March 29, 2008

Update: Karl Rove's Political Prisoner Freed, For Now

Late last month I wrote about former Alabama governor Don Siegelman in a post entitled Karl Rove's Political Prisoner, which detailed the shaky case against Mr. Siegelman, as well as what strongly appears to be his prosecution for political reasons and the alleged involvement of former Deputy White House Chief of Staff Karl Rove. On Friday, the governor got some good news from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals: his motion for release pending appeal was granted, and he was on his way home after enduring nine months in federal prison. The judges found that:
The district court found - and the government does not contest - that Siegelman has presented sufficient evidence to establish "that be is not likely to flee or pose a danger to the safety of others" and that the appeal is not for purpose of delay... After thorough review of this complex and protracted record, we conclude that Siegelman has satisfied the criteria set out in the statute, and has specifically met his burden of showing that his appeal raises substantial questions of law or fact, as required... We therefore grant the renewed motion to release Siegelman on bond pending disposition of his appeal. Siegelman shall be released on the same terms and conditions as those governing his release pending sentencing.
Governor Siegelman, in his first interview since being freed, made no bones about whom he thinks is behind his imprisonment:
Speaking by telephone in his first post-prison interview, shortly after he had left the federal penitentiary at Oakdale, LA, Mr. Siegelman said there had been “abuse of power” in his case, and repeatedly cited Karl Rove, the former White House political director.

“His fingerprints are smeared all over the case,” Mr. Siegelman said, a day after a federal appeals court ordered him released on bond and said there were legitimate questions about his case. He was sentenced to serve seven years last June after a guilty verdict on bribery and corruption charges a year earlier.

In measured tones after spending nine months at the prison, the former governor, a Democrat, said he would press to have Mr. Rove answer questions to Congress about his possible involvement in the case.

“When Attorney General Gonzales and Karl Rove left office in a blur, they left the truth buried in their documents,” Mr. Siegelman said, referring to Alberto R. Gonzales. “It’s going to be my quest to encourage Congress to ensure that Karl Rove either testifies, or takes the Fifth.”
Congress is likely to oblige the governor with testimony on Capitol Hill, in conjunction with investigations into the U.S. Attorneys scandal and politicization of the Justice Department. Karl Rove's lawyer stated that there is "no truth to any of the allegations," but of course, Mr. Rove also gave assurances that he had nothing to do with outing former C.I.A. operative Valerie Plame in a political vendetta against her husband, and we all know how that turned out.

Dan Abrams of MSNBC's The Verdict has been following this case, and has more in the clip below.

March 26, 2008

The Alleged Crediblity of John McCain

Last week, John McCain claimed - repeatedly and despite corrections from others - that al-Qaeda operatives were traveling to Iran for training and then returning to wreak havoc in U.S.-occupied Iraq. This assertion is laughable, given that al-Qaeda is a decidedly militant Sunni Muslim organization, and that Iran is a Shi'ite nation of only slightly less bellicose character. Simply put, it was like claiming that the Catholic Irish Republican Army (I.R.A.) was being drilled by Protestants in Ireland so they could attack troops in British-controlled Northern Ireland. Iran is nearly as much an enemy of al-Qaeda as the United States, and what Senator McCain described is very definitely not happening.

But perhaps most interesting about what can only be considered either a monumental failure to understand the basic issues surrounding the Iraq War or an effort to propagandize against Iran, was the press's near-complete non-reaction to it. As Steve Benen notes in a required-reading post:

It’s not only maddening, it’s the kind of negligent journalism that can dictate the outcome of a presidential election. McCain has made a series of bizarre and demonstrably false claims about foreign policy, military affairs, and national security. Some have registered in the media, some haven’t. Either way, reporters have already made up their minds — McCain knows his stuff, even when he doesn’t, and all reporting on the senator’s campaign will be refracted through that agreed upon prism.

Meanwhile, in another must-read article, Kevin Drum at Washington Monthly takes the next logical step, and examines Senator McCain's alleged credibility across issues of fiscal responsibility, special interests, human rights and campaign finance reform, as well as his reputation for "straight talk," principle and integrity. Depending on one's political persuasion, the fact that he clearly demonstrates that Arizona's senior senator comes up short on all counts will either be surprising or not. In either case, however, it's information every informed voter should have.

