Friday, December 30, 2005

The New Year in Taxes - New York Times
The New York Times

December 30, 2005

The New Year in Taxes

A surprise awaits the nation's highest earners when they file their 2006 tax
returns. Their taxes are going down again - whether or not Congress passes
the investor tax cuts the lawmakers have been promising. On New Year's Day,
two additional tax cuts will kick in, allowing people who earn upward of
a year to claim bigger write-offs for a spouse, their children and other
expenses, like mortgage interest on a vacation home.

The bolstered write-offs were enacted in 2001, but with a delayed start date
because of their high cost: according to Congressional estimates, the new
will cost $27 billion over the short term, exploding to $146 billion from
2010 through 2019. By then, most of the benefits would flow to taxpayers who
make more than $1 million a year.

With the nation deep in debt, at war in Afghanistan and Iraq, with Congress
voting last month to slash programs for health care and student loans, and
a debilitating shortfall building in Medicare - the decision by Congress to
let these particular tax breaks take effect now is flabbergasting. But it is
not out of character.

The Bush family has a long history with this particular part of the tax
code. In 1990, the first President Bush - in a move that now seems quaint in
sense of responsibility - had to raise revenue to rein in the budget
deficit. He was loath to hike the top tax rate, then 31 percent. So he opted
for a provision that limited the amount well-heeled Americans could deduct
from their taxes for a spouse and dependents, and for certain expenses, like
vacation home mortgages. Tax cutters in Congress, known then as
supply-siders, were furious.

The second President Bush has been guilty of irresponsibility and fuzzy math
when it comes to taxes, but rescinding his father's reasonable legislation
was not among his priorities. During his first year in office, however, he
set off a tax-cutting frenzy when he proposed to give back the Clinton-era
surplus via hundreds of billions of dollars in tax cuts. Congress then added
some cuts of its own - including a provision to revoke the limits on
put in place by the elder Mr. Bush.

The provision's effective date was set for Jan. 1, 2006, and, like other tax
cuts from 2001, it is scheduled to expire at the end of 2010. Such
and "sunsets" are ploys to cram as many tax giveaways as possible into one
law without overtly busting the budget.

Here's where the tale turns absurd: The tax cuts of 2001, followed by those
of 2002 and 2003, have busted the budget. The surplus - the original
for the tax cuts - is long gone, replaced by a deficit projected to reach
$530 billion by 2015, if the cuts are made permanent.

And yet Mr. Bush and Congress persist with tax cuts - for people who don't
need the extra help and for purposes that have nothing to do with the
obvious problems.

It's a heck of a way to begin the new year.

Posted by Miriam V.

Willie Nelson Markets 'BioWillie' Fuel

(Dec. 30) - Willie Nelson drives a Mercedes.

But do not lose faith, true believers. The exhaust from Mr. Nelson's diesel-powered Mercedes smells like peanuts, or French fries, or whatever alternative fuel happens to be in his tank.

While Bono tries to change the world by hobnobbing with politicians and Sir Bob Geldof plays host to his mega-benefit concerts, Willie Nelson has birthed his own brand of alternative fuel. It is called, fittingly enough, BioWillie. And in BioWillie, Mr. Nelson, 72, has blended two of his biggest concerns: his love of family farmers and disdain for the Iraq war.

BioWillie is a type of biodiesel, a fuel that can be made from any number of crops and run in a normal diesel engine. If it sounds like a joke, a number of businesses, as well as city and state and county governments, have been switching their transportation fleets to biodiesel blends over the last year. The rationale is that it is a domestic fuel that can provide profit to farmers and that it will help the environment, though environmentalists are not universally enthusiastic about it.

"I knew we needed to have something that would keep us from being so dependent on foreign oil, and when I heard about biodiesel, a light come on, and I said, 'Hey, here's the future for the farmers, the future for the environment, the future for the truckers," Mr. Nelson said in an interview this month. "It seems like that's good for the whole world if we can start growing our own fuel instead of starting wars over it."

In some ways, it is a return to the origins of the diesel engine; some of Rudolf Diesel's first engines ran on peanut oil more than a century ago.
Last week, a cargo-loading company that operates in the Port of Seattle said that to fuel its equipment next year it would purchase 800,000 gallons of biodiesel, most of it a blend known as B20 that is 80 percent conventional diesel. As of late September, Minnesota requires almost all diesel fuel sold in the state to be 2 percent biodiesel, and Cincinnati started using a 30 percent biodiesel blend, B30, in its city buses because of concerns about fuel shortages after Hurricane Katrina.

Biodiesel can cost as much as a $1 a gallon more than regular diesel when pure, though it is typically sold as B20. Prices vary depending on volume and region, and new tax incentives are aimed at closing the cost gap. BioWillie was selling for $2.37 a gallon yesterday in Carl's Corner, Mr. Nelson's own truck stop in Texas that serves as headquarters of his year-old company, Willie Nelson BioDiesel. That was just 4 cents more than the conventional diesel selling at another station nearby.

Mr. Nelson's BioWillie is aimed mostly at truckers and is usually sold as B20 (pure biodiesel can congeal in colder climates). BioWillie is currently sold at 13 gas stations and truck stops in four states (with Texas having the most), and it fuels the buses and trucks for Mr. Nelson's tours.

If BioWillie demonstrates anything, it is that the combination of Middle East wars, global warming and rising prices at the pump has led many people to offer solutions to the world's energy's squeeze. Depending on whom you ask, cars will someday run on hydrogen, electricity, natural gas or ethanol.
Mr. Nelson is making his bet on biodiesel.

"I don't like the war," he said in the interview. "In fact, I don't know if you ever remember a couple years ago, it was Christmas day, and my son Lukas was born on Christmas Day, he's like 16 years old, and we were watching TV and there was just all kind of hell breaking loose and people getting killed and I was talking to my wife, Annie, and I said, You know, all the mothers crying and the babies dying and she said, 'Well, you ought to go write that.' "So I wrote a song called 'Whatever Happened to Peace on Earth?' "

He began to recite the first verse:

So many things going on in the world,

Babies dying, mothers crying.

Just how much oil is human life worth?

And whatever happened to peace on earth?

"That upset a lot of people, as you can imagine," he continued. "I've been upset about this war from the beginning and I've known it's all about oil."
Every alternative to oil, however, has its drawbacks. Biodiesel would reduce most emissions of smog-forming pollutants and global warming gases, and it could be used instead of foreign oil. But some studies show that it increases emissions of one harmful pollutant, nitrogen oxide, and it could not be produced in vast enough quantities to supplant oil-based fuel, or come close to it, unless the nation starts turning the suburbs over to farmland. And as with ethanol, producing great quantities of biodiesel from corn or soybeans could drive up food prices.

Bill Reinert, Toyota's national manager for advanced technologies, said in an interview this year: "I frankly don't see biodiesel being an early alt-fuel player across a wide swath of geography. It's a boutique fuel. There's not enough payoff and not enough people into it."

Peter J. Bell, the chief executive of Distribution Drive, a distributor of biodiesel that is working with Mr. Nelson, said of the nation's nearly 200,000 gas stations, "650 carry biodiesel, so we have a job in front of us." Mr. Nelson sits on the board of Distribution Drive's parent, Earth Biofuels, a publicly traded company.

Daniel Becker, the Sierra Club's top global warming expert, said he would prefer to see wider use of a cleaner alternative fuel, like natural gas.
Referring to biodiesel, he said, "In order to grow soybeans, you need multiple passes over the field with diesel tractors, you need a lot of fertilizer that's energy intensive to produce and, at the end of the day, you have a product that is no boon for the environment."

He went on: "If you're going to go to the trouble of using an alternative fuel, use a good alternative fuel. If you really want to listen to Willie Nelson, go buy one of his records and play it in a hybrid."

Mr. Nelson first heard about biodiesel two years ago from his wife while they were staying in Hawaii. He recounted the story.
"My wife came to me and said 'I want to buy this car that runs on biodiesel, and I said, 'What's that?' And so she told me, and I thought it was a scam or joke or something. So I said, 'Go ahead, it's your money.' "

She bought a Volkswagen Jetta with a diesel engine and started filling it with fuel made from restaurant grease. This is not uncommon. Home hobbyists make their own biodiesel by collecting used grease from restaurants and chemically treating it to turn it into usable fuel, or by outfitting their car or truck with equipment to re-form the grease.

"I drove the car, loved the way it drove," Mr. Nelson said. "The tailpipe smells like French fries. I bought me a Mercedes, and the Mercedes people were a little nervous when I took a brand new Mercedes over and filled it up with 100 percent vegetable oil coming from the grease traps of Maui. I figured I'd be getting notices about the warranty and that stuff. However, nobody said anything."

"I get better gas mileage, it runs better, the motor runs cleaner, so I swear by it," he added.
How far does he think biodiesel can go?

"It could get as big as we can grow fuel or find different things to make fuel from, such as chicken fat, beef fat, add that along to soybeans, vegetable oils, peanuts, safflower, sunflower," Mr. Nelson said

O.K.. What about hemp?

"Hemp is a very good one," he replied, not missing a beat. "In fact, several years ago, a friend of mine named Gatewood Galbraith was running for governor of Kentucky and we campaigned all over the state of Kentucky in a Cadillac operating on hemp oil. He was trying to get it legalized in the state of Kentucky and, of course, he lost, but the cannabis thing in fuel is a very real thing.
Mr. Nelson said he did not expect to make much money on his venture. As he put it when asked about his Mercedes, "I didn't get it selling BioWillie, I'll tell you."

"I hope somebody makes money out of it; I'm sure they will. And probably what'll happen is that the oil industry will wait until everybody else builds all the infrastructure and then they'll come in and take over," he said. "But that's O.K. I don't worry about that. As along as the idea progresses because all I'm caring about is getting it out there and maybe helping the country, the farmer, the environment."

