Month: July 2002

One-Fourth of a Viaduct

The City of Seattle is currently studying options to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Last week, the city council voted 7-2 to support the most expensive option: a cut-and-cover tunnel along the waterfront that would cost between $10-$12 billion.

The two dissenting votes were cast by Judy Nicastro and Nick Licata. Licata explained his vote in a current issue of his e-mail newsletter to constituents (Urban Politics #136, 7/17/02). He gave two reasons. First of all, the Department of Transportation estimates that there’s a 1 in 20 chance that the Viaduct could be closed permanently due to an earthquake, yet they have provided no details to explain this statement or how they can now predict the frequency and severity of earthquakes when seismologists can’t. Secondly, he believes that a retrofit–i.e., rebuilding an elevated structure similar to one we have now with some improvements at both ends and a new seawall–would be more cost effective and still satisfy our seismic needs.

He has a good point. The State Department of Transportation has been quick to explain that the current Viaduct sits on loose fill that could be a problem during a large earthquake. Most folks have been equally quick to blame the 2000 quake for weakening the Viaduct, which now leans three inches off-center in one area. However, a DOT report says that the damage has occurred over time and is not just related to the 2000 earthquake. This makes it unclear whether another earthquake would completely close down the structure.

In addition, the DOT has not explained the seismic risk to a tunnel built in loose fill versus a new elevated structure.

I initially liked the idea of burying the Viaduct. It is an eyesore and it does cut off much of downtown from the waterfront. As a bus-riding, bike-riding, pedestrian non-car-owner I’d love to see Seattle reclaim its waterfront, especially if it means more open space, parks, and bike trails.

However, the cost may be prohibitive. Currently, there’s no money to replace the Viaduct. If Referendum 51 passes this November, only half a billion of that money will go for the Viaduct project. If the regional transportation package reaches the ballot next spring and passes, it would provide only $1.5 billion. That leaves at least an $8 billion shortfall. Where’s the money going to come from? The federal government, which is running up a huge deficit? The state government, which is facing a $1 billion budget shortfall next year? Local taxpayers, who are facing the second highest unemployment rate in the nation in the midst of a recession?

We spend so much time analyzing and criticizing mass transit projects like Sound Transit and the monorail, but are spending no time at all questioning the need for a $12 billion boondoggle on the waterfront. Unlike Sound Transit or the monorail, a replacement for the Viaduct simply cannot be built and operated in stages. The plan has to be comprehensive, cost-effective, and workable from the get-go. Yet local politicians are falling for a pie-in-the-sky tunnel. And not just any tunnel; they want the most expensive option available.

There are several groups putting pressure on local agencies to go ahead with the most expensive option. One look at the composition of the advisory committee working on the Viaduct plan shows that developers, building trade unions, trucking and transport companies, port commissioners, and businesses that would benefit from connecting to the waterfront have the majority vote.

In addition, the issue of connecting South Lake Union properties to Lower Queen Anne, the Seattle Center, and the Experience Music Project museum has Paul Allen’s Vulcan, Inc. backing an expensive tunnel option (including a plan to replace the Battery Street tunnel). Vulcan wants to build a grand waterfront park on South Lake Union; there’s a plan afoot to flood the Battery Street tunnel so that waterfront ferries can connect from the downtown waterfront to the South Lake Union park.

Proponents call this “fixing the Mercer Mess.” While it would be great to reconnect streets in the Mercer area across Aurora Avenue and make Mercer a two-way thoroughfare, this option isn’t even included in the DOT’s option to rebuild an elevated Viaduct. Why the hell not?

Before we jump off a fiscal cliff, we should thoroughly examine all of our options. If we have to do it with mass transit projects, we should do it with the Viaduct, too.

To view the DOT’s different options for replacing the Viaduct and comment on them, visit

The Fraudulent Corporate Fraud Bill

While the stock market bubble was expanding in the ’90s, you could open any newspaper or listen to any news program and hear a lot of hype about technology companies, the Internet, and the economy–all geared to fuel the expansion. When the bubble started to deflate in 2000, you could read or hear plenty of happy talk geared specifically to avoid a meltdown. Today, the papers and airwaves are full of soothing pap to calm investors and consumers. One such example is the “corporate oversight” bill passed by Congress last week.

It’s a bill to save the stock market. Passed in a hurry while the market was plunging, it contains a lot of interesting things that sound good on paper, but won’t provide much new, significant oversight of corporations and CEOs–nor much compensation for shareholders and retirees devastated by the collapse of Enron and Worldcom.

Foremost in the bill is the new accounting industry oversight board to regulate accounting firms that audit the books of major corporations. Sounds good, huh? If there had been someone looking over Arthur Andersen’s shoulder, they tell us, then Enron and Worldcom would never have happened.

