Mother Jones Daily: Briefing


Bush and God
Soda Security

POLITICS
Bush and God

With President Bush’s mounting religious references and outright public prayers, many observers are feeling increasingly uncomfortable. His beliefs are not a shock, considering that he has never hidden his strong evangelical Christian convictions, but, according to the Associatied Press‘ Jennifer Loven and others, they seem to be on the rise and are worrying a strongly pluralistic country (and world). Following the explosion of the shuttle Columbia, Bush quoted from the Book of Isiah to comfort the nation. He then offered:

“The same Creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today. The crew of the shuttle Columbia did not return safely to Earth; yet we can pray that all are safely home.”

What’s more, this language has been at the core of most issues concerning the White House. Loven suggests that, though similar expressions of faith have been aired throughout many other administrations, “lately, Bush has gone beyond his usual broad remarks on the power of faith in general to use language and ideas specific to Christianity.” Interfaith Alliance Foundation Reverend C. Welton Gaddy asserts that

“This president is using general references and, beyond that, terminology and vocabulary that come straight out of a very particular religious tradition, which is evangelical Christianity … I think his rhetoric implies a lack of appreciation for the vast pluralism of religion in this nation.”

GLOBAL ECONOMY
Soda Security

Imagine if, by law, everyone were required to drink the same soft drink, and possession of any other beverage was deemed a criminal act. Hard to imagine? Think again.

Spectators at the Pepsi-sponsored Cricket World Cup in South Africa have been thrown out — and could even be tossed in jail — for drinking Coke, the London Guardian‘s Paul Kelso reports. At the insistence of sponsors like Pepsi, World Cup organizers have adopted a draconian policy prohibiting fans from carrying a product made by a rival corporation. In a charitable gesture, Pepsi is permitting water bottles — so long as the labels are torn off — but those carrying the wrong brand of sugary drink have been ejected and could face criminal charges, Kelso notes.

“So stringent are the rules that offenders could find the real police getting involved. The legislation allows for prison terms against serious offenders. A Johannesburg businessman, watching South Africa’s match against New Zealand with his family last Sunday, found himself evicted for drinking a can of Coke.

‘Within minutes of opening our cans we were accosted by stadium officials and told to stop drinking Coke,’ he said. ‘I was told it was against the law. It is unacceptable that law-abiding citizens be browbeaten and summarily ejected for quietly drinking a beverage that is not approved of by the official sponsors.'”

Such strong-arm sponsorship tactics made their debut at the 2000 Olympic games in Sydney — in that case, Coke was a main sponsor — where employees went on Pepsi patrol, rooting through bags for illegal soft drinks and ejecting spectators from the stands. As The Nation‘s Matt Bivens observes, it’s probably only a matter of time before American audiences start getting the same treatment.

“Will this brilliant marketing innovation ever cross the Atlantic? America was built upon a bedrock respect for personal freedoms. But it’s also a nation where, to take just one example, Times Square billboard owners were taken seriously when they tried to sue the movie ‘Spider-Man’ for trespassing, because the film’s depiction of Times Square showed fictional billboards.”

In Setback, Some Hope
War on Drugs, Thai-Style
World Wildlife Flap

HEALTH
In Setback, Some Hope

Results from the first AIDS vaccine to reach the final phase of human testing are out, and they are disappointing. While few expected the trials to yield a silver bullet, the news is worse than expected: rates of overall HIV infection were reduced by a mere 3.8 percent, and the prospect of a workable vaccine seems as far away as ever.

There is, however, some cause for hope, the London Guardian‘s Sarah Boseley writes. Despite its dismal performance generally, the vaccine was far more successful in staving off infection in African-Americans and Asians. Though puzzled by this quirk, researchers are encouraged, Boseley notes, adding that the vaccine is a valuable — albeit small — contribution to the fight against AIDS.

“The figures may represent a statistical blip or they may say something profound about different responses of the immune system to the virus or the vaccine which could help the hunt for prevention, treatment and even a cure. If the trials had not been done, the data would not exist. Even in failure, VaxGen has advanced the search for a vaccine.”

