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Immunity Watch: Senate Considers Illegal Spying

Today the Senate Judiciary Committee convened a hearing on President Bush's spying bill, which could validate warrantless domestic surveillance, immunize potential crimes by telecommunications companies and preempt related state investigations. The legislation was already approved by the Intelligence Committee, and Harry Reid said he wants a full floor vote "before the end of this year." But the FISA Amendments Act also faces filibuster threats from several Senators, including presidential candidates Dodd, Biden, Obama and Clinton, who oppose letting companies off the hook for their allegedly illegal surveillance of American citizens. Immunity is also a huge issue for Democratic and civil liberties activists – today the ACLU delivered petitions signed by 250,000 voters organized by MoveOn.org, People for the American Way and several liberal blogs.

The big news in today's hearing was Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy came out against immunity for the first time. (As recently as yesterday, his spokeswoman told The Nation he had not yet reached a position.) "A retroactive grant of immunity or preemption of state regulators does more than let the carriers off the hook. Immunity is designed to shield this Administration from any accountability for conducting surveillance outside the law," said Leahy. Many legal experts agree that retroactive immunity would fortify the administration's strategy to shirk accountability and maintain secrecy around domestic spying. Yet other Senate Democrats who have criticized Bush's spying still support immunity, including the majority of Democrats on the Intelligence Committee.

Intelligence Chairman Rockefeller has been waging the legislative battle on behalf of Bush. He not only pushed immunity through his committee, but last week he came very close to officially endorsing the administration's radical legal claim that the 2001 authorization of force (AUMF) against Afghanistan also authorized domestic spying – even though the legislation does not contain any reference to surveillance or spying. (Under this theory, administration officials have even cited the AUMF as a basis to invade Iraq and Syria without any congressional approval. Get ready to hear the same theory for attacking Iran.) Rockefeller's legislative report, which can guide judicial interpretation if the bill becomes law, appears to raise the AUMF as a possible basis for Bush's domestic spying. This drew a sharp rebuttal from several members of his committee, including Republican Senators Hagel and Snowe, who used the report's minority section to break down the issue:

We do not believe that the AUMF provided this authorization. We have seen no evidence that Congress intended the AUMF to authorize a widespread effort to collect the content of Americans' phone and email communications, nor does the AUMF refer to the subject. Furthermore, FISA already contained a provision that clearly governed surveillance actions in a wartime situation – a 15-day authorization for warrantless surveillance following a declaration of war. So this was not an uncontemplated question following September 11 and the passage of the AUMF.

Senator Feinstein also endorsed this point, while Senators Feingold and Durbin are expected to continue the fight in the Judiciary Committee. House Democrats have fought harder for accountability, with a bill rejecting immunity, but Republicans have managed to obstruct a floor vote thus far. Jerrold Nadler, Chair of the House Subcommittee on the Constitution, says retroactive immunity is a totally inappropriate response to the "lawless" Bush administration.

The Senate Judiciary Committee could mark up the FISA Amendments Act as early as next Thursday, preparing it for a floor vote. Then the current bill would still face a "hold" or filibuster from several Senators, portending a clash between the Bush-Reid-Rockefeller alliance and the progressive-civil liberties wing of the Democratic Party.

DEM DEBATE: Edwards, Not Obama, Hits Clinton Hardest, Smartest

It was supposed to be the night Barack Obama took Hillary Clinton down.

But, when all was said and done, Obama was a bystander.

The opening question in Tuesday's Democratic presidential debate was a softball pitch from NBC's Brian Williams to the senator from Illinois. Noting Obama's interview in the Sunday New York Times, in which the senator from Illinois promised to get tough with Clinton for acting like a Republican, Williams asked him detail the votes and statements from Clinton to which he objected.

Obama should have been ready to knock that one out of the park. Instead, he swung and missed.

"Some of this stuff gets over-hyped," said Obama, who then tried to tell a boxing joke before rambling on about his support for "big meaningful change."

Finally, the Illinoisan suggested that Clinton had flip-flopped on trade, torture and Iraq -- moving in each case from bad positions to better ones -- while admitting that her evolutions might have been "politically savvy."

