Thursday, November 29, 2007

Herman Melville

"Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity, nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well- warmed, and well-fed."

---Herman Melville (1819-1891) writing in Poor Man's Pudding and Rich Man's Crumbs, published in Harper's New Monthly Magazine, June 1854

New Anti-Liberty Bill Being Sped Through Congress

by William Fisher
Inter Press Service
November 27, 2007

Civil libertarians are worried that a little-known anti-terrorism bill now making its way through the U.S. Congress with virtually no debate could be planting the seeds of another USA Patriot Act, which was hurriedly enacted into law after the al Qaeda attacks of Sep. 11, 2001.

The Violent Radicalisation and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act, co-authored by the former chair of the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, Jane Harmon, a California Democrat, passed the House by an overwhelming 400-6 vote last month, and will soon be considered by the Senate.

The bill's co-author is Republican Congressman David Reichert of Washington State. The Senate version is being drafted by Susan Collins of Maine, the ranking Republican on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which is chaired by the hawkish Connecticut independent, Sen. Joe Lieberman. Harmon is chair of the House Homeland Security Intelligence Subcommittee.

Civil liberties groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), say the measure could herald a new government crackdown on dissident activity and infiltration of universities under the guise of fighting terrorism.

The CCR's Kamau Franklin, a Racial Justice Fellow, told IPS, 'This measure looks benign enough, but we should be concerned about where it will lead. It may well result in recommendations for new laws that criminalise radical thought and peaceful dissent, posing as academic study.'

Franklin added, 'Crimes such as conspiracy or incitement to violence are already covered by both state and federal statute. There is no need for additional criminal laws.'

He speculated that Congress 'may want to get this measure passed and signed into law to head off peaceful demonstrations' at the upcoming Republican and Democratic Party conventions. 'And no Congressperson of either political party wants to vote against this bill and get labeled as being soft on terrorism.'

Harman's bill would convene a 10-member national commission to study 'violent radicalisation' (defined as 'the process of adopting or promoting an extremist belief system for the purpose of facilitating ideologically-based violence to advance political, religious, or social change') and 'homegrown terrorism' (defined as 'the use, planned use, or threatened use, of force or violence by a group or individual born, raised, or based and operating primarily within the United States [...] to intimidate or coerce the United States government, the civilian population of the United States, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives').

The bill also directs the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to designate a university-based research 'centre of excellence' where academics, policy-makers, members of the private sector and other stakeholders can collaborate to better understand and prevent radicalisation and homegrown terrorism. Some experts are concerned that politics will unduly influence which institution DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff will designate.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Chertoff was head of the Criminal Division at the Department of Justice (DOJ), and played a key role in implementing the department's roundup of hundreds of Muslims who were detained without charge, frequently abused, and denied access to legal counsel.

Critics of Harmon's bill point out that commission members would all be appointed by a high-ranking elected official. Those making these appointments would include the president, the secretary of Homeland Security, the speaker and ranking member of the House, the majority and minority leaders of the Senate, and senior members of the House and Senate committees overseeing homeland security.

Critics also fear that the bill's definitions of 'extremism' and 'terrorism' are too vague and its mandate too broad, and that government-appointed commissions could be used as ideological cover to push through harsher laws.

Congressional sponsors of the bill claim it is limited in scope. 'Though not a silver bullet, the legislation will help the nation develop a better understanding of the forces that lead to homegrown terrorism, and the steps we can take to stop it,' Harman told Congress.

But the bill's purpose goes beyond academic inquiry. In a Nov. 7 press release, Harman said, 'the National Commission [will] propose to both Congress and Chertoff initiatives to intercede before radicalised individuals turn violent.'

According to the Centre for Constitutional Rights, the commission 'will focus in on passing additional federal criminal penalties that are sweeping and inclusive in criminalising dissent and protest work more surveillance on thought rather than on actions. Further, this bi-partisan attempt can set the ground for an even more acquiescent Congress to presidential power, never wanting to look weak on terrorism.'

The commission would be tasked with compiling information about what leads up to violent radicalisation, and how to prevent or combat it with the intent to issue a final report with recommendations for both preventative and countermeasures.

Implementing the bill would likely cost some 22 million dollars over the 2008-2012 period, according to the Congressional Budget Office. But critics point out that the bill would duplicate work already being done in and out of government.

For example, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) already has a domestic terrorism unit; the U.S. intelligence community monitors the homegrown terrorists and overseas networks that might be reaching out to U.S. residents; and many universities and think-tanks are already specialising in studying the subject.

But Harman argues that a national commission on homegrown terrorism could benefit the country in much the same way as the 9/11 Commission, the Silberman/Robb Commission or other high-profile national security inquiries.

But groups like the CCR are wondering what exactly is meant by 'an extremist belief system'.

'The term is left undefined and open to many interpretations -- socialism, anarchism, communism, nationalism, liberalism, etc. -- that would serve to undermine expressions that don't fit within the allowable areas of debate. A direct action led by any group that blocks traffic can be looked upon as being coercive,' CCR says.

The bill says the Internet has aided in facilitating violent radicalisation, ideologically based violence, and the homegrown terrorism process in the U.S. by providing access to 'broad and constant streams of terrorist-related propaganda to U.S. citizens.'

While civil liberties groups agree that focus on the Internet is crucial, they fear it could set up far more intrusive surveillance techniques, without warrants, and the potential to criminalise ideas and not actions could mean penalties for a stance rather than a criminal act.

The bill also uses the term 'ideologically-based violence, meaning the use, planned use, or threatened use of force or violence by a group or individual to promote the group or individual's political, religious, or social beliefs.'

But the CCR and other groups ask, 'What is force? Is civil disobedience covered under that, if arrested at a protest rally and charged with disorderly conduct, obstructing governmental administration, or even assault, does that now open you up to possible terrorist charges in the future?'

Some of the most egregious terrorist attacks in U.S. history have been carried out by U.S. citizens, including the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995.

Copyright © 2007 IPS North America

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Rudy Giuliani, Teflon Candidate

by Steve Rendall
Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR)
Extra! November/December 2007

Does Republican presidential hopeful Rudolph Giuliani have some dirt on the press corps? How else to explain the free pass journalists have repeatedly granted him on stories that would threaten to sink less-favored candidates, particularly of the Democratic variety?

If Ronald Reagan was the “Teflon president” to whom no bad news would stick, then Giuliani would seem to be the Teflon candidate.

Consider Giuliani’s campaign in South Carolina, perhaps the most important primary in the GOP schedule, and the state on which Giuliani has pinned his hopes for the nomination. In June, Giuliani state campaign chair and South Carolina Treasurer Thomas Ravenel was indicted for conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine (Rock Hill, S.C., Herald, 6/19/07) and forced to step down from the campaign. On September 6, he pled guilty to a federal charge of possession with intent to distribute cocaine (Charleston Post and Courier, 9/6/07).

Ravenel’s campaign job was quickly filled by his father, Arthur Ravenel, who nearly as quickly was revealed to have smeared the NAACP as “the National Association for Retarded People” in 2000 (Austin-American Statesman, 1/9/00).

The news that an important official in the supposed law-and-order candidate’s campaign was moonlighting as a crack dealer was surprisingly hard to find. The Washington Post (6/20/07) covered the bust with a 100-word squib on page A4, mentioning that Ravenel had endorsed Giuliani but failing to mention his key campaign job. The New York Times ran an Associated Press report (6/20/07) on page 11. Neither paper reported on the guilty plea, nor on the elder Ravenel’s NAACP slur.

With so little attention from these agenda-setting papers, it’s unsurprising that Giuliani’s hapless South Carolina campaign received little national coverage: No nightly network news show so much as mentioned it.

Hsu as in ‘shoo’

When the Ravenel indictment was mentioned on NBC’s Meet the Press (9/2/07) by pundit and former Democratic strategist James Carville, anchor Tim Russert dismissed it with one word: “Hsu.” Russert was referring to recently indicted volunteer Democratic Party fundraiser Norman Hsu, as if Hsu’s escapades somehow rendered Ravenel a non-story.

Russert’s equating of the two stories is instructive. Both stories feature scandalous misbehavior: Hsu was a fugitive from a 1992 fraud conviction who, according to a September indictment, bilked investors out of millions more dollars; he’s alleged to have used some of the money to illegally reimburse contributors who made campaign donations to Democrats of Hsu’s choosing—including hundreds of thousands to Hillary Clinton’s campaign (subsequently returned). Ravenel, meanwhile, was a criminal picked for a key role by a candidate billed as the country’s pre-eminent crime-fighter—an irony made richer by the drug-trafficking Ravenel’s pre-arrest tribute to Giuliani as the mayor who “rescued New York City from the cesspool that it was” (Washington Post, 6/20/07).

