July 29, 2008

The Center of the Corruption

[Click on image to go to interactive site]

Last week, Slate.com published a handy interactive guide to the tangled web of Bush Administration crimes and misdemeanors, focusing on the key players. Looking at this morass, what stands out is the conspicuous, central role of Alberto Gonzales in virtually every major scandal, from Department of Justice (DOJ) political hiring and firing, to illegal wiretapping, to the destruction of video tapes documenting the interrogation of prisoners in the "War on Terror," to America's policy of torture.

Monday brought news that a report from the Justice Department’s inspector general and its internal ethics office has concluded that key aides to Mr. Gonzales violated the law by using political criteria in the hiring and firing of DOJ civil service staff. While this is probably one of the least dramatic of the myriad betrayals of the nation under George W. Bush, it is one with some of the most highly damaging and far-reaching effects, literally giving federal law enforcement a role in the political process. Under Monica Goodling and her co-conspirators, the most important qualification for the hiring, advancement and retention of key personnel was ideology, and more experienced and well-regarded job candidates were passed over in favor of lesser individuals with the "right" political persuasion. From the report:

Battle stated that Voris told him that the candidate was head and shoulders above the other candidates who had applied for the counterterrorism detail. Battle agreed with that assessment, stating that the candidate was the best applicant for the detail. John Kelly, the EOUSA Deputy Director and Chief of Staff, stated that he and Battle wanted to hire the candidate because he was one of the leading terrorism prosecutors in the country and a very talented attorney.

The candidate’s wife was a prominent local Democrat elected official and vice-chairman of a local Democratic Party. She also ran several Democratic congressional campaigns. The candidate was at times a registered Independent and at other times a registered Democrat.

Notwithstanding the candidate’s outstanding qualifications and EOUSA senior management’s desire to hire him, Goodling refused to approve the detail.

Battle, Kelly, and EOUSA Deputy Director Nowacki all told us that Goodling refused to allow the candidate to be detailed to EOUSA solely on the basis of his wife’s political party affiliation. Battle said he was very upset that Goodling opposed the detail because of political reasons.

Nowacki told us that Goodling informed him that the candidate’s wife was a Democrat, and Nowacki believed that Goodling refused to allow the detail because of this fact. Similarly, Kelly told us that Goodling refused to allow EOUSA to hire the candidate because his wife was active in Democratic politics.
This Republican White House - whose supporters have been so convinced that the GOP will keep America "safe" from terrorism - has been more concerned with making sure that only the ideologically pure were hired than with putting qualified people in the positions where they could do the most good. As the Hurricane Katrina debacle demonstrated in the person of the incompetent Michael Brown, few things make us less safe than political cronyism. The Department of Justice is not only at the center of the Bush Administrations deepest corruption, it also most embodies it.

Sadly, Ms. Goodling was granted immunity in exchange for the testimony she gave Congress last year, and which was the motivating force behind the investigation into hiring and firing practices. Unless it can be proven that she perjured herself in that testimony, she will walk away from her crimes without so much as a slap on the wrist. Given the complete lack of accountability in Washington these days, that's not surprising, but unless the DOJ report leads to the conviction of others - most notably Alberto Gonzales - it will be no less disgusting.

July 25, 2008

Coordinated Subversion

Yesterday, as the result of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the federal government released three memos related to White House torture policy. There are two things that are particularly striking about these documents; the first is how heavily redacted they are, and the second is how stomach-churning the remaining language is in its clear intent to provide cover for the purposeful violation of human rights and the law.

The first memo is from August 2002, and concerns advice from the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) - in the person of Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee - to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) on the interrogation methods that could be used on prisoners. Relying on a highly technical parsing of case law and precedent surrounding the definition of torture, it makes the following claim about interrogators who physically abuse their captives:
To violate the statute [against torture], an individual must have the specific intent to inflict severe pain or suffering... Based on the information you have provided us, we believe that those carrying out these procedures would not have the specific intent to inflict severe physical pain or suffering.
In other words, as long as the "intent" of torture is not torture for its own sake - but rather to gather "vital information in the War on Terror" (my quotes) - effectively, no manner of assault is out of bounds.

