Political MoJo

Ariel Sharon's Stroke

| Thu Jan. 5, 2006 2:44 PM EST

In the wake of Ariel Sharon's "significant" stroke, a number of commenters are discussing what this means for the future of Israel. Jonathan Zasloff tries to figure out what this means for the major parties—Labor, Likud, and Sharon's recently-formed Kadima party—in the upcoming Israeli elections. Jonathan Edelstein, meanwhile, wonders what Sharon's illness means for the upcoming Palestinian elections (if there are elections, of course):

Sharon's disability is bound to affect the Palestinian electoral balance; the only question is how. The Palestinians might view the situation as a political opening – they remember Sharon less for the Gaza withdrawal than for the settlements and Sabra-Shatila, and a conciliatory centrist like Olmert or an unknown quantity like Livni might carry less emotional baggage and spur the hope of a return to negotiations. In that event, Fatah might benefit at the polls. On the other hand, if the Palestinian electorate sees a moment of Israeli weakness, or if it looks like Kadima is collapsing and Netanyahu is gaining the upper hand, then the spoils might go to Hamas.
And Helena Cobban lays out a few additional concerns here. See also Shmuel Rosner's piece in Slate.

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Housing ads for Katrina victims violate federal fair housing law

| Thu Jan. 5, 2006 12:21 PM EST

It is a violation of federal law to publish ads that restrict housing applicants by race, sex, color, religion, or national origin. However, such ads have popped up on several post-Katrina-related websites, including nola.com, the official website of the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Other sites that violate the law are dhronline.org and katrinahousing.org, Katrinahousing.org, in fact, was singled out by FEMA for praise for its contribution in helping with the housing crisis.

People will no doubt use the "this is an emergency" excuse to let the offending websites get by, but if we do not protect people's rights during an emergency, what is the point of protecting them at all? FEMA is so out of touch that it comes as no surprise it would praise a site without taking a closer look at it. For the Times-Picayune to publish a site that violates federal fair housing laws, however, is inexcusable and a further embarrassment to New Orleans.

The Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center
has filed a complaint, and at least one of the sites has closed down.

Coal Mines and Safety

| Wed Jan. 4, 2006 3:17 PM EST

This mining accident in West Virginia is, needless to say, a serious tragedy. Even more appalling is the Washington Post's report today that the coal mine in question, Sago Mine, had previously been cited some 273 times by the Labor Department's Mine Safety and Health Administration for safety violations, a third of those "significant and substantial." 42 workers and contractors have been injured there since 2000. So why didn't the mine operators heed MSHA's warnings, or try to fix things? Ah, here we go:

The mine is contesting some of the violations, while agreeing to pay more than $24,000 in penalties to settle others.
Right: Sago Mine, on average, paid out less than $100 per violation. That's not enforcement. That's not even a slap on the wrist. The mine just folded that $24,000 into the cost of doing business—paying a nominal fee for "significant and substantial" safety violations is presumably cheaper than actually fixing the safety problems in question.

Meanwhile, over the past five years the Mine Safety and Health Administration has been seriously weakened. According to the AFL-CIO's 2005 Death on the Job report, the White House's FY2006 budget proposed a $4.9 million cut for MSHA in real dollar terms, and proposed budget freezes for MSHA enforcement programs. Since President Bush took office in 2001, seventeen MSHA safety standards for miners have been withdrawn, including the Air Quality, Chemical Substances and Respiratory standard. And from 2001 to 2004, the top job at MSHA was held by David Lauriski, a coal industry executive, who seemed, shall we say, less than interested in investigating problems. (See this 2002 Mother Jones story for more.)

Obviously those cuts, freezes, and appointments didn't cause the West Virginia accident. It's not like this is the president's "fault". And, although the statistics are sometimes murky, mine fatalities have decreased over the past few years, so MSHA's not a total failure.