Not true. The SEC, which is tainted by its inability to detect troubles at Enron, Worldcom, and a host of other companies, will be the agency in charge of setting up and administering the new oversight board. Giving a failed oversight agency, staffed with accounting industry insiders, more responsibilities is a recipe for more failure.

Likewise, the increased funding for the SEC, which would bump up the agency’s budget by two-thirds, will only be effective if drastic changes are made within the SEC; however, the impetus is to maintain the status quo. Harvey Pitt, SEC Chairman and George W. Bush’s appointee, has made a career out of lobbying for liberalized accounting rules and less oversight over the accounting industry. His nominees–top-level auditors from the Big Four accounting firms–are rapidly filling new slots at the SEC. More of the same will not produce better quality oversight.

Certain provisions of new the bill double the penalties for fraud committed by chief executive officers, chief financial officers, and other upper-level management. It would be nice to punish some of these guys, but don’t hold your breath. CEOs and CFOs are particularly hard to indict and convict, for several reasons:

First of all, upper management crooks are smart enough to cover their tracks. All the penalties in the world for shredding evidence don’t apply if few or no written records are kept in the first place. CEOs are not bank robbers who grab a gun and knock over a bank in one afternoon; they’re at it for months, even years, and they have plenty of time to lose, misplace, destroy, or hide the evidence.

Secondly, most corporate criminals have the money to hire the very best legal counsel available–much, much better than the government lawyers pursuing them. Given the complexity of financial fraud, good attorneys can make all the difference in the courtroom.

Thirdly, the evidence needed to obtain a conviction usually involves an insider in the company testifying against his or her bosses, backed up by written evidence in the company’s files. One witness alone is not credible enough; the paper trail has to exist, too. Likewise, the paper trail is not enough; a witness has to testify that the CEO actually read company memos and understood what was going on. It’s very, very difficult to get both of these things together in one case.

In addition, CEOs and CFOs may be right in claiming that they didn’t do anything wrong. The US accounting system is a “rules-based” one, not one based on ethical intent. Accountants follow the rules published by the Financial Accounting Standards Board, and they follow them to the letter. This means that, if something is not specifically forbidden by the rules–Enron’s off-balance-sheet partnerships, for example–then it’s considered legal, even if the company’s intention was to mislead investors. This is why Kenneth Lay, Jeffrey Skilling, and Andrew Fastow have not been indicted, and may never face charges. The corporate oversight bill doesn’t change our rules-based accounting system.

More importantly, the corporate oversight bill ignores one issue that could easily stop future fraud in its tracks: stock options. Many investors and analysts think that stock options awarded to CEOs and CFOs in order to tie their performance to their company’s stock prices (originally to bring their interests in line with investors’ interests) to be the main reason for the current crisis. Stock options have had the opposite effect: CEOs who stand to receive tens of millions of dollars when they exercise their stock options are tempted to go to any length, including fraud, to boost stock prices, eventually ruining shareholders in the process. One way to prevent this would be to require companies to expense stock options on their books, and so make it easier for investors to see which companies are using stock options to reward their CEOs. Yet stock options were completely untouched by the new bill.

Why? Well, last week Congress was deluged with lobbyists from high-tech companies, CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, venture capitalists, biotech companies, and business industry groups who all had one mission: save stock options. The parade through Congressional offices was unremitting: Cisco Systems, Intel, Dell, AOL/Time Warner, Sun Microsystems, the Business Roundtable, the Stock Option Coalition, the National Venture Capital Association, Financial Executives International, the Information Technology Industry Council, and even the Nasdaq market administrators put pressure Democrats and Republicans alike. Considering that the high-tech industry alone contributed $20.7 million to Democrats and $18.5 million to Republicans in the last election cycle, our elected representatives were happy to comply.

Yet this flies in the face of reality. The Coca Cola company has already voluntarily started to expense stock options on its books, and others will soon follow. Last week, SEC Chairman Harvey Pitt admitted that expensing stock options is inevitable, but it’s something he’d like to see happen in the far distant future. Even Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan admitted that expensing options will happen; he prefers leaving it to the Financial Accounting Standards Board to write rules on the subject. However, the FASB has been attempting to write such rules for over a decade without much luck. Past efforts have been stymied by accounting industry and business lobbyists–the same folks who stampeded Capitol Hill last week.

And finally, the bill provides little relief for investors burned by the Enron and Worldcom scandals. It will set up a fund to collect penalties from corporate criminals and repay that money to shareholders, but the amounts levied against companies and upper management historically have been tiny compared to the damage done. Last year, the SEC collected only $24 million and only $45 million so far this year–peanuts compared to the billions investors have lost from the collapse of Worldcom alone.

