Political MoJo

Is It a Gulag Yet?

| Wed Nov. 2, 2005 2:05 PM EST

The Washington Post's report about the CIA's "covert prison system" around the world—including old Soviet-era prisons in Eastern Europe—is worth reading in full, but this paragraph gets right to the heart of the problem here:

[A]s the volume of leads pouring into the CTC from abroad increased, and the capacity of its paramilitary group to seize suspects grew, the CIA began apprehending more people whose intelligence value and links to terrorism were less certain, according to four current and former officials. The original standard for consigning suspects to the invisible universe was lowered or ignored, they said. "They've got many, many more who don't reach any threshold," one intelligence official said.
Right. The torture debate tends to focus on whether it's appropriate to hold without trial or even administer a dose of waterboarding to cartoonish villains like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, but that misses the point. Mostly, it's just impossible to know who is being captured and thrown into some repainted gulag somewhere in the ex-USSR, and as the "war on terror" drags on without end, more and more very innocent people are going to fall into the net. It's inevitable—and as the intelligence official quoted above notes, that's what's happening.

That far-flung prison system, by the way, explains why Dick Cheney and his aides—including Scooter Libby's replacement, David Addington—are pushing to create a CIA exemption for the McCain anti-torture amendment. (Read the piece for a description of how Addison "ate for lunch" a Pentagon aide who meekly brought up the Geneva Conventions. How adorable.) If the Senate passes that exemption, they'll be offering a blanket endorsement of the "covert prison system" the Post has

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Voters Say No to Alito

| Wed Nov. 2, 2005 12:32 PM EST

Via Atrios, a Gallup poll notes: "If it becomes clear Alito would vote to reverse Roe v. Wade, Americans would not want the Senate to confirm him, by 53% to 37%." Well, done and done. It's perfectly clear. Based on his Casey dissent, we can predict with near-certainty how Alito would vote in the upcoming Ayotte v. Planned Parenthood case, which would be essentially a vote to cripple Roe v. Wade. Democrats have no excuse for rejecting him now. Gallup also reports: "If most Senate Democrats oppose the nomination and decide to filibuster against Alito, 50% of Americans believe they would be justified, while 40% say they would not."

Myth of the Suitcase Nukes

| Tue Nov. 1, 2005 9:44 PM EST

In the Wall Street Journal yesterday, Richard Miniter kicked around what he calls the "myth" of the "suitcase nukes." Most likely, he says, the Russians never made any such thing, and what sort-of-portable nukes did exist have almost certainly been destroyed. Good news if he's right, of course, though some of his points seem less than airtight. For example, here's Miniter's account of the Denisov investigation in 1996, which looked into allegations by Alexander Lebed, a Russian general, that anywhere from 50-100 Rissoam "suitcase nukes" were unaccounted for:

Lebed's onetime deputy, Vladimir Denisov, said he headed a special investigation in July 1996--almost a year before Lebed made his charges--and found that no army field units had portable nuclear weapons of any kind. All portable nuclear devices--which are much bigger than a suitcase--were stored at a central facility under heavy guard.
Well there we have it. Or do we? Here's a less-glossy account from the Center for Non-Proliferation Studies in late 2002:
It should be noted that almost nothing is known about the methods of the [Denisov] commission's work: for example, whether it checked only records or was able to compare the actual inventory to records as well (if only records were checked, it cannot be said with certainty whether more warheads were missing or whether any warheads were missing at all). Since the commission was disbanded before it was able to complete its work, it has remained unclear whether it was able to confirm the alleged loss of warheads (i.e., it looked everywhere and failed) or simply did not have time to clarify the situation (Denisov's statement seems to imply the latter). It is not even known who the members of the commission were.
Not quite as comforting. Also, some scientists have claimed that any suitcase nukes would have been controlled by the KGB, and so not listed in the records Denisov looked at, although this seems unlikely. In the end, people have said all sorts of things about "suitcase nukes," and it's truly hard to separate fact from bluster. The CNS report concludes, persusasively, that "the existence of smaller devices custom-designed for [Russian] Special Forces, probably analogous to American small atomic demolition munitions (SADMs), should not be ruled out… with a caveat that their existence should not be taken as fact." Fair and balanced, that one. But there is evidence, for instance, based on artillery shell designs, that the Russians engineers could have created such a weapon. And the records are too patchy to prove that they didn't.

