2005 - %3, September

Investigation On Detainee Abuses Hindered

| Wed Sep. 28, 2005 11:04 AM PDT

Andrew Sullivan has an important post on Ian Fishback, the Army Captain who spoke out against the systematic abuse and beating of detainees in Iraq:

My sources tell me that he has been subjected to a series of long, arduous interrogations by CID investigators. Predictably, the CID guys are out to find just one thing: they want to know the identities of his two or three NCO corroborators. The CID folks are apparently indifferent to the accounts of wrongdoing - telling him repeatedly not to waste their time with his stories. Fishback knows if he gives their identities up, these folks will also be destroyed - so he's keeping his silence, so far.

The investigators imply that he failed to report abuses, so he may be charged, or that he is peddling falsehoods and will be charged for that. They tell him his career in the Army is over. Meanwhile the peer pressure on him is enormous. I'm reliably told that he has been subjected to an unending stream of threats and acts of intimidation from fellow officers. He is accused of betraying the Army, and betraying his unit by bringing it into disrepute. His motives are challenged. He is accused of siding with the enemy and working for their cause. And it goes on and on.

The New York Times has more on the pressure against Fishback to speak out: "[W]hen he took his complaints to his immediate superiors, Captain Fishback said his company commander cautioned him to 'remember the honor of the unit is at stake.' He said his battalion commander expressed no particular alarm."

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GOP Scandals Left and Right

| Wed Sep. 28, 2005 10:22 AM PDT

Okay, so let's see. The House Majority Leader, a Republican, has just been indicted on charges of conspiracy. The Senate Majority Leader, a Republican, is under investigation for insider stock trading. The president's right-hand man, a Republican, is under investigation for outing an undercover CIA agent and perhaps helped Tyco, a company whose CEO has been sent to prison for 25 years, gain a few special legislative favors in 2002. Then we have a top lobbyist, a key cog in the Republican network, possibly connected with a mob killing down in Florida.

Too many scandals to keep track of...

The Voice of a Gay Iranian Torture Victim

Tue Sep. 27, 2005 5:27 PM PDT
"The situation of gays in Iran is dreadful. We have no rights at all. They would beat me up and tell me to confess to things I hadn't done, and I would do it. The gays and lesbians in Iran are under unbelievable pressure -- they need help, they need outside intervention. Things are really bad. Really bad! We are constantly harassed in public, walking down the street, going to the store, going home...anywhere and anywhere, everyone, everyone! One of my dear friends, Nima, commited suicide a month ago in Shiraz. He just couldn't take it anymore. I don't know what's going to happen to me. I've run out of money. I don't know what to do. I just hope they don't send me back to Iran. They'll kill me there."
These are the words of Amir, a 22-year-old gay man from Iran who has recently escaped brutal torture and who is now currently seeking asylum in Turkey. Amir, like many gays and lesbians worldwide suffers from the criminalization of homosexuality.

Recent attention was drawn to Iran's suppression of gay when two teenage boys were executed by hanging.

The estimable Doug Ireland has been bringing continuous up-to-date information on the situation, including an exclusive phone interview with Amir as he awaits his fate in Turkey. If Amir is denied asylum and sent back to Iran, he will most certainly be killed.

For more information, read Doug's article in the latest edition of GayCity News as well as his post at his blog.

Here is an excerpt:

Amir, who grew up with his mother, an older brother and two sisters, says "I've known I was gay since I was about 5 or 6 -- I always preferred to play with girls. I had my first sexual experience with a man when I was 13. But nobody in my family knew I was gay." Amir's first arrest for being gay occurred two years ago. "I was at a private gay party, about 25 young people there, all of us close friends. One of the kids, Ahmed Reza -- whose father was a colonel in the intelligence services, and who was known to the police to be gay -- snitched on us, and alerted the authorities this private party was going to happen. Ahmed waited until everyone was there, then called the Office for Promotion of Virtue and Prohibition of Vice, headed in Shiraz by Colonel Safaniya, who a few minutes later raided the party. The door opened, and the cops swarmed in, insulting us -- screaming 'who's the bottom? Who's the top?' and beating us, led by Colonel Javanmardi. When someone tried to stop them beating up the host of the party, they were hit with pepper spray. One of our party was a trans-sexual -- the cops slapped her face so hard they busted her eardrum and she wound up in hospital. Ahmed Reza, the gay snitch, was identifying everyone as the cops beat us up.

