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Archive for January 17th, 2007

Senators agree on Iraq war resolution


WASHINGTON – A group of senators including a Republican war critic announced agreement Wednesday on a resolution opposing President Bush’s 21,500 troop buildup in Iraq, setting their marker for a major clash between the White House and Congress over the unpopular war.

The non-binding resolution, which was also gaining interest from a second Republican senator, would symbolically put the Senate on record as saying the U.S. commitment in Iraq “can only be sustained” with popular support among the American public and in Congress.

“I will do everything I can to stop the president’s policy as he outlined it Wednesday night,” said Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican and potential 2008 presidential candidate, who joined Democrats at a press conference on the resolution.

“I think it is dangerously irresponsible,” Hagel said.

Even as skeptical Republicans were summoned to private meetings with Bush and national security adviser Stephen Hadley at the White House, Bush’s aides made clear that the Capitol Hill challenge would be met aggressively by the administration.

Presidential spokesman Tony Snow said resolutions passed by Congress will not affect Bush’s decision-making.

“The president has obligations as a commander in chief,” he said. “And he will go ahead and execute them.”

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., a chief author of the Senate resolution, said it says “we do not support increased troops, deeper military involvement” and calls for shifting the mission of U.S. troops from combat to training, counterterrorism and protecting Iraq’s territorial integrity.

He said it also calls for “the greater engagement of other countries in the region in the stabilization and reconstruction of Iraq.”

The resolution does not call for a withdrawal of troops or threaten funding of military operations, as many Democrats have suggested. Instead, the legislation says the U.S. should transfer responsibility to the Iraqis “under an appropriately expedited timeline,” though it is not specific.

Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, told reporters that she is considering supporting the resolution and said she believed it heads in the right direction.

“I want to make sure it’s something I can support,” said Snowe, who has been adamantly opposed to the increase in troops.

The group planned to introduce the resolution Wednesday, with a review by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Jan. 24, one day after Bush delivers his State of the Union address.

Hagel’s agreement to help Democrats champion the resolution amounts to a setback to the administration and to Bush, who has argued vehemently that some 21,500 additional U.S. troops are needed to help the Iraqi government calm sectarian violence in Baghdad and Anbar province.

Bush announced on Jan. 10 that he planned to increase the 130,000 U.S. forces in Iraq with an additional 21,5000 troops.

The resolutions in Congress seemed likely to be largely symbolic and they would not affect the Pentagon’s war budget or challenge the president’s authority over U.S. forces. Such votes, however, could be a shot across the bow to Bush.

The resolutions also would help Democrats measure GOP support for more aggressive legislative tactics, such as cutting off funds for the war.

Such a vote puts many Republicans in an uncomfortable position. They will have to decide whether to stay loyal to an unpopular GOP president and risk angering voters disillusioned by the war or buck the party line.

Republicans are crafting alternative proposals, including a House bill introduced by Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, that would vow to protect funding for U.S. troops in combat. Sen. John Warner, R-Va., is considering a resolution expressing support for the findings by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., said Wednesday she thinks there should be a cap on U.S. troops in Iraq and said she wants “to condition American aid to the Iraqis on their meeting political benchmarks.”

“I am opposed to this escalation,” she said on NBC’s “Today” program. “The Bush administration has frankly failed to put any leverage on this government,” said Clinton, considered a likely 2008 Democratic presidential front-runner, although she has not yet entered the race.

Bush has been trying to sell his revised war plan to the public in a series of television interviews. He told PBS’s Jim Lehrer in an interview broadcast Tuesday that keeping his old policies in place would lead to “a slow failure,” but withdrawing from Iraq, as some Democrats and other critics suggest, would result in an “expedited failure.”

“I am frustrated with the progress,” Bush said. “A year ago, I felt pretty good about the situation. I felt like we were achieving our objective, which is a country that can govern, sustain and defend itself. No question, 2006 was a lousy year for Iraq.”

Several GOP members of Congress have offered only lukewarm endorsements of Bush’s plan. Lining up behind Bush in the Senate are Republican stalwarts and a few members who have long backed sending more troops to Iraq, including Sen. John McCain (news, bio, voting record), R-Ariz.

