The Pentagon scrambled in mid-February to contain media coverage of scandalous conditions for war veterans who are outpatients at the acclaimed Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. The dilapidated conditions and lack of services and care, raised by articles in the Washington Post on Feb. 18 and 19, were first exposed and brought to the attention of military officials by Salon.com in a series of investigative reports beginning more than two years ago. Nonetheless, with a spotlight on the problems again, top officials are claiming they did not know about them. They are also seeking to convey the message that the problems are relatively inconsequential and will be easily fixed.
Mark Benjamin, who reported on the problems for Salon in 2005, said the Pentagon's denial of systemic problems with military health care showed little promise of standing up to scrutiny. "What the renewed coverage again dragged out into the open, now four years into the Iraq war, is an ongoing failure to treat a growing number of outpatients in an already overwhelmed military healthcare system. It also points to the issue of compensating veterans for their wounds over the long term, which veterans advocates say has proved to be a complicated, time-consuming process that has pit many injured soldiers against the military in a fight for dollars.
"And these problems extend far beyond Walter Reed hospital. Similar disgraces have played out for outpatients recovering at Fort Stewart, Ga., and Fort Carson, Colo., according to other media reports. Steve Robinson, director of Veterans Affairs at Veterans for America, has been visiting soldiers at Walter Reed and at other installations across the country since the beginning of the war. He calls the situation a national failure." Robinson told Benjamin soldiers are left unattended in the barracks. "They are sharing medications. They are drinking like alcoholics," and waiting for treatment, he said. "Those without families are isolated. And they are up against the largest, most complicated worker compensation claim process in the world today, which is the military discharge process."
Almost everyone agrees that amputees get top-flight treatment, the source of Walter Reed's sterling reputation, Benjamin wrote. But the system breaks down for outpatients, some of whom are struggling with seriously debilitating but less visible wounds such as PTSD or traumatic brain injuries.
In addition to his reports for Salon, in October 2003, Benjamin wrote a story for United Press International about soldiers back from Iraq waiting a long time for doctor's appointments in squalid barracks at Fort Stewart, Ga., and fighting for compensation. And last December, National Public Radio's Daniel Zwerdling compiled a compelling portrayal of soldiers returning from Iraq with acute PTSD and not receiving adequate mental health care at Fort Carson, Colo. "The word "neglect" could fairly describe the treatment depicted in Zwerdling's thorough report," Benjamin wrote.
"Given all the press that has been dedicated to a similar pattern of neglect for outpatients at Walter Reed and other facilities, it seems hard to imagine that top Pentagon officials were completely surprised by the latest account of the deepening damage to American service members from five years of war, and the US military's failure to adequately treat them," Benjamin concluded.
FOOD RISKS UP, INSPECTIONS DOWN: The federal agency that's been front and center in warning the public about tainted spinach and contaminated peanut butter is conducting just half the food safety inspections it did three years ago. Between 2003 and 2006, FDA food safety inspections dropped 47%, according to a database analysis of federal records by The Associated Press. There are 12% fewer FDA employees in field offices who concentrate on food issues and safety tests for US-produced food have dropped nearly 75%, from 9,748 in 2003 to 2,455 last year, according to the agency's own statistics. The US last year imported about $10 bln more in food, feed and beverages than it exported, according to census figures. But FDA inspections are shrinking: agency inspectors physically examined just 1.3% of food imports last year, about three-quarters as much as in 2003. The Bush administration budget for 2008 requested an additional $10.6 mln for food safety at the FDA, but critics said 10 times that increase is needed to catch up with rising costs since 2003, when inspections peaked after 9/11.
LABOR STANDARDS NEEDED: As the Bush administration seeks to renew the president's authority to negotiate trade deals, which expires 6/30, congressional Democrats are seeking to include labor standards in future trade deals. Robert Reich suggested in commentary on American Public Radio's Marketplace that Democrats insist on standards already issued by the International Labor Organization -- which bar slave labor, forced labor, and the labor of very young children. ILO standards also recognize the right of free association, which means the right of all workers to form unions. "Much of the world already recognizes these 'core' labor standards, so it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to require all our trading partners to do so as well." The second step is to encourage developing nations to raise their labor standards as their economies grow. "The easiest way to do this is to require that they set a minimum wage that's half their median wage. With this standard in place, more of their people will share the gains from trade. America would benefit in two ways by putting this 'minimum half median' labor standard into all trade deals." If America set its minimum wage at half our median, it would be about $7.50 in today's dollars, or 30 cents higher than the current minimum-wage proposal in Congress, Reich noted, but he added, "That's a reasonable goal. For many decades, America's minimum wage was roughly half the nation's median wage; only since the late 1970s has it fallen much lower than that. And presumably Americans have as much interest in developing a stronger middle class right here in the United States as we do elsewhere around the world."
