Friday, July 31, 2015

Wayback machine: the little pseudo-courts that couldn't

In The Terror Courts: Rough Justice at Guantanamo Bay, Jess Bravin, Supreme Court correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, gives readers some inkling of what it felt like to earnest lawyers working in circumstances where there was no legitimate law. This is a novelistic narrative of bad men enlisting subordinates who were sometimes better men [few women appear] in a perversion of justice.

On November 13, 2001, President George W. Bush casually signed off on a scheme coming out of Vice President Dick Cheney's orbit within the administration to create "military commissions" to judge and punish captured prisoners associated with al-Qaeda. No more Geneva Conventions or even trials within the federal judicial system for men labelled terrorists!

In one early draft, the secretary of defense would select all the participants -- the members of the commission, the prosecutor, and the defense attorney -- and then would decide any appeals.

Administration legal hacks -- John Yoo, Alberto Gonzales, William "Jim" Haynes -- cobbled together an executive order that created a facade of legality for novel pseudo-courts charged with inventing rules and procedures to free our government from obligations to either national or international law. Their incurious Chief went along.

And so this sad, unnecessary, and cruel train of malfeasance and incompetence was set in motion. Bravin's book follows Lt. Col. Stu Couch, a well-meaning Marine Corps Judge Advocate General officer, who stumbled from obstacle to obstacle trying to make this jerry-rigged edifice function. It's a tale of bureaucratic futility and of Couch's growing awareness that he was struggling to go through legal motions in a context where no approximation of the law he believed was his profession was respected.

Nearly every case he was ordered to prosecute led back to a tortured defendant. His first visit to Guantanamo was revelatory.

Couch trusted President Bush and the chain of command. To him, criticism from liberal activists, European governments, and the news media was suspect. ... Prisoner mistreatment was a possibility in any jail, but Couch assumed that any abuse was an aberration. ...

Still, Couch was concerned because nearly all prosecution evidence came from detainee statements -- or rather, summaries of detainee statements, paraphrased by an interrogator and edited by higher-ups. These were hearsay, and inadmissible in federal court ... But since the reports were "probative" -- the only evidentiary requirement of Bush's military order -- they were not automatically barred from the commissions. For that matter, the rules did not prohibit use of statements taken through coercion or even torture.

Yet defense attorneys were certain to challenge interrogation summaries as unreliable and unfair. To respond, Couch felt he needed to know everything about a criminal investigation .... [So he finagled a visit to one of his target defendants at Guantanamo.]

An Air Force reservist serving as base escort brought Couch to the interrogation control room to watch the [Ahmed] al-Darbi session by video feed. Awaiting Darbi's arrival, Couch was startled by an unlikely sound: blasting heavy-metal music. ... On the floor [of a nearby interrogation room] amid flashing lights and the deafening metal sounds, was a shackled detainee, kneeling , mumbling, rocking back and forth. Praying. This man was in agony...

Being a ethical officer and a competent attorney, Couch was horrified -- and immediately aware he was not going to be able to press charges against men who had been subjected to such treatment.

There were other difficulties. A British Muslim named Moazzan Begg had been picked up in Pakistan and imprisoned at Guantanamo. British Prime Minister Tony Blair was getting heat at home about this guy; if he was a terrorist, why wasn't he being tried? The Bush administration wanted charges against Begg and the job was given to deputy chief prosecutor Navy Commander Scott Lang.

Reviewing Begg's file, Lang had a question: "What's the crime?"

Figure it out, [acting chief prosecutor Marine Lt. Col. Bill] Lietzau said.

This was not an easy task, because no crimes yet had been defined for military commissions. Lang was confronted with the inverse of a regular criminal case. Police and prosecutors normally began with a crime report and then tried to find the likely suspects. At military commissions, however, "they gave you the criminals and said, 'Go find crimes that might fit these criminals,'" Lang said.

That was in 2002. Three years later, Couch was given an Australian defendant named Mahdouh Habib to prosecute, again under pressure from the man's home country. He found that nothing had changed.

