Thursday, March 30, 2006

Smokey Mirrors

You've gotta love midterm elections. Some of the most creative legislation gets passed, usually having to do with the budget, as election day draws near. This year is a prime example of this droll exercise. From today's Washington Post:

Bowing to election-year realities, a key House panel dropped President Bush's proposed budget cuts for hospitals and other Medicare providers yesterday but preserved his plan to trim spending by most Cabinet agencies.

...The GOP plan -- written by committee Chairman Jim Nussle (R-Iowa) for fiscal 2007, which will begin on Oct. 1 -- adopts Bush's $873 billion cap on agency budgets that are renewed by Congress each year. But it also assumes just $50 billion for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, less than half of the expected spending for military operations in those countries this year.

...The plan endorses Bush's call for a 7 percent increase in next year's core defense budget, which does not cover the costs of the war in Iraq. That increase would come at the expense of domestic programs such as education, health research and grants to local governments and relief agencies.

...Republicans blocked attempts by Democrats to increase funding for port security, education, health programs, food stamps and homeland security.
[Emphasis added]

The trick, of course, is to make it look like the budget is being trimmed of all the wasteful spending so that the programs popular with the voters can be left untouched. Cutting Medicare benefits simply won't do. It's hard to justify ripping off the elderly, especially since there are more and more of them, and they tend to vote with great regularity. So, as in this case, you simply misunderestimate the cost of some of the big ticket items, like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and everything looks great.

Some of the smaller, less sexy programs, like food stamps for the poor and actual port security, didn't fair as well as Medicare. Cuts have to be made somewhere, I guess, especially since someone has to pay for those whopping tax cuts for the wealthy, right? Besides, the poor don't vote much.

Silly season, indeed.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Who's Got the Body?

I've been watching the Hamdan case with interest because it epitomizes so much of what is wrong with this regime. Illegal detention of prisoners of war under conditions that clearly violate international human rights law, including the Geneva Convention; the use of torture to get meaningless and unreliable information; the refusal to let the International Red Cross view the prisoners and to interview them; the refusal to allow the prisoners themselves to challenge their detention in the US courts: those are the most obvious of the abuses. There are others which are less obvious but perhaps more devastating to the American ideal of civil liberty.

One of those elements is the suspension of the right to habeas corpus: the right to challenge governmental detention. This important right can be suspended only under the most dire of emergencies, and then, only while the emergency lasts. Two hundred years of American jurisprudence has protected this right. As a result, our history has little in the way of 'disappeared citizens.' Now the regime wants to suspend that right, and after convincing Congress to give up its constitutional powers, it seeks to wrest those constitutional powers from the courts, and it is using this issue as a wedge to do so. Fortunately, at least five members of the current Supreme Court are not as anxious to cave as Congress was. From the NY Times:

As the justices of the Supreme Court took their seats Tuesday morning to hear Osama bin Laden's former driver challenge the Bush administration's plan to try him before a military commission, one question — perhaps the most important one — was how protective the justices would be of their jurisdiction to decide the case.

The answer emerged gradually, but by the end of the tightly packed 90-minute argument, it was fairly clear: highly protective.

At least five justices — Stephen G. Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Anthony M. Kennedy, David H. Souter and John Paul Stevens — appeared ready to reject the administration's argument that the Detainee Treatment Act, passed and signed into law after the court accepted the case in November, had stripped the court of jurisdiction.

...Suspending habeas corpus is an action, limited by the Constitution to "cases of rebellion or invasion," that Congress has taken only four times in the country's history. Habeas corpus is the means by which prisoners can go to court to challenge the lawfulness of their confinement, and its suspension is historically regarded as a serious, if not drastic, step.

...Of the other members of the court, Justice Antonin Scalia appeared most supportive of the administration. He intervened several times to offer Mr. Clement a helping hand, something the solicitor general rarely needs but accepted gratefully.
[Emphasis added]

At this point, it appears that the Supreme Court will retain jurisdiction over the issue, if only for this case, which was filed before the disasterous legislative action stripping the American courts of jurisdiction over Guantanamo Bay prisoners of war. Only eight justices will be deciding the issue. Chief Justice Roberts properly recused himself because he was part of the District Court of Appeals panel which heard the case earlier. Justice Scalia, who made his opinions on the issue known in a speech last week even before hearing the oral arguments, improperly refused to recuse himself.

Needless to say, it's going to be a rocky road to November.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Friends of the Court

Yesterday I blogged on Justice Antonin Scalia's recent speech in which he made it clear that he did not believe that prisoners of war have any rights to Constitutional protection when held by this country (scroll down to "Recuse Thyself"). Today, the Washington Post published an article indicating that several retired generals and admirals also believe the justice should recuse himself from the Hamdan case (arguments begin today).

On the eve of oral argument in a key Supreme Court case on the rights of alleged terrorists, a group of retired U.S. generals and admirals has asked Justice Antonin Scalia to recuse himself, arguing that his recent public comments on the subject make it impossible for him to appear impartial.

In a letter delivered to the court late yesterday, a lawyer for the retired officers cited news reports of Scalia's March 8 remarks to an audience at the University of Freiburg in Switzerland. ...

Scalia's remarks "give rise to the unfortunate appearance that, even before briefing was complete, he had already made up his mind" about issues in the case, the lawyer, David H. Remes, wrote. Noting that Scalia reportedly had discussed the rights of accused terrorists in the context of his son Matthew's recent tour as an Army officer in Iraq, Remes wrote that this creates an appearance of "personal bias arising from his son's military service."

In his letter to the court, Remes said Scalia's reported reference to the Geneva Conventions was of particular concern to the retired officers as it is directly at issue in the case. Their brief supports the view of the petitioner, Salim Ahmed Hamdan, that the conventions apply to him and could entitle him to a court-martial trial like that which U.S. soldiers receive.

Other calls for Scalia's recusal came yesterday from the Center for Constitutional Rights, a civil rights organization that supports the challenge to the military commissions, and from Rep. John D. Conyers (Mich.), the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee.

Court rules say that justices must recuse in cases where their impartiality "might reasonably be questioned." But it is up to each justice to make that decision. Court analysts said yesterday it is unlikely Scalia will recuse from the case.
[Emphasis added]

The retired officers' primary concern is that if the US held detainees are not accorded the rights guaranteed under the Geneva Convention, US soldiers captured on the battle field will not be accorded those rights either. This has been a concern of military and diplomatic experts from the start.

Unfortunately, Justice Scalia's track record is pretty clear on the recusal issue. He refused to recuse himself from a case involving his hunting buddy, Vice Emperor Cheney. He also refused to recuse himself from a case in which he declared his opinion on the consitutionality of the Pledge of Allegiance before oral arguments, just as he has in the Ramdan case.

Perhaps Chief Justice Roberts could have a little chat with Mr. Scalia and remind him what the court's own rules of ethics have to say about the issue.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Recuse Thyself!

Traditionally, appellate judges, especially those on the US Supreme Court, have kept a fairly low profile. They rarely speak publically, and when they do, it is usually to legal audiences on general principles of jurisprudence. Recently, however, several members of the Supreme Court (past and present) have gotten headlines by speaking in less traditional venues. Justice Ginsburg and retired Justice O'Connor have spoken about recent attacks on the independence of the judiciary. Justice Scalia, on the other hand, recently spoke on an issue which is shortly to come before him. He made it clear that his mind was made up on that issue even before hearing the arguments. The Washington Post published a story based on a Newsweek article:

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia reportedly told an overseas audience this month that the Constitution does not protect foreigners held at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

He also told the audience at the University of Freiburg in Switzerland that he was "astounded" by the "hypocritical" reaction in Europe to the prison, this week's issue of Newsweek magazine reported.

The comments came just weeks before the justices are to take up an appeal from a detainee at Guantanamo Bay. The court will hear arguments tomorrow on Salim Ahmed Hamdan's assertion that President Bush overstepped his constitutional authority in ordering a military trial for the former driver of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Hamdan has been held at the prison for nearly four years.
[Emphasis added]

To be fair, Justice Scalia had previously made his opinion known in the more traditional manner: he wrote the dissent on a previous case before the Court in which the issue of the rights of a detainee to use the civilian courts for redress was heard. However, the justice's most recent comments went far beyond that opinion and quite clearly bear on the upcoming case.

Under the circumstances, and with that clearly expressed bias, Justice Scalia should recuse himself from the Hamdan case. The Judicial Code of Ethics requires no less.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

When Life Duplicates Art...

...or, WTF?

What stuns me is that the current regime is now so arrogant that they don't even pretend to be part of a truly representative form of government. What depresses me is that the US press is too scared or too stupid to point this out. What brought this home to me (yet again) was my usual weekend foray to Watching America. Today, it's an article from the German Die Zeit. The article was published March 15, 2006 and describes a press event in which a State Department official spoke via a big screen television to journalists gathered for the event.

This past Monday [13 March], the U.S. government invited journalists to a special event at the Consulate. John B. Bellinger, Legal Advisor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, would explain the framework of U.S. prisoner policy and give his views on accusations of torture at Guantanamo, specifically those recently raised by Vienna human rights lawyer Manfred Nowak while on assignment for the U.N. His report discussed degrading treatment and the reluctance of U.S. authorities to submit to international oversight....


