Month: January 2003

The Smallpox Vaccine Boondoggle

The national smallpox vaccination plan rolled out with a whimper last week. Part of the Bush administration’s effort to stave off a bioterrorism attack, the vaccination plan was to begin with a strong start in the state of Connecticut by vaccinating 20 or more first-line medical responders who would then fan out and vaccinate thousands of other doctors, nurses, and emergency room personnel around the state. In the coming weeks, other states will join in and inoculate 500,000 first-line medical personnel in all major medical centers in the country against smallpox. Eventually 10 million more health care workers, firefighters, police, and emergency medical personnel will receive the vaccine.

But in Connecticut, only four people showed up to get the shot, and three of those were administrative personnel–the state epidemiologist and two administrators at the University of Connecticut’s Health Center. The numbers willing to volunteer for the shots had been dwindling all week, as hospital associations, nursing unions, and other professional groups balked at the risk of the smallpox vaccine itself and raised important questions about the true potential for a smallpox terrorist attack. At last count, more than 80 hospitals around the nation, including major teaching hospitals and medical centers in urban areas, have opted out of the vaccination program.

What’s going on here?

The smallpox vaccine is made from a live virus, vaccinia or cow pox, which is a cousin of smallpox. It can cause illness in a significant number of vaccine recipients. Experts estimate that about 1,000 out of every one million who receive the vaccine will experience serious side effects, about 40 of those will be life-threatening illnesses, and one or two of those people will die from it. So, of the 10 million expected to get the shots, 10,000 are expected to get sick, 400 will be threatened with death, and 20 are expected to die outright from the vaccine alone.

But, as critics have pointed out, this is a gross underestimate of the risks. People who are vaccinated carry an open wound in their arm, which sheds the live vaccinia virus for up to three weeks. Certain people who come in close contact with them can become quite ill. At particular risk are infants under a year old, pregnant women, elderly people, folks with eczema and skin disorders (who can absorb the disease through breaks in their skin–an estimated 7 to 20 percent of the general population has had such skin disorders) and, most ominously, people with lowered immune system response.

There are an estimated 60 million people in the US today living with weakened immune systems, and most of them are suffering from HIV/AIDS or undergoing a medical treatment that didn’t exist 35 years ago when smallpox vaccinations were routine. People with AIDS, cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy or radiation treatments, burn patients, and organ donor recipients would all be put at an unacceptably high risk of death if their nurses and doctors are vaccinated for smallpox.

It’s a peculiar form of torture to ask a medical person who has dedicated his or her life to saving other peoples’ lives to risk killing patients because of vague fears of a bioterrorist attack. Doctors and nurses, in particular, have a good sense of the potential threat various diseases pose to their patients. As William Schaffner, head of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, said: “The thing that stops you from doing this is the complexity of the smallpox vaccine, which is not a safe vaccine. There’s a real disease that kills people unnecessarily: the flu. Mr. President, I would love to see you endorse a national flu vaccine campaign with the same vigor.” Medical centers around the country, however, have had to deal with recent flu vaccine shortages. Smallpox is simply not high on their list of concerns.

Some officials caution that a smallpox attack is a real possibility. All it would take is one person to infect himself, travel to a major metropolitan area, and hang out a nearby shopping mall, sports arena, or other crowded public place to begin infecting people, they argue. There are many problems with this scenario, including the fact that smallpox has effectively been eradicated, with no new cases reported since 1977. The only known laboratory stocks of the disease exist in highly quarantined labs in the US and Russia. And if smallpox cultures were smuggled out of Russia or the US, it’s not at all certain that terrorist groups could get their hands on them or turn them into a usable weapon.

Even in the lone, kamikaze, infected terrorist scenario, the outbreak might not be as bad as Bush administration advisors assume. Leading smallpox experts say that nowadays we have conditions that are less conducive to the massive outbreaks of the past, when people lived in extended families in crowded rooms, with multiple family members sharing the same bedrooms and the same beds. People wash their hands more and more people travel alone in cars and live in less crowded conditions. We use strong disinfectants more often, and air and water is filtered and treated for contaminants. A realistic scenario of one person falling ill and then going through his or her day–even visiting a shopping mall and going to work–shows that only one or maybe two other people would be infected with smallpox before the sick person was sent to a hospital. In that kind of scenario, quarantine and area-specific vaccination would work well to contain the disease.

