Thursday, April 30, 2009

It was all torture all the time

This is a guest post from Rebecca Gordon from War Times/Tiempo de Guerras. It is also our current "Month in Review" email. You can sign up to receive these informative overviews at the War Times website.

If it weren't for swine flu, Phil Specter's conviction and Arlen Specter's defection, the Bush Administration's torture regime would still be the lead story in this country. This month saw the release of four Justice Department memos about interrogation of detainees, one from 2002 and three from 2005, all addressed to CIA lawyer John Rizzo. The following week the Senate Armed Forces Committee declassified its November 2008 report on the treatment of detainees in U.S. custody. In addition, a 2006 report from the International Committee of the Red Cross on U.S. treatment of 14 "high value" detainees was leaked to the press.

You can download the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel memos from the ACLU, whose Freedom of Information Act suit shook them loose. Here's the link.

A searchable version of the 263-page Armed Forces Committee report is available from the New York Times.

The ICRC report can be downloaded from the New York Review of Books.


Some key points emerge from these documents:
  • No reasonable person can doubt that the use of torture was an intentional Bush Administration policy, beginning at least as early as 2002. In August of that year, Jay Bybee wrote for the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel (the "OLC") that his office believed that none of 10 interrogation methods suggested by the CIA for use on their detainee Abu Zubaydah would violate the U.S. legal statute prohibiting U.S. citizens from performing torture outside the United States. (Other laws cover this inside U.S. territory).

    These methods included stress positions, sleep deprivation, confinement in a very small box, confinement in a very small box with an insect, waterboarding and something called "walling." Walling consists of wrapping a towel around a prisoner's neck and using it to slam his back into a supposedly "flexible wall" -- In Abu Zubaydah's case, the wall was actually concrete, as he told the International Committee of the Red Cross. One day, after some hours spent in a box that was too small for him to sit or stand, he was released for another session of walling. A piece of plywood had been affixed to the concrete wall in the interim, presumably to make it "flexible." The ICRC calls walling "beating by use of a collar."

    Each of the method approved by the OLC qualifies as torture under the definitions in U.S. law and the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment. Sleep deprivation, to take just one example, can cause extreme disorientation, paranoia, and hallucinations in a short period of time. The CIA's method of preventing sleep was to shackle the prisoner in a standing position, with his arms suspended from above. If the prisoner fell asleep, the jerking on his wrists would wake him up. Prisoners spent days at a time in this position, and were fitted with diapers to that they could defecate while standing. The ICRC reports that medical personnel routinely measured detainees' legs, to make sure that the swelling this treatment provoked was within some "acceptable" limit.
  • The purpose of the four OLC memos was not to provide legal advice, but to give legal cover for CIA operatives involved in interrogations. The three Bradbury memos from 2005 evaluate a similar list of interrogation "techniques," explaining why none of them violates either U.S. law or the Convention against Torture. One memo dealing with the Convention begins by arguing that nothing the CIA does in a foreign country can violate the treaty, because the CIA is not acting in "territory under U.S. jurisdiction."

    The memos examine each proposed interrogation procedure in turn, concluding that none of them rise to the legal standard of "shocking the conscience," or involve the infliction of sufficiently severe physical or mental pain or suffering to violate the law. One memo bemoans "the imprecision in the statutory standard and the lack of guidance from the courts," on the question of how much pain or suffering is too much.

    Here is a taste of the OLC arguments: The CIA would be legally covered, Bradbury wrote, even if sleep deprivation causes hallucinations, because the U.S. law prohibits treatment calculated "to disrupt profoundly the senses or personality." Because hallucinations are merely a by-product of sleep deprivation, not its purpose, "any hallucination on the part of a detainee undergoing sleep deprivation is not something that would be a 'calculated' result of the use of this technique"--and so would be perfectly legal!
  • The purpose of torture was not to extract the truth so much as to establish it. Major Charles Burney, a former U.S. Army psychiatrist told the Senate Armed Services Committee, that interrogators at Guantánamo were under pressure to get detainees to say there was a link between Saddam Hussein's government in Iraq and Al Qaeda. Since no such link existed, this proved difficult to do. "The more frustrated people got in not being able to establish that link..." said Burney, "there was more and more pressure to resort to measures that might produce more immediate results."
  • Torture wasn't necessary anyway. Former Vice President Dick Cheney has been making the news-talk rounds, arguing that not only was the treatment of detainees not torture, it produced very important information. But the information was already available. There was no reason to waterboard Abu Zubaydah 83 times to find out that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed masterminded the 9/11 attacks. But former FBI agent Ali Soufan wrote in the New York Times that "KSM" had already revealed this -- back in March 2002, before the CIA began using its harsher methods.


When President Obama ordered the Justice Department memos released (a step bitterly opposed by the Bush-Cheney-McCain wing of the elite as well as virtually the entire national security establishment), he said that "nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past."

War Times disagrees. First, this particular "past" is not over. Guantánamo is still open, as are prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan. The President has prohibited torture, but U.S. citizens cannot rest until we know the prohibition is sticking.

That is why the United States must prosecute the people who have ordered and sanctioned torture over the last seven years. Otherwise we will be constructing a culture of impunity no different from that which protected Latin American generals responsible for dirty wars in Chile or Argentina.

If the U.S. doesn't prosecute, Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón may. He's bucking his own government to bring charges against Bush Administration officials, based in part on the newly declassified memos.

Article 2.2 of the Convention against Torture -- which the United States has signed and ratified -- says, "No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political in stability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture." We must do everything we can to prevent our nation from ever breaking the treaty again.

One thing you can do is join the ACLU's campaign for a special prosecutor. Here's the link.

War Times co-editor Rebecca Gordon teaches ethics to college students and is finishing a dissertation on torture in the post-9/11 United States.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Found item

For whatever reason, this neighborhood oddity posed for me.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

OFA: listening and learning

Tonight I attended a listening session for the new Organizing For America (OFA) otherwise known as Obama 2.0. Well over 100 people, most but not all veterans of the Presidential campaign, turned out in San Francisco's Western Addition to see what state field director Mary Jane Stevenson had to say.

