Mojo - July 2010

Finally, A Torture Investigation

| Tue Jul. 6, 2010 11:24 AM EDT

Good news for accountability advocates: The government will soon launch an investigation of claims that it was involved with the torture, abuse, and "rendition" of terrorism suspects.

The British government, that is.

Eighteen months into the Obama administration, there has been no movement towards a full, public investigation of America's treatment of detainees. But on Tuesday afternoon in the UK, David Cameron, the new conservative prime minister, announced that his government will launch an inquiry into Britain's role in alleged detainee abuse. "Our reputation as a country that believes in human rights, justice, fairness and the rule of law—indeed for much of what the [security and intelligence] services exist to protect—risks being tarnished," Cameron said. "The longer... questions [about potential abuse] remain unanswered, the bigger the stain on our reputation as a country that believes in freedom, fairness and human rights grows."

The commission is due to start its work this year, will take some public testimony, and will reach "an authoritative view" on what happened, Cameron told Parliament. The inquiry will be headed by a prominent judge, Peter Gibson, who is currently the commissioner of the UK's intelligence services. It will also include two other experts: former London Times scribe Peter Riddell and Janet Paraskeva, who runs the government's internal civil service watchdog.

The inquiry won't be fully public, however: "Some of its hearings will be in public," Cameron said, but "information about sources, capabilities and partnerships" must be kept secret. Nor will the inquiry be "costly or open-ended," the prime minister vowed. How those restrictions work in practice—and how they interact with the mandate to reach an "authoritative view"—will greatly influence the scope and usefulness of the inquiry. 

The Guardian's Patrick Wintour says "the torture issue" represents a big test for Cameron's coalition with Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats. Investigating torture claims could also strain US-UK relations:

Torture goes to the heart of the relations between the security services and the government. Many potentially serious enemies could be made if the inquiry happens, and produces findings that compromise intelligence, or relations with the US.

As it is, the US intelligence had threatened to withdraw co-operation if the British government published details of how US agents had treated Binyam Mohamed, a British resident held at Guantanamo Bay.

Cameron's insistence that "intelligence officers [will not] be asked to give evidence in public" and "intelligence material provided to the inquiry panel will not be made public" could be intended as a sop to America, where the politics of investigating detainee abuse are very different. Though the Obama administration has released a range of documents illuminating some Bush administration policies, it has seemed reluctant to delve to deeply into the subject of abuse. That has deeply disappointed civil liberties advocates, who also point to the administration's broken promise to shut the prison at Guantanamo Bay and its waffling on its decision to try 9/11 suspects in federal court.

President Obama could easily appoint a presidential commission to investigate torture and abuse allegations, but legislation granting all-important subpoena power to such a body would have to get past a Republican filibuster in the Senate. The British system of government does not allow the minority party to block this sort of investigation. 

After announcing the inquiry, Cameron also revealed that his government was releasing the guidance that it gives to UK intelligence officers regarding detainees held by other countries. Here's what he said about it:

It makes clear that:

One—our Services must never take any action where they know or believe that torture will occur.

Two—if they become aware of abuses by other countries they should report it to the UK government so we can try to stop it.

And three—in cases where our Services believe that there may be information crucial to saving lives but where there may also be a serious risk of mistreatment, it is for Ministers—rightly—to determine the action, if any, our Services should take.

The second point could come into play in the inquiry: what, if anything, did the British intelligence services and Tony Blair's Labour government do about allegations of abuse by the United States? But the third point could end up being the most important. In America, accountability for detainee abuse has fallen most heavily on the people at the bottom of the totem pole: people like Abu Ghraib defendants Lynndie England and Charles Graner, or the unnamed interrogators who the Justice Department is investigating to see if they went further than the so-called "torture memos" allowed. The third pillar of the UK policy puts the responsibility for "enhanced interrogation" squarely where it belongs: on the shoulders of political decisionmakers. 

This article has been updated and revised.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Attacking Rick Perry on BP

| Tue Jul. 6, 2010 11:14 AM EDT

The first tar balls from the BP oil spill washed ashore on Texas beaches on Monday, which means that the spill has now hit all five Gulf states. The issue has already begun seeping into the Texas Governor’s race as Democratic opponents of Republican Gov. Rick Perry have seized upon his early remarks that the BP spill was an "act of God." While Perry's Democratic opponent, former Houston mayor Bill White, hasn't gone sharply negative on the issue, outside Democratic players have stepped into the breach. Shortly after Perry’s comments in May, a Democratic political action committee released a video slamming his record on the spill, which has begun to surface once again.

