January 31, 2008

No Such Animal

Solely because of Senator Chris Dodd's leadership, efforts by President Bush and the Senate to grant immunity to telecommunications companies that have illegally spied on Americans at the behest of the White House have been temporarily stymied. Likewise, a push to make warrantless surveillance without oversight the law of the land has also been blocked, but the fight is far from over.

Against this backdrop it is startling to realize that it is only a small minority in the Senate who are working to form surveillance laws within the framework of the Constitution. The majority, meanwhile, are single-mindedly working to violate their oaths of office, apparently more than willing to simply ignore constitutional guarantees against unreasonable search and seizure. If that seems an overstatement, consider that the Fourth Amendment reads:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
And that the Senate Oath of Office is as follows:
I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God.
Now try and reconcile those two things with the current Senate push to legalize spying on American citizens, legalize the search of communications without a warrant or probable cause, and eliminate judicial oversight. If you can manage it without your head exploding, either your comprehension of the English language is substandard, you're already working for the Bush Administration, or both.

While attempts to expand government power and intrusion have been couched in language contending that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and its institutions are insufficient to "protect America," the reality is far different. Under FISA provisions, the government has barely-fettered ability to establish and maintain surveillance over just about anyone - and has the power to obtain a warrant up to 72 hours after covert operations have begun - with only the secret FISA Court exercising any sort of oversight on the process. But while the current FISA system means that the citizenry must rely on the hidden judgments of a court that is practically invisible, if President Bush, the G.O.P. and a significant number of Senate Democrats have their way, even those scant protections will be eliminated.

The result would be, as Senator Russ Feingold explains in the video below, the most un-American of methodologies: "Trust me goverment" that places the lives and livelihoods of the citizenry completely in the hands of an elected despot against whom our only defense is a deep hope that he is benevolent. And make no mistake: a ruler unencumbered by checks and balances - whether one agrees with his policies or not - is a dictator.

Notably, recently-released research by the Mellman Group indicates that there is strong, widespread opposition spanning the political spectrum to warrantless wiretaps, blanket warrants, and immunity for telecommunications companies. According to the report:
Sixty-three percent (63%) of voters favor requiring the government to obtain a warrant from a court before wiretapping the conversations U.S. citizens have with people in other countries — a figure quite consistent with the 61% opposition we found in October. An outright majority of voters (55%) “strongly” supports requiring warrants. Only one-third (33%) support warrantless wiretaps of Americans’ international conversations, with fewer than 1-in-4 (24%) strongly supporting warrantless wiretaps.
On the question of telecom immunity, fully 57% oppose it, and even a recent guerilla poll of an audience hand-picked by AT&T for a show broadcast on its own online Tech Channel bears this out. The video that follows shows what happened when, on the heels of the company's declaration that it is studying the viability of filtering all content that crosses its network, Joel Johnson asked whether people were comfortable with their eMails, instant messages and other online communication being opened and "analyzed" without their consent or a warrant. Even absent apparent consideration of the fact that AT&T is being sued for illegal surveillance, the audience's reaction was swift and universally against unreasonable search and seizure. (Note that taping is halted as Johnson takes the conversation in an unapproved direction.)

With broad public opposition and a clear lack of constitutional support, it is easy to be utterly stupefied by the fact that the Senate is toying with both retroactive immunity for telecom companies and vastly expanded warrantless surveillance powers, but this turn of events should come as no surprise. Since President Bush took office, the Senate in particular has failed miserably in fulfilling its duties to oversee the actions of the Executive Branch and to curtail its excesses. Even the restoration of a Democratic majority in the 2006 elections has done little to slow the upper chamber's march to oblivion, and despite being in a position to oppose the serial criminality and overreaching of the White House, Majority Leader Harry Reid's "leadership" has instead been an execrable series of cave-ins, collapses and collaboration.

