Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Cat's Out of the Bag: Items in the News

If you've been wondering if, and hoping that, the nightmare under Bush and Cheney, and more broadly, under the neocons, is nearly over, all you have to do is check out each and everyday's news and it reminds you that their reign of terror is not abating, it's building and building.

The news daily also reveals that the institutions and organizations that most Americans believe will protect them from dictators are nothing less than fellow foxes in the hen house with the Bush regime.

I've reposted three news items below. The first two are about Supreme Court Justice Scalia's comments yesterday about what he dubs "so-called torture."

The third item is today's NY Times article about the US Senate giving unprecedented powers to the executive branch to conduct surveillance on us and granting immunity to the telecoms (AT&T and Verizon in particular). These telecom giants - who keep selling us their cute cell phones and telling us all how cool it is that we can now watch TV on our portable devices and "Can you hear me now?" (yes, the NSA can hear me now) - co-conspired with the Bush White House to violate the Constitution and FISA to give Bush et al access to all of Americans' phone calls and Internet activity beginning in February 2001.

That's right, just after Bush and Cheney assumed the presidency and seven months before 9/11. In other words, this had nothing to do with 9/11, their all-purpose-scare-everyone-tactic. Rather, it revealed the White House's program for massive surveillance, damn the law, and its larger agenda for tightening social control over the people that has been in the works for quite some time. See, for example, Project for a New American Century's documents dating from the 1990s.

So those fools who think that torture is permissible sometimes because it allegedly might save Americans lives - an immoral argument to begin with because it says that Americans' lives are more precious than other people's lives, including especially the completely innocent people who are being tortured and beaten to death by us daily - should think about this one. The White House had all of the information they say they need to stop terrorist attacks - they had it before 9/11 - and yet they did nothing with it! They have enflamed the Islamic world against us by attacking a country that they knew from the start had nothing to do with 9/11 (killing to date over a million Iraqis and thousands of Americans), thus making terrorism a more likely prospect against us, and this makes us safer?!

As for Supreme Torturer Scalia, check out his tortured logic. Speaking to the matter of the US Constitution's prohibition against "cruel and unusual punishment," he says: "Is it obvious that what can’t be done for punishment can’t be done to exact information that is crucial to this society? It’s not at all an easy question, to tell you the truth."

In other words, yes, it would be unconstitutional to use cruel and unusual punishment against a person convicted of a crime, but since interrogation of a suspect believed to have information about a pending terrorist attack isn't a criminal procedure you can use "so-called torture."

And what is "so-called" about torture? Does this man, who has admitted to thinking that his brains are too superior to be serving in the lowly capacity of the US Supreme Court, not understand what torture is? I suggest that he and the US Congress and the Bush White House, the Pentagon leadership and the NSA, be subjected to "so-called torture" and see how they like it.

Let's have Attorney General Mukasey, who continues to say that he doesn't know whether waterboarding is torture, waterboarded, and see if he, through his gagging and choking, can render his chief-legal-officer-in-the-nation opinion then! Shall we invoke the tenets of Middle Ages Holy Inquisition logic, a time period, by the way, that our rulers would like to go back to - waterboarding was invented by the Spanish Inquisition after all - and if he drowns, we decide that he was innocent and if he survives the waterboarding, we declare that this proves his guilt!?

What does it tell us about where things have come to when a leading member of the US Supreme Court is endorsing torture, when the country's chief legal officer refuses to call waterboarding torture, where the Vice-President declares that waterboarding is a "no-brainer," and where the opposition party refuses to filibuster these fascist bills and the leading candidates for president won't bring up the issue and fight it on the floor of the Senate - a simple vote for or against isn't enough, they should have filibustered this if they had any moral principles - because they're too busy trying to distract people and get themselves made the next president?

The people need to act as an independent and autonomous political force on the scene. The actions of hundreds of people that we see being played out in Berkeley now in the fight over the Marine Recruiting Station are a vivid and heartening illustration of this (between 600-700 Berkeley high schoolers joined the protest yesterday). As I say at the top of my blog: "The inchoate feelings that so very many people feel today need to be acted upon by the people. It needs to be organized and it needs to find its voice. The world awaits. The future beckons. Who will answer the call?"

And if you're thinking that you're just one person, note that three people standing in defiance against this war outside the Berkeley Marine Recruiting Station sparked this. Recall that one mother - Cindy Sheehan - standing outside the Crawford Ranch - inspired thousands and thousands. One person is all it takes to start it.