Investors, particularly mom-and-pop 401(k) savers, would be better served to ignore the soothing talk of the business pages and TV financial shows and remember the advice of Lester C. Thurow, a professor at the Sloan School of Management at MIT: “New laws and regulations adopted in the aftermath of scandal are almost always useless in preventing future wrongdoing, especially in financial matters. The last great wave of regulatory lawmaking, designed to prevent systemic fraud and abuse among savings and loans in the 1980s, proved largely irrelevant to preventing systemic fraud and abuse among accounting firms today. So what can be done about the inevitable scandals of capitalism? The first and best solution is to warn all small investors that the game is rigged. No individual investor, no matter how well informed, can play on the same level as the major institutional investors, Wall Street firms and corporate executives … no government can ever guarantee that the small investor has an equal chance of winning. It is beyond dishonest to pretend that rules can be written to prevent future financial scandals; it is faudulent.”

My Letters to Bush

Late last year, a series of events–September 11, the US bombing of Afghanistan, the anthrax attacks, and the subsequent militarization of our society left me feeling depressed and intimidated. I needed to do something personally empowering–something that would show my disagreement with and contempt for the path the Bush administration had taken in response to September 11.

Like a few others here in Seattle, I took to the streets to protest. I also wrote articles against the bombing of Afghanistan and criticized the indefinite detention of Muslims and Arab-Americans. These things helped, but I still felt a heavy weight of fear. I realized that there was one form of political speech denied to me by the events themselves–particularly the anthrax mailings and subsequent FBI crackdowns–one freedom that I was afraid to exercise. And so, of course, I had to exercise it anyway. I sent a package to the President.

I sent several, actually–12 in all. Each one contained a plastic ziploc bag, a whole wheat pita bread (inside the bag), and a hand-written letter to his Highness George II. The fear that two FBI agents would come to my door was dispelled by my decision to type up the letters on my computer and e-mail them out to a list of friends and contacts, along with a clear explanation of why I was doing it. The more people who heard and knew about it, the better. Maybe they would mail the President some pitas, too. Surely that many pitas would get somebody’s attention. And who knew, perhaps Bush II might have a conscience, after all.

But mostly I sent them out for myself and my friends. It was Christmas time, it had been a hellish year, and a few succinct, heartfelt letters would make me feel good and maybe cheer up my friends.

Here’s the first letter I sent:

Dear President Bush: I am sending you this pita bread because I have too many. I was hoping you could forward it to a hungry refugee in Afghanistan. Please do not air-drop this, as air-dropped food sometimes lands in minefields. And I read the other day that a US aid pallet dropped on a house in Afghanistan and killed a woman and her baby. I’d feel really bad if this pita killed somebody by falling on their head, or something.

You could just put it on a truck in a UN aid convoy–that’s the best way to get it to someone. Unfortunately, most of those convoys are being looted by bandits and Northern Alliance troops. I know you can do something about that.

Please do the right thing and assign some US soldiers to guard aid convoys in Afghanistan.

Very sincerely,

Maria Tomchick

I kept it short and simple, so George Jr. could understand the letter when it was read to him by an intern. He wouldn’t have to call John Ashcroft to have it explained to him. Each successive letter was similar, explaining why I was sending a pita bread and asking for something very specific in return. But the letters weren’t all about Afghanistan. Here’s a couple more:

Dear President Bush:

I am sending you this pita bread because I’m sure the 1,000+ Arab Americans in FBI custody don’t get to eat much pita bread in prison. I can’t seem to find the address for any of them to send them pita bread directly. I’m sure you could find out where they’re being held and let everyone know where to send the pita.

Dear President Bush:

I am sending you this pita bread because it is round, like the world. I am hoping you won’t go around the world looking for more places to bomb. I read today that some of your advisors want you to attack Somalia, Sudan, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, The Philippines, Indonesia, Yemen, The Balkans, Libya, Cuba, Colombia, Algeria, or an obscure region in South America where the borders of Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina meet.

These folks want a World War III.

Why bomb other countries when you could send them pita bread instead? Please consider lifting the sanctions against Iraq, Iran, Cuba, North Korea, Sudan, and Libya. Well-fed people are not a threat to us.

I sent 12 letters in all–one for each day leading up to Christmas (sort of a 12 Days of Pita). Here’s my favorite, the last letter I sent:

Dear President Bush:

I am sending you this final pita bread on Christmas Day with a big wish for the season. Some people only wish for peace on earth on Christmas Day, but not me. I’m also wishing for justice on earth.

Please change your mind and support the International Criminal Court. Peace on earth can’t exist without justice, too.

I didn’t really think President Bush would respond. I did, however, expect him to respond. There’s a difference sometimes between what you think a person will do and what you expect them, morally, to do. I expected him to send a form letter, a token that he had received the packages. What I really thought, however, was that I would be lucky not to have my phone tapped.

I waited. I waited. I waited some more.