Acknowledging their party is divided on Iraq, Republican leaders are trying to stave off a showdown in Congress by casting Democratic efforts as a political ploy to embarrass the president.

The White House cautioned lawmakers about the consequences of voting against a buildup.

“The one thing the president has said is, whatever you do, make sure you support the troops,” press secretary Tony Snow said at the White House. “And the question people who support this resolution will have to ask is, how does this support the troops?”

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Libby seeks jurors who trust Cheney

WASHINGTON – A potential juror in the perjury trial of former White House aide “Scooter” Libby was allowed to remain in the jury pool Wednesday after saying she would be impartial and put aside her tepid impression of Vice President Dick Cheney, an expected defense witness.

“I’m not particularly impressed with a lot of his manners of being, but I can’t speak to his credibility,” said the woman, who works for the Department of Health and Human Services, as jury selection continued for a second day.

Cheney’s credibility has emerged as a key issue, with defense lawyers looking for a panel that can trust the vice president, expected to testify on behalf of Libby, his former chief of staff. Libby is accused of lying to investigators about his conversations with journalists about an outed CIA officer.

Libby’s attorneys say it’s critical they know whether potential jurors view the vice president as credible. Two people who expressed doubts about that were dismissed from the jury pool Tuesday.

“I don’t have the highest opinion of him,” a young financial analyst said. “If I had to rank people as to credibility, I wouldn’t put him at the top of the list.”

He was dismissed, as was a young woman who said she was “completely without objectivity” about Bush administration officials who might be called to testify.

“There is nothing they could say or do that would make me think anything positive about them,” the woman said moments before she was excused from the jury pool by U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton.

Opening arguments are planned Monday in a trial expected to take up to six weeks.

CIA officer

Valerie Plame’s identity was leaked to the press in 2003, around the time her husband, Joseph Wilson, was criticizing the Bush administration’s march to war. The trial hinges not on the source of the leak but whether Libby lied to investigators.

He says he forgot his conversations with reporters because he had more pressing matters on his mind.

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Libby trial puts powerful in spotlight

Witness list includes writers, top officials

When Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff goes on trial today on charges of lying about the disclosure of a CIA officer’s identity, members of Washington’s government and media elite will be answering some embarrassing questions as well.

Lewis “Scooter” Libby’s case will put on display the secret strategizing of an administration that cherry-picked information to justify war in Iraq and reporters who traded freely in gossip and protected their own interests as they worked on one of the big Washington stories of 2003.

The estimated six-week trial will pit current and former Bush administration officials against one another and, if Cheney is called, will mark the first time that a sitting vice president has testified in a criminal case. It also will force the media into painful territory, with as many as 10 journalists called to testify for or against an official who was, for some of them, a confidential source.

Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald’s investigation into the leak of CIA officer Valerie Plame’s identity drew attention in the summer of 2004, when reporters were first ordered under threat of jail to reveal their anonymous sources in the administration. In October 2005, Libby was indicted on charges of perjuring himself before a grand jury, making false statements to investigators and obstruction of justice (though he was not one of the leakers to columnist Robert Novak, who first disclosed Plame’s identity).

Different versions

The case boils down to two drastically different versions of events in the spring and summer of 2003. The government alleges that Libby was involved in a White House effort to discredit Plame’s husband, former U.S. ambassador Joseph Wilson, who had accused the Bush administration of twisting information he provided on Iraq’s nuclear weapons program. Wilson led a CIA-sponsored mission to Niger a year earlier and found no grounds for claims that Iraq was trying to obtain uranium there.

Eight days after Wilson went public with his claims, Plame’s identity as a CIA officer appeared in Novak’s column.

The defense says that neither Libby nor the White House sought to retaliate against Wilson and that Libby misspoke to investigators looking into the disclosure because he was overwhelmed by national security and other matters.

Presiding U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton and lawyers for both sides will begin selecting 12 jurors along with alternates today. It is not expected to be an easy task, given the heavy publicity and the involvement of two institutions – the government and the news media – low in the public’s esteem.

Walton has also girded for intense media coverage, issuing unusually strict orders last week that bar attorneys from commenting publicly during the trial.

