Just posted at Mother Jones online:

Crossing Nuclear Thresholds
By Tom Engelhardt
How the Bush administration blurs the boundaries between nuclear and conventional weaponry.

It's Newsweek's Fault!
Cartoon by Mark Fiore
That's why they hate us. Obviously.

Just out from Planned Parenthood:

A recent Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) investigation of leading pharmacy chains reveals that Kmart, Costco, and CVS top the list of friendly pharmacies that fill birth control prescriptions. Wal-Mart and Rite Aid landed at the bottom of the list as most unfriendly, due to policies that allow pharmacists to refuse to fill valid prescriptions based on their personal objections.

Check out the full list here.

Remember, back in April, when Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said he was open to changing the Patriot Act? Well, a change has been proposed, but it's to expand the already sweeping power afforded the FBI. The Justice Department has been in negotiations with the Senate Intelligence Committee to push through a bill to expand the FBI's search and surveillance powers via something called "administrative subpoenas." Phillip Carter translates for us lay-folk: "These are little more than formal letters from the FBI, which carry the weight of the law, and allow the FBI to get documents without a judge approving a search warrant or judicial subpoena. They are, in effect, a short-circuit of the 4th Amendment's warrant requirements for searches and seizures"

Essentially, the FBI is pushing to be able to authorize themselves, without a judge's sign-off, to subpoena medical records, tax records, and any other material that it deemed relevant to its intelligence investigation. It would therefore remove safeguards currently in place. According to one Democratic Congressional official, "This all comes down to not wanting an FBI agent to have to go to a prosecutor and then the court to get formal approval."

It gets worse: the current law "would be amended to specify that material must be 'relevant' to a foreign intelligence investigation." Don't let the seemingly positive word "relevant" fool you. As Carter writes,

Showing that something is relevant to a foreign intelligence investigation is actually a significantly lower standard that what currently exists in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which states that…warrants shall only be issued where 'a significant purpose of the surveillance is to obtain foreign intelligence information' This…change…will allow DoJ to use FISA powers in any case that is merely relevant to a foreign intelligence matter, broadly defined. In theory, DoJ can define a wide band of actors as national security threats—terrorist, terrorist sympathizers, material supporters, narco-traffickers…"

Or the ACLU. The ACLU recently issued a statement saying that, "the FBI and local police are engaging in intimidation based on political association and are improperly investigating law-abiding human rights and advocacy groups." The statement was based on information from FOIA documents that the ACLU has obtained. But it doesn't look like the ACLU, or, indeed, anyone outside the Senate Intelligence Committee will have any say in the matter. The Committee is scheduled to have a closed meeting on Thursday "to review classified information about how the Patriot Act has been used."

Human Rights Watch yesterday reported that two brothers were illegally apprehended in Pakistan last summer, then held and tortured over a period of eight months, allegedly at the behest of the U.S. government.

Sure, it sounds like a familiar story. But there's a twist: first of all, the brothers, though they live in Pakistan, are U.S. citizens. Second, one of the two, Zain Afzal, had been abducted under similar circumstances only a few months earlier. After being questioned and tortured--and suffering a burst eardrum and severe lacerations on his back--he was released the next day.

According to the men, FBI agents dropped by to question them in jail at least six times. On these occasions, Zain Afzal, who was being asked the same questions he answered the first time he was abducted, told the agents he was being tortured by his jailers, only to be told by the FBI agents that the matter was "beyond their jurisdiction." (Oddly, very few American media sources have picked up the story.) According to the Afzal brothers, not only did the FBI threaten to send them to Cuba, their Pakistani captors did as well. Go Team America! Pakistani torturers are now threatening their prisoners with Guantanamo!

In other news, Amnesty International, in its newly released 2005 human rights report, accuses the United States of damaging human rights by its treatment of detainees. To which White House Spokesman Scott McClellan responded, "The United States is leading the way when it comes to protecting human rights and promoting human dignity."

Check out these recent web-only articles.

Inside the Wire: An Interview With Erik Saar
By Onnesha Roychoudhuri
A former military linguist at Guantanamo describes a dysfunctional facility where prisoner abuse was all but inevitable.

Against Discouragement
By Howard Zinn
In 1963, Howard Zinn was canned by Spelman College because of his civil rights activities. This year, he was invited back to give the commencement speech.

Getting Away With It
By Erik Kancler
MTBE polluters find that it's useful to have friends in Congress.

