Mother Jones Daily: Briefing


Ashcroft’s Home Front
Equal Opportunity Bullying
Lightening the Load of Garbage Gases

LAW & JUSTICE
Ashcroft’s Home Front

As US officials begin their move to interrogate (and, in many cases, detain) thousands of Iraqi immigrants, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced this week that the Justice Department will grant new and expanded powers to federal agents to further those efforts.

According to Dan Eggen of the Washington Post, Ashcroft has bestowed upon FBI agents and US marshals the power to “detain foreign nationals for alleged immigration violations in cases where there is not enough evidence to hold them on criminal charges.” These new regulations, says Eggen, will “significantly breach the wall that has long separated federal law enforcement agents from immigration officers.” The move has been advertised as an effort to broaden law enforcement’s reach in combatting terrorism.

However, immigrant advocates are issuing a collective sigh at what appears to be yet another step backwards for the civil liberties of non-citizens and Middle-Easterners. Within the new modus operandi, Iraqis and others who elicit agents’ suspicion could be routinely arrested for immigration violations. Bill Frelick, an immigration policy expert for Amnesty International, calls the change “part of a pattern that we’re seeing in which what may be minor violations of immigration law are used as a pretext for preventive detention.”

Among the new tactics will be a method known as “knock and talk” operations, in which FBI agents visit the homes of targeted community-members in order to discreetly gain information about them. Pierre Thomas and Jason Ryan report in ABC News that the stated goal of the operation is simply gathering information and encouraging the reporting of hate-crimes.

“But the unstated goal is to get tips about those who might commit acts of terror — within these groups U.S. officials have identified suspected Saddam Hussein supporters and al Qaeda sympathizers.”

And, most significantly, immigrants discovered during those visits to be “out of status” will be detained, at which time detainees “go into a media black hole, and the government is not required to even reveal their names,” Thomas and Ryan add.

The pundits at TalkLeft assert that the “knock and talk” is a scheme that has long been favored by the DEA in making sneaky arrests of marijuana growers. Agents don’t have a search warrant to enter someone’s home,

“so they go to the house to use trickery or worse to gain entry. Another end run around the Fourth Amendment. Which, according to the Supreme Court, protects everyone in this country, not just citizens.”

Additionally, the archly-conservative Front Page Magazine has published a symposium of civil rights experts representing varying political stripes in order to examine the larger picture of Ashcroft’s handling of American liberties since Sept. 11.

POLITICS
Equal Opportunity Bullying

Democrats, it turns out, aren’t the only targets of the White House’s notorious strongarm tactics in pursuit of its goals. As the Washington Post‘s Dana Milbank and Jim Vandehei report, conservatives, too, are feeling the heat from an administration that demands absolute fealty — and enforces it in “uniquely fierce and vindictive” ways.

In just one recent example, moderate Republicans in the National Governor’s Association have come under intense pressure to remove the bipartisan group’s leadership, which has pushed Washington for more federal aid for cash-strapped states. Florida Governor Jeb Bush, along with a few others, even threatened to quit the group if it didn’t abandon its call for help. Conservative groups and lobbying firms, too, are being told to toe the party line or else. All of which leaves even some of the President’s staunchest allies nonplussed.

“‘I think this monomaniacal call for loyalty is unhealthy,’ Moore said. ‘It’s dangerous to declare anybody who crosses you an enemy for life. It’s shortsighted.’ Leaders of three other conservative groups report that their objections to Bush policies have been followed by snubs and, in at least one case, phone calls suggesting the replacement of a critical scholar. ‘They want sycophants rather than allies,’ said the head of one think tank.”

ENVIRONMENT
Lightening the Load of Garbage Gases

Communities nationwide have discovered a means of confronting both rising electricity bills and global warming. The relatively simple yet innovative technology of harvesting methane, a greenhouse gas, from landfills and converting it to electricity has come to light in disparate parts of the country, including Boone County, Kentucky and Mt. Pleasant, Wisconsin. To date, about 340 landfill to gas projects exist in the country, reports Jennie Tunkieicz of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. But Kentucky’s and Wisconsin’s plans take the renewable technology to another level.