But the larger picture is the thing to look at. Sago Mine isn't the only workplace accident that's ever occurred. According to BLS, in 2003 there were 5,703 workplace deaths, up from 5,575 in 2003, up from 5,534 in 2002, and so on. At the same time, Labor Department inspections have been declining, as budget cuts do their work, and fines for violations are getting lighter and lighter. According to the AFL-CIO, in 2004 "serious" violations of the Occupational Safety and Health Act incurred an average fine of only $873. Quite predictably, these trends are all going to converge on very severe accidents where people die, and it would be nice if we could deal with them beforehand, rather than react after the fact.

Bush crosses fingers, issues "signing statement" regarding ban on toruture and inhumane treatment of detainees

| Wed Jan. 4, 2006 1:46 PM EST

From the Boston Globe comes news that after approving a bill outlawing the torture and inhuman treatment of detainees, George W. Bush issued a "signing statement," a document which contains his interpretation of the bill. Not surprisingly, that interpretation is a declaration that he intends to view the torture ban within the context of his "broader powers" to protect national security.

In other words, the ban on torture on cruel and inhuman treatment of detainees means about as much as the law forbidding electronic surveillance without warrants of persons suspected of engaging in terrorism. Bush's signing statement was posted on the White House website; it is not a secret document, merely one--another one--that is floating by unnoticed.

A senior White House official is quoted as saying: "Of course the president has the obligation to follow this law, [but] he also has the obligation to defend and protect the country as the commander in chief, and he will have to square those two responsibilities in each case. 'We are not expecting that those two responsibilities will come into conflict, but it's possible that they will."

CIA Leaks to Iran

| Tue Jan. 3, 2006 9:22 PM EST

Um, what? This CNN story previewing State of War: the Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration, by New York Times reporter James Risen, contains this little tidbit:

Several U.S. agents in Iran were rounded up after the CIA mistakenly revealed clues to their identities to a covert source who turned out to be a double agent, according to a book that hit shelves Tuesday.
Intelligence sources told CNN that the mistake did in fact happen, but that no CIA agents had been rolled up as a result:
The message to the double agent in Iran was sent in a high-speed encrypted transmission from the CIA's headquarters in Langley, Virginia, former officials said. It did not include names or identities of the other agents, but it did contain information that could help Iranian counterintelligence agents identify them.
Other CIA sources, however, apparently told Risen that several agents were "arrested and jailed" as a result. CNN says this all happened "last year," which one assumes means 2005, although if it means 2004, that's somewhat significant, since that would place the gaffe right around the time that the CIA was accusing Ahmed Chalabi of passing U.S. intelligence to contacts in Tehran. At the time, Chalabi's intelligence chief, Aras Karim Habib, was also accused of being a "double agent"—although the odds that he would be the CIA's "covert source" mentioned above seem virtually nil, since by 2004 the CIA had long since cut its ties with Chalabi. The two stories are probably just coincidental, though it seems like an awful lot of CIA secrets are being leaked to Iran these days…

Did Donald Rumsfeld Violate Federal Law?

Tue Jan. 3, 2006 7:16 PM EST

Here's a connection between the various torture memos that doesn't seem to have been made yet anywhere in the media -- it's possible that, back in 2002, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld authorized interrogation techniques he knew to be in violation of federal law. On November 27, 2002, Donald Rumsfeld received a memo from DOD General Counsel William Haynes requesting the Secretary's approval of interrogation methods labeled "Category III." The memo defines Category III interrogations as "Use of mild, non-injurious physical contact such as grabbing, poking in the chest with the finger, and light pushing." Rumsfeld signed off on the document.

But an internal Department of Defense memo from a month and a half earlier in 2002 reveals the real definition of Category III. The memo was created by a Joint Task Force stationed at Guantanamo Bay and carries the subject line, "Request for Approval of Counter-Resistance Strategies." Section c explains Category III interrogation techniques and shows where General Counsel Haynes got his definition. The fourth example of Category III interrogation reads, "Use of mild, non-injurious physical contact such as grabbing, poking in the chest with the finger, and light pushing."

But the first example of Category III is the one Haynes probably should have pointed out to his boss. It involves "The use of scenarios designed to convince the detainee that death or severely painful consequences are imminent for him and/or his family."

