Political MoJo

Kansas City boy suspended from school for speaking Spanish during recess

| Tue Dec. 6, 2005 8:49 PM EST

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.

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Poll Numbers on Torture

Tue Dec. 6, 2005 7:36 PM EST

A growing number of Americans think torture and physical abuse are acceptable tactics in the war on terror. A newly released Associated Press poll finds that a shocking sixty-one percent of Americans think the use of torture can be justified to obtain intelligence from suspected terrorists. Assuming the polls and methodologies are comparable, that marks an increase over last year, when an ABC News/Washington Post poll found that only thirty-five percent of Americans thought torture was a justifiable policy.

Americans are apparently not alone, according to the AP: A majority of those surveyed in South Korea, Britain, France and Germany agreed that torture is a useful tool in the war on terror, in addition to large minorities of 37-49 percent in Canada, Mexico, Italy and Spain. However, allies abroad differ with Americans over secret detention centers. While a striking sixty-three percent of Americans said they would support the secret detention and interrogation of terrorist suspects for intelligence, in each of the foreign countries previously mentioned large majorities would oppose such U.S. operations on their soil.

That disagreement is a continued sore point as Secretary Rice travels through Europe to sell a difficult diplomatic message that neither confirms nor denies recent allegations that the CIA is operating secret interrogation sites on former Soviet facilities. Meanwhile, according to a recent ABC report, the US has already moved the detainees in Eastern European detention facilities to undisclosed locations in Northern Africa, completing the relocation quickly before Secretary Rice arrived in Berlin for a four-day effort to rehabilitate US-European relations.

Military Resists Weapons Cuts

| Tue Dec. 6, 2005 2:04 PM EST

More fascinating news on the military budget front. The Wall Street Journal reports today (page A1) that the Air Force is going to cut 30,000 to 40,000 personnel over the next decade in order to save some of its big-ticket weapons programs:

To stay within its expected budget, the Air Force is planning to cut at least 30,000, and perhaps as many as 40,000, uniformed personnel, civilians and contractor-support staff through fiscal 2011, military officials said. The exact composition of the cuts isn't known, though their thrust is clear: "This is one way to pay the bills without messing around with our weapons programs," said one official involved in the Air Force budget.
It looks like the Air Force will use that money to keep both the Joint Strike Fighter program—a costly purchase that was once called "unexecutable" by the GAO—along with a system of "missile-warning satellites" built by Lockheed that has been years late and costing "more than three times as much as its initial $3 billion budget." Both programs were under fire from the Pentagon but it seems the Air Force managed to deflect the axe by going after personnel instead. And yes, in case anyone was wondering, "the shift is good news for the nation's major defense contractors." As I recall, about a month ago, the Army proposed something similar in response to the Pentagon's demands for $11.7 billion in cuts from them: the service offered to reduce its force structure, at a time when the Army is already stretched thin, rather than touch its own procurement budget.

Now perhaps someone knows better than I, and surely there are a lot of ins and outs involved here, but it sure looks like defense contracts are dictating the type of military we have, rather than the other way around...

The Truth About Rendition

| Tue Dec. 6, 2005 1:34 PM EST

It would be a full-time job to catalogue all the lies that come out of the Bush administration. But here are two important ones. Hilzoy of Obsidian Wings calls the president on his statement today that "we do not render [detainees] to countries that torture." Not even the most Clintonian parsing of that statement could make that true.

Meanwhile, in the Christian Science Monitor, Tom Regan swats down Condoleeza Rice's claims about rendition, and compiles evidence that innocent detainees have been captured, rendered abroad, and tortured. Numbers are hard to come by, but here's one attempt:

One [US] official said about three dozen names fall in that category [those mistakenly detained]; others believe it is fewer. The list includes several people whose identities were offered by Al Qaeda figures during CIA interrogations, officials said. One turned out to be an innocent college professor who had given the Al Qaeda member a bad grade, one official said.

"They picked up the wrong people, who had no information. In many, many cases there was only some vague association" with terrorism, one CIA officer said.

Alito and Executive Power

| Tue Dec. 6, 2005 1:23 PM EST

Dahlia Lithwick has an important piece today in Slate, trying to figure out how Samuel Alito would rule in various "war on terror" cases if he ever makes it to the Supreme Court. Alito doesn't have a lot of experience in this area, but when the opportunity has arisen, the man has always—always—ruled in favor of greater police and government power. Odds are he'll side with the president when Bush wants the power to detain people without charging them, or ask for a "blank check" during a state of war—something that previous Courts have refused to give him.

Back when it looked like Harriet Miers was going to be the nominee, I wrote a long-ish post noting that an expansion of executive power has always been a longtime Republican goal, and Alito looks like he's willing to further that. It's not just "war on terror" powers; the GOP has long wanted executive privileges in secrecy matters and the power to control the executive branch free from congressional oversight. While Alito's views on Roe v. Wade will certainly take up the bulk of the time in his upcoming Senate hearings—and in a just world, the Democrats would filibuster him for it—but his views on executive power should get a thorough scouring as well.

