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The Calamity Howler #84

"Sometimes an intended epithet can be turned to good advantage...In the sole surviving issue of the Decatur, Texas Times one finds the way Populists not only accepted the label `calamity howler' but insisted that they had ample reason to howl and would continue to howl until their objectives had been attained." --- THE POPULIST MIND, edited by Norman Pollack

EDITOR\PUBLISHER: A.V Krebs E-MAIL: TO RECEIVE: Send name and address to


New York Times Editorial
By Alfred Runte
By Bloomberg News
By Robert Scheer
By Julian E. Barnes
By Editor&Publisher Staff
By Editor&Publisher Staff

 New York Times Editorial
 May 28, 2006

When the trains are speeding along and a blurred landscape is flickering past the windows, it is hard to imagine how quickly everything can go wrong. But about 50,000 commuters and Amtrak riders learned the hard way Thursday morning. When the electricity suddenly went out along Amtrak lines from New York City to Maryland, riders were stuck for hours, some stranded in steamy passenger cars, some stalled in "creepy" underwater tunnels. For most of these travelers, it was an infuriating and frustrating experience. But if their reaction is to shake a fist angrily at Amtrak, there is a far bigger culprit in the nation's capital.

Although it's not clear exactly what went wrong with the system, the underpinnings of the nation's railroad system are primed for disaster. The White House and Congress have tried to squeeze every dollar out of Amtrak's meager budget. To survive, the nation's passenger railroad has cut service and raised ticket prices.

But what really frightens the rail experts is how little federal money has been available to update the railroad's aging infrastructure. One inspector general for the Department of Transportation warned that the budget for basic maintenance and improvements was so low that Congress and the White House were playing "Russian roulette" with the welfare of millions of riders across the country.

Amtrak would need at least $2 billion a year to bring the system to a state of good repair, according to the department's analysts. For the Northeast Corridor, where some parts go back to the 1930's, it would take a total of about $4 billion. So far, Congress and the White House have agreed to hand over a scant $600 million a year for all capital programs on passenger rails from coast to coast.

Washington power brokers like to say that Amtrak is mismanaged, but calling for better management of a system where the wires and steel are eroding is simply dodging the question. It is time to drop the old bromides and recognize that for the United States to be an advanced nation with a mobile work force, the American government needs to maintain a clean, efficient national railroad.

Amtrak does not need to make a profit, but it does need to work. The government directs billions of dollars to roads and bridges. Airports get plenty of help, but somehow very little trickles down to the rails.

Amtrak, which at one point was to have received zero federal funds after 2002, has been offered $900 million by the administration for next year. That amount is so low it should be an insult. But Amtrak officials have timidly stayed within the ballpark and asked for a modest $1.6 billion. Even that is just enough money to allow Amtrak to fail more slowly.

If President Bush really wants transportation alternatives, it is time for a strategic look at how the railroads can serve as an even more important escape valve for the nation's overloaded transportation system.

 By Alfred Runte           
 Seattle Times
 May 30, 2006

Here we go again --- blaming everything on the oil companies for the spiraling cost of gasoline. How about we try something positive for a change, say, restoring our passenger trains?

For decades, Europe has paid double what the U.S. pays for gas, and just look at the trains they have. Every day, thousands of passenger trains conventional and high-speed --- whisk tourists and business people across the continent.

Of course, Europe has a plan for trains. Addiction prevents that here. So addicted have Americans become to the automobile we have forgotten all that railroads were --- and could be again.

Indeed, our plan would begin with some national soul-searching about why we lost our passenger trains in the first place. On May 1, 1971, the railroads deeded to Amtrak just 180 trains. As late as 1960, the railroads had operated at least 5,000.

Simply, a new generation of railroad executives wished to downsize, dropping passengers for more profitable freight. Freight trains, or so the railroads also argued, did not need faster, double track.

The inescapable irony is that America abandoned the passenger train just when the environment needed it most. Need any American be convinced of that, watching the march of asphalt and urban sprawl?

Again, our plan to restore railroads would include why to restore them  the preservation of America the Beautiful. Like Europe, when American passenger trains were in their glory, we knew to appreciate the entire landscape. Westbound from Chicago to Seattle, the Northern Pacific Railway invited passengers to "Count the Mountains!" From the Hudson River to the Great Lakes, railroads invited the same.