Only one thing has successfully blocked Senator Reid and his colleagues on the Republican side of the aisle from giving away America's fundamental freedoms: the people, who clearly believe that we have reached a tipping point where we can either slip further into lawlessness, corruption and a lack of accountability, or we can take a stand here and start to regain some ground. In a reaction emblematic of the frustration and anger permeating the United States today, citizens from across the nation have rained down a deluge of calls, eMails and letters on Capitol Hill opposing telecom immunity. Unquestionably, the apathy on which government so often depends to further empower itself has met a formidable obstacle in public activism.

Still, the machinations of the Administration and Senate leadership remain aimed at making it easy and convenient for the government to force itself into our lives. While there are lovers of authority who will say that this intrusiveness is necessary, it must be remembered that no one in a position of power can - or should - ever be fully trusted. Power corrupts at all levels, as this video by a Missouri motorist who was detained, harassed, and threatened reminds us (See here, here and here for the full, frightening story of what happened to 20 year-old Brett Darrow):

Mitt Romney, whose only consistent principle seems to be a devotion to pandering, claims that "Our most basic civil liberty is the right to be kept alive." The belief that "safety" trumps protection from tyranny, however, could not be more misguided. Not only does it ignore the fact that human beings in government are as subject to the failings that engender oppression as anyone else, but it ignores the sacrifices of the Founding Fathers and their own conviction that life without liberty is not worth living. It turns a blind eye to the fact that, throughout time, those who have yielded their welfare to the state - or been forced to do so - have suffered at least as much at the hands of their rulers as from external threats, and been denied any form of redress short of revolution.

Checks, balances and oversight are crucial to the continued existence and success of the American way of life. This nation was founded on the principles that the people are ultimately responsible for their own well-being and for the direction of the country, and that those whom we elect are our representatives, not our rulers. The successful implementation of these ideas is what separated the United States from every other nation that had come before it, and it is our abandonment of them in the face of fear-mongering, lies and misdirection that is transforming us into something far, far less admirable.

True freedom can be inconvenient at best and terrifying at worst, but history has shown conclusively that it trumps any alternative that demands a loss of independence. Periodically, we, as a people, will be tempted as many of us are now - sometimes strongly and sometimes less so - to take the easy road and abdicate our role in protecting and shaping our society. When that occurs, we must pause before we rashly surrender ourselves and future generations to the mercies of politicians, zealots, and the power-hungry, and simply remember one thing: there is no such animal as a "benevolent" dictator.

January 27, 2008

At Least He's Consistent

While on the campaign trail in 1999, George W. Bush did what so many candidates for president do these days: with the assistance of a ghostwriter, he penned a book intended to encapsulate his ideas and ideals while marking himself as a serious individual possessed of at least some level of scholarly gravitas. The tome in question was entitled A Charge to Keep : My Journey to the White House, taking its name from a painting by W.H.D. Koerner.

Then-Governor Bush was thoroughly captivated by the imagery in the Koerner work, and when he gained the White House, he had it hung in the Oval Office. Mr. Bush's love of the painting however, is based less on its actual provenance then on what he'd like it to depict, pesky facts be damned. From The Bush Tragedy:
In an April 1995 memo, Bush invited his staff to come to his office to look at a painting. … The picture is a Western scene of a cowboy riding up a craggy hill, with two other riders following behind him. Bush told visitors—who often noted his resemblance to the rider in front—that it was called A Charge To Keep and that it was based on his favorite Methodist hymn of that title, written in the eighteenth century by Charles Wesley. As Bush noted in the memo, which he quoted in his autobiography of the same title: "I thought I would share with you a recent bit of Texas history which epitomizes our mission. When you come into my office, please take a look at the beautiful painting of a horseman determinedly charging up what appears to be a steep and rough trail. This is us. What adds complete life to the painting for me is the message of Charles Wesley that we serve One greater than ourselves." Bush identified with the lead rider, whom he took to be a kind of Christian cowboy, an embodiment of indomitable vigor, courage, and moral clarity.
He came to believe that the picture depicted the circuit-riders who spread Methodism across the Alleghenies in the nineteenth century. In other words, the cowboy who looked like Bush was a missionary of his own denomination.