Asked if he intended to become a fat cat C.E.O. with a big cigar in his mouth, he replied: "I'll give you my part of it. I'll just sign over all my earnings and belongings to you right now and I'll sing 'Whiskey River.' "

One thing is certain: if Mr. Nelson's venture makes any money, none of it will go to pay a $16 million tax bill to the Internal Revenue Service. That debt, which arose from Mr. Nelson's participation in illegal tax shelters, was erased in 1993 with surrender of some property and the profit from his album "The IRS Tapes: Who'll Buy My Memories?"

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Crooks at the Trough

AP: Frist AIDS Charity Paid Consultants

By JONATHAN M. KATZ and JOHN SOLOMON, Associated Press WritersSat Dec 17, 4:43 PM ET

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's AIDS charity paid nearly a half-million dollars in consulting fees to members of his political inner circle, according to tax returns providing the first financial accounting of the presidential hopeful's nonprofit.

The returns for World of Hope Inc., obtained by The Associated Press, also show the charity raised the lion's share of its $4.4 million from just 18 sources. They gave between $97,950 and $267,735 each to help fund Frist's efforts to fight AIDS.

The tax forms, filed nine months after they were first due, do not identify the 18 major donors by name.

Frist's lawyer, Alex Vogel, said Friday that he would not give their names because tax law does not require their public disclosure. Frist's office provided a list of 96 donors who were supportive of the charity, but did not say how much each contributed.

The donors included several corporations with frequent business before Congress, such as insurer Blue Cross/Blue Shield, manufacturer 3M, drug maker Eli Lilly and the Goldman Sachs investment firm.

World of Hope gave $3 million it raised to charitable AIDS causes, such as Africare and evangelical Christian groups with ties to Republicans — Franklin Graham's Samaritan Purse and the Rev. Luis Cortes' Esperanza USA, for example.

The rest of the money went to overhead. That included $456,125 in consulting fees to two firms run by Frist's longtime political fundraiser, Linus Catignani. One is jointly run by Linda Bond, the wife of Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond, R-Mo.

The charity also hired the law firm of Vogel's wife, Jill Holtzman Vogel, and Frist's Tennessee accountant, Deborah Kolarich.

Kolarich's name recently surfaced in an e-mail involving Frist's controversial sale of stock in his family founded health care company. That transaction is now under federal investigation.

Jill Holtzman Vogel, who is raising money for a run for the state Senate in Virginia in 2007, has received thousands in contributions this year from Catignani & Bond and from her husband, among numerous other sources, according to data released by the Virginia Public Access Project.

Alex Vogel said Frist picked people to work on his charity whom he trusted and knew, such as Vogel's wife, and was proud that overhead costs amounted to less than $1 of every $5 raised. "It's leaner than the average charity," Vogel said.

Frist is listed as the charity's president and his wife was listed as secretary. Neither was compensated.

Political experts said both the size of charity's big donations and its consulting fees raise questions about whether the tax-exempt group benefited Frist's political ambitions.

"One of the things people who are running for president try to do is keep their fundraising staff and political people close at hand. And one of the ways you can do that is by putting them in some sort of organization you run," said Larry Noble, the government's former chief election lawyer who now runs the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics that studies fundraising.

Kent Cooper, the Federal Election Commission's former public disclosure chief, said the big donors' motives are also suspect.

"These tax deductible gifts were earmarked through Senator Frist," Cooper said. "They were raised in the political arena at the 2004 Republican Convention and the natural question is were they given to the Senate majority leader to gain favor or were they given for true charitable purposes?"

Cooper said the consulting fees were "excessively high" and the fact that they were "paid to primarily political consultants also raises questions about the long-range strategic benefits for the 2008 presidential race."

A charity could lose its tax-exempt status if it is found to be involved with political activity, said Marcus S. Owens, a former director of the Internal Revenue Service's Exempt Organizations Division.

"If the IRS were to conduct an examination, what they would look for would be the relationship between the organization and any incumbent politician or candidate," Owens said. "They'd be particularly interested in transactions of money or assistance of any kind being provided."

Frist formed the charity in 2003. It drew attention in August 2004 when it held a benefit concert in New York during the Republican National Convention at which President Bush was nominated for re-election.

The group's 2004 tax return was due April 15, 2005, but it filed for two extensions and only reported its activity to the IRS last month.

The tax forms show at least 11 of the charity's 18 biggest donors gave $97,950 each, that one gave $100,000 and that the rest gave more than $245,000 each.

Vogel said Catignani was paid the fees because he helped arrange the New York concert that featured country stars Brooks & Dunn, handling both the event arrangements and fundraising.

The tax forms show Catignani's fundraising firm, Catignani & Bond, was paid a total of $276,125 and his event-planning arm, Consulting Services Group, was paid $180,000.

The amount Catignani was paid by Frist's charity in 2004 is roughly the same as what his firms received over the past three years for work for Frist's political action committee, Volunteer PAC. The firm collected $523,666 in fees from the PAC since 2003, FEC records show.

World of Hope's beneficiaries include evangelical Christian groups with Republican connections.

Cortes, Esperanza USA's president, is an influential evangelical leader who hosted Bush at this year's National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast.

Frist has worked and traveled extensively with Samaritan's Purse in Africa as well as during the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Franklin Graham is the son of the Rev. Billy Graham.

Weeks before Frist's convention fundraiser, the senate leader traveled to Chad, Sudan and Kenya on a trip underwritten by Samaritan's Purse, Senate records show.

Samaritan's Purse spokesman Jeremy Blume said the $490,000 that World of Hope donated to Samaritan's Purse in 2004 was spent on AIDS programs in sub-Saharan Africa.

The recipients of the charity's money were Africare, Samaritan's Purse, Esperanza USA, Nashville's Meharry Medical College, Taso-Uganda and Save the Children.

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Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Top Ten Myths about Iraq in 2005

by Juan Cole

Iraq has unfortunately become a football in the rough and ready, two-party American political arena, generating large numbers of sound bites and so much spin you could clothe all of China in the resulting threads.

Here are what I think are the top ten myths about Iraq, that one sees in print or on television in the United States.

1. The guerrilla war is being waged only in four provinces. This canard is trotted out by everyone from think tank flacks to US generals, and it is shameful. Iraq has 18 provinces, but some of them are lightly populated. The most populous province is Baghdad, which has some 6 million residents, or nearly one-fourth of the entire population of the country. It also contains the capital. It is one of the four being mentioned!. Another of the four, Ninevah province, has a population of some 1.8 million and contains Mosul, a city of over a million and the country's third largest! It is not clear what other two provinces are being referred to, but they are probably Salahuddin and Anbar provinces, other big centers of guerrilla activity, bring the total for the "only four provinces" to something like 10 million of Iraq's 26 million people.

But the "four provinces" allegation is misleading on another level. It is simply false. Guerrilla attacks occur routinely beyong the confines of Anbar, Salahuddin, Ninevah and Baghdad. Diyala province is a big center of the guerrilla movement and has witnessed thousands of deaths in the ongoing unconventional war. Babil province just south of Baghdad is a major center of back alley warfare between Sunnis and Shiites and attacks on Coalition troops. Attacks, assassinations and bombings are routine in Kirkuk province in the north, a volatile mixture of Kurds, Turkmen and Arabs engaged in a subterranean battle for dominance of the area's oil fields. So that is 7 provinces, and certainly half the population of the country lives in these 7, which are daily affected by the ongoing violence. It is true that violence is rare in the 3 northern provinces of the Kurdistan confederacy. And the Shiite south is much less violent than the 7 provinces of the center-north, on a good day. But some of this calm in the south is an illusion deriving from poor on the ground reporting. It appears to be the case that British troops are engaged in an ongoing struggle with guerrilla forces of the Marsh Arabs in Maysan Province. Even calm is not always a good sign. The southern port city of Basra appears to come by its via a reign of terror by Shiite religious militias.

2. Iraqi Sunnis voting in the December 15 election is a sign that they are being drawn into the political process and might give up the armed insurgency. So far Iraqi Sunni parties are rejecting the outcome of the election and threatening to boycott parliament. Some 20,000 of them demonstrated all over the center-north last Friday against what they saw as fraudulent elections. So, they haven't been drawn into the political process in any meaningful sense. And even if they were, it would not prevent them from pursuing a two-track policy of both political representation and guerrilla war. The two-track approach is common among insurgencies, from Northern Ireland's IRA to Palestine's Hamas.

3. The guerrillas are winning the war against US forces. The guerrillas are really no more than mosquitos to US forces. The casualties they have inflicted on the US military, of over 2000 dead and some 15,000 wounded, are deeply regrettable and no one should make light of them. But this level of insurgency could never defeat the US military in the field.

4. Iraqis are grateful for the US presence and want US forces there to help them build their country. Opinion polls show that between 66% and 80% of Iraqis want the US out of Iraq on a short timetable. Already in the last parliament, some 120 parliamentarians out of 275 supported a resolution demanding a timetable for US withdrawal, and that sentiment will be much stronger in the newly elected parliament.

5. Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, born in Iran in 1930, is close to the Iranian regime in Tehran. Sistani, the spiritual leader of Iraq's majority Shiite community, is an almost lifetime expatriate. He came to Iraq late in 1951, and is far more Iraqi than Arnold Schwarzenegger is Californian. Sistani was a disciple of Grand Ayatollah Burujirdi in Iran, who argued against clerical involvement in day to day politics. Sistani rejects Khomeinism, and would be in jail if he were living in Iran, as a result. He has been implicitly critical of Iran's poor human rights record, and has himself spoken eloquently in favor of democracy and pluralism. Ma'd Fayyad reported in Al-Sharq al-Awsat in August of 2004 that when Sistani had heart problems, an Iranian representative in Najaf visited him. He offered Sistani the best health care Tehran hospitals could provice, and asked if he could do anything for the grand ayatollah. Sistani is said to have responded that what Iran could do for Iraq was to avoid intervening in its internal affairs. And then Sistani flew off to London for his operation, an obvious slap in the face to Iran's Supreme Jurisprudent Ali Khamenei.