Asked for a rebuttal, the frontrunner seized the opening, noted the many attacks on her by GOP presidential candidates and then delivered a classic debate one-liner: "I don't think the Republicans got the message that I'm voting and sounding like them."

Touche!

Were it left to Obama, Clinton would not only have escaped the night unscathed, she might actually have come out ahead.

But this is a multi-candidate race. Where Obama was unfocused and ineffectual, John Edwards landed plenty of blows. The former senator from North Carolina began by suggesting that "it's fair" to talk about essential differences between the candidates. Then he highlighted a big one. "(Clinton) says she'll stand up to George Bush," argued Edwards. "In fact, she voted to give George W. Bush the first step to war on Iran..."

Ouch! That reference to Clinton's vote in favor of the Kyl-Lieberman resolution declaring Iran's Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization, which read an awfully lot like a signal to Bush that he has congressional support for an attack on attack Iraq, opened up a highly engaged discussion that saw several of the candidates, led by Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd -- saying in reference to Clinton's vote of five years ago to authorize Bush to attack Iraq: "What you didn't learn by 2002, you should have learned by now" -- aggressively question Clinton's judgement. It was a smart, at times intense dialogue. Kucinich even got in a call for impeaching Bush and Cheney in order to restore the balance of power between the legislative and executive branches on questions of war-making.

But Edwards owned the moment. Accusing Clinton of voting for an Iran resolution that read like it was "written literally by the neo-cons," the 2004 vice presidential nominee declared, "We need to stand up to this president. We need to make it absolutely clear that we will not let Bush, Cheney and this administration invade Iran."

Edwards was identifying himself "as the clear, sharp alternative," observed NBC commentator Domenico Montanaro. "This is wedging going on. (Edwards) might be elbowing Obama out of the way on this issue. (Obama's), albeit reasonable, but tepid answer on this, just wasn't grabbing the spotlight."

"In the competition to see who would be the sharpest Clinton attacker, Edwards won by far," said Newsweek's Howard Fineman, referring to the North Carolinian's reference to Clinton and the neo-cons.

It wasn't just a fight about Iran, however. Edwards hit hard, and effectively, on every front. After detailing the front-runner's contributions from defense contractors and other corporate interests, he said. "If people want the status quo, Senator Clinton's your candidate."

That's tough talk. Blunt talk. The sort of talk that Barack Obama seemed to suggest that he was going to deliver Tuesday night.

But it came from John Edwards, who ended the night as the candidate who had done the best job of defining himself as the alternative to Hillary Clinton.

Going Postal: Arguing for Media Diversity, Debate & Democracy

Those of us at The Nation have been banging on for some months about the issue of postage rates. In particular, we've been expressing deep concern about the radical restructuring of those rates in a manner that favors magazines with large circulations and transfers costs to small- and mid-circulation publications.

On the rack of journals of opinion, The Nation is indeed a large publication. Along with its ideological opposite, the conservative National Review, The Nation's circulation makes it one of the major jousters in the current clash of ideas. But against consumer magazines that are less engaged with the political and policy fights of the day than with the pursuit of mass circulation and the advertising dollars that follow it, The Nation definitely falls into that "mid-circulation" range of publications that is taking a huge hit as big media companies flex their muscles in the regulatory sphere.

This fight is about more than one magazine, and more than one ideology. Representatives of journals of opinion from across the ideological spectrum are united in their loud objection to the stacking of the distribution deck against publications that explore the issues from libertarian, old-right, new-right, centrist, liberal and progressive perspectives.

The message delivered at today hearing of the US House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform's subcommittee that deals with the postage service was a fundamental one: The sort of publications that the founders imagined as the essential documenters and arbiters of our democratic discourse are being threatened by federal policy making that favors size over content, that favors bigness over quality.

Scott McConnell of The American Conservative magazine explained in testimony submitted to the Federal Workforce, Postal Service and District of Columbia Subcommittee of the House Committee "the postage increases we are facing under the new provisions are little less than catastrophic.

