Friday, January 30, 2009

The Etch-A-Sketch President: Artist uses toy to draw famous faces

Artistic endeavours: The portrait of Barack Obama took 80 hours to produce

By Sara Nelson

The face of newly sworn-in American President Barack Obama is a familiar sight on posters, T-shirts and badges – and it has now appeared on an Etch A Sketch too.

The portrait was created by artist George Vlosich, using the retro toy which originates from the late 1950s.

The likeness took 80 hours to draw with two dials on a plastic frame – all using one unbroken black line.

Artistic endeavours: The portrait of Barack Obama took 80 hours to produce

Twisting the knobs moves a stylus that removes aluminum powder from the back of the screen, leaving a black line.

Vlosich, from Ohio, created the image especially for an art gallery show to celebrate the first black President's inauguration.

He has also produced Etch A Sketch portraits of Will Smith, Tiger Woods, Muhammed Ali and The Beatles.

The 30-year-old, who has been using the toy since the age of ten, said: 'Each is an original work of art that takes 70-80 hours to create.

'Once finished, the piece is then preserved to stand the test of time by removing the powder from the Etch A Sketch.

Next step unclear as judge defies Obama on Guantanamo

By Carol Rosenberg

The chief judge of the Guantanamo war court, Army Col. James Pohl, on Thursday spurned a request from President Barack Obama to freeze the military commissions there, and said he would go forward with next month's hearing for an alleged USS Cole bomber in a capital terror case.

The decision was immediately denounced by the head of the American Civil Liberties Union, which said the ruling smacked of Bush administration holdovers at the Pentagon trying to prevent President Barack Obama from fulfilling his promise to close Guantanamo.

The order, said ACLU executive director Anthony Romero, "raises serious questions about whether Secretary of Defense (Robert) Gates is the 'New Gates' or is the same old Gates under a new president. Gates certainly has the power to put a halt to these proceedings, and his lack of action demonstrates that we may have more of the same — rather than the change we were promised.''

Nevada shouldn't tolerate Torture Airlines

Few eyebrows were raised on Sunday when an otherwise-obscure Boeing 757 slipped into McCarran airport. The airliner is known to sometimes carry a crew of 11 and can accommodate 178 passengers, but it's unlikely the plane was ferrying gamblers or CES conventioneers to our fair city.

The plane is well-known, though, to a cadre of die-hard aviation watchers who recognized the registration number -- N226G. That number speaks volumes to those who understand what it represents.

N226G is widely suspected of being one of the infamous "rendition planes." As readers know, American intelligence agencies have been waging their own secret war on terror. They use an innocuous term "rendition" to describe the tactics they employ, but there's another word that would work just as well -- torture.

Extraordinary rendition is an abomination. It represents everything that we as Americans are supposed to oppose. Under this program, terrorists or suspected terrorists have been kidnapped, whisked away aboard private aircraft, plopped into dark, dank prisons located in countries with despicable human rights records and are reportedly then subjected to horrific torture techniques. Many suspected terrorists have died or disappeared. A "lucky" few have been let go, sometimes after months of physical abuse, because their captors had to reluctantly admit they had grabbed the wrong guys.

After 9/11, the Bush administration pursued these renditions with a vengeance. Whatever legal rights the suspects had were thrown out the window. International law was ignored. There were no warrants, no formal charges, no judicial oversight, no trials.

Can we say for certain that N226G is a torture plane? No. We do have a lot of clues, though. The plane is owned by a company called Comco, which is owned by another company called L-3 Capital, which has reportedly done a lot of work for prominent defense contractor Raytheon (a longtime fixture at the Nevada Test Site and Area 51). Maybe it is a coincidence, but L-3 and Raytheon both share the same modest address, a building in Helena, Mont., that houses several law offices. That, too, is a clue. In general, the CIA doesn't transport terrorists from place to place in planes that carry a CIA logo on the outside. The agency relies instead on shell companies run by fictional people, firms that are established by real-life lawyers who fudge the documents and try to make it as hard as possible for anyone to figure out who the real owners are. Nevada's loose incorporation laws have made it pretty easy for the CIA to set up bogus front companies right here in the Silver State, a fact that has been outlined in previous CityLife columns.

