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Robert Scheer | The Nation

Robert Scheer

Author Bios

Robert Scheer

Contributing Editor

Robert Scheer, a contributing editor to The Nation, is editor of Truthdig.com and author of The Great American Stickup: How Reagan Republicans and Clinton Democrats Enriched Wall Street While Mugging Main Street (Nation Books), The Pornography of Power: How Defense Hawks Hijacked 9/11 and Weakened America (Twelve) and Playing President (Akashic Books). He is author, with Christopher Scheer and Lakshmi Chaudhry, of The Five Biggest Lies Bush Told Us About Iraq (Akashic Books and Seven Stories Press.) His weekly column, distributed by Creators Syndicate, appears in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Articles

News and Features

Te Bush Administration is looking to revive Reagan's Star Wars system, but why not resurrect something better from his legacy?

China Spying Story: All the Excuses Fit to Print
20010206

The words of the FBI inquisitor concerning his treatment of Wen Ho
Lee couldn't have been more chilling: "It seemed like the more times you
hit him upside the head, the more truth comes out; it's like a little
kid."

That totalitarian sentiment was cited uncritically by the New York
Times
as the summation of the first part of a lengthy examination of the
two-year case, in which the newspaper's reporting played a driving role.
Both the government and the Times acted as if Wen Ho Lee was presumed
guilty of spying until proved innocent.

The "little kid" in question, is a 61-year-old PhD and a highly
regarded ex-Los Alamos scientist. A Taiwanese-born US citizen, Lee
never was charged with actually spying or passing secrets to any
government, but he was held for nine months under what the judge in the
case came to define as "extraordinarily onerous conditions of
confinement."

Those conditions, dictated over the judge's objections by the Justice
Department under its power in such cases, included solitary confinement
in a constantly lit cell and full-chain shackles even during brief
moments of exercise or meetings with his attorneys. That barbaric
treatment ended only after nine months, when Reagan-appointed
conservative Chief US District Judge James A. Parker released Lee for
time served, severely rebuked the prosecutors for deceiving him with
their flimsy case and, in an unprecedented gesture, added "I sincerely
apologize to you, Dr. Lee, for the unfair manner you were held in custody
by the executive branch." Lee was exonerated of fifty-eight charges and pleaded
guilty to unlawful retention of classified documents.

As the New York Times now concedes, government prosecutors had only
the weakest case against Lee but hoped that the threat of life
imprisonment and the harsh jail conditions could be used to break the man
and obtain a confession to a crime of spying for China, of which there
was not a shred of solid evidence.

Although the government case "collapsed of its own light weight," as
the Times put it, employing curious physics, the newspaper has only
feebly touched on its own role in this case.

Particularly onerous was the newspaper's original hoary front-page
headline: "Breach at Los Alamos...China Stole Nuclear Secrets for
Bombs, U.S. Aides Say." The story went further: "Working with nuclear
secrets stolen from an American government laboratory, China has made a
leap in the development of nuclear weapons: the miniaturization of its
bombs."

That was a reference to the W-88 warhead, but in the conclusion of its
recap, the Times concedes that many of the top scientists in the Energy
Department and the FBI since 1995 have "disagreed with the conclusion
that China, using stolen secrets, had built a weapon like the W-88." At
the same time, the newspaper conceded that there was nothing in the files
downloaded by Lee that would actually allow China to build such a weapon
and that "secrets" concerning its development are widely dispersed
throughout the defense industry.

The techniques for miniaturization are also well understood by former
scientists for the Soviet Union, who long ago developed such weapons and
whose talents are for sale on the world job market. Despite having
destroyed Lee's reputation with its uncritical ventilation of government
leaks, the Times seems bent on continuing the process. Its recent series
is larded with such references as: "According to a secret FBI report
recently obtained by the Times, Dr. Lee told agents . . . "

Isn't the government committing a more egregious violation of national
security by leaking information about secret computer codes--as it
apparently did to buttress its claims against Lee in the current New York
Times
account?

In the landmark 1971 Pentagon Papers case won by the New York Times
before the US Supreme Court, the Times asserted that it was merely
exercising rights guaranteed by the free press clause of the 1st
Amendment to print in toto a lengthy secret government study of US
actions in Vietnam. The same principle of fully sharing information with
the reader should apply to so-called secret documents obtained by the
Times in the Lee case so that we can make our own judgments.

