The Senate and White House/House have dueling strategies on intelligence reform. GOVEXEC.com reprints a great National Journal article on the political dynamics involved. There is overwhelming pressure to get a bill passed, but the GOP wants to ensure that the issue works to their partisan advantage, despite their foot dragging on the issue of reform.
The Bush/Delay plan is weaker than the 9/11 Commission recommendations, leaving significant budgetary authority in the DoD, while consolidating about 70% of intelligence funding under a new Director and retaining OMB oversight. The Bush campaignistration took the unusual step of putting together its own plan and submitting it to the house.
The bipartisan alternative is a comprehensive reform plan advanced by Sens. Joe Lieberman and Susan Collins. It closely abides by the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission.
"In a Congress that has become increasingly partisan," Lieberman said, "we are figuring out that our first responsibility is to put the party labels away" for national security. [National Journal]
This comes at a time that Republicans are trying to label all liberal criticism of Bush as "partisan" invective. Lieberman advances this charge, accepting the GOP framing. He is nearing the same position as Zell Miller in the 2002 midterms, accusing Cleland of politicizing homeland security for partisan reasons. With Lieberman's first hand experience of Bush's duplicity, he should be wary of the "even handed" imputation of partisanship; especially since it's one-sidedness is so clear in this case.
Early reporting on the Duelfer Report indicates that Hussein lacked WMDs, but retained an "intent" to restart programs at some point in the future [Seattle Times, Associated Press]. This raises two important questions: 1. what does this mean regarding Saddam's compliance with UN resolutions prior to the invasion? 2. would it have been illegal for Hussein to restart his program after the lifting of sanctions?
The Duelfer Report notes that Saddam was in breach for his development of unmanned aerial vehicles, his retention of assassination related posions, and his importation of dual use technology, but doesn't discuss the specific UN resolutions implicated. Obviously, intransigence re: inspections was the key violation, but there was a dog and pony aspect to the event, where we knew he wasn't cooperating because he wasn't telling us about the weapons he had.
If Saddam retained an intent to restart programs when the sanctions were removed, was he violating a law? would he have been violating a law if he actually had restarted his programs post-sanctions? Obviously, if he was a signatory to the various conventions outlawing biological and chemical weapons, or the NPT, those laws are implicated. Otherwise, I'm not sure if his disarmament was intended for perpetuity.
Paperwight (of Fairshot) has two great posts on "post-reason" politics, or the devolution of politics from a fact-centered practice to a sentimental, or heuristic driven, enterprise.
His "central insights" into the Atwater/Rove brand of politics:
Act as if there are no facts. There are simply things that people say or believe, and other things that other people say or believe.
Act as if there is no causation. There are simply things that people do and other things that happen. There is no connection. [Fair Shot 9/9/04]
He is on firm ground here. Atwater/Rove political strategy focuses on branding political entities, without regard for factuality or reality, merely the power of disembodied argument. Atwater/Rove doesn't even bother to employ facts in its branding exercises when they are an option - use of fact allows refutation, which muddies the message.
Paperwight is on much less firm ground with his explanation for the rise of Atwater/Rove politics. He claims that the process of Enlightenment has faltered, and the world has gotten so complex that some people are reverting to superstition to simplify their relationship to external reality. There are a lot of complex assumptions underlying this argument, but it's not really necessary to go into them. I basically have one major critique. I'd go further than Mixing Memory, to claim that the Enlightenment neither did away with heuristics nor was contrary to interpretive rules at any important level. The Enlightenment, to the extent that it can be defined at all, includes in its core the idea of meta-heuristics, or ways to differentiate between "good" and "bad" rules, usually focusing on their instrumental value, but occasionally adopting some other standard. One could easily claim that the Rove/Atwater political strategy with its attendant regimes (Paperwight calls it the "campaignistration," which I think I'll steal) challenges those meta-heuristics, but that is not necessarily an anti-Enlightenment venture.
It's easy to criticize an argument though, if one doesn't bother to offer an alternative explanation. I don't want to just snipe, so I'll set out the beginning of my alternative, and see if I get a reaction.
Rather than being anti-Enlightenment, Atwater/Rove politics is ilLiberal (note the capital "L," which I'll use to signify political Liberalism as opposed to American left/liberalism). Political Liberalism is something I'm usually fond of – only in my more despondent periods do I embrace a more radical democratic or progressive vision, end even then I usually fudge the distinctions. At its core are three assumptions, three commitments that are essential to a functioning Liberal society:
Commitment to deep pluralism. This doesn't just mean recognizing that diversity is pretty and should be embraced. It entails not just an acceptance of deep divisions within society, but a positive belief that those divisions usually make an ongoing enterprise stronger. This is the deep pluralism of John Rawls, Raymond Aron, and Isaiah Berlin, not the weak pluralism of the Republican National Convention.
