Archive for January, 2007

Absolute power corrupts absolutely. In the wake of COINTELPRO, the surveillance of peace activists and other government dissidents has become part of a long tradition of eliminating, by whip if necessary, those elements of the population which cannot be controlled or subdued though more typical channels. America’s history of “communist” suppression should give pause to any such efforts. Yet the Patriot Act and other similar efforts have reinvigorated programs of domestic thought control.

A majority of Americans now support ending the war in Iraq. Our government has spearheaded a program designed to infiltrate the very groups that advocate on our behalf; because we don’t agree with this administration’s conquer and destroy foreign-policy, we’re being watched.

SAN FRANCISCO – At least 186 antiwar protests in the United States have been monitored by the Pentagon’s domestic surveillance program, according to documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which also found that the Defense Department collected more than 2,800 reports involving Americans in a single anti-terrorism database.

The documents were obtained by the ACLU through a Freedom of Information Act request filed last February.

“It cannot be an accident or coincidence that nearly 200 antiwar protests ended up in a Pentagon threat database,” Ann Beeson, associate legal director of the ACLU, said in a statement. “This unchecked surveillance is part of a broad pattern of the Bush administration using ‘national security’ as an excuse to run roughshod over the privacy and free speech rights of Americans.”

The internal Defense Department documents show it is monitoring the activities of a wide swath of peace groups, including Veterans for Peace, Iraq Veterans Against the War, Military Families Speak Out, Code Pink, the American Friends Service Committee, the War Resisters League, and the umbrella group United for Peace and Justice, which is spearheading what organizers hope will be a massive march on Washington this Saturday.

“This might have a chilling effect on some groups,” United for Peace and Justice’s Leslie Cagan told OneWorld, “particularly among high-risk communities like immigrants who don’t have their papers yet and U.S. citizens or people with green cards who are of Muslim or South Asian or Middle Eastern descent. They’ve already been targeted by the government and they might feel like, with this, it’s just too dangerous to come out and protest.”

— Igor Volsky

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President Bush’s references to Iran and Hezbollah in Tuesday’s State of the Union address could be harbingers of an impending military invasion or attack. To readers familiar with the President’s drumbeat to war with Iraq, these pronouncements are even more worrisome. While most lawmakers insist that the President must ask for Congressional authorization before taking military action, this administration’s ability to manipulate intelligence and events, and ideological commitment to extending American influence throughout the region suggest that an attack may be imminent. (Recent military deployments have also raised red flags).

In announcing the escalation of troops in Iraq, the President promised to “seek out and destroy” Iranian networks that he said were providing “advanced weaponry and training to our enemies.” Yesterday, the President suggested that Iran is behind much of the violence in Iraq.

“In Afghanistan, Taliban and al Qaeda fighters tried to regain power by regrouping and engaging Afghan and NATO forces. In Iraq, al Qaeda and other Sunni extremists blew up one of the most sacred places in Shia Islam — the Golden Mosque of Samarra. This atrocity, directed at a Muslim house of prayer, was designed to provoke retaliation from Iraqi Shia — and it succeeded. Radical Shia elements, some of whom receive support from Iran, formed death squads. The result was a tragic escalation of sectarian rage and reprisal that continues to this day. “

Such rhetoric certainly radicalizes Muslims in Iran and the greater Muslim world and shores up support for the current Iranian regime. But, the Los Angeles Times is reporting that evidence of a connection between Iran and the Iraqi violence is flimsy at best.

For all the aggressive rhetoric, however, the Bush administration has provided scant evidence to support these claims. Nor have reporters traveling with U.S. troops seen extensive signs of Iranian involvement. During a recent sweep through a stronghold of Sunni insurgents here, a single Iranian machine gun turned up among dozens of arms caches U.S. troops uncovered. British officials have similarly accused Iran of meddling in Iraqi affairs, but say they have not found Iranian-made weapons in areas they patrol.