Fun with Defense Contracting

| Mon Dec. 5, 2005 3:32 PM EST

David Cloud's report in the New York Times today about the Navy's plans for future shipbuilding is interesting for two reasons. First, there's the surface reason: the Navy appears to be scaling back its plans for a war with China, and adjusting its procurement budget so that the service can play "a greater role in counterterrorism and humanitarian operations." A while back, Defense Industry Daily did a profile of the Littoral Combat Ships that seem to be the centerpiece of this new look, so that gives some of the flavor here. But Cloud's report is also of interest because you can detect undertones of the Navy's growing budgetary conflict with Congress.

The Navy has been slowly losing the battle to preserve its funding over the past few years, partly because both the Bush administration and many members of Congress don't seem to believe that ships and submarines are wholly relevant to the so-called global war on terror, and partly because shipbuilding has become hideously expensive. The Navy's FY2006 budget requested only four new ships, scaled back from the six they were planning to request the year before, and well below the eight per year that naval officials would reportedly prefer. (Figure it this way: If ships have an average life span of 35 years, then the current fleet of around 281 ships will need to buy 8 new ships every year to maintain itself.)

But Congress has had other ideas, and in March asked the Navy to provide two future shipbuilding plans: one, for 325 ships, seems to be the one the Navy is telling the Times about, for obvious reasons. The other was a much smaller plan to pare the current fleet down to 260 ships by 2035. The CBO compared the two plans here: one major difference is that the 325-ship plan has far more "surface combatants," which, for anyone less-than-convinced about the coming war with China or Russia, probably look a bit less than necessary. Judging from recent defense budget debates, Congress appears to be leaning closer to the 260 ship, with the Senate as always being more generous with spending than the House.

The main concern seems to be that shipbuilding costs are ballooning far beyond what anyone envisioned. Not surprisingly, the Soviet-style command economy hasn't worked very well for the defense industry. The Navy had earlier proposed, as a way of keeping its costs down, that two shipyards compete for the right to build all DD(X) destroyers, rather than let the two facilities "share" production, without any incentive to compete. Naturally, twenty members of Congress opposed the idea, since competition would defeat the "share the wealth" mentality that supports inefficient contracts. At least this year, the House tried to put a stop to some of these inefficiencies by imposing cost ceilings on future ships, but ultimately these debates often come down to which members of Congress need contracting jobs for their constituents, and how powerful those members are. (After all, the supposedly "budget-conscious" House also marked up an additional $2.5 billion for two DDG-51 destroyers.)

Worth noting, though: it's always a leap of faith to try to guess whether Congress is really scaling back the procurement budget, as it appears to have done for FY2006. The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments has pointed out that many procurement costs may have just been shoved into the future. A favorite trick is "incremental" funding, where Congress appropriates only part of the money needed to complete a ship, figuring that the rest will get added on in later years (after all, if the Navy only needs a couple million more to finish up a nuclear submarine, who's going to say no?).

Back to Cloud's original story, though it's also not exactly clear whether the Navy really needs to build 32 new ships, at a cost of an extra $13 billion a year, by 2020. I certainly don't know, but it's a question worth asking. A June 2005 CRS report on naval transformation lays out some of the issues being debated here. On the one hand, the Navy has been trying to change in a lot of ways you'd expect, so that it can do things like operate in coastal areas and improve its response time. This certainly came in handy with the Navy's rapid response to the tsunami in Indonesia last year, a move that probably did as much for national security as anything else the military's done since 2002. On the other hand, the Navy seems to be placing a fair bit of emphasis on "strategic defense against ballistic missiles," which usually leads to some dubious spending decisions.

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Flight Risk

| Mon Dec. 5, 2005 12:39 PM EST

New at Mother Jones:

Frank Koughan and Sheila Kaplan continue their investigation into allegations that Boeing is using unapproved and unsafe parts for its 737s and other aircraft. The latest in the series reports on how FAA investigators have failed to examine the jets in question. (link).

Michael Schwartz debates against the top ten most commonly-offered reasons to stay in Iraq (link).

Mark Engler interviews three editors of a new book on American war crimes in Iraq (link).

In the news today, the 9/11 Commission released its final report today, calling overall progress on the government's response to the 2001 terrorist attacks "disappointing." Last year, Gail Sheehy profiled Commission Chairman Thomas Kean for Mother Jones, explaining how he "refused to be Bush's patsy" (link); earlier Sheehy had wondered why the 9/11 Commission says nothing about the inaction of Bush and Rumsfeld on 9/11 (link). Also, last September Matthew Brzezinski investigated the problems with the Deparment of Homeland Security (link).

Meanwhile, here in California, the execution date for Stanley "Tookie" Williams, the founder of the Crips turned peacemaker, draws nearer, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is debating whether to grant clemency or not. Venise Wagner interviewed Williams for Mother Jones in March, 2001 (link).

