Friday, September 18, 2009

ACORN and the Skewing of Economic Reality by the Right

In light of a dubious video released by an undercover couple investigating ACORN, an organization dedicated to helping poor people obtain essential services, register to vote, and gain proper legal advice (among other initiatives), the House and Senate voted overwhelmingly yesterday to strip the organization of federal funding. In a campaign to smear ACORN, an organization with a massive staff that is susceptible to corruption like any other large organization, Fox News, Glenn Beck, and Rush Limbaugh have been working overtime to demonize and scapegoat this organization and poor people in general. Everything that is wrong with this country, if you listen to this crowd, is Obama and his "socialist" friends stealing money from "regular Americans" and giving it to poor people and organizations that represent and advocate for poor people, like ACORN. It is greedy poor people who live off the state through welfare and other government handouts and those not responsible enough to afford healthcare and pay their mortgage who are responsible for the economic crisis and the general state of affairs in this country. All of this fear-mongering is manifesting itself in a rapid, anti-Obama hysteria that is being overemphasized by Fox News and the Republican Party in an effort to make their movement appear larger than it is. Instead of scapegoating ACORN, poor people, and Obama, maybe Fox News and the Right-wingers on talk radio could report who really controls and dominates the government that was put on display so blatantly this past year: large corporate interests. Fox News, Beck and Limbaugh make it seem as if ACORN and poor people have such a large influence on our government and are reaping the benefits of Obama and his "socialist" administration. Consider this: last October, in response to the economic crisis, largely fueled by sub-prime mortgage lending and trading, the federal government handed out $700 billion to the financial industry. Taking into account all of the other corporate subsidies, loans and guarantees given out by the Federal Reserve, the corporate community, which literally owns the government, saw the biggest transfer of public money to private corporations. Weren't Beck and Limbaugh upset about that? More recently, the healthcare bill proposed by Senator Max Baucus was written by a former healthcare executive. Who has the power in this country? ACORN, poor people and those working on behalf of poor people? Or large corporations who fund the campaigns of politicians on both sides of the aisle?

In the August 28, 2009 edition of the Socialist Worker, Lee Sustar interviews Andrew Cockburn, the co-producer, along with his wife, Leslie, of the documentary American Casino, an inside look at the financial crisis and sub-prime mortgage meltdown. Here is an excerpt:

Lee Sustar: There has been a claim from the financial industry that this was an unforeseeable crisis- and that all they were tyring to do is make home ownership more possible. Do you buy that?

Andrew Cockburn: Absolutely not. I think we made clear in American Casino, it all came from the top. It was Wall Street banks who pushed this, it was Wall Street banks who had the relationships with the mortgage companies. It was Wall Street that aggressively competed for the mortgage loans sold by mortgage companies, which could then be packaged into securities- those magical instruments, the CDOs [collateralized debt obligations], the CDO-squared and all those other things that we've come to know and love. There were the guilty parties, and certainly not- absolutely not- the homeowners who've gotten blamed for this.


In American Casino, we make it clear that it's not like that. Ordinary people were lied to, were conned, were defrauded into these loans. The system did this. In my view- and I think we say in the film- the system couldn't do anything else. They'd run out of other productive things to invest in. So basically, the option was loan sharking, which is what they did.

So, who is to blame for this mess we are in? And who has the power in our society and political system? Beck, Limbaugh and the like are skewing the economic reality in this country and using it to inflame increasingly dangerous Right-wing movements. The real problem in this country isn't that Obama, poor people and ACORN are stealing tax dollars and redistributing the wealth of this nation. It's that people are actually caught up in this farce and misrepresentation of the reality of the country in which we live. We all need to realize that our economic system preys off those that have the least amount of power, influence and say in policy discussions, namely the poor and disenfranchised. It is corporations and big business that have the clout in this country, and it is so undeniable and obvious that it is amazing people can buy into the propaganda put out by Limbaugh, Beck, and Fox News.

