Friday, November 03, 2006

Report Pentagon Stepping Up Plans for Pre-Emptive Strikes Against North Korea Nuke Facilities

Yongbyon Plutonium Processing Plant Among Targets; U.S. Also Boosting Its Own Nuke Forces in East Asian Region

By Bill Gertz
The Washington Times

The Pentagon has stepped up planning for attacks against North Korea's nuclear program and is bolstering nuclear forces in Asia, said defense officials familiar with the highly secret process.

The officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the accelerated military planning includes detailed programs for striking a North Korean plutonium-reprocessing facility at Yongbyon with special operations commando raids or strikes with Tomahawk cruise missiles or other precision-guided weapons.

The effort, which had been under way for several months, was given new impetus by Pyongyang's underground nuclear test October 9 and growing opposition to the nuclear program of Kim Jong-il's communist regime, especially by China and South Korea.

Use of U.S. Nukes Against N. Korea "On the Table," Pentagon Official Says

A Pentagon official said the Department of Defense is considering "various military options" to remove the program.

"Other than nuclear strikes, which are considered excessive, there are several options now in place. Planning has been accelerated," the official said.

A second, senior defense official privy to the effort said the Bush administration recently affirmed its commitment to both South Korea and Japan that it would use U.S. nuclear weapons to deter North Korea, now considered an unofficial nuclear weapon state.

"We will resort to whatever force levels we need to have, to defend the Republic of [South] Korea. That nuclear deterrence is in place," said the senior official, who declined to reveal what nuclear forces are deployed in Asia.

Other officials said the forces include bombs and air-launched missiles stored at Guam, a U.S. island in the western Pacific, that could be delivered by B-52 or B-2 bombers. Nine U.S. nuclear-missile submarines regularly deploy to Asian waters from Washington state.

Options Being Discussed Include Use of Navy SEALs, Tomahawk Cruise Missiles

The officials said one military option calls for teams of Navy SEALs or other special operations commandos to conduct covert raids on Yongbyon's plutonium-reprocessing facility.

The commandos would blow up the facility to prevent further reprocessing of the spent fuel rods, which provides the material for developing nuclear weapons.

A second option calls for strikes by precision-guided Tomahawk missiles on the reprocessing plant from submarines or ships. The plan calls for simultaneous strikes from various sides to minimize any radioactive particles being carried away in the air.

Planners estimate that six Tomahawks could destroy the reprocessing plant and that it would take five to 10 years to rebuild.

Asked about the strike planning, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the U.S. government is seeking a "peaceful, diplomatic solution" to the threat posed by North Korea.

Regarding any military options, Whitman said, "The U.S. military is prepared and capable of carrying out all of its assigned missions."

China's Growing Impatience with Pyongyang a Factor in Stepped-Up Military Planning

The planning does not mean that the United States will attack, only that military forces are ready to do so if President Bush orders strikes. Concerned about threats from rogue states such as North Korea, Bush has called for a ballistic missile defense system, parts of which are operational.

Defense officials said a key factor in the ramped-up planning effort is China's new attitude toward North Korea. Beijing's leaders, upset that North Korea conducted the test, supported a U.S.-led United Nations' resolution.

Chinese opposition to military action had limited defense planning, the officials said. In the past, U.S. military plans required warning Beijing, a move considered likely to compromise any planned action because of the close military ties between China and North Korea.

The Bush administration regards the new level of Chinese support as a "green light" for more aggressive military planning.

U.S. officials think North Korea will conduct another underground test soon because Pyongyang is demanding to be recognized as a declared nuclear power. Both China and the U.S. gauged the test as only partially successful.

Yongbyon Plant, Kilchu Test Site Prime Targets

The Yongbyon plant, 32 miles from the coast and a half-mile from a river, is considered a key target because U.S. intelligence agencies suspect that it is where the plutonium fuel used in the October 9 test was produced.

Defense planners also said equipment destroyed at Yongbyon would be difficult to replace once newly approved U.N. sanctions are in place.

Another set of targets could be the nuclear test site near Kilchu, in northeastern North Korea. That site includes several research and testing-control facilities in the mountains -- and possibly one more tunnel where a nuclear device could be set off, the officials said.

Recent intelligence reports also provided new information about Pyongyang's uranium-enrichment program, which remains hidden in underground facilities in northern North Korea, the officials said.