Today, most of Europe may not be wilderness, but its countryside still has that magic. Even high-speed railroads will slow and curve gracefully to protect a lakeside or patch of forest. A railroad technology  often powered by hydroelectricity  has been mastered for every landscape.

Europe's secret is that its railroads never downsized; double track still abounds. Restoring that flexibility, our plan would pursue the same. Now that American freight trains are long and heavy, Amtrak is always in the way of one of them. Worse for passengers, there is so much freight crossing the continent --- containers from Asia and coal from Wyoming --- that the railroads argue they have no room left.

Then it is time to make the room. Believing in conservation --- wanting beauty --- we would never give up on trains.

A single railroad track, just six feet across, has the capacity of a superhighway ten times wider. As for energy savings, even the most conservative studies give trains an advantage of four to one over cars and airplanes.

In short, we would not allow our plan to die protesting the "economics." Sure, railroads cost money to build and operate, but has anyone looked at the airlines lately --- $36 billion in losses just since September 11.

Moreover, how about the cost of highways? In 2005, Congress authorized $286 billion for them, even as critics pounced on Amtrak for losing $1 billion.

Our plan would end such double standards. If operating railroads means to "lose" money, then operating highways means the same. Asphalt breeds red ink, too. Conversely, if Americans consider highway construction an investment, so is the cost of saving trains.

Granted, not even railroads are a panacea. The point is that having them would give us a real alternative in place of the false promises we have now. Ethanol? Oil shale? Tar sands? Gasifying coal? Really, do we want all our agriculture to be for energy, even as we turn the beauty of the West inside out?

It all gets back to admitting that some technologies are good for the environment, and others not as good. Here, then, is the rest of our plan:

Like Europe, we demand that our railroads act like public utilities  which they are. We break up their current monopolies and restore true competition. We insist that competition include serving passengers as the privilege for hauling freight.

As taxpayers, we give to railroads what we give to highways and airports, provided that railroads serve the public. That means intercity passenger trains every hour, not once or twice a day.

Like Europe, we accept that our frontier is at an end. We insist that everyone, including corporations, contribute to the greatest good of civilization.

In the 1970s, two energy crises taught us little compared to what Europe learned. We went right back to our selfish plan  gas-guzzling SUVs. This time, we need a railroad plan. If truly we believe in the need for beauty and balance, the time for action  and good trains  is now.

Alfred Runte of Seattle writes on the environment and transportation. His new book is "Allies of the Earth: Railroads and the Soul of Preservation" (Truman State University Press).

 By Bloomberg News
 June 7, 2006

The House Appropriations Committee cut Amtrak's federal financing for the next fiscal year by 31 percent, to $900 million. President Bush had requested the cut. The bill would require Amtrak to reduce spending on food, beverage and first-class services. The railroad had asked Congress for $1.6 billion.

 By Robert Scheer            
 Creators Syndicate, Inc.
 May 31, 2006

The Bush Family consistently acted to put Enron and its longtime CEO Ken Lay into a position to rip off investors and taxpayers. Why is the mass media ignoring that fact now that Lay has been convicted in arguably the most egregious example of white-collar fraud in U.S. history?

Until he hooked up with the Bushes, Lay was just another mid-level energy trader complaining endlessly about being hemmed in by onerous government regulations and those terrible consumer lawyers who prevent free-market hustlers from doing their thing. But after he and his company became top supporters of the Bushes --- eventually giving $3 million combined to various Bush political campaigns and the Republican Party --- doors opened for them in a big way.

In particular, once Bush the father got rid of key energy industry regulations, Lay was a made man and Enron's fortunes soared. This program of corporate welfare led Lay to dub the first President Bush "the energy president" in a column supporting his re-election because "just six months after George Bush became president, he directed ... the development of a new energy strategy," which, in effect, compelled local utility companies to carry Enron electricity on their wires. It was, Lay crowed, "the most ambitious and sweeping energy plan ever proposed."