He had a defendant. Now he needed a crime. Despite countless hours sifting through the dossier, he couldn't find one. Habib came across as obnoxious and untruthful, but his contradictory and uncorroborated statements added up to nothing approaching a war crime. He needed to see what the intelligence community had on Habib ...

He never got that CIA file, though eventually it came out that Habib had been rendered for torture to Egypt and had told wild tales under duress that he later denied. There was no other evidence. The case had to be dropped.

Subsequently, Couch was given the case of the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, to prosecute. But again, he was denied access to the intelligence files on his target.

...the administration concluded that holding Mohammed accountable for 9/11 was less important than concealing the circumstances of his CIA interrogations.

Not surprisingly, Couch began to feel left out on a limb by his bosses. Eventually the habeas case of Salim Hamdan was argued before the Supreme Court. Couch reported his feelings.

Hundreds of layers, professors, consultants and students attracted by a historic cause had joined Salim Hamdan's defense team, taking small roles and large, as the case evolved into a constitutional showdown between executive power and individual rights.

At the Office of Military Commissions, meanwhile, Stu Couch found himself practically flying solo.

"Here I am prosecuting allegedly the most important damn thing we've done in military justice since World War II, and I'm a frickin' Army of One," he grumbled ...

Not long after, Couch finally managed a transfer to a different, less conflicted, military law job.

Bravin relates the story of the Bush Administration military commissions unjudgmentally, as I have not. His narrative is probably more convincing for playing it straight. He offers this simple summation of how such a travesty could come to be:

During the Bush administration, commissions were conceived and championed by officials whose primary motive was redistributing powers from the legislative and judicial branches to the executive. Commissions were an expression of that ideology rather than a pragmatic response to an irresolvable problem.

The military commissions at Guantanamo still limp along, somewhat regularized but not replaced by real courts, under Obama. They still have not come close to trying Khalid Sheik Mohammed. Carol Rosenburg of the Miami Herald is still the go-to reporter on this farce, as she has been for over a decade. The latest news from this misbegotten folly is that the compound which the military put up in Guantanamo for the trials may be some kind of toxic site. Among those who have worked at the site, there appears to be a cancer cluster including several deaths.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Happy Birthday, Medicare!

Several hundred people rallied to celebrate today in downtown Oakland. We were a happy crew.

Yes, there were younger people there, but I decided to photograph mostly elders.

Veteran activist Ying Lee has a candidate. This was a single-payer, Medicare for All, sort of crowd, so I trust Bernie will do well.

A hat and shades helped.

Now there's a proper hat.

Some people found a bench while they read the inevitable handouts.

Even those who ventured into the sunny central amphitheater were mighty happy at this party!

Medicare at 50 years old

Fifty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson signed the bill that created the promise of the health insurance that I now enjoy. That's his wife, Lady Bird, looking over his shoulder, former President Harry Truman sitting down (he had tried and failed to win universal healthcare nearly twenty years before), and Vice President Hubert Humphrey smiling broadly.

Like just about everyone else who manages to stumble to 65 and receive Medicare, I'm enormously grateful. How dare Jeb Bush push to phase out Medicare? Ferget it and ferget him!

My friend Ronni Bennett has up a terrific post about the history and current health of Medicare. Take a look. Read the comments too; we elders sure need this program!

When I signed up for Medicare three years ago, the process was complicated by the fact that I'd been getting my insurance through my partner's coverage, but the federal government didn't recognize our relationship. I told that story at Ronni's place. All that nonsense is so over. We're just another couple of old married ladies these days.

Later today I'm going to look in at a celebration of this anniversary called by some of the health care unions. I'll try to get some pictures.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Enslavers built this country with the whip

If you care about how white supremacy came to be the unhealed wound in this country's body and soul, I suggest two history books that provide a grounding through which to interpret that evil's current manifestations. The first was published four decades ago, Edmund Morgan's American Slavery, American Freedom. (The link is to my short discussion of it.) Morgan describes how adopting slavery made possible early colonial Virginia's tobacco economy and how maintaining slavery by violence warped the intellectual world of the U.S. founding generation. Last year, Cornell historian Edward E. Baptist's The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism extends analysis of slavery to the frontier states where cotton became king and U.S. capitalism accumulated its foundational wealth.