Bellinger had up to now avoided this expression. He speaks of "unlawful combatants who don't reveal themselves as soldiers, and, ignoring the laws of war, turn their weapons against us." Thus international law doesn't apply to these "individuals," and they can't simply be brought up before courts as "these human rights attorneys" demand. They need to be kept in custody until the "War on Terror" is over. "I and we, the nation" says Bellinger "must redefine the law in relation to these 'individuals' to protect America and the world."

And torture? Two U.S. Defense Department memorandums from 2002 and 2003 list the interrogation methods that are explicitly permitted: "Withdrawal of light and acoustic stimulation;" "removal of all eating utensils" "shaving of the beard;" "the withdrawal of clothing;" "interrogations lasting more than 20 hours;" "the use of phobias, for example of dogs;" "the use of extreme temperatures;" "changing the environment to create mild anxiety;" "modifying sleep schedules;" "isolation;" "interrogations with a hood on the head." Isn't that torture, Mr. Bellinger?

No, he says, straightening the part in his hair, the law should be read more precisely. Torture lies primarily in the infliction of "irreparable physical injury" as a result of interrogation. In addition, these memoranda are quite old.

...No, the "open discussion" that Bellinger had promised is not happening here in this Orwellian scene. One of the highest-ranking lawyers in the administration flickers across the TV screen and describes the legal criticism raised by Europe, the U.N. and other well-known human rights organizations as simply "incorrect," "completely false," or "manipulative."

This is not a misunderstanding, but a conflict of legal cultures. There is clear disagreement on whether people can be held in jail without due process, without charge, treated in a degrading way and interrogated.

After an hour, Bellinger took his leave of the journalists who had tuned in from Cologne, Berlin and Hamburg. He would be pleased, he said, to one day get to know all of the journalists. Then the screen went black. While taking his leave, a consular official comments on his impression of the discussion: "The Europeans still think they're living before 9/11."
[Emphasis added]

The scene described in the article so closely paralleled Orwell's dystopian novel that it simply could not have been a coincidence.

Chilling. Chilling and frightening.

Little Noticed News

One of the biggest-newstories-to receive-scant-attention-awards has to go to the massive oil spill in Alaska last week. While it was duly noted (once or twice), nobody much made much of a fuss over the fact that it was the largest on the North Slope, or that it covered acres with up to five inches of thick crude. An editorialist with the Minneapolis Star Tribune did notice it, however:

"Spills happen" has been the response, more or less, of the pipeline operator and its regulators to the largest leak of crude oil yet recorded on Alaska's North Slope.

A section of 34-inch pipeline, which gathers crude oil from various wells and moves it into the trans-Alaska pipeline, rotted away from the inside out. Gosh, says the British Petroleum subsidiary that runs the network, corrosion is a known problem in these 30-year-old pipes, but we had no idea this one was giving out so fast.

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation is full of praise for BP's quick response and vigorous cleanup program, skipping over the part about how the hemorrhage went undetected for five days, at least, before a guy happened to step out of his truck at the right place and smell oil.

...These have got to be among the last people on earth -- outside the Bush administration, where it's an official article of faith -- who can say with apparent conviction that oil drilling can expand across the North Slope, and into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, without environmental harm.

They know better than anyone that the operations centered on Prudhoe produce, on average, better than one spill per day. Yes, some of them are small; yes, not all of them are crude oil. But in the eight years ending in 2004, they totaled 1.9 million gallons.

...The main point is that oil production in Alaska is both conducted and chiefly regulated by people whose highest interest is in seeing the crude keep flowing with as few interruptions as possible. People like the petroleum engineer who told a newspaper (with a straight face, we presume) he blamed the recent spill on environmentalists, because the leak occurred in a section buried under gravel for the convenience of migrating caribou.
[Emphasis added]

Will there be fines for this disaster? Hardly. Will the offending company be investigated and ordered to improve its record with respect to the oil spills by improving its basic infrastructure? Oh, please. The EPA and Department of Interior are run much the same way the Mine Safety and Health Agency is run: by the very industry being regulated.

It helps to have friends in high places.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

"But...But...the Schools! We Painted the Schools!"

The Emperor in Chief, the Vice-Emperor, and the Associate Emperor in Charge of Blowing Things Up have all been busy this past week assuring us that things are going swimmingly in Iraq. The only problem, say the three wise men, is that the US press insists in giving us only the bad news (IEDs exploding and killing US service men and women and innocent Iraqis, mass graves filled during the "sectarian struggles" that are part of any new democracy). Bad US press, bad!

Just to make sure that the three wise men weren't just putting me on, I hopped over to Watching America check out what other countries' press had to say. I wasn't too surprised by what I found. One of the articles was from Columbia's El Pais.

According to initial planning, Iraq should by now be a peaceful, stable and representative democracy, and should be serving as an example to dictators and authoritarian governments around the Middle East.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Today, Iraq is in such chaos, no one is at all sure how to handle it. In spite of establishing a constitution and holding general elections, the truth is that there is no effective government, a strong, generalized insurrection predominates, religious clashes are the order of the day, and the number of dead Iraqis can be counted by the tens of thousands.

...Everything has failed. The arguments for invading Iraq have been proven false to the hilt. The deposing of Saddam Hussein, a bloody dictator, has not brought peace to the country. The opposition to the war and the presence of foreign troops is no longer an issue for the Iraqi insurgents only, but now extends to the entire world. Enormous demonstrations in the streets of London, Baghdad, Basora, New York, Madrid, Rome, Sydney, Tokyo, Toronto and Dublin occurred on Saturday, demanding the peaceful solution to this conflict.

Even John Sawers, Political Director of the British Foreign Office, said after a long on-the-ground inspection, "American forces are not providing leadership, there is no strategy, no coordination, and no structure. The situation is one of incredible disorganization."

Ethnic cleansing has begun in regions with mixed populations, while Sunnis and Shiites destroy themselves under the impotent gaze of the occupation army. Nothing is fine: it isn't even possible in the most secure areas to have 24-hour electrical service.

The only thing that appears to work well is business. Not for the Iraqis, but for the large multinational corporations with contracts to fill the enormous supply orders needed to sustain the invading armies. And to be sure, although with some difficulty, the flow of petroleum continues. This is where one should look for the true causes of this war that so far, no one else has been able to benefit from.

As always happens in cases where economic interests mix with politics, it is the people of Iraq who are suffering ...
[Emphasis added]

Well, appears that the US press is not alone in noting the disaster that the Iraq invasion has become. What is especially interesting to me is that this article did not come from a Middle East country, or from an Islamic country, but rather from a country here in the Americas. I'm sure part of the reason El Pais felt no compunction about this rather bold excoriation is the general disrespect shown Latin America by this regime. However, the analysis is dead on.

Sooner or later, the current regime is going to have to face the fact that nobody, not even our traditional allies, believes this war is going well. It's not going well, and it won't go well until it is ended by the removal of the occupying forces.

I'm sure the Iraqi people would be perfectly happy to paint their own schools.

Regulating the Internets

Political bloggers have been carefully watching the Federal Election Commission to see just what kind of regulations on internet activities the Commission was going to impose. Liberal and conservative bloggers agree on very little, but this is one area where they pretty much spoke as one voice. Most of us want the government to take a hands-off approach when it comes to our activities. It appears that for the most part we are getting our wish. From the Washington Post:

The Federal Election Commission last night released proposed new rules that leave almost all Internet political activity unregulated except for the purchase of campaign ads on Web sites.

"My key goal in this rule-making has been to make sure that the commission establish clear rules to exempt individuals who engage in online politics from campaign finance laws," said Chairman Michael E. Toner, a Republican.

...Most bloggers, individual Web users, and such Web sites as Drudge Report and are exempted from regulation and will be free to support and attack federal candidates, much as newspapers are allowed.

For the most part, leading advocates of the blogger community welcomed the proposed rules.

"As a whole, these are rules that I think those who have been fighting regulations are going to be cheering," said Richard L. Hasen, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, who runs the Election Law blog. The rules provide "broad exemptions for most political activity on the Internet, and expand the media exemption to the Internet," he said.

...The only restrictions in the proposal require that ads for federal candidates be paid for with money regulated by federal campaign law. Campaign law restricts individual contributions to $2,000, and bars unions and corporations from donating.
[Emphasis added]

The ideal situation would have been for the federal government not to have any regulations involving blog sites, but a federal court ordered the FEC to issue regulations in conformity with the Mc Cain-Feingold Campaign Finance law after a law suit was brought. Of course, the ideal situation would have been for Congress to issue a clearly written proposal to exempt web political activity except for candidate and party sites. That, however, didn't happen, so the FEC was forced to step in and draft regulations in a vacuum. It looks like they didn't do too badly.