"The cops took sheets, ripped them up and blindfolded us, threw us into a van, and took us to a holding cell in Interior Ministry headquarters -- they knew us all by name," Amir recounts. Iranians live in fear of the Interior Ministry, which has a reputation like that of the former Soviet KGB's domestic bureau, and whose prisons strike fear in people's hearts the way the infamous Lubianka once did. Amir says that, "I was the third person to be interrogated. The cops had seized videos taken at the party, in one of which I was reciting a poem. The cops told me to recite it again. 'What poem?' I said. They began beating me in the head and face. When I tried to deny I was gay, they took off my shoes and began beating the soles of my feet with cables, the pain was excruciating.Read the rest...

Trust Busters

| Tue Sep. 27, 2005 3:42 PM PDT

The other day, discussing Bill Frist's stock scandals, I was all agog that legislators in the United States are allowed to "own or even trade stocks directly" during their time in office. Turns out that Mother Jones ran a story about this very issue just last month:

In June, Rep. Judy Biggert (R-Ill.) introduced legislation designating September as Life Insurance Awareness Month. "Losing a family member is painful enough without encountering new financial difficulties," Biggert said, adding that she hoped her congressional decree would "draw attention to the importance of life insurance to the economic security of all Americans."

Life insurance is certainly important to Biggert's own economic security. According to financial disclosure data filed with Congress, her husband has invested a chunk of the couple's net worth in companies that sell life insurance, among them Aflac, Legg Mason, M&T Bancorp, Wells Fargo, and Synovus Financial Corp. It's impossible to know exactly how much money the Biggerts have invested in the insurance and financial-services sectors, because lawmakers need only list their assets in broad ranges (such as $15,001-$50,000) rather than specific amounts, but the total falls between $502,024 and $1,455,000.

Biggert has another connection to the financial industry: She serves on the House committee in charge of regulating it. Isn't that a conflict of interest? In most government agencies it would be. Federal agency officials are generally prohibited from buying and selling stock in the companies they oversee. But Congress long ago exempted itself from ethics rules regarding investments. At one time this exemption made sense: Farmers wanted to be able to serve on the Agriculture Committee without selling their farms, for example. But many lawmakers now interpret this exception as carte blanche to invest after taking office.

Frist—supposedly—placed his stocks in a "blind trust" for political reasons, because that's what he had promised voters in Tennessee, and not for ethical reasons. Apparently there aren't any ethical requirements to avoid conflicts of interest. Meanwhile, CNN reports that Frist's "blind trust" may not have been so blind after all. (The SEC is investigating whether inside information prompted Frist to dump his HCA stock weeks before the share price tumbled.)

The Art of the Cover-Up

| Tue Sep. 27, 2005 2:10 PM PDT

Marcia Angell gets at the major plot flaw in the Constant Gardner: "Yet the story is based on the premise that a pharmaceutical company would be so threatened by disclosures of its activities that it would have someone killed. That is what is fantasy. In fact, many of the practices that so horrified le Carré's heroine are fairly standard and generally well known and accepted. They seldom provoke outrage, let alone murder. A company like KDH would not kill someone like Tessa even if it were willing to do so; it wouldn't have to. Her concerns would have seemed isolated and futile, and the companies would hardly have taken notice of them."

Good one. The rest of the review is also worth reading.

Structure or Strategy?

| Tue Sep. 27, 2005 12:11 PM PDT

Matthew Yglesias touches on some of the issues raised in Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson's new book, Off-Center, on why congressional elections are so uncompetitive:

As a general matter, gerrymandering is less important to the declining competitiveness of congressional elections than is generally believed. State boundaries haven't changed at all in decades, but Senate races are becoming less competitive, too. The main problem here is that elections are becoming increasingly expensive. Since the parties have only so much cash to spread around, they tend to target only a few races, leaving most of the country grossly uncompetitive.