Epistemic humility. For a society to be liberal, people have to concede that there is no such thing as 100% certainty on any particular political issue, and that there is always a chance, however small, that alternative positions are superior. There is an important corollary to this humility: people should assume that those they disagree with are operating in good faith, and that courtesy should be returned in kind – i.e., people should extend a rebuttable presumption to those with whom they disagree that they are operating out of sincerely held beliefs.
Respect for Rules. Pluralistic conflicts are to be mediated by pre-existing rules and institutions. Those institutions should not change to prefer a particular political situation without significant public engagement (periods of heightened democratic consciousness). People compete under these rules through pre-delineated avenues, the most important of which is communication and persuasion. When a situation is resolved, the result is presumptively fair, though still open to contestation through rule-defined political practices (i.e., going to the courts, normal political practices, etc.).
"Liberalism" defined this way is in no way neutral or impartial. It favors a certain mentality, and requires as the price of admission substantive assumptions, notably a form of tolerance. This requirement can be a heavy burden, and many people bear it only reluctantly. That people bear it at all is a testament to the strength of an American norm in favor of deep pluralism, a norm that is still fairly vital today.
Just not as vital as it once was. It's not even that the specific Liberal norms (that people we disagree with are basically decent and have a right to their say and even their occasional political success) are weakening – I suspect they were never as strong as I like to believe. It is that the meta-norm that holds politicians and political elites to those standards is weakening. The process began in certain quarters (the Whittaker Chambers branch) of the right during the Cold War, with the conflation of all forms of liberalism with Communism and Totalitarianism. It has only accelerated with the demise of Communism and the attendant loss of a coherent ideological "other." We are now at a point where it is a sign of pride, an electoral selling point, that a candidate thinks his or her opponent is evil and must be destroyed. I like to imagine that there was a time, and perhaps it was only among political elites, where people wouldn't support a candidate, even if that candidate ascribed to their political positions down the line, if that candidate spit on Liberalism.
Obviously, that norm is gone. Since Clinton's election in 1992, conservatives have rejected deep pluralism, increasingly defining the left as un-American and unacceptable, Totalitarianism in sheep's clothing. People like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly regularly accuse prominent liberals of being Nazis or Satan ("Diablo"). Liberals are on Saddam's side, or on bin Laden's side, or fifth columnists – they won't defend the country. Rather than recognizing that political dispute can result in stronger policy and a better country, dissent is an obstacle to progress.
The conservative embrace of "moral clarity" is in fact a profound repudiation of political Liberalism. The epistemic humility that is at the base of interaction between fundamentally conflicting reasonable worldviews has been tossed out the window, to leave nothing but moral Manichaeism and judgment day. We are moral, our opponents are not, there is no room for compromise (neither with OBL, nor with our political opponents), and that is the end of the conversation. Also gone is the "good faith" corollary. There are no efforts at persuasion, no operational assumption that liberals are also looking for effective ways to improve the country, merely insinuation that they are on the side of terrorists. This is where the strictly sentimental Atwater/Rove approach to politics rests its feet – on sub-rational methods to vilify and denigrate opponents.
The third axis of Liberalism is also, of course, under assault, but that isn't an essential feature of the Atwater/Rove school. It's more the Delay/Starr school. The impeachment, the 2000 election, redistricting, it's all part of an assault on the procedures that had served as a fairly neutral playing field. Even attacks on the media, science, agency rulemaking, and the judiciary are deeply antithetical to the Liberal idea of neutral institutions. Conservatives really took the "personal is political" idea to heart.
The illness of the overarching meta-norm is not a small matter. It is the only bulwark preventing healthy liberalism from devolving into Schmittian decisionism. And it is fragile. There are strong incentives for political actors to break the norm for immediate political advantage. When you are willing to accuse your opponent of being evil, of acting in bad faith to advance a nefarious agenda, you have a relieved yourself of the tedium of authentic persuasion. When this practice becomes widespread, a defensive abandonment of Liberal norms is almost inevitable, lest the opposing illiberal position win. Even the accusation that an opponent has abandoned Liberalism is at some level an illiberal accusation, as it imputes bad faith and a degree of illegitimacy to one's opponent. Liberalism is fragile, and must be constantly watered (though hopefully not with blood).
