2006 - %3, July

Halliburton: No Bid, No Dice

| Wed Jul. 12, 2006 1:18 PM EDT

About three years too late, the Army is dumping Halliburton Co., Dick Cheney's old company, as the provider of first, second, and third resort (no questions asked, no cost too high) provider of logistical support to U.S. troops worldwide. (Washington Post)

A reminder of why that arrangement, in effect since 2001, has proved less than ideal:

Under the deal, Halliburton had exclusive rights to provide the military with a wide range of work that included keeping soldiers around the world fed, sheltered and in communication with friends and family back home. Government audits turned up more than $1 billion in questionable costs. Whistle-blowers told how the company charged $45 per case of soda, double-billed on meals and allowed troops to bathe in contaminated water.

The Post reports that last year the Army paid Kellogg, Brown & Root, the Halliburton subsidiary that performs this work, more than $7 billion under the contract, with $4-5 billion coming this year. An Army official says the company did a bang-up job and the decision reflects a desire not to have "'all our eggs in one basket' because multiple contractors will give them better prices, more accountability and greater protection if one contractor fails to perform." (It took them this long to figure that out?)

For more on Halliburton, see Ed Harriman's unsparing examination of the Iraq reconstruction boondoggle in the London Review of Books and Michael Scherer's look at the company's global reach in Mother Jones.

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Geneva Conventions: More Bush PR

| Wed Jul. 12, 2006 11:41 AM EDT

WASHINGTON—Yesterday's embrace of the Geneva Conventions by the Pentagon isn't likely to change much of anything. But it can mean plenty of trouble for top Bush officials, including Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who had conveniently gone to Iraq to be with the troops.

That's because the Pentagon brass have speculated among themselves that adherence to Geneva could end up exposing top administration officials to war crimes charges.

There are a number of loopholes in the Pentagon announcement, which render it more of a PR exercise than anything else. "I'm really chuckling away reading all these headlines about how the adminstration's done an about face, an 180 degree turn, to which I say I'll believe it when I see it," said Scott Horton, professor of international law at Columbia University and an expert on human rights issues. A few loopholes:

*Even if the CIA is brought in under this ruling, it is unlikely the Agency will be prevented from sending prisoners to jails in other countries. The government can argue the US has no control over what happens to such prisoners.

*While the Supreme Court's decision symbolically gave all prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay the rights afforded to them by the Geneva Convention, it also leaves an opening for Congress to introduce new legislation and essentially reinstate the military tribunals that were just deemed unconstitutional. As the Washington Times reports, "Now it is up to Congress to create a judicial system that meets Geneva's requirement for a regularly constituted court system, but does not, in the Pentagon's view, give detainees all the rights afforded a criminal defendant in the U.S."

*According to White House Spokesman Tony Snow, about 100 of the 450 prisoners being held at Gitmo will now be able to return to their homelands, but there's a catch: many of these inmates, particularly those from Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, are enemies of their own governments and would undoubtedly be re-imprisoned or killed as soon as they set foot on their native soil. Our government might then be obligated to grant these "terrorists" political asylum in U.S.

Such a directive has apparently been under consideration for some time, but has met resistance at high levels of the Pentagon -- particularly by undersecretary of defense for intelligence Stephen Cambone and the Defense Department's general counsel William Haynes, who rejected the idea of establishing an official DOD policy to ensure that detainees were treated in accordance with Common Article Three. As described in an article by the New Yorker's Jane Mayer, though "military officers argued for returning the U.S. to what they called the high ground" during a Pentagon meeting held last year, Haynes and Cambone "argued that the articulated standard would limit America's 'flexibility.' It also might expose Administration officials to charges of war crimes: if Common Article Three became the standard for treatment, then it might become a crime to violate it. Their opposition was enough to scuttle the proposal."

--The staff of Mother Jones' Washington bureau

Could he be talking about Karl Rove?

| Wed Jul. 12, 2006 2:11 AM EDT

Fresh on the heels of revelations that he warned the Bush administration not to keep secret spying programs from Congress' intelligence committees, Rep. Peter Hoekstra is suggesting that terrorists, or their friends, are behind recent intelligence leaks. (Thanks to Laura Rozen.)