What's the problem? That's almost an exact definition of torture under pre-existing federal law and is therefore illegal. 18 U.S.C 2340-2340A is a federal statute making the U.N. Convention Against Torture part of American law. It reads that torture is an act "committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering." This last phrase—"severe mental pain or suffering"—is defined by a variety of criteria, two which read as follows: "(C) the threat of imminent death; (D) the threat that another person will imminently be subjected to death, severe physical pain or suffering, or the administration or application of mind-altering substances."

So if you make a detainee believe that he or she will be killed, or that one of his or her family members will be killed, it is illegal under federal law. But that's exactly what Rumsfeld authorized when he signed Haynes' memo. Was the DOD aware of this? Yes. A different memo from the same Guantanamo Bay Joint Task Force outlines international and federal law that would seem to run contrary to DOD actions. When they get to 18 U.S.C. 2340, they dismiss it by saying "The torture statute (18 U.S.C. 2340)…does not create any substantive or procedural rights enforceable by law by any party in any civil proceeding."

I'm no lawyer, but as far as I can tell that just means the DOD thinks it is above the law.

But there are other justifications for Category III interrogation tactics put forward by the administration, and the fact that our government is stooping to this kind of reasoning is just awful. A DOD document written for Donald Rumsfeld in March of 2004 says: "to violate 2340 the actor must have specifically intended to disobey the law. Even if the defendant knows that severe pain will result from his actions, if causing such harm is not his objective, he lacks the requisite specific intent even though the defendant did not act in good faith." Alberto Gonzalez echoed this when he said, "the infliction of such pain must be the defendant's precise objective." If the torturer is doing his business simply to create pain, the Bush Administration is arguing, that is a violation of federal law. But if he/she tortures to extract information, the law no longer applies.

If that's the case, then the Bush Administration can do anything it pleases to a detainee in order to get information, including the cruelest and most morbid forms of torture dating back centuries. What separates us from Uzbekistan and China, again? And what did the President say when he was visiting Panama? Wasn't it, "We do not torture"? In direction violation of federal law, Rummy's ensured we do just that.

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More Nation-Building On the Way?

| Tue Jan. 3, 2006 5:36 PM EST

I don't know who this James Dobbins fellow is, but he sure does make a good point in the Wall Street Journal today regarding the Pentagon's new push to focus more on "nation building" in the wake of Iraq:

"There is wide recognition of the need to professionalize our response to postwar challenges," says James Dobbins, who oversaw a host of U.S. rebuilding efforts during the 1990s, mainly at the State Department, and who is now at the Rand Corp. think tank. "But there is also a whole range of criticism that says, 'If we get better at this, we might start doing it more often.' "
It's almost enough to make one wish that the military's 'China hawks'—those who want to buy expensive new nuclear submarines rather than create more peacekeeping units—get their way. Well, almost. John Robb pointed out awhile back that some foreign policy strategists, notably Thomas Barnett, are hoping that the military's new nation-building forces will be used to "sweep the world of failed states and accelerate the end of history." Robb, by contrast, says that doing so "will only result in buckets of grief, blood, and red ink." In a related vein, David Chandler's essay from last October, "How 'State-Building' Weakens States," is a good counterpoint to the interventionist view.

Ten-Word Messages

| Tue Jan. 3, 2006 3:49 PM EST

Ezra Klein makes a good point, writing on the topic of the Democratic Party's much-lamented lack of an easily "digestible" platform: "Can someone please explain to me why a major political party in the world's most powerful country should be able to define its message in ten words?" Right, exactly. Also, why should anyone be forced to explain the meaning of liberalism in an "elevator talk"? Politics and policy, especially good policy, is complicated, and if Democrats can't explain what they stand for or plan to do to fix this country in two monosyllabic sentences, that's not necessarily a bad thing. Or at least it shouldn't be a bad thing.

A related "concern" I find baffling is the idea that Democrats should, for some unknown reason, be totally unified on each and every issue. Media types in particular like to harp on this. But why should they be unified? As a general matter of principle, democracy presumably works better when there's lots of disagreement, and competing ideas are actually aired, rather than suppressed. Many people point out that the Republican Party has gained so much power because it stays on message and never succumbs to any sort of infighting or internal squabbling. That's not totally true, but even if it was, the Republican Party has also driven the country into the ground, so there's reason to think that running a political party like the Soviet Politburo probably isn't the ideal way to govern the country.

