Monday, May 5, 2008

The Last Roundup

The Last Roundup

For decades the federal government has been developing a highly classified plan that would override the Constitution in the event of a terrorist attack. Is it also compiling a secret enemies list of citizens who could face detention under martial law?

By Christopher Ketcham

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In the spring of 2007, a retired senior official in the U.S. Justice Department sat before Congress and told a story so odd and ominous, it could have sprung from the pages of a pulp political thriller. It was about a principled bureaucrat struggling to protect his country from a highly classified program with sinister implications. Rife with high drama, it included a car chase through the streets of Washington, D.C., and a tense meeting at the White House, where the president's henchmen made the bureaucrat so nervous that he demanded a neutral witness be present.

The bureaucrat was James Comey, John Ashcroft's second-in-command at the Department of Justice during Bush's first term. Comey had been a loyal political foot soldier of the Republican Party for many years. Yet in his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, he described how he had grown increasingly uneasy reviewing the Bush administration's various domestic surveillance and spying programs. Much of his testimony centered on an operation so clandestine he wasn't allowed to name it or even describe what it did. He did say, however, that he and Ashcroft had discussed the program in March 2004, trying to decide whether it was legal under federal statutes. Shortly before the certification deadline, Ashcroft fell ill with pancreatitis, making Comey acting attorney general, and Comey opted not to certify the program. When he communicated his decision to the White House, Bush's men told him, in so many words, to take his concerns and stuff them in an undisclosed location.

Comey refused to knuckle under, and the dispute came to a head on the cold night of March 10, 2004, hours before the program's authorization was to expire. At the time, Ashcroft was in intensive care at George Washington Hospital following emergency surgery. Apparently, at the behest of President Bush himself, the White House tried, in Comey's words, "to take advantage of a very sick man," sending Chief of Staff Andrew Card and then-White House counsel Alberto Gonzales on a mission to Ashcroft's sickroom to persuade the heavily doped attorney general to override his deputy. Apprised of their mission, Comey, accompanied by a full security detail, jumped in his car, raced through the streets of the capital, lights blazing, and "literally ran" up the hospital stairs to beat them there.

Minutes later, Gonzales and Card arrived with an envelope filled with the requisite forms. Ashcroft, even in his stupor, did not fall for their heavy-handed ploy. "I'm not the attorney general," Ashcroft told Bush's men. "There"—he pointed weakly to Comey—"is the attorney general." Gonzales and Card were furious, departing without even acknowledging Comey's presence in the room. The following day, the classified domestic spying program that Comey found so disturbing went forward at the demand of the White House—"without a signature from the Department of Justice attesting as to its legality," he testified.

What was the mysterious program that had so alarmed Comey? Political blogs buzzed for weeks with speculation. Though Comey testified that the program was subsequently readjusted to satisfy his concerns, one can't help wondering whether the unspecified alteration would satisfy constitutional experts, or even average citizens. Faced with push-back from his bosses at the White House, did he simply relent and accept a token concession? Two months after Comey's testimony to Congress, the New York Times reported a tantalizing detail: The program that prompted him "to threaten resignation involved computer searches through massive electronic databases." The larger mystery remained intact, however. "It is not known precisely why searching the databases, or data mining, raised such a furious legal debate," the article conceded.

Another clue came from a rather unexpected source: President Bush himself. Addressing the nation from the Oval Office in 2005 after the first disclosures of the NSA's warrantless electronic surveillance became public, Bush insisted that the spying program in question was reviewed "every 45 days" as part of planning to assess threats to "the continuity of our government."

Few Americans—professional journalists included—know anything about so-called Continuity of Government (COG) programs, so it's no surprise that the president's passing reference received almost no attention. COG resides in a nebulous legal realm, encompassing national emergency plans that would trigger the takeover of the country by extra-constitutional forces—and effectively suspend the republic. In short, it's a road map for martial law.

While Comey, who left the Department of Justice in 2005, has steadfastly refused to comment further on the matter, a number of former government employees and intelligence sources with independent knowledge of domestic surveillance operations claim the program that caused the flap between Comey and the White House was related to a database of Americans who might be considered potential threats in the event of a national emergency. Sources familiar with the program say that the government's data gathering has been overzealous and probably conducted in violation of federal law and the protection from unreasonable search and seizure guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment.

According to a senior government official who served with high-level security clearances in five administrations, "There exists a database of Americans, who, often for the slightest and most trivial reason, are considered unfriendly, and who, in a time of panic, might be incarcerated. The database can identify and locate perceived 'enemies of the state' almost instantaneously." He and other sources tell Radar that the database is sometimes referred to by the code name Main Core. One knowledgeable source claims that 8 million Americans are now listed in Main Core as potentially suspect. In the event of a national emergency, these people could be subject to everything from heightened surveillance and tracking to direct questioning and possibly even detention.

Of course, federal law is somewhat vague as to what might constitute a "national emergency." Executive orders issued over the last three decades define it as a "natural disaster, military attack, [or] technological or other emergency," while Department of Defense documents include eventualities like "riots, acts of violence, insurrections, unlawful obstructions or assemblages, [and] disorder prejudicial to public law and order." According to one news report, even "national opposition to U.S. military invasion abroad" could be a trigger.

Let's imagine a harrowing scenario: coordinated bombings in several American cities culminating in a major blast—say, a suitcase nuke—in New York City. Thousands of civilians are dead. Commerce is paralyzed. A state of emergency is declared by the president. Continuity of Governance plans that were developed during the Cold War and have been aggressively revised since 9/11 go into effect. Surviving government officials are shuttled to protected underground complexes carved into the hills of Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Power shifts to a "parallel government" that consists of scores of secretly preselected officials. (As far back as the 1980s, Donald Rumsfeld, then CEO of a pharmaceutical company, and Dick Cheney, then a congressman from Wyoming, were slated to step into key positions during a declared emergency.) The executive branch is the sole and absolute seat of authority, with Congress and the judiciary relegated to advisory roles at best. The country becomes, within a matter of hours, a police state.

Interestingly, plans drawn up during the Reagan administration suggest this parallel government would be ruling under authority given by law to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, home of the same hapless bunch that recently proved themselves unable to distribute water to desperate hurricane victims. The agency's incompetence in tackling natural disasters is less surprising when one considers that, since its inception in the 1970s, much of its focus has been on planning for the survival of the federal government in the wake of a decapitating nuclear strike.

Under law, during a national emergency, FEMA and its parent organization, the Department of Homeland Security, would be empowered to seize private and public property, all forms of transport, and all food supplies. The agency could dispatch military commanders to run state and local governments, and it could order the arrest of citizens without a warrant, holding them without trial for as long as the acting government deems necessary. From the comfortable perspective of peaceful times, such behavior by the government may seem farfetched. But it was not so very long ago that FDR ordered 120,000 Japanese-Americans—everyone from infants to the elderly—be held in detention camps for the duration of World War II. This is widely regarded as a shameful moment in U.S. history, a lesson learned. But a long trail of federal documents indicates that the possibility of large-scale detention has never quite been abandoned by federal authorities. Around the time of the 1968 race riots, for instance, a paper drawn up at the U.S. Army War College detailed plans for rounding up millions of "militants" and "American negroes" who were to be held at "assembly centers or relocation camps." In the late 1980s, the Austin American-Statesman and other publications reported the existence of 10 detention camp sites on military facilities nationwide, where hundreds of thousands of people could be held in the event of domestic political upheaval. More such facilities were commissioned in 2006, when Kellogg Brown & Root—then a subsidiary of Halliburton—was handed a $385 million contract to establish "temporary detention and processing capabilities" for the Department of Homeland Security. The contract is short on details, stating only that the facilities would be used for "an emergency influx of immigrants, or to support the rapid development of new programs." Just what those "new programs" might be is not specified.

