Mother Jones Daily: Briefing

Factory Farm Fallacy
A Gun-Control Gain?
Iran-Iraq War Ripples

Factory Farm Fallacy

By now, it is a familiar ritual, acted out with depressing regularity. First, the Bush administration announces its newest eco-policy, touting it as a breakthrough in protecting the environment and/or the health of the American people. Then, environmentalists respond, punching holes in the official rhetoric and charging that the latest initiative is transparently pro-industry and a significant rollback of established standards.

So it goes with the administration’s changes to the rules regulating huge livestock operations, which a coalition of environmental groups is now challenging in federal court. As Environment News Service‘s J.R. Pegg reports, Washington claims the changes will help prevent waste produced by massive factory farms — the largest of which can hold more than a million animals — from seeping into nearby water supplies. In reality, conservationists say, the modified law violates the Clean Water Act, giving the livestock industry a free hand to dispose of animal waste however it sees fit.

“Prior to the Bush administration’s rule, Rogers explained, these large factory farms, known as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), were not permitted to discharge any animal waste pollution. But under the administration’s rule they are ‘now expressly permitted to discharge waste into the environment,’ Rogers said, and can do so based on permits that they are allowed to write themselves, without any government or public oversight.

‘Polluters can’t be trusted to write their own permits,’ said NRDC attorney Melanie Shepherdson. ‘It is like asking high school kids to write their own tests. They will make it too easy to comply and they will not protect public health.'”

A Gun-Control Gain?

Gun-control advocates are jubilant after a New Jersey court of appeals announced its decision to allow three cities — Newark, Camden, and Jersey City — to sue gun manufactures for the financial burden wrought by gun violence. John Shiffman reports in the Philadelphia Inquirer that the lawsuit targets dozens of gun-makers that are accused of fueling illegal gun markets and foisting upon cities the huge costs associated with violent crime. The court stated that its decision

“reflects our state’s overarching policy that wronged persons should be compensated for their injuries and those responsible for the wrong should bear the cost of their tortious [detrimental] conduct.”

The cases’ defendants, who plan to appeal to the state Supreme Court, include the likes of Beretta USA, Smith & Wesson, and Glock Inc. They will also seek federal legislation to block such lawsuits in the future.

Prosecuting attorney Brian Siebel of the Brady Center in Washington remarked that,

“Having a trial on these cases is the gun industry’s worst nightmare…They are terrified of defending themselves on the merits because there will be three different cases with three different juries.”

Though Siebel and others are hopeful, comparable suits in different states have all failed, observes Shiffman, as courts have refused to hold gun-makers liable for gun violence.

However, a press release from the Brady Center notes that the New Jersey ruling follows on the heels of similar decisions in Ohio and Illinois, generating considerable momentum nationally. The press release adds that this week’s ruling

“was handed down a week after legislation was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives (H.R. 1036) to give the gun industry unprecedented immunity from lawsuits brought by gun violence victims, as well as cities and counties. “The gun lobby is seeking in Congress what it could never achieve from the courts – a free pass from the rules of legal accountability that apply to everyone else,” stated Mr. Siebel.”

Iran-Iraq War Ripples

Though tensions still exist between Iran and Iraq, The Iraqi Foreign Ministry announced that it has agreed to release 349 Iranian criminals in exchange for the release of 941 Iraqis, reports the Associated Press. Though Iraq denies that the Iranians are left-over prisoners of war, the inmates on both sides are believed to be products of the bloody Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.

It’s unclear whether the numbers released constitute all prisoners held since the war’s end in 1988. The International Committee of the Red Cross, which has long-attempted to return the prisoners to their countries of origin, has no estimate of total numbers imprisoned, the AP notes. Nicolas Pelham of the Financial Times reports that the countries have collectively released over 90,000 prisoners, but that thousands of people from each side are still classified as missing in action.