In Wisconsin, a manufacturer of household cleaning products will not only harness the methane gas from a nearby landfill, but also recapture the heat produced and use it as steam for other processes at the plant, writes Tunkieizc. In Kentucky, reports Andy Mead of the Lexington Herald-Leader, the East Kentucky Power Cooperative will offer its customers the option to utilize its “EnviroWatts” technology to light their homes. The impetus for the Kentucky Co-op stemmed from a desire to decrease its coal emissions — which, notably, also contribute to global warming.

Energy Conservation‘s web-site has additional information on methane gas as renewable energy.

Courting a Victory
Nicaragua’s Abortion Fight
Criminalizing Dissent

LAW & JUSTICE
Courting a Victory

Minor breakthroughs at the legislative level have gay rights activists hopeful that discriminatory practices against gays, or at least those sanctioned by the books, are on the outs. On Wednesday, the culmination of a four-year debate surrounding a law in Texas will be tried by the Supreme Court, reports the Associated Press. The law, its opponents argue, openly targets gays by making oral and anal sex illegal only when performed between members of the same sex. Four other states besides Texas have similar laws, but the Texas law drew attention when two men were arrested in their homes and fined for engaging in a sex act.

Proponents of the Texas law defend it on moral grounds, citing laws against gambling, drug use and prostitution as comparative, and denying any paralells drawn between the current Texas law and racial segregation laws. But the Washington Post‘s Ellen Goodman has a different take on what she calls “one of [the US’s] own Taliban moments“:

[I]n many ways, the case coming before the Supreme Court feels less like a trailblazer than a mop-up action. “The idea that the state has the authority to police bedrooms and tell people which body parts they can touch is shockingly cruel and embarrassing,” says [gay-rights lawyer Evan Wolfson]. Beyond that, it has real-life consequences.

The Texas misdemeanor not only disqualified John Lawrence and Tyron Garner from being employed in more than a dozen professions, but it would require them to register as sex offenders in at least four states. It’s been used against public employment of gays and in custody disputes.

A bill recently put to rest in Minnesota could have exemplified that point, had it passed. The bill, authored by Republican state Senator Michael Jungbauer, aimed to exclude gays from the Minnesota Human Rights Act in order to “keep homosexual practices from being taught in the schools,” reports Conrad deFiebre of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Jungbauer took up the cause when approached by what he referred to as “somewhat fanatical” mothers who worried that their children were “a captive audience to homosexual propaganda,” as Republican Senator Warren Lidner put it. But excluding gays from the Human Rights Act, the Minnesota Senate ruled, would do nothing for schoolchildren and serve to justify discrimination against gays seeking employment or housing.

The victories, however, remain small. In its most recent sodomy case in 1986, the Supreme Court upheld a Georgia law similar to the current Texas law, as the AP reports. And while the Minnesota bill is withdrawn for the moment, Lidner, despite facing an ethics complaint for comments he made in the bill’s defense, may try to present a rewritten version to the Senate in the future.

FOREIGN NEWS
Nicaragua’s Abortion Fight

The rape and pregnancy of a nine-year-old Nicaraguan girl in Costa Rica, followed by her subsequent abortion in Nicaragua, have sparked a torrent of debate and controversy in this staunchly Catholic nation where nearly all abortion is illegal.

After the nine-year-old (nicknamed “Rosa”) — the daughter of a Nicaraguan migrant worker — was denied an abortion in Costa Rica, she was aided in returning to Nicaragua to seek the procedure by the Women’s Network Against Violence (also called “Women Against Violence), reports John Rice of the Associated Press. Current Nicaraguan law allows only “therapeutic abortions,” a category which Rice notes is “only vaguely defined,” and news of the story brought the entire country into a flurry of impassioned and polarized debate on whether or not Rosa should abort. In a nation that holds a “Day of the Unborn Child,” even an abortion for a nine-year-old rape victim is tremendously controversial.

As directives flew every which way, the abortion was carried out discreetly on February 20. And then, adds Rice, the “fury only intensified.” Lucia Salvo, a Health Minister strongly against the abortion, resigned in disgust. Many church officials made vitriolic proclamations.

