Political MoJo

Bolton now whining about criticism of war on terror

| Thu Dec. 8, 2005 6:40 PM PST

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour said yesterday that the U.S.-led war on terror has undermined the global ban on torture. Her statement did not go over well with U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton, who called Arbour's statement "inappropriate and illegitimate." U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's spokesman said that Annan wants to take the matter up with Bolton as soon as possible.

In the meantime, Media Matters for America reports that the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post all reported Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's assertion that the U.S. does not permit or condone torture without placing her statement in the context of our nation's extremely narrow definition of "torture." In fact, the United States' definition of torture is at odds with international standards, and violates the U.N.'s Convention Against Torture.

The Heretik asks "why the Bush administration continues to review its treaty obligations as optional," and also provides us with a good roundup of what is being said by people who are not fooled by Bolton's and Rice's fingers-crossed rhetoric.

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Lawsuit Over Extraordinary Rendition

Thu Dec. 8, 2005 5:25 PM PST

Khaled El-Masri, a German citizen, has filed a lawsuit against former CIA Director, George Tenet, over his "extraordinary rendition" between December 31, 2003 and May 28, 2004. El-Masrim alleges that he was kidnapped in Macedonia and brought to Afghanistan, where for five months he was held incommunicado without being formally charged in an American detention facility, where officials beat, drugged, and sexually abused him.

He writes, in his statement to the American Civil Liberties Union, that after a hunger strike of 27 days:

I pleaded with them to either release me or bring me to court, but the American prison director replied that he could not release me without permission from Washington, but said that I should not be detained in the prison.
The lawsuit charges that the CIA had realized it had abducted the wrong man under extreme conditions of illegal "extraordinary rendition" practices and that Tenet was informed of the mistake, but despite this the CIA continued holding El-Masrim for two more months.

Though he was released without charges—as he describes, dropped off on a Macedonian hillside with a warning to keep the involvement of his American captors a secret—he was still unable to enter the US this week. Visiting for the public announcement of his lawsuit, he arrived at the Atlanta airport last Saturday only to be refused admittance and sent back to Germany.

The Department of Justice is reviewing the allegations, filed as El-Masri v. Tenet.

While the Justice Department is at it, it might as well review the autopsies of 44 detainees who died in US custody, compiled by the ACLU—comprising a gruesome list of physical evidence of abuse, and suggest consistent tactics at various detention facilities, including in Abu Ghraib, Bagram, and Baghdad. Although, in its infamous August 2002 memo, the Justice Department indicated that it would not consider as torture interrogation methods just short of "organ failure, impairment of bodily function or even death," the marks from the autopsies indicate the government has crossed even that "loose" definition of torture.

U.S. Rejects Emissions Targets

| Thu Dec. 8, 2005 3:55 PM PST

The United States, it seems, won't even take the tiniest of steps towards setting a target for emissions reductions, judging from reports of the ongoing Montreal conference on the Kyoto Protocol:

The Bush administration, facing fresh criticism on several fronts in climate talks here, maintained its opposition on Wednesday not only to new targets for cutting emissions linked to global warming but also to any informal discussions that might even touch on the subject.
So there. Throughout the conference, the administration has been touting "voluntary emissions reductions" as the way forward, pointing to the "fact" that between 2001 and 2003, emissions in the United States were reduced by 8 percent. One could respond that this time period, rather conveniently, includes a recession—exactly when you'd expect emissions to drop anyway—and that since 2003, emissions have sharply risen again. Not surprisingly, you can't just "ask" companies to do the right thing.

In a related vein, the Times ran a smart article a few days ago that ran through the various problems with the Kyoto Protocol, along with potential treaties that might replace it. Well, fine. My sense is that whatever its flaws, Kyoto at the very least sent a signal that countries of the world could get together, act like adults for a change, and think about global warming in a responsible fashion. Sadly, the U.S. feels no need to be a part of that. Still, the flaws are worth noting. Everyone has their clever criticism of emissions-reduction treaties. The best point, I think, is that even if you set emissions targets, there's no guarantee that countries will know how to reach those levels by such and such a date.