Ashcroft’s Agenda
Of Tomatoes and Tacos
Librarian Liberation

Ashcroft’s Agenda

With the nation’s gaze fixed on Iraq, few of John Ashcroft’s recent moves have garnered much attention, save his crusade against bongs and roach clips. As always, however, the Attorney General has been busily chipping away at civil liberties, critics charge.

As Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar and Jonathan Peterson reported in the Los Angeles Times last week, Ashcroft has “purged” the Board of Immigration Appeals of its most pro-immigrant judges. The little-known but powerful Board rules on immigration policies and laws, and often has the last say on deportation and asylum hearings — an increasingly important function as the debate over immigration post-Sept. 11 heats up. According to Alonso-Zaldivar and Peterson, though, the Justice Department has told the five most liberal voices on the sixteen-member panel to pack their bags. While the Department insists the firings are routine downsizing, critics say the dismissals have nothing to do with “streamlining plans” and everything to do with politics.

“‘Until the attorney general discloses his reasons for informing these five people that they should seek other work, this has all the appearances of a purge of dedicated civil servants based on a perception of their policy views,’ said T. Alexander Aleinikoff, who was general counsel of the Immigration and Naturalization Service in the Clinton administration and now teaches law at Georgetown University.

‘This sends a signal to the remaining [members] that if you don’t toe the line, you could be in jeopardy,’ said a Senate aide who asked not to be identified. ‘It is a serious public policy concern, because you want to have an immigration system in place in which the judges are able to exercise independent judgment.'”

Meanwhile, the Attorney General is reconsidering a Clinton-era ruling which would have made it easier for battered women and persecuted gays and lesbians from foreign countries to gain asylum in the US, the Miami Herald‘s Alfonso Chardy reports. While gender discrimination isn’t officially recognized as a valid reason for granting asylum, immigration judges have proven increasingly receptive to the idea. Now, many observers fear that Ashcroft — who has put asylum standards under review — will issue stricter guidlines that refuse to consider domestic abuse and sexual violence when granting asylum.

“‘We are very concerned about this review,’ said Eleanor Acer, director of the Asylum Program at the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. ‘It could be a real step backward for women who have been the victims of gender-based violence.'”

Additionally, women’s advocates are dismayed by Ashcroft’s decision to bury the Office on Violence Against Women beneath layers of bureaucracy. As part of a bill passed last year, the office was to become a “permanent, separate and independent office within the Justice Department,” Rebecca Vesely reports for Women’s E News, which would have given the office and its director considerable autonomy in policymaking and likely increased its effectiveness. Ashcroft, however, argues that the office’s current obscurity is just fine — an attitude that troubles domestic violence advocates.

“‘The Department of Justice is going out of its way to downgrade the importance of violence against women,’ says Kiersten Stewart, public policy director of the Family Violence Prevention Fund. ‘This is an important issue that affects between one in three and one in four women. The highest ranking law enforcement office in the country is saying that this is not an important issue.'”

Of Tomatoes and Tacos

Though a 10-day hunger strike staged by a group of Florida tomato pickers has failed to convince fast food behemoth Taco Bell to abandon its tolerance of slave labor practises, farmers and activists are refusing to back down. Duncan Campbell reports in the London Guardian, that many pickers have now descended upon Taco Bell’s corporate headquarters in Irvine, California, determined to convince the company to purchase tomatoes “only from contractors who agree to pay a living wage to the pickers, some of whom make as little as $80…for a seven-day week.” According to Campbell, tomato production for the chain is carried out by a highly exploited work-force, one which earns a pittance — often one cent per pound of tomatoes picked — and is regularly exposed to coercion and intimidation.

One activist, Lucas Benitez of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, remarked: “Taco Bell has a policy that it will not buy food from contractors that mistreat animals…All we are asking is that they have the same policy for humans.” Benitez noted that workers are barred from organizing unions and denied overtime pay, sick leave, and holidays. Pickers argue that Yum!, the umbrella corporation which owns Taco Bell, KFC, and other successful chains, has more than enough clout to demand living wages from its fruit contractors.