But reporters found only the Hsu story compelling. The New York Times has run two dozen stories mentioning Hsu and Clinton, including several page-one stories (e.g., 8/30/07, 9/22/07); the Washington Post has published about half as many, with several of those also appearing on page one (e.g., 9/11/07, 9/3/07). Hsu’s story and his connection to Hillary Clinton has been discussed on nine network evening newscasts.

Defining ‘family values’ down?

The South Carolina scandal was just one of the seemingly juicy stories about Giuliani that political reporters didn’t bite at. On June 22, for example, Salon reporters Alex Koppelman and Joe Strupp revealed that Giuliani employs an old friend who has been linked to child sexual abuse:

Giuliani employs his childhood friend Monsignor Alan Placa as a consultant at Giuliani Partners despite a 2003 Suffolk County, N.Y., grand jury report that accuses Placa of sexually abusing children, as well as helping cover up the sexual abuse of children by other priests.

The reason Placa wasn’t indicted, according to a National Catholic Reporter article (2/21/03), is because the suspended priest, who is also an attorney, expertly stalled his case and those of other accused priests beyond the statute of limitations. Through his office, Giuliani has said he believes Placa is falsely accused, though Placa’s efforts to thwart lawsuits by sex abuse victims are a matter of public record.

Though Placa is not part of the campaign, his relationship to the candidate is extremely close: The two attended the same high school, and were fraternity brothers in college. Placa was best man at Giuliani’s first wedding (which he later helped to annul) and officiated at his second, as well as at Giuliani’s children’s baptisms and both parents’ funerals. In 1985 (6/9/85), the New York Times reported that Placa slept over at Giuliani’s apartment as often as once a week.

The New York Times ran a single article about Placa back in 2003 when he joined Giuliani Partners (2/20/03), but nothing since Giuliani’s campaign launch. Placa earned only a passing mention in a Washington Post report (5/13/07) about the controversial nature of some of Giuliani Partners’ executives and clients. As Extra! went to press, Giuliani’s relationship to Placa received its first mention on a nightly network newscast (ABC World News, 10/23/07).

Likewise, when Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) showed up on a client list kept by accused “D.C. madam” Deborah Jeane Palfrey—suggesting that the married senator was not only an adulterer but a lawbreaker as well—the fact that Vitter was a Giuliani campaign spokesperson got only passing mention. Considering the speculation about Giuliani’s own rocky “family values” record—which includes three marriages and an ugly, televised split from his second wife—the Ravenel, Placa and Vitter sagas might have been campaign-enders for another presidential hopeful facing “socially conservative” GOP primaries.

The lack of coverage of Giuliani’s links to a cocaine trafficker, an alleged pedophile and an apparent prostitution client suggests the former mayor’s protective shield may be made of something sturdier than Teflon—perhaps Kevlar is more like it...

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Mainstream Media Mislead the Public

By Jim Naureckas
Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR)
Extra! November/December 2007

In addition to explaining why the U.S. shouldn’t end the war in Iraq, corporate media frequently tell Democrats that they can’t end the war—citing the Republicans’ ability to filibuster in the Senate and George W. Bush’s power to veto any anti-war legislation (FAIR Media Advisory, 6/1/07, 9/13/07). “As long as [Bush] can keep most of the Republicans in the Senate, in the House with him, there’s no way to overturn the policy because of the way the Constitution reads,” Newsweek’s Howard Fineman told the Chris Matthews Show (NBC, 9/2/07). “I hate to keep coming back to the Constitution. Sixty votes to stop a filibuster, 67 to overturn a presidential veto in the Senate.”

In reality, Democrats need just 41 Senate votes to stop the war—enough to maintain a filibuster (which is not, incidentally, part of the Constitution) and prevent any new war funding bills from being passed. The problem with this strategy is that if Democrats adopted it, it would mean taking responsibility for ending the war—rather than sharing it with the White House and/or Republicans in Congress. In the conventional wisdom of Beltway media and Democratic insiders alike, ending an unpopular war is the political kiss of death.

Walter Shapiro, the online Salon’s thoroughly conventional political correspondent (9/26/07), pointed to the presidential primaries as the reason nothing will happen to end the war in 2007:

The victorious Democrat in particular will want nothing to happen in Congress that could possibly jeopardize winning back the White House. And congressional leaders (along with most back-benchers) will be shrewd enough to understand that electing a Democratic president is the only surefire route to ending this debilitating war.

Shapiro argued that anti-war activists should just lay off: “That is why . . . this is not the moment for guerrilla theater and mau-mauing the moderates. . . . The coming battleground instead is the familiar terrain of Ohio and Florida—and the hearts and minds of the swing voters who will decide the 2008 election.” In other words, the best way to end the war is to stop talking about the war and concentrate on getting a Democrat elected president. Shapiro did not explain why the Democrats who are now too terrified to take responsibility for ending the war will, once in the Oval Office, be happy to do just that.

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Unlocking the Benefits of Garlic

by Tara Parker-Pope
The New York Times
October 15, 2007

Garlic has long been touted as a health booster, but it’s never been clear why the herb might be good for you. Now new research is beginning to unlock the secrets of the odoriferous bulb.

In a study published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers show that eating garlic appears to boost our natural supply of hydrogen sulfide. Hydrogen sulfide is actually poisonous at high concentrations — it’s the same noxious byproduct of oil refining that smells like rotten eggs. But the body makes its own supply of the stuff, which acts as an antioxidant and transmits cellular signals that relax blood vessels and increase blood flow.

In the latest study, performed at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, researchers extracted juice from supermarket garlic and added small amounts to human red blood cells. The cells immediately began emitting hydrogen sulfide, the scientists found.

The power to boost hydrogen sulfide production may help explain why a garlic-rich diet appears to protect against various cancers, including breast, prostate and colon cancer, say the study authors. Higher hydrogen sulfide might also protect the heart, according to other experts. Although garlic has not consistently been shown to lower cholesterol levels, researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine earlier this year found that injecting hydrogen sulfide into mice almost completely prevented the damage to heart muscle caused by a heart attack.

“People have known garlic was important and has health benefits for centuries,'’ said Dr. David W. Kraus, associate professor of environmental science and biology at the University of Alabama. “Even the Greeks would feed garlic to their athletes before they competed in the Olympic games.'’

Now, the downside. The concentration of garlic extract used in the latest study was equivalent to an adult eating about two medium-sized cloves per day. In such countries as Italy, Korea and China, where a garlic-rich diet seems to be protective against disease, per capita consumption is as high as eight to 12 cloves per day.

While that may sound like a lot of garlic, Dr. Kraus noted that increasing your consumption to five or more cloves a day isn’t hard if you use it every time you cook. Dr. Kraus also makes a habit of snacking on garlicky dishes like hummus with vegetables.

Many home chefs mistakenly cook garlic immediately after crushing or chopping it, added Dr. Kraus. To maximize the health benefits, you should crush the garlic at room temperature and allow it to sit for about 15 minutes. That triggers an enzyme reaction that boosts the healthy compounds in garlic.

Garlic can cause indigestion, but for many, the bigger concern is that it can make your breath and sweat smell like…garlic. While individual reactions to garlic vary, eating fennel seeds like those served at Indian restaurants helps to neutralize the smell. Garlic-powder pills claim to solve the problem, but the data on these supplements has been mixed. It’s still not clear if the beneficial compounds found in garlic remain potent once it’s been processed into a pill.

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Humanity Faces Unprecedented Threats From Climate Change

by the United Nations Development Programme
November 27, 2007

With governments preparing to gather in Bali, Indonesia to discuss the future of the Kyoto Protocol, the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Report has warned that the world should focus on the development impact of climate change that could bring unprecedented reversals in poverty reduction, nutrition, health and education.

The report, "Fighting climate change: Human solidarity in a divided world", provides a stark account of the threat posed by global warming. It argues that the world is drifting towards a “tipping point” that could lock the world’s poorest countries and their poorest citizens in a downward spiral, leaving hundreds of millions facing malnutrition, water scarcity, ecological threats, and a loss of livelihoods.

“Ultimately, climate change is a threat to humanity as a whole. But it is the poor, a constituency with no responsibility for the ecological debt we are running up, who face the immediate and most severe human costs,” commented UNDP Administrator Kemal Derviş.

The report comes at a key moment in negotiations to forge a multilateral agreement for the period after 2012—the expiry date for the current commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol. It calls for a “twin track” approach that combines stringent mitigation to limit 21st Century warming to less than 2°C (3.6°F), with strengthened international cooperation on adaptation.

On mitigation, the authors call on developed countries to demonstrate leadership by cutting greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% of 1990 levels by 2050. The report advocates a mix of carbon taxation, more stringent cap-and-trade programmes, energy regulation, and international cooperation on financing for low-carbon technology transfer.

Turning to adaptation, the report warns that inequalities in ability to cope with climate change are emerging as an increasingly powerful driver of wider inequalities between and within countries. It calls on rich countries to put climate change adaptation at the centre of international partnerships on poverty reduction.