Ultimately, some sort of carbon-free energy source is going to be needed to help countries meet their targets, which means that someone's going to have to develop that energy source and make it cost-effective. Massive, massive R&D investments in solar and wind power will be necessary—on a far larger scale than is currently even being contemplated, even in solar- and wind-friendly places like Japan, Germany, and California. But there's no indication that the U.S., Europe, or any other industrial nation is ready to make these massive investments and help stave off catastrophic global warming.

Torture Chambers Uncovered

| Thu Dec. 8, 2005 2:59 PM PST

New at Mother Jones:

U.S. forces in Iraq recently uncovered an Iraqi-run torture center in Baghdad. But as David Enders reports, the torture chambers were common knowledge in Iraq long before being reported in the American press. (LINK)

Mark Levine writes on the Christian Peacemakers in Iraq and the failure of "cheap activism" among the antiwar movement here at home. (LINK)

Tom Engelhardt reflects on how 9/11 saved George W. Bush's faltering presidency, and notes that even before the attacks, "a few aspects of our post-9/11 political world were quite recognizable even then." (LINK)

Also, see Mark Fiore's cartoon on the impending Stanley "Tookie" Williams execution. "A really good way to show that killing is wrong… is to kill people. Got it kids?" (LINK)

Under-the-Radar Intelligence Sharing

Wed Dec. 7, 2005 5:34 PM PST

I may be the only layperson who cares that the United Nations and the International Criminal Police Organization (better known as Interpol) are now combining resources to track down terrorist suspects—yet another example of the UN's continued interest in taking the lead on counterterrorism efforts.

The new joint effort is a notable step—Interpol usually focuses on typical "hard" security issues, such as managing intelligence in order to identify and capture criminal suspects who cross borders and elude national authorities. Inside the UN, the idea of sharing national intelligence remains an attractive but controversial idea. Interpol will help the UN by acting as a middleman for activities that lay beyond the UN's current interests, if not its mandate, by publishing notices for terrorist suspects identified by the UN 1267 committee. In addition, Interpol will provide resources necessary to complete issue special notices, always a welcome offer for an international organization like the UN, plagued by resource problems.

The mandate for this surprising alliance comes from a vague UN pronouncement last July. Security Council resolution 1617 recommended that members states "increase cooperation…as soon as possible share information" and "work within the framework of Interpol." It's not that UN leaders and various members didn't want more fastidious language and action, but as a cooperative group it usually defers to inaction, with exceptions.

Taking a cue from Res. 1617, Interpol responded by passing a resolution of its own, which extended to the UN an offer to issue special notices to Interpol member states about al-Qaeda- and Taliban-associated individuals and entities placed on the UN's list. Today, Interpol issued the fist four such notices, including one for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

How Common is Union Busting?

| Wed Dec. 7, 2005 2:15 PM PST

Via Nathan Newman, an organization called American Rights at Work has just released a new report showing how widespread union-busting is among American employers. Some of the findings:

  • 30% of employers fire pro-union workers.
  • 49% of employers threaten to close a worksite when workers try to form a union.
  • 51% of employers coerce workers into opposing unions with bribery or favoritism.
  • 82% of employers hire unionbusting consultants to fight organizing drives.
  • 91% of employers force employees to attend one-on-one anti-union meetings with supervisors.
  • As Nathan says, a majority of American workers would likely join a union if given the option. Most aren't given the option. ARW argues that major changes to labor law are needed to change this—including establishing "card checks" as a process for union organization, whereby a workplace would be unionized if a majority of workers simply signed a card, plus much tougher penalties for any employer that violated labor laws. But there's also something of a catch-22 here: Effective pro-labor legislation will be very difficult to pass in Congress without a strong labor movement agitating for it, but it's hard for the labor movement to become strong so long as the law is biased against unions.

