Friday, August 31, 2007

Adventures in letter-writing

On August 24, the Toronto Star (Canada) published an article griping that NAFTA
has become a convenient target for those seeking the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination who are following a campaign rite of demonizing trade deals to appease the party's labour base before moving to the centre during the general election.
It quoted some of those Democratic criticisms and then turned to one Elliot Feldman for a comment. The article seemed clearly biased to me, so I did a simply search on "Elliot Feldman" and immediately came up with a result that prompted me to write to The Star. My letter was published on August 27. Now, what makes this worthy of note is how the letter was edited. What follows is the letter as I sent it. The italicized parts are what the editors at The Star removed prior to publication, the words in brackets are ones they added. The individual words changed are irrelevant - notice the whole sentences.
So Elliot Feldman wants to "inject a bit of reality" into the NAFTA debate ("Democratic presidential contenders trash NAFTA," August 24)? We could have used instead a little reality from The Star.

You[r article] quote[s] various Democrats criticizing NAFTA, but the only person quoted [who's] looking at those statements is Mr. Feldman, who you describe only as "a Washington-based trade expert." But in fact, his own bio says he is a former Director of the Canadian-American Business Council, which is a corporate lobbying group, and "a frequent legal adviser to the Government of Canada in WTO cases."

So when Mr. Feldman goes on about Democrats' "base instincts" and George [W.] Bush's supposed "protectionism" and rails against the softwood lumber agreement, he's not injecting "reality," he's injecting the views of business associates and clients. For you to describe and present him as if he was some neutral party was misleading and unprofessional.

I expected better from you.
So what was intended as a criticism of the paper as biased was turned into a criticism of Feldman as biased by selective editing. The only defense for that would be that the paper never made any attempt to learn anything of Feldman's background before quoting him - and I really don't see how that's an improvement. Maybe I shouldn't have expected better after all.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

A philosophical aside

This has nothing to do with anything else, it's a purely philosophical musing, but it was prompted by the story about Dr. Pou so it seemed reasonable to include it here.

First, you should know that her jeopardy is not over: She still faces civil lawsuits brought by relatives of patients who died. She says she did administer morphine and a sedative but insists that she did not intend any harm; it was palliative.

Okay, read the interview, consider the situation, consider the condition of the patients. Then consider this:

There was an episode of ST:TOS called "The Conscience of the King." A man known to history as Kodos the Executioner, who executed (painlessly, but still executed) 4000 residents of a starving planet to save the rest, is now hiding from his past as Karidian, the leader of a traveling Shakespearean acting troupe. Kirk is suspicious of him and presses him on his possible connection to Kodos.

At one point, Karidian asks Kirk "What would history have said about Kodos if the relief ship had not arrived months ahead of schedule?" Kirk says it doesn't matter because history has made its judgment, but the question about desperate actions in desperate circumstances does linger.

Just suppose for the sake of the thought, just suppose, that Dr. Pou did commit mercy killings of very sick, suffering patients who had little hope of surviving long enough to be evacuated. Does our judgment about her moral guilt (we're not talking legal guilt here) vary with whether or not it ultimately turned out they could have been evacuated in time? Why or why not?

Yesterday


Yes, it was yesterday. The anniversary was yesterday. And I missed the anniversary. But when it first happened, it took me a week to bring myself to write something about Katrina, because as I said at the time, every time I tried I was
stymied not only by the magnitude of the event but even more by the fact that every time I start, I come across some new outrage, some new fact or revelation that points out in ever-sharper relief the devastation, the pain - the appallingly unnecessary pain - the loss, the murderous indifference of those who were warned, who were told in so many words that this could happen but who ignored it because, why, because it wasn't politically useful? Because the people at risk were poor and black and so no one cared?
Of course it wasn't true that "no one" cared. But it was true that the only entity with the resources to move effectively - the executive branch of the federal government - certainly didn't seem to at the time and even nearly eighteen months, even two years, later, seemingly still doesn't.

There has been a good deal of coverage of the anniversary both in the regular media and on the blogs. So rather than try to cover the same ground that others are, I just wanted to snap off a few items that seemed to illustrate the anniversary, at least to me.

- WDSU in New Orleans reports that black contractors claim they've been "frozen out" of federal contracts awarded by the Army Corps of Engineers and FEMA for rebuilding work in the city while the agencies continue to "dole out billions of dollars to large corporations."

- The Institute for Southern Studies says that of the federal money that came into the Gulf Coast region in the wake of Katrina, only $35 billion - less than a third of the total - was for reconstruction and recovery. And now, two years later, only 42% of that has been spent. As of July, the group says, only one-fifth of the money appropriated to the Corps of Engineers to rebuild New Orleans' levees has been spent and the Corps admits the work won't be finished for another four years.

- In the wake of the hurricane, two nurses and a physician were arrested and charged with the mercy killings of nine patients in a hospital who could not be evacuated because of the slow and inept response of FEMA. The charges against the nurses were dropped in exchange for grand jury testimony. In late July, the grand jury refused to indict the physician, Dr. Anna Pou. Newsweek has an article about the case and an interview with Dr. Pou.

- Senator Chris Dodd (D-WeCouldDoWorse) has a decent bill for Gulf Coast relief and reconstruction which has the support of the producers of a short film about the on-going aftermath of Katrina called "When the Saints Go Marching In," the video displayed at the top of the post. More personal stories can be found at Voices From the Gulf.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Anageekda!

And you thought Kansas was empty.
Astronomers say they’ve apparently found a giant hole in the universe - a practically empty zone, called a void, whose gaping size is hard to explain.

While past studies had revealed other voids, this one dwarfs them all, researchers say, being nearly a billion light-years across. [Something over six million billion billion miles.] ....

“We never even expected to find [a void] this size,” said Lawrence Rudnick, an astronomer at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, Minn. It’s “not normal, based on either observational studies or on computer simulations of the large-scale evolution of the universe,” added the university’s Liliya Williams. ...

Cosmic voids are areas lacking both normal material, such as stars, galaxies and gas, and the mysterious “dark matter” that is also common in the universe. Voids seem to be rarer the bigger they are, astronomers said.
The void sits in a region of the sky in the constellation Eridanus. In addition to being much bigger than any previously-observed void - something over six times the volume of the next biggest - it is also much further away: 6-10 billion light-years versus about one billion light-years.
“We already knew there was something different about this spot,” Rudnick said: it was dubbed the “WMAP Cold Spot,” because it stood out as unusually cold in a map of the background radiation that permeates the cosmos. This radiation - a remnant of the Big Bang explosion thought to have given birth to the universe - was mapped using a satellite called WMAP, for Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe.
(The phrase "the Big Bang explosion" is actually misleading since nothing actually exploded as with a bomb. The word here should rather be understood in the sense of "very rapid expansion or increase.")

"Cold" in this case refers to the amount of energy in the cosmic background radiation reaching Earth from that part of the sky. Heat is a form of energy, and so the less energy the photons of that radiation have, the "colder" they are. For reasons I won't go into having to do with dark energy (the linked article at World Science goes into it a little), the coldness of that region of space matches up well with the lack of matter in it, so the two observations tend to confirm each other.

That still leaves the question of the existence of this huge void so far away (and so long ago, since the farther away something in space is, the longer it's taken information to reach us and therefore the further back in time that information arose). Examining that question could give greater insight into how our universe came to be the way it is.

Footnote: I have nothing against Kansas, I swear I don't. Well, other than the fact that some idiot regressives there keep trying to get their theology into the study of evolution - but since they keep failing, well, I can forgive that. Until next time.

It's more that I still remember waking up in the morning in Kansas, driving west through unchanging landscape all day, and stopping to rest for the night - still in Kansas.

On the other hand, the state had about the best highway rest stops going: You could park overnight, they had picnic tables with barbecue pits, hot and cold water in the restrooms, they were cool. Maybe I should take a trip back there to see if they're still like that.

The Green Lantergeek

video

A new form of lightning dubbed "gigantic jets" was discovered only in 2001, when Dr. Victor Pasko at the Aricebo Observatory in Puerto Rico spotted one.
Think of them as sprites on steroids[, says Spaceweather.com; scroll down to "Gigantic Jets"]: Gigantic Jets are lightning-like discharges that spring from the top of thunderstorms, reaching all the way from the thunderhead to the ionosphere 50+ miles overhead. They are enormous and powerful.

You've never seen one? "Gigantic Jets are rare," explains atmospheric scientist and Jet-expert Oscar van der Velde of the Université Paul Sabatier's Laboratoire d’Aérologie in Toulouse, France.
Rare, indeed: Since Dr. Pasko's discovery,
fewer than 30 jets have been recorded - mostly over open ocean and on only two occasions over land. [Here's a report on one of those sightings.]

That's why researchers are excited by the events of Aug. 20th. On that night, amateur astronomer Richard Smedley of Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, was hunting for meteors using a low light video camera when instead he caught two Gigantic Jets.
"Gigantic" is a good name for them: The storm that produced them was more than 100 miles away, in Missouri. That enabled researchers to estimate the length of the strike: something around 48 miles. Compare that to a typical cloud-to-ground strike, which may reach three or four miles.
Because they connect thunderstorms directly to the ionosphere, Gigantic Jets play some role in the global flow of electricity around our planet, but how big is that role? "No one knows," says van der Velde. "This is cutting-edge research and these photos from Oklahoma provide an exciting new case-study."
Various types of upward-striking lighting, dubbed sprites, jets, and elves, have only recently - since roughly 1990 - been recognized and seriously studied. Interestingly, it's possible they were responsible for the "UFO" sightings that supposedly every airline pilot had seen but had learned not to report.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Coming up next: the exciting new "Disaster!" spin-off!