The pickers’ efforts follow long-standing attempts across the country to establish boycotts of Taco Bell in support of the workers, writes Campbell. The Campaign for Labor Rights’ web-site features additional information on the movement.

Librarian Liberation

In Santa Cruz, CA, signs informing library patrons of a section of the USA Patriot Act were posted this week “as a warning to customers that their privacy was under threat,” reports Lawrence Donegan of London’s Observer. Although the liberal haven doesn’t always serve as the best barometer of national sentiment, librarians around the country are raising their voices in opposition to a portion of the act that grants the CIA and other federal officials access to patron records. While the government maintains its stance that the Patriot Act’s net of surveillance is in the public’s best interest, librarians and other defendants of civil liberties have taken various steps to obstruct the government’s desire to know who reads what.

According to Libby Sander of The Capital Times, a bill introduced by Representative Bernie Sanders (I-VT) attempts to protect readers’ rights, and argues that as the law reads today, “the person whose records are being searched by the FBI can be anyone… The FBI doesn’t even have to say that it believes the person is involved in criminal activity or that the person is connected to a foreign power.” With that bill pending, the current legislation, which effects booksellers as well as libraries, has motivated some organizations to engage in several forms of protest.

The American Library Association has drafted a resolution that opposes the Patriot Act outright and vows to protect the rights of all library patrons, going so far as to call on Congress to “amend or change the sections of these laws…that threaten or abridge the rights of inquiry and free expression.” The resolution also encourages library staff to inform its patrons of possible surveillance and oppose government access by citing the Library Bill of Rights, which states that all patron records should remain private. In Santa Cruz, the approach is a bit more tongue-in-cheek — according to Donegon, the signs exhort patrons, reading: “Questions about this policy should be directed to Attorney General John Ashcroft.”

Secrets and Lies
The War on Drug Money
An Island, Still Divided

Secrets and Lies

In a landmark decision fifty years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that the government didn’t have to release information to the families of men killed in an unexplained Air Force plane crash. The reason? National security. The decision quickly became one of the cornerstones of national security law — and a precedent frequently cited by today’s secrecy-obsessed government.

As it turns out, though, the government’s case all those years ago was likely based on a lie, the Boston Globe‘s Marcella Bombardieri reports, and the revelations call into question decades of increasingly strict national security laws.

Using recently declassified documents, the granddaughter of one of the victims discovered that — contrary to government assertions — the long-ago crash had nothing to do with military secrets. Rather, it was a result of poor maintenance and training, and the government simply lied to avoid embarrassment. With that in mind, a group of victims’ relatives has filed a petition with the Supreme Court, asking it to acknowledge the new information.

Since Sept. 11, the Justice Department has made increasing use of the decision, United States vs. Reynolds, invoking it to close deportation hearings, hold “enemy combatants” without trial and even bar the release of corporate information, Bombardieri notes. While few legal experts expect the revelations to affect policy, they say the Court’s response will serve as a litmus test for the nation’s justice system.

” … [I]t could serve as an important lesson about the potential consequences of expanding the government’s homeland security powers, as the Bush administration has tried to do, in part relying on United States v. Reynolds.

‘Reynolds is already used in an abusive fashion, but if the court remains silent those abuses will be magnified significantly,’ said Jonathan Turley, a professor at George Washington University. ‘If the government is not held to account in the face of obviously false statements, it’s hard to see what limitations exist.'”

The War on Drug Money

The White House has come up with a clever response to public criticism of its drug policies: lie. Or at least use shady math to gloss over the truth, then spin the numbers so they seem to be in keeping with public demand. According to Paul Armento at, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) has developed a new method of reporting federal drug spending that only incorporates “primary” drug war activities.