The lack of publicly disclosed evidence has led to questions about whether the administration is overstating its case. Some suggest Bush and his aides are pointing to Iran to deflect blame for U.S. setbacks in Iraq. Others suggest they are laying the foundation for a military strike against Iran.

Before invading Iraq, the administration warned repeatedly that Saddam Hussein was developing nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. Those statements proved wrong. The administration’s charges about Iran sound uncomfortably familiar to some. “To be quite honest, I’m a little concerned that it’s Iraq again,” Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said last week, referring to the administration’s comments on Iran.

Now, ThinkProgress is reporting that the “Bush administration tried to get Congress to approve military action anywhere in the Middle East — not just in Iraq — in the fall of 2002.” Their commitment to global hegemony is certainly impressive, but extending America’s influence over the Middle East subjugates Muslims, radicalizes religious extremists and increases America’s vulnerability.

Two things are certain (1) this President is intent on using military force to extend America’s influence over a commercially profitable and resource-rich region (2) he will ignore the moral, democratic, and homeland security implications of doing so.

Are these not high crimes or misdemeanors?

— Igor Volsky

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Last November, former president Jimmy Carter published a book appealing for a peaceful resolution to the violent conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors entitled: Palestine: Peace not Apartheid. Unique and unprecedented, this book offers its reader a perspective that seldom receives public attention.

Jimmy Carter accounts his personal experiences and involvement with influential leaders of several Middle Eastern countries. Numerous historical events that oftentimes are foggy or shrouded in the American Public’s general understanding are discussed openly. Carter draws from his first hand knowledge, and, to an extent rarely seen in mainstream literature, implicitly acknowledges the humanity of all peoples affected by this conflict.

On the whole, I found the book very easy to read, thorough and intensely candid, and apparently written with the understanding that it broaches a subject frequently abused on those rare occasions it is actually discussed. It was, unfortunately, encumbered with a religious facet that I felt diminished its scholarly value.

Stemming from Carter’s forthright and non-biased disclosures is the unsurprising consequence of passion-driven personal assaults against the president’s character. Carter’s work has, unfortunately, been interpreted by many as nothing more than an unfounded attack against Israel, sympathetic to the cause of violent fanatics who are intolerant of a Jewish state, and unruly diplomatic behavior unbecoming of a former U.S. president.

The most heated criticism against Carter’s book is his describing Israel’s treatment of non-Jewish inhabitants in the occupied territories as apartheid. Responses in defense of Israel’s treatment have been swift and strong; critics denounced the comparison of Israel to South Africa as absurd, claiming that Carter’s doing so compromises his credibility. If the comparison is inappropriate, then Carter should be commended for clearly agreeing. The final chapter of the book, the one most bitterly unwelcome for its apartheid analogy, says in its second paragraph that “the driving purpose for the forced separation of the two peoples is unlike that in South Africa,” (pg. 189) then acknowledging the difference between Israel’s and South Africa’s respective motives. The analogy, it is important to understand, is based not upon motive, but upon method; to the extent that the analogy is informative and accurate, Carter beseeches the reader to consider critically the reality of Israeli/Palestinian apartheid and its caustic social effects on the marginalized people so affected.

Another recurring claim from Carter’s critics is that he attributes blame for the region’s instability exclusively to the Israelis, a critique that is simply untrue. As a matter of convention, President Carter links the diminishing prospects for peace with those individuals who, through the employment of sectarian violence, routinely derail collective efforts to establish such a peace, and he notes that these activities are not specific to any religion or ethnicity but are observable in a small, fanatical portion of each.

Carter never espouses the use of violence taken by some Palestinians as a means of conflict resolution. Early in the book, in fact, Carter expresses in plain English that some Palestinians respond to Israeli occupation by attacking Israeli civilians, describing such behavior as “morally reprehensible and politically counterproductive” (pg. 15). He revisits, as necessary, this sort of criticality of the Palestinians throughout his book while apportioning similar criticism to Israeli politics and behavior with greater frequency, a style I did not find inappropriate considering how underrepresented the latter is in the literature that our culture is accustomed to seeing.