And if you're worried that you have no experience doing something like this, or that you don't yet know enough: if you know that torture's wrong, if you are outraged that your government is endorsing, defending, and carrying out torture, then you know enough. One person with a little bit of courage speaks more loudly than a Congress full of cowards.

Scalia says 'so-called torture' may not be unconstitutional
from the Jurist
Mike Rosen-Molina at 7:33 PM ET

[JURIST] US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia Tuesday defended the use of harsh physical interrogation techniques, saying in an interview [recorded audio] with Law in Action [media website] on BBC Radio 4 that they may be justified to deter an immediate threat. Scalia argued that "so-called torture" may not necessarily be prohibited by the US constitution, as he said the Eighth Amendment bar against "cruel and unusual punishment" was only intended to apply to criminal punishments:

"Is it really so easy to determine that smacking someone in the face to find out where he has hidden the bomb that is about to blow up Los Angeles is prohibited under the Constitution? Because smacking someone in the face would violate the Eighth Amendment in a prison context. You can’t go around smacking people about.

"Is it obvious that what can’t be done for punishment can’t be done to exact information that is crucial to this society? It’s not at all an easy question, to tell you the truth."

In the same interview, Scalia criticized European opposition to the death penalty as "self-righteous," saying that most Europeans probably privately support the use of capital punishment despite the official stance of European governments. BBC News has more.

Scalia has long been known for bluntly expressing controversial opinions. In 2006, he sparked a furor in the lead-up to oral arguments in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld [Duke Law backgrounder; merit briefs] on the constitutionality of using presidentially-authorized military tribunals [JURIST news archive] to try foreign terror suspects, when he commented [JURIST report] that "foreigners, in foreign countries, have no rights under the American Constitution."

Top court's Scalia defends physical interrogation from Reuters

By James Vicini

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia said on Tuesday some physical interrogation techniques can be used on a suspect in the event of an imminent threat, such as a hidden bomb about to blow up.

In such cases, "smacking someone in the face" could be justified, the outspoken Scalia told the BBC. "You can't come in smugly and with great self satisfaction and say 'Oh it's torture, and therefore it's no good.'"

His comments come amid a growing debate about the Bush administration's use of aggressive interrogation methods on terrorism suspects rights after the September 11 attacks, including the use of a widely condemned interrogation technique known as waterboarding.

Scalia said that it was "extraordinary" to assume that the U.S. Constitution's ban on "cruel and unusual punishment" also applied to "so-called" torture.

"To begin with the Constitution ... is referring to punishment for crime. And, for example, incarcerating someone indefinitely would certainly be cruel and unusual punishment for a crime," he said in an interview with the Law in Action program on BBC Radio 4.

Scalia said stronger measures could be taken when a witness refused to answer questions.

"I suppose it's the same thing about so-called torture. Is it really so easy to determine that smacking someone in the face to determine where he has hidden the bomb that is about to blow up Los Angeles is prohibited in the Constitution?" he asked.

"It would be absurd to say you couldn't do that. And once you acknowledge that, we're into a different game" Scalia said. "How close does the threat have to be? And how severe can the infliction of pain be?"

Scalia, who has long supported capital punishment, also ridiculed European criticism of the death penalty in the United States.

"If you took a public opinion poll, if all of Europe had representative democracies that really worked, most of Europe would probably have the death penalty today," he said.

"There are arguments for it and against it. But to get self-righteous about the thing as Europeans tend to do about the American death penalty is really quite ridiculous," he said.

(Reporting by James Vicini, Editing by Randall Mikkelsen and David Wiessler)

Senate Votes for Expansion of Spy Powers

By Eric Lichtblau
The New York Times
Wednesday 13 February 2008

Washington - After more than a year of wrangling, the Senate handed the White House a major victory on Tuesday by voting to broaden the government's spy powers and to give legal protection to phone companies that cooperated in President Bush's program of eavesdropping without warrants.

One by one, the Senate rejected amendments that would have imposed greater civil liberties checks on the government's surveillance powers. Finally, the Senate voted 68 to 29 to approve legislation that the White House had been pushing for months. Mr. Bush hailed the vote and urged the House to move quickly in following the Senate's lead.

The outcome in the Senate amounted, in effect, to a broader proxy vote in support of Mr. Bush's wiretapping program. The wide-ranging debate before the final vote presaged discussion that will play out this year in the presidential and Congressional elections on other issues testing the president's wartime authority, including secret detentions, torture and Iraq war financing.

Republicans hailed the reworking of the surveillance law as essential to protecting national security, but some Democrats and many liberal advocacy groups saw the outcome as another example of the Democrats' fears of being branded weak on terrorism.