Conservatives might not disagree with the theoretical framework I've laid out here. They would merely accuse Democrats or liberals of disavowing Liberalism first. I realize that persuading them otherwise is almost certainly futile – all I can say is read Tom Daschle's Like No Other Time - the Democratic Senate Minority Leader still hasn't realized we are playing a post-Liberal game. Ted Kennedy was willing to impute good faith to Bush on Leave No Child Behind and Medicare, John Kerry on the war authorization. In contrast, no Republican supported Clinton's health care reform or first tax package. Paul Krugman's The Great Unraveling lays out the case against the GOP. Liberals (small "l") that haven't realized the nature of the game, and continue to operate under Liberal assumptions, like to kick the awakened liberals while they're down – all the while walking onto the football field with their badminton rackets. Even liberals that now think Bush is a horrible President think they are "honest critics" while clued in people (read: Atrios) are merely shrill. Mickey Kaus, Richard Cohen, most of the New Republic - anachronistic relics that spit on those fighting today's fight.
It would be great if it were some other way. Liberals (small "l") have been exceedingly reluctant to give up our fidelity to Liberalism – that's why John Kerry is still out talking about issues and policies, rather than working on a comprehensive strategy for branding Bush. I don't see a resting point though, a point where we can take a look at the bigger picture and say "I don't like where this is going," and undertake an effort to breathe life back into the Liberal meta-norm. There is simply too much incentive to cheat and too little hope for political success by unilaterally abiding by the rules. Certainly, if Bush wins, there's no reason to believe we'll ever have a chance to look back. The man doesn't have a Liberal bone in his body, wouldn't recognize it if it hit him in the face.
Not sure if this qualifies as a rant or not – it is more just a look at some of the theoretical conflicts I regularly struggle with. As we develop our left counter-institutions, I actually do have hope that we can structure things in such a way that Liberalism isn't left in the dust. Unfortunately, it's a theoretical project beyond my scope.
Josh Marshall and Michael Tomasky have done a good job dissecting the actual structure of the Republican strategy for branding John Kerry. They have asked the question: what is the liberal counterpart to this branding strategy?
After letting the situation percolate for a few days, I have the beginning of my answer. I'll present it as an exposition, without commenting on its strengths and weaknesses (though of course it has plenty). Feedback is welcome.
The thought "we want the American voting public to be thinking about [George W. Bush] by November 2," [Tomasky's phrasing]: "George W. Bush, wrong for the American people."
Strategy: three steps to get there from here:
Out of Touch. Bush is not informed about the world and not aware of the challenges real Americans are facing. He doesn't read the papers and he relies on his upper level advisors for all of his information. He shows how out of touch he is in two ways. First, in his panglossian take on the last four years. He's not aware of or able to relate to the struggles facing Americans - low wages, missing jobs, expensive health insurance, etc. He doesn't realize that we aren't safer now than we were four years ago.
Second, in his consistent distortion of Kerry's positions. George W. Bush criticizes Kerry for a $2 trillion dollar increase in spending when he has proposed a $3 trillion increase.
Irresponsible. These are serious times, and they call for responsible, adult leadership. George W. Bush fails on two counts. First, he is incapable of making hard decisions. He can't choose between two policies when a tradeoff is involved. We are on the precipice with North Korea and Iraq and Bush can't decide whether to turn the wheel or hit the brakes. He invaded Iraq only because he thought it would be easy. He couldn't even be bothered to fund it; the same goes for the rest of his decisions.
Second, George W. Bush evades accountability for everything. He blames problems on other people (usually Clinton) or acts of God. He blames failures on Democrats or underlings. The American people need a go to man, someone willing to take the blame for failures and someone who deserves praise for successes. George Bush is neither.
Unconcerned. George W. Bush takes only one thing seriously, and that's his re-election. He is willing to sacrifice anything for his personal advantage. He gives contracts to financial contributors, lets corrupt supporters off the hook for defrauding the American people, and lets contributors pillage our public resources. He distorts science to advance his agenda, sacrifices minorities and risks the health of the American people to shore up his support among his base. This lack of concern is born of his arrogance and sense of entitlement.
Tactics: It's a simple division. When George W. Bush attacks John Kerry, accuse him of being out of touch. When he accuses Kerry of proposing too much spending, respond with: "It's unfortunate that President Bush hasn't taken the time to familiarize himself with Kerry's plan before attacking it," and "he was probably pretty embarrassed to discover that he had proposed 150% the spending of John Kerry." When he accuses Kerry of voting against the intelligence budget in the 90's, we should simply note that "If President Bush knew more about the state of the intelligence services at the time, he wouldn't be making those arguments. He should ask Vice President Cheney and Congressman Porter Goss why they supported similar cuts at the time." It's a simple formula: when Bush attacks, simply note that he's out of touch, doesn't have the facts right, and is guilty himself.
