Thursday, February 19, 2009

Hey, it's been a few weeks...

The 180-degree reversal of Obama's State Secrets position

Apparently, the operative word in that highlighted paragraph -- unbeknownst to most people at the time -- was "the Bush administration," since the Obama administration is now doing exactly that which, during the campaign, it defined as "The Problem," the only difference being that it is now Obama, and not Bush, doing it.  For journalists who haven't bothered to learn the first thing about this issue even as they hold themselves out as experts on it, and for Obama followers eager to find an excuse to justify what was done, a brief review of the State Secrets privilege controversy is in order. 

Nobody -- not the ACLU or anyone else -- argues that the State Secrets privilege is inherently invalid.  Nobody contests that there is such a thing as a legitimate state secret.  Nobody believes that Obama should declassify every last secret and never classify anything else ever again.  Nor does anyone even assert that this particular lawsuit clearly involves no specific documents or portions of documents that might be legitimately subject to the privilege.  Those are all transparent, moronic strawmen advanced by people who have no idea what they're talking about.

What was abusive and dangerous about the Bush administration's version of the States Secret privilege -- just as the Obama/Biden campaign pointed out -- was that it was used not (as originally intended) to argue that specific pieces of evidence or documents were secret and therefore shouldn't be allowed in a court case, but instead, to compel dismissal of entire lawsuits in advance based on the claim that any judicial adjudication of even the most illegal secret government programs would harm national security.  That is the theory that caused the bulk of the controversy when used by the Bush DOJ -- because it shields entire government programs from any judicial scrutiny -- and it is that exact version of the privilege that the Obama DOJ yesterday expressly advocated (and, by implication, sought to preserve for all Presidents, including Obama).

GOP's new pledge

Trial begins: Iraqi says he threw shoes at Bush to protest war


The Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at former President George W. Bush failed to apologize as his trial began today, and instead appealed defiantly to the pride of his war-ravaged country.

BAGHDAD — The Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at former President George W. Bush failed to apologize as his trial began today, and instead appealed defiantly to the pride of his war-ravaged country.

In his first public appearance since he was taken into custody on Dec. 14, Muntadhar al-Zeidi said he did not intend to harm Bush or to embarrass Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

"What made me do it was the humiliation Iraq has been subjected to due to the U.S. occupation and the murder of innocent people," al-Zeidi said. "I wanted to restore the pride of the Iraqis in any way possible, apart from using weapons."

The 30-year-old journalist also alleged during his testimony to the three-judge panel that he was tortured while in jail - something the Iraqi government has denied.

Al-Zeidi, who's become a folk hero in Iraq and the rest of Middle East, was greeted by applause and cheers from supporters as he entered the courtroom in western Baghdad. His aunt handed him a scarf imprinted with a red, black and green Iraqi flag, which he kissed and draped around his neck.

The chief judge then threatened to order everybody out of the room if they didn't calm down. The trial was later adjourned until March 12.

Al-Zeidi has been in Iraqi custody since he was wrestled to the ground by guards and dragged away after the Dec. 14 outburst at Bush's joint news conference with al-Maliki in Baghdad.

When he threw the shoes, he shouted at Bush in Arabic: "This is your farewell kiss, you dog! This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq."

Pirate Bay trial in Stockholm: Day 3, the King Kong defense

"EU directive 2000/31/EG says that he who provides an information service is not responsible for the information that is being transferred. In order to be responsible, the service provider must initiate the transfer. But the admins of The Pirate Bay don't initiate transfers. It's the users that do and they are physically identifiable people. They call themselves names like King Kong," Samuelsson told the court.

"According to legal procedure, the accusations must be against an individual and there must be a close tie between the perpetrators of a crime and those who are assisting. This tie has not been shown. The prosecutor must show that Carl Lundström personally has interacted with the user King Kong, who may very well be found in the jungles of Cambodia," the lawyer added.

After the King Kong defense the court decided to adjourn the court case, which will continue tomorrow on day 4. Thus far, the trial is ahead of schedule.

