Political MoJo

Mother Jones is hiring!

| Fri May 20, 2005 6:55 PM EDT

Hi Mother Jones readers. Just a quick announcement that we have a new opening for our summer web internships. (The internship would start in the beginning of June.) If you or anyone you know is interested in breaking into journalism, it's a great opportunity. Details are here. Those interested should send a cover letter and resume to internships@motherjones.com.

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"Terrorists until proven otherwise"

Fri May 20, 2005 6:18 PM EDT

Perhaps the ever-growing number of MPs, guards, and interrogators implicated in detainee abuses are all simply sick, demented people. But that's too easy. After speaking with Erik Saar, a former military translator at Guantanamo, last week, it's become clearer to me how situations like these have become so widespread: Those in command are fostering an environment where abuses can occur. Saar writes in his book Inside the Wire, that generals and Congressional staff often came to Guantanamo to observe interrogations. As reported by the press, those in command hence arranged for "choreographed" interrogations with cooperative detainees to make it seem like all was well. But, Saar told Mother Jones, the real surprise was that the visitors knew they were being duped and didn't seem to mind:

They knew we were interrogating people in the middle of the night. They knew there were people that were subject to sleep deprivation. They knew that certain stress positions were allowed. I don't know why, if they were really curious as to what was going on, they didn't ask to see an interrogation where these techniques were taking place. These were leaders. They could have easily said, "I want to go to an interrogation at midnight tonight, and I don't want the interrogator to know that it's being observed by a General or a member of Congressional staff.

The Army criminal investigation report that the New York Times discussed today noted, that at Bagram, "Some of the mistreatment was quite obvious. Senior officials frequently toured the detention center, and several of them acknowledged seeing prisoners chained up for punishment to deprive them of sleep." Those in charge were either aware of the abuses or had to make a concerted effort to avoid becoming aware of them.

And the leadership, in many cases, appears to have been shoddy at best. While Saar worked in Guantanamo, Gen. Geoffrey Miller was in command. Saar told Mother Jones that Miller was widely disrespected because he was an infantry officer who had little or no intelligence experience and, yet, was running an intelligence-gathering mission. Similarly, the Times points out that the company responsible for some of the abuses in Bagram, was composed of counterintelligence specialists, none of whom had a background in interrogation. Meanwhile, one of the Reservists told Army investigators, "There was the Geneva Conventions for enemy prisoners of war, but nothing for the terrorists." And according to senior intelligence officers in the report, detainees "were to be considered terrorists until proved otherwise."

Meanwhile, the atmosphere in the prisons lent itself to abuse. Interrogators, guards, or military police were cheered on for "not taking any" from detainees. ("Specialist Jeremy M. Callaway overheard another guard boasting about having beaten a detainee who had spit on him.") Action to the contrary was frowned upon: According to Sgt. James Leahy, a Reservist who worked at Bagram, "We sometimes developed a rapport with detainees, and Sergeant Loring (the officer in charge of interrogators at the time of the deaths of Dilawar and Habibullah) would sit us down and remind us that these were evil people and talk about 9/11 and they weren't our friends and could not be trusted."

Similarly, the language barrier created a further wedge between soldier and detainee:

The communication between Habibullah and his jailers appears to have been almost exclusively physical. Despite repeated requests, the MPs were assigned no interpreters of their own….When the detainees were beaten or kicked for 'noncompliance,' one of the interpreters, Ali M. Baryalai said, it was often 'because they didn't have any idea what the MP is saying.'

Likewise:

When one of the First Platoon MPs, Specialist Corey E. Jones, was sent to Mr. Dilawar's cell to give him some water, he said the prisoner spit in his face and started kicking him. Specialist Jones responded... with a couple of knee strikes to the led of the shackled man. 'He screamed out 'Allah! Allah! Allah!' and my first reaction was that he was crying out to his god,' Specialist Jones said to investigators. 'Everybody heard him cry out and thought it was funny.' Other Third Platoon MPs later came by the detention center and stopped at the isolation cells to see for themselves…It became a kind of running joke, and people kept showing up to give this detainee a common peroneal strike just to hear him scream out 'Allah,' he said. 'It went on over a 24-hour period, and I would think that it was over 100 strikes.' As Mr. Dilawar grew desperate, he began crying out more loudly to be released. But even the interpreters had trouble understanding his Pashto dialect; the annoyed guards heard only noise. 'He had constantly been screaming, 'Release me; I don't want to be here,' and things like that,' said the one linguist who could decipher his distress.

