Saturday, December 30, 2006

For Guantánamo Review Boards, Limits Abound

Published: December 31, 2006
The New York Times

GUANTÁNAMO BAY, Cuba — At one end of a converted trailer in the American military detention center here, a graying Pakistani businessman sat shackled before a review board of uniformed officers, pleading for his freedom.

The prisoner had seen just a brief summary of what officials said was a thick dossier of intelligence linking him to Al Qaeda. He had not seen his own legal papers since they were taken away in an unrelated investigation. He has lawyers working on his behalf in Washington, London and Pakistan, but here his only assistance came from an Army lieutenant colonel, who stumbled as he read the prisoner’s handwritten statement.

As the hearing concluded, the detainee, who cannot be identified publicly under military rules, had a question. He is a citizen of Pakistan, he noted. He was arrested on a business trip to Thailand. On what authority or charges was he even being held?

“That question,” a Marine colonel presiding over the panel answered, “is outside the limits of what this board is permitted to consider.”

Under a law passed by Congress and signed by President Bush in October, this double-wide trailer may be as close to a courtroom as most Guantánamo prisoners ever get. The law prohibits them from challenging their detention or treatment by writs of habeas corpus in the federal courts. Instead, they may only petition a single federal appeals court to examine whether the review boards followed the military’s own procedures in reviewing their status as “enemy combatants.”

But an examination of the Guantánamo review boards by The New York Times suggests that they have often fallen short, not only as a source of due process for the hundreds of men held here, but also as a forum to resolve questions about what the detainees have done and the threats they may pose.

Some limitations have long been evident. The prisoners have no right to a lawyer, or to see classified evidence, or even to know the identity of their accusers. What has been less visible, however, is what many officials describe as a continuing shortage of information about many detainees, including some who have been held on sketchy or disputed intelligence.

Behind the hearings that journalists are allowed to observe is a system that has at times been as long on government infighting and diplomatic maneuvering as it has been short on hard evidence. The result, current and former officials acknowledged, is that some detainees have been held for years on less compelling information, while a growing number of others for whom there was thought to be stronger evidence of militant activities have been released under secret arrangements between Washington and their home governments.

Military officials emphasize that the boards are an administrative forum and were never intended to replicate judicial standards of fairness. But they say the hearings offer prisoners a viable opportunity to rebut the government’s evidence.

“At the end of the day, it’s about giving the detainee the flexibility and freedom to present his case,” said Capt. Philip L. Waddingham, a former Navy pilot who oversees the operations of the panels at Guantánamo.

Administration officials also emphasize that the reviews are more rigorous than the battlefield tribunals that have traditionally been used to determine the status of wartime prisoners under the 1949 Geneva Conventions.

But the Geneva tribunals were established to answer questions about the identities of soldiers and spies from regular armies. Sorting through the identities and past actions of suspected participants in a shadowy global terrorist network, military officials said, has proved far more complex.

To date, 377 Guantánamo detainees, nearly half of the 773 who have been held there, have been released or transferred to other governments. Of those, about 150 have been repatriated through the review process since mid-2004, officials said.

The administration’s push to reduce the Guantánamo population is more evident in another statistic. The final arbiter of prisoner releases, Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon R. England, has overruled the panels’ recommendations in more than 15 percent of the 237 cases he has decided so far this year, officials said. In virtually all of those, the boards had recommended continued detention.

Still, a recent study of the review process found that detainees arguing their innocence were routinely denied witnesses they tried to call, even when the witnesses were other prisoners at Guantánamo. Lawyers for the detainees complain that the government has made almost no effort to have the panels consider information they have gathered and has often blocked their attempts to learn the accusations against their clients.

“We have tried again and again to have a say in the process,” said Barbara Olshansky, a lawyer who has coordinated much of the work of the detainees’ lawyers for the Center for Constitutional Rights. “But we learned pretty early on that these were kangaroo courts.”

Many of the detainees appear to have given up on the reviews as a way to win their freedom. In the latest round of annual hearings, which were completed this month, only 18 percent of the prisoners chose to attend.

Evolution of the Hearings

The review system at Guantánamo began operating in July 2004, more than two years after most detainees were imprisoned there. Officials said it was intended in part to deflect criticism that the prison had become a legal black hole. They also hoped it would resolve what had become a contentious struggle among national security agencies over which prisoners to hold and which to free.

Even before Mr. Bush decided in February 2002 that the United States would not observe the Geneva Conventions in fighting terrorism, Donald H. Rumsfeld, then the defense secretary, dismissed the idea of Geneva-style hearings for the detainees, maintaining that they would never be entitled to the prisoner-of-war status that such tribunals could grant them in other conflicts.

“There is no ambiguity in this case,” Mr. Rumsfeld said.

Yet intelligence officers at Guantánamo found ambiguity everywhere. Many of the detainees had been captured by Afghan militias, Pakistani border guards and other surrogates, and some had been turned in for bounties, intelligence officials said. Information about their identities and actions was often vague and secondhand. Physical evidence, if any existed, was sometimes lost before reaching Cuba.

Still, the detainees who were held on the weakest information tended not to be a priority for either intelligence officers or the military’s criminal investigators.

“It wasn’t the job of the intelligence community to verify their guilt or innocence,” said Col. Brittain P. Mallow, a retired Army investigator who led a task force that gathered evidence for war crimes tribunals that are expected to prosecute about 50 to 70 of the remaining 396 detainees.

Faced with growing international criticism, the Bush administration moved in May 2004 to set up a kind of annual parole system, called Administrative Review Boards, to weigh each detainee’s continuing threat and intelligence value. But before those hearings began, the Supreme Court called that June for a one-time review of all Guantánamo detainees using the sort of panels called for by Army regulations — and by the Geneva Conventions.

Those first panels, called Combatant Status Review Tribunals, or C.S.R.T.’s in military parlance, required three military officers to decide cases by majority vote, based on a “preponderance of the evidence.” The boards were allowed to consider a wide range of intelligence, including statements obtained by coercion.

Midlevel officers were assigned to help the detainees prepare for their hearings. Military lawyers were not permitted to serve in that role, however, because of concern that limitations on that assistance might open the lawyers to charges of violating professional ethics rules.

Lawyers at the Defense and Justice Departments had another worry: that detainees found to be “not enemy combatants” might sue the government for wrongful imprisonment. Partly for that reason, officials said, the review office was instructed to use the phrase “no longer enemy combatants.”

By the time the C.S.R.T. reviews got under way, intelligence agencies had confirmed that half a dozen detainees released from Guantánamo were fighting for the Taliban in Afghanistan. Such risks were raised frequently in government debates.

“It was sort of a mantra in the system: ‘You have got to make sure that you don’t release any of the wrong people,’ ” recalled Charles W. Moore Jr., a now-retired vice admiral who set up the review apparatus under Mr. England.

