Mother Jones Daily: Briefing


Permanent Patriotism
Shielding the Shooters

LAW AND JUSTICE
Permanent Patriotism

Unaffected by the public’s fears that anti-terrorist legislation has become synonymous with the denigration of civil liberties, Republican members of Congress have proposed legislation to make the USA Patriot Act permanent . Led by Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, several senators are backing the removal of the Act’s “sunset provisions,” which stipulate its expiration in 2005, reports Craig Cox of the Utne Reader.

The Patriot Act, passed hastily in the shadow of September 11, provides the government with far-reaching surveillance, profiling, and tracking powers over every US citizen. While its supporters claim the act has made it easier to fight terrorism, critics argue that excessive government access to personal information undermines the freedoms the Act is purported to protect. Hatch’s move to repeal the time limit has prompted an outpouring of letters to Congress from the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups, as Charles Pope reports for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

The Justice Department backs the proposal, saying it has aided in finding potential terrorists and understanding how September 11 occurred. But the editors of Newsday view that argument as a farce:

“[R]eviews of the run-up to 9/11 found that it was not a lack of information that left the nation vulnerable to terrorists. The problem was the inability of law enforcement and intelligence officials to connect the dots, those bits and pieces of relevant information lost in the torrent of intelligence.”

Dan K. Thomasson of the Modesto Bee cites past administrations’ foibles as reason enough to be wary of governmental surveillance. “To believe that government agents would never abuse their powers is to utterly ignore history,” he writes, noting a blocked Vietnam-era profiling bill against what “the Nixon administration believed was foreign-inspired and -financed domestic terrorism by antiwar student groups.”

And so, opponents of Patriot Act permanency opine, a paranoid government in the wake of a crisis may not be fit to set in stone legislation that limits liberties. Newsday suggests a review of the Act in 2005, when Congress will hopefully possess the “benefit of better information and cooler heads.” Thomasson agrees:

“[B]efore renewing such a sweeping act, Congress should conduct a thorough examination of how the act has enhanced the war on terrorism and whether in another two years it still will be necessary.”

POLITICS
Shielding the Shooters

In a divisive vote last week, the House of Representatives approved a bill that would shield gun makers from lawsuits by victims of gun crime. Proponents of the bill call the spate of recent suits by cities, states, and individuals “frivolous,” and claim they would bankrupt gun manufacturers. Critics, however, argue that legal action is the only way to regulate an industry that has shown little interest in keeping its products out of the wrong hands. Indeed, it is just this problem that worries The Christian Science Monitor‘s editorial board.

“Many gunmakers and distributors are careful in selling guns. But they shouldn’t try to protect the bad apples in their industry who are neither concerned nor careful enough to keep guns out of the hands of killers.”

All of the lawsuits, meanwhile, appear to be turning up some damning evidence against gun makers. According to a new study by the Brady Center, prominent gun manufacturers have turned a blind eye to shady gun dealers and done their best to stymie reform throughout the industry.

The House’s Energy Outrage
South-of-the-Border Spying

POLITICS
The House’s Energy Outrage

If the Senate continues to champion alternative energy initiatives, the House of Representatives’ recently approved version of the nation’s energy bill is a surefire catalyst for some heated Congressional wrangling. The administration-backed bill approves almost $19 billion in tax breaks for traditional energy companies, rejects amendments to lower gas consumption, and opens the controversial Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, the Associated Press reports.

The two branches of Congress are at odds on energy policy — where the House bill promotes oil, coal, and other traditional fossil fuel development, the Senate version, though still in draft form, aims to develop renewable energy sources. According to Planet Ark, critics of the House bill believe it is a “dream plan” for the oil industry, and does little to promote energy conservation.

As is characteristic of energy policy, the bill’s approval was essentially split along party lines. According to a League of Conservation Voters statement, oil and gas companies have heavily funded Republican campaigns, comprising nearly 80 percent of total contributions for the 2000 elections. The AP notes that Democrat-authored amendments to to reduce the amount of gas used by cars and SUVs were met with fears that lowering gas consumption would threaten the auto industry and “force Americans to ride around in minicars,” as one politician put it. Efforts to preserve the refuge were also shot down, and one piece of the bill calls for exploration of long-protected offshore drilling sites. The Senate will continue work on its version of an energy bill after this spring’s two-week Congressional recess.

