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Copyrighted material 404: Information Missing From Your Daily News

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

 + INTERIOR SECRETARY NORTON HELD IN CONTEMPT   Iraq, Iraq, Iraq, Iraq: The American press always loves the sound of beating war drums, and it has helped the White House make the possibility of war with Iraq the #1 topic in the nation. Forced to the sidelines are pressing issues like the miserable economy (stock market at 4-year low, poverty at 8-year high, the first household income decline in 11 years), the lack of prosecution of corporate scoundrels (particularly Enron), and Cheney's unprecedented fight to coverup the details of his energy policy meetings. Say, could the Iraq fuss possibly be a "Wag the Dog" election-year stunt? Shouldn't that question bracket all serious discussion of an attack?

There's another big issue that the White House wants kept off the front page: The contempt of court ruling against a member of the Bush cabinet. On Sept. 17, Interior Secretary Gale Norton was held in contempt by U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth for her mishandling of the Indian Trust Fund. It was the climax of a rocky year that has left the Dept. of the Interior torn by petty infighting and distrust.


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 much more background on the BIA suit, see the October, 2001 MONITOR report. Details on Norton can be found in our February, 2001 feature, Gale Norton, Secretary of War

To be fair, it must be understood that Norton inherited the worst financial scandal in American history (see sidebar), and no one really expected her to fix the mess, particularly after just a single year in office. But Norton has been charged with something far more serious than dragging her feet: lying under oath. Lamberth wrote in his decision that Norton had "committed a fraud on the court" and that the Interior Dept. "... has now undeniably shown that it can no longer be trusted to state accurately the status of its trust reform efforts. In short, there is no longer any doubt that the Secretary of Interior has been and continues to be an unfit trustee-delegate for the United States."

For the last year, Norton has waged an ugly little war against both whistleblowers inside the department (more on that below) and the court itself. Court-appointed supervisor Joseph S. Kieffer III told the judge as early as August, 2001 that Norton was responsible for a "charade carried out by her attorneys to continue to keep the major management and systems failures from the light of day and this court." Since then, Lamberth has required Norton to sign all reports, an unusual requirement and indication that she might be held personally accountable.

Norton's folly was to bet everything on the success of an untested and custom-written computer database. TAAMS (the Trust Asset and Accounting Management System) was unveiled in 1999 and immediately proved to be a flop. The system couldn't talk to older computers -- some a quarter-century old -- where the records were stored. The system also kept spitting out inaccurate statements because much of the data was bad ("garbage in, garbage out"). And if the tech problems weren't enough, the project was so badly mismanaged that expectations of what the system was really supposed to do kept shifting. While they fumbled about, the problem grew worse as about $900 thousand was added to the Fund daily -- not counting past interest due, of course, or the $40 million pricetag for TAAMS. Yet at the same time, Norton kept telling the court and Congress that everything was fine and the computers would sort it all out. Real Soon Now.

Norton finally pulled the plug on TAAMS development a few months after an independent report conclusively documented the incurable problems in November. But quickly, an even more serious computer problem surfaced. Lamberth had secretly hired another outside company to try to see if they could hack into the system, and the consultants found it easy to access trust fund accounts -- according to Indian Country Today, the access password was a simplistic abbreviation such as, "passwd." Lamberth wrote, "Anyone could have hacked in and created an account...Untold amounts of money could have disappeared from these accounts, and Interior today cannot tell us whether untold amounts of money disappeared or not." Lamberth ordered her to shutdown Internet access to the database. Norton overreacted and shut down all Internet access for all agencies of the Interior Department, including public services such as the system for making reservations at national park campgrounds. For over two months, Interior Dept. workers could not even send or receive e-mail.

The Department's many computer woes set the stage for Norton's grueling 29-day trial before Judge Lamberth, which resulted in the contempt decision that was finally announced this month. But the most damning testimony at Norton's trial didn't come from outside computer experts -- it came from administrators within the Department who told the judge that Norton was dishonest.

BIA Special Trustee Tom Slonaker, who had been in charge of the Trust Fund for three years, told the court that Norton had lied to Congress when she said that it would take $2.5 billion and ten years to clean up the Trust Fund. Slonaker said that those projections were phony -- in truth, the Trust Fund can never completely and accurately balance the books because too many records have been lost or destroyed over the years.

Slonaker continued to be a thorn in her side after the trial as well. In July, he was preparing testimony for a Senate committee while fighting attorneys from both the White House and Justice Department that were pressuring him to tone down his criticism. Before he could testify, Norton abruptly demanded his resignation. "I was given the choice of resigning or being fired," Slonaker told the Associated Press. "Things have not been going well in terms of trust reform, but it's not always the message they want to hear." Court-appointed supervisor Kieffer commented that the actions were "unconscionable and smack of retaliation."