Interestingly enough, those activities designated primary include treatment for those convicted of drug use, but leave out the expense of incarceration. The new budget cites incarceration and care for prisoners as “secondary consequences of the government’s primary drug law enforcement.” And some agencies integral in investigation, prosecution, and policing are also absent from the new and improved budget, reports Armento. As a result, the new budget seems to allot nearly equal funds to treatment and enforcement. It’s great news for a public that advocates treatment for convicted drug users in place of imprisonment and is increasingly wary of the cost of a drug war that doesn’t seem to be working.

Except that, according to Armento, the budget is disturbingly flawed: over two-thirds of the agencies listed in last year’s budget are absent from this year’s totals, and, worse yet, the White House is trying to change history by applying the new math to past years and claim that the Drug War has never cost more than $11 billion. In truth, that number was reached in 1991 and has increased ever since.

Perhaps the most jarring nugget of information Armento reveals is not about blurring the numbers, but blurring the laws themselves:

“Investigations of this year’s budget by analysts from Common Sense for Drug Policy and the Drug Policy Alliance reveal that the Drug Czar’s office is inflating their expenditures on drug treatment by including hundreds of millions of dollars in alcohol treatment spending, which by law is specifically excluded from the ONDCP’s scope of activities.

Ultimately, the goal of all this smoke and mirrors is to create the perception of a kinder, gentler and less expensive drug war — qualities favored by the American public but seldom, if ever, delivered by federal drug policy. Of course, beneath the clouds it’s still business as usual. The only question is: Who’s going to report the Feds to the SEC?”

An Island, Still Divided

On March 11th, United Nations peace talks for a united Cyprus came to a halt.

Partitioned since Turkish troops invaded in 1974, Cyprus is not likely to come together anytime soon, as Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders once again failed to agree on the crucial issues separating them: borders and a return home for refugees. Negotiators from the UN and the European Union hoped for a resolution prior to the Greek Cypriots’ entry into the EU in April, but the island’s Greek portion will now join alone, leaving Turkish Cypriots out in the cold. As the London Guardian‘s Helena Smith reports, the breakdown also creates problems for the Turkish Cypriots’ state sponsor, Turkey, and its bid for EU membership.

“‘I don’t see how a solution is avoidable. Turkey cannot survive in isolation: it needs the EU, and it knows that resolving Cyprus is the only way that it is going to become a member.'”

Many observers, however, are pessimistic about the ultimate chances of reunification.

“‘The more time passes, the more difficult it becomes to reunite the island,’ Mr Vassilou insisted in an interview. ‘People’s memories of co-existence fade, while the feeling of disappointment and despair among the Turkish Cypriots grows by the day.'”

Roundups and Rights
The Last War’s Lasting Ills
Cuba’s Diplomatic Revolution?

Roundups and Rights

In tandem with the White House’s war effort, the Department of Homeland Security’s crackdown on Arabs and Muslims has shifted into high gear in recent days.

As the Village Voice‘s James Ridgeway reports, the Department has ordered the detention of all asylum seekers from more than 30 countries on Tuesday. This provision of the new and Orwellian-sounding “Operation Liberty Shield” has prompted an outcry from human rights groups around the world, who note that enemy agents would be unlikely to subject themselves to the routine scrutiny that accompanies asylum applications. The government insists the detentions are merely temporary; an ACLU spokesman, however, pointed out the basic injustice — not to mention illogic — of the policy:

“‘a woman from Afghanistan facing persecution on account of her gender…would be mandatorily imprisoned under this policy. And she would be occupying a place in prison that could be given to someone who poses a real threat,’ Edgar claims.”

The wholesale round-up of Iraqis already in the US appears imminent too, as the FBI finalizes its plans to question and possibly detain some 10,000 Iraqi nationals. The Bureau’s list of suspects is long: students, defectors, permanent residents, visitors and even some naturalized citizens will all be questioned closely. And as CBS News reports, the rationale — at least in the government’s view — is clear: “It’s all part of the bureau’s plan to shake up the American Iraqi community in the hopes of shaking out the few Iraqis they suspect may be planted here to carry out attacks.”