Implicit but clear, Carter’s overarching conclusion from reviewing the historical record and assessing the present state of affairs is that baseless aggression, originating from sentiments reducible to mere hate, fear, intolerance, and ignorance, will deter efforts toward peace, independent of which side that aggression comes from, and it certainly comes from both. Carter deplores the inclusion of violence in any stratagem that aims for stability and identifies the process as inherently counterproductive, a standard that some Israeli sympathizers, it appears, find unpalatable when applied not strictly to the oppressed, but when applied to themselves, as well.

The final oft-heard shot against President Carter I will address is his highly publicized refusal to debate the Israel/Palestinian conflict with Alan Dershowitz. Considered by many to be a leading scholar and an authority on Israel’s history and politics, Alan Dershowitz, a law professor of Harvard University, was Brandeis University’s choice to debate Jimmy Carter after the president accepted an invitation to lecture there. Carter declined the offer to debate Dershowitz, expressing that he had no inclination to converse with a man who “knows nothing about the situation in Palestine”. Although this chain of events has evoked varied analyses of Carter’s motives and merits, I find it unfair to discount him solely because of whom he will and will not talk to. A man who insults the memory of a deceased holocaust survivor, accusing her of Nazi collaboration, simply because her son writes books exposing his plagiarism and scholarly misconduct is not a man I’d like to debate with either.

These and many other criticisms of the book and its author fail to acknowledge the simple problem called to attention by President Carter. His nerve to bluntly express the plain and obvious has made him a target. The sharpest criticisms that his work has drawn are concerned not with the social issues of its focus, they are concerned with savagely bludgeoning his credibility, a dialogical vector that, I believe, has as much productive potential as the six years of dialogical silence that the author scrutinizes.

Understanding the chronic tension between the Israelis and the Palestinians requires a clear-eyed assessment of affairs in which one’s predispositions and biases are suspended. It is a remarkable failure of precisely this sort of suspension that characterizes this new book’s media-hype comet-trail. Although Carter offers as factual an account of his own involvement as he is realistically able to narrate in a single volume, attempting to cover broad topics extensively but concisely, the over-emphasized response it has generated, which comes mostly from Israel-sympathizers, condemn Carter for his audacity to express things in conflict with their ideology.

–Daniel Black

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The Democrats are a bit less corrupt than the Republicans. Still, they represent the businesses that finance their campaigns. Until Americans demand the public financing of elections, the interests of business will always supersede the concerns and needs of the nation. America should not be in the business of subsidizing big business.

From the LA Times:

Last week, however, when Pelosi (D-San Francisco) won House approval of the much-touted bill socking it to the oil companies, it turned out to be considerably less drastic than many in the industry originally feared. Out of an estimated $32 billion in subsidies and tax breaks that the oil companies are scheduled to receive over the next five years, the final House bill cut $5.5 billion.

It’s not just oil: From one end of the House Democrats’ “first 100 hours” agenda to the other, businesspeople and their lobbyists have found success amid the fear in dealing with the new Congress.

Surprising as it might seem in view of the Democrats’ public rhetoric, business groups are getting their telephone calls returned. And they’re getting plenty of face time with the new House and Senate leaders.

Thanks to this access, the oil industry fended off many features it considered most objectionable in the proposed energy bill, and the big pharmaceutical companies had success keeping some provisions out of the new House Medicare drug bill.

And, while the House was passing its minimum-wage bill, small-business lobbyists were working the Senate to win tax breaks for their clients in the Senate’s version of the bill.

“There was a lot more anxiety initially because of not knowing what was going to transpire,” said Stuart Roy, a member of the prominent Washington lobby shop DCI Group and once an aide to Tom DeLay when DeLay (R-Texas) was House majority leader. Now, Roy said, “the anxiety level is down.”

