Political MoJo

The Decline of Workplace Safety

| Tue May 2, 2006 2:35 PM EDT

I probably should've linked to this a few days ago, but Jordan Barab had an outstanding post on Worker's Memorial Day about the dismal state of workplace safety standards in the United States. Workplace deaths have risen to 6,000 a year—that's 15 every day; serious injuries are going underreported; negligent employers are getting off lightly; and the Bush administration continues to gut MSHA and OSHA, the two agencies responsible for workplace safety. This part is particularly damning:

Although rarely used, OSHA has the ability to criminally prosecute employers when a willful violation of a standard leads to the death of a worker. ("Willful" means violations in which the employer knew that workers' lives were being put at risk.)

OSHA was embarrassed in 2003 by a New York Times investigation that revealed that from 1982 to 2002, OSHA declined to seek criminal prosecution in 93 percent of more than 1200 cases where a worker was killed due to a willful violation of an OSHA standard. At least 70 employers willfully violated safety laws again, resulting in scores of additional deaths. Even these repeat violators were rarely prosecuted. Fewer than 20 employers have ever gone to jail despite well over a thousand cases involving work deaths that involve "willful" OSHA violations over the past twenty years.Indeed, most of the time OSHA merely chooses to slap fines on willfully negligent employers; but the maximum fine only comes to $70,000 (and fines rarely reach even that)—hardly enough to persuade billion-dollar businesses to just think a bit harder about worker safety. Barab notes that state and local prosecutors have tried to exact stricter punishments, but, of course, unless the federal government steps in, businesses will frequently be able to move to whatever part of the country has the laxest standards and the gentlest juries. But, of course, the federal government won't step in so long as a wholly-owned subsidiary of big agribusiness, etc., is sitting in the White House.

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White House trying to get suit against NSA thrown out of court

| Mon May 1, 2006 8:18 PM EDT

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group, filed a class action suit against the government at the end of January, claiming that AT&T's alleged cooperation with the National Security Agency in eavesdropping on Americans violates Constitutionally guaranteed free speech and privacy rights. AT&T has not responded to the suit, but on Friday, the U.S. Justice Department filed a Statement of Interest, saying it intends to intervene and have the suit tossed out of court. The government plans to invoke the State Secrets privilege.

According to the EFF:

The lawsuit alleges that AT&T Corp. has opened its key telecommunications facilities and databases to direct access by the NSA and/or other government agencies, thereby disclosing to the government the contents of its customers' communications as well as detailed communications records about millions of its customers, including the lawsuit's class members.

The lawsuit also alleges that AT&T has given the government unfettered access to its over 300 terabyte "Daytona" database of caller information -- one of the largest databases in the world. Moreover, by opening its network and databases to wholesale surveillance by the NSA, EFF alleges that AT&T has violated the privacy of its customers and the people they call and email, as well as broken longstanding communications privacy laws.

The lawsuit also alleges that AT&T continues to assist the government in its secret surveillance of millions of Americans. EFF, on behalf of a nationwide class of AT&T customers, is suing to stop this illegal conduct and hold AT&T responsible for its illegal collaboration in the government's domestic spying program, which has violated the law and damaged the fundamental freedoms of the American public.

Why Currency Reserves Matter

| Mon May 1, 2006 7:36 PM EDT

This goes in the "obscure but sort of important" folder. Eduardo Porter reports that developing countries are building up excessively large currency reserves, partly as "insurance against financial disaster." Rather tragically, these countries tend to lose money on all the dollars they're buying up—and it's not like they can really afford to lose money here—and what's worse, the money they spend padding their reserves is money they're not spending on important things, like health care or infrastructure or other domestic investments.

So why are they all doing it? Dean Baker and Karl Walentin have argued before that it's because everyone thinks the international financial system is rather volatile and no one wants to go through the same meltdown that countries in East Asia suffered in the late '90s. But the fact that these poorer countries all have to incur very large costs because of a rickety system set up largely to benefit the richer countries indicates, as Baker and Walentin wrote, "a serious failing of international financial institutions."

Bush Feels Free to Ignore Law

| Mon May 1, 2006 5:26 PM EDT

Does this look like a crisis to anyone else?

President Bush has quietly claimed the authority to disobey more than 750 laws enacted since he took office, asserting that he has the power to set aside any statute passed by Congress when it conflicts with his interpretation of the Constitution.

Among the laws Bush said he can ignore are military rules and regulations, affirmative-action provisions, requirements that Congress be told about immigration services problems, ''whistle-blower" protections for nuclear regulatory officials, and safeguards against political interference in federally funded research.On another note, there seem to be a lot of Republicans upset today that various immigration proposals will "reward" people who are breaking the law. Entirely unrelated stories, no doubt.

MORE: And just in case any members of Congress think they'd like to have a say in whether or not the U.S. launches military strikes against, say, Iran, this bit is noteworthy:

On at least four occasions while Bush has been president, Congress has passed laws forbidding US troops from engaging in combat in Colombia, where the US military is advising the government in its struggle against narcotics-funded Marxist rebels.