Still, those of us who see the internet as a wonderful free speech area which encourages open debate and the free expression of opinion by people not wealthy enough or politically powerful enough to own or influence the traditional media would have preferred no governmental intervention at all. Hopefully, this set of regulations hasn't opened the door for further "look-sees" by the powerful.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Friday Cat Blogging

I'm ready for my shampoo. Posted by Picasa

Immigration Laws in an Election Year

Immigration reform is now before the Senate. Several versions of the reform have been thrown into the mix, but it is clear that this hot-button issue will be warming the 2006 elections and will provide a focus for the 2008 presidential race. The Emperor has already presented his proposal, which primarily focuses on a Guest Worker program. The House has already passed a bill which primarily focuses on building an impermeable wall along the border and criminalising aiding and abetting illegal immigrants by feeding them and giving them medical treatment. That's the split: big business conservatives vs. social conservatives. And that's just on the Republican side. Elisabeth Bumiller has an analytical piece in today's NY Times.

In the days before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, immigration policy was going to be President Bush's signature issue. It was central to his thinking as the former governor of a border state, key to his relationship with President Vicente Fox of Mexico and essential in attracting new Hispanic voters to the Republican Party.

Five years later, Mr. Bush has at last realized some momentum on immigration policy, but it is probably not the activity he once anticipated.

He has lost control of his own party on the issue, as many Republicans object to his call for a temporary guest-worker program, insisting instead that the focus be on shutting down the flow of illegal immigrants from Mexico. It is not clear how much help he will get from Democrats in an election year.

The issue will come to the floor of the Senate next week, and the debate is shaping up as a free-for-all that will touch on economics, race and national identity.

...The discussion has intensified as Mr. Bush finds himself caught between two of his most important constituencies: business owners and managers on the one hand, conservatives on the other.

Philosophically, the president, whose own sensibility on the issue was shaped by his experience as governor of Texas, says he is committed to a program that meets the needs of business: the creation of a pool of legal foreign workers for industries that have come to rely on low-wage labor.

Mr. Bush also brings to the debate a stated belief that the country benefits from the immigration of hardworking people and their dreams of becoming Americans. He often talks about the United States as a land of immigrants, and on Monday in Cleveland he said that "my only advice for the Congress and for people in the debate is, understand what made America."

But politically, Mr. Bush must satisfy his most conservative supporters. Many of them view illegal immigration as a strain on schools, the health care system and the economy, and some have warned that in their opinion the nation's cultural identity could be washed away by a flood of low-income Spanish-speaking workers.
[Emphasis added]

I find it interesting that the two sides described by Bumiller both are both rooted in the notion that somehow those from Mexico and the rest of Latin American are somehow 'less than' the citizens of the US. They are, on the one hand, a useful source of "low-wage labor" and, on the other hand, a strain on the economy and could "wash away the nation's cultural identity." It's not too difficult to see the inherent racism on either side of the argument.

Noticeably missing from the debate are two considerations: actually securing our borders in such a fashion that terrorists cannot just stroll in and providing a way for those who are already here and those who will be coming in the future (new system or not) to become permanent residents and ultimately US citizens. I suppose it being an election year, those considerations aren't important. They would require appealing to the better nature of the nation, a nation built by and comprised of immigrants.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

We've Got the Grounds... all we need is the spine.

Sam Newland, a retired journalist living in Minneapolis, wrote an absolutely brilliant column in today's Minneapolis Star Tribune. In this piece, he suggests that the impeachment of George W. Bush be cast in the same language and framework as the Declaration of Independence, spelling out the bill of particulars which constitute our grievances.

Get comfortable: the list is long.

Many of Bush's "abuses and usurpations" concern the Iraq war:

• He has used false information that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that threatened a mushroom cloud over this country as a reason for invading Iraq. (The war so far has killed more than 2,300 Americans; estimates of the Iraqi death toll vary wildly -- up to 100,000 or more, including women and children.)

• He has ignored most of our allies (the British are an exception) in starting this war, and turned admiration and friendship for America throughout the world to anger and disrespect.

• He has subverted law and the Constitution, eavesdropping on thousands of Americans in search of Al-Qaida terrorists. Many have been imprisoned without warrants, charges or attorneys and denied the right to challenge their detention in court.

• He has insisted that America does not torture prisoners, but photos taken at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad, plus other evidence, have proved otherwise. He has claimed that rules against torture contained in the Geneva Conventions don't apply to many detainees.

• He has had people kidnapped, shackled and flown to dungeons in foreign countries that are known to practice torture, calling this scheme "extraordinary rendition."

• He has tried to subvert a Senate amendment designed to prohibit torture. First he vowed to veto it, then signed it when it was clear a veto would be overridden. But he attached a "signing statement" saying, in effect, that if necessary he would act as he pleased.

• He has sent American troops to war, at least until recently, without adequate body armor and protective shields for their vehicles.

• He has ignored advice from military experts that he sent far fewer troops to Iraq than needed.

• He has failed to plan adequately for managing the country once Saddam was toppled. Nor has he settled on an exit strategy.

Besides Iraq:

• He has pushed a series of tax cuts that give lopsided benefits to the rich, worsen the budget shortfall and shift the burden of deficits to our children and grandchildren. Last week the Senate voted to raise the debt limit to nearly $9 trillion, almost $3 trillion of which has been enacted under Bush.

• He has tried to begin "privatizing" Social Security (Congress has yet to approve) by allowing workers to divert some of their payroll taxes into stocks and bonds. But because current payroll deductions support current recipients, the diversion would create an immediate gap in the Social Security funds that would have to be replaced. Borrowing the replacement dollars would further bloat the national debt.

• He has pandered to the religious right, promoting its views on issues like abortion, contraception, sex education, same-sex marriage and "faith-based initiatives."

• He has severely restricted the use of federal dollars for stem-cell research that could lead to cures for life-threatening diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

• He has fostered an obsession with secrecy, more than any other recent president. He has weakened the Freedom of Information Act, making it harder for private citizens and journalists to learn what their government is doing

• He has expanded the use of "executive privilege" to deny information to Congress, magnified claims of national security as an excuse for secrecy, and generally stonewalled requests for information.

• He has fallen far short of providing timely aid to New Orleans and other Gulf Coast communities struggling to overcome the devastation of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita six months ago.

• He has abandoned the 1997 Kyoto treaty to reduce global warming by cutting emissions of greenhouse gases, although the United States is the prime source of those gases. Ignoring science, he has claimed global warming is not fully proven.

• He has continued an energy policy relying heavily on oil, mostly from the Middle East. (But Congress has balked at drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.)

These facts point to a backward slide in this country from a free and open society where nobody -- not even the president -- is above the law. Where the well-being of all trumps the wishes of politicians or special interests. Where scientific inquiry is unpolluted by politics or ideology, and public business is done in public. Where nobody worries about intercepted phone calls or stolen e-mail, and wars are fought out of necessity, not out of hubris, nationalism, oil or anything else.

I find it fascinating that a journalist, albeit a retired one, has written this document. I find it heartening that a major metropolitan newspaper, one in the "heartland" had the courage to print it.

I have emailed Mr. Newland's article to both of my Senators and to my Representative. I urge you to do likewise.

The Expert at Dissenting Opinions

The US Supreme Court issued an opinion yesterday in a Fourth Amendment case. The holding was fairly case specific (it applies to limited fact situations), but it was notable for the tones of the opinions expressed by the justices. The NY Times presents the story in a reasonably straightforward manner.

A Supreme Court decision on Wednesday in an uncelebrated criminal case did more than resolve a dispute over whether the police can search a home without a warrant when one occupant gives consent but another objects.

More than any other case so far, the decision, which answered that question in the negative by a vote of 5 to 3, drew back the curtain to reveal the strains behind the surface placidity and collegiality of the young Roberts court.

It was not only that this case, out of 32 decided since the term began in October, provoked Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. to write his first dissenting opinion. He had cast two earlier dissenting votes, and had to write a dissenting opinion eventually. And although there has been much commentary on the court's unusually high proportion of unanimous opinions, 22 so far compared with only 27 in all of the last term, few people expected that rate to continue as the court disposed of its easiest cases and moved into the heart of the term.

Rather, what was striking about the decision in Georgia v. Randolph, No. 04-1067, was the pointed, personal and acerbic tone in which the justices expressed their disagreement over whether the Fourth Amendment's ban on unreasonable searches was violated when the police in Americus, Ga., arriving at a house to investigate a domestic dispute, accepted the wife's invitation to look for evidence of her husband's cocaine use.

...The dissenters, in addition to Chief Justice Roberts, were Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.
[Emphasis added]

First of all, Justice Alito was not a member of the court when the case was argued, so he did not take part in the decision. Even if he had voted with the dissenters, the outcome (which would have been 5-4) would not have been different.

The dissenting opinion by Chief Justice Roberts (who has some experience in writing them) was indeed quite acerbic, with some of the strongest language reserved for the footnotes that usually serve for explanatory material. Naturally, the majority responded in kind, but what was surprising is that the greatest heat came from Justice Souter, one of the milder-mannered justices this court has ever had.

The decision might very well be an indication of what we can expect as the Court begins to tackle the more contentious cases on the docket (abortion rights, habeas corpus and illegal pre-charge, pre-trial detention). Mr. Souter may very well turn out to be the new swing vote, taking over for Sandra Day O'Connor.

