversial CIA interrogation program. The order declares that the CIA program "fully complies with the obligations of the United States under Common Article 3," provided that its interrogation techniques do not violate existing federal statutes (prohibiting such things as torture, mutilation or maiming) and do not constitute "willful and outrageous acts of personal abuse done for the purpose of humiliating or degrading the individual in a manner so serious that any reasonable person, considering the circumstances, would deem the acts to be beyond the bounds of human decency."

In other words, as long as the intent of the abuse is to gather intelligence or to prevent future attacks, and the abuse is not "done for the purpose of humiliating or degrading the individual" -- even if that is an inevitable consequence -- the president has given the CIA carte blanche to engage in "willful and outrageous acts of personal abuse."

It is firmly established in international law that treaties are to be interpreted in "good faith" in accordance with the ordinary meaning of their words and in light of their purpose. It is clear to us that the language in the executive order cannot even arguably be reconciled with America's clear duty under Common Article 3 to treat all detainees humanely and to avoid any acts of violence against their person.

In April of 1793, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson wrote to President George Washington that nations were to interpret treaty obligations for themselves but that "the tribunal of our consciences remains, and that also of the opinion of the world." He added that "as we respect these, we must see that in judging ourselves we have honestly done the part of impartial and rigorous judges."

To date in the war on terrorism, including the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks and all U.S. military personnel killed in action in Afghanistan and Iraq, America's losses total about 2 percent of the forces we lost in World War II and less than 7 percent of those killed in Vietnam. Yet we did not find it necessary to compromise our honor or abandon our commitment to the rule of law to defeat Nazi Germany or imperial Japan, or to resist communist aggression in Indochina. On the contrary, in Vietnam -- where we both proudly served twice -- America voluntarily extended the protections of the full Geneva Convention on prisoners of war to Viet Cong guerrillas who, like al-Qaeda, did not even arguably qualify for such protections.

The Geneva Conventions provide important protections to our own military forces when we send them into harm's way. Our troops deserve those protections, and we betray their interests when we gratuitously "interpret" key provisions of the conventions in a manner likely to undermine their effectiveness. Policymakers should also keep in mind that violations of Common Article 3 are "war crimes" for which everyone involved -- potentially up to and including the president of the United States -- may be tried in any of the other 193 countries that are parties to the conventions.

In a letter to President James Madison in March 1809, Jefferson observed: "It has a great effect on the opinion of our people and the world to have the moral right on our side." Our leaders must never lose sight of that wisdom.

Retired Gen. P.X. Kelley served as commandant of the Marine Corps from 1983 to 1987. Robert F. Turner is co-founder of the University of Virginia's Center for National Security Law and a former chair of the American Bar Association's Standing Committee on Law and National Security.

Stacking the Court

Op-Ed Contributor
The New York Times
July 26, 2007

Huntington, W.Va.

WHEN a majority of Supreme Court justices adopt a manifestly ideological agenda, it plunges the court into the vortex of American politics. If the Roberts court has entered voluntarily what Justice Felix Frankfurter once called the “political thicket,” it may require a political solution to set it straight.

The framers of the Constitution did not envisage the Supreme Court as arbiter of all national issues. As Chief Justice John Marshall made clear in Marbury v. Madison, the court’s authority extends only to legal issues.

When the court overreaches, the Constitution provides checks and balances. In 1805, after persistent political activity by Justice Samuel Chase, Congress responded with its power of impeachment. Chase was acquitted, but never again did he step across the line to mingle law and politics. After the Civil War, when a Republican Congress feared the court might tamper with Reconstruction in the South, it removed those questions from the court’s appellate jurisdiction.

But the method most frequently employed to bring the court to heel has been increasing or decreasing its membership. The size of the Supreme Court is not fixed by the Constitution. It is determined by Congress.

The original Judiciary Act of 1789 set the number of justices at six. When the Federalists were defeated in 1800, the lame-duck Congress reduced the size of the court to five — hoping to deprive President Jefferson of an appointment. The incoming Democratic Congress repealed the Federalist measure (leaving the number at six), and then in 1807 increased the size of the court to seven, giving Jefferson an additional appointment.

In 1837, the number was increased to nine, affording the Democrat Andrew Jackson two additional appointments. During the Civil War, to insure an anti-slavery, pro-Union majority on the bench, the court was increased to 10. When a Democrat, Andrew Johnson, became president upon Lincoln’s death, a Republican Congress voted to reduce the size to seven (achieved by attrition) to guarantee Johnson would have no appointments.

After Ulysses S. Grant was elected in 1868, Congress restored the court to nine. That gave Grant two new appointments. The court had just declared unconstitutional the government’s authority to issue paper currency (greenbacks). Grant took the opportunity to appoint two justices sympathetic to the administration. When the reconstituted court convened, it reheard the legal tender cases and reversed its decision (5-4).

The most recent attempt to alter the size of the court was by Franklin Roosevelt in 1937. But instead of simply requesting that Congress add an additional justice or two, Roosevelt’s convoluted scheme fooled no one and ultimately sank under its own weight.

Roosevelt claimed the justices were too old to keep up with the workload, and urged that for every justice who reached the age of 70 and did not retire within six months, the president should be able to appoint a younger justice to help out. Six of the Supreme Court justices in 1937 were older than 70. But the court was not behind in its docket, and Roosevelt’s subterfuge was exposed. In the Senate, the president could muster only 20 supporters.

Still, there is nothing sacrosanct about having nine justices on the Supreme Court. Roosevelt’s 1937 chicanery has given court-packing a bad name, but it is a hallowed American political tradition participated in by Republicans and Democrats alike.

If the current five-man majority persists in thumbing its nose at popular values, the election of a Democratic president and Congress could provide a corrective. It requires only a majority vote in both houses to add a justice or two. Chief Justice John Roberts and his conservative colleagues might do well to bear in mind that the roll call of presidents who have used this option includes not just Roosevelt but also Adams, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln and Grant.

Jean Edward Smith is the author, most recently, of “F.D.R.”