Joining the critics of the Bush administration’s smallpox vaccination plan is Bill Foege, former chief of the Centers for Disease Control and consultant to the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine panel on bioterrorism preparedness. Foege is a global health adviser to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on major vaccination initiatives in Africa and helping to fund the search for an AIDS vaccine.

In other words, Foege is definitely not a foe of vaccination in general. In the 1960s, when he worked for the CDC in Africa, Foege developed a specific plan to vaccinate for smallpox that minimized the exposure to the vaccine and yet helped to wipe out the disease in that part of the world. His method, called “ring vaccination,” relies on a special property of the smallpox vaccine: it can protect people who’ve already been exposed to the disease if they’re given the vaccine within four days of exposure to the disease.

Foege argues that ring vaccination should be used here in the United States, and other medical administrators are beginning to agree with him. Richard Wenzel, chairman of internal medicine at Virginia Medical College at the University of Virginia, was faced with a crisis in the fall of 2001. During the height of the anthrax attacks, he received word that a patient with smallpox had been found and was being sent to his hospital. He quickly formulated a plan that would quarantine the patient and assign specific personnel to treat him who had been vaccinated as children. Wenzel located some smallpox vaccine for his hospital staff. As it turned out, the patient didn’t have smallpox. But Wenzel now believes that it would be safer and more cost-effective for hospitals to draw up quarantine plans, stockpile smallpox vaccines, and use them only in the face of a real outbreak. Here in Seattle, the major public hospital, Harborview, is currently considering this approach.

Cost is also a major issue. The federal government is not providing funds to hospitals to help them deal with staff shortages if and when their nurses and doctors fall ill from the vaccinations. Some hospitals are worried about lawsuits from patients’ relatives if they’re exposed to the live vaccine and fall ill. And the cost to vaccinate alone is expected to be between $600 million and $1 billion, and cash-strapped state governments are expected to pay that bill on their own.

In addition, Bill Foege is worried about public perception in the face of a real threat. If large numbers of people are vaccinated now, when a threat doesn’t exist, and many fall ill or die, then the public may be resistant to the vaccine when a real outbreak occurs. That could be disastrous.

The speed with which the Bush administration is pushing the vaccination plan seems based on political necessity and not public health concerns. There is currently a safer vaccine being developed and tested in Europe that doesn’t involve the use of live vaccinia. It will be about a year before that vaccine is made available here in the US, but the Bush administration is pushing ahead with the older, more dangerous vaccine anyway.

In part, it’s to prove that the government is doing something about the threat of terrorism. It’s also in response to pressure from vaccine manufacturers who want to sell their old stock before the new vaccine hits the market. In either case, cynical political opportunism or a drive for corporate profits, expediency should never trump sensible public health policy. Too many lives are at stake.

Sources for this article include:

“Smallpox expert has doubts,” Tom Paulson, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 12/27/02, B3 “Only 4 Get Conn. Smallpox Vaccinations,” Noreen Gillespie, Associated Press, 1/24/03 “Hospitals balk at smallpox vaccine,” Laura Parker, USA Today, 1/21/03 “Smallpox vaccination risks emphasized,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 1/24/03, B4 “A person’s Smallpox vaccine risky for others,” Seattle Times, 1/19/03, B1 “Advisers Urge Slowdown in U.S. Smallpox Plan,” Maggie Fox, Reuters, 1/21/03 “Medical Panel Has Doubts About Plan for Smallpox,” Denise Grady, The New York Times, 1/16/03 “Panel Recommends Slow Smallpox Approach,” Laura Meckler, Associated Press, 1/17/03.

A Tax-Cut That Would Sink the Economy

The US media is expending a lot of ink and air time evaluating the potential economic effects of George Bush’s new tax-cut proposal. So far, most of the discussion has centered around how much economic stimulus the plan will provide and how long it will take to work. No one, however, is discussing the very real possibility that George Bush’s tax-cut, especially the elimination of taxes on dividends, could harm the US economy and drive it deeper into a recession.

