The Gray Area of Torture

While a national debate rages over whether the United States should ever torture detainees in its custody, there is still no consensus on what torture actually is. This gray area has allowed the Bush administration to condemn the practice while simultaneously justifying practices that at the very least approach torture. Despite broad evidence to the contrary, President Bush has asserted "we do not torture." But the President's systematic obfuscation of the extent to which his operating definition of torture encompasses the Geneva Conventions' prohibition on "inhumane, degrading and humiliating" actions, misdirects the public debate away from the real issue: Does the US torture?

Goodbye Ted Stevens?

Ted Stevens, Republican Senator from Alaska and one of the top porkers in Congress, went berserk in late October when the Senate tried to take $125 million designated for a "Bridge to Nowhere" in Alaska and use it to repair a bridge in New Orleans damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

In addition to calling the move "a threat to every person in the state," Stevens said, "I will put the Senate on notice -- and I don't kid people -- if the Senate decides to discriminate against our state, to take money only from our state, I'll resign from this body."

Now the Sierra Club is reporting that the whole $223 million earmarked for the bridge -- which would link the small town of Ketchikan (pop. approx 7,000) to an island with 50 people -- will still go to Alaska, but not necessarily to the bridge.

Take a stand, Ted Stevens! Resign from this body!

How big is the intelligence budget? Usually we don't know because it's classified. Except this year we do know—it's $44 billion. How do we know? Because someone accidentally let it slip a few days ago:

At a public intelligence conference in San Antonio, Texas, last week, Mary Margaret Graham, a 27-year veteran of the CIA and now the deputy director of national intelligence for collection, said the annual intelligence budget was $44 billion.
Big mistake? No, not at all. That $44 billion number shouldn't have been a secret in the first place. Several former CIA directors have already come out and said that the overall intelligence budget figures should not be classified, that publishing these numbers wouldn't harm national security so long as individual budget items were kept secret. The Brown-Aspin Commission in 1996 concurred. Indeed, from time to time I do wonder why no one ever takes article 1, section 9, clause 7 of the Constitution seriously:
No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law; and a regular Statement and Account of the Receipts and Expenditures of all public Money shall be published from time to time.
Yet this statement has obviously never applied to either the Department of Defense or the Central Intelligence Agency. So why don't constitutional orginalists ever start complaining about this? One explanation is that this clause has been violated almost continuously since the country's founding. In 1790, Congress appropriated $40,000 for "intercourse between the U.S. and foreign nations," but didn't require George Washington to account for how he actually spent the money. In 1794, Congress gave the president $1 million in a similar fashion—the money ended up being used as ransom money for American hostages in Algiers. Regardless of how useful these moves were, they were clearly unconstitutional, allowing Congress to decide willy-nilly when and where it gets to spend money without public oversight.

My preference would be to make everything related to intelligence and defense fully public, and carve out exceptions only if absolutely necessary, after long debate. Excessive secrecy has rarely served the country well. Now that the CIA is getting in the business of running a secret network of gulags around the world, and who knows what else, that holds doubly true. But this will never happen, especially since Democrats seem to place a premium on CIA secrecy these days. More realistically, Congress should at least publish overall figures for the intelligence budget and the basic purposes for which they're spent.

Meanwhile, the GAO, the government's auditing arm, still has only limited access to reviewing CIA programs. At the time of the Pike Commission in the early '70s, the agency had no access to any budgetary information whatsoever. Today, the GAO has "broad authority to evaluate CIA programs," but it still faces limitations: it lacks access to the CIA's "unvouchered" accounts, and has no way to "compel" access to foreign intelligence and counterintelligence information. As I said, we're not likely to get sunlight anytime soon, but giving the GAO increased access would be a good start.

For some time now, New York officials have done their best to hold on to $125 million in aid that was originally intended to help cover increased worker compensation costs originating from the September 11 attacks. The city was saving the money to use for the first responders who are likely to develop long-term lung problems from working around the debris, as well as mental health problems from working at the disaster site.

When the White House learned the money had not yet been spent, administration officals decided to try and take it back. The Senate voted to let New York keep the funding, but the House of Representatives did not follow. Senate and house budget negotiators have now decided to take the money back

A week after the September 11 attacks, EPA director Christine Todd Whitman announced to the nation that the air around the World Trade Center was safe to breathe, despite the fact that no one had enough information to make such a statement. In the weeks following the attacks, the Bush administration suppressed warnings by the Environmental Protection Agency that that there were health hazards associated with the toxic debris around the World Trade Center. Later, it was discovered that countless New Yorkers had developed lung problems. It is still unknown what the ultimate effect of the pollution will be, but it is more than reasonable to think that $125 million would help deal with it.