Recently, Robert Baer, ex-CIA officer and now TIME.com's intelligence columnist, caused a stir by writing that
[r]eports that the Bush Administration will put Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps on the terrorism list can be read in one of two ways: it's either more bluster or, ominously, a wind-up for a strike on Iran. Officials I talk to in Washington vote for a hit on the IRGC, maybe within the next six months. And they think that as long as we have bombers and missiles in the air, we will hit Iran's nuclear facilities. An awe and shock campaign, lite, if you will.
Baer notes the claim that only a nation-state is capable of producing the deadly explosive formed projectiles, or EFPs. That would seem to be belied by the fact that two years ago intelligence officials were pointing to the existence of training materials describing how to make improvised versions of the charges, but never mind; Baer doesn't endorse the claim, he just reports it, admittedly without rebuttal or comment.

The point here is that Baer quotes an administration official as saying
"IRGC IED's are a casus belli for this Administration. There will be an attack on Iran."
Interestingly, however, McClatchy newspapers also reported on the idea of declaring the Revolutionary Guard "a foreign terrorist organization." Doing so, it noted, would mark the first time that a military unit of a national government was declared a terrorist group. It would certainly be destructive: at best inflammatory and almost certainly putting an end to any hope for US-Iran negotiations. But that report also suggested that Condoleeza Rice was behind the move and that
State Department officials and foreign diplomats see Rice's push for the declaration against the Revolutionary Guards as an effort to blunt arguments by Vice President Dick Cheney and his allies for air strikes on Iran. By making the declaration, they feel, Rice can strike out at a key Iranian institution without resorting to military action while still pushing for sanctions in the United Nations.
That is, rather than being advanced within the internal White House struggle as a basis to attack Iran, it's being pushed as a way to head off an attack by upping the ante in a way that would allow for other sanctions besides war. However,
[p]artisans of military force argue that Rice's strategy has failed to change Tehran's behavior.
So the push for war, lead by the ghoulish, bloodthirsty Veep, continues. The real danger here, and something of which I'm sure "The Big" Dick is aware, is that
"[t]he coercion ... undermines diplomacy. And once diplomacy is undermined, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy," said Ray Takeyh, an Iran expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.
In other words, if McClatchy is right and it's an attempt by Rice to head off a direct strike, it may well do so in the short run only to make one more likely, even certain, in the longer run by creating a situation in which even those within the adminsitration who do not want to attack Iran come to feel that they must accede to it because the US couldn't not attack without losing that "credibility" in which they place so much stock. Yes, that is an astonishingly amoral position but still one likely to be adopted by "realistic" foreign policy advisers both in an out of the White House, people to who morality is a convenience, something nice to have as a frill, but not a guiding concern.

That situation of having to defend "credibility" is already being created by the Bushites:
The Bush administration has been engaging Iran in a increasingly strident war of words since the spring, when the Bush administration demanded tougher U.N. sanctions over Iran's nuclear energy program. ...

Recently, the administration has stepped up the rhetoric, accusing Iran of providing Shiite Muslim militias in Iraq with particularly deadly roadside bombs that have killed dozens of U.S. service members.
In fact, the military has now gotten very specific, according to another McClatchy report:
For the first time, the U.S. military said on Sunday that Iranian soldiers are in Iraq training insurgents to attack American forces.

Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, a top U.S. commander who is in charge of a large swath of Iraq south of Baghdad, believes there are about 50 members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps in his battlefield area, military spokeswoman Maj. Alayne Conway said.
The report also said that US military officials specifically named Muqtada al Sadr's so-called Mahdi Army (which isn't really an army, more one of the numerous militias; about every political party in Iraq has one) as the recipient of Iranian weapons.

And what's more, Baer writes that
there's a belief among neo-cons that the IRGC is the one obstacle to a democratic and friendly Iran. They believe that if we were to get rid of the IRGC, the clerics would fall, and our thirty-years war with Iran over.
They're aiding our enemies. They're supplying terrorists, in fact they are terrorists. They're gonna get The Bomb. We'll be seen as liberators. My god, they didn't even have to change the script. These are deeply warped people.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled "Disaster!"

So hey, guess what? Things are looking up in Iraq! Yes! The president has been vindicated and the naysayers vanquished! So much so that, the Washington Post said on Wednesday,
Democratic leaders in Congress [who] had planned to use August recess to raise the heat on Republicans to break with President Bush on the Iraq war ... have been forced to recalibrate their own message in the face of recent positive signs on the security front....
For example,
"We've begun to change tactics in Iraq, and in some areas, particularly in Anbar province, it's working," Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) said in a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars on Monday.

"My assessment is that if we put an additional 30,000 of our troops into Baghdad, that's going to quell some of the violence in the short term," Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) echoed in a conference call with reporters Tuesday. "I don't think there's any doubt that as long as U.S. troops are present that they are going to be doing outstanding work."
So, yeah, it's going better and better! The "surge" is surging! Just look at Anbar Province! Of course, that had nothing to do with the "surge," but never mind! Violence is down! Of course, that's largely due to the fact that the military keeps changing how it reports it, so
[d]espite the military's assertion that violence has dropped significantly since the surge began in February, statistics compiled by McClatchy Newspapers show that while the number of bodies found in the streets has dropped, the overall level of violence is unchanged.
And of course there's the fact that, as laid out in today's New York Times,
[t]he number of Iraqis fleeing their homes has soared since the American troop increase began in February, according to data from two humanitarian groups, accelerating the partition of the country into sectarian enclaves. ...

Statistics collected by one of the two humanitarian groups, the Iraqi Red Crescent Organization, indicate that the total number of internally displaced Iraqis has more than doubled, to 1.1 million from 499,000, since the buildup started in February. ...

The findings also indicate that the sectarian tension the troops were meant to defuse is still intense in many places in Iraq. Sixty-three percent of the Iraqis surveyed by the United Nations said they had fled their neighborhoods because of direct threats to their lives, and more than 25 percent because they had been forcibly removed from their homes.
Get that? A big part of the reason for any "decline" in sectarian violence is that it's succeeding. Neighborhoods are being ethnically cleansed and isolated.

But never mind! Who cares? Certainly not us! Because we know things are getting better! Why, just look at the new National Intelligence Estimate, released yesterday: It says security will improve over the next six to 12 months! Of course, it says the improvement will be "modest" and that violence will remain high, but just you never mind! Things will be great in just, um, how long, guys?
The U.S military will begin pulling out the additional troops it sent to Iraq as part of the so-called surge next spring and will have completed their withdrawal by next August, [Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno,] the No. 2 American commander in Iraq said Friday.
Oh, so a year from now troop levels will be back to where they were last December? Uh, well, okay, sure! And the rest of them?
[On Sunday, Rear Adm. Mark] Fox, [a U.S. military spokesman,] said he didn't know how large an Iraqi security presence is needed before U.S. troops can start pulling out of Iraq or how long that will take.

Determining an appropriate security force size is "a work in progress, quite frankly," Fox said.
Oh. Uh.... Hmmm. Well, do you have any idea how long this is going to take?
Gen. George Casey - the former top commander in Iraq and now the Army chief of staff — declared that Iraq will be a remarkable country “in a decade or so” if we maintain the U.S. occupation. ...

Casey’s comments echo those of the current top commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) disclosed that on her recent visit to Iraq, Petraeus told her that the U.S. “will be in Iraq in some way for 9 or 10 years.”
:cough:

Yeah, things are going great.

Well, but certainly the Democrats will ultimately save us from this, won't they? Tell us, Bloomberg News!
Senator Hillary Clinton warned Democrats not to "oversell" plans to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq, setting a cautious tone on the war that was echoed by the party's two other leading presidential candidates.

Clinton and her main competitors for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, Senator Barack Obama and former Senator John Edwards, agreed in a debate [Sunday] morning that pulling U.S. forces out of Iraq can't be accomplished in just a few months and that any withdrawal must be balanced by security concerns. ...

Biden led the other Democrats in disagreeing [with New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson's six-month timetable]. "It's time to start to level with the American people," Biden said. "If we leave Iraq and we leave it in chaos, there'll be regional war. The regional war will engulf us for a generation."

Clinton said Biden is "absolutely right," cautioning that "this is going to be very dangerous and very difficult' and "a lot of people don't like to hear that." ...

Obama said Biden is right and that "this is not going to be a simple operation."
Damn.

(To be fair, Edwards did not oppose a deadline, he said rather than Richardson's was too optimistic, suggesting something more like 10 months, sort of splitting the political difference between a firm deadline and "when the security situation improves." But more importantly, none of the big three call for all troops to be withdrawn, just "most" troops or "combat" troops.)