“We are issuing a call to action, not providing a counsel of despair,” commented lead author Kevin Watkins, adding, “Working together with resolve, we can win the battle against climate change. Allowing the window of opportunity to close would represent a moral and political failure without precedent in human history.” He described the Bali talks as a unique opportunity to put the interests of the world’s poor at the heart of climate change negotiations.

The report provides evidence of the mechanisms through with the ecological impacts of climate change will be transmitted to the poor. Focusing on the 2.6 billion people surviving on less than US$2 a day, the authors warn forces unleashed by global warming could stall and then reverse progress built up over generations. Among the threats to human development identified by Fighting climate change:

- The breakdown of agricultural systems as a result of increased exposure to drought, rising temperatures, and more erratic rainfall, leaving up to 600 million more people facing malnutrition. Semi-arid areas of sub-Saharan Africa with some of the highest concentrations of poverty in the world face the danger of potential productivity losses of 26% by 2060.
- An additional 1.8 billion people facing water stress by 2080, with large areas of South Asia and northern China facing a grave ecological crisis as a result of glacial retreat and changed rainfall patterns.
- Displacement through flooding and tropical storm activity of up to 332 million people in coastal and low-lying areas. Over 70 million Bangladeshis, 22 million Vietnamese, and six million Egyptians could be affected by global warming-related flooding.
- Emerging health risks, with an additional population of up to 400 million people facing the risk of malaria.

Setting out the evidence from a new research exercise, the authors of the Human Development Report argue that the potential human costs of climate change have been understated. They point out that climate shocks such as droughts, floods and storms, which will become more frequent and intense with climate change, are already among the most powerful drivers of poverty and inequality—and global warming will strengthen the impacts.

“For millions of people, these are events that offer a one-way ticket to poverty and long-run cycles of disadvantage,” says the report. Apart from threatening lives and inflicting suffering, they wipe out assets, lead to malnutrition, and result in children being withdrawn from school. In Ethiopia, the report finds that children exposed to a drought in early childhood are 36% more likely to be malnourished—a figure that translates into 2 million additional cases of child malnutrition.

While the report focuses on the immediate threats to the world’s poor, it warns that failure to tackle climate change could leave future generations facing ecological catastrophe. It highlights the possible collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheets, the retreat of glaciers, and the stress on marine ecosystems as systemic threats to humanity.

© Copyright United Nations Development Programme

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Monday, November 26, 2007

The High Cost of Health Care

by The New York Times
November 25, 2007

The relentless, decades-long rise in the cost of health care has left many Americans struggling to pay their medical bills. Workers complain that they cannot afford high premiums for health insurance. Patients forgo recommended care rather than pay the out-of-pocket costs. Employers are cutting back or eliminating health benefits, forcing millions more people into the ranks of the uninsured. And state and federal governments strain to meet the expanding costs of public programs like Medicaid and Medicare.

Health care costs are far higher in the United States than in any other advanced nation, whether measured in total dollars spent, as a percentage of the economy, or on a per capita basis. And health costs here have been rising significantly faster than the overall economy or personal incomes for more than 40 years, a trend that cannot continue forever.

It is the worst long-term fiscal crisis facing the nation, and it demands a solution, but finding one will not be easy or palatable.

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

Read the entire article at this link.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Extremely Toxic Waste Dumped In River In Extreme Quantities By Dow Chemical

by Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News
November 23, 2007

At the spot where two rivers join to form the Saginaw River, clumps of cattails and bald cypress share the sandy shores with deer and raccoon tracks.

For years, this scenic tableau has filled riverside residents such as Mitch Larson with dread.

The reason became clear last week when the river confluence yielded something never conceived by nature: toxic dioxin.

The chemical, dumped into the Tittabawassee River by Dow Chemical Co. a century ago, had been discovered in other parts of the streams but never in this quantity, a federal agency said.

Not even close.

Larson worries about the health of his four daughters as he wonders whether this is the price Michigan residents pay for the state's industrial past.

"My daughters were raised out there," said the autoworker, 50, who lives 300 yards from the latest hot spot. "I'm worried for their children."

Traveling along two rivers, the dangerous chemical cuts a 44-mile swath through central Michigan, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said.

Residents who once loved their proximity to the rivers now fear it.

They worry how the simplest outdoor activity may have exposed them to the carcinogen -- fishing, swimming, gardening, cutting the grass.

Dioxin clings to dirt, so sometimes it creeps all the way into homes, state studies have found.

In Midland, the headquarters of Dow Chemical looks like a city-sized erector set.

It's three square miles of tanks, pipes and pumps. Dow, one of the biggest chemical manufacturers, makes or made Styrofoam, Saran Wrap, a wide array of plastics and, at one time, Agent Orange, an herbicide used in Vietnam.

The company spewed dioxin into the air or dumped it into the Tittabawassee River for half a century, Dow said. The chemical is a byproduct of the manufacture of chemicals and pesticides.

"At the time, the waste management approach was to release byproducts into the river," Dow spokesman John Musser said.

"That's not unique to Dow. We've learned a lot in the years since."

The toxin flowed 22 miles to Saginaw, entered the Saginaw River and moved another 22 miles past Bay City into the Saginaw Bay.

Moving by air and water, the long-lasting substance settled into the soil and river bottom.

The contaminant damages livers, weakens immune systems and affects reproduction, EPA studies have found.

"It's one of the most toxic chemicals ever evaluated by the EPA or any agency," said Milton Clark, senior health adviser in EPA's regional office in Chicago. "It has very high cancer potency."

Part of the issue is that the state and federal government have vastly different standards for what is an acceptable level of dioxin. State action is triggered by readings of 90 parts per trillion; federal action is triggered at 1,000 parts per trillion, a level Dow insists is more reasonable.

Still, widespread water sampling in recent years has found spots that far exceed even federal standards.

Before last week, the heaviest dose of dioxin found in the Saginaw River was 32,000 parts per trillion. The heaviest in the Tittabawassee was 87,000 parts per trillion.

The amount discovered last week near Wickes Park in the Saginaw River was 1.6 million parts per trillion.

Outside the gates of the Dow complex in Midland, the Tittabawassee is an unassuming presence: shallow and 50 yards wide.

Last year, Dow discovered three dioxin hot spots along the river within six miles of its property. The company has cleaned up two and will finish the third soon.

In Freeland, the south-moving stream passes many homes, including Kathy Henry's.

Her three acres of gently rolling hills contain a level of dioxin that's a dozen times higher than the state standard.

"It's been devastating," she said. "It's not a way for a resident to live."

Henry, 49, goes outside as little as possible. When she cuts the grass, she wears a dust mask and showers afterward.

Generations of families have lived along the water. While older family members frolicked there, newer ones fear their backyards.

South of Freeland is Imerman Memorial Park, whose 96 acres contains hiking trails, picnic pavilions, canoe rentals, a fishing dock and boat launch.

Given the picturesque surroundings, the park packs a jarring welcome.

"Contamination Advisory," reads a sign. "Avoid contact with soil and river sediment due to dioxin contamination. Use soap and water."

If dioxin is one of the costs of heavy manufacturing in Michigan, the poor are bearing a disproportionate share.

The pollutants leave Midland, a tidy city that benefits from the largesse of Dow, and move toward Saginaw, whose median household income is half of Midland's.

For Saginaw residents such as Howard Steinmetz, a riverside home was a status symbol. Now it's an albatross.

Steinmetz, 75, struggled to cobble together enough money to buy a plot along the river. When he finally did so in the late 1960s, he liked to walk along the banks, fantasizing what his new house would look like.

Now he's trying to unload his dream home. But nobody wants it.

"I feel helpless," he said about his dioxin-befouled yard. "I feel abused."

And he feels sick. He has two types of cancer: prostate cancer and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

His wife, Barbara, 70, has stomach cancer, and two daughters struggled with infertility.

The family believes their health problems are connected with the dioxin that has been discovered in their bodies.

"I'm not sure when the sword of Damocles will fall," Barbara Steinmetz said.

Others aren't worried.

On Sunday, less than a week after news about the dioxin, half a dozen motorboats circled the spot where the chemical was found.

They weren't scientists or federal regulators or Dow officials.

They were fishermen.

© Copyright 2007 The Detroit News

Torture and Death Have Become Accepted Practice

by CBS and the Associated Press
November 25, 2007

A United Nations committee said Friday that use of Taser weapons can be a form of torture, in violation of the U.N. Convention Against Torture.

Use of the electronic stun devices by police has been marked with a sudden rise in deaths - including four men in the United States and two in Canada within the last week.

Canadian authorities are taking a second look at them, and in the United States, there is a wave of demands to BAN them.

The U.N. Committee Against Torture referred Friday to the use of TaserX26 weapons which Portuguese police has acquired. An expert had testified to the committee that use of the weapons had "proven risks of harm or death."