6. There is a silent majority of middle class, secular-minded Iraqis who reject religious fundamentalism. Two major elections have been held. For all their flaws (lack of security, anonymity of most candidates, constraints on campaigning), they certainly are weather vanes of the political mood of most of the country. While the Kurdistan Alliance is largely secular, the Arab Iraqis have turned decisively toward religious fundamentalist parties. The United Iraqi Alliance (Shiite fundamentalists) and the Iraqi Accord Front (Sunni fundamentalists) are the big winners of the most recent election. Iyad Allawi's secular Iraqiya list got only 14.5 percent of the seats on Jan. 30, and will shrink to half that, most likely, in this most recent election. A clear majority of Iraqis, and the vast majority of the Arab Iraqis, are constructing new, fluid political identities that depend heavily on religious and ethnic sub-nationalisms.

7. The new Iraqi constitution is a victory for Western, liberal values in the Middle East. The constitution made Islam the religion of state. It stipulates that the civil parliament may pass no legislation that contradicts the established laws of Islam. It looks forward to clerics serving on court benches. It allows individuals to opt out of secular, civil personal status laws (for marriage, divorce, alimony, inheritance) and to choose relgious canon law instead. Islamic law gives girls, e.g., only half the amount of inheritance received by their brothers. Instead of a federal government, the constitution establishes a loose supervisory role for Baghdad and devolves most powers, including claims on future oil finds, on provinces and provincial confederacies, such that it is difficult to see how the country will be able to hold together.

8. Iraq is already in a civil war, so it does not matter if the US simply withdraws precipitately, since the situation is as bad as it can get. No, it isn't. During the course of the guerrilla war, the daily number of dead has fluctuated, between about 20 and about 60. But in a real civil war, it could easily be 10 times that. Some estimates of the number of Afghans killed during their long set of civil wars put the number at 2.5 million, along with 5 million displaced abroad and more millions displaced internally. Iraq is Malibu Beach compared to Afghanistan in its darkest hours. The US has a responsibility to get out of Iraq responsibly and to not allow it to fall into that kind of genocidal civil conflict.

9. The US can buy off the Iraqis now supporting guerrilla action against US troops. US military and civilian officials in Iraq have on numerous occasions alleged in the press or privately to me that a vast infusion of billions of dollars from the US would dampen down the guerrilla insurgency. In fact, it seems clear that far more Sunni Arabs support the guerrilla movement today than supported it in September of 2004, and more supported it in September of 2004 than had in September of 2003. AP reports that the US has spent $100 million on reconstruction projects in Diyala Province. These community development and infrastructural improvements, often carried out by US troops in conditions of danger, are most praiseworthy. But Diyala is a mess politically and a major center of guerrilla activity (see below), which simply could not be pursued on this scale without substantial local popular support. The Sunni Arab parties, which demand US withdrawal and reject the results of the Dec. 15 elections, carried the province, winning 6 seats.

The guerrillas are to some important extent driven by local nationalism and rejection of foreign occupation, as well as resentment at the marginalization of the Sunni Arab community in the new Iraq. They have a keen sense of national honor, and there is no evidence that they can be bribed into laying down their arms, or that the general populace can be bribed on any significant scale into turning the guerrillas in to the US. Attributing motives of honor to one's own side and crass economic interests to one's opponent is a common ploy of political propaganda, but we should be careful about believing our own spin.

Even a simple economic calculation would favor the guerrillas fighting on, however. If they could get back in control of Iraq through a coup, they'd have $50 billion a year in oil revenues to play with. The total US reconstruction aid promised to Iraq is only $18 billion, and much of that will be spent on security-- i.e. it won't benefit most Iraqis.

10. The Bush administration wanted free elections in Iraq. This allegation is simply not true, as I and others pointed out last January. I said then, and it is still true:

' Moreover, as Swopa rightly reminds us all, the Bush administration opposed one-person, one-vote elections of this sort. First they were going to turn Iraq over to Chalabi within six months. Then Bremer was going to be MacArthur in Baghdad for years. Then on November 15, 2003, Bremer announced a plan to have council-based elections in May of 2004. The US and the UK had somehow massaged into being provincial and municipal governing councils, the members of which were pro-American. Bremer was going to restrict the electorate to this small, elite group.

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani immediately gave a fatwa denouncing this plan and demanding free elections mandated by a UN Security Council resolution. Bush was reportedly "extremely offended" at these two demands and opposed Sistani. Bremer got his appointed Interim Governing Council to go along in fighting Sistani. Sistani then brought thousands of protesters into the streets in January of 2004, demanding free elections. Soon thereafter, Bush caved and gave the ayatollah everything he demanded. Except that he was apparently afraid that open, non-manipulated elections in Iraq might become a factor in the US presidential campaign, so he got the elections postponed to January 2005. This enormous delay allowed the country to fall into much worse chaos, and Sistani is still bitter that the Americans didn't hold the elections last May. The US objected that they couldn't use UN food ration cards for registration, as Sistani suggested. But in the end that is exactly what they did. '

Iraq's situation is extremely complex. It is not a black and white poster for an American political party. Good things and bad things are happening there. The American public cannot help make good policy, however, unless the myths are first dispelled.

Beyond the imperial presidency

by Steve Chapman

President Bush is a bundle of paradoxes. He thinks the scope of the federal government should be limited but the powers of the president should not. He wants judges to interpret the Constitution as the framers did, but doesn't think he should be constrained by their intentions.

He attacked Al Gore for trusting government instead of the people, but he insists anyone who wants to defeat terrorism must put absolute faith in the man at the helm of government.

His conservative allies say Bush is acting to uphold the essential prerogatives of his office. Vice President Cheney says the administration's secret eavesdropping program is justified because "I believe in a strong, robust executive authority, and I think that the world we live in demands it."

But the theory boils down to a consistent and self-serving formula: What's good for George W. Bush is good for America, and anything that weakens his power weakens the nation. To call this an imperial presidency is unfair to emperors.

Even people who should be on Bush's side are getting queasy. David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, says in his efforts to enlarge executive authority, Bush "has gone too far."

He's not the only one who feels that way. Consider the case of Jose Padilla, a U.S. citizen arrested in 2002 on suspicion of plotting to set off a "dirty bomb." For three years, the administration said he posed such a grave threat that it had the right to detain him without trial as an enemy combatant. In September, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit agreed.

But then, rather than risk a review of its policy by the Supreme Court, the administration abandoned its hard-won victory and indicted Padilla on comparatively minor criminal charges. When it asked the 4th Circuit Court for permission to transfer him from military custody to jail, though, the once-cooperative court flatly refused.

In a decision last week, the judges expressed amazement that the administration suddenly would decide Padilla could be treated like a common purse snatcher--a reversal that, they said, comes "at substantial cost to the government's credibility." The court's meaning was plain: Either you were lying to us then, or you are lying to us now.

If that's not enough to embarrass the president, the opinion was written by conservative darling J. Michael Luttig--who just a couple of months ago was on Bush's short list for the Supreme Court. For Luttig to question Bush's use of executive power is like Bill O'Reilly announcing that there's too much Christ in Christmas.

This is hardly the only example of the president demanding powers he doesn't need. When American-born Saudi Yasser Hamdi was captured in Afghanistan, the administration also detained him as an enemy combatant rather than entrust him to the criminal justice system.

But when the Supreme Court said he was entitled to a hearing where he could present evidence on his behalf, the administration decided that was way too much trouble. It freed him and put him on a plane back to Saudi Arabia, where he may plot jihad to his heart's content. Try to follow this logic: Hamdi was too dangerous to put on trial but not too dangerous to release.

The disclosure that the president authorized secret and probably illegal monitoring of communications between people in the United States and people overseas again raises the question: Why?

The government easily could have gotten search warrants to conduct electronic surveillance of anyone with the slightest possible connection to terrorists. The court that handles such requests hardly ever refuses. But Bush bridles at the notion that the president should ever have to ask permission of anyone.

He claims he can ignore the law because Congress granted permission when it authorized him to use force against Al Qaeda. But we know that can't be true. Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzales says the administration didn't ask for a revision of the law to give the president explicit power to order such wiretaps because Congress--a Republican Congress, mind you--wouldn't have agreed. So the administration decided: Who needs Congress?

What we have now is not a robust executive but a reckless one. At times like this, it's apparent that Cheney and Bush want more power not because they need it to protect the nation, but because they want more power. Another paradox: In their conduct of the war on terror, they expect our trust, but they can't be bothered to earn it.

Bush Hands Bin Laden A Victory

Fear destroys what bin Laden could not


One wonders if Osama bin Laden didn't win after all. He ruined the America that existed on 9/11. But he had help.

If, back in 2001, anyone had told me that four years after bin Laden's attack our president would admit that he broke U.S. law against domestic spying and ignored the Constitution -- and then expect the American people to congratulate him for it -- I would have presumed the girders of our very Republic had crumbled.

Had anyone said our president would invade a country and kill 30,000 of its people claiming a threat that never, in fact, existed, then admit he would have invaded even if he had known there was no threat -- and expect America to be pleased by this -- I would have thought our nation's sensibilities and honor had been eviscerated.

If I had been informed that our nation's leaders would embrace torture as a legitimate tool of warfare, hold prisoners for years without charges and operate secret prisons overseas -- and call such procedures necessary for the nation's security -- I would have laughed at the folly of protecting human rights by destroying them.

If someone had predicted the president's staff would out a CIA agent as revenge against a critic, defy a law against domestic propaganda by bankrolling supposedly independent journalists and commentators, and ridicule a 37-year Marie Corps veteran for questioning U.S. military policy -- and that the populace would be more interested in whether Angelina is about to make Brad a daddy -- I would have called the prediction an absurd fantasy.

That's no America I know, I would have argued. We're too strong, and we've been through too much, to be led down such a twisted path.

What is there to say now?

All of these things have happened. And yet a large portion of this country appears more concerned that saying ''Happy Holidays'' could be a disguised attack on Christianity.

I evidently have a lot poorer insight regarding America's character than I once believed, because I would have expected such actions to provoke -- speaking metaphorically now -- mobs with pitchforks and torches at the White House gate. I would have expected proud defiance of anyone who would suggest that a mere terrorist threat could send this country into spasms of despair and fright so profound that we'd follow a leader who considers the law a nuisance and perfidy a privilege.

