Political MoJo

What "fundamental debate"?

| Wed Mar. 29, 2006 4:57 PM EST

Think Progress notices that President Bush said in his big speech today, "First of all, the globe is warming. The fundamental debate — is it manmade or natural?" Of course, there's not actually a fundamental debate to be had here; scientists have overwhelming evidence that global warming is man-made.

The only "debate" over the causes of global warming seems to be the one carried out in the media, where, as Ross Gelbspan reported a few months ago in Mother Jones, industry-funded scientists and climatologists are given equal time on TV and in print, despite the fact that one side is right and the other's, well, making stuff up. "Teach the controversy," as it's called in another context. Maybe that's what Bush means.

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FISA Judges Speak Out

| Wed Mar. 29, 2006 2:47 PM EST

Five former FISA judges told the Senate Judiciary Committee today that—brace yourself now—the president shouldn't get to operate above the law, and that whatever super-secret surveillance program the Bush administration might be running these days, it should be subject congressional oversight:

In a rare glimpse into the inner workings of the secretive court, known as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, several former judges who served on the panel also voiced skepticism at a Senate hearing about the president's constitutional authority to order wiretapping on Americans without a court order. They also suggested that the program could imperil criminal prosecutions that grew out of the wiretaps.

Judge Harold A. Baker, a sitting federal judge in Illinois who served on the intelligence court until last year, said the president was bound by the law "like everyone else." If a law like the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act is duly enacted by Congress and considered constitutional, Judge Baker said, "the president ignores it at the president's peril."Well, that last statement doesn't seem entirely accurate. Has the president actually suffered any consequences for ignoring laws enacted by Congress? No, and he probably won't so long as Congress remains in Republican hands.

Meanwhile, Marty Lederman has an interesting breakdown of Monday's testimony by David Kris, a Associate Deputy Attorney General from 2000 to 2003, who says both that Congress never gave the White House the authority to bypass FISA, as the Bush administration claims, and that existing law could very easily be amended to allow the sort of surveillance the administration reportedly wants to carry out. In fact, this modifications are much narrower than those proposed by Sen. Arlen Specter, which would permit, as Lederman phrases it, "indiscriminate surveillance of any U.S. person who has ever communicated with the agent of a foreign power."

Monitoring Dillingham

Tue Mar. 28, 2006 8:27 PM EST

Now here's a serious waste of Homeland Security dollars. Dillingham, Alaska, with a population of 2,400 (half of which are Native Alaskans), will soon be outfitted with 80 security cameras (over 60 have already been installed) .That's one camera for every 30 residents, all purchased under a $202,000 Homeland Security grant, the devices are intended to prevent terrorism.

Now granted, Dillingham experienced three homicides and six unclassifiable deaths in the last three years, but this doesn't seem like a responsible use of tax dollars. Police Chief Richard Thompson stands by the expense as a protection against terrorists using local ports as a "backdoor" entrance into the rest of the country.

Beyond adding waste to the $41 billion Homeland Security budget, the proportion of cameras to people envisioned for the town is the most disconcerting aspect of the story. The 2,400 citizens of Dillingham, a town with no streetlights, deserve a right to privacy. According to some residents, people don't want to visit mental health facilities anymore out of fear of embarrassment. Local fisherman Ronnie Heyano, puts it best, asking, "who will be watching the watchers?"

FEC Regulates the Internet

Tue Mar. 28, 2006 5:22 PM EST

Yesterday the FEC unanimously approved new regulations that would govern political speech and advertising on the internet. The final rules are less exhaustive than what was originally proposed, and focused on paid political advertisements placed on the internet—campaigns buying such ads will have to adhere to campaign finance laws.

Here are the basic rules:

Immigration and Polls

| Tue Mar. 28, 2006 4:00 PM EST

Yesterday, Tamar Jacoby, a pro-immigration analyst, wrote in the Washington Post that not only were guest-worker policies for immigration immoral, but they weren't even that popular:

The Manhattan Institute and the National Immigration Forum recently conducted a series of focus groups testing two contrasting options: a guest worker program or a more traditional immigration plan based on the idea of citizenship.

The results ran sharply counter to the expectations of policymakers in Washington. Democrats and Republicans alike overwhelmingly preferred the citizenship model for reasons of both principle and practicality. On the other hand, Charlie Cook's "Off to the Races" report today noted that polling reveals that the majority of Americans don't even like guest worker programs:

Respondents were then given two alternative statements. One choice was: "You should grant temporary-worker status to foreigners who are here illegally. Most of them will stay in the United States anyway, and this plan would allow the government to keep track of them and their activities and require them to pay taxes while they are here."

The other option was: "We should not grant temporary-worker status to foreigners who are here illegally, as this would make them and their families eligible for government services while they are here. We should not reward people who have broken the law, and this will encourage even more people to enter the United States illegally."