"See ya in the funny papers...suckers...!"

The Cleavage Conundrum

Guest Columnist
The New York Times
July 28, 2007

The Washington Post’s penetrating exposé of Hillary Clinton’s “surreptitious” show of cleavage on the Senate floor last week (“To display cleavage in a setting that does not involve cocktails and hors d’oeuvres is a provocation”) sent me trawling on the Internet, digging through sites like eBay and Hijabs-R-Us, desperate to buy a burqa.

I’d come upon the article on a very bad day, one in which I’d made the fatal error of wearing a sundress that had shrunk at the dry cleaners. Zipping up the top required a fair amount of exhaling and spousal assistance and a certain compression of body parts. All of which meant that, when I dropped my eyes down from the computer screen where I was reading the piece and turned them in the direction of my ever-contemplatable navel, I was confronted by an unmistakable bit of, well, “provocative” décolleté.

It wasn’t — I ran to check in the mirror — discernable from head-on or from the side. In fact, you pretty much had to be looking straight down to see it. Still, I didn’t want to take any chances. I did not want to run the risk, as Clinton had, according to The Post’s Robin Givhan, of giving passers-by the impression that they were “catching a man with his fly unzipped.” (“Just look away!”)

I have a hard enough time making friends around the office.

And so, I spent the rest of the 90-degree day buttoned up in a warm jacket. Grumbling and muttering all the way.

You see, I’d always thought that, when you reached a certain age or a certain stage in life, you sort of bought your way out of the sexual rat race. You could be a “person of cleavage,” to borrow a Pulitzer-worthy phrase from Ruth Marcus, a Post columnist, but you could nonetheless make it through your day without having to give the matter much thought.

After all, isn’t every woman past a certain age, at a certain weight and after a certain amount of breast-feeding, a “person of cleavage?” And aren’t you allowed, at a certain time of life, to escape from the world of at least my youth, where you couldn’t walk down the street licking an ice cream cone without inviting a stream of leering commentary?

I always thought that middle age afforded some kind of protection from prying eyes and personal remarks. I thought this was the silver lining to growing up and growing older. Clearly, I was wrong.

Funny that it took another woman to drive that point home to me. Funny, too, that when I looked closely at the photo that accompanied Givhan’s article, I couldn’t see anything vaguely resembling cleavage. I guess you had to have just the right angle.

Givhan is a fashion writer, which means she spends a great deal of time in the company of professional anorexics, sunken-chested young women whose attempts at cleavage are gerry-rigged for the cameras. These are women whose images are tightly controlled, for whom every millimeter of flesh shown or unshown is a matter of careful planning and styling and aesthetic hand-wringing.

Normal women are different. Normal women — real women, dare I say? — women who have other, more important things on their minds than their looks, women who have other people on their minds than themselves, the kinds of women, in other words, whom you’d probably want to have running the country, aren’t likely to be so “perfect” in appearance. Their flesh (minus the knife) will bulge or sag; their clothes will pull and shift, showing this or that lunch stain, this or that wrinkle, this or that unbidden bit of skin. It’s a mark of how stunted we are as a society that, no matter what their age, accomplishments or stature, we still expect these women to maintain a level of image control worthy of a professional beauty.

The difference between a real female commander in chief and a woman who plays one on TV will one day prove to be that the former is not always shot at a flattering angle. She will have bad shirt days and the occasional run in a stocking.

At least, I hope she’ll be the kind of woman who would permit that to happen. I hope, at the very least, that predatory eyes won’t force her to spend a chunk of precious work time every day being packaged into an impenetrable, invulnerable suit of professionally styled armor.

But I wouldn’t count on it.

‘Harry’ and the Strange Logic of Book Discounters

Talking Business
The New York Times
July 28, 2007

I had dinner with my daughter, Kate, near Union Square in Manhattan last Friday, and afterward, as we walked toward the subway, we saw a long line snaking around the corner. “Do you know what that is?” she asked. I didn’t. “Harry Potter.”

Of course! At midnight, the seventh and final installment of the best-selling book series of all time, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” would go on sale. The sixth book, “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” published in 2005, sold almost seven million copies in the United States within the first 24 hours; it was widely expected that “Deathly Hallows” would beat that record. (It did.) The line was filled with people of all ages, some wearing wizard robes, all eager to get into the 18th Street Barnes & Noble, and be among the first to find out how the author J. K. Rowling would wrap up the series.

It turns out that store on 18th Street was the original Barnes & Noble, which its chairman, Leonard Riggio, bought in the 1970s, and used as his launching pad as he transformed bookselling from a cottage industry into a real business. He created a chain of cavernous, comfortable stores, added cafes and advertised on television, something no bookseller had ever done before. And he discounted. Oh, how he discounted!

B.R. — Before Riggio — booksellers almost never strayed from the publisher’s suggested retail price. A.R. — After Riggio — rare was the best seller that wasn’t discounted. And not just by Barnes & Noble, but by Borders and Amazon and Wal-Mart and Costco. Indeed, the bigger the best seller, the larger the discount. Which meant that all those people standing in line on 18th Street were going to get one heckuva bargain.

And they did. Scholastic, Harry Potter’s American publisher, had a suggested retail price of $34.99. But the Barnes & Noble price was $20.99: a 40 percent discount. Barnes & Noble “members” got an additional 10 percent off. According to the chief executive Stephen Riggio — he’s Leonard’s younger brother — the company sold 1.8 million books in 48 hours.

Amazon? The online retailer sent out e-mail messages in early July, recommending that people preorder the book, offering it for $17.99, a saving of 49 percent, with a $5 gift certificate and free shipping thrown in. Some 2.2 million customers took that deal. Borders, meanwhile, was selling the book for $20.99. The Wal-Mart price was $17.87. Costco: $18.19. And across the pond, the Asda supermarket chain was selling “Deathly Hallows” for £4.99, basically, 10 bucks. Asda is owned by Wal-Mart.

