Cost of the War in Iraq
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Saturday, May 29, 2004

Terror threat source called into question 

Note the last paragraph about the press release. Actions speak louder than words -- the press release isn't really reassuring.

MSNBC - Terror threat source called into question

Media Matters.Org: Debunking the Myths of the Talking Heads 

Check out the site mediamatters.org for information about the misleading and often completely untrue information spread by the likes of Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh. Apparently, O'Reilly did a show the other night on George Soros with a guy who has spread all kinds of crazy rumors about Hillary Clinton. Read more by visiting the site.


Friday, May 28, 2004

Exercising Executive Power Arbitrarily 

By now I'm sure everyone has heard about the federal government's indictment against an apparently well-known affiliate of the Al Qaeda terrorist network, Abu Hamza al-Masri. The US is seeking to extradite him from England (click here for related article). Because al-Masri's indictment was served through the federal criminal justice system, it is likely he will be treated as all criminal defendants are treated in the system, unless Bush authorizes the military to seize him and whisk him away to a military base as he did with Jose Padilla. My guess is that such a scenario is unlikely. Other members or affiliates of the enemy -- al Qaeda and its cohorts -- have been afforded the rights guaranteed to all criminal defendants by the United States Constitution. The so-called "American Taliban," John Walker, is an example. There are others, including the perpetrators of the first World Trade Center attack by Al Qaeda affiliates.

Among the constitutional rights al-Masri will have as a criminal defendant in the federal justice system are the following: (1) the right not to incriminate himself; (2) he has the right to hire a lawyer, and he'll be given one at government expense if he cannot afford to pay for one; (3) he has the right to have his lawyer present for all questioning by government agents; (4) he has the right to a speedy trial -- by a jury; (5) he has the right to examine all exculpatory evidence in the government's possession; (6) he has the right to confront the witnesses who testify against him at trial. These rights are fundamentally important to ensure a fair justice system.

So why is the Bush administration giving al-Masri so many protections while denying those same protections to Jose Padilla? Well, I think the answer is that the only way to get al-Masri out of Britain was by going through the proper legal process. As much as the British support Bush in the war on terror, there has been much criticism of the decision to hold prisoners indefinitely and incommunicado at Guantanamo Bay. The British government worked hard to obtain the release of two British citizens who the US held at Guantanamo, claiming they were dangerous al Qaeda affiliates. Upon their return to England, the British government refused to detain them for lack of evidence that they had done anything wrong. I'm guessing that any covert action by the US to seize or assassinate al-Masri was rejected by Blair or British intelligence (or whoever is responsible over there). In Padilla's case, Bush had no government to appease before seizing him as Padilla was in this country and Bush authorized his detention. I think the Brits are trying to make sure that they do not participate in unlawful seizures of their fellow residents.

Some might think that my cynicism about Bush colors my analysis of the possible reasons for treating Padilla and al-Masri differently. I'm sure there's some of that. But after reading the memoranda by the Justice Department, the White House Counsel, and Colin Powell about whether to apply the Geneva Conventions (GC) to the Afghanistan/Taliban conflict, I think you would agree there is a documentary basis for my conclusion.

Alberto Gonzales recommended to Bush that it was good policy to suspend the GC in this conflict because it assures that Bush would have maximum flexibility in prosecuting the war. I don't think many would dispute that some flexibility is necessary for the President to act swiftly in times of emergency. But the President must exercise his authority within the confines of the law. What the Padilla and al-Masri examples demonstrate is that the White House wanted the freedom to act arbitrarily. By giving al-Masri the protections of the US Constitution because he had to, and denying them to Padilla because he could, Bush is acting arbitrarily and capriciously.

This country generally does not long tolerate arbitrary and capricious government action. I can only hope that the coming months will show that the nation has reached its threshold level, and Bush is on his way out of government service forever.