In the days after our hypothetical terror attack, events might play out like this: With the population gripped by fear and anger, authorities undertake unprecedented actions in the name of public safety. Officials at the Department of Homeland Security begin actively scrutinizing people who—for a tremendously broad set of reasons—have been flagged in Main Core as potential domestic threats. Some of these individuals might receive a letter or a phone call, others a request to register with local authorities. Still others might hear a knock on the door and find police or armed soldiers outside. In some instances, the authorities might just ask a few questions. Other suspects might be arrested and escorted to federal holding facilities, where they could be detained without counsel until the state of emergency is no longer in effect.

It is, of course, appropriate for any government to plan for the worst. But when COG plans are shrouded in extreme secrecy, effectively unregulated by Congress or the courts, and married to an overreaching surveillance state—as seems to be the case with Main Core—even sober observers must weigh whether the protections put in place by the federal government are becoming more dangerous to America than any outside threat.

Another well-informed source—a former military operative regularly briefed by members of the intelligence community—says this particular program has roots going back at least to the 1980s and was set up with help from the Defense Intelligence Agency. He has been told that the program utilizes software that makes predictive judgments of targets' behavior and tracks their circle of associations with "social network analysis" and artificial intelligence modeling tools.

"The more data you have on a particular target, the better [the software] can predict what the target will do, where the target will go, who it will turn to for help," he says. "Main Core is the table of contents for all the illegal information that the U.S. government has [compiled] on specific targets." An intelligence expert who has been briefed by high-level contacts in the Department of Homeland Security confirms that a database of this sort exists, but adds that "it is less a mega-database than a way to search numerous other agency databases at the same time."

A host of publicly disclosed programs, sources say, now supply data to Main Core. Most notable are the NSA domestic surveillance programs, initiated in the wake of 9/11, typically referred to in press reports as "warrantless wiretapping." In March, a front-page article in the Wall Street Journal shed further light onto the extraordinarily invasive scope of the NSA efforts: According to the Journal, the government can now electronically monitor "huge volumes of records of domestic e-mails and Internet searches, as well as bank transfers, credit card transactions, travel, and telephone records." Authorities employ "sophisticated software programs" to sift through the data, searching for "suspicious patterns." In effect, the program is a mass catalog of the private lives of Americans. And it's notable that the article hints at the possibility of programs like Main Core. "The [NSA] effort also ties into data from an ad-hoc collection of so-called black programs whose existence is undisclosed," the Journal reported, quoting unnamed officials. "Many of the programs in various agencies began years before the 9/11 attacks but have since been given greater reach."

The following information seems to be fair game for collection without a warrant: the e-mail addresses you send to and receive from, and the subject lines of those messages; the phone numbers you dial, the numbers that dial in to your line, and the durations of the calls; the Internet sites you visit and the keywords in your Web searches; the destinations of the airline tickets you buy; the amounts and locations of your ATM withdrawals; and the goods and services you purchase on credit cards. All of this information is archived on government supercomputers and, according to sources, also fed into the Main Core database.

Main Core also allegedly draws on four smaller databases that, in turn, cull from federal, state, and local "intelligence" reports; print and broadcast media; financial records; "commercial databases"; and unidentified "private sector entities." Additional information comes from a database known as the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, which generates watch lists from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence for use by airlines, law enforcement, and border posts. According to the Washington Post, the Terrorist Identities list has quadrupled in size between 2003 and 2007 to include about 435,000 names. The FBI's Terrorist Screening Center border crossing list, which listed 755,000 persons as of fall 2007, grows by 200,000 names a year. A former NSA officer tells Radar that the Treasury Department's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, using an electronic-funds transfer surveillance program, also contributes data to Main Core, as does a Pentagon program that was created in 2002 to monitor anti-war protestors and environmental activists such as Greenpeace.

If previous FEMA and FBI lists are any indication, the Main Core database includes dissidents and activists of various stripes, political and tax protestors, lawyers and professors, publishers and journalists, gun owners, illegal aliens, foreign nationals, and a great many other harmless, average people.

A veteran CIA intelligence analyst who maintains active high-level clearances and serves as an advisor to the Department of Defense in the field of emerging technology tells Radar that during the 2004 hospital room drama, James Comey expressed concern over how this secret database was being used "to accumulate otherwise private data on non-targeted U.S. citizens for use at a future time." Though not specifically familiar with the name Main Core, he adds, "What was being requested of Comey for legal approval was exactly what a Main Core story would be." A source regularly briefed by people inside the intelligence community adds: "Comey had discovered that President Bush had authorized NSA to use a highly classified and compartmentalized Continuity of Government database on Americans in computerized searches of its domestic intercepts. [Comey] had concluded that the use of that 'Main Core' database compromised the legality of the overall NSA domestic surveillance project."

If Main Core does exist, says Philip Giraldi, a former CIA counterterrorism officer and an outspoken critic of the agency, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is its likely home. "If a master list is being compiled, it would have to be in a place where there are no legal issues"—the CIA and FBI would be restricted by oversight and accountability laws—"so I suspect it is at DHS, which as far as I know operates with no such restraints." Giraldi notes that DHS already maintains a central list of suspected terrorists and has been freely adding people who pose no reasonable threat to domestic security. "It's clear that DHS has the mandate for controlling and owning master lists. The process is not transparent, and the criteria for getting on the list are not clear." Giraldi continues, "I am certain that the content of such a master list [as Main Core] would not be carefully vetted, and there would be many names on it for many reasons—quite likely, including the two of us."

Would Main Core in fact be legal? According to constitutional scholar Bruce Fein, who served as associate deputy attorney general under Ronald Reagan, the question of legality is murky: "In the event of a national emergency, the executive branch simply assumes these powers"—the powers to collect domestic intelligence and draw up detention lists, for example—" if Congress doesn't explicitly prohibit it. It's really up to Congress to put these things to rest, and Congress has not done so." Fein adds that it is virtually impossible to contest the legality of these kinds of data collection and spy programs in court "when there are no criminal prosecutions and [there is] no notice to persons on the president's 'enemies list.' That means if Congress remains invertebrate, the law will be whatever the president says it is—even in secret. He will be the judge on his own powers and invariably rule in his own favor."

The veteran CIA intelligence analyst notes that Comey's suggestion that the offending elements of the program were dropped could be misleading: "Bush [may have gone ahead and] signed it as a National Intelligence Finding anyway."

But even if we never face a national emergency, the mere existence of the database is a matter of concern. "The capacity for future use of this information against the American people is so great as to be virtually unfathomable," the senior government official says.

In any case, mass watch lists of domestic citizens may do nothing to make us safer from terrorism. Jeff Jonas, chief scientist at IBM, a world renowned expert in data mining, contends that such efforts won't prevent terrorist conspiracies. "Because there is so little historical terrorist event data," Jonas tells Radar, "there is not enough volume to create precise predictions."

The overzealous compilation of a domestic watch list is not unique in post-war American history. In 1950, the FBI, under the notoriously paranoid J. Edgar Hoover, began to "accumulate the names, identities, and activities" of suspect American citizens in a rapidly expanding "security index," according to declassified documents. In a letter to the Truman White House, Hoover stated that in the event of certain emergency situations, suspect individuals would be held in detention camps overseen by "the National Military Establishment." By 1960, a congressional investigation later revealed, the FBI list of suspicious persons included "professors, teachers, and educators; labor-union organizers and leaders; writers, lecturers, newsmen, and others in the mass-media field; lawyers, doctors, and scientists; other potentially influential persons on a local or national level; [and] individuals who could potentially furnish financial or material aid" to unnamed "subversive elements." This same FBI "security index" was allegedly maintained and updated into the 1980s, when it was reportedly transferred to the control of none other than FEMA (though the FBI denied this at the time).