Peter said that after today's proceedings they all went for some pizza, where they met the whole opposing side. He asked if they could pick up the check. "They refused," he said.

Day 3 - The Pirate Bay's 'King Kong' Defense

Cheney and the goat devil


I was dubious about Will Ferrell doing his Bush impersonation one more time on Broadway.

As we lurch through the disasters bequeathed by W. -- the economy tanking, 17,000 more troops going to Afghanistan, Chrysler pleading for $9 billion -- would audiences still laugh at Ferrell's lovable fool of a president?

I was wrong. The audience for the Sunday matinee of "You're Welcome America. A Final Night with George W Bush" howled in delight.

I asked Adam McKay, the former head writer of "Saturday Night Live" who directed and co-wrote the show with Ferrell, why people respond this way to one of the worst presidents ever.

"He's so clearly a neglected 13-year-old that there's something really kind of heartbreaking about him," McKay said, calling him "a good-time Charlie" who was "just used his whole life to front questionable business endeavors, and in a way that's what his presidency was.

"He doesn't have Cheney's cartoonish need for power and greed that's so off the charts you don't even understand how Cheney got that way. W. may have some awareness, deep down inside, sort of like a petulant teenager who just flunked the trig quiz and knows he screwed up. I think Cheney not only knows but is delighted with everything he did, as is Rumsfeld."

In the show, the former president dismisses waterboarding as a spa treatment at Bliss, and reveals that he did walk in on Cheney once in the basement of the White House locked in the amorous arms of a giant goat devil in a room full of pentagrams.

"He looked at me with solid silver glowing orb-like eyes, and his breath had a strong ammonia scent to it," Ferrell's W. said. "And he told me in a language that I knew in my heart hadn't been spoken in a thousand years 'Pariff Go Lanerff!' And I just ran."

One of the great mysteries of the Bush presidency is whether W. ever had an epiphany when he realized that he had been manipulated by Dick Cheney, whether it ever hit him that he had trusted the wrong father figure.

Judge Refuses to Dismiss Charges Against Blackwater Guards

A federal judge yesterday refused to throw out charges against five U.S. security contractors accused of killing 14 Iraqi civilians in a busy Baghdad square in 2007.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina came in an early legal challenge brought by lawyers representing the guards, who worked at the time for Blackwater Worldwide. The guards' attorneys had argued that the government did not have jurisdiction to bring the charges.

The guards were indicted in December on federal charges of voluntary manslaughter, attempted manslaughter and using a firearm in a crime of violence in the controversial shooting in bustling Nisoor Square on Sept. 16, 2007. The government says the guards unleashed an unprovoked attack on Iraqi civilians that day, killing 14 and wounding 20 in a blaze of bullets and grenade explosions.

The charges were brought under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act of 2000, which allows U.S. prosecutors to charge American service members, their family members and those employed by the military for illegal acts committed overseas.

A 2004 amendment expanded the act to cover those working "in support" of Defense Department missions, a provision that prosecutors argue covers security contractors, such as Blackwater.

US backtracks on pay caps to stop Wall Street exodus

President Obama is aiming to water down Democratic proposals on pay caps for banking executives because he fears a "brain drain" on Wall Street.

In a move that has angered leaders of his own party, the President has indicated his concern that new caps on compensation — inserted into his $787 billion stimulus Bill, which he signs into law today - are too draconian and could limit banks' co-operation with his plan to stabilise the stricken financial sector.

This month Mr Obama issued guidelines for the limits: in essence a $500,000 executive pay cap for companies that receive government money. Under the guidelines, restrictions would only apply to banks that receive "exceptional assistance".

The restrictions in the Bill are much tighter, imposing limits on all banks that receive money. The stimulus package also calls for a review of past compensation, raising the prospect of executives having to pay back previous bonuses, and will place pay caps on a much broader array of employees.

The President's stand comes amid increasing clamour over executive payments. Last week Democrats on Capitol Hill reacted with disbelief when it emerged that Merrill Lynch paid bonuses of more than $1 million each to 696 employees days before Bank of America bought it - with the help of $20 billion in taxpayers' money.

