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Copyrighted material 404: Information Missing From Your Daily News

Summaries of under-reported news, updates on previous Monitor stories

 + THE PENTAGON'S SUMMER OF SCANDAL   Read any good books this summer? There certainly wasn't any compelling news to follow, unless you enjoyed watching the media peck at the bones of Gary Condit's political career, as humorist Steve Young parodied in "Condit/Levy: We Do It All For You."

The media attention to the Condit story was actually newsworthy itself; it marked the emergence of Fox News as a force to contend with. It was their constant rehashing of every detail -- and wild speculation, even where there were no new developments whatsoever -- that turned the story into a juicy little neo-scandal. Fox News' ideological twin, The Washington Times, has never been able to spin a national story like that.

But while the media was boosting ratings and readership with Tales o' Gary, there were real scandals in the works that probably cost taxpayers billions, but received little or no attention:

  • The Pentagon inspector general announced in June that a Marine commander had doctored records to make Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft performance look better. Already controversial, the hybrid vehicle takes off and lands like a helicopter, but the propellers rotate to airplane position to cruise in the air. Last year, all test flights were cancelled after 23 Marines died in two Osprey crashes.

    First reports blamed the squadron commander Lt. Colonel, but noted that he felt "perceived pressure" from above to improve the Osprey's image. By end of the summer, a two-star general and five colonels were charged. The investigation began after a Marine in the squadron wrote an anonymous letter, saying that they were told to lie about the Osprey's reliability to save the project from cancellation. The maintenance records were changed only during a crucial three-week period in late December/ early January, when Pentagon officials were deciding the fate of the program. The Marine Corps wants authorization to spend about $40 billion for 360 Ospreys.

  • A program to save money by cutting red tape has led to widespread fraud, and the government isn't doing anything to prosecute the thieves, the General Accounting Office reported in July. Behind the problems are the 1.8 million credit cards issued by the Pentagon for purchases of less than $2,500. Many have credit limits between $20,000 to $100,000 and the military rarely checks to verify that they are being properly used for government business.

    Auditing just two Navy facilities in San Diego, investigators found at least $660,000 in fraud. Randomly selecting 65 items purchased with the credit cards, the GAO found that half of the items couldn't be found. Last year $9 billion was charged to military credit cards. Yet Pentagon officials told the House Government Reform subcommittee July 30 that the program is a money-saver, no matter how much fraud might be involved.

    Among the abuses documented by one bank issuing the cards were $3,100 spent by one Army soldier on six trips to Hooters and Bottoms Up, and a $13,000 shopping spree by the wife of a reservist. "Items that were purchased for personal use in these cases included home improvement items from The Home Depot, numerous items from Wal-Mart, laptop computers, Palm Pilots, DVD players, an air conditioner, clothing, jewelry and other items such as eyeglasses, pet supplies and pizza," according to the GAO. The most outrageous case described a Marine who charged $20,000 (including $8.500 in cash withdrawl), but left military service with the bill unpaid. The Marine sergeant's personal credit record was spotty, yet his commanders raised his card's limit three times.

  • Is there no one honest over at the Pentagon? You have to wonder, after the Pentagon inspector general's office itself was caught faking documents in an elaborate coverup. Their job is prevent the military from doing exactly that sort of fraud -- see item 1 above.

    The case involved a routine IRS review of the Defense Department, and the tax auditors wanted to see the Pentagon inspector general's own report for the year 1988. For reasons that are still unclear, Pentagon officials instead destroyed most of the original documents. A dozen workers then spent about two weeks creating a phony report. Not knowing that they were looking at fake, backdated papers, the IRS found "no problems" and approved the audit.

    If it wasn't for a whistleblower, the deception might never have come to light. "It's a very sad day indeed when the watchdog gets caught cheating," Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) wrote Defense Secretary Rumsfeld. "If the IG (inspector general) can't be trusted, then we are in trouble. Who can we trust?"

Altogether, they make up a nice little suite of stories of outrageous government fraud for the summer months news dog-days. Stretch it back to the spring and you can even include an update on purchasing ripoffs, where the Pentagon paid $409 for sinks that cost anyone else less than one-tenth that price. But why didn't we hear about these stories? Well, there's only so much airtime or space in the newspaper, and um, there was the congressman and the intern, and um... (August 31, 2001)

 + NIXON POLICES RETURN TO JUSTICE DEPT   Although it's barely past Labor Day, the Cheney Administration has already drained the U.S. surplus, flipped a boom economy to a bust, and is warming up to dive into the Social Security coffers. It's not surprising that this gang is grabbing away with both hands -- the only shocker is that it's happening so quickly. In the days of chivalry, a gentleman Republican president would politely dawdle and whisper a little sweet-talk before rushing to plunder your budget.

