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Copyrighted material 404: Information Missing From Your Daily News

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

 + BUSH AND THE MISSING BILLIONS   Sixty days into the Bush presidency and Repubs are crying foul. First they find that the W keys popped off of White House keyboards; then the economy falls apart, and then an energy crisis appears. Right-wing talk show pundits are blaming their usual suspect: Bill Clinton. That's all bunk, of course -- although the image of Clinton strolling away from the White House with a fistful of W keys rattling in his pocket is oddly gratifying.

No, the Democrats revenge upon the Republicans will be this: Bush will be required to guide a new, massive federal bureaucracy whose sole purpose is to dispense billions of dollars to the poorest people in America. But Dubya can't blame Clinton for this conservative's nightmare; the problem began during the Grover Cleveland Administration.


An 1887 law made the federal government responsible for collecting fees from anyone who uses tribal land, with the money to be held in a trust fund. Billions were paid by mining companies, ranchers, and others over the decades; currently over $300 million is collected annually by the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs), part of the Interior Dept. The money was supposed to be given to the descendants of the original Indian land owners, but every audit since 1928 has found billions missing from the trust fund. It is certainly the greatest financial scandal in the history of the United States.

In 1996, a class-action suit against the BIA was filed. The feds delayed, often claiming that vital records couldn't be found. It was later discovered that boxes of documents were being destroyed even as lawyers from the government said they were searching for them. In 1999, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, BIA head Kevin Gover, and Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin were cited for contempt of court, and Rubin and Babbitt were fined $625,000 each. In April 2000, the Interior Department moved recordkeeping operations from New Mexico to Virginia, where officials said all information would be entered into a master computer program. Critics accused Washington of more stalling, charging that there was no proof that the computer worked as promised.

For more background, see our July, 2000 report.

Last month the federal Court of Appeals in Washington agreed with a Native-American class-action suit that the feds have mismanaged billions of dollars that are owed to Indians (see sidebar), opening the door for them to seek $10+ billion from the feds. While Bush could still appeal this to the U.S. Supreme Court, it is very unlikely that the ruling would be overturned.

Even if Bush decided to not fight the suit (and thus becomes the first U.S. president to keep a promise to the Indians), he faces the same obstacle as his predecessors: the accounting system is an unholy mess, and billions of dollars are missing from the trust fund.

Starting in 1998, the Dept. of Interior made the controversial decision to move all records to a new computer system called TAAMS (Trust Assets and Accounting Management System). Critics doubted that it would work, and called it another delaying tactic. Then on February 23, the court found an internal memo that revealed the government system to be just another cruel joke.

Dom Nessi, the BIA's chief information officer, wrote that the government's plan to solve the problems with the $40 million TAAMS computer was "built on wishful thinking and rosy projections."

Nessi was writing to BIA Special Trustee Tom Slonaker, who is in charge of the trust fund. The memo stated that the government's plans were completely unrealistic, and made without an in-depth analysis of the problems involved. "Trust has been neglected for decades in the Department of Interior. It cannot be corrected in a couple of years," he wrote.

Nessi was blunt: BIA plans were "slowly, but surely imploding" as the organization fell into chaos. "The philosophy of TAAMS has changed at least three times and the definition of BIA data cleanup seems to be different to everyone. As Yogi Berra once said, 'If you don't know where you are going, you end up somewhere else.'"

Dom Nessi isn't the only whistleblower. Mona Infield, a 19-year BIA supervisor with senority, was placed on leave after she raised questions about how the project was being managed. Last month, the court responsible for the trust fund ruled that Infield could sue top BIA officials. "I am a disgruntled employee," Infield told the Albuquerque Journal. "I'm also disillusioned and disgusted."

So how is the Bush Administration handling this crisis? Not well, so far. After the Nessi memo surfaced, Interior Secretary Gale Norton told the Senate that "much progress has been made" on trust reform and TAAMS. Meanwhile, Bush nemesis Senator John McCain has joined Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell calling for the creation of an "Indian Trust Resolution Corporation" to clean up the mess. (Jeff Elliott, March 23, 2001)

 + INCIDENT AT RACAK   Two years after the close of the 1999 Kosovo war, it appears likely that former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic is headed for a long stint in jail -- the International Criminal Tribunal at The Hague has stepped up pressure on Yugoslavia to arrest Milosevic for war crimes. Other former dictators have committed worse crimes but don't face a lifetime in the slammer; Chile's Pinochet and Indonesia's Suharto will most likely die comfortable in their retirement palaces. Of course, those despots were our despots, fierce anti-communists and cozy with Washington, while Milosevic was an unrepentant socialist and pals with Moscow. Slobodan can look forward to many years behind bars to contemplate the message there.