LAW & JUSTICE
South-of-the-Border Spying

It’s no secret, of course, that the Bush administration is working to expand its surveillance powers over American citizens. Ill-conceived proposals like the CAPPS passenger screening program, for instance, are just the latest in a long line of White House-sanctioned efforts at data mining in the name of fighting terrorism.

For the last 18 months, however, the government has also been buying the personal data of hundreds of millions of residents of 10 Latin American countries — all without their knowledge or consent. As the Associated Press reports, ChoicePoint, a private US company, has been purchasing information gleaned from voting and driving records in countries from Mexico to Brazil, then selling it to the likes of the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department.

Unlike Europe, most Latin American countries lack privacy laws that specifically ban the sale of such information, but the line between legal and illegal data mining is murky. And in any case, ChoicePoint won’t say exactly how it comes by its data. Colombia — where ChoicePoint gathers cradle-to-the-grave information on all citizens — provides a good illustration of the practice and its hazy ethics, critics say.

“‘I don’t believe 31 million Colombians authorized that,’ said Nelson Remolina, a Colombian lawyer and privacy expert, referring to the number of records ChoicePoint obtained. The Colombian government is only supposed to divulge records requested by name, or when permission is granted by the subject, he said.”

ChoicePoint, by the way, is no stranger to political controversy. As Gregory Palast reported for Salon, a ChoicePoint subsidiary was responsible for “purging” thousands of blacks from Florida’s voting rolls in the 2000 elections, likely contributing to George W. Bush’s win.

Rewriting Wilderness Rules
The FBI’s Sketchy Science

ENVIRONMENT
Rewriting Wilderness Rules

When George W. Bush took office in 2001, dismantling Clinton-era environmental regulations was near the top of his agenda. In the intervening years, despite terrorism, war, and a tanking economy, he has stuck to the script, knocking down forest management plans, snowmobile bans and research on global warming, to name just a few.

Now, the White House has scrapped the practice of letting federal land managers decide which areas to protect from development, Elizabeth Shogren reports for the Los Angeles Times. During the Clinton years, the Bureau of Land Management was permitted to assess federal lands for their wilderness value, and grant them protection from development if they were deemed worthy. The new rules angered Republican lawmakers across the West, and Utah filed suit to halt the wilderness designations.

In response to Utah’s lawsuit, the Bush administration shelved all further wilderness reviews, returned decision-making to Congress, and even capped the total amount of land eligible for wilderness protection nationwide. The White House says it is merely righting a Clinton-era wrong. Critics, however, say the changes — which were made without public input — leave millions of acres of land vulnerable to drilling, mining, and logging. As one put it:

“‘What it means is that vast amounts of wilderness-quality lands — millions and millions of acres worth — are likely to be degraded by extractive industries, and the BLM is going to allow that to happen.'”

LAW & JUSTICE
The FBI’s Sketchy Science

Thought to have reformed after a barrage of controversy in the ’90s, the FBI’s crime lab is again under scrutiny for inaccurate scientific practices. The Associated Press reports that the federal lab’s DNA testing and bullet analysis programs are under review by the Academy of Sciences, prompted by evidence that improper science may have led to wrongful convictions.

A DNA technician resigned from the lab when it was exposed that she neglected to compare DNA evidence with control samples, a process that’s required to insure accuracy. The technician’s errors were discovered during a case in which five new Jersey police officers were convicted for the death of a prisoner. Upon review, none of her analyses have proven inaccurate. But Justice officials are still leaving it up to prosecutors to notify nearly 3,000 convicted defendants that the DNA evidence of their convictions may be flawed.

Additionally, a prominent lab scientist that performs chemical comparisons of bullets has admitted to giving false testimony while serving as an expert witness at murder trials. While the scientist later admitted to and was indicted for perjury, the AP acquired memos to supervisors that could implicate more than just one scientist. In one letter, the scientist claimed that an ex-colleague’s challenges to the lab’s gun lead practices went largely unacknowledged by the FBI, leaving the scientist to address the challenges personally — while the FBI addressed neither the retired colleague’s complaints nor the scientist’s distress.

Though the FBI maintains that both its DNA and bullet analysis programs are secure, the bureau has requested the National Academy of Science’s review for “outside scrutiny and outside review” on how to improve its lab’s practices.