The next several months are going to be very interesting and very important for the direction of this nation.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Preventive Detention

Yesterday, I posted on an upcoming Supreme Court case which will address the government's challenge to habeas corpus (scroll down to "Another Test..."). Today, the NY Times has an article on governmental misuse of the Material Witness statute which allows for holding a witness to a crime in detention if the witness is a flight risk. What the government has done is to stretch the law to allow for the holding of an individual without charge for extended periods of time even if it is clear that the individual is not a material witness.

A 22-year-old federal law that allows people to be held without charges if they have information about others' crimes is coming under fresh scrutiny in the courts, in Congress and within the Justice Department after reports that it has been abused in terrorism investigations.

The law allows so-called material witnesses to be held long enough to secure their testimony if there is reason to think they will flee. But lawyers for people detained as material witnesses say the law has been used to hold people who the government fears will commit terrorist acts in the future but whom it lacks probable cause to charge with a crime.

...A bill introduced by Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, would curtail the use of the material witness law to hold people suspected of plotting terrorist acts. Representative Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona, said he would introduce similar legislation in the House.

"It's being stretched beyond its original purpose," Mr. Flake said of the material witness law. "Individuals are being indefinitely detained who might be suspects. If that's the case, they need to be charged."
[Emphasis added]

Once again the current regime is using the threat of terrorism to justify holding people without charge in violation of the Constitution. In an uncited part of the article, Rep. Flake made it clear that if the government needed a preventive detention law, Congress would be happy to provide one. All this does is stop the misuse of one law while enabling the violation of the civil liberties of citizens by another.

I keep waiting for the Democrats in Congress to wake up to the fact that this kind of Congressional collusion in the stripping away of our rights is madness and points to the end of the special democracy of this nation. If they don't awaken soon, we may have to find those who will.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Another Test for the US Supreme Court

Most of us have been concentrating on the abortion issue when it comes to assessing the effect John Roberts and Samuel Alito will have on the US Supreme Court. It's natural: both are conservative Catholics and both have gotten an imprimatur from the Fundigelicals. However, the Court will also be hearing a key case on Guantanamo Bay and the issue of habeas corpus (the right of a defendant to challenge his detention by the legal authorities). From yesterday's NY Times:

Since the Republican majority has decided to allow President Bush to usurp Congress's role in matters of national security, the battle to save the constitutional balance of powers moves to the judiciary. A critical test of judicial independence will come this month, when the Supreme Court hears arguments in a case that has become a focus of Mr. Bush's imperial vision of the presidency.

Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a Yemeni national accused of having been a bodyguard and driver for Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, has been detained since 2002 in Guantánamo Bay. He filed suit to challenge the legitimacy of the military commission that upheld his designation as an "unlawful enemy combatant" — a term Mr. Bush invented after 9/11 to deny the protections of the Geneva Conventions, international statutes or United States law to certain prisoners.

Mr. Hamdan argued, rightly, that the commissions are not legitimate because prisoners are routinely barred from seeing evidence, much less confronting their accusers or having access to real legal representation. But his case has now become a much larger battle over the principle of habeas corpus, which is embedded in the Constitution and says that a prisoner cannot be denied the right to challenge his detention. Mr. Bush's decision after 9/11 that he had the power to put prisoners beyond the reach of the law at his choosing was the first attempt to suspend habeas corpus on American territory since the Civil War.

The Supreme Court two years ago emphatically rejected the president's claim that its jurisdiction did not extend to Guantánamo. Seeking to reverse that ruling, the White House in December helped push through a special amendment as part of the deal that also saw Mr. Bush sign a watered-down ban on torture of military detainees. The amendment, sponsored by Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican, and Senator Carl Levin, a Democrat, stripped Guantánamo detainees of the normal rights of judicial review. It also designated a single appellate court to conduct a limited review of decisions by the military commissions, and left "enemy combatants" held without a trial in a seemingly inescapable legal black hole.

As soon as Mr. Bush signed this law, he declared that the administration was going to apply it to all pending cases, about 160 or so, and the solicitor general told the Supreme Court it no longer had a right to hear Hamdan v. Rumsfeld. This is court-stripping — the attempt by another branch of government to prevent the court from deciding a particular issue....

[T]he Constitution itself requires an "invasion" or a "rebellion" as a prerequisite for suspension of habeas corpus. It's hardly likely that the founding fathers intended to give Congress the right to eliminate judicial review during an ongoing international struggle against terrorism that may well go on for generations.
[Emphasis added]

The right to challenge detention is central to our legal system and to our Constitution. It cannot be wiped away by a unitary imperialism or by a collaborating Congress. The Court is our last defense to this perversion of civil liberties. If in fact Mr. Roberts and Mr. Alito are strict constructionist and are opposed to legislation from the bench, they will slap down this attempt to remove a key section of our rights under the Constitution.

I hope they're up to it.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Silly Season in California: The Warm-Up

Yes, it's an election year, silly season when all sorts of promises are made (soon to be broken) and all sorts of claims are asserted (soon to be debunked). My home state of California is just like every other state in that respect, only we do it with more flair, more style, more pizzazz.

It has started already, and we're not even that close to the state primaries. Jamie Court has an interesting op-ed piece in today's LA Times.

TONIGHT, Arnold Schwarzenegger is to return to the Beverly Hilton for the first time since his contrite apology to voters after the defeat of every single one of his ballot measures in last year's special election. The governor will probably be anything but contrite as he panders to donors who will pony up as much as $100,000 each to fund his reelection campaign. Schwarzenegger has said that he and his party need — and intend to raise — $120 million.
Schwarzenegger, touting the size of his wallet as his qualification to govern, is again misreading the voters who scorned him in November. And at least one of his opponents is making similar boasts. State Controller Steve Westly's campaign recently suggested that his only serious competitor for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, state Treasurer Phil Angelides, was not qualified because Angelides wasn't raising enough dough and was only a multimillionaire, no match for Westly and his $100-million-plus personal fortune. They all sound like bull elephants in rut.

...Money shouldn't be the measure of a governor. According to polls of likely voters, Schwarzenegger's steady decline in popularity last year was fueled in part by his headlong fundraising and the perception that big donors got special favors. So much for Arnold the Reforminator, pledging to rule without money from the special interests.

...In politics you get what you pay for. And when big industries and millionaires gave Schwarzenegger $76 million, they bought their kind of government. When interest groups spend more than $350 million to elect state candidates — as they did during the 2002-2004 election cycle — they get politics as usual. Until the public pays for elections, the public will never truly be represented and citizens' needs will not be met.

The fact that politicians collect so much money to shape their image is, in fact, a stunning acknowledgement of their own failure. Take Schwarzenegger. If he had not bungled his first term, he wouldn't need $120 million to change the public's image of him. Gray Davis didn't have a personal fortune, but he gained office through prodigious pandering to special interests, then disgraced his post through it. Schwarzenegger was worth hundred of millions, but he did the same thing.

Raising money should not be the arbiter of success or failure in politics. But that's just what it has become. With the public paying the bill for elections, candidates and public officials will again be able to stand for something beyond who has the most money.

What Jamie Court is calling for is support for a Clean Election bill, one that would take elections off the special interest auction block. It worked in Arizona. Maybe California should be next.

After that? Well, maybe K Street could be turned into a beautiful green park for the citizens of this country.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Even a Poodle Can Snap

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has been the earliest and staunchest supporter of the Emperor's excellent adventure in Iraq, often to the detriment of his own political capital. Yet even he has found a line that should not be crossed, and he finally made a clear statement to that effect. The UK Independent has the story.

Tony Blair joined the growing calls for the US detention camp at Guantanamo Bay to be closed after he was questioned about the claims of torture by two British residents held there.

Mr Blair was challenged at his regular monthly press conference at 10 Downing Street yesterday over the graphic and shocking claims by two men who lived in Britain that they were handed over to the CIA by the security service MI5 for torture in the notorious "dark prison" in Kabul, Afghanistan, before being taken to Guantanamo.

...The Prime Minister in the past has said holding the detainees in the camp in Cuba outside the normal rules of war or criminal courts was an "anomaly" which had to be ended.

Peter Hain, the Northern Ireland Secretary, recently went further by calling for the camp to be closed, but Mr Blair had been reluctant to do so to avoid allowing a diplomatic breach with the US President, George Bush, over Guantanamo.

..."I have said that I think it would be better if it [Guantanamo] was closed for all the reasons that we have given over a long period of time."

...The Prime Minister's call for Guantanamo to be closed was welcomed last night by Andrew MacKinlay, a Labour member of the Commons Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, which is conducting an inquiry into the war on terrorism.

But he said Mr Blair had been a "wimp" in failing to make stronger protests to President Bush in the past after a UN report last month found that some of the treatment of prisoners amounted to torture.
[Emphasis added]

A dramatic shift in Mr. Blair's policy? An open disagreement with the Emperor in Chief?