Here's the bare poop: OFA's mission is
  • to support President Obama's agenda on education, health care and clean energy;
  • to grow and strengthen our grassroots organization;
  • and to train and empower our volunteers to effect change in our communities.
OFA lives under the umbrella of the Democratic National Committee, but Stevenson assured us, we didn't have to be Democrats to participate. She is the lone employee at present, but there will be regional field staff and offices.

We gathered in circles by neighborhood and talked organizing: what our communities need; what we have; what we'd like to see OFA look like by the end of the year. We brainstormed local projects -- and each neighborhood cluster set a next meeting time back in their area.

I came away with more questions than answers.
  • Some people brought very specific local needs and grievances. For example, there was the woman who finds herself living in a building on top of a toxic dump. Can a national organization supporting the President really do anything for her?
  • For that matter, does such a broad national outfit really want to assume any responsibility for that kind local specific problem?
  • People in my little Mission neighborhood circle kept mentioning that there were lots of groups in the neighborhood working on health and education issues. How does OFA relate to all that existing infrastructure?
  • Elected officials in San Francisco are all "liberals" in national politics. For goodness sakes, the Speaker is our Congresswoman. What does a national pressure group do with activists in such a district?
  • How does OFA relate to existing political formations? In this city we have expensive, highly charged, participatory elections for the county Democratic committee, not to mention a plethora of political clubs. In the Presidential race, the Obama people could ignore these entities. Now OFA is somehow the Democratic Party.
  • Or is OFA a Democratic Party entity? Stevenson did say that you didn't have to be a Democrat, that OFA welcomed everyone; how does that work?
  • What if OFA folks don't agree with the President's policies? In my little group, most were actually in favor of single payer, government-run health care, not Obama's private enterprise solution to universal coverage. Is there any room for them to agitate? Won't they just walk away if there isn't any room?
I could go on and on with the questions.

What was pleasant about this meeting was the sense that everyone brought huge numbers of questions, including our leaders. Presumably answers and structure will emerge -- and if they don't work for this set of activists, people will vote with their feet. Meanwhile, OFA is interesting. I guess I'll go to my neighborhood meeting ...

Monday, April 27, 2009

James Fallows' glimpses of China

Earlier today I commented to a friend that for citizens of the United States, working to ease the country through imperial decline with as little damage to the rest of the world as possible seems a worthy project. James Fallows' Postcards from Tomorrow Square: Reports from China is an extremely helpful contribution to that mindset. Fallows was a speech writer for Jimmy Carter, went on to the Atlantic Monthly, and has written five journalistic books. Since 2006 he and his wife have lived in Beijing because locating in China provided the

opportunity for discovery [that] is the real payoff of life as a reporter: the chance to answer questions that you did not previously know you wanted to ask.

That's a way of approaching life I can relate to. Fallows is a fascinated observer of China's immense energy and variety.

He's at his best at describing China's participation in economic globalization: people in this country maxed out their credit to consume imported goods while the Asian colossus built its manufacturing base, improved its workers' living standards, and fended off any impulse toward popular rule. He wants us to understand that for most Chinese, life is getting better, despite ruthlessly exploitative early stage capitalist development, miserably polluted air, and corrupt or arbitrary officialdom. Until our credit froze up, Chinese labored incessantly and we consumed their products cheaply, while the Chinese government used currency regulations to capture much of their national surplus -- and parked a great deal of that in U.S. government bonds. It was a neat system, now endangered by the global recession.

And the United States seemed oblivious to the system's underlying meaning before the current downturn. Fallows points to U.S. follies:

American complaints about [China's unconvertible currency,] about subsidies, and about other Chinese practices have this in common: They assume that the solution to long-term tensions in the trading relationship lies in changes on China's side. I think that assumption is naïve. If the United States is unhappy with the effects of its interaction with China, that's America's problem, not China's. To imagine that the United States can stop China from pursuing its own economic ambitions through nagging, threats or enticements is to fool ourselves. If a country does not like the terms of its business dealings with the world, it needs to change its own policies, not expect the world to change. China has done just that, to its own benefit -- and, up until now, to America's.

Are we uncomfortable with the America that is being shaped by global economic forces? The inequality? The sense of entitlement for some? Of stifled opportunity for others? The widespread fear that today's trends -- borrowing, consuming, looking inward, using up infrastructure -- will make it hard to stay ahead tomorrow, particularly in regard to China? If so, those trends themselves and the American choices behind them, are what Americans can address. They're not China's problems ...

Maybe in the current rather dire economic context, this country can get on with correcting some of the inequalities we've built into our own society, rather than fixating on the log we see in China's eye.

Fallows wants us not to gloss over the hopefulness in China. It's not all bad -- the scale of the place is so large, that where something good is happening, it is very good indeed. A sample: he visited a cement plant where an engineer had figured out how to capture heat normally wasted in the process and convert it to electric power.

Here's what I learned by visiting the cement factory and by asking about many similar "green" project in China: China's environmental situation is disastrous. And it is improving. Everyone knows the first part. The second part is important too.

Chinese, not surprisingly, want a chance to live like people whose industrialization has already passed through its unchecked polluting phase -- and we can't stop them from trying, but we can join them in looking for technological solutions to enable the human species to survive trying to give far more of its members a better standard of living.

Postcards is an informative and easy read to ruminate on. James Fallows also writes a blog where, in addition to sharing stories of China, he opines on whatever interests him. Reading it is a great way to live in a somewhat wider world.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Spire by Goldsworthy

A week ago I walked the section the Bay Area Ridge Trail that runs through the Presidio of San Francisco and came upon this:

What the heck is that? Obviously tree trunks from the surrounding cypress forest stood upright against each other. I've wandered through here before and know the park is clearing out and replacing the magnificent forest planted in the late 1800s.

A little more research (notably here) revealed that the thing was "Spire" by the sculptor Andy Goldsworthy.

It's pretty magnificent.

In Building 49 on the Main Parade Ground of the old fort, there's a free exhibit showing more about the work.

Those are big tree trunks -- it took quite a crew and a crane to erect the piece, as recorded in this photo at the display.