The video, from the DC-based Lone Star Project, highlights Perry’s “act of God” remarks and footage from the aftermath of a 2005 BP refinery accident in Texas that killed 15 workers and injured more than 170 others—a catastrophe blamed on BP safety violations that happened under Perry’s watch. Perry's face is seen floating alongside an image of the Deepwater Horizon rig while ominous music—apparently from the horror flick 28 Days Later—plays in the background:

The clip also notes that BP donated some $250,000 to rebuilding Perry’s fire-damaged Governor’s Mansion.

Perry has promised to take “aggressive steps” to address the BP spill (which he incidentally calls “the Deepwater-Horizon oil spill). But as more evidence of the oil spill washes ashore in Texas, I suspect that the Democratic attacks on Perry’s cozy ties with BP will only continue to pile up.

Silence of the Anti-Abortion Protesters

| Tue Jul. 6, 2010 6:14 AM EDT

More than 1,000 members of the public tramped through the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing room last week to catch a glimpse of the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan. Strangely, not a single one of them leapt up to scream "Babykiller!" at her. The hearings, which finished late Thursday night, were a remarkably sedate affair. Throughout Kagan's entire time in the hot-seat, I kept scanning the crowd to see which, if any, of the visitors might be an anti-abortion protester in disguise. But by Wednesday night, it was clear that Kagan was going to survive three days of hearings without suffering that particular rite of passage.

The silence of the anti-abortion protesters was weird. During Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings last year, protesters gave the proceedings their only element of surprise. At least five people were detained for yelling "murder" and other slogans about the "unborn" at Sotomayor. Even Norma McCorvey, the "Roe" of Roe v. Wade got herself arrested during the event. It’s curious that none of these people came to torment Kagan, for whom abortion was—and will continue to be—a much bigger issue than it ever was for Sotomayor.

During her entire 20 years on the federal bench, Sotomayor handled only a single abortion case. In it, she actually sided with the very same kind of people who disrupted her confirmation hearing. Kagan, on the other hand, was actively involved in the Clinton administration’s political machinations over the partial-birth abortion ban legislation, which Clinton vetoed for a second time in 1997. But even that work wasn’t enough to drive the “unborn” lobby into civil disobedience mode.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for July 5, 2010

Mon Jul. 5, 2010 10:12 AM EDT

 

US Army 2nd Lt. Payton Holtz, from St. Augustine , Fla., leader of 1st Platoon, from Alpha Company, 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division, flies in a Chinook helicopter during an air assault mission. The mission was meant to disrupt an insurgent hiding cell in Janubi Nakum village, Yahya Khel district of Paktika province, June 27-28. Photo via the US Army by Sgt. Jeffrey Alexander.

Is the Washington Post Shilling for the Pentagon?

| Fri Jul. 2, 2010 5:46 PM EDT

If you need evidence of media complicity in support of what author Andrew Bacevich calls the "Washington Rules"—aka the national security consensus that justifies our militarism around the globe—look no further than today's Washington Post.

Here you'll find a fawning A-1 article by Laura Blumenfeld—apparently a big fan of 24—about the brave men and women of the Obama administration who stay up nights keeping America safe. Here's her summary:

With two wars, multiple crises abroad and growing terrorism activity at home, these national security officials do not sleep in peace. For them, the night is a public vigil. It is also a time of private reckoning with their own tensions and doubts. They read the highest classification of intelligence. They pursue the details of plots that realize the nation's vague, yet primal, fears.

Now check out this bit on Robert M. Gates—human being—who sacrifices his peace of mind for our safety:

The secretary of defense must be reachable at all hours. He transmits orders from the White House to the Pentagon in an era when troops operate in every time zone. If North Korea tests a nuclear weapon or Iran tests a new missile, Gates needs to know now. "I don't feel like I'm ever really off," he said earlier. "I have security and communications people in the basement of my house. They come up and rap on the basement door."

Next to his bedroom at home, he confers in a sound-proof, vault-lock space. He calls it "The Batcave."

Gates smiles. He radiates control: individual white hairs lie combed into place; a crack in his lips is smoothed repeatedly by ChapStick. But even this confident cabinet secretary—the slightly feared Republican, whose status others covet by day—slips, at night, into the shadows of doubt.

At his compound in Washington, he'll change into jeans and a baseball cap and take a walk after 11 p.m. He'll count the number of surveillance cameras watching him and look out into the dark and reflect on the "persistent threat. You know, and you wonder, what more can you be doing? What have we missed?"

Courses at Glenn Beck's New U.

| Fri Jul. 2, 2010 1:06 PM EDT

Have you heard the exciting news? Apparently appalled at the paucity of solid learnin' in America (excepting, of course, Texas), media maestro and renowned art historian Glenn Beck has announced the opening of his own great patriotic hall of academe. The forthcoming institution o'learnin', appropriately titled Beck University, will "explore the concepts of Faith, Hope and Charity and show you how they influence America’s past, her present and most importantly her future." Its faculty features such luminaries as a free-market economist whose degree is in psychology and a Texas Republican Party bigwig who hates, hates, HATES church-state separation. It even has an Ivy-style crestfeaturing a feather, a buffalo, and the disembodied head of George Washingtonand a Latin motto, "Tyrannis Seditio, Obsequium Deo" (roughly translated: "Revolution against tyrants, submission to God").