Only that is not the title, message, or meaning of the painting. The artist, W.H.D. Koerner, executed it to illustrate a Western short story entitled "The Slipper Tongue," published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1916. The story is about a smooth-talking horse thief who is caught, and then escapes a lynch mob in the Sand Hills of Nebraska. The illustration depicts the thief fleeing his captors. In the magazine, the illustration bears the caption: "Had His Start Been Fifteen Minutes Longer He Would Not Have Been Caught."
Although it was repurposed several times to serve as an illustration for various articles, the original intent of the painting - and his misinterpretation of it - is an almost poetic metaphor for the presidency of George W. Bush. While he likes to see himself as a man of vision on a quest he pursues with missionary zeal, in reality, like Koerner's rider, Mr. Bush is a demonstrated criminal. Given his track record, I suppose it is only fitting that it is the mis-reading of facts and an ignorance of history that has brought this to public attention.

(Of course all of this would be a lot funnier if George W. Bush weren't President of the United States. And if his proclivity for playing fast and loose with data that doesn't fit his personal reality hadn't lead to so much death and destruction. And economic instability. And if it wasn't embarrassingly tragic that a man so consistently, thoroughly and obviously flawed was ever given the presidency once, let alone twice.)

[Hat tip to Marshall Chapin.]

January 23, 2008

Losing Another Piece of America's Soul

Last week brought the news that Canada has added the United States - along with Israel - to its torture watch list, putting the U.S. in the dubious company of nations like Syria, China, Iran and Afghanistan. The list serves as part of a course on torture awareness given to Canadian diplomats and is designed to help them determine whether prisoners they visit abroad have been mistreated. This week brought news confirming that Canada's decision was justified and correct.

Readers of this blog know that one of the subjects on which I write most frequently is the sweeping loss of civil liberties and civil rights that has been perhaps the blackest mark in a long list of black marks left on this country by George W. Bush and the cadre of brutally corrupt neoconservatives that back him. The abuses of power by this White House are almost too numerous to list, but one in particular has stood out as a particularly tragic example of what is wrong with our government and our country today: the case of Jose Padilla. (I have posted about Mr. Padilla several times over the past year and half. Readers looking for background are directed to the following articles: The Constitution as Inconvenience, The Abyss Stares Back, The Disappeared, A Nation of Hypocrites, and Any One of Us.) As I wrote in the last of those posts:
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.
Today, as the New York Times reported, Jose Padilla received a 17-year sentence, convicted on charges of "supporting terrorism" that had absolutely zero to do with the stated justifications the White House offered when President Bush unilaterally decided he should be disappeared into a Navy brig, forbidden access to a lawyer, and tortured. From the Times story:

Prosecutors, who long ago dropped the ''dirty bomb'' claim that made Padilla infamous, had sought life sentences for Padilla and two co-defendants, but a federal judge said authorities never even proved Padilla was a terrorist.

''There is no evidence that these defendants personally maimed, kidnapped or killed anyone in the United States or elsewhere,'' U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke said. ''There was never a plot to overthrow the United States government.''
Ultimately, Cooke said at the sentencing hearing, there was not enough evidence linking Padilla and the other two men to specific acts of terrorism or victims.
Despite this admission, and despite significant testimony that Mr. Padilla was tortured by the government and now suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), he was sentenced to more than a decade and a half in prison. It is a measure of how stacked the deck was in his case that this lengthy incarceration comes as a relief to the accused's mother, Estela Lebron, who said: ''I feel good about everything. This is amazing. He's not a terrorist. ... He's just a human being.'' In short, Ms. Lebron was relieved that her son, who had apparently contemplated becoming a terrorist would no longer be tortured at the behest of President Bush, and would only lose a total of 20 years of his life for what is essentially "thoughtcrime." (Nonetheless, the Justice Department moved swiftly to justify her belief that her son has been prosecuted vindictively, declaring that it will appeal the sentence as"too lenient.")