To understand how this might happen, let’s look at consumer spending, the one thing that’s kept the US economy afloat amidst massive layoffs and corporate bankruptcies. Low interest rates are primarily responsible for keeping consumer spending alive; big-ticket items–like new homes and cars–are a great bargain right now because of low rates on mortgages and auto loans. Despite the worst Christmas shopping season for retailers since 1970 (when the government began to keep track of shopping patterns), consumer spending is still going strong.

The Bush plan could change that by raising interest rates. Removing the tax on dividends would make dividend-paying stocks more attractive to investors than interest-paying investments: bonds, certificates of deposits (CDs), money market funds, treasury bills, bank savings accounts, etc., which are all taxable. To attract investors to those interest-bearing investments, interest rates would have to rise to offset what people pay in taxes. So banks and finance companies, corporations, and the federal government would have to pay more interest on their debts.

To recoup some of that interest paid out on CDs, bonds, savings accounts, etc., banks and finance companies would have to raise the interest rates they charge on home-equity loans, auto loans, credit lines, credit cards, and business loans. Mortgage rates would rise, too. Rising interest rates could stop the hot housing market in its tracks, just as increased rates on auto loans would make people decide to drive their old car a little while longer than they’re inclined to do today. As finance companies raise the rates on credit cards, more Americans would spend less on new purchases and focus instead on paying down their credit card debt. This would send consumer spending into a tailspin.

Currently, low interest on corporate bonds and bank loans to businesses have allowed many debt-ridden companies to continue to make payments on their debts. Once interest rates rise, however, companies that are just barely keeping their heads above water could find themselves squeezed from both ends: lower consumer spending would mean lower profits, while higher interest rates would mean the companies would have to pay more to banks or to investors on their debts. This could start a second wave of corporate bankruptcies.

Meanwhile, another fallout of cutting taxes on dividends would negatively effect state and local governments. Currently state and local governments, which are required to balance their budgets and not operate in at a deficit like the federal government, are struggling to plug enormous gaps between their incoming tax revenue and their increasing expenses. The Bush tax-cut plan could make those gaps even wider.

Here’s how: state and local governments, including school districts, fire districts, and cities, have the ability to issue municipal bonds to pay for special projects, construction, and even operating costs. For example, the State of California has just issued bonds to help it pay for the high energy costs the state incurred during its recent energy crisis.

Municipal bonds are tax-free for the investor, making them highly attractive investments–there’s no shortage of people who want them. Because they are one of the few tax-free investments available, municipal bonds carry very low interest rates, and this helps state and local governments keep a lid on their debt costs.

But once the tax on dividends is removed, the picture changes. To attract investors and compete with dividend-paying stocks, municipal bond interest rates would have to rise. State and local governments would then have to pay higher interest expenses to investors, putting even more of a pinch on their budgets. Returning to our example, if the Bush tax-cut plan passes, the State of California could face bankruptcy.

Notably, state and local governments are major employers and major spenders in nearly every community in America. Taking this into account, the Bush tax-cut plan could have the effect of destroying jobs and curbing spending at levels not seen since the Great Depression.

But it gets worse. When state and local governments are pinched and forced to cut services to the poor, homeless, and unemployed during an economic downturn, the nonprofit sector usually steps in to help. Nonprofit groups–from food banks and homeless shelters to groups providing job training and education services–subsist on donations primarily from wealthy people. But once dividends become tax-free, many wealthy people will no longer have an incentive to make charitable contributions to offset their taxable income. Nonprofits would suffer a severe funding shortage at a time when their services are needed more than ever.

The Bush administration argument for this tax-cut plan has focused on its ability to boost the stock market. Yet a jump in the stock market doesn’t usually lead to a recovery, it usually reflects a recovery that’s already in progress. Most economists agree that corporate profits have to increase in order for a recovery to begin. And an increase in consumer spending across all sectors would boost corporate profits immensely.

The Bush plan, however, puts money into the hands of people who simply can’t spend it. According to the Center on Budget Policies and Priorities, the richest 5% of Americans would receive two-thirds of the tax cut. These are people who have already reached their top limit on spending; they simply can’t spend all the money they earn in a year. Most of his tax-cut, then, would have no effect whatsoever on consumer spending.

Any tax-cut, even one that was more equitable and aimed at people who are lower on the socio-economic scale, would have a minimal economic stimulus effect, because during economic downturns people tend to either save or pay down their debts when they get extra cash. Bush’s 2001 tax cut proved that.