After signing each bill, Bush declared in his signing statement that he did not have to obey any of the Colombia restrictions because he is commander in chief.Okay, then.

'Turning Point' in Iraq? Probably Not.

| Mon May 1, 2006 3:01 PM EDT

The New York Times reports that the Army has set up mock Iraqi villages here in California so that soldiers can practice fighting insurgents. Presumably that means that the military is already planning to dig in and stay in Iraq for a long time, despite the odd rumors of a massive drawdown. On the other hand, this interview suggests that no matter how adept the military gets at counterinsurgency, the larger overall strategy in Iraq is so incoherent that it probably won't do much good:

"There is a paradox in the approach," said Kalev Sepp, a former Special Forces officer and one of the most vocal proponents for changing the Army. "The training in the United States and in Iraq is teaching all the right things — decentralization of authority and responsibility to the lowest levels, engagement with the Iraqi population, cultural awareness and political sensitivity — the full broad range of measures needed to defeat the insurgency."

"But on the ground," Mr. Sepp said in an interview, "the troops are being moved onto these large consolidated bases and being drawn away from the population just at point that they have been trained to engage them." Nowhere are the changes in the Army's thinking more visible than at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin.Meanwhile, the Washington Post ran the headline, "Merits of Partitioning Iraq or Allowing Civil War Weighed" over the weekend and now today Sen. Joe Biden chimes in with a plan to split Iraq up into three separate countries. Juan Cole thinks it's a bad idea and has his own proposal for partition. The idea that the United States, under this administration, could handle anything like the "peaceful" break-up of a country deftly strikes me as totally unrealistic, not to mention potentially horrifying (it's worth noting that Biden's model for partition, the Dayton Accords, failed to resolve the Kosovo issue, which indirectly led to yet another round of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans only five years later), but that seems to be what the experts all think.

Darfur: Stop the Genocide, Stop the U.S. Spin

| Sun Apr. 30, 2006 12:49 AM EDT

Everybody talks about genocide, but, it seems, nobody in authority does anything about it. This past Sunday, there were major protests in Washington, featuring Sen. Barack Obama and actor George Clooney, and several other cities to raise awareness about the ethnic slaughter in the Darfur region. The rallies aim, in part, to prod the U.S. to take meaningful action. The prospects for peace, security and humanitrian aid in the region continue to deteriorate rapidly, with the Sudanese government ejecting another humanitarian aid organization.
But the United States' response to this crisis has been little more than rhetoric mixed with symbolic acts that have little real impact. Last week, the Progressive Policy Institute noted that the President's latest promise to seek 500 added NATO troops to supplement the feeble African Union force would do little to stop the slaughter.

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The Sibel Edmonds case--forgotten, but still vitally important

| Sat Apr. 29, 2006 12:59 PM EDT

It has now been a year and nine months since Senators Charles Grassley and Patrick Leahy sent their letter to John Ashcroft, Robert Mueller, and Glenn Fine, asking that retroactively-declared classified documents be made available to the public. Both of Bush's Attorneys General have used the little-known States Secrets law to keep former FBI translater Sibel Edmonds from revealing what she knows.

It has also been a year and ten months since Edmonds sent her letter to 9/11 Commission chairman Tom Kean, rightfully accusing the commission of bypassing one of the most important issues of the September 11 tragedy--the failure of the FBI to translate thousands of documents. Edmonds, you will recall, blew the whistle on the FBI failure, and was fired from the bureau. Her case has been wrapped in secrecy, with the government using "national security" as a way to silence her. The U.S. Department of Justice declared that the FBI failed to properly investigate Edmonds' allegations, but when Edmonds sued the FBI, a U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the White House's decision to keep all relevant documents secret, even though many of them were not previously listed as classified.

Edmonds' accusations go beyond the FBI's failure to translate documents that might have spared the country the attacks of September 11, 2001. She also says that drug money and money laundering were factors in the events leading to September 11, and that some lobbyists and elected officials may have been beneficiaries. Edmonds has also created the National Security Whistleblowers' Coaltion, whose goals include providing protection for whistleblowers, creation of better accountability, and the promotion of policy changes.

On November 28, 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected Edmonds' appeal, following the dismissal of her lawsuit against the FBI. Since then, the news media--which treated the story as a filler rather than one of the most important stories of the decade--has been totally quiet about her case. On March 24, Edmonds asked the judge assigned to her latest suit against the FBI to recuse himself because of his decision to keep his financial disclosure information private.

On April 18, Sibel Edmonds received the PEN Newman's Own Award from PEN. Edmonds' website, Just A Citizen, contains a petition for people to sign to get the FBI documents released, information about Edmonds, and a collection of documents and news items pertaining to national security whistleblowing.