What Baptist has done is simple, if laborious and painful: he has studied many, many slave narratives and post-slavery interviews with the institution's survivors and discerned patterns of horror which render a story quite different from what we may have learned in school. Then he has woven this material into a powerful narrative of the pre-Civil War United States.

His central assertion, which I would say is unlikely to be refuted, is that southern planters in the then-southwest (Alabama, Mississippi, Texas and so on) invented a new system for exploiting bound human labor that yielded previously unimagined productivity. Enslaved African Americans literally created the wealth of the emerging United States, under the lash. Here's a longish, but I hope understandable, set of quotations that summarize Baptist's case:

The kind of slavery that [the slave Charles] Ball was encountering and that was emerging on the frontiers of the early nineteenth-century South was inherently new. For centuries, slavery in the New World had expanded by a process of extension: adding new slaves, clearing new fields ... By 1820, whites had already transported more than 200,000 enslaved people to the South's new [southern and western] frontiers in the years since 1790. ...

What made this forced migration truly different was that it led to continuous increases in productivity per person -- what economists call "efficiency." ... The first slavery [in Virginia and on the east coast] had not yielded continuous improvements in labor productivity. On the nineteenth-century cotton frontier, however, enslavers extracted more production from each enslaved person every year.

The source of this ever-rising productivity wasn't a machine like the ones that were crucial to the textile mills. In fact, you could say that the business end of the new cotton technology was a whip. ...

... The best known innovation in the history of cotton production, as every high-school history student knows, is the cotton gin. It allowed enslavers to clean as much cotton for market as they could grow and harvest. As far as most historians are concerned, the gin is where the study of innovation in the production of cotton ends ... But here is the question historians should have asked: Once enslavers had the cotton gin, how then did enslavers produce (or have produced, by other hands) as much as the gin could clean? ... [E]nslaver-generals took land from Indians [think Andrew Jackson and Sam Houston], enslaver politicians convinced Congress to let slavery expand [most prominently South Carolina's John C. Calhoun and such Presidents as Polk, Pierce and Buchanan], and enslaver-entrepreneurs created new ways to finance and transport and commodify "hands." And, given the finite number of captives in their control, entrepreneurs created a complex of labor control practices that enslaved people called "the pushing system."... Innovation in violence, in fact, was the foundation of the widely shared pushing system.

... "Their plan of getting quantities of cotton," recalled Henry Bibb of the people who drove him to labor on the Red River, "is to extort it by the lash." In the context of the pushing system, the whip was as important to making cotton grow as sunshine and rain. ...

[And the whip, squeezing productive creativity from the enslaved pickers, worked.] From 1805 ... to 1860 in Mississippi, the amount of cotton the typical "hand" harvested during a typical day increased three, four, six, or even more times over. In 1801, 28 pounds per day was the average from several South Carolina labor camps. ... by the 1840s, on a Mississippi labor camp, the hands averaged 341 pounds each on a good day ... To alienate one's hands and rewire them for someone else was torment. Enslaved people, however, discovered how to do it.

Southern planters could sell any amount of cotton to English mills; their riches rapidly increased. Northern financiers and budding industrialists got in on the bounty by buying up securitized shares of slave "hands" who worked on the plantations, financing yet further geographical spread of the system. This financial tie-in, in turn, meant that in the Panic of 1837, Northern bankers ended up owning the debt of some of the the biggest planters. Now it was their system.

From the perspective of the Southern planter class, the means by which their slave-enabled boom could be revived and made to last forever was through expansion to new lands. They sought (and obtained) Texas and yearned to seize the entire U.S. Southwest, Mexico, Cuba, and Central America for the slave production system.

