January 31, 2010

No One Is Responsible

Amidst all the failure of the George W. Bush administration, nowhere was more damage done than to the rule of law and the aspiration to equal justice for all.  Worse, in almost every aspect of Mr. Bush's assault on American values - from politicizing the Justice Department to warrantless wiretapping to using torture as official policy - there have been, for all intents and purposes, no repercussions for the perpetrators.   Unfortunately, recent news indicates that's not going to change anytime soon.

At the end of 2008, a report by the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) found that attorneys Jay Bybee and John Yoo - the principle architects of Bush torture policy -  had violated their professional responsibility:
An investigation by H. Marshall Jarrett, head of the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility, reached “damning” conclusions about numerous cases of “misconduct” in the advice from John Yoo and other lawyers in the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) during the Bush administration, according to legal sources familiar with the report’s contents.

OPR investigators determined that Yoo blurred the lines between an attorney charged with providing independent legal advice to the White House and a policy advocate who was working to advance the administration’s goals, said the sources who spoke on condition of anonymity because the contents of the report are still classified.

One part of the OPR report criticized Yoo’s use of an obscure 2000 health benefits statute to narrow the definition of torture in a way that permitted waterboarding and other acts that have historically been regarded as torture under U.S. law, the sources said.

The report also criticizes Yoo’s legal theories that the President of the United States had the right to suspend Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures, the sources said. It is believed that Yoo’s legal theories led to a warrantless wiretap program after 9/11.

The OPR report was completed late last year but was kept under wraps by Attorney General Michael Mukasey while Bush finished out his days in office, the sources said.
This was cause for optimism that justice might be served, since OPR's findings would have triggered a referral to state bar associations for potential disciplinary action.  In the case of Mr.  Bybee - who now serves as an appellate judge - it could even have led to an impeachment inquiry.

Lamentably, it appears that the men who were directly responsible for providing the legal cover necessary to make waterboarding an official U.S. policy are about to escape serious punishment or even inconvenience.  David Margolis, the point man for the final review of OPR's investigation of Bybee and Yoo has reportedly downgraded the final assessment to "poor judgment". Under Justice Department rules, poor judgment does not constitute professional misconduct, and this means that not only is Mr. Bybee likely to remain on the bench, but that Mr. Yoo will retain his position as - and you can't make this up - a constitutional law professor at Berkeley.

All of this reminds me of an article that appeared in Sports Illustrated back in pre-9/11 2001, just before Super Bowl XXXV between the New York Giants and the Baltimore Ravens. In it, columnist Rick Reilly called attention to the fact that, while two men had been killed in an altercation with Ravens' star linebacker Ray Lewis and his friends a year earlier, a host of incriminating circumstantial evidence was ignored, and no one was ever convicted of the slayings. As Reilly put it:
Because on Sunday, while the media are making Lewis into a god, it would be really unfair to bring up Richard Lollar and Shorty Baker, right?

You don't remember Richard and Shorty? They're the two guys nobody killed, according to a Fulton County jury.
Apparently, we don't remember the torture policy that no one justified legally, either.

January 27, 2010

Delray Beach

I have been in Florida for work over the past several days - in fact, that's where I still am - so I have not had an opportunity to post.  Normal posting will resume this weekend.

January 22, 2010

Killed in Custody

Recently, in A Difficult Case for Suicide, I wrote about the deeply disturbing report  by Seton Hall University's Center for Policy & Research (CPR), which investigated the alleged suicides of three men in American custody at the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay in 2006.  The military had declared that the men had killed themselves in a coordinated manner in order to make the U.S. look bad, and simply decided not to bother trying to explain - as if it were possible – just how the prisoners had managed to pull it all off.

After all, to hear the official explanation, the trio - Yassar Talal al Zahrani, Mani Shaman Turki al Habardi al Tabi, and Ali Abdullah Ahmed * – had supposedly somehow hanged themselves unaided, while under heavy guard, having stuffed rags down their own throats, and after binding their own hands and feet.  The Seton Hall report noted the military’s promised investigation had led to no disciplinary action against the guards  - who would have to be either criminally negligent or party to the act for it to have occurred at all – and that it had taken two full years to issue even these tenuous findings.