Whether any of these theoretical weapons actually could have been stolen after the crack-up of the Soviet Union, meanwhile, is "impossible to say," and I don't think Miniter refutes the concerns of CNS conclusively. But. One very encouraging point, which Miniter hammers on, is that any truly portable nuclear device—weighing around 60 lbs.—would have had a very short maintenance period, like most Soviet weaponry, and would probably have deteriorated by now. Another point: the most likely time and place for a stolen nuclear suitcase bomb would have been in or around Chechnya in the early 1990s. The Chechens, certainly, have had ample reason to threaten or actually use such a device. But they haven't. Huh. So the balance of hunches definitely favors Miniter's thesis, no doubt, although this is also the sort of thing we really, really don't want to get wrong, and it would be nice to get some more solid information on this.

Where's the Investigation?

| Tue Nov. 1, 2005 6:49 PM EST

Today at Mother Jones:

Winslow Wheeler calls for an independent investigation of the response to Hurricane Katrina. (LINK) By the way, you can now find Mother Jones' complete Katrina coverage on one page. (LINK)

David Cole considers a book by John Yoo, a former deputy-assistant attorney general in the Bush White House and author of the infamous "torture memo" to Alberto Gonzales. Says Cole: "Yoo persuaded the Bush administration to untie its hand and abandon the constraints of the rule of law." (LINK)

Finally, Greg Anrig, Jr. argues that the nomination of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court is an opportunity to show that the right is trying to pursue a radical judicial agenda. (LINK)

Blue-State Conservatives

| Tue Nov. 1, 2005 2:08 PM EST

In Slate yesterday, Daniel Gross argued that Bush's Tax Commission will probably recommend to cap the mortgage-interest deduction, and if it does, it will hurt blue-staters more than red-staters.

Who has the most to lose if the mortgage deduction is capped at $313,000, and if you can no longer deduct local taxes from your taxable federal income? People who live in places where (a) real estate is expensive; (b) states and/or cities tax income; and (c) property taxes are high, to support local schools and services. In other words, people who live in California, Seattle, the entire Atlantic seaboard from Maryland up to Maine, and well-off suburbs of Chicago. If you live in a $300,000 McMansion in a state with no income tax, like, say, Texas or Wyoming, these changes aren't likely to affect you at all. But if you just bought a $700,000 house in Takoma Park, Md., you're screwed three ways.
Eh, my guess is that Bush wouldn't actually take up this recommendation. The real question he'll want to ask himself is whether it will hurt Democratic voters more than Republican voters. And that's not clear. The myth dies hard that the only people who votes Democratic are the ultra-wealthy, latte-swilling blue-state liberal "elite," but ultimately, anyone who can afford a $700,000 McMansion is more likely to have supported Bush than Kerry in 2004.

Look at the 2004 exit polls: the only state where the upper classes—making over $100,000, say—broke clearly for Kerry were: Maryland, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington. And even those states still had thousands of wealthy Bush voters who will be hit by the mortgage-interest cap. Meanwhile, the well-off in New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, and Oregon all went for Kerry in the aggregate, but once you get to the $200,000 threshold, they're voting unambiguously for Bush. California's an interesting case because the 10 percent of voters making over $150,000 chose Bush, 60-40, but the 14 percent making $100,000 went for Kerry, 60-40. Why the stark difference, I don't know. The same goes for New Hampshire. But in both states, same deal—the top percentiles, mostly Bush supporters, will be hit hardest by the cap. (Washington, by the way, is the one true latte liberal state—even among those making over $200,000, they went for Kerry 64-36! Accept no substitutions.)

Or look at it this way. Of the top ten most expensive zip codes in the United States (list here), only the Gold Coast of Chicago gave more to Kerry, and it was close—$402,000 as compared to $321,000 for Bush, according to OpenSecrets.org. The rest were big, big Bush donors, except Sagaponack, NY, which really, didn't give all that much to anyone, besides a few thousand to the DNC. Even the 90210 zip code—which didn't make the cut but has a few rich people here and there—raised $487,000 for Bush in 2004, only slightly less than for Kerry. The Upper East Siders in Manhattan really enjoys their lattes, but they raised over $1 million for Bush.

At any rate, any sort of progressive tax hike is necessary and good at this point; but I doubt the White House sees things the same way. The cap on mortgage-interest deduction will hurt a lot of Democratic voters—especially some middle-class Democratic voters who happen to have expensive homes. But where, pray tell, does Bush think his true supporters—the ones who pull the purse-strings—live? They don't live in Wyoming or Arkansas. They live in the blue states: Connecticut, Maryland, New York. Probably not Washington, but the rest of them. And they all have nice houses.

The Wrong War

| Mon Oct. 31, 2005 3:56 PM EST

Following up on a cover story he wrote for Mother Jones last year, Peter Bergen has a new piece in Foreign Affairs on how Iraq has become a training ground for the next generation of international terrorists, just as Afghanistan was in the 1980s. It's a pretty well-trodden argument that has gained increasing empirical support of late—especially with this report that many Saudi fighters only decided to take up arms after the invasion of Iraq. Bush has downplayed this thesis by arguing that it's better to lure all the terrorists into Iraq and kill them there than to let them lurk in the shadows abroad. But that assumes a) there are a finite number of terrorists out there, which we know is false; b) that the military can kill all of the foreign fighters that come to Iraq—they can't; and c) it ignores the fact that many potential terrorists are gaining much-needed training in Iraq, which was unavailable to them before.

Bergen also avoids the thorny question of whether and how U.S. withdrawal from Iraq would affect all of this. On the one hand, getting out of Iraq as soon as possible would stop the flow of aspiring mujahideen who are going to Iraq and learning how to kill lots of people. Plus, there's no way the U.S. can stay and kill every last newly-minted terrorist in Iraq, so it's fallacious to argue that "we can't possibly pull out or else all those trained fighters will go cause havoc elsewhere." Even if the U.S. pacified Iraq, those fighters would still escape and, potentially, go cause havoc elsewhere. But on the other hand, if the U.S. did leave Iraq and groups such as al-Qaeda and Zarqawi managed to take credit for the defeat, it is likely that they would gain a tremendous amount of newfound legitimacy, and the influx of funding and recruits that come with it—just as happened to Hezbollah after that group took credit for Israel's unilateral withdrawal from southern Lebanon. From a national security standpoint, that's not appealing either. At this point, basically, there just aren't many good options.

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The Real Rosa Parks

| Mon Oct. 31, 2005 2:43 PM EST

Today at Mother Jones:

Paul Rogat Loeb separates the myths about Rosa Parks' life from the much more inspiring realities. (LINK) In a separate piece, Loeb argues that citizen activists can work to make the New Orleans disaster one of those key turning points with the potential to transform American politics. (LINK)

Tom Engelhardt reflects that what remains with us, after the indictment of Lewis Libby, is "the ongoing, devolving catastrophe in Iraq where, in just the last three days, 8 more American soldiers have died during a month, not yet at an end, in which 79 American servicemen and countless Iraqis were killed." (LINK)

Finally, on Sunday, Mother Jones Radio talked with Sam Butler, the Bishop of New Orleans, and asked whether the federal government actually wants lower-class black residents back in New Orleans. (To go by recent actions, the answer would appear to be no.) (LINK)

Follow the Puppet Strings

| Mon Oct. 31, 2005 2:07 PM EST

Of course, CNN reminds us why Alito was nominated in the first place:

Greg Valliere, chief strategist for Stanford Washington Research Group, added that it's unlikely that Alito would have been nominated if his judicial philosophy wasn't geared towards business interests.

In fact, the White House was reported to have consulted business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, headed by former Michigan governor and Bush friend John Engler, over potential nominations in order to garner support for what many see as an uphill battle to seat a conservative judge to replace moderate O'Connor. This is a good tidbit, too:

Three years ago, Alito upheld a lower court's dismissal of a lawsuit against Vanguard Group. Yet Alito had hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in Vanguard funds at the time. While he later recused himself from further involvement in the case, the issue could be used to block the nomination.

Alito and Abortion

| Mon Oct. 31, 2005 12:49 PM EST

So Samuel A. Alito, Jr. will be the new Supreme Court dude. Emphasis on "dude". Or emphasis on "fascist". Whatever. Anyway, I've been reading his infamous dissent on Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the one in which he upheld a spousal notification law for abortions, and it's important to hash this out. The conservative defense of Alito will be that it wasn't his job to decide whether the law was good public policy or not, merely to decide whether it was constitutional; and on the latter, he was upholding what he thought were the precedents on abortion at the time. That's not implausible; see this passage:

Taken together, Justice O'Connor's [earlier] opinions reveal that an undue burden does not exist unless a law (a) prohibits abortion or gives another person the authority to veto an abortion or (b) has the practical effect of imposing "severe limitations," rather than simply inhibiting abortions "to some degree'" or inhibiting "some women."
In Alito's defense, it's sometimes hard to figure out exactly what Sandra Day O'Connor intends in her opinions—often only she knows for sure—and prior to Planned Parenthood, the Supreme Court had placed restrictions on abortion that, while not "severe," probably did prevent some women from getting abortions. So Alito's ruling partially stems from previous Supreme Court sloppiness, it seems. Meanwhile, the plaintiffs who opposed the spousal notification law had not shown that the 5 percent of women who don't notify their husbands would in fact be harmed by the new law. (The law leaves an out for women who have "reason to believe that notification is likely to result in the infliction of bodily injury upon her.") On one level, then, Alito's opinion is sort of reasonable.

But on another level, it's not. It's ridiculous. It's dangerous. It's wrong. According to Alito, because only a small number of women might face an "undue burden" in theory, but that's not known for sure, the law is just fine and dandy? What kind of legal principle is that? The Supreme Court obviously disagreed with Alito, noting that regardless of whether 95 percent of women would be unharmed by the law, "[l]egislation is measured for consistency with the Constitution by its impact on those whose conduct it affects." And that includes women potentially affected.

This all matters very, very much because in an upcoming abortion case, Ayotte v. Planned Parenthood, the Supreme Court will decide just this sort of dry procedural issue: on whether litigants need to show that an abortion restriction places an "undue burden" on women in the abstract—and is therefore unconstitutional—or must show that it places an "undue burden" in a particular case. Alito would appear to side with the latter view, and a ruling this way would make it very hard for women to challenge abortion restrictions (litigants would have to show that parts of the law affect them personally), and the net effect would be that Roe v. Wade, for all practical purposes, would be crippled—states could leave restrictions on the book for many years before ever being challenged.

The political issue here is that over 70 percent of Americans support spousal notification laws, and if Democrats try to fight on that terrain, they'll face an uphill battle (but one very much worth fighting). But there's so much more at stake here.

House bill restricts voter registration drives

| Sun Oct. 30, 2005 3:41 AM EDT

Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a measure that would restrict the ability of non-profit organizations to conduct voter registration drives. The measure appeared as an amendment tacked onto a bill providing increased regulatory oversight of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

This latest move by the Republican-controlled House is but one in a series of such attempts to prevent American citizens from voting. In 2003, there was the South Dakota voter ID requirement, clearly intended to thwart Native American voters, and just this year, Georgia also passed a voter ID requirement law, which was struck down by a federal court just a few days ago.

The Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac amendment--which prohibits any non-profit group from receiving federal affordable-housing funds if it has conducted a voter registration drive in the past year (even with its own funds)--was added for the benefit of the ultraconservative Republican Study Committee. It should be noted that one of the RSC's members is Louisiana Representative Piyush "Bobby" Jindal, who, as an Indian-American, is a man of color. This disconnect from reality apparently doesn't disturb Jindal's RSC peers any more than it disturbs the thousands of Louisianians who voted for Jindal, a slick bureaucrat with extreme right-wing views. Some of those views--especially in the areas of church/state separation and choice--if transformed into law, would be harmful to both people of color and non-Christians (Jindal was a Hindu before he converted to Christianity).