Sunday, May 23, 2004

Civil Unions: Ramblings and Reflections 

Congratulations to all the gay and lesbian couples who were able to marry this past week in Massachusetts. Although lately my attention has been directed at the goings on in the middle east, the marriages that took place last week in MA did not go unnoticed. I was very happy to hear that other couples who have long been denied the benefits and responsibilities of marriage received state sanction last week.

The joy in those unions brought back memories of a time in Vermont that was both joyful and dark. In December 1999, the Vermont Supreme Court held the state marriage statute unconstitutional under the Vermont Constitution's Common Benefits Clause. See State v. Baker, 170 Vt. 194, 744 A.2d 864 (1999). Unlike the Massachusetts Supreme Court, the Vermont Court deferred to the legislature on how best to implement the constitutional demand for equal treatment. During the legislative session that followed, Montpelier became a different place than it had been before.

The State House is in Montpelier, a city of roughly 8,500 people. It has always been a rather friendly place. During the legislative session (January to April or May), the hallways are busy with legislators, staff, lobbyists, and representatives of the executive branch agencies. Because the state is so small, people who work in State House regularly generally know one another. There is visible security in the form of a couple capital police, but there are no metal detectors, special keys, secret rooms, etc. It's the people's house and the individuals who do the people's work there treat it that way. Vermonters like their government open and accessible.

The Baker decision was heralded by many as a victory for equality. But for others, it represented the worst kind of judicial decision making. Among those was Randall Terry, founder of Operation Rescue. So, he moved to Vermont for a brief time to agitate against gay marriage and civil unions. He set up an office on State Street, just a block or so away from the State House, Executive Office, and the Supreme Court. His first floor office windows displayed a large banner calling for the impeachment of the Supreme Court justices. He was at the State House regularly, and by some reports, lashed out angrily at certain members of the General Assembly.

Because of threatening behavior like Terry's, some committee rooms in the State House had full time police presence for the first time. Some people were genuinely frightened by the behavior of those opposing the Baker decision and the legislature's decision to respond to it promptly. But the threats notwithstanding, members of the legislature and other interested parties prodded along, trying to find a solution.

In the meantime, all kinds of nasty things were being spread around town and around the state about the ramifications of gay marriage. It was sickening. Some were claiming that the state would become overloaded with AIDS patients! There was talk of pedophilia and the possibility that gay people would convert children, and nonsense like that. Signs were put up on lawns "Remember in November" and "Take Back Vermont," signifying the owner's anti-gay stance. In Orange County, slurs against gay and lesbians were spray painted along a town highway. If you were homosexual, it was an extremely scary time.

The General Assembly took hours of testimony from witnesses all over the state. Many legislators originally opposed to the idea of gay marriage or civil unions changed their minds after listening to the stories of Vermonters of all walks of life. People shared their personal stories of love and commitment, and discrimination. The stories were moving. Some legislators knew that their vote in favor of civil unions would cost them the next election, which turned out to be true. Nevertheless, they stuck with their conviction after learning how the sexuality of a couple has little to do with their ability to love and commit.

It's been nearly five years since the Supreme Court decided Baker. In that time, none of the wacky predictions of gloom and doom have come true. Randall Terry moved on, and life in Montpelier has returned to normal. We do have increased security in our state office buildings, but that is a result of 9/11. Still, we can enter the State House now like we used to and say hello to the friends we meet in its hallways again without worrying about who is around the next corner.

Saturday, May 22, 2004

Consensus on the existence of WMD? 

Today I received an email with the following statement: "You forget that virtually everyone in government believed in WMDs including John Kerry. Saddam had in fact used them more than once."

Unfortunately, the second statement is true, and well known. I'm not sure about the first statement, leaving Kerry's position aside (I'm not interested in Kerry that much. I"ll hold my nose and vote for him in November though.) "Virtually everyone in government" believed Hussein had WMDs? Maybe its true, but the belief was not necessarily reasonable.

