March 30, 2007

On the Slopes

No posts for a few days - I'm hitting the slopes with some of my best friends. Sensen No Sen will return the week of April 9th.

March 24, 2007

The Alleged Patriotism of George W. Bush

The "New Rules" segment of Real Time with Bill Maher was hard-hitting again this week. Focusing on the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame - and echoing sentiments I wrote in Dishonoring Those Who Serve - Maher enumerates the ways in which the Bush Administration has betrayed the American intelligence community and endangered the country by putting political needs before the national interest.

Coverage of the Plame story has been on-again-off-again since it first broke, but there has been renewed attention now that Ms. Plame has testified before Congress that she was a covert operative. Fox News, dependably, has continued to try and bolster the meme that she was not covert, with former newsman and current entertainment personality Brit Hume all but accusing Plame of lying under oath.

It's good to see Mr. Maher lay out the core issues, and it's even better to watch him do so without pulling any punches.

March 19, 2007

Sacrifice in Time of War

The "New Rules" segment from March 15th's Real Time with Bill Maher hits the nail on the head...

March 15, 2007

Serially Abusing the American Military

As the scandal surrounding the conditions in which veterans have been housed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center has grown to include the resignation or firing of a number of top commanders, there has been much ado about how this should be the straw that collapses the claims of the Bush Administration and its backers that they "support the troops." What is perhaps even more tragic however, is that the White House has been allowing this to happen since the invasion of Iraq, and that there were reports of wounded soldiers housed in squalor as early as 2003 and with insufficient care as early as 2004.

The long range effects of the Walter Reed scandal, stop loss, insufficient equipment and multiple tours of duty - all coupled with cuts to veterans benefits in time of war - are already beginning to be felt. The families of service people are increasingly falling into crushing debt and are more often reliant on charity to make ends meet. Further, in addition to the massive shortfall in resources to address the physical needs of wounded service people, the psychological requirements of returning vets have been ignored almost completely. It is a grim reality that incidents of apathy towards homicidal tendencies in soldiers and an unprecedented suicide rate among reservists serving in Iraq are only harbingers of deeper trouble to come. Things will only get worse as more troops leave active service - and as the war drags on - and it will affect not just these men and women and their families as individuals, but the very ability of the United States to defend itself.

Faced with more dead, more wounded, a poorly defined mission and an administration that prefers to focus on preserving presidential power over creating an exit strategy, the Army and Marines failed to meet their recruiting goals in 2005. From this nadir, recruiting rebounded in 2006 and appears to be on track for 2007, but unfortunately, this apparent rejuvenation in enlistment comes burdened with hidden costs, and is not the success it might initially appear. Today, even former Bush Secretary of State Colin Powell believes the Army may well and truly be "broken."

The Army in particular has resorted to filling its ranks through extraordinary means, and it has doubled the percentage of enlistees accepted from the lowest-scoring tier (Category IV) of recruits. The maximum age for enlistment has been raised - twice - since 2005; first, from 35 to 39 in January 2006, and again in June of that year to 42. Active-duty service terms for some recruits have also been reduced to 15 months from four years, resulting in diminished training for green troops, while still leaving them subject to stop loss.

Perhaps more telling however, is the number of waivers being granted to potential recruits who would not normally be accepted for service, as detailed in a recent New York Times article:
The number of waivers granted to Army recruits with criminal backgrounds has grown about 65 percent in the last three years, increasing to 8,129 in 2006 from 4,918 in 2003, Department of Defense records show.

During that time, the Army has employed a variety of tactics to expand its diminishing pool of recruits. It has offered larger enlistment cash bonuses, allowed more high school dropouts and applicants with low scores on its aptitude test to join, and loosened weight and age restrictions.

It has also increased the number of so-called “moral waivers” to recruits with criminal pasts, even as the total number of recruits dropped slightly. The sharpest increase was in waivers for serious misdemeanors, which make up the bulk of all the Army’s moral waivers. These include aggravated assault, burglary, robbery and vehicular homicide.

The number of waivers for felony convictions also increased, to 11 percent of the 8,129 moral waivers granted in 2006, from 8 percent.

Waivers for less serious crimes like traffic offenses and drug use have dropped or remained stable.