March 23, 2008

Fighting the President's Embrace of Torture

Just prior to President Bush's veto of a bill that would have made waterboarding - a known torture technique - illegal for use by the Central Intelligence Agency (C.I.A.), Washington Monthly published a series of articles that the editors introduced as follows:
In most issues of the Washington Monthly, we favor articles that we hope will launch a debate. In this issue we seek to end one. The unifying message of the articles that follow is, simply, Stop. In the wake of September 11, the United States became a nation that practiced torture. Astonishingly - despite the repudiation of torture by experts and the revelations of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib - we remain one. As we go to press, President George W. Bush stands poised to veto a measure that would end all use of torture by the United States. His move, we suspect, will provoke only limited outcry. What once was shocking is now ordinary.
The articles accompanying this introduction are from contributing writers inhabiting the full political spectrum, from left to right, Democrat and Republican, from Bob Barr to Jimmy Carter. In light of Mr. Bush's veto, the words these authors have written might seem futile, or feeble, or even dated.

They are not.

Rather, they still call us to remember that America doesn't start wars, it ends them; that we don't turn away from the world, we lead it. And that we don't commit torture - we condemn it. While George W. Bush might be content to solidify his personal legacy as the man who embraced torture as U.S. policy, that doesn't mean we have to accept his path as our own. We cannot give up, and we must continue to press our elected representatives to reiterate explicitly that torture is both illegal and intolerable until they do. Failure on this count is simply not an option.

No more torture. No exceptions.

March 19, 2008

Finally, Politics for Grown-Ups

The furor over remarks by Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama's former pastor has been silly from the beginning. Not only has it epitomized a double standard for reportage - no mention has been made of hate-filled comments from clergy whom G.O.P. candidate John McCain has actively sought out for support; men like John Hagee, Rod Parsley or the late Jerry Falwell - it has been a distraction from the real issues of our time: Iraq, the economy and massive corruption, incompetence and lawlessness in the White House. After all, following the idea that Mr. Obama is a closet black radical to its logical end - that in winning the presidency he would somehow implement (or even be able to move forward) some sort of anti-white pogrom - quickly illustrates the ridiculousness of the whole situation.

All that said, Barack Obama's decision to confront this political crisis head on and do so in a thoughtful, mature manner completely free of the pandering and lowest common denominator cliches we have come to expect after seven years of "they hate our freedoms" (and other, like-minded pabulum) was courageous, powerful, effective, and perhaps most importantly, demonstrative of his capabilities as a leader. He seized the high ground and spoke like an adult with the ability to reason, demonstrating that he actually perceives nuance and sees the world as it is rather than as he believes it to be. What an amazing and thoroughly revitalizing change from George W. Bush, who, as Stephen Colbert pointed out so eloquently, believes the same thing on Wednesday that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened Tuesday.

Glenn Greenwald has an insightful examination of Mr. Obama's speech yesterday and what he terms the candidate's "faith in the reasoning abilities of the American public" which I won't waste time duplicating. I will however, close with this: As the eager heir-apparent to George W. Bush's legacy, John McCain eliminated himself from my considertion set of viable presidential candidates a long time ago. (Well, for that and other reasons.) The choice to me has been Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama for several months, and my opinion has been that Mrs. Clinton can probably be depended upon to govern well. Mr. Obama, on the other hand, looks like he can lead, and his speech on race (see video below or here for a transcript) has done nothing but reinforce that appraisal. I will unquestionably vote for either Democrat over the Republican nominee in the general election, but I cast my ballot for Barack in the Missouri primary, and I remain very happy with that decision.

March 17, 2008

The False Dichotomy of Warrantless Surveillance

Last Friday, in an all-too-rare effort to fulfill its Constitutional function, the House of Representatives passed legislation that would re-authorize government anti-terrorist surveillance programs, but in a manner that was anything but the now-customary complete capitulation to the White House. The Restore Act, as the amended House bill is known, withholds immunity from lawsuits for telecom providers that have illegally assisted the government in spying on Americans, and requires prior court approval for the surveillance of U.S. residents talking to suspects overseas.

President Bush has repeatedly called on Congress to provide both future and retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies participating in a National Security Agency (N.S.A.) program that conducted surveillance without warrants, claiming that failing to do so is unfair and endangers American lives. As AT&T, Verizon and other providers face several lawsuits for their collaboration with the N.S.A., Mr. Bush has stated that he'll veto any bill which doesn't include immunity. Meanwhile, Republicans on Capitol Hill have pooh-poohed the idea that powers to spy without judicial oversight on U.S. citizens would ever be abused, with Senator Orrin Hatch claiming that only those with an "irrational fear of government" believe that "our country’s intelligence analysts are more concerned with random innocent Americans than foreign terrorists overseas..."