Enron collapsed, Israel shot up the whole West Bank, the Worldcom scandal broke, and President Bush went on a golfing vacation. Still no letter. I lost hope.

And then, just before July 4, I received a 9 x 12 manila envelope from the White House. Inside was a piece of cardboard (to keep the envelope from being folded) and a single-page letter dated June 28, 2002. It read:

Dear Ms. Tomchick:

Thank you for your letter about Afghanistan. I appreciate your concerns and welcome your suggestions. As our Nation [sic] fights terrorism around the world, we remain committed to the welfare of the Afghan people and to the safety of those providing aid in the region. The United States helped Afghanistan to avert mass starvation, to reopen schools for both boys and girls, and to establish a representative and accountable government for all Afghan women and men. In addition, we are working to rebuild infrastructure, clear mine fields, improve health care, and integrate women into the workforce. America will provide a brighter future for people in Afghanistan. Best wishes.


George W. Bush

I tested the signature by licking my forefinger and swiping it over the writing. Hhmm. No smear. I got out a pencil and ran the eraser over it. It erased like a photocopy.

I am sending a letter in return. Here it is:

Dear President Bush:

Thank you for your response to my letters. I’m assuming you received them all? You only mention a “letter.”

I think you should personally talk to some of the people providing aid in the region, particularly the female aid worker who was recently gang-raped in Northern Afghanistan by followers of Rashid Dostum (our ally, remember him?). “Safety” is in short supply, right now.

I also read that the UN World Food Program provided most of the food aid that averted mass starvation–a situation created by our bombing war against the Taliban. The UN and other NGOs are clearing minefields, too, but US troops are not–except wherever they pitch their own tents and park their jeeps.

I’ve also been listening to the radio. Western journalists in Afghanistan recently said that no redevelopment projects have gotten off the ground because of a lack of funds. And many Loya Jirga delegates complained to journalists that they were only being asked to approve Hamid Karzai’s reappointment and his cabinet choices, but not to vote democratically on anything.

As for integrating women into the workforce, maybe you should talk to some of the women who live in Herat under the rule of the warlord Ismail Khan (our ally, remember him?). They live under the watchful eyes of his religious police. Afghan women in Herat still can’t work outside their homes, and are required to wear their head-to-toe burkas. Even women in Kabul are too frightened to remove their burkas because of harassment and death threats. (Just ask the former minister of Women’s Affairs why she resigned her post.) Is that progress?

I’m glad that you apologized to the families of the innocent people killed by US planes recently in Uruzgan Province. Surely you can see to it that this doesn’t happen again? Maybe we should follow Britain’s lead and withdraw our troops.

Or, better yet, you could recognize the International Criminal Court, shift our troops to a peacekeeping role, and go after war criminals like Rashid Dostum and Ismail Khan. This would provide a much brighter future for people in Afghanistan.

Very sincerely,

–Maria Tomchick

Murray, Cantwell, and Nuke Waste

Last week, the Senate approved the plan to ship nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain, against the wishes of the home-state, Nevada.

Aside from the fact that Yucca Mountain is geologically unstable (it recently suffered a 4.8 earthquake), the plan is idiotic simply because it’s not a solution for our nuclear waste problem. Only a fraction of the country’s waste will go to Yucca Mountain; when it’s full, there will still be waste piles left at hundreds–if not thousands–of sites all across the US.

Interestingly, our two US senators from Washington State–Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell–were split on the Yucca Mountain issue, which clearly showed the main differences between the two legislators. Maria Cantwell, a former executive for a high-tech company, was against the Yucca Mountain storage site for all the right reasons. She obviously understood the factual, technical problems of waste storage and the potential dangers.

That’s because Cantwell sits on the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee, where she’s had a good, firsthand look at the Bush administration’s efforts to avoid cleaning up Hanford and other waste sites around the country.

Instead of deferring to her junior colleague’s knowledge on this topic, Patty Murray voted reflexively for the Yucca Mountain site and cited her fear that Hanford might become the alternative national nuclear storage site. Murray’s fear is probably based on her own execrable record in regards to nuclear waste issues, particularly her many years of ignoring the Clinton administration’s efforts to avoid cleaning up Hanford.

Of course, we can’t rule out Murray’s new role as major fundraiser for the national Democratic Party. Utility companies, energy companies, and waste disposal firms have a lot of money waiting for the politicians that help them open a national nuclear waste storage site. Yucca Mountain will take the pressure off them to stop generating nuclear waste.

While Yucca Mountain has cleared all the political hurdles, it still has to fend off lawsuits and wend its way through the licensing process. With Congress’ support, however, all that just became a lot easier. It’s biggest hurdle, however, may be public outcry and a revitalized anti-nuke movement.