Never would I have expected this nation -- which emerged stronger from a civil war and a civil rights movement, won two world wars, endured the Depression, recovered from a disastrous campaign in Southeast Asia and still managed to lead the world in the principles of liberty -- would cower behind anyone just for promising to ``protect us.''

President Bush recently confirmed that he has authorized wiretaps against U.S. citizens on at least 30 occasions and said he'll continue doing it. His justification? He, as president -- or is that king? -- has a right to disregard any law, constitutional tenet or congressional mandate to protect the American people.

Is that America's highest goal -- preventing another terrorist attack? Are there no principles of law and liberty more important than this? Who would have remembered Patrick Henry had he written, ``What's wrong with giving up a little liberty if it protects me from death?''

Bush would have us excuse his administration's excesses in deference to the ''war on terror'' -- a war, it should be pointed out, that can never end. Terrorism is a tactic, an eventuality, not an opposition army or rogue nation. If we caught every person guilty of a terrorist act, we still wouldn't know where tomorrow's first-time terrorist will strike. Fighting terrorism is a bit like fighting infection -- even when it's beaten, you must continue the fight or it will strike again.

Are we agreeing, then, to give the king unfettered privilege to defy the law forever? It's time for every member of Congress to weigh in: Do they believe the president is above the law, or bound by it?

Bush stokes our fears, implying that the only alternative to doing things his extralegal way is to sit by fitfully waiting for terrorists to harm us. We are neither weak nor helpless. A proud, confident republic can hunt down its enemies without trampling legitimate human and constitutional rights.

Ultimately, our best defense against attack -- any attack, of any sort -- is holding fast and fearlessly to the ideals upon which this nation was built. Bush clearly doesn't understand or respect that. Do we?

© 2005 and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.

Power That Bush Can't Just Take

By Eugene Robinson
Tuesday, December 27, 2005; A25

Since the holiday season is a time of generosity and goodwill toward all -- even those who torture the Constitution and hoodwink the nation into ill-advised wars -- let's do a little thought experiment.

Let's assume that George W. Bush's claim of virtually unfettered presidential power is not just an exercise in reclaiming executive perks that Dick Cheney believes were wrongly surrendered after Watergate. Let's assume that Bush genuinely believes he needs the right to blanket the nation with electronic surveillance, detain indefinitely anyone he considers a terrorist suspect, make those detainees disappear into secret, CIA-run prisons, and subject them to "waterboarding" and other degradations. Let's assume for the moment that the president's only desperate motivation is to prevent another day like Sept. 11, 2001.

Let's go even further and assume he decided to invade Iraq for the same reason. Even in a thought experiment, we can't forgive the way he snowed the country into believing there was some connection between Iraq and the Sept. 11 attacks; nor can we forget the way he hyped the flawed intelligence about weapons of mass destruction -- we're being generous here, not stupid. But let's assume that however calculated and cynical the machinations, and however wrongheaded the decision to go to war, the underlying motive was purely to avoid another catastrophic terrorist attack.

All right: Given these overly kind assumptions, can this administration's usurpation of power somehow be justified?

Every time I work it through, the answer I come up with is no. The president has no right to ignore the rule of law as if it were a mere nuisance.

The problem is that if the president really were determined to do anything it takes to prevent another terrorist strike, why not suspend habeas corpus, as Lincoln did during the Civil War? That way you could arrest everyone who could possibly be a terrorist, or who once lived next door to a suspected terrorist's uncle, and you could hold those people as long as you wanted. Why stop at surveillance of international telephone calls and e-mails? Why not listen in on, say, all interstate calls as well? Or just go for it and scarf up all the domestic communications the National Security Agency's copious computers can hold?

Why stop at waterboarding? Why not go all the way and pull out some fingernails, if that would give Americans another tiny increment of security? Wouldn't electric shocks make us safer still? Just order the White House lawyers to draw up yet another thumb-on-the-scale legal opinion explaining how torture isn't really torture, and have at it.

If potential terrorists may be walking among us, why not have police officers stand on street corners all day and subject anyone who looks "suspicious" to questioning and a search? That's what Fidel Castro does in Cuba, and believe me, Cuba is an extremely safe country.

In Vietnam we destroyed villages in order to save them. In this war on terrorism, why not go ahead and destroy our freedoms in order to save them?

The reason we don't do these absurd things, of course, is that we see a line between the acceptable and the unacceptable. That bright line is the law, drawn by Congress and regularly surveyed by the judiciary. It can be shifted, but the president has no right to shift it on his own authority. His constitutional war powers give him wide latitude, but those powers are not unlimited.

If you go along with my experiment and assume that the president has the best of motives, then the problem is that he wants to protect the American people but doesn't trust us.

There can be no freedom without some measure of risk. We guarantee freedom of the press, which means that newspapers sometimes print things the government doesn't want printed. We guarantee that defendants cannot be forced to incriminate themselves, which means that sometimes bad guys go free. We accept these risks as the price of liberty.

The president would probably respond that in an era of loose-knit terrorist groups and suitcase nukes, the risks are exponentially greater than those his predecessors faced. Even if you agree, the answer is not to act unilaterally but to go to Congress and the courts and ask them to redraw that line between state power and individual freedom.

These are not tactical decisions about where a tank division should cross the Rhone. They are fundamental questions that go to the nature of this union, and the president is required to trust the American people to decide them.

End of experiment. Please return your rose-colored safety glasses to the front of the class.
© 2005 The Washington Post Company

Monday, December 26, 2005

Bush Causes Whiplash By Saying Bad Intel Made Good Decision

If War Was Right, For Who?
by Helen Thomas

President George W. Bush poses a curious contradiction: He admits his decision to attack Iraq was based on faulty intelligence, but he insists that it was the right step to take.

"My decision to remove Saddam Hussein was the right decision," he told an audience at the Woodrow Wilson International Center on Dec. 14.

Well, let's think about that: 2,161 Americans killed in action; thousands maimed for life; 30,000 Iraqis, "more or less," as Bush put it, have been killed and thousands more wounded.

Iraqi cities have been battered by U.S. bombing, car bombings, kidnappings and religious strife. Don't forget the billions in U.S. tax dollars spent every month on the war.

Top American officials can only sneak into Iraq, unannounced or undercover and heavily protected in armored vehicles -- not exactly as conquering heroes.

Was this war worth it, and for whom? For the families who will never see their sons and daughters again? For the children who may never climb on their fathers' knees again?

How about the Iraqis who were subjected to a "shock and awe" unprovoked attack that has left parts of their country destroyed and a colonial-style takeover by the U.S.?

Was it worth it for the thousands of anonymous detainees -- neither charged, tried nor convicted -- in U.S.-run prisons in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; Baghdad, and Bagram, Afghanistan, some subjected to torture and some who died in the hands of their captors?

In the same speech last week to the Woodrow Wilson International Center, Bush tried to justify his attack on Iraq because there was a threat which he now admits was based on phony intelligence.

"We removed Saddam Hussein from power because he was a threat to our security, pursued and used weapons of mass destruction," Bush said. "He sponsored terrorists."

But, Bush granted, "much of the intelligence turned out to be wrong."

The president has hesitantly come to grips with a fundamental truth that has been long established by independent commissions and congressional committees.

The president continued: "Yet it was right to remove Saddam Hussein from power."

In his own world, Bush apparently doesn't see any clash between those statements. I'm suffering whiplash.

The truth is Saddam did many terrible things, but he did not sponsor terrorism, much as Bush tries to link him to al-Qaida. He was secular and kept his distance from Osama bin Laden, a religious fanatic.

The president ignores the fact that American and U.N. weapons inspectors never found those weapons of mass destruction, even though U.S. forces have occupied the country for more than two years.

Bush should stop twisting the facts.

Why at this stage do Americans still have to speculate about the real reasons Bush was so eager to go to war against Iraq? His latest explanation is that his grand plan for spreading democracy throughout the Middle East was behind the attack.

The speculation for his reasons to go to war have centered on the U.S. need to secure Iraq's oil -- the second-largest reserves in the Middle East -- the desire to protect Israel from hostile neighbors and the drive to settle a personal vendetta against Saddam, who tried to assassinate his father.

There also is the episode recounted by writer Mickey Herskowitz, who had interviewed then-Gov. Bush extensively for a campaign autobiography he was ghost-writing for Bush. Herskowitz said Bush was thinking of invading Iraq in 1999 and told him that a successful leader needs to be seen as a commander in chief, indicating that presidents need a war to gain political clout.

That's a scary thought.

Back to his Woodrow Wilson comments:

"I know that some of my decisions have led to terrible loss -- and not one of those decisions has been taken lightly," Bush declared. "I know this war is controversial -- yet being your president requires doing what I believe is right and accepting the consequences."

He added he has "never been more certain that America's actions in Iraq are essential to the security of our citizens."

It is good that he has taken the blame, relieving the historians of making that decision -- not that it would have been a tough call for them.

But Bush will never be able to admit that the invasion was a mistake. How could he look into the faces of parents of a killed GI and tell them that their son or daughter died because of his mistake?

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Silent Nights on the Gulf Coast - New York Times
The New York Times

December 25, 2005
Op-Ed Contributor

Silent Nights on the Gulf Coast

Charlottesville, Va.

IN the harrowing days after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, the
shellshocked and homeless survivors strung up tents and tarps wherever they
find standing shelter, anything to hide from the sun. Now, four months
later, many of the tents remain: in the front lawns of once fine houses now
and unlivable, in small clearings between mountains of rubble, beside
camping trailers too cramped for entire families, on concrete slabs wiped
clean by
the storm surge, even in the living rooms of houses with few walls but
intact roofs. The sun is no longer the problem: instead, the most desperate
of the
hurricane's victims have stuffed tents of every imaginable make and model
with Salvation Army blankets and mattresses to try to stay dry and warm.

There is the dismal feeling that some of these tents may not be so
temporary. One tent city built by the Army, dubbed "the Village," sits in
the center
of the small town of Pass Christian, some 30 miles west of Biloxi and at
ground zero for Hurricane Katrina and its assault on the Gulf Coast.