African Americans had been saying for years that slavery's power built on the acquisition of new territory. On the frontier, enslavers could destroy the old standards of production, disrupt families, securitize the individuals extracted from them as commodities, sell the financial instruments thus created on financial markets around the world, and ride the resulting boom of excitement.

So why did resistance emerge in the North to extension of slavery? Baptist makes a solid case for the North's complicity in the profits of slave production, but is less clear on how countervailing forces emerged. Certainly most Northerners were not abolitionists until perhaps the middle of the Civil War and even then their abolitionism did not extend to sympathy with enslaved African Americans.

My understanding is that a critical fraction of Northerners came to resent being impeded by the "Slave Power" from developing the country in a different direction. The South's insistence on its "institution" stood in the way of "free labor," of "internal improvements" like railroads aided by the federal government, of a Homestead Act offering public land to settlers, and of the launching of land grant colleges. This vision had significant popular force behind it; Congress enacted much of it within a year of Confederate secession. Meanwhile, the South saw Lincoln's election by northerners with these ideas as a sign that they and their system had lost. Hence the wild throw of the dice that was the Confederacy and the Great Rebellion.

Baptist insists that we misunderstand how defining slavery was to the mid-nineteenth century United States.

It has been said that the Civil War was "unnecessary" because slavery was already destined to end, probably within a few decades after the 1860 election. Yet this is mere dogma. The evidence points in the opposite direction. Slavery yielded ever more efficient production, in contrast to the free labor that tried (and failed) to compete with it, and the free labor that succeeded it ... Forced labor that is slavery in everything but name remained tremendously important to the world economy will into the twenty-first century. [See this for example.] And the lessons the enslavers learned about ... forcing ordinary people to reveal their secrets so those secrets could be commodified, played out in unsteady echoes that we have called by many names (scientific management, the stretch-out, management studies) ...

I think Baptist would question, as we all must, whether the rebels of 1860 have even yet definitively lost their war to retain driven, powerless labor. This is what Harold Meyerson questions this month in How the American South Drives the Low-Wage Economy. The country is still fighting it out; at least some of the time, the contemporary "we" is a broader, more inclusive one than in 1860.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Mission District cultural artifact

I complain a lot about how San Francisco is losing its soul. We mostly all do around here. And we're not wrong. The big tech money is sanitizing the place.
But we do still encounter improbable reminders of some decidedly non-standard cultures. Let's take apart this snippet of a poster I noticed not far from my Mission home this morning.

If you are not familiar with the genre, you may not recognize this as the effluent of one of two competing Trotskyist sectlets that hang on in the city. They use very similar typography, so are instantly recognizable to those of us who've been afflicted by them for years. I'm not going to link or tell you which one.

In case the Spanish is not understandable, it reads roughly "Marriage Equality -- how was it won? what does it mean" and advertises a public meeting about this topic at which "all are welcome." Whoever tore off the bottom of the poster spared us any further information.

This is still a neighborhood where a significant number of residents speak Spanish, so the language is not inappropriate. Apparently our sectarians are looking to attract Spanish speakers. Good for them.

On the other hand, very few people around here look like the lovely Black lesbians in the photo (more's the pity.) And somehow I doubt that people who are attracted by the topic are looking for a friendly, affirming clerical-collared pastor to marry them (though there are such persons available in the 'hood if that's someone's thing.)

Finally we get to the response someone has scrawled: "I want to marry my dog..." This might be an expression of hostility -- or, then again, perhaps not. Maybe someone really does want a movement that would enable her to marry her dog? If this is the coming thing, you saw it first on a poster in San Francisco's Mission.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Dickhead of the week

Mr. Dickhead has been in temporary retirement around here for too long. It is time to pull him out again as Kentucky Senator Rand Paul is trying to reinvigorate his sagging presidential campaign by going after Planned Parenthood's funding for women's health. Like all the Republican clowns, he's latched on to some hoax videos claiming to show that PP sells fetal tissue for research. (They don't, but if women are willing to donate, they will pass such material on, at their cost, to scientific labs.)

