Mother Jones Daily: Briefing


Patriot Games Redux
‘Freedom Fries’ Blowback

LAW AND JUSTICE
Patriot Games Redux

Dubbed as Ashcroft’s New Ally, the Moussaoui fix, and the Lone Wolf Bill, a small piece of legislation with a long list of pet names seeks to expand FBI surveillance powers beyond reasonable limits, critics say.

Chisun Lee from the Village Voice explains how expanding FBI surveillance powers would redefine “foreign power” as a foreign person in the United States. This type of measure targets “non-citizens” in the process of establishing citizenship — also known as immigrants — in a way that many find glaringly unconstitutional. Lee reports that ACLU legislative counsel Timothy Edgar says the bill will:

“potentially subject non-citizens to invasive surveillance based merely on their nationality. He said that not even the Justice Department has been able to show how this redefinition would actually improve national security. The more certain effect, he said, is that the weakening of standards for some will contribute to the general deterioration of individual rights for all that has occurred since 2001.”

Spurred by the lack of judicial power the FBI had in surveilling terrorist suspect Zacarias Moussaoui before the Sept. 11 attacks, the measure grants warrants for wiretaps and searches even if no evidence exists to connect the suspected group or person to a terrorist organization, Reuters reports.

The pundits at Talk Left ask if this is an attempt to serve small slices of Patriot Act II to Congress in a way that is digestible, thereby avoiding the controversy around this measure.

“The bill the Senate passed today is actually the same as the first section of Patriot Act II, which the Administration repeatedly has told us is a rough draft.”

GLOBAL ECONOMY
‘Freedom Fries’ Blowback

The term “blowback” first entered the mainstream in the months following Sept. 11. Specifically, it referred to the likelihood that past American actions — funding mujahedeen in Afghanistan, say — would come back to haunt the US.

Now, US companies are starting to feel an economic blowback, thanks to Washington’s ceaselessly belligerent approach to relations with France and Germany. As USA Today‘s James Cox reports, American aircraft engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney lost out on a nearly $3 billion contract with European aircraft giant Airbus, despite having offered the lowest bid. Pratt & Whitney had already been awarded the contract, it seems, but the European Union then reopened the bidding and chose a European company on the second go-round. While some European officials downplayed talk of political motives, a French diplomat confirmed that all the talk about “freedom fries” could have real consequences for corporate America’s bottom line.

“‘It’s part of the picture. It’s part of reality. You can’t say on one side, “Let’s punish France,” and hope that American companies that compete on contracts of that sort are going to be looked at very favorably in France.”

 
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The NRA’s Legislative Landgrab #


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Law and Justice
The NRA’s Republican Roulette

It seems there’s nothing more dangerous for a Democrat than an organization with a strong lobby and a lot of guns.

In the short term, Democrats have a weighty responsibility to an anti-gun constituency that’s pushing for congresss to limit the sale and possession of lethal weapons, reports David Whitney of the Sacramento Bee. But the National Rifle Association has made Democrats wary that speaking out against the powerful gun lobby could sink the Dems in the upcoming presidential election. With their backs against the wall of a GOP-controlled House and wavering Senate, the Dems look like they might try some last minute negotiations with the firing squad.

Democratic Senators want to permanently extend a 1994 ban on assault weapons, and surprisingly, Bush ostensibly supports the bill. But skeptics charge that if certain loopholes aren’t tightened, the ban is essentially toothless. The bill’s definition of an assault weapon is too narrow, and “[g]un manufacturers have been skilled at creating new products similar to those banned but not close enough to be illegal,” write the Editors of the Baltimore Sun. In several cases, such as last fall’s Baltimore and DC area sniper scare, the weapons used by killers were not banned by the original bill. And Bush hasn’t promised much by way of support. Even though Bush’s position was reiterated by White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, Fleischer wouldn’t go so far as to promise Bush’s “active support.” Proponents of the new ban hope to close the bill’s gaping loopholes, the Sun’s editors write, but “without Mr. Bush’s support, their prospects are extremely poor.”

To add insult to injury, the House passed a bill recently that absolves gun manufacturers of culpability for gun crimes by preventing victims of gun violence or their surviving kin from suing the companies that make, import, or sell the weapons. Though the legislation does not prevent these lawsuits outright, Jim Vandehei of the Washington Post reports, the new protections for gun companies outlined within it would render most victims’ claims moot.