"The use of TaserX26 weapons, provoking extreme pain, constituted a form of torture, and that in certain cases it could also cause death, as shown by several reliable studies and by certain cases that had happened after practical use," the committee said in a statement.

Tasers have become increasingly controversial in the United States, particularly after several notorious cases where their use by police to disable suspects was questioned as being excessive. Especially disturbing is the fact that six adults died after being tased by police in the span of a week.

Last Sunday, in Frederick, Md., a sheriff's deputy trying to break up a late-night brawl tased 20-year-old Jarrel Grey. He died on the spot.

"I want to know what he did that was so bad," the victim's mother, Tanya James, said. "Did the deputy think that their life was in danger? Did he have a weapon?"

The death came just weeks after Frederick police used a Taser to subdue a high school student.

Black leaders held a rally Tuesday calling for the department to ban Tasers, at least until there is a clear policy on how they are used. The NAACP says it appears the sheriff's office is using Tasers routinely, rather than as a weapon of last resort.

Also this week, in Jacksonville, Fla., in two separate cases two men died after being stunned.

One suspect, who fled a car crash and tried to break into a nearby home, struggled with a policeman, prompting the officer to tase him three times. The man continued to fight, and tried to bite the officer, while he was being tased. He was later pronounced dead at a hospital.

Another man died Tuesday after a Jacksonville officer pulled over his car. When the officer approached it, the man took off running. When the officer caught up with him, during a struggle, authorities say the officer used his Taser to subdue the suspect.

After being placed in the back of the police car the suspect became unresponsive. He was taken to the hospital where he was pronounced dead.

Last Sunday, in New Mexico, 20-year-old Jesse Saenz died after Raton police used a Taser to subdue him. Police say Saenz was struggling and fighting with them as they attempted to take him into custody.

Saenz died after being transported to a county jail.

In Nova Scotia, a 45-year-old man who was jailed on assault charges jumped a counter and ran for the door as he was being booked. He died yesterday, about 30 hours after being shocked.

And in Vancouver, where Royal Candian Mounted Police have been criticized for their use of a Taser against an irate airline passenger at Vancouver Airport last month, 36-year-old Robert Knipstrom died in a hospital four days after police used a Taser, pepper spray and batons to subdue him.

Police earlier said Knipstrom was agitated, aggressive and combative with officers. The cause of death has yet to be determined.

More than a dozen people have died in Canada after being hit by Tasers in the last four years.

The reported incidents this week did not have cameras documenting the use of the Tasers, but in British Columbia, a tourist's video camera recorded the death of a man tased twice while in custody at the Vancouver Airport last month.

That horrifying video shows Robert Dziekanski, a Polish man who spoke no English, become increasingly agitated. He was shocked twice, and then died.

The stun guns were denounced at memorial rallies in Vancouver and Toronto for Dziekanski.

Among the 1,000 people at the Vancouver rally was Paul Pritchard, who shot the video of the confrontation at the city airport.

The crowd gave a hero's welcome to Pritchard, who said he "saw the life drain out of a man's face" and heard "blood-curdling screams."

A rally in front of the Ontario legislature in Toronto drew several hundred people, including Bob Rae, a Liberal candidate in the next federal election.

Rae said the events leading up to Dziekanski's death must "never, ever be allowed to happen again."

The prominent - and sensational - reports of deaths following the use of Tasers has increased attention to their legitimacy, and prompted a bold defense by their manufacturer.

Taser International, based in Scottsdale, Az., released a statement following the Vancouver Airport incident saying no deaths have ever been definitively connected to what the company describes as: "the low-energy electrical discharge of the Taser."

That's 50,000 volts.

"The video of the incident at the Vancouver airport indicates that the subject was continuing to fight well after the TASER application," Taser International said. "This continuing struggle could not be possible if the subject died as a result of the Taser device electrical current causing cardiac arrest. [Dziekanski's] continuing struggle is proof that the Taser device was not the cause of his death.

"Specifically in Canada, while previous incidents were widely reported in the media as 'Taser deaths,' the role of the Taser device has been cleared in every case to date," Taser said.

The devices are used by about 12,000 police departments, often in chaotic situations.

Retired police officer Paul Mazzei told CBS News correspondent Joie Chen, "Minus the Taser, they would have to use an impact weapon like a baton, possibly pepper spray or in some extreme cases of violent behavior they might even have to use deadly force to control that individual."

In fact, in New Mexico earlier this month, the parents of a suicidal woman who was shot to death by Bernalillo County deputies two years ago are suing, contending that the police should have used Tasers instead of firearms.

Brittany Wayne was killed in her bedroom 23 seconds after police arrived.

And in Utah, a patrol car's dashboard camera caught an officer tasing a driver who refused to sign a speeding ticket. The officer is now under investigation, accused of being too quick on the draw.

Amid a growing outcry, civil rights groups are urging police to put down their Tasers until more research is done.

"The danger of Tasers is that they seem safe, they seem easy and therefore I think it's natural that police will be inclined to use them much more quickly than they would ever use a gun," Amnesty International USA Executive Director Larry Cox told Chen.

© MMVII, CBS Interactive Inc.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

A 4th Climate Warning. Anyone Listening?

by Andrew C. Revkin
The New York Times
November 16, 2007

Meltwater flows from the Kangerlussuaq Glacier in Greenland. (Credit: Andrew C. Revkin)

It was the culmination of an extraordinary meeting on the human-changed atmosphere. For three days, scientists had described how a buildup of long-lived gases emitted by burning fuels and forests would, if it continued, raise temperatures, raise seas and disrupt weather patterns important to agriculture, water supplies and wildlife.

As the conference concluded, a leader of the group, Michael McElroy of Harvard, stood and said this: “If we choose to take on this challenge, it appears that we can slow the rate of change substantially, giving us time to develop mechanisms so that the cost to society and the damage to ecosystems can be minimized. We could alternatively close our eyes, hope for the best, and pay the cost when the bill comes due.”

That was June 1988. Dr. McElroy’s statement was the kicker on my first long story on global warming, which ran on the cover of Discover magazine a few months later.

That year also saw the birth of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Tonight in Valencia, Spain, the panel completed the final summary section of its latest review of what is known, possible and still a mystery about how human activities are influencing Earth’s climate and what we might do about it.

This was the fourth such review since 1990. Progressively over that span, the panel’s reports have raised the likelihood that people, mainly by burning billions of tons of coal and oil, have been the main force responsible for global warming since 1950 and that a lot more warming, coastal retreats and shifting weather are in the offing under business as usual. (In the bargain we get some plankton-harming ocean acidification, something not anticipated originally).

The rituals surrounding the release of these reports have always been the same. Around 10:30 p.m. local time on Friday in Valencia, according to my colleague Elisabeth Rosenthal, applause rang out when Rajendra K. Pachauri, the chairman of the panel, declared the fourth assessment completed after government officials approved the wording in a final concluding document. (There’ll be more applause in early December in Oslo when he and others snag half of the Nobel Peace Prize for nearly 20 years of painstaking, unpaid, exhausting, contentious work.)

As they always have, news services began describing the embargoed findings earlier in the evening, prodded by environmental campaigners and some scientists who hoped the results would inspire diplomats preparing to gather next month in Bali for the latest round of climate-treaty talks. Industry-backed groups issued their own news releases playing down the notion that new climate perils had been identified.

On Saturday governments will issue formal statements, each seeking to spin the findings to suit its own agenda and needs.

But the central question remains largely as it was posed by Dr. McElroy 19 years ago: Will the world’s leaders and citizens act on the basis of this building picture of a world sent into environmental flux by human actions, or choose to wait for some future round of research to clarify things a bit more?

In the meantime, the world is heading toward nine billion people, all seeking comfort and security and prosperity. A broad range of experts, within and outside the I.P.C.C., agree that sufficient energy to enable such progress (without overheating Earth) will come only with a mix of more efficient use of fossil fuels and fundamentally new energy technologies that do not influence the climate.

In essence, this challenge reflects a question I posed on Nov. 9, in a post called “What Does the Present Owe the Future“? As you can see from reader comments, there is no easy answer.

Many of the scientists involved with this marathon effort have spent more than half their lives trying to clarify what may come from what Roger Revelle, in an understated line, described in a 1957 paper as a “large scale geophysical experiment.”

In an e-mail exchange during a break in the proceedings today, Stephen H. Schneider, a Stanford University climatologist who has been in the climatology trenches since long before I quoted him in that 1988 article, put it this way (while declining to discuss the still-embargoed report): “The world learns slowly, so we keep moving forward haltingly, with backsliding, and do the best we can.”