Tons of hazardous, radioactive material will have to be shipped on trucks and trains to Nevada from all over the US, including through major cities. To find out how much waste will be shipped through Washington state and where, I went to The Environmental Working Group’s website at

The EWG, a non-profit research group based in Washington DC, has a new database of proposed shipping routes for nuclear waste. I typed in my Seattle address and up popped a route map showing shipments from the Trojan Nuclear power plant in Satsop southbound through Portland, OR. I also found the following information:

Number of people in Washington that live within 1 mile of a nuclear transportation route: 199,347

Schools within 1 mile of the proposed route in Washington: 87

Hospitals within 1 mile: 5

Fatal tractor-trailer wrecks in Washington 1994-2001: 1,741

Nuclear waste shipments in Washington over the life of the project: 16,315 if by truck or 3,216 if by train.

And, most importantly:

Nuclear waste in Washington now: 391 metric tons. Nuclear waste in Washington if Yucca Mt. Project proceeds to completion: 586 metric tons.

In other words, a real solution to our nuclear waste problem would mean eliminating as many sources of nuclear waste as possible. Yucca Mountain, unfortunately, would do the opposite. Opening a new national waste repository would take the pressure off the nuke industry to stop generating waste.

Unless, of course, the public decides to blockade the trucks and trains, or sue to keep them off our streets.

Our Corporate Criminal President

Nothing could be sadder–or funnier (you choose)–than watching President Bush give a speech, and then immediately watch the stock market take a historic dive.

George Bush would have served everyone better if he had kept his mouth shut about corporate responsibility and let Congress do its work. The main problem, of course, is his own lack of credibility on the subject.

In the 1980s, Bush sat on the board of Harken Energy Co. when it improperly booked the revenue from a sale made to a group of its own insiders. The Securities and Exchange Commission investigated and made the company restate its finances. (Does this sound like Enron?) And Bush can’t claim to have been misled about it all–he sat on a three-person audit committee at Harken that approved the deal.

Then there’s the insider trading rap. George Bush sold $800,000 worth of stock in Harken just before the company declared a loss and its stock price plunged. Sound like Enron executives? It turns out that the president of Harken sent a letter to all three members of the audit committee–Bush included–just four days before Bush sold his stock. The letter discussed Harken’s cash flow problems and troubles with its creditors. Bush simply can’t claim he didn’t know the company was having a bad quarter.

Then we find out that Bush got a couple of cheap loans from Harken that allowed him to buy his Harken stock in the first place. Sound like Worldcom?

Yes, Bush is as filthy as Kenneth Lay or Bernard Ebbers. And when he was pressed by journalists to explain his Harken Energy dealings, Bush said: “Sometimes things aren’t exactly black and white when it comes to accounting procedures.”

No kidding. In that one statement, Bush explained what’s wrong with our system, while simultaneously confirming that he’s part of the problem.

Investors–large, institutional investors as well as ordinary, 401(k) plan savers like me–watched the Bush speech and waited for him to say something of substance, to give his plan for how to clean up the system. We waited in vain.

He suggested doubling the criminal sentences for company executives caught committing fraud. That’s fine–except, we all know that nobody is ever prosecuted for fraud. Who, after all, is willing to testify against the boss (and would they be believed?). Which upper management drones would be willing to turn in the CEO when they themselves are also complicit? We all have, fresh in our memories, the picture of Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling of Enron pleading the Fifth. And the more recent picture of Bernard Ebbers and Scott Sullivan of Worldcom pleading the Fifth. With no evidence and no witnesses to testify about who knew what and when, there’s no prosecution possible.

Bush suggested preventing corporate officers from receiving loans from their companies. Nice try, but it would seem more heartfelt if he hadn’t already availed himself of this perk at Harken.

He suggested full disclosure of CEO compensation. Uh, excuse me, Jr., but that’s already an SEC requirement. If he had said separate disclosure, that would have made sense. Currently CEO compensation is buried within the volumes of paper companies file with the SEC every year.

Bush proposed barring members of the board of directors from having a financial stake in the company. That’s laughable. Currently, the only way companies can attract people to sit on their boards is to offer them a financial stake. Otherwise, people would find more important–and more profitable–things to do with their time.

As for enforcement, he offered to beef up the SEC with a measly $20 million. The SEC is woefully understaffed and underfunded–a legacy of the Reagen years that has continued to today. But even so, it’s budget is $700 million. An extra $20 million will do little to help the SEC review the highly technical and detailed financial statements filed by over 900 publicly-traded corporations approximately every three months.

Finally, Bush said he would create a new taskforce within the Justice Department to focus on financial crimes. As a show of his sincerity, he appointed as head of the taskforce a man who has worked as a defense lawyer for corporate criminals, including Enron, and who sat on the board of a credit card company, Providian, when it was forced to settle a $400 million lawsuit for fraud.

More importantly, Bush didn’t talk about the things that we needed to hear.