FOREIGN NEWS
War on Drugs, Thai-Style

Many are shouting excessive police force after hundreds have been gunned down during three weeks of Thailand’s vigorous campaign against suspected drug dealers. According to Alex Spillius of the Melbourne Age, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has enacted a policy of extra-judicial killing in the nation’s renewed drug war, creating a “bloodbath” that has left at least 580 suspects dead. While the government maintains that it has been entirely lawful and meticulous in its plans, the push has created considerable fear of the police and their apparently unchecked powers. While a poll shows that 90 percent of Thais back the operation against criminals, 70 percent also worried that they would be “framed or killed” by the police.

Indeed, there have been doubts as to the guilt of many of those who have been killed. In one case, for which police are being investigated, three officers shot and killed a nine-year-old boy. In another instance, writes Spillius, the parents of an eight-year-old boy were “killed in front of him as they returned home from a Buddhist temple. His father was shot in the head, his mother in the back.”

The Nation of Thailand reports that United Nations Human Rights Commissioners are preparing to look into complaints about the drug war’s methods. Suggesting even greater numbers of dead — up to 833 — the Nation notes that critics believe that the violence was

“a huge mistake…They said the government had tried to grab popularity by issuing rising figures to claim success, brushing aside fears that innocent lives may be claimed and ignoring possible human-rights violations.”

The government has failed to prove that the dead were drug dealers, the Nation continues, “let alone major traffickers.” Police claim that the huge numbers of dead are almost entirely the work of other dealers seeking “to silence retail traders who might implicate them.”

ENVIRONMENT
World Wildlife Flap

The World Wildlife Fund is having a bit of trouble putting its money where its mouth is — or rather, using the money it receives from corporate sponsors for environmental protection, instead of granting the sponsors a blessing to lay waste to the environment. The Fund’s members are at odds regarding a controversial dam project in Karahnjukar, Iceland, reports Severin Carrell of London’s Independent. Alcoa, an aluminum company that is on WWF-US’s “corporate club” list for donating $1 million to the organization, is slated to build a dam that would cover 22 square miles and flood out the breeding and nesting areas of three species of geese.

WWF’s US President Kathryn Fuller, who also holds a seat on Alcoa’s executive board, refused to oppose the dam project, outraging her colleagues both within the WWF and from prominent environmental organizations. Leading European environmentalists, long wary of the WWF’s corporate bedfellows, have called the plans for the dam “disastrous.” In a similar response to past debates over sponsors that also support or fund potentially environmentally hazardous plans, the WWF remains internally divided, though “[t]he organisation’s executives in the UK and Geneva admit this is the most serious crisis so far in its relations with big business,” writes Carrell. If the Alcoa project is approved, the WWF may face the repercussions of two floods — the one in Iceland that displaces pink-footed, greylag, and barnacle geese, and the onslaught of criticism from international environmentalists, who are increasingly skeptical of WWF’s corporate alliances.

A Scarier Sequel
Seoul’s New Man

LAW AND JUSTICE
A Scarier Sequel

The leak of a secret draft (via The Center for Public Integrity) of the Patriot Act II has set both pundits and politicians reeling, and left the Department of Justice scrambling to justify what many are calling a drastic assault on civil liberties.

Officially dubbed the Domestic Security Enhancement Act 2003, the Patriot Act’s second installment proposes the creation of a “Terrorist Identification” DNA database, increased rights of authorities to arrest, detain, and even expatriate citizens, added covert surveillance, and a tightening of the government’s vice grip on public information laws in the name of national security. Worst of all, opine the outraged editors of San Jose’s Mercury News:

“The legislation would strip Americans of their most basic right, citizenship, if they give ‘material support’ to any group the attorney general labels a terrorist organization. As Yale Law School professor Jack Balkin said, ‘Give a few dollars to a Muslim charity Ashcroft thinks is a terrorist organization and you could be on the next plane out of this country.'”

These are the security measures of totalitarian regimes, not democracies.”