"More frequently than what we would like, we find out that the intelligence community has been penetrated, not necessarily by al Qaeda, but by other nations or organizations," Hoekstra tells Reuters. "I don't have any evidence. But from my perspective, when you have information that is leaked that is clearly helpful to our enemy, you cannot discount that possibility."

Of course the whole spy/counterspy scenario is real--but to assume that foreign spies are passing secrets to the media to undermine the war on terror... like the man said, "I don't have any evidence."

Next assignment: Enron

| Wed Jul. 12, 2006 1:54 AM EDT

Having failed to sort out the mess that is the Indian Trust Fund, the Department of the Interior has finally gotten rid of Judge Royce Lamberth, the source of such memorable pronouncements as:

"This Court need not sit supinely by waiting, hoping that the Department of Interior complies with the orders of this Court and the fiduciary obligations mandated by Congress.... To do so would be futile. I may have life tenure, but at the rate the Department of Interior is progressing that is not a long enough appointment."

More on the $176 billion mismanagement case here.

Setbacks For Gay Marriage Rights

Wed Jul. 12, 2006 12:38 AM EDT

A California appeals court heard arguments yesterday to determine the constitutionality of a state law defining marriage as the union between one man and one woman (Los Angeles Times). The arguments presented were pretty much what we're used to hearing by now: gay couples implored the court to uphold their right to happiness and equality (as promised to them by the constitution), while opponents offered their scroll of reasons why marriage plus gay equals certain decay.

California Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer went as far as to say that the ban should remain intact since gays "already enjoy many of the rights of the married under the state's domestic partner law," but one member on the court's three-judge panel took a different view--that separate domestic partner law is, well, inherently unequal. We'll likely have to wait until October to see how this one pans out.

Meanwhile, Massachusetts' top court approved a proposed amendment defining marriage as a strictly hetero institution, thus paving the way for the state's legislature to get the amendment on the 2008 ballot.

Massachusetts is currently the only state that extends to same-sex couples the right to marry. All eyes will be on the constitutional convention this Wednesday where legislators will vote on the amendment (a quarter of the legislators will have to approve, and then do the same again next year, for the initiative to go on the ballot).

Israel Tightens the Noose Further

Tue Jul. 11, 2006 6:50 PM EDT

For years now, human rights organizations have decried Israel's restrictions on Palestinians' freedom of movement inside the Occupied Territories (called "unprecedented…in their scope, time, and severity of damage they cause to the three and a half million Palestinians" by the Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem).

Now Haaretz, the liberal Israeli daily, has reported that the noose has been tightened even further in recent months: Palestinians with foreign citizenship, including Palestinian-Americans, are being denied entry into Israel (and, by extension, the Territories) altogether. According to the report, most of those denied are residents of the Occupied Territories, traveling on foreign passports because Israel has revoked their citizenship.

By various estimates, the ban has so far affected several thousand American and European nationals, whom Israel has kept from returning to their homes and jobs, or from visiting their families in the West Bank. This could potentially impact many more thousands who live in the territories—including university instructors and researchers, employees working in various vital development programs and business owners—as well as thousands of foreign citizens who pay annual visits to relatives there. The policy also applies to foreigners who are not Palestinian but are married to Palestinians, and to visiting academics.
The Israeli Interior Ministry has not actually acknowledged the ban, making its motivations hard to gauge. But according to Electronic Intifada, the conservative Israeli daily Maariv has explained, "According to the plan, the IDF will declare Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] closed to foreign nationals. Denying entry to… activists has been defined as prevention of political subversion and involvement of members of the movement in acts of terrorism, and limitation of friction with Jewish settlers."

The rationale appears to be that Jewish settlers in the Occupied Territories have more right to be there than Palestinian-born professors and aid workers. If history is any guide, the chance to blame Palestinians for the lack of civil society and infrastructure that results will just be the icing on the cake.

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Zidane a victim of racism? Maybe - but not so fast

| Tue Jul. 11, 2006 6:40 PM EDT

Having written a column before the World Cup worrying that racism, in the form of ugly taunts and gestures (and worse) from fans, would mar the competition, and then having seen those fears largely unfulfilled, Dave Zirin, writing at Alternet, seeks to salvage his thesis on the strength of speculation re: l'affaire Zidane. He argues that if, as has been reported, the lavishly tattooed Italian defender Marco Materazzi called Zinedine Zidane, a Muslim of Algerian descent, "a dirty terrorist"--which Materazzi denies--well, then, Italy should hand back the cup.