Reviewing Decisions

The early results of the hearings, in which officials said a surprising number of detainees were found not to be enemy combatants, only heightened the unease.

Internal critics, including the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Special Operations branch of the Pentagon, complained heatedly that the boards did not properly understand the intelligence they were assessing, said current and former officials who participated in the debates.

The critics were later allowed to provide further training to the panels. In the first round of annual reviews after the C.S.R.T.’s, officers with military intelligence backgrounds also took over the role, previously assigned to lawyers, of vetting evidence and presenting the government’s case.

While some officials perceived an undue influence over the panels from intelligence agencies and their allies, others said those critics were mostly beaten back.

“The intelligence community wanted to derail the C.S.R.T. process and dictate the decisions, and that didn’t happen,” said one former senior official, who, like several others, would discuss the policy deliberations only on the condition of anonymity.

According to documents and interviews, the Pentagon office in charge of the reviews ordered the repetition of some C.S.R.T. boards that recommended the release of detainees. Defense Department officials would not discuss those cases in detail.

The largest number of repeated hearings appears to have involved some of the 22 Muslim detainees from western China who were part of the Uighur (pronounced WEE-gur) ethnic minority.

The Uighurs’ sworn enemy was not the United States but the Communist government of China, which had long oppressed their people. The military accused the detainees of belonging to a separatist group that the Chinese authorities had persuaded Washington to list as a terrorist organization, but some experts on the region disputed that characterization of the group and the detainees denied any link to it.

The State Department, fearful that the men would be tortured if they were sent back to China, had already begun trying to place the Uighurs as refugees in Europe when their cases came for review at Guantánamo, officials said.

“We were shocked that they even sent those guys before the C.S.R.T.’s,” said one former national security official who worked on the matter. “They had already been identified for release.”

Because the Uighurs told very similar stories, Pentagon officials were confounded when at least five of them were determined not to be enemy combatants and the rest properly held, officials said.

At least several of the Uighurs, including some found not to be enemy combatants, had their cases reviewed again, officials said. They described the impetus for doing so as “quality control.” But available documents show that at least one of the detainees, whose case was reviewed again, was finally found to be an enemy combatant.

Five Uighur detainees were finally sent to Albania as refugees in May.

Some Aren’t Revisited

Yet other cases in which questions arose were not revisited. One of those involved a Sudanese man, Adel Hassan Hamad, who was seized in Pakistan in 2002.

According to the unclassified summary of allegations in his first hearing, Mr. Hamad, who is now about 48, had worked for two nongovernmental organizations, or N.G.O.’s, with ties to Al Qaeda and had come into contact “with persons who had positions of responsibility in Al Qaeda.” But the military presented no unclassified information that Mr. Hamad was anything but a hospital administrator and former teacher, or that he knew of his employers’ purported ties.

As with all such cases, it is not possible to judge independently the evidence against Mr. Hamad because part of it is secret. But while two panel members found him to be rightfully detained, a third officer, an Army lawyer whose name was blacked out in the declassified document, objected strongly.

Even if the unclassified allegations were true — and Mr. Hamad said he knew nothing about Qaeda links — “a mere association with Al Qaeda does not qualify as a basis for enemy combatant status,” the lawyer wrote in a formal dissent. The officer, who also studied the secret evidence, said the military was declaring Mr. Hamad an enemy combatant because some parts of the organization he worked for had allegedly supported “terrorist ideals and causes.”

“To reach such a conclusion would provide for unconscionable results,” he wrote. It might mean, he added, that “all physicians, nurses and aid workers employed by the alleged terrorist-connected N.G.O.’s would also be declared enemy combatants.”

The panel’s 2-to-1 decision was reviewed by two other military lawyers, each of whom tersely upheld its “legal sufficiency.” One of them, Cmdr. James R. Crisfield Jr. of the Navy, described the Army officer’s dissent as “articulate and thoughtful,” but emphasized the review panels’ modest standard of proof.

“Given the low evidentiary hurdle posed by a preponderance-of-evidence standard and the rebuttable presumption of genuineness and accuracy that attaches to government evidence, I believe that the test is satisfied in this case,” Commander Crisfield wrote.

Despite the limited evidence against Mr. Hamad, documents from his first annual review show little further substance to the military’s accusations. They noted that a brother of the Sept. 11 plotter Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was once a manager at one of the charities where Mr. Hamad worked. But the military was now asserting only that the group “may be affiliated with Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda operations.”

Two federal public defenders in Portland, Ore., who took Mr. Hamad’s case last year said they had located about a dozen witnesses who corroborated parts of his account. Although much of that information has been filed as part of a habeas case in federal court, there is no sign yet that it has made any difference for Mr. Hamad.

“I don’t think there was any substantive attempt by the military to find witnesses who could get to the bottom of this,” said one of the lawyers, Patrick J. Ehlers. “There were hundreds of other people out there who worked for these groups. None of those people were arrested, and none of them were questioned.”

Constraints on the System

Several officials who helped establish the review panels said they tried to create mechanisms that would let detainees present witnesses and evidence and allow the panels to gather new information.

But some officials said those ambitions, however sincere, had often been undone by the speed of most reviews — often conducted in just hours — and the low priority assigned to the collection of information on the detainees by intelligence agencies and foreign governments. This year, three panels at Guantánamo handled as many as 13 or 14 cases a week, they said.

“There are real time constraints and real resource constraints,” one retired military officer said. “They usually ended up without anything new, so the boards were just dusting off old files and trying to have a fair and impartial body look at that old information.”

Captain Waddingham, the chief of the review office at Guantánamo, said the boards followed the recommendations of military intelligence officials 95 percent of the time. But both he and the overall head of the review program, Frank Sweigart, insisted that the panels were able to get new information when they needed it.

“We are always looking for supporting facts, and if we can’t find them, we ask for them,” Mr. Sweigart, a retired Navy captain, said in an interview. “There really is a lot of information out there for a number of them — especially for the detainees who are there today.”

But other current and former officials described a system that was frequently inefficient in collecting information that might determine a prisoner’s fate.

Some officials said military and civilian intelligence agencies gave little priority to requests for information from the panels, particularly when they involved time-consuming inquiries overseas. And though officials including Mr. England, the deputy defense secretary, have urged foreign governments to develop and pass on their own information about detainees from their countries, few of them did.

Officials said some governments, including those of Kuwait and Bahrain, had provided extensive files on their detainees. Partly out of diplomatic considerations, they said, the State Department pressed Mr. England to move up review hearings for at least several detainees from those two countries and, ultimately, to overrule review panel decisions and repatriate them.

On Nov. 3 last year, the Pentagon sent two Kuwaitis and three Bahrainis home from Guantánamo on Mr. England’s approval, despite what two officials said had been negative rulings by the review panels in at least some of those cases.