Let's look at whether there was consensus on the existence of WMD in Iraq before the US invasion among professionals with knowledge of the issues. Keep in mind that the credibility of evidence depends upon many factors, one of them being the source of the evidence.

In this case, it was clear that the evidence supporting the Bush administration's position was gathered, massaged, and then stovepiped up to the White House outside the regular bureaucratic channels. It was not reliable as many intelligence professionals insisted before the US invasion.

Before the invasion we heard some current administration officials say that Iraq was contained, or that no evidence of WMD existed. There were some inside government who alleged that the administration's claims were unfounded. An excellent documentary has been done about the administration's pre-war claims. The film, entitled "Truth Uncovered", contains interviews with many former diplomats, intelligence professionals, and scientists; and it makes a convincing case that the evidence the administration claimed justified the invasion was flawed to the point of being misleading. (If you want to read the transcript of the film, click here.)

I think it is important to bear in mind what the basis for the WMD claims actually were. The concern was that Saddam had an enormous cache of illegal chemical and biological weapons whose destruction he had not adequately documented. So it was not a case of knowing the weapons existed, but, rather, it was a case of knowing that they had existed at one time and allegedly having little hard proof that he had destroyed them in accordance with UN resolutions. That is not a distinction without a difference, particularly when the weapons may have been years old and no longer effective. Notably, none of the stockpiles the administration claimed existed have been found -- just as many professionals knowledgeable about WMD and Iraq suspected would happen.

All in all, to say that there was consensus about the existence of WMD in Iraq stretches the truth significantly. There were many voices inside government who took issue with the way the Bush administration handled the information about Saddam's WMD programs. Those who believed the administration were most likely fed the bogus information Bush provided to the American people in his State of the Union address and other speeches. So any consensus that did exist was based on misinformation.

Dueling Memoranda 

It is remarkable that we have access to several legal memoranda drafted to assist the President in determining whether to adhere to the Geneva Conventions in the conflict in Afghanistan. Someone on the inside was no doubt concerned about the content and decided to release them. Perhaps Colin Powell is trying to salvage his reputation before he leaves office after the next election.

However the memos came into Newsweek Magazine's possession, I was excited to have the opportunity to review them. "Them" consists of the following: Alberto Gonzales's 1/25/02 memo to the President; Colin Powell's comments on the 1/25/02 memo; and DOJ's (Deputy AG Yoo) 1/9/02 memo to DOD General Counsel Haynes.

Here are some preliminary thoughts after reading the first two memos listed above. I'll go into more detail later after reading the DOJ memo. (What a geek!)

First, all of the memoranda posted on Newsweek's site are marked "Draft." Therefore, we do not have the final versions of the documents, which may have changed. For example, Colin Powell's memorandum is dated 1/26/02 and comments on the Gonzales memo, which is dated 1/25/02. Powell makes several suggestions to correct factual errors in the 1/25 version of the Gonzales memo. We do not know if the corrections were accepted or not, or whether the draft we see is exactly what the President saw. So, keep that in mind when reading my comments, and when reading press accounts about the memoranda.

The most astounding part of the Gonzales memo is the reference to potential war crimes prosecutions of administration officials if the Geneva Conventions were deemed to apply. That suggests that despite the rhetoric of treating prisoners humanely, the administration was contemplating harsher methods of imprisonment and interrogation to preempt another attack.

Speaking of humane treatment, the Gonzales memo contains an internal inconsistency. Gonzales argues that the Convention does not adequately define "inhuman treatment" and "outrages on personal dignity," and thus "it is difficult to predict with confidence what actions might be deemed to constitute violations of the relevant provisions" of the Convention. But throughout the memo Gonzales reassures the President that whatever he does, his "policy of humane treatment" of detainees is an adequate substitute for the Conventions.