According to Reuters, Paul

plans to push Congress to cut federal funding for the non-profit reproductive healthcare organization Planned Parenthood in a debate over its treatment of aborted fetal tissue. ... Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has started a fast-track process to bring Paul's legislation for a vote soon, McConnell's spokesman told Reuters on Sunday.

...Paul has urged cutting the nearly $500 million in annual taxpayer funding for Planned Parenthood in the latest Republican effort to limit government support of the group over its abortion services.

... Abortions comprise 3 percent of Planned Parenthood's health services, according to the organization's website. About 40 percent of the non-profit's funding comes from government sources, including Medicaid managed-care plans.

Planned Parenthood is the medical provider of last resort for millions of women who fall through the cracks of our crazy quilt healthcare system.

Paul doesn't give a damn about them. He just wants to strut his stuff for the crazy Republican electorate that wants to force unready women to bear (and care for) unwanted children.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Not so long ago, she was among us

This morning she smiles at the streets of the City as the annual marathon flows by.

Rumors of war over the South China Sea

As I walk around San Francisco, I often bemoan how soaring land values are transforming this peninsular city. There's construction everywhere and it sure doesn't look as if there will be room for immigrants and workers as it gets done. But there are still an astonishing diversity of people and concerns. Not infrequently, I come home from walking a precinct and rush to the web for answers: what are these residents so stirred up about?

Allow me to share what I learned from my superficial research into that sign. The Paracels look to be off Vietnam, but were taken over definitively by the People's Republic of China in 1974 after a naval battle. Though there's not much to the islands, including no reliable fresh water, the Chinese are developing them as a tourist destination. Meanwhile both Taiwan and Vietnam maintain the Paracels are part of their countries.
Via Wikimedia Commons
The Spratly Islands seem even less likely to be objects of international strife: no people, no arable land, and little water. All that's there would seem to be fish and guano, all that is except the possibility there is undersea oil.

That last presumably explains why six nations claim these isolated reefs: Brunei, the PRC, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. All of them maintain some military presence on the islands and there have been several skirmishes among the claimants since 1946. Most recently, China has been dredging and building an airfield which the other claimants consider evidence of aggressive intent. The U.S. and China engaged in some classic jockeying for position over the region this spring. Presumably the U.S. Navy is being deployed to protect the possibility of U.S. oil operations.

Just as the Quemoy and Matsu crisis was scary background noise for those of us who grew up in the 1950s, the Paracels and Spratlys are simmering hot spots today for those aware of these remote atolls.

UPDATE: Just in case anyone arrives here from Google -- the New York Times has published a detailed explainer and maps about these island.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Get arrested; end up dead

Leah Libresco at FiveThirtyEight ran the numbers.

African-American arrestees are at a considerably higher rate of arrest-related death by homicide than whites. Those homicides are overwhelmingly likely to be committed by law enforcement personnel, not other jail inmates. The U.S. Justice Department counted 2,958 arrest-related homicides between 2003 and 2009; 99 percent of those were committed by law enforcement.

The Justice Department notes in both its report on deaths in jail and on arrest-related deaths that its numbers are likely to underestimate the true rate of deaths, because of underreporting, but that they have more confidence in the relative rate of different causes of deaths.

My emphasis. #Blacklivesmatter

Saturday scenes and scenery: snapshots in and around the loo

Here in parched California, we take saving water seriously. Still this sticker inside a portapotty seems self-servingly didactic, given its captive audience.

Somebody has been making art inside this portapotty door.

There seems to be a movement in upscale San Francisco neighborhoods to encase the temp toilets at construction sites within enclosures like this. We are living in a new gilded age!

Meanwhile this excellent facility occupies several parking spaces on one of our still seedy downtown streets.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Lust for more war is looking like a partisan issue

And that is not a good thing.

As the Times reported yesterday, Senate Republicans seem to be working themselves up to repudiate the Iran nuke deal.

... the vast majority of Republicans appear to have made up their minds before a single classified briefing, hearing or visit with administration officials.

Fortunately, they can posture all they like and hold symbolic votes against the agreement, but unless they can bring a lot of Democratic Congress members to join them, they can't stop it.

