Monday, September 30, 2013


For a very interesting and well-informed perspective on Al Shabaab and the recent terrorist attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, I recommend this report from the always-excellent Peter Greste of Al Jazeera English.

Greste suggests that my (when it was published) contrarian analysis of Al Shabaab as a declining rather than ascending threat is becoming more of a commonplace in Nairobi, where he is based.  He then offers a refutation, which, in my typically insistent way, I see largely as a confirmation.

What’s my logic?

The picture he paints of Al Shabaab activity inside Somalia is of a once-aspiring revolutionary movement now descended into simple, if widespread criminality.  The once alluring moral authority of Al Shabaab’s late predecessor the Islamic Courts Movement has devolved from religious fidelity into extremist puritanical tyranny.  Gone, as in much of once Taliban-controlled Afghanistan (and northwest Pakistan), is all but a fragment of popular support.  Discredited is a group that once claimed to be better, both in morality and efficiency, than the Government.  What has replaced subscription or tolerance is just fear.

Al Shabaab’s wannabe prophets of a purer Islam are now seen just as dangerous criminals.  Their success is simply extortion.  They may still be a constant and menacing presence in Mogadishu, as Greste bravely reports from the scene, but almost everyone who lives there wishes only for their absence.

This in all the important terms of Al Shabaab’s one-time ambitions is devastating failure.

It must also be said, and seriously thought upon, that in today’s difficult world, noted in my previous pieces on the Kenya attack, a weak central government means lots of ungoverned spaces.  And in those inchoate zones, there are many desperate and angry people who can still be mobilized into desperate and angry actions.  And, worse, there is endless, easy access for these desperados to powerful, portable weapons, supplied by rich and irresponsible sponsors to fanatic criminals like those acting as Al Shabaab, who commissioned the Westgate Mall raid.

As presently constituted, the armed and police forces of the government of Somalia, and the visiting troops of the African Union, the Kenyan Army and the Ethiopian Army and Air Force, lack both the will or the capability to pursue and extirpate the urban extortionists or hidey-hole terrorist commanders out in the Somali bush.

That may change, as an effective response to the Nairobi attack is organized.  Again, as I said before, attackers come with “jackets,” criminal and security files, so that, once identified, they and their contacts go up on military and intelligence radar screens.  For them, the hunt is on.  It will be long, slow and expensive, and alas, violent and often not-well-focused.  But if Al Shabaab and its diminishing support network are not already on the run, they soon will be.

But for them, the revolution is over, and whatever battles they may win, the war is lost.  Now (as always) the real job is to make government in Somalia, in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, (in Kenya and Ethiopia, Congo and Zimbabwe, and for God’s sake, in the USA) work.

This struggle will be longer and harder than eliminating Al Shabaab.

Saturday, September 28, 2013


I consider Seymour Hersh to be both a personal friend and a hero of American journalism.  His recent rant, delivered to an audience in London, and turned into an article this week in The Guardian is must-read and must-think-about material.



It has also pissed a lot of people off, including other journalist friends I love and respect, several of whom have opined somewhat grumpily, “Well, Sy has been known to lie himself,” or slightly more circumspectly, “Sy’s published some inaccurate stories without discernible sources.”


Really?  No cases I can readily cite of either crime.


Honestly, as infuriating as Sy can be with his, well-earned perhaps, superiority complex, and tendency to be dismissive of anyone else's reporting, I can't think of any serious "lying" he might have done (at least to his readers), or any cases in which I suspected his often-unnamed (usually for good reasons) sources did not exist.

I think Hersh is right that there has been a sea change in reporting between the Bush2 and Obama eras, in part because it was the habit of Bush and Cheney and their junior partners like Rumsfeld, Wolkowitz, Tenet, C Rice, et al, to string together fake-facts that confirmed their often ignorant and ideological assumptions, and then make it as hard as possible to prove them wrong, while Obama and his gang of enablers (Gibbs, Axelrod, Kerry, Clinton, S Rice, Donilon, Pannetta, Petraeus) simply dissemble and walk away, confident they and their statements will not be directly challenged by journalists.


The Bush team, like Reagan's before them, were supremely confident in their own stupidities, while the less ideological, less committed, more pragmatic Obamians are more aware of how much they don't know and how dangerous for them it would be politically, if everyone else found that out.


Sy's unfortunately undocumented rant (he's a much lazier pundit than he is a reporter) does reflect a reality of shifts in news media budgeting -- more money for stars, less for workers; more for sets or graphic redesigns, less for reporting, and editorial (ir)responsibility -- more opinion, preferably loud, mindless argument, less actual information and analysis.  Then there is the time-for-thought (and research) foreshortening that has come with the 24 hours news cycle, and on TV in particular, the abandonment of public service for private profit (whose insane growth itself has been a major displacer of old budgeting priorities).


The lobotomizing of public information and the public discussions which depend on it is probably the most indelible marker of America's tragic national decline since World War 2.  The news media (especially television)-applied cannula to the nation's frontal lobes has enabled the shallow thinking and unscrupulous illogic of today's hyper-partisans by denying them even the expectation, much less the necessity of factual information on which to base their opinions.


