The California state capitol in Sacramento. (Flickr/Rafał Próchniak)
This article originally appeared at Waging Nonviolence and is reposted with permission.
After the Newtown shootings, the urgency to secure schools shot up. California Senator Barbara Boxer floated legislation to deploy the National Guard in districts nationwide; President Obama included grants for “school resource officers” in his since-mothballed gun control proposals; and districts, including Los Angeles, which already has the largest school police force in the country, called for more police or stronger partnerships with local law enforcement.
Across the country, students of color braced for the aftershock. School police are the bedrock of the school-to-prison pipeline, a system that levies harsh punishments for nonviolent behavior and, despite scant evidence of greater infraction, funnels disproportionate numbers of black and Latino students out of school and into court. This system of racialized discipline and punishment feeds off moments of fear like Newtown—from the Reagan-era war on drugs, when zero tolerance discipline was born, to the Columbine shootings, which led schools in Denver to increase student referrals to law enforcement by 71 percent over the next four years.
The most recent police surge is, however, only one part of the story. The commotion over school safety has also opened space for youth organizers to push the conversation in the opposite direction.
On May 29, the California state assembly passed AB 549 by a vote of 71-0. The bill is a sweeping attempt to clarify the role of school police, limit their involvement in student discipline and prioritize the use of restorative justice training, school counselors and related support in school violence prevention. In its current wording, it encourages schools to articulate the role of all school staff—from police officers to mental health workers—in state-mandated school safety plans. As it moves to the state Senate, activists are pushing to make that encouragement a requirement, while also requiring schools to emphasize practices like counseling and conflict resolution training. They also seek an explicit definition of school police as overseers of physical safety rather than student discipline.
AB 549 follows on the heels of related efforts in Texas and Connecticut—and a handful of laws passed in the state’s previous legislative session focused on rolling back zero tolerance discipline. The current bill, like the ones before it, builds on the coalition work of large advocacy organizations and organizing-based community groups across California. Some of these groups are affiliated with the national Dignity in Schools Campaign, which published a comprehensive set of policy recommendations authored by youth of color after the Newtown shootings.
For students, having a voice in school policy is a goal unto itself. “We were always told, when the cops pulled us over, and even with teachers sometimes, that this is who you are, and this is where you’re going to end up,” said Carlo Elmo Gomez, a 22-year-old organizer for Los Angeles’s Community Rights Campaign who was once shot at as a high schooler. “The reconstitution of schools, the constant attack on black and brown schools—how can you address this without addressing the conditions the youth are going through?”
The language of AB 549 has been watered down and tossed around by lobbies like the Association of California School Administrators, which has argued that the bill is “very prescriptive for a school safety plan” and would impose onerous legwork. No matter the linguistic turns of this bill, though, it’s only one plank of an escalating statewide strategy—and a lever for building power locally.
In Los Angeles, students and allies have a long history of resistance to the city’s deeply racialized disciplinary practices. In 2007, after years of pushing from CADRE, a South LA–based community group, the district ordered schools to adopt proactive mediation practices and decrease reliance on exclusionary punishment like out-of-school suspensions (though reports show schools have been slow to implement them). In 2011, the city agreed to back down on ticketing students hundreds of dollars for being late to school. In May, the school board passed a student bill of rights, which bans expulsions and out-of-school suspensions for “willful defiance,” a judgment-heavy category that includes fighting, walking out and talking back.
“When we were first writing the bill of rights, it was going over things, perfecting the wording, going over what discipline and punishment really look like—and what willful defiance really is, because it means so many things,” said Michael Davis, a sophomore at Manuel Arts High School in South LA. and an organizer with the Community Rights Campaign.
Students have yet to succeed at downgrading willful defiance on the state level, as Governor Jerry Brown vetoed a related bill, AB 420, last session. It remains on the legislative agenda for many of the groups backing AB 549.
Meanwhile, in Oakland, another hotbed of youth organizing, students won a process for filing complaints over school police misconduct. Now, in addition to advocating for AB 549, Oakland’s Black Organizing Project is in the process of setting up an area chapter of the Dignity in Schools Campaign, which groups in Los Angeles helped launch.
“I don’t think it’s been a huge shift in terms of our constituency,” said Black Organizing Project executive director Jackie Byers, describing the post-Newtown political climate. “The issues that have been affecting Oakland have been ongoing.” Still, regarding state-level advocacy, she noted, “It would be helpful to have policy to leverage districts to have these conversations.”
Similar bases of organizing are growing in California’s vast Central Valley. Along with students from Fresno, members of the Stockton-based Fathers and Families of San Joaquin have gone on two trips to Sacramento to meet with legislators and give testimony in favor of limiting police in schools.
“It was very powerful to see these kids saying that these people, who are supposed to protect them, are suspending them,” said Raerae Colden, an 18-year-old organizer and youth mentor. “How is that supposed to make us feel?”
Organizers from Stockton, a longtime bastion of farmworker organizing and more recently infamous for going bankrupt in the wake of the recent housing crash, won a four-year fight last month to prevent a new prison from opening in the city. Fathers and Families runs a youth empowerment summer academy, programming for formerly incarcerated people and conferences for boys and men of color.
“If we don’t have that strong foundation locally, we don’t have this larger strength,” said Alejandra Gutierrez, Fathers and Families’ executive director. “When we see young people coming in every day, that’s how we measure success.”
It’s this landscape of community organizing, youth training and action research that grounds sweeping legislation like AB 549. Building youth power in Sacramento requires slow, intergenerational, often unsexy organizing focused on leadership development and targeted at local actors. The attention span of this organizing is longer than the post-Newtown scramble. The current bill—which organizers say would have waited until next year without the political climate shift of the Newtown shootings—is only one node in a larger, increasingly networked terrain of struggle.
California is at the forefront of a national movement that is slowly reaching higher stages. Just two days before the Newtown shootings, students and community activists descended on Washington, DC, for the first ever Senate hearing on ending the school-to-prison pipeline—the outgrowth of years of organizing leading up to and around the Dignity in Schools Campaign.
