Thursday, December 31, 2009

Lessons we should learn from failed terror attack

By DeWayne Wickham

So where do we go from here? What should the failed Christmas Day terrorist attack teach us about keeping airplanes and their passengers safe?

The first lesson is that hardening our defenses at home ought to be a more important goal than nation-building in Afghanistan. While the Obama administration is sending more troops to Afghanistan, al-Qaida is reinventing itself in places like Somalia and Yemen, where the Christmas Day attack was hatched.

Bogging down tens of thousands of American servicemen and women in Afghanistan and Iraq siphons both troops and billions of dollars from the more focused effort needed to disrupt and destroy al-Qaida's far-flung operations.

Another lesson we should learn is that security at U.S. airports is porous. Despite creation of the Transportation Safety Administration and increased screening of air travelers since 2001, a 23-year-old wannabe terrorist nearly brought down an American commercial aircraft with 267 people aboard.

Body-scanning machines could have uncovered Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's evil intent before he boarded a Detroit-bound plane in the Netherlands, but few U.S. airports use them.

And then there's this lesson: Eight years after U.S. intelligence and security failures contributed to the success of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, similar glitches helped keep Abdulmutallab off this country's no-fly list and out of the cross hairs of the FBI's counterterrorism task force. Weeks before Abdulmutallab's clumsy bombing attempt, his father warned U.S. Embassy officials in Nigeria that his son, a devout Muslim, had been radicalized.

U.S. intelligence had information that a Nigerian was in Yemen preparing for a terrorist attack. Abdulmutallab paid cash for a one-way ticket to the United States and boarded the plane with no luggage.

U.S. intelligence agents not only failed to piece all this together until after Abdulmutallab failed to set off his bomb; they also missed another warning sign: Government officials in Britain refused to grant the Nigerian, who attended school in Britain from 2005 to 2008, a visa to return to the country after discovering he'd falsified information in his application.

"A systemic failure has occurred, and I consider that totally unacceptable," Obama said.

He's right, but fixing what's broken won't be easy. Part of the solution is better information-sharing and coordination among the State Department, the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies. That was promised after 9/11, but apparently it's still a pipe dream. Better coordination between U.S. and British intelligence agencies also is needed.

That fight has to be waged with the "new think" needed to defeat small pockets of terrorists in countries around the world — not the "old think" that has much of America's military might bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Joe Lieberman: Anti-hero of the year

By DeWayne Wickham

2008 was the year of the unlikely hero. It was dominated by the ascendency of Barack Obama, a slender black guy with a hip gait and a finely tuned political mind, into this nation's highest office.

But 2009 has turned out to be the year of the anti-hero. It is the year in which Joe Lieberman gets my nod - cynical though it is - as "American of the Year."

A Democrat of convenience, Lieberman has succeeded in doing what Benedict Arnold couldn't. In a masterful act of treachery, he retains a position of trust among the very people he betrayed.

By threatening to join a Republican filibuster, Lieberman forced Democrats to strip first a public option and then a Medicare buy-in compromise from the Senate's health care reform bill, provisions many experts and activists consider essential to reform.

Though political treason does not rise to the level of military treason, of course, it is treacherous nonetheless.

During the Revolutionary War, Arnold - a Continental Army general - plotted to turn over West Point to the British. When his scheme was discovered, he fled to Canada on a British warship appropriately called "The Vulture." Had he been caught, Arnold likely would have been court martialed and hanged.

Instead of suffering an equivalent political fate, Lieberman remains a member of the Democratic caucus and continues as chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee. With 60 members, which is the number needed to break a Republican filibuster, Democrats would rather keep a traitor in their midst than put him to flight.

This kid-glove treatment comes on the heels of the 2008 presidential campaign in which the four-term Connecticut senator campaigned for John McCain, Obama's GOP opponent. Yet during a speech to the Republican National Convention, Lieberman referred to himself four times as a Democrat - despite the fact that in 2006, this gadfly of political allegiance ran as an Independent. Why? Because he lost the Democratic primary, and this shift from D to I was the only way he could retain his seat.