Indeed, reports Tim Rogers of Costa Rica’s Tico Times, the Nicaraguan Catholic Church subsequently issued “ a blanket excommunication of Rosa’s parents, the doctors who performed the procedure and everyone else involved.” Juanita Jiménez, a lawyer for Women Against Violence, jokingly responded: “Almost everyone in Nicaragua supported the girl’s right to an abortion; what is the church going to do, excommunicate half the population?”

And, while various activists now look into authorities’ attempts to block Rosa from getting the abortion — which includes filing criminal complaints against the Nicaraguan government for negligence, the Nicaraguan Prosecutor’s Office has also “opened an investigation of the private Managua clinic that performed the abortion, as well as the leaders of the Women Against Violence group.”

A poll cited in Nicaragua’s La Prensa suggests that 64 percent of the population favors Rosa’s right to the abortion, while only 27 percent believe that she should have had the child.

LAW & JUSTICE
Criminalizing Dissent

Right-wing anger toward antiwar protesters reached its logical, absurd conclusion in Oregon yesterday, with the introduction of a bill that would redefine protesters who block traffic and disrupt commerce as terrorists.

The brainchild of a Portland legislator and police detective, the proposed law is so broadly drawn that it would include not just rowdy peace protesters but tree spiking eco-militants and even — as per an earlier, draft version — Critical Mass bicyclists, the Oregonian‘s Harry Esteve reports. While the bill’s new draft isn’t as severe as its previous incarnation, the punishment it prescribes for protesters who get out of hand is no less draconian: life in prison.

Other states have also introduced anti-terrorism statutes recently, Esteve notes, but none zero in on domestic dissent so keenly. Among the provisions are requirements that local police departments cooperate with federal investigators and that files be kept on suspects indefinitely. The bill isn’t likely to pass even in diluted form, but civil libertarians are on guard anyway.

“The initial bill was ‘ludicrous,’ said David Fidanque, executive director of the ACLU of Oregon. The amended version isn’t much better, he says.

‘We think this bill is a much graver threat to the freedoms that all Oregonians hold dear than is created by any terrorist,’ Fidanque says. ‘It will do nothing to make us safer, and would do a lot to undermine our constitutional rights.'”

War’s Environmental Casualties
“Securing” Science
Rights on the Nile

ENVIRONMENT
War’s Environmental Casualties

The day after President Bush declared war against Iraq, environment correspondents around the globe took stock of the damage war might do to the Iraqi environment. The environmental forecasts predict nothing less than an unfolding environmental disaster.

Given the chance to assess the damage, a United Nations team will provide a report outlining possible responses to the environmental hazards military conflict will cause, according to Environment News Service ‘s Alexandru R. Savulescu. The agency’s Executive Director, in fact, believes past military operations in the Gulf were deliberate acts of destruction against the environment and should be charged as crimes against humanity.

Michele Landsberg of the Toronto Star vividly catalogues the environmental fall-out from war leading to human suffering. Recounting the damage of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Landsberg reports,

“You remember the oil-soaked cormorants, looking grotesquely charred. Less obvious were the tens of thousands of birds that inhaled the dispersed oil droplets as they flew through the smog, and whose bodies dropped unseen, far from the Gulf. (This would be the same airborne pollution that contributed to 111,000 post-war deaths in Iraq, including 74,000 children).”

In addition to worries over potential damages to water and air quality, scientists are specifically concerned with Iraqi marshes drying up and disappearing and the poisoning of Gulf fisheries and fresh water supplies through oil well fires and spills, Reuters reports. In turn, these environmental hazards threaten the survival of Iraqi civilian populations, bringing the indirect casualties of war to the forefront.

In the San Francisco Chronicle, Ross Mirkarimi, one of the leaders of a study of the first Gulf War’s environmental impacts, catalogues some pre-emptive steps the global community can take to minimize environmental damage during armed conflict.

LAW AND JUSTICE
“Securing” Science

Due to heightened security measures, the US is now restricting the re-entry visas of scientific researchers, doctors, and students worldwide. Many individuals have been stranded abroad for months while their laboratories and colleagues await their return, sometimes unable to complete or continue research without the stranded scientists’ leadership, report Lisa Checekel, Kim Martineau, and Janice D’arcy of the Hartford Courant.