Meanwhile, the WaPo says that advisers to Clinton and Obama said their statements in support of the reports of improvement on the ground were
political as well as substantive statements, part of a broader Democratic effort to frame Petraeus's report before it is released next month by preemptively acknowledging some military success in the region.
I suppose that looks like smart politics and perhaps it is if you're thinking of positioning for the 2008 election rather than ending the war, but that kind of cynical triangulation is part of what brought us to this turn in the first place. Why they think it's going to work any better now is beyond me - except, that is, they figure that the real antiwar electorate will decide it has nowhere else to go than whoever the Dummycrat candidate is so there's no risk from repeatedly slapping that electorate in the face.

Okay, but leave all that aside. Because at least now, with all that's happened of late, we finally know where to place the blame. Nope, not on the Shrub gang, panting for war with Iraq from the git-go. And not on the intelligence community that told the panting mouth-breathers what they wanted to hear. Nor on the Congress that kept - and keeps - going "uh-huh, yep, whatever you say." And certainly not on our illegal, immoral invasion and occupation of a foreign nation which has plunged it into sectarian violence, civil war, chaos, and death, a nation now awash with American-supplied weapons, including about 110,000 AK-47 rifles and 80,000 pistols the Government Accountability Office says cannot be accounted for. (That's on top of the literally hundreds of thousands of small arms that can't be traced to a particular owner and the weapons taken from unsecured Iraqi caches in the wake of the invasion.) Not on any of the stupidity, the inanity, or the cruelty. Nope, to the great relief of our politicians and pundits, they're all exonerated, every one. The real fault, we now know for sure, the real blame for the entire mess lies with the Iraqi government.
Declaring the government of Iraq "non-functional," the influential chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee said yesterday that Iraq's parliament should oust Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his cabinet if they are unable to forge a political compromise with rival factions in a matter of days[, the Washington Post reported on Tuesday].

"I hope the parliament will vote the Maliki government out of office and will have the wisdom to replace it with a less sectarian and more unifying prime minister and government," Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) said after a three-day trip to Iraq and Jordan. ...

Levin's comments to reporters followed the release of a joint statement with the second-ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, Sen. John W. Warner (Va.), which was pessimistic about Iraq's political future. The statement referred to a round of recent meetings between Maliki, who is backed by President Bush, and Iraqi political leaders as "the last chance for this government to solve the Iraqi political crisis."
And that in turn was followed up by the statement of
Hillary Rodham Clinton[, who] said Wednesday the Iraqi Parliament should replace embattled Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki with a "less divisive and more unifying figure" to reconcile political and religious factions.
That according to MSNBC.

After all that, the NIE finding that
[t]he Iraqi government is strained by rampant violence, deep sectarian differences among its political parties and stymied leadership [and that] "To date, Iraqi political leaders remain unable to govern effectively,"
even its prediction that the government "will become more precarious over the next six to 12 months," seemed like an afterthought.

In fact, though, it must be said that things really are bad in the Maliki government. It's so bad that Juan Cole wrote yesterday that
[a] rumor is circulating among well-connected and formerly high-level Iraqi bureaucrats in exile in places like Damascus that a military coup is being prepared for Iraq. I received the following from a reliable, knowledgeable contact. There is no certitude that this plan can or will be implemented. That it is being discussed at high levels seems highly likely.

"There is serious talk of a military commission (majlis `askari) to take over the government. The parties would be banned from holding positions, and all the ministers would be technocrats, so to speak... [The writer indicates that attempts have been made to recruit cabinet members from the ranks of expatriate technocrats.]

"The six-member board or commission would be composed on non-political former military personnel who are presently not part of the government OR the military establishment, such as it is in Iraq at the moment. It is said that the Americans are supporting this behind the scenes.

"The plan includes a two-year period during which political parties would not be permitted to be part of the government, but instead would prepare and strengthen the parties for an election which would not have lists, but real people running for real seats. The two year period would be designed to take control of security and restore infrastructure.

"...[I]t is another [desperate plan], but one which many many Iraqis will support, since they are sick of their country being pulled apart by the 'imports' - Maliki, Allawi, Jaafari et al. The military group is composed of internals, people who have the goal of securing the country even at the risk of no democracy, so they say."
(Brackets as per Cole's post.)

The bit about "the Americans are supporting this behind the scenes" gets some indirect support from former Democratic congressional staffer Brent Budowsky, who claimed recently that
a growing faction close to President Bush privately favors a new “Iraqi strongman” to establish some form of authoritarian rule.
If this is true, perhaps it's just an example of things coming back into fashion: In May 1991, in the wake of the Gulf War, at a time when at least some folks knew booting out Saddam Hussein would result in "a quagmire," a staff report to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee quoted an NSC aide as saying “Our policy is to get rid of Saddam Hussein, not his regime.” The goal, that is, was to provoke a military coup that would replace one dictator who had become unreliable with another who would be more friendly.

Since Bush just dipped into history to cite both World Wars, Korea, and even Vietnam to urge "stay the course," why shouldn't he look to the first attack on Iraq for advice on what to do now after the second?

But, you ask, how can it be a quagmire when things are improving - yes indeedy, improving, I say! - on the security front? Well, how about the fact that in talking about removing the troops involved in the escalation - excuuuse me, "surge" - General Odierno
didn't comment on what might happen after the additional U.S. forces leave. U.S. officials have claimed that the surge plan has cut violence, but they've also expressed concern that the violence could resume once U.S. troops are reduced because there's been no move at reconciliation between rival Sunni and Shiite groups.
And the NIE
warns against scaling back the mission of U.S. forces. Analysts found that changing the U.S. military's mission from its current focus - countering insurgents and stabilizing the country - in favor of supporting Iraqi forces and stopping terrorists would hurt the security gains of the last six months.
In other words, they're saying that the very "successes" and "gains" they're bragging about have actually tied us down even more to what we're already doing - tied us down for, if others are to be believed, another decade. If that's not a quagmire, what the hell would be?

This concludes this episode of Disaster! Coming up soon, new episodes arising from these developments:

- August 20: Members of the Mehdi Army confirm to The Independent (UK) that they received training in Lebanon from Hizbollah,
[A] Mehdi Army fighter, a 26-year-old who asked to be identified as Abu Nasser, said he and 100 other group members travelled to Lebanon in December 2005. "They didn't teach us anything about suicide bombings, they showed us real tactics and taught our snipers," he said. Speaking in Tufa in Iraq, Muqtada al-Sadr, the head of the Mehdi Army, admitted to "formal links" with Hizbollah.
- August 20: An upsurge in violence in northeast Iraq, on the Iranian border, has Iraqi Kurdish officials expressing "deepening concern," according to The Guardian (UK).
Jabar Yawar, a deputy minister in the Kurdistan regional government, said four days of intermittent shelling by Iranian forces had hit mountain villages high up on the Iraqi side of the border, wounding two women, destroying livestock and property, and displacing about 1,000 people from their homes. Mr Yawer said there had also been intense fighting on the Iraqi border between Iranian forces and guerrillas of the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK), an armed Iranian Kurdish group that is stepping up its campaign for Kurdish rights against the theocratic regime in Tehran.
Iran, which has recently sent tens of thousands of Revolutionary Guard troops to the area, calls PJAK terrorists and charges it is
sponsored and armed by the US to increase pressure on Iran.

On a recent visit to PJAK camps in the Qandil mountains the Guardian saw no evidence of American weaponry.
- August 22: The heat is rising in more than one way in Iraq. AFP says that
[f]or war-weary residents of Baghdad fighting sweltering heat in near-blackout conditions, the message on Wednesday from Electricity Minister Karim Wahid was grim - there won't be any relief this summer. Nor next summer. Nor even the one after.

"It will take another three to four years to fully rehabilitate the grid," Wahid told reporters in an air-conditioned room in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone, while temperatures outside soared above 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit).

Much of the national power grid was destroyed during the US-led invasion in 2003, while insurgents, militias and thugs continue to vandalise infrastructure even as the government races to rehabilitate facilities, he said. ...

"We are reaching only 20 to 40 percent of Baghdad's needs," Wahid said, adding however that hospitals and essential services are receiving power 24 hours a day.

Baghdad residents complain that conditions are far worse than they can remember, with electricity reaching them just two or three hours a day - and sometimes not at all.
Not at all. Seems like an apt summation:

"I'll take 'Iraq' for $1000, Alex."

"The answer is, 'Not at all.'"

"What is how much has the US invasion really helped ordinary Iraqis?"

"Correct!"

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Another foot-soldier for peace

Back on August 2, I told you about two teenagers walking across the US to protest the war. As of this morning they are in Columbus, Ohio.

It turns out they were not the only ones getting footsore for the cause. Via Kevin at The American Street, linking to MichaelMoore.com, we learn about Bill McDannell, who walked 3,185 miles from Lakeside, California, to Washington, DC to protest the war. He started in November and arrived at the US Capitol building this past Saturday.

From the original source, the San Diego Union-Tribune for Tuesday:
Once he reached the steps, he stopped and shed a few tears.

He had done it. ...

No reporters met him at the end of his quest. No TV cameras were there. Other than occasional local TV reports and newspaper articles in mostly small-town America, he was unable to attract much media coverage.

At the end, it was just McDannell, his wife, Jonna, and their two dogs. Tourists buzzed around the Capitol, oblivious to his accomplishment, he said. ...

McDannell had hoped, of course, that his effort would draw more attention, that in some small way a man from Lakeside could have some impact on the national conversation regarding the war.