A bill that would make gun companies almost immune to lawsuits would normally be met with severe resistance from Democrats. But Vandehei writes that:

“Democrats came to believe it is much more difficult to win elections in rural areas or swing states if they are perceived as hostile to gun owners. Nothing amplified this point louder for Democrats than the 2000 presidential and congressional elections. ”

Indeed, agree the Editors at the Sun, while many Americans would like to ban assault weapons, key swing states have Democrats walking a thin plank:

“…[I]n Southern, Western and rural districts the gun lobby has proved a potent force in close elections. Democrats blame the gun issue for costing Al Gore as many as three states in the squeaker presidential election of 2000. ”

Meanwhile, the NRA is hard at work protecting the polish on its silver bullet of campaign influence: According to Michael Kirkland of United Press International, the Association has asked the Supreme Court to rescind a lower court’s ruling that “bans the use of corporate or union general treasury funds for broadcast political advertisements.” The ruling, the NRA states, violates the organization’s first amendment rights. A three-judge panel re-approved pieces of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act on May 2 in an effort to limit the amount of soft money spent on political campaigns. But banning the NRA from funding political ads causes “immediate, irreparable harm to NRA’s core speech rights under the First Amendment,” according to the NRA’s filing claims.

Tax Cut Rhetoric
Massive Media Monopolies
Runaway Lone Star Democrats

POLITICS
Tax Cut Rhetoric

The practice of mocking President George W. Bush for his malapropisms and other verbal gaffes has fallen out of favor since September 11, 2001. As the nation fell in line with the wartime commander-in-chief, everyone from the Dixie Chicks to Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon has paid the price for daring to disagree with the president of our democracy, never mind make fun of him.

So, to be safe, let’s take Bush’s words at face value when he says to an audience of small business people “Oh, you’ll hear the talk about how this plan only helps the rich people. That’s just typical Washington D.C., political rhetoric, is what that is. That’s just empty rhetoric.”

“Rhetoric,” according to the Webster’s College Dictionary, means either “the art of speaking or writing effectively,” or “insincere or grandiloquent language.” Bush, therefore, was either saying a) that his tax cut does not drastically favor the wealthiest Americans. Or, b) that pronouncing that his tax plan “only helps the rich” is in fact an example of “speaking or writing effectively.”

It’s hard to fathom how Bush could assert that his plan helps the average American. The Washington Post reports that:

    Under Bush’s original proposal, households with $40,000 to $50,000 in taxable income would receive an average tax cut of $482 and a boost of 1.2 percent to their total after-tax income. For households earning more than $1 million, the average tax cut would be more than $89,500, with an increase in their after-tax income of 4.2 percent, according to the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center.

    The $550 billion version that passed the House last week is even more skewed. Those same middle-income households would receive a tax cut of $452 and an income boost of 1.1 percent, while millionaires would receive a cut of $93,537, enough to increase their after-tax income by 4.4 percent. The more modest $350 billion tax cut that passed the Senate Finance Committee last week would trim the average millionaire’s tax cut a bit, to $64,431. But it would also trim the middle class cut to $415.

    The 10-year $1.35 trillion tax cut that passed in 2001 also gave the rich a windfall, but it left the relative income tax burden of each income group generally unchanged. That is because most of the cuts targeted income, and taxpayers at every income level received virtually the same percentage reduction. In contrast, the centerpiece of the White House and House tax plans — sharp cuts in taxes paid on dividends and capital gains — are aimed at investors, who tend to be very wealthy.

Given all this, maybe Bush meant that the “rhetoric” calling his tax cut a gift for the rich was right on target?

Then again, maybe not.

It seems like this should be an easy issue for the Democrats. In a time when our national deficit is ballooning, we have just fought an expensive war, and jobs are increasingly scarce, questioning Bush’s tax cut might be seen as favoring “fairness.” But anonymous senior Democrats admit that they aren’t speaking out against the tax cut because they fear being accused of waging “class warfare.” The Democrats seem to be in cowering in constant fear of such Republican offensives. As media critic Dan Kennedy writes for the The Boston Phoenix “the implication that Democrats, liberals, and anyone else who gets in the way of the conservative juggernaut is cowardly, unscrupulous, and unpatriotic [has] become a staple of the modern Republican Party“:

    Indeed, the Republican Attack Machine is now such an entrenched part of the political landscape that it no longer seems remarkable — until you stop and think about the corrosive effect it has on our political discourse. And few have benefited from its toxic rhetoric as much as George W. Bush.

    There are many examples of the Republican Attack Machine’s relentless drive to demonize its critics, so many that it would be nearly impossible to cite them all… The effect is to create an atmosphere in which dissent — and dissenters — are publicly humiliated, their careers and livelihoods threatened, thus serving as an object lesson to anyone else who might think about deviating from the Republican-defined patriotic line.”