But other releases are harder to explain. In one such case, lawyers for Nazar Chaman Gul, an Afghan prisoner, said they were mystified to learn of the repatriation on Dec. 16 of another Afghan, Mohammad Akhtiar, after his annual review.

Mr. Akhtiar had been accused of launching a rocket attack on an American military base in Afghanistan in early 2003. Declassified transcripts of Mr. Gul’s hearings suggest that a major piece of incriminating evidence against him was that he was captured with Mr. Akhtiar at his home. (Another problem seemed to be that he was confused with another Afghan with the same name, who is also being held at Guantánamo.)

“Gul’s greatest sin seemed to be his association with Mohammad Akhtiar,” said a lawyer for Mr. Gul, Amy Baggio. “Unfathomably, Akhtiar is now home with his family while Nazar Gul is going on his fourth year in custody.”

Lawyers say that detainees who have tried to use the review system to challenge the accusations against them have often been frustrated. According to a recent study of 102 unclassified C.S.R.T. files by the Seton Hall University law school, the military denied all requests by the detainees for witnesses who were not also being held at Guantánamo and denied requests for detainee witnesses 74 percent of the time.

Although a growing number of lawyers have begun to conduct their own investigations into accusations against their clients, a former military intelligence officer who has presided over dozens of review boards was dismissive of those contributions.

“As far as what the habeas lawyers have to say, for the most part it wouldn’t factor in because they have made themselves not credible,” said the officer, a Marine colonel who suggested that the lawyers took detainees’ claims of innocence at face value.

The lawyers respond that the obstacles to their input in the process raise questions about the military’s desire to learn everything it can about the detainees. More than a week after the hearing for the Pakistani businessman accused of ties to Al Qaeda, a Washington lawyer who had been trying to help him told a reporter that he had not even known the session had taken place.

“There is no hint of any kind of due process in this,” said the lawyer, Gaillard T. Hunt. “He’s got no right to an investigation. But substantively, it really doesn’t matter, because they can always just say they have this classified information that he can’t see.”

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Ten Suggestions for Rescuing the Bush Legacy

Published: December 31, 2006
The New York Times

Particularly after all the tributes to Gerald Ford in the last few days, President Bush may be pondering his own legacy and obituary. Sorry, Mr. Bush, but it doesn’t look good right now, with your obit perhaps beginning something like this:

“George W. Bush, who achieved tremendous acclaim for his handling of the 9/11 terror attacks but left office vilified and disgraced, mired in the Iraq war and stalemated at home, his hard-line partisan tactics souring the electorate and crippling his beloved Republican Party for a generation, died. ...”

But Mr. Bush, your plight isn’t hopeless. In the holiday spirit, let me offer you 10 suggestions for what you can do in 2007 to try to rescue your legacy.

First, seriously engage Iraq’s nastier neighbors, including Iran and Syria, and renounce permanent military bases in Iraq. None of that will solve the mess in Iraq. But these steps will suggest that you are belatedly trying to listen and are willing to give diplomacy a chance. They may also help at the margins: renouncing bases is a simple move that has no downside and will make it harder for Iraqi militants to argue that Americans are just out to steal Iraqi oil and grab military bases.

Second, start an intensive effort to bring peace to the Middle East. Work with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to flesh out his peace proposals. And vigorously back the Geneva Accord approach to an Israeli-Palestinian peace, since everybody knows that is what a final peace deal will look like. Frankly, it seems unlikely that peace is going to break out anytime soon in the Middle East, but there is a huge dividend for America’s image if we at least try.

Third, confront the genocide in Darfur. President Bill Clinton has said that the biggest regret of his administration is not responding to the Rwandan genocide, and someday you — and your biographers — will rue your lame response to Darfur. For starters, how about inviting the leaders of Britain, France, China, Egypt and Saudi Arabia to travel with you to Darfur and Chad to see firsthand the women who have been mutilated and raped, the men whose eyes have been gouged out? Follow that up with a no-fly zone, an international force to prop up Chad and the Central African Republic, and a major push for an internal peace among Darfur tribes.

Fourth, encourage Dick Cheney to look pale in public. Then he can resign on health grounds, and you can appoint Condi Rice or Bob Gates to take his place. Mr. Cheney has been the single worst influence on your foreign policy, as well as the most polarizing figure in your administration. There’s no better move you could make to signal a new beginning than to accept Mr. Cheney’s resignation.

Fifth, revive the theme of compassionate conservatism by extending your excellent five-year AIDS program (while not being so squeamish about condoms in the future). And above all, work with Europe to promote incentives for business investment in Africa, modeled after the African Growth and Opportunity Act program. The best hope to raise Africa’s standard of living is to nurture factories manufacturing clothing, shoes and toys for export.

Sixth, address climate change. Nobody expects you to be an Al Gore, but you sully America’s image when you run away from any serious attempt to curb carbon emissions.

Seventh, put aside those thoughts of a military strike on Iranian nuclear sites, and make it clear to Israel that we oppose it conducting such an attack. A strike would set back Iran’s nuclear programs by only five years or so, but it would consolidate hard-line rule there for at least 25 years.

Eighth, instead of giving up on Social Security, revive the reform proposals that President Clinton urged in 1999. That does mean bringing the budget back into black ink, which will mean phasing out some tax cuts for the wealthy.

Ninth, address our disgraceful inequities in health care. You could push for comprehensive coverage for children up to age 5 (as President Jimmy Carter tried to achieve a generation ago), and for almost zero cost you could mount a public health campaign to tackle obesity in children. Mike Huckabee, the Republican governor of Arkansas, has shown how state governments can fight diabetes and obesity, and you should take his approach nationwide.

Tenth, don’t toss this newspaper to the floor and curse the press for your unpopularity. Instead, borrow from your playbook after you lost the New Hampshire primary in 2000 — grit your teeth, retool and steal ideas from your critics and rivals. It worked then, and it just might help in 2007.

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Poll: More troops unhappy with Bush’s course in Iraq

By Robert Hodierne
Senior managing editor
Air Force Times

The American military — once a staunch supporter of President Bush and the Iraq war — has grown increasingly pessimistic about chances for victory, according to the 2006 Military Times Poll.

For the first time, more troops disapprove of the president’s handling of the war than approve of it. Barely one-third of service members approve of the way the president is handling the war.

When the military was feeling most optimistic about the war — in 2004 — 83 percent of poll respondents thought success in Iraq was likely. This year, that number has shrunk to 50 percent.

Only 35 percent of the military members polled this year said they approve of the way President Bush is handling the war, while 42 percent said they disapproved. The president’s approval rating among the military is only slightly higher than for the population as a whole. In 2004, when his popularity peaked, 63 percent of the military approved of Bush’s handling of the war. While approval of the president’s war leadership has slumped, his overall approval remains high among the military.