When George W. Bush defends, accuse him of evading accountability. He's had four years to shape the country, and he's succeeded in passing a massive agenda through the Republican Congress. If we can't hold him accountable, the American people can never hold a first term president accountable. Accountability to the people is more important now than ever.
"Unconcerned" is for the attack. He is an arrogant little man that thinks God wants him to be president, and is working to carry out God's will. Everything else falls by the wayside. National security is a prop, literally in the case of "Mission Accomplished," figuratively in the case of the October surprise. The economy is something to talk about in a pretty way, but otherwise reward his supporters and try to build a permanent Republican majority. Social issues are wedges, mercilessly used to divide the American people in a time when unity is necessary, and actually existed for a while. George Bush is trying to pull the wool over our eyes.
George W. Bush: Out of Touch. Irresponsible. Unconcerned. Wrong for the American People.
Usually, when a nominee is subjected to Senate scrutiny, he or she will have to disavow or explain controversial prior statements. Usually, those statements are more than a couple of months old. Porter Goss, Bush's nominee for Director of Central Intelligence, is unusual. Goss has apparently discovered a commitment to bipartisanship, quite an accomplishment for a person who:
co-authored an op-ed piece "Need Intelligence? Don't Ask John Kerry" in March [AP];
supported more drastic humint cuts than those he criticized Kerry for; [Washington Post];
called the outrage at Abu Ghraib a "circus" in May [AP];
endorsed domestic intelligence operations in June [AP, Newsweek];
acquiesced to the inclusion of the Uranium-Niger claims in the SOTU [Moonie Insight]
According to the NYT, Goss will pass (there was a change of heart sometime in August, according to the Hill). George Bush is putting a partisan operative, however experienced and informed, in place at the CIA, and the Democrats are acquiescing. If Kerry wins, he can replace Goss, so this development isn't the end of the world. It's merely one more sign that Bush is more concerned with rewarding loyalists and swimming in sycophancy than protecting the American people.
Miscellaneous quotes on Goss:
Mel Goodman, a former CIA and State Department analyst, said he is “leery of people who come from the political environment on the Hill.”
“You become a deal-maker, or a schmoozer like Tenet,” said Goodman, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy. He said the CIA would be better off with a professional as director, such as a respected career diplomat. [KR]
If Porter Goss becomes the next CIA director (a big if, by the way), two predictions can be made with confidence. First, to the extent possible, he will return the agency's clandestine branch to its adventurous, gun-toting days of yore. Second, he will be ruthlessly loyal to George W. Bush. [Fred Kaplan, Slate]
Maureen Dowd of The NYTimes had it about right in her comment about Goss on HBO’s Bill Maher's "RealTime" show August 13: "Porter Goss is not going to make me sleep better at night, if Al Qaeda is coming to get us... The 9/11 Commission found that congressional oversight of intelligence was dysfunctional. Guess who was in charge of congressional oversight of intelligence? Porter Goss... You know, he helped Cheney try and suppress the 9/11 Commission at birth. They tried to suffocate it... But still, I mean, if Cheney gets his own guy in there – you know, he was already over at the CIA lurking over the analysts, trying to get them to help him make up evidence to go to war – if he has his own guy in there, think of what he can do." [Jude Wanniski]
Stansfield Turner, the CIA director under former President Jimmy Carter (1977-1981) described the nomination as the "worst in the history of the post," while Mel Goodman, a former top CIA analyst, currently at the Center for International Policy (CIP), said the Florida congressman "has all the wrong credentials," including a nine-year stint in the 1960s as a covert CIA operative in Latin America and Europe. [Jime Lobe]
Former CIA agent Larry Johnson also questioned Goss's qualifications. "There is one thing Goss didn't really do for the last several years -- he didn't chair the House Intelligence Committee, in spite of what his resume claims," said Johnson. "Instead, he did the dead man's float."
Johnson said Goss did not have the experience claimed. Goss did not "push through real reforms, for example, getting more funding for badly clandestine assets. He didn't do any of it." [Moonie Insight]
Former CIA Counter-terrorism Chief Vince Cannistraro agreed: "Goss has never been very distinguished, but he's protected. He's a Bush loyalist and has been in the forefront of those who have tried to place the major blame for the 9/11 attacks on the agency."[Moonie Insight]
PS. There really needs to be a liberal talking points factory, ideally divorced from the Democratic Party, that will put together reports on these sorts of issues. Google shouldn't be the backbone of the liberal noise machine.
PPS. Thanks to Cursor for the link. If people have a few minutes, check out this post and let me know what you think.
