Tag Archives: incompetence

Where’s Them Nukes?

Missing: Tons of US-Supplied Nuclear Weapons Material

By Adam Weinstein, MotherJones.com, September 13, 2011

The United States cannot fully account for more than 16,000 kilograms tons of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium that it has shipped to 27 “friendly” countries in recent decades, and it lacks any coherent policy to track down the materials, a Government Accountability Office report concluded late last week. In fact, according to auditors, the country’s atomic accounting is so shoddy that the International Atomic Energy Agency—the same agency sent to search for Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction—could potentially find the United States in violation of its international anti-proliferation treaty obligations. Even as it has fretted about Iranian nuclear proliferation and alleged Iraqi purchases of yellowcake uranium from Africa, the United States has lost track of enough fissile material to make hundreds of nuclear warhead cores.

At issue are bilateral agreements the US holds with 27 nations, from France to Taiwan, for the transfer of American nuclear materials—fuel, reactors, and reactor components—for “peaceful civilian purposes.” (It’s even conceivable, though not easily determined, that US material may have been present at the Marcoule nuclear plant in France where an explosion killed one worker Monday.) Although the United States has a database, the Nuclear Materials Management and Safeguard System, to track the transfers, the GAO found that the ’50s-era system is more or less useless today: Most of the bilateral export agreements give the US no official power to supervise what happens with the uranium, plutonium, and other materials they fork over. Hence much of the material leaves American sight, and officials simply take the other nations’ word that the stuff has ended up in a civilian reactor.

The Department of Energy (DOE) and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which oversee the export of nuclear material to US allies for use in atomic power plants, “do not have a comprehensive, detailed, current inventory of U.S. nuclear material—including weapon-usable material such as highly enriched uranium (HEU) and separated plutonium—overseas,” the GAO report said. Worse still, on the rare occasions when State Department inspectors gained access to the allies’ stockpiles of American radioactive products, all the way up to last year, “U.S. teams found that countries met international security guidelines approximately 50 percent of the time.”

That’s just for the countries that US inspectors actually visited—in other words, the countries that probably pose the smallest concern. “[T]he agencies have not systematically visited countries believed to be holding the highest proliferation risk quantities of U.S. nuclear material, or systematically revisited facilities not meeting international physical security guidelines in a timely manner,” the GAO stated.

That could be a major violation of America’s international treaty obligations. The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which the United States signed, requires that nuclear export agreements “should commit parties to establish and maintain a system of accounting for nuclear material, with a view to preventing diversion of nuclear energy from peaceful uses,” the GAO report said.

The DOE’s beleaguered atomic security arm, the National Nuclear Security Administration,issued an official response accusing the GAO of “errors in fact and judgment” in its report. “NNSA is working with other partners to secure weapons-usable nuclear materials in additional parts of the world and to strengthen security at civil nuclear and radiological facilities,” wrote NNSA associate administrator Kenneth Powers. “We recognize that further work is needed and we are working with our partners to improve international security.”

Adam Weinstein is Mother Jones’ national security reporter. For more of his stories, click hereor follow him on Twitter. Get Adam Weinstein’s RSS feed.

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Saudi Connection to 9-11

Link to 9/11 hijackers found in Sarasota

FBI found ties between hijackers and Saudis in Sarasota but never revealed the findings


Just two weeks before the 9/11 hijackers slammed into the Pentagon and World Trade Center, members of a Saudi family abruptly vacated their luxury home near Sarasota, leaving a brand new car in the driveway, a refrigerator full of food, fruit on the counter — and an open safe in a master bedroom.

In the weeks to follow, law enforcement agents not only discovered the home was visited by vehicles used by the hijackers, but phone calls were linked between the home and those who carried out the death flights — including leader Mohamed Atta — in discoveries never before revealed to the public.

Ten years after the deadliest attack of terrorism on U.S. soil, new information has emerged that shows the FBI found troubling ties between the hijackers and residents in the upscale community in southwest Florida, but the investigation wasn’t reported to Congress or mentioned in the 9/11 Commission Report.

Former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, the Florida Democrat who co-chaired the congressional Joint Inquiry into the attacks, said he should have been told about the findings, saying it “opens the door to a new chapter of investigation as to the depth of the Saudi role in 9/11. … No information relative to the named people in Sarasota was disclosed.”

The U.S. Justice Department, the lead agency that investigated the attacks, refused to comment, saying it will discuss only information already released.

The Saudi residents then living at the stylish home, Abdulazzi al-Hiijjii and his wife Anoud, could not be reached, nor could the then-owner of the house, Esam Ghazzawi, who is Anoud’s father. The house was sold in 2003, records show.

For Graham, the connections between the hijackers and residents raise questions about whether other Saudi nationals in Florida knew of the impending attacks, which killed nearly 3,000 people.

The FBI investigation began the month after 9/11 when Larry Berberich, senior administrator and security officer of the gated community known as Prestancia, reported a bizarre event that took place two weeks before the hijackings of four passenger jets that originated in Boston, Newark and Washington.

The couple, living with their small children at the three-bedroom home at 4224 Escondito Circle, had left in a hurry in a white van, probably on Aug. 30.

They abandoned three recently registered vehicles, including a brand-new Chrysler PT Cruiser, in the garage and driveway.

After 9/11, Berberich said he had “a gut feeling” the people at the home may have had something to do with the attacks, prompting the FBI’s probe that would eventually link the hijackers to the house.

As an advisor to the Sarasota County sheriff — Berberich was with the group that received President Bush during his aborted visit to a Sarasota school on the morning of 9/11 — he alerted sheriff’s deputies. Patrick Gallagher, one of the Saudis’ neighbors, had become suspicious even earlier, and had fired off an email to the FBI on the day of the attacks.

Gallagher said law enforcement officers arrived and began an investigation, with agents swarming “all over the place, in their blue jackets,” he recalled.

Jone Weist, president of the group that managed Prestancia, confirmed the arrival of the FBI, which requested copies of the Saudis’ financial transactions involving the house.

Berberich and a senior counterterrorism agent said they were able to get into the abandoned house, ultimately finding “there was mail on the table, dirty diapers in one of the bathrooms … all the toiletries still in place … all their clothes hanging in the closet … opulent furniture, equal or greater in value than the house … the pool running, with toys in it.”