Senator Hatch's statement might be true if it were merely that intelligence agencies faced a choice between monitoring communication about a terrorist threat and listening in on conversations about someone's latest romantic mishap, plans for the weekend or the most recent news from relatives. The fact of the matter is, however, that this framing is woefully incomplete, and omits the very real danger of political spying, of which American presidents - from all ideological backgrounds and both political parties - have taken full advantage whenever they have had the opportunity.

Libertarian writer Julian Sanchez reminds us of this in an excellent article in last Sunday's Los Angeles Times entitled "Wiretapping's True Danger." As he notes, there is a rich and dark history of abusing electronic surveillance for political purposes going all the way back to the 1920s and the Teapot Dome scandal. Presidents from Truman to Nixon were guilty to one degree or another of either directly using the surveillance of American citizens for political gain, or benefiting from its existence. From the article:
The original FISA law was passed in 1978 after a thorough congressional investigation headed by Senator Frank Church (D-Idaho) revealed that for decades, intelligence analysts - and the presidents they served - had spied on the letters and phone conversations of union chiefs, civil rights leaders, journalists, antiwar activists, lobbyists, members of Congress, Supreme Court justices - even Eleanor Roosevelt and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. The Church Committee reports painstakingly documented how the information obtained was often "collected and disseminated in order to serve the purely political interests of an intelligence agency or the administration, and to influence social policy and political action."
It's probably true that ordinary citizens uninvolved in political activism have little reason to fear being spied on, just as most Americans seldom need to invoke their 1st Amendment right to freedom of speech. But we understand that the 1st Amendment serves a dual role: It protects the private right to speak your mind, but it serves an even more important structural function, ensuring open debate about matters of public importance. You might not care about that first function if you don't plan to say anything controversial. But anyone who lives in a democracy, who is subject to its laws and affected by its policies, ought to care about the second.

Harvard University legal scholar William Stuntz has argued that the framers of the Constitution viewed the 4th Amendment as a mechanism for protecting political dissent. In England, agents of the crown had ransacked the homes of pamphleteers critical of the king - something the founders resolved that the American system would not countenance.

In that light, the security-versus-privacy framing of the contemporary FISA debate seems oddly incomplete. Your personal phone calls and e-mails may be of limited interest to the spymasters of Langley and Fort Meade. But if you think an executive branch unchecked by courts won't turn its "national security" surveillance powers to political ends - well, it would be a first.
With George W. Bush's N.S.A. vacuuming up huge swaths of domestic data - disobeying the spirit if not the letter of the law - it is difficult to regard Senator Hatch's false dichotomy as anything other than hopelessly naive or willfully stupid.

March 12, 2008

Remembering Tucker

On Monday, The Huffington Post reported that conservative television personality and former bow tie fetishist Tucker Carlson's pithiliy named show Tucker is being cancelled, and that it will be replaced by a new show hosted by reporter David Gregory. While Gregory's record of dilligent journalism is uneven - he has doggedly pursued White House press secretaries on occasion, but has also hobnobbed with Karl Rove - there is little question that this move represents an improvement over the theater of political hackery that is the mainstay of Mr. Carlson's shtick.

While Tucker Carlson will continue at MSNBC as both a correspondent and a panelist, his career has been in steady, if gradual (but deserved), decline since The Daily Show's Jon Stewart took him down very publicly on the late, unlamented partisan bloviationfest, Crossfire. Below is the video; if you haven't seen it, you're in for a treat; if you have, sit back, and enjoy a classic moment in modern television, one more time:

March 8, 2008

Universal Rot

In my last post, I noted that - at least politically - the current crisis in the American health care system represents a societal failure of the free market; individual companies make money, but in the truest tradition of the tragedy of the commons, the public good is an under-served afterthought. If one were to go further however, and imagine what the level of public failure might be without the oversight that exists for the health care and health insurance industries, the result would almost certainly look like the track record of private companies operating under the aegis of the United States government in Iraq.

One of the pillars of convention conservative wisdom is that, as a rule, the private sector will outperform public bureaucracy. To that end, outsourcing and the privatization of functions once performed by the government have increasingly become the norm during the presidency of George W. Bush. The most notable example of this trend has been the war in Iraq, which has seen an army of contractors paid handsomely to support the invasion and occupation of that country. The results of this grand experiment in privatization, however, have been nothing short of total fiasco, with superior performance being demonstrated not in efficiency or effectiveness, but in venality, theft, fraud, and racketeering on a scale that has been absolutely jaw-dropping to behold.*

While Congressman Henry Waxman has managed to call attention to some of the worst abuses in legislative hearings, not much in the way of redress has actually occurred, and the proceedings have done little - if anything - to diminish the sheer arrogance and cold greed at play. On Thursday, The Boston Globe reported that Kellogg Brown & Root (K.B.R.), the largest private contractor working in Iraq with a total of $16 billion in no-bid contracts from the U.S. government, has been discovered to be systematically evading its social security and unemployment tax obligations on a truly massive scale:
Kellogg Brown & Root, the nation's top Iraq war contractor and until last year a subsidiary of Halliburton Corp., has avoided paying hundreds of millions of dollars in federal Medicare and Social Security taxes by hiring workers through shell companies based in [the Cayman Islands].