FEMA, however—then known as the Federal Preparedness Agency—already had its own domestic surveillance system in place, according to a 1975 investigation by Senator John V. Tunney of California. Tunney, the son of heavyweight boxing champion Gene Tunney and the inspiration for Robert Redford's character in the film The Candidate, found that the agency maintained electronic dossiers on at least 100,000 Americans, which contained information gleaned from wideranging computerized surveillance. The database was located in the agency's secret underground city at Mount Weather, near the town of Bluemont, Virginia. The senator's findings were confirmed in a 1976 investigation by the Progressive magazine, which found that the Mount Weather computers "can obtain millions of pieces [of] information on the personal lives of American citizens by tapping the data stored at any of the 96 Federal Relocation Centers"—a reference to other classified facilities. According to the Progressive, Mount Weather's databases were run "without any set of stated rules or regulations. Its surveillance program remains secret even from the leaders of the House and the Senate."

Ten years later, a new round of government martial law plans came to light. A report in the Miami Herald contended that Reagan loyalist and Iran-Contra conspirator Colonel Oliver North had spearheaded the development of a "secret contingency plan,"—code named REX 84—which called "for suspension of the Constitution, turning control of the United States over to FEMA, [and the] appointment of military commanders to run
state and local governments." The North plan also reportedly called for the detention of upwards of 400,000 illegal aliens and an undisclosed number of American citizens in at least 10 military facilities maintained as potential holding camps.

North's program was so sensitive in nature that when Texas Congressman Jack Brooks attempted to question North about it during the 1987 Iran-Contra hearings, he was rebuffed even by his fellow legislators. "I read in Miami papers and several others that there had been a plan by that same agency [FEMA] that would suspend the American Constitution," Brooks said. "I was deeply concerned about that and wondered if that was the area in which he [North] had worked." Senator Daniel Inouye, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Iran, immediately cut off his colleague, saying, "That question touches upon a highly sensitive and classified area, so may I request that you not touch upon that, sir." Though Brooks pushed for an answer, the line of questioning was not allowed to proceed.

Wired magazine turned up additional damaging information, revealing in 1993 that North, operating from a secure White House site, allegedly employed a software database program called PROMIS (ostensibly as part of the REX 84 plan). PROMIS, which has a strange and controversial history, was designed to track individuals—prisoners, for example—by pulling together information from disparate databases into a single record. According to Wired, "Using the computers in his command center, North tracked dissidents and potential troublemakers within the United States. Compared to PROMIS, Richard Nixon's enemies list or Senator Joe McCarthy's blacklist looks downright crude." Sources have suggested to Radar that government databases tracking Americans today, including Main Core, could still have PROMIS based legacy code from the days when North was running his programs.

In the wake of 9/11, domestic surveillance programs of all sorts expanded dramatically. As one well-placed source in the intelligence community puts it, "The gloves seemed to come off." What is not yet clear is what sort of still-undisclosed programs may have been authorized by the Bush White House. Marty Lederman, a high-level official at the Department of Justice under Clinton, writing on a law blog last year, wondered, "How extreme were the programs they implemented [after 9/11]? How egregious was the lawbreaking?" Congress has tried, and mostly failed, to find out.

In July 2007 and again last August, Rep. Peter DeFazio, a Democrat from Oregon and a senior member of the House Homeland Security Committee, sought access to the "classified annexes" of the Bush administration's Continuity of Government program. DeFazio's interest was prompted by Homeland Security Presidential Directive 20 (also known as NSPD-51), issued in May 2007, which reserves for the executive branch the sole authority to decide what constitutes a national emergency and to determine when the emergency is over. DeFazio found this unnerving.

But he and other leaders of the Homeland Security Committee, including Chairman Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat, were denied a review of the Continuity of Government classified annexes. To this day, their calls for disclosure have been ignored by the White House. In a press release issued last August, DeFazio went public with his concerns that the NSPD-51 Continuity of Government plans are "extra-constitutional or unconstitutional." Around the same time, he told the Oregonian, "Maybe the people who think there's a conspiracy out there are right."

Congress itself has recently widened the path for both extra-constitutional detentions by the White House and the domestic use of military force during a national emergency. The Military Commissions Act of 2006 effectively suspended habeas corpus and freed up the executive branch to designate any American citizen an "enemy combatant" forfeiting all privileges accorded under the Bill of Rights. The John Warner National Defense Authorization Act, also passed in 2006, included a last-minute rider titled "Use of the Armed Forces in Major Public Emergencies," which allowed the deployment of U.S. military units not just to put down domestic insurrections—as permitted under posse comitatus and the Insurrection Act of 1807—but also to deal with a wide range of calamities, including "natural disaster, epidemic, or other serious public health emergency, terrorist attack, or incident."

More troubling, in 2002, Congress authorized funding for the U.S. Northern Command, or NORTHCOM, which, according to Washington Post military intelligence
expert William Arkin, "allows for emergency military operations in the United States without civilian supervision or control."

"We are at the edge of a cliff and we're about to fall off," says constitutional lawyer and former Reagan administration official Bruce Fein. "To a national emergency planner, everybody looks like a danger to stability. There's no doubt that Congress would have the authority to denounce all this—for example, to refuse to appropriate money for the preparation of a list of U.S. citizens to be detained in the event of martial law. But Congress is the invertebrate branch. They say, 'We have to be cautious.' The same old crap you associate with cowards. None of this will change under a Democratic administration, unless you have exceptional statesmanship and the courage to stand up and say, 'You know, democracies accept certain risks that tyrannies do not.' "

As of this writing, DeFazio, Thompson, and the other 433 members of the House are debating the so-called Protect America Act, after a similar bill passed in the Senate. Despite its name, the act offers no protection for U.S. citizens; instead, it would immunize from litigation U.S. telecom giants for colluding with the government in the surveillance of Americans to feed the hungry maw of databases like Main Core. The Protect America Act would legalize programs that appear to be unconstitutional.

Meanwhile, the mystery of James Comey's testimony has disappeared in the morass of election year coverage. None of the leading presidential candidates have been asked the questions that are so profoundly pertinent to the future of the country: As president, will you continue aggressive domestic surveillance programs in the vein of the Bush administration? Will you release the COG blueprints that Representatives DeFazio and Thompson were not allowed to read? What does it suggest about the state of the nation that the U.S. is now ranked by worldwide civil liberties groups as an "endemic surveillance society," alongside repressive regimes such as China and Russia? How can a democracy thrive with a massive apparatus of spying technology deployed against every act of political expression, private or public? (Radar put these questions to spokespeople for the McCain, Obama, and Clinton campaigns, but at press time had yet to receive any responses.)

These days, it's rare to hear a voice like that of Senator Frank Church, who in the 1970s led the explosive investigations into U.S. domestic intelligence crimes that prompted the very reforms now being eroded. "The technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny," Church pointed out in 1975. "And there would be no way to fight back, because the most careful effort to combine together in resistance to the government, no matter how privately it was done, is within the reach of the government to know."

Report: U.S. Not as 'Free' as Touted

Report: U.S. Not as 'Free' as Touted

By Betsy Pisik

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The U.S. political system is, at best, "a work in progress" according to an evaluation from the pro-democracy group Freedom House, which finds significant flaws in the U.S. criminal justice system, counterterrorism strategies and the treatment of minorities and immigrants.

In a 300-page report, titled "Today's American: How Free?", to be released tomorrow, the group subjects the United States to the scrutiny it more often applies to the Belaruses and Tajikistans of the world.

Despite concerns, today's America is "quite free," according to group, which constantly places the United States in the top tier with two dozen other nations based on civil liberties and political rights in its annual reports on freedoms around the world.

In the United States, "challenges to those freedoms by government officials or other actors encounter vigorous and often successful resistance from civil society and the press, the political opposition, and a judiciary that is mindful of its role as a restraint on executive and legislative excess," the authors say.

"Indeed, the dynamic, self-correcting nature of American democracy — the resilience of its core institutions and habits even in a time of military conflict — is the most significant finding."

The study, however, expresses "grave concern" about the Bush administration's attempt to extend the White House's power without congressional or judicial review.

"Generally speaking, the controversies over counterterrorism policies can be traced to the Bush administration's assertion of a degree of executive authority that is extraordinary even in wartime," says the report, which finds that broad electronic surveillance affects millions, and law enforcement has "overreached" in terrorism cases.

