2005 - %3, May

Long Arm of DeLay

| Mon May 23, 2005 4:06 PM EDT

The Public Campaign Action Fund has put out a fun ranking list that helps you look up how close your representative is to Tom DeLay. (A representative's ranking is based on money received and/or donated, as well as lockstep voting patterns, among other things.) My own representative managed to clock in at a measly #406—that would be, ah, Nancy Pelosi—but perhaps your representative does better.

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Nothing to See Here...

| Mon May 23, 2005 3:58 PM EDT

What happens when industry-backed science becomes the norm in this country? Well, for starters, you get a lot of "uncertainty" about the ill effects of various industry products. Chris Mooney has the details.

Judges Tipping the Balance

| Mon May 23, 2005 2:13 PM EDT

As the Senate potentially heads for a showdown today—barring some magic compromise, a vote is expected on whether Republicans are allowed to break the rules and deny Democrats the right to filibuster Bush's judicial nominees or not—the Wall Street Journal has a great article that illustrates just why Bush's nominees are so contentious. It's not just that they're radical right-wingers. It's that they've all been specially selected for courts in which their rightism can really flex its muscles:

Janice Rogers Brown, for instance, has made scathing assessments about the reach of the federal government -- and she is nominated to the appellate court that handles the majority of appeals of government-agency rulings.

William Myers, who has advocated against environmental groups, is in line to join the appellate court that sorts through land-use battles.

William Pryor, who called a section of the Voting Rights Act "an expensive burden that has far outlived its usefulness" -- may be headed for an appellate court with jurisdiction over parts of the old Confederacy.

This isn't some lunatic conspiracy theory that Democrats have about Republicans who want to roll back the New Deal. It would take a particularly willful act of obliviousness not to see what was going on here. Now if Republicans could just come out and say, "Yes, we want to start chipping away at government regulations, environmental protections, and maybe even the Voting Rights Act," that would be one thing. But instead they hide behind the mantra of "fair up-and-down" votes for all nominees.

What to Cut?

| Mon May 23, 2005 12:49 PM EDT

Via Ezra Klein, an American Prospect article by Geoffrey Nunberg that has this fairly clever bit of advice for liberals:

Republicans will try to pin a big-government label on the Democrats, but the appropriate response to that is not to apologize for government, as some liberals have recently done, but rather to call the Republicans' bluff. Kerry just once might have responded to Bush's charge that he was a big-government liberal not just by denying that his health-care plan was a government takeover but by bearding Bush on his government-bashing. "Just which government programs are too big?" he might have said. "What should we do away with? Social Security? Medicare? The Food and Drug Administration? The Securities and Exchange Commission? The Environmental Protection Agency?"
Maybe it's politically effective, maybe it's not—only one way to find out!—but it's certainly something I wish Bush and other "small-government" conservatives would hop up on stage and answer.

Mother Jones is hiring!

| Fri May 20, 2005 7:55 PM EDT

Hi Mother Jones readers. Just a quick announcement that we have a new opening for our summer web internships. (The internship would start in the beginning of June.) If you or anyone you know is interested in breaking into journalism, it's a great opportunity. Details are here. Those interested should send a cover letter and resume to internships@motherjones.com.

"Terrorists until proven otherwise"

Fri May 20, 2005 7:18 PM EDT

Perhaps the ever-growing number of MPs, guards, and interrogators implicated in detainee abuses are all simply sick, demented people. But that's too easy. After speaking with Erik Saar, a former military translator at Guantanamo, last week, it's become clearer to me how situations like these have become so widespread: Those in command are fostering an environment where abuses can occur. Saar writes in his book Inside the Wire, that generals and Congressional staff often came to Guantanamo to observe interrogations. As reported by the press, those in command hence arranged for "choreographed" interrogations with cooperative detainees to make it seem like all was well. But, Saar told Mother Jones, the real surprise was that the visitors knew they were being duped and didn't seem to mind:

They knew we were interrogating people in the middle of the night. They knew there were people that were subject to sleep deprivation. They knew that certain stress positions were allowed. I don't know why, if they were really curious as to what was going on, they didn't ask to see an interrogation where these techniques were taking place. These were leaders. They could have easily said, "I want to go to an interrogation at midnight tonight, and I don't want the interrogator to know that it's being observed by a General or a member of Congressional staff.

The Army criminal investigation report that the New York Times discussed today noted, that at Bagram, "Some of the mistreatment was quite obvious. Senior officials frequently toured the detention center, and several of them acknowledged seeing prisoners chained up for punishment to deprive them of sleep." Those in charge were either aware of the abuses or had to make a concerted effort to avoid becoming aware of them.