Challenging authority, which Sy rightly calls one of our main reportorial assignments, demands hard, time-consuming work to acquire the facts and understand and order them to make the challenging counter-argument.  No one has exemplified that meticulous scholarship than Seymour Hersh. 


Today's news media (1) do not hire troublemakers (like Sy) who would pick up the challenge; (2) do not encourage the people they do hire to aspire to think outside conventionality; (3) will not publish anything which might "cause trouble" for themselves, their institutions or for the powerful people with whom they socialize or aspire to; (4) do not permit the off-the-ball research necessary to get to the bottom of counter-conventional reality; (5) consider that kind of real reporting "unaffordable," just as today's political and business leaders consider any real social safety net for poor or elderly citizens to be "unaffordable."  After all, most of them either looked the other way, or actively participated when public and corporate money that could have been spent on pension and health insurance obligations was diverted into executive’s or shareholder’s bank accounts.


I wish Sy had bothered to structure his argument more rigorously and to buttress it with checkable facts rather than unverifiable assertions, like his claim that the story of the killing of Osama Bin Laden is "a pack of lies," but do I think he is in any way wrong in his broad-scale conclusions about today’s news business?  Sadly, I do not.


To Sy, I only say, as we once used to imprint at the bottom of every page, “More, More More.”

Wednesday, September 25, 2013


If this were a baseball story, the wire service capsule might be:

"Literacy 2, 6 Book Banners 5, 1.

"ASHEBORO, N.C. -- In the decisive second game of their administrative double-header, the Randolph County, North Carolina School Board voted 6 to 1 at a special meeting Wednesday night to reverse a 5-2 vote a week ago Monday that ordered school librarians to remove all copies of Ralph Ellison’s acclaimed novel The Invisible Man from their library shelves."

In fact, here's how The Associated Press reported the story: "ASHEBORO, N.C. -- The Randolph County Board of Education voted Wednesday to rescind its ban on Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man," returning it to local high school libraries.

The Courier-Tribune of Asheboro reports the board voted 6-1 at a special meeting to reverse the ban it issued 10 days ago. The board voted 5-2 on Sept. 16 to pull the book from high school library shelves.

The initial decision came in reaction to a complaint from the mother of a Randleman High School student who said the book was "too much for teenagers." The mother specifically objected to the book's language and sexual content.

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A statement from the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina Legal Foundation applauded the reversal.

"Tonight, the Randolph County Board of Education righted a wrong. The freedom to read is just as essential to a healthy democracy as the freedom of speech and all other rights protected by the U.S. Constitution," foundation legal director Chris Brook said.

"This episode should serve as a valuable reminder to students, teachers, parents, and school officials across the state of our ongoing duty to promote academic freedom, ensure the free exchange of ideas and information, and reject the always looming threat that censorship and suppression, for any reason, pose to a free society," Brook said.

"Invisible Man" is a first-person narrative by a black man who considers himself socially invisible. It was originally published in 1952. The ban sparked local reaction and led to media attention across the nation.

Before the meeting, Donald Matthews, president of the Randolph County chapter of the NAACP, released a letter to the county school board stating that local NAACP members disagree with the book ban. On Wednesday, a local book store began distributing free copies of the book contributed by the publisher to county high school students."

Free copies for all county high school students? How cool is that!!

And, as long as we are looking back, let's take a second look at the reportedly Al Shabaab-directed terrorist attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya. This was a terrible and frightening crime, but already, the NY Times seems to be taking dictation from American intelligence and Africanist think tank sources to inflate everything that happened there, and especially the threat to the United States.

Frankly, this is reminiscent of the panic (and self-interest) American officials and strategic counter-terrorist thinkers spread after the attacks on 9/11. Take a look at Barton Gellman’s brilliant book Angler, on the Vice Presidency of Dick Cheney. It presents a portrait of a "leader" fleeing to his bunker, virtually peeing down his leg, sure that 9/12 and the days after would see a series of follow-on attacks by Al Qaeda.

Actually, 9/11 was both the high-water mark and the beginning of the end of Al Qaeda as a terrorist threat. The suicidal nature of the attacks on the World Trace Center, the Pentagon, and probably the White House, not only cost the terrorist 19 of their most highly-trained, highly-skilled, cosmopolitan undercover agents, it identified them, and allowed American and allied intelligence agencies to trace their movements and contacts, taking off the board still more valuable personnel and networks. Although Al Qaeda has stayed alive, and has committed more crimes, their magnitude and impact have been sharply reduced, and their attempts to expand their range to "the far enemies" of the west have also diminished.

Expect the same for Al Shabaab. the fact that many of the terrorists have been taken alive, and will be available for questioning, as well as post-facto investigation, should prove of great value to the counter-terrorism services of Kenya, the US, and their allies. Further, once again, the price of striking a dramatic blow has been very high for the Somali terrorist militia. It has "used up" many, if not most of its "best people," especially those whose English-language skills allowed them to penetrate Kenya, and would make them dangerous to the US and other western countries where English is a common first or second language. The dead and the captured will now reveal not just identities but "tails," connections to other people, places and organizations which are now in great danger.