Other language in the memo remarks that if an interrogator has "an honest belief" that he is causing severe physical or mental suffering, he can be accused of torture. It goes on to effectively dismisses this small, potential restraint, however, by noting that an "honest belief" that (conversely), harm is not being caused need not be "reasonable." Thefore, if the results of certain methods of questioning under duress are not fully understood - or if the questioner is ignorant of the effects, delusional, or fully capable of lying about his beliefs - then, by the lights of this memo, his actions cannot be termed torture, no matter what harm is done to the detainee.

It is worth observing that this document was produced on the same day as another by the same author that is now commonly referred to simply as the Torture Memo. Anyone familiar with the despicable contentions set forth in the latter - including the contention that even if an act is "cruel, inhuman, or degrading," it doesn't necessarily inflict the level of suffering required by law to be defined as torture - shouldn't be surprised by the contents of the missive described above. When taken togther, it is entirely clear that there was an ongoing and coordinated effort from the Office of Legal Counsel to provide legal cover - no matter how tenuous or poorly reasoned - for American torturers.

There is little to glean from the January 2003 memo from the CIA to the OLC, other than that:
Unless otherwise approved by Headquarters CIA officers [redacted] may use only Permissible Interrogation Techniques. Permissible Interrogation Techniques consiste of both (a) Standard Techniques and (b) Enhanced Techniques.
ABC News reported in late 2005 that the list of Enhanced Techniques was as follows:
  1. The Attention Grab: The interrogator forcefully grabs the shirt front of the prisoner and shakes him.
  2. Attention Slap: An open-handed slap aimed at causing pain and triggering fear.
  3. The Belly Slap: A hard open-handed slap to the stomach. The aim is to cause pain, but not internal injury. Doctors consulted advised against using a punch, which could cause lasting internal damage.
  4. Long Time Standing: This technique is described as among the most effective. Prisoners are forced to stand, handcuffed and with their feet shackled to an eye bolt in the floor for more than 40 hours. Exhaustion and sleep deprivation are effective in yielding confessions.
  5. The Cold Cell: The prisoner is left to stand naked in a cell kept near 50 degrees. Throughout the time in the cell the prisoner is doused with cold water.
  6. Water Boarding [sic]: The prisoner is bound to an inclined board, feet raised and head slightly below the feet. Cellophane is wrapped over the prisoner's face and water is poured over him. Unavoidably, the gag reflex kicks in and a terrifying fear of drowning leads to almost instant pleas to bring the treatment to a halt.
All of the methods listed in the ABC report are widely considered cruel and inhumane, and the United States has, in fact, both court martialed American personnel who have engaged in waterboarding and prosecuted foreign perpetrators of the technique as war criminals. The only thing with which these techniques are "enhanced" is - at a minimum - criminal behavior, and at worst, outright torture.

The final memo is from August 2004, when information about America's torture programs was just beginning to come to public attention. From the CIA to the OLC, it expresses (with some apparent concern) that the landmark Supreme Court case Rasul v. Bush, which established the right of the court system determine whether prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and other sites were rightfully imprisoned, could lead to judicial review of government interrogation practices, a prospect which it is fairly clear the author does not relish.

Despite the media and politicians' continued use of euphimisms like "enhanced interrogation techniques," it has been clear for some time that the United States has been torturing prisoners captured in the so-called War on Terror. Combined with the rendition of captives to nations that openly countenance torture during questioning, secret jails in foreign countries, and even covert prison ships, the legal cover provided by the highest levels of the Bush Administration has been part of a closely directed and tightly synchonized effort to subvert both American and international law - not to mention commonly held standards of human rights - in the service of the president's imperial ambitions. (See How We Became Torturers for more background.)

As more documentation like these memos comes to light, it will be interesting to see if the country reaches a tipping point that will make it admit its culpability and move to punish the Bush Administration's criminal acts. If past experience is any guide, that point will be a long time from now, if it ever arrives.