For example: companies could be forced to take stock options as an expense on their books instead of treating them as freebies. Companies could be forced to limit executive compensation and bar corporate officers from receiving stock options. (This, after all, is the reason for the fraud in the first place: executives who have a major financial stake in their companies will do anything, including fraud, to boost the stock price.) Instead of a wimpy taskforce in the Justice Department–which is already swamped with sniffing out terrorists on ferry boats, in mosques, and in any public gathering of 3 or more people–Bush could create a new agency to oversee the accounting industry and/or undertake a revision of our vague and out-of-date accounting rules system.

But, just as we know that Bush has benefitted from the corrupt system as it exists now, we also know that he’s not interested in deep change. Only the “image” will be changed in the hopes of restoring elusive, intangible “investor confidence.”

Investors, however, are real people who’ve seen their earnings disappear, and with them, the very real hopes of a decent retirement, college savings for their kids, vacation money, down payments for homes, and, for retirees, money to pay their bills right now. “Image” is just not enough.

Trouble Brewing in Afghanistan

The Western press has hailed Afghanistan’s Loya Jirga council and the new interim government as Afghanistan’s first exercise in democracy. They’re wrong.

As a democratic assembly, the Loya Jirga was set up to fail. Perhaps God could create the world in seven days, but a multi-ethnic, multi-religious council, drawn from a nation of people emerging from 20 years of civil war that involved episodes of horrific ethnic cleansing, cannot elect a president, approve a cabinet, and set up the basis for a democratic legislature in seven days. Clearly, the Loya Jirga was meant to be a rubber stamp for Karzai’s unilateral proposals.

What were Karzai’s main goals? First, he needed desperately to become interim president. His two main rivals–though popular–were clearly unfit for the job.

The former king, Zahir Shah, is an aging, wimpy, fence-sitter. Under his rule, nothing would be done to rebuild or unite Afghanistan. Most importantly, the ethnic Panjshir Tajiks who dominated the Northern Alliance army would never support him (he’s an ethnic Pashtun). Zahir Shah commanded more votes on the council than any other candidate, gaining the support of the majority Pashtuns and many minority ethnic groups not represented in the Northern Alliance–most particularly the Hazars. Karzai called for help from his US advisors, and they stepped in to pressure Shah to withdraw.

The other candidate, Burhanuddin Rabbani, was president of Afghanistan in the post-Soviet period (the early 1990s). He failed to hold the country together, and it dissolved into regions controlled by various warlords who brutally fought one another for territory and control of resources. The Taliban came to power by suppressing the warlords who ruled–and massacred thousands of civilians–during the Rabbani period.

Again Karzai accepted the help of his US advisors to force Rabbani to step down.

Karzai’s next goal was to appoint a multi-ethnic cabinet that the Loya Jirga would approve. At first Karzai resisted this necessity; he showed his true colors by announcing that he would appoint his own cabinet without anyone’s approval. It was US pressure that forced him to adhere to the agreement drafted in Bonn and submit his cabinet to approval by the Loya Jirga. Even then, he submitted only half: 14 of an eventual 28 ministers.

The composition of his cabinet was controversial. He re-appointed most of the Tajik Northern Alliance ministers to the key roles they had acquired at the conference in Bonn. Most controversial was the reappointment of Mohammed Fahim to the defense ministry. Fahim, defense minister of the Northern Alliance, has resisted the creation of a multi-ethnic army for Afghanistan–a main requirement for US and UN troop withdrawal.

Only one–Younas Qanooni–stepped down in favor of an 80-year-old Pashtun, Taj Mohammed Wardak, to lead the Interior Ministry, which controls the police and intelligence forces. Wardak is a former California resident who returned to Afghanistan earlier this year to govern and restore order to Paktia province–and largely failed in that job. Qanooni was given a new post created specifically for him: security advisor. Observers agree that Qanooni will be in charge of Wardak and his department.

The other main appointment that has given hope to the Western media is the appointment of a Pashtun, Ashraf Ghani, to lead the finance ministry. Ghani, however, is another westerner–a former professor at Johns Hopkins University and employee of the World Bank. He’s a friend of Karzai’s family and has been Karzai’s main advisor for the last six months. Ghani, like Wardak, has no base of support within the Pashtun community in Afghanistan.

In addition to these appointments, Karzai purged his government of all supporters of former king Zahir Shah. He gave largely symbolic posts to ethnic Hazars and Pashtuns. He opened his arms to warlords that fought with the Northern Alliance and gave important posts to Uzbeks who owe their allegience to the brutal Abdul Rashid Dostum, the butcher of Mazar-i-Sharif.

Clearly Karzai’s third goal was to de-fang the warlords by removing them from their bases of support in their home provinces and bring them into Kabul to work for him. In this goal, he succeeded only partially. Two warlords resisted his lure; ominously, they’re the two most powerful men in Afghanistan outside of Karzai himself: Abdul Rashid Dostum and Ismail Khan.