Well, I'm for public financing, and gerrymander reform, on principle, but one can't rule out a third factor here: namely, that the parties have plenty of cash to spread around, but they spread it around counter-productively. Here's a recent paper by Jonathan Krasno and Donald Green of Yale:

[P]arty campaign committees generally take charge in identifying the hottest races. They interview candidates, evaluate their chances of victory, and establish funding priorities. Their allies among interest groups and private donors follow their lead, opening their wallets for contenders in targeted races while rebuffing less likely candidates. The results of this targeting process are evident in FEC reports. In 2004, 33 challengers spent over $2 million while nearly 200 spent less than $100,000….

Doing so leads, Krasno and Green argue, to diminishing returns:

[I]t is hard to peg the exact point at which the returns from campaign spending become so negligible as to be worthless. Still, it is safe to say for the vast majority of candidates that the impact of expenditures beyond $1 million is heavily attenuated. What that means is simple: spending past $1 million gains far fewer votes (and maybe none at all) than does earlier spending.

Seventy challengers in 2004 spent between $100,000 to $500,000, and 19 of them won at least 40 percent of the vote. Boosting their spending by as little as $50,000 or $100,000 would have a discernable effect on their chances, while increasing expenditures by $500,000 in an expensive race would likely have little effect. Parties ignore long shots because viewed individually no single candidate has a particularly good chance of winning. But as a group, long shots are ripe with possibility because of their numbers and because their low spending gives parties a chance to influence their chances. Targeting overlooks many potential winners....

To be clear, I do think gerrymandering and a lack of publicly-financed campaigns stand in the way democracy, but it also seems likely that Democrats aren't doing all they can to stay competitive in the current system.

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Wholly Bankrupt

| Tue Sep. 27, 2005 10:18 AM PDT

Who's the most compassionate conservative of them all? So tough to decide:

When Congress agreed this spring to tighten the bankruptcy laws and crack down on consumers who took on debt irresponsibly, no one had the victims of Hurricane Katrina in mind.

But four weeks after New Orleans flooded and tens of thousands of other residents of the Gulf Coast also lost their homes and livelihoods, a stricter new personal bankruptcy law scheduled to take effect on Oct. 17 is likely to deliver another blow to those dislocated by the storm.

The law was intended to keep individuals from taking on debts they had no intention of paying off. But many once-solvent Katrina victims are likely to be caught up in the net intended to catch deadbeats.

House Republicans say they see "no reason" to carve out an exemption in the law for Katrina victims. In a way, that makes sense. Once you allow that the bankruptcy law is unfair for those who, through no fault of their own, had all their worldly possessions ripped to shreds by a hurricane, then you also have to allow that the bankruptcy bill is unfair for an uninsured women who blows all her savings to treat cancer, and you have to allow that it's unfair for a man who gets hit by a car and loses his job. There's a reason why House Republicans are having such difficulty with this debate: Once you admit that a relatively predictable hurricane constitutes an event that requires government relief, you also have to admit that lots of human beings endure lots of unexpected accidents and disasters throughout their lives that also require relief, or bankruptcy leniency, or what have you.

Whatever happened at the Superdome and the Convention Center, it wasn't nearly as bad as we were led to believe

| Mon Sep. 26, 2005 4:46 PM PDT

When a FEMA doctor finally arrived at the Louisiana Superdome with a refrigerated 18-wheeler to begin counting and collecting the estimated two hundred bodies, he was surprised to find only six. Of those, four had died of natural causes, one had overdosed, and one had committed suicide. Four other bodies were found outside the Dome. According to both Louisiana National Guard Col. Thomas Beron and officials of the state's Health and Human Services Department, no one was killed.

There were also supposed to be corpses piled inside the Ernest Morial Convention Center, but only four bodies were found there. One of those did indeed appear to have been killed. The Louisiana Health and Human Services Department did repeated searches of both facilities because of the rampant reports that a kind of war had broken out in them, but no one ever found any proof that anything of the kind had happened.

