The US Department of Agriculture relies on foreign governments to ensure the quality of nearly 4 billion pounds of meat imported each year, the Washington Post's Joby Warrick wrote Feb. 25. As cross-border trade has expanded under the North American Free Trade Agreement, Mexico has struggled to comply with USDA's meat-safety standards. More than 30% of Mexican plants inspected by US officials in the last 3 years have failed outright.
The USDA may inspect foreign meatpackers, but on average it visits a foreign plant only once every three to five years. Even when it discovers serious flaws, it rarely returns to ensure that problems are fixed, according to agency records and interviews with inspectors and food-safety experts. And whether anyone has gotten sick from tainted imported meat is impossible to say, since retailers are allowed to mix imported meat with domestic brands and disclose nothing to consumers about the meats' origins. The Bush administration has ordered stepped-up inspections at the border, but the USDA's 2003 budget plan provides no additional funds to increase in-country inspections of the 1,200 foreign plants that supply nearly 10% of the red meat Americans consume.
The problem isn't limited to Mexico, as inspectors found serious problems at 13 of 19 French companies inspected in the spring of 1999, but NAFTA has encouraged large US meatpackers to move their operations to Mexico. One of the worst offenders cited by the Post was the Carnes Valmo packing plant in Hermosillo, Mexico, which sold raw beef to US consumers for years until USDA inspectors, on a rare visit to the plant in May 1999, found filth and flies and cut off certification. But even before the US team left for home, Mexican officials restored Carnes Valmo's right to sell meat to Americans. The plant regained its export license, switched owners and changed its name, but the USDA never returned. Instead, the agency relied on Mexico as the primary enforcer of US sanitation laws -- a standard flunked by five out of 10 Mexican plants visited by US inspectors that spring.
In 2000, USDA Inspector General Roger C. Viadero concluded that the USDA was failing to enforce its own rules, extending a welcome to imports and countries that had not been able or willing to meet US standards. Viadero found that 19 out of 36 US trading partners had exported meat to the United States, even though their meat-sanitation programs fell short in key areas, such as testing for chemical residues. Six countries were approved before the USDA had physically arrived to conduct inspections.
BANKRUPTCY DEFORM STILL DYING. After lame-duck President Bill Clinton in December 2000 vetoed a bill that would make it harder for individuals to declare bankruptcy, lobbyists for banks and credit card companies thought they would have an easy time getting a bill passed with George W. Bush taking over the White House and Republican majorities in the House and Senate. The draconian bill passed the House March 1, 2001, 306-108 and a similar version cleared the Senate 82-16. But since then House and Senate conferees have been unable to resolve differences, such as treatment of homesteads and legal judgments. The bill's advocates are pessimistic over the protracted negotiations while consumer advocates are warily optimistic. "The longer it's out there, the more people are reading it," a Democratic critic told the Washington Post. "That isn't good for the bill."
WHITE HOUSE BACKS OFF DISINFORMATION PROJECT. The Washington Post reported Feb. 25 that "White House aides were furious about a Pentagon proposal that could have led to the feeding of false stories to foreign journalists." More likely the Bushites in the West Wing were furious that the news had leaked that the Pentagon's Office of Strategic Influence was created last November to oversee military propaganda. Critics said the propaganda office could have blurred the line between public relations and covert actions. The New York Times Feb. 19 disclosed that the office might plant disinformation with overseas journalists. The idea that the Pentagon set up such an office without approval from the White House stretches credulity, to say the least. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Feb. 24 said he never heard of the office before the Times report, but the Times noted Feb. 25 that the office's assistant for operations, Thomas A. Timmes, said at a recent industry conference that Air Force Brig. Gen. Simon Worden, the office's director, had briefed Rumsfeld on the office's purposes and goals at least twice.
An unnamed senior official told the Post that whoever leaked the story of the propaganda office "did a tremendous disservice to the president" by raising questions about the administration's credibility when he was on a week-long trip to Asia.