“In some ways, yes, Newtown, it presented a big challenge for us,” said Manuel Criollo, organizing director for the Community Rights Campaign. “At the same time, we’ve reached a majority where we have been much more engaged with each other. We were already in motion.”
Election judge watches a voter cast their ballot. (Reuters)
As part of what advocates call the “next step” of the Affordable Care Act, California voters will consider an initiative next year that will empower regulators and consumer advocates to challenge health insurance premium rate hikes.
Though healthcare reform, better known these days as Obamacare, gives the government the ability to shine a spotlight onto insurance rates, it does not in itself enable regulators to block them. That power resides with the states. Currently, about thirty-four states have some laws on the books to give regulators the authority to block unjustified rate hikes; California is not one of them. And while advocates in California are optimistic about the prospects of reform, the health insurance lobby has wasted no time in preparing to defeat the measure.
Californians Against Higher Healthcare Costs, a political group created to defeat the rate review initiative, describes itself as a “coalition of doctors, hospitals, health insurers, and California employers.” Though the group bills itself as a diverse coalition, our review of disclosures with the California secretary of state’s office show that, since last year, the organization has received 99.27 percent of its funds from health insurance companies and health insurance political action committees. Health insurance interests such as UnitedHealth, Anthem Blue Cross, HealthNet and Kaiser Health Plans have raised $1,366,120 to fight the rate review. In addition, the California Hospital Committee on Issues has donated a mere $10,000.
The group has retained a number of consultants to help defeat rate review, including Thomas W. Hiltachk, a Sacramento attorney known for creating deceptive corporate campaigns for oil and tobacco companies. The media company retained by the insurers, Goddard Claussen (now known as Redwood Pacific Public Affairs), gained infamy for helping insurance companies block health insurance reforms in the past, including the advertising campaign known as “Harry and Louise” that many believe helped sink President Clinton’s attempt to overhaul the health care system.
In previous years, thousands of Californians have faced yearly premium hikes as high as 59 percent.
Topher Spiro, the vice president for health policy at the Center for American Progress, told The Nation that “every insurance commissioner should have the authority to reject premium rates that are excessive. If insurance companies can publicly justify their proposed rates with an actuarial analysis that stands up to independent scrutiny, they should have nothing to hide or fear.”
Carmen Balber, the executive director of Consumer Watchdog, the leading supporter of the rate review initiative, says the health insurance companies will spent “tens of millions” to defeat the 2014 measure “because their profits are at stake.” Balber points out that last year, Mercury General Corp. chief executive George Joseph spent $16 million on an initiative to unravel car insurance regulations, outspending opponents some 65 to 1, but was defeated.
“California voters are smarter than the insurance industry gives them credit for,” says Balber, arguing that no matter how much insurers spend, the public will see through the insurers’ “smoke screen” of advertisements.
Representatives for Californians Against Higher Healthcare Costs did not respond to a request for comment.
The initiative is designed to create an intervener process to allow the public, including advocates like Consumer Watchdog, to challenge insurer rate hikes. When a similar measure to empower the California insurance commissioner to review and regulate rate hikes was proposed in the legislature, insurers and their allies, including several dark money organizations, spent millions of dollars on lobbying and campaign contributions to prevent it from passing. Even with Democrats in control of the legislature and the governor’s office, the bill failed. Now, the voters will have a chance to reign in health insurance companies.
Lee Fang writes about the hypocrisy of GOP lawmakers on Obamacare.
In a 7-2 decision today, the Supreme Court found that Arizona’s proof of citizenship law for voter registration violated the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA). Somewhat surprisingly, Justice Scalia—who in February called the Voting Rights Act “a perpetuation of racial entitlement”—wrote the opinion for the majority, finding that federal law preempted state law in this case. “We conclude that the fairest reading of the statute is that a state-imposed requirement of evidence of citizenship not required by the Federal Form is ‘inconsistent with’ the NVRA’s mandate that States ‘accept and use’ the Federal Form,” wrote Scalia. “If this reading prevails, the Elections Clause requires that Arizona’s rule give way.” The ruling is a major victory for voting rights and an affirmation of the NVRA, which has helped 141 million Americans register to vote and turned twenty last month.
Justices Thomas and Alito dissented. Wrote Thomas: “The States, not the Federal Government, have the exclusive right to define the ‘Qualifications requisite for Electors,’ which includes the corresponding power to verify that those qualifications have been met.”
Here’s the background on Arizona v. The Inter Tribal Council of Arizona:
In 2004, Arizona voters approved Proposition 200, a stringent anti-immigration law that included provisions requiring proof of citizenship to register to vote and government-issued photo ID to cast a ballot. Last year, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit blocked the proof of citizenship requirement, which it said violated the 1993 National Voter Registration Act. Under the NVRA, those using a federal form to register to vote must affirm, under penalty of perjury, that they are US citizens. Twenty-eight million people used that federal form to register to vote in 2008. Arizona’s law, the court concluded, violated the NVRA by requiring additional documentation, such as a driver’s license, birth certificate, passport or tribal forms. According to a 2006 study by the Brennan Center for Justice, at least 7 percent of eligible voters “do not have ready access to the documents needed to prove citizenship.”
Prop 200 has had a chilling effect on voter registration in Arizona. “Following enactment of Proposition 200, over 31,000 individuals were rejected for voter registration in Arizona,” according to a brief by the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund (MALDEF). “Less than one-third of the rejected registrants subsequently successfully registered to vote.” The law has needlessly prevented eligible voters from registering and has made voter registration work more difficult. “The proportion of all voter registrations in [Phoenix’s] Maricopa County attributable to community-based drives decreased from 24% in 2004 to 7% in 2005, 5% in 2006 and 6% in 2007,” found MALDEF.