Alleged leaks

Fitzgerald’s probe focused on a tense time in Washington, starting in May 2003, when the administration sought to defend its invasion of Iraq even as U.S. troops failed to find weapons of mass destruction, which the administration had cited as one of the main reasons for deposing Saddam Hussein. That month, without naming Wilson, reporters began writing about his accusations that Bush had sold the war to the American public using intelligence Wilson had found to be groundless. Wilson went public with his accusations during the first week of July.

On July 14, Novak published a column identifying Wilson’s wife, Plame, as a CIA employee who helped arrange her husband’s trip to investigate the Iraq claim.

The government alleges that before Novak’s column appeared, Libby set out to discredit and silence Wilson after Cheney shared his irritation about Wilson’s claims and Plame’s role at the CIA. Prosecutors say Libby shared Plame’s role with a New York Times reporter, Judith Miller. At the time, Miller was trying to defend her own reporting, which had asserted evidence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

“It is hard to conceive of what evidence there could be that would disprove the existence of White House efforts to ‘punish’ Wilson,” Fitzgerald wrote in a court filing last year.

Later, when a leak investigation was opened, prosecutors allege that Libby lied to FBI agents, telling them that he had learned about Plame from Russert in a telephone call on July 10 or 11 and that he had passed along that information as unconfirmed gossip to two other reporters.

The forgetfulness defense

Randall Eliason, a former chief of public corruption cases in the U.S. attorney’s office, said the evidence appears to make it difficult for Libby to claim forgetfulness. “You have the vice president cutting out a section of the newspaper, circling it and saying, ‘Let’s find out about this.’ You don’t rise to the level of being the vice president’s chief of staff by letting that kind of thing slip your mind.”

The defense contends that Libby forgot how he learned Plame’s identity and misspoke when questioned twice by the FBI and twice by a grand jury about his conversations with reporters. He insists that there was no cabal to “get” Wilson.

The defense maintains that the fact that Novak first learned about Plame from Richard Armitage, then deputy secretary of state and a skeptic of the war, proves there was no conspiracy.

Libby’s attorneys have said they plan to call Cheney as a witness, presumably to help establish that Libby was indeed engulfed by national security matters and had no motive to lie. Lawyers around town say they would pay for a seat in court when Fitzgerald, one of the best trial prosecutors in the country, cross-examines the vice president, a sharp-tongued debater.

Charles Tobin, who heads the media law practice for Holland & Knight, said that the case already has had serious consequences for journalists by forcing them to reveal their sources and that it will continue to hurt newsgathering.
“There’s certainly going to be a hesitation among sources as they see this trial unfold and watch what happens with Libby,” he said. “Will they have conversations with reporters if they think those conversations can be used to prosecute them?”

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Senators agree on Iraq war resolution


WASHINGTON – A group of senators including a Republican war critic announced agreement Wednesday on a resolution opposing President Bush’s 21,500 troop buildup in Iraq, setting their marker for a major clash between the White House and Congress over the unpopular war.

The non-binding resolution, which was also gaining interest from a second Republican senator, would symbolically put the Senate on record as saying the U.S. commitment in Iraq “can only be sustained” with popular support among the American public and in Congress.

“I will do everything I can to stop the president’s policy as he outlined it Wednesday night,” said Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican and potential 2008 presidential candidate, who joined Democrats at a press conference on the resolution.

“I think it is dangerously irresponsible,” Hagel said.

Even as skeptical Republicans were summoned to private meetings with Bush and national security adviser Stephen Hadley at the White House, Bush’s aides made clear that the Capitol Hill challenge would be met aggressively by the administration.

Presidential spokesman Tony Snow said resolutions passed by Congress will not affect Bush’s decision-making.

“The president has obligations as a commander in chief,” he said. “And he will go ahead and execute them.”

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., a chief author of the Senate resolution, said it says “we do not support increased troops, deeper military involvement” and calls for shifting the mission of U.S. troops from combat to training, counterterrorism and protecting Iraq’s territorial integrity.

He said it also calls for “the greater engagement of other countries in the region in the stabilization and reconstruction of Iraq.”

The resolution does not call for a withdrawal of troops or threaten funding of military operations, as many Democrats have suggested. Instead, the legislation says the U.S. should transfer responsibility to the Iraqis “under an appropriately expedited timeline,” though it is not specific.

Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, told reporters that she is considering supporting the resolution and said she believed it heads in the right direction.

“I want to make sure it’s something I can support,” said Snowe, who has been adamantly opposed to the increase in troops.

The group planned to introduce the resolution Wednesday, with a review by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Jan. 24, one day after Bush delivers his State of the Union address.

Hagel’s agreement to help Democrats champion the resolution amounts to a setback to the administration and to Bush, who has argued vehemently that some 21,500 additional U.S. troops are needed to help the Iraqi government calm sectarian violence in Baghdad and Anbar province.

Bush announced on Jan. 10 that he planned to increase the 130,000 U.S. forces in Iraq with an additional 21,5000 troops.

The resolutions in Congress seemed likely to be largely symbolic and they would not affect the Pentagon’s war budget or challenge the president’s authority over U.S. forces. Such votes, however, could be a shot across the bow to Bush.

The resolutions also would help Democrats measure GOP support for more aggressive legislative tactics, such as cutting off funds for the war.

Such a vote puts many Republicans in an uncomfortable position. They will have to decide whether to stay loyal to an unpopular GOP president and risk angering voters disillusioned by the war or buck the party line.

Republicans are crafting alternative proposals, including a House bill introduced by Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, that would vow to protect funding for U.S. troops in combat. Sen. John Warner, R-Va., is considering a resolution expressing support for the findings by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., said Wednesday she thinks there should be a cap on U.S. troops in Iraq and said she wants “to condition American aid to the Iraqis on their meeting political benchmarks.”

“I am opposed to this escalation,” she said on NBC’s “Today” program. “The Bush administration has frankly failed to put any leverage on this government,” said Clinton, considered a likely 2008 Democratic presidential front-runner, although she has not yet entered the race.

Bush has been trying to sell his revised war plan to the public in a series of television interviews. He told PBS’s Jim Lehrer in an interview broadcast Tuesday that keeping his old policies in place would lead to “a slow failure,” but withdrawing from Iraq, as some Democrats and other critics suggest, would result in an “expedited failure.”

“I am frustrated with the progress,” Bush said. “A year ago, I felt pretty good about the situation. I felt like we were achieving our objective, which is a country that can govern, sustain and defend itself. No question, 2006 was a lousy year for Iraq.”

Several GOP members of Congress have offered only lukewarm endorsements of Bush’s plan. Lining up behind Bush in the Senate are Republican stalwarts and a few members who have long backed sending more troops to Iraq, including Sen. John McCain (news, bio, voting record), R-Ariz.

Acknowledging their party is divided on Iraq, Republican leaders are trying to stave off a showdown in Congress by casting Democratic efforts as a political ploy to embarrass the president.

The White House cautioned lawmakers about the consequences of voting against a buildup.

“The one thing the president has said is, whatever you do, make sure you support the troops,” press secretary Tony Snow said at the White House. “And the question people who support this resolution will have to ask is, how does this support the troops?”

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What $1.2 Trillion Can Buy


The human mind isn’t very well equipped to make sense of a figure like $1.2 trillion. We don’t deal with a trillion of anything in our daily lives, and so when we come across such a big number, it is hard to distinguish it from any other big number. Millions, billions, a trillion — they all start to sound the same.

The way to come to grips with $1.2 trillion is to forget about the number itself and think instead about what you could buy with the money. When you do that, a trillion stops sounding anything like millions or billions.

For starters, $1.2 trillion would pay for an unprecedented public health campaign — a doubling of cancer research funding, treatment for every American whose diabetes or heart disease is now going unmanaged and a global immunization campaign to save millions of children’s lives.

Combined, the cost of running those programs for a decade wouldn’t use up even half our money pot. So we could then turn to poverty and education, starting with universal preschool for every 3- and 4-year-old child across the country. The city of New Orleans could also receive a huge increase in reconstruction funds.

The final big chunk of the money could go to national security. The recommendations of the 9/11 Commission that have not been put in place — better baggage and cargo screening, stronger measures against nuclear proliferation — could be enacted. Financing for the war in Afghanistan could be increased to beat back the Taliban’s recent gains, and a peacekeeping force could put a stop to the genocide in Darfur.