BUSH STUMBLES IN ASIA. The president needed no help in raising questions about his credibility as he mixed up "deflation" and "devaluation" in a Feb. 18 news conference in Japan, throwing financing markets for a loop. He got the traders' interest when he burbled that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, outlining plans to revive Japan's moribund economy, had placed equal emphasis in their talks on banks' non-performing loans, "the devaluation issue'' and regulatory reform. Then in a speech before the Japanese parliament, Dubya (supposedly a history major at Yale) glossed over World War II, in which his father fought, when he said "for a century and a half now, America and Japan have formed one of the great and enduring alliances of modern times. From that alliance has come an era of peace in the Pacific." Finally, on a trip to the demilitarized zone in Korea, he vilified North Korea, which he considers part of the "axis of evil" because it seeks to develop war materiel such as missiles and sell them to other countries. Then he travelled on to China, which also sells missiles and other military equipment to all comers but does business with US corporations, which makes them not so evil.
WELLSTONE DISCLOSES MS. Sen. Paul Wellstone, targeted for defeat by the Bush White House, announced Feb. 24 that he has a mild form of multiple sclerosis, but he said it wouldn't stop his bid for a third term in the Senate. Wellstone's doctor diagnosed the disease a month ago and said the 57-year-old progressive Democrat had probably had it for about 15 years. In Wellstone's case, the chronic disease of the nervous system only affects his right leg. Dr. J.D. Bartleson of the Mayo Clinic said Wellstone would not need to take any medication and could proceed with his normal day-to-day activities. The White House encouraged former St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman, a Republican, to challenge Wellstone in an attempt not only to regain control of the Senate but also to eliminate one of Bush's more vocal opponents.
FAIR TRADE GROUP SETS FREE TRADE HEARINGS. The Alliance for Responsible Trade (ART), a national network of labor, family-farm, religious, women's, environmental, development and research organizations that promotes equitable and sustainable trade and development. ART has organized a series of public hearings on the Free Trade Area of the Americas to take place in cities across the Northeast from March 20-30. FTAA "would extend the disaster of the North American Free Trade Agreement to the entire hemisphere. The FTAA would expand corporate rights at the expense of human rights. The agreement will address traditional trade issues, like tariffs, but will also extend the rights of trans-national corporations in the areas of intellectual property rights and the ability of private corporations to sue governments."
With little discussion allowed in the corporate-dominated media, ART has set its own public hearings on the FTAA. Experts from Mexico, Chile, Brazil and the USA will discuss the impact of "free trade" policies in their countries. Hearings will also include a forum for open discussion.
Hearings have been scheduled for March 20 in Worcester, MA; 3/21, Farmington, CT; 3/22, Bangor, ME; 3/23, Boston, MA; 3/24, Providence, RI; 3/25, Burlington, VT; 3/26, Portland, ME; 3/27, Lewiston, ME; 3/28, Mid-coast, ME; 3/29: Kittery, ME/Portsmouth, NH; 3/30, Concord, NH. For details, email ART at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 773-583-7728.
BUSH SHIFTS TOXIC CLEANUPS TO TAXPAYERS. The Bush administration has decided to designate fewer sites for cleanup under the EPA's Superfund, and to shift the bulk of the costs from industry to taxpayers, the New York Times reported Feb. 24. For years, under pressure from the chemical and oil industries, Congress has failed to reach agreement on reauthorizing the tax on industry that used to be the source of money for the Superfund, which was founded in 1980 under the slogan "the polluter pays." With the trust fund running out of money, Grant Cope of the US Public Interest Research Group told the Times' Katharine Q. Seelye, "This is shifting the burden to taxpayers, and it is dramatically realigning the purpose of the program, which was to ensure that polluters pay. Taxpayers are paying more, and fewer sites are being cleaned up." The trust fund has been used to clean up about 30% of the 1,551 sites on the Environmental Protection Agency's national priority list, with corporations themselves paying to clean up the other 70%. Since Congress let the corporate taxes expire in 1995, the trust fund has dwindled, from $3.8 billion in 1996 to a projected $28 million next year. George W. Bush did not reauthorize the taxes last year in his first budget, and his proposed budget for 2003 explicitly states that he will not do so. In 1994, taxpayers paid about 21% of the $1.2 billion fund. Mr. Bush proposes that taxpayers pay $700 million, or more than 50% of the $1.3 billion fund, in 2003. By 2004, all the money will come from taxpayers.