Probably not. What I suspect has happened is that the US regime has signalled that it is ready to close the Guantanamo prison camp in order to relieve some of the pressure it has been feeling from the rest of the world, especially after the recent UN report. The US needs the UN right now to serve once again as a backdrop to its push against Iran.

Guantanamo may be closed, but I would be very surprised if BushCo released all of the prisoners currently being held there. Many, if not most, will simply be transferred to other sites, the ones the US claims do not exist in central and eastern Europe and in the Middle East.

The US was recently forced to reveal the names of all prisoners being held at Guantanamo. It will be interesting to match those names with those actually released should the prison camp actually be closed. Then we'll see if Mr. Blair is truly concerned about human rights.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

The Home Front

Most Americans are concerned about the safety and well-being of the troops in the two war theaters. The public is also (and finally) aware that some of the wounds the soldiers come home with are invisible but still need competent treatment. What most of us have forgotten, however, is that war also takes its toll on the families of those soldiers. In an op-ed piece in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Tanya Biank, an Army wife whose husband is currently on his second year-long rotation in Afghanistan after one in Iraq, lays out some unique problems that those who are left behind face.

Here's a message from the military home front: Our volunteers are tired and need hired help. While husbands (the U.S. military is 85 percent male) crisscross the ocean for second, third and even fourth tours in Iraq, military wives (the overwhelming majority of volunteers are wives) are burdened not only with running households, caring for children and holding down jobs, but also with assisting families of deployed soldiers.

Almost 30 percent of all Army wives volunteer in a formal capacity. We run quality-of-life programs and serve on boards that take hours of dedication. We are the liaison between the commander and the soldiers' families, we refer people to various resources like the Red Cross and military-sponsored programs, we raise money to support family programs and in our informal roles, we are on call 24 hours a day to help families deal with divorce, child abuse, suicide and bereavement. Our work is expected, underappreciated and often goes unnoticed.

To give you an example of the magnitude of volunteer service, for fiscal year 2005, volunteers with various family programs that the Army offers logged 632,897 hours of service. Our service to the Army is valued at more than $11 million.

But what happens when the most dedicated and experienced of military spouses say they are worn out?

Needless to say, in the Army, if your volunteers are overwhelmed, you've got a big problem. Military recruitment and retention levels are directly linked to spouses, who are often the deciding factor in whether a soldier reenlists or keeps a commission. If families are cared for and content, soldiers focus on their mission and are more likely to continue serving.

The Defense Department needs to set aside money in its budget to provide for more paid professional support.

At larger military installations, a pilot program with paid family readiness group assistants that took the administrative burden off volunteers has been successful. But the jobs are only funded a year at a time, and a consistent financing source is needed.

The Army should also consider starting a community pilot program that pairs deployed brigades with civilian clubs, organizations, businesses and schools willing to donate time to fundraising, baby-sitting and otherwise supporting the brigades' full-time volunteers.
[Emphasis added]

We have asked a lot of our soldiers. It seems only fair that US keep their end of the bargain in taking care of the soldiers' families. That the families themselves have had to take on the responsibilities of that care-taking in addition to coping with the problems caused by deployed spouses is outrageous and right out of the logic bending Alice in Wonderland world that charges soldiers for their armor.

Given the size of the Pentagon budget, surely monies can be found for Ms. Bianks' request, modest as it is. She is only asking the US to keep to the bargain. It's only fair.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Weird Logic (Or, WTF?)

Some people just don't get it. They can see each and every California redwood, can count them, compare them, measure them, but they cannot for the life of them understand the concept of "forest." Take the editorialist in today's NY Times (please): he or she has all the pieces right, but he/she just can't put them together to form a complete picture, even though a six-year old would've had the puzzle put together months ago.

We understand the frustration that led Senator Russell Feingold to introduce a measure that would censure President Bush for authorizing warrantless spying on Americans. It's galling to watch from the outside as the Republicans and most Democrats refuse time and again to hold Mr. Bush accountable for the lawlessness and incompetence of his administration. Actually sitting among that cowardly crew must be maddening.

Still, the censure proposal is a bad idea. Members of Congress don't need to take extraordinary measures like that now. They need to fulfill their sworn duty to investigate the executive branch's misdeeds and failings. Talk about censure will only distract the public from the failure of their elected representatives to earn their paychecks.

We'd be applauding Mr. Feingold if he'd proposed creating a bipartisan panel to determine whether the domestic spying operation that Mr. Bush has acknowledged violates the 1978 surveillance law, as it certainly seems to do. The Senate should also force the disclosure of any other spying Mr. Bush is conducting outside the law. (Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has strongly hinted that is happening.)

The Senate Intelligence and Judiciary Committees should do this, but we can't expect a real effort from Senator Pat Roberts, the Intelligence Committee chairman, or Senator Arlen Specter, chairman of the Judiciary Committee. They're too busy trying to give legal cover to the president's trampling on the law and the Constitution.
[Emphasis added]

Oh, please.

The Democrats are the minority party. They are voted down time after time, even when the Vichy Dems (yes, you, Mr. Lieberman) deign to go along with the party. The Senate Committee chairs who have jurisdiction have made it clear that they have no intention of ever investigating the Emperor, which is duly noted in the editorial ("They're too busy trying to give legal cover to the president..."). What good would proposing another committee to investigate be? Even assuming the creation of such a committee (a pretty groundless assumption), what makes the editorialist think they would actually do anything meaningful?

If nothing else, Mr. Feingold has provided the Democrats and the rest of the country a way to document the atrocities of this regime. Rep. John Conyers in the House is trying to do the same thing with his call for an investigation of the White House as a precursor to impeachment proceedings. Will either proposal succeed? Probably not, but at least this country (and the world) would see that not everyone in government is willing to stand by and watch the US Constitution used as toilet paper. In other words, some people in Congress are "willing to earn their paychecks" instead of just standing on the sidelines wringing their hands and whining. The editorialist obviously doesn't get it.


Thursday, March 16, 2006

More of Same

The regime is once again going to embark on a policy of performing the same acts in the expectation of different results. It has finally released its national security policy (required by law and grossly over-due) and the general assessment is "more of same." Peter Baker has an article in the Washington Post which summarizes the major thrust of the report.

President Bush plans to issue a new national security strategy today reaffirming his doctrine of preemptive war against terrorists and hostile states with chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, despite the troubled experience in Iraq.

The long-overdue document, an articulation of U.S. strategic priorities that is required by law, lays out a robust view of America's power and an assertive view of its responsibility to bring change around the world.

The strategy expands on the original security framework developed by the Bush administration in September 2002, before the invasion of Iraq. That strategy shifted U.S. foreign policy away from decades of deterrence and containment toward a more aggressive stance of attacking enemies before they attack the United States.
[Emphasis added]

What is so amazing about the report is that it was written in the midst of budget deficits as far as the eye can see (with a vote being scheduled to raise the debt ceiling of $8+ trillion) caused in large part by the billions poured into the Pentagon to fight the war in Iraq, a war now complicated by the threat of civil war; at a time when the military is stretched so thin that many believe it is effectively broken; and while support for the war in Iraq is dropping precipitously. One wonders if the Emperor and his minions are suffering from delusions of competence.

The most chilling part of the report, however, affirms the thesis of the entire report:

"We may face no greater challenge from a single country than from Iran," the document says, echoing a statement made by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last week. It recommits to efforts with European allies to pressure Tehran to give up any aspirations of nuclear weapons, then adds ominously: "This diplomatic effort must succeed if confrontation is to be avoided." [Emphasis added]

Here we go again.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The Case for a Strong, Independent Judiciary

Although it may be hard to believe, there once was a time when civil liberties trumped government secrecy and government security policies. Ways were found to balance the requirement of a fair trial for a defendant and the need to keep sensitive government information out of the hands of those who would do the nation harm. The key to the system working was, of course, having a judiciary committed to the system of justice defined in the US Constitution.

Oddly enough, a few of those judges still exist, among them Leonie Brinkema, who currently is presiding over the Zacarias Moussaoui trial. Her slapdown of a government lawyer in the penalty phase of the case has reminded the country (especially us lawyer types) that certain rules of trial conduct are still in play in the post-9/11 world. The NY Times has the story.

Ms. Martin, an obscure official in the counsel's office at the Transportation Security Administration, now appears to bear responsibility for undercutting the government's long-running effort to execute the only man tried in an American courtroom for involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks.

Known among her peers as an aggressive, largely behind-the-scenes courtroom strategist, she is said by the judge in the case to have committed a potentially devastating blunder of the sort that law students are routinely warned about: coaching witnesses.

Dealing a major setback to the government's prosecution of Zacarias Moussaoui, Judge Leonie M. Brinkema ruled on Tuesday that because of three significant instances of misbehavior by government lawyers during the trial, most notably the missteps by Ms. Martin, she was barring the prosecutors from using any testimony or evidence from a handful of government aviation officials.

...In the Moussaoui case, her communications with witnesses, and new evidence that surfaced Tuesday that she told some witnesses not to cooperate with defense lawyers, puts the prosecution in the position of having to investigate and sharply criticize a government lawyer who has worked on the case.
[Emphasis added]

Carla Martin, from the information that has surfaced so far, clearly engaged in prosecutorial misconduct. That sort of behavior, stemming from the win-at-any-cost approach to litigation, deserves a slapdown, a hard one.