Charges against Milosevic were made in preliminary indictments just after the war's end ( see related Monitor story) and include murders and racial/religious persecutions in Kosovo. Most well-known among the incidents is the January, 1999 killings of 45 ethnic Albanian civilians by Yugoslav police, known as the Racak massacre.

Although there were other charges of Serb violence in the months before the NATO bombings, both The New York Times and Washington Post noted that events at Racak were the turning point in world public opinion. Gruesome pictures from the village made international news as U.S. envoy William Walker escorted reporters through the village. "...I do not hesitate to describe the event as a massacre, obviously a crime against humanity," he solemnly told the cameras.

From that point on, stories of ever-greater horrors appeared like clockwork. Gangs of murderous Serb thugs were roving Kosovo; a sports stadium was converted into a Serb concentration camp; Serbs were attacking women captive in "rape camps." Americans heard Clinton comparing Milosevic to Hitler and warning that another Holocaust was at hand.

The problem with almost all those atrocity reports was that they simply weren't true, as we documented in a 404 report, " The Search for Serb Atrocities." Some were complete fakes planted by the anti-Serbian terrorist Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA); others were hyperbole, like Walker's claim of Racak genocide. (Note that William Walker was a former aide to Oliver North, who similarly inflated claims for hate-mongering.)

But questions remained as to what really happened at Racak. A few European newspapers disputed Walker's version, and the German paper Berliner Zeitung reported that the bodies weren't civilian massacre victims, but rather bodies of KLA guerillas that had been brought in from elsewhere for the photo opportunity. In March, 1999, the European Union hired a team of neutral Finnish forensic experts to examine the evidence. Initial reports stated that they were unable to either confirm or disprove either version of the story, but the report was not yet completed. After that, the mystery of Racak faded from the news, surfacing briefly as part of the 1999 Project Censored list.

As it turns out, another chapter on the Racak massacre was written after all. As reported by media watchdog FAIR, the pathologist's report was finished months ago, but its publication blocked by the UN and EU. Their conclusion was that there was no evidence of a massacre:

According to the Berliner Zeitung (1/16/2001), the Finnish investigators could not establish that the victims were civilians, whether they were from Racak, or even exactly where they had been killed. Furthermore, the investigators found only one body that showed traces of an execution-style killing, and no evidence at all that the bodies had been mutilated.

It would seem that there were several newsworthy stories, here. A major 1999 headline story was phony; what happened in the village is still completely unproven. Add in that it was this seminal story that led to the first European war since WWII -- an undeclared 3-month assault on Serbian cities and citizens -- and it would seem worthy of press notice in 2001.

But as FAIR noted, the U.S. press shunned this important correction. and continues to repeat the massacre disinformation: " [The Serbs might attack Albanian rebels] ..with a Racak-style retaliation" - Chicago Tribune (1/23/2001). Only the San Francisco Chronicle printed a short item about the questions raised about Racak, and that appeared several weeks after the FAIR bulletin shamed American media for ignoring the story.

Whenever Milosevic comes to trial, it will be interesting to see how both sides play the incident at Racak. The War Crimes Tribunal still lists it prominently in the indictment, which they want to expand to include genocide charges against him and four others. But the prosecution can't admit that there are doubts about what really happened in the village; that would open a Pandora's Box of questions about the veracity of other "massacres."

The Serbian defense will be eager to show that Yugoslavia was unfairly villianized by NATO, and it may seem that the Milosevic would gain a victory if the Racak charges were dismissed because of inconclusive evidence. Not so; it would be to his advantage if the trial centered on alleged Kosovo atrocities. Better to focus on those famous (but debatable) events than to investigate the assassinations and kidnappings of Milosevic's foes, which could be easier to prosecute (but less dramatic).

But no matter how the incident at Racak spins at the Milosevic trial, the War Crimes Tribunal should also pursue charges against NATO. Against both the UN charter and its own, the multi-national force waged a brutal, undeclared war against an entire nation, killing civilians and destroying their infrastructure ( see related Monitor story). All for crimes that might not have even occurred.

Ah, the intrigue of the Balkans! Aren't we glad that we got involved? (March 16, 2001)

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