Saturday, September 30, 2006

Banana Republics...

My wife and I recently had the opportunity to spend a few days in St. Lucia, an island in the Caribbean. It was a really nice trip that had two unexpected highlights. I was hoping the trip would be a time of pure rest and relaxation – but it turned out that the best parts were big learning experiences.

First, along with another couple, we rented a cab to drive us around the (small) island one day. (St. Lucia has a population of approximately 160,000 and is approximately 5 miles East/West by 25 miles North/South.) We ended up spending about 5 hours in that cab…which was far too long…but it was a great learning experience about St. Lucia. Admittedly, we stopped at a number of tourist traps where cheap “souvenirs” were sold at us. But in driving through the cities, observing the people, and asking questions to and talking with the cab driver Clem, we were able to learn quite a bit about the island – a true banana republic, whose primary industries are tourism, banana plantations, and fishing.

One thing we observed on our trip was so many people just standing around all over the island. At one point, as we were driving through the capital city of Castries for the second time that day, one of our friends asked the driver what the unemployment rate on the island was. He told us that the “official rate is about 15%.” I thought that was interesting – the “official rate.” It wasn’t explained, just left to hang out there. We also asked what gas prices were like in St. Lucia. Clem told us that currently prices are around $4.50 USD. But, he said, that’s actually a little lower than average, because they are in the midst of an election, so the ruling government reduced prices some to engender positive reaction from the electorate.

The next night we attended a dinner where I had the opportunity to sit next to a local lawyer who is also involved with some government committees on the island. I spent almost two hours grilling him (at some point I let up to let him eat his food!!) about the systems of laws, the education system, government, politics, economy, and anything else I could think of about the island. It was a great learning opportunity. St. Lucia is in the midst of two political events – an election cycle (which comes once every 5 years) and a constitutional review (in which their entire constitution is being reviewed for change and/or update). I was able to learn a tremendous amount about this island we were visiting (and the Caribbean in general – we spent some time discussing the potential for a Common Caribbean Market – similar to the EU – which would enable each of the small islands of the West Indies to band together to present a larger, more robust Common Market). During our conversation, I remembered Clem’s statement about the “official” unemployment rate. I asked my new friend about that. He told me that indeed the government’s official unemployment rate was around 15% - but that number was very deceiving, because they essentially cut out “self-employed” – or more accurately, “don’t want to be employed” from that number. Folks who just subside by doing odd jobs, small-time fishing, etc. are simply not included. He said that it’s possible that the actual unemployment rate stretches far higher, maybe to close to 50%. It’s just all in the way you calculate it. My friend also confirmed Clem’s assumption about gas prices, that the government had indeed lowered prices a bit for political purposes.

Of course, that got me thinking about the good old USA. Over the course of the past four years, the Bush Administration Labor Department has systematically redefined “unemployment” for purposes of the “official” unemployment rates. In this way, they can compare their “rate” with historical rates, and argue that their number doesn’t look so bad. Of course, reasoning people understand that such a comparison is the same as comparing apples and oranges – the rates are not comparing a similar population, and any such comparison is therefore invalid.

In addition, a recent Gallup poll found that a full 42% of Americans agreed with the statement that the Bush administration “deliberately manipulated the price of gasoline so that it would decrease before this fall’s elections.” Wow. Almost half of our nation thinks that the Republican party is playing politics at the pump. I think that the possibility that this is really occurring is rather remote – but it is clear that a large portion of America believes it. Even if not true – this is a damning indictment of the public perception of the Republican party and the Bush Administration – and just how corrupt the American people believe they are.

Amazing. Now, which is the banana republic???

Friday, September 29, 2006

Sad day for Liberty...

Senate Approves Broad New Rules to Try Detainees

It would make illegal several broadly defined abuses of detainees, while leaving it to the president to establish specific permissible interrogation techniques. And it would strip detainees of a habeas corpus right to challenge their detentions in court.

“I believe there can be no mercy for those who perpetrated the crimes of 9/11,” Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Democrat of New York, said. “But in the process of accomplishing what I believe is essential for our security, we must hold onto our values and set an example that we can point to with pride, not shame.”

Even some Republicans who voted for the bill said they expected the Supreme Court to strike down the legislation because of the provision barring court detainees’ challenges, an outcome that would send the legislation right back to Congress.

“We should have done it right, because we’re going to have to do it again,” said Senator Gordon H. Smith, Republican of Oregon, who voted to strike the provision and yet supported the bill. The measure would broaden the definition of enemy combatants beyond the traditional definition used in wartime, to include noncitizens living legally in the United States as well as those in foreign countries and anyone determined to be an enemy combatant under criteria defined by the president or secretary of defense.

It would strip at Guantánamo detainees of the habeas right to challenge their detention in court, relying instead on procedures known as combatant status review trials. Those trials have looser rules of evidence than the courts.

It would allow of evidence seized in this country or abroad without a search warrant to be admitted in trials.