Meanwhile, the Montana Senate voted 45-5 to urge Congress to reject new "fast track" trade authority. US Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) is a key figure in the fast track debate, as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over trade policy. In the past he has been instrumental in the passage of fast track, a tenuous position in a state with the lowest wages in the country, according to the Progressive States Network. By contrast, the Sidney (Mont.) Herald reported that Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) is "against fast track," quoting the freshman lawmaker as saying: "I don't care if the president is a Democrat or a Republican, I think legislators need to scrutinize these things."
GOP TROUBLES GROW: Charlie Cook noted that Bush's approval ratings have been locked in the low 30s and a recent Gallup Poll found a larger percentage of Americans identifying themselves as Democrats than in any year since 1999, and a smaller percentage calling themselves Republicans than in any year since 2000. Democrats led in party affiliation, 34.3% to 30.4%, with 33.9% identifying as independents. When independents were asked which party they leaned toward, the Dem advantage increased to 10.2% -- the biggest advantage either party has enjoyed since Gallup begin "pushing" leaners in 1991. The political environment is so hostile that "a sizable number of GOP incumbents" might decide to retire, Cook noted. "If the GOP is forced to defend a large number of open seats, its chances of making a successful comeback in 2008 will get even worse," he wrote. "Beyond the issue of wholesale retirements, voters' anti-Republican mood could make it difficult for the party to recruit high-quality candidates and to raise money for individual campaigns and party committees."
WILL AMERICA VOTE FOR A ... While pundits have been pondering whether Americans are ready to vote for a woman or an African American for president, a recent Gallup Poll reported 2/20 that their chances are substantially better than, say, a Mormon, someone who's been married three times or someone who was 72 years old. The poll found 94% said they'd vote for an African American -- about the same number that would vote for a Catholic -- and 88% said they'd vote for a woman, while 72% would vote for a Mormon, 67% would vote for someone who was married for the third time, and 57% would vote for someone who was 72 years old. Greg Sargent of TPMCafe.com noted that Republicans Mitt Romney is a Mormon, Rudy Giuliani has been married three times, and John McCain will be 72 in 2008. The poll found that 55% would vote for a homosexual but only 45% would vote for an atheist.
JOHNSON RECOVERING: Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) has been released from the hospital and is expected to run for re-election in 2008. At least seven of his Democratic Senate colleagues are organizing fundraisers to help him fill his campaign coffers as he continues rehabilitation from emergency brain surgery, Roll Call reported (2/20). "We anticipate that he will run. He just has to get back to a point where he can get back" in the office, Johnson spokeswoman Julianne Fisher told Roll Call. Johnson, 60, on 2/16 was released from The George Washington University Hospital, where he underwent surgery for a brain hemorrhage on Dec. 13. He was transferred to a private facility for more rehabilitation. According to a statement from Johnson's doctor released by Johnson's office, the medical condition that caused his stroke has been alleviated.
POLITICS SEEN IN US ATT'Y OUSTERS: Carol Lam, the former US attorney for San Diego, ran the investigation of US Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-San Diego) that resulted in a guilty plea for taking more than $2 million in bribes from defense contractors and a sentence of more than eight years. In February, she indicted Kyle Dustin Foggo, the former No. 3 official in the CIA. The defense-contracting scandal she pursued so vigorously could yet drag in other politicians. "In many Justice Departments, her record would have won her awards, and perhaps a promotion to a top post in Washington," Adam Cohen wrote in the 2/26 New York Times. "In the Bush Justice Department, it got her fired." He noted that Lam is one of at least seven US attorneys who have been fired recently under questionable circumstances. "The Justice Department is claiming that Ms. Lam and other well-regarded prosecutors like John McKay of Seattle, David Iglesias of New Mexico, Daniel Bogden of Nevada and Paul Charlton of Arizona -- who all received strong job evaluations -- performed inadequately. It is hard to call what's happening anything other than a political purge. And it's another shameful example of how in the Bush administration, everything -- from rebuilding a hurricane-ravaged city to allocating homeland security dollars to invading Iraq -- is sacrificed to partisan politics and winning elections." Cohen noted that the Congressional Research Service found that of 486 US attorneys confirmed since 1981, no more than three were forced out in similar ways in 25 years, compared with seven in recent months.