While the State Department claims that only “sensitive” scientific studies are undergoing scrutiny, the Courant finds that essential cancer, AIDS, and Alzheimer’s studies have ground to a halt. Even studies that are designed to fight terrorism, like those researching biological warfare and video surveillance, have been waylaid. Worse yet, many of the studies take place at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) or public universities using taxpayer money.

Legally, the researchers face an onslaught of laws. The Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act was passed last spring as part of the post-September 11 backlash against immigration. But old laws also inhibit re-entry — in the case of “214B,” a provision of an immigration law, foreign citizens are required to show evidence that they plan to return to their country. And a stipulation from 1994 that threatens to hold consular officers responsible for admitting an individual who performs a terrorist act makes cooperation strained, to say the least.

But prominent scientists are just the tip of the Ashcroft academia iceberg. Student Visas, even those for post-doctoral fellows, are also backlogged, reports The Scientist’s Dana Wilke. And Margarita Bauza’ of The Detroit News reports that new laws require international students to register with the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, which tracks class schedules and other personal information. According to Bauza’, students are routinely fingerprinted, and international exchange students in California and Utah were even arrested for missing paperwork or credits.

It’s a sad state of affairs for scientific research. The Courant states that research in the US depends on foreign interest, as few American students study science. And the National Academy of Sciences, NIH, and National Cancer Institute agree that as foreign citizens become disenchanted with US policies, the advancement of science stands to suffer. In reference to student restrictions, Bauza’ notes that Michigan State Univeristy official Peter Briggs quipped, “[T]he biggest issue is the climate of zero tolerance.” Indeed, tolerance seems to be the last thing the administration preaches these days.

FOREIGN NEWS
Rights on the Nile

After nearly three years of trials, retrials and miserable jail cells, Saad Eddin Ibrahim is free.

Last week, Egypt’s highest and most independent appeals court cleared the outspoken civil libertarian of all charges, Paul Schemm reports in the Cairo Times. A relentless campaigner for democracy and civil rights, Ibrahim had long been an irritant to strongman Hosni Mubarak’s regime, and in 2000 security forces imprisoned him on transparently false pretenses. Two grossly unfair trials followed in quasi-military tribunals, each time conducted to a chorus of international condemnation — not least from the United States, as Ibrahim holds an American passport.

So while justice finally prevailed in one case, Schemm notes, it is by no means a guarantee. The well-connected Ibrahim may be free now, but his prosecution nevertheless served its purpose: as a warning to Egyptian civil society that dissent will not be tolerated. As one human rights advocate put it, “‘People must be able to speak their mind without fear of prosecution and going to jail and that right has been compromised.'”

Indeed, it’s not as if the Egyptian authorities have suddenly emptied the prisons. Rather, the ferocity of recent protests against the US invasion of Iraq appear to have taken the regime by surprise, and it has cracked down hard. The results, according to Human Rights Watch, have been mass detentions and torture.

Under Cover of War
Raging Waters
Did Ohio Nimbys Triumph?

POLITICS
Under Cover of War

Despite the increasingly bloody war in Iraq, it’s business as usual on the domestic front for the White House and its Congressional allies. While the Republican bid for Alaskan oil drilling failed last week and the Senate halved Bush’s massive tax cut proposal, the GOP is busily pushing other controversial initiatives under cover of war.

In perhaps the most egregious example, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has resurrected legislation that would protect pharmaceutical giants like Eli Lilly from lawsuits over damages caused by Thimerosal, the New York Times‘ Robert Pear reports. Thimerosal’s use has been linked to autism, and thousands of patients have filed suit. Eli Lilly and other drug manufacturers, of course, have been generous contributors to Frist’s Senate campaigns, and this is far from the first time Frist has pushed for such legislation. Wampum, a blogger following the story, argues that Frist has a larger agenda, however.

“But what would motivate Frist to be so cruel? His cat-killing history aside, he is still a doctor, and supposedly sympathetic to the injured and ill. I suspect that his motivations on vaccine liability legislation correlate to those on medical malpractice tort reform. Its not the injured who are the targets: They are just collateral damage. The real target is Democratic campaign funding, and a big chunk of that comes from trial lawyers.”

