Strangely absent from the recent coverage of Pelosi's past knowledge of U.S. torture policies is any acknowledgement that this story is old news. Really old news. Way back in December, 2007, the Washington Post ran a piece headlined, "Hill Briefed on Waterboarding in 2002." It hit Pelosi with the exact same allegations that have been so breathlessly reported as of late:
In September 2002, four members of Congress met in secret for a first look at a unique CIA program designed to wring vital information from reticent terrorism suspects in U.S. custody. For more than an hour, the bipartisan group, which included current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), was given a virtual tour of the CIA's overseas detention sites and the harsh techniques interrogators had devised to try to make their prisoners talk.
So what's new? For one, Republicans are under intense moral and political threat and see a chance divert responsibility for their misdeeds back to Democrats.
To be sure, Pelosi should have taken action against U.S. torture policies as soon as she was briefed on them. And she's now paying the price for being too politically cowardly—or opportunistic—to address this issue head-on when the Post broke the story back in 2007. But it's disingenuous for the press and Pelosi's political rivals to feign outrage over what Pelosi knew and when. What did they know and when? Assuming they read the news, why didn't they make an issue of this back in 2007?
One politician did make an issue of the Post story at the time. Cindy Sheehan, the Peace Mom, ran a quixotic campaign against Pelosi for her House seat last year, and garnered 16 percent of the vote and very little press. Key to her electoral strategy was capitalizing on liberal outrage—surprisingly tepid outrage, it turned out—over what Pelosi knew. She even called for Pelosi to be stripped of her leadership post over the news. "I was appalled and really saddened," Sheehan told me at the time. "We can't be represented by a person like this."
With Sheehan's failed challenge in mind, it's hard to put credence in today's New York Timesstory on Pelosi's political fate, which quotes Bay Area resident Delphine Langille of San Ramon: "I'm very skeptical of what she's saying, Langille told the Times on the steps of San Francisco City Hall, "and when she goes to get re-elected, this could really damage her credibility." Yeah right. There's simply no way a Republican could ever mount a viable challenge in San Francisco, no way the Democratic establishment would ever try, and no way--as we've seen--that a third party outsider will take her down.
Politics is morally mushy business. The political climate was clearly more pro-torture back in 2002 than it is now. A braver politician might have spoken out sooner, but also might not have risen to the Speaker post. The interesting thing about San Franciscans is that they are politically sophisticated enough to entertain a race like Sheehan's while also voting for a pragmatist like Pelosi. And they can certainly distinguish between the moral clarity—or absolutism—of someone like Sheehan, and the immoral opportunism of liberal-come-lately Republicans. Let's hope the press and the rest of the nation eventually figure this out too.
IN AUGUST 1987, the National Park Service tore up the White House's South Lawn and tilled in heaps of a new, locally produced fertilizer. The weedy plot's transformation into a carpet of green caught gardeners' attention, and soon there was a waiting list to buy bags of ComPRO, a compost made from nearby wastewater plants' solid effluent, a.k.a. sewage sludge. Four years later, dumping sewage into the ocean was banned, and sludge went national. The Environmental Protection Agency launched a PR push to rebrand it as an all-purpose soil conditioner and fertilizer it innocuously called "biosolids." If sludge was good enough for the first family, the agency reminded us, then surely it was good enough for the rest of America. "The Clintons are walking around on poo," the EPA's sludge chief quipped in 1998. "But it's very clean poo."
Today, more than half the 15 trillion gallons of sewage Americans flush annually is biologically scrubbed, "dewatered," and processed into products with names like BioEdge, Nitrohumus, and Vital Cycle and spread on farmland, lawns, and home vegetable gardens. (The rest is incinerated or landfilled.) Recycling sewage is big business: In 2007 the Carlyle Group paid $772 million for the sludge-residuals company Synagro, whose products are the most popular on the market. Sludge could be the ultimate growth industry; as one trade publication observes dryly, "There will continue to be more wastewater solids to manage with every passing year."
San Francisco Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi wants the city to get into the drug dealing business by opening up a city-run medical marijuana dispensary. Though the law's as likely to pass as Cheech Marin is to sponsor a major public art exhibition--or something like that--it has at least been good for a chuckle: "The mayor will have to hash this out with public health officials," a spokesman for Mayor Gavin Newsom told the SF Chronicle. "It's the mayor's job to weed out bad legislation, and to be blunt, that sounds pretty bad."
Shortly before the inauguration of President Barack Obama, the manager of a Whole Foods grocery store in the San Francisco Bay Area gathered his employees in a conference room for a chat about labor organizing. “This is not a union-bashing thing whatsoever,” the manager began, adding, however, that he’d called the meeting because Whole Foods believed Obama would sign the Employee Free Choice Act, legislation intended to ease unionization that was opposed by the company’s lobbyists. According to a tape of the meeting obtained by Mother Jones, the manager went on to imply that joining a union would lead to reprisals: “It’s interesting to note that once you become represented by the union,” he said, “basically everything, every benefit you have, is kind of thrown out the window, and you renegotiate a contract.”
"I think it’s probably fair to construe [that comment] as a threat,” concluded Tim Peck, a representative of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in San Francisco, after Mother Jones read him quotes from the meeting, one of several anti-union trainings held by the company in recent months. Peck pointed out that labor law bars employers from threatening to strip benefits from workers in retaliation for unionizing. “The ‘flying out the window’ [comment] kind of suggests that the benefits are gone,” he noted. Legally, “that wouldn’t pass muster.”
Senator Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico has just introduced a mining reform bill in the Senate, bringing Congress one step closer to updating the nation's most outdated public lands law, the General Mining Law of 1872. A similar bill from House stalled in the Senate last year, where Majority leader Harry Reid, the son of a gold miner, has been a powerful ally of the hard rock minerals industry. Mining companies are still allowed to remove minerals from public lands without paying a cent in federal royalties. As I reported in a recent profile of Reid, Nevada remains an anachronism in a region that is becoming much less tolerant of the America's most polluting industry.
Bingaman's bill is less progressive than a similar House measure, but might win key support from Reid and moderate Republicans. According to Velma Smith, the manager of the Pew Campaign for Responsible Mining, the bill proposes reducing the House's proposed 8 percent royalty to something between 2 and 5 percent, to be set at the discretion of the Department of Interior. It would also impose a reclamation fee of .3 to 1 percent.
In what's been a keen interest of Bingaman's, the bill also asks the National Academy of Sciences to perform a study on uranium mining. Smith says uranium, which is the only energy mineral overseen by the mining law, may be moved to a leasing system. Environmentalists have been concerned that mining on any one of 1,200 uranium mining claims along the Colorado River could pollute the water supply for Las Vegas and Southern California.
In other important respects, the Senate and House bills are the same. Both call for stricter environmental permitting of mines, better ways for lands to be set off-limits to mining, and more financial assurances that mining companies will clean up after themselves. The cost of cleaning up abandoned mines in the U.S. is now estimated to be at least $32 billion.
Will Reid support the bill? "I really don’t know," Smith says. "My sense was that Senator Bingaman's office took a long time vetting this with a lot of people. I don’t see this as an extreme bill by any means. So I think there’s a chance for the industry and environmentalists to come together."