The Bushies will tolerate no dissenting opinions, and tax cuts are a longstanding pet issue for them. Bush was quoted in Slate.com back in 2002 on tax reform, saying, “Let me tell you my thoughts about tax relief. When your economy is kind of ooching along, it’s important to let people have more of their own money.” (Boston, Oct. 4, 2002, as quoted by Jacob Weisberg). Ooching must be a synonym for “limping weakly, with a ballooning national deficit, but nonetheless desperately in need of a gift-wrapped tax break for the very affluent.” Everybody get on board and start ooching.

LAW AND JUSTICE
The Modern Mono-Media

On June 2, the five Commissioners of the Federal Communications Commission will vote on the Bush administration’s latest plans to deregulate media ownership. The plans, drafted by members of the FCC, would rescind current rules on media ownership, allowing, for example, a single corporation to own both a newspaper and television station in most markets, reports Owen Gibson of London’s Guardian. The scaled-back standards would also allow broadcast companies in large markets to own three local stations. Ultimately, Gibson writes, the plan’s passage could allow a single media organization to reach nine out of 10 television viewers in any given market.

Though the FCC is required to review regulations every two years, according to the Associated Press, critics are concerned that space for public input has been too scarce for the commissioners to make an informed decision. Consumer groups are calling on the FCC’s chairman, Michael Powell, to extend the date of the vote to include more public input. But Powell claims that the public has had enough time to respond, and that “the agency has already conducted studies and gathered extensive public comment.”

Small, remote communities often can’t support very many local media outlets. Media conglomeration could mean that many small communities would get all of their news from a single source. The new laws claim to enforce stricter limits on media in areas with small populations, but local and small communities still stand to suffer the most from media merges. As Sean Reilly and Mike Brantley of the Alabama-based Mobile Register point out, a 1996 FCC relaxation of radio ownership allowed the nation’s two most dominant radio chains, ClearChannel and Cumulus Broadcasting, to gain control of a third of the 40 radio stations in the Gulf Coast area. And, as the result of a later ruling that deregulated television ownership, ClearChannel also obtained 2 widely-viewed TV stations in the Mobile area. If the FCC’s current plan goes through, Reilly and Brantley report,

“…[A] single corporation could conceivably control the Register, more than a dozen local radio stations, much of the television market, and Comcast, the area’s leading cable provider, according to [FCC Commissioner Michael] Copps’ office.”

Eli Pariser of MoveOn.org, a nonprofit political activist organization, reports that six of seven local radio stations in Minot, North Dakota, were taken over by ClearChannel. After drastic staff cuts, ClearChannel had the stations largely on auto-pilot. As a result, when a derailed train began fuming a cloud of toxic ammonia, city officials’ efforts to inform Minot citizens through local radio failed. There was no local radio to speak of.

Beyond the admittedly small number of emergency situations, Pariser notes, merged media would homogenize news coverage, and leave out crucial coverage of local politics and business. Even more ominous is the idea that a few, powerful conglomerates could control almost all of the public’s access to news while maintaining a vested interest in stifling criticism of the advertisers that support them and the government. Jeffrey Chester and Don Hazen of Alternet warn:

“The proposed FCC rule changes will further weaken the ability of mainstream journalism to serve as a critical public safeguard. Soon, reporters at newspapers will have to pay attention to whether they get TV ratings, once their papers become part of larger TV empires concerned about promoting advertising and ‘brandwashing.’ More importantly, the country will have even fewer gatekeepers over the news and popular culture that informs much of public consciousness. “

DOMESTIC NEWS
Runaway Dems

Fifty Democrats from the Lone Ranger state of Texas expressed their frustration with the Texas legislature’s Republican majority by going into hiding last Monday. Frustrated with the House’s neglect of major issues like school financing and the state budget, more than 50 Democrats went AWOL. The legislature’s hands are tied in their absence, since the House needs a quorum of lawmakers present to pass laws. Dems found the Congressional House’s focus on redistricting to be a waste of time. By taking their leave of the Congressional vote they have so far successfully delayed the bill on congressional redistricting.

The runaway Democrats were spotted at a Denny’s in Ardmore, Oklahoma pounding on laptop computers, sampling mini-burgers and feasting on a main course of pot roast.

The Austin American-Statesman reports that:

“The visiting Texans covered their tracks carefully at a Holiday Inn where they stayed. They checked in under assumed names, and the hotel manager was well-prepared for reporters’ calls, saying only that she could neither confirm nor deny the lawmakers’ arrivals. But their cover was blown at the Denny’s in the hotel lobby.”

Cozying up with locals in the Ardmore Holiday Inn lobby, the runaway Dems grinned as locals handed fliers stating to them “WANTED for representing the people”.