Dostum, the Uzbek warlord who controls a swath of Northern Afghanistan that borders three nations (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan) and the trade routes that connect with those countries, is an opportunist who has switched sides many times in the last 20 years. He fought alongside the Soviets throughout the mid-’80s, then against the Soviets in the late ’80s. He fought against the Rabbani government for a while, then switched sides and joined the Northern Alliance against the Taliban. His motive has always been to preserve his power base in the North. If Karzai tries to disarm him or disband his 5,000-strong personal army, it could spark another civil war.

It’s in Dostum’s territory that most human rights violations are occurring today. An alliance of 60 aid organizations have protested to the UN that Dostum’s men have harassed their workers, raped and assaulted their employees, stolen their equipment and supplies, and carried out ethnic cleansing against Pashtuns living in the north. Eventually Karzai will be pressured to do something about all this.

Likewise, Ismail Khan controls the city of Herat and portions of four provinces in the west. He also controls commercial traffic on the border with Iran, which brings him an estimated $50 to $60 million per year in duties and taxes. Khan may have the largest and best equipped personal army in Afghanistan. He needs it, because he’s widely unpopular in Herat. During the election process for the Loya Jirga, elected delegates in his territory were detained and beaten if they criticized him or his rule. Delegates in his territory were also murdered.

There’s much for his people to complain about. Khan has set up his own version of the Taliban’s religious police, enforcing sharia on his people and suppressing cultural and political speech. Women in Herat are still restricted in their activities and required to wear the burkha in public. If Hamid Karzai truly wants to modernize Afghanistan, he will eventually butt heads with Ismail Khan.

Currently Karzai has no army of his own. He has a small police force of ethnic Tajiks (former Northern Alliance soldiers) to run the city of Kabul with the help of UN troops. The provinces have been left to local warlords and armed gangs.

The US has refused to help police Afghanistan’s provinces, concentrating instead on fighting remnants of the Taliban. In fact, US troops have made the situation worse, by giving money and weapons to local warlords in southeastern Afghanistan to buy their loyalty in the hunt for Al-Qaeda.

In the meantime, the establishment of an Afghan national army is seriously lagging. There are only 600-700 men in training at this moment. Hampered by ethnic hostility–particularly the resistance of the defense minister himself–and the shortage of men between the ages of 19-24 who aren’t already part of some warlord’s personal army, there’s little hope that the ranks will swell. Even the two battalions that are currently being formed are prone to defections; their families need them during the planting season and to help rebuild bomb-scarred villages.

In a year or two, civil war will return to Afghanistan, unless the international community provides more assistance. The needs are clear, but the aid has not been forthcoming.

The Anthrax Man

The FBI has a new focus in their search for the person who mailed the anthrax letters last November to a Florida media outlet and members of Congress. They also have, for the first time, a real suspect in the case.

Is the suspect a foreigner? Is it an Arab immigrant? A disgruntled Muslim convert from Chicago or California? A member of a right-wing militia group? Or could it be an anarchist loner sitting in a cabin in the middle of the woods somewhere cooking anthrax in his aluminum pans on a butane stove?

It’s none of those. The suspect is Dr. Steven Hatfill, a well-paid scientist and bioterror expert employed by a US government defense contractor.

That’s crazy, right? What respectable, middle-aged man with a high-paying job would intentionally set out to do something that would eventually kill five people, cost millions to clean up, and send the nation into a panic?

The FBI has theorized that Dr. Hatfill or someone like him was motivated to send the anthrax letters post-Sept. 11 in order to put a scare into the US government, the media, and the American people, with the intent to boost funding for bioterrorism programs. While the FBI hasn’t arrested Hatfill or obtained proof beyond a doubt that he did it, the evidence they have so far is very credible.

Hatfill’s name came up on a short list of 20 or 30 people who have the scientific know-how to safely handle anthrax spores and turn them into a deadly biological weapon, who have been vaccinated against anthrax exposure, who have or had security clearances around the time of the attack, and who had access to the army’s biodefense lab at Fort Detrick, MD–now recognized as the undisputed source of the anthrax found in the envelopes mailed to Democratic senators Tom Daschle and Daniel Patrick Leahy.

Hatfill, a medical doctor and a PhD in molecular cell biology, attended medical school in Rhodesia in the 1970s. At the time, he was a graduate of the US Army’s Special Forces training program. The New York Daily News and the Baltimore Sun report that, during the Rhodesian civil war which eventually led to the newly independent nation of Zimbabwe, Hatfill was assigned by the US Army to a Rhodesian government secret army unit that fought against the black guerrilla uprising. Hatfill has described witnessing the 1979-1980 anthrax outbreak in Zimbabwe during the civil war, which infected 10,000 people and killed 200–the largest known outbreak of cutaneous anthrax in modern history. Many bioterror experts believe this outbreak was caused by the use of a biological weapon.

