Evangelical voters see no clear choice

Analysis:

This story is based upon an interview done by a GR Press reporter with two different people who called themselves “Evangelical Christians.” Does interviewing just two people seem representative of all Evangelicals? The article mentions early on that Huckabee “Considered the longest of long shots a few months ago, the Baptist minister has rocketed up in the polls as Christian conservatives flocked his way.” There is no verification of which polls the Press article is talking about. Two sentences later it says, “Many analysts doubt his ability to sustain a campaign through the Feb. 5 “super primary” in which 23 states will hold contests,” but the article never referes to which analysts. The only analyst cited in the story is Bill Ballenger from Inside Michigan Politics.

The article then goes on to sum up the evangelical credentials of the GOP candidates. Issues that are mentioned include abortion, stem cell research, gay rights, and McCain’s military service. The reporter does not source any of the claims made about where candidates stand on these issues. For instance, the article says that Rudy Giuliani “supports abortion and gay rights,” but there is no mention of how Giuliani supported these as Mayor of New York. In fact, one could draw the opposite conclusion from Giuliani’s website. The article also fails to mention that a major Evangelical, Pat Robertson, has endorsed Giuliani. When looking online I could find evangelicals endorsing Mitt Romney, even though the two that are interviewed for the GR Press article don’t like Romney. The story mentions most of the GOP candidates, but only glosses over their position on issues. Is it clear from reading this story what Evangelicals consider to be core values? Does this story provide useful information for those wanting to make an informed vote?

Story:

Hudsonville resident Lambert Schut is like a lot of other West Michigan evangelical Republicans.

He wants a presidential candidate who fits his core beliefs on issues such as abortion and family values. But he also wants one who can win.

“We don’t really have a candidate that is standing out,” said Schut, 58, a member of Beaverdam Christian Reformed Church in Hudsonville.

“It’s going to be hard for the Republicans.”

With Michigan’s Jan. 15 GOP primary two weeks off, Schut leans toward former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee — who could turn the GOP field upside down if he can pull an upset in Thursday’s Iowa caucuses.

Considered the longest of long shots a few months ago, the Baptist minister has rocketed up in the polls as Christian conservatives flocked his way.

But the Huckabee campaign is not well-funded, and he has virtually no organization in Michigan. He is just now getting the scrutiny of a top-tier candidate, leading to a stumble or two on foreign policy.

That leaves a field whose credentials still look shaky to a voting bloc that was critical to the 2000 and 2004 elections of President Bush. Which way Christian conservatives go will sway results not only in Michigan but could decide which party seizes the White House.

“They (Christian conservatives) are very important to whoever wins in Michigan,” said Lansing political analyst Bill Ballenger.

“It’s anybody’s ballgame at this point.”

The remaining major Republican candidates have their work cut out if they are to gain the faith of this key constituency.

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani is thrice married, carried on a messy public affair as mayor and supports abortion and gay rights. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney remains suspect because he backed abortion rights in his 2002 campaign for governor, also, perhaps, because of his Mormon faith. Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson — once thought to be this constituency’s likely choice — has been criticized as uninspired in debates and wooden on the stump.

That could leave an unexpected path for Arizona Sen. John McCain. Given up for dead this summer, McCain has forged a comeback and could be poised to challenge Romney in New Hampshire.

If he pulls off another primary win here like his 2000 upset of Bush, McCain’s campaign could be off and running. A loss here could be crippling to Romney, who touts his Michigan roots and kicked off his campaign here.

But McCain has never been a favorite of evangelicals, despite a lengthy record opposing abortion and military service that includes 5 1/2 years captivity in North Vietnam.

He recently courted this group with a TV ad in which McCain recounted the time a guard at the POW camp where he was being held drew a cross in the dirt and he remembered “the true light of Christmas.”

In Michigan, McCain and Romney boast the deepest campaign organizations. Romney carries endorsements from U.S. Reps. Vernon Ehlers, R-Grand Rapids, and Peter Hoekstra, R-Holland, and has begun airing a TV spot in Michigan that links him with his father, George Romney, who was Michigan governor from 1963 to 1969.

McCain boasts the backing of Republican National Committee members Chuck Yob and Holly Hughes and plans a Jan. 9 rally at Gerald R. Ford International Airport.

Sandwiched between Iowa and New Hampshire and the Feb. 5 multi-state slugfest, Michigan could have a lot to say about which Republican marches on.

Michigan’s Democratic primary is much less likely to have an impact on the nomination. Because the date is earlier than national party rules allow, Democratic officials last month voted to strip Michigan of its delegates to the national convention. State party leaders expect that to be reversed, but former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama still are boycotting the contest.

With no real race on the Democratic side, independents and perhaps some Democrats could be induced to cast a vote in the GOP primary. “The question is, how many Democrats cross over?” Ballenger said.

In the meantime, Republicans such as Beaverdam Christian Reformed Church member Mark Bussis and his wife, Debra, hold certain principles for which they will not compromise. The passion of these beliefs typifies many in this church, whose steeple rises in one of the most conservative corners in Ottawa County, arguably Michigan’s most conservative county.

“We would like to believe that the person voted into office is a person of strong convictions and faith, and would truly seek God’s will as they govern,” said Mark Bussis, a Hudsonville resident.

That leaves him leaning toward Huckabee. Giuliani, he says, is “too liberal” in his social principles. Romney “seems too slick.”

He calls Thompson “a possibility” but said he would not support McCain.

Things were much more settled the last two election cycles, when high turnout by Christian conservatives was pivotal to narrow wins by Bush in 2000 and 2004.

If disillusioned evangelicals sit this one out, the GOP is in trouble.

The Rev. Tyler Wagonmaker, pastor of Beaverdam Christian Reformed, wonders just how many of his parishioners will be engaged this time around.

A few months ago, Wagonmaker said: “None of the candidates excited me.”

He’s warming up to Huckabee. He’s “concerned” about McCain’s support for embryonic stem cell research but called him an “honorable man” that he could support.

But Giuliani and Romney?

Calling Giuliani’s support for abortion rights a “deal breaker,” Wagonmaker said he would probably not vote if he were the nominee.

As for Romney, “He seems like a man without a conscience. I simply can’t trust him.”

Israel demands crackdown on militants

Analysis:

This Associated Press story is based upon Israel’s response to the killing of two Israelis who were hiking in the Weat Bank. The story frames much of the “ongoing conflict” between Israeli and the Palestinians in the wake of President Bush’s scheduled trip to the Middle East in a few days. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert stated “As long as the Palestinian Authority doesn’t take the necessary steps and act with the necessary vigor against terror organizations, Israel won’t be able to carry out any change that would expose it to any jeopardy or endanger Israel’s security.” The AP reporter doesn’t verify if the recent killings were done by any terrorist group as is suggested by the Israeli Prime Minister. Another Israeli spokesperson tries to connect the killing of these two Israelis to activities and operations by al-Qaida in the region. Again there is no verification of these claims. By not investigating these claims are readers more likely to assume that “terrorist organizations” are responsible? Even the headline uses the term militants as those responsible for acts of violence against Israel.