Deputy Executive Director Thomas Melia said this is the perfect time for Freedom House — founded by Eleanor Roosevelt — to turn its sights on the United States. Not only is it an election year, but also the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

"The U.S. is the most important country in the world, and if we do reports on every country, we think from time to time it might be useful to look at our own country," Mr. Melia told The Washington Times yesterday.

"In recent years the freedom agenda of the Bush administration has made the most conspicuous ... effort to promote democracy across the world, and it's prompted a lot of people around the world to look at us."

In detailed examination, the authors evaluated 20 aspects of U.S. civil society, from America's robust press and religious freedoms to the increasingly corrosive role of money in political spheres.

The United States gets mixed reviews, for example, when looking at the situation of African-Americans and minorities in general.

The report notes that over the decades the government has undertaken steps to expunge racism from the law, public institutions, economic life and popular culture. It has mandated affirmative action and adopted policies to encourage political and educational participation.

"These measures have changed America in fundamental ways. But they have not contributed significantly to an improvement in the state of the inner-city poor," the report concludes.

Freedom House finds that U.S. incarceration rates are "jarring," rising by more than 300 percent since 1980.

Mr. Melia said many of the authors originally focused on the post-Sept. 11 limitations on civil liberties in the country. However, it became clear in the editing process that the prison camp holding terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and monitoring of individuals under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, don't impact as many Americans as the political process, the criminal justice system and religious freedoms.

"We famously know there are flaws in our ability to keep a voter role and count the votes properly," he said. "But there have been historical improvements."

Supreme Court Shows a Shift Toward Narrower Rulings

Supreme Court Shows a Shift Toward Narrower Rulings

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Washington - The Supreme Court's recent rulings upholding Indiana's voter ID law and Kentucky's use of lethal injections reflect a subtle but profoundly important shift in how the justices decide constitutional questions.

In the past, the court was willing to strike down laws before they went into effect out of concern that the rights of some persons might be violated. For example, the justices used this approach to void laws that regulated abortion or restricted pornography on the Internet.

But since Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. joined the court three years ago, that approach has been cast aside. Broad and sweeping attacks on state laws have met with defeat.

Instead, Roberts and his colleagues have been sending a sterner message to legal advocates: Produce evidence that a law has actually violated someone's rights, and name names if you can. Only then might the court rule that a law is unconstitutional for persons in the same situation.

The high court's new-found skepticism toward broad legal challenges was on display Monday when the justices in a 6-3 decision upheld Indiana's law requiring voters to show a photo identification at their polling place.

As with recent rulings rejecting broad challenges to the laws on later-term abortions and lethal injections to carry out the death penalty, the court ruled the plaintiffs simply failed to prove their case. In Indiana, for example, the challengers did not point to a single voter who had been deterred or discouraged from casting a ballot because of the need to obtain a state photo ID.

Roberts assigned Justice John Paul Stevens, often the court's strongest liberal voice, to write the lead opinion upholding the law.

With a tone of frustration, Stevens said the challengers had "advanced a broad attack on the constitutionality" of the measure by the Indiana Legislature but had failed to muster hard evidence of its harmful effect.

A lawsuit might have focused on elderly and disabled persons who do not drive or persons who live in a nursing home. But they are entitled to vote by mail and, therefore, do not need the photo ID.

"On the basis of the record that has been made in this litigation, we cannot conclude that the [Indiana] statute imposes excessively burdensome requirements on any class of voters," Stevens concluded.

Last month, Stevens and Justice Stephen G. Breyer voted with Roberts and the court's conservatives to uphold Kentucky's use of lethal injections.

This stand-back approach undoubtedly reflects the conservative bent of most of the justices. But Stevens agreed Monday that the court should be especially wary of striking down laws that reflect "the intent of the elected representatives of the people."

It also reflects Roberts' inclination to rule narrowly whenever possible, said Georgetown law professor Richard Lazarus.

Shortly after becoming chief justice, Roberts told the graduating class at the Georgetown Law School that he would seek to rule with a broader coalition of justices but would do so by deciding on the "narrowest possible grounds."

Lazarus said the voter ID and lethal injection decisions are "an expression of the chief's stated preference for narrow rulings. What is interesting is that Stevens has been willing now to join that effort, as has [Justice Anthony M.] Kennedy."

In both cases, Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas would have gone further and closed the door to future challenges. In the lethal injection case, Thomas and Scalia said a method of execution is not "cruel and unusual punishment" unless it was designed to inflict pain.

By contrast, Roberts said an execution method is unconstitutional if it posed a "substantial risk of severe pain." He added, however, that there was no evidence that Kentucky's prison officials would fail to inject the condemned man with a proper dose of anesthetic. Kennedy and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. joined with Roberts.

When Stevens and Breyer went along, the state's lethal injection method was upheld on a 7-2 vote.

Election-law experts were quick to say it was mistake to have rushed the voter ID case to the Supreme Court before there was any evidence of its actual effect.

Ohio State law professor Dan Tokaji said the Indiana ruling carries "an important lesson for voting-rights lawyers who lose in the lower court."

"Think long and hard before seeking Supreme Court review," he wrote on an election-law blog. "It's fair to point out that the plaintiffs' lawyers put together a pretty weak case."

After losing before a judge in Indiana and the U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago, they took their case to the Supreme Court and finished 0 for 3.

Pentagon Backs Plan to Build US "Zone Of Influence" of Hotels and Resorts in Baghdad

Pentagon Backs Plan to Build US "Zone Of Influence" of Hotels and Resorts in Baghdad

By Satyam Khanna

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The White House has repeatedly insisted that the United States has "no desire for permanent bases" in Iraq. Nevertheless, the Bush administration is seeking to leave its footprint on Iraq through other means. The AP reports that the Pentagon is backing a $5 billion dollar plan to "transform the U.S.-protected Green Zone" into a "centerpiece for Baghdad's future," resulting in "big paydays for early investors":

For Washington, the driving motivation is to create a "zone of influence" around the new $700 million U.S. Embassy to serve as a kind of high-end buffer for the compound, whose total price tag will reach about $1 billion after all the workers and offices are relocated over the next year. "When you have $1 billion hanging out there and 1,000 employees lying around, you kind of want to know who your neighbors are. You want to influence what happens in your neighborhood over time," said Navy Capt. Thomas Karnowski, who led the team that created the development plan.

An incentive for the project, which would include hotels, resorts, and commercial development in the Green Zone, appears to be lining the pockets of investors and allies rather than re-building Iraq's economy. In fact, Karnowski acknowledged that American officials would vet potential investors because of a "vested interest" - mirroring the cronyism of Saddam's Hussein's regime.

Some Iraqi leaders even have drawn parallels to the U.S.-backed development plan and what Saddam Hussein did in the area - known by its Iraqi name of Tashri during his regime. Hussein stocked the neighborhood with family and tribal allies, political loyalists and members of his elite Republican Guard. Karnowski called the accusation "partially true."

Many U.S. embassy officials have called the plan "unrealistic." One added that Iraqis, a majority of whom oppose the U.S. presence, are unlikely to want the U.S. to "turn this area into downtown Kansas City." "The Iraqi government wants to limit U.S. power in the Green Zone," a top adviser to Prime Minister Maliki said.

But the permanent U.S. footprint in Iraq is already making inroads. In addition to construction of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, the largest in the world, the Los Angeles-based company that developed Disneyland is developing a "massive American-style amusement park" in Baghdad "that will feature a skateboard park, rides, a concert theatre and a museum." That project has the support of Gen. David Petraeus.

"If you talk to people at the State Department, they still believe a hotel isn't going up. But it is a done deal," Karnowski said of the Marriott project. Another "possible $1 billion investment could come from MBI International, a conglomerate that focuses on hotels and resorts and is led by Saudi Sheikh Mohamed Bin Issa Al Jaber."