Goldsworthy apparently goes in for outdoor sculpture, often ephemeral. I came away from watching this video with the understanding that he builds what amount to sandcastles in more durable materials.

Apparently when Goldsworthy visited the little exhibit in the Presidio, he felt it needed its own sculpture, homage to the old fashioned military buildings that give the former base its charm. This is the result:

The exhibit will only be up for one more week, though May 3. "Spire" will stand as long as it stands. There's a lot of concrete in that base and bolts through the tree trunks, so that will be awhile. Reach it via the Arguello Gate to the Presidio.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Grading OUR 100 days

These Obama votive candles* are readily available in my neighborhood.

This is the week we get to drown in "100 days" assessments of the new guy. I could do one myself, but I'm more interested in assessing us, the citizens. How are we doing at interacting with, responding to and influencing the new administration?

That is our job, after all. In this democracy, we didn't elect a miracle worker or a king, just a U.S. politician. He may be the most intellectually broad, most politically agile, and generally interesting one most of us have ever seen, but he is also the guy we put in office. Our responsibility didn't end when we marked our ballots. So how are we doing?

Many of us are probably just hoping he is doing his job (whatever we think that is; most likely trying to keep our jobs from going down the drain). That attitude can't be a crime. People participate in politics in a democracy mostly in order to keep things from going so sour that they have to participate more. And there is reasonably objective evidence that, despite a seriously worsening economy, many of us think the country is doing better. In December some 70 percent of us thought we were on the wrong track; that's down to something close to 50 percent now.

But how about the fraction of us who think we have to participate all the time on various issues? How are we doing?

On the economy and finance: On this core concern, there have been several levels of citizen effort to have our say. People are mad; we know we have been and are being ripped off by the financial sector through everything from credit cards to bank fees to the bailout with our taxes. The Right's noisy infrastructure for disseminating resentment has had some success in co-opting the push back via its nasty nativist Tea Parties. Not enjoying the same media megaphones, such left efforts as ACORN's foreclosure resistance, haven't commanded the same attention. Meanwhile, just about every publically vocal academic expert on high finance -- Krugman, Stiglitz, Galbraith, Reich, Johnson and Kwak among others -- has charged the stimulus with being too small and the bailout with being inadequate and wrongly executed. The Administration says "we're doing what we can" and spins. We the people get a C for effort; academics get a B for at least creating the need for a response from our rulers.

On war and peace: The urgent need to replace the Republicans took any wind we had out of the sails of those of us who have worked against the Iraq war. And we ourselves have been very tardy at coming to grips with escalation in Afghanistan, with the continued refusal of our rulers to deal with the festering sore of Israeli oppression of the Palestinians, and with U.S. military might spread across the globe, including the still-escalating war budget. Some of the usual suspects, including Code Pink and UFPJ, have tried to keep a peace movement alive. Commentators including Get Afghanistan Right have tried to lay the intellectual groundwork for the moment when people here notice we're embroiled in another disastrous occupation in Central Asia. Probably the best news on that front is the testimony of veteran Marine Cpl. Rick Reyes in a hearing last week. As usual, it is going to take people in the U.S. feeling the damage caused by our wars to get their attention. For these reasons, we applaud the fact that we have a President who seldom embarrasses us when he goes abroad, gives us reason to hope he's leaving a trashed Iraq to sort itself out, and doesn't cheer atrocities. We're pretty pathetic world citizens: D- in consideration of the faint stirrings in the embers.

On the torture and the rule of law: The usual suspects -- civil libertarians, investigative journalists, competent security professionals and parts of the legal profession -- are squawking like mad about issues on this front. Adam Server has written a convenient scorecard on the multiple rule of law issues the Obama people have confronted -- and frequently flunked. What's hard is to know is how large a constituency cares about these matters. The conventional wisdom is that nobody cares, to the extent of writing false headlines for polling results that show that substantial majorities of the people want some kind of accountability, some combination of prosecutions and/or investigations. (H/t Jim White and the indefatigable Glenn Greenwald.) It's possible to watch the administration gyrate to deflect unwanted calls for fast action from multiple directions. Just possibly the people, quite a few of whom in this instance are somewhat elite people, are pushing the new president around a bit. Give us (and the Prez) a B- so far. Time will tell...

On promoting the general welfare: This is the category that encompasses what most of us, except elites, think is the legitimate work of government: setting the rules and policies that enable the society to function -- the core stuff like health care, labor rights, full civil rights for all, educational opportunity. For historical reasons, we're not as good agitators for our own welfare as we need to be. Since 1980 we've pretty much been on the defensive, trying to prevent a series of robbers and con artists from completely dispensing with a frayed social contract. And we've evolved institutions suited for this kind of playing defense: single-issue, technocratic, professional advocacy groups, usually headquartered in Washington, whose idea of an involved activist base is, at best, a large set of individual donors. This kind of institution has a difficult time adjusting to new political circumstances, to a friendly context outside the experience of all but their oldest leaders. Meanwhile, most of us have gotten used to be being grateful that someone else specializes in understanding health financing or school testing policies; we have learned to abdicate any activist impulses to the pros. For an administration attempting substantive initiatives toward some kind of universal health care and investment in educational quality, these outfits won't serve -- the Obama folks need a mass social movement behind them. Instead they have non-profit silos. Obama for America looks designed to fill some of that void -- but can the person in power also serve as the focus for a movement? On the tough general welfare policy front, I grade the citizens a D.

Two sectors deserve slightly better marks. Labor has a real membership and substantial political capacity demonstrated in multiple elections. But after years of being hamstrung by labor law that turned insurgents into bureaucrats, it hasn't yet shown it can rouse its members to make fierce demands on a friendly government. Labor gets a C+. The LGBT movement is riding an historical wave of change in gender assumptions that give it a rapidly growing base among the new administration's core constituencies. And Obama inadvertently taught it to fire warning shots across his bow before he was even inaugurated (the Rick Warren episode). There's struggle ahead, but give LGBT forces a B+.

On sustainability of the planet: As Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in this week's New Yorker,

... Earth Day has lost its edge and, with that, the sense that a different world is possible. Even more than in 1970, what's needed now is an outpouring that organizes itself -- with millions of people and, for good measure, some stinky dead fish in the streets.