The Village is a gloomy grid of 70 tents, 10 numbered rows of seven each,
housing about 150 people - old, young, black, white, poor, middle-class,
so ill that their tents are marked "Oxygen in Use." After four months, some
of the shock of loss has worn off and the people go quietly about the daily
challenges of securing a warm, private shower, washing whatever clothing
they have left, and hoping that their children do not fall ill.

They are grateful for the dry bed and the free food. Everyone knows someone
who is worse off, or dead. With tens of thousands of Mississippians
and living with families or friends around the country, the residents of the
Village at least have their children with them and they are close to home.

A handful of tents are decorated for the holidays, but it seems almost cruel
to ask a young mother what she's planning for Christmas.

"We're leaving," she says without hesitation. "Getting out of here for a day
or two."

All who are able plan to leave and find a relative. Last year, they were
stringing lights and wrapping gifts and waiting for Santa. This year, the
Christmas wish in the Village is to finally get a trailer from the Federal
Emergency Management Agency.

Indeed, one reason the place exists is the backlog of homeless people who
need trailers. When FEMA closed the shelters and stopped paying for motel
something had to be done. Thus, the tent cities.

Don't ask why it's taking so long to get a trailer because there is no
answer. More than 24,000 temporary housing units have been delivered, but
more are needed. The delays are maddening. A woman in the nearby town of
Necaise went to the FEMA office on Aug. 30, the day after the storm, and
a trailer. She did the paperwork, answered all the questions. She is
epileptic; her daughter is diabetic; her husband needs back surgery; their
is urgent, and she has explained all this to FEMA many times. Four months
later she's still waiting. Her story is not unusual.

A FEMA trailer is 8 feet wide, 30 feet long and 7 feet high. It has a
bedroom, a kitchen/living area and a bathroom. It is equipped with a
stove, heater, toilet and shower. A set of bunk beds can also be used as a
storage area or pantry. The residents are required to furnish their own
and the best place to put it is on the kitchen table.

There is no washer, dryer, bathtub or microwave. The trailer sleeps eight,
supposedly, but the eight need to be very small and very fond of one
That's why it's not unusual to see a pup tent or two pitched beside the
trailer, probably occupied by the mom or the dad or both, regardless of how
the night might be.

The first one I examined was in Waveland, a small town hit so hard that
there's virtually nothing left. A woman was inspecting her new trailer,
that it has finally arrived. She and her family had been waiting for weeks,
living with friends, counting the days. I confessed that I had never been
a FEMA trailer, and she eagerly showed me around. It didn't take long. The
two of us created a crowd.

We talked about the holidays. She said she certainly planned to put up a
tree. "Not sure where," she said as she looked around the claustrophobic

A FEMA trailer is too small for a Christmas tree, so those who can muster
enough spirit set them outside, either under an awning or tied to the
hitch. Driving around in the evening, I found it heartening to see a few
tiny trees and some colorful lights. They illuminated the trailers and threw
shadows on the ubiquitous rubble. Otherwise, the nights are very dark and
quiet along the Coast.

Late one evening in Biloxi, on a desolate street two blocks from the beach,
I saw a trailer with a small Christmas tree beside it. I stopped and said
to the man inside. He gave me a very brief tour of his new quarters - home
to him, his wife and their dog. Outside, he showed me the ruins of the house
they owned for 32 years. It was built on land 20 feet above sea level.
Pointing to his friend's badly damaged house across the street, he described
the flood's water mark could be seen on the second floor, 22 feet higher.

"What will you do for Christmas?" I asked.

"We won't stay here," he said. They planned to visit a relative a few miles
away and try their best to celebrate.

I asked him how long he expected to live in the trailer. His answer was
vaguely tied to an insurance dispute, and maybe litigation. I asked about
the quality
of the trailers. "Not bad," he said.

There are mixed reviews about the reliability of the trailers, with some
complaints about leaky roofs and cheap door hinges. Frankly, though, the
are so happy to have them that they're willing to overlook the flaws.

You see the trailers everywhere. They sit in the driveways of destroyed
suburban homes, jacked up on blocks with sewer pipes running out and water
running in, power cords dangling from makeshift poles. They dot the
countryside, sitting sadly where real houses once were. They're packed
together by
the hundreds in overnight settlements, newly flattened areas carved from
pastures that were quickly leased by farmers to the government. In these
towns, with so many highly stressed people living on top of each other,
officials worry about tension and crime.

As with the tents in the Village, you look at the FEMA trailers and wonder
how temporary they really are. No houses are being built. Many of those
will remain untouched while the great debate with insurance companies over
wind damage versus water damage is played out in court. Many months will
before there is significant new construction.

Unlike New Orleans, where the floods were heaviest in the poorer
neighborhoods, the Gulf Coast experienced damage that cut across social and
economic lines.
Hurricane Katrina did not discriminate here. Wealthy people now dwell in
FEMA trailers that are exactly the same size as the ones handed out to those
were living in subsidized apartments.

When it's warm enough, the trailer people spend as much as time as possible
outside. Porch sitting, a way of life, is still carried on, though radically
modified. Tarps and awnings are affixed to the trailers and provide cover.
The families and neighbors gather in folding lawn chairs and chat deep into
the night about their lives before the storm and about the struggle to get
through another day and find some measure of normality. There is guarded
of the future.

The defiance that came so naturally in the aftershocks of Hurricane Katrina
has gradually yielded to weary determination. Four months have passed with
improvement, and the challenges ahead are forbidding.

Mississippi's governor, Haley Barbour, has said his state needs $34 billion
to rebuild. The state's annual budget is about a 10th of that, with
nothing set aside for such emergencies. The bold promises made in the heat
of the moment after the storm have so far been pathetically empty. Congress
has so far authorized nearly $100 billion for emergency relief and cleanup,
but only a third of that has hit the ground.

Not lost on the people here was the recent rush to pass more tax cuts for
the rich. And a question often heard is, "Why are we spending billions to
Iraq and not a dime down here?"

There is a fear of being forgotten by the government. Washington is
preoccupied with a war and its glut of messy side issues, and attention will
soon turn
to the midterm elections. There is also the very real fear of being
forgotten by the press. The satellite trucks and cameras have long since
gone. If the
news media forget, then so will the people with the money in Washington.
Pollsters are already noting the rapid decline in the disaster's importance
the national radar screen.

THE fear of being forgotten is soothed somewhat by the seemingly
inexhaustible waves of church folks, students, retirees and private relief
workers who've
dug in and done the dirty work. Tons of food, clothing and supplies continue
to pour into the region. Countless hours have been spent hauling debris,
trees and patching roofs. The volunteer spirit of the American and Canadian
people lifted the Gulf Coast from its knees and continues to sustain it.

But volunteers cannot build bridges, ports and highways. New infrastructure
will require lots of federal aid, and Congress has been slow to respond.

Americans have short memories. Life moves so fast and one catastrophe shoves
away the last one. The horrible images from New Orleans and the Gulf Coast
are fading. A year ago we watched in disbelief when a tsunami hit Southeast
Asia and killed more than 150,000. We sent checks and food and two months
we'd practically forgotten about it.

The tragedy of Katrina will worsen if the Gulf Coast is forgotten. People
can't survive in tents. And FEMA trailers aren't meant to be longtime homes.

If there is a common Christmas wish from this torn land, it is simply this:
Please don't forget us.

John Grisham is the author, most recently, of "The Broker."

Posted by Miriam V.

Vast US effort seen on eavesdropping

The Boston Globe
Wiretaps said to sift all overseas contacts

By Charlie Savage, Globe Staff | December 23, 2005

WASHINGTON -- The National Security Agency, in carrying out President Bush's order to intercept the international phone calls and e-mails of Americans suspected of links to Al Qaeda, has probably been using computers to monitor all other Americans' international communications as well, according to specialists familiar with the workings of the NSA.

The Bush administration and the NSA have declined to provide details about the program the president authorized in 2001, but specialists said the agency serves as a vast data collection and sorting operation. It captures reams of data from satellites, fiberoptic lines, and Internet switching stations, and then uses a computer to check for names, numbers, and words that have been identified as suspicious.

''The whole idea of the NSA is intercepting huge streams of communications, taking in 2 million pieces of communications an hour," said James Bamford, the author of two books on the NSA, who was the first to reveal the inner workings of the secret agency.

''They have a capacity to listen to every overseas phone call," said Tom Blanton, director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University, which has obtained documents about the NSA using Freedom of Information Act requests.

The NSA's system of monitoring e-mails and phone calls to check for search terms has been used for decades overseas, where the Constitution's prohibition on unreasonable searches does not apply, declassified records have shown.

But since Bush's order in 2001, Bamford and other specialists said, the same process has probably been used to sort through international messages to and from the United States, though humans have never seen the vast majority of the data.

''The collection of this data by automated means creates new privacy risks," said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a watchdog group that has studied computer-filtered surveillance technology through Freedom of Information Act lawsuits.

Among the risks, he said, is that the spy agency's computers will collect personal information that has no bearing on national security, and that intelligence agents programming those computers will be tempted to abuse their power to eavesdrop for personal or political gain.

But even when no personal information intercepted by the NSA's computers make it to human eyes and ears, Rotenberg said, the mere fact that spy computers are monitoring the calls and e-mails may also violate the Fourth Amendment. The Supreme Court has never ruled on whether automated surveillance of phone calls and e-mails, without a warrant, is constitutional.

The closest comparisons, legal specialists said, are cases challenging the use of dogs and infrared detectors to look for drugs without a warrant. The Supreme Court approved the use of drug-sniffing dogs to examine luggage in an airport, but said police could not use infrared scanners to check houses for heat patterns that could signal an illegal drug operation.

''This is very much a developing field, and a lot of the law is not clear," said Harvard Law School professor Bill Stuntz.

President Bush and his aides have refused to answer questions about the domestic spying program, other than to insist that it was legal. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales this week said the program only targeted messages ''where we have a reasonable basis to conclude" that one of the parties is affiliated with Al Qaeda.

And some legal scholars have maintained that a computer cannot violate other Americans' Fourth Amendment rights simply by sorting through their messages, as long as no human being ever looks at them.