Slonaker is probably glad to be rid of the job. A few days after his forced resignation, an internal Interior Department report painted a picture of a bureaucracy torn by feuding, turf wars, and a "bunker mentality" among workers there. "We are convinced that in a department whose components are blinded by clouded judgment and crippled by distrust, a singular sinister or conspiratorial plan is impossible to construct," wrote inspector general Earl Devaney.

In other words, the report concluded that there was no intentional screwup or fraud by Norton and others in the handling of Trust Fund money -- that the Interior Department is far too unorganized to mount a coverup or ripoff the trust funds. Putting the best possible spin on things, the Denver Post reported this under the headline, "Agency's Probe Clears Norton in Trust Case." Talk about being damned with faint praise. (September 26, 2002)

 + WHILE THE MEDIA SLEPT   August is traditionally a sleepy month in newsrooms, the sluggish end of the media's overall summer doldrums. (For a longer rant on this topic, see last month's 404 column.) But news still happens, even if it's not being covered. While editors and reporters were on vacation and our appointed president dawdled away at his Texas ranch, his administration was pushing ahead with its efforts to undermine environmental protections.  Thanks to the NRDC, here's a list of what this administration did to our environment in one short month. Most of these stories received little or no media coverage.

August 3:  The Environmental Protection Agency failed to meet the pesticides review deadline.  The EPA falsely claimed that it had met the deadline for reassessing the safety of pesticides mandated by the Food Quality Protection Act.  The EPA was using Enron-like accounting to claim that it has met the law.  In truth, many of the pesticides it evaluated were already off the market or rarely used, and it failed to review any of the worst pesticides first.

August 7:  The EPA rolled back the Clean Water Act's water cleanup program.  By implementing a rule that would allow states to trade pollution "credits" it crippled the the Act's primary program for cleaning up more than 20,000 polluted rivers, lakes, and estuaries.  This new rule would make it easier to remove waters from the list of those needed to be cleaned up and make it more difficult to include additional waterways to be added to the list.

August 10:  The White House seeks to lift environmental review provisions as they apply to our oceans under U.S. control.  In a legal battle against National Resource Defense Council, the administration is arguing that the environmental law doesn't extend beyond U.S. territorial waters three miles beyond the nation's shorelines.  If the court agrees, our oceans would be opened to waste dumping, commercial fishing, oil and gas construction, and military maneuvers.

August 12:  The Bureau of Land Management decided to allow companies to expand oil and gas exploration beyond the boundaries of their existing leases at one monument in Colorado.  Fortunately, a judge halted the project when environmentalist groups filed suits.  But with 85 percent of the 164,000 monuments already leased, this is just the start of an attempt to seize our national treasures.

August 13:  The EPA cedes Idaho mining cleanup for the polluted Coeur d'Alene Basin to state, local, and tribal officials.  The transfer of authority means that a new state commission will take control of a $359-million plan instead of the EPA which has the expertise and experience and would have less influence by local concerns.

August 15:  President Bush skipped the UN Earth Summit meeting in Johannesburg (see MONITOR story).  Ten years ago the first President Bush attended a World Summit meeting where he agreed to help tackle some of the world's environmental problems.  The current President Bush turned his back to the world by refusing to attend, ignoring our need to join other countries in working on solutions.

August 19:  A proposal in California to transfer one of the last undeveloped stretches of Southern California's coast as a national seashore is being marred by the Bush Administration.

August 19:  By implementing funny Enron-like math, the EPA was hopeful that a new penalty calculations would help assess fines against polluters making the penalties smaller.  Fortunately, the General Accounting Office forced the EPA to withdraw the scheme.

August 22: The Interior Department reversed a National Park Service finding that air pollution at Kentucky's Mammoth Cave National Park was threatened by a proposed coal-fired power plant that would significantly retard visibility.  The coal company happens to be one of President Bush's major campaign contributors.

August 22:  President Bush's new forest management plan would allow timber companies to increase commercial logging in national forests.  By using the threat of fire, he hopes to allow logging across millions of acres of our national forests.  If preventing fires was Bush's true agenda, he would focus on thinning underbrush and small trees close to homes, rather than allowing timber companies to take the older, fire resistant trees that are far away from communities.

August 23:  Interior Secretary Norton walked away quietly by abandoning her agency's appeal of a court ruling involving a critical component of California's widely supported water plan.  The state-federal plan was designed to restore the San Francisco Bay-Delta improving water supply reliability for California.  