Prop 200 was aimed at curtailing illegal immigration but has harmed many legal Arizonians. Of the 31,500 citizens who were prevented from registering to vote, MALDEF found, “the record in the case demonstrates that the rejected…registrants were Democrats and Republicans in equal numbers, almost one-half were under the age of 30, and a majority of those who indicated a race said they were white.”
Supporters of Prop 200 claim the proof of citizenship requirement is needed to stop voter registration fraud. But as the appeals court found, “Arizona has not provided persuasive evidence that voter fraud in registration procedures is a significant problem in Arizona; moreover, the NVRA includes safeguards addressing voter fraud.” Adds Nina Perales, vice president of litigation at MALDEF: “Nobody has ever been prosecuted for using the federal form to register to vote as a non-citizen.”
The decision has broader significance for two reasons. Number one, Arizona had been the model for proof of citizenship laws more recently adopted in states like Alabama, Kansas and Tennessee. Today’s ruling could serve as a deterrent for states that are considering making it harder to register to vote.
Secondly, Scalia, who has often been skeptical of Congressional precedent, affirmed that Congress does, indeed, play an important role in determining the rules for federal elections. Does that mean the Supreme Court will uphold Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act in a decision this week or next? No. But it’s not a stretch to conclude that if the justices affirmed the power of the federal government with regards to Arizona, they should also pay great deference to a landmark civil rights law that has been overwhelmingly reauthorized four times by Congress and upheld by the Supreme Court every time it’s been challenged.
UPDATE: Rick Hasen, an election law expert at UC-Irvine, cautions against viewing the Arizona case as a clear victory for voting rights. “What the Supreme Court gave the federal government with one hand, it suggested could soon be taken away with the other,” he writes. “Justice Scalia drew a distinction between Congress’s broad power to set the manner of elections and its lack of power to set voter qualifications (such as residency requirements), which is an issue left to the states. The Court’s view of the ‘qualifications’ clause may give states new powers to resist federal government control over elections.”
But Jon Greenbaum, legal director for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, an intervener in the case, strongly disagreed with that interpretation. “We knew before this decision that states set qualifications,” he says. “Arizona tried to make the argument that [the proof of citizenship law] was a qualification and a majority of the court rejected that argument…The case limits what states can do.”
Ari Berman writes about John Lewis and the long fight for voting rights.
Supporters of Hassan Rohani hold a picture of him as they celebrate his victory in Iran's presidential election. (Reuters/Fars News/)
Here’s a question for the White House: Do you think it’s a good idea to greet the new president of Iran, who might be willing to seek a long-lasting accord with the United States, with a head-on confrontation with Iran and Russia in Syria?
Hint: the answer is no.
Hassan Rouhani, who’ll take over as president of Iran in August, stunned the world with an outright, 50-percent-plus victory in the June 14 election. By all accounts, he’s a thoughtful, centrist cleric with a moderate outlook. As president, Rouhani will have a lot of power, but he will still have to operate within Iran’s very intricate political system—just as, say, President Obama has to do in dealing with Congress, the courts, his own fractious Democrats, the Pentagon and public opinion. In Rouhani’s case, he has to maneuver around Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, Iran’s own conservative-dominated parliament, Iran’s judiciary (and the Guardian Council), the entrenched power of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and other centers of power.
Thus, Rouhani will need all the help he can get. Some of that help will have to come from the United States, including positive signals that Washington is ready to deal. But an American-backed war in Syria, aimed at forcible regime change against Iran’s chief regional ally, can only weaken Rouhani and stiffen the opposition of Iranian hardliners, including the IRGC. And, of course, the best way for the United States to aid Rouhani in his internal battles will be do sweeten the offer in the now-stalled nuclear negotiations, finally making it clear that Washington is ready to endorse Iran’s enrichment program under proper international safeguards.
In his first post-election news conference on Sunday, Rouhani couldn’t have been more explicit. “This victory is the victory of wisdom, moderation and awareness over fanaticism and bad behavior.” And, in a televised debate just before the election, Rouhani explicitly addressed the nuclear issue. “We have to calculate our national interests. It’s nice for the centrifuges to run but people’s livelihoods have to also run, our factories have to also run.” That doesn’t mean that Rouhani is ready to give away the store on the nuclear issue. He won’t. Not only that, he can’t. But it does mean that—like his chief patron, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the billionaire businessman who’s been chafing under economic sanctions—he recognizes that Iran’s hard line on enrichment has led to the country’s political and economic isolation from the West. Unlike Saeed Jalili, the current nuclear negotiator and ultra hardliner—who, in his own, failed presidential campaign, called for Iran to live under a “resistance economy”—Rouhani and Rafsanjani realize that the nuclear program isn’t Iran’s number-one priority, especially when a workable deal can be so easily reached.
The initial response by the United States to Rouhani’s surprise win was mixed. Naturally, in the United States the right, the neoconservatives and the Israel lobby—and Israel itself—are going out of their way to say Never mind the Iran election! Move on—there’s nothing to see here! But the White House reaction has nevertheless been welcoming—in words, at least. Dennis McDonough, the White House chief of staff, said:
“I see it as a potentially hopeful sign. I think the question for us now is: If he is interested in, as he has said in his campaign events, mending his relations—Iran’s relations with the rest of the world—there’s an opportunity to do that.”
Not that the United States was exactly gracious in greeting Rouhani. As Jonathan Steele, writing in The Guardian, notes:
The Obama administration needs to take stock and think hard after this surprise result, especially as its first reaction was full of hasty blunders. It patronised Iranian voters by saying they showed “courage in making their voices heard” and was rude in urging Rouhani to “heed the will of the Iranian people”. If the White House is really “ready to engage the Iranian government directly”, as it said on Saturday, why did it not have the courtesy to send Rouhani a message of congratulations?
In any case, nice words won’t help Rouhani get the upper hand at home. If the war in Syria escalates, the United States—by arming the rebels, authorizing a covert operations project by the CIA, building up US forces in Jordan—could push Iran and Russia to meet the United States on the Syrian battlefield. And unless the United States offers Iran an explicit deal to eliminate sanctions in exchange for a nuclear deal, Rouhani may not have the leverage that he’ll need at home.