“The beds were made … fruit on the counter … the refrigerator full of food. … It was like they went grocery shopping. Like they went out to a movie … [But] the safe was open in the master bedroom, with nothing in it, not a paper clip. … A computer was still there. A computer plug in another room, and the line still there. Looked like they’d taken [another] computer and left the cord.”

The counterterrorism officer, who requested his name not be disclosed, said agents went on to make troubling discoveries: Phone records and the Prestancia gate records linked the house on Escondito Circle to the hijackers.

In addition, three of the four future hijackers had lived in Venice — just 10 miles from the house — for much of the year before 9/11. Atta, the leader, and his companion Marwan al-Shehhi, had been learning to fly small airplanes at Huffman Aviation, a flight school on the edge of the runway at Venice Municipal Airport.

A block away, at Florida Flight Training, accomplice Ziad Jarrah was also taking flying lessons. All three obtained their pilot licenses and afterwards, in the months that led to 9/11, spent much of their time traveling the state, including stints in Hollywood, Fort Lauderdale and Delray Beach, among other areas.

The counterterrorism agent said records of incoming and outgoing calls made at the Escondito house were obtained from the phone company under subpoena.

Agents were able to conduct a link analysis, a system of tracking calls based on dates, times and length of conversations — finding the Escondito calls dating back more than a year, “lined up with the known suspects.”

The links were not only to Atta and his hijack pilots, the agent said, but to 11 other terrorist suspects, including Walid al-Shehhri, one of the men who flew with Atta on the first plane to strike the World Trade Center.

Another was Adnan Shukrijumah, a former Miramar resident identified as having been with Atta in the spring of 2001. Shukrijumah is still at large and is on the FBI’s Most Wanted list.

But it was the gate records at the Prestancia development that produced the most telltale information.

People who arrived by car had to give their names and the address they were visiting. Gate staff would sometimes ask to see a driver’s license and note the name, Berberich said. License plates were photographed.

Atta is known to have used variations of his name, but the license plate of the car he owned was on record.

The vehicle and name information on Atta and Jarrah fit that of drivers entering Prestancia on their way to visit the home at 4224 Escondito Circle, said Berberich and the counterterrorism officer.

Sarasota County property records identify the owners of the house at the time as Ghazzawi and his American-born wife Deborah, both with a post office box in al-Khobar, Saudi Arabia, and the capital, Riyadh.

Ghazzawi was described as a middle-aged financier and interior designer, the owner of many properties, including several in the United States, said the counterterrorism agent.

While Ghazzawi visited the house, the people living there were his daughter Anoud and her husband al-Hiijjii, who appeared to be in his 30s and once identified himself as a college student, said Berberich, who met the son-in-law.

The couple’s sudden departure two weeks before 9/11 was tracked in detail by the FBI after the attacks, the agent said.

First, they traveled to a Ghazzawi property in Arlington, Va., then — with Esam Ghazzawi — via Dulles airport and London’s Heathrow, to Riyadh.

The counterterrorism agent said Ghazzawi and al-Hiijjii had been on a watch list at the FBI and that a U.S. agency tracking terrorist funds was interested in both men even before 9/11.

“464 was Ghazzawi’s number,” the officer said. “I don’t remember the other man’s number.”

About a year after the family abandoned the home, the FBI made an attempt to lure the owner back.

Scott McKay, a Sarasota lawyer for the Prestancia homeowners’ association in its claim for unpaid dues, said the FBI tried to get him to bring the Saudis back for the transaction.

McKay said he tried to get the Ghazzawis to sign the necessary documents in person, but the ploy failed because the documents could legally be signed elsewhere using a notary. Records show Ghazzawi’s signature was notarized by the vice consul of the U.S. embassy in Lebanon in September 2003. Deborah Ghazzawi’s signature was notarized in Riverside County, Calif.

During an interview on Sunday, Graham said he was surprised he wasn’t told about the probe when he was co-chair of Congress’ Joint Inquiry into 9/11 — even though he was especially alert to terrorist information relating to Florida.

“At the beginning of the investigation,” he said, “each of the intelligence agencies, including the FBI, was asked to provide all information that agency possessed in relation to 9/11.”

The fact that the FBI did not tell the Inquiry about the Florida discoveries, Graham says, is similar to the agency’s failure to provide information linking members of the 9/11 terrorist team to other Saudis in California until congressional investigators discovered it themselves.

The Inquiry did nevertheless accumulate a “very large” file on the hijackers in the United States, and later turned it over to the 9/11 Commission. “They did very little with it,” Graham said, “and their reference to Saudi Arabia is almost cryptic sometimes. … I never got a good answer as to why they did not pursue that.”

The final 28-page section of the Inquiry’s report, which deals with “sources of foreign support for some of the Sept. 11 hijackers,” was entirely blanked out. It was kept secret from the public on the orders of former President George W. Bush and is still withheld to this day, Graham said.

This in spite of the fact that Graham and his Republican counterpart, U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, both concluded the release of the pages would not endanger national security.

The grounds for suppressing the material, Graham believes, were “protection of the Saudis from embarrassment, protection of the administration from political embarrassment … some of the unknowns, some of the secrets of 9/11.”

Anthony Summers is co-author of The Eleventh Day: The Full Story of 9/11 & Osama bin Laden. Dan Christensen is the editor of the Broward Bulldog, a not-for-profit online only newspaper created to provide local reporting in the public interest. http://www.BrowardBulldog.org

Read more: http://www.miamiherald.com/2011/09/07/v-fullstory/2395698/link-to-911-hijackers-found-in.html#ixzz1XW4rOnc7

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Wall Street’s Whores

Don’t Blame Bush: This is Obama’s Depression

By Mike Whitney,  Information Clearing House, September 04, 2011

This is Barack Obama’s economy now. George Bush can no longer be blamed. And if the economy dips back into recession–as it most certainly will–then that will be Obama’s fault, too. Because it’s Obama’s fiscal policies that are driving the economy back into the ditch. This is no small matter, because Obama’s failure will likely result in political change that will deliver the White House to the GOP in 2012. Then the deficit hawks will control both houses of congress and the White House, and they will slash spending and push the economy into another Great Depression. This is not speculation. This WILL happen. Obama has made sure it will happen by shrugging off the warnings of every competent economist in the country, all of whom have said repeatedly that we needed more stimulus to lower employment, to reduce the output gap, to increase GDP, and to put the economy back on track.

Now–according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)–the economy is producing no new jobs. Obama’s policies are producing ZERO JOBS. Let that sink in for a while.