That said, as I have written from the beginning with regard to Jose Padilla, I am not championing him as an innocent victim with an unblemished record. It has been clear going all the way back to his arrest however, that the United States government so far overstepped the bounds of anything that could be called reasonable or just behavior that it has rendered itself as criminal as the man it once dubbed "The Dirty Bomber."

Irrespective of the crimes of which he may have been charged, the Constitution effectively did not exist for Mr. Padilla - who is a U.S. citizen - and that is fundamentally un-American and unquestionably wrong. While he has obtained some minute measure of justice in the form of a prison term that will actually end some day, the fact of the matter is that the United States has acted in an utterly unforgivable manner.
George W. Bush personally ordered this man imprisoned without evidence sufficient to stand up in open court. When he got caught rigging the game, the President charged him with other crimes, forced him through the legal system using suspect evidence - all the while obstructing the defense's case that their client had been physically and psychologically abused - and has now managed to get him jailed for the length of time it takes someone to reach their senior year of high school counting forward from birth.

Is the country in any way safer because of these actions and policies? No, it is not. Rather, we have spent piles of time, money and effort to imprison and try Jose Padilla in an insubstantial act of vengeance while other, real dangers confront the nation. Worse, we have allowed Mr. Bush to act like the king he clearly believes himself to be. In so doing, we have lost another piece of America's soul and soiled what remains.

January 20, 2008

Back Soon...

I have been out of town for the past several days at a karate event. Regular posting will resume mid-week. Thanks for your patience!

January 15, 2008

Gitmo's Not Going Anywhere

Along with the prevailing myth that General David Petraeus actually calls the shots in Iraq and that all military decisions should be left to the "commanders on the ground," claims of strategic and tactical necessity have been used repeatedly to justify the twin abominations that are the Guantanamo Bay internment camp and the use of torture by American personnel. While the U.S. military has continued to pursue the ill-defined and poorly run missions in both Iraq and Afghanistan with dedication - and largely left criticism of Bush Administration "policy" for retired officers - it is telling that the positions of the armed forces with regard to torture and indefinite imprisonment are notably less doctrinaire.

As Amnesty International marked the sixth anniversary of the Guantanamo prison camp - and let's pause for a moment and reflect that the United States has been running what is essentially a gulag for SIX YEARS - with protests and their Tear It Down and Unsubscribe Me campaigns, military men have been speaking out. In December, retired Marine General Joseph P. Hoar and retired General David M. Maddox wrote an op-ed piece in Stars and Stripes calling on the presidential candidates to make respect for human rights and the Geneva Conventions a cornerstone of any new administration, and even quoted General Petraeus in doing so:

General David Petraeus, responding to a survey that revealed a troubling level of acceptance of abuse against noncombatants by U.S. soldiers in Iraq, underscored this in an open letter to the troops in May. “Our values and the laws governing warfare teach us to respect human dignity, maintain our integrity, and do what is right. Adherence to our values distinguishes us from our enemy,” Petraeus wrote. And while “some may argue that we would be more effective if we sanctioned torture or other expedient methods to obtain information from the enemy, they would be wrong.”

We agree. Whoever the next occupant of the Oval Office is, he or she will be the person to whom the men and women of our armed forces will look, not only for their orders but for the guidance and standards that inform those orders. Our troops need clear and consistent standards, and the military provides those to them. But if the commander in chief muddies that message by saying that he or she would be willing to authorize torture in exceptional circumstances, we cannot expect our troops on the battlefield, who face death every day, to eschew it.