The Wall Street Journal, in an important news analysis, says that the United States and Europe are ready to test Rouhani in future negotiations:
The Obama administration and its European allies—surprised and encouraged by Hassan Rouhani’s election as Iran’s next president—intend to aggressively push to resume negotiations with Tehran on its nuclear program by August to test his new government’s positions, U.S. and European diplomats say.
But it’s a one-way test, according to the Journal:
Washington and Brussels are eager to quickly test whether Mr. Rohani’s unexpected victory could pressure Mr. Khamenei into softening his position on the nuclear issue or scaling back Tehran’s broader rift with the West, these officials said.
Nothing, you’ll notice, about whether the United States will itself make a more palatable offer to Iran in the hope that its new leader will respond in kind.
Rouhani, who was Iran’s negotiator under President Mohammad Khatami—the godfather of the reformist movement who, like Rafsanjani, endorsed Rouhani just says before the election—is a shrewd negotiator himself. In his campaign, defending himself against the hardliners (including Jalili), Rouhani often made the point that when, under his watch, Iran suspended its enrichment program, that allowed Iran to forge ahead by quietly building facilities to advance the program later on. Now, Rouhani skeptics in the West are using those statements against him, trying to portray his as sneaky or duplicitous. But the fact is, no deal was reached in 2003–05, and no deal has been struck since. It’s time for a deal.
Vali Nasr, a former Obama administration insider who’s been critical of the White House, says that now the United States has to negotiate with far more flexibility than its shown so far:
To take advantage of Rouhani’s victory and break the logjam over nuclear negotiations, Washington has to put on the table incentives it has thus far been unwilling to contemplate. It will have to offer Iran sanctions relief in exchange for agreeing to Western demands. At a minimum, the United States would like Iran to accept IAEA demands for intrusive inspection of its nuclear facilities; cap its uranium enrichment at 5 percent, and ship out of the country its stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent. Iran in turn wants a formal recognition of its right to enrich uranium and, more immediately, the lifting of crippling sanctions on its financial institutions and oil exports. Ahmadinejad is faulted in Iran for wrecking the country’s economy. Populism, mismanagement, and international isolation have combined to put Iran’s economy into a downward spiral. Between 2009 and 2013, real GDP growth has fallen from 4 percent to 0.4 percent, unemployment has risen to 17 percent, and inflation has grown to 22 percent—and those are official numbers, which tend to downplay the gravity of the economic crisis. It is estimated that 40 percent of Iranians live below the poverty line. Reformists will grow in strength if they are able to show that they can reverse that trend by at least getting the West for the first time to offer negotiating away specific sanctions.
James Harkin chronicles the battle for Aleppo from behind rebel lines.
Bill Keller. (Reuters)
The former top New York Times editor Bill Keller continues his embarrassing run as a weekly pundit today, fully endorsing the laughable column by colleague Thomas Friedman last week, which I critiqued at the time. You remember the Friedman opus—quoting at length TV series creator David Simon’s rant (which Simon had partly retracted already).
A desperate Keller cites the popularlty of Friedman at the Times site as evidence that the columnist’s view was popular—even though, I’d bet (thanks to links from Matt Taibbi and others) most who visited came to laugh and mock.
Keller shows his hand when he declares at the outset he only respects the “vigilant attention to real dangers answering overblown rhetoric about theoretical ones.” Of course, all dangers are only theoretical when we don’t know about them, because of undue secrecy. When that emerges, they become all too “real.” This reflects his beloved Friedman/Simon column, which claimed no known abuses of the NSA surveillance. Again: How would we know (until, maybe, now)?
His piece does go on to raise demands for a “well-regulated” surveillance state—but a surveillance state nonetheless. Of course, it’s good that he’s not turning a blind eye—but from his Friedman endorsement, you know where his real sympathies lie. With the state. And let’s not forget his attacks on Julian Assange and criticism of Bradley Manning (not to mention long support for Judy Miller and lampooning of her critics). Keller has learned so little from the Iraq debacle—which he supported—that he now urges Obama to “get over” that and take strong action vs. Syria.
This comes a day after Margaret Sulllivan, the Times public editor, produced a column revisting the famous incident from 2004 when Keller held, for a year, the first major scoop on NSA spying, by James Risen and Eric Lichtblau, at the behest of the Bush administration. Some have held that this cost John Kerry the presidency in 2004, but putting that aside, the real losers were the American people, the press in the US—and the reputaiton of the Times, and Keller. All you have to do is consider this:
In a 2008 article for Slate, Mr. Lichtblau, who had chafed at the delay, described the surreal scene “as my editors and I waited anxiously in an elegantly appointed sitting room at the White House” to be greeted by officials including the secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, and the White House counsel, Harriet Miers.
Sullivan wasn’t the only one who recalled this embarrassment from years back. Edward Snowden revealed two weeks ago that he didn’t take his NSA leak to the Times specifically because of what happened to Risen and Lichtblau. Instead he went to The Guardian—and the Times’s prime rival, The Washington Post. Now the Times managing editor admits he is sorely disappointed he didn’t get the Snowden leak.
He can thank Keller for that. Bill ought to title his next column on Snowden, “The Spy Who Loathed Me.”
Tom Engelhardt lays out the five uncontrollable urges of today's surveillance state.
A Syrian soldier, who has defected to join the Free Syrian Army, holds up his rifle and waves a Syrian independence flag in the Damascus suburb of Saqba January 27, 2012. (REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah)
The US House of Representatives took an important step last week toward the restoration of the separation of powers that was established so that Congress would check and balance presidential war-making.
But Congress has not hit its stride.
The House voted overwhelming for a measure supporting a full and accelerated end to the war in Afghanistan and expressing the sense of Congress that any post-2014 US military force in Afghanistan requires new and explicit authorization.