Tax Cut Redux
Failing Jails

POLITICS
Tax Cut Redux

Having declared Saddam Hussein’s regime “history,” President Bush turned his attention back to pushing his tax cut this week. While much may have changed in the Middle East, little has changed on the economic front, however: most observers still say massive tax cuts are a bad idea.

In fact, opposition appears to be mounting by the day, and Bush — now facing dissent from moderate Republicans — grudgingly accepted a slightly lower cut yesterday. As the editors of the Baltimore Sun note, however, his singleminded pursuit of ever-greater tax cuts hasn’t wavered one bit. They add, though, that the traditional political calculation — that tax cuts equal good polling numbers — may not hold true in this case, and that Bush’s quest for more cuts could harm, rather than help, his re-election chances.

“The president should take note that this restraint is being imposed on him by friends, and be grateful for their effort. Mr. Bush’s focus on boosting reviews for his handling of the economy in time for his 2004 re-election bid may prove dangerously short-sighted – for him and the nation.

So, Mr. Bush should call off the henchmen he is sending out to rough up Republican dissenters, such as Olympia J. Snowe of Maine and George V. Voinovich of Ohio. They’ve probably done him a favor.”

Indeed, the latest polls show that six out of 10 Americans oppose further tax cuts at this time, and, as the New York Times‘ Daniel Altman reports, even much of Wall Street is leery of a new round of cuts. In typical Bush fashion, however, financial firms with dissenting opinions have been excluded from recent White House meetings.

“‘I think they only call people who agree with them,’ said Stephen S. Roach, the chief economist of Morgan Stanley, who opposes cutting dividend taxes now and was not invited to the meetings. ‘These meetings are not forums for debate. These meetings are a highly politicized effort for the White House to get people on their side.'”

True believers like Larry Kudlow, of course, are undisturbed by the increasing opposition to the White House’s “What, Me Worry?” economic policies. Writing in the National Review, he urges Bush to use his wartime popularity to ram the cuts through.

“Polls today show that prospective voters do not yet see how a dividend-centered tax-cut plan will lead to more jobs and economic growth. But if Bush can make the case that a revival of business and the stock market is necessary for job creation, then Americans who have come to trust him overwhelmingly on foreign policy and national security will be more willing to put their faith in his economic battleplan.”

Scot Lehigh, meanwhile, sums up the likely fallout of Bush’s tax plan in the Boston Globe. The cuts will force lawmakers to slash social programs at home and abroad, and cripple Washington’s ability to provide services to the poor — which is exactly the point, he concludes.

“For all his talk about taking the bitter partisanship out of national politics, on the fiscal front the president has sacrificed any claims to the high road by his unrelenting pursuit of a blatantly political tax policy.”

LAW & JUSTICE
Failing Jails

A wave of unnecessary deaths has sparked concern over the neglect and abuse of inmates in jails nationwide. According to the Associated Press, facilities in both rural and urban areas are prone to instances of inmate mistreatment.

Several shocking stories have come forth that reveal disconcerting violations of inmates’ human rights. The death of a diabetic 26-year-old serving time for marijuana possession implicated a North Carolina sheriff and jailer who failed to give the man his daily insulin shots. The sheriff, who neglected to report the death for 17 days, received only a slap on the wrist: 24 hours of community service and a $500 fine. The case of the jailer, who will be charged with involuntary manslaughter, is still pending. In another case, eight inmates burned to death when a jailhouse caught fire. Seven were trapped in a second-story cell.

Experts say neglect is partly an issue of finances, but also warn that prison system employees lack an understanding of safety, management, and planning. Inspectors may fail to detect violations, for example, or jails may be both overcrowded and understaffed. Stephen Ingley of the American Jail Association says that local jails don’t receive near the funding that larger prisons do, but a jail will see over 20 times the annual admissions. Ingley and others would like to see more money diverted to funding for jails, hopefully even from federal sources because, Ingley says, “If the county needs a new school and needs a new jail, and they go out on a bond issue, who’s going to win?”

Hawks, Doves, and Democrats
Past Wars’ Poisons

POLITICS
Hawks, Doves, and Democrats

With Saddam Hussein either dead or in hiding and a triumphant White House fixing its gaze on Syria, some Democratic presidential hopefuls have started to recalibrate their messages. These days, it seems almost everyone is a hawk.