Law and Order

Nathan Newman dredges up a telling little quote from Samuel Alito's 1985 application for some promotion or other. First there's Alito's contention that "the Constitution does not protect the right to an abortion." That's a big deal, obviously, but there's also this:

In college, I developed a deep interest in constitutional law, motivated in large part by disagreement with Warren Court decisions, particularly in the areas of criminal procedure, the Establishment Clause, and reapportionment.
As Nathan points out, by "reapportionment," Alito apparently means he's not happy with the Warren Court's various "one person one vote" decisions (here and here), which prevented state legislatures from drawing up voting districts in such a way that they could pack tens of thousands of urban voters into a single district and then lightly sprinkle hundreds of rural voters into another. These district lines, naturally, were usually drawn up to water down the voting power of African-Americans in the South by cramming them into urban Bantustans. (Some might say the Warren Court didn't go far enough on this score; legislatures are still allowed to count prison populations towards the size of an individual voting district, despite the fact that those prisoners can't actually vote.)

But I'm curious about another part of his statement. What Warren Court decisions concerning "criminal procedure" drew Alito's ire, exactly? Was it Gideon vs. Wainright, ensuring that all Americans must be provided a lawyer if they cannot afford one? Mapp v. Ohio, making evidence that was illegally obtained inadmissible in court? Escobedo v. Illinois, doing the same for evidence obtained by improper interrogations? Would he rather citizens not be informed of their Miranda rights? Does he think the Court took a wrong turn in Hernandez v. Texas when it said that Mexican-Americans could not be excluded from juries? Inquiring minds want to know. For the most part, criminal procedure occupies the majority of the Supreme Court's time, and it would be nice to know what manner of "law and order" justice we're dealing with here.

Alito on Church and State

Just days after the quiet town of Dover, Pa. ousted its evangelical school board, which had been intent on infusing its public school curriculum with intelligent design theories, the apparent church-state views of Samuel Alito, Bush's pick for the Supreme Court were revealed in a 1985 application released Monday by the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. In the application, Alito described not only his thoroughgoing conservatism, but also how his inspiration to study constitutional law stemmed in part from his opposition to a strong separation of church and state.

The young Alito states in his application, which he submitted to apply for a promotion within the Solicitor General's Office, that he strongly disagreed with church-state precedents forged by the Warren Court (1953-1969), including its famed exclusion of prayer and barring coerced participation in religious activities at public schools. In addition, reflecting upon his as assistantship to Reagan's Solicitor General, Alito remarked that he was "particularly proud" of their work "in which the government has argued…that the Constitution does not protect a right to an abortion." Although today Alito discounted his antagonism to Roe v. Wade expressed in his 1985 application, as the statements of "an advocate seeking a job."

In a court already conflicted on matters concerning religious beliefs—such as abortion, and allowing prayer in public schools—Alito's presence could prove decisive, noted Elliott Mincburg of PFAW. While the absence of a paper trail allowed John Roberts to slip through his congressional hearings without divulging his political opinions, Alito's public record paves the way for a probing inquisition into his beliefs. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, told the Washington Times

Past nominees have said they could not discuss these issues for fear of creating a perception of bias. Here, unfortunately, the memo itself creates the perception of bias, and it will be crucial for this nominee to address the issue head-on.

President of PFAW, Ralph G. Neas, noted that "unlike Chief Justice John Roberts, Alito says these are his own strong personal views, and not just those of the administration he was working for."

How Plan B Was Delayed

A recent GAO report on the Food and Drug Administration's rejection of Plan B, an over-the-counter morning-after-pill, in 2004 tells the story of how the agency allowed political biases to override its own scientific assessments of the drug.

Conflicting reports suggest that that the FDA might have denied approval of Plan B before scientific tests were even completed. High-ranking FDA officials, including former commissioner Mark McClellan, were involved in the review of Plan B, derailing its passage before even hearing feedback from agency scientists. Investigators found that FDA officials had already stated that approval of Plan B would be rejected months before the decision was made. The Director of the Office of New Drugs, as well as the directors of the reviewing office, refused to sign the final review of the drug application, which had wide-support within the agency.

According to the GAO report, the Acting Director on the application review

was concerned about the potential behavior implications for younger adolescents of marketing Plan B OTC because of their level of cognitive development and that it was invalid to extrapolate data from older to younger adolescents.

However, it continues,

FDA review officials noted that the agency has not considered behavioral implications due to differences in cognitive development in prior OTC switch decisions and that the agency previously has considered it scientifically appropriate to extrapolate date from older to younger adolescents.

Plan B is the only over-the-counter drug denied by the FDA between 1994 and 2004. According to Planned Parenthood experts, expanding access to the drug "could prevent up to 1.7 million unintended pregnancies a year — and 800,000 abortions."

Citing a history of delays and setbacks, Planned Parenthood President Karen Pearl said the GAO report was confirmation that the FDA has put the politics of contraception before women's health. Senators Patty Murray and Hillary Clinton concurred in a statement saying that the report—originally requested by congressional representatives incensed by the 2004 block—"has confirmed what we have always suspected, that this was a politically motivated decision that came down from the highest levels at the F.D.A."