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Fear-Mongering Controls Politics

by Eliot Spitzer
November 14, 2007

Over the last two months, I have been advancing a proposal that I believe would improve the safety and security of the people of New York by addressing the fact that New York is home to one million undocumented immigrants, many of whom are driving on our roads unlicensed. After serious deliberation and consultation with people I respect on all sides of this issue, I have concluded that New York State cannot successfully address this problem on its own.

This morning I traveled to our nation’s capital to announce that I am withdrawing my proposal.

I chose to make this announcement in Washington, because ultimately, my original proposal was a response to the fact that the federal government has lost control of its borders, has allowed millions of undocumented immigrants to enter our country, and has no solution to deal with it.

When the federal government abdicates its responsibility, states, cities, towns and villages still have to deal with the practical reality of that failure.

Governors, Mayors and chiefs of police in every state face that reality every day in schools, hospitals, and on our roads. In New York, that reality means one million undocumented immigrants, many of whom are driving without a license and without insurance, live in the shadows -- out of reach of law enforcement.

A consequence of the federal failure to address illegal immigration is that Americans and New Yorkers are demanding a comprehensive solution. Piecemeal reform, even if practical, is unacceptable. It fails to address the many important, competing interests and values.

I underestimated that sentiment in putting forward this proposal.

I continue to believe that my proposal would have improved an unsatisfactory situation. But I have listened to the legitimate concerns of the public and those who would be affected by my proposal, and have concluded that pushing forward unilaterally in the face of such strong opposition would be counterproductive.

Beyond the crisis of illegal immigration that I have tried to address in some small way, please allow me this brief observation about another crisis – the crisis of political discourse in this country that was on full display these past two months.

While people of good faith opposed my plan for fair reasons, some partisans unleashed a response that has become all too familiar in American politics. In New York, forces quickly mobilized to prey on the public’s worst fears by turning what we believe is a practical security measure into a referendum on immigration.

Political opponents equated minimum-wage, undocumented dishwashers with Osama Bin Laden. Newspaper headlines equated a drivers’ license for an undocumented migrant laborers with a “Passport to Terror” and a “License to Kill.” Based on the New Yorkers I speak to each and every day, I feel confident in saying that this rhetoric is wildly out of step with mainstream values -- doing nothing to offer solutions and everything to exploit fear.

Nothing reflects the result of hyperpartisanship more than the current immigration debate, which has become so toxic that anytime a practical proposal is put forward, it is shot down before it can even be weighed on its merits.

The consequence of this fear-mongering is paralysis.

Here are the facts:

Tomorrow, undocumented workers will not stop driving.

The federal government is not going to deport one million undocumented workers from New York by the end of this year, any more than it did last year or the year before.

And we can be sure that those who beat their chests the loudest will still have no solution at all.

As attorney general, I often had to step into the enormous vacuum left by a federal government that did not embrace its most fundamental responsibilities. Whether it was ensuring fair play in the markets, protecting the environment, enforcing labor laws or product safety, time and again, the attorney general’s office was forced to step into the void left by federal inaction.

As governor, it has not been much different. Whether it’s health care, climate change, education or, in this case immigration, states are feeling the brunt of federal abdication and conscious neglect of a problem that is crying out for a solution.

But what I have learned here is that, while there are times when states should be laboratories, immigration is not one of them. It’s too complex and too macro a challenge to be solved by a patchwork of state policies. But the reality of 14 million undocumented immigrants nationwide and one million in New York isn’t going away. So my challenge to the federal government is this: fix it. Fix the problem so the states won’t face the local impact.

With that, I look forward to getting back to an agenda that addresses the needs of all New Yorkers.

Pennsylvania Prohibits Dairy Product Labels

by Daniel Malloy
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
November 14, 2007

Health claims gleam from every aisle of the grocery store, but Pennsylvania has become the first state to crack down on labels in the dairy section in a precedent-setting ruling that opponents say restricts consumer choice.

As of Jan. 1, dairy product labels such as "growth-hormone free" will be illegal in the state.

Pennsylvania Secretary of Agriculture Dennis Wolff announced the decision last month after convening a 22-member Food Labeling Advisory Committee to look into false or misleading claims in "absence labeling."

The ruling covers all dairy products sold in the state, forcing some out-of-state manufacturers, in effect, to make Pennsylvania-only packaging. So far, the state Department of Agriculture has notified 19 companies that their labels must change.

Of the three principal types of labeling affected by the ruling, getting rid of "growth-hormone free" milk labels has proven most controversial.

The labeling refers to recombinant bovine growth hormone -- rBGH or rBST -- produced by St. Louis-based Monsanto Co. under the drug name Posilac that is injected into cows, increasing their milk production by 15 percent. Its use was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1994, after tests showed that rBST does not appear in milk and does not pose a health risk to people.

"This is a product that has been safety tested and approved by the FDA," said Monsanto spokesman Michael Doane, who said the company did not lobby for the labeling law in Pennsylvania. "It has a very long history of safe use. There have been no documented health claims against the product ever in its existence."

But rBST has been attacked by several dairy groups -- including ice cream maker Ben & Jerry's -- since its introduction because it causes an increase in udder infections in cows, and some studies have shown a correlation between certain types of cancer in humans and elevated levels of insulin growth factor, which is present in rBST-fueled milk.

Monsanto opponents point out that many countries, including Canada, Japan, Australia and the European Union, have not approved the use of rBST because of health concerns.

Pennsylvania's order also bars other kinds of "absence labeling," including claims that milk is free of pesticides or antibiotics, which all milk normally is.

Agricultural regulators in at least two other states, New Jersey and Ohio, are considering following Pennsylvania's lead.

Although synthetic hormones have been used in cows for more than a decade, the growth hormone issue has been pressed to the forefront recently by economics. Consumers now are more concerned about where their food comes from and how it's manufactured -- whether that means locally made, certified organic or growth-hormone free.

For Chuck Turner Jr., of Turner Dairy Farms Inc. in Penn Hills, making sure the milk his company sells is rBST-free makes good business sense.

"There's a certain customer segment out there that is interested in cows not being injected with this Monsanto stuff," Mr. Turner said. "There's nobody saying, 'Give me milk with growth hormones.' That's the way we saw it."

But Monsanto and the Department of Agriculture warn that it's good business for another reason -- higher prices. According to a report last month by the American Farm Bureau, consumers pay an average of 25 percent more for milk labeled rBST-free.

So what are they paying for?

Turner Dairy's suppliers all sign pledges that they will not use rBST on their cows because there is no way to test for it in the milk. The Department of Agriculture argues that pledges aren't good enough.

"There's absolutely no way to certify whether the milk is from cattle treated or not treated [with rBST]," Mr. Wolff, a former dairy farmer who still owns a farm in Columbia County, said. "Some of the dairies that have enforced this, it's absolutely the honor system."

Organic labeling, Mr. Wolff said, involves a certification process that includes surprise audits, so the department does not currently intend to interfere with it.

Mr. Turner still plans to make sure customers know Turner Dairy's milk is produced without rBST. The company's Web site prominently proclaims: "No added growth hormones," and Mr. Turner said the motto will be reinforced with point-of-purchase advertising.

The Department of Agriculture has no jurisdiction over these tactics, only labels.

And the labels will have to change.

But Mr. Turner, who has fielded several curious phone calls and e-mails since last month's announcement, noted that the new restrictions could have the opposite effect on rBST-free sales.

"Actually, what they're doing is bringing it to everybody's attention," Mr. Turner said.

"If anything, this whole thing is good public relations for us."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2007 PG Publishing Co., Inc.

See also Monsanto Declares War on 'rBGH-free' Dairies, Got rbST in Your Milk?, and rBGH Revisited

Monday, November 12, 2007

Is It In Us?

by the Commonweal Biomonitoring Resource Center and the Body Burden Work Group

From the Executive Summary:

Toxic chemicals from everyday products contaminate the bodies of every person in this country. Shower curtains, water bottles, baby bottles, toys, shampoo, cosmetics, couch cushions, computers, and hundreds of other common products that ordinary people use every day contain toxic chemical ingredients that leach out of the products and into our bodies.

Thirty-five Americans from seven states participated in a national biomonitoring project in the spring of 2007. This is the broadest non-governmental project of its kind to measure toxic chemicals in the bodies of average Americans.

Each participant was tested for contamination by twenty toxic chemicals from three chemical families: phthalates, bisphenol A, and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs).

The project found toxic chemicals in every person tested.

  • All 35 participants had at least 7 of the 20 chemicals in their bodies.
  • All 33 participants who contributed urine samples had phthalates in their bodies.
  • All 33 participants who contributed urine samples had bisphenol A in their urine.
  • All 35 participants had six types of PBDEs in their bodies, and all but one had decaBDE.
Human and animal studies link the three families of chemicals detected in this project to birth defects, asthma, cancer, learning disabilities, and other health impacts. For some toxic chemicals, the levels found in people are near or above levels linked to health impacts in laboratory animals. Consider that scientists estimate that 95% of Americans are contaminated with bisphenol A at levels thought to cause harm in laboratory animals.