After twelve years of failing to check and balance the war-making of successive administrations, the House voted 305-121 for an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014, which
[requires] the President to complete the accelerated transition of combat operations from U.S. Armed Forces to the Government of Afghanistan no later than by the end of 2013; the accelerated transition of military and security operations by the end of 2014, including the redeployment of U.S. troops; and to pursue robust negotiations to address Afghanistan’s and the region’s security and stability.
“Today is the first time in twelve years of war that a majority of the House of Representatives has voted to end the war in Afghanistan,” Stephen Miles of the Win Without War coalition said after last Thursday’s vote.
Because the Senate endorsed a similar measure in 2012—by a 62-33 vote—veteran antiwar activist Tom Hayden notes that “politically, the development means that the Obama administration effectively lacks any congressional authorization for a permanent military occupation of Afghanistan.”
The amendment, sponsored by Congressman Jim McGovern, the Massachusetts Democrat who has long been allied with antiwar groups such as Progressive Democrats of America, also “establishes the sense of Congress that should the President determine the necessity for post 2014 deployment of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the Congress should vote to authorize such a presence and mission by no later than June 2014.”
In urging his colleagues to support the amendment, McGovern (who worked on the measure with Representatives Walter Jones, R-North Carolina; Barbara Lee, D-California, and John Garamendi, D-California) explained before the vote: “It is time to end the war in Afghanistan, bring our troops home and take seriously our duty as a Congress.”
That stance, which once would have been considered radical, drew broad bipartisan support.
The amendment secured widespread backing from Democrats: 185 were in favor of the proposal (including Democratic leaders such as Nancy Pelosi of California, and Steny Hoyer of Maryland) while just nine Democrats opposed it.
The amendment also won among Republicans, with 120 in favor to 112 opposed. But the Republican support came with a caveat: Speaker John Boehner, of Ohio, did not vote. Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Virginia, and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-California, voted “no,” as did many prominent Republicans who chair House committees, including Oversight and Government Reform’s Darrell Issa, R-California, and Homeland Security’s Michael McCaul, R-Texas.
The position of the Republican leaders does not bode well for a broad shift in the approach of Congress to questions about military adventures abroad. That’s especially unfortunate at a time when the Obama administration is ramping up US support for Syrian rebels—a move that should be checked and balanced by Congress.
And its not just a leadership challenge.
When two members of the House—New York Republican Chris Gibson and California Democrat John Garamendi—submitted a bipartisan amendment that would have eliminated Sense of Congress language calling for a US military intervention in Syria, it failed with just 123 “yes” votes to 301 “no” votes.
So where does this leave us?
It is significant that the House has laid a marker down with regard to the Afghanistan occupation—with an appropriate signal about the need for the president to seek congressional approval for further action in the country.
Congresswoman Barbara Lee, the California Democrat who cast the lone vote in opposition to the 2001 resolution that the Bush and Obama administrations cited as justification for an open-ended “war of terror” that has sent tens of thousands of US troops to Afghanistan, was pleased by the show of backbone.
“I have long called for a responsible and immediate end to the war in Afghanistan and [last week’s] congressional action is long overdue,” said Lee. “With the passage of this amendment, it’s clear that we are turning a corner on the war in Afghanistan. It’s long past time for the longest war in America’s history to come to an end.”
But that should not be the end of it.
It is long past time for Congress to fully and unapologetically reassert its role as the branch of the federal government that is supposed to declare wars and to check and balance the administrations that pursue them.
That’s true with regard to Afghanistan. But it is equally true with regard to conflicts that are now drawing more and more US attention, including the Syria imbroglio.
So while Congress may be starting to “get it” with regard to Afghanistan, Congress does not yet “get it” with regard to its broader constitutional mandate to declare wars and check and balance all military endeavors.
The new book by John Nichols and Robert McChesney, Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (Nation Books), is out this week—with an introduction by Senator Bernie Sanders.
The Supreme Court struck down Arizona's voter suppression law. Read Ari Berman's analysis here.
Vladimir Putin. (Reuters)
Josef Stalin famously uttered the demonically cynical maxim that “the death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.” In other words, he believed that when faced with the choice of focusing on horrors small and tangible or vast and incomprehensible, humanity goes small. It is the political spawn of Stalin’s feared security apparatus, Vladimir Putin, who is proving that this applies to scandals in the world of sport. One small theft is the sports story of the moment in the United States, while a heist of epic proportions, is emitting nary a peep.
The sports press is agog this weekend with the revelation by New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft that in 2005, Putin stole his Super Bowl ring. At the time, Putin’s sticky fingers were caught on camera and the scene generated some laughs. There was the leader of Russia trying it on at a press event and then walking out of the room, as a bovine, slack-jawed Kraft looked on. The Patriots organization played it off as an intentional gift. But Kraft revealed this week that it was more of a mugging with the parodically alpha-male Putin icily looking at Kraft and saying, ‘I can kill someone with this ring,’” Then in Kraft’s words, “I put my hand out and he put it in his pocket, and three KGB guys got around him and walked out.”
It’s a pulpy, punchy story and it’s understandable why sports reporters are flocking to it like a seagull to carrion. It also fits a narrative that has served Vladimir Putin well. He’s the Tony Soprano of world leaders: the man who gets what he wants and wants what he gets.
But Putin—not unlike the decaying Mafia itself—isn’t nearly as ruthlessly efficient as his legend suggests. For evidence of this, we don’t even have to leave the world of sports. I’m referring to the billions in disappeared “spending” for the 2014 Winter Olympics, to be held—for reasons that boggle the mind—in the humid, subtropical Russian resort city of Sochi.
Putin has staked his reputation on the smooth hosting of the winter games. Based on the planning, it either speaks to how little he values his reputation, or more likely, that beneath the steely glare and martial arts muscles, he’s being exposed as little more than a thuggish front man for a kleptocracy.