Court Hears Discrimination Case

| Fri Apr. 28, 2006 3:23 PM EDT

E.J. Graff does a very good job explaining Burlington Northern v. White, a case currently before the Supreme Court that will basically decide how much protection to afford whistleblowers who speak out against workplace discrimination. Here's the basic dilemma:

Different appeals courts have come to different conclusions on how you define retaliation. The Sixth Circuit declared that "materially adverse" was the standard, and that what happened to White [i.e., transferred to a different job and being suspended for 37 days without pay for speaking out against gender discrimination] counted under that standard.

Other circuits have said that it's only retaliation if it involves an "ultimate employment decision" like failing to hire, failing to promote, or firing. Still others stand with the little gal: Any action that is "reasonably likely to deter" you from reporting discrimination -- say, a "lateral transfer" -- counts as retaliation, and you can sue. Judging from the oral arguments, Graff reports, the Supreme Court will probably rule with White and set somewhat broad standards on what employers aren't allowed to do to retaliate. Interestingly enough, Scalia will probably rule against the employers, while Roberts and Alito will likely side with the company—more evidence for the idea that the White House ultimately nominated the people it did primarily with business interests in mind.

United 93

Fri Apr. 28, 2006 2:44 PM EDT

The recently released film United 93, which tells the story of the hijacked plane that didn't reach its target on 9/11, is being hyped as a "gripping, provocative drama" and an account of how Americans found courage on that day. But filmmaker Paul Greengrass can't seem to decide whether he wants the tale of "the flight that fought back" to be a blockbuster epic or a grittier, documentary-style work of historical fiction. And ultimately, he fails to deliver either.

Watching the trailer for United 93—which suggests an action-packed blockbuster—is a completely different experience from watching the movie itself. In the actual film, September 11, 2001 is portrayed as an ordinary day that unravels into confusion and panic. Neither the passengers of Flight 93 nor the hijackers are mythologized. During the confusion, the humanity of everyone involved is revealed: the stewardesses, the passengers, the military personnel, the hijackers. But as long as the passengers aren't portrayed as heroes, their struggle feels almost futile—embodied in their final, chaotic rush on the cockpit. In a moment, the violence is over and the plane crashes into the Pennsylvania countryside.

The simultaneous scenes of confusion in the film—in the FAA, in the military, in the flight itself—don't live up to standard-issue action films. Everything is presented chronologically, but not with enough clarity to answer the question, "Who knew what when?" A history-minded viewer is left to ask, "Is this real? Did this really happen in response to that and at that point in the sequence of events?" And then there's the scene of white Christians praying in the back of the plane and fanatical brown Muslims praying in the front of the plane—an image hard not to read as intending to portray "the clash of civilizations."

While Greengrass paints a picture of some of the people involved with the day's horrific events, viewers seeking entertainment will likely be disappointed and viewers seeking an informative, inspiring, historical narrative will likely be unsettled. Even the host at our screening seemed pressed to find the right words to introduce the movie, "Enjoy the—," she said, catching herself. "I don't know if enjoy is the right word."

How to spot a terrorist

| Thu Apr. 27, 2006 11:57 PM EDT

I really had no idea how to spot a terrorist until I studied the manuals published by the Phoenix FBI, the state employees of Virginia, and the Texas Department of Public Safety. Now that I have absorbed these manuals, I not only know how to spot a terrorist, but I have discovered that I probably am a terrorist.

The Phoenix FBI manual was published while Clinton was still president. The Joint Terrorism Task Force was formed to "help preserve the American way of life." Its flyer requested that citizens contact the task force if they saw any of the following:

Defenders of the U.S. Constitution against federal government and the UN
Groups of individuals engaging in para-military training
Those who make numerous references to the U.S. Constitution
Those who attempt to police the police
Lone individuals
The Phoenix Sheriff's Office did not care for the flyer, and it had a short life.

On to Virginia...This manual tells us to beware of the following people:

Members of anti-government and militia movements
Property rights activists
Members of racist, separatist, and hate groups
Environmental and animal rights activists
Religious extremists
Members of street gangs
According to the authorities in Virginia, terrorists stand out in the crowd because of the stuff they carry:
Sketch pads or notebooks
Maps or charts
Still or video cameras
Hand-held tape recorders
SCUBA equipment
And finally, there's Texas, whose manual shares with us some characteristics of terrorists:
Focused and committed
Team-oriented and disciplined
Familiar with their physical environments
Employ a variety of vehicles and communicate by cell phone, email, or text messaging
Try not to draw attention to themselves
Look like students, tourists, or businesspersons
Travel in a mixed group of men, women, and children
Avoid confrontations with law enforcement
Use disguises or undergo cosmetic surgery
Well, there you are. Could someone pick you out of the crowd as a terrorist? As an emailing, camera-toting, focused and committed animal rights activist who sometimes looks like a businesswoman, frequently references the Constitution, and still has some leftover costumes from my years in New Orleans, I'm as good as gone.