Our nation’s chemical safety system has failed. Three-quarters of the 80,000 chemicals in commerce today have not been tested for safety.We know next to nothing about how the interactions of multiple chemicals may affect our health. Manufacturers of products containing known toxics are not even required to list those contents on the label.

The problem is a Jurassic-era law regulating space-age chemicals. The federal Toxic Substances Control Act was enacted in 1976 and has not been updated to reflect recent research, including evidence that even tiny doses of toxic chemicals may cause harm. U.S. standards are so weak that even well-known toxic hazards, like asbestos and lead, are not banned from commerce.

No one can shop, eat or exercise his or her way to a body free from toxic chemicals. We shouldn’t be exposed to unnecessary, dangerous chemicals as we go about our daily routines. We can improve our health and the health of our communities by adopting these common sense policies, which are already advancing at the state and federal levels:

  • Phase-out the most harmful chemicals and switch to safer alternatives;
  • Require that all chemicals are screened for safety and that toxicity data and product ingredients be made publicly available;
  • Promote the development of safer alternatives and environmentally friendly “green” technologies;
  • Protect workers and communities where toxic chemicals are produced, used, and disposed.

Americans need a new, comprehensive federal policy to raise the standards governing chemical use in society. Some states are taking the lead to create new solutions that could be applied nationally. To learn more about what is happening in your state or in Congress, visit

© 2007 Coming Clean

NASA Ordered to Release UFO Documents

by the Associated Press
October 26, 2007

NASA has agreed to search its archives once again for documents on a 1965 UFO incident in Pennsylvania, a step the space agency fought in federal court. The government has refused to open its files about what, if anything, moved across the sky and crashed in the woods near Kecksburg, Pa., 40 miles southeast of Pittsburgh.

Traffic was tied up in the area as curiosity seekers drove to the area, only to be kept away from the crash site by soldiers.

The Air Force's explanation for the unidentified flying object: A meteor or meteors.

"They could not find anything," one Air Force memo stated after a late-night search on Dec. 9, 1965. Several NASA employees also were reported to have been at the scene.

Eyewitnesses said a flatbed truck drove away a large object shaped like an acorn and about the size of a Volksawagon bus. A mock-up based on the descriptions of local residents sits behind the Kecksburg Volunteer Fire Department.

UFO enthusiasts refused to let the matter die and journalist Leslie Kean of New York City sued NASA four years ago for information.

The agency has turned over several stacks of documents which Kean says are not responsive to the request, an argument that U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan agreed with.

In March, Sullivan rejected NASA's request to throw the case out of court, resulting in negotiations that led to the agency promising last week that it will conduct a more comprehensive search.

Kean said Friday that she sued NASA rather than the Army because the space agency a decade ago released some relevant documents on the case.

Copyright © 2007 The Associated Press

The Coup at Home

by Frank Rich
The New York Times
November 11, 2007

As Gen. Pervez Musharraf arrested judges, lawyers and human-rights activists in Pakistan last week, our Senate was busy demonstrating its own civic mettle. Chuck Schumer and Dianne Feinstein, liberal Democrats from America’s two most highly populated blue states, gave the thumbs up to Michael B. Mukasey, ensuring his confirmation as attorney general.

So what if America’s chief law enforcement official won’t say that waterboarding is illegal? A state of emergency is a state of emergency. You’re either willing to sacrifice principles to head off the next ticking bomb, or you’re with the terrorists. Constitutional corners were cut in Washington in impressive synchronicity with General Musharraf’s crackdown in Islamabad.

In the days since, the coup in Pakistan has been almost universally condemned as the climactic death knell for Bush foreign policy, the epitome of White House hypocrisy and incompetence. But that’s not exactly news. It’s been apparent for years that America was suicidal to go to war in Iraq, a country with no tie to 9/11 and no weapons of mass destruction, while showering billions of dollars on Pakistan, where terrorists and nuclear weapons proliferate under the protection of a con man who serves as a host to Osama bin Laden.

General Musharraf has always played our president for a fool and still does, with the vague promise of an election that he tossed the White House on Thursday. As if for sport, he has repeatedly mocked both Mr. Bush’s “freedom agenda” and his post-9/11 doctrine that any country harboring terrorists will be “regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.”

A memorable highlight of our special relationship with this prized “ally” came in September 2006, when the general turned up in Washington to kick off his book tour. Asked about the book by a reporter at a White House press conference, he said he was contractually “honor bound” to remain mum until it hit the stores — thus demonstrating that Simon & Schuster had more clout with him than the president. This didn’t stop Mr. Bush from praising General Musharraf for his recently negotiated “truce” to prevent further Taliban inroads in northwestern Pakistan. When the Pakistani strongman “looks me in the eye” and says “there won’t be a Taliban and won’t be Al Qaeda,” the president said, “I believe him.”

Sooner than you could say “Putin,” The Daily Telegraph of London reported that Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, had signed off on this “truce.” Since then, the Pakistan frontier has become a more thriving terrorist haven than ever.

Now The Los Angeles Times reports that much of America’s $10 billion-plus in aid to Pakistan has gone to buy conventional weaponry more suitable for striking India than capturing terrorists. To rub it in last week, General Musharraf released 25 pro-Taliban fighters in a prisoner exchange with a tribal commander the day after he suspended the constitution.

But there’s another moral to draw from the Musharraf story, and it has to do with domestic policy, not foreign. The Pakistan mess, as The New York Times editorial page aptly named it, is not just another blot on our image abroad and another instance of our mismanagement of the war on Al Qaeda and the Taliban. It also casts a harsh light on the mess we have at home in America, a stain that will not be so easily eradicated.

In the six years of compromising our principles since 9/11, our democracy has so steadily been defined down that it now can resemble the supposedly aspiring democracies we’ve propped up in places like Islamabad. Time has taken its toll. We’ve become inured to democracy-lite. That’s why a Mukasey can be elevated to power with bipartisan support and we barely shrug.

This is a signal difference from the Vietnam era, and not necessarily for the better. During that unpopular war, disaffected Americans took to the streets and sometimes broke laws in an angry assault on American governmental institutions. The Bush years have brought an even more effective assault on those institutions from within. While the public has not erupted in riots, the executive branch has subverted the rule of law in often secretive increments. The results amount to a quiet coup, ultimately more insidious than a blatant putsch like General Musharraf’s.

More Machiavellian still, Mr. Bush has constantly told the world he’s championing democracy even as he strangles it. Mr. Bush repeated the word “freedom” 27 times in roughly 20 minutes at his 2005 inauguration, and even presided over a “Celebration of Freedom” concert on the Ellipse hosted by Ryan Seacrest. It was an Orwellian exercise in branding, nothing more. The sole point was to give cover to our habitual practice of cozying up to despots (especially those who control the oil spigots) and to our own government’s embrace of warrantless wiretapping and torture, among other policies that invert our values.

Even if Mr. Bush had the guts to condemn General Musharraf, there is no longer any moral high ground left for him to stand on. Quite the contrary. Rather than set a democratic example, our president has instead served as a model of unconstitutional behavior, eagerly emulated by his Pakistani acolyte.

Take the Musharraf assault on human-rights lawyers. Our president would not be so unsubtle as to jail them en masse. But earlier this year a senior Pentagon official, since departed, threatened America’s major white-shoe law firms by implying that corporate clients should fire any firm whose partners volunteer to defend detainees in Guantánamo and elsewhere. For its part, Alberto Gonzales’s Justice Department did not round up independent-minded United States attorneys and toss them in prison. It merely purged them without cause to serve Karl Rove’s political agenda.

Tipping his hat in appreciation of Mr. Bush’s example, General Musharraf justified his dismantling of Pakistan’s Supreme Court with language mimicking the president’s diatribes against activist judges. The Pakistani leader further echoed Mr. Bush by expressing a kinship with Abraham Lincoln, citing Lincoln’s Civil War suspension of a prisoner’s fundamental legal right to a hearing in court, habeas corpus, as a precedent for his own excesses. (That’s like praising F.D.R. for setting up internment camps.) Actually, the Bush administration has outdone both Lincoln and Musharraf on this score: Last January, Mr. Gonzales testified before Congress that “there is no express grant of habeas in the Constitution.”

To believe that this corruption will simply evaporate when the Bush presidency is done is to underestimate the permanent erosion inflicted over the past six years. What was once shocking and unacceptable in America has now been internalized as the new normal.

This is most apparent in the Republican presidential race, where most of the candidates seem to be running for dictator and make no apologies for it. They’re falling over each other to expand Gitmo, see who can promise the most torture and abridge the largest number of constitutional rights. The front-runner, Rudy Giuliani, boasts a proven record in extralegal executive power grabs, Musharraf-style: After 9/11 he tried to mount a coup, floating the idea that he stay on as mayor in defiance of New York’s term-limits law.