The GAO reports a mixed bag. Security improvements are progressing on paper, we're just not sure if that reflects reality. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is "not visiting the plants to obtain details about the plans and view how the plans interface with the plants’ physical layout," nor is it "requesting, and the facilities are generally not submitting for review, the documents and studies supporting the draft security plans." GAO-04-1064T, 9/14/04 [3-4]. This repeats an administration pattern: leaving our security in the hands of private corporations; even heavily regulated industries are being given a free hand on security measures. Isn't this an area where oversight is not just appropriate, but necessary?
The most egregious example may be this:
The agency is planning to require the use of an adversary force trained in terrorist tactics, as we recommended in our September 2003 report. However, NRC is considering the use of a force provided by a company that the nuclear power industry selected; this company provides guards for about half the facilities to be tested. This relationship with the industry raises questions about the force’s independence. GAO-04-1064T, 9/14/04 
Seriously, why bother? If the same company that is providing security for the plants is going to orchestrate the practice security ops, will we be able to get reliable or useful performance information? Given the track record of the company, the answer is a resounding "no":
[T]his company was recently involved in a controversy over similar tests. During a June 2003 DOE force-on-force exercise at a nuclear site in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, security guards working for this company received uncharacteristically high scores. A subsequent investigation by DOE’s Office of the Inspector General indicated that the guards might have cheated on the test and perhaps on many other tests at Oak Ridge, dating back to the mid-1980s. It was alleged that the guards had studied plans for the simulated attacks before they were carried out, had disabled the laser sensors they wore during tests to determine when they were “shot” by mock enemies, arranged trucks and other obstacles to help foil simulated attacks, created special, nonstandard plans to help them perform better on tests, and put more guards on duty at the time of the tests than would normally have been present. GAO-04-1064T, 9/14/04 [12-13]
Everybody else is wrong...(sort of). Tomasky has a solid column up at the American Prospect, noting that
"[M]ajorities of the public tend to agree with Democrats on the issues. This isn't universally true, of course, but it's true with regard to more issues (perhaps many more issues) than not. On health care, the environment, investment, education, just about everything except national defense, majorities lean toward the Democratic position.
This advantage, combined with our belief that policy matters, encourages Democrats to talk about issues and programs, rather than garbage like character. Matt Yglesias, Kevin Drum, even, to a degree, Laura Rozen, respond that the "national security" exception to the Democratic issue advantage might just swallow the rule this cycle.
It pains me to say it, but three of my favorite bloggers are just wrong, and they fall into the same trap that Tomasky ascribes to Democratic strategists. Public opinions about "issues" can't just be measured by abstract polls and policy platforms - they are a combination of personal values, characterological speculation, and clever framing by candidates. Bush has an advantage on Iraq "issues" solely because of his public persona, not because of anything he has done (or will do) in Iraq. Sometimes character drives issue support, especially when emotions run (artificially) high.
Perhaps we simply define "issue advantage" wrong. Democrats tend to think, "55% of American support our position, therefore we have an advantage." That's always nice to hear, but it's really irrelevant. If X>50% of the people who rank that issue the highest, or are willing to vote on that issue alone, support Republicans, then the diffuse Democratic advantage is just mist in the air.
Democrats have a policy advantage, but that shouldn't be surprising. We care about good policy, they don't. That sort of puts us back at the beginning of the conundrum, of course.
Excerpt: Seymour Hersh, Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib [237-240]
Who actually fabricated the Niger papers? When we spoke in the spring of 2003, a few weeks after the forgery was exposed, the I.A.E.A. official told me that his agency had not been able to answer that question. "It could be someone who intercepted faxes in Israel, or someone at the headquarters of the Niger foreign ministry in Niamey. We just don't know," the official said. "Somebody got old letterheads and signatures and cut and pasted."
Forged documents and false accusations have been an element in U.S. and British foreign policy toward Iraq at least since the fall of 1997, after an impasse over U.N. inspections put the British and the Americans on the losing side in the battle for international public opinion. A former Clinton Administration official told me that London had resorted to, among other things, spreading false information about Iraq. The British propaganda program – part of its Information Operations, or I/Ops – was known to a few senior officials in Washington. "I knew that was going on," the former Clinton Administration official said of the British efforts. "We were getting ready for action in Iraq, and we wanted the Brits to prepare."
