Gates on Iran and Syria

Amid the predictable softball questions directed at Robert Gates at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee this morning, it was only Robert Byrd, the elder statesman of the Senate, who cut to the chase.

When Byrd asked Gates if he supported an attack on Iran, Gates replied, "I think military action against Iran would be a last resort…. Military consequences [could be] quite traumatic."

What about the likely consequences of a US attack on Iran, Byrd asked Gates. "While Iran cannot attack us directly militarily, their capacity to close off the Persian Gulf to exports of oil and to unleash a significant wave of terror in the Middle East, in Europe, and even here is very real."

An attack on Syria? "Syrian capacity to do harm to us is far more limited…."

Gates, prompted by Byrd, added that an attack on either Syria or Iran would lead to greater American casualties in Iraq. "I think that it would give rise to significantly greater anti-Americanism than we have seen to date. I think that it would immensely complicate our relationship with virtually every country in the region."

Byrd, possibly testing Gates to make sure he'll not simply be a shill for the administration, then asked the nominee who he believed was responsible for the 9/11 attacks, Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden. "Osama bin Laden," Gates responded quickly.

Seven Questions for Robert Gates

No one expects that Robert Gates, the nominee for Defense Secretary who begins his testimony this morning before the Senate Armed Services Committee, will face the withering scrutiny he did in 1991, when he was confirmed as the director of Central Intelligence after a monthlong series of hearings that spotlighted many of his alleged misdeeds as a senior official at the CIA. But one can only hope the Committee members don't steer clear of Gates' questionable past and ask the nominee some pointed questions. Among them:

-Why did the CIA fail to predict the collapse of the Soviet Union?

-What role did you have as a subordinate of CIA director William Casey in the Afghan war against the Soviets?

-Please tell us all the occasions since 1988 (under both Bush administrations) on which you were asked for advice on the Afghan and Iraqi wars and what advice you gave.

-In 1984 you wrote Casey that: "It is time to talk absolutely straight about Nicaragua," and added, "The Nicaraguan regime is steadily moving toward consolidation of a Marxist-Leninist government, and the establishment of a permanent and well-armed ally of the Soviet Union and Cuba on the mainland of the western hemisphere. Its avowed aim is to spread further revolution in the Americas." You said this was an "unacceptable" course and argued the U.S. should do everything "in its power short of invasion to put that regime out." Any hopes of causing that regime to reform itself for a more pluralistic government are "essentially silly and hopeless." With Daniel Ortega back in power, what should we do now? Does he now pose a threat to the western hemisphere? Are hopes for a pluralistic government still "essentially silly and hopeless"? Your views, please.

-In 1985 you wanted to "redraw the map of North Africa," advocating invading Libya with a force of 90,000 American soldiers, seizing half the country, and overthrowing Muamar Ghaddafi. On the basis of your advice, Casey ordered up a list of Libyan targets. Please explain your thinking on Libya.

-You have said that you first learned of the operation we now know as Iran-Contra when Eugene Hasenfus's plane was shot down over Nicaragua on October 5, 1986. If that is so, tell us about your meeting on October 1, 1985 with the CIA's National Intelligence Officer, Charles Allen, who told you of his suspicion funds were being diverted to the Contras. What action did you take when he told you this?

-Some of your former colleagues at the CIA allege that you played a role in politicizing intelligence at the agency, a claim you have long denied. Can you explain how a memo came to be drafted under your direction, based on information from one source, that alleged Soviet involvement in the Papal Plot? Why did your cover note on this memo, which was sent to the president and the vice president, call this assessment a "comprehensive examination"?

Posse Comitatus, We Hardly Knew Ye

Just when we got done digesting news that federal detention has turned alleged enemy combatant Jose Padilla into "a piece of furniture" comes CQ's Jeff Stein with a report that tucked into this year's defense authorization bill (aka the John W. Warner Defense Authorization Act of 2006, signed into law October 17) is a tidbit that on its face "seems to be about giving the federal government a far stronger hand in coordinating responses to Katrina-like disasters.

But on closer inspection, its language also alters the two-centuries-old Insurrection Act, which Congress passed in 1807 to limit the president's power to deploy troops within the United States.

Now before you think we (or CQ) are going all black-helicopter on you, rest assured that this is not about the federal government marching jack-booted thugs into your living room... we think. It's just that the law adds

"natural disaster, epidemic, or other serious public health emergency, terrorist attack or incident" to the list of conditions permitting the President to take over local authority — particularly "if domestic violence has occurred to such an extent that the constituted authorities of the State or possession are incapable of maintaining public order."