This makes for an impassioned column, no doubt, but there's a problem. Armies of lip readers ("international lip readers," no less) have been marshaled to decipher the insult leveled at Zidane, and they've come up with a bewildering array of suggestions. Some say Materazzi wished for Zidane and his family an ugly death; others that he insulted the French player's sister; and still others that he told "the balding playmaker" to go fuck himself. I know enough Italian to be reasonably confident these phrases aren't easily confused--so...I don't think much of international lip readers.

Undeterred by the speculative (and agenda-advancing?) quality of the crap flying around about the incident, Zirin takes his opening. (Not a huge deal, but he seems to think Zidane's nickname is Zissou; it's actually Zizou.)

But then in the final act, at the moment of most exquisite tension, it seems racism may have actually emerged from the shadows. I, for one, am damn glad that when it did, it ran smack into Zissou's beautiful head.

We don't know with iron certainty what Materazzi said, but if it turns out to be more of the anti-Black, anti-Muslim, garbage that has infected soccer like a virus, the Italian team should forfeit the cup. They should voluntarily give the greatest trophy of them all back to FIFA as a statement that some things in this world are more important than sports. Racism will be the death of soccer if things don't change. Italy can set the sport back on course, with one simple, stunning gesture. Give the damn thing back.

Racism is a big problem in soccer, no question. But maybe we could hold off on these kinds of stirring summons until the evidence is in, especially when they involve demonizing a guy, Materazzi, who might be guilty of nothing more than standard-variety trash talking, and fanning an already incendiary debate that touches on the most sensitive civilizational and religious divide of our times.

Slapping the *#@! out of copyright violators

| Tue Jul. 11, 2006 6:22 PM EDT

U.S. District Judge Richard P. Matsch has ordered the copyright violators known as "film sanitizers" to cease and desist their activities. Those who scrub DVDs and VHS tapes of what they consider objectionable material are in violation of the studios and directors who own the film rights, Matsch ruled on Thursday.

The companies named in the Denver lawsuit included CleanFlicks, Play It Clean Video and Clean Films. These companies remove profanity, sexual scenes and graphic violence from films and then rent and sell the edited versions. Around ninety video stores, half of them in Utah, rent CleanFlicks movies to customers.

"Their (studios and directors) objective ... is to stop the infringement because of its irreparable injury to the creative artistic expression in the copyrighted movies,'' the judge wrote. ''There is a public interest in providing such protection.''

Judge Matsch has ordered the companies to turn their inventories over to the appropriate movie studios within five days of the ruling.

Report Your Neighbors

| Tue Jul. 11, 2006 6:15 PM EDT

Ever wonder if that jittery guy down the street is really a speed freak? If you lived in Tennessee, you wouldn't have to. Authorities there recently launched a website listing state residents convicted of methamphetamine offenses– searchable by name or address. Why only people involved with this single drug and not, say, murderers or rapists? Well, that's what Jack Shafer calls the moral panic over meth for you.

And then there's illegal immigration, which outrages some private citizens so much that they've set up a similar database
where Minuteman-types can post the names and addresses of anyone they suspect of being undocumented.

All of which ought to make things easier for any excitable vigilantes out there – like the guy in Maine who murdered two sex offenders whose addresses he found on the state's online database.

Defending a Free Press

| Tue Jul. 11, 2006 5:23 PM EDT

"When in Doubt, Publish." That's the title of an essay defending the New York Times' decision to run the SWIFT story. "We believe that in the case of a close call, the press should publish when editors are convinced that more damage will be done to our democratic society by keeping information away from the American people than by leveling with them."

I fully agree, and I'd emphasize one point here: The government for too long has abused its classification system. Things that should never be secret are kept bottled up for years for bizarre and purely arbitrary reasons. (The CIA's budget from 1947 is still classified, even though, for instance, the 1998 budget is public.) There's often no reason to trust an official request that this or that be kept out of the papers—and less so with this administration, which has elevated wanton secrecy to an art form. If the government wants to persuade journalists that some state secrets are too sensitive and too important to divulge, then it should stop needlessly keeping secret so many things that don't fall under that category. A clearer line would help everyone here.

UPDATE: Jay Rosen has a very good post on this subject that's worth reading in full.