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Wednesday, August 31, 2005

No one can say they didn't see it coming

In 2001, FEMA warned that a hurricane striking New Orleans was one of the three most likely disasters in the U.S. But the Bush administration cut New Orleans flood control funding by 44 percent to pay for the Iraq war.

By Sidney Blumenthal
Salon -- Aug. 31, 2005

Biblical in its uncontrolled rage and scope, Hurricane Katrina has left millions of Americans to scavenge for food and shelter and hundreds to thousands reportedly dead. With its main levee broken, the evacuated city ofNew Orleans has become part of the Gulf of Mexico. But the damage wrought bythe hurricane may not entirely be the result of an act of nature.

A year ago the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposed to study how New Orleans could be protected from a catastrophic hurricane, but the Bush administration ordered that the research not be undertaken. After a flood killed six people in 1995, Congress created the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project, in which the Corps of Engineers strengthened and renovated levees and pumping stations.

In early 2001, the Federal Emergency Management Agency issued a report stating that a hurricane striking New Orleans was one of the three most likely disasters in the U.S., including a terrorist attack on New York City. But by 2003 the federal funding for the flood control project essentially dried up as it was drained into the Iraq war.

In 2004, the Bush administration cut funding requested by the New Orleans district of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for holding back the waters of Lake Pontchartrain by more than 80 percent. Additional cuts at thebeginning of this year (for a total reduction in funding of 44.2 percent since 2001) forced the New Orleans district of the Corps to impose a hiring freeze. The Senate had debated adding funds for fixing New Orleans' levees, but it was too late.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune, which before the hurricane published a series on the federal funding problem, and whose presses are now underwater, reported online: "No one can say they didn't see it coming ... Now in the wake of one of the worst storms ever, serious questions are being asked about the lack of preparation.

"The Bush administration's policy of turning over wetlands to developers almost certainly also contributed to the heightened level of the storm surge. In 1990, a federal task force began restoring lost wetlands surrounding New Orleans. Every two miles of wetland between the Crescent City and the Gulf reduces a surge by half a foot. Bush had promised "no net loss" of wetlands, a policy launched by his father's administration and bolstered by President Clinton. But he reversed his approach in 2003, unleashing the developers. The Army Corps of Engineers and the EnvironmentalProtection Agency then announced they could no longer protect wetlands unless they were somehow related to interstate commerce.

In response to this potential crisis, four leading environmental groups conducted a joint expert study, concluding in 2004 that without wetlands protection New Orleans could be devastated by an ordinary, much less a Category 4 or 5, hurricane. "There's no way to describe how mindless a policy that is when it comes to wetlands protection," said one of the report's authors. The chairman of the White House's Council on Environmental Quality dismissed the study as "highly questionable," and boasted, "Everybody loves what we're doing."

"My administration's climate change policy will be science based," President Bush declared in June 2001. But in 2002, when the Environmental Protection Agency submitted a study on global warming to the United Nations reflecting its expert research, Bush derided it as "a report put out by a bureaucracy," and excised the climate change assessment from the agency's annual report. The next year, when the EPA issued its first comprehensive "Report on the Environment," stating, "Climate change has global consequences for human health and the environment," the White House simply demanded removal of the line and all similar conclusions.

At the G-8 meeting in Scotland this year, Bush successfully stymied any common action on global warming. Scientists, meanwhile, have continued to accumulate impressive data on the rising temperature of the oceans, which has produced more severe hurricanes.

In February 2004, 60 of the nation's leading scientists, including 20 Nobel laureates, warned in a statement, "Restoring Scientific Integrity in Policymaking": "Successful application of science has played a large part in the policies that have made the United States of America the world's most powerful nation and its citizens increasingly prosperous and healthy ... Indeed, this principle has long been adhered to by presidents and administrations of both parties in forming and implementing policies. The administration of George W. Bush has, however, disregarded this principle ... The distortion of scientific knowledge for partisan political ends must cease." Bush completely ignored this statement.