But in general, at this moment, the closest thing we have to a bulwark against more stupid shit -- against another on-the-ground U.S. adventure in the Middle East -- is that Democrats still oppose throwing masses of soldiers into the meat grinder. A new Pew Poll shows strong ongoing anxiety about the Islamic State. Hey, we're still suckers for beheading propaganda. But 49 percent of us still don't want to send U.S. troops, while 44 percent think that would be just the thing.

What's scary about these numbers is that 63 percent of Republicans are panting for a ground war while the same percentage of Democrats are saying no way. Independents break more evenly, though slightly against.

If there is any good news in this survey, it is that young people under 30 are far more suspicious of any drive toward war than their elders. White men are the most likely to want to attack the Islamic State, while women across races and people of color are a little more cautious.

Facing the 2016 election, it is important to point out loudly and clearly that Republicans seem to be awfully casual about leading the U.S. into a hornet's nest. Republicans -- both the politicians and most of their constituents -- are currently a war party.

But probably even more important, Democrats need to push Hillary Clinton to commit to using international diplomacy to advance U.S. policy aims instead of sending in the Marines (or more likely JSOC). Why she's even got the background to do it. We rarely get a President with that experiential skill set.

Friday cat blogging

I thought that was my pillow, but apparently Morty thinks different(ly).

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Whatever the weather, it's too damn hot!

The first six months of 2015 were the hottest, ever.
Good visual summary of the condition our condition is in.

From the Carbon-Freeze campaign.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Nightmare for anti-militarists

Kevin Drum makes a plausible prediction about next year's presidential race (once we get through the foolishness and the Republicans settle on someone):

Right now, everyone thinks the Iran treaty is going to be the big foreign policy issue of next year's election. Maybe. But I think interest will fade after it's a done deal. Instead, ISIS will probably dominate the conversation, and Republicans will have to put up or shut up. If President Obama's limited strategy of training and airstrikes isn't working, are they willing to commit to a large-scale intervention using ground troops? That's likely to be the big foreign policy issue of the election.

He's riffing off Professor Stephen Walt's sensible observation that the entity called ISIS, or ISIL, or Islamic State or Daesh seems to be successfully establishing itself as the effective government of a goodly swath of Sunni Muslim former Syria and Iraq and isn't going to be dislodged by U.S. bombing and ineffectual, fragmented enemies. As Sarah Chayes would highlight, at present it has banished a humiliating, exhausting culture of corruption from its conquests and that would give any governing authority a novel legitimacy. Even the New York Times documents this:

... its officials are apparently resistant to bribes, and in that way, at least, it has outdone the corrupt Syrian and Iraqi governments it routed, residents and experts say.

“You can travel from Raqqa to Mosul and no one will dare to stop you even if you carry $1 million,” said Bilal, who lives in Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de facto capital in Syria, and, out of fear, insisted on being identified only by his first name. “No one would dare to take even one dollar.”

... increasingly, as it holds that territory and builds a capacity to govern, the group is transforming into a functioning state that uses extreme violence — terror — as a tool.

I hope we can be confident that, whatever provocations the aspiring caliphate may pull off before next year, the outgoing Obama administration is unlikely to dump U.S. troops into the fray. The Prez seems determined as I write to go out without "doing stupid shit", an admirable policy framework we could use more of.

But Drum may be right that an argument about whether the U.S. should go crashing into another war could become a central issue next fall -- and the idea has disquieting implications.

For Hillary Clinton, this will require some fancy footwork. Aside from her Wall Street ties, distrust of Hillary over her hawkishness is probably her greatest liability among Democratic voters.

On the other hand, we can count on any Republican to promise to (re)establish imperial dominance by maximum force and violence. Anything less would unmanly, un-exceptional, unAmerican. And just consider, that nominee could be named Bush ...

People who care about peace can't allow this horror show to develop without loudly raising up a picture of a more peaceable posture. Otherwise we'll be as organizationally enfeebled as we found ourselves after the 9/11 attacks.
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