Update: Here is a great perspective on what was discussed above. Worth a read.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Important conversation:

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

U.N. Report Issues Report on the Israeli Military Operation in Gaza

In December of last year, Israel launched an invasion of Gaza, purportedly in response to rocket fire launched from Gaza by Hamas militants. When a cease fire was finally declared after about a month of fighting, 1,300 Palestinians were killed, many of them innocent civilians, and 13 Israelis were killed, including 10 soldiers and 3 civilians. A just released U.N. report, headed by South African Justice Richard Goldstone and compiled without the support or participation from Israel, concluded that there is evidence to support the claim that both the Israeli military and militant Palestinian groups committed war crimes and, possibly, crimes against humanity. Following the release today, the Israeli government began a diplomatic effort to ensure that the report will not be presented before the United Nations Security Council and possibly to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, where Israeli leaders could face prosecution. According to Haaretz:

On the diplomatic front, following the report's release, [Prime Minister] Netanyahu, [Foreign Minister] Lieberman, President Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Ehud Barak will telephone many of their counterparts around the world. They will stress that the Goldstone report is one-sided, that it rewards terrorism and that it sets a precedent which will make it difficult for any country in the world to defend itself against terror...

"It will be a long diplomatic and legal campaign," said a senior Israeli staffer handling the Goldstone report. "We will invovle our friends from around the world, especially the United States, to prevent Israel's isolation," he said.

Israeli officials have called the report "one-sided" and accused the United Nations Human Rights Council of "regularly and routinely condemning Israel." Israeli officials prefer to launch investigations into war crimes and human rights abuses internally, and have issued reports claiming Israeli soldiers acted in accordance with international law. A Hamas spokesman also called the report unbalanced and completely misrepresenting reality, according to the Haaretz article linked to above.

While both sides of this conflict have demonstrably committed repugnant acts of violence, many of which could amount to war crimes, the latest invasion of Gaza leaves no doubt that the Israeli military had a direct policy of targeting civilians, private property, and essential infrastructure, including hospitals, water and sewage systems. According to a press release put out by the United Nations regarding the report:

The Mission found that, in the lead up to the Israeli military assault on Gaza, Israel imposed a blockade amounting to collective punishment and carried out a systematic policy of progressive isolation and deprivation of the Gaza Strip. During the Israeli military operation, code-named "Operation Cast Lead," houses, factories, wells, schools, hospitals, police stations, and other public buildings were destroyed. Families are still living under the rubble of their former homes long after the attacks ended, as reconstruction has been impossible due to the continuing blockade. More than 1,400 people were killed during the military operation.

Significant trauma, both immediate and long-term, has been suffered by the population of Gaza. The Report notes signs of profound depression, insomnia and effects such as bed-wetting among children. The effects on children who witnessed killings and violence, who had thought they were facing death, and who lost family members would be long-lasting, the Mission found, noting in its Report that some 30 percent of children screened at UNRWA schools suffered mental health problems.

This is what top Israeli leaders are trying to keep from being presented to the U.N. Security Council: a report by the world's most reputable international organization that condemns not only Israeli actions, but also Palestinian tactics in the latest conflict. It is time that Israel stop leaning on the United States to hide the fact that it has committed serious crimes against humanity and that it had a direct policy of targeting Palestinian civilians, public buildings, and private property, not to mention water and sewage systems needed to maintain life.

Interesting debate from January 8, 2009 about the Israeli offensive in Gaza.

Does Anyone Really Think This Is Making Us Safer?

According to the New York Times yesterday, Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, a suspected al-Qaeda leader wanted in connection with numerous bombings in Africa, was killed by US commandos who used four military helicopters to disable two trucks carrying Nabhan and other suspected militants in Somalia. A total of 9 people were killed during the strike. The article declared:

Mr. Nabhan played an increasingly important role as a senior instructor for new militant recruits, including some Americans, as well as a liason to senior Qaeda leaders in Pakistan, the senior American advisor said.

"This is very significant because it takes away a person who's been a main conduit between East Africa extremists and big Al-Qaeda," said the advisor, who like several United States officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the classified nature of the mission.