Saar told Mother Jones that guards at Guantanamo were at times openly hostile to the translators: "The guards viewed any attempt to treat a detainee with any sort of civility as being sympathetic to the detainees." But just as Saar has broken the silence, so too have many others. Starting with Joseph Darby, who revealed the Abu Ghraib photos, soldiers have been coming forward, refusing to accept that these actions can be done in their name, or in the name of the country they choose to put their life on the line for. Indeed, the Army criminal investigation report that the Times obtained was "from a person involved in the investigation who was critical of methods used at Bagram and the military's response to the deaths."

How many more "bad apples" are we going to find before we start to look at the tree from which they're falling? An independent investigation is more than the "right" and "moral" thing to do. At this point, it's the one thing that might allow the Army, and the administration, to maintain a shred of accountability. Better to hear the truth from the top than from a slew of angry, low-ranking soldiers who feel betrayed. As a former Bagram interrogator charged with assaulting Dilawar, Sgt. Selena Salcedo, told the Times, "The whole situation is unfair. It's all going to come out when everything is said and done." It's just a matter of who it's going to come from.

Who Gets a Pay Raise?

| Fri May 20, 2005 4:10 PM EDT

We live in a country where appeals to "save the children" don't, apparently, have any effect. John Kerry's health-care plan would have ended our long national scandal of millions of uninsured children? Big deal! 12.9 million children live in poverty? Must be their fault! And so on. So I'm not entirely convinced that a new study, showing that raising the minimum wage would benefit 9.7 million children, will have any effect, but here it is.

Speaking of minimum wage, I was hopping around Google the other day and came across this stunning sentence by Holly Sklar: "Congress has had seven pay raises since 1997, when the minimum wage increased to $5.15, while approving none since then for minimum wage workers." Sklar suggests that we tie any increases in congressional salaries to hikes in the minimum wage. Not bad, not bad at all. The downside is that I actually think members of Congress should be paid much more than they are now: it would attract better talent, make them less corruptible, and discourage the sort of hopping from Congress to lucrative lobbyist positions that we see so often nowadays. The other downside is that Congressional pay increases are linked to pay increases for judges and other civil servants in the executive branch. Nevertheless, Holly Sklar has the right general idea. The minimum wage needs raising, and something needs to get Congress' attention.

Bagram Revisited

Fri May 20, 2005 3:12 PM EDT

In March, Mother Jones published Emily Bazelon's article "From Bagram to Abu Ghraib", which laid out how Bagram, a military base in Afghanistan where prisoners are screened for possible shipment to Guantanamo, was yet another piece of the detainee abuse puzzle. From Guantanamo, to Bagram, to Abu Ghraib, Bazelon showed how those responsible for pushing the limits of already hazy interrogation rules were circulated from one facility to another despite detainee deaths occurring under their command.

One of the most egregious examples of detainee abuse that Bazelon focused on was the case of two prisoners—Dilawar and Habibullah—who were brutally tortured to death. Today, the New York Times released more details on the incident from a 2,000 page confidential Army criminal investigation report on the two deaths. A roundup of some notable findings that reinforce what we already knew:

Even though military investigators learned soon after Mr. Dilawar's death that he had been abused by at least two interrogators, the Army's criminal inquiry moved slowly. Meanwhile, many of the Bagram interrogators, led by the same operations officer, Capt. Carolyn A. Wood, were redeployed to Iraq and…took charge of interrogations at the Abu Ghraib prison.