Over the next year, a former American intelligence officer told me, at least one member of the U.N. inspection team who supported the American and British position arranged for dozens of unverified and unverifiable intelligence reports and tips – data known as inactionable intelligence – to be funneled to MI6 operatives and quietly passed along to newspapers in London and elsewhere. "It was intelligence that was crap, and that we couldn't move on, but the Brits wanted to plant stories in England and around the world," the former officer said. There was a series of clandestine meetings with MI6, at which documents were provided, as well as quiet meetings, usually at safe houses in the Washington area. The British propaganda scheme eventually became known to some members of the U.N. inspection team. "I knew a bit," on official still on duty at U.N. headquarters acknowledged in March 2003, "but I was never officially told about it."
In addition to speculation about MI6, press reports in the United States and elsewhere have suggested other possible sources: the Iraq exile community, the French. One theory, favored by some journalists in Rome, is that SISMI produced the false documents and passed them to Panorama for publication.
Another explanation was provided by a former senior intelligence official. "Somebody deliberately let something false get in there," he said in March 2003, when I first wrote about the forgery. "It could not have gotten into the system without the agency being involved. Therefore it was an internal intention. Someone set someone up." In interviews in subsequent months, he said that he had been told that a small group of disgruntled retired C.I.A. clandestine operators were to blame.
[SNIP more talk about C.I.A. planting the forgeries]
On March 14, 2003, Senator Jay Rockefeller, of West Virginia, the senior Democrat on the committee, formally asked Robert Mueller, the F.B.I. director, to investigate the forged documents. Rockefeller had voted for the resolution authorizing force in the fall of 2002. Now he wrote to Mueller, "There is a possibility that the fabrication of these documents may be part of a larger deception campaign aimed at manipulating public perception and foreign policy regarding Iraq." He urged the F.B.I. to ascertain the source of the documents, the skill level of the forgery, the motives of those responsible, and "why the intelligence community did not recognize the documents were fabricated."
Months later, with the investigation still open, a senior F.B.I. official told me, "This story could go several directions. We haven't gotten anything solid, and we've looked." He said that the F.B.I. agents assigned to the case are putting a great deal of effort into the investigation. But "somebody's hiding something, and they're hiding it pretty well." What was generally agreed upon, as the former senior intelligence official told me, was that "something as bizarre as Niger raises suspicions everywhere."
Hersh is a masterful writer, but his book is about a month out of date. It's a shame that he didn't get the chance to look at Rocco Martino or the Larry Franklin spy case.
So the AP asks Bush and Kerry a policy question three times a week. It then reports their answers, without context or explanation. How useful is this practice? Have a look for yourself.
"Not very" is the right answer. The two candidates cite facts and figures, but present profoundly contradictory pictures of the health of the National Park Service (NPS). Without reportorial interjection, just a bit of context, the answers are completely meaningless.
The Context: here is a July, 2004 PDF of DOI agit-prop on behalf of Bush's NPS policy, and here is Bush's campaign web page that repeats the deceptions.
Democrats and environmentalists have a pretty good idea of what was actually in the DOI report:
Committee on Resources, Ranking Democrat Congressman Nick Rahall: "A feel good report with glossy photos of the President enjoying nature cannot hide the fact that this Administration has shortchanged the national parks in favor of enacting irresponsible tax cuts and funding an unpopular war halfway around the globe," asserted Rahall. Rahall is the Ranking Democrat on the House Resources Committee which has jurisdiction over the national parks.
National Park Service Retirees: “Our national parks and the million Americans who will visit these American treasures this summer are ill served when top Interior and NPS officials cling desperately to a state of denial about the grave problems that they either created or made much worse at the parks. Surreal happy talk that is divorced from the genuinely dire reality of the situation is an insult to the proud history of the national park system and those of us who have devoted our lives to it. Gail Norton and Fran Mainella can’t just smile, pop up for photo opps at parks and then hold news conferences to spin their way out of the neglect and budget slashing of the last three years. The facts speak for themselves.”
This is obviously part of a pattern. The Campaign to Protect America's land said this in 2003:
The Department of the Interior's (DOI) recently released report, "Partnering and Managing for Excellence," simply used repackaged numbers and slick spin to twist the truth about the Administration's national park policy. The facts are clear. The Bush administration continues its massive giveaway of public lands and natural resources to private special interests and the National Parks are suffering dramatically as a result.
The Bush administration proclaims that it is addressing the National Park Service (NPS) maintenance backlog - yet in order to do so, it seems they are relying on "creative accounting." While making up glossy reports to convince the public that the Administration cares about this country's natural treasures, the Administration is ignoring the operational budgets of the parks and strangling the very core of park stewardship.
Let's turn to the veracity of Bush's answer to the AP question.
Bush: When I came to office, I pledged to reduce the maintenance backlog at our national parks. Over the last four years, I have devoted $3.9 billion to maintenance projects, putting the Park Service on track to eliminate the maintenance backlog.