Anti-torture activists all over the world do their best to track every flight of every suspected torture plane, including N226G. One of its sister planes, also owned by Comco, caused an international stir back in 2003 when it was forced to land in India after it left Karachi, Pakistan, on its way to the Maldives, both of which are places you don't want to go if you're a rendition victim.

It seems doubtful that N226G arrived in Las Vegas this week carrying any torture victims. The rendition planes serve many functions, such as shuttling Homeland Security types or other spooks to different military bases for training or other operations. (One of the planes was carrying tons of cocaine when it crashed in Mexico not too long ago.) Other torture planes have been making regular stops in Nevada for the last few years, not only at McCarran but also at North Las Vegas and Nellis. Maybe the crews are trying to tie up loose ends before things hit the fan on Inauguration Day, a day when -- we hope -- America's well-documented reliance on illegal kidnappings and abominable torture techniques will end ... forever.

To make sure that Nevada does not remain a haven for the shell companies that perpetuate torture, let's hope state officials tighten up our incorporation laws so that phony companies created to shield illegal and heinous activities can be weeded out of the files and tossed into the trash where they belong. The next time N226G comes to town, maybe it will be carrying a planeload of porn stars instead of spooks.

Get Some: Obama's New Hard Line on Afghanistan

The Obama administration has decided that blood and iron, not hearts and minds, will be the new focus of the American military adventure in Afghanistan. Top Obama officials – anonymous, natch -- used the front page of the New York Times as a conduit for conveying the imperial will to the rabble this week. The basic strategy, it seems, will be the same one that professional nudnik Glenn Reynolds once proposed for the recalcitrant tribes of the Middle East: "more rubble, less trouble."

As we noted here the other day – drawing on a story in the Independent that the Times is just now catching up with – the Obama team is preparing to throw aside Hamid Karzai, the dapper if hapless Washington-picked Afghan president. The NYT uncritically – not to say hilariously – funnels the Obama line that Karzai is being sidelined "because corruption has become rampant in his government, contributing to a flourishing drug trade and the resurgence of the Taliban."

This is pretty rich, even for Washington, where the comedy of hypocrisy never stops. Leaving aside the staggeringly vast corruption that is the meat and drink, the quintessence, the sine qua non, of the American government, when have our imperial overlords ever been troubled for even a single instant by the corruption – rampant or otherwise – of its various foreign clients? And what was the prime example of this Afghan corruption given by the Obama officials? Karzai's failure to arrest his own half-brother, a powerful local politician, for drug trafficking. Can you even imagine such a thing? A well-connected public official not being prosecuted by the national government for serious crimes? Such a thing could never happen in Washington, could it?

And given the long-running, apparently eternal, thoroughly bipartisan commitment to the ever-ineffectual but highly profitable "war on drugs," it seems a bit churlish -- not to say ignorant -- to blame Karzai for dirt-poor Afghan farmers resorting to such a rich cash crop. As for the gangsters who move the merchandise around the world -- it is the illegality of these substances that makes them so lucrative on the street; legalize them, regularize them, tax them, and they would lose nine-tenths of their allure for the criminal syndicates. But then, what would our civilized governments do without all those juicy, draconian "anti-drug" powers. (For more on all this -- and its connection to Afghanistan -- see "Gainspotting: Terror War Meets Drug War.")

In any case, the drug trade is "flourishing" in Afghanistan because the American-led "regime change" operation there removed a government that had practically eliminated the Afghan drug trade -- the Taliban -- and replaced with it a gaggle of drug-running warlords. Now Washington is shocked -- shocked! -- to find drug-running going on there. Comedy gold, I tell you.

Stimulus Details

Earlier today I wondered what the actual text is of H.R.1, the bill to authorize an $819 billion "stimulus package." Newspapers don't generally go into this kind of detail, perhaps fearing that it would bore their readers, so I visited the very usefulOpen Congress site to find out. As I read the bill, two things caught my eye.

The first should have been obvious: The money will be mostly distributed among existing federal agencies. To spend huge sums of money, the government simply has to channel it through the system that already exists to allocate and track it. Unfortunately, some of these agencies are not widely known for timely and efficient behavior.