As with Al Qaeda and 9/11, Al Shabaab, already largely driven to hidey-holes in the Somali bush, and already riven with deadly internal disputes, may never recover from its greatest "victory."

Yesterday's Times report, went to absurd lengths to magnify the terrorists' achievements.

They were able to sneak across the Somali-Kenya border. This is something Somali peasants having been doing every day for years. Yes, as the Times noted, corruption of poorly-paid, virtually untrained Kenyan border guards adds to the problem, but basically, this is a long border, and can be penetrated without paying off officials.

They were able to gain "inside help" at the Mall, and this allowed them to smuggle in, large, devastating belt-fed machine guns. The ability to pay off a mall employee, even a Mall security employee to get big boxes surreptitiously brought in, while it has horrible effects, is, again, hardly a major feat of sophisticated planning and execution.

Once the terrorists were in place (and given the damage to the Mall structure, it will likely take weeks to fully search for corpses, terrorists and their victims, and get a count on how many attackers were involved) they proved very hard to overcome. As I said in my last blast, people who have no compunctions about killing will kill many before they are stopped. That they we so heavily armed is sobering, but should not be surprising. Again, to repeat myself, our wicked world is full of weapons, heavy and light, and is also oversupplied with rich benefactors who will buy weapons and help get them to religious or ideological killers. No surprises there.

It is the nature of crime and punishment that particular crimes will take authorities by surprise, even if they have been both watching and planning for such events for years. Very few crimes are prevented, except in the wake of prior crimes. The post 9/11 investigations did allow US and allied intelligence agencies to prevent some planned follow-on attacks. The post Westgate Mall investigations are likely to do the same.

Especially since they will be led by agencies which have long been operating, and gathering valuable, even if not pre-emptive intelligence on Al Shabaab, notwithstanding strains in US-Kenyan relations over our policy of "distancing" from the indicted Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta.

Today's Times piece from Kenya,, in addition to hyping the Al Shabaab "threat" to the US -- at least no one is calling it "the homeland" -- is bursting with arguments for the necessity of the US to swallow its principles against credibly-accused mass-murderers and to embrace the political leader who is also, somehow, the country's biggest private land-owner.


He needs us more than we need him, and President Kenyatta's hurt pride has been no bar to ongoing American law enforcement, intelligence and military operations.

It may help some guy at a Nairobi think tank to suck up to Mr. Kenyatta, but it is help we almost certainly do not need.

None of this seems to have occurred to the folks at "the world's greatest newspaper."

As to the idea that any of the Al Shabaab-indoctrinated Somali-Americans might be using their passports to return home with mayhem on their agendas, umm, Timesfolk, this does not seem to me a believable scenario.

Even if they use some other passports (duh), US borders are harder to penetrate than Kenya's, and smuggling or buying guns here -- while appallingly easy for too many people -- are not likely to be Kenya-easy tasks for Somali-Americans. And by the way, the best reason for that is not anti-Black racism among gun-sellers, but the high level of patriotism among Somali-Americans, who like other immigrant groups, stand ready to rat out people from their community ready to destroy the country they love, and the much-improved lives they have created here.

Are Al Shabaab and terrorism real threats? Of course they are, but panicky threat-inflation, by government officials, "experts" or journalists is unhelpful and flat ridiculous.


Tuesday, September 24, 2013


It has become axiomatic: the torment of counter-terrorism is, “the counter-terrorists have to win all the time; the terrorists only have to win once.”

To do what?

To convince people that the terrorists are a constant, powerful threat who can make people and states do things they would otherwise not choose to do.

A perfect example of that is this weekend’s bloody mass murder at a Nairobi shopping mall.  Even once the Kenyan authorities can finally correctly claim that the attack is over, that the terrorists are all dead or captured, in their own terms, the bad guys “won.”

They achieved their ultimate goal: global coverage, global recognition of their ability to kill and frighten, of their “mission” to reclaim Somalia for radical absolutist Islam, of their division of the world into Muslims and targets, and of their identification of both “international” and wannabe-cosmopolitan Kenyan consumers as their particular enemies.

But, today, on NPR’s great news broadcast All Things Considered, I heard the implications of their triumph further magnified by the analysis of an accredited “expert,” J. Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council's Africa Center.

Pham rightly scorned exaggerated claims by Western powers, especially the Obama White House, that the war against Al Shabaab, the Somalia-based Islamist militia and claimed director of the Nairobi mall attack has been a success, that it has crushed Al Shabaab and left them a spent force.

Asked what he concluded from the events in Kenya, Pham said, the attack showed exactly what the terrorists had hoped, that they were still a formidable enemy.  Then, he added, that the US was undermining its own efforts against terrorism and Al Shabaab by trying to keep distance from Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta and the government of Ethiopia, both of whom, he said, could be valuable allies in the counter-terror war.