Since the administration broadened what constitutes "conspiracy" in its definition of enemy combatants — anyone who "has purposely and materially supported hostilities against the United States," in the language of the Military Commissions Act (PL 109-366) — critics say it's a formula for executive branch mischief.

Oh yeah, the critics. Turns out that the indefatigable Senator Pat Leahy of Vermont is among the vanishingly small number of people who have even been paying attention, warning that "using the military for law enforcement goes against one of the founding tenets of our democracy." Oh, that.

Barrick Gold Pledges to Stop Killing Glaciers

The largest gold-mining company in the world finally posted a report on the Pascua Lama mine today, as promised to shareholder activists.

The mine was the target of a chain email last summer because the gold is under three glaciers that irrigate an arid farming valley of thousands, high in the Andes, spanning the border of Chile and Argentina. At first Barrick Gold Corp. said it would "relocate" the glaciers to get the gold.

As if global warming weren't enough, these poor farmers also had to worry about their glaciers being relocated. Exactly how remains a mystery. But what's worse is the prospect of tailings polluting the melt water that feeds their crops. The byproducts of one plain wedding band are 5.5 pounds of lead, 3 pounds of arsenic, almost 2 ounces of mercury, and 1 ounce of cyanide, out of 20 tons of waste.

In protest last year, hundreds of farmers dumped chunks of ice at the presidential palace in Santiago, to no avail. The Chilean government gave the go-ahead in February, and this week Argentina will too. No surprise, since mining accounts for a third of Chile's $100 billion GDP and 60 percent of its exports.

A few things stand out in the report, for which the authors reviewed and interviewed only Barrick employees, not locals.

  • The mine will draw 39 percent of the water of the Taguas River. "However, withdrawal points are high in the respective basins where stream flows are relatively small."
  • The design can manage one in 100-year storms and geologic events.
  • Barrick did not hold enough formal public hearings to meet World Bank standards, which it was not obligated to follow because it is not using World Bank funding. But an environmental consultant friend of mine at the EPA said the World Bank's "best practice" standards are what multinationals should follow in developing countries.
  • To avoid harming the glaciers, Barrick pledged to refrain from taking one million ounces of gold. That's 5 percent of the estimated $11 billion yield.

By the way, Barrick hates to call them glaciers, preferring "ice sheets." Barrick apparently named the mine Pascua Lama, which translates to Passover lamb or sacrifice. That's a biblical allusion to the lamb's blood that marked the Israelites' doors to spare them from God's worst plague to Egyptians, death of the firstborn.

Speaking of euphemisms, we reported last month on lead-poisoning by the sweetly-named Doe Run Co.

-- April Rabkin

Supreme Court Update 2: Race in Public Schools

The Supreme Court heard opening arguments today in a case that will determine the fate of diversity programs in public schools. The policies of two school districts, in Seattle and Louisville, are under attack by parent groups who want to end the use of race as a factor in making public school assignments.

Not surprisingly, Justices Scalia, Kennedy, and Roberts were the most skeptical of the districts' position in today's hearing, with Kennedy and Scalia favoring food metaphors to get their points across. Scalia said the district was saying, "you can't make an omelet without breaking some eggs," while Kennedy opined that the district was telling its students that "everybody can get a meal," but that only certain people can get "dessert."

But as the Seattle district's attorney Michael Madden argued, "This is not like being denied admission to a state's flagship university." Seattle students are "not being denied admission, they are being redistributed." In fact, the district's use of race in maintaining racial balance has been upheld by several Federal appeals courts, including one decision in the Seattle case written by Regan appointee Alex Kozinski who said the district's assignment plan "carries none of the baggage the Supreme Court has found objectionable."

The court's decision will affect perhaps thousands of school districts around the country who consider race when making school assignments. Given the fact that most neighborhoods remain highly segregated, a decision in favor of the parents (which seems highly likely given the current make up of the court) would mean a gradual re-segregation of public schools (which may already be happening).

For more background on this story read my interview with David Engle, principal of Ballard High in Seattle where this case originated.

-- Amaya Rivera

Supreme Court to Consider "Bong Hits 4 Jesus"

Oh boy. I really can't wait for the transcript of this Supreme Court case. The Supes have agreed to hear a First Amendment case involving an Alaska teen who was suspended for unfurling a banner reading "Bong Hits 4 Jesus." The student says he did it as a prank to try to get on TV, but his principal said he'd violated the school rules by promoting drug use. (I guess promoting religion didn't work in his favor.) An appeals court sided with the kid, declaring that his free-speech rights were violated. But the school—represented by Kenneth Starr—has appealed to the Supreme Court. Serious questions of free expression aside, I think it's safe to say this will be the first time the phrase "bong hits" will be uttered in those hallowed halls (any SCOTUS watchers out there know otherwise?). If ever a Supreme Court hearing deserved its own drinking game, this is it.

