Political MoJo

Will the real 20th hijacker...

| Thu Jun. 22, 2006 6:06 PM EDT

If, as AlQaeda claims, Fawaz al-Nashmi, a Qaeda operative killed in 2004 in Saudi Arabia was the 20th 9/11 hijacker, slated to join the team that took over Flight 93, what happens to Mohammad al-Kahtani, the prisoner at Guantanamo who the Bush administration has been insisting is the 20th hijacker (whenever it's not insisting that Zacharias Moussaoui was the 20th hijacker)? Al-Khatani was the subject of a March 3 Time expose, and the log of his interrogation, if you haven't seen it yet, is an absolute must-read.

Gitanjali S. Gutierrez, a staff attorney at CCR, met with the prisoner in December 2005 and in January of this year. She tells Time that in her meetings with him, Khatani "painfully described how he could not endure the months of isolation, torture, and abuse, during which he was nearly killed, before making false statements to please his interrogators." Al-Khatani, who has not been charged with anything, has withdrawn his statements, and Gutierrez has gone to federal court in the District of Columbia to demand that the government either release or charge him.

The interrogation transcript details conditions so severe, al-Khatani at one point had to be rushed to the hospital, according to CCR, which adds that "the Deputy Assistant F.B.I Director for Counterterrorism described Mr. al-Qahtani's state as `evidencing behavior consistent with extreme psychological trauma.'"

Here is a brief excerpt from an interrogation on December 16, 2002:


0315: White noise. He was offered a drink of water and he refused.
0400: P/E down. Showed detainee banana rats [sic] standard of life vs his standard of life in his wooden booth. Compared his life in a wooden booth to the life he could have with his brothers in Cuba .
0430: Detainee was walked for 10 minutes. Detainee refused water. 0450: Detainee listened to white noise.
0530: Detainee required to sit and watch as interrogator and linguist played checkers. Laughed and mocked detainee throughout game. White noise present in background.

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Edwards Pledges to End Poverty

| Thu Jun. 22, 2006 5:23 PM EDT

Check out Ezra Klein's firsthand account of John Edwards' speech today, in which the former Senator vowed to make a major, major dent in poverty in the United States and put forward a number of quite serious ideas to accomplish that goal. I assume Edwards will be running for president in 2008, and even if he's not a serious contender, it's nice to see at least one Democrat thinking very seriously about these issues.

Gun-Owners Afraid of UN "Conspiracy"

| Thu Jun. 22, 2006 5:19 PM EDT

This would all be quite humorous—

Americans mistakenly worried the United Nations is plotting to take away their guns on July 4—U.S. Independence Day—are flooding the world body with angry letters and postcards, the chairman of a U.N. conference on the illegal small arms trade said on Wednesday.
except for the fact that the NRA tends, quite often, to stoke and inflame conservative fears that the UN really is plotting to erect some sinister world government or other that will take away all our guns. And the fact that the NRA then uses those fears to generate backing for its opposition to sensible regulations on the global light-arms trade, which is one of the major health crises of our time. And people die as a result. So I don't know how "funny" I find it that we have a lot of gun-toting morons in this country.

Is North Korea Really Ready to Launch?

| Thu Jun. 22, 2006 2:45 PM EDT

I've refrained from commenting on this North Korea ICBM business, partly because I'm not exactly an expert on missile technology, but also because most of the information seems to be coming from the always-alarmist Japanese press and the New York Times, both of which are about as illuminating as Tarot cards. So it's hard to know if it's even true that North Korea is about to launch a missile that can reach California. Let's see what better-informed people are saying. Here's Noah Schactman:

The hype kicked into high gear when the New York Times claimed that the Norks "completed fueling a long-range ballistic missile" over the weekend. But the report is getting fishier by the second. The Norks generally rely on a highly corrosive gasoline-kerosene mix for their missile fuel, and an oxidizer containing nitric acid. It's nasty, metal-eating stuff. And once fueled up, the missile has to be launched quickly -- two or three days, I've been told -- or else the missile is basically ruined.

It's now been four days. And there's been no launch. Which means it's becoming increasingly unlikely that a missile has been fueled. Schachtman also notes that North Korea has a history of staging elaborate hoaxes of this sort in order to strengthen its bargaining position. That doesn't clarify what's going on, exactly, but it's very much worth noting. And Joseph Cirincione of Carnegie, an expert on these matters, says that even if the North Koreans were going to fire off a missile that could theoretically reach the United States, they've botched so many missile tests that it's not even clear that this one would be successful.

