2006 - %3, November

Judge Orders FEMA To Resume Post-Hurricane Payments

| Thu Nov. 30, 2006 11:20 PM EST

Yesterday, U.S. District Judge Richard Leon ruled that the Bush administration violated the Constitution by denying aid to thousands of Gulf Coast residents who were displaced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Judge Leon ordered FEMA, whom he described as creating a "Kafkaesque" process, to resume payments immediately. The judge pointed out that the agency cut off rental aid without appropriate explanation, and obstructed applicants' due process rights to correct errors or appeal government mistakes.

It is unfortunate, if not incredible, that FEMA and its counsel could not devise a sufficient notice system to spare these beleaguered evacuees the added burden of federal litigation to vindicate their constitutional rights.

720,590 households received rental assitance, but--as of October 19, only 33,889 remained eligible for assistance. Victim advocates maintain that FEMA has resisted calls to provide details about its programs to storm victims, and has created obstacles for those people to obtain government-mandated aid.

FEMA director David Paulison responded by saying he thought the agency had done "a good job."

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Criticism of Maliki Not Just From Al Sadr

| Thu Nov. 30, 2006 9:45 PM EST

As I wrote earlier today, Moqtada al Sadr and his followers are not a dissenting voice to be ignored. They criticized Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's meeting with President Bush saying that it was an affront to the Iraqi people. It now appears that al Sadr is not the only voice of opposition to Maliki. Today Sunni Vice President Tariq al Hashemi called for a new government and for a "coalition [to be] put in place with guarantees that ensure collective decision making." (At least someone believes in this.) Deputy Prime Minister Salam Zikam Ali al Zubaie also criticized the Prime Minister saying that his government had not been successful in suppressing sectarian violence. I can't help but think it's no coincidence that this criticism by two top Sunni politicians directly followed Bush's meeting with their superior. Today, President Bush said that we would "stay in Iraq...so long as the government wants us there." I guess that depends on what the meaning of the word "wants" is.

Did the FBI Leave It to Beaver in the Mayfield Case?

| Thu Nov. 30, 2006 7:01 PM EST

In a case that shows quite succinctly that giving up our civil liberties does not make us safer, the FBI has acknowledged that it falsely arrested Oregon lawyer Brandon Mayfield in conjunction with the 2004 Madrid bombings.

Mayfield, a convert to Islam who has represented terror suspects, became a suspect himself (technically, a material witness) when a partial fingerprint lifted from a bag of detonators was wrongly identified as his. Get this: Three weeks before Mayfield was arrested, Spanish authorities had told the FBI the prints weren't his. But the FBI arrogantly ignored their advice. (Speaking of overconfident disregard of expert advice, see Leigh and Jonathan's posts below.)

The government then jailed Mayfield (he claims he was mistreated in jail), tapped his phone, secretly searched his home without a warrant, and plundered his personal information.

A March report [PDF] by the Justice Department Inspector General found that Patriot Act provisions allowed the FBI to share the results of its fishing expedition with law enforcement and intelligence agents, "amplify[ying] the consequences" for Mayfield of the FBI's amateur mistake.

Now that Mayfield has been cleared, the FBI has apologized and agreed to pay a $2 million settlement. It has also agreed to destroy the information it collected about him. Too bad they can't undo the damage already done.

Voting Machines Get More Than Reasonable Doubt

| Thu Nov. 30, 2006 6:49 PM EST

The ongoing investigation into the disappearance of 18,000 votes in Sarasota, Florida--more than the 369 votes needed to give the November election to Democrat Christine Jennings rather than Republican Vern Buchanan who has been declared winner--is a preview of future debates about electronic voting. And it's not especially reassuring.

The background: Christine Jennings filed suit shortly after the election claiming that an electronic malfunction occurred in Sarasota, where a full 15 percent of voters did not vote in her hotly contested congressional race, compared to 2.5 percent in other Florida districts. Thousands of Sarasota voters have claimed that the race was not on the electronic ballot they were provided. Some have also suggested that their votes simply disappeared.

The state has responded by staging a mock election this Tuesday, in which state employees were the only voters. The employees easily found the Jennings-Buchanan race on the ballot. They admitted, though, it was on the same screen with the gubernatorial race, which featured a larger banner.

Now, even if the only issue was the larger banner, why is it so hard to design a ballot in which voters proceed systematically through all of the races? What's more, anyone who's ever called the office IT guy over to fix their computer only to watch the computer perform perfectly for him knows that computers don't give uniform results to the same prompt. That would be especially true if the voting machines had been programmed to alter the vote tally, as some opponents of electronic voting fear.

Florida's handling of the problem assumes that voting machines are innocent until proven guilty. But machines aren't citizens. The citizens are saying they were unable to vote in the race. What will it take to make people get serious about these problems?

Does the Decider Care What Anyone Thinks?

| Thu Nov. 30, 2006 3:49 PM EST

Surprise, surprise, as Jonathan reports, Bush is choosing to "Go Long" in Iraq. As the New York Times reports today, Bush outright dismissed the early released reports of the Baker Commission's decisions for a withdrawal of U.S. troops. Predictable. Bush said, "We're going to stay in Iraq to get the job done so long as the government wants us there." Which is an unfortunately timed statement given that yesterday Moqtada al Sadr and his followers (which make up 30 parliamentarians and 6 ministers) pulled out of the Iraqi government because of Maliki's meeting with Bush. Now this is not to say that al Sadr (whose militias have been carrying out many of the attacks against the Sunni insurgency) should be driving the decisions of the administration. But he is one of the most powerful if not the most powerful political leader in Iraq and as such, he must be acknowledged. As should the Baker Commission's recommendations, which have been $1 million and more than 7 months in the making.