July 21, 2008

New Variations on the Katrina Debacle

While victims of recent flooding throughout the Midwest had high praise for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the extent of that organization's failure to address the decimation visited on New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina continues to be disclosed in new and unexpected ways. As the Crescent City persists in its struggle to rebuild, CNN revealed in an investigative report that tens of millions of dollars of donated Katrina relief supplies had been sitting in a warehouse for two years, and then given away to sixteen states rather than distributed to their intended recipients:

FEMA gave away about $85 million in household goods meant for Hurricane Katrina victims, a CNN investigation has found.

The material, from basic kitchen goods to sleeping necessities, sat in warehouses for two years before the Federal Emergency Management Agency's giveaway to federal and state agencies this year.

James McIntyre, FEMA's acting press secretary, said that FEMA was spending more than $1 million a year to store the material and that another agency wanted the warehouses torn down, so "we needed to vacate them."

"Upon review of our assets and our need to continue to store them, we determined that they were excess to FEMA's needs; therefore, they are being excessed from FEMA's inventory," McIntyre wrote in an eMail.

He declined a request for an on-camera interview, telling CNN the giveaway was "not news."

Photos from one of the facilities in Fort Worth, Texas, show pallet after pallet of cots, cleansers, first-aid kits, coffee makers, camp stoves and other items stacked to the ceiling.

FEMA said some of the items were donations from companies after Katrina, but most were purchased in the field as "starter kits" for people living in trailers provided by the agency. And even though the stocks were offered to state agencies after FEMA decided to get rid of them, one of the states that passed was Louisiana.

Martha Kegel, the head of a New Orleans nonprofit agency that helps find homes for those still displaced by the storm, said she was shocked to learn about the existence of the goods and the government giveaway.

"These are exactly the items that we are desperately seeking donations of right now: basic kitchen household supplies," said Kegel, executive director of Unity of Greater New Orleans. "These are the very things that we are seeking right now. FEMA, in fact, refers homeless clients to us to house them. How can we house them if we don't have basic supplies?"

Some of the state and federal agencies that received the Katrina-targeted supplies have begun to return the inventory for distribution in New Orleans, but Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu and Mississippi Representative Bennie Thompson have promised joint hearings on the matter. While it is tempting to lay all of this at the feet of the justly-maligned FEMA, it is important to note that Louisiana had a role in this failure as well:
John Medica, director of the Louisiana Federal Property Assistance Agency in Baton Rouge, said he was unaware that Katrina victims still had a need for the household supplies.
This should suprise no one who has followed the coordinated campaign by agencies of the federal government and monied interests in Louisiana to push the poor out of New Orleans, and if possible, the state. Low income housing is not being rebuilt, while existing units are being shuttered, and the trailers provided by the federal government as temporaray housing to the displaced were tainted with toxic levels of formaldehyde, a fact which was known, but suppressed. Given the focus on political gain over functional expertise by the Bush Administration, as well as the strong performance by FEMA in the Midwest, claims of electoral payback - if not outright racism - are increasingly hard to dismiss.

July 17, 2008

A Bush League Zimbabwe

The electoral chaos in Florida during the 2000 presidential election has - aside from HBO's recent and excellent Recount - largely faded from the public mind. If, however, anyone believes that the problems underlying the Sunshine State's ballot have been resolved - or that they are even unique to Florida - they are sadly mistaken.

In this month's issue of The Nation, Katrina vanden Heuvel has an excellent article on the need for electoral reform in the United States, and in it, she includes a list of some of the major obstacles to free, fair and truly representative elections in this country. Although news stories about the lack of participation among eligible adults in the U.S. appear nearly every election cycle, the broad assumption made within these reports that this lack of involvement stems solely from laziness and apathy appears to be highly simplistic. Unfortunately, while sloth and indifference are certainly contributing factors, there are a multitude of other more sinister barriers as well.