The response from the Palestinian negotiator focused more on the need for the two governments to continue peace talks. The Palestinian statement is straddled by comments aout the peace process and the conference that took place last month in the US. There is also a sentence in the middle of the story that says “The number of people killed in Israeli-Palestinian violence dropped dramatically in 2007, according to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem.” This statement almost seems out of place and there is no connection to the rest of the article. The GR Press did add an information box with the data that is included at the end of the article, but provides no commentary or details about the B’Tselem human rights report. The report was released on December 31 and also included the following summary of human rights abuses:

“In 2007, there was an increase of 13 percent in the number of Palestinians held in administrative detention without trial, which averaged 830 people. Sixty-six staffed checkpoints and 459 physical roadblocks on average controlled movement inside the West Bank. There was little improvement in Palestinians’ freedom of movement, despite the promised easing of restrictions. Israeli settlement population grew by 4.5 percent (compared with 1.5 percent population growth inside Israel), a more moderate increase than the previous year. Israel continues the freeze policy on family unification, denying tens of thousands of Palestinians the right to a family life. However, in what was termed a one-time gesture, Israel approved family unification for some 3,500 Palestinian families. The number of houses demolished in East Jerusalem rose by 38 percent, to 69 homes. Palestinians continue to face severe discrimination in the allocation of water in the West Bank, causing serious hardship in the summer. The number of Palestinians killed in intra-Palestinian clashes was the highest throughout the intifada.”

Had any of this information been included in the story would readers have a different understanding of who is primarily responsible for the violence between Israelis and Palestinians?

Story:

Furious over the killing of two Israelis hiking in the West Bank, Israel’s prime minister said Sunday that no peace will come until Palestinians crack down on militants, a declaration that clouds a coming visit by President Bush.

To clear the way for Bush to push for progress, the two sides had just agreed to paper over another spat: Israel’s plan to build 307 new apartments in a Jewish neighborhood in east Jerusalem, the section claimed by the Palestinians.

But that was before the shooting of two off-duty Israeli soldiers Friday by Palestinian attackers, in a valley near the West Bank city of Hebron. There were two claims of responsibility: one from Hamas and Islamic Jihad; the other from Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, which has ties to Abbas’ Fatah movement.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, speaking before the weekly meeting of Israel’s Cabinet, denounced the hikers’ shooting deaths.

“As long as the Palestinian Authority doesn’t take the necessary steps and act with the necessary vigor against terror organizations, Israel won’t be able to carry out any change that would expose it to any jeopardy or endanger Israel’s security,” he said.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, however, saw the talks as an answer to violence. “To address this issue between Palestinians and Israelis, we need the resumption of a meaningful peace process,” Erekat said.

Israel’s demand for a crackdown on Palestinian militants derives from the internationally backed “road map” peace plan, the agreed basis for the talks.

The road map requires dismantling militant groups and Israel has long demanded that such a crackdown precede implementation of any peace accords.

The number of people killed in Israeli-Palestinian violence dropped dramatically in 2007, according to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem.

Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had pledged to restart peace talks at Bush’s Mideast conference last month in Annapolis, Md., aiming for a peace agreement by the end of 2008. But periodic crises are already hampering the efforts.

There have been two meetings of negotiating teams and one Olmert-Abbas summit since the Annapolis conference. After debating Israeli settlement policy and Jerusalem construction, the two sides have agreed to start tackling the main issues—the status of Jerusalem, fate of Palestinian refugees and final borders, disputes that have stymied years of peace efforts.

Abed Rabbo said a Palestinian delegation would head to Washington this week for talks to prepare for Bush’s visit, set to begin Jan. 8. Bush is hoping for significant progress toward peace between Israel and the Palestinians as a mark of success for his foreign policy.

Death tolls

373: Number of Palestinians killed by Israeli forces in 2007.

13: Number of Israelis killed by Palestinians in 2007.

Since September 2000: More than 4,500 Palestinians and 1,100 Israelis killed.

Text from the original article ommitted from the Grand Rapids Press version:

Yasser Abed Rabbo, an aide to Abbas, said Sunday the Palestinians decided to gloss over the dispute about Jerusalem construction to keep the Israelis from blaming them for a stalemate.

“We will not give the Israelis a pretext to claim that the peace process has failed due to the Palestinian boycott, not due to their settlement activities,” he told a meeting of West Bank intellectuals in Ramallah.

In keeping with the road map, the Palestinians demand a complete halt to construction in Israel’s West Bank settlements. Israel claims the right to build inside the settlements without expanding them and does not accept a building ban in Jerusalem.

The Friday killings brought a call from Israeli Cabinet Minister Eli Yishai to halt the peace talks altogether. Yishai’s hawkish Shas Party represents Orthodox Jews of Mideast origin.

While pursuing peace with Abbas’ government, Israel has stepped up military pressure on militants in the Gaza Strip.

On Sunday, Israeli troops opened fire militants planting explosives near the Israeli border in southern Gaza, the army said. Hamas said one member was killed.

But the number of deaths in Israel-Palestinians violence dropped dramatically overall in 2007, according to a report released Monday by the Israel-Human rights group B’Tselem.

Israeli forces killed 373 Palestinians this year, a 45 percent drop from the previous year, the group said. Palestinians killed 13 Israelis in the same period, the lowest number of Israeli fatalities since the renewed outbreak of fighting between the sides seven years ago. B’Tselem said its numbers covered the year until Dec. 29.

Israel also said it was taking the threats of Osama bin Laden seriously a day after the al-Qaida leader vowed to expand his terror group’s holy war to Israel.

Most of the 56-minute audiotape tape released Saturday dealt with Iraq, but bin Laden also offered an unusually direct attack on Israel, threatening “blood for blood, destruction for destruction.”

Olmert’s spokesman, Mark Regev, said al-Qaida operatives have been inching closer to Israel in recent years, and Israel is aware of the danger.

“Israel takes bin Laden’s threats seriously. We have seen al-Qaida activity to the north of Israel, in Lebanon, to the east of Israel, in Jordan, and to the south of Israel, in Sinai,” he said. “There is also evidence of al-Qaida activities in the Palestinian territories. As a result, we will be irresponsible not to take this rhetoric seriously.”

Palestinians deny that al-Qaida operatives operate in their territories.

Hoekstra: Bin Laden losing ground in Iraq

Analysis:

This story is based on a Grand Rapids Press reporter’s conversation with 2nd Congressional District Representative Pete Hoekstra on the new audio message by Osama bin Laden. The only person cited in this story is Hoekstra and the Press reporter never questions the claims made by Hoekstra. Hoekstra makes the claim that “the recent attacks in Algeria and the assassination of Benazir Bhutto were likely part of the campaign to destabilize moderate Islamic states,” yet according to independent reporter Robert Fisk, the Pakistanis are not blaming al-Qaida for the death of Bhutto.

Hoekstra does say he “expects to review the latest Osama bin Laden tape, released Saturday, once it is translated into English,” but there has not even been a formal verification that the audio tape is authentic. In a story posted on Al-Jazeera, they state, “The authenticity of the tape could not be verified.” Why did the Press not bother to provide another opinion on this issue or at least an independent point of view?

Story:

Osama bin Laden may not be desperate, but a new 56-minute tape shows he is losing ground in Iraq and trying to appeal to other Muslims in the region, said U.S. Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Holland.