Just as telling, in this year’s poll only 41 percent of the military said the U.S. should have gone to war in Iraq in the first place, down from 65 percent in 2003. That closely reflects the beliefs of the general population today — 45 percent agreed in a recent USA Today/Gallup poll.

Professor David Segal, director of the Center for Research on Military Organization at the University of Maryland, was not surprised by the changing attitude within the military.

“They’re seeing more casualties and fatalities and less progress,” Segal said.

He added, “Part of what we’re seeing is a recognition that the intelligence that led to the war was wrong.”

Whatever war plan the president comes up with later this month, it likely will have the replacement of American troops with Iraqis as its ultimate goal. The military is not optimistic that will happen soon. Only about one in five service members said that large numbers of American troops can be replaced within the next two years. More than one-third think it will take more than five years. And more than half think the U.S. will have to stay in Iraq more than five years to achieve its goals.

Almost half of those responding think we need more troops in Iraq than we have there now. A surprising 13 percent said we should have no troops there. As for Afghanistan force levels, 39 percent think we need more troops there. But while they want more troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, nearly three-quarters of the respondents think today’s military is stretched too thin to be effective.

The mail survey, conducted Nov. 13 through Dec. 22, is the fourth annual gauge of active-duty military subscribers to the Military Times newspapers. The results should not be read as representative of the military as a whole; the survey’s respondents are on average older, more experienced, more likely to be officers and more career-oriented than the overall military population.

Among the respondents, 66 percent have deployed at least once to Iraq or Afghanistan. In the overall active-duty force, according to the Department of Defense, that number is 72 percent.

The poll has come to be viewed by some as a barometer of the professional career military. It is the only independent poll done on an annual basis. The margin of error on this year’s poll is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

While approval of Bush’s handling of the war has plunged, approval for his overall performance as president remains high at 52 percent. While that is down from his high of 71 percent in 2004, it is still far above the approval ratings of the general population, where that number has fallen into the 30s.

While Bush fared well overall, his political party didn’t. In the three previous polls, nearly 60 percent of the respondents identified themselves as Republicans, which is about double the population as a whole. But in this year’s poll, only 46 percent of the military respondents said they were Republicans. However, there was not a big gain in those identifying themselves as Democrats — a figure that consistently hovers around 16 percent. The big gain came among people who said they were independents.

Similarly, when asked to describe their political views on a scale from very conservative to very liberal, there was a slight shift from the conservative end of the spectrum to the middle or moderate range. Liberals within the military are still a rare breed, with less than 10 percent of respondents describing themselves that way.

Seeing media bias

Segal was not surprised that the military support for the war and the president’s handling of it had slumped. He said he believes that military opinion often mirrors that of the civilian population, even though it might lag in time. He added, “[The military] will always be more pro-military and pro-war than the civilians. That’s why they are in this line of work.”

The poll asked, “How do you think each of these groups view the military?” Respondents overwhelmingly said civilians have a favorable impression of the military (86 percent). They even thought politicians look favorably on the military (57 percent). But they are convinced the media hate them — only 39 percent of military respondents said they think the media have a favorable view of the troops.

The poll also asked if the senior military leadership, President Bush, civilian military leadership and Congress have their best interests at heart.

Almost two-thirds (63 percent) of those surveyed said the senior military leadership has the best interests of the troops at heart. And though they don’t think much of the way he’s handling the war, 48 percent said the same about President Bush. But they take a dim view of civilian military leadership — only 32 percent said they think it has their best interests at heart. And only 23 percent think Congress is looking out for them.

Despite concerns early in the war about equipment shortages, 58 percent said they believe they are supplied with the best possible weapons and equipment.

While President Bush always portrays the war in Iraq as part of the larger war on terrorism, many in the military are not convinced. The respondents were split evenly — 47 percent both ways — on whether the Iraq war is part of the war on terrorism. The rest had no opinion.

On many questions in the poll, some respondents said they didn’t have an opinion or declined to answer. That number was typically in the 10 percent range.

But on questions about the president and on war strategy, that number reached 20 percent and higher. Segal said he was surprised the percentage refusing to offer an opinion wasn’t larger.

“There is a strong strain in military culture not to criticize the commander in chief,” he said.

One contentious area of military life in the past year has been the role religion should play. Some troops have complained that they feel pressure to attend religious services. Others have complained that chaplains and superior officers have tried to convert them. Half of the poll respondents said that at least once a month, they attend official military gatherings, other than meals and chapel services, that began with a prayer. But 80 percent said they feel free to practice and express their religion within the military.

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U.S. Official Overseeing Oil Program Faces Inquiry

Published: December 30, 2006
The New York Times

WASHINGTON, Dec. 29 — The Justice Department is investigating whether the director of a multibillion-dollar oil-trading program at the Interior Department has been paid as a consultant for oil companies hoping for contracts.

Skip to next paragraph The director of the program and three subordinates, all based in Denver, have been transferred to different jobs and have been ordered to cease all contacts with the oil industry until the investigation is completed some time next spring, according to officials involved.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation had not been announced publicly, said investigators were worried that senior government officials had been steering huge oil-trading contracts to favored companies.

Any such favoritism would probably reduce the money that the federal government receives on nearly $4 billion worth of oil and gas, because it would reduce competition among companies that compete to sell the fuel on behalf of the government.

If the allegations prove correct, they would constitute a major new blot on the Interior Department’s much-criticized effort to properly collect royalties on vast amounts of oil and gas produced on land or in coastal waters.

The Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service, which oversees royalty collections, is now the target of multiple investigations by Congress and the Interior Department’s inspector general.

Those investigations are focused on allegations that the agency ordered its own auditors to abandon claims of cheating by large oil companies; that the agency’s arcane rules for calculating sales value and royalties make it easier for companies to understate their obligations; and that the agency’s basic sources of data are riddled with inaccuracies and are unreliable.

Interior officials have promoted “royalties in kind” as a much simpler and more efficient way for the government to get its proper share, because it eliminates much of the arcane accounting and reduces the opportunities for sleight-of-hand bookkeeping.

About a quarter of all oil and gas produced in the United States comes from federal property, and the Interior Department collected about $10 billion in royalties last year on about $60 billion in oil and gas.

At issue is the “royalty in kind” program, a fast-growing program under which companies pay their royalties in the form oil or gas rather than in the traditional form of cash.

For the 12 months ending last April, the government collected about $3.7 billion in oil and gas. Until recently, most of the oil simply went to the government’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve. But the strategic reserve was essentially filled this year, so the Interior Department hires private companies to resell the fuel on the open market.