The second lesson is a corollary of the first and could be described as "no agency left behind." Naturally when you suddenly have more than $800 billion floating around, everyone wants a piece of it. Thus we find that very substantial sums are being allocated for purposes such as assisting local law enforcement (the war on drugs, no doubt), housing soldiers, and (of course) increasing homeland security.

Here are some random items that I copied and pasted. For more details, check the link above.

Law Enforcement
$3 billion for state and local law enforcement assistance.
$1 billion for community policing services.

Department of Defense
$4.5 billion to modernize and repair Army barracks and other defense facilities.

General Services Administration
$6 billion for construction and repair of federal buildings.
$1 billion for immigration facilities at ports of entry.

Homeland Security
$250 million for salaries and construction at ports of entry.
$500 million for purchase and installation of explosive detection systems.
$150 million for alteration or removal of obstructive bridges.

The last item is amusing in a grim way. I thought this bill was largely intended to restore "crumbling infrastructure" but apparently $150 million will be spent partly on tearing it down.

The office of making shit up

Iraq, Afghanistan VA Patients Exceed 400,000

by Maya Schenwar
Soldier with gun hiding in corner.
Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) bring the horrors of the battlefield home.
Twenty-six percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who seek care at the VA have PTSD.
(Photo: Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

    As the number of veterans seeking health care continues to rise, the VA is straining to meet demands.
    Amid talk of a drawdown of troops in Iraq, new statistics from the Department of Defense (DoD) and the Department of Veterans' Affairs (VA) show that US casualties are still climbing quickly. Iraq and Afghanistan battlefield injuries and deaths number 81,361, up from 72,043 last January, according to data obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by Veterans for Common Sense (VCS). Veteran patients - including those who didn't seek care until their return home - shot up to 400,304 (from 263,909 in December 2007).
    For the thousands of soldiers flooding the VA, mental illness tops the list of ailments. Forty-five percent of VA patients have already been diagnosed with mental health conditions, including a startling 105,000 diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These data do not include the incalculable number of mentally ill veterans who have not received a diagnosis or haven't sought treatment at the VA.
    Health care for veterans has improved substantially in the past year, mostly due to legislative changes and funding boosts, according to Raymond Kelley, legislative director of AMVETS. The recently passed Dignity for Wounded Warriors Act entitles veterans to up to five years of free health care for military-related medical conditions. Other legislative victories include improvements to VA facilities, increased mental health care research and a boost for the claims processing system, which has been vastly understaffed and overburdened throughout the "war on terror."
    However, many barriers to adequate care and compensation remain, particularly for veterans filing for disability benefits. Delays and denials of those claims are routine. Among vets with PTSD, 59 percent have not been approved for benefits, meaning that their claims are pending or rejected - or that, due to any number of deterrents, they have not filed a claim.

Officials: Army suicides at 3-decade high

Graphic shows active duty Army suicides from 1990 to 2008; 1 c x 3 7/8 in; 46.5WASHINGTON – Suicides among U.S. soldiers rose last year to the highest level in decades, the Army announced Thursday. At least 128 soldiers killed themselves in 2008. But the final count is likely to be considerably higher because 15 more suspicious deaths are still being investigated and could also turn out to be self-inflicted, the Army said.

A new training and prevention effort will start next week. And Col. Elspeth Ritchie, a psychiatric consultant to the Army surgeon general, made a plea for more U.S. mental health professionals to sign on to work for the military.

"We are hiring and we need your help," she said.

The new suicide figure compares with 115 in 2007 and 102 in 2006 and is the highest since record keeping began in 1980. Officials calculate the deaths at a rate of roughly 20.2 per 100,000 soldiers — which is higher than the adjusted civilian rate for the first time since the Vietnam War, officials told a Pentagon news conference.

"We need to move quickly to do everything we can to reverse this disturbing ... number," Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli said.

Officials have said that troops are under tremendous and unprecedented stress because of repeated and long tours of duty due to the simultaneous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.


2009 Will Be a Year of Panic

From the fevered mind of Bruce Sterling and his alter-ego, Bruno Argento, a consideration of things ahead.

"Once people lose faith in the institution of insurance — because insurance can't be made to pay in climate-crisis conditions — we'll find ourselves living in a Planet of Slums."
Illustration: Joe Kloc.