The Detroit Free Press‘ editorial board weighes in, too, skewering Ashcroft & Co.’s secretive, Orwellian agenda.

“The Bush administration has been quick to use the fight against terrorism to justify the most secretive and prying federal government in recent history. And it has done so without fixing some of the nuts and bolts of national security, like getting the CIA and FBI to communicate.

The Justice Department has stonewalled Congress on how the 2001 law is working and has not consulted with it while drafting the new legislation. Perhaps the Bush administration is waiting for war time to grab more power. Congress ought to be skeptical of any further attacks on liberty if it wants to preserve a nation that is both free and safe.”

Democratic congressional leaders agree. As Medill News Service notes, North Carolina Senator John Edwards was one of the first to voice his objection.

“‘We need to have the backbone and courage to say that we will not let [U.S. Attorney General] John Ashcroft, in the name of the war on terrorism, take away our rights, take away our liberties, and take away our freedom.'”

When confronted by the outcry, the Department of Justice backpedalled, but didn’t disown the document. “During our internal deliberations, many ideas are considered, some are discarded, and new ideas emerge in the process along with numerous discussion drafts,” a spokesman said.

FOREIGN NEWS
Seoul’s New Man

Even as South Korea’s new president, Roh Moo-hyun, was sworn in yesterday, North Korea indulged in some high-profile missile-testing on the other side of the DMZ. While such saber rattling is par for the course on the Korean Peninsula, observers agree that Roh — a largely untested, dovish outsider who ran on an anti-American platform — takes the helm during especially troubled times.

While noting that Roh is generally well-regarded, The Christian Science Monitor‘s Robert Marquand points out that many of the new president’s positions, though thought to be more liberal than those of his predecessors, are still a mystery. It is a situation that concerns both Washington and Seoul insiders, Marquand writes.

“The main theme of the two months since Roh’s Dec. 19 victory has been ‘adjustment,’ sources say. One of Roh’s strengths is his reputation as a quick study — he passed the Korean bar exam by teaching himself, and he has come to high office from a farming family, no mean feat. At the same time, critics here point to a president-elect whose unclear positions on economic reform and security matters still make him something of an unknown.

Two major unanswered questions hover over Roh: Who will guide the new president as he formulates a response to the nuclear crisis? And how will Roh, who seemed to favor anti-US sentiment last fall, work with a White House that early on showed little regard for the Sunshine Policy of embracing the North that Roh advocates?”

Indeed, worries over South Korea’s deteriorating relationship with Washington loom large, even though Roh has softened his anti-American rhetoric considerably since his election victory. While lauding Roh as a breath of fresh air from the corruption that tarred his predecessor’s last years, the editors of The Japan Times fret that his inexperience could get him into trouble — not only with the US, but with his belligerent neighbor to the north.

“It will take considerably more to calm fears of a widening U.S.-South Korea gap. North Korea will do its best to exploit any differences in opinion and will certainly take advantage of the new administration’s inexperience. Mr. Roh and his team face a steep learning curve with little allowance for error.

John Feffer, however, takes a more hopeful view in The Asia Times. Under Roh, he argues, South Korea is likely to pursue a more independent line, emerging from America’s shadow and aggressively pursuing peace with North Korea. This newfound self-confidence, Feffer writes, might be exactly what the Korean Peninsula needs.

“The United States now has another outspoken and uncowed ‘ally.’ Roh joins an axis of independence that includes France’s Jacques Chirac and Germany’s Gerhard Schroeder. With friends like these, the Bush team laments, who needs an axis of evil? What’s bad for Bush, however, is a boon for the rest of the world and particularly for the Korean Peninsula. Roh Moo-hyun is the world’s best hope for avoiding war in East Asia.

Roh is no stranger to uphill battles. He pulled off a stunning upset victory in the December elections. Now, facing even longer odds in the international arena, he is simultaneously trying to establish peace with North Korea and negotiate a more just relationship with the United States. Kim Dae-jung’s Nobel Peace Prize is a tough act to follow. If Roh pulls off these two foreign-policy feats, he will set the stage for a more profound prize: a peaceful, unified Korea.”