This makes it immediately clear that higher-ups were well aware that the actions of the interrogators, military police, and guards, were resulting in deaths. There was no mistaking the detainees died of natural causes. And yet, the Army apparently sanctioned this behavior by sending those responsible on to another detainee facility. Also note:

Mr. Habibullah's autopsy…showed bruises or abrasions on his chest, arms and head. There were deep contusions on his calves, knees and thighs. His left calf was marked by what appeared to have been the sole of a boot….one of the coroners later translated the assessment…saying the tissue in the young man's legs 'had basically been pulpified.' 'I've seen similar injuries in an individual run over by a bus.'

The Army criminal investigation concluded that "there was probably cause to charge 27 officers and enlisted personnel with criminal offenses." But only seven soldiers have been charged thus far. The investigation doesn't even seem to have probed very deep into the deaths. Note that one of the intelligence specialists who had been interrogating Dilawar—and who had complained about the gratuitous abusive treatment the detainee was receiving—was never contacted. According to Staff Sgt. W. Christopher Yonushonis, who was quoted in the piece, "I expected to be contacted at some point by investigators in this case. I was living a few doors down from the interrogation room, and I had been one of the last to see this detainee alive." Oh, and Yonushonis also added one other detail: "most of us were convinced that the detainee was innocent."

Correction: An earlier version of this post implied that Yonushonis had spoken to the Times, when in fact the paper merely quoted statements he had made to the Army.

Koran-flushing and Pakistan

| Fri May 20, 2005 2:04 PM EDT

Patricia Lee Sharpe has some crucial backdrop to the Newsweek-Koran flushing-rioting fiasco that's well worth reading. Islamic parties in Pakistan, it seems, are employing so-called "Blasphemy Laws" and whipping up violence for their own political gain. They're the primary culprits here. On the other hand, the mistreatment of detainees in Guantanamo and elsewhere has long been playing right into the hands of these demagogues, and weakening the ability of Pakistani President Perez Musharraf to oppose them. Read the post in full.

Mind the Books

| Fri May 20, 2005 1:20 PM EDT

So much news, so little time. Let's see, should we talk about Rick Santorum comparing Democrats who uphold the law to Hitler invading France? No. Should we talk about Saddam Hussein in his underwear? Er, no. (Although I'm a little worried that it's so easy to get past security and take pictures of the man.) Eh, for now we'll stick with the mundane and boring—but important!—topic of corporate regulation.

Usually if one want an answer to the question, "Is X a good thing," the place to turn is emphatically not the pages of the Economist. And sure enough, their take on Sarbanes-Oxley—the corporate regulatory bill passed in the wake of the Enron collapse—is vintage stuff. Will the statute reduce financial fraud? "It might." Will it work? "Time will tell. It is possible that Sarbanes-Oxley will come to be seen as both too much and too little." Okay, thanks.

To be fair, it's a tough issue to assess. The basic question is whether it costs too much to impose regulations that mandate the sort of honest accounting and rigorous auditing that prevents large-scale looting, ala Enron or Worldcom. The problem, though, is that the costs here are more or less well-known—one study has pegged the downside to Sarbanes-Oxley at $1.4 trillion—but the benefits are difficult to quantify. You can't measure the possible benefit of a hypothetical major corporation not going bust through shady dealings, especially if you don't know whether or not that company would have pulled an Enron in a laxer regulatory atmosphere. Counterfactuals are hard to quantify. So inevitably, the news stories will be stacked against the regulation—those concrete drawbacks always draw headlines.

Meanwhile, Clay Risen of the New Republic had a story last November that's worth dredging up again: the real regulatory problem these days isn't insufficient regulation; it's the fact that the accounting industry has consolidated among four big companies, and those companies have much-too-tightly intertwined consulting and accounting divisions. Obviously a firm isn't going to much rigorous accounting when it's also advising the company being audited on how to pay as little in taxes as possible.

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What's Wilderness Worth?

Thu May 19, 2005 4:03 PM EDT

In the March edition of Outside magazine, Bruce Barcott writes that wilderness is finally getting the price tag it deserves. While conventional wisdom has held that a forest isn't worth any more the resources you can extract from it, the argument advanced by Barcott, one which has been working its way through the environmental ranks for years, is that forests are usually worth far more standing up than on the backs of trucks.