According to a detailed report issued by Russian opposition leaders in May, businessmen and various consiglieres of Putin have stolen up to $30 billion from funds intended for Olympic preparations. This has pushed the cost of the winter games, historically far less expensive than their summer counterpart to over $50 billion, more than four times the original estimate. That $50 billion price tag would make them the most expensive games in history, more costly than the previous twenty-one winter games combined. It’s a price tag higher than even than the 2008 pre–global recession summer spectacle in Beijing.
As Andrew Jennings, author of Lords of the Rings and the most important Olympic investigative reporter we have, said to me, “The games have always been a money-spinner for the cheerleaders in the shadows. Beijing remains impenetrable but is likely to have been little less corrupt than Putin’s mafia state.”
“Mafia state” may sound extreme, but these winter games will go down in history as perhaps the most audacious act of embezzlement in human history. As Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov and Leonid Martynyuk wrote, “Only oligarchs and companies close to Putin got rich. The absence of fair competition, cronyism… have led to a sharp increase in the costs and to the poor quality of the work to prepare for the Games.… The fact is that almost everything that is related to the cost problems and abuses in preparation for the Olympic Games was carefully concealed and continues to be covered up by the authorities.”
One of those officials was Akhmed Bilalov, who was forced to flee Russia, fearing for his life, after Putin blamed him for the ballooning costs. Now Bilalov has gone public with news that he is undergoing medical treatment for being poisoned, allegedly by agents of the Russian state.
Even more nauseating, if not surprising, than the alleged theft/attempted murder is the shrug of the shoulders from the International Olympic Committee. Jean-Claude Killy, the French skiing superstar from the 1970s, is now in charge of the International Olympic Committee’s coordination commission for the Sochi games.
“I don’t recall an Olympics without corruption,” Killy said. “It’s not an excuse, obviously, and I’m very sorry about it, but there might be corruption in this country, there was corruption before. I hope we find ways around that.”
If $30 billion is too much of an incomprehensible “statistic” to get our heads around, even in a country with poverty and hunger rates that spiked dramatically in the wake of the 2008 global economic crisis, consider the people who actually have to live in Sochi. Thousands of families have been forcibly displaced by construction projects that will have no use once the cameras have cleared. The local environment has strip-mined and polluted the ecosystem. According to Human Rights Watch, one village, Akhshtyr, which has forty-nine homes and a population of 102 people, has been without water for a year because of Olympic construction without end. Sochi is basically being treated like Henry Hill’s bar in Goodfellas: to be discarded by the Russian state once the Olympics are over and it has nothing left to give.
The 2014 Winter Games are nothing any sports fan with a conscience should support. Putin should be protested at every turn for allowing his cronies to loot his country and immiserate the people of Sochi. If there is any justice, these games will mark the beginning of his end, as the veil is lifted and the cost of his rule is revealed in stark relief for all to see. Putin’s got to go. If it makes it easier, he can keep the damn ring.
Dave Zirin urges baseball to rethink its approach to steroids.
Supporters of moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani hold a picture of him as they celebrate his victory in Iran's presidential election on a pedestrian bridge in Tehran June 15, 2013. Reuters/Fars News/Sina Shiri
UPDATE—Iran’s interior ministry confirmed on Saturday that Hassan Rouhani, the standard-bearer of the reformist movement and a decided moderate in Iran’s political spectrum, will be the next president, succeeding Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in August. His election means big changes, and a new attitude that will eventually carry over into foreign policy.
Celebrations, including dancing in the street, greeted the announcement that Rouhani had won.
Here’s an account by the Associated Press:
Wild celebrations broke out on Tehran streets that were battlefields four years ago as reformist-backed Hasan Rowhani capped a stunning surge to claim Iran's presidency on Saturday, throwing open the political order after relentless crackdowns by hard-liners to consolidate and safeguard their grip on power.
"Long live Rowhani," tens of thousands of jubilant supporters chanted as security officials made no attempt to rein in crowds — joyous and even a bit bewildered by the scope of his victory with more than three times the votes of his nearest rival.
Saeed Laylaz, a pro-reform economist and shrewd observer of Iranian politics (who I met in Tehran in 2009, before he was arrested in the post-election crackdown), told the New York Times:
“There will be moderation in domestic and foreign policy under Mr. Rowhani. First we need to form a centrist and moderate government, reconcile domestic disputes, then he can make changes in our foreign policy.”
The paper also quotes a late-in-the-campaign speech by Rouhani, who said, “Let’s end extremism.”
He’s emerged as something of a champion of women’s rights and liberalization of the morality-police repression in the name of ultra Islam, which no doubt helped him amass a total of 50.7 percent of the vote, enough to avoid a runoff on June 21.
ORIGINAL POST—The apparent victory by Hassan Rouhani in Iran’s presidential election yesterday is a game-changer.
As he went to the polls yesterday, here’s what Rouhani had to say:
“I have come to destroy extremism and when I see that these extremists are worried by my response and my vote I am very happy. It means that with the help of the people we can instill the appropriate Islamist behavior in the country.”
And another campaign quote from Rouhani:
“It is not that Iran has to remain angry with the United States forever and have no relations with them. Under appropriate conditions, where national interests are protected, this situation has to change.”
The results aren’t official yet, but Rouhani, who’d been endorsed by two former presidents, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami—the billionaire businessman who’d backed the reformists in 2009 and the godfather of the reformist movement—was riding an electoral wave. As the votes mounted, his total passed the critical 50 percent threshold that would avoid a runoff election next Friday. The other candidates, including a passel of conservatives supposedly including the one “anointed” by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, all had percentages in the teens or below.
So much for the idea that elections in Iran are a joke. So much for the idea that Iran’s voters were so disenchanted by the aftermath of the 2009 election that they’d boycott the vote. So much for the idea that Khamenei, insisting on the election of an ultra-conservative, would rig the vote count against Rouhani, who’d emerged as the standard-bearer for the reformist movement. So much for those analysts who argued that the Green Movement was dead and buried.
