Mojo - April 2006

Amnesty Offers New Evidence on Rendition

Wed Apr. 5, 2006 1:42 PM PDT

Last week Diane noted that Amnesty International was set to release evidence proving the CIA used private aircraft operators and front companies to hide its rendition flights. The report is now public, and it gives numerous firsthand accounts from individuals who were flown on nearly 1,000 flights directly linked to the CIA and taken to "black sites" where they were extensively tortured and detained in "complete isolation, in cells measuring about 2m x 3m," and "permanently shackled to a ring fixed in the floor."

According to one account, prisoners were transported somewhere in Eastern Europe, where "all of the guards and officials were Americans" and "the men were never allowed outside, or even to look through a window," while "temperatures were colder than any they had ever known."

According to Condoleeza Rice, "The United States has not transported anyone, and will not transport anyone, to a country when we believe he will be tortured." But she says nothing about potential transport to "blacksites" or renditions conducted by other governments. To this she states, "where appropriate, the United States seeks assurances that transferred persons will not be tortured." But as Amnesty International points out, "if the practice of torture and ill-treatment in custody is so great that the USA must seek assurances that the receiving state will not behave as it normally does, then the risk is obviously too great to permit the transfer."

Swiss authorities have already confirmed Amnesty's report that six CIA flights landed in Switzerland. Dick Marty, the Swiss senator investigating allegations of secret CIA prisons on behalf of the Council of Europe, welcomed the report. "Interestingly the research was done by civil society and not by the government," he noted. Interesting indeed.

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Privacy Issues Arise in HIV Case

Wed Apr. 5, 2006 12:34 PM PDT

The California Supreme Court is currently hearing an interesting case with potentially far-reaching implications: A woman identified only as "Bridget B." is suing her ex-husband for infecting her with HIV, claiming that she had the right to know that she was at risk of exposure to the disease. The case hinges on the fact that Bridget's ex-husband waited over a year into their marriage to tell her he had previously engaged in sexual relations with men—an action considered "high risk behavior."

The defense claims that the ex-husband in question, "John B.", should be absolved of any responsibility because, while he may have known about his own sexual past, he wasn't aware that he was HIV-positive. A ruling on the case could set a precedent for what sexual partners do and don't have to disclose to each other—the defense argues that should it lose the case, all Californians could potentially be forced to "divulge all past sexual conduct that posed any remote possibility of a contagious disease." The court will hand down a decision within 90 days.

Shocking: Tax Cuts Go to the Wealthy

| Wed Apr. 5, 2006 11:33 AM PDT

In the New York Times today, David Cay Johnston has some data to back up what many people have been saying all along—that Bush's 2003 tax cuts on dividends and other investment income mostly benefited the very wealthy:

Americans with annual incomes of $1 million or more, about one-tenth of 1 percent all taxpayers, reaped 43 percent of all the savings on investment taxes in 2003. The savings for these taxpayers averaged about $41,400 each…

[By contrast, t]hose making less than $50,000 saved an average of $10 more because of the investment tax cuts, for a total of $435 in total income tax cuts, according to the computer model. Meanwhile, Johnston reports that the usual administration line on these tax cuts—that lower taxes on investment will lead to more investment—may not even be true, according to the non-partisan Congressional Research Service. (In fact, they may even lead to lower savings because "people need fewer investments to earn the same after-tax income.) So much for that rationale. But hey, at least the tax cuts were good for growth. No, wait, that's probably not true. Okay, well at least they were affordable and didn't blow a hole in the federal budget. No, that's not true either. Um...

Senate president's son sodomizes 18 boys, is not charged with sexual assault

| Tue Apr. 4, 2006 8:44 PM PDT

Clifton Bennett, 18-year-old son of Arizona state Senate president Ken Bennett, and his friend, 19-year-old Kyle Wheeler, were charged in January of 18 counts of aggravated assault and 18 counts of kidnapping. The charges refer to incidents which occurred at a boys' student government leadership skills camp in June of 2005, at which Bennett confesed that he and Wheeler sodomized several 11- to 14-year-old boys with broomsticks and flashlights in 40 separate incidents.

Wheeler has an additional assault charge based on his choking three boys until they passed out.

Yesterday, the pair was offered a plea agreement that will include no record of sexual assault; they will likely receive 90-day jail sentences, though the judge could reduce the charges and give them no jail time at all.

According to the victims' parents, the boys are having some type of colonic difficulty, they are sleeping with their clothes on, are afraid at night, and have received sexual assault-related counseling. However, the prosecutor told the judge that the "broomsticking" was a "hazing ritual" and a punishment for breaking rules, not sexual assault. The assaults, he said, were not viewed as sexual in nature because the prosecution could not prove that the perpetrators had "sexual intent." One has to wonder how this prosecutor does with other rape cases.

Bennett is an honor student and an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. If convicted of a felony, he would not be allowed to go on a planned church mission in September.

Immigration, Penalties, Incentives

| Tue Apr. 4, 2006 7:25 PM PDT

Mark Kleiman makes yet another good point about immigration here. Immigration reform bills that increase penalties for illegal immigrants themselves—like Jim Sensenbrenner's bill which would make residing in this country illegally a felony—will only make it harder to penalize the actual businesses who hire illegal immigrants, because the undocumented workers will be deterred from doing any whistle-blowing. And it's hard to catch companies breaking the law without whistleblowers.

Meanwhile, steep penalties that deter illegal immigrants from testifying or complaining about their work conditions only makes them more attractive to employers, more likely to be hired, and more likely to be exploited—which contributes heavily towards depressing wages for native workers. Finally, as Kleiman points out, steep penalties for makes them more likely to become the victims of crime—since they're less likely to report anything to the police, for fear of deportation.