After the Newsweek fiasco, the magazine published a letter to their readers, in which the editors laid out their new guidelines for handling "anonymous sources." The gist is that they will seek to avoid such citation, pushing those involved in the proposed story to go on record; or, if the anonymity is crucial to that individual, to find another source to bolster the allegations. Sounds good. I guess. In the way that saying you are going to try to do a better job always sounds good. But is it necessary? Yes, it would have been nice if they could have gotten the same information from more than one source. But does that then mean that the piece should not be published? Perhaps if the allegation is shocking and inflammatory. Which the Koran incident was. But it was no more shocking and inflammatory than information already available to the public.

The fact is, the government source—who had given Newsweek consistently accurate information before this incident—the magazine was quoting still holds that he saw a report of flushing a Koran; he just doesn't remember which report it's in. And there is ample evidence that mistreatment of the Koran occurred—if the Newsweek allegation was so unbelievable, it simply wouldn't have taken so long for the Pentagon to voice doubts that it was true. This whole fiasco could be easily dispelled if the Pentagon agreed to a thorough investigation into the conditions at military prisons like Guantanamo and Bagram. But instead of trying to get to the bottom of what is true and what is false, the White House has responded with an embarrassing indictment of the media.

Why embarrassing? Well, beyond the irony of the Bush administration indicting a magazine for relying on a single source for information that led to violence (WMDs and the Iraq war, anyone?) this administration has little or no regard for the press, and has made that clear. White House Chief of Staff Andy Card said back in January that he didn't think the press had a "check and balance function." So, why all the sudden concern from White House spokesman Scott McClellan on the veracity of the news? McClellan referred to the Newsweek issue as a "credibility problem."

But it seems that the White House is the organization with the real press credibility problem. Remember the video press news releases disguised as news telecasts, or the supposedly independent reporters who were getting a paycheck from the White House? Or what about those less-than-savory characters that were being welcomed into the White House press conferences? When it comes down to it, this administration just doesn't like to answer any questions. Take the recent "press availability" event when Afghan President Hamid Karzai came to town: So few reporters showed up that the room was filled with White House interns. According to the Washington Times, "A member of the press corps we spoke to yesterday equated reporters at such staged White House functions as 'props.' He explained that because the president only takes four questions at each press availability—two from U.S. wire service reporters and two from foreign scribes—many in the press corps don't bother to show up. 'Since we can't ask questions, why schlep over there?'"

And it's not just in the U.S. In February, Bush declined to attend a town-hall style event in Germany after he learned that the questions would not be pre-approved. Similarly, only a few weeks earlier, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice only agreed to answer questions that were pre-approved when she went and spoke in France.

The president himself once told a reporter, "You're assuming that you represent the public. I don't accept that." I would agree with Mr. Bush. Scripted questions and White House "journalists" don't represent the public. When the facts of an issue, for instance, detainee abuse, don't make the administration look good, it's well within their interests to paint the press as unreliable—as though everything were conjecture. Newsweek, in its handling of the situation: the retraction and the insistence on reform, is to be commended for its work ethic. But its refusal to stick to its guns, and demand the same accountability from the administration is disappointing.

Charlie Cook's email newsletter today has some staggering facts about Congress and the incumbency advantage on election day:

The incredible amount of money funneled into House contests, redistricting processes that have created more safe seats and voters' hardened partisan loyalties all play a role in protecting incumbents at a level that has not been seen before. ..

In addition, there aren't that many incumbents who sit in the so-called wrong district. For example, in the 1992 election, 103 congressional districts split their tickets between the presidential nominee of one party and a congressional nominee of the other. In 2004, there were only 59 ticket-splitting districts.

The sheer volume of campaign cash flowing into a handful of House races also helps to protect incumbents like never before. The average competitive House contest costs at least $3 million. Add independent spending and money from outside groups and that number swells to more like $5 million.

Ten years ago or so, incumbents who polled at less than 50 percent for their re-election number were considered to be in imminent danger. Today, that danger line has slipped to closer to 45 percent or less.

Awesome. So it looks like the Congress we have is the Congress we'll get now and forever. And even if they do a terrible job—garnering a 45 percent approval rating—that's not enough to convince people to toss the bums out. So what is to be done? Redistricting reform would be a start, ending the ruthless gerrymandering that keeps incumbents safe. So would campaign finance reform. Then there's term limits, although here in California, we've certainly seen the danger of term limits: what tends to happen is that a bunch of experienced lobbyists go up against constantly inexperienced representatives, and the lobbyists rule the roost.