Rouhani himself is a critic of the post-2009 crackdown and he’s hinted that he’ll act to release those still held, presumably including Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, the 2009 reform candidates who’s vote was hijacked by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Rouhani has called for a “rights charter” and said that he’d encourage “freedom of expression, thought and discussion.”
Meanwhile, the former nuclear negotiator for Iran under President Khatami and, before that, top national security adviser to President Rafsanjani will have a chance to “reset” relations with the United States. Just as important, the emergence of Rouhani as president of Iran gives President Obama a tremendous opportunity to restart talks with Iran on a new basis; and the fact that Iran’s next president won’t be named Ahmadinejad means that all of the efforts by hawks, neoconservatives and the Israel lobby to demonize Ahmadinejad are now for naught.
Now that Rouhani might be president, it also means that many of the former officials, ambassadors and policy experts ousted by Ahmadinejad (and kept in political exile by the conservative coalition and military-dominated bloc that ruled Iran under him) can return to office.
The results, of course, have to be certified by the Interior Ministry, still under the control of Ahmadinejad. And, there’s still a chance that the Guardian Council will weigh in. But the announced results so overwhelmingly favor Rouhani that he seems locked in, and if his total falls below 50 percent he’d still be a shoo-in in a two-person runoff.
Listen, now, to the American right-wing and neoconservatives, who’ll argue that the election doesn’t matter, since Ayatollah Khamenei controls policy and decision-making. True, under the Iranian system, the supreme leader is very, very powerful. But Rouhani’s election means that there will be a new team in place, and that Khamenei will have to accommodate it. The last time a reformist was president, intended reforms—enacted by a reformist-controlled parliament—were nearly all overturned by the Guardian Council, with Khamenei’s approval. On the other hand, President Khatami, with Rouhani at the head of the nuclear negotiation team, did indeed negotiate with the European Union in good faith, and at one point (until the election of Ahmadinejad in 2005) Iran suspended the enrichment of uranium temporarily in order to help the talks succeed.
Now, Rouhani says, speaking of the crisis in relations with the United States:
“We have to gradually defuse this hostility, take it down a notch to a tense relationship, and then move toward reducing the tensions.”
Let’s hope so.
Jack Straw, the former UK foreign secretary, who’d met Rouhani, had this to say:
This is a remarkable and welcome result so far and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that there will be no jiggery-pokery with the final result. What this huge vote of confidence in Doctor Rouhani appears to show is a hunger by the Iranian people to break away from the arid and self-defeating approach of the past and for more constructive relations with the West. On a personal level I found him warm and engaging. He is a strong Iranian patriot and he was tough, but fair to deal with and always on top of his brief.
NSA headquarters in Fort Meade circa 1950. (Wikimedia Commons)
The standard justification for the National Security Agency’s recently disclosed domestic data-collection program—it doesn’t break any laws—makes me think of Michael Kinsley’s observation that what’s truly scandalous is not what’s illegal, but what’s legal. It should make us all less comfortable, not more, if it’s true that the wide-ranging data-collection programs exposed by Edward Snowden received the blessing of all three branches of the federal government.
Many commentators have argued, as Thomas Friedman did last week in The New York Times, that virtually any domestic surveillance by agencies like the NSA is legitimate in the post-9/11 world. But this misses the longer history: nearly every tool for domestic surveillance that the US intelligence community has attempted to use since 9/11 was on its wish list decades before the attacks. And The Nation has been there to track those tools every step of the way.
In 1966, New York Post journalist Anthony Prisendorf wrote about the Bureau of the Budget’s attempts to create a National Data Center, which would centralize the government’s sprawling information about every single American. The backlash was fierce. Prisendorf quotes one analyst from, of all places, the RAND Corporation—described in a 1959 Nation exposé as a think tank “set up to mask a relationship between the Air Force and the scientists which either or both did not care to make explicit”—who noted that if the data collection capabilities were made available to a future administration hostile to civil liberties “it would make for an extremely efficient police state.” Prisendorf added:
Centralizing government files would eliminate perhaps the best safeguard of personal privacy—bureaucracy. Compiling all that is recorded about an individual is now often a difficult and, consequently, a discouraging task. If the National Data Center were established, the mere push of a button would end all that.
Moreover, he argued, the existence of the data center “would lead to pressures—within and outside the federal government—for the creation of a Personal Data Bank.” The proposal for the National Data Center was dropped a few years later because of lack of public support—and after public hearings in Congress raised questions about its constitutionality. But the NSA plays a long game: it is currently building a massive data accumulation center in the Utah desert that makes the 1960s proposal look like child’s play. NSA whistleblower William Binney—profiled in The Nation last month by Tim Shorrock—has claimed that the Utah facility is intended for storing precisely the kind of personal information files that opponents of the National Data Bank in the 1960s feared the plan could lead to. There were no public hearing in Congress this time around, nor any hint that in a democracy there should be some input from the public whose privacy is in question.
In a 1975 article with the memorable title, “The Issue, of Course, Is Power,” civil liberties lawyer and frequent Nation contributor Frank Donner argued that the committees that had just been appointed to study US intelligence activities should particularly focus on the use of domestic surveillance for political and anti-populist objectives. Abuse of such capabilities, Donner argued, was not incidental, but inevitable:
Every activity of the target, however legitimate and indeed constitutionally protected, is treated with suspicion and monitored: who knows; it may be a vital piece in a sinister not-yet-revealed subversive design. Since, in the intelligence mind, the stakes are so large—our very survival as a nation—overkill is almost deliberate. Ultimately, the intelligence institution exploits reasons of state to achieve autonomy and, by a parallel process, its operations become ends in themselves.
Donner went on to dismiss one of the arguments ritually hauled out, as it has been in recent weeks, to defend widespread domestic surveillance: that the collected data is used only by the government agencies that are supposed to use it, and access is prohibited to all others. Surveillance operations, Donner wrote,
have become a collaborative endeavor by a constellation of federal, state and urban agencies. An agency that is barred by its mandate or lack of funds from a particular area of domestic intelligence enters into a liaison relationship with other units with a similar or overlapping missions for the purpose of exchanging data, operational information, and files.