More than 21,000 people working for KB.R. in Iraq - including about 10,500 Americans - are listed as employees of two companies that exist in a computer file on the fourth floor of a building on a palm-studded boulevard here in the Caribbean. Neither company has an office or phone number in the Cayman Islands.

The Defense Department has known since at least 2004 that K.B.R. was avoiding taxes by declaring its American workers as employees of Cayman Islands shell companies, and officials said the move allowed K.B.R. to perform the work more cheaply, saving Defense dollars.

But the use of the loophole results in a significantly greater loss of revenue to the government as a whole, particularly to the Social Security and Medicare trust funds. And the creation of shell companies in places such as the Cayman Islands to avoid taxes has long been attacked by members of Congress.
You read that right: the Department of Defense has been aware of the deceit for four years, and K.B.R.'s explanation is that by violating the law and dodging their tax obligation - on income earned from tax dollars, no less - it is working to save the government money. Just roll that around in your mouth for a little bit like a fine wine; the full body of the soulless corruption is complemented by the overtones of sleaze and criminality, crescendoing into a finish that can only be described as sociopathically shameless.

With the sheer scale of the dishonesty being exhibited in Iraq, it is perhaps unsurprising that individuals are dipping their own hands into the till, too - after all, if it goes unpunished at the corporate level, who should care about the $150,000 David Ricardo Ramirez, an employee of another contracting firm, is alleged to have stolen from cash reserves imported into the country and then shipped home in a cardboard box?

And if skimming a little of the $12 billion in cash that L. Paul Bremer had airlifted into Baghdad on shrink-wrapped pallets - of which only $3.2 billion can be accounted for, by the way - who is to say that other things aren't alright, too, like gang rape, kidnapping and intimidation? K.B.R. and former parent company Halliburton are still claiming that Jamie Leigh Jones - who has testified that she was sexually assaulted by several co-workers in Iraq and then imprisoned in a shipping container, refused medical treatment and threatened - cannot sue them because the contract she signed includes a provision stating that all disputes will be settled by a company-appointed arbitrator, and not in the courts. House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers is currently pushing the Justice Department for results of their investigation into the matter, but the air of invincibility that would permit a company to lump rape in with things like stealing office supplies and wage disagreements is so far beyond the pale that it would be laughable if it weren't so inhuman.

Remember when Bill Clinton's extra-marital sex life was - in the opinion of countless Republicans clutching their pearls while barely warding off the vapors - tainting the very character of the nation? Me neither; I recall some sordid, but largely personal, matters that, by themselves, in no way affected affairs of state, the foundational principles of the country, or created a culture in which individuals operating in good faith are made victims of rampant abuse. Today, by contrast, the leadership of the Bush White House and the cabal that has supported it has corrupted almost everything it has touched with a nearly universal moral rot. If they're honest - and I'm not sure we can expect them to be - those who believe that private enterprise and the market are the solution to all our ills should be every bit as disgusted. While Mr. Bush has done his level best to destroy the credibility of the presidency and the executive branch, he has also helped private contractors brand themselves as venal cutthroats who would rather make a buck than serve their nation honestly.

* For background, see the post Utter Scum. It details the blatant contempt for the American taxpayer that has been the hallmark of Bush Administration Iraq reconstruction policy, as well as the complete disregard for human life and duty to country that has been so emblematic of American private contractors working in that troubled nation.

March 4, 2008

UPDATED: The Need for a Bigger Boat

AUTHOR'S NOTE: In comments, reader forhealth points out that the health care and insurance industries are heavily regulated, and contends that therefore, current conditions do not represent a free market exercise. While I have some sympathy for this view from an academic perspective, the reality is that regulation applies to all participants equally and does not prevent competition, making the role of government essentially a market condition. In the strictest terms, there are, in fact, no free markets in the United States in any sector of the economy, since government plays a role in all of them. My usage of the terms "free market" and "market" in this post are intended to convey the common - and more importantly, the political - usage of those terms.