At the heart of the dispute in the Democrats' ranks is Timothy Geith-ner, Mr Obama's Treasury Secretary, who appears to have won the argument inside the White House to water down proposed limits on executive pay. The President's political strategists did not want any modifications to the limits because it is so popular among an electorate disgusted with Wall Street excess, but Mr Obama has sided with Mr Geithner.


Is Barack Obama A Free Thinker?

A REAL Wellness Take

By Donald B. Ardell

A recent Wall Street Journal article gave me reason to wonder if Barack Obama might be a closet free thinker, as I suspect was the case with JFK and even Abraham Lincoln. (There are a few articles and books that speculate on these two possibilities.) Like my above-mentioned suspected secret secular heroes, Obama seemingly goes along with traditional Christianity.  He makes a practice, now and then, of exhibiting the requisite ritual piety (e.g., taking the oath of office with one hand resting on a famous bible, ending speeches with God bless America, attending prayer breakfasts and so on). After all, failure to do so would risk giving Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Pat Robertson and other deranged blasphemy law enthusiasts (who might welcome a new Inquisition) enough bait for a feeding frenzy of holy umbrage.  

The author of the Wall Street article (Mark Tooley, "Where Will Obama Worship?" January 18, 2009, page W11), certainly did not portray Obama as a non-believer, let alone (to use a phrase coined by Sam Harris) a "fundamentalist atheist rationalist neo-humanistic secular militant," which I would prefer in a president.  But, reading between the lines, my hopes were raised that he might be quite a skeptic if not a free thinker, even a personal god scoffer, like me.  Here are excerpts from the Tooley piece, with a few added notes of my own, that relate to my suspicions about Obama as a closet free thinker.

* Mr. Obama's mother, Ann Dunham, was a spiritual seeker drawn to many religions, thus she had to know that all of them could not be true. She was looking around, trying to sort out the BS and find something that made sense.  Maybe her son observed some of this questioning.

* Mr. Obama's maternal grandparents were Unitarians.  I don't have to tell you that these people have more in common with Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens than Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Pat Robertson or Ted Haggart.

* Mr. Obama's early Chicago activism took him to Trinity, a black congregation within the United Church of Christ. The UCC is arguably America's most liberal mainline Protestant denomination.

* Trinity is known for its social liberalism -- on issues of gay rights and abortion rights. 

* Mr. Obama seems to share the cool rationalism of the UCC's liberal New England roots...Talking to the Chicago Sun-Times about his faith in 2004, he cited his "suspicion of dogma" and of "the hazards of having too much certainty" and said he preferred "a dose of doubt in religion."

* Mr. Obama has deflected questions about prayer, Jesus and the afterlife.

* Mr. Obama has defined sin as being out of alignment with my values.

* Mr. Obama seems accustomed to the UCC's minimal use of ritual.

And far from least but for now last of my points supporting Obama's skepticism about orthodox religion was the revolutionary phrase in his Inaugural Address that Paul Levinson called "the single most daring words in that speech."  That, of course, was the reference to "Americans of all faiths and no faith."  (Paul Levinson, "The Most Revolutionary Phrase of Obama's Inaugural Address," Open, January 20, 2009.)  Levinson saw this statement as reflecting a "profound inclusionary quality in President Obama's vision, a revolutionary acknowledgement by an American president that non-believers are citizens, too."

Study: Bio-fuels may actually be accelerating global warming

by Agence France-Presse

CHICAGO (AFP) – The use of crop-based biofuels could speed up rather than slow down global warming by fueling the destruction of rainforests, scientists warned Saturday.

Once heralded as the answer to oil, biofuels have become increasingly controversial because of their impact on food prices and the amount of energy it takes to produce them.

They could also be responsible for pumping far more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than they could possibly save as a replacement for fossil fuels, according to a study released Saturday.

"If we run our cars on biofuels produced in the tropics, chances will be good that we are effectively burning rainforests in our gas tanks," warned Holly Gibbs, of Stanford's Woods Institute for the Environment.