At the same time, GDP is sputtering below one-half percent for the first 6 months of 2011 and the output gap has reset at a level that will cost the country 5 trillion dollars in lost production in the next 4 years.

Is it any wonder why consumer confidence is in the dumps and everyone is so pessimistic about the future? It’s because there is no future, Obama has made sure of that.

The economy is dead. That’s what it means when there’s no growth and no new jobs. How would you describe it?

Obama had the economy going in the right direction. When he took office he already had his economics team in place and they quickly implemented his $787 billion fiscal stimulus plan just a month after he was inaugurated. The country was losing 750,000 per month, the stock market was plunging, and GDP was deep in in the red. Exports, retail sales, manufacturing and consumer spending were all falling faster then they had during the Great Depression. But the stimulus turned things around, and in just 6 months, the hemorrhaging of jobs slowed to a trickle and the economy returned to positive growth. By the 4th Quarter of 2009, GDP had climbed to a healthy 5.0 percent while unemployment slowly began to retreat from it’s peak of 10.1 percent earlier in the year.

What seemed like a miracle was nothing more than basic economics; Keynesian economics. Not Voodoo economics, not supply side economics, not make-it-up-as-you-go faith-based Republican economics, but Keynesian economics, which is to say, economics that is grounded in observable phenomena, facts, science; y’know, reality-based economics.

When consumers are unable to spend because of the losses they sustained when the housing bubble burst, ($8 trillion in losses) then the government must provide sufficient resources to keep the economy running, otherwise activity will slow, businesses will trim costs and lay off workers, government revenues will shrink, the deficits will rise, and the economy will go into a long-term funk.

Simple, right? If there’s no demand, the economy nosedives.

And, that’s what was happening when Bush left office. The economy was tanking. But, Obama applied the right ideas, and the economy responded. In other words, ideas count. If you apply stupid ideas–like the GOP deficit hawks–then you will get bad results. This seems so obvious that it hardly seems worth repeating repeating. But, we have to repeat it, because we’re dealing with people who insist that stupid ideas are smart ideas, and, regrettably, there’s a difference. And the difference is quite excruciating for the people who end up being victims of these flawed ideas.

So, even though Obama could see the results of the fiscal stimulus, and even though he could see that GDP had risen to the 3 percent range for the entire time the stimulus was feeding into the economy, he decided to do a 180 and start preaching the ideology of his rivals, the gospel of austerity.

Is this a fair account of what happened?

It’s not that Obama merely brushed off the considered advice of liberal economists like Joseph Stiglitz, Robert Reich, Paul Krugman, Mark Thoma, Dean Baker etc etc etc. But he also ignored the main players in his former economics team; Lawrence Summers, Christina Romer, Peter Orzag, all of whom strongly recommended more stimulus (to avoid another downturn) in editorials in leading US newspapers.

But Obama knew better than all of them, after all he was a community organiser, right? Besides he had other things in mind, like hammering out a structural adjustment plan (the “debt ceiling” agreement) that would constrain public spending forever making it impossible for the government to increase deficits even in an economic emergency. In other words, Obama was fulfilling the right wing “wish list” to strangle big government and to ensure that entitlement spending faces savage cuts in the future.

That was the game-plan, right?

So, now the economy is headed back into the toilet; manufacturing is sputtering, consumer spending is off, business investment is falling, GDP is barely positive, housing remains in a historic swoon, unemployment is stuck at 9.1 percent, the 10-year Treasury is signalling “deflation”, 47 million Americans are on food stamps, and there are NO NEW JOBS. And–Oh yeah–Obama is still jabbering about “cutting the deficits”.

Does that sound about right?

Obama can’t fix the problems the country faces because he’s owned by Big Business and Wall Street. Everyone knows that. But to continue to pretend that the Democratic Party is a viable alternative to the GOP, is beyond misguided; it’s delusional. The policies that are presently in place–and which are largely supported by the Dems in Congress–are destroying the economy, the country’s reputation, and our children’s future.

There’s got to be another way.

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Bambam’s Fatal Error

Insider Tells Why Obama Chose Not to Prosecute Torture

By David Swanson, WarIsACrime.Org, September 3, 2011

Two Years Ago Obama Decided Not to Prosecute Torturers. Now We Get An Account of Why

If you can think back all the way to January 2009, back when wars were ending, Guantanamo was closing, the Pentagon was getting oversight, employees were going to have free choice, the rich would start paying taxes, the air would be getting cleaner, and so forth, you’ll recall that the Obama transition team was acting super populist and high-tech.

They had questions from ordinary people for the President Elect submitted on their website and voted up or down. The top question at the end of the voting had come from Bob Fertik of Democrats.com and it was this:

“Will you appoint a Special Prosecutor – ideally Patrick Fitzgerald – to independently investigate the gravest crimes of the Bush Administration, including torture and warrantless wiretapping?” — Bob Fertik, New York City

Not only was the answer no, but it had to be inferred because President Change U. Wish refused to answer the question. I’ve always assumed I could guess why: a president wouldn’t want previous presidents subject to the rule of law, because then he would be too. Just this week I was suggesting that allowing the Justice Department to enforce laws against Cheney could save Obama’s electoral prospects at the risk of seeing Obama, too, land in prison some day. I have no doubt that this really is a factor.

However, we now have an account from someone involved in the decision process way back when. And he reports two other reasons for the decision to let all the war criminals off and devote vast energies to protecting them and covering up their crimes. The first of the two reasons is not terribly shocking: the CIA, NSA, and military would revolt if their crimes were exposed and prosecuted. This explains the cover-up portion of the past two-and-a-half years’ immunity-granting campaign particularly well. It fits with the known record, which has included seven former heads of the CIA publicly writing to President Obama to tell him not to prosecute torturers in the CIA.

The second reason, we’re now being told, was that if laws were enforced against Bush, Cheney, or their subordinates, the Republicans in Congress would retaliate by trying to block any useful piece of legislation. This is sort of morbidly funny in that the Republicans in Congress have spent the past two-and-a-half years trying to block any useful piece of legislation and many horrendous ones as well. They’ve just done it with the background hum of war criminals on promotional book tours. This explanation fits with the theme of “looking forward, not backward.” Just as House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers told us in 2008 that it was more important to elect Obama than to impeach Bush or Cheney (as if you couldn’t do both), Obama’s preference in early 2009 (and in 2008 when he had told Will Bunch the same thing) was for looking forward to the passage of hideously corporatized legislation rather than enforcing laws against anyone powerful (as if you couldn’t do both). Nonetheless, there is something jarringly pathetic about the notion that Dick Cheney is unindicted because Barack Obama was dreaming of a working relationship with the party Cheney had left behind in Washington.  This shouldn’t be as jarring now as it might have seemed in 2009, however, after watching Obama “negotiate” away anything Republcans opposed in any number of areas.