But in its two years of reporting on the Wen Ho Lee case, the New York
Times
has relied extensively on selected references to secret government
documents that smeared Lee, documents that Lee and the newspaper's
readers were not permitted to examine. Freedom of the press is presumably
for the benefit of the readers in general and of victims of government
abuse in particular. Yet the Times, as with many media outlets these
days, has perverted that freedom to justify its willful participation in
government manipulation of the news.

The New York Times has not yet come to grips with the enormity of its
betrayal of the principles of fairness that should govern a great
newspaper. What could be more basic to that obligation than the vigorous
protection of the right of any citizen, Taiwanese immigrants included, to
the presumption of innocence?

Robert Scheer was the last journalist to interview Robert Kennedy.

George W. Bush has a sweet appealing face until he reveals his dark
side, as when he, in one of his first official acts, cut off funds to
international population control groups.

The pundits said he was merely getting even with organizations like
Planned Parenthood, which have opposed John Ashcroft's nomination as
attorney general. But the stark consequences of that political vendetta
will be tens of thousands of women around the world who will not have
access to safe birth control and who will die in self-mutilating attempts
at abortion. These women find themselves in such dire straits because
they are, in many cases, the victims of forced sex, whether by husbands
or strangers, who have total power over them.

In his message to the throngs bused into the nation's capital last
week protesting on the 28th anniversary of the Supreme Court's ruling
that abortion is legal, Bush said, "We share a great goal--to work toward
a day when every child is welcomed in life and protected by law."

That sounds noble, but it begs the question: For how long is that
child welcome--an hour or a lifetime?

What if that child is an 8-year-old street beggar in Rio de Janeiro or
Bangkok? Will he still be welcome, and under what law will he be
protected from pimps, perverted tourists and local merchants who hire
gunmen to blow street urchins away? And what about the mothers of those
children? Will they, and their families, sink deeper into poverty because
of a birthing decision over which they had little or no control?
Assuredly, they and their progeny will not be welcome to immigrate to the
US to escape the economic collapse of their own part of the world. Nor
has Bush even suggested an increase in the pathetic $2 annually per
American allocated to foreign aid for the world's poor. Instead, he
proposes a $236 billion tax cut over the next decade for the wealthiest
2 percent of Americans, money that if spent on the world's poor would represent
a strong pro-life statement. In effect, he's cynically cheering on
spiraling and unsustainable populations abroad.

That's the reality faced daily by the folks at Planned Parenthood and
those other international population-control organizations that Bush--in
a sop to the right wing of his party--decided to cut off from US
funding last week. There isn't a reputable social service organization
that doesn't prefer contraception to abortion. Denying these groups
funding undermines their effort to educate about birth control, which
would help head off abortions and also curb population growth. Fully
one-third of the world's work force is effectively unemployed, and the
United Nations estimates that 500 million new jobs must be created just
to accommodate new arrivals in the job market over the next decade.
Developing economies do not stand a chance of meeting that demand without
aggressive population control.

Yet Bush has chosen to cut funding for the very organizations, most
notably Planned Parenthood, that work hardest to make birth control
information available throughout the world. These groups do not use a
penny of government money when they counsel women for whom birth control
has failed that abortion is an option. But Bush would deny funds to any
organization that offers abortion information in any of its privately
funded activities.

For all his praise of private charities, Bush does not trust one of
the nation's most venerable social service organizations to organize its
work so as to not compromise the law. This is an organization actively
supported by his grandfather, Prescott Bush, who lost his first campaign
for the US Senate because Democrats confused Catholic voters with
charges that Bush had contributed money to Planned Parenthood. When he
finally won the seat, Prescott Bush was a strong advocate for the
organization.

His son, George Herbert Walker Bush, as a young congressman was the
author of the Family Planning Act of 1970, which George W. is now
attempting to reverse. He should heed the words of his father back in
1973: "Success in the population field, under United Nations leadership,
may, in turn, determine whether we resolve successfully the other great
questions of peace, prosperity and individual rights that face the
world."

