Dispatches > The Buzz

The Buzz

Issue: "Homeland insecurity," Nov. 10, 2001

Needling the boss
As White House aides underline the need for the Senate to confirm their drug czar nominee, John Walters, to better address the problem of drug trafficking out of Afghanistan, another Bush czar is sounding a very different message on drugs. In an interview with the Wisconsin gay newspaper In Step, openly gay AIDS czar Scott Evertz said that needle-exchange programs-offering free needles to drug addicts to avoid infection-are "saving lives and the evidence is conclusive." He added: "I'm in the process of gathering the information that I need to substantiate [my support] through clinical studies." White House aides wouldn't comment on the question: Why is this presidential appointee trying to assemble evidence that the boss is wrong? Mr. Evertz is dramatically at odds with President Bush, who told the AIDS Foundation of Chicago during his campaign that he would not support "misguided efforts to weaken drug laws ... needle exchange programs signal nothing but abdication." He also called it "a dead-end approach that offers despair and addiction." HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson declared earlier this year that there would be no change in the Clinton policy of no federal funding for needle-exchange programs. One GOP House aide who met with Mr. Evertz earlier this year is very disappointed: "Donna Shalala didn't go so far as to support federal funding for needle exchanges, but now Bush's top AIDS official does." The controversy didn't end there. Mr. Evertz told an Associated Press reporter, "The average American isn't at a point where they can endorse gay marriage or domestic partnerships-the president isn't endorsing those concepts at this point." Conservatives asked: At this point? Peter LaBarbera, a senior policy analyst with the Culture and Family Institute, says Mr. Evertz's loose lips might serve a purpose: "Maybe the administration will learn that there are political risks to this embrace of the Log Cabin Republicans," of which Mr. Evertz was a member before his appointment. BUSH URGES ECONOMIC RELIEF, BUT WILL HIS ARSENIC RULES POISON THE STIMULUS?
'Get something done'
The day government statisticians released data showing the economy shrank 0.4 percent in the third quarter, President Bush urged Congress to approve a full-strength stimulus package to help dilute the poisonous effects of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the wobbly economy. "Get to work and get something done," the president demanded of lawmakers, setting a deadline of the end of the month because of the economic distress. Later that day, the Environmental Protection Agency outlined a startling policy reversal that could dilute any stimulus: The administration would adopt a clean-water standard that would saddle local governments with as much as $5 billion in compliance costs. The standard would lower acceptable arsenic levels from 50 parts per billion to 10 ppb-about one drop per 1,000 gallons-in drinking water. STEMMING STEM-CELL MOMENTUM
Veto bait
As Sens. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) prepared to ramp up the pressure to fund more embryo-destroying stem-cell research, President Bush quickly moved to put a stop to it. The administration put out a statement backing an amendment to the Labor-HHS appropriations bill that forbids federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research. (The amendment makes the president's distinction of opposing research funding for killing embryos, instead of stem-cell lines from previously destroyed embryos.) If the Senate tried to repeal the House amendment, the statement says "the president's senior advisors would recommend that he veto the bill." INTERNATIONAL E-MAIL SCAM TARGETS NONPROFIT ORGANIZATIONS
Too good to be true? Then it probably isn't
When Jeff Grisamore opened his morning e-mail last month he was thrilled to learn that his Missouri-based ministry was due to receive a $1.8 million gift. According to the message, Mr. Grisamore's international orphan care organization, Children of Promise, was the charitable designate in the estate of a recently deceased doctor. The only complication was that the will was being probated in Nigeria and would require a local attorney for legal representation. After a series of inquiries that eventually led to the U.S. Secret Service, Mr. Grisamore discovered the charitable gift was part of an international scam with hundreds-possibly thousands-of similarly situated charities. "We thought the bequest was a provision from God," said Mr. Grisamore, whose donation income was dropping as fast as the stock market and tanked after 9/11 attacks redirected charitable dollars to New York victims. Nonprofits like his were ripe for a scam, according to the U.S. Secret Service, which investigates money fraud for the U.S. Treasury. The agency has dubbed this the "4-1-9 Scam." "4-1-9" is a reference to the statutory section in Nigerian law that addresses fraud schemes. Secret Service special agent Greg Williams told WORLD, "Nigerian scams have reached epidemic proportions. Hundreds of charities, individuals, and businesses are being defrauded every day." As a result, a special task force has been set up to respond to the 300-500 daily telephone calls and pieces of mail from victims of Nigerian-based frauds. The 4-1-9 schemes take many forms although all follow a similar pattern. An individual, company, or charity receives a letter, fax, or e-mail from an "official" government representative, banker, or attorney in Nigeria. Their offer involves millions of dollars. The intended victim receives urgent communiqués assuring the legitimate nature of the financial deal, yet pleading secrecy. The scheme typically involves disbursement of money from a will, real-estate ventures, purchases of crude oil at reduced prices, conversion of hard currency, or unclaimed foreign bank accounts. The victim is enticed to believe he has been singled out to share in a multimillion-dollar windfall profit. As it progresses, the victim is asked to pay advance fees or taxes. In some instances, victims are asked to provide the scammers with their personal bank account numbers. Once the victim gives away his bank account information, the scammer plunders it. In some cases, victims are asked to travel to Nigeria to personally complete transactions. As a result, the United States Embassy in Lagos, the capital, annually receives dozens of distress calls from American citizens caught up in 4-1-9 scams. Mr. Williams says the Secret Service believes at least 1,000 scammers are in business in Nigeria. "Indications are that these Nigerian scams are grossing hundreds of millions of dollars annually. The scams are effective because they appeal to one of human nature's basic failings-greed." -by Greg Dabel WESTERN PRISONERS IN AFGHANISTAN SAID TO BE ALIVE, BUT TRIAL REMAINS ON HOLD