It was a $1.3 trillion tax break that gave back $300 to every working American–much more than most people will see from his new plan–yet it did nothing to stop the economic downturn prior to September 11. A better proposal would be to take a portion of the current tax-cut plan, maybe half (or about $300 billion), and simply give it to state and local governments to help them plug the holes in their budgets, pay wages to employees, and build infrastructure like roads and schools. This would provide far more economic stimulus than the current plan, which would only exacerbate our current economic woes.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has done an excellent analysis of the Bush tax-cut plan. It can be viewed at http://www.cbpp.org.

North Korea’s Warlike Noises

North Korea has kicked UN officials out of its country, removed the cameras in its Yongbyon nuclear complex, abrogated the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and torn up a 1999 agreement to stop testing long-range missiles. It has said that any attempts by the UN Security Council to impose sanctions on North Korea would be viewed as a declaration of war.

>From this perspective–the portrayal of the current crisis in the US media–North Korea appears to be a rogue nation ruled by a madman.

The reality is somewhat different. A little history can help us understand what North Korea is doing and why.

After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, North Korea was left to fend on its own economically. Formerly dependent on the USSR for fuel oil to power its generators and food imports, North Korea had to quickly develop its export market and a way to generate electricity, or face collapse. This marked the beginning of the North Korean nuclear program, initially an attempt to generate power.

North Korea began to build a nuclear complex at Yongbyon, a huge cave dug into the side of a mountain. It appeared, at least to the US and North Korea’s neighbors (particularly Japan), that the Koreans might be hiding something, and the fear was that they might be attempting to refine weapons-grade material to make a nuclear weapon. Bill Clinton, with satellite photos in hand, confronted North Korea in 1993.

After a tense standoff, the two sides reached an agreement. North Korea would allow UN inspectors and cameras into the Yongbyon complex and would cease work on a nuclear plant that could make weapons-grade nuclear material. In return, the US and Japan would provide North Korea with food aid, fuel oil to run its power plants, and would help it build two commercial-grade nuclear power plants, which would generate electricity, but not be capable of producing weapons-grade nuclear material.

North Korea held up its end of the deal, and so did Japan. But the Clinton administration had a tougher time selling this deal to Congress. Congress okayed the fuel oil, but refused to approve the two commercial nuclear plants. Providing any kind of nuclear materials to North Korea was verboten. Indeed, it’s possible that Clinton knew he didn’t have the votes in Congress to approve the two plants; he may have agreed to that part of the deal simply for expediency’s sake. (In other words, he struck a deal that made him look tough and statesman-like while probably knowing that he couldn’t deliver on his end and thinking that he could stall long enough to leave the problem to a future president.)

In the meantime, North Korea got tired of waiting for construction to begin on its two promised plants. The fuel oil helped a lot, but they decided to give the Clinton administration a little scare, just to prod Bill Clinton’s memory about his unfulfilled promise. In 1999, they fired a prototype long-range missile over the north of Japan, sparking another round of diplomatic talks.

By that time the Clinton administration was on its way out, unable to make any firm promises. Clinton managed to extract a promise from North Korea, however, to halt testing of long-range missiles, although no one really believed that North Korea has completely stopped work on its long-range missile program. After all, missiles are one of North Korea’s main exports. (Remember the ship bearing North Korean missiles to Yemen that was stopped in the Persian Gulf a few weeks ago?)

Then, in 2000, George W. Bush was elected president of the United States. The first thing the Bush administration did was cut off all negotiations and all contact with North Korea. Then September 11 happened and the Bush administration declared a War on Terrorism. The Taliban were supporters of terrorism, so Bush attacked and destroyed the Taliban, leveling what was left of Afghanistan in the process. Turning its sights to new targets, the Bush administration named Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as members of an “Axis of Evil.” Immediately, Bush singled out Iraq because of its “Weapons of Mass Destruction.”

Surely one can see why North Korea would be in a panic. The Bush administration has isolated them, refused to talk (much less negotiate), and is on a crusade against perceived enemies. To North Korea, the US appears to be a rogue nation, governed by madmen. North Korea might be next on the Bush agenda. So, like it or not, they decided to develop a deterrent to US aggression: a nuclear weapon.