Christopher L. Walton, editor of UU World, the terrific quarterly magazine of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations explained that, "It is disturbing to learn that the new rates abandon the long-standing American tradition of supporting a diverse marketplace of ideas with a fair and uniform postage rate for periodicals. Historically, the periodicals rate allowed small journals of opinion to reach a national audience. But the new rates reward high-circulation periodicals with discounts that smaller-circulation periodicals simply cannot qualify for. Instead, we face a steep and unfair increase in mailing costs.

In These Times editor Joel Bleifuss, with his usual laser focus on the core issues involved, informed the committee that, "In August 2007, In These Times, an independent magazine based in Chicago, was hit hard by a 23 percent postal rate increase. This complex new rate structure, designed by and for the benefit of the largest publishing companies, has severely impacted our small magazine's ability to do business. We face an immediate threat to our financial health. These reckless postal rate increases are aimed at the heart of our nation's independent press. I urge you to ask the spokespeople of the media conglomerates whether they would support these increases if their mailing costs had risen 23 percent. This is a democracy issue. The founding fathers, in their infinite wisdom, created a system that made it cheaper for smaller publications, irrespective of viewpoint, to launch and survive. In 1792 the United States Congress converted the free press clause in the First Amendment from an abstract principle into a living reality for Americans by providing newspapers with low postal rates. These low rates were crucial for the growth and spread of the abolitionist movement, the progressive movement and, later, the civil rights movement. More broadly, they have been central to the development of participatory democracy in general. Today, low postal rates remain crucial to the survival of independent American publications like In These Times."

Not all testimony was submitted in written form. Some of it was delivered personally. Among those appearing before the committee was Nation Publisher Emeritus Victor Navasky, who now serves as director of the Delacorte Center for Magazines and Delacorte Professor of Magazine Journalism at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and director of the Columbia Journalism Review.

Navasky told the committee that he hoped to speak "not only on behalf of CJR and The Nation, and on behalf of small-circulation political journals, but also on behalf of the highly influential readers of these periodicals -– journals in general, editorial writers, legislators and their staffs, non-profit executives, corporate public affairs officers, the academic community, students and teachers, among others. In other words, all of those engaged in, and informed by, the public discourse these magazines exemplify."

Navasky explained to the committee in prepared remarks that, "I have never understood why of all the services government provides--defense, education, environmental protection, health, housing, highways and the rest--only the mails are required to break even or make a profit. The founders, who saw the mails as the circulatory system of our democracy, made no such presumption. George Washington himself was in favor of the free delivery of newspapers (which, by the way, in those days were often weekly and usually partisan, and as such the equivalent of today's journals of political opinion). These journals, whose core franchise is public discourse about public affairs, are, like water, national defense, public highways and public education, a public good and as such it would seem to me ought to be paid for out of public funds (i.e. general tax revenues)."

The author of A Matter of Opinion admitted "this view is generally regarded as quaint and unrealistic–-utopian, as it were--and so the rest of what I have to say does not depend on it, but I thought in the interests of full disclosure, and the hope that it might set some of you to thinking, that I ought to share it."

With that, Navasky outlined a number of practical steps the committee, Congress and the United States Postal Service could make to right the imbalance created by a wrongheaded rate restructuring. Among other things, he proposed reviving a very good proposal by former Arizona Congressman Mo Udall- a liberal Democrat who was supported in the initiative by conservative Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater --to allow the first 250,000 copies of all publications to be mailed at reduced rates. Or, Navasky suggested, why not embrace legislation proposed in 2002 by Bernie Sanders, then the congressman from Vermont and now the senator, that proposed a moratorium on postal increases for magazines with a low percentage of advertising content, low circulation or non-profit status?

Ultimately, however, Navasky proposed a practical and necessary fix for an immediate crisis: Noting that the postal service has the flexibility, working in tandem with Congress, to roll back and/or redistribute rates in the short term, he proposed that Congress ask the USPS to extend non-profit rates to small-circulation political magazines.

That's not a final fix. But is an appropriate move in a moment of crisis by a postal rate increase that will, if it is not addressed, hinder the free flow of ideas and opinions in America.