The same point has been made repeatedly in our pages by the investigative reporter David Burnham. In a 1978 article titled “The Capacity to Spy on Us All,” Burnham catalogued the ways in which the Carter administration, which had come to office decrying Nixon’s disregard for civil liberties, had actually gone beyond its Republican predecessors in utilizing new surveillance capabilities against US citizens. Sound familiar? Burnham also reported that the FBI had obtained warrants to install “pen registers” on two telephones used by a suspected gambler in New York City. The registers were designed to track the same kind of “metadata”—numbers dialed, length of conversations and, now, location—that the newly disclosed PRISM program apparently targets en masse. Now, as then, such data is both easier to legally acquire and arguably more useful to law enforcement, as Jane Mayer wrote in The New Yorker. Finally, Burnham notes that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, then being debated in Congress, was intended not only to limit wiretapping but also to systemize and authorize practices like “electronic vacuum sweeping” that were otherwise of questionable legality, not to mention constitutionality. The result, Burnham feared, was deeply troubling:
At a time when advanced surveillance techniques, high-speed computers and other electronic devices make possible ever more intrusive invasions of individual privacy, the critical examination of every new government program must become even more rigorous. For while each individual step may be defended as only an insignificant addition to the machinery already in place, the combined force of these actions could at any time precipitate drastic changes in both the ability and the willingness of the American people to make independent choices about their future.
The underlying argument, that domestic surveillance operations are not necessarily as constrained by law as their defendants tend to claim, is one that Burnham returned to in a 1983 cover story, “Tales of a Computer State,” about the role of private corporations in domestic snooping. As the Snowden revelations have confirmed, companies are apparently powerless to resist government requests for access to their data:
The decision of the Census Bureau during World War II to give the Army demographic data that pinpointed the residences of Japanese-Americans in California—despite a law prohibiting such sharing of information—is instructive. How much pressure would the chairman of the board and the chief executive officer of TRW [a credit agency with a large computerized store of information on individuals] have to bring on the vice president in charge of the company’s information division to persuade him to give the C.I.A. access to credit reports stored in the division’s computers?
To the notion that “it can’t happen here,” as in the title of Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel, Burnham would might justifiably reply: Why not? It has before.
The question looms before us: Can the United States continue to flourish when the physical movements, the buying habits and the conversations of most citizens are under surveillance by private companies and government agencies? Sometimes the surveillance is undertaken for innocent purposes, sometimes it is not. Does not surveillance, even the innocent sort, gradually poison the soul of a nation? Does not surveillance limit personal options for many citizens? Does not surveillance increase the powers of those who are in a position to enjoy the fruits of that activity?
For more on the history of domestic surveillance as covered in The Nation, read Burnham’s major investigative report on the FBI and Tim Shorrock’s 2006 feature, “Watching What You Say: How Big Telecom May Be Helping Government Spies.” More recently, Nation articles by Shorrock, Jaron Lanier, and David Cole have continued our coverage of this alarming story.
A member of a rebel group called the Martyr Al-Abbas throws a handmade weapon in Aleppo June 11, 2013. (Reuters/Muzaffar Salman)
I asked yesterday over at my blog if McClatchy reporters and editors, following their example during the run-up to the Iraq war (actually then with Knight Ridder), would be among the few to raise deep questions about “slam dunk” proof offered by the White House on Assad’s use of chemical agents. Reporters there, especially Jonathan Landay, had done that last month and the month before. But now after the full White House “confirmation”?
The first indication comes in this new piece by Matthew Schofield, which flatly states that experts are skeptical of the new Obama claims.
Chemical weapons experts voiced skepticism Friday about U.S. claims that the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad had used the nerve agent sarin against rebels on at least four occasions this spring, saying that while the use of such a weapon is always possible, they’ve yet to see the telltale signs of a sarin gas attack, despite months of scrutiny.
“It’s not unlike Sherlock Holmes and the dog that didn’t bark,” said Jean Pascal Zanders, a leading expert on chemical weapons who until recently was a senior research fellow at the European Union’s Institute for Security Studies. “It’s not just that we can’t prove a sarin attack, it’s that we’re not seeing what we would expect to see from a sarin attack.”
Foremost among those missing items, Zanders said, are cellphone photos and videos of the attacks or the immediate aftermath.
“In a world where even the secret execution of Saddam Hussein was taped by someone, it doesn’t make sense that we don’t see videos, that we don’t see photos, showing bodies of the dead, and the reddened faces and the bluish extremities of the affected,” he said.
Other experts said that while they were willing to give the U.S. intelligence community the benefit of the doubt, the Obama administration has yet to offer details of what evidence it has and how it obtained it.
Other news outlets so far have swallowed the White House evidence whole or in part, with many not even questioning the timing—just as the rebels, once supposedly on the verge of winning, now seem headed for defeat. In fact, the “red line” that seemed to have been crossed was the fate of the rebels heading suddenly downward. For a change, Politico had the strongest suggestion of that this morning.
The New York Times editorial tonight sadly states as fact that the use of sarin “was confirmed by American intelligence.” Well, we’ve been down that road before. But the paper at least warned of the pitfalls ahead: ‘It is irresponsible for critics like Mr. McCain and Mr. Clinton to fault Mr. Obama without explaining how the United States can change the course of that brutal civil war without being dragged too far into it.
“Like most Americans, we are deeply uneasy about getting pulled into yet another war in the Middle East. Those urging stronger action seemed to have learned nothing from the past decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, which has sapped the United States and has produced results that are ambiguous at best.”
And here, the reliable Hannah Allam of McClatchy probes serious concerns about our partners in Syria.
Go here for Patrick Cockburn, Kevin Drum and Fareed Zakaria highlighting the dangers of intervention and/or relying on sketchy evidence.
New editon of my book on the Iraq (and media) debacle, "So Wrong for So Long," here.