The Pew Research Center found that, in the week Obama was inaugurated, concern about global warning had slipped to dead last among 20 policy problems. We, the citizens, can't seem to get interested. Some of the problem is like that with the other policy matters: it all seems incomprehensibly technical, impossible for otherwise responsible people to get involved with. And too many of us have the sneaking suspicion that probably it is all hopeless anyway -- the planet is going to fry and all we can do is mitigate and/or try to get ours. But Kolbert's right; we need to find hope that a different world is possible. So far, the people get an F.

For an overall grade, let's give ourselves a C- for Obama's 100 days. Lots of work to do.

*About those Obama votive candles: a quirk of my history makes me aware that the saint's body on which the President's head has been grafted belongs to Martin de Porres, a half-Spanish, half-Black African, Dominican brother in 17th century Peru. He was known for his good works for the poor -- and also for being able to "bilocate," to be in several places at once. I'm sure the President would find that ability useful in his job.

Friday, April 24, 2009

No-fly list turns aside French plane

That prize absurdity, the U.S. "no-fly list", re-routed an Air France plane last week -- the plane was not even trying to land in the United States.

Apparently somebody in the U.S. government doesn't like Franco-Colombian journalist Hernando Calvo Ospina, a leftist writer for the Le Monde Diplomatique. The French airline didn't furnish its passenger list to U.S. authorities for the Paris-Mexico flight, but did send the list to Mexico. As it approached U.S. airspace, the plane was diverted to the French Caribbean island of Martinique because someone listed was on board. Ospina was informed that he was the reason for the change by the co-pilot.

"I was speechless and my first reaction was to ask, 'Do you think I'm a terrorist?'," he said. "He replied 'no' and said that was why he told me about it, adding that it was extraordinary and the first time it had happened on an Air France plane."

Agence France Presse, via Actualite de la Bourse

Ospina seems to write about U.S. bad behavior in Central America and Cuba. His book Bacardi: The Hidden War recounts how the rum company uses its cash to support Cuban exiles who attack the Castro government.

Obviously, the writer Ospina must be a danger to the United States.

And some wonder why the U.S. president met with some skepticism from Latin Americans at the Summit of the Americas in Port of Spain last week.

Friday cat blogging
In which Dr. Lum visits Frisker

She's getting thin and bumpy. Sometimes dinner comes back up again. But she's not a cat you can take to a vet; she bites and claws for dear life all the way.

So Dr. Lum of San Francisco Veternary Housecalls came to see her.

She doesn't take to being felt up by a stranger.

When all that poking and prodding was over, she accepted our pats stoically.

But then that nice man brought out the kitty treats and he was forgiven.

She was perhaps not so sure she was reconciled with us. Time will tell whether she has to undergo any more of these indignities. Maybe she'll just have to have special food. Expensive food of course. She wonders whether she can persuade that nice man to prescribe smoked oysters?

Thursday, April 23, 2009

John Kerry, meet Cpl. Rick Reyes

Short [1:53] and to the point.

Late Earth Day follies

Really, the GOP seems to be the home of latter day flat-earthers. And Texans of the know-nothing sort. I mean, every good thing must come from Texas ...

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A little LGBT history ...

Today I've got a Gay and Gray column at Time Goes By on the topic "How it was then ..." Every time I encounter service providers who deal with LGBT elders, they talk about people who go back into the closet or isolate themselves as they age. I thought it might be make sense to tell some stories and share some videos that give the flavor of what it was like for LGBT people growing up in the 1950s and early 1960s. Lots of us have reason to fear "helping" professionals.

Sadly, if I'd been writing about some earlier decades, the stories might not have been so painful. There aren't many left who grew up in the 1920s and early 1930s, but my straight, but observant and not narrow, mother was from that era. From her, I always got a sense that those were far better times to be gay than the immediate post-WWII decades. Even in the 1950s, my mother was aware of the church organist and "his friend" and the two women teachers at the school where she was the librarian and thought them just part of the human mix. She had learned in her youth a live and let live version of "don't ask, don't tell, don't disturb."

While looking for the 1950s videos, I found this, which suggests that in some places and classes, the 1920s and 1930s were better for gays. It's fun. [2:46]

The accompanying text claims:

The 1920's and early 1930's were quite liberal when it came to homosexuality. "Pansy Clubs" were all the rage in New York and other big cities and newspapers speak of a "Pansy Craze" in 1930. Mae West came out with a play "The Drag" that was about homosexuality in 1927 and it was a huge box office success.

Williams Haines, who was one of the most popular actors of the 1920's, openly lived with his boyfriend/lover in the 1920's and their relationship was widely known and accepted. But after the religious revival that followed the beginning of the Great Depression, late in 1930, the religious nuts began to mount a campaign against gays. "Pansy Clubs" were shut down and popular actors like William Haines and Ramon Navarro (another famous actor from the 1920's) were forced to retire because they refused to make sham marriages with women.

In 1934, the religious right succeeded in forcing the movie studios to censor their films (e.g. Betty Boop has to wear a long skirt, no sexual jokes, no portrayals of gays, etc.) Swing music, which became popular in 1935, replaced the "gay music" of the 1920's and the tenor voice was declared obsolete because men were supposed to be brutes and women second-class citizens.

It was all over by 1935, the film code was in full force to protect society's "morals", women were once again relegated to second-class, minorities were again maltreated (and many were deported) and the USA would be basically homophobic and religious and conservative until the re-awakening in the late 1960's.

I'm sure I could write that history in a more nuanced way -- but you got to like the tune, "Masculine Women, Feminine Men."

And now we find ourselves on the verge of winning gay marriage in all the Northeast and quite soon in Californian. Pretty amazing times.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Joe Lieberman's recipe for an elective dictatorship

The odious Senator Joe Lieberman didn't approve of President Obama releasing the torture memos. He doesn't approve of closing Guantanamo. He doesn't approve of restricting interrogations of people the U.S. takes prisoner to techniques allowed by the Army Field Manual. You see, he says:

...the president can decide what tactics he wants the CIA or the military to use on people we capture, suspects of terrorism.