But in working to strip the Senate's health care bill of the public option and Medicare buy-in provisions, Lieberman proved to be far from a loyal Democrat. Some critics charge that Lieberman, the Democratic Party's vice presidential candidate in 2000, was doing the bidding of the insurance industry in gutting the bill. He has received more than $1 million from insurance interests since 1990, the Center for Responsive Politics reported.

According to supporters, the public option and Medicare buy-in would pressure insurance companies to hold down costs and provide better coverage. They believe Lieberman was voting to fill his campaign coffers, not stand up for his principles.

While Lieberman isn't the only Democrat who waffled in supporting the Senate bill, he was the most uncompromising - and appeared to take the greatest delight in tweaking the noses of his Democratic caucus colleagues. And for this you've got to admire the guy's shamelessness.

Somehow he has convinced Democrats they are better off with him in their ranks. They cling to Lieberman in the hope that he'll help them beat back a filibuster despite all that he exacts from them, and the little he gives in return.

While Benedict Arnold may be his equal when it comes to guile, Joe Lieberman is unmatched in his ability to convince those he betrays to treat him as a friend - instead of the enemy he really is.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Is new passenger rights rule steak, or sizzle?

By DeWayne Wickham

On the day the Transportation Department announced it will begin fining airlines for subjecting passengers to lengthy ground delays, I sat aboard a plane for more than an hour-and-a-half before it took off from Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

The nearly full Southwest Airlines plane, which boarded passengers 30 minutes before its scheduled departure on Monday, didn’t pull away from the gate until nearly 70 minutes after it was supposed to depart for Orlando, Fla. The captain told us over the intercom that we were waiting for passengers stuck in long lines at the security check-in area.

Two days earlier, Baltimore — like much of the mid-Atlantic region — was hit by a blizzard that left 21 inches of snow on the ground, forcing many people to reschedule their flights.

To its credit, Southwest made every effort to efficiently unload the incoming passengers on my plane before loading the new passengers for the next leg. But that didn’t make it any easier to sit for about an hour and 40 minutes before the plane left the gate.

As flight delays go, this one was relatively minor. On Saturday, the morning of the snowstorm, an Air Jamaica flight got stuck on the Baltimore airport’s tarmac after its wings were de-iced. The 148 passengers languished in the cabin for eight hours before returning to the terminal. That’s the kind of nightmare transportation officials hope to prevent with their new rule, which takes effect in April.

Airlines that keep passengers on domestic flights stuck on the ground for three hours or longer could be fined $27,500 per passenger. When passengers are on a plane for at least two hours without taking off, the airline must provide food, water and a working bathroom.

“We will comply with the new rule even though we believe it will lead to unintended consequences — more canceled flights and greater passenger inconvenience,” said James May, president of the Air transport Association, which represents major U.S. airlines.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood called the new rules “President (Barack) Obama’s passenger bill of rights.”

I hope he’s right. I hope this rule’s good intentions aren’t undermined by the fine print. Airlines will be exempt from the new rule for security and safety reasons that aren’t spelled out. Also, a pilot won’t have to return to the terminal and let passengers off if air traffic controllers say it would disrupt the airport’s flight operations.

What exactly does that mean?

Is it a disruption for a plane to return to a gate that’s busy with arriving and departing flights? Does the clock stop on applying the rule if a safety or security concern is declared? When does it restart? Who decides?

By the time my flight left on Monday, I’d been in my seat for nearly as long as it took the plane to fly to Orlando. In such a case, does the clock start when the plane is boarded, or when it’s supposed to be airborne?

Like most frequent fliers — and millions of other people who fly only occasionally — I welcome this new rule. I just hope it doesn’t end up being more sizzle than steak.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

ABC can break Sunday morning talk show color barrier

By DeWayne Wickham

Stephanie Jones didn’t waste any time firing off a letter to ABC once she learned the musical chairs that followed the retirement of “World News” anchor Charles Gibson had landed George Stephanopoulos a promotion.