Mindful of the mass detentions of Japanese Americans during World War Two, perhaps, the pundits at TalkLeft see the moves as the next step toward that shameful end.

“It looks to us like we’re getting one step closer to detention camps … What will they do with the ones that don’t answer questions to their satisfaction? We’ll take an educated guess and say they’re headed to Guantanamo.”

Meanwhile, the first trial of alleged terrorists caught since Sept. 11 is getting underway in Detroit. According to the Detroit News‘s David Shepardson, Joel Kurth and Ronald J. Hansen, however, it hardly appears to be a slam-dunk case, and defense lawyers are complaining that the heavy security and pervasive secrecy surrounding the trial have made their clients look guilty before the arguments even begin. Indeed, if the government is laying it on thick, that may be because there is a lot riding on the case. Here, for the first time, the Washington Post‘s Dan Eggen and Allan Lengel write, the Justice Department’s claims of success in rooting out terror in the heartland get their first airing in court.

“‘This case is going to be very closely watched both locally and nationally,’ said David Moran, a law professor at Wayne State University. ‘If the government is not able to convince a jury that these men were an actual terror cell, that will have real impact…If it can’t actually produce the goods here, the government’s credibility will be hurt nationwide.'”

The Last War’s Lasting Ills

As thousands of US troops prepare for war in Iraq, Pentagon officials at home know in advance that a certain percentage of soldiers will return with mysterious chronic illnesses. Indeed, Alice Dembner reports in the Boston Globe that the famed “Gulf War syndrome” still persists among thousands of veterans of the first Gulf War, and authorities are as clueless as ever about cause and treatment.

According to Dembner, more than 100,000 of the 700,000 US troops used in the previous war now suffer from “a constellation of ailments that scientists have been unable to trace to any specific cause, despite hundreds of millions of dollars spent on studies.” While some officials argue that the conditions were onset largely due to stress and war-time psychological factors, many veterans’ advocates disagree, citing a well-documented case in which troops were exposed to chemical weapons.

For the newest batch of soldiers, Dembner notes, “the risk of exposure in the impending Iraq war is very similar,” despite new precautions by the Pentagon. “For those who do return sick, the prospects for treatment are bleak,” suggests Dembner.

And, just yesterday ended the long case of one Gulf War veteran, Louis Jones Jr., who was executed in Indiana for a murder and rape committed in 1995, writes Chuck Haga in the Mineapolis Star Tribune. Jones’ attorneys sought clemency because Jones was among the 130,000 soldiers that the Pentagon acknowledges were exposed to “low levels of nerve gas” in March of 1991. The defense argued that Jones was severely brain damaged as a result of the exposure. Attorney Timothy Floyd calls it

“a cruel irony that on the day when we mobilize for another war in Iraq, the life of…a consummate soldier was ended at the hands of the government he served” because of “an act that might not have occurred but for his service as a soldier.”

“If you return from the Gulf damaged,” adds Floyd, “the U.S. government will not take responsibility for that damage and may not even acknowledge it.”

Cuba’s Diplomatic Revolution?

In response to chief American diplomat James Cason’s meetings with political dissidents, the Cuban government has vowed to restrict the travel freedoms of US diplomats, reports The Associated Press. In retaliation, the US has put its own checks on Cuban diplomats in Washington. The tensions between the two nations have already enforced strict boundaries on diplomatic travel — in both countries, travel outside of a 700 kilometer (434-mile) area required government notification. But Cuban officials will now require government approval, not just notification.

