Faked Interrogations

Former Army Sgt. Erik Saar has come out of the woodwork to talk about his 7-month long experience as a translator in the Guantanamo detention center. His book, Inside the Wire is scheduled for a May 2nd release. Saar, meanwhile, recently did an interview with CBS discussing his experience at Guantanamo. The book appears to verify a lot of previously-discussed interrogation abuses, including alleged incidents of women sexually harassing detainees as an interrogation strategy. One somewhat new allegation, meanwhile, is that mock interrogations were staged for members of Congress and other visitors to the Guantanamo prison.

Saar said the military chose detainees for the mock interrogations who previously had been cooperative and instructed them to repeat what they had told interrogators in earlier sessions. 'They would ask the interrogator to go back over the same information,' he said, calling it a 'fictitious world' created for visitors.

This isn't entirely surprising. Lawyers who have visited the prison had suspicions that the interrogations were choreographed. But this is disturbing stuff. If Saar's account is true, the whole argument that torture and illegal interrogation procedures occurred because of a lack of concrete rules and oversight becomes moot. If in fact the military was choreographing an "alternate" interrogation procedure for outsiders to see, then it seems obvious that they understood the difference between what was acceptable and what was not.

Some might argue that the military staged these interrogations because they knew that "outsiders" can't understand the circumstances of the war on terror, and are therefore not in a position to understand the lengths that interrogators have to go to. But the fact that Saars, and others, are telling these stories reveals that even those on the inside have difficulty understanding the violence and racism that seem to pervade the "war on terror." In the end, it's probably better for the military to confront these issues head-on (an independent investigation into detainee abuses would be a good start) rather than have disillusioned soldiers continue to circulate insider accounts.

Mark Goldberg has a must-read report online at the American Prospect today. Over the past few weeks, there have been emerging signs that the Bush administration is trying to shirk its moral duty—yes, moral duty—to intervene in Darfur and stop the ongoing genocide there. Unfortunately for the White House, a wide swath of people in Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike, are working hard to pass the Darfur Accountability Act, which would mandate all-crucial steps like establishing a no-fly zone over Darfur and expanding the UN mission to protect civilians. But now, according to Goldberg, the White House has sent a letter to the House trying to strike the Darfur act from the Iraq-Afghanistan supplemental appropriations bill.

Unbelievable. Just... unbelievable.

In this week's New Republic, Jonathan Cohn makes an all-crucial point about Plan B, the morning-after pill, that's being held up by the White House and opposed by conservatives:

When conservatives talk about Plan B, they conjure up images of lust-crazed college girls engaging in one-night stands, then reaching over empty beer bottles to grab their supersized Plan B jars. But the one group to whom emergency contraception would make the greatest difference is rape victims. According to Trussell, who studied statistics from 1998, about 22,000 of the 25,000 women who became pregnant from rape could have prevented pregnancy with emergency contraception.

Unfortunately, the new federal hospital guidelines for rape treatment released in January mysteriously omitted Plan B, even though a previous draft had included it. In Colorado, conservatives have fought efforts to impose a guideline that includes emergency contraceptives. Apparently, elements of the right are so committed to their stark definition of life and so concerned about hypothetical cultural signals that they would prefer rape victims become pregnant than inform them about emergency contraception.

Right, and the "rape victim" aspect often gets lost in this whole discussion. Funny, that. Now if you're the sort of pro-life conservative that believes all abortion is wholly unjustifiable murder, and that even impregnated rape victims should carry their babies to term, well, then this is all perfectly consistent. Oppose away. But most pro-lifers, quite obviously, don't think like that. Even the president holds the odd view that abortion is murder but that in cases of rape, a little murder is okay. Fair enough, but one of the most important uses of the "morning-after" pill is to thwart the sort of pregnancies that Bush has said it's perfectly okay to thwart. The hold-up here is truly appalling.

MORE: Jessica of Feministing has started a good discussion here over whether it makes sense to focus purely on rape victims, since that more or less concedes the main thrust of the pro-choice position (i.e., that all subsets of women should have the right to choose, not just victims of rape or incest). Worth reading.

The Freedom House has put out its latest annual report (pdf) on freedom of the press around the world. Upshot:

Improvements took place in countries where new democratic openings have been achieved or are burgeoning, such as in Ukraine and Lebanon. Several countries in the Middle East showed positive trends.

However, the overall level of press freedom worldwide-as measured by global average score-worsened, continuing a three-year downward trend according to the survey. Notable setbacks took place in Pakistan, Kenya, Mexico, Venezuela, and in the world's most powerful democracy, the United States.