But the war goes on and shows no sign of ending anytime soon. And that fact is not lost on him.
McDannell showed some good insight into why national media was so uninterested in his story:
He didn't wear a glow-in-the-dark Uncle Sam suit, he said.

“I didn't talk like a freak. I didn't act like a freak,” McDannell said. “I offered no entertainment value.”
Still, he showed some justifiable pride in his accomplishment and intends to follow up by lobbying some members of Congress. Personally, I'd like to see him walk into Nancy Pelosi's office and say "I walked from Lakeside, California - and I mean I walked from Lakeside, California, to talk to you about the war." But the best line in the whole article was this:
“The anti-war left is actually the disgusted middle,” he said.
After being a gadfly in Congress for a time, McDannell says, he may take up some similar walks to protest the war, perhaps in New England in the fall and then in the southeast in the winter.

I know nothing of McDannell's politics beyond his opposition to the Iraq War; maybe we'd have very deep disagreements on other issues. I know, for example, folks who will denounce the war as strongly as I do who will in the next breath talk about "getting rid of" undocumented workers. No matter. For his commitment and his determination to advance it nonviolently, and for whatever it may be worth to him, Bill McDannell has my respect.

Something else that came up there...


...was the issue of national rights in the Arctic. For example, the Star mentioned that
Harper drew the president’s attention to comments made last weekend by the former U.S. ambassador to Canada, Paul Cellucci, who said it makes sense to recognize Canadian sovereignty over the Arctic waters.

The president offered little reaction and certainly did not reverse his country’s longstanding official view - that the northern islands belong to Canada but the waters are international territory.
Why this seemingly sudden attention to what might seem to be a rather arcane issue of sovereignty over "the frozen North?" Probably it's due to the fact that it ain't so frozen any more, as the International Herald Tribune described last week:
Arctic sea ice reached its lowest extent on record Friday, and the melting is continuing, the National Snow and Ice Data Center reported.

"Today is a historic day," said Mark Serreze, a senior research scientist at the center. "This is the least sea ice we've ever seen in the satellite record, and we have another month left to go in the melt season this year."

Satellite measurements showed 2.02 million square miles (5.26 million square kilometers) of ice in the Arctic, falling below the Sept. 21, 2005, record minimum of 2.05 million square miles 5.32 million square kilometers), the agency said. ...

The polar regions have long been of concern by climate specialists studying global warming, because those regions are expected to feel the impact of climate change sooner and to a greater extent than other areas.
That impact is not only being felt, it's being lived by the people in the region. The Anchorage Daily News said last week that
[t]he Arctic sea ice in Northwest Alaska is usually within 30 miles of Wainwright in August. Today it's more than 300 miles away, much farther than it's ever been.

Wainwright hunters have usually bagged more than 100 walruses by this time in the season. They've bagged fewer than 20 this year. ...

All over the world experts are talking about global warming. In the village of 600 Inupiat west of Barrow, they're living it. ...

For most of the 1990s, the ice edge in August was 30 miles or less from Wainwright, [Tony Fischbach of the US Geological Survey] said. Sometimes it still is, like last year.

But often now, it's more than 100 miles away, he said. This year it's the farthest away it's ever been.
Some have, of course, tried to pass this off as a natural occurrence, part of a natural cycle, pointing in this case to unusually clear skies in June, which helped to accelerate seasonal melting. However, Serreze insisted while there was some natural variability, "We simply can't explain everything through natural processes. It is very strong evidence that we are starting to see an effect of greenhouse warming." In fact,
the melting is occurring faster than computer climate models have predicted.

Several years ago he would have predicted a complete melt of Arctic sea ice in summer would occur by the year 2070 to 2100, Serreze said. But at the rates now occurring, a complete melt could happen by 2030, he said Friday.

There still will be ice in winter, he said, but it could be gone in summer.
So was it the situation faced by the people of the far north that was the topic of discussion at the summit? The fate of the walruses, threatened because the edge of the ice is over water too deep for them to feed at the bottom like they normally do? Or maybe the polar bears? Or maybe the underlying problem of global warming?

Of course not, silly person, it's the minerals and fossil fuels that are important. Because the more that the polar cap melts, the more accessible they are so the more the rights to them need to be grabbed and fast. New Scientist magazine reported in its August 18 issue (subscription required):
The sabre-rattling continues around the Arctic Circle. In July, Canada said it will spend CAN$3 billion on new ice-breakers to patrol the region. Russia responded this month by apparently planting its flag on the seabed beneath the North Pole. Now Denmark has dispatched researchers to assess whether it can lay claim to the major source of the dispute: the Arctic's untapped oil and gas reserves.

The team set off from Tromsø on 12 August towards the Lomonosov Ridge, a seabed structure that cuts across the pole from Greenland to Russia. No one owns the ridge, but Russia has put in a sovereignty claim to the United Nations. Any country that can show that the ridge is an extension of its own coastal continental shelf can attempt to gain ownership.
Canada, Denmark, and Norway will oppose the Russian move before a UN commission intended to oversee such claims, while at the same time pushing their own. Canada "seems to be going for the military option," New Scientist says, planning a military training center and deepwater port on its furthest-north territory. The Harper government, as I noted at the top, also reasserted its claim to the Northwest Passage, a claim the US resists, saying the land is Canada's but the waters are international.

But the US is in an odd position, NS points out:
It never ratified the UN treaty that covers claims to the continental shelf and so cannot appeal via that route.
As a result, Bush - yes, our very own Georgie-boy - is proposing that the Senate adopt it, that is, ratify a treaty of the United Nations, the hated, fur'ner-dominated, sovereignty-stealing United Nations, so the US can get in on the business of controlling the resources under the Arctic, of getting its cut. Because global warming produces new business opportunities! Woo-hoo! And there are, after all, priorities.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Footnote to the preceding, just in case you wondered how you rate

The Star also reported that one expected outcome of the summit was that the three were to
announce that they will recognize the research of each country’s food and drug regime in an effort to reduce costs and avoid duplication.
To put that another way, we're about to see lowest common denominator testing and inspection for food and drug safety. It's just so much more efficient that way, after all.

Walls of walls

So, AFP reports, there was this big meeting among Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Mexican President Felipe Calderon, and our own Shrub in Quebec on Monday and Tuesday to discuss trade and security.

Apparently, however, these powerful men, powerfully surrounded, despite all their terrorist-stomping bravado, actually were terrified: The self-described "Three Amigos" ran like scared rabbits into their closed-door meeting. The Globe & Mail (Canada) said that
Mr. Harper was accompanied in the cavalcade of carts by security personnel and members of his staff, some hanging on for dear life as the tiny vehicles whipped their way up the hotel's main drive
and the Toronto Star (Canada) observed that upon greeting Bush, Harper said “Geez, you’ve got a small army with you there” and that
security in the summit compound was so tight that even Harper’s closest staff had to pass through scanners.
These people really do seem to live in a bubble of paranoia, convinced that at every single moment they are in grave danger of massive violence putting their lives at risk. And just who were they afraid of in this case?
"[A]n eclectic group" of demonstrators united in opposition to further integration of North America.

Hundreds of anti-globalization protestors, environmentalists, peaceniks, and civil rights groups joined to taunt
and jeer the secret meeting. Okay, yes, you're right, it wasn't exactly a secret meeting: It was known, announced, when and where it was happening. So the existence of the meeting was not a secret, just what went on there. And even that wasn't entirely secret.
A group of powerful business executives has been invited to make a closed-door presentation Tuesday at the summit on changes they believe the continent needs. No such invitation was extended to scientists, environmentalists, or other social activists.
So yes, some were allowed into the inner sanctum to plead their case, but only the chosen few.
Indeed, during the summit, protestors [were] kept out by a fence, three meters (10 feet) high and running 2.5-kilometers (1.5 miles) around the meeting place.

They [were] "seen and heard," but only virtually - via an audio-video feed set up by organizers.

The arrangement is "in compliance with (a Canadian) court's decision that protesters have a right to be 'seen and heard,'" said Sandra Buckler, a spokeswoman for host Stephen Harper.
Exactly what sane person would seriously argue that having a TV screen in the lobby of a hotel carrying a remote feed from
a forest clearing set up for [protestors] by summit organizers
over a kilometer from the meeting site amounts to "seeing and hearing" a protest goes unexplained.