Since 2002, the former senior adviser the President Clinton had served as moderator of “This Week,” ABC’s Sunday morning political talk show. Earlier this month he was named host of “Good Morning America,” replacing Diane Sawyer, who got Gibson’s job.

“As you know, none of the major Sunday morning talk shows currently features a minority host and the lack of racial diversity is an ongoing concern we have urged you to address,” Jones wrote to ABC News President David Westin and Ian Cameron, executive producer of “This Week.”

Three years ago, Jones, who heads the National Urban League’s Policy Institute, criticized the “paucity” of blacks on TV’s five leading Sunday morning news talk shows — “This Week,” NBC’s “Meet the Press,” CNN’s “Late Edition,”Fox’s “FOX News Sunday” and CBS’ “Face the Nation.”Next year she will issue a follow-up report that credits the networks for making some progress, Jones told me. “But they are still a long way from where they need to be,” she was quick to add.

In urging Westin to name a black journalist to host “This Week,” Jones wants to do more than simply break the Sunday morning talk show color barrier. She wants someone black to help frame the perception and coverage of issues that have a substantial impact on the American public.

Westin clearly understands the power that hosts of national news shows wield. In a tribute to Gibson Thursday he said: “The first rough draft of history over this generation has been seen by an entire nation through the eyes” of the retiring news anchor.

That’s heavy stuff. And so is the opportunity Westin now has to make history.
In a perfect world, picking a black journalist to replace Stephanopoulos would be a no-brainer. It’s hard to find anyone with a thicker resume — or a more commanding presence on television — than Gwen Ifill, the supernova of PBS’ crop of journalists. Ifill is both moderator and managing editor of “Washington Week,” and doubles as senior correspondent on “NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.”

She cut her journalism teeth working for a long list of daily newspapers, including The Washington Post and The New York Times, where she was a White House correspondent. In 1994, she moved to television as a Capitol Hill reporter for NBC News. In each of the last two presidential elections, Ifill has moderated the vice presidential candidates’ debate. “She’s a wonderful, classy lady and a great journalist,” Tim Russert once said of her.

And then there’s Michel Martin, host of National Public Radio’s “Tell Me More,” a one-hour, daily talk show. Like Ifill, Martin is a veteran print journalist who migrated to television news. She worked for The Washington Post before becoming a White House correspondent for the Wall Street Journal.

The broadcast journalism portion of her resume is equally impressive. Before joining NPR, Martin was a reporter on ABC News’ “Nightline.” For a time, she worked alongside of Stephanopoulos as a weekly contributor to “This Week.” While at ABC, Martin crisscrossed the globe covering a wide range of stories — one of which earned her an Emmy.

If Ifill and Martin aren’t on Westin’s short list there’s something terribly wrong with his selection process — and his news judgment.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Wrongfully convicted man deserves better treatment

By DeWayne Wickham

Where’s the justice in this?

Donald Eugene Gates spent 28 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Convicted in 1981 of the brutal rape and murder of Catherine Schilling, a 21-year-old Georgetown University student, Gates was given a 20-years-to-life sentence and imprisoned in a federal prison in Arizona.

Gates was released a few days ago after DNA testing proved he didn’t commit that crime. To help him restart his life, the government gave him some winter clothes, $75 and a one-way bus ticket to his hometown of Akron, Ohio. The cab ride from the Tucson prison to the bus station cost $35.

Gates was forced to spend nearly half his 58 years behind bars after an FBI crime lab analyst linked two pubic hairs found at the crime scene to him. The reliability of the work of that man, FBI agent Michael Malone, was called into question in several subsequent cases.

A 1997 FBI inspector general’s report concluded Malone and other analysts in the bureau’s Washington crime lab had “made false reports and performed inaccurate tests” in criminal cases. In 2003, a forensic scientist found problems with Malone’s work in the Gates case but prosecutors never turned that information over to Gates’ lawyer.

Gates languished in prison for six more years until the District of Columbia’s Public Defenders Service succeeded in getting the judge who sentenced him to order a DNA test on the pubic hairs. An earlier test, using a less reliable method, proved inconclusive. The new, more accurate test, exonerated Gates.