The End of One Person One Vote?

| Tue Jan. 3, 2006 1:54 PM EST

Might as well ring in the New Year with a link to the New York Times. Adam Cohen dredges up a little-noticed point about Samuel Alito today: namely, that Sandra Day O'Connor's purported replacement seems to disagree with the "one person one vote" decisions of the Warren Court in the 1960s. Here's Cohen's summary of one of those decisions, which, to the modern eye, look self-evidently correct:

The one-person-one-vote principle traces to the Supreme Court's 1962 decision in Baker v. Carr. At the time, legislative districts had wildly unequal numbers of people, and representatives from underpopulated rural districts controlled many state legislatures. In Maryland, 14 percent of the voters could elect a majority of the State Senate, and 25 percent could elect a majority of the State House. In Alabama, the county that includes Birmingham, which had 600,000 people, got the same number of state senators - one - as a county with barely 15,000 people.

In Baker v. Carr, Tennessee voters challenged their state's unequal legislative districts, which had not been redrawn in 60 years. The Supreme Court had rejected a similar claim out of Illinois in 1946, saying it did not want to enter the "political thicket." But in 1962, the Warren court decided it had to enter the thicket to vindicate the rights of Tennesseans whose votes were being unfairly diluted. It ordered Tennessee's lines redrawn.Those unequal district lines, by the way, were usually arranged so as to water down the voting power of African-Americans in the South, by packing them into a few urban districts. Although the Warren Court decisions were unpopular in certain circles at the time—civil rights advances in general were unpopular in certain circles at the time—nowadays opposing this sort of thing is pretty Paleolithic. In fact, some liberals might say that the Warren Court didn't go far enough on the "one person one vote" score; after all, legislatures are still allowed to include prison populations in the size of an individual voting district, despite the fact that those prisoners can't actually vote.

Meanwhile, if we're dredging up little-noticed facts about Alito—that is, stuff apart from his opposition to abortion and his apparent belief in the theory of the "imperial presidency"—here's another one. In his 1985 application for Assistant Attorney General in the Reagan administration, Alito noted that he disagreed with Warren Court decisions concerning "criminal procedure."

And which decisions might those be, exactly? Was it Gideon vs. Wainright, ensuring that all Americans must be provided a lawyer if they cannot afford one? Mapp v. Ohio, making evidence that was illegally obtained inadmissible in court? Escobedo v. Illinois, doing the same for evidence obtained by improper interrogations? Would Alito rather that citizens not be informed of their Miranda rights? Does he think the Court took a wrong turn in Hernandez v. Texas when it said that Mexican-Americans could not be excluded from juries? Inquiring minds want to know. Questions concerning criminal procedure occupy the vast majority of the Supreme Court's time, and it would be nice to know what manner of "law and order" justice we're dealing with here.

Pentagon has yet to craft a policy to bar human trafficking

| Tue Dec. 27, 2005 12:33 PM EST

It has been three years since George W. Bush announced his "zero tolerance" of human trafficking by overseas contractors, and two years since Congress backed zero tolerance up with law. The Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act authorized more than $2 million to combat human traffickiing, including women and girls forced into prostitution.

But the actual adoption of a plan to stop human trafficking is stuck in a mire of defense contractor lobbying tactics and disagreement over the Defense Department's intentions. Last summer, the Pentagon drafted a proposal prohibiting defense contractor involvement in human trafficking for forced labor and prostitution, but lobbying groups objected to it because, they say, key parts of it are unrealistic. At the same time, experts on human trafficking say that the Pentagon's proposed policy would only formalize practices that have made it possible for contractors working overseas to escape punishment for their involvement in human trafficking.

A new bill reauthorizing the nation's efforts against human trafficking was just passed, but only after the a measure that would have created a trafficking watchdog at the Pentagon was removed. Lobbying groups have also fought against a plan to have contractors police their overseas subcontractors with regard to trafficking. On the up side, though, the new law also deals with trafficking within U.S. borders, and holds non-defense federal employees accountable.