What makes the Democrats’ Mukasey cave-in so depressing is that it shows how far even exemplary sticklers for the law like Senators Feinstein and Schumer have lowered democracy’s bar. When they argued that Mr. Mukasey should be confirmed because he’s not as horrifying as Mr. Gonzales or as the acting attorney general who might get the job otherwise, they sounded whipped. After all these years of Bush-Cheney torture, they’ll say things they know are false just to move on.

In a Times OpEd article justifying his reluctant vote to confirm a man Dick Cheney promised would make “an outstanding attorney general,” Mr. Schumer observed that waterboarding is already “illegal under current laws and conventions.” But then he vowed to support a new bill “explicitly” making waterboarding illegal because Mr. Mukasey pledged to enforce it. Whatever. Even if Congress were to pass such legislation, Mr. Bush would veto it, and even if the veto were by some miracle overturned, Mr. Bush would void the law with a “signing statement.” That’s what he effectively did in 2005 when he signed a bill that its authors thought outlawed the torture of detainees.

That Mr. Schumer is willing to employ blatant Catch-22 illogic to pretend that Mr. Mukasey’s pledge on waterboarding has any force shows what pathetic crumbs the Democrats will settle for after all these years of being beaten down. The judges and lawyers challenging General Musharraf have more fight left in them than this.

Last weekend a new Washington Post-ABC News poll found that the Democratic-controlled Congress and Mr. Bush are both roundly despised throughout the land, and that only 24 percent of Americans believe their country is on the right track. That’s almost as low as the United States’ rock-bottom approval ratings in the latest Pew surveys of Pakistan (15 percent) and Turkey (9 percent).

Wrong track is a euphemism. We are a people in clinical depression. Americans know that the ideals that once set our nation apart from the world have been vandalized, and no matter which party they belong to, they do not see a restoration anytime soon.

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Proposed Border Fence Causes More Injustice

by Alicia A. Caldwell
Associated Press
November 8, 2007

Founded 240 years ago, this sleepy Texas town along the Rio Grande has outlasted the Spanish, then the Mexicans and then the short-lived independent Republic of Texas. But it may not survive the U.S. government's effort to secure the Mexican border with a steel fence.

A map obtained by The Associated Press shows that the double- or triple-layer fence may be built as much as two miles from the river on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande, leaving parts of Granjeno and other nearby communities in a potential no-man's-land between the barrier and the water's edge.

Based on the map and what the residents have been told, the fence could run straight through houses and backyards. Some fear it could also cut farmers off from prime farmland close to the water.

"I don't sleep right because I'm worried," said Daniel Garza, a 74-year-old retiree born and raised in Granjeno. Garza said federal agents told him that the gray brick house he built just five years ago and shares with his 72-year-old wife is squarely in the fence's path.

"No matter what they offer, I don't want to move, I don't want to leave," Garza said, his eyes watering.

Congress has authorized $1.2 billion for 700 miles of fence at the Mexican border to keep out illegal immigrants and drug smugglers. The plans call for about 330 miles of virtual fences _ cameras, underground sensors, radar and other technology _ and 370 miles of real fences. About 70 miles of real fence are set to be built in the Rio Grande Valley, at the southeastern tip of Texas, by the end of 2008.

The Rio Grande has been the international boundary since the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo in 1848 ended the Mexican-American War. But officials say that putting the fence right up against the river could interfere with its flow during a flood and change its course, illegally altering the border.

The map obtained by the AP shows seven stretches of proposed fence in the Rio Grande Valley, including one section that could cut through the property of about 35 of Granjeno's nearly 100 houses. City leaders and residents say federal officials have shown them the same map.

Exactly how many Rio Grande Valley residents could lose some or all of their property is unclear. The map does not have a lot of detail, and depicts only one portion of the valley, which has about 2 million people overall.

Local residents, many of whom have put "No Border Wall" signs on their cars and in their yards, say they have been assured they will be compensated at fair market value for any property taken by the U.S. government. But that has not given them much comfort.

"We want to be safe, but it's just that this is not a good plan," said Cecilia Benavides, whose riverfront land in Roma, about 50 miles upriver from Granjeno, was granted to the family by the Spanish in 1767. "It gives Mexico the river and everything that's behind that wall. It doesn't make any sense to me."

Michael Friel, a Customs and Border Protection spokesman in Washington, said the maps are preliminary and no final decisions on the route of the fence have been made. But he said the maps reflect the government's judgment of how best to secure the border against intruders.

"Our agency, Customs and Border Protection, has an obligation to secure our nation's border and we take that obligation, or that responsibility, very seriously," Friel said.

The fence would be at least 15 feet high and capable of withstanding a crash of a 10,000-pound vehicle going 40 mph, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

Exactly what it would look like has not been decided, but it could consist of concrete-filled steel posts a few inches apart, or perhaps sheet metal with small openings. It would not be continuous, but would instead be broken up in several sections of various length.

What will happen to the land between the fence and the river is the biggest question for landowners in border towns like Granjeno, a town of three streets and about 400 people situated in a mostly corn-growing region of the Rio Grande Valley.

J.D. Salinas, the top elected official in Hidalgo County, said he can't get an answer no matter how many times he asks.

"Are we going to lose prime farmland because they are going to build a structure that's not going to work?" Salinas asked. "You're moving the border, basically two miles. You're giving it up to Mexico, and the U.S.-Mexico treaties say you are not supposed to do that."

Local officials also fear the fence could cut off access to drinking water that is pumped from the river and piped in to 35,000 homes in the Rio Grande Valley. They fear that town officials will not be allowed to set foot inside the no-man's-land to repair any pumps that might fail.

Homeland Security documents on a department Web site say that "in some cases, secure gates will be constructed to allow land owners access to their private property near the Rio Grande." But the documents offer few details.

"They said there's going to be gates, and I said, `That's wonderful. What kind of gates?'" said Noel Benavides, Cecilia Benavides' husband. The only specific type described, he said, was an electronic gate.

"That requires power. What happens when it floods?" Benavides said he asked federal officials. He never got an answer.

Granjeno Mayor Alberto Magallan said his small town wants to fight. But with only one business _ an agricultural trucking company and bar _ and a per capita income of $9,000, it is unlikely they can afford to do anything but sell.

Manuel Olivarez Jr., a 63-year-old lumber salesman, said that his daughter's and brother's homes would be spared, but that the fence would run through their backyards. And Olivarez worries the Border Patrol is likely to pass very close to his daughter's house every day.

"Probably if she sticks out her hand from the back door, a Border Patrol Jeep will be hit her," Olivarez said with a nervous laugh.

Gloria Garza, Daniel Garza's niece, said she worries the border fence will eventually destroy the town where she has lived all her life.

"My biggest fear is to see Granjeno gone," Garza said. "That is really my biggest fear. It breaks my heart."

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press

A Call for Return to Paper Ballots

by James M. Odato
Albany Times-Union
November 8, 2007

While the state and federal government battle in court over how and when New York should modernize its elections system, voting advocates offered an old-fashioned solution: paper ballots.

Instead of spending tens of millions of dollars on new equipment, advocates said, markings on paper and a large force of elections workers can do the job.

"We can cast our votes by our own hand and count them ourselves," said Andrea Novick, a lawyer with Northeast Citizens for Responsible Media. She read a letter at the board's meeting urging it to eschew voting machines that other states have already found to have security flaws.

Other activists at the meeting agreed, but none of the four state election commissioners seemed to like the idea.

Instead, they moved into executive session to deal with the U.S. Justice Department's latest motion in a lawsuit against the state for failing to comply with the Help America Vote Act.

Federal lawyers are urging a U.S. District Court judge to demand New York get new voting machines even if they aren't up to New York's standards.

Lee Daghlian, a spokesman for the board, said the commissioners are trying to fashion a response and believe they can submit a unified plan by Dec. 6. The commissioners, who submitted two differing plans Oct. 2 to the court, will also arrange a meeting with federal officials and county election boards to discuss New York's problems with honoring the mandate to make voting more accessible to disabled people while ensuring a paper trail.

As for the idea to scrap plans to buy new voting machines and hand-count paper ballots, Daghlian said: "It brings us back to the 19th century. ... I don't know if that is feasible."

"That would be a last resort, if we couldn't certify an electronic voting system of some kind," he added.

Dennis Karius, an activist with ARISE, an advocacy group for people with disabilities, said the older method of voting makes sense and New Yorkers could be recruited to count ballots.

The state could offer incentives, he said, such as giving election workers credit toward jury duty service or offering school credits for students. The board has talked about jury duty credit, and recruiting election inspectors from public colleges.

Copyright 2007 Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

The Presidency Is a Criminal Conspiracy

by Keith Olbermann
November 5, 2007

It is a fact startling in its cynical simplicity and it requires cynical and simple words to be properly expressed: The presidency of George W. Bush has now devolved into a criminal conspiracy to cover the ass of George W. Bush.