It was also a safe bet that John Aschcroft's Justice Department would tromp on civil liberties -- and that also came sooner than expected. Scarcely 100 days after the inauguration, the Department authorized a covert operation not seen since the worst of the Nixon years.

The incident happened in mid-May, after Associated Press produced a story about a senator suspected of taking illegal contributions. It seems that a few years ago, a wiretap used in an organized-crime investigation had caught the senator discussing fundraising with a mobster's relative, according to anonymous law enforcement sources.

To find the source of the leaks, the Justice Department supoenaed five days' worth of home telephone records for AP reporter John Solomon. The case waves many red flags:

After Watergate, very strict rules were put in place restricting this government from conducting exactly this sort of fishing expedition for a reporter's sources. To quote their own regulation:

Because freedom of the press can be no broader than the freedom of reporters to investigate and report the news, the prosecutorial power of the government should not be used in such a way that it impairs a reporter's responsibility to cover as broadly as possible controversial public issues.

By Department of Justice policy, a reporter is supposed to have advance notice that the government wants his/her records (unless that warning would "pose a substantial threat to the integrity of the investigation"). This would give the journalist and the publisher a chance to challenge the supoena in court. But the action was kept secret until last week, when Solomon received a letter from the U.S. Attorney -- more than three months after his personal records were grabbed.

Any investigation like this is required to be a last resort, after officials have exhausted all other possible means of discovering the reporter's sources. Solomon's story appeared on May 4. Exactly ten days later -- six working days, if you exclude the two weekends -- DoJ had the phone records they wanted. Did they really try every other means possible in that short a time? Doubtful, but no one knows -- officials have refused to comment on any details.

The Justice Department also played fast and loose with its own rules for authorization. The policy is that approval must come from top-ranking DoJ officials. Four years ago, Attorney General Janet Reno came under fire because she did not personally authorize a probe of a reporter who was suspected -- and later, convicted -- of stealing evidence from downed jet TWA800, then under federal investigation. In this case, Attorney General John Aschcroft recused himself because the senator that was caught in the wiretap had campaigned for Aschcroft's opponent in last year's Missouri senate race. So who approved the seizure of a reporter's home phone records? Apparently one was U.S. attorney in Manhattan, Mary Jo White -- a New York U.S. attorney from Giuliani's "mad dog" school of prosecutors -- who had actually requested the suponena. Another was Department of Justice spokesperson Mindy Tucker, best known as the Bush campaign flack who had to answer questions that were beneath Karl Rove or Karen Hughes. The required third official who signed off on the siezure was the Deputy Attorney General...

...And that Deputy Attorney General was Robert Mueller III , who is now head of the FBI. In other words: Our soon-to-be FBI director authorized a return to exactly the sort of abuse of power that disgraced the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover.

So why wasn't this incident front page news in your daily newspaper? Yes, some of the larger papers followed the lead of a Society of Professional Journalists press release and editorialized that this was a direct assault on First Amendment rights. But only Houston Chronicle columnist Cragg Hines noted that the action was a frightening replay of the years when Nixon abused the FBI and Department of Justice as his secret police. This is important information that lends context to what happened next in the investigation of the suspicious senator.

Last month, Ashcroft's federal prosecutors also supoenaed three bookstores to discover what books had been purchased since 1994 by eight individuals, including the senator under investigation, Robert Torricelli (D- New Jersey). What could they have possibly been seeking? That the senator bought a gift copy of The Complete Idiot's Guide To Racketeering? Of course not; it was just another too-casual abuse of power by our new chief law enforcement officer as they went fishing for evidence. After booksellers' protested the outrageous action, Ashcroft backed away from pursuing the information.

Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has demanded that Ashcroft justify the supoena of reporter Solomon. "There is no question that efforts by the Justice Department to subpoena the records of a reporter should be done with caution and only when the needs of justice are great," he wrote in his formal request to Ashcroft. Senator Grassley has demanded a full accounting, including a timeline and "listing of all individuals who were involved or advised in the decision to issue the subpoena, their title and a brief description of their role." Justice Department officials declined comment.

It's crucial that Grassley's probe get media attention so that DoJ is forced to make full and immediate disclosure of all of their covert ops. Thus far, it's looking like 1969 all over again -- except this time it's just happening faster. (September 4, 2001)

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