Note that Bush pledged in 2000 to reduce the $5 billion backlog in NPS maintenance projects:
John Heilpren, AP, 7/9/2004: On Sept. 13, 2000, then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush traveled to Monroe, Wash., where he "pledged to eliminate the $4.9 billion maintenance and resource protection backlog at the National Park Service, over five years," according to the Bush-Cheney 2000 campaign Web site.
Perhaps Mr. Bush isn't clear what a "backlog" is - dictionary.com gives this definition: "an accumulation, especially of unfinished work or unfilled orders." That means that the "backlog" is left over stuff, outside of the normal maintenance and operating expenses. Yet look again at Bush's answer to the AP: "I have devoted $3.9 billion to maintenance projects..." Included in that $3.9 billion is current maintenance and expenditures. The Democratic Policy Committee reports that "according to the NPS's own statistics, new funding (above baseline Fiscal Year 2001 levels) to address the maintenance backlog will be only $662.3 million over four fiscal years from 2002 through 2005."
$662.3 million is a far cry from $4.9 billion. How does the Bush administration explain this discrepancy? Bad metaphors and fuzzy math. First, the bad metaphors:
John Heilprin, AP 7/8/04: Eliminating a maintenance backlog in the national parks, as President Bush promised in his 2000 campaign, is impossible, Interior Secretary Gale Norton said Thursday. She likened the park system to an old house that will forever need repairs.
"Just like in your house," Norton said in answer to a reporter's question. "You never get to the point where you say, 'Well, all done, totally zero left to do.'"
Now the fuzzy math:
John Heilprin, AP 7/8/04: Almost four years later, that figure [the $4.9 billion backlog] is seen as a "guesstimate" and "just fiction," Assistant Interior Secretary Lynn Scarlett says. Yet that number was based on Park Service figures and the General Accounting Office, Congress' investigative arm.
"It turns out that wasn't a useful guide," she said in an interview. "All of that was guesstimate. Nobody went out there and did what a real property manager does, which is to physically assess the facilities and document it."
Department officials acknowledge that no one really knows what the backlog is. But they are offering another way to look at Bush's campaign promise.
"The pledge that we're implementing is to spend $4.9 billion on that backlog and to simultaneously get the information we need to henceforth manage the parks and get them in acceptable condition," Scarlett said.
That figure was a 1997 estimate, based on Park Service information from 1993. The latest GAO estimate, from February 2002, puts the backlog at between $4.08 billion and $6.8 billion. The department does not plan an update.
"We have learned that a dollar figure is not produceable or meaningful," Scarlett said.
The GAO reports from 1997-98 (PDFs here and here) note that there is some uncertainty about the size of the backlog, but the $4.9 billion figure cited by Bush is the backlog with all the uncertain requests discarded. Also, note that the administration's newfound Ludditism on the quantification of NPS maintenance backlogs is nowhere reflected in his campaign materials. See, for example:
Fact: The President's FY 2005 budget provides $1.1 billion in funds for maintenance of park facilities and roads, a 37 percent increase over 2001 and nearly double the amount from just seven years ago. This $77 million increase over last year will bring the total investment in park facilities maintenance during the Bush Administration to $3.9 billion over four years and will help fulfill the President's funding commitment to provide $4.9 billion over 5 years.
Everything in the "Fact" portion is true, except for the last clause of the last sentence. Everything in the "Myth" portion is also true. The $3.9 billion includes about $3.3 billion for current maintenance and $660 million for backlog maintenance.
If one can call deception and dishonesty ironic, there is an irony here: the Bush administration has taken steps to get an accounting handle on the maintenance backlog problem. The GAO reports [PDF] that new processes for tracking maintenance needs will be in place by 2006. Bush could have simply said that the situation on the ground was worse than we thought, and we couldn't spend the money without good oversight and direction. Instead, he lies. And the problem is worsening:
GAO PDF 5/6/04: According to the Department of the Interior’s latest estimates, the deferred maintenance backlog for the Interior agencies participating in the fee demonstration program ranges from $5.1 billion to $8.3 billion, with the Park Service alone accounting for an estimated $4 to $7 billion. Likewise, the Forest Service, the other participating agency, estimates its total deferred maintenance backlog to be about $8 billion.
Each of Bush's other claims in the AP quote are equally dishonest.
My 2005 budget devotes more funds per employee, per acre, and per visitor than at any time in the National Park Service's history.
Distortion: There is more money for parks per acre, per visitor and per employee than ever before.