The extrajudicial killing of "suspected Al-Qaeda leaders" and other "terrorists" is a lamentable policy that has been enacted by both Democratic and Republican administrations, including current President Obama's administration. In all likelihood, Mr. Nabhan was a dangerous man responsible for the deaths of innocents and had links to terrorist groups. However, we will never know this for sure, as he was never investigated and prosecuted by any court of law. The U.S. military, acting on, again, in all likelihood, reliable intelligence about this man, was the judge, jury and executioner in his case. Given the extreme difficulties of fighting this "war on terror", many will argue that this was the best option available to U.S. policy-makers and military leaders. They will argue that arresting, investigating, and prosecuting Mr. Nabhan would have been extremely difficult and dangerous, if even feasible. I would say that engaging in extrajudicial killings by using military force in a sovereign nation is not only unwise, but increases the likelihood of the people we are trying to help of viewing our overt use of military force as unjust and immoral, not to mention contradictory to core Western values of due process, given that collateral damage and the killings of innocent civilians is an inevitability using these methods of justice.

"The Torture Memos: Rationalizing the Unthinkable"

David Cole, a law professor at Georgetown University and author of the recently released book titled "The Torture Memos: Rationalizing the Unthinkable", argues in this Democracy Now! segment for the necessity of holding those at the highest levels accountable for the authorization of torture by the CIA and US forces in the war on terror.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Quick Note on Obama's Healthcare Speech Last Night

President Obama, in a prime-time address last night before a joint session of Congress, had this to say about the prospect of "radically" reforming the American healthcare system as proposed by those on "the left" and "the right":

There are those on the left who believe that the only way to fix the system is through a single-payer system like Canada's where we would severely restrict the private insurance market and have the government provide coverage for everybody. On the right, there are those who argue that we should end employer-based systems and leave individuals to buy health insurance on their own.

I've said- I have to say that there are arguments to be made for both these approaches. But either one would represent a radical shift that would disrupt the healthcare most people currently have. Since healthcare represents one-sixth of our economy, I believe it makes more sense to build on what works and fix what doesn't, rather than try to build a new system from scratch. And that is precisely what those of you in Congress have tried to do over the past several months.

Well, we know what doesn't work, at least for the vast majority of Americans: the private health insurance market. The private health insurance industry's primary concern is making money first and foremost, not providing adequate health insurance to their clients. Just ask Hilda Sarkisyan, whose daughter died at the age of 17 after CIGNA, a private health insurance company, denied her claim for a liver transplant. Or Wendell Potter, the former head of corporate communications for CIGNA, who had this to say about why he decided to leave the health insurance industry:

Well, I was beginning to question what I was doing as the industry shifted from selling primary managed care plans, to what they refer to as consumer-driven plans. And they're really plans that have very high deductibles, meaning that they're shifting a lot of the cost off healthcare from employers and insurers, insurance companies, to individuals. And a lot of people can't even afford to make their co-payments when they go get care, as a result of this.

I thought the whole argument for a public option was because the private health insurance industry in this country does not work and continues to devastate the lives of millions of people across this country? President Obama, what we need most is radical reform, not an approach that continues to placate the very industry that needs reforming.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Congressional Report: US Increases Share of World-Wide Arms Market

An article in the New York Times today begins:

Despite a recession that knocked down global arms sales last year, the United States expanded its role as the world's leading weapons supplier, increasing its share to more than two-thirds of all foreign armaments deals, according to a new Congressional study.

The United States signed weapons deals valued at $37.8 billion in 2008, or 68.4 percent of all business in the global arms bazaar, up significantly from American sales of $25.4 billion the year before.

You read that correctly; despite the global recession, the United States increased it's share of the global market in armament sales by $12.4 billion over the course of one year. The article goes on:

In the highly competitive global arms market, nations vie for both profit and political influence through weapons sales, in particular to developing nations, which remain "the primary focus of foreign arms sales activity by weapons suppliers," according to the study.