Our country cannot hope to lead the world if it forsakes the most fundamental rules and standards it insists other countries uphold. And no candidate can effectively lead this country without a deep understanding of and respect for the values on which it was founded. We owe a duty to those serving our country in uniform to do what we can to secure that leadership.

On Friday, in what may be an effort to reduce the amount of blame shouldered by low-ranking military personnel, the Army dismissed the conviction of the only officer court-martialed in the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal, reinforcing the widely-held belief that pursuit and prosecution of top-level civilian and military leaders involved in the degradation, terrorization, torture, beating and murder of captives at the notorious Iraqi jail was wholly insufficient. But while this this might at first seem to run counter to the central thesis of the generals' letter in Stars and Stripes, the very man whose conviction was dismissed had some interesting things to say:
The revelation that the Army threw out the conviction of the only officer court-martialed in the Abu Ghraib scandal renewed outrage from human rights advocates who complained that not enough military and civilian leaders were held accountable for the abuse of Iraqi prisoners.

Those critics found an unlikely ally in the officer himself, Lieutenant Colonel Steven L. Jordan, whose conviction on a minor charge of disobeying an order was dismissed this week, leaving him with only an administrative reprimand.

Jordan told the Associated Press on Thursday he believes many officers and enlisted soldiers did not face adequate scrutiny in the investigation that led to convictions against 11 soldiers, none with a rank higher than staff sergeant.

He said the probe was "not complete" and that a link between abusive interrogations at Abu Ghraib and in military prisons at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and in Afghanistan was not adequately established.

If rough interrogation techniques were taught to the soldiers who abused prisoners at Abu Ghraib, Jordan said, "the question at that point is, who's responsible for that? Is it Donald Rumsfeld? (Lieutenant) General (Ricardo) Sanchez? ... I don't know."
Meanwhile, the Central Intelligence Agency (C.I.A.), in what was either an episode of monumental incompetence or a savvy act of damage control and an effort to avoid another scapegoating by the White House, confirmed that tapes of two interrogation sessions that included the torture of "high value" prisoners had been destroyed. The resultant publicity has yet to die down, and Congressman John Conyers today requested a special prosecutor be appointed to investigate the matter. If this is indeed a planned maneuver rather than a blunder, it would seem to indicate that the C.I.A. would like to be out from under the tenuous legal doctrines of the Bush White House.

Likewise, even at the highest levels of the U.S. military command structure, sentiment runs strongly against the camp at Guantanamo Bay, because it so clearly sets a standard that other countries will feel free to follow in mistreating their own captives, some of whom may one day be American soldiers. Monday, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen himself added his voice to those calling for the prison's closure:

I'd like to see it shut down... More than anything else it's been the image — how Gitmo has become around the world, in terms of representing the United States... I believe that from the standpoint of how it reflects on us that it's been pretty damaging.

Six years after it opened, Guantanamo Bay - the greatest stain on the national reputation of the United States for equal justice since Manzanar - appears to face a growing movement aimed at shutting it down. After all, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has said he wants to shutter the facility, echoing even President Bush's own expressed desire. It is only a matter of time.

Or not.

Because while the Guantanamo Bay prison continues to operate in the face of universal opprobrium - both genuine and merely voiced - the most important fact is that it CONTINUES TO OPERATE. The people with the power to bring to a close this shameful chapter in our country's history simply aren't doing anything about it. Instead they appear to be waiting for closure to somehow occur spontaneously, as if the soldiers charged with operating the camp will somehow, on their own, make it all go away.

Rather than taking action, claims that "complex legal issues" stand in the way are being made, and 300 men sit in prison with their only hope a sham legal system that would barely be recognized as legitimate by the Generals who run Myanmar. Unable to unscrew the royal disaster that is America's signature facility for the denial of due process and its global symbol of hyposcisy on human rights, our "leaders" instead talk about their "wish" that Guantanamo Bay disappear.