Another outrageous case is the firing of H.E. Cummins III, who was respected by Democrats and Republicans alike before he was forced out to make room for J. Timothy Griffin, who did opposition research for the Republican National Committee and Karl Rove before he was given subpoena power in Little Rock. (Griffin recently said he will not seek a permanent appointment. But Cohen noted he will remain in office indefinitely.)
WHO'S INTIMIDATING WHOM? Opponents of the Employee Free Choice Act -- which would (among other things) give employees the right to form unions by having a majority of them sign cards indicating their selection of a collective bargaining representative -- claim that it would expose workers to intimidation by labor unions if they refuse to sign cards for union representation. But Ezra Klein of Prospect.org noted 2/23 that a 2005 survey by the Eagleton Research Center and Rutgers University of workers who sought union representation either through National Labor Relations Board-supervised elections or card-check campaigns found that during NLRB elections, which are supposed to be secret, 46% of workers complained of management pressure while during card-check elections, 14% complained of union pressure. It found 22% of workers said management "coerced them a great deal" during union elections, while 6% said unions did the same. "Even in card-check elections, 23% of workers complained of management coercion, more than complained of union coercion!" Klein noted.
WESTERN STATES BYPASS BUSH ON CLIMATE: Governors of five western states -- Arizona, California, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington -- announced they will work together to reduce greenhouse gases, saying their region has suffered some of the worst effects of global warming with recent droughts and bad fire seasons, the Associated Press reported 2/26. "In the absence of meaningful federal action, it is up to the states to take action to address climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions in this country," said Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D). California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), said a "cap-and-trade" program, which lets companies that can't meet their emission reduction targets buy credits from those that reduce carbon dioxide, would provide "a powerful framework for developing a national cap-and-trade program. ... This agreement shows the power of states to lead our nation addressing climate change." The agreement -- called the Western Regional Climate Action Initiative -- builds on earlier efforts by several states.
GREEN STRATEGY IN UTILITY BUYOUT: Environmentalists are hailing a $45 bln private-equity buyout of TXU Corp., Texas's largest electricity producer, since the buyers, including Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, Texas Pacific and the Goldman Sachs Group, say they will cancel plans for eight of 11 proposed coal plants, invest $400 mln in energy efficiency measures and back national legislation for mandatory reduction in global warming pollution. TXU had resisted pressure to tamp down carbon dioxide emissions as it pursued "fast-track" approval of 11 new plants, but spokesmen for the buyers said the deal depended upon Environmental Defense and the Natural Resources Defense Council signing off. "We recognize the need to balance growth with environmental considerations," Henry Kravis said 2/26 after the TXU board gave preliminary approval of he sale. Texas Sierra Club State Director Ken Kramer celebrated the cancellation of eight proposed TXU coal plants but he said a "time out" in the building of any new coal plants in Texas is still needed while the State of Texas ramps up energy efficiency, clarifies and tightens the permitting process for power plants and develops a state energy plan that emphasizes efficiency and renewable energy.
TXU's existing coal plants are among the nation's biggest polluters, the Environmental Integrity Project noted. In 2006, TXU's Big Brown plant was ranked among the nation's 50 dirtiest sulfur dioxide (SO2) polluters, in terms of both overall tons of pollutant and its emission rate (which accounts for plant size). TXU's Martin Lake and Monticello plants are also among America's 50 biggest power plant SO2 emitters, in terms of sheer tons. These three plants are also among the nation's top mercury polluters. Sulfates (from SO2) are major components of the fine particle pollution that plagues many parts of the country, especially communities nearby or directly downwind of coal-fired power plants. See www.environmentalintegrity.org.