Prisoners of war?
Western relief workers entered their fourth month in captivity by Afghanistan's down-but-not-quite-out Taliban regime. Taliban guards began transferring the eight prisoners to a bunker during nighttime bombing runs by U.S.-led forces. The new arrangement, according to a Compass Direct source, requires them to sit "at close quarters" from 6:00 every evening until late morning the next day. The prisoners include two men and six women; two of the women are Americans. Taliban officials vowed to protect their captives, but they did not promise to grant them due process. The workers, employees with the German aid group Shelter Now, are charged with trying to convert Muslims to Christianity. Trial proceedings are at a standstill, according to defense lawyer Atif Ali Khan, who has made three trips to Kabul in attempts to resolve the cases. Two of the trips came after U.S. air strikes began, and Mr. Khan was one of only two guests at the capital's Intercontinental Hotel. All eight prisoners, Mr. Khan reported, have spoken to their families by telephone. MILOSEVIC TRIAL TO OPEN IN FEBRUARY
Facing the music
The war-crimes trial of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic will begin on Feb. 12, 2002, at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. The trial is set to center on events in Kosovo and will include testimony from more than 200 witnesses. But a new indictment issued last week charges Mr. Milosevic with war crimes during the 1991-92 conflict in Croatia, and the tribunal announced it also will issue additional charges covering the war in Bosnia. A new version of the bomb threat
Abuse of powder
James Vasselli placed an envelope containing sugar on a fellow Cook County, Ill., prosecutor's desk. The return address was one of his defendants. After firefighters and a hazardous materials team were called out, he admitted being behind the hoax and resigned. Similar anthrax hoaxes have popped up across the country, shutting down a post office near Louisville, a Home Depot in Philadelphia, the Queen Mary ocean liner, and a GM assembly line in Flint, Mich. Attorney General John Ashcroft called the scams "grotesque transgressions of the public trust" and vowed to prosecute perpetrators. In Old Lycoming Township, Pa., firefighter Steve Welch claimed he had opened an envelope and white powder spilled out. A hazardous materials team rushed to his house. He watched silently as his 9-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter were stripped naked in freezing weather and hosed down in a 4-by-10-foot plastic decontamination hut set up in the family's driveway. Twelve hours later, Mr. Welch confessed to police that there never was any powder. James Janik, chief psychologist at Chicago's Cook County Juvenile Detention Center, said fakers tend to fall in certain categories: vandals, thrill-seekers, revenge-seekers, opportunists, the insane, and people trying to cover up other acts. "It used to be a month ago that people would send a bomb threat either by telephone or potentially by mail," he said. "Well, now they can do the anthrax and get even more of a visceral response." Retailers try to lure Americans back into stores
Hunkered in the bunker
Will the soft sell soothe Americans back into buying? Many retailers hope so. Stores are responding to the national crisis by putting away their hip and flashy style this year for a warm and fuzzy approach. Big-ticket luxury items are out and basic home and relaxation items are in. Since the attacks, Americans have been eating more at home, spending more time with family and friends, and leaving work on time, according to a survey by Arnold Worldwide, a Boston-based advertising agency. Consumers are turning to so-called "cocooning merchandise." Arts and crafts products, for example, are selling well these days. Some stores are tinkering with their in-house atmospheres. Proffits, a chain in the Southeast, plans to use soothing classic holiday tunes instead of contemporary music, while the Bergdorf Goodman department store is offering children's book readings. "We want a more cozy Christmas. We want our customers to feel our store is a safe haven," said Robert Burke, vice president of fashion at Bergdorf Goodman. The goal: Lure shell-shocked Americans back into the marketplace. "The terrorist attacks have created a 'bunker mentality' among consumers who are more centered on the home, shopping less often, and spending less freely," wrote Merrill Lynch analyst Daniel Barry in a report. TV networks cut back
Facing reality
As with the rest of the economy, Hollywood is hurting. Plunging ad revenues are forcing cutbacks in programming and payrolls, with Viacom announcing last week that it will lay off 450 employees from its cable networks group that includes MTV, TNN, and Nickelodeon. At the broadcast networks, more reality shows are in the works simply because they are inexpensive to make, even though the entire genre sank after Sept. 11. Although ratings are down, for example, CBS already plans to air a fourth run of Survivor next year. Meanwhile, NBC is testing out a new way to raise money through e-commerce. When certain products appear on the network's shows, a short ad will direct viewers to Amazon.com to purchase the products. NBC will receive a cut of each sale and will collect data based on who bought what during different shows. The test runs through the end of the year and may become a permanent fixture at the Peacock Network. Another sign of the times is that New York-based talk shows are having a hard time finding guests due to the terrorist attacks. Ratings for David Letterman have skyrocketed even as celebrities like Drew Barrymore and Heather Graham dropped out and less flashy guests like Walter Cronkite and historian Stephen Ambrose were added.

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