More Attacks on Social Security and Medicare

The Return of the Granny Bashers: More Attacks on Social Security and Medicare

By Dean Baker

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Last month, a bipartisan group of prominent budget experts had a press event at the Brookings Institution where they argued that Congress had to make major cuts in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. They claimed large cuts in these programs were necessary in order to prevent the explosion in the budget deficit that is projected if these programs stay on their current course.

While these experts are right to point to the long-term fiscal problems facing the country, the real problem is not the budget and these key programs on which tens of millions of people depend. The real problem is the United States has a broken health care system, which is projected to get progressively more inefficient through time.

Since roughly half of the country's health care costs are paid by the government, primarily through Medicare and Medicaid, the projected explosion in health care costs is also projected to lead to an explosion in government spending. If the health care system is never fixed, the burden on the budget will eventually be unsustainable, with annual deficits running into the trillions of dollars, exactly as the Brookings contingent claimed.

However, it is crucial the public recognize that the problem is health care costs, not a growing population of elderly. The two issues are easily confused, especially since most public sector health care costs go to provide health care for the elderly. The projected increase in the ratio of retirees to workers will impose a strain on the budget, but it will not be qualitatively different than the strain that aging has imposed in prior decades.

The country has always been aging - we are living longer - we can easily cover the cost of a growing population of retirees as long as the economy is healthy. With normal productivity and wage growth, our children and grandchildren will be able to support a larger population of retirees and still enjoy a better standard of living than we do; just as most of us now enjoy a better standard of living than our grandparents, even though we support a much larger number of retirees than they did in their working years.

However, if health care costs follow the projected trajectory, then the cost of Medicare, Medicaid, and other government health care programs will be unsustainable. Of course, in this scenario the rising cost of health care will also place an enormous burden on the private sector.

Our per person health care costs are already more than twice as high as the average in other wealthy countries like Germany, England and Canada. In the projected scenario, per person health care costs will be four or five times as high in the United States as in other countries by 2050. In this context, US firms will face an enormous competitive disadvantage if they pay for their workers' health care costs.

If the companies don't pay for insurance, then most workers will face an enormous struggle paying for insurance costs that will be almost as high as the typical wage of a worker today. In either case, workers will have far less money to spend on food, housing, education, and other necessary expenses, if health care costs grow as projected.

No one in the Brookings contingent would dispute the basic facts; we are all looking at the same numbers. If health care costs in the United States were brought in line with costs in other wealthy countries, all of which enjoy longer life expectancies than we do, then we would not be looking at scary budget projections 20 or 30 years down the road.

This suggests the urgency of fixing the US health care system. Health care reform is not only necessary to extend health care coverage to the uninsured, it is also essential for preventing our health care system from strangling the economy. Reform will require overcoming the opposition of extremely powerful lobbies, such as the pharmaceutical and insurance industries, but there really is no alternative.

As the Brookings contingent said, the current path is unsustainable. And it is not acceptable to tell our parents and grandparents they will just have to die because our health care system has made their care unaffordable.

Dean Baker is the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). He is the author of The Conservative Nanny State: How the Wealthy Use the Government to Stay Rich and Get Richer ( He also has a blog, "Beat the Press," where he discusses the media's coverage of economic issues. You can find it at the American Prospect's web site.

Military, DHS document lists who should live and die in pandemic

Who should MDs let die in a pandemic? Report offers answers


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Doctors know some patients needing lifesaving care won't get it in a flu pandemic or other disaster. The gut-wrenching dilemma will be deciding who to let die.

Now, an influential group of physicians has drafted a grimly specific list of recommendations for which patients wouldn't be treated. They include the very elderly, seriously hurt trauma victims, severely burned patients and those with severe dementia.

The suggested list was compiled by a task force whose members come from prestigious universities, medical groups, the military and government agencies. They include the Department of Homeland Security, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Health and Human Services.

The proposed guidelines are designed to be a blueprint for hospitals "so that everybody will be thinking in the same way" when pandemic flu or another widespread health care disaster hits, said Dr. Asha Devereaux. She is a critical care specialist in San Diego and lead writer of the task force report.

The idea is to try to make sure that scarce resources — including ventilators, medicine and doctors and nurses — are used in a uniform, objective way, task force members said.

Their recommendations appear in a report appearing Monday in the May edition of Chest, the medical journal of the American College of Chest Physicians.

"If a mass casualty critical care event were to occur tomorrow, many people with clinical conditions that are survivable under usual health care system conditions may have to forgo life-sustaining interventions owing to deficiencies in supply or staffing," the report states.

To prepare, hospitals should designate a triage team with the Godlike task of deciding who will and who won't get lifesaving care, the task force wrote. Those out of luck are the people at high risk of death and a slim chance of long-term survival. But the recommendations get much more specific, and include:

_People older than 85.

_Those with severe trauma, which could include critical injuries from car crashes and shootings.

_Severely burned patients older than 60.

_Those with severe mental impairment, which could include advanced Alzheimer's disease.

_Those with a severe chronic disease, such as advanced heart failure, lung disease or poorly controlled diabetes.

Dr. Kevin Yeskey, director of the preparedness and emergency operations office at the Department of Health and Human Services, was on the task force. He said the report would be among many the agency reviews as part of preparedness efforts.

Public health law expert Lawrence Gostin of Georgetown University called the report an important initiative but also "a political minefield and a legal minefield."

The recommendations would probably violate federal laws against age discrimination and disability discrimination, said Gostin, who was not on the task force.

If followed to a tee, such rules could exclude care for the poorest, most disadvantaged citizens who suffer disproportionately from chronic disease and disability, he said. While health care rationing will be necessary in a mass disaster, "there are some real ethical concerns here."

James Bentley, a senior vice president at American Hospital Association, said the report will give guidance to hospitals in shaping their own preparedness plans even if they don't follow all the suggestions.

He said the proposals resemble a battlefield approach in which limited health care resources are reserved for those most likely to survive.

Bentley said it's not the first time this type of approach has been recommended for a catastrophic pandemic, but that "this is the most detailed one I have seen from a professional group."

While the notion of rationing health care is unpleasant, the report could help the public understand that it will be necessary, Bentley said.

Devereaux said compiling the list "was emotionally difficult for everyone."

That's partly because members believe it's just a matter of time before such a health care disaster hits, she said.

"You never know," Devereaux said. "SARS took a lot of folks by surprise. We didn't even know it existed."


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Oil Rises to Record $120.21 After Economic Data Signal More Energy Demand

Oil Rises After Report Shows U.S. Services Industries Expanded

By Robert Tuttle

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Crude oil rose above $120 a barrel to a record in New York after a report showed that U.S. service industries expanded in April, signaling higher energy use.

The Institute for Supply Management's index of non- manufacturing businesses, which make up almost 90 percent of the economy, grew for the first time since December, the Tempe, Arizona-based group said today. The report came after an oil pumping station was attacked in Nigeria.

The ISM report ``probably gave us a little bit of a bounce psychologically,'' said Phil Flynn, a commodities trader for Chicago-based Alaron Trading. ``Maybe the demand for oil is going to rebound.''

Crude oil for June delivery rose $3.43, or 3 percent, to $119.75 a barrel at 12:25 p.m. on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Oil surged to an intraday record of $120.21 today.

U.S. demand for petroleum products, such as gasoline and diesel, has fallen 2.7 percent in the past year, Energy Department data show, as slowing economic growth and higher-than-normal energy prices curtail consumption.

The weekend attack in Nigeria, Africa's biggest oil producer, forced Royal Dutch Shell Plc to reduce output, the Associated Press reported May 3, citing the company. The Nigerian Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, or MEND, claimed responsibility for the assault.

`Off the Market'

The attacks ``could take more oil off the market,'' said James Ritterbusch, president of Ritterbusch & Associates, in Galena, Illinois. ``There is not much margin for error as far as losing barrels.''

MEND has targeted Shell-operated pipelines in Nigeria, forcing the company to halt 170,000 barrels a day of exports of Bonny Light crude.

``Every time it appears they're going to calm down in Nigeria, they seem to get worse,'' Flynn said.