“The Muslim radicals who are not predisposed to violence, they have some real problems with al-Qaida,” Hoekstra said Sunday. “They are divided about what al-Qaida is doing in the Middle East, partly because a lot of the victims have been Muslim.”

Hoekstra, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, expects to review the latest Osama bin Laden tape, released Saturday, once it is translated into English. Reports show, however, that bin Laden has vowed to expand his terror group’s holy war to Israel.

Most of the tape dealt with Iraq, apparently al-Qaida’s latest attempt to keep supporters in Iraq unified while the U.S. military claims to have them on the run.

The tape did not mention Pakistan or the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, although Pakistan’s government has blamed al-Qaida and the Taliban for her death Thursday.

But bin Laden’s comments offered an unusually direct attack on Israel, which has warned of growing al-Qaida activity in Palestinian territory. The terror network is not believed to have taken a strong role there so far.

“We intend to liberate Palestine, the whole of Palestine from the (Jordan) river to the sea,” bin Laden said, threatening blood for blood, destruction for destruction.

Hoekstra said he was not particularly surprised by the tape.

“(Al-Qaida) is clearly losing in Iraq. The recent attacks in Algeria and the assassination of Benazir Bhutto were likely part of the campaign to destabilize moderate Islamic states, and bin Laden is likely emphasizing the destruction of Israel now because it will resonate better with Muslims sympathetic to the Palestinians. Al-Qaida is struggling to regain momentum after recent setbacks in Iraq,” he said.

Hoekstra said bin Laden is losing support of Sunni Arab tribal leaders in Iraq. Some have joined a coalition to fight insurgents linked to al-Qaida.

“This shift among Sunni tribal leaders is a real shift,” Hoekstra said.

“Bin Laden has been saying for the last five years very clearly what his strategy is. That focus has always been on Iraq,” he said. “He thought if he bloodied our nose, we would go away. That hasn’t happened.”

McCain, Huckabee criticize Romney

Analysis:

This Associated Press story is based upon recent comments made by presidential candidates just prior to the January 4 vote in Iowa. The article is primarily about attacks that GOP candidates are making against each other. McCain called Romney a “waffler” and Huckee questioned whether Romney “can be trusted.” Romney responded by accusing Huckabee of “testiness and irritability.” Do voters learn anything about candidates from this type of coverage? Why did the AP reporter decide to print these comments from the candidates?

Also cited in the article are Democratic and Republican consultants. The Democratic Consultant Stephanie Cutter says “Whoever wins Iowa could be the next president of the United States,” but there is no information to verify such a claim. The article fails to mention that she “was named in July 2003 as Communications Director for the Democratic National Committee.” The GOP consultant cited was Scott Reed, who said Iowa “is going to make or break three-quarters of all the candidates.” Again, there is no verification of this comment, nor is there any background information of Reed.

The GR Press version of the AP story does mention the Democratic candidates and an unsourced poll that has Clinton, Obama and Edwards tied for the lead. Obama and Clinton are both quoted with responses they gave on recent talk shows, but neither of them address any issues or their voting records. You can see that more than half of the original AP story was omitted from the GR Press, but even that part of the story doesn’t provide readers with information on where the candidates stand on issues.

Story:

Mike Huckabee says John McCain is a hero. McCain says Huckabee is a good man. And they both seem to agree on this: Mitt Romney is neither.

The Republican rivals joined Sunday to criticize Romney _ McCain in New Hampshire called him a waffler and Huckabee in Iowa questioned whether he can be trusted with the presidency, a sign of Romney’s strength in both states.

Romney’s camp accused the hard-charging Huckabee of “testiness and irritability,” a reflection of the brass-knuckles phase of the most open presidential race in half a century. Much is at stake: Iowa kicks off the election process Thursday with Democratic and Republican caucuses that could propel two candidates to the nomination.

“Whoever wins Iowa could be the next president of the United States,” said Democratic consultant Stephanie Cutter, adding that a compressed election schedule may put a premium on momentum this year “and Iowa can be a rocket booster.”

New Hampshire votes just five days after Iowa.

The dynamics aren’t quite the same on the Republican side, but GOP consultant Scott Reed said Iowa “is going to make or break three-quarters of all the candidates.”

Polls show Democrats Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards tied for the lead in Iowa. Clinton and Obama are closely bunched in New Hampshire, too, where voters are often influenced by the results in Iowa.

The Democratic winner here will be hard to stop, especially if it’s a well-funded Clinton or Obama.

As six candidates offered their closing messages on the morning talk shows, Obama acknowledged that the criticism about lack of experience in Washington might be taking a toll.

“That may have some effect, but ultimately I’m putting my faith in the people of Iowa and the people of America that they want something better,” Obama told NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Playing the experience card, Clinton told ABC’s “This Week” that as first lady from 1993-2001 she was “intimately involved in so much that went on in the White House, here at home and around the world.”

Text from the original article ommitted from the Grand Rapids Press version:

While she was one of the most influential first ladies in history, Clinton had her limits. She did not attend National Security Council meetings, did not receive the presidential daily briefing on terrorism and other threats and did not have a top level security clearance.

She is married to one of the most popular figures in the Democratic Party, Bill Clinton, and his return to the White House as first spouse would break new ground.

“He will not have a formal, official role, but just as presidents rely on wives, husbands, fathers, friends of long years, he will be my close confidante and adviser as I was with him,” Sen. Clinton said, adding that attending NSC meetings “wouldn’t be appropriate” for her husband.

Edwards said he couldn’t imagine Bill Clinton staying out of the mix.

“I think it’s a complete fantasy,” he said with a laugh on CBS.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Edwards said he was trying to ease fears about his electability by arguing that his sharply populist message is not polarizing. “It’s not divisive at all,” he said, “it’s uniting.”

A former president as the White House spouse would make history, a common denominator of the 2008 contest. The last wide-open race came in 1952 after Harry Truman opted not to run for re-election and his vice president, Alben Barkley, bowed out because of doubts raised over his age.

A new poll of the Republican race in Iowa suggested that Huckabee’s surprise surge in Iowa may have stalled _ his lead over Romney evaporated. A victory here for Romney would send the former Massachusetts governor to his neighboring New Hampshire with a head of steam.

That explains why Huckabee, strongest in Iowa, and McCain, winner of the 2000 GOP primary in New Hampshire, both criticized Romney.

Huckabee said he may have been hurt by Romney ads and mailings criticizing his record as governor of Arkansas. He accused Romney of running a “very desperate and, frankly, a dishonest campaign.”

Romney has been less than candid about his record and campaign plans, a fact seized upon by Huckabee.

“If you aren’t being honest in obtaining a job,” Huckabee said, “can we trust you to be honest if you get the job?”

Huckabee defended McCain against negative ads by Romney.

“I felt like that when Mitt Romney went after the integrity of John McCain, he stepped across a line,” Huckabee told NBC. “John McCain’s a hero in this country. He’s a hero to me.”

Huckabee scrapped a public appearance at an Iowa church, his only open event of the day, in favor of attending a private service and taping new ads _ perhaps to counter Romney’s.