The real story, however, is (to my mind) not Carla Martin. It is Leonie Brinkema, a judge who has taken her oath seriously. With a strong, independent judiciary we have a better chance at muddling through these difficult times. Judge Brinkema is evidence that we just might have that kind of judiciary.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006


Gale Norton, Secretary of the Interior, has announced that she will be leaving her post. The Washington Post today bade her a not-so-fond farewell in an editorial. Unfortunately, the piece didn't quite capture the wrongheadedness of her tenure within the wrongheadedness of this regime.

...the truest thing that can be said about Gale A. Norton, who resigned last week as interior secretary -- a job that gave her oversight of national parks, federal lands, and the Indian tribes, oil producers and hikers who use them -- is that she did not manage to bridge the deep gap between the mining and drilling companies that view America's federal lands as an untapped source of mineral resources and the environmentalists who see them as pristine wilderness that must be preserved for future generations.

...Down the line, she chose to support the business argument. She gave out more permits to drill and mine on federal lands, effectively placed more federal lands in line for development, and came down, not unexpectedly, on the side of the snowmobilers. Not all of these decisions were wrong: In a meeting with Post editors last year, she made a persuasive case for the fact that not all federal lands are scenic, pristine or otherwise environmentally significant -- and there is a great national need for oil and gas. Nevertheless, she made little attempt to create a broader constituency for her policies, little attempt to see both sides of the picture. She leaves behind even more bitterness and division than she inherited.
[Emphasis added]

Apparently the Washington Post wants our 'wildlands' preserved only if they are worthy of postcard photography, biodiversity and ecological integrity be damned. Once again, the press falls into the trap that there are two sides to every story, even if one side has all the science and fact, and the other side has only the money.

What is more astounding, however, is that the editorialist seems so surprised by Ms. Norton's failure. It has long been clear that in this regime, everything is for sale: votes, national security, international policy. Why should there be any surprise that Ms. Norton came down on the side of business with every drilling, logging, and snowmobiling argument?

Ms. Norton's tenure was a failure, but not because she failed to bridge the divide between mining interests and environmentalists. It was a failure, ironically, because she intended her tenure to be marked by the grand give-away of America's resources to business interests and she succeeded.

Monday, March 13, 2006

News Blues

Like most people, I've been critical of the press in this country for quite some time. Most news articles and columns too often read like unaltered press releases from the White House or the State House. A recent study now suggests there is reason for my discontent. Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post gives a fairly nice summary of the report by the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Hundreds of cable and radio commentators, and millions of bloggers, can sound off about the news in real time. But the number of old-fashioned fact-gatherers is dwindling, and will almost certainly continue to shrink.

These figures are drawn from a new study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism describing what it calls a "seismic transformation" in the media landscape. The good news is that the average consumer can in effect create his own news, picking and choosing from sources he trusts and enjoys rather than being spoon-fed by a handful of big corporations.

But the decline in the number of reporters, especially at newspapers, means less digging into the affairs of government and business. What is "most threatened," says the report, "is the big-city metro paper that came to dominate in the latter part of the 20th century . . . Even if newspapers are not dying, they and other old media are constricting, and so, it appears, is the amount of resources dedicated to original newsgathering."

...By the project's count, the industry has lost more than 3,500 newsroom professionals since 2000, a drop of 7 percent. The Washington Post said last week it would seek to cut 80 newsroom jobs through voluntary buyouts, the second such offer in just over two years, and attrition.

Early-evening news ratings for local TV were down 13 percent, the project says. And 60 percent of the local TV newscasts studied by the group -- once traffic, weather and sports are excluded -- consisted of crime and accident stories. What's more, the proportion of stories presented by reporters dropped from 62 percent to 43 percent between 1998 and 2002, leaving these programs increasingly driven by anchors.
[Emphasis added]

The obvious cause for the drop in actual reporters, those who go out and find the facts to write the stories intended to educate the public, is the increasing emphasis on the bottom line. Most news sources (newspapers, television news, news magazines) are owned by major corporations who feel it is more important to satisfy their shareholders than their readers/watchers/listeners. Forty years ago, this wasn't the case. The NY Times, Washington Post, and LA Times were privately owned by families anxious to keep their dynasties going, but not at the cost of delivering the news. There was a balance then that doesn't seem to exist now.

How much corporate ownership affects editorial policy might be difficult to measure, although certainly one can make assumptions. However, the loss of the actual fact finders might be the more important factor in the failure to deliver the news the public needs and deserves.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Oh, Please

There are some days I wonder why I even bother to get out of bed, and today is starting out to be one of them. What set me off is this editorial in today's NY Times. With a title like "Untried, Unjustly," I anticipated something about the illegal detention of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people by the US. Not so. The editorialist was taking aim at the legal system of other countries.

The State Department reports that thousands of prisoners in India are detained awaiting trials for longer periods than they would receive if convicted. In India, Bangladesh, the Dominican Republic, Nigeria and dozens of other nations, the majority of people in prison have not yet been tried. Even in France and Italy, long pretrial detention is a serious problem.

The practice is abusive in many ways. Many of those held will eventually turn out to be innocent. Also, the crime victim's right to justice is violated.
[Emphasis added]

Pot, meet kettle.

The US is "detaining" people in the US, in Iraq, in Guantanamo Bay, and in "black sites" in other countries after extraordinary rendition without formal charges, without access to lawyers, and without inspection of their condition by the International Red Cross. Many of these people have been held in these conditions since 2001, nearly five years. The US would not even cooperate with a United Nations' agency concerned with the 'possible' violation of the prisoners' human rights in such a detention, and only recently released the names of those being held in Guantanamo after ordered to do so by the courts in this country.

Yes, we have a fine legal system for the protection of the rights of those who are detained before trial, but that system apparently doesn't apply to these people, at least according to the Attorney General and the Secretary of Defense.

A small part of me thinks that the editorial was intended as a satiric riff, a Swiftian take-down of the current regime, but, to be frank, I see no evidence in that editorial of such an intent.

I think I'll go back to bed and try to mentally design a device for the removal of the redwood tree firmly embedded in this nation's eye.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

The Chinese Report on Human Rights in the US

No, that's not a typo. The People's Republic of China has issued a report rating the US record on human rights, and it's not very pretty. It is, however, quite accurate. I picked up a nice summary in English at the Xinhua site. Even the summary is quite lengthy (but well worth a full reading), so I'm just going to provide some snippets.

China issued Thursday the Human Rights Record of the United States in 2005 in response to the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2005 issued by the U.S. State Department on Wednesday.

Released by the Information Office of China's State Council, the Chinese report listed a multitude of cases to show the serious violations of human rights both in and outside the United States.

"As in previous years, the U.S. State Department pointed the finger at human rights situations in more than 190 countries and regions (including China) but kept silent on the violations of human rights in the United States," says the document.

To help people realize the true features of this self-styled "guardian of human rights," it is necessary to probe into the human rights abuses in the United States in 2005, it says.

The report contains more than 14,500 Chinese characters and is divided into seven parts: on life and security of person, on infringements upon human rights by law enforcement and judicial organs, on political rights and freedom, on economic, social and cultural rights, on racial discrimination, on rights of women and children and on the United States' violation of human rights in other countries.

"There exist serious infringements upon personal rights and freedoms by law enforcement and judicial organs in the United States," says the record.

Secret snooping is prevalent and illegal detention occurs from time to time. The recently disclosed Snoopgate scandal has aroused keen attention of the public in the United States, according to the record.

After the Sept. 11 Attacks, the U.S. President has for dozens of times authorized the National Security Agency and other departments to wiretap some domestic phone calls.

With this authorization, the National Security Agency may conduct surveillance over phone calls and e-mails of 500 U.S. citizens at a time.

...The United States is the world's richest country, however, it maintains the highest poverty rate among developed countries.

The poverty rate of the United States is the highest in the developed world and more than twice as high as in most other industrialized countries, the record quotes a report of Newsweek magazine as saying.

The United States is a multi-ethnic nation of immigrants, with minority ethnic groups accounting for more than one-fourth of its population. But racial discrimination has long been a chronic malady of American society, says the record.

According to The State of Black America 2005, the income level of African American families is only one-tenth of that of white families...

The United States does not have a good record in safeguarding rights of women and children, says the document.

A survey by the U.S. Census Bureau said the median earnings of women and men in 2004 were 31,223 and 40,798 U.S. dollars, respectively. The female-to-male earnings ratio was 77 percent.

In terms of the child poverty index, the United States ranked next to the last among 22 developed nations in the world.

"For years, the U.S. government has ignored and concealed deliberately serious violations of human rights in its own country for fear of criticism, "says the report.

Yet it has issued annual reports making unwarranted charges on human rights practices of other countries, an act that fully exposes its hypocrisy and double standard on human rights issues, which has naturally met with strong resistance and opposition from other countries, the record notes.