So, who is the source of these belated explanations?

The Dean of the University of California at Berkeley Law School Christopher Edley, Jr. His comments will probably be showing up on video, but here is a report I was just sent by long-time peace and justice activist extraordinaire Susan Harman:

“World Can’t Wait (in orange) and I (in pink) attended a surreal panel on 9/11 today at Boalt (UC Berkeley Law School), where John Yoo teaches.

“That should be surreal enough. But (unintentionally, I think) each of the panelists mentioned one of Yoo’s policies (warrantless domestic surveillance, aggressive war, and that old favorite, torture). One even talked about the need for accountability. I felt dizzy, and could barely speak.

“I said I was overwhelmed by the surreality of Yoo being on the law faculty, and having just been appointed the new head of the sponsoring Miller Institute for Global Challenges and the Law, when he was singlehandedly responsible for the three worst policies of the Bush Adm.

“They all burbled about academic freedom and the McCarthy era, and said it isn’t their job to prosecute him.


“Then Dean Chris Edley volunteered that he’d been party to very high level discussions during Obama’s transition about prosecuting the criminals. He said they decided against it. I asked why. Two reasons: 1) it was thought that the CIA, NSA, and military would revolt, and 2) it was thought the Repugnants would retaliate by blocking every piece of legislation they tried to move (which, of course, they’ve done anyhow).

“Afterwards I told him that CIA friends confirmed that Obama would have been in danger, but I added that he bent over backwards to protect the criminals, and gave as an example the DoJ’s defense (state secrets) of Jeppesen (the rendition arm of Boeing) a few days after his inauguration.

“He shrugged and said they will never be prosecuted, and that sometimes politics trumps rule of law.

“It must not, I said.

“It shouldn’t, he said, and walked off.

“This is the Dean of the Berkeley School of Law.”

Another approach was taken to the divergence of official conduct from clear demands of morality by an activist at Berkeley in 1964 named Mario Savio, who said,

“There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious — makes you so sick at heart — that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part. And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.”

That’s the plan. Join in here: http://october2011.org

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Time to Resign, Bambam!

A President Adrift

Michael Tomasky, Daily Beast, September 2, 2011

After a week of presidential humiliations and capitulations, Michael Tomasky suggests that Obama will soon pass the point where he can be taken seriously as a leader.

More dispiriting news, this time about the White House overturning the EPA’s proposed new rules on smog. That comes a few hours after the jobs report from Friday morning, one of the bleakest yet. And it comes a few days in advance of what everyone expects will be a small-thinking, modest, blah jobs speech by the president. It’s not only getting to the point where it’s getting hard to see him winning reelection. It’s getting to the point where it’s hard to imagine  people taking him seriously for the remaining 14 months of his current term.
The smog decision is a real low. The story behind this includes the fact that, as Brad Plumer reports environmental groups were going to file a lawsuit in 2009 about Bush-era ozone rules, and the Obama administration told them, in effect, “Wait, don’t hassle us with a lawsuit, we’re going to propose stricter rules soon.” So the stricter rules were proposed, and the White House has now said, “Sorry, changed our mind.”

We can’t calculate yet how this will reverberate through the environmental world, but we can imagine. This is the kind of thing that sticks with people. A promise was made and broken. And you know how partisans say sometimes in anger that we’d have been better off with the other guy? They say it for effect and don’t actually mean it. But in this case, it’s literally true. Bush-proposed standards in 2008 were tougher than the 1997 standards under which companies will now operate. I doubt environmentalists will forget this one.

And not just environmentalists. Even the Center for American Progress—the leading Democratic think-tank, an organization that is very, very close to the administration—issued a statement criticizing this decision (apologies—it was emailed to me, but without a link). That may be a first for CAP, which called the decision “deeply disappointing” and said it “grants an item on Big Oil’s wish list at the expense of the health of children, seniors and the infirm.” And the timing of it could not be worse, coming at the end of a week that included a stupid unforced error (the speech fracas) and leaks indicating a set of small-bore proposals to be offered next week.

On the jobs front, as Matt Yglesias points out, things are going exactly according to Republican plan, insofar as massive public-sector layoffs every single month are helping to depress overall jobs numbers. These layoffs are of course the direct result of budget cuts—reductions in federal aid to states in various programs that have come under the knife since the spring. The deals Obama has made with the Republicans have therefore contributed to the jobs crisis. The Republicans of course know this and surely have a chuckle about it in private. Obama makes videos bragging about the single biggest budget cut in history.

Which of the Democratic Party’s big-money people can reach Obama? Who can pierce the armor of his inner circle and tell him he needs to change course in a hurry?


Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images


I keep thinking back lately to that candidate and team I watched in 2008. The candidate really had his finger on something. The team almost never made a serious mistake. When a mistake did happen, they did a respectable job of digging their way out of it. They had some fight in them. Well, I’ve learned something new from these folks: Up until now, I’ve thought that running a strong presidential campaign is a sign that one can probably govern fairly well too. But there appears to be little correlation between the two.

One wonders if there is concern now in the party’s higher echelons about the White House’s methods. Of course there must be. But what, for example, do seasoned Democratic senators say to one another when they chat in private? What about the party’s big money people? All of them must be dismayed. But which of them can reach Obama? Who can pierce the armor of his inner circle and tell him he needs to start doing business in a different way in a hurry?

This week has the feel of one that might become retrospectively pivotal. If indeed we are standing there watching as President Perry is sworn in two Januarys from now, and we’re forced to ponder the what ifs, space will be reserved on that list for a week in which the administration made a boneheaded political mistake, presided over a jobs announcement with zero growth, and turned on a key constituency group.

Believe me, I’d rather be writing positive columns. But if I were a sports columnist at The Washington Post and the Redskins had lost five in a row, I could hardly write, “Hey, gang, everything’s going according to plan.” It ain’t. I have little expectation that they’ll listen to me. I can only hope someone they will listen to breaks through soon, before it becomes too late to turn things around.