The U.S. Special Operations Command has been planning raids against North Korean nuclear facilities for some time. It has conducted training for joint operations with South Korean special forces as well as unilateral U.S. operations.

U.S. Pacific Command spokesman Capt. Jeff Alderson declined to comment on military planning but said the command is continuing to shift forces to the Pacific and has four missile-defense ships deployed in Japan.

The president said recently that any transfer of nuclear weapons by North Korea would be a "grave threat," phrasing viewed as diplomatic code for a military response. Defense officials said the military option will be used if North Korea is caught transferring nuclear arms to other states or terrorist groups.

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Friday News Extra Copyright 2006, News World Communications Inc.
"The 'Skeeter Bites Report" Copyright 2006, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.


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Monday, October 30, 2006

No Matter Who Wins the Election, America Must Face Up to a Looming Fiscal Disaster Over Health Care

While Iraq War, Terrorism and Capitol Hill Scandals Dominate the Campaign, Almost Nobody's Paying Attention to the Ticking Medicare Financial Time Bomb

* * *

NOTE TO READERS: As the battle for control of Congress enters its final week, this blogger was jolted by the following article, which I decided to post this week in place of my regular commentary. You might want to save and/or print it and send it to your member of Congress or U.S. senator in the not-too-distant future.

-- Skeeter Sanders

* * *

By Matt Crenson
The Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas -- David Walker sure talks like he's running for office. "This is about the future of our country, our kids and grandkids," the comptroller general of the United States warns a packed hall at Austin's historic Driskill Hotel. "We the people have to rise up to make sure things get changed."

But Walker doesn't want, or need, your vote this November. He already has a job as the comptroller general -- the head of the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress that audits and evaluates the performance of the federal government.

Basically, that makes Walker the nation's accountant-in-chief. And the accountant-in-chief's professional opinion is that the American public needs to tell Washington it's time to steer the nation off the path to financial ruin.

From the hustings and the airwaves this campaign season, America's political class can be heard debating Capitol Hill sex scandals, the wisdom of the war in Iraq and which party is tougher on terror. Democrats and Republicans talk of cutting taxes to make life easier for the American people.

America Heading Toward a Medicare $$$ Crisis as Baby Boomers Approach Retirement Age

What they don't talk about is a dirty little secret everyone in Washington knows, or at least should. The vast majority of economists and budget analysts agree: The ship of state is on a disastrous course, and will founder on the reefs of economic disaster if nothing is done to correct it.

There's a good reason politicians don't like to talk about the nation's long-term fiscal prospects. The subject is short on political theatrics and long on complicated economics, scary graphs and very big numbers. It reveals serious problems and offers no easy solutions.

Anybody who wanted to deal with it seriously would have to talk about raising taxes and cutting benefits -- nasty nostrums that might doom any candidate who prescribed them.

"There's no sexiness to it," laments Leita Hart-Fanta, an accountant who has just heard Walker's pitch. She suggests recruiting a trusted celebrity — maybe Oprah — to sell fiscal responsibility to the American people.

GAO Chief: A "Demographic Tsunami" is Coming -- And Sooner Than You Think

Walker doesn't want to make balancing the federal government's books sexy — he just wants to make it politically palatable. He has committed to touring the nation through the 2008 elections, talking to anybody who will listen about the fiscal black hole Washington has dug itself, the "demographic tsunami" that will come when the baby boom generation begins retiring and the recklessness of borrowing money from foreign lenders to pay for the operation of the U.S. government.

"He can speak forthrightly and independently because his job is not in jeopardy if he tells the truth," said Isabel V. Sawhill, a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution.

Walker can talk in public about the nation's impending fiscal crisis because he has one of the most secure jobs in Washington. As comptroller general of the United States — basically, the government's chief accountant — he is serving a 15-year term that runs through 2013.

This year Walker has spoken to the Union League Club of Chicago and the Rotary Club of Atlanta, the Sons of the American Revolution and the World Future Society. But the backbone of his campaign has been the Fiscal Wake-up Tour, a traveling roadshow of economists and budget analysts who share Walker's concern for the nation's budgetary future.

"You can't solve a problem until the majority of the people believe you have a problem that needs to be solved," Walker says.