No word yet on whether RNC Chairman Michael Steele, apparently in need of some good historical and civics education of late, has enrolled. But just in time for the Independence Day weekend, the MoJo staff has produced a list of course offerings we hope to see at Beck U. next fall. If you have suggestions, too, post 'em to the comments or post them to Twitter with the hashtag #BeckUCourses! Let's do some educatin'! Yee haw!

  • Theories of Self and Other in the Autobiography of Ronald Reagan
  • Semiotics of Tricornered Hats
  • Mythology 101: Fossils
  • Presidential History From Harding to Coolidge
  • Oath Keeping
  • Semester Abroad in Kenya with Visiting Professor Dr. Jerome Corsi
  • Physics of AM Radio Waves
  • Fundamentals of Spelling and Grammar CANCELED
  • Great Military Heroes: John Wayne
  • Intro to Theology: Ayn Rand
  • Advanced Marketing Seminar: Rare Gold Coins
  • Drama 101: Intro to Alternative Lifestyles
  • Psych 301: Paranoia as Therapeutic Alternative
  • Wilde, Proust, and Other Homosexual Europeans
  • Middle Eastern and Arab Cultures: What's Up With That?
  • Literary Masters Colloquium: Cleon Skousen
  • Motherhood, Hockey, Hunting: Cultural Convergences
  • Studies in Moral Courage: Joe McCarthy
  • Counterinsurgency Techniques in Morning Radio
  • Phenomenological Epistemology and the Speeches of Barry Goldwater
  • Hermeneutics and Homosociality in The Overton Window
  • Political Science 300: Reverse Racism and the Modern Presidency
  • Colloquium on Great Filmmakers: Mel Gibson
  • Gym Crow
  • Underwater Conspiracy Weaving

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Supreme Court on Pfizer's Pharmaceutical Colonialism

| Fri Jul. 2, 2010 12:54 PM EDT

While the media was chewing over the Supreme Court’s gun decision earlier in the week, another significant action passed with little comment. That was the court’s refusal to throw out a case brought under the Alien Tort Statute on behalf of Nigerians whose children died or suffered terrible damage in a Pfizer drug experiment.

The case is of considerable importance, because so many drug companies have conducted tests of new medicine’s abroad in poor countries, using the residents as lab rats in what some have dubbed “pharmaceutical colonialism.” The BBC reports:

The US Supreme Court on Tuesday declined to take up a case examining whether drug giant Pfizer could be sued in an American court for allegedly conducting nonconsensual drug tests on 200 Nigerian children in 1996. The action allows the case to move toward a trial. Eleven of the children died, and many others were left blind, deaf, paralyzed, or brain-damaged, according to court documents.

At issue in the Supreme Court appeal was whether the surviving children and relatives of the children were entitled to file a lawsuit in New York seeking to hold Pfizer responsible. Usually, such a suit would be filed in Nigeria. Lawyers for the children complained that Nigerian judges are corrupt and that the US court system holds the only promise of justice.

Disappointing Jobs Report, Unsatisfying Obama Response

| Fri Jul. 2, 2010 10:57 AM EDT

The new jobs—or lack thereof—numbers are not encouraging. Unemployment did drop to 9.5 percent. But overall the economy shed 125,000 jobs—while adding a measly 83,000 private-sector jobs. Reminder: the economy needs about 150,000 new jobs a month to keep up with population growth and new entries into the jobs market. It needs a lot more than that to make up for the 8 million or so jobs lost in 2008 and 2009.

Obama administration officials can point to a small drop in the unemployment rate. But if you factor in the 652,000 folks who left the labor force in June—a particularly high number—the unemployment rate would be 9.9 percent. So how can the Obama crowd sell this report? They're sticking to the default position: we're making economic progress, but need a lot more.

Speaking after the June labor report was released, President Obama said:

[The report] showed the sixth straight month of job growth in the private sector.  All told, our economy has created nearly 600,000 private sector jobs this year.  That’s a stark turnaround from the first six months of last year, when we lost 3.7 million jobs at the height of the recession. Now, make no mistake:  We are headed in the right direction.  But as I was reminded on a trip to Racine, Wisconsin, earlier this week, we’re not headed there fast enough for a lot of Americans.  We’re not headed there fast enough for me, either.  The recession dug us a hole of about 8 million jobs deep.  And we continue to fight headwinds from volatile global markets.  So we still have a great deal of work to do to repair the economy and get the American people back to work.