The bill would also bar the admission of evidence obtained by cruel and inhuman treatment, except any obtained before Dec. 30, 2005, when Congress enacted the Detainee Treatment Act, that a judge declares reliable and probative.

Democrats said the date was conveniently set after the worst abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo.

On a completely unrelated note, the Bill of Rights to the United States Consitution will be 215 years old on December 15 of this year.

Houston Skyline Photo...



Trends in Global Terrorism...

A stark assessment of terrorism trends by American intelligence agencies has found that the American invasion and occupation of Iraq has helped spawn a new generation of Islamic radicalism and that the overall terrorist threat has grown since the Sept. 11 attacks.

The National Intelligence Estimate represents the consensus view of 16 different United States intelligence organizations on a particular intelligence issue/are, and it is generally compiled only every 5 years or so.

The Washington Post has linked to the Declassified Key Judgments of the National Intelligence Estimate Trends in Global Terrorism: Implications for the United States dated April 2006, which is a somewhat startling document. Some excerpts:

The Iraq conflict has become the cause celebre for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of US involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement. ...

We assess that the underlying factors fueling the spread of the movement outweigh its vulnerabilities and are likely to do so for the duration of the timeframe of this Estimate.

• Four underlying factors are fueling the spread of the jihadist movement:

(1) Entrenched grievances, such as corruption, injustice, and fear of Western domination, leading to anger, humiliation, and a sense of powerlessness;

(2) the Iraq jihad;

(3) the slow pace of real and sustained economic, social, and political reforms in many Muslim majority nations; and

(4) pervasive anti-US sentiment among most Muslims all of which jihadists exploit.

The Washington Post also noted that:

The overall estimate is bleak, with minor notes of optimism. It depicts a movement that is likely to grow more quickly than the West's ability to counter it over the next five years, as the Iraq war continues to breed "deep resentment" throughout the Muslim world, shaping a new generation of terrorist leaders and cultivating new supporters for their ideology.

In describing Iraq as "the 'cause celebre' for jihadists," the document judges that real and perceived insurgent successes there will "inspire more fighters to continue the struggle elsewhere," while losses would have the opposite effect.

"[T]he underlying factors fueling the spread of the movement outweigh its vulnerabilities and are likely to do so for the duration of the timeframe of this estimate," the report notes. An intelligence official who was not authorized to speak on the record said the time frame is until early 2011.

The intelligence community has had its own problems with the attention the document is now receiving. Several active and retired intelligence officials stressed that the judgments were nothing new and followed a series of similar assessments made since early 2003 about the impact of the Iraq war on global terrorism.

"This is very much mainstream stuff," said Paul R. Pillar, the CIA's national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia from 2000 to 2005. "There are no surprises."

Several active and retired intelligence officials, who were not authorized to speak on behalf of the intelligence community, expressed resentment at the administration's decision to have Negroponte issue the first official reaction to the weekend reports. They said he should not have become involved in what quickly became a political battle.

Complete consensus from the US intelligence communities. Yet even just this week, President Bush said once again that the invasion and occupation of Iraq was the right thing and the critical front in the war on terror. It appears that only in the 'bush-reality' of this Bush Administration is the truth about Iraq not crystal clear.

It is also clear that the devastating that the horrendous miscalculations of the Bush Administration are making the world, and the United States much more dangerous.

Thursday, September 14, 2006


Powell opposes Bush

Selected quotes:

"The world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism," said Powell, who served under Bush and is a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "To redefine Common Article 3 would add to those doubts. Furthermore, it would put our own troops at risk."

At nearly the same time Bush met with House Republicans, Sen. John Warner, R-Va., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, on Thursday was asking his panel to finish an alternative to the White House plan to prosecute terror suspects and redefine acts that constitute war crimes.

The White House today said the alternate approach was unacceptable because it would force the CIA to end a program of using forceful interrogation methods with suspected terrorists.

It's time someone stood up to the hubris of the Bush administration.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Reality - According to Bush...

"Thomas Jefferson once said: 'Of course the people don't want war. But the people can be brought to the bidding of their leader. All you have to do is tell them they're being attacked and denounce the pacifists for somehow a lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.' I think that was Jefferson. Oh wait. That was Hermann Goering. Shoot." --Jon Stewart, hosting the Peabody Awards

Last Friday, the Senate Intelligence Committee released an exhaustive report confirming that there were no pre-invasion ties between Iraq and Al Quaeda:

The report also poured cold water on concerns expressed in intelligence estimates of cooperation between Hussein and Al Qaeda.

"Postwar findings indicate that Saddam Hussein was distrustful of Al Qaeda and viewed Islamic extremists as a threat to his regime, refusing all requests from Al Qaeda to provide material or operational support," the committee said.

In a separate report, the committee blamed the Iraqi National Congress for much of the faulty intelligence. Chalabi, the group's head, was thought to aspire to lead Iraq if Hussein could be overthrown.

"The Iraqi National Congress attempted to influence United States policy on Iraq by providing false information through defectors directed at convincing the United States that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and had links to terrorists," the committee concluded.