September 11 recovery money diverted to large international corporations

| Mon Dec. 5, 2005 10:54 AM EST

Last month, a bipartisan group of Congresspeople, in a rare display of doing what we elected them to do, turned the heat up on the Bush administration over the fact that so many Katrina recovery contracts had gone to large corporations in the usual Bush no-bid way. As a result, the contracts were re-bid.

Pity such a group wasn't around after September 11. The New York Daily News has put together a report on where the September 11 recovery money went, and--surprise, surprise--much of it, though pledged to small businesses, went instead to large international corporations.

Among the companies getting the hundreds of millions of dollars handed out by the federal government was a stock brokerage firm that had closed over a month before the attacks took place. The company, which applied for a grant, received $150,000, and its sister corporation received over $50,000. 4U Services, a technology consulting firm, received so many grants and loans that the total amount of relief was $640 million.

Empire State Development Corp., a company with no experience in providing disaster relief, created five grant programs and two loan programs, and the money flowed.

Torture and Criticism

| Sat Dec. 3, 2005 8:22 PM EST

Yesterday, the New York Times reported that the Chinese government still tortures its prisoners. Hardly surprising, one might say. But notice, many defenders of the Cheney administration's stance on interrogation tactic wouldn't call this "torture" at all:

The authorities ban only the sort of torture, called kuxing in Chinese, that meets a narrow definition of violent punishment leaving a lasting impact, like scars or disability, Mr. Nowak said. Officials have not done enough to outlaw physical or psychological abuse that does not produce a visible injury, Mr. Nowak said.

He said his investigation showed that such techniques include hooding and blindfolding, beating by fellow prisoners, use of handcuffs and ankle fetters for long periods, exposure to extreme heat or cold, being forced to maintain awkward postures for long periods and the denial of medical treatment. Sleep deprivation, he said, is perhaps the most common violation of what he called international standards of prisoner treatment.Way back in 2002, John Yoo wrote a memo for the White House noting that anything that falls short of causing "organ damage" or "imminent death" shouldn't be considered torture. The Chinese Communist Party has slightly higher standards here, but only slightly. And so long as the United States sanctions the same sort of tactics for its detainees, it will have no standing whatsoever to criticize China.

Every federal revenue door closed to Louisiana

| Fri Dec. 2, 2005 9:38 PM EST

Though other states receive generous shares of revenues they generate by allowing production of goods on federal lands within their borders, Louisiana gets almost nothing. Louisiana produces 25% of the nation's natural gas and 30% of the nation's oi, yet it has nothing to show for it. Well, not quite nothing: the laying in of pipelines has seriously eroded the state's coastline, making it much more vulnerable to hurricanes.

For years, Louisiana's Congressional delegation has tried to get help to restore Louisiana's coastline, but there has been none. About six months ago, the White House agreed to help Louisiana, but only under the condition that the state scrap its well thought out, long-term plan to preserve its coastline. In its place, the Bush administration substituted a cheaper, short-term plan. The state, desperate to get help, reluctantly agreed. Shortly after, the White House announced that the Louisiana wetlands were no longer a priority, and that the state might not get any money at all.

Back to revenue-sharing. In 1953, President Eisenhower promised Louisiana 50% of the tax revenue earned from its oil and gas production. One person, Leander Perez, who controlled Plaquemines Parish, didn't think half of the revenues was good enough, and demanded 100%. No one could get him to back off, and as a punishment, Louisiana got nothing at all.

The state filed a suit in an attempt to get its share of the revenues, and this suit was tied up in court for about twenty years. In the early 70's, the court finally ruled that because Louisiana's oil and gas production did not occur within the state's boundaries, the state could not claim any revenue from it. This is, of course, an absurd conclusion: Without Louisiana, no one could build the platforms and rigs or lay the pipelines. Offshore workers depend on Louisiana for everything from employees to supplies to the education of their children. Yet even today, lawmakers like Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico claim that because Louisiana's oil and gas business is conducted in the water, the sate does not have a right to any money.

Had Louisiana been permitted its fair share of revenues over the decades, the state would not be in the financial shape it is in today. With no oil and gas revenue and a government that both refuses to help restore its coastline and to keep its promise about rebuilding after Katrina and Rita, Louisiana has little recourse. There is talk of filing suit against the Army Corps of Engineers, whose incompetence was largely responsible for the levee breeches during Katrina. Technically, the Corps is immune from lawsuits, but Congress can amend the immunity to exclude criminal acts, and make the amendment retroactive. Alternatively, the state could file for damages in the U.S. Court of Claims, then hope that Congress would pay the judgment. In this case, some of the blame would go to the Orleans Parish Levee Board, which was negligent in inspecting the levee system.

Some of Louisiana's coastal parishes are also considering filing a suit against the federal government in order to get the state's share of oil and gas revenues. With a wrecked economy, bills coming in from FEMA, and the "We'll do whatever it takes" promise already tossed in the trash, the state has to do something fast to find the billions of dollars its needs.