Essential Reading

The CIA’s World Factbook. Want to know how many cell phones there are on the South Seas island nation of Vanuatu, population 202,609 (not including the marooned cast and crew of Survivor)? Can’t remember which equatorial African nation El Hadj Omar Bongo rules with an iron fist? Don’t have a clue about the Ashmore and Cartier Islands (hint: they’re near Australia)? The answers, and more, free from the CIA, in unbiased and sometimes surprisingly unvarnished prose. And you thought that the agency was useless.

"Why Do I Have To Pay Taxes?" IRS. A soupçon of guile, lawlessness and loopiness, which includes notes on "how filing a Form 1040 violates the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination" and on "taking a vow of poverty" to avoid taxation. and

The House Ethics Committee Memorandum reprimanding the shady Congressional Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas. Read it, and a few accompanying documents, and see how your elected representatives make a hash of propriety. The sordid trail begins with DeLay’s second censure in one week by the House for selling access and ends when the Ethics Committee issues a mind-boggling rebuke of Representative Chris Bell, a Texas Democrat, for having the nerve to raise the misconduct allegations against the crooked GOP leader. In between, see the House Republicans jettison their own rules so that DeLay can stay on as House majority leader even if he is indicted in Texas for campaign-finance violations.

The Federal Procurement Data System. The old adage "follow the money" still applies. The FPDS, maintained by the U.S. General Services Administration, includes all federal contracts worth more than $25,000. In the most recent data available, for the 2003 fiscal year, there are 692,966 contracts documented, worth more than $290 billion. That’s a lot of money, and a lot of data, including all those weaselly no-bid contracts in Iraq the Pentagon granted Dick Cheney and friends.

The Congressional Budget Office report "The Outlook for Social Security." A bland title, issued last June, that disappeared but packs a wallop. The Social Security shortfall isn’t as large as Republicans make out, undercutting the president’s prime argument for privatizing (i.e., pulverizing) your retirement. Too bad John Kerry couldn’t have put it so simply.

The Pledge Protection Act of 2004. This legislation aims to keep "under God" where it has been since 1954 — when it was added to distinguish ourselves from the Godless Soviet Union. It seemed back then God needed some assurances. This year’s bill, which passed the House on September 23, would prevent federal courts from mucking around with the invocation of the Almighty, who’s evidently been won to our side by -millions of sincere schoolchildren uttering His name for 50 consecutive years.

Random readings of congressional hearings transcripts. A sample gem: Senator Rick Santorum (R-Pennsylvania), last May, expounding on the benefits of marriage. "In fact, is marriage a public good that government can just simply choose to continue to ignore, or is it something that is a public good that we should cease to be neutral on and try to, in fact, encourage, support and enhance as something that is beneficial to children?" Is this a multiple-choice question? Can the Honorable Gentleman speak English? Can a marriage be beneficial if a couple is childless?

"Non-Lethal Weapons: Terms and References." Compiled for the Air Force Institute for National Security Studies, and available through the Defense Technical Information Center, a thick handbook on "barriers, batons, biochemicals," listing dozens of so-called non-lethal weapons. Among the 12 entries for "acoustics" is the Curdler Unit, "a device which produces a shrill, shrieking, blatting noise. It is used to irritate and disperse rioters . . . [and] in night operations to produce a ‘voodoo’ effect and effectively breaks up chanting, -singing and clapping." For a summary, see www.the

The "Vehicle Inspection Checklist." A 128-page guide to inspecting vehicles for what the U.S. government calls "improvised explosive devices," i.e., bombs. Printed on waterproof paper, spiral-bound and "suitable for field use." Available from the Technical Support Working Group, one of those homeland-security outfits, at $138 per package of 10. You might have a spot of trouble getting ahold of a copy, since it’s restricted to officially sanctioned counterterrorists.

The United States Constitution. Contained therein the quaint republican notion that "The Congress shall have Power . . . To declare war." The founding document includes Arnold Schwarzenegger’s least-favorite phase, i.e., "natural born Citizen." Plus 10 essential amendments.


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