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Ochenski

Credibility gaps: Nobody to trust when government tells tales

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People often speak disparagingly about the level of political apathy in our nation and paint the general populace as uninformed. In almost every case, the finger gets pointed at the normal citizens who struggle to make ends meet, take care of the family, and find time in our hectic lives to squeeze it all in. But this week, at both the state and federal level, the information we are getting from our top politicians and government officials may explain the real reason Americans tend to take their politics less seriously than some—namely, credibility gaps that leave the citizenry confused, confounded, and unable to determine who is telling the truth.

At the national level, the big news has been the latest intelligence report that concludes Iran ceased its nuclear weapons production program nearly five years ago. Based upon the best knowledge of the nation’s entire fleet of spies, analysts, and agencies, the report completely contradicts what our citizens have been hearing from President Bush and those same intelligence agencies for the last several years.

Apparently not content with the havoc wreaked by the disastrous war in Iraq and the quickly deteriorating war in Afghanistan, President Bush and his war hawks have been pounding the drums for going to war against Iran. Indeed, in remarks that alarmed the world, only little more than a month ago Bush told reporters, “If you’re interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them [Iran] from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon.”

Like so much that has been poured from the boot of the Bush administration, this “make war to avoid war” logic comes straight from what we are constantly told is the best intelligence in the world. We have a massive and very expensive fleet of spy satellites that can read a license plate from orbit, high-altitude spy planes that can positively identify single individuals, unmanned drones zipping around below the radar, and thousands of listening stations on land, sea and air to intercept every global electronic communication.

Yet, in a sickening case of déja vu, somehow we blew it once again. Remember poor old Colin Powell showing us the satellite photos of Iraq’s “mobile germ warfare labs” that turned out to be nothing more than trucks parked in the desert? Or how about the “Nigerian yellowcake” incident that ignited the notorious Valerie Plame affair and then turned out to be bogus–but not before Condi Rice warned us of a “mushroom cloud” on our horizon? All this and more about Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction, for which we plunged our nation into war, turned out to be false.

Thanks to the total lack of accountability and transparency that has become the trademark of the Bush administration, no one in the general public has any feasible way to fact check whatever the White House tells us. In cases like the latest reversal on Iran, we either go along with the baloney we’re fed by President Bush or, perhaps at our own peril, simply ignore it.

Closer to home, we are witnessing a similar, if somewhat less dramatic, event in the recent disclosure that the state’s Short Term Investment Pool (STIP) has made some bad bets on the financial markets that may cost the state $140 million. Specifically, two of the “structured investment vehicles” (SIVs) in which the state invested have been downgraded on Wall Street and one liquidated.

In what might be called the Battle of the Bean Counters, Sen. Dave Lewis (R-Helena), has called for a special legislative session to address the issue because the investment losses will ripple throughout state and local governments. Lewis says the legislature must meet to “allocate the losses.” In the opposite corner of the ring is the Governor’s Budget Director, David Ewer, who says there’s no need for a special session and “the state money’s staying in.”

To the vast majority of Montanans who do not spend their lives wheeling and dealing billions of dollars in state investments, the acronyms alone are numbing, let alone trying to comprehend how they work. What we can understand, however, is that last week cities, counties and school boards across the state were so alarmed by the downgrading of Montana’s investments that they pulled some $266 million of their funds, nearly half of their total, out of the investment pool—with the distinct possibility that more may follow this week.

So what are we to think of it all? Dave Lewis is no slouch—he was the executive director of the state’s Board of Investments, has been a Budget Director for both Republican and Democratic governors, and sits on the Finance and Claims Committee in the Senate. If he’s getting nervous, shouldn’t we be nervous?

On the other hand you have Budget Director David Ewer, a former Senior Bond Officer
with the Board of Investments, who served his own stint in the Montana House of Representatives. If he says the “last and least favorable” option is “reduction in principal” couldn’t he be right?

And finally, what part does politics play? Schweitzer’s rocky relationship with the legislative branch is well known. The last thing he wants is to have them back in session—especially at the call of a Republican who might expose risky investments with state funds at Schweitzer’s political expense during an election year.

If there’s good news, it appears that Bush now has no reason whatsoever to take the country to war with Iran. And as far as the state’s investments go, well, despite the resistance to a special session, if the fund drain continues something will ultimately need to be done.

Unfortunately, the general public is once again left scratching our heads about who is or isn’t right and what it means to our future. Even more unfortunately, many will opt to simply tune it all out.

Helena’s George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.

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