Another huge gift from the first Bush regime came in the form of a ruling by Wendy Gramm, head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, that permitted Enron to trade in energy derivatives, making possible the company's exponential growth. Five weeks after that ruling, Gramm resigned and joined the Enron board of directors, serving on its subsequently much criticized audit committee. Six years later, Gramm's husband, U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, further enabled Enron greed by pushing through additional anti-regulation legislation.

A long list of George H. W. Bush's Cabinet and inner circle, including Secretary of State James A. Baker III and Commerce Secretary Robert A. Mosbacher, went to work for Enron after his 1992 defeat. An even greater number of Enron officials returned the favor by joining the George W. Bush administration in 2001 shortly before the Enron scandal exploded.

The close connections between President Bush and Lay began when they both worked on the 1992 Bush père presidential re-election campaign. In fact, a long paper trail of their friendly and collaborative correspondence has been made public through Freedom of Information Act requests. "Dear Ken, one of the sad things about old friends is that they seem to be getting older --- just like you!" wrote then-Texas Gov. Bush in April 1997. "Thank goodness you have such a young beautiful wife."

In Lay's typed responses -- some are handwritten --- he sometimes crossed out Bush's formal titles to scrawl a friendly "George," emphasizing their personal history before he urged the governor to, for example, help Enron secure foreign energy contracts with regimes in Romania or Uzbekistan, or for so-called tort reform designed to protect corporations from lawsuits.

Typical was Bush's role in Enron's lobbying Pennsylvania's governor to permit Enron to enter his state's energy market. As Lay wrote in a letter dated October 7, 1997, "I very much appreciated your call to Gov. Tom Ridge a few days ago. I am certain that will have a positive impact on the way he and others in Pennsylvania view our proposal." After the Enron crash, Bush attempted to distance himself from the "Bush pioneer," who had sent more than $2 million in Enron funds George W.'s way, as well as supplying him with the Enron company jet on at least eight occasions.

"I have not met with him personally," Bush said after the scandal broke. What Bush left out was not only his hundreds of personal encounters with Lay before he assumed the presidency but, more important, Lay's key role in drafting the Bush administration's energy policy, meeting with energy task force chairman Dick Cheney at least six times. It was Lay, as well, who submitted a key memo opposing price caps in response to the energy crisis in California that Enron had helped engineer. Lay was also instrumental in the abrupt dismissal of Curtis Hebert Jr. as Federal Energy Regulatory Commission chairman. The neutered FERC later conveniently refused California's loud pleas for help.

So far, California has recouped some of the billions in taxpayer and pension funds it lost, and several of Enron's top dogs are looking at hard time. Perhaps, after this November, if the opposition party can retake at least one branch of government, the connections between these corporate criminals and their buddy in the White House can be more fully investigated as well.

 By Julian E. Barnes       
 Los Angeles Times
 June 5, 2006

The Pentagon has decided to omit from new detainee policies a key tenet of the Geneva Convention that explicitly bans "humiliating and degrading treatment," according to knowledgeable military officials, a step that would mark a further, potentially permanent, shift away from strict adherence to international human rights standards.

The decision could culminate a lengthy debate within the Defense Department but will not become final until the Pentagon makes new guidelines public, a step that has been delayed. However, the State Department fiercely opposes the military's decision to exclude Geneva Convention protections and has been pushing for the Pentagon and White House to reconsider, the Defense Department officials acknowledged.

For more than a year, the Pentagon has been redrawing its policies on detainees, and intends to issue a new Army Field Manual on interrogation, which, along with accompanying directives, represents core instructions to U.S. soldiers worldwide.

The process has been beset by debate and controversy, and the decision to omit Geneva protections from a principal directive comes at a time of growing worldwide criticism of U.S. detention practices and the conduct of American forces in Iraq.

The directive on interrogation, a senior defense official said, is being rewritten to create safeguards so that all detainees are treated humanely but can still be questioned effectively.

President Bush's critics and supporters have debated whether it is possible to prove a direct link between administration declarations that it will not be bound by Geneva and events such as the abuses at Abu Ghraib or the killings of Iraqi civilians last year in Haditha, allegedly by Marines.