If Congress really wanted to slow down illegal immigration, they'd give the immigrants themselves every incentive to blow the whistle on companies hiring illegal immigrants—perhaps by granting citizenship to any immigrant who can she that he or she was illegally hired by a company—and then levy very steep penalties on law-breaking firms. The problem is that the businesses themselves tend to have well-paid lobbyists who can stop these sorts of provisions and penalties, while undocumented voters don't have, for obvious reasons, much of a voice in Congress.

Toxic Soil in New Orleans

Tue Apr. 4, 2006 7:11 PM PDT

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, some 25,000 barrels of mixed crude oil spilled in St. Bernard Parish last year from a tank that floated off from its base at Murphy Oil Corp. Now residents are seeing residue in their groundwater, and tests show their soil iscontaminated with unusually high levels of diesel and arsenic. In the area around the spill, one-third of 53 soil samples showed diesel fuel content exceeding state regulations.

Up until now, little has been done to solve the problem. The Louisiana Bucket Brigade, a non-profit dedicated to monitoring oil refineries and chemical plants, says the EPA refuses to acknowledge the potential for these toxins to have a greater effect the community. According to LBB:

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Shilling for HSAs

| Tue Apr. 4, 2006 5:11 PM PDT

In the New York Times yesterday, Allan Hubbard, director of the National Economic Council, made the usual flimsy arguments for Health Savings Accounts—Bush's plan to "reform" health care. I thought this plan was mostly dead-on-arrival, but perhaps the administration's making a renewed push. Well, in that case, everyone should re-read Jon Cohn's article in The New Republic on why HSAs are a terrible idea—they shift risk from the healthy to the sick, perversely. But we can do the short version here. Hubbard:

Health care is expensive because the vast majority of Americans consume it as if it were free. Health insurance policies with low deductibles insulate people from the cost of the medical care they use — so much so that they often do not even ask for prices.
Well, even if this was true, HSAs wouldn't change a thing. The general and widely-quoted rule of thumb is that 20 percent of the population is responsible for 80 percent of the nation's health care costs. The people in this 20 percent, those who tend to go in for major surgery and emergency care and the like, will almost always rack up costs well over the $2,000 deductible they'd have with an HSA, after which their catastrophic coverage will kick in. And once that happens, they'll be consuming health care "as if it were free."

So HSAs won't have the slightest effect Hubbard's talking about on the vast majority of health care spending in the United States. At the margins, you might see some savings—that is, ignoring all the other problems with HSAs. But fundamentally? They won't address rising health care costs. (At any rate, rising health care costs in the future are likely inevitable—a natural consequence of the fact that health care keeps improving and people want to use it to live longer and healthier. The key question will be how to make sure that health care is more or less equitable, which is not remotely the case at the moment—and HSAs won't do a thing about that.)

MORE: Here's a good Wall Street Journal piece on how Hubbard has started a new push to sell HSAs to the public. The Times op-ed, apparently, is just the start.

Abramoff Offered His Services to Sudan

Tue Apr. 4, 2006 3:08 PM PDT

Adding to the laundry list of unethical behavior by lobbyist Jack Abramoff is the new discovery that he attempted to sell his "services" to the destitute and crooked Sudanese government. Abramoff and his camp are denying the story, but according to eyewitnesses the lobbyist wanted to help Sudan improve its image during a genocide that has left more than 400,000 dead.

That's no easy task, granted, which must explain the alleged $16-18 million price tag that Abramoff was charging. At the moment, Abramoff is headed to jail for fraud, tax evasion and conspiring to bribe public officials, which includes bilking an estimated $66 million out of Native American tribes.

According to Sudan's ambassador and a prior Abramoff aide, the idea for a grassroots image campaign dates back to 2002 when Abramoff wanted to retain the services of Christian Coalition front man Ralph Reed to help convince evangelicals—who have often put pressure on the administration over Sudan—to back off a little. The former aide said, "Abramoff waved two videotapes at me that were made by a Christian-rights organization and said that the tapes showed the need for Sudan to have Washington representation that could relieve this kind of pressure."

Amnesty International says CIA used private airlines for rendition

| Mon Apr. 3, 2006 8:03 PM PDT

According to The Raw Story, Amnesty International is about to release evidence that the CIA utilized private aircraft operators and front companies to hide its rendition flights. The report presents locations throughout the world from which rendition flights landed and took off.

The countries that allowed the CIA to crross their airspace and use their airports cite the Chicago Convention, or Convention on International Civil Aviation, which allows private non-commercial flights to fly over a country without giving prior notification. Under this convention, states lack the authority to question why a private, non-commercial craft if flying over or making technical stops.

According to Amnesty International, the U.S. has transferred hundreds of individuals via rendition, and "rendition is part of an elaborate clandestine detention regime that includes the use of 'black sites' and 'disappearances,' as well as torture and inhuman treatment."

Obama Tells Bush to Wake Up

Mon Apr. 3, 2006 4:41 PM PDT

Today Barack Obama addressed the nation's energy policy, condemning the Bush administration for stubbornly refusing to prioritize environmental issues.

Bush announced in his last State of the Union that the U.S. has a serious problem with oil dependency, yet has made little attempt to remedy the problem, which Obama equated to "admitting alcoholism and then skipping out on the 12-step program. It's not enough to identify the challenge – we have to meet it. … I was among the hopeful. But then I saw the plan," he said. "[Bush's] funding for renewable fuels is at the same level it was the day he took office. He refuses to call for even a modest increase in fuel-efficiency standards for cars. And his latest budget funds less then half of the energy bill he himself signed into law - leaving hundreds of millions of dollars in under-funded energy proposals."