"We urge the U.S. government to look squarely at its own human rights problems, reflect what it has done in the human rights field and take concrete measures to improve its own human rights status," it says.
[Emphasis added]

How embarrassing is that?

Waiting Us Out

Once again Congress has neatly side-stepped ethics reform by using one of the most time-honored strategies: waiting for the notoriously short attention span of the US public to be diverted elsewhere. This time it was the Dubai Ports World scandal. Americans became so het up over the thought of foreigners (Arabs foreigners, to be precise) controlling our ports that they stopped worrying so much about lobbyists owning their elected representatives. The NY Times has the story.

The drive for a tighter lobbying law, just two months ago a major priority on Capitol Hill, is losing momentum, a victim of shifting political interests, infighting among House Republicans and a growing sense among lawmakers of both parties that wholesale change may not be needed after all.

In January, shortly after the lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty to corruption charges, Mr. Dreier and Speaker J. Dennis Hastert called for tough restrictions, including a ban on gifts, meals and privately financed travel. They said their aim was to have legislation drafted by February. But the new majority leader, Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, is not keen on the travel ban, and there is still no legislation.

...The initial fervor for legislation was fueled by the Abramoff scandal, coupled with the resignation of Representative Randy Cunningham, Republican of California, after he pleaded guilty in another corruption case. With the midterm elections on the horizon, lawmakers seemed in a big hurry for reform. Republicans in particular worried that the ethics issue would turn on them the way it did on Democrats in 1994, when Republicans took control of the House.

The initial votes on the Senate bill have shown the limits of the appetite for change. Already a Senate committee has rejected a plan, advanced by Ms. Collins and Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, Democrat of Connecticut, to create an independent office to investigate ethics abuses. And while the Senate did vote this week in favor of a ban on gifts and meals from lobbyists, the real fight will be over whether to limit a much more lucrative perk: private travel, and lawmakers' use of corporate jets.

There has been little political fallout from the Abramoff case, according to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. A survey by the center in January, the week after Mr. Abramoff's guilty plea, found that just 18 percent of Americans had closely followed the case; by comparison, 32 percent had closely followed President Bush's acknowledgment that he had authorized the National Security Agency to conduct some domestic wiretapping without warrants.

...Outside observers say it will now take another eruption — the indictment of a member of Congress in the Abramoff inquiry, or a similar scandalous event — to put the issue front and center again.

One expert on money in politics, Prof. James A. Thurber of American University, predicted that any legislation would amount to "lobby lite" unless more lawmakers were prosecuted. And Norman J. Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who has testified frequently on lobbying law changes, said: "The fervor for reform in this case was driven by a fear that a match was about to be lit to dry tinder. They were scared to death they would go back home and people would be waiting as they got off the plane with buckets of tar and bales of feathers."
[Emphasis added]

There are a couple of things at play here. First and foremost is the fact that members of Congress consider such things as free travel in style, both on private and governmental business, is a perquisite, an entitlement. That they are expected to 'pay' for such luxury with legislation favorable to their monied hosts doesn't bother them in the least. It's how things get done in Washington.

Equally as troubling is that even when confronted with the corrupting effects of such behavior, they all just shrug, knowing that in a few days or weeks, the furor will die down and they will be able to go back to business as usual.

The only hope for real reform this time around is indeed some indictments issuing from the Abramoff scandal. With any luck at all those indictments will issue one at a time, starting in, oh, say, April.

Friday, March 10, 2006

More Election Year Dancing

Now that the edge has been taken off the Dubai Ports World furor, the Congressional Republicans are busy patting themselves on the back. They stood up to their President in the name of national security and won.

Big deal.

Chances are, only a handful of those oh-so-brave senators and representatives were aware of the key reason the deal should have been squelched: the company in question wasn't just an Arab run business, it was owned by the government of the United Arab Emirates. That fact wasn't trumpeted in the press the way it ought to have been. Only a handful of articles in the "liberal" press even mentioned it, and then did so only by burying it in the last paragraph.

Still, the GOP congress critters did face BushCo down, which is a bit rare. In an analysis piece, the NY Times did acknowledge the probable reason for the sudden bit of spine.

When President Bush and senior adviser Karl Rove mapped out plans for a political comeback in 2006, this was nowhere on the script. Suddenly, the collapse of a port-management deal neither even knew about a month ago has devastated the White House and raised questions about its ability to lead even fellow Republicans.

The bipartisan uprising in Congress in the face of a veto threat represented a singular defeat for Bush, who when it came to national security grew accustomed during his first five years in office to leading as he chose and having loyal lawmakers fall in line. Now, with his poll numbers in a political ditch, the port debacle has contributed to a perception of weakness that has liberated Republicans who once would never have dared cross Bush.

...Now the estrangement increasingly appears even on national security issues, where Republicans long deferred to the president. Recent rebukes run from the ports deal to a ban on torture to Patriot Act revisions forced on Bush in exchange for congressional approval. Partly in the name of national security, Republican leaders also seem poised to dismiss Bush's proposal for a guest-worker program for illegal immigrants.
[Emphasis added]

Is the Republican Congress moving to the right of the Emperor on national security issues? Well, not really.

First, it would be hard to move to the right of someone who has not demonstrated any real competence in actual security. On the issue of port security, for example, the number of cargo containers that are searched at the point of entry is far less than ten per cent. There apparently isn't any money for that in the Department for Homeland Security budget. It just wasn't important until the Dubai Ports World deal came down.

Next, this regime's idea of acting for national security usually boils down to illegally wire tapping Americans and to examining their public library activities and spending habits. The Republican Congress don't seem to be bucking the regime on those activities. They backed down from any meaningful investigation of the NSA warrantless spying and instead are essentially giving the Emperor a get out of jail free card for his prior (and confessed) illegal activity. They passed the Patriot Act in pretty much the same form the regime demanded, extracting only a vague promise not to torture people before doing so.

No, this Congress isn't moving to the right of the Emperor and his minions. As I pointed out in a post from a couple of days ago, it's an election year. Bush's poll numbers are in the tank. A little push-back on what will probably be just a minor issue now that the UAE has backed down satisfied the folks back home.

It's business as usual.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

A Different Kind of Trickle-Down

Like most Coastal and Beltway Liberal Elites, I tend to rely on the major newspapers as a gauge of the news. Here on this blog, I tend to over-emphasize the NY Times, LA Times, and Washington Post, mainly because those are what the Washington politicians and officials read. However, the US is a big country, and the national frame of mind (assuming there is such a thing)is as much influenced and educated by local and regional papers as anything else. For example, the papers in Florida are giving Katherine Harris fits in her campaign for the Senate by their non-stop coverage of the contributions to her earlier successful House campaign by a man closely allied with Jack Abramoff.

For that reason, I think it's time to start paying attention to some of the 'smaller' papers, like the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Philadelphia Inquirer, Chicago Tribune, and (today) the Minneapolis Star Tribune. These papers tend to print "second tier" syndicated columnists for national pieces, people like Molly Ivins and Steve Chapman. Yesterday, in the STrib, Chapman had a column which quite nicely analysed the recent Zogby poll of members of the military in Iraq.

In Iraq, the Bush administration has learned to set the bar low: Avoiding the worst possible outcome now passes for success.

For nearly three years, Americans have been told that we are making progress in bringing stability and democratic government to Iraq. But that state of affairs, like the horizon, keeps receding as we approach. Lately, the carnage has been waxing, not waning. Last month, for example, Iraq suffered 39 "multiple fatality bombings." The previous February, there were 18.

...[Secretary of State]Rice may be optimistic, but Americans find it hard to justify the loss of American lives in a war we don't seem to know how to win, no matter how many insurgents we kill. In the latest poll, only 30 percent approve of how President Bush is handling Iraq.

War supporters can no longer pretend to represent the silent majority of Americans. So in the face of popular disenchantment, they now claim to be speaking for the men and women fighting in Iraq. The conservative group Progress for America has begun airing TV ads asserting that "American troops overwhelmingly support the mission President Bush has given them."

In this view, Americans have turned against the war only because the news media have denied them the truth about everything our military is achieving in Iraq -- and anyone opposing the war is guilty of betraying the troops.

But that claim turns out to be fraudulent. A new poll by Zogby International finds that 29 percent of those serving in Iraq think the United States should leave "immediately," and 51 percent favor a pullout within the next six months. Fewer than one in four of our soldiers agrees that we should remain as long as necessary.

More than 40 percent of those carrying out the mission President Bush has given them say they are not sure what that mission is. Amazingly, the people with an up-close view of Iraq see things pretty much the same way as those forced to rely on the defeatist news media.

...In this debate, war supporters are at odds not so much with critics as they are with reality.
[Emphasis added]

Now, the Zogby poll has received plenty of ink and face time from the major media outlets, not to mention plenty of spinning electrons on the internet. It is nice to see that people in the midwest are also reading about that poll, especially from a gentleman like Mr. Chapman, who can hardly be called a shrill partisan.

This might also explain why the President's poll numbers are dropping like a stone all over the country. People outside the Beltway are actually getting the news, and, well, getting the news.

Now if we can just get them to actually vote this November...

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Silly Season Or Cynical Season?

