Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, was among a congressional delegation scheduled to visit Iraq this week, but the trip was axed by the Pentagon, which cited a need to maintain critical troops and resources in combat operations.
Snowe (R-Maine) and the others were slated to have face-to-face meetings with U.S. military, intelligence and diplomatic officials to assess the situation in Iraq. The delegation also intended to meet with military members from their respective U.S. states.
Given this past week's bloody uprising by Iraqi insurgents and foreign fighters against U.S. troops, including successful attacks on military convoys and aircraft and the kidnappings of foreigners, one military source says it's too risky for lawmakers to be touring the war-ravaged country.
DITCH THE COMPUTER
Nobody likes pointing fingers when addressing the numerous intelligence failures leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks, but it's difficult not to revisit the 8-year reign of FBI Director Louis J. Freeh, who resigned four months before al Qaeda attacked the Pentagon and World Trade Center.
"The first thing (Freeh) did was tell the bureau to get rid of the computer on his desk," Ronald Kessler, author of "The Bureau: The Secret History of the FBI" (St. Martin's Press, 2003) tells this column.
"And he did not use e-mail. He had no concept for the need of computers."
In fact, Kessler says, FBI computers during the Clinton administration were so outdated no one in their right mind "would even take them as a donation to a church."
"If an agent wanted to send a photo, he or she would have to send the photo to his home computer or a police station because the bureau could not even handle the transmission of a photo," the Washington-based author and intelligence authority tells this column.
In contrast to Freeh's reported aversion to modern technology, one of the first initiatives undertaken by current FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III was to equip the bureau with new computers.
"Robert Mueller took over one week before 9/11, and during that week he started the process of ordering thousands of new Dell computers," says Kessler. "He also started a program to expand the FBI's analysis capability, which was the other major problem the bureau faced."
Prior to Sept. 11, the author notes, "a large portion of the bureau's records were paper-based."
Supporting Kessler's disclosures was testimony this week by Attorney General John Ashcroft before the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. Ashcroft slammed the Clinton administration for undermining the FBI's counterterrorism efforts and technology advances.
Ashcroft noted that the FBI's technology budget for fiscal 2001 - the final year of the Clinton administration - "was actually $36 million less than the last Bush budget eight years before."
Jane Schultz, who lost her 20-year-old son, Thomas, in the bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland - and who later was instrumental in Congress' approving new antiterrorism legislation - says former White House counterterrorism czar Richard A. Clarke did not select a victims' memorial site at Arlington National Cemetery, as he claims in his new book.
"I was very upset when I read it, because if I gave him the correct material in the first place, what else in the book is not right?" says Schultz, who contacted this column. "I had the highest regard for Dick Clarke. There was always a lot of respect there. I just don't know; I think the record should stand corrected."
She does credit Clarke for contacting her before writing "Against All Enemies" (The Free Press, 2004) requesting "historic dates" surrounding the Pan Am 103 memorial, which - owing mainly to Schultz's own efforts - was erected in 1995.
Facing a woman proved difficult enough for Erskine Bowles, Bill Clinton's former White House chief of staff, who lost his 2002 Senate bid to Republican Elizabeth Dole, North Carolina's first female senator.
Now, Bowles is back for another round, aiming to fill the seat of Sen. John Edwards, who isn't seeking a second term. And who is the Democrat's likely opponent this time?
"Between (campaign) stops, he slips some Skoal smokeless tobacco 'dip' in his cheek but doesn't spit out the juice," the Charlotte Observer writes of five-term Republican Rep. Richard M. Burr. "His college football coach banned the cups into which players would expectorate, so Burr and others learned to minimize the juice and swallow.
"He regularly hunts deer and wild turkey and bears the slightly weathered complexion of someone who enjoys the outdoors. Burr, 48, runs and lifts weights, his squared shoulders filling out a conservative suit with a Brooks Brothers tie ($4.99 at the factory store in Garland, he notes.)"
Let the record reflect that Uncle Sam spent $3.6 million in taxpayer dollars to send 236 of his bureaucrats to the 2002 International AIDS Conference in Barcelona, Spain.
Now, apparently at the insistence of Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson - who, we recall, was heckled by protesters at the Barcelona conference - the HHS will limit attendance at this summer's AIDS conference in Bangkok, Thailand, to 50 federal employees at a cost of $500,000.
Some feel that is still too much for too many.
"We applaud you for your leadership in working to scale back the largess of the federal involvement at these international conferences," more than two dozen congressmen write to Thompson, but "spending a half a million dollars to send 50 federal employees to a conference - an average of $10,000 per employee - still seems like an enormous expense."
So they request that Thompson provide Congress an "itemized list" of expenditures, and submit a cost comparison between HIV/AIDS conferences supported by HHS and other health concerns, such as heart disease and breast cancer, which kill a far greater number of Americans every year than AIDS.
The National Taxpayers Union, unlike other groups in Washington, is non-political. Its agenda is to lower taxes - for Democrats and Republican alike.
We've obtained the NTU's annual Rating of Congress, and it appears that last year's tax cut package is about the only thing that saved lawmakers' fiscal voting records from falling further into the hole.
"Last year, most members of Congress left the job of providing relief from high taxes and wasteful deficit spending only half-finished," says NTU President John Berthoud.
Curiously, two North Dakotans, both Democrats, bottomed out the 2003 rating for their respective chambers: Sen. Byron Dorgan, chairman of the Senate's Democratic Policy Committee, earns dubious distinction of being the lowest-scoring member of the Senate (11 percent); Rep. Earl Pomeroy nabs the prize for biggest spender in the House (16 percent).
On the more flattering end of the pro-taxpayer scale, the highest scorer in the House is Arizona Rep. Jeff Flake, a Republican, with 90 percent; the Senate's big winner is Nevada Sen. John Ensign, also a Republican, with 87 percent.
WEB WE WEAVED
It's a well-known fact that the Internet was created by an untold number of Americans - yes, Al Gore among them.
The question now is whether the United States will concede majority control of the Web it weaved to an international body appointed by the United Nations.
There's a big push in the international community to assume responsibility for the Internet, taking over tasks now handled by the U.S. Congress-established Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), based in Los Angeles.
One of ICANN's primary roles is to oversee the Internet's domain-name addressing system, including country codes. Now, a U.N. task force has been impaneled to propose that a world body govern the Internet.
One Internet insider with ties to Capitol Hill says it would behoove those whose livelihoods depend on the Internet to pay close attention.
"The average Internet user should be concerned with what's happening and who is running the Internet because it ultimately impacts the way the Internet works," says the analyst, equating the future of the Internet as ranking in importance with other election-year issues.
The International Telecommunications Union will hold preparatory meetings in Tunisia in June to discuss Internet governance.