In the two weeks preceding the storm in the Gulf, the trumping of science by ideology and expertise by special interests accelerated. The Federal Drug Administration announced that it was postponing sale of the morning-after contraceptive pill, despite overwhelming scientific evidence of its safety and its approval by the FDA's scientific advisory board. The United Nations special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa accused the Bush administration of responsibility for a condom shortage in Uganda -- the result of the administration's evangelical Christian agenda of "abstinence."

When the chief of the Bureau of Justice Statistics in the Justice Department was ordered by the White House to delete its study that African-Americans and other minorities are subject to racial profiling in police traffic stops andhe refused to buckle under, he was forced out of his job.

When the Army Corps of Engineers' chief contracting oversight analyst objected to a $7 billion no-bid contract awarded for work in Iraq to Halliburton (the firm at which Vice President Cheney was formerly CEO), she was demoted despite her superior professional ratings. At the National Park Service, a former Cheney aide, a political appointee lacking professional background, drew up a plan to overturn past environmental practices and prohibit any mention of evolution while allowing sale of religious materialsthrough the Park Service.

On the day the levees burst in New Orleans, Bush delivered a speech in California comparing the Iraq war to World War II and himself to Franklin D.Roosevelt: "And he knew that the best way to bring peace and stability to the region was by bringing freedom to Japan." Bush had boarded his very own "Streetcar Named Desire."

Sidney Blumenthal is a former assistant and senior advisor toPresident Clinton and the author of "The Clinton Wars," is writing a column for Salon and the Guardian of London.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Transformation of federal civil service long overdue

I must confess my jaw dropped when I learned earlier this week that the Treasury Board Department in Ottawa has been quietly been working on a plan that would see the elimination of 41,000 of approximately 291,000 federal civil service jobs.

Until recently no government would have had the temerity to contemplate such a move for fear of alienating Quebec voters. But now with a majority of Quebecers set to yet again vote for the Bloc Quebecois Liberal strategists are now focussed on picking up seats in key battleground provinces like British Columbia.

Extensive polling has told the Martin government that British Columbians want more money for health care, more money for our long suffering military and money to improve our national highway systems. But we do not want to pay more in taxes, in fact we already feel over taxed and would like some federal tax relief.

We also feel very alienated from the federal civil service in Ottawa which is predominantly white and francaphone. This contrasts sharply with the ethnic diversity of British Columbia where residents are far more likely to speek Cantonese or Punjabi than French.

One move the federal government has already commited to is relocating the Canadian Tourism Centre (CTC) from Ottawa to Vancouver. For those of us living on the westcoast such a move seemed to be a no brainer but that did not stop indignant howls of protest coming from Ottawa area MPs.

But what we want to see even more is a reduction in what is widely perceived to be a bloated civil service. Certainly trimming 41,000 positions is a good start. Treasury Board analysts conservatively estimate this would save $11 billion over a five year period. Best of all many of these job reducations can be achieved by going to shared services model and eliminating the duplication that currently occurs.

But beyond a much needed trimming of our federal civil service there needs to be a new model where our civil service better reflects the make up of our country. That means moving from the old bilingual model to one which is multi-lingual and multi-ethnic.

It means placing less emaphasis on being fluent in both official languages and more on being fluent in one, passable in the other and bonus points if you are fluent in a third language. In significantly widening the pool of talent upon which they have to draw, Ottawa would also emerge with a civil serive that is far more capable and in tune with the needs and aspirations of all Canadians.

This column was published in the August 12, 2005 Vancouver Edition of 24 hrs, www.24hrs.ca

Monday, August 01, 2005

This too shall pass

In the 20th century we have seen various “isms” come and go. Amongst the most destructive were fascism and of course communism. As history has demonstrated time and time again, any fanatical ism usually ends up have the direct opposite effect of what its leaders and followers originally espoused.

Take fascism. Hitler’s “thousand year Reich” lasted a mere dozen years. And as blood soaked as those years were they brought about the utter destruction of Hitler and his henchmen. Instead of the eradication of the Jews, there emerged the new nation state of Israel, something that likely would not have happened if not for the Second World War and the horror of the Holocaust.