To ensure that it gets the best price, the Interior Department takes bids for contracts in which companies typically offer to pay a specific premium over the daily spot-market prices quoted on the Nymex commodity exchange. The companies offering the biggest premium over the spot market get the contracts.

People familiar with the investigation said it had begun several months ago, but had picked up speed in the last few weeks.

The most prominent figure in the inquiry is Gregory W. Smith, who was director of the royalty-in-kind program at the Minerals Management Service in Denver. Mr. Smith oversaw the entire program, which now covers 75 percent of royalties for all oil and 30 percent of royalties for all natural gas produced in the Gulf of Mexico.

One person familiar with the investigation said it originally had focused on potentially improper social ties between some of Mr. Smith’s subordinates and executives at companies vying for contracts. The subordinates include two women, including one who is said to be in charge of oil marketing, and a second man.

All four people were transferred out of the royalty-in-kind office several weeks ago. Mr. Smith was reassigned as a “special assistant” to Lucy Querques Dennett, associate director of the Mineral Management Service in Washington. He was given strict orders to avoid any contact with industry executives, according to one official.

One official said investigators were now looking at possible consulting arrangements between the Denver officials and oil companies. The official said the most recent information had, if anything, hardened the suspicions of investigators, and said the potential ramifications could turn out to be far-reaching.

Mr. Smith did not return calls to his office in Denver. Spokesmen for the Interior Department in Washington as well as in the inspector general’s office, which began the investigation before referring the matter to the Justice Department, refused to comment on the matter.

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Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Strategy, Not Drama, in ‘I Intend to Run in ’08’

Published: December 27, 2006
The New York Times

WASHINGTON, Dec. 25 — On Thursday, John Edwards is planning to announce what has been clear to much of the world since the end of the last presidential election: He is running for president in 2008. A similar declaration is expected shortly from Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, followed, in all probability, by Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama and John McCain.

For all the very orchestrated hoopla about to be heaped on American voters over the next few weeks, presidential announcements have become, more often than not, vestigial remnants of the way presidential politics were once conducted (or at least the way they are remembered).
Rather than being big moments in which candidates lay down ideological markers and discuss what they would do as president, announcements are more of a pro forma exercise of the obvious. Campaigns grab at a political opportunity for attention with events that, ultimately, are of relatively small consequence.

For Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Romney, Mr. Edwards and Mr. McCain, it would be noteworthy, after all they have done, if they were to announce that they were not running. Mr. Edwards’s 2008 campaign arguably began on Election Day 2004, when he lost as his party’s vice-presidential candidate.

But if formal announcements hold little drama, they are hardly meaningless. Their timing and staging reflect how presidential politics are changing in the United States in 2008, and offer a glimpse at problems each candidate faces one year before the Iowa caucus. The announcements are an insight into how campaigns are adapting to the pressures of the Internet, the demands of fund-raising, the broad range of avenues for reaching voters and mobilizing supporters, and the particular dynamics of the ’08 campaign, crowded with candidates, many of them celebrities.
Most strikingly, the announcements are being made extraordinarily early. In the 1992 cycle, Bill Clinton did not formally announce his candidacy until October 1991, three months before the Iowa caucus. When Mr. Edwards announces, with a round of morning talk show interviews and a press conference in the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, he will become the third Democrat to enter the race formally.

As of now, about a half-dozen candidates have formed presidential exploratory committees, a step that allows them to raise money as they take soundings about a race. And Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., Democrat of Delaware, told reporters Tuesday that he planned to set up his exploratory committee next month.

In this crowded field, few candidates in either the Democratic or Republican Party can afford to wait and risk watching a rival pick off big-name elected officials, campaign consultants and contributors. And since aides to many of the candidates say they are likely to bow out of the public campaign finance system and raise money on their own, there is pressure to start raising money now.

“Timing is becoming much more of an issue,” said Joe Trippi, who managed the 2004 presidential campaign of Howard Dean. “You’re seeing it now in the urgency of these people to get out and announce.”

Understandably, candidates are going to do what it takes to get publicity. Mr. Edwards’s aides said they chose this slow-news time of year, and the backdrop of New Orleans neighborhoods ravaged by Hurricane Katrina, in part to command the maximum amount of attention. Camera crews will be permitted to film Mr. Edwards as he helps with the cleanup efforts.

But there are less obvious advantages as well. Mr. Trippi said that when Mr. Dean declared for president in June 2004, they timed his announcement for a week before the deadline for the release of campaign finance reports. The idea was that the excitement built by the announcement in Vermont would result in a surge of contributions that would allow Mr. Dean to surprise the political world with a display of his grass-roots financial support. Mr. Dean’s big fund-raising report that month proved to be one of the biggest boosts of his campaign.
Mr. Edwards, who is arguably the most Web-savvy candidate in the ’08 race to date, is using Thursday’s event to try to gin up his supporters via the Internet. He sent out an e-mail message earlier this week, saying he was on the verge of making a decision that his aides say has, in fact, already been made.

The decision of how to time the announcements also reflects the particular needs of the candidates.

For Mr. Edwards, there is clearly interest in trying to win attention after two months in which Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama dominated the coverage of the Democratic contest.
For Mr. Romney, it is a chance to try to reset his bearings after a month in which he has struggled to reconcile his effort to be the most socially conservative candidate in the race with a more liberal record, as Massachusetts governor, on such issues as abortion and gay rights.
The motivation for the announcement of Gov. Tom Vilsack, the Democratic governor of Iowa, was in many ways more typical: a fairly unknown politician trying to get his name on the board with a thematic speech delivered in early primary states.

There may still be a few stop-the-presses surprises lurking out there. There is still a smidgen of doubt about the candidacy of Mr. Obama, who is spending this week in Hawaii with his family discussing his future, and even a smaller smidgen of doubt about Mrs. Clinton.

Although Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts has said he is likely to make a second effort at running, some Democrats say they would not be shocked to see him bow out. And it will be interesting to see if Al Gore succumbs to pleading by Democrats to run.

Mr. Edwards has been preparing for this moment since the second in 2004 when he knew he and Mr. Kerry had been defeated. His relatively high standing in some early polls in Iowa is testimony, in part, to how much time he has spent there in the last two years.

Mr. Romney’s intentions are also no mystery: he spent 212 days out of state last year, The Boston Globe reported last week, and has methodically moved over the past year to the right side of the Republican ocean.

And if Mrs. Clinton or Mr. McCain end up not running, that will come as sobering news to the stable of high-powered political talent they have recruited in recent months. Both even have putative campaign managers in place: Terry Nelson for Mr. McCain and Patti Solis Doyle for Mrs. Clinton.

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Monday, December 25, 2006

British Troops Raid Iraqi Police Station, Killing 7

Published: December 25, 2006
The New York Times

BAGHDAD, Dec. 25 – Hundreds of British soldiers laid siege to a police station in the southern city of Basra today, killing seven gunmen, rescuing 127 prisoners from almost certain execution and ultimately reducing the building to rubble.