That contradiction jumped out at me when I read it. If one cannot predict with confidence what is "inhuman treatment," how can one know what is "humane"? In turn, how can one be sure that one's policy of "humane" treatment is adequate if one is confused about what conduct might be considered "outrages on personal dignity" or "inhuman treatment"?

The inherent confusion in this argument reflects the apparent confusion on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan about the treatment of prisoners in the care and custody of the US government. More later.

Saturday's Update 

The folks at Blogger have improved the functionality of the site! You can now post comments by clicking the comments link at the bottom of the post. Cool, huh?!

Thursday, May 13, 2004

Prisoner Abuse: Patterns from the Past 

For those unfamiliar with the School of Americas or the training we provided to military dictatorships in Latin America, here's some information from the National Security Archives. The link below takes you to recently released documents demonstrating that the abuse at Abu Ghraib has some precedent in official US policy.

Prisoner Abuse: Patterns from the Past

Thursday, May 06, 2004

Rush Limbaugh on Abuse at Abu Ghraib: "You ever heard of need to blow off steam?" 

This is just too much.

Media Matters for America

Wednesday, May 05, 2004

I've Got A Personal Reason To Be Mad 

The more I read about the abuse and Abu Ghraib and think about the other allegations of torture/abuse/mistreatment of prisoners by representatives of the US, the more ticked I get. I know that not all people working in Iraq for the US military are bad. I have one colleague there now for whom I have enormous respect. We have completely different politics, but he's a great guy and a caring and devoted father. The justified anger by Iraqis and others at the horrors of the abuse perpetrated on prisoners can only make things more dangerous for him. His main job is to escort convoys between bases.

I recently found out that another individual I know from working in the capital city here is on his way to Iraq. He served in the previous Gulf War as well. He told me that he heard things weren't as bad there as they seemed to us here. That was before the story about Abu Ghraib broke. I haven't seen him since then, but I'm not sure I'm going to ask what the latest news is from his buddies in Iraq.

The war itself is bad enough. Knowing two people serving over there just makes it worse.

Heads -- note the plural -- better roll on this one.

AlterNet: Hired Guns with War Crimes Past 

I knew there was something about using private contractors for national security matters that bugged me. Here's one reason to be upset:

AlterNet: Hired Guns with War Crimes Past

MacArthur: "Drop the Perverse Wilsonianism and Get Out Now" 

After reading a passionate email from a dear family friend, I was reminded of a piece I read earlier by John MacArthur, publisher of Harper's. Here it is:

Drop the Perverse Wilsonianism and Get Out Now

Tuesday, May 04, 2004

The Abuse at Abu Ghraib Prison Part II: Evidence of the Bush Administration's Preemption Policy 

The doctrine of preemption is the main principle underlying Bush's terror war policy -- get the bad guy before he gets us. We see it most obviously in the war in Iraq where the President announced his policy explicitly. But Bush's preemption policy pervades more than just his foreign policy. It has trickled down to the frontline execution of the war on terror. Tracking of potentially risky airline passengers, sneak and peak warrants, library and bookstore subpoenas, and infiltrating protest groups are all tools aimed at preempting future criminal acts, which all acts of terrorism are whether or not we are at war.

The President's assertion of nearly unchecked authority to execute the war leaves the impression that power is paramount and that obtaining submission is the best indicator of success. To that end, the potential is quite high that individuals will lose their moral bearings when fulfilling their duties to obtain information to prevent another 9-11 from happening. (In other cases, the abusers lacked any moral bearings in my judgment.)

The Bush administration has an overwhelming desire for information to prevent another tragedy on US soil. In its zeal, it appears that traditional boundaries of fair play and humane treatment have been put aside. We now hear credible reports, including an internal report by a member of the US military, that forms of torture and humiliation are being used to "soften up" prisoners for interrogation. Again, preemption is the underlying principle -- do what it takes to get information to prevent future attacks.