Those are some serious savings. Harry Potter fans had to be happy about the great deal they were getting for a product they would have bought at just about any price. But didn’t those enormous discounts also mean that retailers were actually losing money on the greatest publishing event in history — especially as Scholastic was widely rumored to be selling to retailers at 46 percent below its suggested retail price? (Scholastic won’t comment.) And if that were indeed the case, what did that say about the state of the book business?

IT’S a funny business, the book business, and making little or no money on a brand as powerful as Harry Potter is only part of it. Name another industry, for instance, where the manufacturer agrees to take back — and reimburse the retailer! — for unsold merchandise. Yet that is how the book industry has operated since the Depression.

And what other business can you think of where sales are essentially flat, yet the manufacturers keep ramping up volume? In 1980, the book industry produced about 42,400 new titles, according to the R. R. Bowker Company, which monitors new books. By 2001, the number had jumped to 141,700, and 168,000 by 2005.

Each of these practices has a certain screwball logic. Because most books are written by unknowns, book publishers suspect that the returns policy makes stores more willing to take a chance on a new author. (Though it is also true that if the policy went away tomorrow, they would all breathe a collective sigh of relief; returns are both cumbersome and costly.)

And the reason for the rise in the number of published books is that the big publishers are owned by conglomerates that demand increased revenue and profits from their book divisions. Because publishers have no idea which books will succeed commercially (Harry Potter is an exception) they react by publishing ever more books, hoping to increase their odds of hitting the jackpot with a “Tipping Point” or “Da Vinci Code.” The vast majority of books, by the way, are commercial flops.

Discounting has its own logic. “It is a loss leader,” said Tony Schulte, a former executive vice president with Random House and Knopf (and a friend). “It’s not that different from a hamburger joint giving away the second hamburger free.” But it is a little different: you just don’t see other industries losing money on their hottest brand to get people to buy less desirable merchandise. But that’s what the book industry does.

Part of the problem is that books aren’t just sold in bookstores. Wal-Mart and Costco are both huge sellers of books, for instance. “Costco’s strategy is big best sellers and mass-market paperbacks,” said Albert N. Greco, a book industry expert at the Fordham Graduate School of Business Administration. “They want to price it so that it will be competitive with its competitors,” mainly Wal-Mart and Target.

Indeed, Costco’s chief executive, James Sinegal, conceded to me that profitability was low on the list of reasons his stores stock Harry Potter. “We think it is something our customers expect us to have,” he said. He wasn’t too concerned with the Barnes & Noble price, he told me, but he was very concerned with the Wal-Mart and Target prices. Still, he denied losing money on the book. “We’re making a little change,” he said. “We don’t sell things below cost.”

Despite the deep discount, Mr. Sinegal was not happy to learn that the Wal-Mart price was 32 cents lower than his. “We don’t like to be in that position,” he said with obvious distaste, adding that if the Wal-Mart price had been significantly lower than Costco’s, “we probably wouldn’t carry the item.”

Then there’s Amazon. By my calculation, Amazon, with its 49 percent discount, $5 gift certificate and free shipping, is losing more than $10 a book. A spokeswoman, Patricia Smith, would only say that the book was being sold “at slightly below break even.” But even without profits, she said, the company was “thrilled” with Harry Potter. “We love Harry Potter because it gives us a chance to showcase what we can do in terms of a good customer experience, including same-day delivery. There is a halo effect,” she said.

As an online retailer, Amazon’s motives for selling the book cheaply are different from Costco’s. Harry Potter generated tens of thousands of new customers for Amazon. The company now has their e-mail addresses and can market to them — something it does exceedingly well. Secondly, Amazon is trying to condition people to buy books online instead of shopping in bookstores. A heavily discounted Harry Potter furthers that goal. Third, Amazon says that people bought lots of other things when they preordered; indeed, in its second-quarter conference call this week, the company attributed about 1 percent of its revenue to Harry Potter customers’ buying other merchandise.

Which brings us back to the original discounter, Barnes & Noble, which, unlike its rivals, would very much like to make money on the book. So why is it discounting the book so heavily? Because it has no choice. Costco may not view it as a head-to-head competitor, but every book Costco sells is a book sale Barnes & Noble has missed. As for Amazon, the fact that it has a set of motives different from Barnes & Noble’s is meaningless. No one doubts that Amazon is a direct competitor.

“It’s almost biblical,” said Sara Nelson, the editor of Publishers Weekly. “What they did is now being done to them.”

When I spoke to Stephen Riggio, though, he seemed unruffled by all the discounting. “It is a competitive world out there,” he shrugged, “but not necessarily more than it used to be.” More than 50 percent of all books are now sold by nonbookstores; that’s just his reality.

As with the others, Mr. Riggio could count lots of ways a barely profitable Harry Potter helped his company. It developed a new generation of readers. It got people into stores where they bought other, higher-margin books. It was likely to be on the backlist forever, allowing Barnes & Noble to eventually sell it — probably to today’s young buyers as they become parents — for a good profit. “Many of our best-selling authors are dead,” he said. “Dickens or Shakespeare. Those are timeless works,” he added. “So is Harry Potter.”

Minnie Fry, the director for marketing at Bloomsbury, Potter’s British publisher, said, “We think the market share war is incredibly stupid.” But somewhat to my surprise, nobody in the trenches seemed to agree, including Stephen Riggio. Listening to him talk so matter-of-factly about his deep discounting competitors reminded me of the Don Corleone line: “This is the life we have chosen.” As we might phrase that today, it is what it is.

There is a final irony here. It turns out that there are retailers who will make money on “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.” They’re the independent booksellers, the same group that originally suffered the brunt of Leonard Riggio’s discounting. Since then, though, independents have learned not to compete on price, but to give customers great service and other benefits. So how much did they charge for the most heavily discounted book of all time? Try $34.99.

Meaning that tiny Books & Books in Coral Gables, Fla., which has sold fewer than 2,000 copies of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” will make more money on it than might Amazon. Did I mention that the book business is a funny business?

