The 2006 U.S. congressional elections are heating up, along with a proliferation of television ads featuring U.S. veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I’m a veteran," a series of plainclothes men and women say into the camera in an attack ad against antiwar Democrat Ned Lamont, who is challenging incumbent Joe Lieberman for one of Connecticut’s U.S. Senate seats.
The campaign has turned into a nationally watched referendum on the war in Iraq, and earlier this month a Virginia-based group called "Vets for Freedom" entered the fray, buying about $100,000 in television advertising time to support the embattled Lieberman, a Democrat who is running as an independent after being defeated in the primary by Lamont.
"I was wounded in Baghdad," one of the vets tells the camera.
"When we were over there, it was important that someone had our back," says another.
"Like Senator Lieberman," a female soldier chimes back.
"Whatever your feelings about Iraq, he was there for us," the ad goes. "Thanks Senator Lieberman."
The advertisement gives the impression of a grassroots campaign by U.S. veterans, but the truth is more complicated. While some Iraq war veterans undoubtedly support Vets for Freedom, an overview of its operations indicate it is more of a Republican Party front group than anything else. The campaign is managed by Taylor Goss, a former spokesman for George W. Bush, who also managed the president’s public relations during the recount of votes in Florida in the 2000 election. Bill Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard, and Republican strategist Dan Senor, a former spokesman for the U.S. occupation authority in Iraq, are also advisers. The nonprofit Center for Media and Democracy found links between Vets for Freedom and the public relations firm that created the Swift Boat ad campaign against Democrat John Kerry, and call it the "equivalent of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the Republican 527 committee whose attack advertisements in battleground states helped sink Kerry in the 2004 presidential race by smearing him as a phony war hero and a traitor to his country." Both campaigns have worked with the Republican-affiliated Donatelli PR firm, but the group denies they have anything to do with the Republican Party.
"If we were a Republican front group, we wouldn’t be running advertisements for Joe Lieberman," the group’s founder, former Marine Lt. Wade Zirkle, told IPS. "That’s not something that Republicans do. They get involved in races where they want Republicans to win. I think it’s pretty clear that we are what we say we are: a bipartisan group that concerns itself with one issue, the war on terror, specifically Iraq."
Because of the vagaries of campaign finance laws, it is difficult to tell who is funding Vets for Freedom.
"There are almost no reporting requirements on these committees," said Craig Holman of the Washington-based reform group Public Citizen. "So it’s often impossible to know who’s paying for these ads. Unlike the candidates themselves, independent committees take in unlimited campaign donations."
Also, unlike the candidates themselves, so-called 527 committees (named after a section of the tax code) are not regulated by the Federal Election Commission, but instead must only make quarterly reports to the Internal Revenue Service, the U.S. tax bureaucracy.
The Center for Responsive Politics reports that more than $210 million have been raised and spent by 527 committees during the 2005-2006 election cycle. The most free-spending groups have been Democratic-leaning labor unions like the Service Employees International Union, which has spent $18 million, and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, which has paid out $10 million in this year’s election campaigns.
Indeed, the Democrats have put forward their own crop of veterans. Using the power of unrestricted campaign donations, a 527 campaign committee called VoteVets has taken out ads against incumbent Republican Senators Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania and George Allen in Virginia. The ads target the Republicans for voting against more funding for body armor for U.S. troops in the field.
Vets for Freedom maintains that VoteVets is a Democratic Party front group. Iraq war veterans affiliated with the group deny the charge.
"The DNC [Democratic National Committee] does not dictate our policy or our strategies," retired Maj. Paul Hackett told IPS. After serving tours in Ramadi and Fallujah, he returned to his native state of Ohio and ran for Congress in a special election in 2005. On election day, Hackett stunned the political universe, winning more than 48 percent of the vote in a district where George Bush received nearly two-thirds of the vote just 10 months earlier.
"Our ideas come from those who are affiliated with the group," he said. "Some of us have more say than others, but we are certainly not a mouthpiece for the DNC. We’re using it as an opportunity to get politicians to take note and listen, and I think it’s important."
Hackett doesn’t see anything wrong with Vets for Freedom either.
"I’m torn," says Raf Noboa, a seven-year veteran of the U.S. Army. When he returned from a tour in Iraq’s Sunni Triangle, he became active in the antiwar movement. He worked on Ned Lamont’s primary campaign earlier this year and helped found a grassroots group called Iraq Veterans for Progress, which is not affiliated with either party.
"If you’re going to have folks like me who are against the Iraq war, then obviously you’re going to have random guys on the other side," Noboa told IPS. "The problem is that these guys help legitimate what is an illegitimate enterprise. It’s an illegitimate enterprise politically and an illegitimate enterprise morally. I’m not a fan. You know what I’m saying?"
(Inter Press Service)