Oil is priced in U.S. dollars. The dollar traded at $1.5491 per euro at 12:26 p.m. in New York, from $1.5424 on May 2. The dollar has lost 14 percent against the euro over the past year.

Foreign nations ``aren't feeling the effect as much of these high prices,'' said James Cordier, president of Liberty Trading Group in Tampa.

In U.S. dollars, West Texas Intermediate, the New York- traded crude-oil benchmark, is up 93 percent from a year ago. Oil is up 70 percent in euros and 69 percent in yen.

Brent crude oil for June settlement rose $3.39, or 3 percent, to $117.95 on London's ICE Futures Europe exchange.

Oil prices were expected to fall this week according to 14, or 61 percent, of 23 analysts surveyed May 1 by Bloomberg News.

Hedge-fund managers and other large speculators reduced bets on rising oil prices for the first time in four weeks, the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission said May 2.

Net-long positions in New York oil futures, the difference between contracts to buy and sell the commodity, fell 24 percent to 53,311 contracts in the week ended April 29.

US Federal Reserve and European Central Bank pump an extra $82bn into banking system

US Federal Reserve and European Central Bank pump an extra $82bn into banking system

The US Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank united yesterday to open a new front in their battle to quell the persistent money market strains that are fuelling the global credit crunch.

The Fed and the ECB lined up with the Swiss National Bank (SNB) to mount a third phase of joint operations to curb the transatlantic credit squeeze endangering the world economy. The central banks said that they would again raise sharply, by as much as $82 billion (£42 billion), the amount of funds they were pumping into the US and European banking systems in their effort to rein in elevated market interest rates.

The latest concerted action by the central banks comes as the continuing hoarding of funds by institutions in Europe and America has kept interest rates for lending between commercial banks high – despite an easing of conditions in broader credit markets. Steep money market rates are aggravating the squeeze on lending to companies and households, jeopardising economic prospects.

Yesterday the Fed increased by half, to $150 billion, the value of its Term Auction Facility, a monthly operation set up in December that makes one-month loans to US banks against collateral including devalued mortgage-backed securities.

Judge orders all references to 'Taser' stricken from medical examiner's reports

Judge orders all references deleted from medical examiner's rulings

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Akron- Summit County Medical Examiner Lisa Kohler must delete any reference that Tasers contributed to the deaths of three men, a Summit County Common Pleas judge ordered Friday.

The deaths of Dennis Hyde and Richard Holcomb, who were on drugs and in an agitated state when police shot them with Tasers, should be ruled accidental, visiting Judge Ted Schneiderman wrote in his ruling. Any reference to homicide or "electrical pulse stimulation" should be deleted from death certificates and autopsy reports, he said.

The order to change the ruling in the death of the third man, Mark McCullaugh, could be more far-reaching.

McCullaugh, who had a history of psychiatric illness, died in Summit County Jail on Aug. 20, 2006, during a struggle with deputies who used Tasers and pepper spray. Five sheriff's deputies were indicted in his death.

Schneiderman ordered Kohler to rule McCullaugh's death undetermined and delete any references to homicide and the death possibly being caused by asphyxia, beatings or other factors.

That pleased Sheriff Drew Alexander. The deputies, three charged with reckless homicide and two with felonious assault, are on unpaid leave.

"This supports my initial beliefs that my employees acted appropriately," Alexander said in a statement.

Schneiderman's order regarding McCullaugh goes far beyond the focus of the case, said John Manley, of the prosecutor's office, who represented Kohler.

"The purpose of the hearing represented a singular and very narrow issue on whether or not the successful deployment of the Taser Model X26 could contribute in any way to the cause of death," Manley said. He may appeal.

Kohler's rulings were controversial because few coroners have said the Taser was a factor in deaths. Other coroners typically cite other contributing factors, such as drug use, heart disease and cardiac arrhythmia due to illegal drug use.

Hyde, 30, died Jan. 5, 2005, during a struggle with Akron police. Three officers used Tasers. Hyde, of Hartville, had broken into a house through a window. He was on methamphetamine and suffered blood loss from cuts from the window.

Holcomb, 18, of Akron, died May 28, 2005, after he attacked a Springfield Township officer in a field. She shot him four times with her Taser. Kohler ruled Holcomb was also in a psychosis from using methamphetamine and Ecstasy.

Taser International maintains the weapon is not a factor if police use it and the suspect later dies. Numerous experts testified on its behalf at the four-day hearing in April.

"Taser International believed from the beginning that these determinations of cause of death must be supported by facts, medical research and scientific evidence," spokesman Steve Tuttle said in a prepared statement Friday.

As of mid-April, 68 wrongful-death or injury lawsuits have been dismissed or judgments entered in favor of Taser, according to the company. The company has not lost any product-liability lawsuits.

"It was an interesting case and an uphill battle," said Manley. "Taser is quite a force to be reckoned with and does everything to protect their golden egg, which is the Model X26."

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:, 216-999-5079

Chertoff Says New Laws Needed

Chertoff Says New Laws Needed

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At a speech before the Heritage Foundation this week, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the U.S. needs to have a “nonpoliticized, serious discussion” while writing new laws to define the best way to combat terrorism.

Chertoff said that once laws are written, the public should not second-guess government actions and claim that federal officials are overstepping their authority. He decried critics who make such accusations, despite the widespread pubic calls after the September 11, 2001 attacks for the U.S. government to do more to protect the country. Chertoff further said U.S. society needs to come to a determination as to what are acceptable authorities for the U.S. government versus what violates people’s rights.

If the public limits what the government can do, it must accept that the risk of terrorist attacks may increase, he said. If the public gives the government greater authorities, it should not criticize the government for using those authorities at a later date.

Chertoff called U.S. laws “woefully inadequate” in the context of current technology. He said the most significant step American society needs to take is adapting laws to the 21st Century challenge of fighting terrorism. Changes in technology have created unique challenges for the government when it comes to intercepting communications, as well as collecting and analyzing information found in the public domain according to Chertoff.

Journalist released from Guantánamo details abuse

Journalist released from Guantánamo details abuse

By Naomi Spencer
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After six years of imprisonment without charge, a well-known cameraman for Al Jazeera news was released May 1 by the US military. The reporter, Sami al-Hajj, was captured in 2001 while covering the US invasion of Afghanistan and subjected to the torture and abuse that is routine at US military-run prison camps.

Without prior announcement, the military returned al-Hajj to his home country of Sudan with two other prisoners who had also been held for years at the US-run Guantánamo Bay prison. Al-Hajj was gaunt and too weak to stand or speak as soldiers carried him off the C-17 cargo plane and placed him, still shackled, on a stretcher. He was transported immediately to a hospital in Khartoum. His brother told reporters he did not immediately recognize al-Hajj, who had been seized as a healthy 32-year-old and now resembled a man in his eighties.

Al-Hajj spent the last 16 months of his imprisonment as a hunger striker. Twice a day, soldiers strapped him into a restraint chair and shoved a feeding tube through his nose to his stomach. Human rights lawyers for al-Hajj—a survivor of throat cancer—have said that the force-feedings scraped his throat raw. Over the course of 480 days, the journalist lost 40 pounds.

While imprisoned, he was denied medical care for his cancer, kidney infections, and injuries. He was also subjected to beatings, extreme temperature exposures, sexual assault, threats with military dogs, and other human rights violations. Al-Hajj also reported that guards defaced the Koran and flushed the book down the toilet.

His US captors did not publicly acknowledge that al-Hajj was among the prisoners at Guantánamo until it was revealed in documents obtained in April 2006 through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Speaking to Al Jazeera television from his hospital bed in Khartoum on Friday, al-Hajj stated: “I’m very happy to be in Sudan, but I’m very sad because of the situation of our brothers who remain in Guantánamo. Conditions in Guantánamo are very, very bad, and they get worse by the day.

“Our human condition, our human dignity was violated, and the American administration went beyond all human values, all moral values, all religious values. In Guantánamo...rats are treated with more humanity. But we have people from more than 50 countries that are completely deprived of all rights and privileges, and they will not give them the rights that they give to animals.