Star Wars Secrecy
Challenging Rigged Juries
The Army Corps of Folly

POLITICS
Star Wars Secrecy

The White House’s new budget, it seems, is a gift that keeps on giving — to all of the GOP’s pet causes. In addition to its under-the-table favors to the logging and gun industries, the budget also proposes exempting the Bush administration’s ne’er-do-well missile defense system from testing before it’s deployed.

If approved by Congress, the exemption would mark the first time a major weapons program wasn’t required to prove its worth before deployment. As Slate‘s Fred Kaplan points out, however, missile defense has failed test after test, and throwing billions of extra dollars at the program while removing all oversight just doesn’t make sense.

“However, these extra efforts and resources will not produce a real, working system that can shoot down an enemy’s ballistic missiles. At a press conference last December, J.D. Crouch, the assistant secretary of defense for international security, said the budget will buy ‘a very modest initial interceptor inventory’ that will ‘provide a useful defensive capability but one that, you know, has limits.’

When I read this passage of the transcript aloud to a Pentagon official who is very familiar with the program’s tests to date, he laughed and said, ‘It has limits, all right!’ The MDA can deploy all the interceptors it likes, but, the official added, ‘They will not be operational’ — in other words, they will not form a working system.”

Of course, administration officials have defended the rush to deployment as a necessary deterrent to rogue states like North Korea. The editors of The Los Angeles Times, however, scoff at this idea. Instead, they argue, the plans for untested deployment are just another handout to defense contractors and their influential supporters.

“The illogic of the administration’s request is a sure sign that it is driven by politics. Speedy deployment is favored by defense contractors like Lockheed Martin, for which missile defense is a potential financial bonanza, and by unflinching true believers such as Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.).

To justify the buildup, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld says there is ‘no doubt in my mind’ that North Korea has a missile that could reach the U.S. Maybe so. But hasty construction of untested missile defenses is not a reasonable response. Without testing, the Pentagon — and U.S. taxpayers — has no way of knowing whether the defense system is just a high-tech Maginot Line, providing the illusion without the substance of national security.”

LAW & JUSTICE
Challenging Rigged Juries

The Supreme Court issued a blow yesterday to prosecutors who would seek to stack juries racially. Frank Murray reports in the Washington Times that an 8 to 1 opinion has allowed Thomas Joe Miller-El, a black Texas death-row inmate, a new hearing, on the grounds that he was denied a jury of his peers. The jury for the original 1986 trial contained only one black man, after 10 blacks were systematically removed.

The court’s decision, which reversed that of the ultra-conservative 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals, stated that, “In this case, the statistical evidence alone raises some debate as to whether the prosecution acted with a race-based reason when striking prospective jurors.” Noting the racial composition of the final jury, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy remarked: “Happenstance is unlikely to produce this disparity.”

This precedent, suggest Warren Richey and Linda Feldmann of the Christian Science Monitor, sets a new standard for judges to ensure that prospective jurors aren’t removed because of race. The case could influence other capital cases around the country. And, Richey and Feldmann continue, the decision

“marks an important victory for civil rights advocates who have long complained that some prosecutors deliberately try to exclude blacks from juries, particularly when the defendant in the trial is black.”

ENVIRONMENT
The Army Corps of Folly

An Army Corp of Engineers’ plan to dredge the highly polluted southern tip of Lake Michigan has East Chicago, Indiana residents protesting that the so-called clean-up will actually threaten the health of the town’s predominantly low-income, minority population, reports Julie Deardoff of the Chicago Tribune. The dumpsite for contaminated sediment, which would contain chemicals associated with the onset of asthma, lies just half a mile from the town’s local high school. The dredging itself would stir up known carcinogens that could possibly leach into groundwater known carcinogens.

While the Corps maintains that there is no risk of further contamination from the disposal facility, reports the Associated Press, a Northwestern University study finds that

“[t]he corps’ estimates for air emissions are based on a model used to determine chemical losses from soils that received petroleum wastes in a land-farming process, not for confined disposal facilities.”