On the White House blog, Christina Romer, chair of Obama's Council of Economic Advisers, noted,

These continued signs of healing are important, particularly given the recent volatility in world markets and the mixed behavior of other recent economic indicators.  However, much stronger job gains are needed to repair the damage caused by the financial crisis and put the millions of unemployed Americans back to work.

Democratic Party chief Tim Kaine issued a statement,

Today’s news offers hope for American workers that businesses and employers across the country continue to hire, but it also demonstrates the hard work we still have ahead to recreate the millions of jobs lost as a result of the recession.

All these statements are true, but hardly satisfying. How long can Obama and his crew keep saying the same thing: the recovery is weak, but we're doing the best we can? As I noted elsewhere, because Obama messed up the politics of the first stimulus initiative, he doesn't have many options these days to juice up the economy further. And there are only four months to the congressional election. If the GOP does gain House and Senate seats, Obama's hands will be tied even more so—and he'll have less to talk of in response to disappointing economic news.

Dem Voters: Not Scared Enough

| Fri Jul. 2, 2010 10:13 AM EDT

A new Pew Research Center poll confirms the yawning enthusiasm gap between Republican and Democratic voters this year—a difference that's becoming all the more worrisome for Democrats as the midterm elections creep closer. The GOP has a large advantage among older voters, who are far more likely to come out to the polls this fall than younger voters, the vast majority of whom vote Democratic. The result?

Fully 56 percent of Republican voters say they are more enthusiastic about voting this year than in previous elections—the highest percentage of GOP voters expressing increased enthusiasm about voting in midterms dating back to 1994. While enthusiasm among Democratic voters overall is on par with levels in 2006, fewer liberal Democrats say they are more enthusiastic about voting than did so four years ago (52 percent then, 37 percent today).

The Republican Party now holds about the same advantage in enthusiasm among its party’s voters that the Democratic Party held in June 2006 and the GOP had late in the 1994 campaign.

Though this trend is nothing new, the Pew findings give another clue as to why Democrats are still falling short. Almost three-fourths of Republican and GOP-leaning voters expect the GOP to do better than it has in recent years—which is also the prevailing sentiment among politicos, analysts, and pollsters across the board. But Democratic voters don't seem to share the same fears—and half of them expect the party to do the same as they had in recent elections:

However, Democratic voters this year are not particularly pessimistic about the election: 29 percent expect the Democrats to do better in this year’s midterm, far more than the percentage of GOP voters who said that four years ago (16 percent). Nearly half of Democratic voters (48 percent) expect the party to do about the same this fall as in recent elections, while just 18 percent say it will do worse.

Palm smacks forehead. The reality is that Democrats are expected to bleed anywhere between 30 and 40 seats in the House, losing their majority, as well as five to seven seats in the Senate, which could make it impossible for them to overcome a GOP filibuster. A number of major governorship are up for grabs as well. All of this will most definitely give Republicans a much stronger hand in obstructing Obama and the Democratic agenda—and will give them far more authority to impose their agenda on the country. Elections have consequences. And, yes, Democratic voters should be very, very afraid.

But Dem supporters don’t seem to realize how far the pendulum could swing in the other direction. And it’s clear that the Democratic Party is failing to communicate what’s really at stake in this year’s elections.

Charlie Crist's Hookers Headache?

| Fri Jul. 2, 2010 10:10 AM EDT

Despite his best efforts to distance himself from the Florida GOP's disgraced former chairman, Charlie Crist, governor and US Senate candidate, just can't shake off Jim Greer's long tail of controversy. The latest twist in Greer's saga, who as party chairman is alleged to have stolen $200,000 in GOP funds and was arrested in June, is this: A Florida lobbyist and state GOP member said she'd heard that, at a supposedly men-only fundraiser in the Bahamas for the GOP, "women were involved and paid," the St. Petersburg Times reported. Having attended the fundraiser, Crist called the claims "absurdly false." Regardless of who's right and wrong, the allegations are nonetheless a new nightmare for Crist.

Crist, an independent candidate for the US Senate, abandoned the Republican Party in April, saying the party had become too right-wing for him. Outsiders, on the other hand, saw Crist's jump as a move to avoid losing to conservative Marco Rubio in a Republican primary. Since becoming an independent, and looking for support (and money) from both Democrats and Republicans, Crist has opened a modest lead over Rubio and Democratic also-ran Rep. Kendrick Meek (D-Fl.). Nonetheless, revelations about Greer, who headed the Florida GOP from 2007 to 2010, continue to threaten Crist's run for the Senate.

Worse yet for Crist is the news that Greer's trial will open in October—just weeks before election day. If you're Charlie Crist, you couldn't ask for more unfortunate timing. We'll see in the coming months if Crist can raise enough money and run enough ads to fully distance himself from Greer and the walking ethics nightmare that's become the Florida GOP.