United by a common foe, McCain spoke up for Huckabee. “Look, I’m flattered that (Romney) would be attacking me. He’s attacking Huckabee in Iowa, who’s a good man. And it shows that they’re worried,” McCain said.

Airing ads that suggest Romney is a phony, McCain said that’s not a word he’d used, but “I think he’s a person who’s changed his positions on many issues.”

Romney said there’s nothing wrong or unusual about pointing out differences on issues. “In this process, people have a real battle for success,” he said during an Iowa campaign stop, “but I consider these guys friends.”

His spokesman, Kevin Madden, didn’t sound so friendly about Huckabee and his record as governor.

“It’s a record that is tough to defend, so his testiness and irritability when being questioned about it is obvious,” Madden said.

Indeed, Huckabee’s poll numbers have declined as voters learned about his record of raising taxes, ethical lapses and clemencies for convicted murderers in Arkansas.

He hasn’t helped himself with a series of foreign policy gaffes, not the least of which was expressing “our sincere concern and apologies” for the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson told Fox News that Huckabee’s comments “are not consistent with someone who understands the nature of the world that we live in … .”

Trailing in Iowa and New Hampshire, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani scolded GOP rivals for name-calling. “My view is we should be here not attacking each other,” he said in New Hampshire. “I don’t think you get very much out of it.”

Local security firm joins action in Iraq

Analysis:

This story is based on an investigation by the Grand Rapids Press into a local company that is moving up in the war profiteering business, particularly in Iraq. Corporate Security Solutions (CSS) is a Grand Rapids-based company that according to this article has provided security for local clubs, done security work in New Orleans after Katrina and has been involved in construction work and hiring private mercenaries to protect high ranking officials in Iraq.

The story uses the recent investigation of Blackwater USA as a framework for presenting information about CSS. In the section the story states that “the brothers Frain took Corporate Security Solutions global, and to war, as it earned military contracts in Iraq for everything from shipping to personal protection to the manufacture of cement security barriers. The firm boasts overall domestic and overseas revenues between $50 million and $100 million.” There are a few other details about what this company is doing in Iraq, such as how many people they employ and that they provide “protection for supply convoys that truck everything from military equipment to medical supplies to cement barriers around the country. The firm also escorts business executives.” Despite these disclosures, there is no real transparency to what CSS does in Iraq. The GR Press reporter did not ask for copies of contracts, who exactly they are guarding in Iraq, nor how they procured these contracts.

This story looks at the the issue of war profiteers the same way that much of the media has with Blackwater and the other “contractors.” The only time there is attention given to these companies is when they do something that is considered “wrong,” such as the Blackwater shooting of civilians in September of 2007. This type of reporting doesn’t allow for questions about the role and function of private contractors and whether or not “Business can do it better, faster, cheaper,” as CSS founder Chris Frain said in this article. We know from other investigations that private contractors have not done it cheaper and better as in the case of Halliburton.

The story also states that CSS has hired former Gov. John Engler’s PR man John Truscott. Truscott was also the main spokesperson for the failed gubernatorial campaign of Dick DeVos and is now the head of a PR firm named The John Truscott Group. What was not mentioned in the GR Press article is that Truscott was also the main organizer for the Bush 2004 campaign in Michigan, which would further underscore the importance of hiring a man with significant political connections. According to Truscott’s website, he was also part of the “Bush/Cheney recount team in Florida” in 2000. Readers of the Grand Rapids Press should ask, with all that is at stake with a company like CSS, why did the reporter provide readers with such a superficial story?

Story:

Holland native Erik Prince built security firm Blackwater USA with millions of dollars in inherited wealth and contacts from his days as a Navy SEAL.

Grand Rapids Christian High School graduates Chris and Tim Frain took a different route to landing business in Baghdad.

Go to Calvin College. Drop out.

Start a small security firm from scratch in the early 1990s. Do everything from nightclub work to investigations of fraud and marital infidelity. Expand to other states.

Then make the leap.

Earlier this year, the brothers Frain took Corporate Security Solutions global, and to war, as it earned military contracts in Iraq for everything from shipping to personal protection to the manufacture of cement security barriers. The firm boasts overall domestic and overseas revenues between $50 million and $100 million.

With some 200 employees based in a compound near Baghdad’s Green Zone, they are poised to capture more of the same business Blackwater made famous.

“I have never met Erik Prince,” said Chris Frain, 37, CEO of CSS and the founder of the company.

Frain declined to comment on the Sept. 16 incident in Baghdad in which Blackwater contractors killed 17 Iraqi civilians. The incident prompted Iraqi leaders to call for expulsion of Blackwater — which has since been rebranded as Blackwater Worldwide — from their nation.

“I wasn’t there,” Frain said.

Despite the Blackwater woes, Frain is confident private contractors will have plenty of work to do in an unstable world.

“Business can do it better, faster, cheaper,” he said.

Until recently, the firm was about the best-kept secret in Grand Rapids. The Frains operate out of an inconspicuous building on 28th Street next to a rental house, across from a Lone Star Steakhouse. They expect to complete a move to a new headquarters in Ada Township next month.

But since their decision to go global, the firm has moved swiftly toward a bigger footprint in Iraq. They brought on an expert in military security. They contracted with well-connected Lansing public relations specialist John Truscott. Truscott, the former spokesman for Gov. John Engler and GOP gubernatorial candidate Dick DeVos, is looking to open doors that could lead to multi-million-dollar contracts.

“They have no political connections. They haven’t worked the system at all,” Truscott said.

“We think if we can get some exposure, there’s no telling how fast this company can grow.”

‘Coincidental timing’

To be sure, firms such as Blackwater have proven the potential for profit in war. Since 2004, Blackwater reaped more than $800 million in U.S. State Department contracts to escort officials in Iraq and elsewhere.

That may be about to end.

Federal agents probing the September shootings found at least 14 of the 17 deaths were unjustified and violated deadly-force rules. Unnamed U.S. officials have told The Associated Press that Blackwater is not expected to continue its diplomatic security work in Iraq after its contract expires in May.

Truscott said the Blackwater troubles and simultaneous CSS push for a bigger piece of the pie in Iraq are not linked.

“It’s just kind of a coincidental timing,” Truscott said.

But any expansion may fall under new rules, prompted by fallout from the Blackwater controversy.

Open to outside opinions

Congress is pressing for greater accountability for the estimated 100,000 government contractors in Iraq. In October, the House voted 389-30 to approve a bill that makes all private contractors in war zones subject to U.S. law. The U.S. military has asked that private contractors be placed under a single authority.

“We simply cannot tolerate this kind of lawless behavior on the part of Americans,” said U.S. Rep. David Price, D-N.C., sponsor of the House contractor measure.

“We welcome it,” Chris Frain said of the expected scrutiny.

Frain and his brother concede they are no experts when it comes to high-risk overseas security issues.

To burnish that end of the company portfolio, they hired retired Army Lt. Col. Brian Feser. Feser, 45, is an Iraq war veteran and former commander of the Department of Defense Protective Services Unit, which provides worldwide security protection for cabinet and top military officials. He has 27 years of military experience.

It’s Feser’s job to see that its security operations in Iraq go as planned. That includes protection for supply convoys that truck everything from military equipment to medical supplies to cement barriers around the country. The firm also escorts business executives.