Pham did have the intellectual honesty to note that President Kenyatta is presently under indictment by the International Criminal Court for his own widely-reported role in fostering mass-murder of his civilian Kenyan political and/or tribal opponents following national elections in 2007.  But he recommended mending fences with Ethiopia without noting that government’s well-established record of mass-oppression and murder of its civilian political and/or tribal opponents.

One could call this reluctant pragmatism, but I would call it foolishness of the sort that makes countering terrorism so hard.

What the mass murders at the Westgate Mall shows me is how little it takes, beyond great malignity of will, to commit a terrorist atrocity.  The dirty little secret of counter-terrorism is not how mighty are our enemies, but how miniscule.  But, in a world awash in desperate, truly marginalized people, full of powerful, easily portable weapons, and religiously or ideologically-driven benefactors who will buy the guns and bombs that make losers into terrorist “winners,” a lot of bad shit is going to happen.  And no one, not even the collective efforts of the world’s professional counter-terrorists, can consistently stop them.

Mosquitos can cause deadly epidemics, but they are still mosquitos.

Remember John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, the “DC Sniper” and his teenaged running-mate?  Back in 2002, they killed 10 people and critically injured 3 more in a series of random attacks in the Washington metropolitan area before they were finally captured by police.  The truth is, they could have killed many more, and escaped arrest a lot longer if Muhammad, like many criminals, wasn’t so stupid and ego-controlled that he called CNN to brag about his vicious prowess and thereby helped police to track him and Malvo down.     

If he had been content to kill randomly and indiscriminately without demanding credit, he might have been unstoppable.  Killing people with no motive but murder is easy.

Yes, bringing together and arming a dozen or more people is harder to do than firing up one plus one; and co-ordinating them to run amok through a shopping center might be marginally more complex than pairing up to pick off people walking in their neighborhoods or pumping gas at service stations in the suburbs of Virginia and Maryland. 

Muhammad and Malvo were no criminal geniuses, just guys with guns who didn’t care whom they killed.  How much more credit do you really want to give the killers of the Westgate Mall?  How much organizational skill do you want to credit to their Islamist masters back in the Somali bush?

Enough to make us as a nation want to snuggle up to an accused mass-murderer or two?

Our campaign against Al Shabaab has had its successes.  It has, with the help of “invited” invaders from Kenya and Ethiopia, driven the Islamists from their strongholds in virtually every urban agglomeration in Somalia, and weakened their hold on many parts of the countryside, thus buying for the still new government in Mogadishu both space and time to develop.  But in an impoverished country which for 20 years had no credible central government and where rule of law is still barely above non-existent, it doesn’t take much in the way of organization, financial support and armed force to create an opposition.

In Somalia, Al Shabaab may be far from defeated (and claims to the contrary from distant Washington are nothing but obnoxious, if not delusional), but the shocking headlines from Nairobi don’t change the fact that it is losing.  A loser’s occasional win does not make them winners, although panicky overreactions to their terrorist deeds can make them feel like they are.

As far as I can tell, the Kenyan Army’s incursion into southern Somalia has had at least mixed results, and one should note, it and they have been sustained notwithstanding America’s estrangement from President Kenyatta.  On the other hand, American collaboration with air and ground attacks inside Somalia by Ethiopian forces has not been as well-received.  In part because the Ethiopian Air Force, with US “trainers” on board some of the planes, have killed more innocent civilians than targeted terrorists, and in part because Christian-majority Ethiopia is generally considered an “ancient enemy” in mostly-Muslim Somalia, the US’ involvement with the Ethiopians likely strengthened popular tolerance if not support for Al Shabaab more than it weakened it.

Better we invest in the Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud and try to build his government which seems to aspire to rule of law values from the inside, than swallow our principles and ally ourselves with outsiders like the indicted Kenyatta or the latest autocrat in Addis Ababa, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn.

The true triumph of terrorism is not in killing innocent victims, but in corrupting the daily lives and political decisions of those who survive.

It is the true terror of our times that it takes so few degraded people to accomplish that.


Sunday, September 22, 2013


There will be a Randolph County, North Carolina rabies clinic on Tuesday, and for $10 you can find out if your dog or cat has rabies.
It might cost a bit more for tests to find out what bit 5 of the 7 members of the county School Board last Monday, but their rabid attack on Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel The Invisible Man seems headed for a rollback. 

At least the Board has scheduled a meeting for Wednesday, PBS Newshour reported Friday, “to discuss” the decision to ban from school libraries one of Time Magazine’s  100 Best Novels ever written in the English language.

The Board had voted 5 to 2 to remove the book after a complaint from a self-described “parent of an eleventh-grader,” who was quoted Thursday by UPI: “This novel is not so innocent; instead, this book is filthier, too much for teenagers,”  The Board’s decision overrode recommendations from representatives of the complainant’s school and district.
The vote also followed attempts by members of the School Board to read the book.  “It was a hard read,” Board Chair Tommy McDonald reported, while Board member Gary Mason said he “didn’t find any literary value” in it. Mason also objected to the language in the book.