Given that choice, 39 percent favored temporary status, with 56 percent opposed.That sure sounds like most people just want to kick all undocumented immigrants out of the country, doesn't it? I have no idea how to reconcile these two findings. Probably, as with most policy questions, what people will agree to all depends on the way things are framed. Cook also noted that 71 percent of poll respondents were more likely to vote for a candidate who "favors tougher immigration controls," which leads one to think that we'll see a lot of demagoguery on this subject come the midterms this fall.

U.S.-Shiite Tensions in Iraq

| Tue Mar. 28, 2006 3:25 PM EST

A year ago, military analyst John Robb predicted that the U.S. in Iraq would begin arming and backing "loyalist paramilitaries" to fight the Sunni insurgency, and that that the tactic could backfire badly. As it turned out, they did and it has, now that Shiite militias linked to the Interior Ministry are massacring Sunnis by the dozen each day, and, as military sources told the New York Times yesterday, pose a greater security problem than al-Qaeda and the rest of the Sunni insurgency do.

Now anyone who remembered what happened in El Salvador in the 1980s—when U.S.-condoned "death squads" prolonged, rather than ended, the conflict—could have told everyone that this would happen. In fact, some people tried. But no one listened. And now that the U.S. military has evidently begun carrying out raids against Shiite mosques—and seriously pissing off the Iraqi government—the real problems are just beginning. Robb has a post today noting just how bad things could, conceivably, get:

Here's a likely scenario for how this will play out: deeper entrenchment within US bases (to limit casualties) and pledges of neutrality (Rumsfeld) will prove hollow. Ongoing ethnic slaughter will force US intervention to curtail the militias. Inevitably, this will increase tensions with the militias and quickly spin out of control. Military and police units sent to confront the militias will melt down (again), due to conflicting loyalties.

Several large battles with militias will drive up US casualties sharply. Supply lines to US bases from Kuwait will be cut. Protesters will march on US bases to demand a withdrawal. Oil production via the south will be cut (again), bringing Iraqi oil exports to a halt. Meanwhile, the government will continue its ineffectual debate within the green zone, as irrelevant to the reality on the ground in the country as ever. Unable to function in the mounting chaos and facing a collapse in public support for the war, the US military will be forced to withdraw in haste.

It will be ugly.To say the least.

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Newly released documents show U.S. role in bloody Argentine coup

| Tue Mar. 28, 2006 3:20 PM EST

If you have never seen the 1985 Argentine film, La Historia Oficial, you have missed not only a very fine film, but a riveting, unforgettable performance by Norma Aleandro, winner of the 1985 Cannes Best Actress award. The Official Story is about a history teacher whose well-placed husband is able to negotiate their adoption of a beautiful little girl. It turns out that the girl is the kidnapped daughter of one of the many "disappeared," some of whom were pregnant women whose babies were given to the families of government officials. Aleandro's character's slow realization of what has been going on in her country--and right under her nose--is almost too painful to watch.

Between 1975 and 1978, at least 22,000 people were murdered or disappeared in Argentina when a military junta took over the country. Last Thursday, the day before the 30th anniversary of this, Argentina's bloodiest coup, the National Security Archive released a series of declassified U.S. documents, as well as secret documents from Southern Cone intelligence agencies, that reveal detailed evidence of the atrocities committed by the junta.

One of the documents is a transcript of a staff meeting of then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. In the transcript, then-Assistant Secretary for Latin America William Rogers advises Kissinger not to be in a rush to embrace the new regime in Argentina:

I think also we've got to expect a fair amount of repression, probably a good deal of blood, in Argentina before too long. I think they're going to have to come down very hard not only on the terrorists but on the dissidents of trade unions and their parties.

Kissinger's reply: "Whatever chance they have, they will need a little encouragement…because I do want to encourage them. I don't want to give the sense that they're harassed by the United States."

The Argentine military warned the U.S. Embassy that "some executions...would probably be necessary" and that they wanted to minimize any resulting problems with the United States. U.S. Ambassador to Argentina Robert Hill wrote that "it is encouraging to note that the Argentine military are aware of the problem and are already focusing on ways to avoid letting human rights issues become an irritant in US-Argentine relations."

Some estimates of the "disappeared" are as high as 30,000. Around 500 babies were taken from their parents and given to other families.

Immigration Reform on the Way?

| Tue Mar. 28, 2006 2:35 PM EST

It's not perfect, but the Senate Judiciary Committee decided to report out a quite reasonable immigration bill yesterday:

With Republicans deeply divided, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted on Monday to legalize the nation's 11 million illegal immigrants and ultimately to grant them citizenship, provided that they hold jobs, pass criminal background checks, learn English and pay fines and back taxes.