Cason’s meetings with political dissidents have been far from covert — last October, in fact, he treated a meeting of US newspaper editors with a surprise visit from prominent critics of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, reported Bill Sternberg of USA Today. In addition, Cason allegedly lead diplomats in an effort to distribute radios programmed to an anti-Castro station to Cuban citizens, reported Reuters‘ Andrew Cawthorne last April. And Cuban officials, despite the US’s assertion that Cason is simply engaging in regular diplomatic relations, are exasperated with what Castro is calling “a shameless and defiant provocation,” the AP reports.

But the concurrent arrest of some of Cuba’s most revolutionary dissidents has raised suspicions. While another AP story quotes a statement from Cuban officials that no country “has the right to organize, finance and serve as a center for subverting the constitutional order,” it also notes that US State Department Richard Boucher believes the arrests and diplomatic restraints are part of an effort to silence a growing opposition movement. Apparently, even after forty years, the Cuban and American governments just can’t agree to disagree.

Testing the GAO
Twilight for Mugabe?
Clear Channel Hawks?

Testing the GAO

When the General Accounting Office abandoned its bold lawsuit against Vice President Dick Cheney last month, it may have unwittingly set a course for a new and dangerous type of precedent.

Peter Brand reports in The Hill that Democratic lawmakers are worried that the loss may limit future access to well-guarded executive branch secrets. The lawsuit, triggered by Cheney’s unwillingness to divulge records from an energy task force that he headed, was “the first time in its 81-year history that the GAO, acting in its capacity as the investigative arm of Congress, sued the executive branch to obtain information.” And dropping that suit could prove even more significant.

Many “Democrats assert that with one party controlling both the legislative and executive branches, aggressive congressional oversight is almost impossible,” notes Brand. Doleful California Rep. Henry Waxman, the ranking Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee, lamented that, “If the GAO is only going to get information if the administration is willing to give it, then there’s no reason why [the administration] is going to be cooperative.”

In an administration that is “already the most secretive administration in recent history,” as Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) observes, the efficacy of GAO hangs in the balance.

Twilight for Mugabe?

The pressure is building on Robert Mugabe.

Following two days of violent strikes across the country, Zimbabwe’s thuggish and erratic leader is on the defensive, and the heretofore-scattered opposition is growing stronger. In fact, as the London Guardian‘s Andrew Meldrum reports, emboldened opposition leaders have even issued an ultimatum to the regime: “restore democratic rights by March 31 or face ‘popular mass action to regain the people’s liberties, freedoms and dignity.'”

Though vilified in the West for his brutal human rights record and chaotic seizures of white-owned farms, Mugabe has always received unwavering support from his staunchest allies, South Africa and Nigeria. Now, however, some observers are wondering if even these regional backers will abandon him, Abel Mutsakani writes in Harare’s Financial Gazette.

“‘Mugabe must now demonstrate that he has a workable strategy of national survival beyond repression against the opposition or otherwise even the regional and continental support will begin to roll back.'”

Clear Channel Hawks?

The nation’s largest owner of radio stations, Clear Channel Worldwide Inc., has raised many eyebrows lately by sponsoring pro-Bush rallies in several major U.S. cities. Tim Jones reports in the Chicago Tribune that rallies in Atlanta, Cleveland, San Antonio and Cincinnati have drawn up to 20,000 people apiece, serving as a rebuttal to the numerous anti-war demonstrations. Protestors also bashed France and the Dixie Chicks, a country group whose member recently criticized the President’s push for war with Iraq.

The national “Rally for America” is the brainchild of Glenn Beck, a Philadelphia radio talk-show host whose program is syndicated by Premier Radio Networks, a subsidiary of Clear Channel. Clear Channel stands as the only media company in the US to sponsor political rallies.

“I think this is pretty extraordinary,” remarked former Federal Communications Commissioner Glen Robinson.”I can’t say this violates any of the broadcaster’s obligations, but it sounds like borderline manufacturing the news.”

Although Clear Channel promotes the rallies on its corporate website, a company spokesperson said the protests were “not meant to be pro-military” but “more of a thank-you to our troops.”


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