In June, for instance, the U.S. District Court of Northern Florida upheld the state's "no-match, no-vote" law, which allows county officials to reject new voter registration applications if the names on the forms do not match up with those in other state databases. The court ruled that the law does not penalize voters, even though database errors made by government employees - in addition to those made by the applicants themselves - can cause the improper rejection of registrations. With Florida's questionable use of voter purge lists 8 years ago under then-Secretary of State Katherine Harris, it is not hard to understand concerns over this ruling:
"Voters who do everything right, who submit forms that are complete, timely, and accurate, will suddenly find themselves unregistered when they go to vote, because someone somewhere slipped on a keyboard," Levitt said. "It's unjust and it's unnecessary."

"The most senseless part is that the state creates these errors, and then makes it unnecessarily hard to fix the problem," said Elizabeth Westfall of Advancement Project, another attorney for the plaintiffs. "You can't show a passport. You can't show a military ID. And though you can show your driver's license itself, it doesn't count if you show it at the polls - the very place where voters have to show a photo ID anyway."
Likewise, Indiana's new law requiring photo identification was upheld in time to turn way some students and several elderly nuns from primary voting in May.

At first blush, the idea that accuracy in voter roles is a pressing, or even important issue, might seem reasonable. The fact is, however, that voter fraud of any significance whatsoever is a complete myth. There is simply no empirical evidence at all that multiple votes, the use of a false identity to vote, or even that the names of dead voters are being used to stuff ballot boxes is occurring. Instead, these laws represent part of a campaign, largely by Republicans, to disenfranchise voting blocs like immigrants, minorities, the poor and the elderly, who often vote Democratic. In may ways however, these legislative efforts to exclude represent only the most visible element of the hidden war on voters.

In 1993, the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) was passed into law with the intent of making voter registration easier and more accessible. The NVRA is perhaps best-known for its "Motor Voter" provision, which requires motor vehicle offices to offer voter registration to individuals renewing a driver's license, but the law also requires public assistance agencies to offer voter registration to clients and applicants. As it turns out however, many states aren't complying with the latter provision, and, unlike citizens who renew their licenses, people applying for Medicaid and Food Stamps aren't being registered to vote. While this might appear to be a less blatant means of keeping traditionally under-represented groups from the polls, the net effect is the same, and it must be remembered that this federal statute was enacted specifically to correct this problem.

Missouri, for instance, has seen the number of voter registrations originating with public assistance offices fall from almost 143,000 in 1993-1994, to less than 16,000 during the last election cycle, despite increases in both state population and participation in the Food Stamp program since that time. While the Missouri Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) successfully sued the state to ensure voting rights are maintained, the sheer scale of the state's de facto disenfranchisement efforts make it clear that it doesn't take explicit laws like Indiana's to have a profound effect on the composition of the electorate:
  • State documents confirming that over one million Food Stamps applicants could not have been offered voter registration from 2003-2008 because Missouri's Department of Social Services (DSS) did not order enough of the forms it is required to give each client. The court also viewed field surveys by plaintiffs of agency offices as persuasive evidence of poor compliance.

  • eMails from a DSS employee acknowledging that half the counties in a 21-county survey were not routinely providing voter registration to DSS clients.

  • eMails from one county DSS office showing that voter registration applications completed by clients had been permitted to pile up for an entire year without being turned in to the local election authority for processing.
Add to this the extensive and well-documented problems with the electronic voting machines that are being forced on wide swaths of the country, as well as new voter ID laws, and it is difficult to arrive at any other conclusion than that the fundamental right of Americans to representative government is being subverted - actively and passively - on a widespread basis. While things have clearly not degenerated into the type of outright voter intimidation witnessed in Zimbabwe, there is no escaping the fact that the United States has more in common with Robert Mugabe's personal fiefdom than we should want or hope.

July 12, 2008

Undermining the Country, One Regulation at a Time

With the worst approval numbers of any president in history, George W. Bush's administration is rightfully viewed by all but the hardest of hardcore neoconservatives as a failure gigantic in scope and total in nature. Even as the nation labors toward the end of the eight-year disaster that is the Bush White House, however, the sheer scale of the unmitigated treachery leveled at the people of the United States continues to be revealed. Just as the public wraps its collective mind around yet another tale of arrogant self-interest and profiteering at the expense of the citizenry, one more tentacle of the political movement that spawned Mr. Bush is revealed to have coiled itself around the heart of the country.