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Enablers of 9-11

9/11: The Tapping Point

By David Rose, Vanity Fair, September 2011

What if, two years before the 9/11 attacks—with the installation of a cell-phone-and-Internet system in Afghanistan—the U.S. had been handed complete access to al-Qaeda and Taliban calls and e-mails? A secret deal was in place in 1999, the author reveals, but Washington dropped the ball.

SURPRISE! When Osama bin Laden talked, the United States could have been listening.

One morning in June 2001, three months before the 9/11 attacks on the United States, I happened to be interviewing a senior official from the British Secret Intelligence Service, M.I.6. His current focus was the war on drugs, not international terrorism, but he shared a piece of information that united the two subjects.

A short time earlier, the official told me, the U.S. National Security Agency had intercepted a call between two satellite-telephone users in Afghanistan—the al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and the Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. They had been discussing the Taliban’s ban on growing opium poppies, imposed the previous summer—a remarkably effective edict that had shrunk production in areas they controlled almost to zero.

According to the M.I.6 official, bin Laden sounded unhappy. “Why stop growing opium?” he asked. “Heroin only weakens our enemies.” There was no need to worry, Mullah Omar replied. The ban was merely a tactic. “There has been a glut, and the price is too low. Once the world price has risen, the farmers can start growing it again.”

The real lesson of this overheard conversation was not its specific content but the fact that it could be heard at all. Electronic eavesdropping clearly had potential in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. But in the years before 9/11, when bin Laden’s terror plot was first being discussed, that potential remained limited. The reason was simple: Afghanistan had no cell phones, no Internet, and only a rudimentary landline network, which did not work at all outside the country’s largest cities. This could be remedied, however. Indeed, by the end of 1999, the Taliban government had embraced a full-fledged American scheme to install a modern cell-phone-and-Internet system in Afghanistan. It could have been up and running within months. The Taliban had already granted an exclusive license to a U.S.-owned firm, the Afghan Wireless Communications Company.

More to the point, electronic modifications concealed within the circuitry would have allowed every call and every e-mail emanating from Afghanistan to be relayed without interference to N.S.A. headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland. “This project was a dream,” says one former senior F.B.I. counterterrorism specialist who knew about the scheme at the time. “To be able to wire up a country from ground level up—you don’t get too many opportunities like that.” No, you don’t. But at the critical moment, the Clinton administration put the project on hold, while rival U.S. agencies—the F.B.I., the N.S.A., and the C.I.A.—bickered over who should control it.

In the decade since 9/11, investigations by journalists and government commissions have explored the many missed opportunities to prevent bin Laden’s attacks. Overall, it is the story of a catastrophic failure to connect the dots. One can argue—and many have—that the connections emerge more visibly in retrospect than they ever did as events themselves unfolded. But the affair of the Afghan cell-phone network—put on hold until time ran out—falls into a category by itself. It was a course of action whose value and urgency were acknowledged by everyone, but it was impeded nonetheless. The cell-phone plan “was one tool we could have put in Afghanistan that could have made a difference,” a former C.I.A. official says. “Why didn’t we put it in? Because we couldn’t fucking agree.”

Until now, the existence of the cell-phone plan has remained a secret. It came close to surfacing during a court case in 2003, when the majority shareholder of Afghan Wireless, an Afghan-American named Ehsanollah Bayat, was sued in New York by his former British partners, Stuart Bentham and Lord Michael Cecil. But the Department of Justice persuaded a judge to invoke the State Secrets Privilege, a Draconian measure that allows the U.S. government to stop a case in its tracks on the grounds that allowing it to proceed would endanger national security. The entire legal record was sealed. Bentham and Cecil were issued gag orders, enforcing silence on pain of prosecution. It has therefore not been possible to speak to them about it. Bayat and his staff, for their part, failed to respond to numerous requests for comment. However, through interviews with other individuals who are not legally restricted, and through voluminous contemporary documents made available to me, it has been possible to assemble a narrative.

Before he got into telecommunications, Ehsan Bayat, a resident of Paramus, New Jersey, was in the food business. His company, Pamir Foods, owned fast-food and Asian restaurants and a plant that processed chickens. Bayat is a U.S. citizen, but he was born and raised in Afghanistan—in Wazir Akbar Khan, an upscale neighborhood in Kabul. Some of the Taliban’s leading figures had been among his associates, and they had risen to prominence by backing the winning side in Afghanistan’s brutal civil war. Bayat’s close contacts included Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, the Taliban’s foreign minister, who was second in the government only to Mullah Omar. Through Muttawakil, Bayat came to develop a cordial relationship with Mullah Omar himself. Neither the Taliban’s fundamentalist ambitions nor the haven the Taliban had given to al-Qaeda were to Bayat’s taste, but he continued to visit Afghanistan regularly and hoped to encourage its economic development, which would also be very good business for him. Thus it was that he conceived the idea of modernizing the country’s telephone system.

As things stood, there were just two landlines linking Afghanistan to the rest of the world. Inside the country, a creaking, dysfunctional system relied on operators plugging wires into sockets by hand. Bayat’s personal relationships with the Taliban meant that he stood a good chance of securing the necessary licenses, and he set up a company registered in New Jersey, Telephone Systems International (T.S.I.), to secure them. He found the experts he needed through a man named Mark Warner, a director at Barclays’ private-banking division, in London, who already handled some of Bayat’s money. Warner contacted his friend Stuart Bentham, a wealthy former officer in the Corps of Royal Engineers who had owned and run successful construction and power-generation companies in Britain and Saudi Arabia. Bentham brought in another business associate, Lord Cecil, whose company, Wilken, had built a cell-phone network in Kenya. Before getting involved with Bayat, Cecil and Bentham had worked together trying to set up cell-phone systems in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Lord Cecil had connections with the British Foreign Office and M.I.6.

Bayat won an exclusive license from the Taliban in September 1998. Under the terms of the contract, he agreed to set up Afghan Wireless as a joint venture with the Afghan Ministry of Communications, which was to hold a 20 percent share. Bayat then went to England for meetings with his potential new partners. One central aspect of the transaction was understood from the outset: besides constituting a lucrative business opportunity, the Afghan phone company was also envisioned as a source of potentially crucial intelligence. This was becoming a matter of great importance, given al-Qaeda’s growing prominence and the training camps it maintained in Afghanistan. Shortly before Bayat’s trip to England, al-Qaeda had bombed the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing 258 people. Stuart Bentham’s wife, Margaret, is not bound by the State Secrets Privilege gag order. She was present at meetings with Bayat and her husband in both Britain and America, and Stuart discussed the project with her as it progressed. “We always thought that this was how they would catch the terrorists,” she says. “It wasn’t just about making money. We believed we were doing the right thing.”