Alane Kochems, a lawyer and a national security analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said, ''I don't think your privacy is violated when you have a computer doing it as opposed to a human. It isn't a sentient being. It's a machine running a program."

But Yale Law School professor Jack Balkin said that Fourth Amendment privacy rights can still be violated without human contact if the NSA stores copies of everyone's messages, raising the possibility that a human could access them later. The administration has not revealed how long the NSA stores messages, and the agency has refused to comment on the program.

Balkin added that as technology becomes ever more sophisticated, any legal distinction between human agents and their tools is losing meaning. Under the theory that only human beings can invade people's privacy, he said, the police ''could simply use robots to do their dirty work."

In 1978, following revelations that President Nixon had used the NSA to spy on his domestic enemies, Congress enacted a law making it illegal to wiretap a US citizen without permission from a secret national security court. The court requires the government to show evidence that the target is a suspected spy or terrorist.

Under the 1978 law, NSA officials have had to obtain a warrant from the secret court before putting an American's information into their computers' search terms.

The restrictions largely limited NSA to collecting messages from overseas communications networks, but some Americans' messages were intercepted before the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Occasionally, the interception was deliberate. In April 2000, the NSA's then-director, General Michael Hayden, told Congress that since 1978 ''there have been no more than a very few instances of NSA seeking [court] authorization to target a US person in the United States."

More often, the interception was accidental. Because American international calls travel through foreign networks, some of which are monitored by the NSA, the agency's computers have sifted through some American international messages all along.

''Long before 9/11, the NSA gathered from the ether mountains of [overseas] phone calls and e-mail messages on a daily basis," said Columbia Law School professor Deborah Livingston. ''If you have such an extensive foreign operation, you'll gather a large amount of phone traffic and e-mails involving Americans. That's something we've lived with for a long time."

But Bush's order cleared the way for the NSA computers to sift through Americans' phone calls and e-mails.

According to a New York Times report last week, Bush authorized the NSA's human analysts to look at the international messages of up to 500 Americans at a time, with a changing list of targets.

Hayden, now the deputy director of national intelligence, told reporters this week that under Bush's order, a ''shift supervisor" instead of a judge signs off on deciding whether or not to search for an American's messages.

The general conceded that without the burden of obtaining warrants, the NSA has used ''a quicker trigger" and ''a subtly softer trigger" when deciding to track someone.

Bamford said that Hayden's ''subtly softer trigger" probably means that the NSA is monitoring a wider circle of contacts around suspects than what a judge would approve.
© Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

Bush Impeachment Not Out of the Question

From Spying to Plame, Congress riled over abuse of power
by James Ridgeway
December 21st, 2005 5:46 PM

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Even as President Bush accuses the Democrats of imperiling national security by revealing his secret spying program both he and Vice President Cheney move closer to a serious confrontation with Congress over constitutional power. For the first time since their election in 2000, both face open rebuke in Congress. Impeachment may not be as far-fetched as it might at first seem.

Georgia Democratic congressman John Lewis said Bush should be impeached if he broke the law in authorizing spying on Americans. “It's a very serious charge, but he violated the law,” said Lewis. “The president should abide by the law. He deliberately, systematically violated the law. He is not king, he is president.”

Cheney already is likely to face serious questioning and possible indictment for his role in the Plame leak case. He appears to have been the official who ordered his top aide, Scooter Libby, and possibly others to initiate the plot. Speculation is that the vice president may have to retire from office, perhaps citing health problems.

Tuesday, in a stopover in Pakistan, Cheney argued Bush administration was seeking broader executive powers in an era following Vietnam and Watergate—a period he described as “the nadir of the modern presidency in terms of authority and legitimacy.”

(Of course Cheney and other conservatives now in power long have argued for a return of all federal power to the states, and have vigorously opposed measures aimed at extending the reach of the presidency and federal government.So, his arguments now seem a bit bizarre.)

John E. Sununu, the Republican senator, from New Hampshire told the Washington Post, “The vice president may be the only person I know of that believes the executive has somehow lost power over the last 30 years.”

Bush is faced with an open split in Republican ranks in Congress, with Arlen Specter, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, calling for a joint investigation of Congress into the spy program. Both Nebraska’s Chuck Hagel and Maine’s Olympia Snowe are openly critical of the Bush

Meanwhile James Robertson, a federal district judge sitting on the secret FISA court, resigned from that position. He gave no reason, but associates were quoted in the Washington Post this morning as saying he felt the spy program information might have been used to obtain FISA warrants. Colleen Kolla-Kotelly, the federal judge who chairs the panel expressed similar misgivings in2004. “They just don't know if the product of wiretaps were used for FISA warrants—to kind of cleanse the information,” one source told the paper. “What I've heard some of the judges say is they feel they've participated in a Potemkin court.”

Without saying so flat-out, West Virginia’s senior Democratic senator, Robert Byrd, this week set forth the case for impeachment:

“The President claims that these powers are within his role as Commander in Chief,” Byrd said in a December 19 statement. “Make no mistake, the powers granted to the Commander in Chief are specifically those as head of the Armed Forces. These warrantless searches are conducted not against a foreign power, but against unsuspecting and unknowing American citizens. They are conducted against individuals living on American soil, not in Iraq or Afghanistan. There is nothing within the powers granted in the Commander in Chief clause that grants the President the ability to conduct clandestine surveillance of American civilians. We must not allow such groundless, foolish claims to stand.

“The President claims a boundless authority through the resolution that authorized the war on those who perpetrated the September 11th attacks. But that resolution does not give the President unchecked power to spy on our own people. That resolution does not give the Administration the power to create covert prisons for secret prisoners. That resolution does not authorize the torture of prisoners to extract information from them. That resolution does not authorize running black-hole secret prisons in foreign countries to get around U.S. law. That resolution does not give the President the powers reserved only for kings and potentates. ‘’


Infidel Non-Christians Will Not Go To Heaven!!!

How the secular humanist grinch didn't steal Christmas
The right-wing crusade against the liberal "war on Christmas" is great for rallying the troops. Too bad the war doesn't exist.

By Michelle Goldberg

Nov. 21, 2005 | In 1959, the recently formed John Birch Society issued an urgent alert: Christmas was under attack. In a JBS pamphlet titled "There Goes Christmas?!" a writer named Hubert Kregeloh warned, "One of the techniques now being applied by the Reds to weaken the pillar of religion in our country is the drive to take Christ out of Christmas -- to denude the event of its religious meaning." The central front in this perfidious assault was American department stores, where the "Godless UN" was scheming to replace religious decorations with internationalist celebrations of universal brotherhood.

"The UN fanatics launched their assault on Christmas in 1958, but too late to get very far before the holy day was at hand," the pamphlet explained. "They are already busy, however, at this very moment, on efforts to poison the 1959 Christmas season with their high-pressure propaganda. What they now want to put over on the American people is simply this: Department stores throughout the country are to utilize UN symbols and emblems as Christmas decorations."

According to the JBS, this assault on yuletide iconography was "part of a much broader plan, not only to promote the UN, but to destroy all religious beliefs and customs." The pamphlet called on all Americans to fight back by informing department stores that those with improper ornamentation wouldn't be getting their business.

At the time, the campaign to save Christmas was not widely treated as a matter of great national import. The John Birch Society was generally regarded as a crank, far-right outfit whose paranoid conspiracy theories (it believed fluoridated water was part of an evil communist plot to poison America's brains) put it outside the pale of reasonable discourse. Staffers on the ultra-right 1964 Barry Goldwater campaign tried to prevent Birchers from volunteering because they carried the taint of extremism. The John Birch Society didn't have access to a major television network. But a lot has changed since then.

Last December, warnings about a war on Christmas -- a war whose central front was the nation's department stores -- once against emanated from the right, but this time, they were on national TV and talk radio. Fox News' Bill O'Reilly began running a regular segment called "Christmas Under Siege." "All over the country, Christmas is taking flak," O'Reilly declared on Dec. 7. "In Denver this past weekend, no religious floats were permitted in the holiday parade there. In New York City, Mayor [Michael] Bloomberg unveiled the 'holiday tree,' and no Christian Christmas symbols are allowed in the public schools. Federated Department Stores -- that's Macy's -- have done away with the Christmas greeting 'Merry Christmas.'" Instead, Macy's was using the malign phrase "Happy Holidays." Noting this, Pat Buchanan wrote, "What we are witnessing here are hate crimes against Christianity."

This year the war on Christmas canard has come early, and with it the latest opportunity for religious conservatives to cast themselves as the oppressed victims of secular tyrants. In October, Fox News anchor John Gibson published a book titled "The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought," which envisions a vast conspiracy with tentacles reaching into many aspects of American life. "The plot to ban Christmas itself is anything but secret," writes Gibson. "It is embedded in the secular 'Humanist Manifesto' (in its three iterations from the American Humanist Association), in the philosophy of teaching of John Dewey, in the legal opinions of Laurence Tribe, in the rulings of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on which sits the most liberal jurist in the land, Stephen Reinhardt, who is married to Ramona Ripston, the southern California ACLU executive director and the national group's most liberal and effective leader."

As the holidays approach, the right is making ever more fevered preparations to thwart this ostensible conspiracy. Last week, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights launched a short-lived boycott of Wal-Mart, charging the megastore with "insulting Christians by effectively banning Christmas." The American Family Association called for a Thanksgiving-weekend boycott of Target because of the chain's purported refusal to use the phrase "Merry Christmas" in its advertising. (Target denies having such a policy.) A few days later, Jerry Falwell announced he was joining with the Christian right legal group Liberty Counsel's "Friend or Foe Christmas Campaign," which intends to sue officials who try to curb religious Christmas celebrations in schools or other public places. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, "The 8,000 members of the Christian Educators Association International will be the campaign's 'eyes and ears' in the nation's public schools. They'll be reporting to 750 Liberty Counsel lawyers who are ready to pounce if, for example, a teacher is muzzled from leading the third-graders in 'Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.'" Meanwhile, the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian right legal outfit co-founded by James Dobson, has ramped up its three-year-old "Christmas project," organizing over 800 lawyers to defend the sacred holiday. "It's a sad day in America when you have to retain a lawyer to wish someone a merry Christmas," says Mike Johnson, senior legal counsel for ADF.