Howard Dean, for instance, no longer looks like such a peacenik. The Vermont governor, whose blunt antiwar stance pushed his dark horse campaign into the media spotlight, has moderated his views in recent days. As the Boston Globe‘s Glen Johnson reports, Dean now says he wouldn’t rule out the use of force to disarm so-called rogue states like North Korea and Iran, though he would emphasize diplomacy first. Furthermore, he said he opposed the invasion of Iraq because he didn’t see the Iraqi regime as a threat — a far cry, to be sure, from a general aversion to using military power.

Could there be a hint of political expediency behind Dean’s fine-tuning? As the Los Angeles Times‘ Ronald Brownstein notes, Dean’s unabashed opposition to the Iraq war could have become a liability.

“Dean has gained great mileage from denouncing the war. But with Saddam Hussein’s regime ousted at a remarkably modest cost in American lives, Dean may be vulnerable to a counterattack later from more hawkish Democrats, such as Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut and John Edwards of North Carolina.”

All of which disappoints Charles Knight. Dean’s backpedaling, Knight writes in Common Dreams, means that precious few policy differences now separate the major Democratic contenders.

“With Dean’s statement of April 9th we see a narrowing of the range of strategic options represented by the ‘major’ or ‘leading’ candidates for President in the Republican and Democratic parties. Republicans will use the preventive war option early and often. Democrats will hold the preventive war option in reserve (and as threats expressed in private) while investing more in ‘dollar persuasion’ and other forms of ‘soft power’. But, since 911 both parties have been learning to love the power of preventive war, something they both would have felt compelled by history and culture to renounce only a few years ago.”

The Washington Post‘s Dan Balz, meanwhile, reports on the other leading hopefuls, most of whom supported the invasion of Iraq. Edwards, Lieberman, and Missouri Representative Richard Gephardt are all stressing the use of diplomatic pressure on Syria, Balz writes. Senator John Kerry, from Massacusetts, hasn’t voiced his opinion yet.

Florida Senator Bob Graham, on the other hand, has been telling anyone who will listen that Syria is a greater threat than Iraq ever was, and the sooner Bashar Al Assad is deposed the better. As the Associated Press reports, Graham — a vocal opponent of the war on Iraq — is itching for a fight with Syria. “We threw a few cruise missiles into the terrorist training camps in Afghanistan … that’s what we may have to do in Syria,” he said.

Dennis Kucinich, then, might be the last antiwarrior left. The Ohio congressman — who is seen as a longshot at best — has been busy lately, denouncing the Syrian saber-rattling and pushing for the creation of a Department of Peace in Washington. Though his chances of winning the nomination are virtually nil, Ruth Conniff writes in the Progressive, his campaign could force the Democratic party to address its peace-minded constituency.

HEALTH
Past Wars’ Poisons

During the search for present-day weapons of mass destruction, new alarming evidence has surfaced regarding the debilitating health effects of weapons used in past wars. Agence France-Presse reports that the amounts of Agent Orange and other herbicides used by the United States during the Vietnam War were 10 percent higher than originally calculated, according to a study by Columbia University researchers. And in Japan, the Associated Press reports, well water sickened at least 20 people in the small village of Kamisu. Experts believe the water was tainted with arsenic left over from World War II-era weapons.

In light of the new findings on Agent Orange, Vietnam is again pushing for US aid for victims and families affected by the defoliant’s use bewteen 1962 to 1971, Reuters reports. In fact, birth defects, leukemia, and other cancers have been linked to the high presence of dioxin in Agent Orange and other herbicides used during the war, as Robert Dreyfuss reported in the February 2000 issue of Mother Jones. But Washington maintains that Vietnam “dropped claims for war reparations when ties were normalised in 1995,” and alleges that some diseases for which the Vietnamese are seeking medical attention cannot be attributed to exposure.

In Kamisu, tests by the Japanese government found that levels in one well were 450 times the legal limit for arsenic in drinking water. The well services just 32 people, but the presence of arsenic has alarmed the villagers and authorities. Internationally, well water usually only accounts for 10 percent of total use, but a third of Kamisu’s population uses wells. Officials suspect the weapons were simply stored at an airfield during the second World War, and are therefore unsure of where and how much arsenic could have entered the groundwater. The remainder of Japan’s chemical weapons and poison gases — which are slated to be destroyed by 2007 under the Chemical Weapons Convention — are currently stored in China. Since 1945, they have been responsible for the accidental deaths of 2,000 Chinese citizens.