SUPPRESSED REPORT LINKED CANCER, GM POTATOES: Critics of genetically modified crops in Britain are calling for a halt to trials of GM potatoes after releasing more evidence of links with cancers in laboratory rats, the London Independent reported 2/17. UK Greenpeace activists said the findings, obtained from Russian trials after an eight-year court battle with the biotech industry, vindicated research by Dr. Arpad Pusztai, whose work was criticized by the Royal Society and the Netherlands State Institute for Quality Control. Dr. Pusztai and a colleague used potatoes that had been genetically modified to produce a protein, lectin. They found cell damage in the rats' stomachs, and in parts of their intestines. Brian John of GM Free Cymru, who released the findings, said research in 1998 by the Institute of Nutrition of the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences showed that GM potatoes did considerable damage to the rats' organs. The results were suppressed for eight years.
FREEDOM TO CHOOSE ORGANIC ALFALFA: In a decision hailed by anti-GMO activists as precedent-setting, a US District Court judge in San Francisco rebuked the US Department of Agriculture on 2/14, ruling that the USDA had erred in not conducting a full environmental impact statement (EIS) on the possible consequences of introducing genetically modified "Roundup Ready" alfalfa into commercial production. Judge Charles Breyer (brother of Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer) noted that legal precedent required him to respect the decision by the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service that Roundup Ready alfalfa was "harmless" to humans. Instead, Andrew Leonard of Salon.com wrote, Breyer drilled down on the crucial issue of how the introduction of GM alfalfa was likely to affect the economic livelihood of organic farmers whose crops would risk being contaminated by GM alfalfa. The likelihood of such contamination is inevitable, as the government conceded during its testimony.
GOP FUNDRAISERS CHARGED WITH TERROR TIES: Accused terror financier Abdul Tawala Ibn Ali Alishtari gave $15,250 to the National Republican Congressional Committee. He pled not guilty in a Manhattan federal court 2/16, denying charges that he arranged for $152,000 worth of bank transfers to fund a terror training camp. The Blotter at ABC News.com reported that Alishtari, a.k.a. Michael Mixon, gave 10% of that total to the GOP's congressional campaign. He also was listed as a member of the White House "Business Advisory Committee" and was NRCC Businessman of the Year for New York State in 2002 and 2003, although as ABC's Justin Rood notes, "the NRCC 'Businessperson of the Year' fundraising campaign, which gave such 'awards' to at least 1,900 GOP donors, has been derided as a telemarketing scam by political watchdogs." The NRCC would not tell Ross what it planned to do with Alishtari's donations.
Paul Kiel of TPMMuckraker.com noted 2/19 that Alishtari isn't the first member of the NRCC's "Business Advisory Council" to be indicted on charges of supporting terrorism. Yasith Chhun, head of the Cambodian Freedom Fighters, a group designated by the State Department as a terrorist organization, was indicted in May 2005 on charges of plotting to overthrow the Cambodian government. Before his federal indictment, the Los Angeles Times reported, Chhun had raised $6,550 for the NRCC and was invited to sit on the group's Business Advisory Council. His trial is due to start in March, Kiel reported.
AMERICANS SUPPORT SURGE RESTRICTIONS: The Washington Post editorial board -- which four years ago called President Bush's plan for war in Iraq "an operation essential to American security" -- is now attacking Rep. John Murtha's (D-Pa.) effort to increase support for the overstretched US military and restrain Bush's Iraq escalation, ThinkProgress.org noted 2/26. The Post claims that Murtha's plan "crudely [hamstrings] the ability of military commanders to deploy troops," and that "Murtha's cynicism is matched by an alarming ignorance about conditions in Iraq." ThinkProgress.org notes, "Thankfully, the American people haven't bought the Post's talking points." A new Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 58% would support Congress trying to block Bush's plan by creating new rules on troop training and rest time that would limit the number of troops available for duty in Iraq, while 39% would oppose it. The poll also showed that opposition to escalation continues to grow. Americans opposed sending more US forces to Iraq by a margin of 67% to 32%. That's up from 65-34 on 1/19 and 61-36 on 1/10.