All that would be one way to spend $1.2 trillion. Here would be another:
The war in Iraq.

In the days before the war almost five years ago, the Pentagon estimated that it would cost about $50 billion. Democratic staff members in Congress largely agreed. Lawrence Lindsey, a White House economic adviser, was a bit more realistic, predicting that the cost could go as high as $200 billion, but President Bush fired him in part for saying so.

These estimates probably would have turned out to be too optimistic even if the war had gone well. Throughout history, people have typically underestimated the cost of war, as William Nordhaus, a Yale economist, has pointed out.

But the deteriorating situation in Iraq has caused the initial predictions to be off the mark by a scale that is difficult to fathom. The operation itself — the helicopters, the tanks, the fuel needed to run them, the combat pay for enlisted troops, the salaries of reservists and contractors, the rebuilding of Iraq — is costing more than $300 million a day, estimates Scott Wallsten, an economist in Washington.

That translates into a couple of billion dollars a week and, over the full course of the war, an eventual total of $700 billion in direct spending.

The two best-known analyses of the war’s costs agree on this figure, but they diverge from there. Linda Bilmes, at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, and Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate and former Clinton administration adviser, put a total price tag of more than $2 trillion on the war. They include a number of indirect costs, like the economic stimulus that the war funds would have provided if they had been spent in this country.

Mr. Wallsten, who worked with Katrina Kosec, another economist, argues for a figure closer to $1 trillion in today’s dollars. My own estimate falls on the conservative side, largely because it focuses on the actual money that Americans would have been able to spend in the absence of a war. I didn’t even attempt to put a monetary value on the more than 3,000 American deaths in the war.

Besides the direct military spending, I’m including the gas tax that the war has effectively imposed on American families (to the benefit of oil-producing countries like Iran, Russia and Saudi Arabia). At the start of 2003, a barrel of oil was selling for $30. Since then, the average price has been about $50.

Attributing even $5 of this difference to the conflict adds another $150 billion to the war’s price tag, Ms. Bilmes and Mr. Stiglitz say.

The war has also guaranteed some big future expenses. Replacing the hardware used in Iraq and otherwise getting the United States military back into its prewar fighting shape could cost $100 billion. And if this war’s veterans receive disability payments and medical care at the same rate as veterans of the first gulf war, their health costs will add up to $250 billion. If the disability rate matches Vietnam’s, the number climbs higher. Either way, Ms. Bilmes says, “It’s like a miniature Medicare.”

In economic terms, you can think of these medical costs as the difference between how productive the soldiers would have been as, say, computer programmers or firefighters and how productive they will be as wounded veterans. In human terms, you can think of soldiers like Jason Poole, a young corporal profiled in The New York Times last year. Before the war, he had planned to be a teacher. After being hit by a roadside bomb in 2004, he spent hundreds of hours learning to walk and talk again, and he now splits his time between a community college and a hospital in Northern California.

Whatever number you use for the war’s total cost, it will tower over costs that normally seem prohibitive. Right now, including everything, the war is costing about $200 billion a year.

Treating heart disease and diabetes, by contrast, would probably cost about $50 billion a year. The remaining 9/11 Commission recommendations — held up in Congress partly because of their cost — might cost somewhat less.

Universal preschool would be $35 billion. In Afghanistan, $10 billion could make a real difference. At the National Cancer Institute, annual budget is about $6 billion.

“This war has skewed our thinking about resources,” said Mr. Wallsten, a senior fellow at the Progress and Freedom Foundation, a conservative-leaning research group. “In the context of the war, $20 billion is nothing.”

As it happens, $20 billion is not a bad ballpark estimate for the added cost of Mr. Bush’s planned surge in troops. By itself, of course, that price tag doesn’t mean the surge is a bad idea. If it offers the best chance to stabilize Iraq, then it may well be the right option.

But the standard shouldn’t simply be whether a surge is better than the most popular alternative — a far-less-expensive political strategy that includes getting tough with the Iraqi government. The standard should be whether the surge would be better than the political strategy plus whatever else might be accomplished with the $20 billion.

This time, it would be nice to have that discussion before the troops reach Iraq.

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