“For more than seven years, I did not get a chance to be brought before a civil court. To defend their just case and to get the freedom that we’re deprived of, they ignored every kind of law, every kind of religion. But thank God. I was lucky, because God allowed that I be released.

“Although I’m happy, there is part of me that is not, because my brothers remain behind, and they are in the hands of people that claim to be champions of peace and protectors of rights and freedoms.

“But the true, just peace does not come through military force, or threats to use smart or stupid bombs, or to threaten with economic sanctions. Justice comes from lifting oppression and guaranteeing rights and freedoms and respecting the will of the people and not to interfere with a country’s internal politics.”

In a second statement that was reported by Reuters later on Friday, al-Hajj said, “Security and human rights are inseparable issues—you cannot have one without the other. Human rights are not only for times of peace—you need to hold onto them always, even during difficult times and times of war.” “My last message to the US administration,” he concluded, “is that torture will not stop terrorism—torture is terrorism.”

Al-Hajj was detained by Pakistani forces on December 15, 2001, at a border crossing while heading, along with another Al Jazeera reporter, into Afghanistan. He was held in Pakistani custody for three weeks, then handed over to US forces stationed at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, a makeshift prison camp that was notorious for torture. He was held for 16 days at the base, which he told the press freedom group Committee to Protect Journalists were “the longest days of my life.” He was severely beaten by soldiers, who accused him of recording videos of Osama bin Laden. Al-Hajj was then shifted to another prison facility at Kandahar; in June 2002, he was delivered, bound and gagged, to Guantánamo.

Although US officials have given multiple rationales for his detention, al-Hajj told reporters that a primary purpose was “to abort free media reporting” in the Middle East. He said that in the hundreds of interrogations to which he was subjected, his captors repeatedly tried to get him to say there was a link between Al Jazeera and Al Qaeda.

Al Jazeera news, by far the most popular media outlet in the Middle East, has been particularly targeted by the US for its critical reporting of the invasions. Its offices and reporters have come under fire of US military multiple times since the invasion of Afghanistan, including bombings of the media outlet’s offices in Kabul in 2001 and Baghdad in 2003, to which al-Hajj made specific reference. The US administration absurdly claimed both attacks were mistakes. However, internal memos emerging in 2006 from the Tony Blair government in Britain indicated that top British and US officials—including US President George W. Bush—advocated the attacks and wanted Al Jazeera’s Qatar headquarters bombed as well.

The US military has attempted to quash and intimidate coverage of the war that is outside of its control. On the same day that American forces bombed Al Jazeera’s Baghdad office, troops also opened fire on a hotel housing more than 100 “non-embedded” press correspondents. Since the initiation of the so-called “war on terror,” dozens of independent journalists have come under US fire and been killed, wounded, or detained. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, since 2001, at least 10 other journalists have been detained by the US military for long periods without charge, then eventually released.

While the news of al-Hajj’s release received considerable coverage in the international press, US reports were notably muted. Most of the major papers carried short items or republished wire reports from Reuters or the Associated Press. On May 2, ABC News opted to run a counter-report featuring three unidentified “Pentagon officials,” who claimed al-Hajj had boarded the plane at Guantánamo “healthy and good-natured” and portrayed his weakened state upon disembarking in Sudan as his “latest effort to influence public opinion.”

In a nauseating display of irony, the officials, whom ABC News did not bother to identify by name, rank, or position, called al-Hajj “a manipulator and a propagandist.”

His credibility was questionable, the officials said, because there was “no information to substantiate his allegations that he was mistreated at Guantánamo.”

Indeed, the US military and the Bush administration are responsible for the fact that there is little publicly available documentation of al-Hajj’s treatment, for reasons that are obvious by the physical condition in which the former detainee arrived. For years, the military did not even admit to his imprisonment, let alone allow human rights monitors regular access to him.

It is beyond question that the man was abused. In addition to bearing scars and the devastating physical effects of his hunger strikes upon his return, al-Hajj exhibited signs of paranoia from his abuse. And in a clear indication that al-Hajj was not well treated even after his release from Guantánamo, other detainees that were aboard the flight last week told the press that they had all been handcuffed, chained and blindfolded the entire time.

Continuing to insinuate al-Hajj’s association with militant or terrorist activity, one of the Pentagon plants told ABC, “I expect he’ll likely be in the news for some time to continue claiming all sorts of wild things. It’s the advantage they have in this fight. It’s a war of ideas, and they can claim any wild number of things happened to them and they’ll capitalize on it. It puts the pressure on us to disprove them.”

Similarly, another unnamed Pentagon official told Reuters that al-Hajj was “not being released,” but rather “being transferred to the Sudanese government.” Sudanese officials took pains to make it clear that al-Hajj was not in custody and did not face any charges.

Democratic candidates agree on expanded US military aggression in the Middle East

Democratic candidates agree on expanded US military aggression in the Middle East

By Patrick Martin
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In dueling television appearances Sunday morning, Democratic presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton declared their determination to escalate US military action in the Middle East, disagreeing mainly over which country should be targeted first.

Obama called for a “surge” of US troops into Afghanistan, while Clinton reaffirmed her bloodcurdling rhetoric about the “obliteration” of Iran.

Both candidates demonstrated that their criticism of the Bush administration’s invasion and occupation of Iraq does not represent opposition to American militarism, but rather a concern—voiced even by significant sections of the military itself—that the war in Iraq has become a diversion from other, even more important, strategic objectives.

Obama was interviewed on the NBC News program “Meet the Press,” while Clinton appeared on ABC’s “This Week.”

Tim Russert, host of “Meet the Press,” cited an NBC News report that the Bush administration is drawing up plans for air strikes against Iranian weapons factories and military training facilities, on the pretext that these sites are helping insurgents kill US soldiers in Iraq. “If it could be demonstrated that was a fact, would you be in support of such limited attacks in Iran?” he asked Obama.

The Democratic candidate did not challenge the premise of the question, or recall that that Bush administration used similar propaganda before the invasion of Iraq, circulating claims of Iraqi links to terrorism and weapons of mass destruction that proved bogus. Instead, he said he would want to “take a look at the kind of evidence that the administration is putting forward, what these plans are exactly. I’ve always said that, you know, as commander in chief, I don’t take military options off the table and I think it’s appropriate for us to plan for a whole host of contingencies.”

He went on to criticize the Bush administration because “Iran has been the biggest strategic beneficiary of our invasion of Iraq, they are stronger because of our decision to go in.” It was necessary to begin redeploying US combat troops and disavow plans for a permanent occupation of Iraq in order to strengthen the US position in the region, he said.

When Russert asked him another loaded question—citing the suggestion of the US ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, that a quick withdrawal of US troops from Iraq could result in genocide—Obama again did not dispute the premise, let alone cite the estimates of more than one million Iraqi dead as a consequence of the US invasion and occupation. Instead, he reiterated his support for a “phased withdrawal” that would leave some US combat troops in Iraq at least until the end of 2010.

Asked about Hillary Clinton’s statement that in the event of an Iranian nuclear attack on Israel, the United States military response would “obliterate” Iran, Obama criticized Clinton’s choice of words, but not her avowed policy, which would amount to using US nuclear weapons to annihilate a country of 71 million people.

Comparing Clinton to George W. Bush, Obama said, “We have had a foreign policy of bluster and saber-rattling and tough talk, and, in the meantime, we make a series of strategic decisions that actually strengthen Iran.”

When pressed by Russert, however, he said, “Israel is an ally of ours. It is the most important ally we have in the region, and there’s no doubt that we would act forcefully and appropriately on any attack... nuclear or otherwise.” Obama added that Clinton’s threat of nuclear retaliation actually constituted acceptance of the idea that Iran might acquire nuclear weapons, when US foreign policy should directed at stopping such a development.

The final foreign policy question was on Afghanistan. Russert asked Obama directly, “Would you, as president, be willing to have a military surge in Afghanistan in order to, once and for all, eliminate the Taliban?”