Bush Climate Plan Irks Critics
Reawakening Agent Orange
School Lunch Illogic

ENVIRONMENT
Bush Climate Plan Irks Critics

Calling the White House’s bluff on global warming, a panel of experts savaged the Bush administration’s new plan for handling climate change. Though convened at the White House’s behest, the panel of scientists certainly didn’t tell the administration what it wanted to hear, the London Guardian‘s Oliver Burkeman writes. Instead, the panel’s report concluded that the proposal lacked “a guiding vision, executable goals, clear timetables and criteria for measuring progress.” What’s more, the panel dismissed Bush’s guiding principle in the climate debate — that further study is necessary before any action can be taken — as a stalling tactic.

“‘I’ve been doing ecosystems science for 30 years, and we know what we know and what we don’t know,’ William Schlesinger, a panel member, told the Guardian. ‘Rather than focusing on the things we don’t know, it’s almost as if parts of the plan were written by people who are totally unfamiliar with where ecosystems science is coming from.’

‘There’s no question that if you claim that not much is known, even if it is, then you delay the time at which you can say, OK, the research is unequivocal and we need to do something about the problem,’ Dr Schlesinger said. ‘It’s not very far beneath the surface that there’s an element of not taking any action here.'”

The Philadelphia Inquirer‘s editors weigh in, too. Even multinationals like Alcoa and DuPont, they opine, have done more to confront global warming than the White House.

“Everyone, except the Bush administration, seems to get that global warming is a real problem that needs real action — now. President Bush continues to falsely pit the economy against the environment, arguing that they both can’t be healthy at once. He’s wrong. Companies such as Alcoa, Boeing, DuPont and Shell have proven that they can fight global warming even while increasing their bottom line.

Their successes, largely through basic energy efficiency, make a mockery of the President’s ‘Climate Vision,’ announced two weeks ago. His voluntary approach would marginally reduce the rate at which greenhouse gases could grow over the next decade.”

LAW & JUSTICE
Reawakening Agent Orange

Though the Supreme Court has yet to decide on the case, three justices have asserted that Vietnam veterans suffering health consequences from Agent Orange long after a 1984 settlement should still be able to file lawsuits. James Rowley reports for Bloomberg News that Justices O’Connor, Ginsburg, and Souter have questioned statements made by Dow Chemical and Monsanto — once producers of the defoliant — that all victims’ claims ended with the past class-action settlement. That settlement — a $180 million fund — has entirely dried up, leaving newly suffering veterans without any remuneration.

The original settlement was, writes Rowley,

“intended to settle all claims for the 2.5 million veterans who served in Vietnam from 1961 to 1972. It provided cash payments to people who exhibited symptoms of illness and set up a veterans’ assistance and education fund.”

Now seeking payment are Joe Isaacson, an Air Force crewman, and Daniel Stephenson, a helicopter pilot, who both developed “virulent forms of cancer” after the cut-off date.

The Christian Science Monitor‘s Warren Richey notes that this

“case is important because it may help define how much power individuals have to challenge their inclusion in class-action settlements when their long-term interests clash with the relatively short-term interests of other class members.”

While those against re-opening the settlement argue that such a decision would be a terrible precedent for the finality of class-action suits, others, including veterans organizations, attorneys, and consumer advocates, believe that the settlement was unfair, as it “binds thousands of Vietnam veterans to an agreement that never benefited them.”

HEALTH
School Lunch Illogic

The USDA’s school lunch program has been under fire lately from the Bush Administration, which claims that the program’s provision of free and discounted lunches is being abused by recipients, reports the Associated Press. According to USDA spokeswoman Jean Daniel, more than a quarter of the 28 million kids served by the program may be ineligible on a basis of income.

But, even if some unqualified children are indeed receiving free lunches, it could prove to be more of a crutch than a coup for them. Last month, Mother Jones‘s Barry Yeoman reported that school lunches are replete with fat-laden foods whose inclusion directly subsidizes the meat and dairy industries.