2005 News of the Nation
—By Borgna Brunner
Disaster. Hurricane Katrina slammed into the U.S. Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, destroying towns in Mississippi and Louisiana, displacing a million people, and killing almost 1,800. When levees in New Orleans were breached, 80% of the city was submerged by the flooding. About 20% of its 500,000 citizens were trapped in the city without electricity, food, or drinking water. Rescue efforts were so delayed and haphazard that many were stranded for days on rooftops and in attics before help arrived. The city became a toxic pool of sewage, chemicals, and corpses, and in the ensuing chaos, mayhem and looting were rampant—about a third of the city's police force had simply walked off the job. The 20,000 people who made their way to the Superdome, the city’s emergency shelter, found themselves crammed into sweltering and fetid conditions. At a second shelter, the convention center, evacuees were terrorized by roaming gangs and random gunfire. Relief workers, medical help, security forces, and essential supplies remained profoundly inadequate during the first critical days of the disaster.
As most of the city's citizens fled the city, those without cars or the financial means to relocate were left behind. The 100,000 who remained in the drowning city were largely poor and predominantly black, exposing the racial dimension of New Orleans’s persistent poverty: 28% of New Orleanians are poor (twice the national average) and 84% of those are black. The elderly poor were also disproportionately affected by the disaster: 70% of the New Orleans area's 53 nursing homes were not evacuated before the hurricane struck.
Hurricane Katrina has been called the most anticipated disaster in modern American history. For years, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had ranked New Orleans and San Francisco as the two cities most vulnerable to catastrophic natural disaster, and a day before Katrina’s landfall, the National Weather Service warned that the hurricane would cause “human suffering incredible by modern standards.”
Aftermath. Americans were shaken not simply by the magnitude of the disaster but by how ill-prepared all levels of government were in its aftermath. Although New Orleans had performed a hurricane drill the previous year, the city and state governments had no transportation or crime prevention plans in place, and such negligence had devastating consequences. The Department of Homeland Security, the new cabinet agency created for the very purpose of increasing domestic security, had unveiled its National Response Plan in Jan. 2005, which promised “vastly improved coordination among federal, state, local, and tribal organizations…by increasing the speed, effectiveness, and efficiency of incident management.” Yet Michael Chertoff, the department’s secretary, waited until two days after the hurricane hit before putting the plan into effect by declaring it an “incident of national significance.” Critics claimed Homeland Security's efforts had been focused on the prevention of terrorism at the expense of preparing for natural catastrophes. Seeming not to grasp the scale of the disaster, Chertoff and Michael Brown, FEMA's director, expressed surprise at the dangerous conditions in the convention center in New Orleans, days after its horrific images had saturated the airwaves, making them appear less informed than the average TV viewer. Brown was so inept in managing the crisis that he was quietly removed after two weeks. All three top jobs at FEMA had been filled by political appointees with no emergency management experience, and half of the agency's senior career professionals had been cut since 2000.
In sharp contrast to the leadership he displayed after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, President Bush initially seemed off-key and out of touch, declaring that he didn’t “think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees” and waiting four days before his first brief visit to the region. Trust in the president's ability to lead the country during a crisis had been a central factor in his reelection, but two-thirds of Americans considered his response to Katrina inadequate. To repair his image, Bush acknowledged the government's faltering response and pledged “one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen.”
See also Hurricane Katrina Timeline.
Elections. One of the most hopeful signs in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein were the country's first free elections in 50 years. About 8.5 million people voted in January, representing about 58% of eligible Iraqis, to elect a 275–member National Assembly. A coalition of Shiites received 48% of the vote and the Kurdish parties received 26%. Sunni parties received just 2%—most Sunni leaders, feeling marginalized, had called for a boycott.
In Aug. 2005, after three months of fractious negotiations, Iraqi lawmakers completed a draft constitution that was voted on in a national referendum on Oct. 15. Shiites and Kurds supported a decentralized government with autonomous regions in the Kurdish north and the Shiite south; the minority Sunnis wanted strong centralization, fearing that they would otherwise be deprived of the oil wealth of the north and south. That issue, as well as the role of Islam—some Shiites have advocated a theocratic government and the reduction of women's rights—remained unresolved in the final draft. In the end, the Sunnis' objections were overridden, and they in turn vowed to defeat the constitution at the referendum stage. On Oct. 25, the referendum for the new constitution narrowly passed, with a large Sunni turnout voting against it. Given that the insurgency is largely fueled by Sunnis, their further disaffection from the political process is likely to bring more division and unrest to the country.
The passage of the referendum paved the way for Dec. 15 elections, in which Iraqis voted for their first full-term, four-year Parliament since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Election results are expected in January; preliminary counts indicated a decisive victory for the United Iraqi Alliance, a coalition of Shiite Muslim religious parties that dominates the current government
Insurgency. The elections, however, did not stem the insurgency, which grew increasingly sectarian during 2005 and predominantly involved Sunni insurgents targeting Shiite and Kurdish civilians in suicide bombings. The death toll for Iraqi civilians was estimated to have reached roughly 30,000 since the start of the war. The lack of security has continued to frustrate reconstruction efforts. Despite investing $9 billion over the past two years, the U.S. has made only “limited progress” on rebuilding the country's infrastructure. According to the Government Accountability Office, Iraq's oil output and power generation have in fact diminished since the war began.