Now, with what is left of the $75 he got from the federal government, Gates is expected to get on with his life.

When he went to prison in 1981, Ronald Reagan was in the first year of his presidency; Dallas was the top rated television show; the Oakland Raiders recorded their last Super Bowl victory, and 5-year-old Tiger Woods made an appearance on the TV show, “That’s Incredible.” Motorola didn’t introduce the first commercial cell phone until two years later.

The world Gates has just entered bears little resemblance to the one he left behind when he was wrongfully convicted. The nature of work – and the skills needed to land a job – have undergone a drastic change over the past quarter century. There’s little chance Gates can find a job that’ll make him self-sufficient without special training.

And there’s little hope that he won’t fall back into the clutches of the criminal justice system if something isn’t done quickly to compensate Gates for his lost years.

Such an act of contrition shouldn’t be slow in coming.

The District of Columbia allows persons who were wrongfully convicted to seek compensation, but why make Gates go through the motions? Why make him get a lawyer and go into court to litigate this matter? Why force Gates to sue for the help he needs to recover from the injustice he’s suffered? He was sent to prison based on questionable testimony of an FBI agent and stayed there longer than he should have when local prosecutors allegedly failed to share potentially exculpatory evidence with his lawyer.

In ordering Gates’ release, D.C. Superior Court Judge Fred Ugast said “we are fortunate…that the technology has been developed that permits us to at least try to right a wrong.”

But while setting Gates free may soothe the judge’s conscience, much more needs to be done to free Gates from the ravages of his wrongful conviction.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Did Tiger Woods fall victim to arrested development?

By DeWayne Wickham

Tiger Woods set out to master what would become his life's work by swinging what must have been the world's tiniest golf club - at 10 months old. Some three years later he shot a score over nine holes that would be the envy of adult amateurs struggling to tame the impossible game of golf with its endless variables of earth, wind and ire.

Shooting a 48 at age 3 must have both pleased Tiger and wetted the voracious drive of his father, Earl Woods, to push the young Woods to reach golf's loftiest heights. At eight, Woods won the International Junior World Golf Championships. It was the first of a long list of amateur and professional titles that has ended, at least until Woods straightens out the interactive part of his life he was least prepared for by his father, or apparently, anyone else.

Unless one spent the last two weeks in a sand trap, it has been impossible to avoid media coverage of the disruption of Woods' marriage and career by what in politics is referred to as "bimbo eruptions." With so many women teeing off on Tiger's marriage with claims of infidelity, it may be understandable - given media's dwindling audience - why so much Peeping Tom attention is being paid to this matter by tabloid newspapers and their leering TV cousins.

These purveyors of "news" have aggressively reported unverified, titillating claims, some of which may be the work of gold-diggers panning for their 15 minutes of fame. Lost in the clutter are the details of the true triggering incident and the matter of how the golf superstar and his wife are really dealing with this crisis in their marriage, which - though not new to the institution - could be instructive.

One would think that the big tumble the world's greatest golfer has taken would merit coverage that's somewhat less breathless and salacious.

It does not take a psychiatrist to appreciate that a childhood spent under the iron fist of a determined father in obsessive pursuit of the mastery of sports, music, or other such parental passion, comes at a great cost. Such a Mephistophelean deal, even a benign one as it may have been with Woods, might arrest development in other areas - especially social.

As other kids his age were experiencing what life coach and best-selling author Iyanla Vanzant calls "the natural order of child development,"
Tiger's dad was subjecting him to subliminal messages from audiotapes and motivational videos, Golf Digest reported in 2000.

While all of this has honed Tiger's physical and mental ability to dominate the global game of golf, it apparently did not prepare him to adjust well to life, love and marriage.

At a dinner honoring Tiger in 1996, his father - a former Green Beret who earned a degree in psychology and sociology from Kansas State University - prophesied that his son would one day transcend the sport and make the world a better place. But Tiger Woods is no Messiah, just the world's greatest golfer.