Meet Joe Nocera at

Officials Fly, and Voters Are Taken for a Ride

About New York
The New York Times
July 28, 2007

In 1994, George E. Pataki got very mad — or at least pretended to — about Mario M. Cuomo and his family using state aircraft to fly all over New York. Mr. Pataki wanted Mr. Cuomo’s job, which was governor.

Such flights, Mr. Pataki said, were an “incredibly stupid use of taxpayers’ money, like flea collars for the governor’s dog and some larger elements, like Air Cuomo, the plane and helicopters to ferry people around the state, not on government business.”

If elected, he, George Pataki, would get rid of the fleet.

That did not happen. Of course, he won the election — experts disagreed whether Mr. Cuomo went down in defeat over the flea collars, the taxpayer-financed “wee-wee pad” for his dog or his stand against the death penalty — but in victory, Mr. Pataki resisted the temptation to get rid of the aircraft that he had called a symbol of Mr. Cuomo’s “outrageous, free-spending liberal philosophy.”

It is not hard to imagine what happened next.

Not long after the election, Mr. Pataki himself was the subject of news stories about how the Pataki clan had replaced the Cuomos on board the state aircraft. With that, the executive helicopters and planes pretty much fell out of the news for the duration of the Pataki administration.

(And in far less important news, the state managed to increase its debt from $28 billion to $51 billion under Mr. Pataki, much of it by simply borrowing new money to pay off old debts.)

Then Eliot Spitzer replaced Mr. Pataki and promptly rescued the helicopters from obscurity. He permitted his enemy, Joseph L. Bruno, the leader of the Republicans in the State Senate, to ride whenever he wanted. As soon as Mr. Bruno used helicopters to go to political fund-raisers, Mr. Spitzer’s people ran to the newspapers and told on him.

This treachery has shocked even the case-hardened souls of Albany politicians who have overseen decades of pillage without batting an eye. Mr. Spitzer’s critics say his career is hanging by a thread. Once a professional Good Government Type, he now will have to rebrand himself to survive, though he surely can take heart from the recovery of Rudolph W. Giuliani, another politician who got his start by scolding people about their lack of ethics.

To recap, for those who have fallen into a stupor and can’t understand what was done wrong: the Spitzer people snitched on Mr. Bruno, instead of allowing him to fly in secrecy from Albany to Manhattan hotel suites so he could collect campaign money.

State troopers drive Mr. Bruno to the helicopters and fly him to the fund-raisers. He puts in a few minutes of legislative business at these events, he raises money, and then heads back home on the helicopter. The State Police have two Bell 430 helicopters that are used for “executive transport.”

WHEN Mario Cuomo was governor, the state estimated that an hour in a helicopter cost about $2,000. The state no longer tracks those costs. Remarkably, neither did the attorney general, who this week somehow managed to issue a 10,000-word report on the “alleged misuse of New York State aircraft and the resources of the state police” without mentioning how much it cost the police — and the public — to fly politicians on a state aircraft.

The attorney general happens to be Andrew M. Cuomo, son of the former governor, and himself an occasional passenger on what was known in its day as Air Cuomo.

For commercial helicopter use, the base cost is $1,250 an hour, according to David Wyndham of Conklin & de Decker, a firm that consults on aviation costs. That cost easily rises to $1,600 an hour when insurance and pilot salaries and benefits are included.

The true costs of these trips, though, are not just airfare. A few years ago, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority decided to pay off old debts by borrowing $14 billion. This borrowing brought little in the way of new facilities for the public, but generated about $85 million in fees for underwriters and lawyers. They, in turn, gave $4 million in political contributions and lobbying fees. Today, that $14 billion is part of a debt crisis at the authority that could drive up bus and subway fares.

When politicians get a ride to a fund-raiser, the public can be paying for years.


The Education of Eliot

Op-Ed Columnist
The New York Times
July 28, 2007

Eliot Spitzer accidentally dialed my number the other day, and when he identified himself I automatically said, “How are you doing?”

Really not the right greeting.

“Oh ... great,” the governor said, in a tone that conveyed both deep sarcasm and a near-bewilderment.

He cannot believe what has happened to him. Our brand-new, hot-shot governor, armed with his mighty mandate, laid low. The star of the Democratic Party of New York, whose sway is currently only slightly less sweeping than the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan, has been totally rolled by the 78-year-old leader of the State Senate Republicans.

Spitzer went to war with Joe Bruno, the Senate majority leader, over his reform agenda — the one that people elected him with nearly 70 percent of the vote to accomplish. He clearly got carried away with the governor-as-warrior metaphor. The Republicans claim that he called Bruno “senile” in a particularly nasty way. And although Spitzer denied it, the senator and his supporters reacted with such high-pitched wailing that voters must have had the impression that their governor was committing elder abuse.

Worse, members of the governor’s staff decided to collect evidence that Bruno was using the state helicopter and planes for trips that were not really about state business. It was a fool’s errand. Given the vagueness of the limits on this kind of perk, for Bruno to break the law, he’d have to buy a delicatessen in Times Square and fly down from Albany every day at 11 a.m. to handle the lunchtime rush.

The Republicans quickly turned the tables, claiming the Spitzer administration was using the State Police to spy on their leader. Before you knew it, the governor and his aides were on their way to testify before the State Ethics Commission. Meanwhile, the formerly dispirited Republicans were mouthing the dreaded question, “What did the governor know and when did he know it?”

Spitzer had promised to “bring passion back to Albany.” This was not what we thought he had in mind.

Now in a sane world, Joseph Bruno would not be taking taxpayer-funded helicopters to begin with. He’s a state senator for heaven’s sake. How much critical business can he have in Manhattan?

Bruno’s spokesman said the senator needs to get back and forth to the city to consult with Mayor Michael Bloomberg and with downstate businesses who find the Republicans “much more sympathetic to the needs of the business community.”

Can we have a show of hands? How many people think that the businesses would be willing to make a trip upstate for an opportunity to pour their wishes and hopes and dreams into a sympathetic Republican ear? And if Michael Bloomberg needs to see Joe Bruno, he can afford to hire his own helicopter. He can hire his own litter and have people carry him to Albany if he feels like it.