“It’s probably not for the faint-of-heart,” Feser said.

Iraqis hold many of the jobs, from driving the convoy trucks to doing production work in the cement plant and housing assembly operation.

Its security operatives are typically British or American, many with military backgrounds. They come equipped with body armor and armed with assault rifles at a wage of $500 a day.

And they hire on with no illusions the job is without risk.

Three of its operatives were killed this year by roadside bombs while escorting convoys, two in an incident near the border with Iran and the other in northern Iraq.

“We understand that it may happen,” Feser said.

“We are trying with training and resources and equipment to ensure that it does not happen to our folks.”

Pre-med dropouts

For the Frains, it is a form of risk management they never imagined at the start.

When he enrolled at Calvin College in 1989, Chris Frain had dreams of going to medical school. While in school, he did management work for D&R Security, in which his father, Robert, had an investment stake.

Courses such as chemistry and advanced biology soon lost their allure. Frain dropped out after a couple of years at Calvin, biding his time with a class or two at Grand Rapids Community College. His hand was forced when his father sold D&R.

Frain took out a loan to buy out a small security firm, F&M Protection, principally to acquire its security license. His wife, Jamie, juggled law school with the demands of her husband’s new business. “There were times when my wife and I returned pop cans for gas money,” Frain said.

Frain scrambled for any business he could get.

The firm provided outside security at nightclubs such as the Orbit Room and the 54th Street Complex. It guarded schools during the 1992 Rockford Public Schools strike. They worked divorce cases and investigated corporate fraud.

Brother Tim came aboard in 1995. He followed form: One year at Calvin. Pre-med major. Drop out. Join the security business.

“I think it was the allure of building something. It’s fun to deal with people, fun to manage people, fun to work with people,” recalled Tim Frain, 34, now chief operating officer of affiliated company CSS Global Inc.

From 1994 to 1996, the firm had expanded to Kalamazoo, Lansing and Detroit. In 2000, it acquired a small business in Cincinnati and went into security work there. It expanded in subsequent years to Kentucky, Tennessee, Louisiana, Florida, Texas and Maryland, incorporating as Corporate Security Solutions in 2002.

Inspired in New Orleans

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the firm contracted with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to protect commercial buildings and trailer parks. At its peak, it had 600 employees in the New Orleans area.

Some of the contractors there — Blackwater included — had considerable business in Iraq. That gave the Frains an idea: Why not us?

In 2007, the firm won a Department of Defense contract to provide personal security and convoy security, and the firm set up a compound about a mile outside the heavily fortified Green Zone.

They later won contracts to build and transport cement barriers and modular housing used by the military. Their corporate advantage: They can both build these products and then provide the security and ability to ship anywhere in the country. It’s otherwise known as vertical integration. Their cement plant and housing assembly operation sit on several acres, next to the compound of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.

‘Risky’ business

The manager of operations there is Jay Coussens, 31, a 1995 graduate of Forest Hills High School. Coussens went to work for the firm in 1995 after a semester at Davenport University, helping with the expansion in Michigan and then Ohio, Florida and Texas.

He has been in Baghdad about a year, juggling appointments with Iraqi generals and contractors with meetings with existing and future clients.

The occasional roadside bomb notwithstanding, Coussens hopes to be in Iraq for the long haul.

“It’s not as bad here as people might think,” Coussens said.

“In certain parts of Iraq, it’s risky. But if you go out in certain parts of Michigan, it’s risky, too.”

Chris Frain said their work in Iraq fits the unorthodox profile of this firm. Success never comes without risk.

While politicians argue about the long-term role of U.S. troops in Iraq, Frain is bullish on the future.

“My general sense is that we are there for a very long time. This is not something that is going to happen in a year.”

Iowa race too tight to call

Analysis:

This Los Angeles Times story is written the day after Christmas with the focus on what the presidential candidates will do between now and the January 3 vote in Iowa.

What is meant by the headline, “Iowa too tight to call?” The story provides no polling data or commentary from voters on who they are likely to vote for, so isn’t the vote on January 3 impossible to call?

The article focuses almost exclusively on the Democratic candidates, although the original version of the LA Times story does provide more details on the GOP candidates. The story provides no commentary from any of the candidates, nor information about their platforms or where they stand on issues. What readers do get is information on where candidates are speaking, who they are having dinner with, and that one of them went ice skating. Is there any information in this story that would help voters make a decision about which candidate they might vote for?

The only two sources cited in the story are a former Democratic Congressman, David Nagle, who “has been tracking the caucuses since they gained national attention in 1972,” and Peverill Squire, “professor of political science at the University of Iowa.” Do the comments that either of these “experts” make provide voters with valuable information?

Story:

After a pause for Christmas, presidential contenders resume their blitz across Iowa today, scraping and scuffling in contests that have grown tighter and more unpredictable as the first balloting of 2008 nears.

On the Democratic side, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois, and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina are running neck and neck and neck, with the rest of the field fighting to squeeze past one of them to finish third.

Among Republicans, former Govs. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas and Mitt Romney of Massachusetts are battling it out, while the race for third is a toss-up among several contenders.

The closeness of the state’s caucus contests increases the import of these final days — and any verbal misstep, breakthrough TV ads or crystallizing moment on the campaign trail — in what already have been exceptionally fluid races. Iowans will caucus on Jan. 3.

“We’ve never had anything like this,” said David R. Nagle, a former congressman and past chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party, who has been tracking the caucuses since they gained national attention in 1972. “If you can find a three-headed coin, flip it. That’s about the best projection I can give you.”

While the approach of Christmas kept the candidates on relatively good behavior, especially in their warm-and-fuzzy TV spots, few expected their reluctance to attack to last.

“It’s probably going to be harder for them to restrain themselves,” said Peverill Squire, professor of political science at the University of Iowa. “They’ll be trying to draw more comparisons and contrasts among themselves.”

With just eight full days of campaigning left, Christmas amounted to little more than an extended dinner break for many of the White House candidates and their harried staffers.

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), who has taken up temporary residence in Des Moines, had the state to himself and spent part of the day ice-skating with his family and members of his campaign team.

But his monopoly ends this morning.

Clinton and her husband, former President Clinton, will join former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack and his wife, Christie, in the Vilsacks’ hometown in the southeast part of the state before the Clintons part ways to stump separately. Another Democrat, Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, begins his day in southwest Iowa, while Obama threads his way through the north. And Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware plans a rally tonight in Des Moines.

On the Republican side, Huckabee plans to start his day with a pheasant hunt in southern Iowa, and former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee will resume his bus tour a few towns over.

Text from the original article ommitted from the Grand Rapids Press version:

In all, eight candidates and two of their spouses will storm the state, according to the Iowa Democratic Party, which tracks campaign events by contenders from both major parties.

But that’s just a start.

Between now and the caucuses, every major presidential hopeful will visit Iowa, including three Republicans — Sen. John McCain of Arizona, former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas — who have spent comparatively little time here.

“The Republicans are starting to see you really can’t skip Iowa,” said Chuck Laudner, executive director of the state GOP.

New Hampshire holds the nation’s first primary, Jan. 8. Most analysts believe a candidate has to finish among the top three in either state to seriously compete in the contests that follow.