"It is no accident that the president of The Nation and the publisher of National Review, two periodicals on the opposite sides of the political spectrum, recently teamed up to write an Op Ed essay sounding the alarm," concluded Navasky. "Such small political journals –- which, by the way, carry the most discourse –- bear the heaviest rate increases. The unpopular ideas and opinions that these journals propagate and circulate today often turn out to be tomorrow's wisdom. They act as intellectual and political gadflies, they prod their larger and staider colleagues, they question conformity and complacency. By helping them recover from the grievous wound inflicted upon by the recent rate increase, this Committee will have deepened and strengthened our democracy."

Destabilizing Europe

If you want to know how stupid Bush's decision to push ahead with building a missile defense system in Eastern Europe really is, check out what Vladimir Putin said last week--comparing the US proposed missile shield to the Cuban missile crisis of the 1960s. Barely reported in the US media, the Russian President told reporters at a press conference at the end of a Russian-European Union Summit in Portugal that "Analogous actions by the Soviet Union, when it deployed missiles in Cuba, prompted the 'Caribbean crisis."

Though he doesn't mention Putin's remarks, Joseph Cirincione--an expert on National Security and International Policy at the Center for American Progress--provides cogent evidence against the Administration's allegation that an American radar in the Czech republic would not threaten Russia's nuclear posture, and he presents some excellent policy proposals that and sane Presidential candidate should consider seriously.

The longest article about the many eminent scientists who believe that Russia's fear of missile defense in the Czech Republic and Poland is well-founded is an AP story by Desmond Butler. I read Butler's article in The Moscow News, #39, October 5/11, 2007--an English-language paper published in Moscow. Whether or not it was published widely in the US I do not know, though it's sort of alarming that I had to read this important story in a newspaper published in Russia.

Al Gore: The Write-In Front-Runner

A funny thing happened when the Deaniacs were asked to decide who they might want to back for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.

The supporters of the 2004 presidential campaign of former Vermont Governor Howard Dean and their allies, who form the base of the Democracy for America organization nationally, have been participating in recent days in a poll to see whether a liberal "consensus candidate" can be identified.

It's an online vote, certainly not a scientific survey.

But the voting so far has been revealing. The announced candidates for the Democratic nod are all pictured on the DFA website -- www.democracyforamerica.com -- and several of them have taken advantage of the opportunity offered them by the group to dispatch emails explaining their candidacies to DFA lists.

So who is winning as the contest heads toward its November 5 conclusion -- a date that conveniently falls two months before Iowa Democrats will be attending what could well be definitional caucuses?

It's not Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama; not even John Edwards, who has made a serious play for DFA support. It is not even Dennis Kucinich, the anti-war progressive who is arguably the candidate most in tune with DFA positions in global and domestic issues.

The front-runner is a write-in candidate: former Vice President Al Gore.

Here's how the numbers looked as of Monday afternoon:

Al Gore (write in) 26499... 26.68%

Dennis Kucinich 23951... 24.11%

Barack Obama 18253... 18.38%

John Edwards 15065... 15.17%

Bill Richardson 5726... 5.76%

Hillary Clinton 4421... 4.45%

Other 2056... 2.07%

Christopher Dodd 1551... 1.56%

Joe Biden 997... 1%

Mike Gravel 814... 0.82%

Gore has maintained a lead for more than a week.

It is not likely that the recent Nobel Peace Prize winner will be lured into the race by an online poll. But his unexpected showing tells us two things:

1. Gore has genuine support among progressives. DFA poll participants had to go to extra trouble to write his name in and got no prompting from the group on the possibility of going for the former vice president and 2004 Dean backer. This suggests that, for so long as Gore teases about a race, former "Draft Gore" activists and their grassroots allies -- who have stepped up their activism in Iowa, New Hampshire and other early caucus and primary states -- will find support for their entreaties.

2. The Gore possibility is a serious problem for announced candidates who seek to position themselves as alternatives to presumed Democratic front-runner Clinton. DFA rules require that a candidate get more than 66 percent of the vote to earn an endorsement from the group, which maintains a reasonably solid infrastructure nationally and which serves as a useful bully pulpit among liberal Democrats. It is unlikely that Kucinich, Obama or Edwards could get to the 66 percent level even without the loss of 27 percent of the vote someone who isn't even running. But with the write-ins going to Gore, there is little likelihood that any announced candidate will get near the numbers that are needed for an endorsement.