U.S. Strategy. By the end of 2005, more than 2,100 U.S. soldiers had died and about 16,000 had been wounded. The absence of a clear strategy for winning the war beyond “staying the course” caused Americans' support for Bush's handling of the war to plummet to an all-time low of 37%, according to a September Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll. The U.S. and Iraqi governments agreed that no firm timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops should be set, maintaining that this would simply encourage the insurgency. Withdrawal would take place as Iraqi security forces grew strong enough to assume responsibility for the country's stability. “As Iraqis stand up, Americans will stand down,” Bush stated. But the training of Iraqi security forces had been far below what was anticipated. A July 2005 Pentagon report acknowledged that only “a small number” of Iraqi security forces are capable of fighting the insurgency without American help. Subsequently, the Pentagon has offered more optimistic estimates of Iraqi troop readiness. In December, President Bush made a series of speeches to rally the American public's support for the war. The speeches coincided with parliamentary elections in Iraq, and polls showed a slight increase in the public's positive perception of the Bush administration's handling of the war.
Economy and Legislation
Bush's priority in the first year of his second term was the overhaul of the Social Security system, but despite months of campaigning, the president failed to convince the electorate that the program was in need of a massive restructuring. Legislative accomplishments included the passage of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and an energy bill, which did not, however, address what Americans considered the single most pressing economic issue: skyrocketing fuel prices. President Bush has firmly ruled out tax increases to pay for the astronomical costs of the Iraq war ($5 billion a month) and hurricane recovery (estimated to exceed $200 billion) or to offset the federal budget deficit, which reached $319 billion at the end of fiscal year 2005.
When Bush proposed several judicial nominations that Senate Democrats considered emphatically “out of the mainstream,” they threatened to filibuster. Republicans, who controlled 55 votes (overruling a filibuster takes 60) vowed to set off the “nuclear option,” which meant changing Senate rules to ban filibusters in which case, Democrats warned, the work of the Senate would be brought to a standstill. A bipartisan “gang of 14” moderate senators ended the showdown through a compromise in May: Democrats would not block several of the controversial nominees from an “up-or-down vote” and would use filibusters only under “extraordinary circumstances”; Republicans would preserve the 200-year-old tradition of filibusters, considered an essential right of the minority party.
Congress and the Courts
Terri Schiavo, a brain-damaged Florida woman who had been kept alive by a feeding tube for 15 years, became the focus of an emotionally charged battle between those who felt removing her feeding tube was tantamount to murder and those who believed she had the right to die instead of remaining in a persistent vegetative state. In an unprecedented intervention, congressional Republicans stepped in to “affirm a culture of life,” overriding a decade of legal battles in the Schiavo case involving 19 judges and six state courts, by passing emergency legislation to reopen the case before a federal court. The court upheld the earlier rulings. Schiavo died 13 days after her feeding tube was removed, and her autopsy revealed that her brain had deteriorated to half its normal size and that no treatment could have helped her. While Republican leaders railed against “activist judges,” a majority of Americans (70% in an ABC poll) disapproved of Congress's intervention and sized up its motives as political opportunism (67%).
A number of criminal investigations have roiled the GOP since the fall of 2005. In September, the Securities and Exchange Commission began investigating Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist for an alleged insider trading scandal involving his sale of stock in his family's hospital company. Also in September, Tom DeLay, the most powerful member of the House of Representatives, stepped down as House Marjority Leader after an indictment for allegedly violating election finance laws in his home state of Texas. In October, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, was charged with perjury and obstruction of justice for his role in the Valerie Plame CIA-leak affair. Although not indicted for any wrongdoing, chief Bush adviser Karl Rove was also revealed to have been one of the sources of the CIA leak. In December, Randy “Duke” Cunningham resigned from the House of Representatives after admitting he accepted $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors.
By far the widest reaching and still-evolving corruption scandal involves powerful Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who is at the center of numerous bribery and fraud investigations. On Jan. 3, 2006, he pleaded guilty to fraud, public corruption, and tax evasion—all felonies—and agreed to testify against politicians and former colleagues in a broad corruption investigation. Abramoff's testimony threatens to ensnare a half a dozen or so members of Congress as well as officials in the Bush administration.
Two Supreme Court vacancies opened up with the retirement of Sandra Day O'Connor and the death of Chief Justice William Rehnquist, offering the president the opportunity to make his mark on the court. His first nominee, John Roberts, widely seen as solidly conservative but nonideological, easily won approval and replaced Rehnquist as Chief Justice.
Bush's second nominee, White House counsel Harriet Miers, ran into problems almost immediately, and from an unexpected source—the president's conservative base. Conservatives expected a judge who unambiguously opposed abortion and supported other important conservative goals. Miers, who had never served as a judge, had no clear paper trail pointing to her conservative credentials, and President Bush's reassurances that he knew where she stood on such issues had little effect. Miers's qualifications were also called into question, and there were accusations of cronyism (Miers had worked as Bush's personal lawyer and the two had been friends for decades). Nominated in early October, Miers withdrew her nomination at the end of the month.
President Bush's next nominee, Federal Judge Samuel Alito, a highly experienced judge with a deeply conservative philosophy, has been favorably received by conservative groups. Confirmation hearings will be held in January.
National Security versus Civil Liberties
In late December, The New York Times revealed that in 2002 the Bush administration authorized the National Security Agency to engage in domestic eavesdropping without court warrants. President Bush strongly defended his use of the wiretapping as essential to the fight against terrorism; critics decried his actions as a possible violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and an assault on civil liberties. Around the same time, Congress briefly extended but did not renew the USA Patriot Act. Passed after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the USA Patriot Act contains a number of controversial provisions giving law enforcement broad new powers that have troubled Democrats as well as some Republicans.
The issues of domestic surveillance and renewal of the Patriot Act were part of an onging debate in 2005 over national security, executive power, and civil liberties. Other examples included whether to allow terrorist suspects, including U.S. citizens, access to the courts; whether “cruel, inhuman, and degrading” treatment of terrorist suspects should be allowed in some cases; and whether the policy of “extraordinary rendition”—-transporting terrorist suspects to foreign countries where torture is tolerated—should be continued.