All the petulancy, all the childish threats, all the blank-stare stupidity; all the invocations of World War III, all the sophistic questions about which terrorist attacks we wanted him not to stop, all the phony secrets; all the claims of executive privilege, all the stumbling tap-dancing of his nominees, all the verbal flatulence of his apologists...

All of it is now, after one revelation last week, transparently clear for what it is: the pathetic and desperate manipulation of the government, the refocusing of our entire nation, toward keeping this mock president and this unstable vice president and this departed wildly self-overrating attorney general, and the others, from potential prosecution for having approved or ordered the illegal torture of prisoners being held in the name of this country.

"Waterboarding is torture," Daniel Levin was to write. Daniel Levin was no theorist and no protester. He was no troublemaking politician. He was no table-pounding commentator. Daniel Levin was an astonishingly patriotic American and a brave man.

Brave not just with words or with stances, even in a dark time when that kind of bravery can usually be scared or bought off.

Charged, as you heard in the story from ABC News last Friday, with assessing the relative legality of the various nightmares in the Pandora's box that is the Orwell-worthy euphemism "Enhanced Interrogation," Mr. Levin decided that the simplest, and the most honest, way to evaluate them ... was to have them enacted upon himself.

Daniel Levin took himself to a military base and let himself be waterboarded.

Mr. Bush, ever done anything that personally courageous?

Perhaps when you've gone to Walter Reed and teared up over the maimed servicemen? And then gone back to the White House and determined that there would be more maimed servicemen?

Has it been that kind of personal courage, Mr. Bush, when you've spoken of American victims and the triumph of freedom and the sacrifice of your own popularity for the sake of our safety? And then permitted others to fire or discredit or destroy anybody who disagreed with you, whether they were your own generals, or Max Cleland, or Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame, or Daniel Levin?

Daniel Levin should have a statue in his honor in Washington right now.

Instead, he was forced out as acting assistant attorney general nearly three years ago because he had the guts to do what George Bush couldn't do in a million years: actually put himself at risk for the sake of his country, for the sake of what is right.

And they waterboarded him. And he wrote that even though he knew those doing it meant him no harm, and he knew they would rescue him at the instant of the slightest distress, and he knew he would not die — still, with all that reassurance, he could not stop the terror screaming from inside of him, could not quell the horror, could not convince that which is at the core of each of us, the entity who exists behind all the embellishments we strap to ourselves, like purpose and name and family and love, he could not convince his being that he wasn't drowning.

Waterboarding, he said, is torture. Legally, it is torture! Practically, it is torture! Ethically, it is torture! And he wrote it down.

Wrote it down somewhere, where it could be contrasted with the words of this country's 43rd president: "The United States of America ... does not torture."

Made you into a liar, Mr. Bush.

Made you into, if anybody had the guts to pursue it, a criminal, Mr. Bush.

Waterboarding had already been used on Khalid Sheik Mohammed and a couple of other men none of us really care about except for the one detail you'd forgotten — that there are rules. And even if we just make up these rules, this country observes them anyway, because we're Americans and we're better than that.

We're better than you.

And the man your Justice Department selected to decide whether or not waterboarding was torture had decided, and not in some phony academic fashion, nor while wearing the Walter Mitty poseur attire of flight suit and helmet.

He had put his money, Mr. Bush, where your mouth was.

So, your sleazy sycophantic henchman Mr. Gonzales had him append an asterisk suggesting his black-and-white answer wasn't black-and-white, that there might have been a quasi-legal way of torturing people, maybe with an absolute time limit and a physician entitled to stop it, maybe, if your administration had ever bothered to set any rules or any guidelines.

And then when your people realized that even that was too dangerous, Daniel Levin was branded "too independent" and "someone who could (not) be counted on."

In other words, Mr. Bush, somebody you couldn't count on to lie for you.

So, Levin was fired.

Because if it ever got out what he'd concluded, and the lengths to which he went to validate that conclusion, anybody who had sanctioned waterboarding and who-knows-what-else on anybody, you yourself, you would have been screwed.

And screwed you are.

It can't be coincidence that the story of Daniel Levin should emerge from the black hole of this secret society of a presidency just at the conclusion of the unhappy saga of the newest attorney general nominee.

Another patriot somewhere listened as Judge Mukasey mumbled like he'd never heard of waterboarding and refused to answer in words … that which Daniel Levin answered on a waterboard somewhere in Maryland or Virginia three years ago.

And this someone also heard George Bush say, "The United States of America does not torture," and realized either he was lying or this wasn't the United States of America anymore, and either way, he needed to do something about it.

Not in the way Levin needed to do something about it, but in a brave way nonetheless.

We have U.S. senators who need to do something about it, too.

Chairman Leahy of the Judiciary Committee has seen this for what it is and said "enough."

Sen. Schumer has seen it, reportedly, as some kind of puzzle piece in the New York political patronage system, and he has failed.

What Sen. Feinstein has seen, to justify joining Schumer in rubber-stamping Mukasey, I cannot guess.

It is obvious that both those senators should look to the meaning of the story of Daniel Levin and recant their support for Mukasey's confirmation.

And they should look into their own committee's history and recall that in 1973, their predecessors were able to wring even from Richard Nixon a guarantee of a special prosecutor (ultimately a special prosecutor of Richard Nixon!), in exchange for their approval of his new attorney general, Elliott Richardson.

If they could get that out of Nixon, before you confirm the president's latest human echo on Tuesday, you had better be able to get a "yes" or a "no" out of Michael Mukasey.

Ideally you should lock this government down financially until a special prosecutor is appointed, or 50 of them, but I'm not holding my breath. The "yes" or the "no" on waterboarding will have to suffice.

Because, remember, if you can't get it, or you won't with the time between tonight and the next presidential election likely to be the longest year of our lives, you are leaving this country, and all of us, to the waterboards, symbolic and otherwise, of George W. Bush.

Ultimately, Mr. Bush, the real question isn't who approved the waterboarding of this fiend Khalid Sheik Mohammed and two others.

It is: Why were they waterboarded?

Study after study for generation after generation has confirmed that torture gets people to talk, torture gets people to plead, torture gets people to break, but torture does not get them to tell the truth.

Of course, Mr. Bush, this isn't a problem if you don't care if the terrorist plots they tell you about are the truth or just something to stop the tormentors from drowning them.

If, say, a president simply needed a constant supply of terrorist threats to keep a country scared.

If, say, he needed phony plots to play hero during, and to boast about interrupting, and to use to distract people from the threat he didn't interrupt.

If, say, he realized that even terrorized people still need good ghost stories before they will let a president pillage the Constitution,

Well, Mr. Bush, who better to dream them up for you than an actual terrorist?

He'll tell you everything he ever fantasized doing in his most horrific of daydreams, his equivalent of the day you "flew" onto the deck of the Lincoln to explain you'd won in Iraq.

Now if that's what this is all about, you tortured not because you're so stupid you think torture produces confession but you tortured because you're smart enough to know it produces really authentic-sounding fiction — well, then, you're going to need all the lawyers you can find … because that crime wouldn't just mean impeachment, would it?

That crime would mean George W. Bush is going to prison.

Thus the master tumblers turn, and the lock yields, and the hidden explanations can all be perceived, in their exact proportions, in their exact progressions.

Daniel Levin's eminently practical, eminently logical, eminently patriotic way of testing the legality of waterboarding has to vanish, and him with it.

Thus Alberto Gonzales has to use that brain that sounds like an old car trying to start on a freezing morning to undo eight centuries of the forward march of law and government.

Thus Dick Cheney has to ridiculously assert that confirming we do or do not use any particular interrogation technique would somehow help the terrorists.

Thus Michael Mukasey, on the eve of the vote that will make him the high priest of the law of this land, cannot and must not answer a question, nor even hint that he has thought about a question, which merely concerns the theoretical definition of waterboarding as torture.

Because, Mr. Bush, in the seven years of your nightmare presidency, this whole string of events has been transformed.

From its beginning as the most neglectful protection ever of the lives and safety of the American people ... into the most efficient and cynical exploitation of tragedy for political gain in this country's history ... and, then, to the giddying prospect that you could do what the military fanatics did in Japan in the 1930s and remake a nation into a fascist state so efficient and so self-sustaining that the fascism would be nearly invisible.

But at last this frightful plan is ending with an unexpected crash, the shocking reality that no matter how thoroughly you might try to extinguish them, Mr. Bush, how thoroughly you tried to brand disagreement as disloyalty, Mr. Bush, there are still people like Daniel Levin who believe in the United States of America as true freedom, where we are better, not because of schemes and wars, but because of dreams and morals.

And ultimately these men, these patriots, will defeat you and they will return this country to its righteous standards, and to its rightful owners, the people.

© 2007 MSNBC Interactive