And the leadership, in many cases, appears to have been shoddy at best. While Saar worked in Guantanamo, Gen. Geoffrey Miller was in command. Saar told Mother Jones that Miller was widely disrespected because he was an infantry officer who had little or no intelligence experience and, yet, was running an intelligence-gathering mission. Similarly, the Times points out that the company responsible for some of the abuses in Bagram, was composed of counterintelligence specialists, none of whom had a background in interrogation. Meanwhile, one of the Reservists told Army investigators, "There was the Geneva Conventions for enemy prisoners of war, but nothing for the terrorists." And according to senior intelligence officers in the report, detainees "were to be considered terrorists until proved otherwise."

Meanwhile, the atmosphere in the prisons lent itself to abuse. Interrogators, guards, or military police were cheered on for "not taking any" from detainees. ("Specialist Jeremy M. Callaway overheard another guard boasting about having beaten a detainee who had spit on him.") Action to the contrary was frowned upon: According to Sgt. James Leahy, a Reservist who worked at Bagram, "We sometimes developed a rapport with detainees, and Sergeant Loring (the officer in charge of interrogators at the time of the deaths of Dilawar and Habibullah) would sit us down and remind us that these were evil people and talk about 9/11 and they weren't our friends and could not be trusted."

Similarly, the language barrier created a further wedge between soldier and detainee:

The communication between Habibullah and his jailers appears to have been almost exclusively physical. Despite repeated requests, the MPs were assigned no interpreters of their own….When the detainees were beaten or kicked for 'noncompliance,' one of the interpreters, Ali M. Baryalai said, it was often 'because they didn't have any idea what the MP is saying.'

Likewise:

When one of the First Platoon MPs, Specialist Corey E. Jones, was sent to Mr. Dilawar's cell to give him some water, he said the prisoner spit in his face and started kicking him. Specialist Jones responded... with a couple of knee strikes to the led of the shackled man. 'He screamed out 'Allah! Allah! Allah!' and my first reaction was that he was crying out to his god,' Specialist Jones said to investigators. 'Everybody heard him cry out and thought it was funny.' Other Third Platoon MPs later came by the detention center and stopped at the isolation cells to see for themselves…It became a kind of running joke, and people kept showing up to give this detainee a common peroneal strike just to hear him scream out 'Allah,' he said. 'It went on over a 24-hour period, and I would think that it was over 100 strikes.' As Mr. Dilawar grew desperate, he began crying out more loudly to be released. But even the interpreters had trouble understanding his Pashto dialect; the annoyed guards heard only noise. 'He had constantly been screaming, 'Release me; I don't want to be here,' and things like that,' said the one linguist who could decipher his distress.

Saar told Mother Jones that guards at Guantanamo were at times openly hostile to the translators: "The guards viewed any attempt to treat a detainee with any sort of civility as being sympathetic to the detainees." But just as Saar has broken the silence, so too have many others. Starting with Joseph Darby, who revealed the Abu Ghraib photos, soldiers have been coming forward, refusing to accept that these actions can be done in their name, or in the name of the country they choose to put their life on the line for. Indeed, the Army criminal investigation report that the Times obtained was "from a person involved in the investigation who was critical of methods used at Bagram and the military's response to the deaths."

How many more "bad apples" are we going to find before we start to look at the tree from which they're falling? An independent investigation is more than the "right" and "moral" thing to do. At this point, it's the one thing that might allow the Army, and the administration, to maintain a shred of accountability. Better to hear the truth from the top than from a slew of angry, low-ranking soldiers who feel betrayed. As a former Bagram interrogator charged with assaulting Dilawar, Sgt. Selena Salcedo, told the Times, "The whole situation is unfair. It's all going to come out when everything is said and done." It's just a matter of who it's going to come from.

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Who Gets a Pay Raise?

| Fri May 20, 2005 5:10 PM EDT

We live in a country where appeals to "save the children" don't, apparently, have any effect. John Kerry's health-care plan would have ended our long national scandal of millions of uninsured children? Big deal! 12.9 million children live in poverty? Must be their fault! And so on. So I'm not entirely convinced that a new study, showing that raising the minimum wage would benefit 9.7 million children, will have any effect, but here it is.

Speaking of minimum wage, I was hopping around Google the other day and came across this stunning sentence by Holly Sklar: "Congress has had seven pay raises since 1997, when the minimum wage increased to $5.15, while approving none since then for minimum wage workers." Sklar suggests that we tie any increases in congressional salaries to hikes in the minimum wage. Not bad, not bad at all. The downside is that I actually think members of Congress should be paid much more than they are now: it would attract better talent, make them less corruptible, and discourage the sort of hopping from Congress to lucrative lobbyist positions that we see so often nowadays. The other downside is that Congressional pay increases are linked to pay increases for judges and other civil servants in the executive branch. Nevertheless, Holly Sklar has the right general idea. The minimum wage needs raising, and something needs to get Congress' attention.