Admiral Mullen himself noted "I'm not aware that there is any immediate consideration to closing Guantanamo Bay," and you can rest assured that there aren't any. President Bush and Secretary Gates can play the wounded ingenues for all they're worth, but the fact of the matter is that the Guantanamo Bay camp continues to hold men unjustly, without even attempting to meet the burden of proof that they deserve to be imprisoned.

Whatever medieval theocrats like Mike Huckabee might say to the contrary, we do not treat these prisoners "too nice" - just ask yourself which you'd rather have: legal representation and the opportunity to win your release from captivity, or 3 squares a day - and George W. Bush shows every inclination, as with all of the other messes he has created, of leaving this steaming pile of tragedy, disgrace and degradation for the next president. That's not really a surprise anymore, but it doesn't make it any less wrong.

A slideshow of worldwide Amnesty International protests against Guantanamo Bay on January 11, 2008 can be found here.

Below is a video from Amnesty International's Unsubscribe Me campaign called "Waiting for the Guards." In it, a performance artist is placed in a stress position, one of the torture techniques used by American personnel in the "War on Terror."

January 12, 2008

January 10, 2008

The Pathetic Fourth Estate

[Click on the cartoon to see the original, full-sized image.]

Shoddy reporting and vapid punditry caught the national press corps with its pants down at the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday. Hillary Clinton, written off for dead after Barack Obama's victory in the Iowa caucuses last week, emerged at the front of the Democratic pack, despite the wishful thinking of know-nothings like Bill Kristol and the savage and obsessive slandering of the infuriating Chris Matthews.

Glenn Greenwald has been on a tear about this very topic of late, and he has several posts worth reading (here, here, and here) on the utter failure that is mainstream political reporting. Mr. Greenwald rightly points out that overheated bloviation on the "horse race" is what passes for substantive reporting, and that lost amid the press' adolescent dislike for Hillary Clinton and its futile efforts at fortune-telling, real issues and real stories remain hidden from public view.

For instance, did you know that, according to one poll, the Democratic candidate who has gained the most ground in the past several weeks is John Edwards? More than likely, you did not, as the former senator from South Carolina has steadily garnered new support while both Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton have remained essentially flat. Chances are, however, that you know either about a $400 haircut he was reported to have gotten several months ago, or that he is "angry," but not much about his positions on the issues or proposed policies.

The past several years have been eye-opening with regard to the laziness, indolence and pack mentality that is endemic to a large majority of mainstream reporting, and it is rare that a day goes by when the incompetence, crassness and venal stupidity of a big slice of our national press corps isn't on display. Keep an eye out for it if you haven't noticed it already; here are some of the signs:
  • Stories focused solely on personality traits, appearance and demeanor, with a special contempt reserved for candidates labeled "angry"
  • Articles about how the press enjoys one candidate's company or dislikes that of another
  • Predictions, predictions, predictions with short shrift given to the here and now
  • Talking about how the candidate spoke, rather than what he or she spoke about
  • A dearth of information on candidate platforms, positions, policies or past performance (See the example from Time magazine I highlighted in A Voter Guide for the Tiger Beat Crowd for a particularly egregious example.)
So with more debates and lots more primaries for both parties queued up, what can we expect? Probably a whole lot more of the same attention to the frivolous, the rabble-rousing and the inane at the expense of honest discussion of real issues. (For instance, as the video below points out, more than 2,700 questions have been asked of the presidential candidates; three of them have been about climate change.) With the attitude revealed in this exchange between Tom Brokaw and Chris Matthews on the heels of the press' crow-eating in New Hampshire, it's probably naive to expect better.

But we should demand it.

MATTHEWS: Tom, we're going to have to go back and figure out the methodology, I think, on some of these [polls].

BROKAW: You know what I think we're going to have to do?

MATTHEWS: Yes sir?

BROKAW: Wait for the voters to make their judgment.

MATTHEWS: Well what do we do then in the days before the ballot? We must stay home, I guess.