Bush Sr. abandoned that sensible position to obtain the vice
presidential slot on Ronald Reagan's ticket. The Reagan Administration
first imposed the "gag" rule on family planning organizations, denying
them funds if they even mentioned abortion as a choice in their
educational work. That is the ban that Bill Clinton reversed and which
George W. has re-established.

Bush's purpose seems to be that of placating the far right while
punishing Planned Parenthood for having dared to suggest that John
Ashcroft, who equates abortion to murder, cannot be trusted to enforce
the law protecting a women's legal right to choose that medical
procedure.

One suspects that if Prescott Bush had been given the choice of
trusting Planned Parenthood over Ashcroft to obey the law, his answer
would have been obvious.

Although he endured great hardship, Bill Clinton comes out of the Oval Office smelling like roses.

That John Ashcroft is a right-wing, pro-gun religious fanatic who
laments the civil rights gains of the past decades and believes that
leaders of the pro-slavery Southern Confederacy are deserving of
veneration should not disqualify him from holding an important office.

No, indeed, he would make an excellent president of the National Rifle
Association, or leader of the Christian Coalition or an anti-abortion group.
Perhaps there's even a job for the defeated Republican senator in the
federal government, say on some historical commission devoted to the
restoration of Civil War artifacts, such as the holding cells for runaway
slaves.

But how can George W. Bush appoint as US attorney general a man who
gave an interview to the pro-Confederate Southern Partisan magazine that
praised the magazine for its "heritage...of defending Southern
patriots like Lee, Jackson and Davis"? Ashcroft said it was necessary to
stand up for the leaders of the Old South "or else we'll be taught that
these people were giving their lives, subscribing their sacred fortunes
and their honor to some perverted agenda." Never mind that the agenda
these people were defending was slavery. This can only lead one to
believe that Ashcroft's strenuous opposition to affirmative action is
based on the view that slavery and segregation were not all that damaging
to the lives of black Americans.

Ashcroft represents the extreme flash point of the culture wars that
are threatening to tear this country apart. He's of the school that
interprets Christianity as a mandate for condemnation and exclusion
rather than tolerance and inclusion. He's so imbued with his own personal
connection to the Almighty that he interprets his electoral defeats as
"crucifixions" and his return to public life as "resurrections."

His religious arrogance allows for no other interpretation of God's
will. For example, Ashcroft has made support of the death penalty a
litmus test in his selection of judges; what about the Roman Catholic
Church's position condemning capital punishment? Ashcroft finds a
biblical basis for his stern condemnation of homosexuality, but there are
leading Christian and Jewish denominations that strongly disagree.

Ashcroft has every right to practice his variant of Pentecostal
Christianity, but the idea that the nation's chief law enforcer might
force his interpretation into the law of the land is deeply troubling.
The attorney general is charged with protecting the civil rights of
minorities and women's reproductive freedom. Yet Ashcroft's view of what
rights are protected by the Constitution is so narrowly defined as to
condone the reversal of most of the advances in human rights in the past
half-century.

For example, at a time of rising hate crimes aimed at homosexuals, he
voted against the Hate Crimes Prevention Act as well as bills banning
discrimination in employment. He even voted against AIDS funding.

On a woman's right to choose, which is accepted by a clear majority of
Americans and by the courts, Ashcroft has endorsed the most extreme side
of the anti-abortion position: "If I had the opportunity to pass but a
single law," he has said, it would be a constitutional amendment to "ban
every abortion except for those medically necessary to save the life of
the mother." He excludes rape and incest as justification for abortion.

Ashcroft's abortion views are so extreme that he would favor banning
some contraceptives, such as the pill and IUDs, that can prevent a
fertilized egg from being implanted in the uterus, thus causing, in his
view, de facto abortions. As attorney general, he would play a crucial
role in picking federal judges, including the US Supreme Court, and
there is no way that he would be party to nominating judges who accept
the court's decision in Roe v. Wade.

Finally, we don't need an attorney general who's been the NRA's most
reliable vote in the Senate and the recipient of much funding from that
organization. He was one of only twenty senators who opposed mandatory safety
locks for guns. He also opposed a ban on assault weapons, and he urged
Missouri voters to legalize the carrying of concealed weapons.

The last job in the world that Ashcroft should be offered is that of
US attorney general. Imagine the outcry if Bush had appointed Jesse
Helms to that position. Yet according to the National Journal, Ashcroft's
voting record as a senator was to the right of Helms.