    So what to do, what to do? One of my favorite "out of the box" labor proposal comes from Joel Rogers and Richard Freeman, who have argued that "open-source unionism" is the way forward:

    [Right now,] workers typically become union members only when unions gain majority support at a particular workplace. This makes the union the exclusive representative of those workers for purposes of collective bargaining. Getting to majority status… is a struggle. The law barely punishes employers who violate it, and the success of the union drive is typically determined by the level of employer resistance. Unions usually abandon workers who are unsuccessful in their fight to achieve majority status, and they are uninterested in workers who have no plausible near-term chance of such success.

    Under open-source unionism, by contrast, unions would welcome members even before they achieved majority status, and stick with them as they fought for it--maybe for a very long time. These "pre-majority" workers would presumably pay reduced dues in the absence of the benefits of collective bargaining, but would otherwise be normal union members. They would gain some of the bread-and-butter benefits of traditional unionism--advice and support on their legal rights, bargaining over wages and working conditions if feasible, protection of pension holdings, political representation, career guidance, access to training and so on.

    And even in minority positions, they might gain a collective contract for union members, or grow to the point of being able to force a wall-to-wall agreement for all workers in the unit. … Joining the labor movement would be something you did for a long time, not just an organizational relationship you entered into with a third party upon taking some particular job, to expire when that job expired or changed.I don't really know what the upsides and downsides of this proposal are—it looks like all upside to me, but it's certainly worth debating, rather than waiting around hoping that pro-labor Democrats will ever regain power and fiddle with the law.

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    Democrats, Politics, and Iraq

    | Wed Dec. 7, 2005 11:50 AM PST

    Yesterday, Kevin Drum took Wesley Clark to task for his New York Times op-ed laying out how to "change course" in Iraq. Indeed, read as an actual policy proposal, Clark's op-ed had nothing more than a few decent ideas punctuated by bouts of wishful thinking. It's nothing to get excited about. On the other hand, it's probably not an actual policy proposal.

    Health Care Inequality Grows

    | Tue Dec. 6, 2005 8:39 PM PST

    A new Health Affairs report out today. Good and bad news. Here 'tis. Good: those Americans living in relatively well-off communities, along with retirees on Medicare, are enjoying better access to health care than ever before. Cardiac and orthopedic surgery is in particular making great strides. High fives all around.

    Oh, right, the bad: both the uninsured and Medicaid recipients are receiving increasingly worse access to basic care, especially after the last recession, as states face budget crunches. For instance:

    Adhering to commitments to not give up hard-won gains in eligibility, most state Medicaid agencies have used other techniques, including reducing or freezing provider payments, eliminating certain benefits, instituting copayments, setting service limits such as total inpatient days or prescriptions covered, shrinking periods of guaranteed eligibility, and narrowing the time window for reapplying for coverage renewal.

    Medicaid payment reductions and freezes have exacerbated problems with access to key services such as mental health and dental care, as well as many types of specialty care. Applying copayments, eliminating benefits, and setting arbitrary limits on services is seen by some observers as "cost shirking," which leaves providers caring for these patients in the position of either dropping them or absorbing the cost of their uncompensated care. More commonly, providers avoid undertaking care for these patients to evade such discomforting situations.The reduced access to dental care is a critical one. Malcolm Gladwell touched on this awhile back in his New Yorker article on health insurance, but the bad effects of tooth decay, common among those who can't afford to see a dentist, start to multiply very quickly. First your teeth start turning brown and rotting, then you're pulling them out with pliers to stop the pain ("They'll break off after a while, and then you just grab a hold of them, and they work their way out"), then you can't eat fruits and vegetables, which invariably leads to further health problems, and then you can't ever land a job that requires you to be seen by other human beings—such as a bank teller, or a receptionist—since no employer will hire a receptionist with brown stumps in his or her mouth.