Despite Johnson's lamentations, one can in fact offer Christmas greetings without legal counsel. Christmas trees are permitted in public schools. (They're considered secular symbols.) Nativity scenes are allowed on public property, although if the government erects one, it has to be part of a larger display that also includes other, secular signs of the holiday season, or displays referring to other religions. (The operative Supreme Court precedent is 1984's Lynch v. Donnelly, where the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that a city-sponsored Christmas display including a crèche, reindeer, a Christmas tree, candy-striped poles and a banner that read "Seasons Greetings" was permissible. "The display is sponsored by the city to celebrate the Holiday and to depict the origins of that Holiday," the majority wrote. "These are legitimate secular purposes.") Students are allowed to distribute religious holiday cards and literature in school. If the administration tries to stop them, the ACLU will step in to defend the students' free-speech rights, as they did in 2003 when teenagers in Massachusetts were suspended for passing out candy canes with Christian messages.

In fact, there is no war on Christmas. What there is, rather, is a burgeoning myth of a war on Christmas, assembled out of old reactionary tropes, urban legends, exaggerated anecdotes and increasingly organized hostility to the American Civil Liberties Union. It's a myth that can be self-fulfilling, as school board members and local politicians believe the false conservative claim that they can't celebrate Christmas without getting sued by the ACLU and thus jettison beloved traditions, enraging citizens and perpetuating a potent culture-war meme. This in turn furthers the myth of an anti-Christmas conspiracy.

"You have a dynamic here, where you have the Christian right hysterically overrepresenting the problem, and then anecdotally you have some towns where lawyers restrict any kind of display or representation of religion, which is equally absurd," says Chip Berlet, a senior analyst at Political Research Associates and one of the foremost experts on the religious right. "It's a closed loop. In that dynamic, neither the secular humanists or the ACLU are playing a role."

The myth of the war on Christmas has two parts. The first, echoing the John Birch Society, charges that department stores are trying to replace the celebration of Jesus' birthday with some secularized, universal winter holiday season, a switch encompassed by the godless greeting "Happy Holidays." The second asserts that the ACLU and other groups like the Anti-Defamation League and People for the American Way are trying to ban public Christmas displays. Like all conspiracy theories, there are a few grains of truth at the center of it -- some schools, in an overzealous attempt to promote inclusiveness, have taken silly steps like renaming their Christmas trees "friendship trees." Some have indeed infringed on religious students' First Amendment rights. Weaving these stories together, the myth of the war on Christmas claims that the ACLU has forced Christmas into hiding, and that Christians must therefore battle to reclaim their rightful place in the culture.

"Those who would ban Christmas and Christians should not mistake the signs on the horizon," writes Gibson in "The War on Christmas. "The Christians are coming to retake their place in the public square, and the most natural battleground in this war is Christmas."

Gibson's colleague O'Reilly seems to have made it his special mission to crusade against the phrase "Happy Holidays." On Nov. 9, he presented an "investigation" into department stores that don't use the phrase "Merry Christmas." Sears/Kmart, he reported, had a banner on its Web site that, rather than openly proclaiming Christmas, said, "Wish Book Holiday 2005." "They were the worst we had to deal with," O'Reilly said after the company's spokesman refused to answer questions about their Christ-free Web site.

"I think the backlash against stores that don't say 'Merry Christmas' is enormous because now people are aware of the issue," he continued. "I know everybody's hypersensitive about are they going to say 'Merry Christmas'? Are they going to say 'Happy Holidays'? They're hypersensitive. And when you walk into a secular environment, most Christians are looking around, and they're really aware of it."

This, in fact, might be true -- having heard that the bland phrase "Happy Holidays" is part of a war against Christmas, some shoppers may be especially attuned for signs of subtle seasonal disrespect. On Nov. 11, a woman sent an e-mail complaining about the use of the phrase "Happy Holidays" at Wal-Mart and received a reply from a cheekily impertinent customer service employee that seemed to confirm the right's worst fears. "Santa is also borrowed from the Caucuses (sic), mistletoe from the Celts, yule log from the Goths, the time from the Visigoth and the tree from the worship of Baal. It is a wide wide world," the Wal-Mart worker wrote. In response, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights launched its boycott, claiming Wal-Mart had "banned" Christmas. Wal-Mart quickly fired the offending employee and apologized. The boycott was called off, but the right remains unhappy about the store's continuing use of "Happy Holidays," leaving open the possibility of more teapot tempests as the Christmas season progresses.

Claims that Wal-Mart, of all places, is trying to ban Christmas resonate with some segments of the right because they're part of a larger, older story line about a giant, diabolical plot to rob God-fearing Americans of their traditions and erode their very identity. "The wagers of this war on Christmas are a cabal of secularists, so-called humanists, trial lawyers, cultural relativists, and liberal, guilt-wracked Christians -- not just Jewish people," Gibson writes. Also involved are mainline churches whose congregants "vote for John Kerry, Ted Kennedy, and Barney Frank. They are liberal by definition, and they proclaim their liberal values; I began to connect the dots and discerned the outlines of the conspiracy."

Gibson, of course, is not the first to connect the dots. The John Birch Society wasn't, either. As the Web site News Hounds pointed out last year, Henry Ford was sounding the alarm about the war on Christmas in his notorious 1921 tract "The International Jew." "The whole record of the Jewish opposition to Christmas, Easter and other Christian festivals, and their opposition to certain patriotic songs, shows the venom and directness of [their] attack," Ford wrote. He listed local outrages: "Christmas celebrations or carols in Philadelphia, Cincinnati, St. Paul and New York met with strong Jewish opposition ... Local Council of Jewish Women of Baltimore petitions school board to prohibit Christmas exercises ... The Council of the University Settlement, at the request of the New York Kehillah [Jewish leadership], adopts this resolution: 'That in the holiday celebrations held annually by the Kindergarten Association at the University Settlement every feature of any sectarian character, including Christmas trees, Christmas programs and Christmas songs, shall be eliminated.'"

To compare today's "war on Christmas" demagogues to Henry Ford is not to call them anti-Semites. Rather, they are purveyors of a conspiracy theory that repeatedly crops up in America. The malefactors change -- Jews, the U.N., the ACLU -- but the outlines stay the same. The scheme is always massive, reaching up to the highest levels of power.

In order to prove this conspiracy, Gibson, O'Reilly and others like them gather anecdotes from around the country of officials putting petty restrictions on the speech of aggrieved Christians. Some of these are exaggerated, some legitimate, but none support their paranoid claims of a vast secular-humanist conspiracy. Just as O'Reilly said, Faith Bible Church's religious float was indeed turned down for Denver's parade of lights -- since the parade is only an hour long, its organizers don't include any religious floats because they can't include all of them and don't want to show favoritism. Federated Department Stores did start using "Happy Holidays" in its national promotions, but left local stores free to use the phrase "Merry Christmas" in their advertising. In a statement responding to the war on Christmas hype, Federated wrote, "Our stores recognize and celebrate Christmas in a variety of ways, including Christmas decorations, Christmas music, Christmas-themed merchandise and Christmas trim-a-tree shops. And since our employees are free to wish any customer a Merry Christmas, you will frequently hear such expressions of holiday cheer in our stores as part of celebrating the season." Whether or not one agrees with these policies, they are not part of a campaign, a plot or a war. (If anything, they demonstrate that American business, hardly a bastion of godless communism or secular humanism, always plays it safe.)

The right's melding of concrete documentation and wild speculation is common to conspiracy theorists; as Richard Hofstadter wrote in his classic essay "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," "The typical procedure of the higher paranoid scholarship is to start with such defensible assumptions and with a careful accumulation of facts, or at least of what appear to be facts, and to marshal these facts toward an overwhelming 'proof' of the particular conspiracy that is to be established."

Not surprisingly, fair-minded outsiders who weigh the same facts come to quite different conclusions.

Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center and the author of "Finding Common Ground: A Guide to Religious Liberty in the Public Schools," is one of the heroes of Gibson's book. Gibson writes about how he resolved a crisis that arose in Mustang, Okla., when, fearing a lawsuit, the superintendent of schools ordered a nativity scene cut from an elementary school Christmas pageant, infuriating many in the town. Haynes was eventually flown out to mediate. He had, writes Gibson, "made something of a career out of rushing in as if he were driving an ambulance, lights flashing and sirens blaring, after schools had made disastrous policy decisions on restricting religious liberty in schools."

According to Haynes, though, there is no war on Christmas. "I certainly wouldn't put it that way," he says. "The big picture is that there's more religion now in public schools than ever in modern history. There's no question about that. But it's not there in terms of the government imposing religion or sponsoring it, and that bothers some people on the right. They miss the good old days when public schools were semi-established Protestant schools."

In the last two decades, says Haynes, "religion has come into the public schools in all kinds of ways ... many schools now understand that students have religious liberty rights in a public school, so you can go to many public schools today and kids will be giving each other religious literature, they will be sharing their faith. You go to most public schools now and see kids praying around the flagpole before school."

The reason fights over Christmas iconography recur, says Haynes, is that "there are still some school administrators who are so afraid to deal with religion that they go too far in keeping it out, and it only takes a few bad stories in this era of the Internet for many conservative religious people across the country to think that public schools are hostile to their faith."

Ironically, when school officials do go too far, the ACLU is likely to challenge them, on the grounds that the government can neither promote nor restrict religious speech. "A lot of the things the ACLU does to help religious people and religious students are not high-profile cases; they don't get much attention," says Haynes. "The Christian student who is told she can't bring her Bible to school, the ACLU gets those kinds of calls, and often it doesn't become a lawsuit, but they will quietly tell the school you can't do this, you have to treat everyone fairly."