Meanwhile, the GOP’s war against the Superfund continues apace. According to Environment News Service, the Senate voted down a measure that would have forced polluters to pay for the cleanup costs of toxic Superfund sites across the nation. Over the last few years, the White House has cut funding to the program, and the pace of clean-up work has slowed by half. The failed measure would have reinstated an earlier requirement that polluters pay the cleanup fees; under the 2004 Bush budget, taxpayers would foot the bill for nearly 80 percent of the program.

ENVIRONMENT
Raging Waters

The Red Cross and other humanitarian groups have struggled since Friday to restore water supplies to the Iraqi city of Basra. The beseiged city’s sanitation and health services continue to flounder, and Iraqi civilians face the risk of diarrhea and cholera outbreaks, report Sam Howe Verhovek and Mark Magnier of the Los Angeles Times. In a region where water is arguably the most precious and coveted resource, US and British troops falter in their efforts to convince Basrans that their invasion is in the interest of the Iraqi people.

But Basra’s water woes may be a case study into future conflicts, warned an International Water Forum last week. Forum participants cautioned that “water is a far more important commodity than the oil some say is behind the U.S. war in Iraq, and has an equally deadly potential as a source of conflict,” reported Reuters. The forum projects that a coming wave of water shortages and water rights disputes may effect as many as 7 billion people by the year 2050.

In an effort to mitigate these coming conflicts, the UN has formed a Water Co-operation Facility. Tim Hirsch of BBC News reports that the new UN organization is charged with the arduous task of providing resources and political support to areas lacking the infrastructure or power needed to maintain a viable water supply. In many cases, water disputes threaten to erupt in already unstable regions, like southern Africa and the Middle East. However, Hirsch notes, the necessity of water has paved the way for the collaboration of otherwise opponent nations — Palestine and Israel, for example, have somewhat dutifully held up water-sharing agreements set forth in the Israeli-Palestinian peace accord. But for now, UN planning for the Facility is in its infancy — a truth that provides little help to a city under seige. Not that the UN ever saw that coming.

LAW & JUSTICE
Did Ohio Nimbys Triumph?

A Supreme Court ruling this week vindicated an overwhelmingly white and middle-class Ohio town for its opposition to a low-income housing project constructed in its midst. Ending a dispute lasting more than seven years, the Court unanimously tossed out a lawsuit against the city of Cuyahoga Falls alleging that race played a factor in the city’s bureaucratic delays of the project, reports Craig Webb in the Akron Beacon Journal. Buckeye Community Hope Foundation, the developer of the 72-unit project, brought the suit in 1996 after the city consistently threw road blocks into the job’s progress.

Fair Housing attorney Diane Citrino believes that the city clearly aided residents’ efforts to kill the project (efforts which, ultimately, failed, as the project was completed in 2000) and she worries about the precedent the case sets: “I have grave concerns that this decision may provide a blueprint for municipalities seeking to exclude people because of race or because they have children.” The developer argued in court that this “predominantly white city orchestrated the citizen-led petition effort and stoked race-baited comments uttered by residents at a series of public meetings.”

Writing in the St. Petersburg Times in January, Robyn Blumner argued that the entire case smacks of racism and nimbyism, as exemplified by locals’ comments, such as:

“‘there will be a different class of people living there,’ as well as explicit statements about an increase in drugs, crime and unsupervised children. It was no secret that African-American families would disproportionately benefit from the planned housing.”

Nevertheless, Blumner goes on to argue that residents should still have the freedom of speech to voice whatever grievances they do have:

“If local governments suddenly have to fear that the words of their most indelicate citizens could be used against them, public meetings would be shut down for fear of liability. Public meetings should be a venue for the free exchange of ideas, not, as the court would like, an exercise in walking on eggshells.”