Polls: Public Largely Unaware of Coming Crisis

Polls suggest that Americans have only a vague sense of their government's long-term fiscal prospects. When pollsters ask Americans to name the most important problem facing America today — as a CBS News/New York Times poll of 1,131 Americans did in September — issues such as the war in Iraq, terrorism, jobs and the economy are most frequently mentioned. The deficit doesn't even crack the top 10.

Yet on the rare occasions that pollsters ask directly about the deficit, at least some people appear to recognize it as a problem. In a survey of 807 Americans last year by the Pew Center for the People and the Press, 42 percent of respondents said reducing the deficit should be a top priority; another 38 percent said it was important but a lower priority.

So the majority of the public appears to agree with Walker that the deficit is a serious problem -- but only when they're made to think about it. Walker's challenge is to get people not just to think about it, but to pressure politicians to make the hard choices that are needed to keep the situation from spiraling out of control.

Problem Defies Party Labels -- And So Must Solving It

To show that the looming fiscal crisis is not a partisan issue, he brings along economists and budget analysts from across the political spectrum. In Austin, he's accompanied by Diane Lim Rogers, a liberal economist from the Brookings Institution, and Alison Acosta Fraser, director of the Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

"We all agree on what the choices are and what the numbers are," Fraser says.

Their basic message is this: If the United States government conducts business as usual over the next few decades, a national debt that is already $8.5 trillion could reach $46 trillion or more, adjusted for inflation. That's almost as much as the total net worth of every person in America — Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and those Google guys included.

A hole that big could paralyze the U.S. economy; according to some projections, just the interest payments on a debt that big would be as much as all the taxes the government collects today.

And every year that nothing is done about it, Walker says, the problem grows by $2 trillion to $3 trillion.

Ross Perot's 1992 Warning Is Coming Back to Bite Us

People who remember Ross Perot's rants in the 1992 presidential election may think of the federal debt as a problem of the past. But it never really went away after Perot made it an issue, it only took a breather.

The federal government actually produced a surplus for a few years during the 1990s, thanks to a booming economy and fiscal restraint imposed by laws that were passed early in the decade.

And though the federal debt has grown in dollar terms since 2001, it hasn't grown dramatically relative to the size of the economy. But that's about to change, thanks to the country's three big entitlement programs, Social Security, Medicaid -- and especially Medicare.

Medicaid and Medicare have grown progressively more expensive as the cost of health care has dramatically outpaced inflation over the past 30 years, a trend that is expected to continue for at least another decade or two.

And with the first baby boomers becoming eligible for Social Security in 2008 and for Medicare in 2011, the expenses of those two programs are about to increase dramatically due to demographic pressures. People are also living longer, which makes any program that provides benefits to retirees more expensive.

Medicare already costs four times as much as it did in 1970, measured as a percentage of the nation's gross domestic product. It currently comprises 13 percent of federal spending; by 2030, the Congressional Budget Office projects it will consume nearly a quarter of the budget.

Forget Social Security -- It's Medicare that Threatens to Bankrupt the Nation

Economists Jagadeesh Gokhale of the American Enterprise Institute and Kent Smetters of the University of Pennsylvania have an even scarier way of looking at Medicare. Their method calculates the program's long-term fiscal shortfall — the annual difference between its dedicated revenues and costs — over time.

By 2030 they calculate Medicare will be about $5 trillion in the hole, measured in 2004 dollars. By 2080, the fiscal imbalance will have risen to $25 trillion. And when you project the gap out to an infinite time horizon, it reaches $60 trillion.

Medicare so dominates the nation's fiscal future that some economists believe health care reform, rather than budget measures, is the best way to attack the problem.

"Obviously, health care is a mess," says Dean Baker, a liberal economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a Washington think tank. "No one's been willing to touch it, but that's what I see as front and center."

Social Security is a much less serious problem. The program currently pays for itself with a 12.4 percent payroll tax, and even produces a surplus that the government raids every year to pay other bills. But Social Security will begin to run deficits during the next century, and ultimately would need an infusion of $8 trillion if the government planned to keep its promises to every beneficiary.

Calculations by Boston University economist Lawrence Kotlikoff indicate that closing those gaps — $8 trillion for Social Security, many times that for Medicare — and paying off the existing deficit would require either an immediate doubling of personal and corporate income taxes, a two-thirds cut in Social Security and Medicare benefits, or some combination of the two, whether politicians and the public like it or not.