Yet, just this week, the Bush administration, through Vice-president Cheney and Secretary of State Condolezza Rice, continued to argue that there were close ties between Iraq, Sadaam Hussein, and Al Quaeda. Even the President, in addressing the nation on the 5th Anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11th, brought up the occupation of Iraq in a thinly veiled attempt to link the terrorist attacks of that day to the invasion and occupation of Iraq. This just demonstrates that this is a President, and an administration, that lives in its own reality - one it creates, in reckless disregard of actual facts.

A recent op-ed makes that fact startlingly clear:

Iraq had nothing to do with the war on terror until the Bush administration decided to invade it. The president now admits that Saddam Hussein was not responsible for 9/11 (although he claimed last night that the invasion was necessary because Iraq posed a “risk”). But he has failed to offer the country a new, realistic reason for being there.

But the nation needs to hear a workable plan to stabilize a fractured, disintegrating country and end the violence. If such a strategy exists, it seems unlikely that Mr. Bush could see it through the filter of his fantasies.

It’s hard to figure out how to build consensus when the men in charge embrace a series of myths. Vice President Dick Cheney suggested last weekend that the White House is even more delusional than Mr. Bush’s rhetoric suggests. The vice president volunteered to NBC’s Tim Russert that not only was the Iraq invasion the right thing to do, “if we had it to do over again, we’d do exactly the same thing.”

It is a breathtaking thought. If we could return to Sept. 12, 2001, knowing all we have seen since, Mr. Cheney and the president would march right out and “do exactly the same thing” all over again. It will be hard to hear the phrase “lessons of Sept. 11” again without contemplating that statement.

This 'bush-reality' is one this nation simply cannot afford.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Reversing course...

As the President gears up for a big campaign event on the 5th anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks designed to turn the tide of the 2006 mid-terms, his comments yesterday demonstrate a dramatic shift in White House tactics related to the illegal domestic spying this administration has been engaged in.

As noted here on First Read, as a part of his latest media blitz to try to change the public perception on the occupation of Iraq, Bush for the first time asked that Congress make changes to the law to authorize the NSA warrantless domestic wiretapping and update the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). As First Read reports:

This represents a shift in the White House position, as Bush has not uttered this appeal before. . . . The shift? From the time the program was disclosed last December, up until now, the President had insisted that no new laws were needed -- this is the first time he's called for one.
Who would have guessed - Bush actually changed his mind about something! I'd almost give him credit for this - except of course, the subject happens to be changing from the position that the President is allowed to freely spy on US citizens without warrant, to asking for Congressional authorization to freely spy on US citizens without warrant. Not exactly a remarkable improvement.

In reality, this demonstrates just how much weaker this President, and this White House, is now than they were two years ago. This is a tacit admission that what this administration has been doing has been illegal. Now they are scrambling to cover that illegality. Two years ago, this White House would not have given an inch on this issue - and would have expanded the program in the face of criticism. They are simply not able to get away with what they could before. That's encouraging.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Environmental law and timing...

This MSNBC article profiles an environmental case that the Supreme Court has accepted for the October 2006 term.

The case involves regulation of greenhouse gases by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The Plaintiffs - including a number of environmental groups, 18 states, and two of the biggest power generators in the United States (Entergy and Calpine) - argue that the EPA should be regulating greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide. (Entergy and Calpine are arguing FOR regulation for both environmental (secondary) and market certainty (primary) reasons. They're in the process of building the next generation of power plants, and are seeking to have certainty in the regulatory environment.) The Bush administration EPA disagrees, and argues that lawmakers did not intend the Clean Air Act to include regulation of greenhouse gasses.

The Plaintiffs claim that the case is simply about the plain language of the Clean Air Act, which according to this interview states that:
Congress said two things: "An air pollutant is anything. Quite literally any chemical, physical or biological substance that's emitted into the air is an air pollutant."

Congress said, "Thou shalt regulate any pollution if it is anticipated to endanger health or welfare—if it has an adverse effect, including adverse effects on climate and weather."

I do not have the expertise to know if the plain language of the Clean Air Act is this clear, or this broad. My question about this case is relatively simple - is the future of the EPA's regulation of greenhouse gases contingent upon the timing of this lawsuit? What I mean by that is it appears to me that the current configuration of the Supreme Court is not going to be very friendly to the Plaintiffs here. The Court (driven by Justice Scalia) has tended to limit the EPA's regulation of areas (specifically waterways) that the EPA WANTED to regulate - why would they be open to forcing to the EPA to regulate in an area it (at least this current political configuration of the EPA) doesn't want to? I can't see this claim being successful with this Supreme Court, no matter how plain the language may appear.

But, this interview addresses that possibility at the end:
What if you lose?
Then it just increases pressure on Congress, I think. Then we've done our job and we've tried to do whatever we can through the courts. Presumably we pay our representatives and senators to address the tough questions. They don't get any tougher than this.