Obama responded: “Yes. I think that’s what we need. I think we need more troops there, I think we need to do a better job of reconstruction there. I think we have to be focused on Afghanistan. It is one of the reasons that I was opposed to the war in Iraq in the first place... And we’re also going to have to address the situation in Pakistan, where we now have, in the federated areas, Al Qaeda and the Taliban setting up bases there.”

The last response demonstrates most clearly that Obama is not an “antiwar” candidate in any genuine sense of the term. He wants (some) US troops out of Iraq, not to lessen the slaughter of the Iraqi people—as well as casualties among American soldiers—but to shift the scene of battle to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria or some other country, whose people will be targeted in the interests of American imperialism.

Clinton was interviewed for an hour by George Stephanopoulos of ABC News (a former top aide in the 1992 presidential campaign of her husband, and in the Clinton White House). She defended her comment about the “obliteration” of Iran, although the interviewer did not attempt to pin her down on the potential death toll of such a nuclear onslaught.

“Why would I have any regrets?” she said. “I’m asked a question about what I would do if Iran attacked our ally, a country that many of us have a great deal of, you know, connection with and feeling for, for all kinds of reasons. And, yes, we would have massive retaliation against Iran.”

She also repeated her call for the United States to extend its nuclear “protection” to the Arab monarchies like Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf sheikhdoms—countries which, except for Jordan, are still nominally at war with the state of Israel, and certainly more in danger from Israel’s stockpile of 250 atomic bombs than from Iran’s as-yet-nonexistent nuclear arsenal.

Clinton reiterated one of the standard pretexts used by the Bush administration to justify its aggression against Iraq, saying, “We have to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons throughout the region, because I’m not so concerned about them falling into the hands of states, which is bad enough, as I am about falling into the hands of terrorists.”

She argued that a US offer of nuclear protection could forestall an effort by Saudi Arabia or some other Arab country to develop nuclear weapons on its own to offset the hypothetical Iranian bomb.

Clinton has repeatedly sought to position herself against Obama as the more hawkish and pro-Israeli of the Democratic candidates. Last week, she campaigned through North Carolina—home of one the biggest concentrations of US military personnel—with eight retired generals and admirals, including Gen. Hugh Shelton, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Television footage of her campaign showed Clinton appearing at events in Fayetteville and Jacksonville (near the huge Ft. Bragg military base), in front of a podium backdrop decorated with the slogan “Solutions for a Strong Military.”

Clinton’s “obliteration” threat against Iran has produced a much bigger stir internationally than in the United States. Iranian diplomats filed a protest with the UN Security Council. A Saudi-based newspaper, the Arab News, described the threat as “the foreign politics of the madhouse,” adding that “it demonstrates the same doltish ignorance that has distinguished Bush’s foreign relations.”

A British cabinet minister, Lord Mark Malloch-Brown, told the House of Lords, “it is probably not prudent in today’s world to threaten to obliterate any other country and in many cases civilians resident in such a country.”

The only significant exception to the predictable silence in the US media came from the Boston Globe, in an editorial headlined, “Hillary Strangelove,” which concluded, “A presidential candidate who lightly commits to obliterating Iran—and, presumably, all the children, parents and grandparents in Iran—should not be answering the White House phone at any time of day or night.”

It was notable that in their Sunday appearances, neither Obama nor Clinton made mention of the statement Friday by the Republican presidential nominee John McCain that oil was the reason for US military intervention in Iraq and the Persian Gulf, nor were they asked about it by their network interviewers.

McCain blurted out this remark at a town hall meeting at the Jewish Community Center in Denver, Colorado. According to press accounts, McCain told a crowd of 300, “My friends, I will have an energy policy that we will be talking about, which will eliminate our dependence on oil from the Middle East. That will prevent us from having ever to send our young men and women into conflict again in the Middle East.”

The Republican candidate subsequently sought to back away from this too-frank admission. His campaign issued a “clarification” that in McCain’s view, the US war with Iraq in 1991 was about oil, but the war launched by the Bush-Cheney administration in 2003 was not.

The Democratic candidates launched a whole series of largely demagogic sallies against McCain in the course of their hour-long interviews. But they declined to bring up his inadvertent admission of a central reason for the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, because they are equally committed to maintaining US control of the oil resources of the Middle East.

Corruption Eats Into Food Rations

Corruption Eats Into Food Rations

By Ali al-Fadhily and Dahr Jamail

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FALLUJAH, May 2 (IPS) - Amidst unemployment and impoverishment, Iraqis now face a cutting down of their monthly food ration – much of it already eaten away by official corruption.

Iraqis survived the sanctions after the first Gulf War (1990) with the support of rations through the Public Distribution System (PDS). The aid was set up in 1995 as part of the UN's Oil-for-Food programme.

The sanctions were devastating nevertheless. Former UN programme head Hans von Sponeck said in 2001 that the sanctions amounted to "a tightening of the rope around the neck of the average Iraqi citizen." Von Sponeck said the sanctions were causing the death of 150 Iraqi children a day.

Denis Halliday, former UN humanitarian coordinator for Iraq who quit his post in protest against the sanctions, told IPS they had proved "genocidal" for Iraqis.

During more than five years of U.S.-occupation, the situation has become even worse. The rationing system has been crumbling under poor management and corruption.

From the beginning of this year, the rations delivered were reduced from 10 items to five.

"We used the PDS as counter-propaganda against Saddam Hussein's regime before the U.S. occupation of Iraq began in 2003," Fadhil Jawad of the Dawa Party led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told IPS in Baghdad. "But then we found it necessary to maintain basic support for Iraqi people under occupation. We blamed Saddam for feeding Iraqis like animals with simple rations of food -- that we fail to provide now."

"When the Americans came to occupy Iraq, they promised us a better life," Ina'm Majeed, a teacher at a girls school told IPS in Fallujah. "After killing our sons and husbands, they are killing us by hunger now. The food ration that was once enough for our survival is now close to nothing, and the market prices are incredibly high. It is impossible for 80 percent of Iraqis now to buy the same items they used to get from the previous regime's food rations."

Ina'm's husband was killed in a U.S. air strike during the April 2004 siege of her city, leaving her with four children to bring up.

A World Food Programme (WFP) report in May 2006 found that just over four million people in Iraq were "food-insecure and in dire need of different kinds of humanitarian assistance."

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in April 2007, of the four million Iraqis who cannot regularly buy enough to eat, only 60 percent had access to PDS rations. The situation is worse today.

The former Iraqi ministry of trade used to distribute fair quantities of food in the PDS, then low quality food at the beginning of the UN sanctions. The quantities were reduced after the sanctions lasted longer than the former government expected. After Iraq signed the memo of understanding in 1996 with the UN, the quality and quantity of food notably improved.

"Do not blame Iraqis for calling the sanctions days 'the good old days' because they were definitely good compared to the dark days we are living under U.S. occupation," Abu Aymen, a 45-year-old lawyer with eight children told IPS in Fallujah. "All Iraqis complained about life under Saddam's regime because it was bad, but it seems that all the good things, little as they were, have been taken away along with his statues."

Aymen added, "We used to get cheese, powdered milk for us and our children, shaving paste and blades, tomato paste, special food for children, beans, soap and cleaning detergents, and even chicken, as well as basic foods like flour, rice, cooking oil, tea and sugar. Now we get bullets and missiles and polluted food and medicines."

Haj Chiad, a PDS distribution agent in Fallujah, told IPS that he now also distributes illness.

"I used to deliver food, but now I distribute poison with it," he said. "It has happened many times during the past four years that the food given to us by the ministry of trade was either rotten or actually poisoned. We distributed rice and sugar from sacks that had been stored a long time in damp places, and tomato paste that was long past its expiry date before we received it."

The Iraqi parliament's Committee for Integrity has demanded comprehensive interrogation of minister for trade Abdul Falah al-Sudany for the "vast corruption in his ministry." But as with other complaints of corruption, Maliki has taken no action.