As such, Al Gore is actually helping Hillary Clinton. For so long as he remains a prospect, he blocks opportunities for other candidates to make their moves.

Aliens in America

Most fish-out-of-water stories are told at the expense of the poor fish. But not so with Aliens in America, which may well be the best television show you're not watching. Well, you'd first have to find that misbegotten offspring of the WB/UPN marriage, the CW channel.

Your efforts will be well rewarded with a very funny comedy that takes on racism, the war on terror, Islam, and that most hallowed of American institutions: high school. How can you resist a show that throws together a devout Pakistani teenager and small-town America?

Hollywood is usually at its excruciatingly racist worst when it comes to any plot that involves foreign exchange students of the non-white variety -- think Long Duk Dong slobbering over Molly Ringwald in Sixteen Candles. The joke is always at the expense of the "fish."

But not so in Aliens in America. Raja's arrival in Medora, Wisconsin is an opportunity not to mock that weird Third World village kid, but the deep-set prejudices and endearing quirks of our American life. The writers handle a potentially difficult premise without ever preaching or veering into gross sentimentality. They do so by focusing the show on the friendship between Raja and the narrator, Justin Tolchuck, a 16-year old bona fide geek who has enough problems making it through the day at school without a Muslim exchange student in tow.

Yet the primary moral of this story is not about peace, love or tolerance, but self-acceptance. It's about Justin learning to like himself -- with a little bit of help from a most unlikely source.

You can read more about the show and catch up on past episodes here. Aliens in America airs every Monday, 8:30/7:30 central.

Cristina and Hillary

UPDATED--Her husband is a former governor and president who presided over an economic boom. She is a popular center-left senator--a tough, disciplined and savvy politician who has led voters to think that they will be getting two leaders for the price of one. No, not Hillary Clinton. She is Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner of Argentina.

Kirchner cruised to victory Sunday, becoming the Western Hemisphere's second female president voted into office in the last two years, following Michelle Bachelet of Chile.

To critics who say Kirchner is simply riding the coattails of her husband, "she likes to point out that she has been a senator since 1995 and so was a national political figure when her husband was a mere provincial governor.

Senator Clinton, of course, is also confronted with the same charge -- one that unfairly makes short shrift of her own achievements and talent. But while her campaign is focused on her being "the most experienced and qualified" candidate for the job, while also providing the opportunity to "make history" with her election, it might be more accurate to say that -- in the context of world history -- Hillary's more of a transitional figure than a groundbreaking one. As historian Linda Colley recently wrote in the London Review of Books , "… If Hillary Rodham Clinton becomes president of the United States in 2008, this will – in terms of women's place in American politics – be a significant political milestone. In global terms, and in historical terms, however, her elevation would be less innovatory. Of the women who have been elected heads of state since the Second World War, a substantial proportion have been closely related to men who have themselves previously held high political office…. Looked at in this comparative context, a Hillary Clinton presidency would be an expression of old-style dynastic politics, and its persistence in the US, not simply a victory for postwar female liberation. If Hillary wins in 2008, and is granted a second term, people whose surname is Bush or Clinton will have presided over the Oval Office for 28 consecutive years."

In fact, Colley points out that from a global perspective, the state of affairs for women in politics in the United States is in some ways lagging. Only 16 percent of our members of Congress are women, compared to 45 percent in Sweden and 49 percent in Rwanda. 58 women have served as an elected prime minister or president, with only one coming from the Northern Hemisphere (Kim Campbell, prime minister of Canada for less than six months.)

So a win for Hillary in the US – like a win for Cristina in machismo Argentina – would represent a leap forward for women in both countries. But for the world as a whole it is a more measured achievement – no matter what Hillary's campaign would have you believe.

Matthews on White House Crime & Media Failure

Here's an important question:

Valerie Wilson has reminded us there was, in fact, a crime committed by the vice president‘s office, a multi-count crime that led to years of imprisonment, except the president commuted it. [But people] allowed the president to erase the blackboard and say it never happened, [as if] there has been no criminality in the vice president‘s office, or in the White House… That‘s the way people [sound], is everybody a jug-head now in politics?!