The rumor mill got an exceptionally powerful grind when both New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and New Orleans Chief of Police Eddie Compass told Oprah Winfrey that "hundreds of armed gang members" were inside the Superdome, and that countless bodies lay dead on the floor. Police Chief Compass changed his story from day to day. He told one reporter that the police confiscated thirty weapons from criminals; he told another reporter that the police recovered no weapons.

There was a lot of looting at the Convention Center, and gunfire was heard. It is hard to sort out truth from rumor, and we will never know exactly what took place. What is known is that the National Guard met no resistance when it took control of the facility. Lt. Col. John Edwards of the Arkansas National Guard, said the Guard received no hostility when it entered the building, and in fact, were welcomed by cheering.

Reports of rapes and armed robberies are the hardest to corroborate, according to both Guard officials and others who were there. So many witnesses have come forward to describe what they saw, it seems almost certain that some children were raped. One child molester followed the crowd from the Superdome to the Convention Center, and evacuees told authorities that they were prepared to deal with him if the Guard didn't.

The mainstream news media has been slow to acknowledge that the multiple shootings and rapes were just rumors, and that there were no piles of dead bodies on the Convention Center floor. The image of desperate savages murdering each other as flood waters raged around them is one that easily feeds the hatred that many Americans have of the poor, and especially poor people of color.

One thing is certain. As Louisiana National Guard Lt. Col. Jacques Thibodeaux reported: Both infants and the elderly were close to death, with no food or water, living in filth--a scene that Thibodeaux said shocked soldiers more than anything they had seen in combat zones.

Following the Administration Exiles

| Mon Sep. 26, 2005 3:48 PM PDT

According to the Financial Times, Paul Wolfowitz isn't sending in the World Banks tank divisions to conquer Third World countries after all, as many feared, and in fact, he's become quite the feminist:

An important part of this agenda is a focus on what the bank can do to help empower women in developing countries. Education and healthcare will remain priorities for the bank, but Wolfowitz is likely to focus its efforts on girls and women. "The role of women is something that has hit me very hard pretty much since my time in Indonesia, where you have a reasonably liberated female population in a predominantly Muslim country. And you can see that the country as a whole is the better off for it... It seems to me that it is an almost arithmetic equation that if half of the population is held back, then your development is going to be held back."

Bank insiders say his thinking on this issue may have been influenced by Shaha Riza, a bank employee, Middle East expert and specialist on gender issues, with whom the divorced Wolfowitz has had a relationship for the past couple of years. "I have sympathy for someone who says that the Swedish model or the American model of relatively far-advanced feminism is not necessarily something that even women of other countries want," he says. "But there is a point at which it is more than just a cultural thing and that is a fundamental violation of human rights and a fundamental denial of equality of opportunity, and when you do deny equal opportunity you are trying to run a race with one leg tied, sort of. And often your best leg."

Maybe he could start by having a word with Pakistani president Perez Musharraf.

Interestingly, the FT story claims that Wolfowitz could have had the position of UN Ambassador if he had wanted it. Oddly enough, I can't think of two people more different in temperament than Wolfowitz and the guy who eventually got the job, John Bolton. At the very least, the former actually believes that international institutions can be useful; the latter, for all intents and purposes, does not. But that just lends credence to the theory that Bolton got kicked over to the UN not because the Bush administration wanted someone to tear down the institution, but just because Condoleeza Rice wanted him out of the State Department. At any rate, Bolton seems to be behaving himself at the UN…

What Conflicts of Interest?

| Mon Sep. 26, 2005 1:34 PM PDT

This New York Times story on the budding Bill Frist stock scandal covers most of the main points (also, see ThinkProgress for a damning timeline), but this bit jumped out at me:

Though choosing to create a blind trust might help candidates politically, ethics rules do not require one. Many other government officials and members of Congress own or even trade stocks directly.

Really? On some level, this doesn't much matter—it's not like the fact that Frist owned HCA stock made his already-slavish devotion to the health care industry somehow more slavish. Still, you can see how it might create problems.