Edwards and Romney planned to campaign in New Hampshire today before resuming a full schedule of Iowa events Thursday.

The onslaught in Iowa reflects its centrality to the presidential contest, despite the efforts of politicians in more populous states — including Michigan, Florida and California — to cut it down to size by moving up their contests to January and early February. All that Iowa’s detractors managed to do was to elevate the state’s significance and add uncertainly by pushing the campaign into the heart of the holiday season.

“This is really a caucus like no other,” said Jeff Link, a longtime Iowa Democratic strategist and Edwards supporter. “Everyone feels they need to get in as many visits and events as they can between the 26th and the 3rd because it’s close. Everyone’s going to try to do everything they can in these closing days.”

The caucuses are precinct-level meetings that are the first step Iowa uses in allocating delegates to the summer national nominating conventions. But as the first gauge of voter sentiment, following a campaign that has raged for months, the results have assumed extraordinary political importance.

The caucuses have turned out to be Iowa’s most competitive since 1988 — perhaps ever.

Then, as now, there was no incumbent, resulting in hotly contested races on both sides. But in 1988 — when the caucuses were held Feb. 8 — there were clear front-runners in the polls: then-Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas on the Republican side and then-Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri in the Democratic race. Both held on to win as expected.

By contrast, Clinton, Edwards and Obama have all led in the Iowa polls and enjoyed front-runner status at different stages of the Democratic race The latest surveys, taken in aggregate, show the three just a few percentage points apart, with their support ranging from the low 20s for Edwards to the high 20s for Obama and Clinton.

“It seems there’s a rotation among them,” Nagle said. “One will have a good day and seem to surge ahead, then another will have a good day, and then another. They seem to reach a plateau and no one can break away from anyone else.”

On the Republican side, the race held steady for most of the year, with the richly funded Romney enjoying a comfortable lead. Huckabee, a favorite of Christian conservatives, climbed slowly through the summer and fall, then roared past Romney within the last month. The question is whether the Huckabee campaign, which has operated hand-to-mouth until recently, has the voter-turnout organization to capitalize on his strong showing in surveys.

An aggregate of surveys shows Huckabee’s support in the low 30s, Romney in the low 20s and the rest of the field much further back.

But the Republican race for third could prove nearly as consequential. McCain, Thompson and Giuliani are all looking to avoid an embarrassing finish that could harm their chances in New Hampshire and beyond.

Presidential candidates soften rhetoric for holiday

Analysis:

This Los Angeles Times story is based upon recent campaigning from both the GOP and Democratic candidates. What is meant by the headline? Is it clear from the article what is meant by “rhetoric”? The version that appeared in the Grand Rapids Press is shorter and mentions only one Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton. Of the GOP candidates, the article mentions McCain, Romney, and Huckabee. The only source cited in the story is a Clinton advisor who only addresses the campaign schedule and the holiday.

There is very little information in this story for voters who want to make an informed decision. The only issue that is addressed is funding for veterans by Clinton, who says that she wants to “improve care for military personnel and their families.” There are no details of how Clinton would support veterans and their families, nor is there a look at her voting record on this matter while in the Senate. The only issues raised by GOP candidates was a criticism by Romney of Huckabee’s record of pardoning criminals while Governor of Arkansas and Romney’s criticism of McCain for “failing to initially support President Bush’s tax cuts.” Are either of the criticisms by Romney clear to readers? Which tax cuts is the comment referring to? How does this story inform potential voters?

Story:

Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Rodham Clinton, during a Sunday stop at a sprawling veterans’ facility here, renewed her promise to improve care for military personnel and their families. Before leaving, she was presented with a fragile blue tree ornament and was mobbed by supporters as “A Holly Jolly Christmas” played in the background.

Christmas and campaigning were in constant juxtaposition over the weekend in Iowa and New Hampshire.

In past election cycles, political activity typically muted in the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. But the race to be first in the 2008 voting pushed Iowa’s caucuses to Jan. 3. New Hampshire’s primary is just five days later. The result has been a hectic, compressed holiday campaign season unlike any other.

“It’s a different calendar than any of us are used to,” Clinton advisor Ann Lewis said in Manchester, N.H., on Saturday. “The single biggest question for our camp, and probably every other camp, is: How do you campaign as intensely as you can — every minute that you can — and respect people’s sense of what they want to do for the holiday?”

On Sunday, the candidates seemed to temper their messages, mindful of alienating voters with harsh attacks on their rivals or with Christmastime phone calls pleading for support.

Republican hopefuls Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Mike Huckabee aired Christmas-themed ads on television, and Mitt Romney’s campaign temporarily pulled off the air a spot accusing Huckabee of being too free with granting pardons when he was governor of Arkansas.

On the trail, the candidates tried their best to blend their election arguments with holiday warmth.

In the Democratic race, Clinton attended a church service in Waterloo before stumping in Marshalltown, where she took a subtle jab at rivals Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards — without mentioning them by name.

Romney did criticize McCain directly during a Peterborough, N.H., town hall meeting Sunday for failing to initially support President Bush’s tax cuts.

Text from the original article ommitted from the Grand Rapids Press version:

Ann Romney, wearing a red jacket with red bows stitched on the pockets, introduced her husband by telling the audience that they had spent the morning at church, where she was inspired by a 12-year-old boy who told the congregation the best gift “to give the savior” was gratitude.

“No matter what faith tradition we come from, it is a time of year we can contemplate and think about what it is that we are grateful for,” she said. The fact that the former Massachusetts governor is a Mormon has hurt his campaign among evangelical Christians, a key part of the Republican base.

The timing of the Iowa caucuses has also meant sacrifices for campaign staffers, some of whom chose to remain in Des Moines for Christmas in order to go back to work come Wednesday.

“My mom was not happy,” said Bob Brennan, 25, who works for Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.).

“She was a little angry with Iowa.”

Dodd, who moved his family to Iowa for the campaign, is taking staffers ice skating for Christmas Eve and has invited them to his home for hot cocoa afterward.

Voters, who are getting two campaign-free days, said they are looking forward to it.

Nurse Denise Dvorak, 44, a committed Clinton supporter, took an hour out of her workday Sunday to see the New York senator speak at the Iowa Veterans Home. Still, Dvorak, whose mailbox has been overflowing with mailers and whose phone rings several times a day with campaign calls, said it’s only right for politicians to ease up during the holidays.

“It takes away from the meaning of Christmas when there’s so much political stuff going on,” the Garwin resident said.

“It’s very good to have Christmas Eve and Christmas Day to celebrate. The candidates get to spend time with their families too.”

US casts sole vote against UN budget

Analysis:

This Associated Press story is based on a United Nations vote on future funding. According to the story the US was the only country to vote against the budget because it objected “to funding for a follow-up to conference it considered anti-Israel.” The conference this statement is refering to was the 2001 World Conference Against Racism. There is no information on the content of that conference, only comments from a former Israeli foreign minister who said the conference “hosted the most racist speeches and proposals to be heard in an international forum since World War II.” Does this statement provide readers with any evidence that the 2001 conference was promoting racism? The only evidence in the story was that the US and Israel walked out on the conference “because of attacks on the Jewish state.” Is it clear from this statement what is meant by attacks on the Jewish state?