No, he can't. We have laws and treaties that cover these questions. A President swears to faithfully execute the laws, not make them up to fit his understanding of immediate political necessity.

Torture memo release: what price?

Is this what the CIA demands in order not to go rogue in response to President Obama's release of the torture memos? Marc Ambinder, the Atlantic Monthly's Washington reporter, has a list. [I've separated the items out; Ambinder had them all in one paragraph.]

I think Obama knows precisely what he did, and I think he's betting that the CIA will respond to his vision more quickly than the CIA thinks it will. But if CIA officers are willing to give Obama the benefit of the doubt, they will look to him for substance, not words.

Will Obama support investigations into CIA conduct?

Will he quickly wrap up ongoing investigations?

When Congress begins additional, formal investigations, will the White House intervene?

Will Obama comply with Sen. Dianne Feinstein's request and hold off making a final decision on prosecutions until the Senate completes its investigation in six months?

Will Obama preserve the State Secrets privilege?

The controversial sections of the Patriot ACT?

Will he defend CIA officials against civil suits?

Will he allow interrogation techniques that aren't in the Army Field Manual?

All of those items are worth tracking. Most of them are things that I believe the President cannot do if he is serious about this being a government of law, not all powerful men. And yes, the Agency certainly contains people who might very well act outside the law to undermine Obama if he seems a threat. After all, these are people who are in the business of overthrowing of enemy governments and knocking out bad guys; it's a lot to believe that none of them would turn their skills against their own employer.

Tuesday's New York Times headlines Pressure Grows to Investigate Interrogations. The lesson we must take from previous episodes involving authorities and countries gone terribly wrong is that people who believe in freedom can never give. Others have been here.

Simple pleasures

I better post this picture now, before the flower goes the way of the last bloom that I posted. The local thief gets most of what bursts out in the yard. But we enjoy them while we can.

Today I foolishly decided to run over San Bruno Mountain in the late afternoon. The city was lovely through the smog. Because it was unusually windless, there were few hawks floating on thermals. That was undoubtedly good for the young rabbits that exposed themselves to view on the paths. They wouldn't last in the open if the hawks were cruising for dinner. I've never seen quite so many rabbits up there.

I bonked just below the summit and had to abandon the trail for the road. What's it mean by being over 90 degrees and windless in April? Last week it blew a cold gale. I'm a proper California weather wimp. Life is often good, despite it all.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Chavez offers a gift

So Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez gave Obama a book -- Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent by the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano.

Evidently, the copy in question was in Spanish. This may account for the slight hint of recoil we see from Obama. Galeano's sweeping history was the standard account of Latin American development available to thoughtful North Americans in the 1980s. I'd be surprised if Obama had not encountered it back then and probably read it.

I guess it was polite of Chavez not to offer a copy with this cover from the 70s.

As of this evening, the current edition has risen to Number 2 ranking at Amazon. A lot of people are in for a good read. The book is a vivid, broad-stroke introduction to why Latin Americans might be more than a little suspicious of Big Brother north of the Rio Grande.

As in so many arenas, Obama wants to look ahead when relating to Latin America.

I didn't come here to debate the past -- I came here to deal with the future. (Applause.) I believe, as some of our previous speakers have stated, that we must learn from history, but we can't be trapped by it.

Transcript of remarks

I don't know if he'll be able to pull that off. Think about it -- the U.S. has only focused on mucking about in the affairs of the oil states of the Middle East since 1945 (Barbary pirates excepted.) And we've stored up a heck of a lot of grievances in that short time. In Latin America, we've been asserting our dominance over resources and political systems since the early 1800s. It will take more than nice words to work through that ugly history.

Oddly, recent U.S. wars of empire in Iraq and Afghanistan have created some breathing room for Latin countries to strengthen their economies and political systems while the Yankis were distracted. (That happened during World War II as well; U.S. wars elsewhere have been good for our southern neighbors.) Latin America is more ready to meet the U.S. from a stronger footing than perhaps it has ever been. As in so many arenas, the world is changing ...

Sunday, April 19, 2009

President serves ball to the people

It took some guts for the President to make the torture memos public; let's give him credit for that. He undoubtedly is surrounded by buzzing "intelligence" apparatchiks, a bunch of Chicken Little’s announcing that the sky is falling.

It would take even more guts to let the law take its course and make subject to prosecution people who violated laws and treaty obligations (those are laws too). The question of prosecution should not be a matter for argument. If this really is a country of laws, it will happen -- and we have direct experience of what happens when executive law breakers are let off.

"During this long period of delay and potential litigation, ugly passions would again be aroused. And our people would again be polarized in their opinions. And the credibility of our free institutions of government would again be challenged at home and abroad. ... My conscience tells me it is my duty, not merely to proclaim domestic tranquility but to use every means that I have to insure it."

Statement by President Gerald Ford on pardoning former President Nixon,
September 8, 1974

So what happened? Nixon, personally, aged out of most action, rather bitterly. But the thugs (yes, they are thugs) who learned
executive abuse of the power under his administration came right back.

Donald Rumsfeld: functionary under Nixon; White House chief of staff, then Secretary of Defense under Ford; diplomatic envoy for Reagan, including taking the old boy's greetings to Saddam Hussein during the Iraqi dictator's war on Iran; Secretary of Defense under Bush II, architect of the Iraq war, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.

Dick Cheney: assistant to Rumsfeld in the Ford White House, then Chief of Staff; a Congressman under Reagan working for such causes as blocking sanctions on South African apartheid; Secretary of Defense under Bush I; exponent of the monarchical executive; finally a Veep who claimed to be a previously unheard of fourth branch of government.

Those two old wannabe dictators aren't likely to be back -- it's their intellectual heirs who must face legal jeopardy if Obama's verbal repudiation of torture is to amount to anything. Addington, Feith, Bybee, Bradbury, and Yoo, minimally, need to explain to a court their conspiracy to violate American and international law. If they are allowed to waltz off to live on right wing welfare (and a federal judge's salary in the case of Bybee), Obama hasn't restored the rule of law. He's just postponed the country's next leap into the abyss.

"We have been through a dark and painful chapter in our history," Obama said. "But at a time of great challenges and disturbing disunity, nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past."