US policy has always viewed nuclear weapons as a deterrent against aggression, first in relation to the Soviet Union, and now in regards to so-called “rogue” or “terrorist” nations. When Cold War politicians like Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney discuss this deterrent philosophy, they always mention North Korea. Always.

Likewise, Donald Rumsfeld has been pushing the development of the “Son of Star Wars,” an anti-missile program intended to intercept incoming long-range missiles from hostile nations. When discussing this program, Rumsfeld always mentions North Korea. Always. Rumsfeld has been successful in gaining funding for the Son of Star Wars; in the first stage of deployment, set for next year, 10 interceptor missiles will be based at Fort Greely in Alaska. In 2005, 10 more will be deployed in Alaska, the closest US territory to North Korea. Meanwhile, testing of the interceptor missiles has been conducted in the Pacific, as a sort of warning to the main target of this billion-dollar, scary, destabilizing boondoggle: North Korea.

Naturally, North Korea doesn’t view these missiles as strictly for defensive purposes. They view them as an offensive weapon aimed directly at their heartland. They also take to heart Donald Rumsfeld’s assertion that the US can fight two wars at once: against Iraq and North Korea, if necessary.

In this context, North Korea’s actions make sense. It’s the Bush administration that appears irrational, particularly in their refusal to negotiate directly with North Korea. North Korea is right to condemn US attempts to take this issue to the UN Security Council as a stalling tactic to buy time so Bush can deal with Iraq first. Notably, South Korea, China, and Japan all support negotiations; they are particularly fearful of the prospect of sanctions against North Korea, which could cause the downfall of Kim Jong Il’s government and the exodus of millions of refugees. South Korea, in particular, would rather have a slow, economically easy reunification, instead of a major economic collapse in North Korea.

But the Bush administration is on a crusade. If only the US media could figure that out and report the news with a little bit of objectivity.

What’s Next: Concentration Camps?

On December 16, the INS arrested 500 to 1,000 immigrants in Southern California who showed up to register under the new Exit-Entry Registration System. That date was the deadline for men and boys over the age of 16 from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Sudan to register with the INS.

Many of the detainees had brought their lawyers, family members, and paperwork with them to prove that, although their work and student visas had expired, they had applied for green card status. Some had even scheduled interviews with INS personnel, but were arrested anyway. Notably, most of the arrestees had no criminal records, and many were related to or married to US citizens.

Immigration law allows immigrants with expired visas to remain legally in the US while their applications for citizenship or green card status are being processed. The INS, however, is infamous for its inefficiency and the glacial pace at which it processes applications.

Most of the detainees were from Iran; Southern California has a large Iranian immigrant population of some 600,000 people. Ironically, many of the detainees are not Muslim–they’re Iranian Jews who emigrated to escape persecution in fundamentalist Iran. Hence, the arrests were not made for security reasons. Even an INS spokesman, Virginia Kice, admitted that the INS had arrested the wrong people: “The vast majority of people who are coming forward to register are currently in legal immigration status.” This didn’t stop the INS from packing jail cells so full that there was no place for the detainees to sleep, except on concrete floors, and local jails contracted with Arizona to take some of the overload. Arrests were also made in Cleveland, Dallas, and Minnesota. Seattle, apparently, didn’t see similar arrests, but that’s may be because there are few immigrants from those five countries here in the Northwest.

The arrests sparked large demonstrations in Los Angeles, charges of racism, and a lawsuit filed by immigration attorneys against the INS and Attorney General John Ashcroft in an LA federal court. The goal of the lawsuit is to win a court-ordered injunction against further indiscriminate arrests by the INS. By mid-January men from another 13 countries will have to register, including immigrants from Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Eritrea, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Somalia, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen, and North Korea.

In December, the INS responded to critics (who had pointed out that most of the 9/11 hijackers didn’t come from any of these countries) by issuing a directive requiring Saudi Arabian and Pakistani immigrants to register by mid-February 2003. That still leaves out Egypt–some of Al Qaeda’s highest-ranking operatives are Egyptian nationals–and doesn’t address the fact that some of the hijackers held citizenship status in Germany, that the shoebomber was a British resident, and that Ahmed Ressam (arrested in Washington State for carrying explosives in the trunk of his car) was a Canadian resident.