We're a Nation On the Fiscal Brink -- And Most Americans Don't Know It

Why is America so fiscally unprepared for the next century? Like many of its citizens, the United States has spent the last few years racking up debt instead of saving for the future. Foreign lenders — primarily the central banks of China, Japan and other big U.S. trading partners — have been eager to lend the government money at low interest rates, making the current $8.5-trillion deficit about as painful as a big balance on a zero-percent credit card.

In her part of the fiscal wake-up tour presentation, Rogers tries to explain why that's a bad thing. For one thing, even when rates are low a bigger deficit means a greater portion of each tax dollar goes to interest payments rather than useful programs. And because foreigners now hold so much of the federal government's debt, those interest payments increasingly go overseas rather than to U.S. investors.

More serious is the possibility that foreign lenders might lose their enthusiasm for lending money to the United States. Because treasury bills are sold at auction, that would mean paying higher interest rates in the future. And it wouldn't just be the government's problem. All interest rates would rise, making mortgages, car payments and student loans costlier, too.

A modest rise in interest rates wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing, Rogers said. America's consumers have as much of a borrowing problem as their government does, so higher rates could moderate overconsumption and encourage consumer saving.

But a big jump in interest rates could cause economic catastrophe (That's already happening with adjustable-rate home mortgages, forcing a sharp increase in homeowners taking drastic steps -- including bankruptcy -- to stave off foreclosure and making it harder for other property owners to sell their properties).

Some economists even predict the government would resort to printing money to pay off its debt, a risky strategy that could lead to runaway inflation -- as it did in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Fiscal Armageddon: Taxes Must Be Raised or Benefits Must Be Cut -- Or Both

Macroeconomic meltdown is probably preventable, says Anjan Thakor, a professor of finance at Washington University in St. Louis. But to keep it at bay, he said, the government is essentially going to have to renegotiate some of the promises it has made to its citizens, probably by some combination of tax increases and benefit cuts.

But there's no way to avoid what Rogers considers the worst result of racking up a big deficit — the outrage of making our children and grandchildren repay the debts of their elders.

"It's an unfair burden for future generations," she says.

You'd think young people would be riled up over this issue, since they're the ones who will foot the bill when they're out in the working world. But students take more interest in issues like the Iraq war and gay marriage than the federal government's finances, says Emma Vernon, a member of the University of Texas Young Democrats.

"It's not something that can fire people up," she says.

The current political climate doesn't help. Washington tends to keep its fiscal house in better order when one party controls Congress and the other is in the White House, says Sawhill.

"It's kind of a paradoxical result. Your common-sense logic would tell you if one party is in control of everything they should be able to take action," Sawhill says.

Believe It or Not, We're Better Off With a Divided Government

The last six years of one-party rule under the Republicans have produced record tax cuts, record spending increases and a Medicare prescription drug plan that has been widely criticized as fiscally unsound. When President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, spent six of his eight years in the White House facing a Republican-controlled Congress, spending limits and other legislative tools helped produce a surplus.

So maybe a solution is at hand.

"We're likely to have at least partially divided government again," Sawhill said, referring to predictions that after next week's election, President Bush, a Republican, will spend his final two years in office having to deal with, at the very least, a divided Congress, with Democrats contolling the House and Republicans controlling the Senate -- or, at the most, with a Congress under the full control of the Democrats.

(A government divided, with one party in control of the White House and the other party in control of the Congress, means that both parties must cooperate in order to get anything done. It's also a bulwark against implementaion of the radical agendas of the hard-line ideologues of both parties that are far outside the American mainstream.)

(More importantly, a divided government is precisely what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they established in the Constitution the system of checks and balances between the three branches of government.)

Getting Our Fiscal House In Order Will Be Up to the Next President

But Walker isn't optimistic that the government will be able to tackle its fiscal challenges so soon.

"Realistically, what we hope to accomplish through the fiscal wake-up tour is ensure that any serious candidate for the presidency in 2008 will be forced to deal with the issue," he says. "The best we're going to get in the next couple of years is to slow the bleeding."

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Volume I, Number 50
Special Report Copyright 2006, The Associated Press.
"The 'Skeeter Bites Report" Copyright 2006, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.


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