The panel also voted to create a vast temporary worker program that would allow roughly 400,000 foreigners to come to the United States to work each year and would put them on a path to citizenship as well.
That doesn't mean a reasonable immigration bill is what will actually become law: the Senate's version of the immigration bill still has to be reconciled with the draconian House version—which apparently envisions the deportation of millions of families with social and economic ties to this country—and the Republican leadership can pretty much dominate that reconciliation process if it so chooses. Whether they'll decide to toss all undocumented immigrants in jail or give them a clear path towards citizenship is unknown. Still, the Senate Judiciary bill is heartening.

But it's also worth pointing out that comprehensive immigration reform can't stop with a bill that only tackles citizenship. Paul Krugman, in an op-ed that was surprisingly negative on immigration yesterday, pointed out that unskilled immigration drives down wages for low-income workers here in America. Well, sure, that's true, but that's an argument for living wages, policies to promote full employment, and the expansion of basic rights to organize. Immigrants who can participate in and strengthen the labor movement in this country will help all workers, native or otherwise. Under the current regime, corporations can use immigration and "guest worker" policies to import a captive labor force, underpay them, and then drive down wages, which accounts for a good deal of the effect Krugman worries about.

Mass Drug Testing in Virginia

Tue Mar. 28, 2006 2:02 PM EST

Fairfax County, Virginia, recently agreed to a White House pilot program that tests water from the Potomac River Basin for cocaine. The samples have already been collected and shipped off to the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, where they are currently being evaluated for traces of the main urinary byproduct of the drug. The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors say it is no indication that there is a predominance of drug use in the region, rather, that the White House sees it as a tool to compile a more accurate drug use index.

This is a slippery slope—and could have greater repercussions than simply a change in statistics. Could health insurance companies use the data to increase premiums in the area, citing higher risk clients? Could the results have effects on the way federal funds are disbursed? David Murray, special assistant to national drug czar John P. Walters, said that the wastewater testing "will be very, very useful."

Judge rules that school was within its rights to terminate teacher's contract

| Mon Mar. 27, 2006 9:46 PM EST

In early 2003, Deb Mayer, a teacher at Clear Creek Elementary School in Bloomington, Indiana, led a class discussion based on an issue of Time for Kids, which included an article about planned peace marches against the upcoming war in Iraq. Discussing Time for Kids articles was part of the school's regular curriculum. A student asked Mayer if she would ever particpate in a peace march, and she replied: "When I drive past the courthouse square and the demonstrators are picketing, I honk my horn for peace because their signs say, 'Honk for peace.'" She said she thought "it was important for people to seek out peaceful solutions to problems before going to war and that we train kids to be mediators on the playground so that they can seek out peaceful solutions to their own problems."

That turned out to be a big mistake. According to Mayer, one of her students told her parents that she was encouraging people to protest the war. The girl's father, calling Mayer unpatriotic, called the school and complained. A conference was held, and the father yelled at Mayer, "What if you had a child in the service?" It turns out Mayer had a son in Afghanistan, but that did not settle the matter. The father insisted that Mayer not mention peace in the classeroom again, and the principal agreed to make sure she did not.

The principal then cancelled Clear Creek Elementary's Peace Month, and sent a letter to Mayer, telling her to refrain from expressing her political views. At the end of the semester, the school did not renew Mayers' contract. Affidavits were allegedly gathered from parents which criticized Mayers' teaching style, and an accusation, which Mayers denies, was made that she continued to talk about peace after being told not to.

Mayer sued the school district, on the grounds that the termination was retaliation for expressing her opinion, and that the school had violated her free speech rights. The school maintained that:

Ms. Mayer's speech on the war was not the reason for her ultimate termination. Instead . . . the motivating factor for her termination was her poor classroom performance, the ongoing parental dissatisfaction, and the allegations of harassment and threats towards students.

Mayer's attorney says that the parent affidavits were signed in 2005, two years after his client's termination, and therefore could not possibly have been used in the decision to terminate her contract. In addition, the attorney cites an excellent evaluation that had been given to Mayer.

Earlier this month, Judge Sarah Evans Barker dismissed Mayer's case, saying the school district was within its rights to terminate her because of complaints from parents about her performance in the classroom. According to Barker,

...school officials are free to adopt regulations prohibiting classroom discussion of the war...the fact that Ms. Mayer's January 10, 2003, comments were made prior to any prohibitions by school officials does not establish that she had a First Amendment right to make those comments in the first place.

The judge also suggested that Mayer, by making her comments, was attempting to "arrogate control of the curricula."

Though it may be true that a school has a right to restrict certain speech by teachers, the Mayer case is full of holes. There is no proof other than mysteriously appearing after-the-fact "affidavits" that anyone was concerned about the quality of her teaching, yet there is contrary evidence that she was doing a good job. Furthermore, Meyer spoke only in the context of answering a student's question about standard curriculum content.

Mayer says she has lost her house, her health insurance, her life savings, and her job prospects.