The arrests are not being done for security reasons; they’re simply part of the Justice Department’s racist attack on Arab immigrants. The proponents of the lawsuit are charging that the INS has stopped processing green card applications for immigrants from Middle Eastern countries; green cards are supposed to be issued within a few weeks, but many Arab immigrants have been waiting months for their applications to be processed.

If the INS’ stated goal is to set up a registration program to provide a comprehensive database of immigrants, then these arrests will only hinder that goal. By arresting law-abiding people, the INS is driving them away from the registration process, ensuring that the database will be neither complete nor useful for any purpose. The arrests do serve one purpose, however. Because not registering is a federal crime, any immigrant who decides to skip registration will then be subject to deportation. It’s simply an excuse to create “criminals,” deport them, and therefore thin out the ranks of immigrant populations in the US It’s extremely racist and anti-immigrant–just what we might expect from a department that answers to John Ashcroft.

In the meantime, the INS is making enemies of the very people that law enforcement agencies will need to rely on to isolate potential terrorists from immigrant communities in the US No terrorist would come forward to register under this program–even the INS admits that. Many terrorists probably wouldn’t need to, if they’re citizens of European countries, Canada, or already US citizens. The best way to catch them would be to work with immigrant communities, not against them.

Sources for this article: “Hundreds Are Detained After Visits to INS,” Megan Garvey, Martha Groves, and Henry Weinstein, Los Angeles Times, 12/19/02, www.latimes.com; “Hundreds of Muslim Immigrants Rounded Up in Calif.,” Jill Serjeant, Reuters, 12/19/02; “Feds Detain Hundreds Of Immigrants,” CBS News online, 12/19/02, www.cbsnews.com/stories/2002/12/19/attack/main533627.shtml; “Civil Liberties Groups Sue Over Calif. Arrests,” Jill Serjeant, Reuters, 12/24/02.

Operation Provoke War

In recent weeks, the Bush administration has stepped up efforts to destabilize the Iraqi government, while aggressively deploying troops and ships in a manner that could provoke an attack from Iraq–and provide an excuse to start a war.

Over the weekend of December 14 to 16, the US hosted a conference in London of Iraqi exiled opposition groups. The 300 delegates, closely monitored by US diplomats and advisors, chose a council of 65 people to function as a liaison between the US and the Iraqi people after Saddam Hussein is deposed. The conference was led by US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who shepherded the Afghani conference in Bonn that set up the new government in Kabul. Clearly, the Bush administration is gearing up to do in Iraq what they’ve already done in Afghanistan (never mind that the UN inspectors haven’t finished their job yet).

The Pentagon, meanwhile, has set up a special radio station to broadcast anti-Saddam propaganda to the Iraqi people. The station went on the air December 12, after US planes dropped half a million leaflets over Iraq with the name of the station and the five frequencies where it can be heard. Between bursts of Arabic music, the station intones: “People of Iraq … the amount of money Saddam spends on himself in one day would be more than enough to feed a family for one year.” The station also directs messages at the Iraqi military in an effort to spur a military coup.

The CIA has been up to its own dirty tricks, too. Earlier this year, Congress and the Bush administration allocated $200 million to the CIA to “fight the War on Terrorism.” The CIA has been using a lot of that money in Iraq, giving sacks of cash to tribal leaders in rural areas near Baghdad, in an effort to buy the loyalty of Sunni tribal leaders who have backed Saddam Hussein in the past. Of course, the CIA is assiduously avoiding the Shiite tribes in southern Iraq, who haven’t forgotten how the CIA sold them out after the Gulf War, promising to help them rise up and overthrow Saddam, but then abandoning them to be massacred.

Turkish TV has also reported the movement of US trucks with supplies into northern Kurdish regions of Iraq. The US supported the Kurds soon after the Gulf War by establishing the Northern No-Fly Zone, which prevented Saddam from bombing rebellious Kurdish factions. But US support goes far beyond that: supplies are now being moved into the Kurdish regions, and US personnel are helping to train Kurdish rebels, while scouting the best sites for landing strips and operational bases for the upcoming war.