April 16. 2009

Mr. President, you are playing with being your own law unto yourself there. If an officer of the law uncovers evidence that crimes have been committed, investigation is mandatory, not optional.

There was also this:

"In releasing these memos, it is our intention to assure those who carried out their duties relying in good faith upon legal advice from the Department of Justice that they will not be subject to prosecution."

The Plum Line.
April 17, 2009

Many commentators, notably the ACLU lawyers whose efforts helped drag this crap into the light, wonder whether the President and his Attorney General aren't leaving themselves some wiggle room for prosecutions in that statement. It says nothing about the intellectual authors of the torture -- nor about CIA spooks who got a lot more enthusiastic about slamming around their prisoners than even the antiseptic bureaucratese of the torture memos allows. (There's plenty of evidence of such "excess" torture in the recent report of the International Committee of the Red Cross. And after all, 108 prisoners died in U.S. custody by 2005 during the period of mandated abuse.)

As usual, the people of this country will get as much democracy and rule of law as we demand, and no more. So we have work to do, forcing unwilling politicians to do the right thing. Obama has lobbed the ball into the people's court. It's a tough game -- can we take it?

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Tea party opportunity missed

I didn't attend one of the "tea parties" on Tax Day this week. I'm lucky enough to have a job and I was working at it.

If I had gone, I probably would have done no more than take a few pictures -- and likely felt sad about the state of U.S. education that leaves so many people prey to media that sell a regressive populism as entertainment. My instinct would have been to mock the protesters -- and I would have been wrong.

The writer Joan Walsh did attend and did interact with folks. According to her account, they were just as white, suburban and bamboozled as I might have anticipated. Also not unfriendly. But she talked with one woman whose perspective deserves more exposure.

That one, Christina Plutarkos, responded to Walsh's story with a note that deserves wider circulation:

Christina Plutarkos here, the liberal-progressive, anti-bailout bank employee. You interviewed me at the rally. ...

My sign actually read: "Why did Treasury let AIG close out the CREDIT DEFAULT SWAPS" (not CDO's) "at 100 cents on the dollar."

... It gets to the heart of how little oversight we're allowed for our nearly trillion dollar bank bailout. And that same question tells you how very broken our government is. And that is something we all agreed on today. Our political system is broken. The economic crisis is the result. ...

I tried to get my liberal and progressive friends to come out and cheerfully and good-naturedly and RESPECTFULLY engage the Tea Party attendees, and almost everyone turned me down. They apparently think conservatism is contagious. Hogwash.

As a liberal progressive who's been a lifelong Democrat, I have to say that everyone at the Tea Party was very nice to me, even though I had a different point of view, and we found a lot of common ground against the bailout. They really listened, and I listened too.

The best part was when a lovely older woman who first disagreed with me came around to thinking about the situation in a new way, and then she clasped my hand in hers, and could hardly let go. At that moment when we forgot our differences to focus on a goal we could help to achieve, America was stronger.

This is a nerve-wracking time for retirees like herself, and it was instructive to me to remember that I wasn't there as some kind of social experiment, but because like all Americans, I am worried about what will happen to actual people.

Once upon a time I was a tax protester. I thought it immoral to pay for U.S. wars and largely lived under the radar of the I.R.S. throughout the 1970s. Eventually life led me to compromise and now I do my tax bit for our shared community, still knowing that 50 percent of my payment goes for wars past and present (and this year some large fraction goes to shoring up rich guys.)

I have no business dismissing the Tea Party folks as mere crazies. I've been to any number of incoherent progressive protests where folks are mostly just getting their sense that they share outrage confirmed.

The administration's "Change" mantra may just be a useful buzzword, but objectively the lines of division between people in this country are changing. Though I'd certainly contend there is still a left-right axis to our politics, we have come into a new time and that axis need not cut exactly as it has for the last decade and more.

Progressives do need to talk with those among these folks who will talk with us; we can be sure that if we aren't trying to communicate with them, dangerous right wing proto-fascists will be scooping up and organizing their legitimate anxiety.

Friday, April 17, 2009

May 19 election: not the election we need

Here we go again. California is having another of its out-of-season special statewide elections. It's the usual -- the people are being asked to do the job of the legislature. Not that this is entirely the legislature's fault. In several earlier rounds of legislating by initiative we trashed a lot of the rules that enable representative bodies to make laws and policy.

Anyway on May 19, we are being asked to vote on a morass of propositions that would add additional wrinkles to the already broken budget process. I'm glad to see that several California groups I respect, including Calitics and the Wellstone Democratic Club, have come to the same conclusion I'd come around to.

All the propositions on the May ballot deserve a resounding NO.
  • Prop. 1A -- State spending cap: that's right -- proponents want to take the away from the legislature the job of making fiscal choices for the state that take into account their constituents' wishes and economic realities. Instead this would tie legislators down with formulas that put Republican refusal to pay for needed services into the state constitution. This is an ugly piece of extortion put on the ballot in desperation so the legislature could pass any budget at all this year. Just say no!
  • Prop. 1B -- shields some education funding from the cuts required by Prop. 1A for one year; it only becomes law if Prop. 1A passes. I suppose this is on the ballot to attempt to take the Teachers' Union out of action in the election. It's still bad law, not a fix for lack of education funding, just another wrinkle in a jerry-built system. Besides, if Prop. 1A passes, education funding is screwed, just like all other public services. No!
  • Prop. 1C -- They want to sell bonds backed by proceeds of the state lottery. I'd call that gambling on gambling. How much more of a house of cards can the state government become? No.
  • Prop. 1D -- seeks to raid funds raised from cigarette taxes for early childhood education and use them to plug the state's general budget hole. Designated funds like these are terrible policy, but given the Mickey Mouse way we've broken the budget process by previous initiatives, designated funds are the only way we get early childhood education paid for at all. No.
  • Prop. 1E -- This one is a raid on another designated fund, the one that pays for mental health services by hitting people who make over $1 million annually with a 1 percent tax surcharge. I see no reason to believe we don't need mental health services -- and all too much reason to believe we do need them. No.
  • Prop. 1F -- this one is populist bait. It proposes to punish legislators by preventing them from getting any pay raise if the state budget runs a deficit. Not that they really have much control over whether the state finds itself in deficit; there's a little thing called the national economy that largely determines that. But we want someone to blame when times get tough. On the scale of the state's budget problems, we're talking chump change here. This is just a way for voters to throw a tantrum. No.
What's wrong with the May 19 ballot is that the only measure which would do the state's fiscal crisis any good is not on it. That would be an initiative to get rid of the ridiculous requirement that two thirds of both houses of the legislature have to vote in favor of any budget.