— Igor Volsky

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I refuse to tolerate government hypocrisy. Nancy Pelosi promised to run the most ethical and open government in history. The Democrats won their majority on the promise that they will rid Congress of corruption and special interest influence. Pelosi should walk her talk

On Wednesday, the House voted to raise the minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25 per hour.
    The bill also extends for the first time the federal minimum wage to the U.S. territory of the Northern Mariana Islands. However, it exempts American Samoa, another Pacific island territory that would become the only U.S. territory not subject to federal minimum-wage laws.
    One of the biggest opponents of the federal minimum wage in Samoa is StarKist Tuna, which owns one of the two packing plants that together employ more than 5,000 Samoans, or nearly 75 percent of the island’s work force. StarKist’s parent company, Del Monte Corp., has headquarters in San Francisco, which is represented by Mrs. Pelosi. The other plant belongs to California-based Chicken of the Sea.
    “There’s something fishy going on here,” said Rep. Patrick T. McHenry, North Carolina Republican.
    During the House debate yesterday on stem-cell research, Mr. McHenry raised a parliamentary inquiry as to whether an amendment could be offered that would exempt American Samoa from stem-cell research, “just as it was for the minimum-wage bill.”
    A clearly perturbed Rep. Barney Frank, the Massachusetts Democrat who was presiding, cut off Mr. McHenry and shouted, “No, it would not be.”
    “So, the chair is saying I may not offer an amendment exempting American Samoa?” Mr. McHenry pressed.
    “The gentleman is making a speech and will sustain,” Mr. Frank shouted as he slammed his large wooden gavel against the rostrum.
    Some Republicans who voted in favor of the minimum-wage bill were particularly irritated to learn yesterday — after their vote — that the legislation did not include American Samoa.
    “I was troubled to learn of this exemption,” said Rep. Mark Steven Kirk, Illinois Republican. “My intention was to raise the minimum wage for everyone. We shouldn’t permit any special favors or exemptions that are not widely discussed in Congress. This is the problem with rushing legislation through without full debate.”
    A spokeswoman for Mrs. Pelosi said Wednesday that the speaker has not been lobbied in any way by StarKist or Del Monte.

Are 5,000 Samoans less worthy of humane treatment and a moral wage? Pelosi must account for this exemption and the perception that she extended special treatment to her constituents. Pelosi was the first woman to be elected speaker of the House; she must refrain from abusing the power that comes with privilege.

— Igor Volsky

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President Bush’s decision to send a portion of the 20,000 extra troops into Iraq ahead of his address to the nation would be smart (the move elludes Congressional attempts to limit funding) if it wasn’t so dangerous and reckless

The thousands of troops that President Bush is expected to order to Iraq will join the fight largely without the protection of the latest armored vehicles that withstand bomb blasts far better than the Humvees in wide use, military officers said.

Vehicles such as the Cougar and the M1117 Armored Security Vehicle have proven ability to save lives, but production started late and relatively small numbers are in use in Iraq, mostly because of money shortages, industry officials said.


— Igor Volsky

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Yesterday, the Congress approved ethics reforms which “prohibit House members or employees from knowingly accepting gifts or travel from a registered lobbyist, foreign agent or lobbyist’s client. Lawmakers could no longer fly on corporate jets. In addition, congressional travel financed by outside groups would have to be approved in advance by the House ethics committee and immediately disclosed to the public.”

As the Ethics Committee (officially named the Committee On Standards and Official Conduct) prepares to clarify, interpret, and define the term ‘lobbyist’ and the types of organizations prohibited from influencing lawmakers with free gifts or travel, the Hill is reporting that “state and local government agencies and some foundations, such as AIPAC and the Aspen Institute, want to be exempted from the new rules.” According to the Jewish daily, the Forward:

Jewish groups, though supportive of most measures, are concerned about two aspects of the reform: the ban on privately funded congressional travel, and the limitations on earmarks. Both measures might — depending on the final language adopted — restrict actions of Jewish and pro-Israel groups on Capitol Hill.