The only other person cited in the story is the UN Secretary General. So what does it mean when 141 nations voted to approve the budget and the US was the only dissenter? Unfortunately, the article does not pursue that question, nor does it provide any context for the US and Israeli opposition to the 2001 conference. One member of the US delegation to that conference has some interesting things to say about both Zionism and Israeli treatment of Palestinians. Another commentator who was at the conference was anti-racist activist and organizer Tim Wise. Wise is Jewish and provides an analysis of Zionism, which he believes is in violation of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. The basic definition of racism according to that document is “any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, color, descent, or national and ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.” Would any of this information have been useful to readers in understanding why the US was the only dissenting vote in the UN?

Story:

The General Assembly approved a two-year U.N. budget of $4.17 billion Saturday, with the United States casting the only “no” vote because of objections to funding for a follow-up to conference it considered anti-Israel.

The 142-1 vote in the 192-member world body climaxed weeks of discussions and an all-night session that failed to reach consensus because of the U.S. objections that the budget included $6.7 million for a follow-up to the 2001 World Conference Against Racism. Forty-nine countries did not have delegates in the chamber for the vote.

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said the insistence of some members of the Group of 77, which represents 132 mainly developing countries and China, to fund a follow-up conference from the U.N.’s regular budget made it impossible for the United States to support the overall budget proposal.

The United States and Israel walked out of the September 2001 conference in Durban, South Africa, because of attacks on the Jewish state. The European Union nearly walked out but stayed until the end.

Several months later, Israel’s then-deputy foreign minister, Michael Melchior, said the Durban conference “hosted the most racist speeches and proposals to be heard in an international forum since World War II.” He added that “the conference became the mouthpiece for a new and venal form of anti-Semitism.”

The budget is traditionally approved by consensus. But the United States demanded a vote in the General Assembly’s budget committee late Friday night because of the insistence of key developing nations that the conference be funded from the regular U.N. budget rather than by voluntary contributions.

In the budget committee balloting, the financial blueprint was approved 141-1 with only the United States opposing it.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed regret in a statement “that the resolution was not adopted by consensus, marking a break with tradition after 20 years.”

Text from the original article ommitted from the Grand Rapids Press version:

“The secretary-general urges all member states to return to consensus decision-making and to demonstrate a greater sense of flexibility and compromise, beyond individual national interests and in the common cause of multilateralism for the good of humankind,” the statement said.

In late November, Ban proposed a two-year budget of $4.2 billion, saying the small increase was not much in light of the growing demands on the United Nations to address a range of new and existing diplomatic and security challenges. It represented a 5 percent increase over the $3.8 billion budget for the years 2006 and 2007

Later, U.N. management chief Alicia Barcena said that because of inflation and exchange rates, by the time the money is actually used the budget is expected to rise to $4.4 billion. Khalilzad said that by U.S. calculations, Ban’s proposal was actually over $4.5 billion.

The United States, which pays 22 percent of the U.N.’s regular budget, made “a lot of progress” in bringing it down to about $4.2 billion Khalilzad said.

The U.S. also succeeded in getting the committee to extend the Procurement Task Force, which has been pursuing fraud and corruption in U.N. purchasing, for a year rather than six months, he said.

“If we had achieved our goal with Durban, then the prospect of our joining the consensus would have been excellent,” Khalilzad said.

The secretary-general didn’t get approval for two key requests — a new and more secure building in Baghdad for U.N. staff and offices, and funds to beef up the U.N. Department of Political Affairs and broaden its activities, including conflict prevention.

Khalilzad said these and other issues will be taken up in March, and could add additional costs to the budget.

The United States voiced objection during the negotiations to this, calling it a “piecemeal” approach where the final amount is still not known.

Unfinished business: Osama, Gitmo

Analysis:

This Associated Press story is based upon a Pentagon news conference with Defense Secretary Gates. In the AP story that appeared in the GR Press there were three issues that Defense Secretary Gates addressed – Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo, yet the Pentagon news conference shows that Gates addresses China, Iran, Pakistan and the Defense Budget. Why did the AP reporter only chose three issues to report on and not other aspects of the news conference? Defense Secretary Gates is the only person cited in this story and if you read the transcript from the news conference the comments cited in the AP story are identical to those from the conference. However, only selected comments were used. Why did the AP reporter chose these particular comments?

The story is framed in the very beginning by saying that “In a year marked by progress in Iraq,” yet the story provides no evidence that there has been progress in Iraq, nor how one defines what progress means. There are no other perspectives provided on Iraq, no partisan voices, academic, or Iraqi perspectives. In the section on Guantanamo Gates comes across as wanting to close the base, but says that legal issues have prevented this from happening. There is no context for the claim that Gates wants to close Guantanamo, nor any evidence that the Bush administration would allow that to happen. Why didn’t the reporter provide an independent perspective on Guatanamo, like the work that has been done by the Center for Constitutional Rights.

The last issue the AP article presents is capturing bin Laden and Afghanistan. Again, there is no information provided to verify the claims made by Gates. There are also no other perspectives in the US campaign in Afghanistan, such as those provided by the Revolutionary Association of Women in Afghanistan or critics of US policy in Afghanistan, like that of Tariq Ali.

Story:

In a year marked by progress in Iraq, Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Friday acknowledged two bits of unfinished business in his first 12 months on the job: He has yet to close the Guantanamo Bay prison or find Osama bin Laden.

Gates held out hope that if security gains hold, U.S. troop levels in Iraq can drop through next year. But with a nod to the increased attacks in parts of Afghanistan, he did not rule out a small uptick in U.S. troops there.

While Gates would not put a specific number on Iraq troop levels, he agreed a consistent reduction over the next 12 months would leave 10 brigades there—or roughly 100,000 troops—soon after American voters go to the polls for the 2008 presidential elections.

“My hope has been that the circumstances on the ground will continue to improve in a way that would—when General (David) Petraeus and the chiefs and Central Command do their analysis in March—allow a continuation of the drawdowns at roughly the same pace as the first half of the year,” he said during a Pentagon news conference.

Gates acknowledged he still has not found a way to overcome the legal obstacles and shut down the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention facility where 285 suspected terrorists are being held—some for as many as six years.

“I think that the principal obstacle has been resolving a lot of the legal issues associated with closing Guantanamo and what you do with the prisoners when they come back,” he said. “So, I would say that the honest answer is that because of some of these legal concerns … there has not been much progress in this respect.”

At the same time, U.S. military forces have not found bin Laden, the man responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

“We are continuing the hunt,” Gates said, adding that progress will be marked by the day when “the president goes out in front and says that we have either captured or killed him.”

Gates acknowledged that the U.S. is looking at adding a small number of forces in Afghanistan, where the U.S. already carries the largest share of the load with about 26,000 troops.

The U.S. has been pressing allies to increase their commitment there. Gates said that he is still looking for creative ways for them to do that—including meeting commanders needs for 3,500 more trainers, another 3,000 combat troops, and some helicopters.

There are 158,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. Plans call for reducing the 20 combat brigades to 15 by next summer. Five more could come out in the second half of the year, he said, if security gains continue.