Bush’s Budget Battles
The Kashmiri Tinderbox
The Lord’s Long-Distance Service

POLITICS
Bush’s Budget Battles

For beleaguered Senate Democrats, it was a rare victory. Thinking his massive, $726 billion tax cut proposal was a sure thing, President Bush finally began discussing this week how much the war in Iraq might cost. The numbers, it turned out, were staggering, and the reason for the White House’s stalling tactics suddenly became clear: the country simply can’t afford both war and tax cuts. Within hours, the Senate reversed course and cut Bush’s cherished tax cut in half.

Just so, the editors of San Jose’s Mercury News opine. Decrying the White House’s cynical attempt to have its war and tax cuts too, they applaud the three moderate Republicans — Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, George Voinovich of Ohio and Olympia Snowe of Maine — who “sensibly broke ranks with their colleagues to save the country from a growing national debt that will be a drain on the economy for years to come.”

Of course, it’s not as if the Senate rejected tax cuts altogether, the editorial board of the St. Petersburg Times notes. While cheering the Senate’s surprise move, the editors write that “ Even half is too much under current circumstances.” Further, the editors note that the White House still might prevail, owing to the slavish obedience of the GOP-led House of Representatives.

“While the senators deserve praise for their disciplined stand in the face of political coercion, the struggle for a responsible budget is far from over. More parliamentary tricks are ahead, and the Senate will have to work out its differences with the House, which gave Bush every penny in tax cuts he asked for. The House’s version of discipline was to cut the budgets of services that help, among others, veterans and low-income elderly and children.”

Meanwhile, Time‘s Timothy J. Burger reports on Bush’s attempts to kill the commission set up to investigate the Sept. 11 attacks. Last week, Burger writes, the White House refused the cash-starved and understaffed Commission’s request for an additional $11 million, which would allow it to continue functioning through the end of its mandate in May 2004. Under pressure from irate Commission members and victims’ families, however, the White House abruptly backtracked, and promised to find the money. The latest confrontation, observers say, is just the latest in a long line of White House attempts to undercut the Commission.

“‘They’ve never wanted the commission and I feel the White House has always been looking for a way to kill it without having their finger on the murder weapon.'”

FOREIGN NEWS
The Kashmiri Tinderbox

With the world’s eyes turned toward Iraq, India and Pakistan both conducted tests of their nuclear arsenal Wednesday, reports the Associated Press. In an apparent renewal of active tension in the ongoing Kashmiri conflict, India alleges that radical Pakistani Muslims are responsible for a recent massacre of 24 Hindus in the disputed region.

Phil Reeves of London’s Independent observes that the region’s volatility has heightened in the wake of the war in Iraq. In the shadow of the US’s proclamations of a full-fledged war on terrorism, Reeves notes that many Indians have a strong sense that there is an American double-standard at play, when Pakistan, thought to harbor as many terrorists as Iraq or Afghanistan, is off the Bush administration’s radar. But the HiPakistan reports that Pakistani Foreign Minister Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri is just as skeptical of Indian motives, and questions India’s fingerpointing, asking the country to “permit neutral and impartial investigations into all such incidents rather than blaming Pakistan.”

POLITICS
The Lord’s Long-Distance Service

Cash-hungry and determined to beat the current recession, the ultra-right-wing Christian Coalition is getting creative about raising funds for its two-million member organization. Sharon Theimer reports in the Associated Press that the coalition has begun fundraising through Pro Life Communications, a Missouri-based anti-abortion telephone company that will donate all profits made from coalition-members who sign up for the service. The company is the fundraising ace-up-the-sleeve for dozens of high-agenda right-wing organizations.

”For the first time ever, with Pro Life Communications,” beamed coalition president Roberta Combs, “we have a local phone company that desires to honor God, uphold family values, and save the 3,500 innocent babies that are killed each day in the name of ‘choice.’ ”

The service will likely provide the coalition with $72 a year for each member that signs up, helping to replenish coffers at a time when contributions are down. “If just a quarter of the coalition members were to sign up,” notes Theimer, “it would generate tens of millions of dollars a year.” The coalition is, incidentally, a “tax-exempt group registered with the Internal Revenue Service as a social welfare organization,” Theimer adds.

Pro Life Communications, which passes on 100 percent of its profits, was created “based on a direct calling from our Lord and savior Jesus Christ,” says founder Joe Dalton.

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