All-expense-paid tours to Israel are among the most common overseas trips made by members of Congress and their aides. Watchdog groups, using data from congressional filings, have reported that Israel is the leading destination for privately sponsored congressional trips.


Jewish groups are now lobbying Congress to make sure that educational trips, such as those to Israel, be allowed to continue even under the new restrictions being considered. “Trips to Israel sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation have long been considered among the most substantive, educational and valuable trips available for members of Congress,” Aipac spokesman Josh Block said. “While in Israel, members have the opportunity to meet with both Israeli and Palestinian officials, academics, journalists, elected officials, hearing from speakers representing diverse views across the political spectrum, and get a personal, firsthand view of issues of great importance to American policy in the Middle East.”

If past behavior is an indicator of future results, AIPAC will be exempt from the new ethics rules. The Israeli lobby has a stronghold on American foreign policy; Democrats, and Republicans receive large campaign donations from so-called pro Israeli groups, Israel’s PR firms shape U.S. media coverage and our economic dependence on the middle east ensures a pro-Zionist bias in legislation and public debate. Speaker Pelosi has been praised for her “straight-A record on Israel” and the United States annually grants Israel billions of dollars in aid.

While AIPAC’s free trips to Israel may be educational in the historical sense, they give Israel a greater advantage and opportunity to promote her agenda. Such trips minimize the plight of the Palestinians and provide Israel with an opportunity to indoctrinate American lawmakers. The goal of the new ethics rules is to inject greater equality into Congressional decision making. These rules both prohibit rich special interests from buying access to lawmakers (something the public can’t afford to do) and limit the influence of the special interest dollar on Congressional positions, votes and decisions.

If the Democrats hope to bring more fairness and democracy into the legislative process, then AIPAC should be first on their list of organizations whose overwhelming influence proscribes free debate and discussion.

— Igor Volsky

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For the new Democratic leadership, politics transcends policy. The Washington Post is reporting that House Democrats will break their campaign promise to allow Republicans a chance to debate the legislation of the first 100 hours (“They include tightening ethics rules for lawmakers, raising the minimum wage, allowing more research on stem cells and cutting interest rates on student loans.”) and instead “use House rules to prevent the opposition from offering alternative measures, assuring speedy passage of the bills and allowing their party to trumpet early victories.”

Polls indicate that Americans support the Democratic initiatives. An Associated Press-AOL News poll found that:

  • 80% of Americans support raising the minimum wage (although the Democratic proposal to raise the wage in stages to $7.25/h is far from livable, by any standard)
  • 69% of respondents favor “the government making it easier for people to buy prescription drugs from other countries”
  • 56% “support easing restrictions on using federal money to pay for research on embryonic stem cells”

But my hunch is that Americans are also eager for a Congress which lives up to its democratic nature and embraces policy debate and discussion. While the Democrats can prevent the opposition from placing insurmountable hurdles to the passage of popular measures, party leadership must allow for a constructive policy debate. Focused dissent, debate and discussion are the mother of better policy.

For a party which criticized its opposition for short circuiting the minority to run on a platform of open government, bipartisanship and cooperation and then break its campaign pledge and adopt these very same un-democratic tactics is to exploit the voter and place personal power and politics ahead of sensible policy, democracy and the needs of Americans.

The Post article fails to mention that the Democrats have already backed off their campaign pledge to implement key 9/11 committee recommendations (which would have restructured congressional committees with oversight of the intelligence community) since the reform “would come at the expense of the armed services committees and the appropriations panels’ defense subcommittees.” Again, if the Democrats are looking to improve the lives and safety of ordinary Americans and win their confidence in ’08, they must stay true to their word and the principles of democracy; if they’re interested in simply maintaining control of Congress, then they are no better than their opposition.

— Igor Volsky

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