Long after the major issues of institutionalized torture, betrayal of the Constitution, unprovoked war, politicization of the Justice Department and other major policies have been digested (although likely never punished), we will continue to discover the thoroughness and pervasiveness of the Bush movement's efforts in all manner of less obvious - but in their way, just as significant - bureaucratic programs. Unscrupulous in fulfilling his oath of office, the president and his minions have been fastidious in setting the hooks of their radical ideology in literally ever limb of American government.

In 2007, for instance, the Supreme Court ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) needed to determine whether greenhouse gases represented a danger to public health and/or the environment. If it was determined that greenhouse gases were, in fact, dangerous pollutants, the EPA would be tasked with regulating them, much to the consternation of industry and the political right wing. Never mind that there are a number of creative solutions to the regulation and reduction of such pollutants - a cap and trade system being a prime example - the possibility that they could be explicitly termed harmful was anathema to the Bush Administration.

The EPA did determine that, in fact, greenhouse gases are harmful pollutants that must be controlled, but also included in its report projections that stringent regulation of motor vehicle emissions could produce between $500 billion and $2 trillion in economic benefits by 2040. When the report was eMailed to the White House, however, the Administration simply refused to open it, leaving it in a legal limbo because no one had ever thought to create rules for a scenario in which a sitting president responded to unfavorable policy inputs by effectively covering his ears and shouting "I can't hear you! I can't hear you!"

Over the following months, the Environmental Protection Agency was pressured to change its report, and did so, eventually releasing a heavily diluted version that eliminated, for instance, any mention of economic benefit associated with the regulation of greenhouse gases. According to one EPA official, the report “showed that the Clean Air Act can work for certain sectors of the economy, to reduce greenhouse gases. That’s not what the Administration wants to show. They want to show that the Clean Air Act can’t work.”

Last week, the White House went even further, issuing not only the weakened EPA report, but including with it what amounts to a pre-packaged official rejection of its findings. According to a report in the Wall Street Journal:
In a letter accompanying the EPA document, Susan Dudley, administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, bluntly disavowed the EPA's analysis, saying it relied on "untested legal theories" and "cannot be considered Administration policy or representative of the views of the Administration." In the letter, dated Thursday ... she added, "There is strong disagreement with many of the legal, analytical, economic, science and policy interpretations in the draft."

The Administration also attached a letter from the Secretaries of Transportation, Agriculture, Commerce and Energy, asserting that the EPA's work "does not recognize the enormous - and, we believe, insurmountable - burdens, difficulties and costs, and likely limited benefits" of using the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gases.
Although the level of childishness associated with refusing to open the EPA's eMail broke new ground, it is only the most public face of the White House's latest assault on science that conflicts with its ideology. Of nearly equal importance was a simple bureaucratic maneuver that occurred behind the scenes of the enfeebled greenhouse gas report's release, one emblematic of the subversion employed so frequently and to such great effect by the Bush Administration.

Among government agencies, there is a something termed the "value of a statistical life," which is used in determining the costs and benefits associated with policies and regulations. This month, the Environmental Protection Agency revised its value of a statistical life downward by more than 11% - almost a million dollars - from what it was 5 years ago. What does this arcane figure have to do with you? As the Associated Press explains:
When drawing up regulations, government agencies put a value on human life and then weigh the costs versus the lifesaving benefits of a proposed rule. The less a life is worth to the government, the less the need for a regulation, such as tighter restrictions on pollution.

Consider, for example, a hypothetical regulation that costs $18 billion to enforce but will prevent 2,500 deaths. At $7.8 million per person (the old figure), the lifesaving benefits outweigh the costs. But at $6.9 million per person, the rule costs more than the lives it saves, so it may not be adopted.
Although EPA leadership denies that there is any ideological reason behind reducing the price tag applied to human life - laughably terming the magnitude of the reduction "insignificant" - people like Dan Esty, a senior EPA official under President George H.W. Bush and current director of the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy, believe otherwise. From Mr. Esty's point of view, "It's hard to imagine that it has other than a political motivation." Likewise, S. William Becker, Executive Director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, which represents state and local air pollution regulators, noted "It appears that they're cooking the books in regards to the value of life. Those decisions are literally a matter of life and death."