To the credit of the demonstrators, they refused to be confined to their "cage" and hundreds marched to the gates of the compound. Still, a massive police presence was deployed with the intention of insuring that the high priests of government would not be disturbed by the rabble. It was so bad, the determination to not even acknowledge the existence of protest so extreme, that officials of the Canadian government would not even accept delivery of a petition at the site, even though they had previously said they would.
“This is clearly not a security concern but a political prohibition,” says Maude Barlow, national chairperson of the Council of Canadians. “This is yet another strong message from the Conservative government that they are not willing to hear the concerns of Canadians on the Security and Prosperity Partnership.”
And that, ultimately, is the point. It's the rich and powerful consciously and deliberately isolating themselves from the hoi polloi, the everyday person-on-the-street types who bear the brunt of their decisions, who feel the hunger, who shed the blood. Such "political prohibitions" are part and parcel of that other world they inhabit, one described by C. S. Lewis:
The greatest evil is not done now in those sordid "dens of crime" that Dickens loved to paint. It is not even done in concentration camps and labor camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) is clean, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices.
It's just that now their separation is being made more obvious, the diminishing of the public sphere more pronounced, illustrated by the fact that this was neither an isolated occurrence nor will it be the last, as Johnno at The Open Mind lets us know with regard to the Asia-Pacific Economic Forum (APEC) summit taking place in Sydney, Australia a week from Saturday.
I was thinking of going down to get some photos but there seems to be a general feeling of "STAY AWAY" in big red letters.
The security arrangements include 300 new high definition CCTV cameras observing public places, a new water cannon, closing three city train stations for three days, high-tech blocking of mobile phone calls in Sydney's central business district, a harbor exclusion zone, the banning of all aircraft - including remote control planes and model helicopters - within 80 kilometers (roughly 50 miles) of the city, and the deployment of 1500 active-duty and reserve troops to "assist" police.

But symbolically at least, the most telling arrangement is the plan to build a huge concrete wall around the central business district to protect potential targets from protestors.
Dubbed the "ring of steel", the 2.8m [81/2 feet] high concrete-reinforced fence will shield well-known businesses such as McDonald's and Starbucks amid fears they could be attacked by demonstrators. ...

The wall will surround much of the city's center, according to the Daily Telegraph.
"Something there is that doesn't love a wall," Robert Frost wrote. Whatever that something is, it surely is not the titans of government and industry that conceal themselves and their doings behind barriers both physical and mental. But I suppose it is worth asking: Are they actually concealed? Or under siege?

I know, I know - but it is, again, a matter of the hope that helps with surviving a dark time.

(Thanks to Cat at Liberal Catnip for the links to the Globe & Mail, the Toronto Star, and the Council of Canadians.)

Turkish update

Back at the end of April/beginning of May, I posted on the political tensions in Turkey arising from the drive of the ruling AK Party to get parliament to move Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul into the office of president.

Gul, who calls himself a former Islamist, is viewed suspiciously by Turkish secularists facing an Islamist-rooted government; they don't trust his insistence that he is now a conservative democrat. The suspicion is great enough that that the General Staff of the Turkish Army, who regard themselves as the guarantor of secularism, declared that the armed forces "are watching ... with concern" the parliamentary maneuvering.

The feeling ran especially deep because Gul's ascension to the presidency would put all key state institutions in the hands of the AK Party, which opponents fear would be followed by an erosion of the wall between politics and religion that has kept Turkey a majority-Muslim but officially-secular nation, often cited as the example to prove the two are not incompatible.

Secularists in parliament succeeded in derailing Gul's nomination by boycotting the sessions and convincing the nation's highest court that the parliamentary vote in favor of Gul was invalid because their absence had denied the body the 2/3 of members that must be present to have a quorum.

In response, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for early elections for parliament, which took place on July 22. Contrary to the hopes of the secularists, the Christian Science Monitor reported on Monday,
[i]n parliamentary elections, Gul was handed an unprecedented mandate with almost 1 in every 2 Turks voting for his Islam-rooted Justice and Development (AK) Party.

"This is a new period in Turkish history, definitely," says Huseyin Bagci at Middle East Technical University in Ankara, adding that the military has been "shocked" by the outcome. The president is also commander in chief of the armed forces.

In his first public reaction since the vote, last week the head of Turkey's military, Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, would not discuss the military's past objections to Gul. "All has been said," according to the general, adding that the new president should "adhere in earnest and not just in words to the ideal of a secular state."
AKP's 47% of the vote is a dramatic increase over the 34% it got when it came to power in 2002. Despite Erdogan's pledges of "compromise," it was enough to prompt Gul to relaunch his bid to be president, claiming he is recognizing "support seen from the masses" and "keeping a promise made to the people." Of course, it's all about "the people."

This time, Gul will all but undoubtedly succeed.
If Gul is not elected in the first two rounds that require two-thirds support, he will almost certainly win on the third round, which requires only a simple majority – a low hurdle for the AKP, which holds 341 seats in the 550-seat house.
(Which means, interestingly enough, it obtained 62% of the seats with 47% of the vote - which indicates either an odd electoral setup or that there is a geographical as well as a political division between Islamists and secularists.)

Personally, I don't find the assurances that the AKP will not, as charged by the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), hasten the "degeneration of Turkey into a theocratic state" very convincing. Renominating Gul, knowing the deep suspicion with which he is viewed both by secularists and the military, seems like just trying to rub the opposition's face in it and that does not bode well for a future either of cooperation or moderation.

And the fact is, the conflicts will not be quieted by Gul's nomination or approval. The CHP not only plans to boycott the presidential vote, it has said it will boycott the presidential palace. And CSM reported on
flag-waving nationalists who vowed at their spring rallies that Gul's presence in the Cankaya presidential palace would prompt street violence and even a march on Cankaya to unseat him.
What's more, Bagci said that the military "got a strong slap on their faces and it's better for them now to keep silent [or the negative] reaction will be much stronger by the people," which to the extent it can be taken as the position of Gul's supporters could easily be taken as a threat.

There is one way in which this will not lead to on-going and perhaps deeper conflict and a deeper, sharper division between the religious and the secular parts of Turkish society: If Gul was telling the truth when he vowed to "protect" secularism despite his Islamist past. I don't have high hopes along those lines, but I certainly have been wrong before. In any event, what Gul is really about remains to be - and soon will be - seen.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Another thing noted in passing

A bit of good news to lighten the gloom, courtesy of syndicated columnist Deb Price:
Should the legal ties between parents and their adopted child unravel if the family leaves the state where the adoption decree was handed down?

Of course not. The very idea is outrageous.

But that's what Oklahoma lawmakers were striving for in 2004 with their chillingly titled "Adoption Invalidation Law," which targeted adopted children with gay parents.
Oklahoma, apparently thinking of changing its nickname to "The 'I'm OK, You're Not OK' State," declared it would not recognize "an adoption by more than one individual of the same sex from any other state or foreign jurisdiction." So if a same-sex couple moved to Oklahoma, any children they had adopted would no longer be theirs. Even such a family passing through the state would not be recognized as one.

In reading about this I couldn't help but imagine a case where a couple who had adopted a child are driving through the state, there is a minor accident - and the police take the child from them and it becomes a ward of the state because the couple were not its legal parents in the eyes of the police or the state courts. That may seem an extreme case, but still, it illustrates what's so wrong with this: the exercise of arbitrary power to mess with families you happen to dislike.

"Sounds un-American, doesn't it?" Price asks. It does. But here's the good part:
It's also unconstitutional. That's what a federal court of appeals told Oklahoma on Aug. 3 in striking down the law. A panel of three judges - all of them Republican appointees - of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with a lower court ruling that Oklahoma's anti-family law violated the U.S. Constitution's Full Faith and Credit Clause, which requires states to honor one another's judicial judgments, including adoptions.

The appeals court also ordered Oklahoma to issue a revised birth certificate for an Oklahoma-born girl so that she is listed as the daughter of the women who legally adopted her in California.

Late last week, the Oklahoma Department of Health decided not to fight the ruling, so families headed by gay couples no longer need to fear traveling through or moving to Oklahoma with their adopted children.
Price says that about 250,000 children are being raised by gay parents in this country. That sort of fact is one good reason why I say full equality will come. It will. Not tomorrow, but it will come. It will come because gay friends, gay marriage, gay parents, it will become normal. Ordinary, everyday, mundane, no longer worth remarking on or even noticing, any more than friends, couples, and parents being straight is today.

I recall the Massachusetts legislator who initially supported an amendment to the state constitution that would overturn the state's Supreme Judicial Court decision allowing for same-sex marriages. A year later, on the second attempt to move the amendment forward, he voted against it, thereby helping block it. He said he had changed his mind because, contrary to his expectations, there had been no social upheaval, no great disturbance, no raging conflicts. Life went on just as it had before. A same-sex couple getting married had become just another ordinary event of day-to-day life, of special note only to those involved. In that case, he decided, how could he be against it?

I firmly believe that there will be more and more of that as time goes on.

This is by no means to say that there are no Westboro Baptist Church types out there, no bloodthirsty bigots who have wet dreams of being another Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson to another Matthew Shepard. It is to say that the time is coming. The time will come. And even now, hate can be sent running.

Hugo a-go-go

Hugo Chavez, who is routinely denounced as a "strongman" or a "would-be dictator" (and sometimes without the modifier) not only in the press but in the hallowed halls of the ostensibly progressive blogosphere, which apparently regards him as the safe way to show they really are "serious" and not "anti-American," had gotten some more attention because of his proposal, as part of a much larger package of Constitutional reforms, to eliminate term limits for the president - that is, himself.

The accusation, of course, is that Chavez wants to be president for life, indeed has already "anointed himself" as such; that he wants to game the system so that his position becomes essentially unassailable. For too many among us, he is South America's boogeyman, the continent's Karl Rove, the man whose every move must be part of some deep political machination.