Boot Camp Guards Charged With Teen's Killing

| Thu Nov. 30, 2006 3:25 PM EST

Eleven months ago, seven guards at a Florida teen-offender "boot camp" were caught on tape kicking and stomping a 14-year-old inmate - who died the next day. The incident led Governor Jeb Bush to dismantle the state's military-style camps for young offenders, cost a top law enforcement officer his job, and have now culminated in manslaughter charges against the guards.

All of which marks the latest and perhaps most serious blow to the once-popular idea of reforming troubled teens in such places. It's an issue Mother Jones highligted several years ago in a piece about the death of another teen in a different boot camp.

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More Prisoners (The Non-Secret Kind) Than Ever

| Thu Nov. 30, 2006 3:18 PM EST

A report released today by the Department of Justice shows that the U.S. correctional population (those in jail, prison, probation or on parole) now constitutes fully 3 percent of the U.S. adult population. That's 7 million people, which works out to be one in every 32 Americans.

The report's findings offer a bleak assessment of state and federal prison systems. Federal prisons are running 34 percent over capacity while several states including South Dakota, Kentucky and Montana saw their inmate populations increase by 10 percent or more.

For women and African Americans the findings are even worse. The number of women in federal and state prisons rose by 2.6 percent (compared to 1.9 percent for men) and 8.1 percent of black men between the ages of 25-29 are now in prison.

—Amaya Rivera

Why Does the Iraq Study Group Even Exist?

| Thu Nov. 30, 2006 2:26 PM EST

Word is out on what James Baker's Iraq Study Group is going to recommend: in short, a slow withdrawal of troops tied to no definite timetable, and a transition to a supporting role in the region.

But, hey, that's not what President Bush wants to hear, so even though the actual report isn't out yet, George gave the group a big middle finger today, all the way from his meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister and walking catastrophe Nouri al-Maliki. "I know there's a lot of speculation that these reports in Washington mean there's going to be some kind of graceful exit out of Iraq," said Bush. "We're going to stay in Iraq to get the job done, so long as the government wants us there."

Oh, I get it. So the only acceptable recommendation from the Iraq Study Group was "stay the course," a phrase and mindset the Administration (apparently fictitiously) abandoned a few weeks back. For all the talk about Bush Sr.'s advisors coming the rescue, you just can't beat George W. Bush's old fashioned hubris, obstinancy, and bull-headedness.

Supremes Run Hot and Cold on CO2 Emissions

| Thu Nov. 30, 2006 1:10 PM EST
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Some interesting observations from yesterday's Supreme Court hearing on whether the federal government has the power to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant, via the New York Times. Reading the tea leaves of the justices' reaction to the arguments before them, the Times predicts the court will do its usual 5-4 split on the question, with Anthony Kennedy as the swing vote. John Roberts, Samuel Alito, and Antonin Scalia seem to be in the "pollutant, shmollutant" camp:

"You have to show the harm is imminent," Justice Scalia instructed [Massachussetts assistant attorney general] Mr. Milkey, asking, "I mean, when is the cataclysm?"

Mr. Milkey replied, "It's not so much a cataclysm as ongoing harm," arguing that Massachusetts, New York, and other coastal states faced losing "sovereign territory" to rising sea levels. "So the harm is already occurring," he said. "It is ongoing, and it will happen well into the future."

Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito both suggested that because motor vehicles account for only about 6 percent of carbon dioxide emissions, even aggressive federal regulation would not be great enough to make a difference, another requirement of the standing doctrine.

Meanwhile, Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, John Paul Stevens, and David Souter seemed willing to consider that automobile emissions pose a serious environmental threat:

Justice Souter engaged Deputy Solicitor General Gregory G. Garre, the lawyer who was defending the administration's position, in a long debate. When Mr. Garre said the plaintiffs "haven't shown specific facts which should provide any comfort to this court that regulation of less than 6 percent or fewer greenhouse emissions worldwide will have any effect on their alleged injuries," Justice Souter demanded: "Why do they have to show a precise correlation?"

"It is reasonable to suppose," the justice continued, "that some reduction in the gases will result in some reduction in future loss." It was "a question of more or less, not a question of either/or," he said, adding: "They don't have to stop global warming. Their point is that it will reduce the degree of global warming and likely reduce the degree of loss."

Mr. Garre replied that given the problem's global nature, "I'm not aware of any studies available that would suggest that the regulation of that minuscule fraction of greenhouse gas emissions would have any effect whatsoever."

Then Justice Breyer took on the government lawyer. "Would you be up here saying the same thing if we're trying to regulate child pornography, and it turns out that anyone with a computer can get pornography elsewhere?" Justice Breyer asked, adding, "I don't think so."

Clarence Thomas seems to have been reliably silent during the hearing.

Standardized Death Threats

| Thu Nov. 30, 2006 2:31 AM EST

A Los Angeles immigration attorney who has been helping Iraqi Armenian refugees resettle in the U.S. writes that her clients tell her that death threats have become so common that terrorist groups have quit writing them by hand. Instead, they use computer-generated forms with their organization's logo and blank spaces where the victim's name is written in.

Another depressing nugget from her essay:

The United States has not liberalized its refugee policy in response to the worsening crisis in Iraq. More than 1 million Iraqi refugees of all religious backgrounds have poured into Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. In fiscal year 2006, just 202 Iraqi refugees were resettled in the United States.