The stench of cover-up is all over the “suicides”, but it has not been pursued in anything approaching a serious manner by our generally execrable media.  With one exception.

In a new article published at Harper’s, Scott Horton, who has made it his life’s work to confront  human rights abuses, presents evidence he gathered from four men who had served as guards at Gitmo that - and this is not hyperbole - utterly shatters the fairy tale that has been the official position on this matter to date. 

The ranking serviceman Mr. Horton interviewed, Staff Sergeant Joseph Hickman, enlisted in the Marines at the age of 19 in 1983, and was such a model military man that he was chosen to serve on President Ronald Reagan’s personal detail.  Sergeant Hickman enlisted again – this time in the Army - at the age of 37 after the September 11th attacks, but was so profoundly troubled by the events surrounding the deaths of al Zahrani, al Tabi and Ahmed, that he pulled no punches in his description of the events surrounding their deaths:
All four soldiers say they were ordered by their commanding officer not to speak out, and all four soldiers provide evidence that authorities initiated a cover-up within hours of the prisoners’ deaths. Army Staff Sergeant Joseph Hickman and men under his supervision have disclosed evidence in interviews with Harper’s Magazine that strongly suggests the three prisoners who died on June 9 had been transported to another location prior to their deaths. The guards’ accounts also reveal the existence of a previously unreported black site at Guantánamo where the deaths, or at least the events that led directly to the deaths, most likely occurred.
The three dead men – none of whom was ever charged with a crime, one of whom was scheduled for release, and another of whom appeared headed in that direction – were killed by American personnel in American custody, and that fact has been covered up.

Mr. Horton’s article is absolutely essential reading, and documents what is only one more in the string of criminal and constitutional crimes enabled by the Bush Administration’s appallingly wasteful, ineffective and disgraceful “War on Terror.”  Please read it in its entirety here: The Guantánamo “Suicides”: A Camp Delta Sergeant Blows the Whistle.

* AUTHOR'S NOTE: I have used the names of the three dead men as they are written in the Seton Hall report.  Mr. Horton names them as Yasser Talal Al-Zahrani, Mani Shaman Al-Utaybi, and Salah Ahmed Al-Salami, respectively.  This seeming discrepancy is not, in fact, a discrepancy at all, but a product of variation in translating Arabic names phonetically, and of the sometimes inconsistent name usage among people in Arab cultures.  There is no question that these are the same three men.

January 17, 2010

Under the Weather

I've been under the weather for the past several days, and have not had the wherewithal to put together enough thoughts in a row to form a post. I'm on the mend, though, and will resume regular posting this week.

January 13, 2010

A Tragic Ripple Effect

Over the years, I have written often about the stress under which the men and women who serve in the armed forces of the United States serve - and the strain that places on our military institutions - since the launch of George W. Bush's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Our servicemen and women remain largely forgotten (with notable exceptions) as we continue to use poorer Americans to wage what amount to luxury conflicts that have little impact on the daily lives of most Americans in this modern era of the all-volunteer force.

Since 2003, the people who serve our country in uniform have been subjected to stop-loss; given insufficient equipment; asked to complete undefined long term missions; suffered cuts in benefits; struggled with inadequate veterans facilities, outpatient care and psychological services; dealt with recruits gathered under diminished standards for enlistment; borne the deployment of medically unfit personnel; and suffered an unprecedented suicide rate.

Unfortunately, it appears that the ripple effect of this duress is continuing to spread; the suicide rate among veterans has skyrocketed alongside that of men and women still serving:
The Veterans Affairs Department (VA) said Monday that preliminary data reflects that the suicide rate among 18- to 29-year-old male veterans has increased significantly. It said the rate went up 26 percent from 2005 to 2007. VA officials said they assume that most of the veterans in this age group served in Iraq or Afghanistan.
The military has also struggled with an increase in suicides, with the Army seeing a record number last year. While the military frequently releases such data, it has been more difficult to track suicide information on veterans once they've left active duty.