So it came as something of a surprise to find a reasonable approach taken by Tim Padgett in Time, of all places. After quoting Chavez as saying in response to criticism of the proposal "I recommend that they take a Valium," Padgett says
[i]n other words, Chill out. If French Presidents can seek re-election indefinitely, say the chavistas, why can't Venezuela's? If Americans could re-elect Franklin Roosevelt four times, they ask, why can't we re-elect Chavez as many times?
Well, one point worth mentioning is that it was precisely because FDR was elected four times that the sentiment arose that that was too long a time for one person to be president, leading to the passage in 1951 of the 22nd Amendment, limiting presidents to two terms and an actual maximum of 10 years in office (the latter event arising if they had served out no more than two years of a prior president's term). Back to Padgett:
On the one hand, they've got a point. If Chavez had a reputation for winning the presidential palace by trashing the ballot box - like, say, most Mexican Presidents of the 20th century - then the news this week would be genuinely alarming and the Bush Administration's attempts to pair Hugo with his buddy Fidel Castro might be more credible. But respected groups like the Carter Center in Atlanta have deemed his victories fair, the result of a remarkably incompetent Venezuelan opposition rather than rigged voting. And rather than ramrod the constitutional amendments by fiat, he'll put them to a national referendum.
Referring to Chavez's successes as the result of a "remarkably incompetent opposition," thus seriously downplaying his genuine and very strong support among the working class and the poor, markedly distorts the political landscape of the nation. Still, credit Padgett with specifically disavowing the common claims that Chavez was not elected fair and square.

However, after noting that several South American countries have moved away from the single-term presidential limit, Padgett says
[s]till, unlimited re-election is another matter. More of a concern, says [Bart] Jones[, author of a new Chavez biography], is the reason that Chavez's measure will probably pass.
That reason being that Chavez's revolution has a weakness:
"its inordinate dependence on Chavez, its one-man-show aspect. If he were to leave the scene, there's a feeling the whole revolution would unravel tomorrow." That's why Chavez supporters, especially the majority poor who feel politically and economically enfranchised for perhaps the first time in the nation's history, may be more prone to give him the presidential multi-ride ticket - and just as willing to tolerate what many Venezuela observers call an erosion of governmental checks and balances.
Again, Padgett overstates the case with his reference to "an erosion of governmental checks and balances" - and just are these "many Venezuela observers?" - but in a longer view, that is not an irrelevant concern. Rather, it is a risk run with any movement, with any attempt at dramatic change: the possibility of its turning, however unintentionally, into a personality cult that can't survive the symbol. The result is that both leader and supporters come to equate the benefit of the leader with that of the movement as a whole, and the leader who starts saying "they need me" more often and with more emphasis than "I need them" is starting down a road that may in the longer term undermine what they set out to achieve.

Venezuela is not at that point and is not close to that point - but it is not so distant from it that it can't be made out on the horizon. The result is that even some Chavez supporters are made a little itchy by the latest proposals. For example, OW at Oil Wars says
I personally don't have any problem with eliminating term limits. Let Venezuelans elect who they want - and in particular whatever president they want. But extending the presidential term to 7 years[, which is another part of the proposal]?!?!?! That at the very least is just plain bizarre.

At 6 years Venezuelan presidential terms are already very long. In fact, the only real justification for having that long is if you don't allow re-election. But they do; hence Venezuelan presidential terms are already aguably too long. Yet they now want to increase them further?!?! ...

I really would have thought that in proposing unlimited re-election that Chavez would have decided to make terms shorter, say four or five years. Instead he went in the wrong direction.
I think OW has it right on that last point: If you're going to increase the number of times a chief executive can be elected, you should shorten the length of the terms so that they are subject to a public judgment more often. Personally, I'm not at all crazy about unlimited re-election for a president (anywhere), but at the very least if you're going to have the one you also need to have the other.

OW, who knows a hell of a lot more about Venezuela than I do, says the reform package should be rejected so the planing for the changes can start from scratch. (Remember, the package covers a lot more than this one issue; I won't comment on the rest because I don't know enough to reasonably argue whether they're good ideas or not.) Assuming, as I believe to be true, that it's an all or nothing deal, I, too, hope that it's rejected - and that Hugo Chavez responds by setting about building a movement for change, for empowering the poor, for improvement in the lives of the Venezuelan people, for (even if a limited version of) democratic socialism, that can survive his departure from public life, something that, I fear, at the present moment he does not have.

Footnote: One other, sort of technical, correction to Padgett's article: The license of RCTV was not "revoked." Rather, Chavez let it continue to broadcast until its license came up for renewal, at which time that renewal was denied. RCTV continues to operate as a cable TV station.

Another Footnote: Jim Jay at The Daily (Maybe) offers a telling comparison between attitudes expressed toward Venezuela with those toward Colombia, a frequent target of Amnesty International for its human rights abuses. He concludes this way:
Here I have produced a handy formula for any journalists who may be reading this so they know what to say in their next Latin American report;

Death squads + US backing = "friend to democracy"
Political reform + US opposition = "dictatorship"
Thanks to Tim at Green Left Infoasis for the link.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Unintentional humor

Two recent headlines that just struck me as funny.
Rove says confident in Republicans' 2008 prospects
I'm sorry, did that say 2008 or 2006?
Gonzales seen as politicizing Justice Dept
I - never mind.

Workers worked over

Via Yahoo! News comes a story in Business Week about a hearing before the National Labor Relations Board regarding charges that Starbucks
violat[ed] labor law 32 times in an effort to prevent unionization at some of its stores. The trial pits a group of young baristas against one of the best known and fastest-growing corporations in the world.
The baristas are represented by the "storied" Industrial Workers of the World, traditionally nicknamed the Wobblies.
Starbucks has a markedly better reputation for employee relations than Wal-Mart. But that is precisely why the IWW is taking on the coffee chain: [Former Starbucks barista Joe] Agins and other workers say Starbucks' employee-friendly image is wholly undeserved. The chain, they say, has a systematic problem with low wages, irregular working hours, and a lack of reliable health care. One statistic the union likes to point to is that only 42% of Starbucks workers use its health-care plan - even lower than the rate at Wal-Mart.
Starbucks claims its wages are "competitive," but that means nothing beyond the implicit admission that other workers in similar situations are equally underpaid. It also brags that it is among the first large employers to offer health insurance to part-time employees - which may well be true, but again it means very little if the health plan is either so bad or so expensive that less than half of those employees can take advantage of it. And considering that all of Starbucks' employees are part-time, the only alternative would be to not offer a health plan at all, which wouldn't be good PR for a company that consciously tries for a "responsible" image.

The company, of course, denies that anyone was unfairly fired or intimidated for union activity; rather, it claims through the high-powered international law firm representing it at the hearing that it's all about a bunch of damned radicals out to destroy all that is good and holy.
"Starbucks is a multibillion-dollar corporation. So I guess that must mean we're bad," said Starbucks attorney John Nash in his opening statement July 9. "I know that the IWW, apparently in their zeal against capitalism or corporations, they don't like that. They don't like any big companies." ...

"This is a campaign that almost from the beginning has tried to do everything possible to disrupt the operations of Starbucks to harm the company," added Nash....
Yes, of course, we understand. The peasants on the plantation were quite happy until those outside agitators came in with their leaflets and signs and other such devices threatening to the company's survival. The fact that something over a year ago, facing similar allegations, the company was forced into a settlement that reinstated two workers and paid $2,000 in damages (I assume, but I do not know, that represented lost wages) means nothing, has no significance.

Some months ago, my wife and I became aware that Starbucks was refusing to negotiate with its workers to recognize a union. From that day on, we have refused to patronize any Starbucks store or purchase any Starbucks product. We'd like to see others do that as well.

One small step

On Sunday, the American Psychological Association, the largest professional organization in the mental health field, with 148,000 members,
banned members from taking part in more than a dozen tactics such as mock executions and water-boarding during questioning of military prisoners[, AFP reports]. ...

The resolution issues an unequivocal condemnation and prohibits psychologists' participation in specific interrogation tactics including mock executions; water-boarding; isolation, and sleep deprivation.
Unfortunately, it fell short of a call for a complete moratorium on psychologists' presence in detention centers. Still, it was considered "a move forward" by Neil Altman, author of the moratorium proposal.

Opposition to that proposal was based on the same old arguments that always get raised in such situations:
"I just came here from Cuba," said APA council representative Colonel Larry James. "If we remove psychologists from Guantanamo, innocent people are going to die."

Beth Wiggins of the APA law division agreed.

"Walking away from these situations would make us passive bystanders," she said.
That is, it's said, by being there you're doing something good, heading off the very worst of the possibilities.

What the people who raise such arguments refuse to face is that by being there you are not doing good. What you are doing is legitimizing the entire enterprise, putting a professional stamp on it, a smiley PR face labeled "we take good care of prisoners." You're not reining in the system, you're part of the system, part of the infrastructure of interrogation, and will allowed to continue as such only so long as you do not actually interfere with it.

That's also true of another motion that was rejected, one that proposed to limit psychologists to "ameliorative psychological treatment of detainees that are deprived of adequate protection of human rights." Ultimately, it's too easy for those who are really in charge to turn that into the detention-supporting "don't worry, if things go too far there's someone there to make it better," prisoners are in good hands, protected, no harm comes to them - and that's without even considering the issue of who gets to decide if prisoners have been "deprived of human rights."