WHITE HOUSE KEEPS ENRON PAPERS SECRET. The White House signaled it will mount a high-level and protracted legal fight to avoid disclosing contacts Enron officials had with Vice President Dick Cheney in developing the administration's energy policy, Dana Milbank wrote Feb. 22 in the Washington Post. Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson, the government's top litigator, and Robert D. McCallum Jr., the assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department's Civil Division, will represent the White House in the suit filed by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress. The White House also indicated that if it failed in the GAO lawsuit, it would seek to have the statute empowering the GAO declared unconstitutional -- an action that, if successful, would sharply curtail the legislative branch's oversight of the executive branch. Milbank noted that the public is showing increased interest in the scandal surrounding the collapse of Enron. A poll released Feb. 21 by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press indicated that 61% describe themselves as attentive to the scandal, up from 43% in January and 34% in December.
Vice President Dick Cheney has misrepresented what the GAO was seeking. In a television appearance in late January, Byron York of the National Review noted Feb. 20, Cheney said the GAO, acting at the behest of Bush administration antagonist Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., had demanded notes and minutes of the meetings. GAO officials quickly pointed out that they were not demanding those documents, but merely sought the names of those he met in his capacity as head of the energy policy task force, when and where he met them, the subject matter of the meetings, and an explanation of the costs incurred. But Feb. 19, on The Tonight Show, Cheney repeated his charge. "What's at stake here is whether a member of Congress [Waxman] can demand that I give him notes of all my meetings and a list of everybody I met with," Cheney told host Jay Leno. "We don't think that he has that authority."
"While Cheney's statements may elicit public approval -- they drew enthusiastic applause on The Tonight Show -- the vice president might face a more critical audience in court, where a judge would be able to examine correspondence between the GAO and Cheney's office over the nature of the GAO's demands," NR's York wrote.
DAD 'SPLAINED IT TO HIM. While campaigning for president in 2000, George W. Bush was harshly critical of the Crusader howitzer, an $11 billion artillery system proposed in 1992 during the Clinton years that Bush's own defense adviser, John Hillen, sneeringly described as "the best artillery piece that engineers and strategists of the 1970s could ever imagine," Pat Murphy of the Idaho Mountain Express of Ketchum noted. Bush said he'd terminate the Crusader as "too heavy" and "not lethal enough" for modern warfare. But now President Bush finds the weapon necessary. Murphy notes that Bush's father and some pals from Bush the Elder's White House years (former Secretary of State James Baker and former Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci) are principals in the Carlyle Group, whose company, United Defense Industries Inc., won a $1.8 billon contract for further development of the artillery gun, giving it a leg up on the $11 billion contract.
MORE FICKLE BUSH. Murphy, in his Idaho Mountain Express column, also noted a change of heart from the former Texas governor who promised as president he'd show more respect for the needs of the states. "As governor of Texas, Bush railed against President Clinton and Congress for failing to reimburse states for costs of imprisoning illegal immigrants convicted of crimes.
"Said Gov. Bush in 1995 while suing Washington for $5 billion: 'If the federal government cannot do its job of enforcing the borders, then it owes the states monies to pay for its failure.'
"But now: Bush's new budget abandons the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program, which last year budgeted $535 million for hundreds of state and local governments to pay costs of keeping illegal immigrant criminals behind bars."
Peter Schrag of the Sacramento Bee also noted Feb. 20 that last year 42% of the entire SCAAP budget went to California. Schrag wondered if zeroing out the SCAAP budget and other hits the state takes in the new budget is payback for the state's solid support for Al Gore.