I sympathize with Mr. McDonald; when I was in the summer between my 11th and 12th grade, I found The Invisible Man, “hard,” too.  It is a complex, angry book, difficult to stay with emotionally and demanding intellectually.  It is also one of the best books I have ever read, but has stuck with me for 55 years, shaping me every day since I read it.

I was blessed to have grown up, from age 5 to 11, with an African-American family as my back-fence neighbors, and best after-school friends.  Because Virginia’s schools were still segregated then, we couldn’t be school friends, but after I’d walked the 2 blocks to my home, and they’d been bused an hour to theirs, we were best buds, playing softball and basketball in their spacious side yard.  Thus, we averted any issues that might have attended our using the public school fields and courts down the hill from my house.  Even after we moved into Richmond, I would take the city bus out to my old neighborhood and walk to the Lamberts’ for a visit.  When we moved north to White Plains, NY, the year before I read Ellison’s masterpiece, I thought, between all my conversations with Benjamin, Elisabeth, Leonard, Albert and Johnnie Lambert, and with my very “progressive” parents, that I had a feel for Black life in the still all-too-racist USA.  Then I read The Invisible Man and a got a slap in the face.  As the old Mennen commercial put it, “Thanks, I needed that!”

The sensitivity-close-to-terror “The Man” felt on the NYC subway abraded me, even as I sat reading my folded back paperback edition on the subway back to my Grandparents’ apartment.  Was race-hatred so close, so intrusive, so constant for African-American people in 1952, or 6 years later when I was reading it?

Yes, Ellison convinced me, it was, and with my eyes now opened, I re-drew the same conclusion on my own.

My Father had always said, “If bigots ever run out of Black people to abuse, we Jews will be next.”  I’d always nodded in assent, but not until The Invisible Man did I really feel what that would mean.

Growing up with the Lamberts next door did a great thing for me.  It made me comfortable with Black people, any one of whom were likely to be as nice, generous and fair-minded as the Lamberts.  That almost invisible membrane of separation too many American Whites of my generation (and later) felt between them and people of color was dissolved for me, and, years later, when I went to work as a television reporter in the city of New York, I found to my delight (and immeasurable professional betterment) that Black and Latinos I interviewed felt it: that I wasn’t wary of them, and, according to the “Q ratings” of the 1970s, embraced me.

Thank you, Lord; thank you, Lamberts, thank you, Ralph Ellison.

The Randolph County School Board voted last Monday.  The next day, a story about their book-banning ran in the local Asheboro Courier-Tribune.  By Wednesday, it had been picked up regionally by North Carolina’s two leading newspapers, the Charlotte Observer and the Raleigh News-Observer, both using reportage from the Associated Press, which like UPI, ran the story on their national wires.  This, in turn, led to global coverage on Russia’s satellite television news channel RT.

By the end of the week, PBS reported, the Board was ready “to reconsider.”
Thank you, global mass media for helping raise the voices of an outraged global village.  We may still be trying to get a fix, and a handle on global media and their impacts, but, just as they and the response they got from people around the world, undoubtedly helped stop an American military attack on Syria, they appear to have helped avert an epic outbreak of auto-lobotomy in North Carolina.


Wednesday, September 18, 2013


Q.  How do countries go to Hell, and become “failed states?”

A.  When a critical mass of the population have more loyalty to something other than their nation.

My experience in failed states like Iraq and Afghanistan and close=to-failure countries like Pakistan, Congo and Rwanda, convinces me, it’s as simple as that.

When enough people have some prior claim of loyalty and obligation that supersedes their connection to their country and its government, that state is headed towards  dysfunction and death.

In Iraq today, there are still not enough people who put loyalty to their nation ahead of their sect or region, or their obligation to some political party, warlord, imam or sheikh.  There is  a government of Iran-manipulated Shia supremists led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, but it is justly hated by Iraq’s Sunni minority, disregarded by most Kurds, and alienated from many Shi’ites who are not Tehran fanboys, or want more tolerance for Others (especially Sunnis with whom many Shiites have intermarried), who resent government corruption and ineptitude, or simply take orders from their own mosque, tribe, clan, or some other Shia politician. The result: political paralysis, and uncontrolled violence beyond the reach of the state.

Afghanistan as a nation-state is even more of a fiction than Iraq.  The Hamid Karzai government is Pashtun-supremist in a country where Pashtuns are (unlike the Iraqi Shia) not a majority, just the largest minority.  It generally has only as much support as it can buy, because those not on the corruption gravy train, including many Pashtuns, are shamed as well as appalled by the greed and ineffectuality of every arm of the state, civil, military or police. Minority Uzbeks, Tadjiks, Hazara or Baluch identify their interests ethnically, religiously, regionally or by diktat of tribal, clan or family elders.  They may be Afghan in their passports or papers, but not in their hearts.

I grew up believing that “I am an American” was, short of family loyalty to Mom, Dad and my brothers, what was printed deepest in my heart.

I was conscious and sincere when I pledged my allegiance to the flag and the country for which it stands.

I was proud to be a Jew and rooted for the Jews in Israel and for Sandy Koufax and Al Rosen, Jan Peerce and Richard Tucker.  But it was sweeter that they, too, were Jewish Americans.