Just as telling, but underreported, is what the Bush administration's deputy solicitor general argued before the US Supreme Court in the Padilla case last week. There, Deputy Solicitor Clement eloquently argued that it was permissible for the President, due to his inherent authorities as commander in chief of the armed forces, to detain a US citizen he deems an enemy combatant for the sole purpose of enabling the US military to interrogate him/her for intelligence related to potential terrorist attacks, even if the citizen could be prosecuted for criminal acts in the run of the mill federal criminal justice system. Essentially, the argument means this: the President has sole discretion to deem you an enemy combatant and have the military pick you up for indefinite interrogation. No court has authority to say otherwise.

Why is that notion so astounding given my previous explanations about the ramifications of the Padilla case? Well, for the first time the government admitted that the primary reason for its indefinite detention policy was to facilitate information gathering. There was no talk of war crimes, prosecuting Padilla for doing something illegal, or any allegation that he was involved in an otherwise imminent plan to attack. The government wants information as a means to prevent another attack and it intends to get it no matter what the cost to the rule of law or human rights.

Maher Arar learned first hand about the preemption policy. The desire for information as a preventative measure has led administration officials to deport certain individuals to countries known for torturing prisoners. That is exactly what happened to Arar. He is a dual citizen of Canada and Syria. He was picked up for interrogation in the United States while passing through on his way home from a family vacation. He was carrying a Canadian passport. He was detained in the US for some time, where he was mistreated, then deported to Syria, a country he fled. He protested and begged not to be sent to Syria because he knew he would be tortured if they returned him to the custody of Syrian officials. The US sent him there anyway, despite the fact that Canada was his residence, he was carrying a Canadian passport, and was only in the US because he had to change flights on his way back from vacation. As he expected, he was tortured in Syria.

Arar's story says: the information is so important to the US that it will utilize the torture facilities of other nations if it can't do the dirty work itself. His was not the only deportation of this nature.

(The doctrine of preemption to prevent future attacks can also be seen in the virtual slaughter of thousands of Taliban prisoners in the custody of US and Northern Alliance forces in Afghanistan. In other words, the allegations about abuse at Abu Ghraib is by no means the first time such allegations have been made against US forces since Bush took office.)

In addition to discussing the horrors of the abuse depicted in photographs from Abu Ghraib, we should be debating whether we agree with the administration's position. Does our society tolerate, or want to tolerate, virtually unfettered executive discretion to detain an individual for as long as it takes to get information the executive believes the individual possesses? Is it possible that such a policy allows an inference by those responsible for the interrogations that more force than usual is acceptable to further the goal of preemption? These questions seem to be asked only by the lawyers involved in the cases before the Supreme Court. There has been little public debate or media analysis on this issue.

That is too bad, particularly for those who have been mistreated, falsely accused, abused, and in some cases murdered by US forces indoctrinated in the policy of preemption.

The Problem of Wishful Thinking in the Oval Office 

I never thought I would agree with the thoughts expressed by George Will in one of his op-ed columns in the Washington Post. I guess anything is possible in life as his latest piece shows. Bush supporters really ought to read this and give it some good thought. Here's a snippet to pique your interest:

"This administration cannot be trusted to govern if it cannot be counted on to think and, having thought, to have second thoughts. Thinking is not the reiteration of bromides about how "all people yearn to live in freedom" (McClellan). And about how it is "cultural condescension" to doubt that some cultures have the requisite aptitudes for democracy (Bush). And about how it is a "myth" that "our attachment to freedom is a product of our culture" because "ours are not Western values; they are the universal values of the human spirit" (Tony Blair)."

Viewing the entire op-ed may require you to register with the Post, but it's free and worth the time to have online access to the paper regularly.

One last word about the piece. Will opens it with the President's remarks in the Rose Garden the other day implying that those who do not believe democracy is achievable in Iraq are racist. I was stunned and appalled at the President's comment when I first heard it because I don't know of anyone who is arguing that people with dark skin can't participate in a democracy. Is the President just stupid that he can't think of a better response than invoking the so-called race card? Or is he just that cynical or gullible to believe the advice from Rove and others in the White House that this kind of talk is necessary and appropriate? Either way, the President's remarks were inflammatory and unhelpful in terms of adding substance to the public debate. Some leader he is, eh?