While completely getting out of the interrogation business would have been the preferable course, at least this resolution, supported nearly unanimously by the APA council of representatives, has the effect of declaring some things as having completely and clearly crossed the line from interrogation to inhumanity. And to the extent that it strips such techniques of legitimacy and aids those psychologists who have been involved in regaining some of their own humanity, it is to the good.

Noted in passing

It's not one of those big things, I suppose, not one of those Earth-tremor issues that moves people to organize and protest; not on a level with Iraq or Iran or FISA or the continued ignoring of New Orleans. But it still seems an outrage, a shameful thing that I could not let pass without mention. From Monday's New York Times:
Two years ago, William Stout lost his home in Allentown, Pa., to foreclosure when he could no longer make the payments on his $106,000 mortgage. Wells Fargo offered the two-bedroom house for sale on the courthouse steps. No bidders came forward. So Wells Fargo bought it for $1, county records show.

Despite the setback, Mr. Stout was relieved that his debt was wiped clean and he could make a new start. He married and moved in with his wife, Denise.

But on July 9, they received a bill from the Internal Revenue Service for $34,603 in back taxes. The letter explained that the debt canceled by Wells Fargo upon foreclosure was subject to income taxes, as well as penalties and late fees. The couple had a month to challenge the charges.
You lose your home. Your credit is ruined. Your life turned upside down. As far as the IRS is concerned, you made money on that deal and it wants its cut.
The 1099 shortfall, as it is called, stems from an Internal Revenue Service policy that treats forgiven debt of all types as income even if the taxpayer has nothing tangible to show for it, unless the debt is canceled through bankruptcy.
The same thing can happen if you are forced to sell your house for less than the value of the mortgage. If the mortgage holder takes what you got for the house and forgives the rest of that debt, to the IRS, that's income.

That's stupid.

I can see the IRS wanting to avoiding letting people get away with dodgy deals involving forgiving loans to people who are capable of paying them back, which could be used for money-laundering or simply as a scheme to avoid taxes. (Instead of giving someone money, you "loan" it to them and later "forgive" the debt.) But to do it when people have lost their homes, when the debt is forgiven because the debtor can't pay it back, when, as the Times article notes, "the taxpayer has nothing tangible to show for it," to add this - well, I was going to say insult to injury but this is about real money, so it's injury to injury - is worse than ridiculous.

Stout may be okay: Wells Fargo was able to resell the house for the $106,000 he owed and says it is filing an amended 1099 showing no debt forgiven, since the full amount was recovered. Still,
[t]he Center for Responsible Lending expects that 20 percent of the home loans made in 2005 and 2006 to people with weak credit, commonly called subprime loans, will end in foreclosure. Because so little money was required as a down payment during the boom, the value of many of these houses may be less than what is owed.
So let's say you wind up with a $150,000 mortgage on a house valued at $130,000. You get sick, you lose your job, whatever. You can't make the payments. The house falls to foreclosure. It's sold at auction for $120,000. The mortgage company forgives the rest of the debt (and why not, it knows it's uncollectible). According to the IRS, you have just received $30,000 in income.

Like I said - that's stupid. Worse than stupid, inhumane. Not that humanity and the IRS are exactly on speaking terms.

The article notes how some people are fighting the IRS and even winning. But the point is, the battle should not have been necessary in the first place.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Thoughts on the conviction

When my wife told me the verdict was in but wouldn't be announced for a couple of hours, I knew immediately what it was. I was taught a long time ago by an experienced trial lawyer that the longer the jury takes, the more likely it becomes they will acquit. Quick verdicts, he said, almost invariably are "Guilty." So a verdict coming a day and a-half after a three-month trial had all kinds of signs hanging from it.

Jose Padilla and co-defendants Adham Hassoun and Kifan Jayyousi all convicted on all counts.

At the time of closing arguments, the New York Times noted that
[p]rosecutors barely mentioned Jose Padilla for long stretches of his three-month terrorism trial, focusing instead on his two co-defendants and dozens of wiretapped phone conversations between them.

[But] Mr. Padilla, an American convert to Islam who became one of the country’s first “enemy combatants,” received top billing in the government’s closing arguments on Monday, a reminder of the importance of his prosecution.
Which was really the point: getting Padilla, less because of any hard evidence he was the heinous criminal he was accused of being but to justify the inhumane, illegal, treatment to which he was subject for 31/2 years, treatment marked by torture specifically intended to break him mentally, as the Christian Science Monitor reported a few days ago:
Those who haven't experienced solitary confinement can imagine that life locked in a small space would be inconvenient and boring. But according to a broad range of experts who have studied the issue, isolation can be psychologically devastating. Extreme isolation, in concert with other coercive techniques, can literally drive a person insane, these experts say.
Padilla's isolation was indeed extreme:
[H]e was held not only in solitary confinement but as the sole detainee in a high-security wing of the prison. Fifteen other cells sat empty around him.

The purpose of the extraordinary privacy, according to experts familiar with the technique, was to eliminate the possibility of human contact. No voices in the hallway. No conversations with other prisoners. No tapping out messages on the walls. No ability to maintain a sense of human connection, a sense of place or time.

In essence, experts say, the US government was trying to break Padilla's silence by plunging him into a mental twilight zone. ...

According to defense motions on file in the case, Padilla's cell measured nine feet by seven feet. The windows were covered over. There was a toilet and sink. The steel bunk was missing its mattress.

He had no pillow. No sheet. No clock. No calendar. No radio. No television. No telephone calls. No visitors. Even Padilla's lawyer was prevented from seeing him for nearly two years.

For significant periods of time the Muslim convert was denied any reading material, including the Koran. The mirror on the wall was confiscated. Meals were slid through a slot in the door. The light in his cell was always on. ...

"It was not unusual for Mr. Padilla to go four, five, or six days without even brief [visual checks] by the brig staff, who were, in any event, under instruction not to converse with him," [psychiatrist Stuart] Grassian writes. Other than the brief checks by brig guards, Padilla went through stretches of 34 days, 17 days and 15 days without any human contact, the report says. "And when he did have such contact, it was inevitably with an interrogator," Grassian says.
Grassian is a recognized expert on the effects of solitary confinement who examined Padilla for his lawyers.

Democracy Now! adds the detail that
[h]is lawyers have claimed that Padilla was forced to take LSD and PCP to act as a sort of truth serum during his interrogations
in its introduction to an interview with Dr. Angela Hegarty, a forensic psychiatrist who spent 22 hours interviewing Jose Padilla last year before concluding that he was unable to participate in his defense. Dr. Hegarty recalled Padilla's
absolute state of terror, terror alternating with numbness, largely. It was as though the interrogators were in the room with us. He was like - perhaps like a trauma victim who knew that they were going to be sent back to the person who hurt them and that he would, as I said earlier, he would subsequently pay a price if he revealed what happened.
In April 2003, the CSM article says, Donald Rumsfeld approved isolation as an interrogation technique at Guantánamo. DOD lawyers warned at the time that the technique "is not known to have been generally used for interrogation purposes for longer than 30 days." By that time, Padilla already had been isolated for 10 months. It continued for 33 months more.

And then, just when the Supreme Court was about to rule on the legality of holding an American citizen as an "enemy combatant," effectively stripping them of all rights solely on the president's say-so, suddenly and, oh yes, by all means, coincidentally he got thrown back into civilian court, added to an already-existing conspiracy case against Hassoun and Jayyousi. Relieved, the Supreme Court declared the case moot, in practical effect telling the White House it is free to imprison and torture people for years so long as at the very last moment they put them on trial.

(Oh, and don't prosecutors love conspiracy charges. Known as "the prosecutor's darling," they don't require a showing that you actually did anything, only that you planned to do something. I remember reading some years ago in Jessica Mitford's book The Trial of Dr. Spock of a lawyer who was quoted as saying "A boy steals some candy, he's committed a misdemeanor. Two boys plan to steal some candy but don't do it, they've conspired, which is a felony.")

In the conspiracy case into which he was dropped, the original inflammatory charges against Padilla, that he planned to set off "dirty bombs" scattering radioactive materials and to blow up apartment buildings with natural gas pipelines, were, as AP noted, "quietly dropped." Why? Well, the convenient story going around now is that it was
in part because Padilla was not provided a lawyer or read his Miranda rights when he was interrogated in military custody.
Right. I believe that. The same people who came up with the whole idea of "enemy combatant," who argued they could do whatever they damn well pleased because the president is Commander in Chief and this is war or have you forgotten 9/11, you terrorist lover, that this crew suddenly became bleeding-heart, touchy-feely advocates of Miranda rights and such. Sure they did.

A more credible explanation was provided in November 2005 by Glenn Greenwald, relying on a New York Times report:
[T]he information obtained by the Bush Administration on which those accusations were based is likely false and certainly far too unreliable to be used to convict someone of a crime, because it was obtained only by torturing the two sources who provided it.
The methods included waterboarding and similar
torture techniques which are notorious for inducing false and unreliable information - information which the Government has now concluded has so little reliability that they could not even charge Padilla with this crime, let alone convict him of it.
Put simply, Padilla was tortured based on unreliable information obtained through torture. A nice little circle of utter moral corruption.

So if none of that figured in the trial, what was the evidence against Padilla presented there?