August 26:  A coalition of small business people in Utah sent a letter to President Bush opposing his administration's plans to allow oil drilling on public lands in southern Utah.  They were worried that drilling would mar the landscape and cause economic hardship on restaurants, bed and breakfasts, and sightseeing firms.  Apparently President Bush only listens to big business.

August 27:  Bush chose Allan Fitzsimmons to be the head of the Interior Department's wildfire prevention program.  In 1999 Fitzsimmons wrote "that because ecosystems exist only in the human imagination and cannot be delineated, federal policies should not be used to try to manage or restore them." By this appointment, Bush's new program is nothing more than a thinly disguised effort to accelerate logging in national forests.

Thus in one short month while the President was on vacation, the business of eroding and destroying our country's natural resources went on -- as usual. (Pamela Conley, September 21, 2002)

 + PRESS REWRITES HISTORY OF IRAQ ARMS INSPECTIONS   This item from FAIR (subscribe to their bimonthly magazine, Extra!) adds more details to the story first reported by Norman Solomon is a July column.

Nothing makes a newspaper prouder than a juicy foreign-policy scoop. Except, it seems, when the scoop ends up raising awkward questions about a U.S. administration's drive for war.

Back in 1999, major papers ran front-page investigative stories revealing that the CIA had covertly used UN weapons inspectors to spy on Iraq for the U.S.'s own intelligence purposes. "United States officials said today that American spies had worked undercover on teams of United Nations arms inspectors," the New York Times reported (1/7/99). According to the Washington Post (3/2/99), the U.S. "infiltrated agents and espionage equipment for three years into United Nations arms control teams in Iraq to eavesdrop on the Iraqi military without the knowledge of the UN agency." Undercover U.S. agents "carried out an ambitious spying operation designed to penetrate Iraq's intelligence apparatus and track the movement of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, according to U.S. and UN sources," wrote the Boston Globe (1/6/99).

Each of the three news stories ran on the papers' front pages. At first, U.S. officials tried to deny them, but as more details emerged, "spokesmen for the CIA, Pentagon, White House and State Department declined to repeat any categorical denials" (Washington Post, 3/2/99). By the spring of 1999, the UNSCOM spying reported by the papers was accepted as fact by other outlets, and even defended; "Experts say it is naive to believe that the United States and other governments would not have used the opportunity presented by the UN commission to spy on a country that provoked the Persian Gulf War in 1991 and that has continued to tangle with U.S. and British forces," USA Today reported (3/3/99).

But now that the Bush administration has placed the inspectors at the center of its rationale for going to war, these same papers have become noticeably queasy about recalling UNSCOM's past spying. The spy scandal badly damaged the credibility of the inspections process, especially after reports that data collected through UNSCOM were later used to pick targets in the December 1998 bombing of Iraq: "National security insiders, blessed with their unprecedented intelligence bonanza from UNSCOM, convinced themselves that bombing Saddam Hussein's internal apparatus would drive the Iraqi leader around the bend," wrote Washington Post analyst William Arkin (1/17/99).

Suddenly, facts that their own correspondents confirmed three years ago in interviews with top U.S. officials are being recycled as mere allegations coming from Saddam Hussein's regime.

The UNSCOM team, explained the New York Times' Barbara Crossette in an August 3 story, was replaced "after Mr. Hussein accused the old commission of being an American spy operation and refused to deal with it." She gave no hint that Saddam's "accusation" was reported as fact by her Times colleague, Tim Weiner, in a front-page story three years earlier.

"As recently as Sunday, Iraqi officials called the inspectors spies and accused them of deliberately prolonging their work," the Washington Post's Baghdad correspondent wrote recently in a story casting doubt on the Iraqi regime's intentions of cooperating (9/8/02). Readers would have no way of knowing that the Post's Barton Gellman exhaustively detailed the facts of the spying in a series of 1999 articles.

"Iraq accused some of the inspectors of being spies, because they remained on their host countries' payrolls while reviewing Iraq's weapons," the Boston Globe's Elizabeth Neuffer wrote recently, in an oddly garbled rendition of the charges (9/14/02). She could have boasted that her paper's own Colum Lynch (now with the Washington Post) was widely credited with first breaking the story of UNSCOM's spying in a January 6, 1999 front-page expose. But she chose not to.

It's hard to avoid the impression that certain media outlets would rather that UNSCOM's covert espionage had never been exposed in the first place. The day after Barton Gellman of the Washington Post first reported the spying charges, in a story sourced to Kofi Annan's office, his own paper ran a thundering editorial denouncing Annan's "gutless ploy" ("Back-Stabbing at the UN," 1/7/99) and instructing the UN leader that instead of providing the information to a Washington Post reporter, he and his aides should have "raised their concerns in private." (FAIR September 24, 2002)

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