The focus of the attack was an arm of the local police called the Special Crimes Unit, which British officials said had been thoroughly infiltrated by criminals and militia members who had used it to terrorize local residents and violently settle scores with political or tribal rivals.

“The Serious Crimes Unit was at the center of death squad activity,” said Maj. Charlie Burbridge, a spokesman for the British military.

When British forces eventually gained control of the facility, they found the prisoners being held in conditions Major Burbridge described as “appalling.” More than 100 men were crowded into a single cell, 30 feet by 40 feet, with two open toilets, two sinks and just a few blankets spread over the concrete floor.

A significant number showed signs of being tortured, he said. Some had crushed hands and feet, others had cigarette and electrical burns and a significant number had gunshot wounds to their legs and knees.

Although some local officials, including Basra’s police chief, publicly condemned the raid, local residents privately said they were grateful and painted an image of an organization widely feared for its brutality.

“They are like savage dogs that bite when they are hungry,” said one resident who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. “Their evaluation of guilt or innocence is how much money you can pay.”

Residents said that people were afraid to challenge them because they were backed by powerful militia groups including the Mahdi army, which is controlled by the rebel cleric Moktada al-Sadr.
“Everyone wants to avoid the mouth of the lion,” one resident said. “From this, they became stronger and stronger.”

Major Burbridge said that the dismantling of the Special Crimes Unit had been being planned for months.

As far back as 2004, he said, there was a growing realization that the police had been widely infiltrated by members of various militia and elements of organized crime. To combat their influence, the British have been trying to cull them from the forces in a campaign called Operation Sinbad, which began in September.

After trying to determine who was fit to serve in the police, the British began outfitting officers with sophisticated identification cards meant to limit the access of imposters to police intelligence, weapons and vehicles.

They are also working with the Iraqis at a new police academy.

In late October, gunmen -- believed by the British to have been connected to the Special Crimes Unit -- ambushed a mini-bus carrying 17 employees of the academy and slaughtered them all. Their mutilated remains were dumped in the Shuaiba area of the city in an effort to intimidate the local population.

“It had simply gone beyond the pale and it was clear it was time for the Special Crimes Unit to go,” Maor. Burbridge said in an interview.

Three nights ago, in preparation for today’s raid, British and Iraqi forces arrested a key leader of the unit.

While they planned to take over the station today, British forces had to speed up the operation.
“We received information late last night that the crimes unit was aware this was going to take place and we received information that the prisoners lives were in danger,” Maj. Burbridge said.
More than 800 British soldiers, supported by five Challenger tanks and roughly 40 Warrior fighting vehicles, began their assault at 2 a.m. this morning. They were also aided by 600 Iraqi soldiers.

The British force approaching from the west came under attack as made their way to the building, facing rocket propelled grenades and small arms fire. Six of the gunmen were killed as they made their way through the city.

When they reached the station, one guard in a watchtower fired at the approaching forces and he was also killed.

Several dozen members of the Special Crimes Unit who had been occupying the building fled and are still free, according to the British military. After taking the prisoners into custody and turning them over to the Iraqis, the two-story building was demolished.

The building had symbolic importance because before the war it had been used by Saddam Hussein’s police and many of those taken there were never heard from again.

It was also the site more than a year ago of one of the British army’s most dramatic clashes. After two British special-forces soldiers were captured by militants, they stormed the building. Residents rioted after the raid and there was a dramatic video of young boys hurling stones at a burning British armored fighting vehicle parked outside the station. Ultimately, the soldiers were released as the result of negotiations.

The British military today released video images of the building’s destruction.

The entire battle lasted nearly three hours and no British soldiers were killed. But the streets around the station were littered with bombed out cars and rubble.

The violence in Basra, Iraq’s second largest city, is different than that in Baghdad to the north or Anbar province to the west.

There are really three separate wars in this country, all connected, yet each distinct.
In Baghdad in recent months, the heaviest violence has been the result of sectarian killing, as the Shia steadily drive Sunnis from mixed neighborhoods and Sunnis retaliate, primarily with bomb attacks. On Monday, at least 10 civilians were killed and 15 wounded when a car bomb exploded in the mixed neighborhood of Jadida. In northeastern Baghdad, a suicide bomber with explosives tied to his body blew himself up on a crowded bus, killing two people and wounding another 20 passengers. An American soldier also died in Baghdad on Monday in a roadside bomb attack.

In Sunni-controlled Anbar province, where the fighting is mainly between insurgents and American troops, two U.S. soldiers were killed in fighting Sunday.

In southern cities like Basra, dominated by Shia, the fighting is a combination of battles between rival militias vying for power, warring tribes and organized crime.

“In northern Basra, the fighting is mainly between three warring tribes,” Major Burbridge said. “The death squads are typically related to political maneuvering and tribal gain. Then there are rogue elements of militias aiming attacks on the multi-national forces.”

“You throw all those elements into a melting pot and you get a picture of the complexity of what we are facing,” he said.

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U.S. Is Holding Iranians Seized in Raids in Iraq

Published: December 25, 2006
The New York Times

BAGHDAD, Dec. 24 — The American military is holding at least four Iranians in Iraq, including men the Bush administration called senior military officials, who were seized in a pair of raids late last week aimed at people suspected of conducting attacks on Iraqi security forces, according to senior Iraqi and American officials in Baghdad and Washington.

The Bush administration made no public announcement of the politically delicate seizure of the Iranians, though in response to specific questions the White House confirmed Sunday that the Iranians were in custody.

Gordon D. Johndroe, the spokesman for the National Security Council, said two Iranian diplomats were among those initially detained in the raids. The two had papers showing that they were accredited to work in Iraq, and he said they were turned over to the Iraqi authorities and released. He confirmed that a group of other Iranians, including the military officials, remained in custody while an investigation continued, and he said, “We continue to work with the government of Iraq on the status of the detainees.”

It was unclear what kind of evidence American officials possessed that the Iranians were planning attacks, and the officials would not identify those being held. One official said that “a lot of material” was seized in the raid, but would not say if it included arms or documents that pointed to planning for attacks. Much of the material was still being examined, the official said.
Nonetheless, the two raids, in central Baghdad, have deeply upset Iraqi government officials, who have been making strenuous efforts to engage Iran on matters of security. At least two of the Iranians were in this country on an invitation extended by Iraq’s president, Jalal Talabani, during a visit to Tehran earlier this month. It was particularly awkward for the Iraqis that one of the raids took place in the Baghdad compound of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, one of Iraq’s most powerful Shiite leaders, who traveled to Washington three weeks ago to meet President Bush.
Over the past four days, the Iraqis and Iranians have engaged in intense behind-the-scenes efforts to secure the release of the remaining detainees. One Iraqi government official said, “The Iranian ambassador has been running around from office to office.”