At the very start of this new business relationship, Bayat’s partners knew that he had become a counterterrorism intelligence source and was working with the F.B.I. Bayat had offered his services to the bureau’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, in Newark, New Jersey, and was officially regarded as a confidential informant. By the early fall of 1998, he was meeting two F.B.I. agents as often as once a week, passing along whatever he had been able to glean from contacts in Afghanistan. As the cell-phone project took shape, he told his handlers about it. They knew firsthand the value of wiretaps in criminal and counterterrorist investigations and responded with enthusiasm. Even as Bayat negotiated a license with the Taliban, the F.B.I. agents put out feelers to the N.S.A.

Officials at the eavesdropping agency laid out the advantages of being able to install an entire new cell-phone network, an initiative to which they gave the name Operation Foxden. Technology already existed to intercept signals from Afghanistan relayed by microwave transmitters in space, but this was a haphazard process, affected by factors such as the weather and solar activity. By building extra circuits into all the new network’s equipment, it would be possible to ensure that anytime anyone used a phone in Afghanistan the call could be monitored at a “duplicate exchange” at Fort Meade. The N.S.A. would capture the name of the subscriber and the number being called, and the call would be digitally recorded or, if desired, heard by American intelligence officers live, in real time. “The capability we would have had would have been very good,” a former N.S.A. official says of Operation Foxden. “Had this network been built with the technology that existed in 2000, it would have been a priceless intelligence asset.”

In November 1998, Cecil, Bentham, Warner, and Bayat traveled together to Afghanistan on the first of many visits. The Taliban gave them a warm welcome, providing transportation and, when necessary, armed guards. Bentham and Cecil got to work energetically. On May 7, 1999, an airplane landed in Kabul with seven tons of equipment, which was to form the nucleus of the new communications network. Over the ensuing months, the company succeeded in re-activating Afghanistan’s +93 international phone code and installing satellite dishes in Kabul and Kandahar. It also set up the first computerized telephone exchanges in these cities. Alex Grinling, like Bentham a former British Army officer, became the in-country manager for Afghan Wireless. “What was clear,” says Grinling, “was that the Taliban really wanted telephones. They knew they couldn’t do business without them.” In June 1999 the Taliban signed a contract guaranteeing Afghan Wireless a monopoly on “all aspects” of cell-phone traffic in Afghanistan for 15 years.

No sooner was the contract signed than Operation Foxden encountered a major snag. On July 4, 1999, President Clinton signed Executive Order 13129, prohibiting U.S. citizens from doing business with the Taliban and imposing a range of trade sanctions on the Taliban regime. Supported by his F.B.I. handlers, Bayat sought a special exemption from the Office of Foreign Assets Control, in Washington, an arm of the Treasury Department. In September the exemption was refused. Bayat wrote to the Taliban, offering to resign from the project and suggesting that they explore alternative ways of getting cell phones. The message he got back from Muttawakil and others was unequivocal. They wanted to work with him alone, and urged him to do whatever it took to make this possible. The two F.B.I. agents in Newark sought help from other parts of the administration. The N.S.A. not only backed the effort but concluded that the project was so promising that it justified a direct N.S.A. investment, set for around $30 million—a decision that could not have been made without approval by the highest levels of the agency.

Bentham and Bayat tried to get around the trade ban in yet another way—by setting up a secret diplomatic back channel between the administration and the Taliban, with the aim of getting sanctions lifted in return for the expulsion of bin Laden from Afghanistan. Their chosen point man was David Walters, a former Democratic governor of Oklahoma, who knew Clinton’s national-security adviser, Sandy Berger. On July 27 they used new international landlines the project had built to set up a conference call between Walters and Muttawakil, with Bayat serving as translator. Walters later wrote to Berger, “It was clear from his comments that they want bin Laden out of their hair and that most of their ministers believe that bin Laden is the major factor holding back the reconstruction of their country.” The Taliban were, he added, frustrated at the lack of any high-level communication with U.S. officials, and it seemed that the lifting of sanctions would not be a precondition for talks: “If someone wants to put some of the big items on the table related to financial support, recognition etc, then it sounds like they will figure out a way to fade the heat from their radical constituents and turn bin Laden over or at least expel him from their country They are willing to discuss all options.”

Was this offer by the Taliban genuine? It appears that Berger was unwilling to find out. In his brief reply to Walters, on August 18, he wrote: “Until bin Ladin [ sic ] is expelled from Afghanistan and extradited to the United States or another country where he can be tried for his crimes [the U.S.] will not be able to begin to normalize its relations with the Taliban.”

As a U.S. citizen, Bayat should have withdrawn from the project while U.S. sanctions were in effect. But as the N.S.A. and F.B.I. were well aware, such a step would have likely ensured its demise. With the help of a business contact in Switzerland, Bentham and Cecil came up with an ingenious alternative. According to court documents, Bayat’s U.S. company, T.S.I., would transfer ownership of Afghan Wireless and its exclusive license to a company they set up in Liechtenstein. The new company would eventually be called Netmobile. Bayat would be technically breaking American law, but provided that he and his colleagues did not try to use American equipment, the building of a cell-phone network could proceed. On December 28, 1999, Stuart and Margaret Bentham flew from London to Newark. There, in the downtown office tower that served as the bureau’s New Jersey field office, Stuart met Bayat, his F.B.I. handlers, their supervisors in the Joint Terrorism Task Force, and officials from the C.I.A. and the N.S.A.

According to contemporary documents made available to me, Bentham was briefed on the N.S.A.’s continuing interest in Operation Foxden and was told that the agency was seeking ways of evading the legal issues raised by U.S. sanctions. He was also told that the F.B.I. had been given a “window of opportunity” to get the network operational, and that it would “coordinate” the operation with the rest of the U.S. government.