But that's not enough to stop the panic. Former Secretary of Defense William Perry writes in the Washington Post today that we should conduct a pre-emptive strike against North Korea, although it should go without saying that this is a terrible idea if North Korea's not, you know, actually preparing to launch missiles of any sort. The United States has "activated" its nascent missile defense system, which has proved a complete flop thus far. Jeffrey Lewis of ArmsControlWonk says any attempt to stop a Korean ICBM would almost certainly fail, and suffice to say that a failure on this front would make the Bush administration look utterly ridiculous. (Of course, if this is all just hype, and no missile is ever fired, then at least the "crisis" will garner good press for people who want to waste more money on missile defense—and maybe that's the point.)

Meanwhile, in a little-noticed statement, Pyongyang has apparently announced a "strategic decision" to give up its nuclear weapons—possibly the first time the North Koreans have ever used such language. Obviously that doesn't mean Kim Jong Il has suddenly decided to become nice and cuddly, but it does sound like there's an opening for diplomacy to work, and that seems more promising than panicking over a missile launch that may not even take place. We'll see, I suppose.

UPDATE: William Arkin also makes a convincing case that this North Korea business is wildly overblown. South Korea also appears to distrust U.S. reporting on this matter.

The book banners are at it again

| Wed Jun. 21, 2006 9:23 PM EDT

The ACLU has asked a federal judge to stop the Miami-Dade County school district from removing some children's books from its libraries. The books include Vamos a Cuba and A Visit to Cuba, and were removed because school officials say they contain inaccuracies about life in a Communist country. Both the county schools chief and two advisory committees recommended that the books stay on the shelves, but the county board voted to remove them.

Vamos a Cuba contains pictures of smiling children wearing Communist youth group uniforms and celebrating the revolution of 1959.

What is interesting is that one can be fairly certain that the Miami-Dade district has never tried to remove from the schools the hundreds of history textbooks that are riddled with inaccuracies and distortions about our own history and culture.

How the Mentally Ill Are Treated

| Wed Jun. 21, 2006 8:23 PM EDT

Since there isn't enough to be horrified about these days, read this St. Louis Post-Dispatch investigation into the abuses taking place in Missouri's mental institutions. Thousands of "mentally retarded and mentally ill people… have been sexually assaulted, beaten, injured and left to die by abusive and neglectful caregivers." The public tends not to find out about this stuff thanks to "secrecy laws, shoddy investigations and ambivalent police and prosecutors." Every year, meanwhile, state officials promise to "do better." Here's what doing better entails:

In 2002, a privately run home in Bolivar let a man's bed sores rot his flesh so badly that he died. Two years earlier, state workers repeatedly and severely beat mentally retarded boys in Marshall…

One mentally retarded man [in a facility near Overland] prone to swallowing things died in November after swallowing an ink pen. The resident, Michael Pallme, was supposed to be watched constantly.

Another patient, Rudy Wallace, died in March from burns so severe his skin began falling off after a worker left him in scalding water.

But those incidents are only a fraction of what has occurred inside the state and private facilities that house more than 11,000 state residents who have the most severe cases of mental retardation, developmental disabilities and mental illness.Now in a country where pundits will applaud one presidential candidate for flying back to Arkansas to execute a functionally-retarded criminal and where another president orders the torture of a mentally-disturbed prisoner so as not to "lose face", maybe this won't come as a surprise, but it should still be intolerable.

Some very cursory searching on Google and Nexis didn't bring up any similar stories about mental institutions in other states, but I'm probably looking in the wrong place. The largest "institutions" in the country nowadays are prisons, which house some 300,000 people with mental disorders, and tend to have poor mental-health services and plenty of abuse to go around. In 2003, Human Rights Watch did a report on prisoners with mental illnesses:

In the most extreme cases, conditions are truly horrific: mentally ill prisoners locked in segregation with no treatment at all; confined in filthy and beastly hot cells; left for days covered in feces they have smeared over their bodies; taunted, abused, or ignored by prison staff; given so little water during summer heat waves that they drink from their toilet bowls…. Suicidal prisoners are left naked and unattended for days on end in barren, cold observation cells. Poorly trained correctional officers have accidentally asphyxiated mentally ill prisoners whom they were trying to restrain.
It doesn't even take "the most extreme cases" to see things are bad. From people who have worked closely on this issue, I've heard plenty of stories of, say, prisoners who simply won't be "officially" classified as mentally ill despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, and will then get written up by guards at the first outburst of strange behavior (say, compulsive masturbating in their cell), leading to a longer prison sentence. Is this likely to make things a) better or b) worse? Yeah, I wonder too.

A summary of the HRW report is here. Among other things, HRW notes that until this country gets serious about the community mental health systems that were supposed to replace mental hospitals after "deinstitutionalization" in the 1960s, prisons will continue to serve as mental institutions of last resort. I'd like to know what effects the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act, passed by Congress in 2004, has had but perhaps it's too early to tell. It also appears that the "war on drugs," the gift that keeps on giving, has disproportionately affected the mentally ill as the prison population continues to expand and expand without end.