The Republicans back home dispatched the Texas Rangers to round up the maverick politicians, but found that the Texas boys had no authority in Ardmore. R.G. Ratcliffe and Polly Ross Hughes from the Houston Chronicle report”

“…officers of the Texas Department of Public Safety were sent to offer to escort them back to Austin, an offer that was rejected. He said the DPS officers did not have arrest authority in Oklahoma but he was seeking federal assistance to arrest the lawmakers. A spokesman for Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry said his state’s troopers had no authority to get involved in the political spat, The Dallas Morning News reported.’Our position is that, without a warrant signed by a judge, we have no authority. Even under those circumstances, we are hesitant to get pulled into a Texas political battle.'”

Franken-Food Trade Wars
Broken Promises At Guantanamo Bay

Global Economy
The Food Trade Flop

The European Union’s noisy skepticism about genetically modified foods has fallen on the characteristically deaf ears of the Bush administration. The EU has banned GM foods from European markets for five years, until more scientific research is done on the effects of their consumption. But Charlotte Denny of London’s Guardian reports that Bush and his free trade cronies have officially censured the ban on GM crops, claiming it costs US farmers hundreds of millions of dollars. The administration, acting through the World Trade Organization, plans to sue the E.U. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick says that the ban is “in complete violation of international trade rules,” Richard Cowan of Reuters reports.

The U.S.’s vested interest exists not only because one in three US acres are planted with gentically modified crops, but also because, as John Feffer of The American Prospect reports, the EU’s strong international lobby can sway countries worldwide from importing GM crops:

“Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Malawi — African countries on the edge of famine — all made headlines last August when they refused U.S. gifts of surplus GM corn. At first blush it seemed that their refusal was nonsensical; surely the risk of starvation exceeded the risk of consuming GM food. But as African leaders pointed out, if their farmers had planted kernels of the U.S. corn, the gift ultimately might have destroyed their ability to export food to European or Japanese markets.”

As Feffer notes, getting each member of the EU to agree on a list of restrictions that is acceptable to all countries is quite a task. European countries’ wariness of GM stems from a combination of history and science. Europeans have long been connected to the traditions surrounding their food, and regional, family-farmed foods often go for a premium in European markets (see “Slow Food,” in this month’s Mother Jones). There is a well-substantiated fear that the US’s “monocropping over crop diversity, long-distance transport over local use, efficiency over sustainability and price over taste” would result in a loss of GM-free options, as GM crops tend to be resilient, and, consequently, invasive. The traditional and popular lineage of many European crops could be severely threatened.

The US argues that Europe’s claims are scientifically unsubstantiated and paranoid. But, while Lori Wallach of Global Trade Watch admits that studies on the long-term environmental and health effects of GM foods are incomplete, the WTO’s standards are an exemplification of backward logic:

“The WTO rule puts the burden of proof on countries seeking to regulate a product to show it is dangerous. This WTO rule means that policies based on the Precautionary Principle — that a manufacturer must show a product safe over the long term before it goes on the market — are forbidden.”

Science aside, much of the criticism surrounding Bush’s recent push is concerned with the president’s use of the WTO as a means to justify the U.S.’s economic ends. Wallach warns that “This case will become Exhibit No. 1 in the growing worldwide attack on the WTO’s legitimacy.” And, the Guardian’s Denny notes that with trade relations already strained in the wake of the Iraqi war, some politicians are just plain fed up with the current administration’s emerging isolationist mentality:

“By trying to use the WTO to force GM foods on European consumers, the US is launching the mother of all trade wars and could bring about the institution’s collapse,” said Caroline Lucas, a Green party MEP.”

Politics
Guantanamo Bay’s Broken Promises

Nearly 650 Guantanamo Bay detainees, also known as “enemy combatants,” have yet to have their day in court, and a federal judge in Los Angeles judge recently questioned the worth of the Bush administration’s promise to hold military tribunals. Judge Matz’s criticism came in his response to a habeas corpus petition issued on behalf of Falen Gherebi, a Libyan detainee who has been in custody for over a year to date. All of the detainees have been accused of having links to al-Quaida terrorist cells but have yet to receive any kind of legal hearing.

Judge Matz attacked Bush in an opinion that actually denied Gherebi’s right to seek relief in a U.S. court. Matz referred to his earlier ruling that the Cuban naval base is not under American sovereignty. “The court reaches this conclusion reluctantly, however,” Matz wrote, as David Rosenzweig from the Los Angeles Times reports:

“Matz, who was appointed to the bench by President Clinton in 1998, quoted from a Defense Department order promising that military commissions would be impaneled to try those held captive. ‘Not one military tribunal has actually been convened,’ Matz wrote. He said delay in carrying out the promised tribunals is inconsistent with basic values of the American legal system.”