For a time, growing up in Richmond,  (before I became conscious of its racist politics) I was gratified to be a Virginian, the home state of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry and Robert E, Lee, but that was because of what they meant to American history.

We were Democrats in my family, and we took shots at Ike’s constant golfing.  We were no country-clubbers and my Uncle Murray taught me a Tech Sergeant’s suspicion of Generals, but he was our President.

We respected, or at least we tolerated him and his works because we’d elected him (just without my family’s votes).

We were Americans, and we included everyone who lived here, everyone who said they, too were Americans.  We had our differences and our disagreements, we prayed in a variety of formulations to a variety of deities; we traced our lineages to different points of the globe, but we were a nation united.

Today, we have become a nation divided, fractured into smithereens, hammered on the hard anvils of race, class, gender, and accumulated wealth, into particular identities, distinct and distant from a melded loyalty to the common good.

According to Ed O’Keefe in the Washington Post,

73 Republican Congressmen are so in hate with Obamacare that they will close down the government unless it is postponed for a year.  At least 45 are willing to stick with their beef with the healthcare law that they will renounce America’s debt and default, unless they get to tie the country’s social safety net into a 365-day knot.

Is it loyalty to a Tea Party ideology, a radical take on “conservatism,” that is more important to these people than the faith and credit of their country or the functioning of its people’s government?

The demography of the Tea Party as well as the intended victims of most of its political agenda suggests the loyalty is not ideological as much as racial.  Why should we generally wealthier and more successful White people be asked to fund services used disproportionately by poorer, less accomplished Blacks and Browns?

This color-coded politics may help to explain the T-baggers’ obsession with Obamacare, named for and credited to America’s first Black President.  Obama’s overthrow has been the shocking, Party-at-all-costs-even-those-to-the-country policy of mainstream Republicans as well as the far-right wing-nuts, since Day 1 of his presidency.  They loathed the White Clinton, but with nothing like the negationality of this.

On the other hand, the middling social and economic rank of most members of the Earl Grey Brigade, married to policies that consistently transfer economic resources and opportunities from the middle class to the top 1%, suggests a manipulation of poorer fools by much better-off politicians to benefit the really rich who pay for their public careers.

In Florida, for example (and, report Lizette Alvarez and Robert Pear in the NY Times,

in Republican-run Missouri, Ohio and Georgia), Obamacare is being undermined to prevent citizens from getting the best medical insurance bang for their bucks.  Among the cheap tricks, with potentially expensive consequences for mostly poor and elderly people of African- or Latin-American backgrounds, (but also millions of poor and middle-class Florida Whites), include barring Federally-funded “navigators” from access to county health facilities – where many poor and uninsured people go for medical treatment.  The idea is to prevent them from guiding customers to the medical insurance coverage that best suits their needs and budgets.

Florida Governor Rick Scott says he’s afraid the “navigators,” in gathering facts to help them refine their searches for the best deal available, will breach citizens’ privacy.  Of course, every one of the navigators’ questions and more would have been routinely asked of any of those citizens had they sought care at one of Scott’s dozens of Columbia/HCA hospitals back in the 1990s. 

That was when Scott had leveraged Columbia/HCA into the largest medical care network in the country.  He did this with almost no invested capital, but a pyramid of debt – the very arrangement he most despises when government does it.  Of course, the company he ran had to plead guilty to more than a dozen federal charges of overbilling Medicare and Medicaid and trying to cover it up, and wound up paying close to $2 billion in settlement money, which also made it number one in its field in America. 

Scott crawled away from the wreckage with a $10 million golden parachute and an estimated $350 million in stock, and although his own Board forced him to resign, a Republican Justice Department in Washington chose not to prosecute him.

Hey, the guy’s a pioneer, too big to jail before bigness really went bad. .

Gov. Scott’s loyalty to the moguls of medical care has superseded his responsibilities to his state’s citizens in a uniquely egregious way.

No other state has done this: even if assisted shopping and open competition get Florida customers lower healthcare prices, they won’t be allowed to benefit from them for at least two years.  That’s how long the Legislature has banned the State Insurance Commissioner from setting new (presumably lower) rates for health insurance.

“In other states,” the Times notes, Obamacare has allowed “insurance commissioners to obtain better deals for consumers.”

says Florida presently has 4 million people with no health insurance, of whom close to 600,000 are Hispanics.  Chang reports Federal Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius emphasized that “a higher proportion of Hispanic Americans are uninsured and eligible for health coverage benefits under the law than the rest of the population.”

Once Americans would have seen this concentration of injustice as a cause for concern.  But Scott and his fellow Republicans are running on a record of “cutting the herd” of American citizens by denying subsidized medical coverage to those who need it most

The Governor, who largely financed his own election with money he “earned” at his criminal corporation, conspired with the Legislature to refuse Federal funding (100% for the first 3 years, 90% thereafter) to extend Medicaid to what the Herald says is “an estimated 800,000 to 1.3 million residents who are now uninsured.”      