Indeed, one case that ACLU president Nadine Strossen loves to talk about is that of Rita Warren, a retired woman who calls herself the "Lone Ranger of the manger" and whose life mission is to put nativity scenes in public places. When she placed a plastic crèche on the lawn in front of the government building in Fairfax, Va., the government ordered her to remove it. Warren called the ACLU, and they discovered that the city of Fairfax had allowed others to erect displays on the property. "Once the government allows displays of any kind to be placed on public property, it can't then discriminate against some display because of the viewpoint," says Kent Willis, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia. "The government could not discriminate against her religious display any more than it could take specific action to promote her religious display. It has to treat us the same."

These stories rarely get much play, especially since the ACLU lacks a publicity apparatus that can compete with the religious right. "We're not in the business to defend ourselves as an organization," says Strossen.

Mike Johnson of the Alliance Defense Fund knows about the Warren case, but he dismisses it. "They always use this -- it's like their get out of jail card. This one case cannot change 80 years of history." Throughout those 80 years, he says, the ACLU's "ultimate and underlying agenda is to silence people of faith. They do not want God mentioned in the public square. If they could completely censor that out, they would ... The ACLU has a pretty sordid past. They were founded by a guy, Roger Baldwin, who was an avowed atheist, and he had a certain agenda. He wrote about being a socialist, and communism was his goal."

But Americans are catching on to the ACLU's malign influence and fighting back, says Johnson. Johnson's boss, ADF president Alan Sears, has just co-written a book with Craig Osten titled "The ALCU vs. America." The ACLU and its allies, they write, "terrorize local communities on an almost daily basis with letters, e-mails and telephone calls to silence Christmas and other religious activity." But the terrorists can be beaten: "It will take sacrifice, perseverance, and a concerted effort by millions of Americans to defeat the ACLU, its many allies, and their agenda. But with God's grace, we are confident it can and will be done."

As Johnson notes, O'Reilly invited Sears onto his show to talk about his book, catapulting it to No. 20 on Amazon. "You can only push the American people so far, and then there's a backlash," Johnson says. "The ACLU in recent years has just pushed Christian America to the limit. From its earliest stage, the ACLU has deliberately chipped away at the legal and moral and religious foundations of our republic."

The war on Christmas trope lets the right pretend to be playing defense when it's really on the offensive -- against the ACLU, separation of church and state, and pluralism, to name just a few targets. "The revolution against Christianity has been under way for a few years," writes Gibson, "and now the counterrevolution is gearing up."

-- By Michelle Goldberg

I Saw Jackie Mason Kissing Santa Claus

The New York Times
December 25, 2005
Op-Ed Columnist

THE good news today is that the great 2005 war on Christmas, the conflagration that launched a thousand op-ed pieces and nearly as many battles on Fox News, is now officially over. And yes, Virginia - Christmas won!

Secularists, Jews, mainline Protestants and all the other grinches failed utterly to take Kriss Kringle down. Except at those megachurches that canceled services today rather than impede their flocks' giving and gorging, Christmas is alive and well everywhere in America. Last night NBC even rolled the dice and broadcast "It's a Wonderful Life" in prime time. With courage reminiscent of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's defiance of Stalin, the network steadfastly refused to redub the final scene's cries of "Merry Christmas!" with the godless "Happy holidays!"

As Michelle Goldberg wrote last month in her definitive debunking for Salon, there was in fact no war on Christmas, but rather "a burgeoning myth of a war on Christmas." Most of the grievances cited by Christmas's whiniest protectors - red and green banned from residents' wardrobes in Michigan, "Silent Night" censored in Wisconsin - were either anomalous idiocies or suburban legends. The calls for boycotts against chain stores with heathen holiday trees lost their zing when it turned out that even George and Laura Bush's Christmas card had called for a happy "holiday season."

But like every other chapter of irrational hysteria in America's cultural history, from the burning of "witches" in colonial Salem to the panic induced by Orson Welles's radio broadcast of the fictional "War of the Worlds" on the eve of World War II, the fake war on Christmas was not without its hidden meanings. Or not so hidden. If you worked at Fox News, wouldn't you want to change the subject from the war in Iraq to a war in which victory is a slam-dunk?

Rabble-rousing paranoia about a supposed assault on Christmas also has a strong anti-Semitic and far-right pedigree. In Salon, Ms. Goldberg noted that fulmination about supposed Jewish opposition to Christmas dates to Henry Ford's infamous "The International Jew" of 1921. That chord is sounded in the very first anecdote in the book by the Fox News anchor John Gibson, "The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought": a devastated father discovers that his 4-year-old son has brought home preschool artwork showing a Hanukkah menorah and Kwanzaa candles, rather than a Christmas tree. But Mr. Gibson goes on to add ecumenically that "not just Jewish people" are out to kill Christmas. As he elucidated on Christian radio, all non-Christians are "following the wrong religion," though he reassures us that they will be tolerated "as long as they're civil and behave."

Even so, much of this manufactured war was more banal than malicious. Like Christmas itself, an anti-Christmas scare is an ideal means for moving merchandise. The first Fox News segment warning darkly of a war on Christmas occurred on Oct. 20 - coincidentally the very day that Mr. Gibson's book hit the nation's bookstores. Many of the five dozen ensuing Fox segments contained lavish plugs for the book or for the Christmas baubles hawked by Bill O'Reilly on his Web site - no yuletide loofahs, alas. (His wares were initially listed as "holiday" gifts until a Web exposé forced a frantic rebranding.) Even Fox News's obligatory show Jew - Jackie Mason, ostensibly representing an organization called Jews Against Anti-Christian Defamation - seized the mercantile opportunity, using the "war on Christmas" to plug a stand-up booking on Long Island.

But to fully parse the war-on-Christmas myth, it helps to examine it in the larger context of what "The Daily Show" would call This Year in God. Though religion has always been a fulcrum of culture wars in America, its debased role in that debate has fallen to new lows of lunacy since Election Day 2004. That's when a single vague exit poll found that 22 percent of Americans considered undefined "moral values" in casting their ballots. Ever since, politicians of both parties, Fox News anchors and any other huckster eager to sell goods, an agenda or an image have increased the decibel level of their pandering to "people of faith."

An ersatz war on Christmas fits all too snugly into a year that began with the religious right's (unsuccessful) efforts to destroy the box office and Oscar prospects of Clint Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby" and "save" Terri Schiavo and that ended with a federal judge banishing intelligent design from high school biology classes. In his sweeping 139-page opinion, that judge, John Jones III, put his finger on the hypocrisy of many of those most ostentatiously defending faith from its alleged assailants in America. Referring to the fundamentalists on the Dover, Pa., school board, he wrote that it was "ironic" that those who "so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the intelligent design policy." That passage fits much of the dishonesty and cynicism perpetrated in the name of religion in America over the past 12 months.

This was the year that two C.E.O.'s charged with wholesale corporate fraud, Bernard Ebbers of WorldCom and Richard Scrushy of HealthSouth, both made a show of public prayer to ward off legal culpability. In Mr. Scrushy's case, the strategy worked. Faced with the prospect of life in prison and the forfeiture of $279 million, he quit his suburban Birmingham, Ala., church to join a largely blue-collar African-American congregation more in keeping with his potential jury pool, secured his own ordination as a nondenominational minister, and bought local TV time for a prayer show featuring himself, his third wife and various members of the clergy. The jury acquitted him on all 36 felony counts.

"God is good," he proclaimed after his victory news conference. To which one can only add: amen.

A no less unctuous spectacle was provided this year by Bill Frist, the Senate's majority leader and self-infatuated doctor-in-residence. Mr. Frist played God on national television by giving a quack diagnosis of Ms. Schiavo's condition based on a videotape, and then endorsed a so-called Justice Sunday megachurch rally demonizing "activist" judges - including, no doubt, any who may yet pass on the legality of his brilliantly timed stock sales. Though the senator's farcical behavior is worthy of Molière, he is hardly unique among his peers with presidential aspirations. Chastened by a perceived "moral values" deficit that might haunt her in 2008, Hillary Clinton now wears her history as "a praying person" on her sleeve. In June John Kerry told a gathering that he "went back and read the New Testament the other day" - which presumably will prevent him from erroneously citing Job as his favorite New Testament text, as Howard Dean did in 2004.

Liberals have a lot to learn about the God racket, however. The right is masterly at exploiting religion and religious (or quasi-religious) leaders for its own fun and profit. Just look at how a few phone calls from Karl Rove flimflammed Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family into serving as a useful idiot in support of the Harriet Miers nomination long after most other conservative leaders had bailed out.

THE more we learned about the scandals enveloping Tom DeLay and his favorite lobbyist, Jack Abramoff, this year, the more we learned of how Mr. Abramoff, the founder of a now defunct Washington yeshiva and two defunct kosher restaurants, manipulated a trinity of Billy Sundays to do his bidding: the Christian Coalition's former executive director, Ralph Reed, the Traditional Values Coalition's Rev. Louis Sheldon (dubbed "Lucky Louie" by Mr. Abramoff) and Dr. Dobson. Though all three are vocal opponents of gambling, they were each recruited for stealth campaigns for the lobbyist's casino and lottery clients. The campaigns were disguised as "anti-gambling" crusades (often because they were in opposition to casinos competing with Abramoff clients), and these pious gentlemen, Lucky Louie included, have denied any knowledge that they were trafficking in the wages of sin. If they're actually telling the truth, they are even bigger dupes than Mr. Abramoff took them for.

To those who fear the worst from a born-again president whose base is typified by these holy rollers and the Christmas demagogues of Fox News, a fundamentalist theocracy seems as imminent in America as it does in the "democracy" we've been building in Iraq. Only last week did Ted Haggard, an evangelical preacher much favored by the White House, fan those fears by insisting to a Jewish television interviewer, Barbara Walters, that anyone who worshiped a different God from Jesus Christ would "unfortunately" be consigned to hell.

But it's also possible that 2005 may turn out to be the year the God card was so wildly overplayed in politics and commerce alike that it began to lose its clout with Americans who are overdosing on the strict speech and belief codes of Christian political correctness. That the judge who ruled so decisively in Pennsylvania's revival of the Scopes trial is a Republican appointed by President Bush is almost enough to make the bah-humbug crowd believe in Santa Claus.

* Copyright 2005The New York Times Company

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