It's an election year, alright. Moves by congressional Republicans are beginning to make that very clear. Faced with ongoing scandals and an increasingly unpopular president, many have settled on what they consider to be a very canny strategy: distance themselves from the White House on a relatively minor issue, work with the White House on a major issue, but always appear to be on the side of greater national security. The strategy is Rovean and might very well have been conceived by the master himself.

The NY Times has two articles which delineate the strategy quite clearly. The first lays out the House Republican's plan on the Dubai Ports World kerfuffle.

Defying President Bush, House Republican leaders said Tuesday that they would take immediate steps to scuttle a deal giving a Dubai company control of some major seaport operations without awaiting the outcome of a 45-day review of potential security risks.

Representative Jerry Lewis, the California Republican who is chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said he would use a committee hearing on Wednesday to add a provision preventing the deal from moving forward.

Mr. Lewis said he would add the provision to an essential emergency spending measure that provides money for the war in Iraq and for Hurricane Katrina recovery. "It is my intention to lay the foundation to block the deal," he said.

...The House effort marked a remarkable public breach with the White House after years of working in tandem or quietly settling any differences behind closed doors. It demonstrated that the administration's effort to dampen opposition by negotiating a new security review and emphasizing Dubai's strategic value as an asset was failing.

...The decision by House Republicans to act was infused with election year political calculations. Republican members have been bombarded with protests from constituents alarmed at the proposal, and the agreement for a 45-day review has done little to slow the outpouring.
[Emphasis added]

While I happen to believe that foreign governments should not have any control over vital US infrastructure, and I am sure many Americans agree with this proposition, I am also reasonably certain that House Republicans are relieved to have found an issue on which they can loudly slap the hand of the Emperor without appearing weak on security. I suspect that their brothers and sisters in the Senate will be happy to go along on this move.

On another major issue, however, the Senate Republicans have made it clear that they will be happy to go along with the White House, and this is where the second NY Times article comes in.

Moving to tamp down Democratic calls for an investigation of the administration's domestic eavesdropping program, Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee said Tuesday that they had reached agreement with the White House on proposed bills to impose new oversight but allow wiretapping without warrants for up to 45 days.

The agreement, hashed out in weeks of negotiations between Vice President Dick Cheney and Republicans critical of the program, dashes Democratic hopes of starting a full committee investigation because the proposal won the support of Senators Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Olympia J. Snowe of Maine. The two, both Republicans, had threatened to support a fuller inquiry if the White House did not disclose more about the program to Congress.

...Democrats called the deal an abdication of the special bipartisan committee's role as a watchdog, saying the Republicans had in effect blessed the program before learning how it worked or what it entailed.

"The committee is, to put it bluntly, basically under the control of the White House," said Senator John D. Rockefeller IV, the West Virginia Democrat who is vice chairman of the panel.

...The proposed bill would allow the president to authorize wiretapping without seeking a warrant for up to 45 days if the communication under surveillance involved someone suspected of being a member of or a collaborator with a specified list of terrorist groups and if at least one party to the conversation was outside the United States.
[Emphasis added]

As far as the Republican Senators are concerned, security means only being secure from terrorist bombs, not being secure in one's home and in one's speech. They are perfectly willing to reward a criminal who admitted his criminal wrongdoing, i.e. illegal wiretapping, by forgiving his past behavior and imposing laughably lax restrictions which make his future behavior only slightly illegal as long as it makes them look strong on security issues in an election year.

And the truly sad thing about all of this is that this cynical strategy may very well work.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Complicating the Ballot

Every election in California produces the longest, most complicated ballot imaginable. It's not that we have an unusually high number of elected offices to fill. It's that we inevitably have an untowardly number of ballot propositions. The state-issued election guide frequently reaches Yellow Pages proportions. Who has time to read all of that stuff?

I decided a while back that as a matter of course I would vote no on each and every proposition. After all, legislating is what I pay my legislators to do. The problem is that they are simply not doing their job, although it's not always their fault. For example, a bill which raises taxes requires a "super-majority" for passage, which even in a legislature controlled by one party is almost impossible to assemble. In any event, I am reconsidering my position on propositions this time around. The reason? Rob Reiner (yes, another California actor with political aspirations) is pushing a proposition for pre-school classes for 4-year-olds.

E.J. Dionne had a pretty perceptive column on the issue which I found in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Reiner hopes to persuade his fellow citizens, first in California and then in the nation, that they can get a return on their tax dollars.

His current crusade is Proposition 82, an initiative on California's June ballot that would provide an estimated $2.4 billion a year to guarantee preschool for every 4-year-old in California. The initiative would pay for this by increasing the state's top tax rate, currently 9.3 percent, to 11 percent for couples earning over $800,000 a year and individuals earning over $400,000.

Conservatives leaders dislike his initiative, Reiner said, because "they have cemented the notion that raising taxes for any purpose is tantamount to murdering someone." Taxpayers are indeed reluctant to support general tax increases, he said, but "the American public has no problem raising taxes if it's for something good." He thinks that California, which started the tax revolt in the late 1970s, could inaugurate a new era of public investment in things that matter.

And preschool matters. Hardheaded economists have argued that of all the investments government can make to improve educational outcomes and future opportunities, preschool may be the most efficient. James J. Heckman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, and Pedro Carneiro have noted that when early chances to form human abilities are missed, "remediation is costly, and full remediation is often prohibitively costly."

And if Reiner can provoke a new debate on taxing, spending and the value of preschool, he will earn himself a political Oscar.
[Emphasis added]

Education specialists pretty much agree that preschool attendance by 4-year-olds can make a dramatic difference in education success overall. The children learn socialization skills and the basic building blocks which will enable them to learn reading and ciphering more easily and enjoyably. Preschool for 4-year-olds may also simplify child-care issues for single parent families and for families in which both parents must work to sustain the family unit.

So what's the problem? It's expensive, as public education always is. Reiner's proposal is not all that outlandish in that, relatively speaking, the people who would be paying for it can afford the tax hike, especially since those in the designated bracket have been getting a whole lot of tax breaks at the federal level for the past several years and will get an even larger break in terms of a federal deduction for state taxes paid.

The California legislature has been asked by Reiner and others to address this issue, but the response has been silence. It's that old "we can't raise taxes right now" response. This just might be one time that I vote yes on a proposition. I hope other Californians will as well.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Surprise, Surprise, Surprise

Yesterday I posted a couple of foreign news articles about the US deal with India which allowed it pretty free rein when it came to nuclear development (scroll down to "Hitting the Trifecta"). One of the points made was that the world sees the US treating countries differently on the nuclear issue depending on how "close" to the US they are, regardless of the rules of the Non-proliferation Treaty. Today, the NY Times has an article which suggests that there has already been some fall-out by the US-India deal.

Iran and the United States on Sunday heralded a crucial week of decision-making at the International Atomic Energy Agency by exchanging thinly veiled threats about the consequences of a vote to send the issue of Iran's nuclear program to the U.N. Security Council.

Iran's chief negotiator renewed a threat to interrupt petroleum exports if the IAEA board of governors followed through on its vote last month to report Iran to the Security Council pending a last stab at a diplomatic solution. Iran is the second-largest producer in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries.

"If we are referred to the Security Council, problems might occur for others as well as us," Ali Larijani said at a news conference. "We would not like to use our oil as a weapon. We would not like to make other countries suffer."

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John R. Bolton, in turn warned of "painful consequences" if Iran made good on a separate threat, also repeated Sunday in Tehran, to answer a punitive vote by moving rapidly toward large-scale uranium enrichment. Enriching uranium can produce fuel for civilian power reactors, which is all Iran says its nuclear program is intended for. The same process, if taken further, can also produce fuel for nuclear warheads, which the Bush administration and other skeptics assert is Iran's ultimate goal.

"The Iran regime must be made aware that if it continues down the path of international isolation, there will be tangible and painful consequences," Bolton said at the convention of a pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Reuters news agency reported. He said the United States was prepared to "use all the tools at our disposal to stop the threat." President Bush has repeatedly said the possibility of military strikes remains "on the table" even as Washington endorsed an intense international diplomatic effort.
[Emphasis added]

The current US regime had to have known that the announcement of the nuclear deal with India (who is a non-signatory to the Non-proliferation Treaty) would throw a monkey wrench into the delicate negotiations between Russia and Iran on the nuclear enrichment issue, negotiations which had reached a crucial stage at the time of the announcement. Certainly two possibilities are suggested by the US move.

The first is that the US regime simply didn't care. It certainly wouldn't be the first time that cowboy diplomacy was called into play. As the big kid on the block, this administration continues to feel it can do whatever it wants, whenever it wants, for any reason it wants.

The second, and far more unsettling, possibility is that the rush to get the agreement with India signed was precisely to kill the negotiations between the Russians and Iranians so that the US could justify a military action against Iran. The Emperor and his minions have all along made it clear that a "military option" always remains on the table.

Regardless of which scenario is in play, and it is possible that both are, the move by the administration in its deal with India was ill conceived and ill timed. I suspect we are going to pay for this stupidity in ways we can't even nightmare about.

Heckuva job, George.