Bush has betrayed the vast majority of Americans who voted for the
politics of inclusiveness and moderation advanced by both him and Al
Gore. Why is there not a single Republican senator, let alone more
Democrats, who are willing to condemn this obvious disaster of a
nomination?

Let's assume that Linda Chavez had the best of intentions when she
broke the law by harboring an illegal immigrant. More power to her for
her compassion, even if at the very same time that she was playing
hostess to her house guest, she was criticizing Zoe Baird, President
Clinton's choice for attorney general, for hiring "an illegal alien."

Let's face it, crimes involving the use of immigrant labor are
committed by many otherwise law-abiding citizens on a regular basis in
any of the large states--California, Texas, Florida and New York, for
example--where immigrant labor is a mainstay of the local economy. As
with the absurdly constructed drug war, our irrational and unenforceable
immigration laws have made law-breakers out of many otherwise upright
citizens. It is difficult to always live within the confines of a
contradiction that passes as a policy.

But beyond that, Chavez's predicament forces us to recognize that it
is both compassionate and prudent for this nation to rethink its
immigration policy. It is time to lower the obstacles to immigrants who
want to come here and to grant amnesty to the millions who have been
law-abiding citizens in this country for many years but cannot prove they
entered legally.

Historically, when we loosened the laws for European immigrants, it
was noncontroversial, but recent amnesties that have mostly benefited
Latin Americans and Asians have met strenuous resistence. Never mind that
all previous amnesties, no matter the prime ethnic beneficiaries, have
worked out splendidly. Indeed, our ability to absorb immigrants is the
key to the success of the US economy. A new, far-reaching amnesty is
once again needed, particularly to unify families on opposite sides of
the US-Mexico border and in Central America.

Meanwhile, there is much that can be done to slow the flow of illegal
immigration and to ensure that undocumented workers already in this
country do not undermine the prevailing wage rates. The main weapon is as
simple as it is often ignored: Enforce and strengthen the existing labor
laws. If we would only enforce the existing laws on minimum wage,
overtime pay, the requirement that employers provide workers compensation
and myriad occupational safety rules, that would ensure the end of
sweatshops in factories and the fields.

The fact is, employers largely rely on cheap labor made possible only
by a failure to improve and enforce this country's labor laws. In
California, former Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican, empowered the state
labor department (under the inspired leadership of Victoria Bradshaw and
Jose Millan) to enforce the laws, resulting in a dramatic decline of
exploitation of immigrant labor. The success of the California program
was so obvious that the US Labor Department, to great effect, expanded
a similar campaign to other states with high immigration.

Key to that program is establishing and enforcing a minimum wage that
makes work attractive to legally documented workers. The evidence shows
that when wages are good, the jobs are taken by documented workers. And
if the jobs do not exist, the flow of immigrants will dramatically
decline into a non-problem.

Yet the Republicans in Congress have resisted even the idea of
adjusting the minimum wage to keep up with increases in the cost of
living. Chavez was a lousy choice for secretary of Labor precisely
because she has been one of the main voices in the Republican camp
against the very idea of a minimum wage. In a 1995 Denver Post article,
she criticized the Clinton Administration's attempt to adjust the minimum
wage to account for inflationary increases in the past decade, writing:
"A 90-cent minimum wage hike over two years isn't just bad politics--it's
bad policy. The folks at the Clinton Labor Department seem to think wage
policy should follow Karl Marx's dictum 'from each according to his
abilities, to each according to his needs.'" What a bizarre thing for
her to say.

To increase the minimum wage in real dollars to where it was decades
ago under Republican Presidents is hardly a radical step. Chavez should
not have worried that it might produce an egalitarian society, since
people making less than $6 an hour still are deep in poverty and require
food stamps not to starve.

But someone so heartless as to deny the need for even meager
guarantees of subsistence for those who work should never have been
appointed secretary of a department whose purpose is to look out for the
well-being of workers. The pocket change she gave her house guest for
cleaning the toilets is no substitute for federal guarantees of decent
pay for hard work.

If this is the sort of "compassionate conservative" that George W.
Bush has in mind, it will be a grim season for the vast number of
hard-working people who, though they did not benefit from the boom of the
past decades, have helped make Bush and his key backers even richer.