But the exclusion of the Geneva provisions may make it more difficult for the administration to portray such incidents as aberrations. And it undercuts contentions that U.S. forces follow the strictest, most broadly accepted standards when fighting wars.

"The rest of the world is completely convinced that we are busy torturing people," said Oona A. Hathaway, an expert in international law at Yale Law School. "Whether that is true or not, the fact we keep refusing to provide these protections in our formal directives puts a lot of fuel on the fire."

The detainee directive was due to be released in late April along with the Army Field Manual on interrogation. But objections from several senators on other Field Manual issues forced a delay. The senators objected to provisions allowing harsher interrogation techniques for those considered unlawful combatants, such as suspected terrorists, as opposed to traditional prisoners of war.

The lawmakers say that differing standards of treatment allowed by the Field Manual would violate a broadly supported anti-torture measure advanced by Sen. John McCain (Rep-Arizona). McCain last year pushed Congress to ban torture and cruel treatment and to establish the Army Field Manual as the standard for treatment of all detainees. Despite administration opposition, the measure passed and became law.

For decades, it had been the official policy of the U.S. military to follow the minimum standards for treating all detainees as laid out in the Geneva Convention. But, in 2002, Bush suspended portions of the Geneva Convention for captured Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters. Bush's order superseded military policy at the time, touching off a wide debate over U.S. obligations under the Geneva accord, a debate that intensified after reports of detainee abuses at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison.

Among the directives being rewritten following Bush's 2002 order is one governing U.S. detention operations. Military lawyers and other defense officials wanted the redrawn version of the document known as DoD Directive 2310, to again embrace Common Article 3 of the Geneva Convention.

That provision --- known as a "common" article because it is part of each of the four Geneva pacts approved in 1949 --- bans torture and cruel treatment. Unlike other Geneva provisions, Article 3 covers all detainees  whether they are held as unlawful combatants or traditional prisoners of war. The protections for detainees in Article 3 go beyond the McCain amendment by specifically prohibiting humiliation, treatment that falls short of cruelty or torture.

The move to restore U.S. adherence to Article 3 was opposed by officials from Vice President Dick Cheney's office and by the Pentagon's intelligence arm, government sources said. David S. Addington, Cheney's chief of staff, and Stephen A. Cambone, Defense undersecretary for intelligence, said it would restrict the United States' ability to question detainees.

The Pentagon tried to satisfy some of the military lawyers' concerns by including some protections of Article 3 in the new policy, most notably a ban on inhumane treatment, but refused to embrace the actual Geneva standard in the directive it planned to issue.

The military lawyers, known as judge advocates general, or JAGs, have concluded that they will have to wait for a new administration before mounting another push to link Pentagon policy to the standards of Geneva.

"The JAGs came to the conclusion that this was the best they can get," said one participant familiar with the Defense Department debate who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the protracted controversy. "But it was a massive mistake to have withdrawn from Geneva. By backing away, you weaken the proposition that this is the baseline provision that is binding to all nations."

Derek P. Jinks, an assistant professor at the University of Texas School of Law and the author of a forthcoming book on Geneva called "The Rules of War," said the decision to remove the Geneva reference from the directive showed the administration still intended to push the envelope on interrogation.

"We are walking the line on the prohibition on cruel treatment," Jinks said. "But are we really in search of the boundary between the cruel and the acceptable?"

The military has long applied Article 3 to conflicts --- including civil wars --- using it as a minimum standard of conduct, even during peacekeeping operations. The old version of the U.S. directive on detainees says the military will "comply with the principles, spirit and intent" of the Geneva Convention.

But top Pentagon officials now believe common Article 3 creates an "unintentional sanctuary" that could allow Al Qaeda members to keep information from interrogators.

"As much as possible, the foundation is Common Article 3. That is the foundation," the senior official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the new policies had not been made public. "But there are certain things unlawful combatants are not entitled to."

Another defense official said that Article 3 prohibitions against "outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment" could be interpreted as banning well-honed interrogation techniques.

Many intelligence soldiers consider questioning the manhood of male prisoners to be an effective and humane technique. Suggesting to a suspected insurgent that he is "not man enough" to have set an improvised explosive device sometimes elicits a full description of how they emplaced the bomb, soldiers say.