This rule empowers small minorities of Republicans to impose their anti-general welfare agenda on the whole state. If they want to do without police, fire fighters, ambulances, hospitals and schools in some gated enclave, fine, let 'em. But the rest of us live together in communities and need government to do its job.

Minorities should not be able to tie the state government in knots and confront voters with garbage elections like this. Let us vote to restore majority rule to the budget process! That's a ballot measure I can believe in.
The flyer on the left in the picture above may be of more interest to many in the neighborhood -- it exhorts "Stop the Raids and Deportations" of undocumented immigrants.

Friday cat blogging

Socks has a great life. She picks out neighbors who meet her standards to visit and moves in for a few hours. Everyone sends her home by 9:30 at night though.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Providing a usable past

Mike Lux speaking at a book promotion in San Francisco.

We all read history through the lens of our own time. That's not a criticism; it is just a fact. If we work very, very hard at it, we can sometimes imagine that people in other times and places genuinely responded to events and people differently than we do -- but only if we invest disciplined effort at cutting through our assumptions and broadening our perceptions. When we work at, the study of history then becomes the study of how and why people moved from the ways they were to become the people we are. Discerning how societies and individuals change is exciting, but it must start from a dispassionate apprehension that then -- material circumstances and people's consciousnesses -- was not the same as now.

I really hoped to love Mike Lux's new book, The Progressive Revolution: How the best in America came to be. Lux is one the founders and proprietors of the progressive blog Open Left, one of the more sophisticated places on the web to discuss progressive politics. I like his sensible commentaries on that site. He's also a long time Democratic Party guy -- an experienced political operative and policy wonk who knows how things actually get done. It's an unusual combination and I've enjoyed reading him.

"The Progressive Revolution" is an attempt to offer the current generation of newbie Democratic activists a usable past, a retelling of U.S. history as a long struggle between "progressives" and "conservatives" along lines that pre-figure contemporary struggles. Unhappily, I don't think it quite works. Lux too often slips too easily into writing as if contemporary categories were universals that could be read back into history, a method that takes the intellectual friction out of looking at the past.

I don't want to nitpick this effort -- he's attempting a sweeping picture and will inevitably be vulnerable to small inaccuracies. So I'll try point out what disappoints me from the example of one of his major set pieces. In describing the U.S. revolutionary period and subsequent adoption of the Constitution, he sets up John Adams as the elitist conservative and Thomas Jefferson as the popular democratic progressive. And certainly that's a way to frame the political behavior of these two gentlemen. But it is a way that erases the nuances that make the period more than a backdrop on which to fight current battles. After all, in 1776, Adams was a vigorous proponent of declaring independence who maneuvered strenuously in the Continental Congress to get his supposed opponent Jefferson the job of drafting the Declaration. And while Jefferson's stance in the early days of national politics was the populist one, personally he was the rich plantation owning aristocrat, while Adams was much closer in his life experience to being the sturdy self-made yeoman that Jeffersonian politics claimed to empower. History is complicated.

History also sometimes reveals unpleasant truths about the shallowness of current posturing, especially when we get closer to our own time. Lux writes

...Republicans rolled back the Glass-Steagall in 1999, exposing our economic system to more risk.

Come on, Mike -- admit it. At the end of the Clinton era, many Democrats in Congress were nearly as enamored of "deregulation" -- letting the financial barons play fast and loose -- as the Republicans. They gave Republicans veto-proof margins for the repeal. Engaged citizenship has to include calling out your own leaders and your own party when they are wrong as well as beating up on the other side.

I've written enough here to show why "The Progressive Revolution" wouldn't be my candidate to fill the very great need for a usable past for contemporary activists. Interestingly, we are seeing another prominent exponent of creating a story of the past to build our future in the President. He's darn good at it, a subtle interpreter of a very mixed bag, as a Black man almost has to be.

For an historian's effort along the same lines, many in my older generation of progressive activists turned to Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States: 1492-Present. This is not as neat as Lux's effort, but no concerned reader will come away without gaining fresh insight into how we got to where we are.

One more reason I have to like Lux: while doing the book talk where I photographed him in the image at the top, this is what he had on below. Not a pretentious guy!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Iraqi refugees: still unsettled

United Nations staff register Iraqi refugees in Syria. Ramzi Haidar photo.

According to Ken Bacon who works with refugees:

When President Obama met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki in Baghdad last week, he mentioned the U.S. interest in helping displaced Iraqis return home.

That is a welcome change. The Bushies liked to obscure the fact that their invasion and occupation had displaced some 20 percent of the Iraqi population. When we visited the region in 2006, an obvious feature of life in Jordan and Syria, as yet largely unmarked by Western reporting, was the flood of Iraqi refugees set in motion by the war. They are still there -- and huge numbers of people are still displaced inside the country as well. It is hard to envision peace when so many people have no settled homes and communities.

Refugee returns are currently a political football in Iraq. According to a report by Refugees International, the al-Maliki government wants to declare the refugee problem is over whether it is or not. It has offered transportation from Jordan and Syria for those willing to return and aims to close down its record of "internally displaced persons" this year. But returns are still rare.

Refugees International recently met with Iraqi officials, who all expressed the desire to see the "IDP file" closed in 2009, as there are "no longer reasons to be displaced" in Iraq. As a result, internally displaced people are no longer being registered as the government hurries to make the displacement problem disappear.

Moreover, Prime Minister Al Maliki’s Shi’a government has little sympathy for the largely Sunni refugees in neighboring countries. Syria and Jordan state that almost two million such refugees are still in their countries, but the Government of Iraq states that there are no more than 400,000, and fewer have registered with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). According to a UN diplomat in Baghdad, the Prime Minister sees all refugees as "traitors" or "baathists" who prefer "getting money without working" rather than helping to rebuild their country.