I'm always impressed by people's behavior during massive panics. They rarely believe or admit that they are panicked. Instead they assure one another that at last the wool has been lifted from their eyes. They are seeing the clear daylight of rationality after years of delusion.

But a delusion that lasts for decades is not a delusion. It's an institution. And these, our institutions, are what now fail us. People no longer know what they value. They don't know what to believe. And unfortunately, it's part of the human condition to believe and invest in things that are demonstrably not true.

As 2009 opens, our financial institutions are deep in massive, irrational panic. That's bad, but it gets worse: Many other respected institutions have rational underpinnings at least as frail as derivatives or bundled real-estate loans. Like finance, these institutions are social constructions. They are games of confidence, underpinned by people's solemn willingness to believe, to conform, to contribute. So why not panic over them, too?

Let's consider seven other massive reservoirs of potential popular dread. Any one of these could erupt, shattering the fragile social compact we maintain with one another in order to believe things contrary to fact.

1. The climate. People still behave as if it's okay. Every scientist in the world who isn't the late Michael Crichton knows that it's not. The climate is in terrible shape; something's gone wrong with the sky. The bone-chilling implications haven't soaked into the populace, even though Al Gore put together a PowerPoint about it that won him a Nobel. Al was soft-peddling the problem.

It's become an item of fundamentalist faith to maintain that the climate crisis is a weird leftist hoax. Yet, since the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike, an honest fear of the consequences will prove hard to repress. Since the fear has been methodically obscured, its emergence from the mists of superstition will be all the more powerful. Unlike mere shibboleths of finance, this is a situation that's objectively terrifying and likely to remain so indefinitely.

2. Intellectual property. More specifically, the fiat declaration that properties that are easy to reproduce shouldn't be reproduced.

Declaring that "information wants to be free" is an ideological stance. A real-world situation where information can't be anything but free, where digital information cannot be monetized, is bizarre and deeply scary. No banker or economist anywhere has the ghost of clue what to do under such conditions.

Intellectual property made sense and used to work rather well when conditions of production favored it. Now they don't. If it's simple to copy just one single movie, some gray area of fair use can be tolerated. If it becomes easy to copy a million movies with one single button-push, this vast economic superstructure is reduced to rags. Our belief in this kind of "property" becomes absurd.

To imagine that real estate is worthless is strange, though we've somehow managed to do that. But our society is also built on the supposed monetary worth of unreal estate. In fact, the planet's most advanced economies are optimized to create pretty much nothing else. The ultimate global consequences of this situation's abject failure would rank with the collapse of Communism.

Legal Jeopardy For American Torturers Here and Abroad?

 A Q & A Session With An Expert on the Issue, Philippe Sands

Remarkably, the confirmation of President Obama's Attorney General nominee, Eric Holder, is being held up by Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn, who apparently is unhappy that Holder might actually investigate and prosecute Bush Administration officials who engaged in torture. Aside from this repugnant new Republican embrace of torture (which might be a winning issue for the lunatic fringe of the party and a nice way to further marginalize the GOP), any effort to protect Bush officials from legal responsibility for war crimes, in the long run, will not work.

It is difficult to believe that Eric Holder would agree not to enforce the law, like his recent Republican predecessors. Indeed, if he were to do so, President Obama should withdraw his nomination. But as MSNBC "Countdown" anchor Keith Olbermann stated earlier this week, even if the Obama Administration for whatever reason does not investigate and prosecute these crimes, this still does not mean that the Bush Administration officials who were involved in torture are going to get a pass.

With few exceptions, the discussion about what the Obama Administration will do regarding the torture of detainees during the Bush years has been framed as a domestic matter, and the fate of those involved in torturing has been largely viewed as a question of whether the Department of Justice will take action. In fact, not only is the world watching what the Obama Administration does regarding Bush's torturers, but other countries are very likely to take action if the United States fails to do so.

Bush's Torturers Have Serious Jeopardy

Philippe Sands, a Queen's Counsel at Matrix Chambers and Professor of International law at University College London, has assembled a powerful indictment of the key Bush Administration people involved in torture in his book Torture Team: Rumsfeld's Memo and the Betrayal of American Values. He explains the legal exposure of people like former attorney general Alberto Gonzales, Dick Cheney's counsel and later chief of staff David Addington, former Office of Legal Counsel attorney John Yoo, the former Department of Defense general counsel Jim Haynes, and others for their involvement in the torture of detainees at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and CIA secret prisons.