John Bolton will resign as U.S. ambassador to the U.N.

Amongst John Bolton's many crimes is his forced ouster of Jose Bustani, the former director-general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, a U.N. organ with a role in hunting and regulating WMD in Iraq. Before the war, Bustani advocated solving the perceived Iraq WMD problem through means other than violence; in response, the U.S., led by John Bolton, forced a vote to oust Bustani on trumped-up charges, failed, then threatened to cut funding to the OPCW if it did not have its way, forced another vote, and prevailed. (You can read more about Bustani, and get a full sourcing for his story, by searching "Bustani" at the Mother Jones Iraq War Timeline. After losing his job, Bustani reflected on the saga with Mother Jones.) The U.N. would later rule that Bustani was wrongfully dismissed and award him damages.

Looking for something more recent? According to TPM Muckraker, Bolton's last move as U.N. ambassador was to reject a proposal commemorating the 200th anniversary of the end of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

So, yeah, good riddance.

Recently, Foreign Policy put together a list of Bolton's most likely replacements. Included are Jim Leach, Republican congressman from Iowa who just lost a reelection bid, Zalmay Khalilzad, ambassador to Iraq and second-tier architect of the Iraq War, and Lincoln Chafee, poor schmo.

Death Row Warden Back as Abolitionist Priest

For some people, there's nothing like personal involvement in administering capital punishment to make them start opposing it. Dennis O'Neill was a warden at two Florida death row prisons for many years, during which time he helped carry out over a dozen executions. The experience so scarred him that he quit his correctional career, got ordained as an Episcopalian priest, and now preaches against the death penalty - from the pulpit of a church in one of the prison towns where he used to oversee death row. Maybe he'll start a support group with Bill Wiseman, the man who invented lethal injection only to later also become an anti-death penalty priest.

Army Spec. Suzanne Swift made news in June when she went AWOL and refused a second deployment to Iraq. Swift's refusal came about because she was the victim of sex crimes. According to Swift, the seargent who told her mother, "Don't worry, M'am, we'll take good care of your daughter," went on to make her "his private" by coercing her to have sex with him. Swift says that several of his colleagues pressured her for sex, and refusing them led to increased sexual harrassment.

Swift reported the harrassment and abuse to both her team leader and her equal opportunity representative, but nothing was done other than to transfer one of the perpetrators. After she went AWOL, Swift was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, a diagnosis which the Army disputes. The Army did its own evaluation and concluded that Swift suffers from stress, but not from PTSD.

The Army has offered Swift a deal--that she will receive an honorable discharge if she agrees to serve another nineteen months. According to her mother, Swift was inclined to accept the deal until she learned of a caveat--she would have to sign a statement claiming no sexual harrassment ever took place. Swift has refused to sign this statement and is now prepared to accept a Court Martial. Her case has been placed under special Court Martial rules that will restrict her punishment to no more than twelve months.

Many Americans are familiar with the more dramatic cases involving sexual assault and sex abuse and harrassment in the military--such as the 1991 Navy Tailhook case (referred to by Jesse Ventura as "much ado about nothing"), the 1996 Army Aberdeen case, and the 2003 Air Force Academy case. But the problem is chronic: In 2005, the U.S. Armed Services received 2,374 reports of cases involving sexual assault alone.

Our Washington Bureau points out that American voices of dissent appear to be waning, which sadly to say was quite evident at a San Francisco anti-war rally I covered back in October for the Center for American Progress' There was a sad showing of maybe 1000 people which paled in comparison to the large swarms of people that took to the streets here in SF leading up to the U.S. invasion in March of 2003. There were many grumblings as to why the turn out was so low: many thought ANSWER, the anti-war group who organizes rallies, has alienated large groups of Americans due to their anti-Israel position (in fact UFPJ, another anti-war group who organizes protests now officially refuses to organize with them on a national level); some felt that people would wait to cast their vote against Iraq (which it does appear they did to some extent); and some were angered by thoughts that perhaps the American people are just plain disengaged. Although the decrease in participation at protests does send a strong message, maybe Americans have found other outlets- like blogging and voting (there was a nearly 5% increase from 2002 in people under 30 who voted this year). And although Iraq was not the only issue Americans had on their minds when they headed to the ballots this year, it was a seminal one. Only time will tell if engaged Americans once again will take to the streets en masse, as sectarian violence in Iraq increases even more and decisions by the administration as to how to proceed in Iraq are made.