One combat brigade that left Iraq this month became the first to not be replaced.

Text from the original article ommitted from the Grand Rapids Press version:

Asked if the U.S. will fill any of those troop requirements, he said the Pentagon “will be looking at the requirements ourselves. And we will be talking with our allies.”

A former CIA director, Gates took over the Pentagon last December after the embattled Donald Rumsfeld stepped down. Since then he has seen both victories and defeats.

Overall, however, Iraq dominated his year—with four trips to the warfront, an overhaul of his commanders, a shift in strategy and a battery of hearings and reviews.

“It was a year that began with a surge of troops in Iraq and has ended with a sharp decline in violence,” Gates said. “The war is far from over. And we must protect and build on the gains earned with the blood of our military, our allies and our Iraqi partners.”

Gates was cautiously optimistic about further troop reductions. But he said he regretted putting a specific number on that projection in September, when he expressed the hope that forces could drop to 100,000, by the end of 2008 if conditions in Iraq improved.

“We obviously want to sustain the gains that we have already made,” he said, adding that the capacity of Iraqi forces to bear more of the security burden and the ability of the Iraqi government to run the country are key to how quickly U.S. forces can leave.

Asked about the possibility of political reforms in Iraq, Gates said the country’s leaders “are committed to getting it done. We’ll see if they get it done.”

The progress in Afghanistan has been mixed, Gates said, noting that violence increased as the coalition forces launched more aggressive attacks against the insurgents. Al-Qaida also has stepped up its activities.

He said he was told Friday morning that there has been a 40 percent drop in cross-border attacks in eastern Afghanistan over the last six months.

Gates also signaled a small, if temporary, victory on Friday, saying that because Congress recently passed legislation providing $70 billion for combat operations, there will be no layoff notices sent out during the holiday season. That possibility had loomed until Congress passed the spending bill.

Still, he warned that paying for the wars in Iraq in Afghanistan in fits and starts undermines military planning and risks the gains made by American troops.

And noting that the funding is less than half that requested by the president, Gates said the layoffs and cutbacks may resurface in a few months.

Iraq tells refugees to delay return

Analysis:

This Washington Post story ran in the Grand Rapids Press as 2 separate stories on Iraq. The story begins by focusing on the Iraqi refugee crisis and quotes an Iraqi official who says that Iraq can not handle a hug influx of refugees at the present. The way the Press restructured the article in then states that the Iraqi government just signed an agreement that “called a final one-year extension of authorization for U.S.-led forces to stay in Iraq.” The story then jumps to an announcement that there was a US soldier killed, then back to a program “to assist about 30,000 refugees and internally displaced people” in Baghdad that was being led by the United nations.

The second story in the Press that was part of the original single Washington Post story is about a new video message from one of the insurgent groups in Iraq, the Shiite Islamic Resistance. The story states that they are holding hostage a man with a British accent and will “kill the captive in 10 days unless British troops withdrew from Iraq, apologized to the Iraqi people and ended the presence of “fake companies and organizations” that “devour the body of Iraq and Iraqis.”

Why did the Press break this Washington Post article into two separate stories? In the section about the refugees not much information is provided as to the current situation of Iraqi refugees that the United Nations Refugee Agency has been monitoring. Would it have been useful for readers to have information about the scope of the Iraqi refugee crisis, the numbers and where they are located? The story sources an Iraqi official who says that they can not handle Iraqis who want to return, but what the article doesn’t report is that despite the Iraq governments unwillingness to accept returnees, Iraqis are coming back by the hundreds, especially from Syria.

Then there is the section about the new Iraqi insurgent group who has taken a hostage and sent a new video message. The article does quote the insurgent groups’ motives for the hostage taking, but there is no additional information that would provide some context for this action. In many ways this story, even though begins with the focus being Iraqi refugees, quickly shifts to and only personalizes a US soldier killed and a British hostage. This kind of news reporting is continuing what unembedded reporter in Iraq, Dahr Jamal, has noted in a recent column that “Iraq Has Only Militants, No Civilians.” Why is it that the Iraqi refugees, which are civilians, not humanized in this news story, but a British hostage is?

Story:

The Iraqi government on Tuesday urged some refugees not to go back to their homes yet, saying the country was unprepared to accommodate their return.

“The reality is that we cannot handle a huge influx of people,” Abdul Samad al-Sultan, the minister of displacement and migration, said at a news conference to announce a joint plan with the United Nations to help returning Iraqis. “The refugees in some countries, we ask them to wait.”

The acknowledgment came as the Iraqi cabinet asked the United Nations for what the government called a final one-year extension of authorization for U.S.-led forces to stay in Iraq. But in a newly released video, insurgents threatened to kill a British hostage unless the United Kingdom withdrew its forces.

The U.S. military announced that a U.S. soldier was killed by an explosion Monday in Anbar province. Two other service members were reported wounded.

Meanwhile in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, Iraqi and U.N. officials launched a program to assist about 30,000 refugees and internally displaced people, or IDPs, by giving them support packages and repair kits. The aid will be delivered by the United Nations, which will support the program with an initial contribution of $11 million.

The world body estimates that 40,000 refugees and 10,000 internally displaced people have returned to their homes, primarily in the Baghdad area. But it said it was “not encouraging or promoting the return of refugees or IDPs.”

Second Story in the Grand Rapids Press

In the video, aired Tuesday on al-Arabiya television, masked men holding assault rifles flanked one of five British citizens kidnapped from the Finance Ministry in Baghdad in May.

“Hello, my name is Jason and today is the 18th of November,” said a man with a British accent who was seated on the ground wearing a tan jumpsuit. “I have been here now held for 173 days and I feel we have been forgotten.”

The group, called the Shiite Islamic Resistance in Iraq, said it would kill the captive in 10 days unless British troops withdrew from Iraq, apologized to the Iraqi people and ended the presence of “fake companies and organizations” that “devour the body of Iraq and Iraqis.”

British officials declined to identify the men, a computer instructor and four bodyguards, or comment further about the kidnapping, saying further publicity would jeopardize behind-the-scenes work to secure their release.

Text from the original article ommitted from the Grand Rapids Press version:

“We condemn the publication of the video and we regard it as extremely unhelpful and distressing to the families,” said Mark Bell, a spokesman for the British Embassy in Baghdad.

But Iraqi officials said U.S. and British troops needed to remain in Iraq, and the cabinet voted to ask the United Nations to authorize the U.S.-led forces to remain in the country until the end of next year, according to government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh.

“The renewal of this mandate will protect Iraq,” said Dabbagh, who added that the cabinet vote did not need ratification by parliament. “There was really almost no discussion about it by the cabinet.”

Also Tuesday, in the oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk, an Arab political bloc ended its year-long boycott of the provincial council, a step toward reconciliation sought by U.S. officials. Members of the Iraqi Republican Gathering agreed to return to the council in exchange for Arabs receiving nearly a third of the positions in local government.

“This is a big achievement for Kirkuk and brotherhood and peaceful living together,” said Razgar ali Hamajan, a Kurd who is head of the Kirkuk provincial council.

Sultan, the minister of displacement and migration, said the Iraqi government has allocated $100 million to help returning families and an additional $10 million to provide food for them.