"He's probably profoundly traumatized. There's no way this is not a major catastrophe for him, too," said Harvard University psychiatry Professor Alvin Poussaint. "The big question is how Woods will be received back on the (golf) circuit ... because he will have to face the public again at some point?"

Woods' decision Friday to take an indefinite leave from golf may be an effort not only to save to his marriage but also undo the damage done to himself by his obsessive pursuit of the game of golf.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Obama lays out war doctrine at peace prize ceremony

By DeWayne Wickham

It was the incongruity of the moment — the leader of a nation at war receiving the world’s highest peace award — that may well make what Barack Obama said in Oslo, Norway on Thursday the most important speech of his presidency.

In accepting the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize just nine days after ordering a dramatic increase in U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Obama spoke of war as a necessary evil that sometimes offers the only chance for lasting peace.

“We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes,” Obama said. “There will be times when nations — acting individually or in concert — will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.”

While the notion of a just war probably dates back to first time cavemen used clubs to settle an argument, Obama doesn’t see its goal as conquest. War is justified, he said, when it is waged to end slaughter and preserve the peace.

But a just war has little lasting value if it doesn’t produce a “just peace,” the president said. Such a peace, he said, “includes not only civil and political rights, it must encompass economic security and opportunity. For true peace is not just freedom from fear, but freedom from want.”

Just as the Powell Doctrine, named after former secretary of state and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin Powell, prescribes how and under what conditions the United States should fight a war, Obama’s doctrine lays out a global rationale for going to war in the name of peace.

Back in 1918, President Woodrow Wilson laid out his formulation for peace in an address to Congress 10 months before the end of World War I. In his famous Fourteen Points speech, Wilson outlined what needed to be done at the conclusion of the war to produce a lasting peace. Most of his points had to do with restoring the sovereignty of countries caught up in the conflict.

But the last of his 14 points called for creation of “a general association of nations” to provide “mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.” That idea led to the League of Nations — the forerunner of the United Nations — which Wilson hoped would preserve peace around the world.

As subsequent events made clear, and as Obama acknowledged in his speech, war is not so easily eradicated.

“We can acknowledge that oppression will always be with us, and still strive for justice,” Obama said. “We can admit the intractability of depravation, and still strive for dignity. Clear-eyed, we can understand that there will be war, and still strive for peace.”

And we must hope that he’s right in believing that the young men and women he’s committed to battle are fighting a just war — one that will produce a just and lasting peace.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

NATO's questionable contribution to Afghan war

By DeWayne Wickham

When President Obama announced last week his decision to send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, he made it clear he expects this nation's European allies to also increase their commitment to that conflict. In fact, they need to do more to win the war and preserve the peace.

In his West Point address, Obama said the military campaign against the Taliban and al-Qaeda is an international effort to which NATO must contribute more forces because the alliance's credibility, the security of its allies and "the common security of the world" are at stake. That was a diplomatic way of telling Europe it has as much at risk as does the U.S.

Since the Sept. 11 strikes that sparked the fighting in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda-inspired attacks in London and Madrid have killed nearly 250 people and wounded almost 2,500. Many other attacks apparently have been foiled in Britain, France, Italy, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands.

This, along with pressure from the Obama administration, no doubt contributed to NATO's decision last week to announce that 25 of its 28 member nations will send an additional 7,000 troops to Afghanistan. That's an average of 280 soldiers per country.

"Nations are backing up their words with deeds," NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said, amid reports that the alliance is using fuzzy math. Apparently, some of the NATO "increase" will come from counting international troops who are already in the war zone because their planned withdrawal will be delayed.

Europe can and should do a lot more than that. The U.S. share of the international force in Afghanistan will increase to 98,000 from the 68,000 servicemen and women in that war-torn country. The rise among the remainder of foreign troops will not be as sharp, climbing from 42,000 to 52,000 soldiers, if NATO ultimately meets the U.S. request for 10,000 additional troops.

Even more worrisome, more Americans are being sent to fight Islamic extremists in Afghanistan while anti-Muslim extremism in Europe threatens to fuel the growth of Islamic fanaticism.