BROKAW: No, no we don't stay home. There are reasons to analyze what they're saying. We know from how the people voted today, what moved them to vote. You can take a look at that. There are a lot of issues that have not been fully explored during all this.

January 5, 2008

Lessons from Nicaragua [Updated]

AUTHOR'S NOTE: In response to a number of comments about this post made directly at this blog, as well as on sites like Digg, I am adding a disclaimer. Please read the entire post before commenting. If you come away under the impression that I am blaming President Bush for Eric Volz's problems, please read it again. I am - unconditionally - NOT blaming the president; rather I am drawing a connection between the Nicaraguan justice system and the type of judiciary that results from politicization and ignoring the rule of law.

Back in June, I wrote a post called Save Your Outrage for Those Who Need It, about Eric Volz, an American entrepreneur sentenced to 30 years in a Nicaraguan prison for the rape and murder of Doris Ivania Jimenez, a woman he had been dating. The evidence against Mr. Volz was slim. Witnesses, telephone records and instant messaging logs placed him two hours away at the time of her killing, no physical evidence tied him to the scene, and only the word of one man - who had initially been arrested in the slaying, but granted immunity in exchange for his testimony - supported the charges against him.

Eric Volz went to prison, but he maintained his innocence, and his friends and family began an arduous legal campaign to get him freed. On December 16th, he won an appeal and was ordered released from prison, but every effort was made to maintain his incarceration illegally, with the presiding judge refusing to sign release papers, and his case file mysteriously disappearing for several days. With the public in an uproar over his overturned conviction, there was a very real fear that Mr. Volz would be lynched by an angry mob or murdered in prison, and the case has brought the shortcomings of the Nicaraguan justice system into sharp relief.

Finally, five days later, Eric Volz was released and he quickly went into hiding. Although he intended to stay in Nicaragua and pursue redress against his wrongful conviction, he was ordered deported by the government. His departure has left turmoil in its wake.

In an apparent effort to discredit the ruling to free Eric Volz - and to distract the public from the facts of Doris Jimenez's unsolved murder - two Sandinista Supreme Court Justices have initiated an investigation without the approval of the President of the Supreme Court, in violation of Nicaraguan law. Sandinista officials have publicly demanded the arrest of the two Appellate Court magistrates who ruled for innocence, and seem to be supporting the investigation in an effort to gain control of the Appeals Court in Granada by prosecuting and potentially imprisoning the judges.

With a parallel investigation producing evidence that the prime suspect in the Jimenez murder is from a powerful and influential Nicaraguan family protected by top-level government officials, all the elements of first-rate summer page-turner appear to be in place. Far from being merely an exceptionally sordid episode of Third World corruption, however, the Volz case should serve as an object lesson in the perils of subverting the justice system of any country. Without the rule of law, convictions and prosecutions can be bought and sold, and naked political ambition given a veneer of legitimacy through apparent judicial approval, however flawed. But is this a lesson we should take to heart in the United States?

Without question. One need only look at the presidential pardon of Scooter Libby, the Bush Administration's politicization of the Justice Department, the non-prosecution of crimes committed by military contractors, the Guantanamo Bay prison camp, or even the failure of the legislature to pursue impeachment of President Bush and Vice President Cheney to see why.

I wrote in Laying the Foundation for a Coup D'Etat that the U.S. is a long way from a military takeover, but that the initial conditions to enable such an event now exist. We are perhaps already closer to a corrupt and undependable judicial system, but there is no doubt that we are still significantly better off than Nicaragua. Clearly however, the actions of our current president and the people who work for him (rather than serving our country) have inched us further down the path toward political lawlessness and justice for a few, rather than all. The tribulations of Eric Volz should remind us of the consequences.