    Dentures are sometimes an option, but many state Medicaid programs won't cover dentures unless all your teeth have been yanked out with pliers, and if the dentures are made incorrectly and don't fit quite right, an adjustment can cost hundreds of dollars—it's usually cheaper just to toss the ill-fitting dentures in a drawer than shell out $200. So "problems with access to… dental care" are a big deal.

    The Health Affairs study also notes that public mental health services have been cut in recent years. In Orange County, pop. 3,000,000, the county mental health agency has a crisis inpatient unit of exactly 10 beds. For instance. I'm guessing it's obvious how and why these cuts can be devastating, but it's worth adding that in the absence of a decent public mental health system, throwing a person in jail often becomes the primary way to treat the mentally ill—after all, state health budgets may have an upper bound, but the sky's the limit for the correctional system, even during a downturn. Needless to say, prison mental health services are often only slightly less humane than kicking a homeless guy in the stomach.

    At any rate, Medicaid access is getting marginally better of late thanks to the recovery, as state deficits start to shrink, but the program is still in a shaky state, especially since more and more Americans are losing their private insurance and signing up for the program. (Well that, and Republicans are wetting themselves over cutting billions from the program to show how "bold" they are about reining in spending.) Inequality in both access to and quality from care is widening all across the country. The only real question is whether the Health Affairs authors are right to be so cynical when they say that they believe "U.S. society is prepared to tolerate trading off pursuing excellence for some, at the expense of deteriorating care for others."

    The Impact of Urban Sprawl

    | Tue Dec. 6, 2005 7:27 PM PST

    A while back, Witold Rybczynski wrote an article in Slate about how urban sprawl was inevitable, had happened throughout history, and was impossible to stop. Naturally, it was pointed out that while that might be true, not all sprawl was created equal. Some forms are worse than others. A random bit of clicking around the World Bank's site dredged up this old study which can make some of the differences here a bit more palpable.

    To see what we're dealing with here, take Boston (for some reason there's incomplete data on San Francisco). Boston's already a fairly spread-out city, but if its "population centrality" was as spread-out as Atlanta's, Bostonians would be driving about 9 percent more. Public transit also matters: If Boston had Atlanta's rail system, total driving would increase by about 5 percent. (If it had a transit system as shoddy as, say, Dallas', there would be even more driving.) The distribution of jobs to housing matters too. Boston has a very even mix in this regard, but if it was to become more unbalanced like, say, Washington D.C., driving would increase by roughly 9 percent. (I'm eyeballing the calculations here.)

    That doesn't seem like such a big deal, but taken together, these changes start to have a real impact—the authors point out that if you could wave a magic wand and make Atlanta similar to Boston, then total driving per household would decrease by 25 percent. Obviously no one has a magic wand, and maybe people prefer living in Atlanta-type cities to Boston-type cities, although who can fathom why, but it's certainly something to consider.

    Kansas City boy suspended from school for speaking Spanish during recess

    | Tue Dec. 6, 2005 6:49 PM PST

    Zach Rubio, a student at Turner School District's Endeavor School in Kansas City, Kansas, was recently suspended for two days because he spoke Spanish during recess, which, among other things, is not against school policy. Despite Zach's not breaking any rules, however, the principal, Jennifer Watts, explained: "We are not in Mexico, we are not in Germany."

    Where are we, Ms. Watts? Oh...I almost forgot, we're in Kansas, where the schools are dedicated to teaching nonsense, and the line separating church and state gets thinner every day. Why not go ahead and prohibit students from speaking their native languages?

    In fairness to the Kansas school system, Zach was allowed to return to school once news of the suspension reached Superintendent of Schools Bobby Allen. His father is waiting for an official apology, but isn't likely to get it. Principal Watts will not talk with the local newspaper. Feel free to drop her a line and see if she'll talk with you. Just don't email her in Spanish.