It is a measure of the drag that health care and concerns about insurance coverage put on both individuals and the economy as a whole that - despite the best efforts of the insurance industry and long-running, consistent fear-mongering from its mainly Republican allies - universal health care is now a serious topic of discussion in the 2008 presidential campaign. (At least on the Democratic side.) Since current conditions in many ways represent a failure of the free market - or at least the public perception of failure - it is also an issue that holds the potential to seriously restructure the general debate over the role and effectiveness of government in the United States. Viewed from that perspective, it is no wonder that those who believe that the New Deal is the worst thing to ever happen to this country are so opposed to moving away from the private model.

The free market has had unquestioned success as the engine of our economy, the most powerful the world has ever seen. Given enough time - not to mention callousness toward the human condition - market forces can also dependably arrive at an optimum balance (at least in economic terms) in most every realm in which they're allowed to run their course, including that of social issues. When the toll on human lives is considered however, the time line for the market resolution of complex problems - and health care is today's prime example - is often untenable, as thousands, if not millions, of citizens are adversely affected by suboptimal conditions while the market tries to straighten itself out.

Just how untenable, then, is the current situation? Consider:
  • Nearly 47 million Americans (16% of the population) were without health insurance in 2005, the latest year for which such government data is available.
  • The number of uninsured increased by 2.2 million from 2005 to 2006, and has risen by nearly 9 million people since 2000.
  • Nearly 90 million people - about a third of the population below the age of 65 - spent a portion of either 2006 or 2007 without health coverage.
  • More than 8 in 10 uninsured people come from working families, and the vast majority of them - 80 percent - are native or naturalized citizens.
  • In 2006, only 59% of workers with dependents had employer-provided health insurance, down from 70% percent in 1987, and the lowest level of such coverage in over a decade.
  • There were 8.7 million uninsured children in 2006 - almost 12% of all children in the United States.
  • Nearly 40% of the uninsured live in households earning $50,000 or more, and a growing number of families can't afford health insurance premiums even when coverage is offered by their employers.
Despite the shocking and shameful nature of such statistics for the wealthiest nation on the planet, there remains a good deal of resistance to any form of universal coverage. To be completely honest, anyone who believes that conversion to single-payer and/or government-sponsored universal coverage will be easy, cheap or without pitfalls, is deluding themselves, but it is important to realize that many of the more popular arguments against "socialized medicine" are little more than scare tactics. Jonathan Cohn had an excellent article on this topic in a November issue of The New Republic, and he summarizes the pluses and minuses well:
None of which is to say a universal coverage system couldn't have a chilling effect on innovation while severely pinching access to medical care that is expensive but, arguably, worth it. All it would take was a system that had both a rigid budget and very low funding. The British have such a system, or something approximating it. Even after some recent spending increases, they still devote just 9 percent of the gross domestic product to health care, less than many European nations and a little more than half of what the United States spends. And that shows up in the availability of cutting-edge care. Relative to other highly developed countries, Britain is one of the last to get the latest cancer drugs to its patients. And that probably helps explain why British cancer survival rates generally lag, too.

But few of the plans under discussion in this country would create such a strict budget. And nobody in this country seriously proposes reducing U.S. spending to British levels. Rather, the goal is to reduce our spending moderately and carefully; the savings, most likely, would materialize over time. In the end, we would probably still spend more than what even the higher-spending countries in Europe pay. And that should be enough, given that the citizens of those countries are not exactly missing out on cutting-edge medical treatments. France and Switzerland - traditionally the two highest spenders - get the newest cancer drugs to their patients with virtually the same speed as the United States does. And, when it comes to cancer radiation equipment, France actually has more per person than we do.
Like many policy alternatives, the method of implementation will be key to success or failure, and it remains to be seen how diluted any of the current proposals will be after filtering through the seine of special interests and lobbying that is the United States Congress. Indeed, there is nothing inherently faulty about the current, employer-supplied model, but it is impossible to argue that the present system has not had more than its fair share of chances for reform and failed them all miserably. At this point, a clean break from the past is needed, if for no other reason than to sweep out the entrenched power brokers, byzantine bureaucracy and demonstrated inability to serve both the profit motive and the public good.

If none of these arguments sway you, however, consider a news report from Oregon today: the state is holding a lottery, the prize for which is health insurance coverage. When the basic health of our citizenry has become an exercise in lifeboat ethics and is left to the vagaries of chance, is there any better sign that it's time for a change? To paraphrase the immortal words of Roy Scheider's Chief Brody in Jaws, we need a bigger boat.

For more facts on the state of health care in the U.S. today, be sure to visit the non-partisan National Coalition for Health Care.