The one and only area in which the Bush Administration has excelled has been the bad faith use of its offices for the accrual of power and the benefit of the ideologically like-minded. It is certainly no surprise then, to see a tactic like this snaking its way into the machinery of the federal government, but it is perhaps the single most naked example of the manner in which this White House regards the populace it is supposed to serve: as items on a balance sheet whose value can be manipulated to achieve the goals of its political shareholders. It is a mark of the commitment of George W. Bush and his supporters to their own ends that they put all of the energy and ingenuity they should be employing to better this country into undermining it for their own gain, not just through major policy decisions, but one bureaucratic regulation at a time.

July 8, 2008

Outright Betrayal

Tomorrow, July 9th, it is more than likely that the Senate will pass new legislation that effectively guts the Constitution of the United States. Despite the best efforts of people like Senators Chris Dodd, Russ Feingold and Patrick Leahy, a new update to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) will be sent to the White House to be signed into law, and it will, without question, push this country further down the path to full police statehood. As a result of this law, not only will law-breakers escape punishment - or even investigation - because they are well connected, but the president will be given vast new latitude to spy on U.S. citizens without a warrant, vesting in him powers that are as alien to traditional American values as they would be at home in any dictatorship you can name.

Hyperbole? If only.

This is a naked assault on the fundamental and core values of our nation, and any law-maker who votes to pass the new FISA bill is in violation of his oath of office, which demands that the Constitution be defended above all other considerations. This is outright betrayal by the new Democratic majority in Congress, and it is more of the same Republican taste for authoritarianism and intrusion into the private lives of the people we have seen since George W. Bush took office. Quite simply, anyone on Capitol Hill or in the White House who is stupid enough, ignorant enough or venal enough to think that this legislation is a good idea needs to be removed from office and banished from the political landscape. It is that bad.

The contents and justification for the new FISA bill have been obfuscated at every turn, and it has been touted as a "bipartisan compromise" necessary to protect Americans. Nothing could be further from the truth. Please click on the image above and read the linked document - which is a full-page ad that will run in several major newspapers - in its entirety. Likewise, if you have the time, I highly recommend the video below, which features an interview with Daniel Ellsberg, the man who helped bring down the Nixon Administration by releasing the Pentagon Papers. [h/t Glenn Greenwald for both the ad and the video.]

July 2, 2008

Vitter Irony

Since the Bush Administration claimed power in 2000, the modern G.O.P. has, by all appearances, made a concerted effort to become a parody of itself. Case in point: As the country gears up to celebrate the 232nd anniversary of the Declaration of Independence and the roots our our nation's freedom, eight Republican senators have joined Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi in sponsoring a bill to curtail the liberty of certain Americans of whom they disapprove. [H/T Pam's House Blend]

S. J. Res. 43 is entitled "A joint resolution proposing an amendment to the Constitution of the United States relating to marriage," and declares:
Marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman. Neither this Constitution, nor the constitution of any State, shall be construed to require that marriage or the legal incidents thereof be conferred upon any union other than the union of a man and a woman.
On top of this particularly ill-timed foray into the legislative abridgement of personal freedom is the fact that, among the eight cosponsors of S.J. Res 43, are Senators David Vitter and Larry Craig. These two men, you may recall - in addition to operating in an apparently irony-free zone - have made their political bones as "family values" crusaders, but have also been, respectively, determined to have engaged the services of a prostitute on multiple occasions to indulge sexual fantasies that involved wearing diapers, and arrested for soliciting gay sex in an airport bathroom.

Please take moment to appreciate the sheer scale of the cognitive dissonance and rank hypocrisy - not to mention the economy-sized dose of self-loathing that must be involved - for these two men to sign their names to this piece of legislation. While you're doing that, I'll wish everyone a Happy Fourth of July, and leave you with two images from the inimitable Jesus' General.

Sensen No Sen will return next week.