Bagram Revisited

Fri May 20, 2005 4:12 PM EDT

In March, Mother Jones published Emily Bazelon's article "From Bagram to Abu Ghraib", which laid out how Bagram, a military base in Afghanistan where prisoners are screened for possible shipment to Guantanamo, was yet another piece of the detainee abuse puzzle. From Guantanamo, to Bagram, to Abu Ghraib, Bazelon showed how those responsible for pushing the limits of already hazy interrogation rules were circulated from one facility to another despite detainee deaths occurring under their command.

One of the most egregious examples of detainee abuse that Bazelon focused on was the case of two prisoners—Dilawar and Habibullah—who were brutally tortured to death. Today, the New York Times released more details on the incident from a 2,000 page confidential Army criminal investigation report on the two deaths. A roundup of some notable findings that reinforce what we already knew:

Even though military investigators learned soon after Mr. Dilawar's death that he had been abused by at least two interrogators, the Army's criminal inquiry moved slowly. Meanwhile, many of the Bagram interrogators, led by the same operations officer, Capt. Carolyn A. Wood, were redeployed to Iraq and…took charge of interrogations at the Abu Ghraib prison.

This makes it immediately clear that higher-ups were well aware that the actions of the interrogators, military police, and guards, were resulting in deaths. There was no mistaking the detainees died of natural causes. And yet, the Army apparently sanctioned this behavior by sending those responsible on to another detainee facility. Also note:

Mr. Habibullah's autopsy…showed bruises or abrasions on his chest, arms and head. There were deep contusions on his calves, knees and thighs. His left calf was marked by what appeared to have been the sole of a boot….one of the coroners later translated the assessment…saying the tissue in the young man's legs 'had basically been pulpified.' 'I've seen similar injuries in an individual run over by a bus.'

The Army criminal investigation concluded that "there was probably cause to charge 27 officers and enlisted personnel with criminal offenses." But only seven soldiers have been charged thus far. The investigation doesn't even seem to have probed very deep into the deaths. Note that one of the intelligence specialists who had been interrogating Dilawar—and who had complained about the gratuitous abusive treatment the detainee was receiving—was never contacted. According to Staff Sgt. W. Christopher Yonushonis, who was quoted in the piece, "I expected to be contacted at some point by investigators in this case. I was living a few doors down from the interrogation room, and I had been one of the last to see this detainee alive." Oh, and Yonushonis also added one other detail: "most of us were convinced that the detainee was innocent."

Correction: An earlier version of this post implied that Yonushonis had spoken to the Times, when in fact the paper merely quoted statements he had made to the Army.

Koran-flushing and Pakistan

| Fri May 20, 2005 3:04 PM EDT

Patricia Lee Sharpe has some crucial backdrop to the Newsweek-Koran flushing-rioting fiasco that's well worth reading. Islamic parties in Pakistan, it seems, are employing so-called "Blasphemy Laws" and whipping up violence for their own political gain. They're the primary culprits here. On the other hand, the mistreatment of detainees in Guantanamo and elsewhere has long been playing right into the hands of these demagogues, and weakening the ability of Pakistani President Perez Musharraf to oppose them. Read the post in full.

Mind the Books

| Fri May 20, 2005 2:20 PM EDT

So much news, so little time. Let's see, should we talk about Rick Santorum comparing Democrats who uphold the law to Hitler invading France? No. Should we talk about Saddam Hussein in his underwear? Er, no. (Although I'm a little worried that it's so easy to get past security and take pictures of the man.) Eh, for now we'll stick with the mundane and boring—but important!—topic of corporate regulation.

Usually if one want an answer to the question, "Is X a good thing," the place to turn is emphatically not the pages of the Economist. And sure enough, their take on Sarbanes-Oxley—the corporate regulatory bill passed in the wake of the Enron collapse—is vintage stuff. Will the statute reduce financial fraud? "It might." Will it work? "Time will tell. It is possible that Sarbanes-Oxley will come to be seen as both too much and too little." Okay, thanks.

To be fair, it's a tough issue to assess. The basic question is whether it costs too much to impose regulations that mandate the sort of honest accounting and rigorous auditing that prevents large-scale looting, ala Enron or Worldcom. The problem, though, is that the costs here are more or less well-known—one study has pegged the downside to Sarbanes-Oxley at $1.4 trillion—but the benefits are difficult to quantify. You can't measure the possible benefit of a hypothetical major corporation not going bust through shady dealings, especially if you don't know whether or not that company would have pulled an Enron in a laxer regulatory atmosphere. Counterfactuals are hard to quantify. So inevitably, the news stories will be stacked against the regulation—those concrete drawbacks always draw headlines.

Meanwhile, Clay Risen of the New Republic had a story last November that's worth dredging up again: the real regulatory problem these days isn't insufficient regulation; it's the fact that the accounting industry has consolidated among four big companies, and those companies have much-too-tightly intertwined consulting and accounting divisions. Obviously a firm isn't going to much rigorous accounting when it's also advising the company being audited on how to pay as little in taxes as possible.