January 2, 2008

Get Behind Me, 2007

While the 2006 midterm elections were a clear mandate for change, the Democratic Congress that resulted has been a model of spinelessness, ignorance and ineffectiveness, and for me, it made 2007 an extremely frustrating year. I have high hopes for 2008 - if nothing else, we'll have elected a new president - and with any luck, it will be someone who is serious about undoing the horrific damage wrought by the criminal fools in the Bush Administration. With all that in mind, here are some of what I think are the better year-in-review efforts that were published in the waning days of '07.

Over at Rolling Stone, Bill Maher leads off on the relatively lighthearted (if profane) side with his Dickheads of the Year; fourteen people who represent the Real Time host's pick for "the biggest assholes of 2007." My personal favorite:
7. The Solid Quarter

That twenty-five percent of America who would not desert George Bush if he ran over Dakota Fanning with his pickup truck on the White House lawn. Is it a coincidence that twenty-five percent is also the number of people who, in an A.P. poll of predictions for 2007, said they expect Jesus Christ to return
this year!? I don't think it is.
Next up is Slate's Dahlia Lithwick, with Legal Fictions: The Bush Administration's Dumbest Legal Arguments of the Year. Judging from the title, most people will probably expect this to be pretty dry reading, but the utterly ludicrous nature of the statements coming out of the White House over the past 12 months keeps it entertaining. (In a gallows sort of way.) My personal favorite:
5. Everyone who has ever spoken to the president about anything is barred from congressional testimony by executive privilege.

This little gem of an argument was cooked up by the White House last July when the Senate Judiciary Committee sought the testimony of former White House political director Sara Taylor, as well as that of former White House counsel Harriet Miers, in connection with the firing of nine U.S. attorneys for partisan ideological reasons. Taylor was subpoenaed in June and, according to her lawyers, she wanted to testify but was barred by White House counsel Fred Fielding's judgment that the president could compel her to assert executive privilege and forbid her testimony. As Bruce Fein argued in
Slate, that dramatic over-reading of the privilege would both preclude congressional oversight of any sort and muzzle anyone who'd ever communicated with the president, regardless of their wish to talk.
And, saving the best for last, we have The Beast's 50 Most Loathsome People in America, 2007. Absolutely no one is spared, and my favorite pick from this compilation aims at the root of much of the frustration that was so endemic last year:

9. You

Charges: You believe in freedom of speech, until someone says something that offends you. You suddenly give a damn about border integrity, because the automated voice system at your pharmacy asked you to press 9 for Spanish. You cling to every scrap of bullshit you can find to support your ludicrous belief system, and reject all empirical evidence to the contrary. You know the difference between patriotism and nationalism - it's nationalism when foreigners do it. You hate anyone who seems smarter than you. You care more about zygotes than actual people. You love to blame people for their misfortunes, even if it means screwing yourself over. You still think Republicans favor limited government. Your knowledge of politics and government are dwarfed by your concern for Britney Spears' children. You think buying Chinese goods stimulates our economy. You think you're going to get universal health care. You tolerate the phrase "enhanced interrogation techniques." You think the government is actually trying to improve education. You think watching CNN makes you smarter. You think two parties is enough. You can't spell. You think $9 trillion in debt is manageable. You believe in an afterlife for the sole reason that you don't want to die. You think lowering taxes raises revenue. You think the economy's doing well. You're an idiot.

Exhibit A: You couldn't get enough Anna Nicole Smith coverage.

Sentence: A gradual decline into abject poverty as you continue to vote against your own self-interest. Death by an easily treated disorder that your health insurance doesn't cover. You deserve it, chump.

In fairness, if current poll numbers are any indication, The Beast's #9 actually applies more to the people who shape the narrative of the mainstream press than it does to the general public. Still, there is truth to it; and ignorance and apathy remain the biggest reasons we end up saddled with complete disasters like the current president and his cronies. So maybe not entirely justified, but I (obviously) have a soft spot for witty, confrontational tough love, and as I said, 2007 was a frustrating year.

Here's to a great 2008, and some much shorter "worst of" lists 12 months from now!