When Hatfill attended medical school in Rhodesia, he lived near the Greendale Primary School in the capital city of Harare. The anthrax letters mailed last fall had a phony return address of “Greendale School” in Trenton, NJ.

Hatfill worked for the US Army’s biodefense lab at Ft. Detrick for two years, but left in 1999 under undisclosed circumstances. A former colleague has said that Hatfill was caught taking home surplus laboratory equipment that could be used to handle dangerous materials.

Hatfill obtained a job with defense contractor Science Applications International Corp. soon after he left Ft. Detrick. He kept his security clearance. But on August 23, 2001, the Pentagon revoked his clearance for undisclosed reasons. SAIC fired him six months later, when it became obvious that he would not be able to regain his security clearance.

While Hatfill worked for SAIC, he and another employee commissioned a study to describe how anthrax could be weaponized, sealed in ordinary business envelopes, and mailed to targets in the US. The study was not commissioned for an outside client of the company; Hatfill undertook it under his own volition. (Hatfill has made numerous public appearances and given media interviews on how easy it is for ordinary people to cook up bioterror weapons in their home kitchens with supplies obtained from the supermarket.) The details of the study so closely resemble the actual attacks of last November, that a number of Hatfill’s colleagues have pressed the FBI to pursue him more aggressively as a suspect.

The FBI had already questioned Dr. Hatfill four times and done a routine search of his apartment in the Detrick Plaza Apartments (just outside the gates of Ft. Detrick), when his name came up again last week in a briefing for the staff of Senators Leahy and Daschle, which included testimony from FBI agents assigned to the case and a noted bioweapons expert from the American Federation of Scientists. On Tuesday, June 25, the FBI returned to Dr. Hatfill’s apartment. This time, instead of taking a few swabs and rifling through some papers, they removed garbage bags full of evidence. In addition, they searched a locker he rents near his parents’ ranch in Ocala, Florida, just 230 miles from the Boca Raton offices of the Florida Sun, where media tabloid photographer, Robert Stevens, received the first anthrax dose and became the first fatality.

If Dr. Hatfill or someone like him is the originator of the anthrax letters, then his goal to increase funding and attention for potential bioterrorism attacks has been successful beyond his wildest dreams. The US government has appropriated billions of dollars for stockpiling vaccines, preparing hospitals, and readying local law enforcement to protect the American public from a chimera. Notably, three days after the FBI searched Dr. Hatfill’s apartment and storage locker, the Pentagon announced that it was backing down from its requirement that all US military personnel be vaccinated against anthrax.

After all, last November’s anthrax threat originated within our own “defense” community, and the FBI has recognized that almost from the start. The fact that the US military’s biodefense program is stockpiling deadly bacteria with minimal security is a big part of the problem. And the fact that much of our bio-defense work is being performed by private companies like SAIC, who employed Dr. Hatfill after he was dismissed from Ft. Detrick (and didn’t ask why), and who kept him on staff after his security clearance was revoked (and didn’t ask why), is another part of the problem. These same private companies are now lining up for a chunk of taxpayer money that they don’t deserve.

But the biggest problem is the US media, which created a nationwide panic over the deaths of five people, when a larger number of people die of lightening strikes in any given year. The media frenzy was followed quickly by politicians (with their eyes on the November polls) eager to do something to protect America–which, naturally, meant raiding the national treasury.

Compounding the problem, the media again dropped the ball by not reporting the FBI’s focus on a handful of US bioweapons experts and army researchers as the main suspects. This made it impossible for the US public to put into perspective all the political grandstanding or raise an outcry against the hemorrhage of taxpayer funds.

Sources for this article: “US to keep anthrax vaccine for civilians,” BBC Online, 6/29/02; “FBI Investigates Anthrax Researchers,” Christopher Newton, Associated Press, 6/28/02; “Biological Warfare Experts Questioned in Anthrax Probe,” Guy Gugliotta and Dan Eggen, Washington Post, 6/28/02, A7; “Doc in Anthrax Probe Studied Mail Bioterror,” Helen Kennedy, New York Daily News Online, 6/28/02; “Blueprint for Anthrax Attack,” Brian Ross,, 6/27/02; “Scientist theorized anthrax mail attack,” Scott Shane, Baltimore Sun, 6/27/02; “FBI Searches Home in Anthrax Case,” Dave Altimari and Jack Dolan, Hartford Courant, 6/26/02; “Frederick scientist’s home searched in anthrax probe,” Scott Shane, Baltimore Sun, 6/26/02; and “Clues to Anthrax Attacks Found,” Rick Weiss, Washington Post, 5/10/02, A2.

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