The expansion, the Herald says, would offer Medicaid “to those earning up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level -- about $15,000 a year for an individual.  Now, “In Florida, an adult must have a dependent child and earn no more than 19 percent of the poverty level to be eligible for Medicaid.” 


Do the math: that means, to get Medicaid coverage in Florida you can make no more than $36.50 a week.  $40 a week, $160 a month, you’re out!  Pay for your own medical bills.


Of course, you can’t, which is why Jacksonville’s Florida Sun-Times reports,

“Florida’s failure to take federal dollars and extend Medicaid coverage could have serious consequences for the state’s major teaching hospitals such as UF Health Jacksonville (formerly Shands Jacksonville) and Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, because they treat a disproportionate number of uninsured patients, U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown said.”

Is it that rich Gov. Scott so hates poor people and the hospitals that serve them that he’d let ‘em all die rather than breach his commitment to “conservative philosophy?”  Or is just that his loyalty to the Republican Party, or the private institutions that profit from the health care industry is simply greater than his loyalty to America and its commonweal?

Either way, he and the rest of the disloyal opposition are killing our country.  



Monday, September 16, 2013


One of my favorite and most faithful blog readers, Carla Ward, asked me about Nick Kristof’s recent defense in the NY Times of his support of President Obama’s once-proposed punishment bombing of President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria.


This is what I wrote to her:


I'm an admirer of Nick Kristof, a great writer and thinker, in my opinion, and I largely agree with him here.

We should have opposed Assad much earlier and more forcefully.  Obama's waiting for the "red line" of chemical weapons to be crossed was another example of his feckless passivity and indecisiveness.

He has been, again in my opinion, a disastrous president, if less so than his more aggressive and less-informed predecessor.

But bombing or not bombing, for chemical weapons or just mass murder, are not to me intelligent policy questions. 

Where national foreign policy is concerned the first questions have to be: 

-- What are our strategic goals?  and 
-- What's our plan to achieve them at the lowest possible cost?

It is good, and a genuine achievement to have chemical weapons taken off the Syrian battlefield, (especially with so little cost to American and human lives) but it leaves unanswered more basic questions like,
-- Should Assad be allowed to rule? to live? 
-- What are the available alternatives in terms of governing Syria? 
-- Are they more aligned to our interests? will they benefit Syrians?  

Then there are the even harder, how to questions like 
-- How do we get rid of Assad?  
-- How do we find a better successor? and 
-- How do we stabilize the situation in Syria and in the Mideast region so that the new leader has a genuine chance to succeed?

 Pardon me for not having answers to those questions, but then, I'm not the President.  For Mr. Obama to have asked for a national debate on bombing without even broaching, much less trying to answer these real, and harder questions is another example of why he is such a failed President.

One thing I think is certain: Secretary of State John Kerry's formulation of an "unbelievably small" bombing attack is 
-- unbelievable.  As the President said, "the US Air Force doesn't do pinpricks." 
-- a typically inaccurate (I would say dishonest) description of what would have been a doomed and ineffective gesture, which, if taken seriously, would have mis-framed that now put off debate.
-- a perfect example of a "half-measure," proposed by an Administration which flat didn't know what to do about being caught out on the wrong side of a gratuitous, hopefully never to be repeated artificial red line.

By the way, there are at least 2 more red lines out there waiting for American leaders to stumble across them, having to do with the acquisition of nuclear weapons by North Korea and Iran.  The fact is, if it is willing to pay the cost in sanctions, isolation and opprobrium, a state can, with the necessary (mis)investment of personnel, money and national commitment, learn to make nuclear weapons.  Period.

Opposing states can enforce a high cost on such nouveau nuclear powers, but they cannot, short of war, stop them.

When George W. Bush had to face Kim Jong Il's willful crossing of the nuclear red line, he did the only smart thing: he ate it. Even with a nuke or 2, North Korea hardly poses a strategic challenge to the US, but it has powerful allies like China which would protect it -- again probably with punishments short of war, like changing its policy of helping to finance US debts -- should we take military measures to eliminate the North Korean threat, leadership or country.

Where Iran is concerned, there is a more rational appreciation of the costs of nuclear acquisition than in Pyongyang, and there seem to be real alternatives short of force that might convince Tehran to stay away from nuclearizing its military.  There is also a global consensus that all of them should be exhausted before any kind of forceful confrontation with Iran is considered.

The outlier from this consensus, blustering Binyamin Netanyahu, whose preferred form of warfare is attacking over-matched Palestinian or Lebanese militias and mercilessly bombing civilian populations, would obviously have to think twice before engaging a state as large and well-armed as Iran, for whom one-off air strikes against suspected nuclear facilities like those used against Iraq or Syria would be neither disarming, decisive nor deterring.

And, of Bibi didn't want to do such thinking, it would fall to President Barack Obama to enforce American interests in the region by emphatically leading a "global discussion" against any ill-considered Israeli aggression against Iran. 


Saturday, September 14, 2013


It will be a month next week since I wrote about my new home state, New Mexico’s so-called mental health service scandal.