In addition, the CIA and the Pentagon are recruiting Kurds and exiled Iraqis to serve (ostensibly) as interpreters, guides, and support staff for an invasion. Hungary has agreed to host a new $9 million training facility for some 3,000 Iraqi exiles. Some of these men may be trained to fight. While the Pentagon has fiercely denied that any weapons training will be done, they haven’t explained, however, why the training has to be done in Hungary and not on US soil. Considering that the Pentagon and CIA have kept captured Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters isolated at “secret” bases in foreign countries to avoid scrutiny by the Red Cross, the UN, and human rights advocates, the fact that Iraqi exiles will be trained in an Eastern European country is suspicious, to say the least.

In the meantime, US troops and warships are being deployed in a way that could draw Iraqi fire. Some 12,000 US troops have been conducting long-running military exercises in Kuwait; over the Christmas holiday, they spent 5 days engaged in live-fire exercises just a few miles from the border with Iraq. At the same time, US and British warships participating in the sanctions blockade have become more aggressive in recent weeks, moving into Iraqi territorial waters, even into the mouth of Khor Abd Allah estuary. The danger here is that a warship may collide with an Iraqi mine or meet an Iraqi vessel and begin a shooting war–which may be just the excuse the Bush administration needs in order to start an all-out war.

Certainly, Bush has quietly given the order to step up the bombing campaign over the no-fly zones. In the past, US planes targeted only Iraqi radar and anti-aircraft weaponry. But now the pilots are “being given a more ‘meaningful’ list of targets,” according to Reuters reporter Peter Graff. The list includes command bunkers, communications equipment, and unspecified “other targets” (presumably infrastructure or military posts that would be bombed in the upcoming war). In addition, the planes are hitting their targets more frequently and with heavier bombs.

And so the air war has already begun, on the sly, ramping up slowly so no one will notice right away. This is, after all, the preferred modus operandi for the Bush administration. The US press has largely overlooked the increased bombing in favor of printing quotes from Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell about the Iraqi weapons declaration, and Dick Cheney’s reassurances that the US is not interested in overthrowing Saddam.

But US actions are telling a different story. Just two days after Christmas, George Bush called up 2 aircraft carrier battle groups, 2 amphibious assault teams, and several dozen Air Force jets to serve in the Gulf–an additional 25,000 troops to add to the 50,000 US personnel already there. The timing of his order is in keeping with Bush administration moves to hide the pace and details of its war planning from both the US public and the international community.

Colin Powell, asked by an AP reporter about current US efforts to oust Saddam Hussein, replied: “It remains our policy to change the regime until such time as the regime changes itself.” Indeed.

The Bush administration is deeply involved in destabilizing the Iraqi government. In effect, the air war has already begun, in secret, without a formal declaration and without a vote from the UN Security Council. And the US is attempting to spark a ground war with its provocative military exercises and violations of Iraqi territory.

Meanwhile, the only English-language press coverage has been in the form of wire service articles that US newspapers are largely ignoring. Without critical media coverage here in the US, the Bush administration is free to play out its hand, which is intended to spark a military response from Iraq that will make it easy to shift US opinion in favor of a ground war. It could be the Gulf of Tonkin, all over again.

Some of the sources for this article: “Iraqi Exiles Conference Ends With Deal,” Salah Nasrawi, Associated Press, 12/17/02; “Pentagon Broadcasts Propaganda Over Iraq,” Pauline Jelinek, AP, 12/17/02; “US cash squads ‘buy’ Iraqi tribes,” Jason Burke, The Guardian/Observer, 12/15/02, online www.observer.co.uk/iraq/story/0,12239,860269,00.html; “US Said to Ready Kurd Areas in Iraq for Possible War,” C.J. Chivers, New York Times, 12/21/02, www.nytimes.com/2002/12/22/international/middleeast/22IRAQ.html; “Pentagon: No Comment on Report of Troops in N. Iraq,” Reuters, 12/16/02; “US Vetting Iraqi Volunteers for Spies – Rumsfeld,” Reuters, 12/23/02; “War Games in Kuwait Keep Pressure on Saddam,” Andrew Marshall, Reuters, 12/25/02; “Tactics Switch Gives US Head-Start for Iraq War,” Peter Graff, Reuters, 12/23/02; “US Orders Thousands of Troops to Gulf,” John J. Lumpkin, AP, 12/27/02; and “Powell: US Not Trying to Oust Saddam,” Barry Schweid, AP, 12/16/02.

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