Fact: Accounting trickery gives an illusion of progress. There is more money per worker and visitor because staffing and park attendance have been down during the last three years. There is more money per acre because park acreage has remained essentially flat while the budget has gone up.
Or as the National Park Service Retirees put it:
NPSR: This is a case of Mainella and Norton playing fast and loose with the facts, rather than simply lying. Their claim is true only for the past three years in that total employment in the NPS has declined, the number of visitors to the parks has gone down and park acreage has remained essentially constant. In other words, Mainella and Norton are correct about their claim only to the extent that our park system is in decline, which makes this “evidence” a particularly cynical example of twisting statistics to make a point.
Brad Knickerbocker of Christian Science Monitor is a must read journalist on Park issues. He reported in 2003 on declining attendance figures:
CSM, 8/12/03: An internal Park Service memo shows that the total number of "recreation visits" at the parks has dropped almost 16.8 million since January 2000.
"The downward trend that began in 2000 is continuing as inclement weather, global warfare, and especially the uncertain economic conditions are resulting in a disturbing future for visitation to the NPS," states the Park Service memo.
Combined with the Bush Administration's push for, and costly study of, privatizing park employees, is it any surprise that expenditure per employee is up?
ENS, 5/20/03: Environmentalists say the Bush administration is forcing the National Park Service to cut millions of dollars in needed repair and rehabilitation projects in order to pay for homeland security and to pay for studying the privatization of some 1,700 agency jobs.
Bush's next sentence in his AP answer:
Since 2001, the Park Service operations budget has increased 20 percent to $1.8
This is also true, though again misleading without context. It neglects to mention two relevant facts. First, 20% isn't much over a 4 year period, given the roughly 4% annual increases in pay, and the normal cost increases. Second, there have been unusual natural disaster and security expanses that have commandeered significant NPS resources. Brad Knickerbocker, again, provides some background:
CSM 5/25/04: Part of the problem is, the park service has had other expensive obligations to meet: scheduled pay raises for federal employees, cleaning up after hurricanes and other natural disasters, and - since the terrorist attacks of 911 - providing extra security for places like the Statue of Liberty and the Washington Monument when the Department of Homeland Security declares a Code Orange alert.
Evidence for the funding shortfalls isn't hard to come by. The best clue might be the internal memoranda circulated to Park Superintendents:
Memo 2/20/04: Although a few parks were fortunate to receive a base operating increase in the FY04 appropriation, the majority of Northeast Region Parks are beginning this fiscal year with fewer operating dollars than in FY03.
The memo then informs the superintendents not to inform their constituents, or if they feel they must, to not call the cuts "cuts," but instead "service level adjustments:"
Id: If you are personally pressed by the media in an interview, we all agreed to use the terminology of "service level adjustment" due to fiscal constraints as a means of describing what actions we are taking.
Administration functionaries of course denied that service cuts were planned [see also AP 3/18/04]. 85% of the entities within the NPS were operating with a smaller base budget in 2004 than 2003.
Bill Wade, former superintendent of Shenandoah National Park and spokesman for the Coalition of Concerned National Park Service Retirees, perhaps said it best: ENS, 7/12/04: The parks and the public are "ill served when top Interior and Park Service officials cling desperately to a state of denial about the grave problems that they either created or made much worse at the parks." We are all ill served by a press that avoids context like the plague.
So why do Republicans get to comment on the strategic wisdom of Al Gore's speeches?
Republicans, however, say Gore's passion on the campaign path has reached an unhealthy fever pitch that could do Democrats more harm than good.
GOP strategist Keith Appell likens him to "some kind of cheerleader on acid."
"Some of the things he has said have been outrageous and he says them in this high-pitched scream," Appell said. "I really don't know what to call that."
How responsible is it for the AP to include quotes like this without referring to the broader GOP strategy of branding partisan liberals as "wild-eyed" crazies who don't deserve to be listened to?
Keith Appell is a former MRC hack, a former Club for Growth spokesperson, a former Creative Response Concepts (the group pushing both the SBVfT and the Rather forgeries story) hack, a former Ashcroft campaign consultant, and an all-round social Neanderthal. He pushes quackery like "gay conversion," among other issues. If Gore were an extremist, Appell would be able to identify it.
When Democrats are asked about Gore, our response should be: He is a good, responsible man, a proud public servant. He has thirty years of experience in government, and knows how the Bush campaign operates better than any single person. Rather than attack the man, the GOP should address his charges.
Saletan's Slate piece, comparing Bush's national security strategy to Roy Riegels, a college football player that scored a touchdown for his opponent's teams, provides a nice bit of rhetoric. The problem is that it doesn't go far enough.