Bruno now sees himself as a one-man mission to protect traditional Albany from Eliot the Hun. “He’s an official with statewide responsibilities. Especially now in light of what’s come out,” said the spokesman, who referred to the helicopter investigation as “an attempt to annihilate us, to wipe us off the face of the earth, to kill him, do whatever it takes. ... ”

This is all very sad.

Spitzer is probably going to recover, perhaps as a chastened and more pleasant person. But he has lost the moment. When a new chief executive arrives, legislators are usually unsure of themselves for a while, and this is the precious soft spot when they can be pushed into doing big, bold things. If you screw it up, they’ll instantly revert to their preference for doing small, expensive things instead. (One of Hillary Clinton’s great pluses as a presidential candidate is that having been part of the great screwing up of the beginning of her husband’s administration in 1993, she may have figured out how not to do it again.)

The centerpiece of Spitzer’s first legislative session was supposed to be a campaign finance reform bill. Now, the price tag for passing it is escalating by the moment. Legislative pay raises! More construction projects!

It is a great tradition in Albany that no important bill ever emerges by itself. It gets mixed with pork and pet projects and lobbyists’ to-do lists until Bruno, Democratic Assembly Leader Sheldon Silver and the current governor sit down to create one huge hairball of a deal.

Spitzer was supposed to change that. But now here we are. Last week Senator Bruno was striding around the state like Rocky Balboa, while the governor was telling Danny Hakim and Nicholas Confessore of The Times that his wife had started asking, “What was wrong with going into the family business?” (High-end real estate.)

The hairball is back.

Friday, July 27, 2007

The Opinionator

July 27, 2007, 2:39 pm
Hillary vs. Obama? Really?
By Tobin Harshaw
Tags: , , ,

While many political junkies feel that foreign policy is perhaps Hillary Clinton’s Achilles heel with Democratic primary voters, she seems to have decided to make it the centerpiece of her attacks on Barack Obama. The Times reports that the latest salvoes “stemmed from their answers at a debate Monday involving the circumstances under which each as president might meet with leaders of Syria, Cuba and Venezuela, but it has broadened into a debate over whether the nation needs experience or a fresh approach on the world stage.”

The Washington Post’s heavyweight pundits are split on the strategy, with E.J. Dionne noting that “the eagerness with which Obama’s camp kept the battle going reflected a cardinal rule in politics: Front-runners should be wary of picking fights with challengers” and Charles Krauthammer feeling that “the grizzled veteran showed up the clueless rookie.”

Others have more subtle opinions. Doren Dayton, a Republican political consultant who writes the eyeon08 blog, thinks both the YouTube debate and the resulting dustup are good for politics and the country:

I think this is a real philosophical debate about foreign policy that cuts to a real fracture in the Democratic Party between (responsible) foreign policy elites and one part of the liberal faction of the party base. And it took real people to ask this question. Why? Probably because the press is part of the same elite opinion formation apparatus as everyone else. (incidentally, that’s why they didn’t ask questions about Iraq. Very few serious people were asking questions about Iraq, so the press didn’t either) … This gimmicky debate has resulted in the first real large-scale policy clash of the 2008 cycle. Something that 8(?) media sponsored debates couldn’t really achieve.
Ezra Klein thinks the press is making much ado about very little:

So far as I can tell, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton don’t disagree at all. Barack Obama would, if made president, deploy various ambassadors and envoys to lay the diplomatic groundwork that could result in Obama meeting with leaders of countries that America doesn’t necessarily consider allies. Hillary Clinton, too, would deploy envoys and various high-level administration officials to lay the diplomatic groundwork that could result in Clinton meeting with the leaders of countries that America doesn’t necessarily consider allies … At the end of the day, this is really about Clinton and Obama demonstrating their central appeals: Change for Obama, and competence for Clinton. Both think they can win this spat. Maybe they’re both right. But I don’t think, on this point, either is indicating a radically different policy. Their main disagreement is on which of them should be President.
Scarecrow at Firedoglake agrees with Klein on the substance, but places the blame elsewhere:

We’ve been treated to a growing display of ambition and campaign stupidity, in which the campaigns have manufactured a dispute that never had to be. Last night, both campaigns sent their spokesmen onto CNN and Hardball, and both managed to make their respective candidates seem petty and silly –­ Clinton for her insincere charge of inexperience, Obama for the silliness of his comparing Clinton with Bush on this point, then Clinton for the arrogance and condescension of Wolfson’s response and finally Obama for the incoherence of his advisor’s reply. Nice going guys. And the point of this was demonstrate how wise the two of you are in talking to adversaries?

July 26, 2007, 5:07 pm
Legal in Pennsylvania
By Tobin Harshaw

An obscure federal trial in Pennsylvania may have a big impact on the Immigration Reform debate. Reuters reports that “a U.S. judge on Thursday struck down as unconstitutional a local law designed to crack down on illegal immigration, dealing a blow to similar laws passed by dozens of towns and cities across the country. U.S. District Judge James Munley said the city of Hazleton, 100 miles north of Philadelphia, was not allowed to implement a law that would fine businesses that hire illegal immigrants and penalize landlords who rent rooms to them.”

The blogger at Digger’s Realm who has been following the trial closely is struck by the judge’s insistence that “even if federal law did not conflict with Hazleton’s measures, the city could not enact an ordinance that violates rights the Constitution guarantees to every person in the United States, whether legal resident or not.”

“So the ruling seems not to state that the ordinance conflicts with federal immigration laws, but that the judge interprets the Constitution to include rights to illegal aliens,” writes Digger. “This is flawed logic in my opinion because illegal aliens have not sworn to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States. The Constitution is not a human rights document as US District Judge James Munley seems to think, but is the rule of law in this land. As illegal aliens are breaking the law they should be held accountable. If it takes a local jurisdiction to do so - and uphold the Constitution - then so be it.”