Senate Democrats must save George W. Bush from his scarier self.
They must reject the appointment of John Ashcroft as attorney general, an
appointment that gives the extreme right its most cherished prize--the
power to undermine decades of progress in civil rights, free speech and
abortion rights. This is not a position for a right-wing ideologue, which
Ashcroft certainly is.

Outwardly, Bush plays the moderate. That's why he came so close to
legitimately winning the presidency. During the campaign, he kept his
distance from the GOP right wing while battling Al Gore for the support
of centrist voters. Now, obviously not at all chastened by being the
first president in more than a century to have lost the popular vote,
Bush has boldly appointed Pat Robertson's favorite senator to the most
important domestic position in his administration.

Ashcroft believes that moderate is a dirty word. "Two things you find
in the middle of the road: a moderate and a dead skunk, and I don't want
to be either one of them," he thundered during his brief primary campaign
as the far right's alternative to George W.

All one needs to know about Ashcroft is that he achieved a 100 percent voting
record from Robertson's Christian Coalition on every major vote he cast
in the US Senate, from abortion and the environment to the arts and the
economy. But it's a voting record that cost Ashcroft his Senate seat in
Missouri.

Clearly, the political center is where Ashcroft's former constituents
and most Americans want their government to be. The voting public's
inability to decide between two moderate candidates for President was
just one indication of its rejection of extreme politics. People expect
the Justice Department to enforce laws regarding a woman's sovereignty
over her own body, civil rights, gun control and drug treatment, among
others.

Yet here we have Ashcroft, a man who sponsored a constitutional
amendment to ban abortion even in the case of rape and incest. How can we
expect him to protect a woman's right to a medical procedure that he
regards as murder?

As for civil rights, Ashcroft was notorious in the Senate for
systematically blackballing President Clinton's judicial and
administrative appointees solely because they possessed a strong
pro-civil rights record. Indeed, Ashcroft, in an interview with the
neosegregationist Southern Partisan magazine, even flirted with the
notion that the wrong side may have won the Civil War. Can he now be
trusted to follow through on the Justice Department's ongoing
investigation into the abysmal treatment of black voters in Florida?
Hardly.

Just go down the list of issues, and Ashcroft is farthest to the right
on most of them.

He's a stern opponent of laws that would prevent discrimination
against homosexuals and was particularly mean-spirited in his attacks
during the confirmation of James Hormel, who happens to be gay, as
ambassador to Luxembourg. He's a darling of the National Rifle Association. And,
at a time of growing recognition, even by the retiring drug czar, that
the drug war has failed, we face the prospect of an attorney general who,
as a senator, voted against a law to provide funding for treatment. This
measure was so noncontroversial that even Republican hard-liners like
Orrin Hatch and Strom Thurmond were sponsors.

Democratic Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, who at first said he
was inclined to grant Bush his choice as attorney general, says upon
further reflection that Ashcroft must prove to his former colleagues in
the Senate that he "will vigorously pursue the civil rights laws that he
has--with good reason from his perspective--argued against for the last
twenty years."

Too late for such proof. Biden and his colleagues should make it clear
that there can be no bipartisan cooperation if the Bush Administration
insists on insulting the majority of American voters by putting extreme
ideologues in charge of Justice. They have an obligation to keep the
faith with voters who gave Gore a more than 500,000-vote margin of
victory in the popular vote and the Democrats a tie in the Senate.

Those voters, as well as many who voted for Bush thinking he was not
beholden to the right wing of his party, should not be betrayed in
deference to the clubbiness of the Senate. Ashcroft took the gloves off
when he blocked Clinton's appointees. It is time Senate Democrats showed
the voters they can dish it out as well as take it.

Ashcroft's supporters assure us that he will have no trouble enforcing
laws that he disagrees with. But since he profoundly disagrees with so
many, why put the man through such a test?

Senate Democrats should spare Ashcroft the anxiety that derives from
pretending to enforce laws he finds deeply immoral.

How ironic that Ashcroft's supporters now ask that he be treated with kid gloves during his own nomination hearings.

Our correspondent, longtime Los Angeles Times reporter and columnist Robert Scheer, has spent several hours over the years questioning President Reagan on a variety of subjec