Iraqi leaders appealed to the American military, including to Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the senior American ground commander in Iraq, to release the Iranians, according to an Iraqi politician familiar with the efforts. The debate about what to do next has also engaged officials in the White House and the State Department. The national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley, has been fully briefed, officials said, though they would not say what Mr. Bush has been told about the seizure or the identity of the detainees.

A senior Western official in Baghdad said the raids were conducted after American officials received information that the people detained had been involved in attacks on official security forces in Iraq. “We conduct operations against those who threaten Iraqi and coalition forces,” the official said. “This was based on information.”

A spokesman for Mr. Hakim, who heads a Shiite political party called Sciri, which began as an exile group in Iran that opposed Saddam Hussein, declined to comment. In Tehran, the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Mohammad Ali Hosseini, had no comment about the case on Sunday other than to say it was under examination.

The action comes at a moment of extraordinary tension in the three-way relationship between the United States, Iran and Iraq. On Saturday, even as American officials were trying to determine the identity of some of the Iranians, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution imposing mild sanctions against Iran for its refusal to suspend uranium enrichment. Meanwhile, the Bush administration has rejected pressure to open talks with Iran about its actions in Iraq.

Much about the raids and the identities of the Iranians remained unclear on Sunday. American officials offered few details. They said that an investigation was under way and that they wanted to give the Iraqi government time to figure out its position. A Bush administration official said the Iranian military officials held in custody were suspected of being members of the Quds force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. It has been involved in training members of Hezbollah and other groups that the Americans regard as terrorist organizations.

American and Iraqi officials have long accused Iran of interfering in this country’s internal affairs, but have rarely produced evidence. The administration presented last week’s arrests as a potential confirmation of the link. Mr. Johndroe said, “We suspect this event validates our claims about Iranian meddling, but we want to finish our investigation of the detained Iranians before characterizing their activities.”

He added: “We will be better able to explain what this means about the larger picture after we finish our investigation.”

In the raids, the Americans also detained a number of Iraqis. Western and Iraqi officials said that following normal protocol, the two Iranian diplomats were turned over to the Iraqi government after being questioned. The Iraqis, in turn, released them to the Iranian Embassy. An Iraqi official said his government had strained to keep the affair out of the public eye to avoid scuttling the talks with Iran that were now under way.

The raids and arrests were confirmed by at least seven officials and politicians in Baghdad and Washington. Still, the development was being viewed skeptically on Sunday by some Iraqis, who said that they suspected that the timing was intended to reinforce arguments by some in the administration that direct talks with Iran would be futile.

An administration official in Washington disputed that, saying, “When the military conducted the raids, they really didn’t know who they were going to find.”

The United States is now holding, apparently for the first time, Iranians who it suspects of planning attacks. One senior administration official said, “This is going to be a tense but clarifying moment.”

“It’s our position that the Iraqis have to seize this opportunity to sort out with the Iranians just what kind of behavior they are going to tolerate,” the official said, declining to speak on the record because the details of the raid and investigation were not yet public. “They are going to have to confront the evidence that the Iranians are deeply involved in some of the acts of violence.”

The events that led to the arrests of the Iranians began on Thursday, although details are sketchy.

In one raid, which took place around 7 p.m. that day, American forces stopped an official Iranian Embassy car carrying the two Iranian diplomats, one or two Iranian guards and an Iraqi driver. Iraqi officials said that the diplomats had been praying at the Buratha mosque and that when it was stopped, the car was in the Allawi neighborhood, a few minutes from the Iranian Embassy to the west of the Tigris River.

All in the car were detained by the Americans. The mosque’s imam, Sheik Jalal al-deen al-Sageir, a member of Parliament from Mr. Hakim’s party, said the Iranians had come to pray during the last day of mourning for his mother, who recently died. He said that after the Iranians left, the Iranian Embassy phoned to say that they had not arrived as expected. “We were afraid they were kidnapped,” Sheik Sageir said.

But he said he was later informed that the diplomats, whom he said that he did not know well, were in the custody of Americans. “I had nothing to do with that,” Sheik Sageir said. “I don’t know why the Americans took them.”

The predawn raid on Mr. Hakim’s compound, on the east side of the Tigris, was perhaps the most startling part of the American operation. The arrests were made inside the house of Hadi al-Ameri, the chairman of the Iraqi Parliament’s security committee and leader of the Badr Organization, the armed wing of Mr. Hakim’s political party.

Many Shiite political groups are now suspected of having ties to Iran, and Sciri is no exception. Senior party leaders lived in exile in Iran for years plotting the overthrow of Mr. Hussein. Some married Iranians and raised their children there.

Mr. Hakim has emerged as the central Iraqi Shiite who is backing a new bloc made up of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds that would isolate more radical politicians. Americans back the new bloc, and Mr. Hakim traveled to Washington earlier this month to discuss its formation with Mr. Bush. It was not clear how the arrests, embarrassing to Mr. Hakim, would affect those political efforts.
Hiwa Osman, a news media adviser to Mr. Talabani, said, “The president is unhappy with the arrests.”

The politician familiar with the efforts said the Iranians in the compound had been in Iraq for four days. He said Iraqi officials expected that two more of the Iranians would be released soon.
The disagreement will further irritate relations between Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq and his American supporters. The Shiite-led government has begun to chafe under the control of the Americans, pressing for more control of its army and for greater independence from what it says is unilateral American decision making.

The Americans are concerned that the Shiite-led government would not respect the rights of the minority Sunni Arab population, and, in the worst case, would use the largely Shiite security forces as a weapon in this country’s deepening sectarian war.

Since the borders opened after the invasion, it has not been uncommon for Iranian pilgrims to visit Iraq. Many come to worship in religious places holy to Shiites.

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Sunday, December 24, 2006

Yes, You Are the Person of the Year!

TIME’S choice for 2006 Person of the Year — “You” — was a bountiful gift of mirth to America, second only to the championship Donald Trump-Rosie O’Donnell bout as a comic kickoff to the holiday season. The magazine’s cover stunt, a computer screen of Mylar reflecting the reader’s own image, was so hokey that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert merely had to display it on camera to score laughs. The magazine’s disingenuous rationale for bestowing its yearly honor on its readers was like a big wet kiss from a distant relative who creeps you out.

According to Time, “You” deserve to be Person of the Year because you — “yes, you,” as the cover puts it — “control the Information Age” and spend a lot of time watching YouTube and blogging instead of, well, reading dead-tree media like Time. The pronouncements ginned up to inflate this theme include the observation that “Thomas Paine was in effect the first blogger” (which presumably makes the Old Testament in effect the first Facebook). The desperation of Time to appear relevant and hip — “fantastically cutting-edge and New Media,” as Nora Ephron put it in a hilarious essay for The Huffington Post — was embarrassing in its nakedness.