As Barcott writes, Clinton's 1999 roadless rule proposal—affecting 42 million acres of National Forest—provided one of the first large-scale opportunities to showcase the new thinking. Economists used a four-part framework to estimate the value of creating the rule: direct income from recreational use; quality of life benefits (luring in businesses and residents), passive use value (preserving worth for future generations), and "ecosystem services" such as air- and water-purification. Using this framework, the "intact" value of the land was estimated at between $1.88-2.38 billion, while logging came in at a paltry $184 million.

While the financial power of this line of thinking has been gaining broad acceptance among economists, forest managers, and others who are realize the potential benefits of preserving the natural state of the land, there is genuine concern that an environmental reliance on economics—which seems attractive when pitted against timber—may not always lead to desirable consequences. Says Mark Rey, who oversees the National Forests for the Bush administration:

The dialogue we need to have is whether all those uses of our national forests are compatible with one another, not whether recreation is two or three times the value of timber receipts or whether oil and gas are two to three times recreation receipts. If we get into that debate, then we're probably going to end up making a compelling case for a lot more drilling in the national forests. And that's not the case we want to make.

The point? Economic justification alone is a poor metric for gauging the health and value of public land. If we're going to play a numbers game with this argument, its got to be one with foresight—whatever we can justify taking in economic terms has to be able to sustain the natural resource value of the land in perpetuity. Without such an ethic, the dividing lines between public and private land cease to exist.

Still Protecting Carriles

Thu May 19, 2005 2:16 PM EDT

Luis Posada Carriles, a Cuban-born Venezuelan who is wanted in both countries for allegedly blowing up a civilian airplane and bombing hotels in Havana, was finally arrested in the United States on Tuesday. Up until this point, the United States seemed to be uninterested in capturing Carriles. But on Tuesday, Russ Knocke, a spokesman for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) told the New York Times, "Today is the first time there was verifiable information about his presence in the country. We had received leads prior to today, which we pursued, but they ultimately did not go very far." Well, they finally got their lead—when Carriles held a press conference.

If ICE really wanted to find him, maybe officials should have asked Carriles' lawyer, who has been telling the press that Carriles has been in the United States for weeks, awaiting the outcome of his application for political asylum. This suspected terrorist, formerly on the CIA payroll, wasn't even taken down by the CIA or FBI. No, he was arrested by immigration agents following his press conference. The ICE agents had the presence of mind to wait until Carriles finished telling the Miami Herald, "If my request for political asylum should become a problem for the United States government, I am willing to reconsider my request." The agents probably should have arrested him immediately following this rather than letting him explain to the press that "he was hiding less these days because it seemed that the United States was not looking for him…he took a bus from Houston to Miami after crossing into Texas with a smuggler, and…while here, he had read Confucius and painted Cuban landscapes."

Carriles has been charged with an immigration violation. It's a piddling offense considering that Venezuela is seeking his extradition to charge him with the murder of at least 73 people. The immigration charges look like an attempt to assuage the media and public which have pointed out the irony that, while the U.S. is fighting a war on terrorism, suspected terrorist Carriles was applying for asylum. According to the BBC, "U.S. officials said they do not turn over those suspected of crimes to any regime that would hand them over to Cuba." Unfortunately for them, that excuse probably won't last long. Venezuelan Vice-President Jose Vicente Rangel today stated, "There is no possibility that Venezuela would turn over to another country if Posada Carriles' extradition to Venezuela is approved." The administration is running out of excuses.

Can Wind Power the World?

Thu May 19, 2005 1:50 PM EDT

Two Stanford researchers have put out a new scientific study suggesting that the potential for wind-driven energy is actually many times greater than was previously believed, and may, in fact, be more than enough to meet the whole world's energy demands. Analyzing thousands of sites around the globe, the researchers estimated that wind power could produce 72 terawatts of energy per year—many times greater than the 1.6-1.8 terawatts the world used in 2000. North America, meanwhile, was found to have the greatest wind power potential, though its unclear whether the United States could satisfy its own needs through domestic wind power alone.