Well, the "United States" bit will probably get a lot of attention, but hey, with prosecutors pressuring journalists to reveal sources and the Bush administration's penchant for paying off journalist/lackeys and pawning off its own propaganda segments as "news," that's what we get. But we knew all of that. Some of the other individual countries highlighted in the report are more interesting—in particular, I'll post the entries for Afghanistan and Iraq below the fold for those interested.

Update on Obrador

Yesterday, the Mexican Attorney General's office was abuzz with talk about Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador being able to head back to work despite his pending felony charges.

The AG's office had originally filed felony charges against Obrador after stripping him of his immunity over a minor incident. (The backdrop here was that the popular Obrador was becoming an electoral threat to the ruling National Action Party; convicting him would make him ineligible to run for office.) Obrador would have had to serve jailtime, but two members of the ruling PAN posted Obrador's bail against his wishes. Leaving Obrador in jail, they feared, would turn him into a martyr and might lead to increased popular demands that he be able to run in the 2006 elections. As it is, this past weekend an estimated 1.2 million people took part in the "March of Silence" in Mexico City to protest what they viewed as a cheap political ploy by the government.

The bail posting, oddly enough, ended up backfiring on the government. The presiding judge declared that the authorities had not followed the "correct procedure in setting the bail for the mayor," and sent the case back to the Attorney General. The AG insisted he would re-file the charges against Obrador. But then the evening brought shocking news. President Fox announced that the Attorney General, Macedo de la Concha, had resigned, along with the Assistant Attorney General, who was overseeing the case against Obrador. President Fox then hinted that he may backpedal, noting that de la Concha's replacement will "exhaustively review the case against the mayor, while seeking to preserve the greatest political harmony in the country."

This all seems highly disingenuous. Not to mention that the sudden turnaround in the government's stance towards Obrador affirms the notion that the movement against Obrador was just a political stunt to begin with. But I'm not complaining. If the charges against Obrador are dropped and he is allowed to run in the 2006 election, this will have been a great victory for the Mexicans who have pushed for democracy. But the government may also be buying some time, waiting until the public simmers down. It's hard to believe that Fox's party teamed up with the other majority party PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party), pushed things this far, and are now simply backing down. It seems likely that we'll see some more clever pre-campaign strategies to keep Obrador out of office, especially since there has been hardly a peep from their democracy-spreading neighbors to the north.

Wow, a new poll reveals that 48 percent of all "business owners" and 49 percent of all "affluent consumers" don't think Social Security phase-out is a good idea. Maybe they realize that financial collapse because of trillions of dollars of new debt really isn't such a good thing after all.

Speaking of which, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has a new analysis of the radical Sununu-Ryan plan for privatization, now being touted by House conservatives who have given up any pretense that "reforming" Social Security is all about fiscal sanity and averting future actuarial imbalances.

The thing to see here is that the Sununu-Ryan plan would require transfers from the general budget of $79 trillion over the next 75 years. In other words, all you need to do is wave a magic wand and pour in trillions of dollars, and you can create a really cool social program! Well, no kidding. Look, if you think Social Security is currently on an "unsustainable course" all because we may need to raise either income or payroll taxes slightly over the next 75 years to continue paying out the full benefits promised by the program, that's one thing. But please note, if the ground rules dictate that we're allowed to transfer $79 trillion over the next 75 years from the general budget to Social Security, then we can pretty much solve any of our current problems three times over. How long before the press realizes that all this carping about "insolvency" by Republicans is really just a red herring?

My biggest complaint with the Republican "free market" approach to economics is that, in practice, it doesn't tend to be all that free. And more to the point, it doesn't seem that most corporations even want a free market. When companies like United are being bailed out to the tune of billions of dollars by the federal government, it's safe to say that corporations need government just as much as the reverse. So when I hear that Big Business wants to do things like pare down the Family Medical Leave Act, on account of it costing too much and being too much government intervention and hampering all that economic potential just ready to explode in an unfettered marketplace, well, excuse me while I roll my eyes and snort.

So the "free market" is not always what it seems, and if we can properly understand just how dependent companies already are on government support, it will lead to less freaking out about certain proposed government regulations. Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research outlines one such proposal today. As we know, health care costs are chugging on upwards. And much of that upward-chug is driven by obscenely high drug prices. But, as Baker points out: "It is not difficult to find ways to reduce drug prices, since the reason that prescription drugs are expensive is that the government grants pharmaceutical companies patent monopolies." A few market reforms, on the other hand, could solve a lot of our cost problems: We simply junk those patent monopolies and instead expand public funding for biomedical research:

The potential savings to the country and the government from having drugs sold at free market prices are enormous. The CMS estimates that the country will spend $521 billion on drugs in 2014. This figure could fall to approximately $160 billion, if drugs were sold in a competitive market. The savings accruing to the federal government alone would be approximately $140 billion a year by 2014, several times more than the additional research spending needed to replace the patent supported research by the pharmaceutical industry.