The Pentagon worries that if Article 3 were incorporated in the directive, detainees could use it to argue in U.S. courts that such techniques violate their personal dignity.

"Who is to say what is humiliating for Sheikh Abdullah or Sheikh Muhammad?" the second official asked. "If you punch the buttons of a Muslim male, are you at odds with the Geneva Convention?"

Military officials also worry that following Article 3 could force them to end the practice of segregating prisoners. The military says that there is nothing inhumane about putting detainees in solitary confinement, and that it allows inmates to be questioned without coordinating their stories with others.

Human rights groups have their doubts, saying that isolating people for months at a time leads to mental breakdowns.

"Sometimes these things sound benign, but there is a reason they have been prohibited," said Jumana Musa, an advocacy director for Amnesty International. "When you talk about putting people in isolation for eight months, 14 months, it leads to mental degradation."

Jinks, of the University of Texas, contends that Article 3 does not prohibit some of the things the military says it wants to do. "If the practice is humane, there is nothing to worry about," he said.

Defense officials said the State Department and other agencies had argued that adopting Article 3 would put the U.S. government on more solid "moral footing," and make U.S. policies easier to defend abroad.

Some State Department officials have told the Pentagon that incorporating Geneva into the new directive would show American allies that the American military is following "common standards" rather than making up its own rules. Department officials declined to comment for this article about the directive or their discussions with the Pentagon.

Common Article 3 was originally written to cover civil wars, when one side of the conflict was not a state and therefore could not have signed the Geneva Convention.

In his February 2002 order, Bush wrote that he determined that "Common Article 3 of Geneva does not apply to either Al Qaeda or Taliban detainees, because, among other reasons, the relevant conflicts are international in scope and Common Article 3 applies only to 'armed conflict not of an international character.' "

Some legal scholars say Bush's interpretation is far too narrow. Article 3 was intended to apply to all wars as a sort of minimum set of standards, and that is how Geneva is customarily interpreted, they say.

But top administration officials contend that after the Sept. 11 attacks, old customs do not apply, especially to a fight against terrorists or insurgents who never play by the rules.

"The overall thinking," said the participant familiar with the defense debate, "is that they need the flexibility to apply cruel techniques if military necessity requires it."

 By Editor&Publisher Staff
 May 25, 2006

Murray Waas, who has broken so many key stories in the Plame/CIA leak case for the National Journal, has been rather quiet this month, but emerged today with another bombshell.

On September 29, 2003, three days after it became known that the CIA had asked the Justice Department to investigate who leaked the name of covert CIA officer Valerie Plame, "columnist Robert Novak telephoned White House senior adviser Karl Rove to assure Rove that he would protect him from being harmed by the investigation, according to people with firsthand knowledge of the federal grand jury testimony of both men," Waas writes.

"Suspicious that Rove and Novak might have devised a cover story during that conversation to protect Rove, federal investigators briefed then-Attorney General John Ashcroft on the matter in the early stages of the investigation in fall 2003, according to officials with direct knowledge of those briefings....

"Sources said that Ashcroft received a special briefing on the highly sensitive issue of the September 29 conversation between Novak and Rove because of the concerns of federal investigators that a well-known journalist might have been involved in an effort to not only protect a source but also work in tandem with the president's chief political adviser to stymie the FBI."

According to Waas, Rove testified to the grand jury that during the phone call, Novak said words to the effect: "You are not going to get burned" and "I don't give up my sources." Rove was one of the "two senior administration" officials who were sources for the July 14, 2003, column in which Novak outed Plame as an "agency operative." Rove and Novak had talked about her on July 9.

Rove also told the grand jury, according Waas' sources, "that in the September 29 conversation, Novak referred to a 1992 incident in which Rove had been fired from the Texas arm of President George H.W. Bush's re-election effort; Rove lost his job because the Bush campaign believed that he had been the source for a Novak column that criticized the campaign's internal workings.

"Rove told the grand jury that during the September 29 call, Novak said he would make sure that nothing similar would happen to Rove in the CIA-Plame leak probe. Rove has testified that he recalled Novak saying something like, 'I'm not going to let that happen to you again,' according to those familiar with the testimony."