Without a doubt, historians 100 years from now will clearly view the United States as not only the world's leading supplier of weapons and armaments, but also the world's most militarily aggressive country of the past 30 or 40 years. Our permanent military establishment wages war more often and more aggressively than other nations, and sells more weapons globally than other nations. Two distinctions our country could do without. Glenn Greenwald has more on this here.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

David Broder's Torture Regime Analysis

David Broder, a longtime skeptic of investigating past abuses by the Bush administration, has a dolorous pablum today in the Washington Post (yes, the same paper that features the columnist I criticized yesterday about his view on the torture regime). After claiming that he "agree(s) on the importance of accountability for illegal acts and for serious breaches of trust by government officials -- even at the highest levels," Broder has this completely contradictory statement two paragraphs later:

Nonetheless, I think it is a matter of regret that Holder asked prosecutor John H. Durham to review the cases of the agents accused of abusive tactics towards some captives.
(...) is the first step on a legal trail that could lead to trials -- and that is what gives me pause.

Mr. Broder, how exactly to you hold people accountable for "illegal acts and for serious breaches of trust by government officials -- even at the highest levels" if there are no trials? After all, we are a country that respects the law and follows due process (supposedly) so it's not as if Cheney and Co. are guilty just as a matter of arbitrary decree. Indeed, numerous laws specify that if there is credible evidence of the types of illegalities and abuses of the law enabled and carried out by the Bush administration, an investigation is warranted and required by law. If an investigation leads up the chain of command in the torture regime, and it certainly has to considering the evidence that is already out, those accused will have their day in court. Remember, due process.

Instead of clarifying how exactly the Bush administration would be held accountable for the Torture Regime, Mr. Broder muses:

In times like these , the understandable desire to enforce individual accountability must be weighed against the consequences. This country is facing so many huge challenges at home and abroad that the president cannot afford to be drawn into what would undoubtedly be a major, bitter partisan battle over prosecution of Bush-era officials. The cost to the country would simply be too great.

If I hear that decrepit, depraved, sycophantic excuse of not being able to prosecute Bush-era officials for obvious, blatant crimes because it would be "too partisan and bitter" and upset the cozy, elitist atmosphere of Washington I may puke.

But, alas, this is the same David Broder who wrote this in April:

...(Obama) was just as right to declare that there should be no prosecution of those who carried out what had been the policy of the United States government. And he was right when he sent out his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, to declare that the same amnesty should apply to the lawyers and bureaucrats that devised and justified the Bush administration practices.

Later in the same article, Broder had this ridiculously absurd statement:

The memos on torture represented a deliberate, and internally well-debated, policy decision, made in the proper places -- the White House, intelligence agencies, and the Justice Department -- by the proper officials.

The way Broder describes the memos -- "the memos on torture" -- clearly demonstrate his delusional rational for his vapid arguments against investigating, let alone prosecuting, Bush-era officials. Torture is undeniably illegal in the United States or by agents working on behalf of the United States government. By acknowledging these "memos on torture", Mr. Broder has given implicit recognition that the United States government devised a set of memos --"memos on torture" -- that authorized practices illegal under domestic and international law, not to mention morally repugnant to any civilized person. Apparently, Mr. Broder is not only OK with this law-breaking and injustice, he wants to cover it up.

Amazing that one of our leading political commentators and journalists has the audacity to justify covering up crimes committed by the government when that is the exact opposite of what his profession revolves around.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Richard Cohen's Torture Excuses

In a remarkably dishonest opinion piece today in the Washington Post, Richard Cohen argues that the decision of Attorney General Eric Holder to open a preliminary investigation of CIA interrogators who may have crossed the legal boundary set by Justice Department lawyers of what constitutes torture will harm America's national security. Cohen begins the article with a hypothetical scenario, in which America has captured "Ishmael", a fictional suicide bomber with knowledge of future terrorist plots against America and her allies. Cohen postulates at the beginning of the article:

Call him a terrorist or suicide bomber or anything else you want, but understand that he is willing-- no anxious-- to give his life for his cause. Call him also a captive, and know that he works with others as part of a team, like the Sept. 11 hijackers, all of whom died, willingly. Ishmael is someone I invented, but he is not a far-fetched creation. You and I know that he exists, has existed and will exist again. He is the enemy.