Gibbs studied satellite photos of the tropics from 1980 to 2000 and found that half of new cropland came from intact rainforests and another 30 percent from disturbed forests.

"When trees are cut down to make room for new farmland, they are usually burned, sending their stored carbon to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide," Gibbs said.

For high-yield crops like sugar cane it would take 40 to 120 years to pay back this carbon debt.

For lower yield crops like corn or soybeans it would take 300 to 1,500 years, she told reporters at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

"Biofuels have caused alarm because of how quickly production has been growing: Global ethanol production increased by four times and biodiesel by 10 times between 2000 and 2007," Gibbs said.

"Moreover, agricultural subsidies in Indonesia and in the United States are providing added incentives to increase production of these crops."

Gibbs estimates that anywhere from a third to two thirds of recent deforestation could be as a result of the increased demand for biofuels, but said an increased demand for food and feed also play a major role.

Obama's top-shelf tastes

Obama follows some of Bush's footsteps


WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama is already back-tracking on some of his high-road campaign stands and is copying some of former President George Bush's dubious policies.

A couple of weeks ago the Obama administration invoked the controversial state secrets act in the case of Binyam Mohamed, an Ethiopian native, and four other detainees. They claimed they were victims of the Bush administration's rendition program under which terrorism suspects were secretly taken to other countries where, they say, they were tortured.

The Bush administration's position has been that the case should be dismissed because even courtroom discussion of their treatment could threaten national security.

When the case was heard earlier this month before a panel of Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals judges sitting in San Francisco, the Obama administration made the same argument.

One judge asked the Justice Department lawyer if the change in administrations had any bearing on the case.

"No, your honor," came the reply.

According to The New York Times, "even the judges on the panel seemed surprised by the administration's decision to go forward" with the same argument.

That's not "change," the theme of the Obama presidential election campaign. It's more of the same.

Obama’s Afghan Trap

By Amy Goodman

  President Barack Obama on Monday night held his first prime-time news conference. When questioned on Afghanistan, he replied, "This is going to be a big challenge." He also was asked whether he would change the Pentagon policy banning the filming and photographing of the flag-draped coffins of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. He said he was reviewing it. The journalist who asked the question pointed out that it was Joe Biden several years ago who accused the Bush administration of suppressing the images to avoid public furor over the deaths of U.S. service members. Now Vice President Joe Biden predicts that a surge in U.S. troops in Afghanistan will mean more U.S. casualties: "I hate to say it, but yes, I think there will be. There will be an uptick."

  Meanwhile, the Associated Press recently cited a classified report drafted by the Joint Chiefs of Staff recommending a shift in strategy from democracy-building in Afghanistan to attacking alleged Taliban and al-Qaida strongholds along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

  And the campaign has clearly begun. Days after his inauguration, Obama's first (known) military actions were two missile strikes inside Pakistan's frontier province, reportedly killing 22 people, including women and children.

  Cherif Bassiouni has spent years going back and forth to Afghanistan. He is a professor of law at DePaul University and the former United Nations human rights investigator in Afghanistan. In 2005, he was forced out of the United Nations under pressure from the Bush administration, days after he released a report accusing the U.S. military and private contractors of committing human rights abuses. I asked Bassiouni about Obama's approach to Afghanistan. He told me: "There is no military solution in Afghanistan. There is an economic-development solution, but I don't see that coming. ... Right now, the population has nothing to gain by supporting the U.S. and NATO. It has everything to gain by being supportive of the Taliban."

  Bassiouni's scathing 2005 U.N. report accused the U.S. military and private military contractors of "forced entry into homes, arrest and detention of nationals and foreigners without legal authority or judicial review, sometimes for extended periods of time, forced nudity, hooding and sensory deprivation, sleep and food deprivation, forced squatting and standing for long periods of time in stress positions, sexual abuse, beatings, torture, and use of force resulting in death."

Why does Obama want to kill my daddy in Afghanistan?