Supporters of this policy have touted it as "giving young people who have made mistakes a second chance," but this is clearly not about enlisting new soldiers who shoplifted as teenagers, or who spray painted graffiti on their high school; these are people with histories of substantial criminal behavior. Perhaps even more deeply marking the desperation of recruiters, the Boston Globe reported late last year that the Army, on top of recruiting criminals, is considering accepting foreigners seeking citizenship into its ranks. The work of the past three decades, which saw the Army and Marines move from a conscription to an all-volunteer model while becoming the best-equipped, best-trained soldiers on the planet, is being undone before our eyes.

As if all of these factors weren't bad enough, there is now increasing evidence that, not only are injured soldiers being pressed back into battle at the front lines, but that soldiers who have come home and been declared medically unfit for combat are being returned to Iraq. While they will ostensibly serve in "safe jobs," it is hard to credit that that will be the case given the obvious lowering of standards that has occurred in order to bring in new combat personnel. As reported [readers will need to subscribe or watch a short advertisement to access the full text of the article]:
And while Grigsby, the brigade commander, says he is under no pressure to find troops, it is hard to imagine there is not some desperation behind the decision to deploy some of the sick soldiers. Master Sgt. Jenkins, 42, has a degenerative spine problem and a long scar down the back of his neck where three of his vertebrae were fused during surgery. He takes a cornucopia of potent pain pills. His medical records say he is "at significantly increased risk of re-injury during deployment where he will be wearing Kevlar, body armor and traveling through rough terrain." Late last year, those medical records show, a doctor recommended that Jenkins be referred to an Army board that handles retirements when injuries are permanent and severe.

A copy of Jenkins' profile written after that February 15 meeting and signed by Capt. Starbuck, the brigade surgeon, shows a healthier soldier than the profile of Jenkins written by another doctor just late last year, though Jenkins says his condition is unchanged. Other soldiers' documents show the same pattern.

One female soldier with psychiatric issues and a spine problem has been in the Army for nearly 20 years. "My [health] is deteriorating," she said over dinner at a restaurant near Fort Benning. "My spine is separating. I can't carry gear." Her medical records include the note "unable to deploy overseas." Her status was also reviewed on February 15. And she has been ordered to Iraq this week.

It is hard to come to any conclusion but that our soldiers are being serially abused. Consider for a moment the (by no means exhaustive) list of factors that are presently assaulting the structural integrity of - and the individuals in - our armed forces:
  • Stop loss
  • Insufficient equipment
  • An undefined long term mission
  • Cuts in benefits
  • Inadequate veterans facilities
  • Inadequate outpatient services
  • Inadequate psychological services
  • An unprecedented suicide rate
  • Diminished standards for enlistment
  • Deployment of medically unfit personnel

It's a credit to the men and women who continue to serve that there hasn't been a complete collapse already, which makes today's news that General David Petraeus has asked for an additional 3,000 troops for deployment in Iraq all the more disturbing. The so-called surge policy, which was advertised to include "just" 21,500 men and women, already encompasses an additional 4,600 support troops that weren't counted when it was first publicized. If the new request for another brigade is honored, it will bring the total to 29,100 "surge soldiers" deployed to Iraq - fully 35% more than was originally claimed - and those personnel will have to be drawn from somewhere. Despite claims to the contrary, it is difficult not to believe that there is some link between the endless demand for troops and the troubling reports of injured and medically unfit soldiers being pressed into battle.

Ted Rall points out in his most recent column the disturbing and shameful truth that the abandonment of military veterans is a long and sad tradition in the United States. Even with that sorry badge of dishonor however, it is crucial to recognize that we have entered new and unfamiliar territory, and that the armed forces of the United States are facing pressures unprecedented in number and in magnitude.

Now, not only is the United States stretched too thin to address another significant crisis, current policies are ensuring that, even when our troops are finally brought home from Iraq, the military will be exhausted, substandard and suffering from poor morale. The White House's desire to fight the Iraq War on the cheap and with as little political cost as possible is coming home to roost. Like nearly everything else the Bush Administration has touched, the military will bear the scars of ignorant, ideological, and short-sighted policies for years to come.

March 11, 2007

His Own Personal Reality

Vice President Dick Cheney has justifiably earned a reputation for viewing the world from an... "unconventional" perspective. Most recently, within a short period of time, he had this to say about Democratic moves to bring about a scheduled withdrawal of American troops from Iraq:
I think if we were to do what Speaker Pelosi and Congressman Murtha are suggesting, all we'll do is validate the al-Qaeda strategy.
Less than 24 hours later however, he made it clear that he thinks the British decision to begin pulling their own forces out of Iraq is a positive turn of events:
Well, I look at it and see it is actually an affirmation that there are parts of Iraq where things are going pretty well.
Um... OK.