BUSH SR. MAKES BUNDLE BEFORE CROSSING BANKRUPTCY. George W. Bush may complain that his mother-in-law lost money on her Enron stock, Business Week noted, but it seems his dad made a tidy profit on that other notorious bankruptcy, Global Crossing. In 1999 and 2000, the elder Bush pocketed more than $4.5 million by selling Global Crossing stock, according to Securities & Exchange Commission documents. His last sale came just weeks before the once high-flying telecom's stock started tanking.
W RENEGES YUCCA PLEDGE. When George W. Bush rubber-stamped a decision by his energy secretary to dump nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, Nev., 90 miles from Las Vegas, he broke a promise to Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and the state's Republican governor, Kenny Guinn, that he would veto any bill to send nuclear waste to an interim storage site in Nevada. The Las Vegas Sun reported the pledge Sept. 29, 2000, after Gov. Kenny Guinn released a letter from Bush at a press conference in Las Vegas that said, "the Department of Energy has not completed its impact study of Yucca Mountain and important questions of environmental protection and safety have not yet been answered. Therefore, I would veto legislation that would provide for the temporary storage of nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain." What Reid now terms "the big lie" helped Bush win Nevada by 11,000 votes, without which Al Gore would be president. The New York Observer's Joe Conason noted that the fix was probably in when Edison Electric Institute chief Tom Kuhn signed up as a "Bush Pioneer" and then far exceeded the $100,000 minimum he agreed to raise for Bush's campaign. As for safety concerns, Yucca still sits on 34 seismic faults and the General Accounting Office in December enumerated many remaining uncertainties about Yucca.
CHENEY DEALT WITH 'EVIL' IRAQ. While Dick Cheney was its CEO, Halliburton, the largest US oil services company, sold more oil technology equipment to Iraq than any other US corporation, the Financial Times reported. Starting with the easing of sanctions in 1998, at least two Halliburton joint ventures submitted more than $23.8 million worth of contracts for the sale of oil industry parts and equipment to Iraq. The deals were routed through joint ventures Dresser-Rand and Ingersoll-Dresser Pump to avoid political exposure. When ABC's Sam Donaldson confronted Cheney with this commerce in August, 2000, GW-Bush.com noted, Cheney replied: "No. No. I had a firm policy that I wouldn't do anything in Iraq -- even arrangements that were supposedly legal."
NO PEACE AT PACIFICA. Despite a legal settlement that was supposed to end three years of infighting, the Pacifica Foundation announced that it was laying off its nine-member news staff in Washington as it attempts to deal with a $4.8 million debt incurred by the previous management, which included severance packages as well as bills from legal and consulting firms. Democracy Now! with Amy Goodman, which had been suspended, is back at WBAI in New York, but Marc Cooper, who had sided with the previous regime, on Feb. 19 told his supporters that he was "indefinitely suspended" from KPFK in Los Angeles and his daily program was taken off the air after he was not willing to put his name on the winter fund drive. He noted that the new administration has replaced four of the five managers at Pacifica-owned stations, some of whom had replaced managers under the previous regime. "We have to make some tough choices," said acting Executive Director Dan Coughlin, but the foundation has ruled out the sale of stations in New York, Los Angeles, Houston, Berkeley, Calif., and Washington. Contact Pacifica Foundation, 2390 Champlain St. NW, Washington, DC 20009 or see www.pacifica.org.
NO WONDER THEY MISSED ENRON. After reducing the Securities and Exchange Commission's enforcement staff last year, Bush's budget proposal this year would increase SEC funding by a modest 4% overall, including a 6% increase for enforcement, officials said. But that is well below the proposals of critics such as Rep. John J. LaFalce (D-N.Y.), who has proposed doubling the commission's budget.
Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times reported that Enron's 1997 financial statements were the last to be reviewed, according to former SEC officials. The Wall Street Journal has reported that Enron's 2000 report was scheduled for a review, but the SEC staff postponed the process for a year to wait for more data on the company's trading in derivatives. SEC spokesmen refused to comment on that report or to say when Enron's filings were last reviewed.