According to Newsweek, it looks like the Senate wants to authorize domestic spying inside the United States:

[T]he Senate Intelligence Committee recently approved broad-ranging legislation that gives the Defense Department a long sought and potentially crucial waiver: it would permit its intelligence agents, such as those working for the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), to covertly approach and cultivate "U.S. persons" and even recruit them as informants—without disclosing they are doing so on behalf of the U.S. government. The Senate committee's action comes as President George W. Bush has talked of expanding military involvement in civil affairs, such as efforts to control pandemic disease outbreaks.

The provision was included in last year's version of the same bill, but was knocked out after its details were reported by NEWSWEEK and critics charged it could lead to "spying" on U.S. citizens. But late last month, with no public hearings or debate, a similar amendment was put back into the same authorization bill—an annual measure governing U.S. intelligence agencies—at the request of the Pentagon. A copy of the 104-page committee bill, which has yet to be voted on by the full Senate, did not become public until last week.

At the same time, the Senate intelligence panel also included in the bill two other potentially controversial amendments—one that would allow the Pentagon and other U.S. intelligence agencies greater access to federal government databases on U.S. citizens, and another granting the DIA new exemptions from disclosing any "operational files" under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). "What they are doing is expanding the Defense Department's domestic intelligence activities in secret—with no public discussion," said Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies, a civil-liberties group that is often critical of government actions in the fight against terrorism

As they say, "no public hearings or debate" on this…

Earlier this afternoon, FEMA chief David Paulison admitted that just a wee bit of waste, fraud, and abuse might have somehow insinuated themselves into the early rush to hand out post-Katrina reconstruction contracts:

Hundreds of millions of dollars worth of federal contracts for Hurricane Katrina recovery that were hurriedly awarded after little or no competition will be rebid, FEMA chief R. David Paulison told a Senate committee today.

Paulison, testifying before a Senate panel investigating the Federal Emergency Management Agency's response to the devastating hurricane, said he has never "been a fan of no-bid contracts."

Well, who is? Besides the companies winning them, of course. As Paulison goes on to say, no-bid contracts have some value; especially when the federal government needs to do something in a hurry, sometimes it's just plain easier—and far more helpful—to hand out contracts to large corporations that have experience rather than haggling over every last dollar. On the other hand, the fact that many of the post-Katrina contracts are now set to undergo a second bidding indicates that speed and efficiency weren't of primary concern here. Plus, there's no reason why FEMA couldn't have held biddings for many of these contracts beforehand—not unreasonable given that, you know, a hurricane striking New Orleans was one of its three major doomsday scenarios—and had these contracts "pre-positioned". Not that we want to play the blame game or anything.

James Dobson is just plain bizarre:

An anguished James Dobson prayed Wednesday for a sign from God, telling his Christian radio listeners he was questioning his early endorsement of Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers.

Dobson, founder of Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family, is one of the most prominent religious conservatives to back Miers, citing his trust in President Bush and a confidential briefing he received about her from the White House.

But in his regular radio broadcast Wednesday, Dobson prayed he was not making a mistake.

"Lord, you know I don't have the wisdom to make this decision," Dobson said. "You know that what I feel now and what I think is right may be dead wrong."

As near as I can guess, Dobson endorsed Miers early on because she was an evangelical, and hailed from a fairly conservative congregation in Dallas, the Valley View Christian Church. But evangelicals are hardly a monolithic bloc, even evangelicals at conservative churches; occasionally you get all sorts of closet liberals, compulsive gamblers, people who think sex and abortion are just fine and dandy, and people who don't care all that much about faith and are just there for the company and coffee bar, all lurking in the pews. Harriet Miers, for instance, has been organizing radical feminist conferences in her spare time, probably not something high on Dobson's list of approved behaviors. Furthermore, as Jon Cohn reported yesterday, the Valley View Christian Church itself underwent a schism of sorts recently, with the Flintstones wing of the congregation breaking away, leaving a more progressive pastor to take the helm, and since then, most of the church's truly fire-breathing positions have been moderated or abandoned. All very mysterious.

So, you know, Dobson really might not have the wisdom to make this call, and he really might be dead wrong when he endorsed her. But who knows? This only emphasizes how stupid this whole "stealth nominee" idea was in the first place. It was bad enough when a prominent religious conservative had "secret information" about Miers that no one else in the public sphere had. But now it seems that even Dobson doesn't know for sure. So the Senate is supposed to assess this nominee how, exactly? The only thing anyone can be truly confident about is that she'll be a pro-administration hack who will, one assumes, happily and irresponsibly vote to expand presidential wartime powers when the opportunity arises. For that alone she deserves blanket rejection, but beyond that, there's just a whole lot of senseless guessing here.