Human Rights Watch Director of U.S. programs, Jamie Fellner, who has been tracking the treatment of detainees, believes that the conditions are inhumane, especially the chain-link cagesused for holding cells. Fellner states:

“The Secretary seems unaware of the requirements of international humanitarian law. As a party to the Geneva Conventions, the United States is required to treat every detained combatant humanely, including unlawful combatants. The United States may not pick and choose among them to decide who is entitled to decent treatment.”

The Pentagon’s Mystery Budget
South Africa’s Gruesome Secrets

POLITICS
The Pentagon’s Mystery Budget

It’s old news that this White House is one of the most secretive in history, from Dick Cheney’s refusal to turn over records of his energy policy meetings to George W. Bush’s decision to delay the release of millions of unclassified documents.

Now, the Pentagon is getting into the secrecy act, too. As Defense News‘ John M. Donnelly reports, Congress handed the Defense Department some $28 billion in “emergency response” money in the wake of Sept. 11 — a hurried national security appropriation with little oversight. Almost two years later, most of the money has been spent, but the Pentagon has provided only the the sketchiest of accountings of where it went. When pressed, Defense has grouped its anti-terror spending into almost meaningless categories like “Increased Worldwide Posture” and “Offensive Counter-terrorism,” but offered few details beyond that. Even Congress is getting this “Eyes Only” treatment, and staffers have begun to complain:

“‘There’s no way you could do a halfway-decent budget analysis from any of that information. It’s very vague. Given the character of what the money was for [fighting terrorists], there’s little stomach up here to bore into it.’

The aide, who requested anonymity, said: ‘It’s been written off, in terms of oversight.'”

INTERNATIONAL NEWS
South Africa’s Gruesome Secrets

It could be a Tom Clancy novel, or the summer’s latest action-meets-government conspiracy film. But in real, little-known laboratories in South Africa, scientists working diligently for the apartheid government, researched and developed terrifying clandestine biological weapons.

According to Joby Warrick and John Mintz of the Washington Post, the South African government’s Project Coast created biological weapons that could infiltrate and infect the country’s majority black population, infecting them with a lethal strain of anthrax, along with the bacteria that cause cholera, brucellosis and plague. “Project Coast produced no warheads or missiles and no ‘weaponized’ agents that would be considered militarily significant. Instead, it focused entirely on small-scale, custom-made weapons intended to terrorize, weaken, and kill opponents of the apartheid government,” write Warrick and Mintz.

Bioweapons came pre-packaged in forms as innocuous as a cracker-jack prize: sugar cubes laced with salmonella, pesticide-laden beer bottles and peppermint candies, and anthrax-laced cigarettes and envelopes. The scientists combined strains of lethal bacteria in efforts to make the microbes more difficult to detect. And in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks, Daan Goosen, former director of Project Coast, offered to sell his research, information, and personal stockpile of bioweapons to the US. Despite widespread public panic about terrorism, anthrax, and biological weapons, the US declined the offer.

The details of these apartheid policies are staggering and sobering. Goosen recalls being charged with race-specific projects by South Africa’s former bioweapons commander Wouter Basson, with orders to:

“… develop ways to suppress population growth among blacks, perhaps by secretly applying contraceptives to drinking water … Basson also urged scientists to search for a ‘black bomb,’ a biological weapon that would select targets based on skin color.”

The FBI and US defense officials maintain that the research and weapons created by Basson and colleagues are “vintage,” and therefore no longer threatening. They turned all of their information over to South African authorities. But Warrick reports that much information, and probably some of the developed weapons, remain dangerously at large:

“Bacterial strains that supposedly were destroyed continue to turn up in private hands. Law enforcement officials remain concerned that former weapons scientists may share secrets with extremist groups or foreign governments.”

Goosen’s nonchalance about the transportation of the lethal microbes, along with his affirmation that several wealthy and politically radical figures have approached him offering to buy the weapons, are unsettling to say the least. Perhaps more alarming, however, is his intitial impetus for relaying the information to the United States — a former CIA officer told him the information could be worth tens of millions of dollars. If the U.S. isn’t buying, who is?

The sum of the equation? The fall of a hate-based government, its unemployed and abandoned weapons-researchers, and the U.S. government’s cocky conviction that it is above being pitted against the next-highest bidder add up to cause for concern. For now, we can only hope that our loyal leaders remember that this kind of bioweapons hide-and-seek is no game.

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