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NYC to Bush: Drop Dead!

| Wed Jun. 21, 2006 6:47 PM EDT

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and police commissioner Ray Kelly lambasted the Bush administration's plan to cut terrorism funding to New York and Washington by more than 40 percent this morning in a hearing before Long Island Congressman Peter King's House Committee on Homeland Security. King, himself a conservative Republican, has been furious with the administration over department's plan to reduce New York City's antiterrorist funds to $124.4 million in 2006, down from $207.5 million a year ago. "It was indefensible, it was disgraceful, and it raises very real questions about the competency of this department," he said in the hearing.

The process of applying for antiterror funding "should not be a contest to see who could write the best term paper for their college class," argued Bloomberg. The administration, however, has called New York's antiterror program "ineffective", and has argued that the city doesn't have any national monuments or icons worth protecting.

In the same hearing, New York congresswoman Nita Lowey pointed out that while New York was responding to warnings of a planned cyanide attack on its subways, Columbus, Ohio was buying bulletproof vests for its police dogs.

It's worth remembering that on 9/11 itself, the administration was severely lacking in its ability to so much as communicate with New York and Washington. The President on Air Force One had no telephone contact with D.C. for much of the day; the military was not informed of the hijackings until it was too late to act; and neither the airlines nor the FAA told New York city officials about the attacks in progress until the planes hit the buildings, even though they had blow-by-blow accounts from flight attendants 10 minutes after the hijackings began—early enough to begin getting people out of the second World Trade Center Tower. There's little indication matters have improved much since then.

In the wake of 9/11, Bush fought to prevent an investigation of the attacks, and tried his best to keep information from a congressional inquiry under wraps. Having used the attacks as justification for the war in Iraq, the president now seems ready to dump New York and move on to places where Republicans must attend to their electoral base. Here, (via CBS), are a few of the places that will be getting more antiterrorism money under the administration's plan:

  • Jacksonville, Fla. 2005 funds: $6.8 million. 2006 funds: $9.2 million. Increase: 26%. Major landmark: Alltel Stadium, home of Jacksonville Jaguars.
  • St. Louis; 2005 funds: $7 million. 2006 funds: $9.2 million. Increase: 23.6%. Major landmark: Gateway Arch.
  • Louisville, Ky.; 2005 funds: $5 million. 2006 funds: $8.5 million. Increase: 41.2%. Major landmark: Churchill Downs race track.
  • Omaha 2005 funds: $5.1 million. 2006 funds: $8.3 million. Increase: 38.2%. Major landmark: Offutt Air Force Base.

Will Democrats Roll Over for Timber Companies?

| Wed Jun. 21, 2006 2:52 PM EDT
Some big companies are boosting their share of campaign contributions to Democrats this year, a sign that executives may be starting to hedge their political bets after a decade of supporting congressional Republicans.
The Wall Street Journal ran that little item a few days ago. Corporations are filling up the donkey coffers. That's good for the Democrats, who get more money to run their little campaigns, which probably makes a difference at the margins.

But it's not nearly as sweet for everyone else, seeing as how corporate-owned Democrats tend to be the worst sort of Democrats. Exhibit A is this New York Times story today about how a few Democrats might give up their opposition to estate tax repeal—which is currently stalled in the Senate—in exchange for tax breaks for the timber industry. None of the Senators have wavered yet, but Dems on the payroll of Big Timber at risk of reversing their stances include Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell of Washington, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana.

No Immigration Bill for Now

| Wed Jun. 21, 2006 2:17 PM EDT

On one level, it seems like unabashed good news that the House has decided to put off negotiating any sort of immigration bill with the Senate until after the fall elections. After all, the betting line is that, even if the Democrats don't retake the House and the Senate, there will at least be more Democrats in Congress, which will likely make it harder for the GOP to pass a draconian immigration bill with walls along the border and mass deportations and the like.

But I can't honestly say I'm looking forward to a summer of "public hearings" on immigration from the House, which will likely consist of bashing the Senate's bill and trumpeting the House Republicans' own, more stringent bill. What are the odds that this won't degenerate into a babble of anti-immigrant demagoguery? Oh, right, zero.

More ways to wreck whale ears

| Wed Jun. 21, 2006 2:51 AM EDT

Let's see. Most of the world has agreed to protect whales from extinction; whales rely on sound waves to navigate, communicate, in short, survive; so what we'll do is shoot "air guns" (sounds so innocuous, right?) into the ocean whose deafening sound can be heard from the California coast clear to the other end of the Pacific? This makes sense in whose world? The answer in a second; meanwhile, check out whale expert Dick Russell's piece in Mother Jones special oceans coverage on another sound source that has been causing whales to beach themselves en masse, some with their brains literally scrambled. Now--ready? The air guns (which are bad for squid, too) are "critical in the search for tomorrow's oil and gas resources," according to Exxon Mobil.