Returns remain a trickle rather than the solution of choice for most displaced.

The occupation has made -- or allowed the emergence of -- an Iraq segregated by sect and ethnicity. Individual families became flotsam in the great sorting.

The U.S. has an ongoing obligation to fund efforts to enable all these people to get settled again. At the end of 2008, the U.N. appealed for $547 million to help Iraqis inside and outside the country. So far the appeal is falling short amid the world financial downturn. The least the U.S. can do is fund it generously.
Meanwhile, Iraqis hoping for a better future continue to leave their country. For years, because U.S. authorities wanted to pretend all was well in "mission accomplished land," we allowed very few Iraqis to immigrate to the United States. Under humanitarian pressure, the annual quota has now been raised to some 17000. And, naturally, after six years of occupation, there are a considerable number of Iraqis whose marketable skill has become working with Americans. A New York Times reporter explains his thinking about why he has decided to join the exodus, now that he can:

It’s been really hard for all of us living in Iraq. Things are better now but still fragile and uncertain. The security situation may be better but life isn’t that normal yet. The American-led invasion has changed Iraq for good and for bad. Bad things can’t be removed in one night, especially in Iraq. It’s been hard to predict the future of Iraq lately, but I think it will be easier in the States.

I have a good job with The New York Times now. I get a decent salary compared with the living standards in Iraq. But I still lack many other things as a young man: I don’t get the chance to date a girl or have fun like the others around the world because of the recent situation in Iraq.

I’ve also applied for my family to come with me. That includes my parents, my younger brother and my sister’s family which consists of four members and is considered a part of my immediate family because social relations are very strong in Iraq. We’re all looking for a change outside Iraq, and are willing to start over in America.

I bet he'll do well here, like millions of immigrants before him. Too bad we had to tear up his country to push him to this decision.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Tab dump

This is lazy blogging, but today I won't resist. What follows are some unrelated items that grabbed my attention -- and which I thought others might enjoy without my needing to write much about them.

A small step for womankind... Apparently "potty parity" in public accommodations is now the law, or at least the building code. Architects have recognized that women take longer in rest rooms, what with needing individual stalls, wearing more complex clothes, and often escorting children, so stadiums are beginning to be built with enough toilets. I never thought I would see the day! Maybe with this, we'll begin to take up a more equal proportion of the seats at sporting events, in addition to enjoying concerts and other mass festivities more.
Obama allows more travel to Cuba ... and leaves most of us in the United States as second class citizens. Sure, it is great news that he has relaxed the Bush era restrictions that prevented Cuban-Americans from visiting their relatives -- but what's with continuing to prevent the rest of us from traveling there legally?

I know, many of us go to illegally from Mexico or elsewhere. I did it myself from Canada over 20 years ago. I didn't come back a Cubaphile, though there's a lot to like on a Caribbean island with wide beaches where everyone has access to health care. Back then, heterosexuality was far too compulsory for my taste. I hear that is no longer true and can believe it -- presumably the Revolution's misguided attempt to repress visible gayness had a lot to do with how much underlying pansexual liberation was trying to break out.

But who cares what I think about Cuba? What's infuriating about Obama's half measure is that Cuba policy is not a foreign policy issue. Like Israel, it's domestic political theater masquerading as serious high policy. Baloney. It's about very localized bloc voting and campaign contributions and that's no reason to let those dictate our country's relations with millions of real people.
Justice Clarence Thomas said something I find endearing... I know, that's impossible. But this observation accords completely with the way I see the world:

"I have to admit," he said, "that I’m one of those people that still thinks the dishwasher is a miracle. What a device! And I have to admit that because I think that way, I like to load it. I like to look in and see how that dishes were magically cleaned."

Wonder if he really does load the dishwasher? As for the rest of his ideas -- no, not for me.
Oh, and like most everyone else, I'm a sucker for the White House dog.

You're a nice addition to the national reality TV show, Bo. Glad you are along.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Junketing around the empire

Congressman Jared Polis, D-CO (he's the gay guy from Boulder and environs, newly elected in 2008) has just been to Iraq and Afghanistan on a CODEL. That's a Congressional delegation. He's got sharp things to say about the two countries -- but more interesting is his candid description of what it is like to travel on one of these trips.

Polis writes in the Huffington Post:

We visited two cities in Afghanistan, Kabul the capital and Kandahar in the south near the Pakistani border. What a mess. What another world. No one can make sense of Afghanistan because it doesn't really make sense.

We hardly glimpsed the real Afghanistan. Through the bullet-proof windows of our van, we saw a few children playing, women in Burkhas, and men going about their daily business as we drove from the airport to the Embassy, but our briefings were all in military bases or government buildings. ...

On this trip to Afghanistan, unfortunately not a single bite of Afghan food passed our lips. We stayed on the military bases and embassy compound, ate in cafeterias, and the only Afghani we even met with was the Minister of the Interior.

Thus, despite traveling thousands of miles and visiting the country itself, my context and understanding of Afghanistan is pretty much the same as the average American's--based on the same information that the Obama administration and US military have given us in making their decisions.

Two questions:
  • Why are we footing the bill for Congresscritters to learn hardly anything but what their military and state department handlers want them to?
  • Do most of those Congresscritters know they are learning so little?
Rep. Polis is to be applauded for his candor.
He was also pretty candid about what he learned during the Iraq phase of this trip.

In the afternoon in Baghdad, we went to the Iraqi Parliament and met with two female members. Both covered their heads and wouldn't shake the hands of men. ...

The two members of parliament were the only Iraqis we formally met with; this visit was skewed toward visiting with our own military and learning about our mission and successes and failures from the American perspective. The few times we talked to Iraqis on their own, they told us only what they want American officials to hear. I learned more about the situation in Iraq on my previous visit [before Polis' election], in November 2007, when I met with Iraqi refugees in Jordan who spoke much more freely about their observations and opinions.

This guy is an incisive obsever. Can he stay that way in Congress?