James Joyner at Outside the Beltway sympathizes, but doesn’t think the judge was out of line: “This one was a no-brainer and, unless they had no brains, Hazleton’s politicians damned well knew it. One understands the frustrations of local officials, who have to bear the brunt over the inability or unwillingness of the federal government to enforce our immigration laws. Still, they obviously don’t have jurisdiction.”

Unsurprisingly, Michelle Malkin knows whom to blame: “Munley is a Clinton appointee.” Some reflexes, apparently, never get unlearned.

In This Mess, Finger Pointing Is in Style

High & Low Finance
The New York Times
July 27, 2007

Who’s to blame for the subprime mortgage mess?

It’s the lenders, says William Poole, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. As he sees it, bankers and mortgage brokers persuaded innocent borrowers to take out ARMs — adjustable rate mortgages — when rates were all but sure to rise. He also blames investors who bought the mortgage securities that are now in trouble.

Bankers should take their share of scorn, but they were not the only ones who encouraged borrowers to take out adjustable rate mortgages at precisely the wrong time. So did Alan Greenspan, the longtime chairman of the Federal Reserve.

In Mr. Poole’s view, it was obvious from 2002 to 2004 that short-term interest rates were all but certain to rise, thus driving up the cost of ARMs. But the bankers did not point that out to their customers.

“Apparently driven by the prospects of high fee income,” said Mr. Poole in a speech a week ago, “mortgage originators persuaded many relatively unsophisticated borrowers to take out these mortgages; then, investors willingly purchased them when they were securitized. Many of these mortgages are now in default, some of the lenders are bankrupt, and the mortgage-backed securities are trading at deep discounts to face value.”

In 2004, however, the Fed sent a different signal. Mr. Greenspan, speaking to Credit Union executives on Feb. 23, said “recent research within the Federal Reserve suggests that many homeowners might have saved tens of thousands of dollars had they held adjustable rate mortgages rather than fixed rate mortgages during the past decade.”

He conceded that they might suffer if rates rose, but that was not the point he emphasized. Instead, he used option pricing theory to conclude that homeowners were paying a very steep price when they took out fixed rate mortgages.

“American consumers might benefit if lenders provided greater mortgage product alternatives to the traditional fixed rate mortgage,” said the Fed chairman.

Rarely has an industry done a better job of following a regulator’s suggestion. The bankers came up with mortgages that took 40 years to pay off, rather than the customary 30-year amortization period. If that was not enough, they offered loans with negative amortization, so that every month a borrower owed more than he had the month before. People could get mortgages without anyone’s checking to see if they had lied about their income.

Mr. Greenspan may have come to regret his 2004 remarks. In the fall of 2005, he told a group of mortgage bankers that the “apparent froth in housing markets may have spilled over into mortgage markets.” He voiced concern over “more exotic forms of adjustable rate mortgages,” but said nothing to indicate banks should stop offering them.

Had Mr. Poole been willing to talk to me, I would have asked if he thought the Fed bore any responsibility.

Now the problems are surfacing. Earnings are down at Countrywide Financial, which as David Hendler of CreditSights pointed out, was “a leader in developing and bringing to the fore many of the innovations that are now adding a certain toxicity to even prime mortgages.”

Angelo R. Mozilo, Countrywide’s chief executive, doesn’t think he should be blamed. Talking to analysts this week, he called Mr. Poole’s comments “unbelievable” and criticized the Fed for first raising interest rates and then forcing banks to tighten their lending standards.

When an analyst suggested that Countrywide, the country’s largest mortgage lender, should not have made those loans, Mr. Mozilo sounded as if he had no more choice than a lemming going over the cliff.

“Our place in the industry would have changed dramatically because we would have arbitrarily made a decision that was contrary to what everything appeared to be — values going up and no delinquencies, no foreclosures — and we suddenly stop the music,” he said.

“Nobody saw this coming,” he added.

Actually, there were forecasts of disaster. But Mr. Poole was not among the Cassandras.

In March of last year, a few months before home prices peaked, he said a housing bubble might be brewing, but that Fed research indicated home prices were not unreasonable.

“So, if you have an academic interest in house prices, I recommend that you wait a few years,” he said. “If you have a direct financial interest, I can’t help much — you’re on your own!”

That exclamation point was in the text released by the Fed.

Will Subway Fares Rise? Check at Your Pizza Place

The New York Times
July 27, 2007

The subway and bus fare will rise soon enough to $2.25, if not higher. How can we be so sure? To answer the question with another question, have you been to a pizza parlor lately?

Once again the Pizza Connection is kicking in.

As we noted in this space a few years ago, the transit fare and the price of a pizza slice have run remarkably parallel for decades. In 1960, a subway token cost a mere 15 cents. So did a slice — a regular slice, mind you, no extra toppings. In the early 1970s, the fare went up to 35 cents. So did pizza.

By 2003, pizza was selling for $2 in parts of the city, especially Midtown. The $1.50 fare, set in 1995, seemed doomed. And it was. In May 2003, it shot up to $2. There it remains.

But for how long?

These days, pizza routinely costs $2.25 in some neighborhoods. While a slice still goes for $2 in many places, and for even as little as $1.75, a charge of $2.25 is routine in Midtown. One pizzeria in Times Square demands $2.35. A parlor on the Upper West Side has the nerve — it’s hard to think of another word for it — to insist on $2.55.

Given these fundamentals of economics, the $2 fare seems as shaky as Lindsay Lohan’s hold on sobriety.

As it is, the panjandrums of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority are talking about imposing regular increases every two years or so to help cover rising costs, including the interest payments it must make on a debt that runs into the many billions of dollars.

The notion of relatively small, but steady, increases was advanced the other day by Elliot G. Sander, the transportation authority’s executive director. Mr. Sander is now the power at the authority. He was given his job by Gov. Eliot Spitzer, he who had promised that on “Day 1, everything changes.”

Indeed, everything has changed. You can see that in Mr. Spitzer’s choice for transportation authority chairman.