Now it's true that relying on public spending for research isn't "free market" in the ideal sense of the word, but neither are government-supported patent monopolies. The relevant question is: which method of government meddling will keep costs down and lead to more innovation? At the moment, it seems that patent-protected pharmaceutical companies aren't doing much innovating on their own; as Marcia Angell once pointed out: "Of the seventy-eight drugs approved by the FDA in 2002, only seventeen contained new active ingredients, and only seven of these were classified by the FDA as improvements over older drugs." If the Baker approach can yield serious savings, there's no reason not to do it—it's simply swapping one form of government intervention for another, more efficient one.

Where Are the Fact-Checkers?

One year after the Abu Ghraib scandal first broke, the Wall Street Journal has come out with a disturbing op-ed on the subject. Reading through it, I was struck by how much information was incorrect. My personal favorite is, "No evidence has been produced to support allegations that the abuses were 'systematic' or that they were inspired or condoned by superiors up the chain of command." Umm, what rock has the Wall Street Journal been under? Rather than rant on and provide a counterpoint to their every point, I'll take a tip from the Journal's article: "Unpacking so many falsehoods takes more space than we have." Indeed. So, I refer you to the Human Rights Watch report released today, since they're not as concerned with how much space it takes them to unpack falsehoods. And, if you're so inclined, send a copy of Mark Danner's Torture and the Truth to the Wall Street Journal; they could use the background information, apparently.

What Does it Mean to Win?

Are we winning the war in Iraq? That was the question a cheeky reporter asked General Richard Myers after the latter told the press that the Iraqi insurgency is carrying out the same number of attacks—50 to 60 a day—as it was a year ago. Donald Rumsfeld decided to field the question, remarking:

The United States and the coalition forces, in my personal view, will not be the thing that will defeat the insurgency. So therefore, winning or losing is not the issue for 'we,' in my view, in the traditional, conventional context of using the word 'winning' and 'losing' in a war. The people that are going to defeat that insurgency are going to be the Iraqis.

What's that? Shades of grey? Subtleties? Complexities? Who knew that Rumsfeld had it in him? Myers was quick to qualify this refreshingly candid outburst: "I think we are winning, okay? I think we're definitely winning. I think we've been winning for some time." Rather than kick Rumsfeld for this chink in his absolutist armor, we should welcome the honesty in his comment. In fact, it raises the most important question facing our troops in Iraq—which is that if "we" aren't the ones who are going to defeat the insurgents, when (and how) are we going to go home and leave it to the Iraqis? Essentially, what does "winning" mean in this new, unconventional context we're in? Damn that Myers for his intervention. We could have been getting somewhere…

What UN Reform?

The Washington Post today has an interesting tidbit: apparently the Bush administration wants to hold a floor vote on its almost-derailed nominee for ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, even if his nomination gets sunk in committee. As Laura Rozen says, "If they can't win playing by the rules, then their next move is ... to change the rules." But reading down to the end of the Post story, it seems the White House wants to do something else with a floor vote on Bolton:

Dan Bartlett, a senior adviser to Bush, said the president is eager for a floor fight over the United Nations and the need to shake it up. "A vote for John Bolton will be a vote for change at the United Nations," he said. "A vote against will be for the status quo. The president believes the status quo is unacceptable and wants a person . . . who will be an agent for change."

Right. The White House wants to let the United Nations know that it should be afraid, very afraid, to mess with the United States of frickin' America. But all this talk about "a vote for change" strikes me as a bit of a red herring. What change? As far as I know, the Bush administration hasn't proposed a single reform to the UN. We know the White House got upset that members of the United Nations were allowed to oppose the war in Iraq, and there's a bit of mock outrage over Oil-for-Food—please, if conservatives were this upset about multimillion dollar scandals, embezzlements, and private contractor corruption, I can think of any number of examples closer to home they might get frazzled over—but nothing in the way of actual ideas for changing things up.

Kofi Annan himself is the only major world leader genuinely trying to shake things up, and there's no reason to believe that John Bolton, a man who thinks international institutions are flat-out useless, will help things along in this regard.