Monday, May 03, 2004

The Abuse at Abu Ghraib Prison, Part I 

The photos depicting US military personnel humiliating and abusing Iraqi prisoners held at Abu Ghraib prison raise a number of issues, not the least of which is utter horror and anger at the US personnel who did this, condoned it, or looked the other way. I've got a few issues this incident has raised for me that I need to get off of my chest.

First, the few photos I saw were disgusting and horrifying. The fact that modesty is so important in the Arab culture makes the abuse even more wicked. No one, guilty or innocent, should ever be treated that way. It is restraint in the face of evil that separates one from that evil.

Second, I was further disgusted that at least two women are a major part of this story. I've always believed that women should have the same opportunities as men, the military included. I hoping for equal opportunities, I failed to remember that women are as susceptible as men to having bad character like abusing others and passing the buck. In this case, the abuse was perpetrated in part by a female soldier. In one photo, she gives a thumbs up near the penis of a naked prisoner with a bag over his head. My disappointment (or rage) at the idea of a woman acting that way was aggravated further when I heard the general responsible for the prison try to pass the buck and claim she didn't know what was going on at the prison. It was her responsibility to know -- that was her job. Assuming she is telling the truth about not knowing (which I doubt, frankly), the fact that she didn't know shows that she failed to fulfill the duties of her job. General Karpinski (or whatever her name is, I don't respect her enough to fact-check it), should be ashamed of her excuses. The right thing to do, which the general has not done, is express horror and extreme regret that something like that could happen under her watch. She should acknowledge her ultimate responsibility, state that she will cooperate in any investigation to be sure it doesn't happen again, and she should thereafter resign.

Third, the news was disturbing because it confirmed the widespread allegations that United States military personnel are engaged in human rights abuses, including torture and mistreatment of prisoners. This latest revelation is yet another portion of a very ugly and disturbing thread running throughout the Bush administration's execution of the war on terror. (More on that in my next post -- currently in draft form.)

Fourth, and as important is the question of independent contractors allegedly involved in intelligence gathering and interrogation. The first time I heard that contractors may have been involved I could not believe it. Why are independent contractors being used to perform what are exclusively government or military functions? There is no private analog to intelligence gathering for military or criminal action like there is for food service, waste collection, or other basic general services the military needs to function. I am deeply troubled by the idea of a private for profit company working with the military or other government agencies to gather intelligence necessary for national security. The administration ought to explain why private contractors are being used in this manner.

Finally, I was appalled at a comparison I heard this morning on Rush Limbaugh when I tuned in too late for Dr. Joy Browne. At the beginning of his show, he analogized the allegedly isolated incidents depicted in the Abu Ghraib pictures with the lying journalists exposed recently by the New York Times and USA Today. Attempting to minimize the damage to the reputation of the US military, Rush said that like the lying journalists, a few bad apples shouldn't spoil the institution's fine reputation. Whatever one may think of the New York Times, USA Today, or lying journalists, the abuse and humiliation depicted in those photographs can in no way be compared to unethical reporters and the newspapers that hire them. The shame I felt as an American citizen viewing what members of my military had done was worsened by the incredible disrespect and dishonor a statement like Rush's reflected towards the naked prisoners, bags over their heads, in humiliating, sexual positions, their captors surrounding them smiling. It was revolting to listen to him, particularly with those disgusting images in my head.

Courts martial of those responsible can't come fast enough in my opinion.

Memories of Abu Ghraib 1991 

This is a must-read, but probably not over breakfast. It is a piece by a British POW from the 1991 Gulf War reacting to the pictures and stories about the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American and British soliders.

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