Good news: The Senate voted 90-9 yesterday to pass John McCain's amendments which would "define and limit interrogation techniques that U.S. troops may use against terrorism suspects." Good, and that could go some ways to curbing abuses, depending on potential loopholes, but I'm a bit suspicious here. Why would the majority of Republicans vote to restrict torture; they've never shown any such inclination before. (Look what happened to the Markey Amendment in the House: similar anti-torture provision, defeated by a majority of the House GOP.) The cynical guess here is that the Senate Republicans who voted for thing feel confident that Dennis Hastert and the House leadership will quietly strip McCain's provision out of the final bill when it goes to conference. So everyone can feel good about voting on the record to oppose torture without their votes having any actual consequences. Or as a last resort, Bush can just veto the bill—maybe as a way of boosting his poll numbers among the Rush Limbaugh set. Or perhaps get some favorable Supreme Court ruling, with John Roberts and Harriet Miers in tow, to do whatever he feels like. The battle against torture is far, far from over.

UPDATE: Jack Balkin has the full text of the amendment, and it's much more sweeping than anything else yet passed. It applies to all U.S. personnel, not just the Department of Defense (thus closing the "CIA loophole"), and prohibits "cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment" anywhere in the world.

It was bad enough when Virgil Butler first did his report on the Tyson Chicken plant in Arkansas, which exposed horrific conditions for factory farm hens, as well as poor employee conditions. The resulting publicity made trouble for Tyson, but did nothing to change consumers' buying habits or make them demand an end to factory farm torture.

Now, a Philadelphia-based animal rights group is reporting the results of its undercover investigation of Kreider Farms, a large Pennsylvania egg producer. The Kreider report is similar to the Tyson report: Thousands of chickens are crowded into battery cages, where each has a space of about 4 by 6 inches to live. The hens' feathers are ripped off of their necks in order to push them through the cage bar, which are stacked 3-high, resulting in feces dropping all over each of them.

There are about 300 million hens stacked in battery cages in the United States. The "good" cages provide 16 inches of space for each chicken. They cannot stretch their legs or wings, and they have their beaks cut off to prevent excessive pecking. Debeaking is, as you can imagine, a painful procedure. The hens often suffer from fatty liver syndrome and "cage layer fatigue," which frequently results in death. Many suffer from calcium deficiency.

In 2003, at San Diego's Ward Egg Ranch, more than 15,000 spent laying hens were tossed live into a wood chipper to dispose of them. The San Diego District Attorney refused to prosecute because, he said, this was a "standard industry practice." The male chicks of laying hens are frequently grouond up alive or tossed into a trash heap, where they suffocate.

At some supermarkets, cartons of "free range hen" eggs are sold, but there is no reason to believe that the hens that laid those eggs have it much better than the ones at Kreider Farms or similar egg-producing factories. The only way to be sure that your eggs did not come from brutalized chickens is to buy local yard eggs.

Billions of animals are killed at factory farms in America every year. For those who eat meat, buying factory farm meat not only encourages and supports the most inhumane practices imaginable, it also guarantees that customers will consume significant amounts of hormones that have been injected into the animals.

It looks like the Senate will decide tonight on the fate of Sen. John McCain's proposed amendments to the defense spending bill, both of which would standardize treatment of detainees. According to McCain and others, the odds look good that the amendments will pass:

Republicans, defying President George W. Bush, said on Wednesday they expected the Senate to support imposing standards on the Pentagon's treatment of military detainees in the wake of abuse scandals at Abu Ghraib prison and elsewhere.

The Senate was to vote later in the day on bipartisan amendments to regulate the Pentagon's interrogations and treatment of prisoners and detainees.

President Bush, of course, has promised to veto the bill—which would be his first veto since taking office—if it contained any amendments that would "bar the U.S. military from engaging in 'cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment' of detainees, from hiding prisoners from the Red Cross, and from using interrogation methods not authorized by a new Army field manual." He wouldn't veto a pork-laden highway bill that clocked in at billions of dollars over its proposed budget, but by gun, he'll wave a veto right in the face of the first Senator or Congressman who takes away his right to torture detainees in captivity. We'll have to see who wins this battle—hopefully the president has been so weakened by his foul-ups of late that he won't be able to pitch this battle, but who knows?

VAWA Passes Senate

Late last night, the Senate approved the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), taking a step toward ensuring continued funding for criminal justice programs that advocate for battered women. Amnesty International reports reports that since VAWA originally passed in 1994, designating as federal crimes domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence, and stalking:

  • Rates of domestic violence incidents have dropped by almost 50% and incidents of rape are down by 60%
  • Intimate partners committed fewer murders in each of the 3 years (1996, 1997, and 1998) than in any other year since 1976
  • Although the Senate excluded an amendment proposed by Sens. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) and John Coryn (R-TX) to create a DNA database of federal detainees—including those not convicted of a crime—that issue remains on the table. The House and Senate will soon resolve their differences over the legislation in a joint conference. Read more Mother Jones coverage of VAWA, here, here, and here.