The documents also indicate that both Bentham and Cecil attended another meeting in Newark two weeks later, on January 11, 2000. This time, a senior N.S.A. official was also present. He disclosed that the project had “director-level approval,” and that the N.S.A. was willing to provide not only money but technical support, as well as help in getting a sanctions waiver and licenses from the Federal Communications Commission. If necessary, it would even supply cover stories and fake ID papers for Afghan Wireless personnel. Bentham and Cecil explained the Liechtenstein plan but said they would much prefer to work through the original American company, because the Taliban had stated a clear preference for American equipment. It was, the businessmen emphasized, time to get things moving. In the few months since U.S. trade and investment sanctions had been declared, the Taliban had received cell-phone bids from companies in 31 different countries, including Iran, China, South Korea, and Pakistan.

The prize seemed worth seizing. At the January 11 meeting, Cecil outlined more of the deal’s details: not only would the new phone company be the sole cell and landline provider in Afghanistan, it would also control the “gateways” out of the country—all voice and data traffic, including that carried by satellite phones and the Internet. It was believed that these gateways were already being employed by bin Laden, Mullah Omar, and their associates, as well as by Afghanistan’s drug barons. Some of those sat phones—perhaps including the very ones used by bin Laden and Omar when they discussed the opium-cultivation ban—had been brought to Afghanistan by Bayat himself, who was in the habit of giving them to senior Taliban officials as gifts. All in all, as one N.S.A. official commented at the time, this was “an excellent opportunity to compromise Afghanistan’s anticipated telecommunications system.”

And it could have been done very quickly. “The digital G.S.M. cell-phone service could have been up and running within four months, certainly no more,” Alex Grinling says. In hindsight, it is surprising that the telephone scheme was able to reach such an advanced stage before the C.I.A. finally became interested. The C.I.A. is supposed to be the main American foreign-intelligence-gathering agency. That the F.B.I. was involved with the cell-phone project at all had been something of a fluke, a product of a personal relationship between Bayat and two agents. “The F.B.I. doesn’t build networks overseas—it’s as simple as that,” says the former C.I.A. official I spoke with. Once it got wind of the plan, he says, the agency was bound to want to be involved.

The C.I.A. had been asking questions in Washington since sometime the previous fall, but it saved its intervention until the day after the January 11 meeting in Newark. Bayat had been due to fly to Afghanistan the following weekend. He would have carried a letter which the N.S.A. had been able to obtain from the U.S. Department of Commerce. It promised the Taliban that an official sanctions waiver was again “under consideration.” But on January 12 an order came down to Newark from F.B.I. headquarters in Washington: Bayat should postpone his visit. Everything was on hold. There could be no further progress until the end of an exhaustive “interagency review.” One of the principal questions to be resolved was whether control of the operation should pass to the C.I.A.

As the review got under way, Bentham and Cecil were invited to yet another meeting in Newark, according to Margaret Bentham. When they landed, Margaret Bentham says, they received word that they were not to attend the meeting after all. Bentham and Cecil had been briefing the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office about their activities from the very start, and upon their return to London they were summoned to Whitehall by an official from M.I.6. “They were told they could have nothing more to do with the F.B.I. and N.S.A.—pending the U.S. review—until further notice,” Margaret Bentham says. Her surmise is that M.I.6 had been talking to the C.I.A. For the next 13 months, until February 2001, the interagency review ground on, with a series of fractious meetings involving the F.B.I. and N.S.A. at C.I.A. headquarters, in Langley, Virginia. Officials who were knowledgeable at the time say that the “counterterrorism czar” at the White House, Richard Clarke, became personally involved, but neither he nor anyone else seemed able to resolve the impasse. (Clarke declined to be interviewed for this article.) The divisions were not just between agencies; some turf wars were internal as well. Thus, while the C.I.A. was seeking overall control of the operation, there was also an inside fight over which of its sections—the Near East Division or the Counterterrorism Center—should take it over.

In Afghanistan, Grinling was finding the situation hard to manage: “There I was in bloody Kabul, wondering where the hell the cell-phone equipment was, fending off inquiries from the Taliban communications minister. But I couldn’t give him answers. It was a nightmare.” Having transferred T.S.I.’s interest in Afghan Wireless to the Liechtenstein-based company Netmobile, Bayat, Cecil, and Bentham tried to find cell-phone-equipment suppliers who might be prepared to do business with them. But U.N. sanctions had recently been added to the U.S. export ban, and the task proved impossible.

The U.S. interagency review was finally concluded in February 2001. According to Margaret Bentham, Bentham and Cecil were invited to a meeting at F.B.I. headquarters, where a top bureau official described Bayat as a “loose cannon” and explained that it might be more suitable if he were handled from now on by the C.I.A. Indeed, the decision had already been made. The F.B.I. agents in Newark were ordered to have no further contact with Bayat and to “close” him as a confidential informant. And yet still nothing happened. It was not until August 2001, Margaret says, that Cecil and Bentham came back to the U.S. and met with C.I.A. agents known as “Jeff” and “Fred” at a Newark, New Jersey, Sheraton. They were also informed by M.I.6 that they now had official British clearance to work with the Americans. Twenty months after it had been derailed, the project was back on track. A few weeks later, the two businessmen attended another meeting in New Jersey, where they joined U.S. technical experts and intelligence officers and began laying plans for the network’s exact specifications. This meeting took place on September 8, three days before 9/11.

The Afghan cell-phone network was eventually built, along the lines that had been planned—it just didn’t happen until after the terrorist attacks. As envisaged for the pre-9/11 version, it came complete with electronic back doors, enabling the N.S.A. to monitor traffic in Afghanistan closely. According to a Swiss source who was aware of the transaction and had a financial interest, the C.I.A. made a direct investment of more than $70 million, which it transferred via a front company based in the British Virgin Islands. By the end of the summer of 2002, all of Afghanistan’s major towns had been connected and the service was spreading into the countryside. But as the year wore on, Bayat’s relationship with his partners was breaking down. At the C.I.A.’s behest, international traffic was no longer routed through London but through an entity controlled by the U.S. government on the Pacific island of Guam. Behind the scenes, in Langley, the former C.I.A. official says, the agency simply wanted to rid itself of British involvement: “We wanted to force them and M.I.6 out, because there was a question of control.” The burgeoning cell-phone monopoly had also become a license to print money. (With about four million subscribers, Afghan Wireless is today thought to be worth about $1 billion.) From August of 2002, Bayat made attempts to buy Cecil and Bentham out, but they regarded his offers as derisory. In the meantime, they were later to claim in court filings, he was effectively stealing the company out from under them. When the dispute ended up in federal district court in Manhattan in 2003, the U.S. government invoked the State Secrets Privilege. Bentham, Cecil, and Grinling tried to press the case in London but saw their suit dismissed on technicalities. An appeal to the British Supreme Court is pending.