Voters in Switzerland recently passed a constitutional amendment that bans the construction of minarets on Muslim mosques. Minarets are towers from which Muslims are called to prayer several times a day. Nearly 6 of 10 Swiss voters backed the ban.
The Swiss vote came a couple weeks after France backed away from banning Muslim women from wearing burqas. The issue heated up when French President Nicolas Sarkozy said that "France is a country that has no place for the burqa."

Sarkozy's concern about the veil seemed misplaced, if not miscreant. Of his country's 5 million Muslims, just 367 women wear burqas, French police reported.Five years ago, France banned Muslims from wearing head scarves in public schools — an action that Osama bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, called "another example of the Crusader's malice."

Add to all of this a growing call in Western Europe for the enactment of immigration laws that target Muslims, and it appears religious intolerance has become the continent's Maginot line against Islamic extremists.

But such acts not only won't make the European countries that embrace them safer, they'll also likely give rise to a new breed of homegrown terrorists — and swell the ranks of the radical Muslims who are fighting the United States-led coalition in Afghanistan.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Black Caucus clashes with Obama

By DeWayne Wickham

This is a warning shot Barack Obama should not ignore.

Angered by a laundry list of perceived slights, 10 members of the Congressional Black Caucus who also sit on the House Financial Services Committee boycotted a vote Wednesday on a financial regulation reform bill the Obama administration wants Congress to pass.

While the legislation cleared the committee on a 31-27 vote, Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., made it clear that the 43 members of the black caucus — all Democrats — might join with Republicans to block other bills the White House is pushing if their concerns aren’t addressed.

I knew it would come to this.

Since Obama took office in January, his staff has tried mightily to keep him from being perceived as "the black president" — an effort that at times has made Obama seem indifferent to the concerns of the Democratic Party’s most loyal constituency.

The president didn’t meet with the black caucus until five weeks after moving into the Oval Office. That one-hour session came after he’d already met with Senate Republicans and with members of the Blue Dog Coalition of fiscally conservative House Democrats.

At their February meeting with Obama, black caucus members voiced their concern over the disparate impact unemployment was having on blacks during the economic recession. Back then, the black unemployment rate was 13.4 percent compared with a national unemployment rate of 8.1 percent.

Since then, unemployment has gotten worse, and blacks and Hispanics continue to be disproportionately jobless, especially as manufacturing and construction industries falter.

A day after caucus members boycotted the Financial Services Committee vote, the Obama administration held a White House Forum on Jobs and Economic Growth. The agenda did not include a discussion of unemployment’s disproportionate impact on blacks.

In an interview Thursday with USA TODAY, Obama rejected the idea of a targeted response to the problems that afflict blacks when he said: "I will tell you that I think the most important thing I can do for the African-American community is the same thing I can do for the American community, period, and that is get the economy going again and get people hiring again."

But that rising-tide-lifts-all-boats answer hasn’t sat well with black caucus members as unemployment among black men (17.1 percent in October) approaches a level not seen since the Great Depression.

The racial divide that Obama successfully straddled in winning the presidency now threatens to break apart the coalition that hoisted him into office. While polls show his biggest loss of support has occurred among independent voters, a growing frustration among blacks may yet become Obama’s downfall.

Obama must be as aggressive in working to reduce black unemployment as he was in giving billions in federal stimulus aid to collapsing financial institutions. A general approach to putting Americans back to work won’t close the yawning gap between black and white joblessness.

Of course, Obama isn’t the president of black America, he’s the president of all Americans, some of his most misguided supporters like to say. What they don’t seem to realize is that blacks are Americans, too, and their problems shouldn’t be sacrificed on the altar of political expediency.

The issues that black caucus members are raising with Obama deserve to be treated seriously. Not because Obama also is black. And not simply because blacks voted in historic numbers for him, though in politics there’s something to be said for letting the victors divide the spoils.

No, the most compelling reason why Obama should heed the warning shot the caucus fired across his bow is because many of the problems they want addressed are among this nation’s most vexing social and economic issues.