Not a whole lot. For one thing as, again, the New York Times reported, he wasn't even mentioned all that much by the prosecution. And what they did mention wasn't exactly slam-dunk material if you make the foolish assumption that truth rather than political vindication was the goal. For example, CNN said that
[d]uring the trial, prosecutors played more than 70 intercepted phone calls among the defendants for jurors, including seven that featured Padilla,
but in none of them did he speak "in code," as the prosecution insisted his co-defendants did, where "playing football" supposedly meant violent jihad and "zucchini" meant weapons. What's more, CNN, which for some reason just had to describe him in its opening sentence as a "former Chicago gang member," helpfully pointed out that the seven cases in which Padilla's voice was heard in court were the only such cases out of 300,000 taped conversations spanning several years. That is, while he was on 10% of the conversations played in court, this "star recruit" of this "terrorist cell" was actually heard on 0.0023% - yes, that's just over two one-thousandths of one percent - of the calls. Think maybe that gave the jury an improperly inflated sense of his involvement with whatever the other two might have been doing?

The other prosecution weapon against Padilla, of course, was the so-called "al-Qaeda terrorist training camp application," AKA the "mujahedeen data form." This form, supposedly filled out by Padilla, was found in Afghanistan with a bunch of others in a ring-binder. Padilla's fingerprints were on the form.
"The al Qaeda application virtually sealed his fate," said Jonathan Turley, a professor at George Washington University Law School. He compared the document's value as evidence to "putting a duffle bag with severed heads on the table."
But as Michael Caruso, Padilla's defense attorney, pointed out, the prints are found on the front and back of the form, but nowhere on the middle pages. That is consistent with someone handling the form, but not with someone filling it out or examining it. It is possible that someone else filled it out for him and he just handled it without looking at the inside pages? Yes. Does that possibility add up to proof beyond a reasonable doubt, especially since he also could have been shown (and so handled) the form at any time during his imprisonment? No.

What's more troubling is that you could even stipulate that Padilla did fill out the form (or, more accurately, someone filled it out on his behalf) and you still have a problem:
[Assistant United States Attorney Brian] Frazier said the government had proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Padilla had spent time in Afghanistan. In fact, it never produced a witness who saw him there.

Instead, prosecutors presented a phone call from September 2000 in which someone told Mr. Hassoun that “Ibrahim,” a supposed alias for Mr. Padilla, was in “the area of Usama,” which an expert witness described as code for Afghanistan.

In a call from October 2000, someone else told Mr. Hassoun that “Abu Abdallah,” another supposed alias for Mr. Padilla, was “currently in Afghanistan.”
So the "proof" consists of two references to two different supposed alises for Padilla saying someone is in Afghanistan. Again, it is possible? Yes. Is it proof? No.

Oh, and here's one more thing about that form: According to a prosecution witness, filling out that form does not mean one attended a training camp.
Yahya Goba ... who is serving a 10-year prison sentence, testified [on May 18] that he filled out a similar form before attending the al-Farooq camp run by al-Qaeda. This was just as prosecutors had hoped because his statement linked the form to al-Qaeda.

But then he testified that, after completing the form with false information as he was instructed, he was given the explicit opportunity not to proceed to the training. A person who filled out the form, his testimony indicated, did not necessarily attend the camp.
Here's another point: If Goba was instructed to enter false information, how does the accurate information about Padilla on the other form connect him to that one? Yet again, that may not mean anything but I do find it an intriguing question.

There are other odd things about the case. The Washington Post mentions two:
Noting that the FBI listened to the group's U.S.-based phone calls for six years, through 2000, defense attorney Ken Swartz asked jurors to consider why, if a murder conspiracy was unfolding, agents stopped taping the suspects and did not arrest them for another two years.
That is, he argued, the case appears to have been dropped - until 9/11 created "a desperate need to prosecute people for terrorism." Beyond that,
[i]n what analysts said was an anomaly for a murder conspiracy case, prosecutors did not present evidence of any specific murder plots involving the defendants - there were no bodies or intended victims. Instead, prosecutors depicted the conspiracy as al-Qaeda itself and said the connections between the defendants and the terrorist group amounted to their participation in the conspiracy.
That is, ultimately they weren't being tried for conspiracy for what they did or planned to do, but for being somehow connected with other people who were planning to do something. The wiretapped calls
indicated Padilla and his co-defendants talking about sending money and supplies overseas.
Not, it seems, weapons. They killed no one, planned to kill no one, supplied arms to no one. But they were supposedly connected to others who had killed and planned to kill. Therefore, they were conspiring to kill. How does this follow?
Conspiracy, the prosecutor's "darling," is one of the most commonly charged federal crimes. The offense of conspiracy is construed broadly by courts and, consequently, is applied by prosecutors to a variety of situations. "[I]t is clear that a conspiracy charge gives the prosecution certain unique advantages and that one who must defend against such a charge bears a particularly heavy burden."

Nonetheless, the essential features of a conspiracy - secrecy and concealment - make conspiracies difficult to prosecute, especially if the conspiracy is successful. Consequently, the law lessens the government's burden of proving the essential elements by requiring only a showing of the "essential nature of the plan and [the conspirators'] connections with it" to ensure that conspirators do not "go free by their very ingenuity." [From the American Criminal Law Review, March 22, 2007, article by Christian David and Eric Waters]
That is, all the prosecution had to do was to show that al-Qaeda is a murderous organization (hardly a challenge) and convince the jury that the defendants had any connection at all with it and poof! they are guilty of conspiracy to murder. Ain't conspiracy charges wonderful?

Finally, there is the jury itself. As the estimable Jeralyn Merritt at Talk Left wrote,
I'm dismayed that a jury would come back with a guilty verdict after a day and a half of deliberation in a trial where the evidence took three months to present. ...

It takes longer than that to comprehend the jury instructions. The instructions in Padilla's case were 42 pages long.... The jury's job is to determine whether the government has proved each and every element of the charged crimes against each defendant. The elements of the crimes are contained in the jury instructions. They are to apply the law as given in the instructions to the evidence presented at trial.

I doubt this jury bothered to review the evidence or the instructions. They didn't have time in a day and a half. It sounds to me like they took a straw vote shortly after picking a foreman and all were in agreement, so they went right to the verdict forms. I think they went on their gut feeling and emotion, not on the evidence or the law as instructed.

While I find the speed of the verdict abnormal and a dereliction of the jury's duty to review the evidence presented during the trial, it was probably predictable. This is a jury that coordinated their outfits in patriotic red, white and blue for the 4th of July. What more of a signal did you need? As Lew Koch at Firedoglake wrote at the time, I didn't think the defense had a chance after that.
The jury, it surely appears, had made up its mind before deliberations even started, doubtless stampeded by the image of "terrorists" in their midst. This was a torture-driven, politically-inspired, fear-based prosecution that at least in Padilla's case had a hell of a lot more to do with, as Swartz said, "a desperate need to prosecute people for terrorism" than with the law and even less with justice.

I've mentioned Padilla a number of times in connection with his journey through the courts - try searching on "Padilla" in the box at the top of this page - usually without making comments on Padilla himself, but I did finally offer my own speculation - noting that that's all it was (and is) - on May 20: I suggested that yes, he did get involved with al-Qaeda, but he was not a committed jihadist, it was more the result of
a surge of revolutionary daydreaming. That is, he favored imagining himself part of some grand, revolutionary movement - much like the Weatherpeople (née Weathermen) in the late '60s. Yes, some of them were into bombs and similar mayhem, but a greater number of those who considered themselves Weatherpeople thought breaking some windows was a dramatic blow against The Empire and many more beyond that simply liked to envision themselves as part of some revolutionary army engaging in the urban guerrilla warfare they were convinced was going to break out any day now. ...

So did Padilla return to the US as part of some terrorist plot or with some plan in his head? I very much doubt it. Did he return expecting he would be called to jihad on behalf of some terrorist group? Possibly, although "imagining" or "picturing" is probably the more accurate verb. If he was called on to perform a terrorist act, would he have done it? Of that I'm unsure. Perhaps he would, but I suspect that in the event he was asked to take part in some plot, it would turn out to be more like the plot to bring down the Brooklyn Bridge, which was abandoned before the FBI knew about it, or - at least as it appears so far - the Fort Dix plot, where it seems the informants did more to move it along than the accused did: In other words, a plot marked by a lot of talk, a lot of planning, a lot of scheming, a lot of casing the site, but very little of anything actually happening.
That is, yet again, speculation, based on an attempt to put all the "known"s and "probably"s into one coherent idea. But note well, I am not saying I am convinced Jose Padilla is innocent. I am saying he did not get a fair trial, the case was not proved beyond a reasonable doubt, and he faces life in prison because a fear-ridden jury stampeded into a verdict without due consideration, without even thinking.

I am also saying that he was arrested based on quite possibly false information extracted by torture, that he himself was tortured, he was denied both legal and more importantly human rights, and that the entire conduct of this case by the government, from top to bottom, side to side, beginning to end, has been a disgrace of a kind that in years to come, when our national sanity finally returns, will be looked back on as an example of how justice is not to be pursued.

Footnote: You likely heard that Attorney General Earblot Slagzone called the outcome "a significant victory in our efforts to fight the threat posed by terrorists and their supporters" while the White House Office of Mendacities called it a "fair trial and a just verdict." I didn't comment on those because I feel doing so is beneath the dignity of any sentient being.
 
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