Why did the U.S. government shut down the case and put the records under seal? One explanation is simple embarrassment. American intelligence could have reaped an intelligence bonanza two years before 9/11—and failed to do so because of its own ineptitude. “We always knew that this project could have been enormously valuable in gathering intelligence about al-Qaeda,” says one former U.S. counterterrorism official. “No one could foresee 9/11, but when 9/11 took place, the first thing that struck me and my colleagues was that this could have prevented it. Afghan Wireless would have been the only network in Afghanistan, and that is what the terrorists would have used.”


August 26, 2011

David Rose’s article “9/11: The Tapping Point” (September) contains false accusations regarding me and the firms I founded, Telephone Systems International, Inc. (TSI), and Afghan Wireless Communication Company (AWCC), and regarding the events described in the article that occurred more than 13 years ago in Afghanistan. Neither I nor TSI or AWCC has ever been an agent, informant, or spy. To the contrary, my application for an exemption from U.S. sanctions was denied by the U.S. government. I have never violated U.S. sanctions against al-Qaeda or the Taliban. I did not, as the article wrongly states, engage in any act “technically breaking American law.” Nor did I, as the article suggests, “perhaps” provide satellite telephones to or for the use of Osama bin Laden or Mullah Omar, or, indeed, to any other members of al-Qaeda. AWCC’s network does not contain any “electronic back doors,” as falsely stated in the article.

The article fails to disclose that several of the author’s sources and their companies or business associates have litigated unsuccessfully against me for more than nine years until I recently defeated them. It was TSI and AWCC that initiated the legal dispute when they sued Stuart Bentham and Michael Cecil or their companies in 2002, seeking to recover money we claimed had been fraudulently misappropriated from AWCC or TSI. Following years of legal proceedings in New York and London, TSI and I recently secured a victory in the English courts against Bentham and Cecil as well as Alexander Grinling (who, along with Bentham’s wife, are principal sources quoted frequently in the article) and a Swiss national, Joakim Lehmkuhl (a principal in the Swiss company Octogone), leaving them with nothing on their claims. Three of these people have had no involvement with AWCC and TSI for a dec­ade. Their recent lost case against me in London provides context for the fictions about me contained in the article. These misstatements risk the lives of thousands of individuals working hard to build a peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan.

Ehsan Bayat

Chairman of the Board, AWCC

Kabul, Afghanistan

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Who’s the Boss?

Obama to address Congress on September 8


By Jeff Mason and Thomas Ferraro, Reuters, Aug 31 2011

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Barack Obama on Wednesday agreed to unveil new jobs proposals in an address to Congress on September 8, bowing to pressure from Republicans, who objected to the original date set for his high-profile speech.

Obama’s long-awaited proposals could set the agenda in Washington for the coming months, but his preferred date of September 7 had an unpalatable political edge for the opposition party: Republican presidential candidates were scheduled to hold a televised debate on the same evening, at the same time.

Thus began a new round of conflict between the Democratic president and Republicans in Congress.

The White House said the timing of the Republican debate and Obama’s proposed speech — announced in a letter to congressional leaders — was a coincidence.

But Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner asked Obama to come on Thursday instead of Wednesday, and the White House agreed.

“Both houses (of Congress) will be back in session after their August recess on Wednesday, September 7th, so that was the date that was requested,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said in a statement. “We consulted with the Speaker about that date before the letter was released, but he determined Thursday would work better.

The new date could have its own complications.

The season-opening NFL football game between Wisconsin’s Green Bay Packers and Louisiana’s New Orleans Saints will air at 8:30 p.m. EDT the same night on the NBC network, and many Americans would likely tune into that rather than watch an address by the president if they are at the same time.

The timing of the speech has yet to be determined.

“We appreciate the president working with us tonight and look forward to hearing his new proposals,” said Brendan Buck, a Boehner spokesman.

Obama said in his letter to congressional leaders he would use the address to lay out job-boosting proposals that members of both parties could support.

“As I have traveled across our country this summer and spoken with our fellow Americans, I have heard a consistent message: Washington needs to put aside politics and start making decisions based on what is best for our country and not what is best for each of our parties in order to grow the economy and create jobs,” Obama said in the letter.

“We must answer this call.”


The speaker’s office raised no objection to the time and date when the White House first proposed it on Wednesday morning, a White House official said. Buck said Boehner’s office never signed off on the original date.

The House and the Democratic-controlled Senate must pass a joint resolution to provide for Congress to assemble for Obama’s remarks. Lawmakers get back to work in Washington on September 7 after their summer recess and start votes at 6:30 p.m. EDT (2230 GMT). Boehner cited such parliamentary “impediments” when asking for the date change.

The back-and-forth led to criticism from both parties.

“People die and state funerals are held with less fuss, so the logistics excuse by the Speaker’s office is laughable,” said one senior Democratic aide.

Republicans saw it differently. Presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann suggested Obama’s original proposed timing aimed to distract Americans from watching her party’s debate.

“Now does this show maybe a little insecurity on the part of the president?” she said in Iowa.

By seeking a joint session of Congress, much like the president’s annual televised State of the Union address, Obama sought a sweeping platform in his opening bid to get support from Democrats and Republicans for his proposals.

But the original timing would have given Obama an opportunity to upstage the other party at the same time that he was seeking its support.

Obama said he would lay out a series of steps that Congress could act on immediately to strengthen small businesses and put “more money in the paychecks of the middle class and working Americans” while reducing the deficit.

Carney said Obama’s speech would focus primarily on jobs, with detailed proposals on deficit reduction coming later.

The proposals could include programs to fund infrastructure building, measures to help struggling homeowners, and tax breaks to encourage hiring of new workers.

Business lobby group the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said it was skeptical about a payroll tax holiday to subsidize companies that hire workers.

“Companies don’t invest and hire people just because they have more cash,” said Martin Regalia, the group’s chief economist. “They hire people when they can put those people to work producing a product or a service that they can sell at a profit. That’s what they do. And right now the economy isn’t presenting that opportunity.”

(Additional reporting by Alister BullMatt SpetalnickJason Lange and Kay Henderson; Editing byEric Walsh)

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