An FDA representative said that the agency stands behind its rejection of Plan B.

Two amendments to a defense spending bill have come before the Senate in the last two days, both of which would ratchet up the pressure on the White House over the war in Iraq. The first, defeated yesterday by a voted of 58-40, was the Democrats' version (S.Amdt. 2519, amending S. 1042). It called for the White House to offer a plan for a phased withdrawal of the roughly 160,000 U.S. troops now in Iraq, among other things. The second was the Republican version, which just passed by a 79-19 margin (S.Amdt. 2518). It was essentially the same bill with the "phased withdrawal" language removed. Democrat Carl Levin of Michigan, who sponsored the first amendment, said he supported the second because it was the "second-best approach."

Lincoln Chaffee was the only Republican who voted in favor of the Democratic amendment. Five Dems voted against it. They are:

Kent Conrad (D-ND)
Joseph Lieberman (D-CT)
Bill Nelson (D-FL)
Ben Nelson (D-NE)
Mark Pryor (D-AR)

Not voting: Jon Corzine (D-NJ)

The recent controversy in Tampa over religious school holidays started when the Hillsborough County School Board voted, after much debate, to do away with school religious holidays. The board voted 6 to 1 to give Hilsborough County students three secular days off instead. A spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations described the move as "Just an excuse to hide bias against the Muslims," and the president of the Florida Council of Churches called the action "petty."

O'Reilly's take? "And to have these radical changes because somebody walks in and says, 'Look, I want a holiday because I'm a Buddhist, or I practice Shintoism. ... [W]hat are you, crazy?' "

According to O'Reilly, 85% of Americans identify as Christian (according to Media Matters for America, the correct figure is 77%), so it would be "fascist" to do away with recognition of America's Judeo-Christian heritage. An argument could be made, of course, that Native Americans did not practice Christianity until some of them were "converted," but when we are discussing the nation's religious heritage, we like to pretend that Native Americans do not exist. There is also a strong argument, bsaed on that prickly thing called historical fact, that the founding fathers were, for the most part, not Christian, but no one wants to hear that one, either.

At any rate, acknowledging that most Americans do identify as Christian today, it does not seem unreasonable to grant school children their Christian holidays off. But even a member of the Hillsborough County School Board showed a certain degree of cynicism about that when she declared Good Friday a secular holiday: "It is now about the Easter Bunny...They have taken religion out of it completely."

Certainly any student observing a serious religious holiday should be excused from school, and the Hillsborough County's school board agrreed to continue its policy of excusing a student who is observing such a day. The entire discussion became moot two weeks after the vote, however, when the board re-instated the religious holidays. Board members received 3,500 emails, many of which stated that Muslims were "foreigners" who did not deserve to have their religious holidays recognized by a Judeo-Christian culture.

As for O'Reilly, he has always advocated that America equals Christianity, and on paper, I suppose it does. But the Muslim religion is a major world religion, no matter what O'Reilly and the people of Tampa think of it. And more important, this is just not a good time in our history to imply that American Muslims are mentally impaired.

The Food and Drug Administration has released a 63-page report that declares, among other things, that latex condoms are effective in preventing pregnancy and in reducing the risk of infection from sexually transmitted diseases and AIDS.
The report will form the basis on new condom packaging in the United States.

The F.D.A.'s report also concludes that latex condoms are less effective against genital herpes, syphillis, and the human papillomavirus than they are against potential pregnancy and other STD's. The human papillomavirus--the leading cause of cervical cancer--has become the subject of a new right-wing campaign to "protect" girls from being sexually active. There is now a vaccine that can be given to protect against the human papillomavirus, and it is expected to be submitted to the F.D.A. for approval soon. However, it is most effective when given to pre-teen girls, which has some conservatives in a dither. Bridget Maher of the Family Research Council, for example, has stated that "giving the HPV vaccine to young women could be potentially harmful, because they may see it as a license to engage in premarital sex."

Of course, multiple studies, such as the ones done by the World Health Organization, have been done about the effectiveness of using latex condoms, both alone and in combination with a spermicide. But in the past several years, many attempts have been made to promote the idea that condoms are ineffective. Three years ago, the Centers for Disease Control replaced their online fact sheet about condom use with one that omitted important information about condom use, and a hallmark of the Bush administration's school abstinence program has been the promotion of the idea that condoms are not effective.

The White House has gotten assistance from the Catholic Church in its campaign to discourage condom use. In 2003, Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, president of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for the Family, told the Fourth World Meeting of Families that condoms are not effective in preventing pregnancy.

The new F.D.A. report has drawn criticism from Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, who also happens to be a physician. Coburn calls the report "misleading," and that condom labels provide "dangerous reassurance."

Coburn's medical specialties include family practice and obstetrics.