I say, “so-called” scandal, because the state’s Human Services Division, while proclaiming a $36 million in fraudulent billings, made by first 15, now 12 mental health service providers, continues to provide no useful information about who done what wrong to whom and how.

In fact, I’d have been content to give the HSD more time to sort things out had today’s NY Times not “taken national” a story about what reporter Don Frosch called “a sweeping criminal investigation.”  Me, I’d call it a “reeking” investigation which has been, so far at least, “swept under the rug.”

There are 2 reported investigations; one led by NM Attorney General Gary King, who has refused to answer questions about his probe from the accused providers, their clients or journalists.  He’s even “protected” his work by refusing to share data with the State Auditor.  He has, however, whined that he may not have enough resources to carry out the massive criminal probe, which his office says may not be completed for months.  Meanwhile the accused providers have been cut off from public funding, many are closed and many of their vulnerable, mentally ill or disabled clients have been left hanging while their successors from Arizona slowly set up shop.

There is also a purported Federal investigation of the case, but so far, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services haven’t visibly proceeded beyond a conference call with a few abandoned clients of the shuttered service providers.

So much for the prosecutorial future.  He are a few things we know about the investigation’s past and present.

The State Human Services Division has contracted with Arizona service providers to replace the fired New Mexicans at far higher rates of pay, especially at the executive/managerial level, than the allegedly scandalous providers charged.

At least one of these well-paid providers, it has been reported, has ties to one of Governor Susana Martinez’ biggest campaign fund bundlers.

HSD has claimed that Federal rules gave them no discretion when it came to cutting off the accused providers.  But, a close reading of the applicable rulebook shows that to be untrue.  In fact, according to Linda Rosenberg, the CEO of the National Council for Behavioral Health, "I've never seen a state behave like this." 

The Executive Summary of the actual audit done by the Boston-based Public Consulting Group (PCG) made no recommendation that any of the providers be closed, and said none of them were bad enough to mandate closure.  Of the 15 providers audited, only 7 were rated bad enough for “potential closure” even to be considered.  As for the other 5 locked out providers, all PCG recommended was that the state provide some additional training and “potentially embed clinical management to improve processes. 
Then, there’s this about PCG.  It conducted an audit of health service providers for the State of North Carolina in 2012, and alleged, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported, “$38.5 million in Medicaid overpayments, [for which it] was paid $3.2 million.”

But, according to North Carolina State Auditor Beth Wood’s report, the New Mexican reported, a review of “one of the companies, which PCG said had overpayments totaling $1.34 million, submitted “additional documentation and re-reviews, [and] the recoupment amount was revised downward to only $22,093.”
Overall, “Wood found that of the $38.5 million overpayments cited, the Health and Human Services Department had only been able to collect $3.7 million — less than 10 percent.”

In other words, the bounty hunter’s claim for payment was only about half a million less than the total amount the State of North Carolina took in.
Not to worry, says the NM HSD, their contract with PCG has no such bounty clause, just a flat payment of, the investigative website New Mexico In Depth says it was told, “$2 million.”

But wait, PCG was hired on the recommendation of OptumHealth which had originally been overseeing New Mexico’s health service providers.  OptumHealth’s contract with the state says, it gets from 25 to 40% of any fraudulent claims against HSD that it recovers.  Does this mean they get the bounty-hunter’s pelf for PCG’s accusations?  This is another thing the Health Service Division refuses to talk about, to the public, the media or even the State Legislature.
Part of Optum Health’s claim to be paid for helping to unearth the alleged frauds is that they “installed new program-integrity software in late 2011.”

Asked what was new about their software, which HSD has said was “not off-the-shelf,” but custom-made, Optum has stayed mum, but at least one report says, HSD still uses FICO software which is straight off the shelf.

Oh, and who is Optum Health? 
It is one of the innumerable subsidiaries of the country’s biggest health service company United Health Group, whose subsidiary Optum Insight was the re-named Ingenix, a database supplier run out of New York State in 2008, when investigators for then NY Attorney General Andrew Cuomo found it was supplying United Health with phony estimates of medical billing costs that allowed the giant UH medical insurer to underpay doctors and patients, who then overpaid “their share” of their medical costs.

How big a scam was that?  United Health settled with the AMA and patients by paying back $350 million in ill-gotten gains.
But, wait, that scandal was chicken-feed compared to the one 2 years earlier in which United Health’s CEO Dr. Bill McGuire was forced to resign and disgorge himself of $468 million and pay a “whopping” $7 million fine for manipulating his stock option opportunities and covering it up from the company’s shareholders.  Even after that punishment (repeat after me –“TOO BIG TO JAIL?”), the Wall Street Journal estimated that McGuire was allowed to keep about $800 million. 

Oh, but that was years ago, you say.  Yeah, but today’s CEO of United Health Group, the Grand Poobah of fragments like Optum Health, McGuire’s “hand-picked successor,” is Stephen Hemsley, who was then president and chief operating officer, and a member of the board of directors.
“Sweeping” investigation, as the Times says, or “reeking?”  What do you think?