Some Deal

I'm sure everyone's been reading analyses of the big Senate filibuster deal elsewhere. (If not, Joe Gandelman has the roundup to end all roundups.) My view? Well, I'm on record as arguing that a strict supermajority requirement—or at the very least, a viable filibuster threat—is probably a good thing for all judicial nominees, in order to keep the bench stacked with moderates who represent the will of the broader Senate, and that's not what was put in place here. Under the current arrangement, the Democrats can only filibuster in "extraordinary circumstances"—something that was already being done—so we'll see if that actually moderates the choices of judges. Given that Janice Rogers Brown and Priscilla Owen were both set to be confirmed—two corporate shills in judges' robes with only the loosest of respect for precedent—I'm guessing not.

On the plus side, though, the Democrats still have the ability to filibuster a Supreme Court nominee to replace the soon-to-be-retiring William Rehnquist, and I think the threat of a Supreme Court showdown—and this time under a hotter media glare—will be enough to convince Bush to nominate a less-activist conservative.

On the downside, Tom Frank is right that the Republicans won the framing game here: "By bracketing the debate between two right-wing extremes—confirm every nominee except for a handful or confirm every nominee through use of the nuclear option—the Republicans had won before they'd even begun." More focus ought to have been put on the fact that Bush really is nominating terrible judges, beyond the pale. Again, these aren't people who somehow "apply" the law instead of some liberal alternative, they're all bought-and-paid-for corporate hacks or wholly unqualified legal minds. The Republicans have successfully obscured that little fact, and they succeed in doing so every time they shamelessly imply that liberals don't like Janice Rogers Brown because she's black, or William Pryor because he's Catholic.

Hamid Karzai's Making Sense

Afghan President Hamid Karazai broke it down today for a White House press conference, noting, "The death and destruction [in Afghanistan] were "in reality not related to the Newsweek story…they were more against the elections in Afghanistan, they were more against the progress in Afghanistan, they were more against the strategic partnership with the United States." In TV interviews, Karzai went on to reject a State Department memo released on Sunday, which blamed the slow phasing out of poppy crops on Karzai's unwillingness to "assert strong leadership."

Instead, Karzai, who has declared a jihad against opium, blamed Western countries for a lack of necessary support. "The international community must come and provide an alternative livelihood to the Afghan people, which they have not done so far," Karzai told CNN. He makes a good point.Without alternatives, Afghan farmers cannot afford to give up the production of poppies. There is about $300 million in international funds pledged to eradicate poppies, but only about a third of this amount to establish alternative livelihoods for Afghans.

Bad Lawyers

The New York Times today publishes a follow-up piece to yesterday's details of the Army criminal investigative report regarding the death of two detainees in Bagram. According to the new investigation info, military lawyers at Bagram didn't seem to think anyone was responsible for the deaths of Mullah Habibullah and Dilawar. Their reasoning? According to military lawyer Maj. Jeff Bovarnick, "I could never see any criminal intent on the part of the MPs to cause the detainee to die." By that logic if you were to savagely beat someone, but claim you didn't want that person to die, you might go scot-free. It gets even better:

Military lawyers…acknowledged statements by more than a half a dozen guards that they or others had struck the detainees…and emphasized that it would be difficult to determine the responsibility of individual guards for the injuries sustained in custody. 'No one blow could be determined to have caused the death,' the former senior staff lawyer at Bagram, Col. David L. Hayden, said he had been told by the Army's lead investigator. 'It was reasonable to conclude at the time that repetitive administration of legitimate force resulted in all the injuries we saw.

So. If you and 26 other people beat someone until they died, and you didn't know which kick to which part of the body actually killed them, there's no need to prosecute anyone. Fantastic. Not to mention that it seems highly farcical to refer to the beating of the two prisoners as "legitimate force" considering that both detainees were shackled at their hands and feet throughout their stay at Bagram.

It's just more embarrassing legal advice and interpretation surrounding detainee abuse coming from lawyers who seem to have, at best, ill-conceived interpretations of the law. Starting from the top—with Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, and his legal memo stating that the Geneva Conventions should not apply to those thought to be members of Taliban or al-Qaeda because "the war on terrorism is a new kind of war."

It seems to continue on down the hierarchy—Gonzales, senior lawyers at Bagram…then there was Guy Womack, Charles Graner's defense attorney who compared piling detainees in pyramids to cheerleaders forming pyramids, and leashed prisoners to parental leashes on children at malls. And that was just his opening argument. Most recently, Lynndie England's military lawyer, Cpt. Jonathan Crisp, called Graner to the stand as a defense witness in England's trial. Graner proceeded to testify that England was simply following orders and wasn't aware she was doing anything wrong, completely contradicting England's guilty plea which would have given her a reduced sentence. You'd think Crisp would have anticipated as such, considering Graner had, just the day before, given a handwritten note to the press saying that he didn't want England to plead guilty. Come on, guys, logic and reason—isn't that at least part of what they teach you in law school?