James Hamilton, an attorney for Novak, said he could not comment. A spokesman for Rove, Mark Corallo, told Waas, "Karl Rove has never urged anyone directly or indirectly to withhold information from the special counsel or testify falsely."

Waas quotes Mark Feldstein, the director of journalism programs at George Washington University: "A journalist's natural instinct is to protect his source. Were there no criminal investigation, it would have been more than appropriate for a reporter to say to a source, 'Don't worry, I'm not going to out you.' But if there is a criminal investigation under way, you can't escape the inference that you are calling to coordinate your stories. You go very quickly from being a stand-up reporter to impairing a criminal investigation."

The rest of the lengthy article can be found at:

 By Editor&Publisher Staff
 June 04, 2006

At the close of his commencement speech before 250 graduates (and 4000 others) at tiny Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois on Saturday, satirist Stephen Colbert left them with a piece of advise: Get your own TV show. "It pays well," he observed, "the hours are great and you have fans. Eventually, some nice people will give you an honorary degree for doing jack squat."

This advice could be crucial, for earlier he had observed: "I don't know if they've told you what's been happening in the world while you've been matriculating. The world is waiting for you people with a club....They are playing for KEEPS out there, folks."

Colbert, who slipped in and out of his rightwing blowhard TV persona on Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report," received an overwhelmingly positive response compared with the mixed reaction at the recent White House Correspondents Dinner. Afterward, students presented him with a purple "Veritasiness Tour" t-shirt (which translates, very roughly, as "truthiness").

He had opened his speech with: "My name is Stephen Colbert, but I actually play someone on television named Stephen Colbert, who looks like me, and talks like me, but who says things with a straight face he doesn't mean."

In that vein, Colbert considered the immigration debate: "It's time for illegal immigrants to go --- right after they finish (building) those walls." People keep saying immigrants built America, "but here's the thing, it's built now. I think it was finished in the '70s sometime. From this point it's only a touch-up and repair job."

His suggestions for securing the U.S.-Mexico border went beyond walls to include moats, fiery moats and fiery moats with fire-proof crocodiles.

He added that the border with Canada also has to be secure so Canadians cannot bring their "skunky beer" into the country. He backed English as the official language of the United States --- "God wrote (the Bible) in English for a reason: So it could be taught in our public schools."

Noting the college was founded by abolitionists, Colbert came out against slavery. "I just hope the mainstream media gives me credit for the stand I've taken today," he said.

Recently picked as one of the 100 Most Influential People by Time magazine, Colbert quipped: "If you do the math, there are 6.5 billion people in the world. That means that today I am here representing 65 million people. That's as big as some countries. What country has about 65 million people? Iran? Iran has 65 million people. So, for all intents and purposes, I'm here representing Iran today. Don't shoot."

Colbert, 42, graduated from Northwestern University in Evanston 20 years ago. He said that instead of a diploma on his commencement day, he got a scrap of paper, which informed him he had an incomplete in one class. He said he happily waved it in the photos with his parents that day. At the next graduation, half a year later, he didn't receive his diploma because of a library fine, he claimed.

He closed his speech on an apparently semi-serious note, urging the grads to learn how to say "yes." He noted that saying yes will sometimes get them in trouble or make them look like a fool. But he added: "Remember, you cannot be both young and wise. Young people who pretend to be wise to the ways of the world are mostly cynics. Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don't learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blinder, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us.

"Cynics always say no. But saying yes begins things. Saying yes is how things grow. Saying yes leads to knowledge. Yes is for young people. So for as long as you have the strength to, say yes.

"And that's The Word."

Last year's commencement speaker, Sen. Barack Obama (Dem.-Illinois) had sent Colbert this welcoming message:

"Stephen, Congratulations on being asked to speak at the 2006 Knox College Commencement. This is an enormous honor and on behalf of the people of Illinois, I'd like to welcome you to our state. As you know, I was invited to speak at Knox after my keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention and subsequent election to the United States Senate. Your convention speech must also have gone really well to have been invited. It's weird that I didn't read about it somewhere."

For the complete text of Colbert's commencement speech see: