Political MoJo

Who's in Guantanamo?

| Thu Feb. 9, 2006 3:09 PM EST

Jeralyn Merritt of Talkleft looks at a new report by Joshua Denbeaux, a law professor at Seton Hall, which finds, using data supplied by the Pentagon, that "55% of the detainees [in Guantanamo] are not determined to have committed any hostile acts against the United States or its coalition allies."

Also: "Only 8% of the detainees were characterized as al Qaeda fighters. Of the remaining detainees, 40% have no definitive connection with al Qaeda at all and 18% are have no definitive affiliation with either al Qaeda or the Taliban." Perhaps not surprisingly, the vast majority of detainees in Guantanamo were captured not by U.S. forces, but by either Pakistan or the Northern Alliance at a time when the United States was offering very large rewards for any "suspected enemies."

So why are they all still being held? See also Corine Hegland's cover story on Guantanamo in National Journal, which reports, among other things, that evidence considered "persuasive" in the military tribunals "is made up almost entirely of hearsay evidence recorded by unidentified individuals with no firsthand knowledge of the events they describe," according to one legal adviser to the tribunals.

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TIA Is Back

| Thu Feb. 9, 2006 2:22 PM EST

Back in 2003, Congress voted to deny funding to TIA, the "Total Information Awareness" program originally run by convicted felon and Iran-Contra star John Poindexter, because of privacy concerns. Well, the Christian Science Monitor is reporting today that the vast data mining program may be back, under a somewhat different name:

The US government is developing a massive computer system that can collect huge amounts of data and, by linking far-flung information from blogs and e-mail to government records and intelligence reports, search for patterns of terrorist activity….

The core of this effort is a little-known system called Analysis, Dissemination, Visualization, Insight, and Semantic Enhancement (ADVISE). Only a few public documents mention it. ADVISE is a research and development program within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), part of its three-year-old "Threat and Vulnerability, Testing and Assessment" portfolio. The TVTA received nearly $50 million in federal funding this year.Meanwhile, in Newsweek, Michael Hirsh reports that "today, very quietly, the core of TIA survives with a new codename of Topsail." And William Arkin of the Washington Post reports that the NSA is centralizing its domestic eavesdropping capabilities in a new "warning hub and data warehouse" in Denver, Colorado, which will become the new hub of "data mining" and analysis development, working in conjunction with the CIA and the military's Northern Command.

How ominous is all of this? It really depends. After all, credit card issuers use data-mining to identify fraud, and that seems to fly under the radar of most civil libertarians. But without the appropriate protections in place, Poindexter's "brainchild" starts to seem a lot more disconcerting. According to CSM, no one really knows what the scope of ADVISE is—even Curt Weldon, the vice chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee hasn't been briefed on the program "yet." Yet? Another expert notes that "ADVISE has no funding for privacy technology." Given that we're dealing with an administration that treats congressional oversight with contempt, none of that should go by without strict scrutiny—even if "total information awareness" could be useful at foiling this or that terrorist plot.

MORE: Kevin Drum has a few good questions that should be asked about any data mining program.

VA Nurse in New Mexico accused of sedition

| Thu Feb. 9, 2006 12:24 PM EST

Here is part of the text of a letter to the editor written by Laura Berg, a clinical nurse specialist in Albuquerque, New Mexico:

I am furious with the tragically misplaced priorities and criminal negligence of this government. The Katrina tragedy in the U.S. shows that the emperor has no clothes!...The public has no sense of the additional devastating human and financial costs of post-traumatic stress disorder....

Bush, Cheney, Chertoff, Brown, and Rice should be tried for criminal negligence....This country needs to get out of Iraq now and return to our original vision and priorities of caring for land and people and resources rather than killing for oil. . . . We need to wake up and get real here, and act forcefully to remove a government administration playing games of smoke and mirrors and vicious deceit.

Otherwise, many more of us will be facing living hell in these times.

Berg, who works at Albuquerque's VA Medical Center, wrote the letter to the weekly paper, the Alibi. When it was published in late September, VA officials seized Berg's computer, accusing her of using it to write the letter, and accusing her of sedition.

The head of the human resources management services later acknowledged that Berg's office computer hard drive did not contain the letter, but he defended the sedition charge.

In your letter...you declared yourself "as a VA nurse" and publicly declared the Government which employs you to have "tragically misplaced priorities and criminal negligence" and advocated, "Act forcefully to remove a government administration playing games of smoke and mirrors and vicious deceit."
The ACLU of New Mexico has filed a Freedom of Information Act request for documents relating to the incident, and is asking for a public apology to Berg. In the meantime, Berg has learned that the VA may have contacted the FBI about her, a charge the VA denies.

John McCain vs. Why We Fight

Wed Feb. 8, 2006 7:23 PM EST

Eugene Jareki's much-anticipated film, Why We Fight, is currently in limited release across the country. And it's already causing a stir among major politicos, including Sen. John McCain. According to Roll Call, McCain's chief of staff, Mark Salter, is up in arms, accusing Jareki of manipulating clips in which McCain is portrayed as critical of both Dick Cheney and Halliburton. McCain is scheduled to appear on David Letterman tomorrow, during which the clip in question will be shown.

The film, inspired by Eisenhower's famed 1961 farewell address referring to America as an "industrial war machine," tries to examine how the military-industrial complex both profits from war, and perpetuates it. With stratospheric defense budgets and international violence dominating the current political landscape, one can identify with Eisenhower's concern that this "machine" could potentially threaten democracy on a worldwide level. In making the film, Jareki is trying to address why our nation "has become the savings-and-loan of a system whose survival depends on a state of constant war." The film includes military and political insiders such as Gore Vidal, Air Force secretary James Roche, Richard Perle, Jon Eisenhower and Charles Lewis, among others, who explore what road all this violence will lead us down. Hopefully, McCain's spot on the late show will lead a broader audience to the theater.

Sweden to Go Oil-Free

| Wed Feb. 8, 2006 3:37 PM EST

This is genuinely exciting news (there's so little these days…). It looks like Sweden is preparing a plan to become an "oil-free" economy by 2020:

The attempt by the country of 9 million people to become the world's first practically oil-free economy is being planned by a committee of industrialists, academics, farmers, car makers, civil servants and others, who will report to parliament in several months.

The intention, the Swedish government said yesterday, is to replace all fossil fuels with renewables before climate change destroys economies and growing oil scarcity leads to huge new price rises.Sweden has a decent head start—about 26 percent of its energy already comes from renewable resources (the EU average is 6 percent)—and plans to meet its goal by using biofuels, along with wave and wind power, to generate the needed electricity, rather than relying on new nuclear plants, which already supply half of the country's electricity.

The Volvos, meanwhile, will all run on hydrogen. Or at least that's the plan, though granted, lots of smart people think hydrogen-run cars are easier said than done. Joseph Romm, a former Energy Department official under Clinton and the author of The Hype of Hydrogen, has leveled a number of criticisms along this front—for one, a hydrogen-powered economy can end up using more total energy because all of that hydrogen needs to be transported around to filling stations, and it's harder to ship than gasoline. And a relatively recent study by Argonne National Laboratory estimated that installing the vast infrastructure to equip 40 percent of American vehicles to run on hydrogen would cost $500 billion or more. Obviously Sweden's not as big as the United States, but that's a lot of money, and it will be interesting to see whether the Swedes can pull this all off.

Now the obvious question: Why can't the United States do something like this? There are major differences between us and Sweden, sure: the latter is much smaller, uses less oil, has an abundance of rivers, more nuclear power plants, and less sprawl. That all makes things much easier. And, according to Prime Minister Goran Persson, Sweden's farms and forests are more conducive to generating biofuel than America's. But as I've pointed out before, it's physically impossible to power the whole world—or even more than a small portion—with biofuel, and the United States would have to find its own mix of renewable resources no matter what (most likely involving a heavy dose of solar). So Sweden's not, in a strict sense, a "model" here.

Still, this is what a grown-up approach to energy policy looks like. Nothing mind-blowing. Nothing impossible. All you need is a government willing to act. The contrast between the Swedes and an administration that backtracks from even modest statements on ending our oil addiction—and then lays off 32 workers at the National Renewable Energy Lab because of a $28 million budget shortfall there—pretty much speaks for itself. Lucky us.

Purging the State Department

| Tue Feb. 7, 2006 7:40 PM EST

This sort of story is pretty commonplace nowadays, but Warren Strobel reports: "State Department political appointees have sidelined career weapons experts who don't share their animosity to arms control agreements and have placed less experienced political operatives in key slots, according to 10 current and former officials and documents obtained by Knight Ridder."

Meanwhile, SALT I, the 1991 treaty that is currently the "only mechanism for verifying U.S. and Russian nuclear arms cuts" is set to expire in three years, and the Bush administration is in the middle of purging any State Department expert with experience in arms control. Luckily, though, their replacements will all be "loyal" to the president and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, and we all know that's almost as good as expertise.

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More on Chinese Journalists...