And sad. This editorial pratfall struck me, once a proud Time staff member, as a sign that my journalistic alma mater might go the way of the old Life. Like Time today, Life in the late 1960s was a middle-of-the-road publishing fixture sent into an identity crisis by the cultural revolution that coincided with a calamitous war. The fabled weekly finally shut down in 1972, the year Rolling Stone celebrated its fifth anniversary.

Let’s hope publishing history doesn’t repeat itself. So in Time’s defense, let me say that the more I reflected on its 2006 Person of the Year — or perhaps the more that Mylar cover reflected back at me — the more I realized that the magazine wasn’t as out of touch as it first seemed. Time made the right choice, albeit for the wrong reasons.

As our country sinks deeper into a quagmire — and even a conclusive Election Day repudiation of the war proves powerless to stop it — we the people, and that includes, yes, you, will seek out any escape hatch we can find. In the Iraq era, the dropout nostrums of choice are not the drugs and drug culture of Vietnam but the equally masturbatory and narcissistic (if less psychedelic) pastimes of the Internet. Why not spend hour upon hour passionately venting in the blogosphere, as Time suggests, about our “state of mind or the state of the nation or the steak-frites at the new bistro down the street”? Or an afternoon surfing from video to video on YouTube, where short-attention-span fluff is infinite? It’s more fun than the nightly news, which, as Laura Bush reminded us this month, has been criminally lax in unearthing all those “good things that are happening” in Baghdad.

As of Friday morning, “Britney Spears Nude on Beach” had been viewed 1,041,776 times by YouTube’s visitors. The count for YouTube video clips tagged with “Iraq” was 22,783. Not that there is anything wrong with that. But compulsive blogging and free soft-core porn are not, as Time would have it, indications of how much you, I and that glassy-eyed teenage boy hiding in his bedroom are in control of the Information Age. They are indicators instead of how eager we are to flee from brutal real-world information that makes us depressed and angry. This was the year Americans escaped as often as they could into their private pleasure pods. So the Person of 2006 was indeed you — yes, you.

Unless it was Borat. The often uproarious farce that took its name from that hopelessly dense and bigoted fictional TV correspondent from Kazakhstan was the year’s most revealing hit movie. It was escapism incarnate, and we couldn’t eat it up fast enough. “Borat” also encapsulated the rising xenophobia that feeds American fantasies of the ultimate national escape: fencing off our borders from the world. If its loutish title character hadn’t been invented by Sacha Baron Cohen for us to ridicule and feel morally superior to, then Lou Dobbs would have done it for him.

The second most revealing movie hit of this escapist year was “Casino Royale.” Though technically an updating of the old Bond franchise — it is, nominally at least, set in the present — its screenplay actually hewed closely to the original Ian Fleming novel of 1953. The film merely changed the villain from a lethal Soviet operative to a terrorist financier, thereby recasting the confusing, hydra-headed threat of Al Qaeda and its ilk as a manageable, easily identifiable enemy that 007 could vanquish as decisively as the ham-fisted Iron Curtain Commies. Better still, Daniel Craig’s James Bond smites the terrorists in two hours plus change, not the 24 hours it takes Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer. There could be no happier fairy tale for a country looking in the eye of defeat.

“Christ, I miss the cold war,” M, Bond’s boss at British intelligence, says early on in “Casino Royale.” M — the reassuring Judi Dench — speaks for the entire audience. Nostalgia for the cold war, which America won unambiguously, was visible everywhere this year as we lost a war that has divided the country. In Florida, there was a joyous countdown to Fidel Castro’s imminent demise. At NASA, there was a new plan to return to the moon. Throughout the news media, there was a Hannibal Lecterish pleasure in the excruciating physical decline of Alexander Litvinenko, the former KGB spy murdered by poison. As the CNN anchor John Roberts put it rather gleefully, “For many of us, headlines out of London seemed like a James Bond movie or a distant echo of the cold war.” Heaven knows those headlines were easier to take than those coming out of the hot war — or, for that matter, out of London itself when terrorists struck there 18 months ago. It’s no surprise that “Casino Royale” sold way more tickets than “World Trade Center” and “United 93” combined.

The most revealing index of our lust for escapism this year cannot be found at YouTube or the multiplex, however, but in the sideshow villains who distracted us from main news events in the Middle East: James Frey, Mel Gibson, Michael Richards and Judith Regan. It was a thrill beyond schadenfreude to watch them be soundly thrashed and humiliated for their sins.

FAR be it for me to defend any of them; Mr. Gibson once threatened to have my “intestines on a stick” after I raised the notion that the author of “The Passion of the Christ” might be an anti-Semite. But our over-the-top pleasure in their comeuppance still seems like escapist fare. It may be satisfying to see “Apocalypto” fade fast after its opening weekend or watch Ms. Regan lose her job after enriching O. J. Simpson for a sleazy book project. Yet something is out of whack when these relatively minor miscreants are publicly stoned and the architects of a needless catastrophe that has cost thousands of American and Iraqi lives escape scot-free. On the same day that Ms. Regan was canned, the fired Donald Rumsfeld was given a 19-gun salute and showered with presidential praise in a farewell ceremony at the Pentagon.

For that matter, Ms. Regan’s worst offenses can’t compare even with those of her former lover, Bernard Kerik, the Giuliani-era New York City police commissioner who was appointed by President Bush in 2003 to train Iraqi’s police. Mr. Kerik promised to stay “as long as it takes to get the job done,” then fled months later without explanation and without the job even started. Today the Iraqi police he failed to train are not only useless but are also routinely engaged in sectarian violence, including torture, helping to ensure that Iraq is more dangerous for everyone than ever, American troops included.

Mr. Kerik has never been held accountable for that failure, only for less lethal and unrelated graft in New York. Paul Bremer, whose early decisions as our Iraqi viceroy all but guaranteed our defeat, received the highest civilian award from the president. So did both George Tenet, who presided over the “slam dunk” intelligence that sped us to war, and Gen. Tommy Franks, who let Osama bin Laden get away. Even now, no generals have been fired for their failures in Iraq; the only one to lose his job was the former Army chief of staff, Eric Shinseki, who antagonized Mr. Rumsfeld before the war by correctly warning that hundreds of thousands of American troops would be needed to secure Iraq. But never mind. That’s ancient history. We can avoid confronting these morally grotesque skeletons in our closet as long as we can distract ourselves with Michael Richards’s meltdown.

Besides, it’s time for the home front to party. Whatever else is to be said about Time’s Mylar cover, it’s news you can literally use: it is just a paper shredder away from being recycled as the most glittering of New Year’s Eve confetti.

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