US FUNDS GO TO AL-QAEDA ALLIES: New Yorker columnist Sy Hersh says the "single most explosive" element of his latest article involves an effort by the Bush administration to stem the growth of Shi'ite influence in the Middle East (specifically the Iranian government and Hezbollah in Lebanon) by funding violent Sunni groups. In an interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer, reported by ThinkProgress.org, Hersh said the US has been "pumping money, a great deal of money, without congressional authority, without any congressional oversight" for covert operations in the Middle East where it wants to "stop the Shi'ite spread or the Shi'ite influence." Hersh said these funds have ended up in the hands of "three Sunni jihadist groups" who are "connected to al Qaeda" but "want to take on Hezbollah." Hersh summed up his scoop in stark terms: "We are simply in a situation where this president is really taking his notion of executive privilege to the absolute limit here, running covert operations, using money that was not authorized by Congress, supporting groups indirectly that are involved with the same people that did 9/11."
RECORD NUMBER IN SEVERE POVERTY: An analysis of census data by McClatchy Newspapers found that the number of severely poor Americans grew by 26% from 2000 to 2005. "That's 56% faster than the overall poverty population grew in the same period," Tony Pugh wrote (2/22). McClatchy's review also found statistically significant increases in the percentage of the population in severe poverty in 65 of 215 large US counties, and similar increases in 28 states. The review also suggested that the rise in severely poor residents isn't confined to large urban counties but extends to suburban and rural areas. A family of four with two children and an annual income of less than $9,903 -- half the federal poverty line -- was considered severely poor in 2005. So were individuals who made less than $5,080 a year.
"The plight of the severely poor is a distressing sidebar to an unusual economic expansion. Worker productivity has increased dramatically since the brief recession of 2001, but wages and job growth have lagged behind. At the same time, the share of national income going to corporate profits has dwarfed the amount going to wages and salaries. That helps explain why the median household income of working-age families, adjusted for inflation, has fallen for five straight years. These and other factors have helped push 43% of the nation's 37 million poor people into deep poverty -- the highest rate since at least 1975."
Pugh added, "Over the last two decades, America has had the highest or near-highest poverty rates for children, individual adults and families among 31 developed countries, according to the Luxembourg Income Study, a 23-year project that compares poverty and income data from 31 industrial nations."
GOVS PROTEST BUSH CUTS IN KIDS' HEALTH CARE: Governors in Washington, D.C. for the National Governors Association winter conference appealed 2/25 for the Bush administration and Congress to provide more money for a health-care program that insures millions of children. The program is responsible for providing health coverage to those families who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid, but are unable to afford insurance. Coverage for 6 million people, overwhelmingly children, is at risk unless the federal government appropriates an estimated $745 million dollars to keep the program afloat through October, the Associated Press reported. The Center for American Progress noted that since 2000 6.8 million people have lost health coverage, but SCHIP and Medicaid ensured that the proportion of low-income children without health insurance actually declined during this period, from 20% in 2000 to 14% in 2005. Bush's 2008 budget proposes slashing the programs by at least $77 bln over the next five years, and $280 billion over the next ten. While the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) would receive $5 bln more in funding over five years, in reality, its funding is being cut. The Congressional Research Service estimates that $15 bln would be needed to cover everyone who now receives benefits.
HOT SENATE RACES: In 2008, when the GOP must defend 21 Senate seats while Democrats have only 12 up for election, Colorado, where Republican Sen. Wayne Allard is retiring, is the top Dem pickup opportunity, but other Republican incumbents the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee sees as vulnerable include John Sununu (N.H.), Susan Collins (Maine), Gordon Smith (Ore.) and Norm Coleman (Minn.), according to a recent fundraising email from DSCC Executive Director J.B. Poersch. Republicans are expected to attack Democratic incumbents in primarily "red" and southern states, such as Sen. Mary Landrieu (La.), Sen. Max Baucus (Mont.) and Sen. Mark Pryor (Ark.).
LIEBERMAN FLIRTS WITH GOP: Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) said it is a "remote possibility" that he will switch to the Republican Party, Time magazine reported, despite his repeated promises during his independent campaign for re-election to caucus with the Dems. A party switch in the Senate, which Dems now control 51-49, would give the GOP a nominal majority with Vice President Cheney's tie-breaking vote, but Dems would remain in control of committees unless Majority Leader Harry Reid scheduled a resolution to reorganize the Senate.
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