Tue Feb. 7, 2006 5:50 PM EST

Yesterday Diane reported that a Chinese reporter had been sentenced to a ten-year jail term for warning foreign journalists, via Yahoo!, of potential local violence. As Chinese journalists continue to suffer the brutal consequences for their candid reporting, today the deputy editor of Taizhou Wanbao, Wu Xiangu, succumbed to injuries sustained while beaten by fifty policemen in response to an article published in his paper, alleging that police were overcharging people for bicycle licenses.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists reports that Chinese "authorities had prevented local media from reporting on Wu's death, and that his colleagues believed that criminal charges should be filed in the case. Journalists who report on local crime and corruption in China's newly competitive media environment face increasing incidents of violent attack in retribution for their work."

New Nuclear Weapons on the Way?

| Tue Feb. 7, 2006 4:22 PM EST

The Oakland Tribune reported today that lab officials in California are "excited" by the prospect of "designing a new H-bomb, the first of probably several new nuclear explosives on the drawing boards." This threw me for a loop at first—"Hang on, new nuclear weapons? Who said this was okay, again?"—but I think I get what's going on. (Although correct me if I'm wrong.)

It's no secret that the Bush administration has long wanted to develop new types of nukes, including those entirely frivolous "bunker-busters," for god knows what purpose. In Congress, on the other hand, sensible folks such as Rep. David Hobson (R-OH) have instead called for a "thoughtful and open debate on the role of nuclear weapons," and have opposed adding new weapons to existing stockpiles. Good luck with that, right? But in 2005 Hobson introduced the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program as a means of finding a middle ground here.

RRW was supposed to allow scientists to "refurbish" our existing nuclear stockpiles and make them more reliable "without developing a new weapon that would require underground testing to verify the design." Even the "refurbishing" is a bit questionable: our warheads are already plenty reliable, and even warheads labeled "unreliable" by experts can still inflict as much massive death and destruction as anyone could hope for. The current "stockpile stewardship" program set up by the Clinton administration in 1992 has never found any problems with the viability of the U.S. arsenal. (See this Bulletin article for more on this.) Still, RRW would channel the energies of the nuclear establishment away from the task of dreaming up new nuclear weapons and into something relatively harmless. That's useful.

Anyway, it wasn't long before Energy Department officials decided to co-opt and expand upon Hobson's RRW idea, and many administration officials now seem to see it as a means of creating an infrastructure that can eventually churn out new weapons if necessary. All of the sudden, everyone had a different interpretation of what the program actually entailed. Last April, Everet Beckner, deputy administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, told the Tribune, that building new warheads "was not the primary objective [of RRW], but [it] would be a fortuitous associated event." Oh, fortuitous. Right.

That July, as reported by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, the Energy Department was presenting plans before Congress for a completely overhauled nuclear stockpile that would use the RRW program to get there. The department's report "envisions a stockpile to meet an evolving or changing threat environment" and recommends that "a new version of RRW" be implemented to "form the basis of the sustainable stockpile of the future."

Now the new explosives currently being "designed" are still, as I understand it, intended to renovate existing stockpiles, and aren't brand new weapons. In fact, Sen. Pete Domenici explicitly prohibited any funds for the purpose of implementing the recommendations in the Energy Department report.) But the RRW program has slowly and subtly been morphing into a program intended to build new nuclear weapons—despite the fact that this was clearly not Hobson's original goal. And the Bush administration is continuing to push it in that direction, and presumably hopes it will continue to morph in the future. So that's something to watch.

More to the point, the overarching assumption here is that we somehow need all these new nuclear weapons. For what, no one can say. It's pretty clear that nuclear "deterrence" hasn't stopped North Korea or Iran from going nuclear—or 9/11 for that matter; and the United States' insistence on augmenting its own arsenal almost certainly undermines nonproliferation efforts. The administration's desire for "low-yield" nukes—weapons that could conceivably be deployed on the battlefield, and lower the threshold for use—seem completely insane, although Congress seems to have put an end to that little fantasy for now.

New Orleans Goes Begging Abroad

| Tue Feb. 7, 2006 2:44 PM EST

Great moments in U.S. history: "Shortcomings in aid from the U.S. government are making New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin look to other nations for help in rebuilding his hurricane-damaged city." Nagin had to ask the King of Jordan, who heads up an economy that is two one-hundredths the size of the United States', if he could spare any change to help rebuild the Lower Ninth Ward.

Wartime Socialism

| Tue Feb. 7, 2006 2:20 PM EST

In the grander scheme of things, it probably isn't the soundest of decisions to boost defense spending up to even more obscene levels, as the president proposed in his 2007 budget yesterday. But then, who knows, maybe the economy needs it. Last week, the Economic Policy Institute put out one of those "ironic in an Alanis Morissette sort of way" reports estimating that between FY2001 and FY2005, defense spending created 1.5 million additional private sector jobs in the United States. Some might call it pork. Some might call it socialism. Either way, it's hardly anything new in this country.