Then there is Communism which was supposed to be about ending the oppression of working men and women and bringing about a better world. Instead it delivered mass starvation, executions and death camps which claimed the lives of approximately 100 million people during the 20th century.

Unfortunately this particular ism still survives in a few corners of the world. In China it survives in name only. You still have one party rule, but that party now serves to encourage rather than discourage capitalism and economic growth in China. In North Korea an estimated one million Koreans starved to death, thus adding to communisms deadly toll in the 21st century and in Cuba an aging Fidel Castro hangs on by jailing political opponents and courting western tourists and their much needed dollars.

But Communism is on the way out. Sooner or later North Korea will collapse, much the same way as East Germany did. As was the case with West Germany, South Korea will simply absorb its economically hobbled neighbour and move forward as one nation. Sooner or later Castro will die of old age and with it will go his one party rule.

But the latest death cult to emerge is Islamic Fundamentalism and a loose terror organization called Al Quaida. But like communism and fascism it seems to be bringing about the opposite effect of what it has intended.

Through its terror attacks in New York, London, Bali and Egypt, there is growing concern and anger amongst mainstream Muslim communities around the world. Best of all a growing number of Imams, including quite a number here in Canada have been speaking out against the Al Quaida terrorists.

So rather than rallying support in the Muslim world, the terrorist actions are serving to isolate those religious leaders who put forth a fanatical version of Islam that is based on hatred and fear rather than love and respect. In short by killing innocent men, women and children the terrorists have served only to desecrate and discredit everything they stand for in the eyes of a growing number of people around the world.

That is why it is important that we in the West do not overreact to what the terrorists are doing, because that is exactly what they want us to do. For example, I do not think it was mere coincidence that the bombings in London occurred just as the United States congress was debating whether or not to renew the ironically named “Patriot Act.”

These Islamic terrorists know that the light of freedom emanating from the Western World is a powerful beacon. In Iran which has spent almost 30 years run by a repressive theocracy you will find the most pro-western populace in the Middle East outside of Israel.

If out of fear we are foolish enough to turn our western democracies into police states then the terrorists truly will have won. I for one have no desire to see my children and grandchildren grow up in a repressive police state any more than I would want to see them grow up in an 8th century Caliphate. In either scenario the lunatics, or more specifically psychopaths and sociopaths, end up running the show.

We have already had one tragedy where a young Brazilian man was mistakenly shot dead by London police. Given the way the police act in Brazil, including dealing with homeless street children by killing them, it is not entirely surprising that when confronted with armed police officers this innocent young Brazilian man ran away in fear. He paid for that decision with his life.

Having done consulting work for a number of security companies, I am well aware of the technology that is available to unobtrusively scan for explosives and weapons. It is that technology that we should be investing in. We will also likely have to put up with more in the way of closed circuit television cameras or CCTVs as they like to say in Britain.

Although I don’t like it, I am willing to put up with this added level of electronic surveillance on public transportation systems in order to make these systems safer for commuters. It would also serve to greatly reduce the kind of criminal activity that has, for example, occurred at several Skytrain stations in the Greater Vancouver area.

What we should not be willing to do is give up any of our rights as citizens in a free and democratic society. This means that our police must remain at all times accountable to the public it serves. Yes the police in Britain made a tragic mistake, but they also have achieved a number of remarkable successes in terms of finding and arresting those associated with the terrorist bombings.

Meanwhile the best example the world has yet seen is the stoic attitude of the British people themselves who refuse to be cowed by these psychopathic terrorists. As Winston Churchill defiantly declared to the Nazis during the Second World War, “You do your worst and we’ll do our best.”

Finally one of the best things to come out of the recent wave of London terror bombings is to help encourage the IRA to give up its cache of weapons and utilize democratic rather than terrorist methods to achieve their political objectives.
Again rather than causing the unraveling of the western world, Al Quaida’s terrorist attacks have inadvertently helped end one of the bloodiest problems that had plagued the English speaking world throughout the late 20th century.

Will there be more terrorist attacks? Almost certainly and they may even occur here in Canada as well. But no matter how bad things get this latest fanatical ism will also be relegated to the dust bin of history.