The former governor, George E. Pataki, appointed Peter S. Kalikow, a real estate man who was a political ally. In selecting the next chairman, Mr. Spitzer went the other way. He nominated H. Dale Hemmerdinger, a political ally who is a real estate man. Quite different, you see.

Actually, Mr. Sander’s approach to the fare echoes that of Mr. Kalikow, who said a few years ago that small increases at regular intervals made sense. Riders can adjust to them better than they did to the whopping 33 percent rise that hit them in 2003 after nearly eight years of no change.

How the transportation authority will bring in more revenue is unclear. Might it sock the commuter railroads harder than the city’s buses and subways? Will the burden fall heavily on bridge and tunnel tolls? How about fiddling with the discounts offered through weekly and monthly MetroCards? Or will the basic fare go up for the first time since 2003?

That the authority faces looming deficits despite present surpluses is not doubted by watchdogs like the riders’ advocacy group known as the Straphangers Campaign. Gene Russianoff, the campaign’s staff lawyer, had sympathetic words for Mr. Sander and his associates. Still, Mr. Russianoff said, “they have a ‘crying wolf’ problem, which is that they predicted deficits before that, because of the hot real estate market, just never materialized.”

“In all truth,” he said of the authority, “they were not forthcoming with the public for many years, and it’s resulted in a pretty cynical view of their credibility.” It certainly doesn’t take a clairvoyant to figure out how New Yorkers will react to higher fares. Not surprisingly, Mr. Sander got an earful from some riders when he went to Grand Central Terminal yesterday to make his case for regular increases in the name of reliable planning.

But the Pizza Connection is what it is. There are ways to tinker with it, though.

The city and state have not exactly tripped over themselves to increase subsidies for mass transit. Perhaps, instead, they could subsidize pizza parlors. If pizzeria prices stay stable, so might subway fares.

Alternatively, given the fact that the cost of pizza varies across the city, why not peg the fare at each station to “the local price of a slice.” That suggestion was offered in a letter to this newspaper five years ago by Gilbert M. Trachtman, a retired school psychologist in Manhattan.

“It was meant to be a jest,” Mr. Trachtman said yesterday, “but it sounded so reasonable.”

That it did, and does.


A Go-To Guy Sees Himself in a New Role

Sports of The Times
July 27, 2007

“If I had an enemy and I was trying to conquer him, I would give him money, fame and power. They are three things that are extremely difficult to deal with.”

Yesterday, as always, you could count on Curtis Martin to put the moment in perspective. He always had an appropriate answer for every situation.

When the Jets lost a classic heartbreaker of a game as only they could, and members of the news media predicted that the sky would fall, Martin would coolly say: “The sky is not falling. We lost a game. We’ll come back stronger next week.”

If the Jets won a big game, Martin would temper the urge to make the moment seem larger or more important than it was. With typical grace, he’d acknowledge the victory and add, “We still have a season to play.” He always converted on first down.

Martin was the go-to guy for reporters, and for two N.F.L. teams (the Patriots and the Jets). He continues to be the go-to guy for a number of organizations in Pittsburgh, his hometown. And he is the go-to mentor for a number of professional athletes who seek him out for a levelheaded perspective about a world of sports in which the lines between fantasy and reality often blur.

Everyone’s go-to guy officially announced his retirement from the N.F.L. yesterday. Martin made a whirlwind, daylong retirement tour, speaking with print, radio and television reporters, saying goodbye, offering retrospectives.

Was the N.F.L., I wondered, in better shape today than it was when he entered the league in 1995?

“I think the league has better athletes,” Martin said at the Jets offices in Manhattan. “But I think the rise of talent, the rise of money and the rise of fame and the rise of power has affected the character.”

Martin, a five-time Pro Bowl selection, is not leaving the game. In fact, he announced that he planned to own a piece of the game. He wants to buy an N.F.L. team.

Martin said that he approached his career like an internship for ownership, studying management styles and all of the components of operating a multimillion-dollar franchise.

“Even the way I’ve carried myself off the field, my reluctance to do a lot of commercials and a lot of publicity,” he said, explaining that he always tried to set himself apart from the activities of most star players. “While most people have seen me as a low-profile player, I’ve always seen myself as a high-profile owner.”

The notion of Martin as an N.F.L. owner is intriguing, particularly in the current sports climate, in which owners and the men and women they hire seem baffled by the young athletes they pay handsomely to run and jump. Increasingly, the method of bridging the gap is a strong-arm, might-is-right approach.

“One of the key differences is that I will be an owner who understands what the player thinks, feels, why he does what he does,” Martin said. “I’ll be able to empathize, sympathize and advise athletes in a way that I believe can help out the league as a whole.”

I wondered how Martin the owner would deal with Michael Vick the player. Martin played in New York and did the impossible: He stayed out of the limelight. You rarely, if ever, heard about Martin outside of game articles or his various charitable works. No one is saying that Martin is a saint or that he never crossed the line. It’s just that you never heard about it. That’s a major victory in the current climate of real-time, all-the-time news.

As Martin announced his retirement in New York, Vick, the Atlanta Falcons’ quarterback, pleaded not guilty to charges that he and three other men operated an interstate dogfighting ring at a house Vick owned in Virginia.

“I wouldn’t turn my back on him,” Martin said of Vick. “I wouldn’t suspend him. I wouldn’t say, ‘You know what, Mike, you’re out of here.’ I would try my best until I knew I could not work with him anymore to give him the support that he needed to succeed.”

Martin said that Vick reflects the difficulties facing a younger generation of athletes.

“Society equates money with maturity,” he said. “Society feels that if you have money and material things, there is no way in the world you should do this or do that. But money gives you more of an opportunity to do what you would normally do.

“When you have all that money and all that fame, people assume you don’t need help.”

Great players come and go. Indeed, the N.F.L. is built on a steady infusion of great young talent. But in Curtis Martin, the league has lost one of its great go-to guys. His presence will be difficult to duplicate.