    The Times has a long piece on crime in New York City today, noting that Mayor Mike Bloomberg is pushing to take credit for the massive—and mostly mysterious—20 percent drop in citywide crime since 2001, a decline that has outpaced the rest of the nation. Only towards the end does the piece give a sense that no one really knows why crime has been declining. A few years ago, Andrew Karmen wrote an important book on the decrease in New York City's homicide rate during the 1990s, arguing that neither more effective police measures, nor greater incarceration rates, nor economic development had a decisive effect on crime rates. (Nor was it due to the bold, manly resolve of Rudy Giuliani; see Stephanie Mencimer's review for a summary.) Karmen ended up pointing to four possible explanations: better education, an influx of immigrants (who commit less crime), demographics (criminals getting older), and death (criminals dying out).

    Case closed? Not quite. It's not clear that these four factors applied to, for instance, San Diego or Washington D.C., two other cities that saw a jaw-dropping decrease in homicides during the 1990s. (San Diego tends to get feted often by liberals, who point to its success with community policing.) Nor is it clear that the New York City factors can be extrapolated nationwide. For that, you have Steve Leavitt famously arguing that legalized abortion caused the national crime drop—by leading to fewer unwanted pregnancies, and hence the depletion of a demographic at greater risk of growing up and committing crimes—although his theory isn't, as far as I know, entirely conclusive. Basically, no one really knows what makes crime go away, and the safe, namby-pamby answer is that it seems like you need a whole confluence of factors to cause a decrease; none of which can necessarily trace back to one mayor or set of urban policies. No one will hire me to write campaign slogans for a mayoral race, but there you go.

    On the other hand, the widespread drop in the crime rate does mean two important things, politically. First, crime as an issue, both in urban areas and nationally, has been plummeting lately. A Pew poll way back in January showed that "crime" basically dropped off the map dramatically as a political issue after 9/11, which didn't really spell the death of "law and order" Republicans nationwide—see Jerry Kilgore's campaign in Virginia for an example—but somewhat lessened their influence, which, I think, can only be a good thing. (Indeed, among conservatives, Harriet Miers' bleeding heart views on criminal justice seem to be the least offensive thing about her.)

    More to the point, it can potentially help rally public support around sensible measures to roll back the prison-industrial complex in this country—a complex that has played at most a supporting role in the great crime drop of the 1990s, but brings fairly obvious budgetary and societal costs. Especially with state budget crunches, there's some evidence that voters have had enough. Here in California, opposition to the "Three Strikes" rule nearly passed last fall until Schwarzenegger unleashed his multi-million dollar crusade against Prop. 66. Still, the vote was close. My preferred idea would be to start with parole reform, since, according to a 2002 Justice Department study, of the 51.8 percent of ex-convicts returned to prison, more than half (26.8 percent) are sent back not for committing a new crime, but for violating conditions of their parole (many of which are mere technical violations). That shit ain't right, and the happy part here is that it's not at all impossible to fix some of the most senseless aspects of parole. But one should note that the national homicide rate could just as mysteriously start ticking up again sometime in the near future, provoking an irrational public to support ineffectual "tough on crime" policies once again, so the time to change things is really right now.

    The Republican War on Science
    Chris Mooney Interviewed by Erik Kancler
    How the GOP undermines science in the name of politics

    The Reading Cure
    By Arthur I. Blaustein
    How to Organize a Book Group With a Social Conscience

    Bayou Farewell
    Mike Tidwell Interviewed By Erik Kancler
    The Louisiana Bayou has been sinking for years, and now it's almost gone—taking New Orleans and Cajun culture with it.

    Back in June, many of us were concerned about 16-year-old Zach, whose Christian fundamentalist parents had sent him to a Refuge camp, run by Love In Action International, a group made up of "ex-gays" and their colleages, whose mission is to remove the gay parts from homosexuals. While Zach was at Refuge, there were demonstrations held in Tennessee to protest his forced participation in an organized attempt to turn him into something other than himself.

    In July, The Disenchanted Forest, which has closely followed the Zach case, reported that Love In Action, hearing the rumor that the state of Tennessee was interested in their claim that they offered psychological, drug, and alcohol counseling, suddenly changed their tune and claimed that their only intervention was "faith in Jesus Christ." Their website, however, employed such terms as "therapeutic group," "individual counseling," and--the most damning--"licensed counselors."

    It would have been fraudulent enough if Love In Action had just promised licensed professionals and delivered fundamentalist homophobic nutcakes. But to make matters worse, the organization was also counseling people on how to obtain insurance reimbursement for their "mental health" services.

    In September, Tennessee Guerilla Women reported that the state of Tennessee had determined that Love In Action was illegally treating mentally ill gay men (although one wonders whether any of them was mentally ill other than having the "wrong" sexual orientation). At the time, the state of Tennessee gave Love In Action until September 15 to apply for a license, or be shut down.

    Love In Action received a deferral on the matter, and today, The Disenchanted Forest reports that the organization is defying the authority of the state of Tennessee by claiming that is a faith-based ministry, and as such, does not need to be licensed. There is no word as to whether any insurance companies have sought legal action against the group, though it is clear that insurance fraud was part of the package, and Tennessee has some of the toughest insurance fraud laws in the United States--to be prosecuted, you don't even have to commit insurance fraud, you just have to attempt it.