That's what Chris Matthews wanted to know last night. His guests posited two quick answers. Maybe other events sidelined the administration's criminal record (from The Washington Post's Anne Kornblut), or it was a "media failure" to stick with the story (from The American Prospect's Ezra Klein). But Matthews' response answered his own question:

I mentioned criminality in the vice president‘s office a few weeks ago, and some reporter said he didn‘t know what I was talking about. Is it amnesia? Is it just bad reporting? I think it‘s probably the latter. Anyway, according to a new field poll in California, Rudy Giuliani is only at 25 percent. But he‘s double digit over the pack. I‘m amazed by that, Anne, because here we have Schwarzenegger, a pro-choice, moderate Republican in many ways--many, many ways--Maria Shriver‘s husband in many ways…

And that was it. One meta-question about how the administration has suppressed accountability and scrutiny of its crimes, and then back to horse race politics. (The vast majority of the segment covered polls and political advertising.) And Matthews' entire show, which included an interview with Valerie Wilson, did not even mention the current White House attempt to grant amnesty to telephone companies that allegedly helped the administration break the law to spy on Americans.

 

It's not just Matthews, either. The New York Times is still ignoring the new face-off over the surveillance bill. When the Times thought the entire Democratic caucus would roll over, the news was trumpeted in a front-page story "Democrats Seem Ready to Extend Wiretap Powers," which reported that Democrats were "nervous that they will be called soft on terrorism if they insist on strict curbs on gathering intelligence." That turned out at least partially incorrect. The next day, October 12, the Times ran a more measured article, "House Panels Vote for More Scrutiny Over Foreign Eavesdropping," which it buried on A29. (Also note how "Democrats" turns to "House Panel" depending on the news.)

Does this mean that Chris Dodd, the leader of the fight against telecom amnesty, is getting no coverage in the Times?

Of course not. Today the Times published an article about his haircuts.

 

Senators Call For 'Sweatshop-Free Barbie'

Attention shoppers: With the holiday season fast approaching isn't it time to give your child a doll or toy-train not made in a sweatshop?

That's the message labor rights advocates are now trying to get across- that consumers fretting about unsafe toys should also be alarmed about unsafe toy-making conditions. And they are directing part of their energy toward supporting "The Decent Working Conditions and Fair Competition Act", a bill with 13 Senate co-sponsors, including Hillary Clinton, that calls for a ban on importing all sweatshop-made products.

"If you move production to Chinese factories that cut every possible corner to lower costs," said bill co-sponsor and North Dakota Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan at a Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing today, "You end up with young women worked to death in China and products that end up poisoning our kids here at home."

But as The Nation pointed out in a recent editorial, the connection is still not being made between a lead-tained $29.99 Barbie and a worker paid 19 cents an hour to make that Barbie. Charles Kernaghan, Director of the National Labor Committee, said after the hearing that it's "very difficult for parents whose child gets a toy with lead to think about workers 5,000 miles away."

Kernaghan reported during the hearing on internal audits of Mattel, where the biggest toy company in the U.S. forced employees to work 80 to 90 hours a week. Kernaghan testifed that the Chinese Government gave Mattel a waiver that allowed them to disregard Chinese minimum wage and overtime rules. Mattel representatives declined an invitation to appear at the hearing.

China accounts for almost 90 percent of toys brought into the U.S. and 80 percent of all toys purchased in the country. So far American companies like Mattel have largely been able to seek the cheapest labor while preventing even the Chinese government from creating labor standards. "The United States Chamber of Commerce is telling the authoritarian Chinese government that they are giving workers too many worker rights," railed Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders. "Can you believe that?"

What Sanders called the U.S.-China policy of "unfettered free trade" shows signs of gradual change. Fast-track authority expired this summer, which means Congress no longer will vote yes or no on trade agreements without being able to offer amendments on, for instance, labor standards. And proponents of the Senate bill argue that if Mattel et. al keeps staying in the news, discussion will eventually move beyond the "Toxic Toys" headlines.