There are still a number of barriers to wind power. For one, it enjoys only tenuous backing from the federal government. True, the House energy bill authorized $55-65 million per year over next five years to promote wind power development, but the most effective tool has always been the production tax credit, which finances roughly 30 percent of the cost of wind energy production. The problem is that, over the past six years, Congress has alternately let the credit expire and then be renewed three times, thus failing to provide the kind of long-term predictability that manufacturers of wind turbines and wind technology need. The current energy bill would only extend the credit through the end of 2006, even though many wind-power producers feel they could, with more support, push much further than the record growth expected this year.

There are other obstacles too. Transmitting wind energy to urban areas poses new challenges for grid operators who are used to predictable power sources and unaccustomed to dealing with the whims of Mother Nature. And while wind energy has some environmentalists excited, it also has many concerned: Critics point out that the regulatory guidelines for wind generation are weak, and that many conflicts over site placement may eventually emerge, particularly over the impact of wind farms on local bird populations. Other concerns have been raised about the disruption of scenic views, declining property values, and noise.

Of course there's a bigger picture to this debate as well: climate change has the potential to alter our landscape and poses ecological risks far beyond anything wind power could do. While blanket wind farms may be not be the answer, one can no longer ignore the potential for sensibly-sited farms to produce large amounts of clean energy.

Budget Jitters

| Thu May 19, 2005 12:53 PM EDT

While the fight over filibusters proceeds apace—and some wonder whether Bill Frist really has what it takes to pull them off—Dana Milbank peeks into the backrooms of Congress and finds a few grown-ups still worried about the Bush budget disaster:

While Washington plunged into a procedural fight over a pair of judicial nominees, Stuart Butler, head of domestic policy at the conservative Heritage Foundation, and Isabel Sawhill, director of the left-leaning Brookings Institution's economic studies program, sat down with Comptroller General David M. Walker to bemoan what they jointly called the budget "nightmare."…

With startling unanimity, they agreed that without some combination of big tax increases and major cuts in Medicare, Social Security and most other spending, the country will fall victim to the huge debt and soaring interest rates that collapsed Argentina's economy and caused riots in its streets a few years ago.

The thing is, I don't really see an answer coming. If we want to avoid financial Armageddon, yes, taxes are going to need to go up. But who's going to do that? Back in the 1980s, when we were facing a similar situation, Ronald Reagan had his hand forced by a Democratic Congress and raised taxes several times to stave off disaster, but even that couldn't close the budget deficit. Then the first President Bush finally decided to do the grown-up thing and push through a tax hike in 1990 to help lessen the federal debt—but he ended up paying for it with his presidency, when the Grover Norquist crowd on the right revolted. Bill Clinton, of course, finally managed to steer the budget on a path towards sanity, but his 1993 budget measure had to pass through a Democratic-controlled Senate without a single Republican vote. The point here is that George W. Bush isn't in Reagan's situation, or his father's, and certainly not Bill Clinton's. He's apparently under no pressure from Congress to close the deficit, and he's certainly not receiving any grown-up advice about the issue—as Reagan eventually did.

The other thing to note here is that we don't need to hike taxes and slash spending so drastically that we get the budget back into balance. As Max Sawicky has shown (pdf), all that matters is that we do enough to keep our debt-to-GDP ratio stable. If we want to keep our domestic programs growing at a healthy rate—as liberals would prefer and Republicans seem to end up doing anyway—that means bringing tax revenues back up to about 20 percent of GDP; they're currently expected to sit at about 17 percent in 2005. That would be an unprecedented hike, although revenues of 20 percent, by themselves, aren't some crippling figure (the post-1960 average is slightly above 18 percent; revenues for the previous business cycle were nearly 19 percent). Or, someone could figure out a way to bring our health care spending down to European levels. But something has to be done—there are few experts in Washington, liberal or conservative, who think we can just "stay the course".