Nevermind that "Ishmael" and our other supposed enemies that "hate America" almost unanimously have strong objections to our foreign policy, especially in the Muslim world, and our blinding support for Israel at the expense of an entire nation of displaced people (the Palestinians), and not primarily with the American people or way of life. Our "enemies" are our enemies because of our foreign policy generally and current policy specifically in the region. It is no wonder that the people of the Middle East have strong objections to the US invading sovereign nations based on faulty, exaggerated, and, one could make the argument, pre-determined intelligence; the ruthless and brutal campaign of unmanned-aerial drone attacks that inevitably kill innocent civilians in Pakistan and Afghanistan; the immoral and illegal treatment of countless numbers of detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other places of US jurisdiction (think of the former CIA "black sites" in Europe); the general disregard by US policy-makers of the people in the region, who instead focus on backing and strengthening the corrupt ruling elite for insider deals on natural resource exploitation for multinational corporations. Given our current and past policy in the region, of course one would expect to find a dedicated, highly determined enemy willing to give their life in order counteract the relentless, exploitative nature of US policy in the region.

Cohen continues by hypothesizing what will happen to "Ishmael" now that he is in US custody:

Now he is in American custody. What will happen? How do we get him to reveal his group's plans and the names of his colleagues? It will be hard. It will, in fact, be harder than it used to be. He can no longer be waterboarded. He knows this. He cannot be deprived of more than a set amount of sleep. He cannot be beat or thrown up against even a soft wall. He cannot be threatened with shooting or even frightened by the prospect of an electric drill. Nothing can really be threatened against his relatives-- that they will be killed or sexually abused.

Nevermind the fact that torture does not work, has not worked, and will not work in any reliable way for effective intelligence gathering purposes. After all, torture was historically used to induce false confessions. Cohen makes it seem unfortunate that detainees, many of whom are illegally held, now cannot "even be frightened by the prospect of an electric drill." As if that were some noble, humane, effective way of gathering intelligence and assessing what an individual has knowledge of. If someone were to shackle me to the ground after, in one form or another, making me stay awake for days on end and then reeved up a power drill next to my blindfolded head, I would say just about anything to end this situation. The whole point of torture is that it does not work and only induces false confessions and intelligence, further corrupting the justice system if that evidence is used against other suspects (you cannot, in good faith, convict someone of crimes that were the result of evidence gained through torture!).

Cohen goes on:

No one can possibly believe that America is safer now because of the new restrictions on enhanced interrogation and the subsequent appointment of a special prosecutor.

I disagree. Looking into this conduct and prosecuting those that bended the law to conform to their policy preference or outright broke the law will show the world that we are a nation of laws, not of men, as the old saying goes.

And, in by far the most dishonest statement of the article, Cohen claims:

The CIA inspector general's report on the quite brutal interrogation of Khalid Sheik Mohammed , the so-called Sept. 11 mastermind, suggests he only turned cooperative once he was repeatedly waterboarded and that the information he provided saved lives.

Talk about taking a play right out of Dick Cheney's torture Public Relations playbook!! As many commentators have detailed, the claim that Mohammed cooperated only after being brutally tortured is completely bogus. We know that anyone, when subjugated to brutally harsh interrogation techniques, will do and say anything to end their suffering, thus rendering their "intelligence"to the US military establishment useless. For any doubt on that contention, see here.

What we know from past investigations into the torture regime and from the CIA IG report is that the US government, at the highest levels, enacted a policy that was directly counter to international and national law regarding the treatment of prisoners or detainees in US custody. The law was bended to fit what the high-level political leaders in the Executive Branch, military, CIA and other national security agencies wanted to do, not the other way around. That, in itself, is illegal. An outstanding Q&A regarding the torture regime between Scott Horton and David Cole is highly recommended and can be read here. Posted below is an interview Keith Olbermann did with Jeremy Scahill regarding the torture regime and prospects for prosecution.