After reading Sands's book and, more recently, listening to his comments on Terry Gross's NPR show "Fresh Air," on January 7, 2009 I realized how closely the rest of the world is following the actions of these former officials, and was reminded that these actions appear to constitute not merely violations of American law, but also, and very literally, crimes against humanity – for which the world is ready to hold them responsible.

Here is what Professor Sands told Terry Gross on NPR: "In talking to prosecutors around the world, as I have done, they all recognize the very real political difficulties of taking on someone who has been Vice President of the United States, or President of the United States, or Secretary of Defense of the United States. But those arguments melt away as you go a little down the chain. And I don't think the same arguments would apply in relation to the man, for example, who was Vice President Cheney's general counsel, at the time the decisions were taken, David Addington…. I think he faces a very real risk of, you know, investigation for complicity in an act that amounts to torture…." Later, referring to "international investigations," he added that Addington (and others) were at "serious risk of being investigated."

These are remarkable statements from a very well-informed man. Because we have a common publisher, I was able to contact him in London, and pose a few questions. I find his book, statements and responses to my questions chilling.

2009 Political Oscars

ACLU tests Obama with request for secret Bush-era memos

By Marisa Taylor | McClatchy Newspapers

WASHINGTON — Dozens of secret documents justifying the Bush administration's spying and interrogation programs could see the light of day because of a new presidential directive.

The American Civil Liberties Union asked the Obama administration on Wednesday to release Justice Department memos that provided the legal underpinning for harsh interrogations, eavesdropping and secret prisons.

For years, the Bush administration refused to release them, citing national security, attorney-client privilege and the need to protect the government's deliberative process.

The ACLU's request, however, comes after President Barack Obama last week rescinded a 2001 Justice Department memo that gave agencies broad legal cover to reject public disclosure requests. Obama also urged agencies to be more transparent when deciding what documents to release under the Freedom of Information Act.

The ACLU now sees a new opening.

"The president has made a very visible and clear commitment to transparency," said Jameel Jaffer, the director of the ACLU's National Security Project. "We're eager to see that put into practice."

The collection of memos, written by the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, are viewed as the missing puzzle pieces that could help explain the Bush administration's antiterrorism policies.

NATO High Commander Issues Illegitimate Order to Kill


By Susanne Koelbl

The approach to combatting the drug mafia in Afghanistan has spurred an open rift inside NATO. According to information obtained by SPIEGEL, top NATO commander John Craddock wants the alliance to kill opium dealers, without proof of connection to the insurgency. NATO commanders, however, do not want to follow the order.

US soldiers on patrol in Afghanistan. The radical Islamists from the Taliban obtain much of their financing through the sale of heroin. NATO commander John Craddock wants to cut off that source of money -- by giving NATO troops the authority to attack those involved in the drug trade.

A dispute has emerged among NATO High Command in Afghanistan regarding the conditions under which alliance troops can use deadly violence against those identified as insurgents. In a classified document, which SPIEGEL has obtained, NATO's top commander, US General John Craddock, has issued a "guidance" providing NATO troops with the authority "to attack directly drug producers and facilities throughout Afghanistan."

According to the document, deadly force is to be used even in those cases where there is no proof that suspects are actively engaged in the armed resistance against the Afghanistan government or against Western troops. It is "no longer necessary to produce intelligence or other evidence that each particular drug trafficker or narcotics facility in Afghanistan meets the criteria of being a military objective," Craddock writes.
The NATO commander has long been frustrated by the reluctance of some NATO member states -- particularly Germany -- to take aggressive action against those involved in the drug trade. Craddock rationalizes his directive by writing that the alliance "has decided that (drug traffickers and narcotics facilities) are inextricably linked to the Opposing Military Forces, and thus may be attacked." In the document, Craddock writes that the directive is the result of an October 2008 meeting of NATO defense ministers in which it was agreed that NATO soldiers in Afghanistan may attack opium traffickers.

How Bush will be remembered