"Some people around here get cold feet when threatened by the administration," said Senator Patrick J. Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who leads the Judiciary Committee and who had unsuccessfully pushed a much more restrictive set of surveillance measures.

Among the presidential contenders, Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, voted in favor of the final measure, while the two Democrats, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, did not vote. Mr. Obama did oppose immunity on a key earlier motion to end debate. Mrs. Clinton, campaigning in Texas, issued a statement saying she would have voted to oppose the final measure.

The measure extends, for at least six years, many of the broad new surveillance powers that Congress hastily approved last August just before its summer recess. Intelligence officials said court rulings had left dangerous gaps in their ability to intercept terrorist communications.

The bill, which had the strong backing of the White House, allows the government to eavesdrop on large bundles of foreign-based communications on its own authority so long as Americans are not the targets. A secret intelligence court, which traditionally has issued individual warrants before wiretapping began, would review the procedures set up by the executive branch only after the fact to determine whether there were abuses involving Americans.

"This is a dramatic restructuring" of surveillance law, said Michael Sussmann, a former Justice Department intelligence lawyer who represents several telecommunication companies. "And the thing that's so dramatic about this is that you've removed the court review. There may be some checks after the fact, but the administration is picking the targets."

The Senate plan also adds one provision considered critical by the White House: shielding phone companies from any legal liability for their roles in the eavesdropping program approved by Mr. Bush after the Sept. 11 attacks. The program allowed the National Security Agency to eavesdrop without warrants on the international communications of Americans suspected of having ties to Al Qaeda.

AT&T and other major phone companies are facing some 40 lawsuits from customers who claim their actions were illegal. The Bush administration maintains that if the suits are allowed to continue in court, they could bankrupt the companies and discourage them from cooperating in future intelligence operations.

The House approved a surveillance bill in November that intentionally left out immunity for the phone companies, and leaders from the two chambers will now have to find a way to work out significant differences between their two bills.

Democratic opponents, led by Senators Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, argued that the plan effectively rewarded phone companies by providing them with legal insulation for actions that violated longstanding law and their own privacy obligations to their customers. But immunity supporters said the phone carriers acted out of patriotism after the Sept. 11 attacks in complying with what they believed in good faith was a legally binding order from the president.

"This, I believe, is the right way to go for the security of the nation," said Senator John D. Rockefeller, the West Virginia Democrat who leads the intelligence committee. His support for the plan, after intense negotiations with the White House and his Republican colleagues, was considered critical to its passage but drew criticism from civil liberties groups because of $42,000 in contributions that Mr. Rockefeller received last year from AT&T and Verizon executives.

Senator Olympia J. Snowe, a Maine Republican on the intelligence panel, said the bill struck the right balance between protecting the rights of Americans and protecting the country "from terrorism and other foreign threats."

Democratic opponents, who six months ago vowed to undo the results of the August surveillance vote, said they were deeply disappointed by the defection of 19 Democrats who backed the bill.

Mr. Dodd, who spoke on the floor for more than 20 hours in recent weeks in an effort to stall the bill, said future generations would view the vote as a test of whether the country heeds "the rule of law or the rule of men."

But with Democrats splintered, Mr. Dodd acknowledged that the national security argument had won the day. "Unfortunately, those who are advocating this notion that you have to give up liberties to be more secure are apparently prevailing," he said. "They're convincing people that we're at risk either politically, or at risk as a nation."

There was a measure of frustration in the voice of Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, as he told reporters during a break in the daylong debate, "Holding all the Democrats together on this, we've learned a long time ago, is not something that's doable."

Senate Republicans predict that they will be able to persuade the House to include immunity in the final bill, especially now that the White House has agreed to give House lawmakers access to internal documents on the wiretapping program. But House Democrats vowed Tuesday to continue opposing immunity.

Congress faces a Saturday deadline for extending the current law, but Democrats want to extend the deadline for two weeks to allow more time for talks. The White House has said it opposes a further extension.

Meanwhile, Senate Democrats hope to put some pressure on Republicans on Wednesday over another security-related issue by bringing up an intelligence measure that would apply Army field manual prohibitions against torture to civilian agencies like the Central Intelligence Agency.

Republicans plan to try to eliminate that provision, a vote that Democrats say will force Republicans to declare whether they condone torture. Democrats also say it could show the gap between Mr. McCain, who has opposed torture, and the administration on the issue.

"We know how we would feel if a member of the armed services captured by the enemy were, for example, waterboarded," Mr. Reid said. "So I think that we're headed in the right direction, and I hope that we'll get Republican support on this."


Carl Hulse contributed reporting from Washington.

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