Thursday, July 26, 2007

The motives behind the Bush administration’s latest terror scare

By Jerry White
27 July 2007

Over the last two weeks the Bush administration has orchestrated yet another campaign to sow fear and anxiety among the American people with unsubstantiated claims that signs are mounting of a looming Al Qaeda terrorist attack.

Not a day goes by without suggestions by Bush or top Homeland Security officials that an attack perhaps on the scale of 9/11, or worse, is being prepared. As always, the mass media dutifully report such claims as authoritative, without questioning the lack of evidence beyond the bald assertions of intelligence and other government officials.

The deliberate cultivation of a climate of fear is a basic modus operandi of the Bush White House. Can it be an accident that Bush is once again resorting to scare tactics at a time when his poll numbers are dropping to record lows, popular opposition to the war in Iraq is rising, and the administration is openly declaring that its war policy will not be bound by elections or debates in Congress? The sudden reemergence of Al Qaeda as a supposed threat to the safety and security of every American coincides with a political counteroffensive in which critics of Bush’s military escalation are branded as either dupes or aiders and abettors of the terrorists.

The terror scare serves three basic political functions: to divert public attention from the disaster in Iraq and the social crisis within the US, to justify a foreign policy based on militarism and war, and to provide a pretext for police state measures at home.

What has happened over the last two weeks?

* On July 10, Homeland Security Director Michael Chertoff gave an interview to the editorial board of the Chicago Tribune in which he said the US was facing a heightened threat of attacks this summer. He gave no evidence of such a serious risk, other than saying he had a “gut feeling” an attack was being prepared. Why America’s top anti-terrorist official—who has at his disposal vast resources, including information gathered by US spy agencies around the world—would have to rely on a his gut, rather than concrete evidence, Chertoff did not say.

* On July 17, the Bush administration released an unclassified summary of its National Intelligence Estimate, which claimed the US was facing a “heightened threat environment” for terrorist attacks because Al Qaeda had found a safe haven in Pakistan’s tribal areas, from where it could plot such attacks. The Bush administration immediately seized upon the report, ominously entitled “The Terrorist Threat to the Homeland,” as a pretext for possible military intervention in Pakistan and a justification for his war policy in Iraq as well as further domestic surveillance measures at home.

* On July 24, Bush gave a near-hysterical speech at a South Carolina air force base, where he insisted that the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq would result in terrorist attacks on the US. He repeated the absurd claim that US troops in Iraq were “fighting bin Laden’s Al Qaeda” and said that following the advice of those advocating a draw-down of US troops in Iraq would be “disastrous for America.”

* The same day, Air Force General Victor Renuart, who heads the US Northern Command, established by the Bush administration to oversee military operations within the US, told the Associated Press that the American military needs to triple its domestic military forces to counter the growing threat from Al Qaeda, which, he claimed, was actively preparing another terrorist attack in the US. “I believe there are cells in the United States, or at least people who aspire to create cells in the United States,” Renuart said.

He called the National Intelligence Estimate a “summary of drumbeats, and the drumbeats are getting more prevalent out there. You cannot afford to ignore that.” Asked if he was concerned about an attack in the US this summer, he replied, “I have to be concerned that it could happen any day.”

* Over the past few days, television news broadcasts have prominently featured a recent alert issued by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), warning federal air marshals and other law enforcement agencies to look out for terrorists practicing to carry explosive components onto aircraft. The July 20 warning was based on the seizure of “curious” items found in the luggage of a handful of passengers over the last year, including “wires, pipes or tubes, cell phone components and dense clay-like substances,” such as blocks of cheese. Security officers were instructed to keep any eye out for “ordinary items that look like improvised explosive device components,” because they might be used to test airport security.

The agency admitted, however, that none of the passengers with any of these items were found to have any connections to criminal or terrorist organizations. TSA spokeswoman Ellen Howe subsequently downplayed the story, saying Tuesday, “There is no credible, specific threat here. Don’t panic. We do these things all the time.”

Her remarks follow a well-established pattern. The government issues dire warnings which are given sensationalist coverage by the media. In most cases, there follow acknowledgments that the government has no concrete evidence of a specific terrorist plot. Why, then, the gratuitous alarms? The media never bothers to ask a government official to explain.

This has been the stock-in-trade of the Bush administration since the 9/11 terrorist attacks—an event which itself has never been seriously investigated and for which no accounting has been given of supposed intelligence lapses that point to the possible complicity of the government itself.

At numerous points in Bush’s tenure, terror warnings have been issued in the midst of damaging revelations and political events that shook the administration. For example, two days after the May 18, 2002 revelation that Bush had received a presidential briefing five weeks before 9/11, warning of a terrorist attack within the US, FBI director Robert Mueller announced more attacks were “inevitable.” The next day, officials declared that US railroads and key New York City monuments were threatened.

In the days following Secretary of State Colin Powell’s February 2003 speech at the UN, where he claimed the US had incontrovertible evidence that Iraq had WMDs, and mass international anti-war demonstrations on February 15, a US official warned of potential bio-terror attacks and advised Americans to stock up on duct tape and plastic sheeting to protect themselves.

Similar unsubstantiated warnings followed the Abu Ghraib revelations of US torture of Iraqi detainees, the revelation of CIA doubts about false pre-war claims that Iraq attempted to purchase uranium from Niger, the 9/11 Commission’s conclusion that the attacks were preventable, and news that Karl Rove might be indicted in the CIA leak case.

The Bush administration has set out to make fear and anxiety over terrorism the center of public life. It hopes to appeal to the confusion of more backward sections of the population in order to bludgeon popular opposition to its agenda of militarism and political repression at home.

In so doing, Bush has enjoyed the support of the Democratic Party, which, far from exposing this cynical attempt to manipulate public opinion, has fully embraced the so-called “war on terror.” The Democrats have frequently attacked Bush for not going far enough in “securing the homeland.”

There is no doubt that the brutal neo-colonialist foreign policy of the US government has placed the American people in danger of another terrorist attack. However, the greatest threat to the democratic rights and safety of the American people, and the people of the world, comes not from Islamic extremists in the Middle East, but from US imperialism and the warmongers in Washington.

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