The VA calculated the numbers using Centers for Disease Control and Prevention numbers from 16 states. In 2005, the rate per 100,000 veterans among men ages 18-29 was 44.99, compared with 56.77 in 2007, the VA said. It did not release data for other population groups.

Commenting on this tragic state of affairs, former Army Chief of Staff, and current Secretary for Veterans Affairs, Eric Shinseki (whose efforts to bring a measure of realism to Donald Rumsfeld's pipe dream of a walkover invasion of Iraq I deeply respect) made one of the more tin-eared public comments in recent memory:
Why do we know so much about suicides but still know so little about how to prevent them?  Simple question, but we continue to be challenged.
Here's a clue from the Army's own 2006 study on the suicide rate for soldiers:
Failed personal relationships, legal and financial problems and work stress were motivating factors, the report said. It also found a significant link between suicide attempts and the number of days deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan or nearby countries where troops participate in the war effort.
Seems like a pretty simple equation to me: if we continue to push both individuals and institutions past their breaking point, they'll break.

The worst part is that there remains no definitive end in sight;.  Public attention  is on the economy and health care reform, and pressure to bring American service people home from Iraq and Afghanistan is at what may well be an all-time low.  Unless and until the general population is impacted directly by the slow-motion train wreck our military is enduring, that is unlikely to change.

January 7, 2010

Not This Again

News from California this week is that the state-owned California Science Center (CSC) in Los Angeles will begin the new year defending itself against a lawsuit brought by an organization called the American Freedom Alliance (AFA). The AFA's suit alleges that the Science Center bowed to pressure from the Smithsonian, and quashed the showing of a film called "Darwin's Dilemma: The Mystery of the Cambrian Fossil Record", thereby infringing on the AFA's First Amendment rights to free speech.  "Darwin's Dilemma," which supports "Intelligent Design" (ID), was originally going to be shown alongside "We Are Born of Stars," another film that discusses the Theory of Evolution.  Neither film was shown, and the CSC's stated reason for the cancellation is that the AFA violated its rental agreement.

The American Freedom Alliance describes itself as a "non-political, non-partisan movement which promotes, defends and upholds Western values and ideals," but a look at its website quickly reveals that it is an organization with a strong religious bent.  Senior Fellow Avi Davis' claim that the AFA doesn't have a position on "Intelligent Design" is hard to credit in light of this, and his group's close ties to the Discovery Institute -  perhaps the single biggest promoter of ID - makes taking his statements at face value even harder.

In any case, to be blunt, the amount of public time and money wasted on the farce that is "Intelligent Design" needs to stop.  The idea that there is a "debate" over the Theory of Evolution is, flatly, unequivocally false.  What there is, is a refusal on the part of some in the religious community to accept the fact that the Theory of Evolution is one of the most well-supported bodies of thought in all of science.  That's not a debate; that's just special interests ignoring an ocean of evidence.  There is precisely as much scientific controversy over evolution as there is about whether the sun revolves around the earth, the viability of perpetual motion, the possibility of turning lead into gold, or the idea that balancing the four humors is the secret to health.

In other words, zero.

Likewise, the rejoinder that "evolution is just a theory," is little more than an easy way to identify the ignorant by their choice of utterance.  To be clear: the term "theory", as used in science, does not describe something that is simply abstract thought or speculation, but rather "a coherent group of general propositions used as principles of explanation for a class of phenomena."  The Theory of Gravity is "just a theory" in the same way that the Theory of Evolution is, but strangely, we hear little call to "teach the controversy" over gravitational attraction.

But what of the American Freedom Alliance's contention that their rights to free speech were curtailed?  Fortunately, it is highly unlikely that the AFA's lawsuit will gain much traction.  The 2005 decision in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District found that Intelligent Design is, at its heart, a religious argument.  As such, forcing its presentation in public facilities - like the California Science Center - violates the Establishment Clause, and is therefore unconstitutional.

And really, don't we have enough to deal with without spending time, energy and scarce resources on something as demonstrably pathetic as the contention that "Intelligent Design" is science? 

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