The great Berkeley Breathed has his own take on Cheney's world view in last week's Opus.

Click on the cartoon to go to the original image, and click here to visit the Opus archive.]

March 6, 2007

Any One of Us

Last week, Jose Padilla was declared competent to stand trial in April, opening the door for whatever remains of due process for this man to finally begin slouching forward. For those unfamiliar with him, Padilla is an American citizen who was imprisoned as an "enemy combatant" in 2002, denied access to counsel or any sort of hearing for three and half years, and who is almost certainly the victim of physically and psychologically abusive treatment at the hands of the federal government. A troubled man with a checkered past, his fate is nonetheless one to which anyone reading this - U.S. citizen or foreign national - can be subject at the whim of the President.

While it appears that the Bush Administration's grasp on totalitarian powers of incarceration are slowly weakening in the face of public scutiny, foot dragging and obstruction remain the hallmark of its representatives in the Padilla case. To whit, in conjunction with the ruling on Padilla's competence came news that the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) is "no longer able to locate" the DVD transfer of a video taped recording of Padilla's interrogation in 2004, his last while in military custody at a Navy brig in Charleston, SC.

As an enemy combatant, Padilla was subject to "aggressive interrogation techniques" that had been approved by then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and in 2004, the government’s refusal to allow Padilla access to an attorney helped spark a debate over civil liberties that ended up before the Supreme Court. The missing DVD is important because in the spring of 2004 - just after the March 2nd interrogation and not long before oral arguments were made before the Supreme Court - Padilla’s lawyers were notified they would finally be permitted to consult with him. In other words, the March 2nd interrogation is the last session during which Padilla's captors would have felt unconstrained by any rules other than those outlined by Mr. Rumsfeld.

Absent the DVD, the government has produced a summary document "based on" Padilla's interrogations which claims that he confessed to undergoing weapons training at an al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan, meeting with Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and Abu Zubaydah, and discussing the detonation of a "dirty bomb" in the United States. Given the significance attached to Jose Padilla by the White House, the explosiveness of his purported confessions, and the ease with which video evidence could dismiss - or bolster - his claims of torture, it is staggeringly difficult to believe that the DIA has somehow misplaced what might be the single most important piece of evidence in their case. As John Sifton, a lawyer with Human Rights Watch put it:

This is the kind of thing you hear when you’re litigating cases in Egypt or Morocco or Karachi. It is simply not credible that they would have lost this tape. The administration has shown repeatedly they are more interested in covering up abuses than getting to the bottom of whether people were abused.

No single case better illustrates how far the system of American justice has fallen under the regime of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Alberto Gonzales than Padilla's. It encompasses denial of habeas corpus, secret imprisonment, incarceration at the president's discretion, torture, tainted evidence, secret evidence and denial of the right to counsel; but what's truly abhorrent is that that litany of transgressions against the Constitution isn't even exhaustive.

By coincidence however, the New York Times published an editorial last Sunday which does an excellent job of laying out the most crucial civil liberties issues facing Congress, and it serves also as a valuable primer for the civil liberties and rights that have been curtailed or eliminated since George W. Bush claimed the Oval Office. Take a moment to read the article - it's short - and glance through the list below (culled from the Times piece) to get a sense of what we've allowed ignorance stoked by power-mad fear mongering to make "acceptable."

And remember, this to-do list represents necessary changes to the current policy of the government of the United States of America. Not the former Sovet Union; not China; not a banana republic headed by a tin pot dictator; not Afghanistan under the Taliban. The United States of America:
  • Restore Habeas Corpus
  • Stop Illegal Spying
  • Ban Torture for Real
  • Close Secret Prisons
  • Account for ‘Ghost Prisoners
  • Ban Extraordinary Rendition
  • Tighten the Definition of Combatant
  • Screen Prisoners Fairly and Effectively
  • Ban Tainted Evidence
  • Ban Secret Evidence
  • Better Define ‘Classified’ Evidence
  • Respect the Right to Counsel
  • George W. Bush and his supporters have turned the United States into a cheap shadow of its former self; a blustering, hypocritical bully that fails to even approach the ideals it espouses. Jose Padilla now personifies the consequences of permitting too much power to concentrate in the hands of the few, and the ease with which a republic most people believe immutable and unshakeable, can begin sliding into authoritarianism. He is any one of us, and whether or not he is ever convicted of a crime, the injustices done to him can never be taken back, nor their stain removed from our national identity.