The Nation

Is The Government Finally Scrutinizing The Death Penalty?

The Supreme Court's focus on the administration of death by lethal injection could expose the plethora of problems that come with the death penalty.

That's the hope of Russ Feingold who's using the Court's stay of execution for a Mississippi prisoner to re-introduce his Federal Death Penalty Abolition Act. The Wisconsin Democrat fired off a statement yesterday declaring that, "This de facto moratorium on executions by lethal injection gives us a chance to recognize just how deeply flawed the implementation of capital punishment in this country is."

Since the Supreme Court effectively legalized the federal death penalty in 1976, death penalty legislation or even legislative oversight has been nearly non-existent. Feingold's hearing this summer on death penalty implementation was the first of its kind since 2001-- the last time a Democratic majority enabled Feingold to chair a Senate committee.

But there are indications that Feingold may no longer be the lone wolf in Washington howling about the death penalty's moral and practical problems. His hearing this summer actually made front-page headlines when fired U.S. Attorney Paul Charlton gave specific examples of the Alberto Gonzales-led Justice Department eagerly pursuing death sentences at the expense of due process. Nationally, executions this year are down to 42, their lowest level in a decade.

Of those executions all but one were done via lethal injection. And the Supreme Court's stay of execution for Mississippi prisoner Earl Berry was, according to the New York Times, an "indisputable indication" that the Court will stop all deaths by lethal injection until next spring.

That's when the nine justices argue Baze v. Rees, which will determine if death row inmates can challenge the so-called three-drug cocktail used for executions as a violation of 8th amendment prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. Some doctors now argue that the drug combination may sometimes result in inmates being paralyzed but not anesthetized, meaning the final moments of their lives are spent in searing pain, unable to move.

While the case will focus on the narrow legal issues of whether such a constitutional claim can ever be brought, it might represent the best chance in years to publicly debate whether the entire enterprise of state-sanctioned killing is cruel and unusual.

Just this week, for example, the American Bar Association released a timely report showing the misuse and outright neglect of DNA evidence in capital cases, racial disparity in death sentences and instances of prosecutorial overzealousness. The findings aren't new but such reports might at last be heard in the courts and Congress.

Calling the Question -- In the House -- on Impeaching Cheney

Broadcast media's gate-keeping "stars" have done just about everything in their power to keep the matter of presidential accountability off the radar of the American people. That was evident during the most recent Democratic presidential debate, when NBC anchors Brian Williams and Tim Russert meticulously avoided following up on Congressman Dennis Kucinich's three references to impeachment but somehow found time to grill the contenders on UFOs and what costume Barack Obama would be wearing on Halloween.

Pollsters are almost as bad. Rarely are questions about impeachment included in statewide or national surveys.

Despite the lack of media coverage, however, when citizens are asked what they think about holding members of the Bush administration to account, they respond with an enthusiasm far greater than that displayed for impeaching Richard Nixon at the height of the Watergate scandal. It is this reality -- as opposed to the state of denial fostered by so much of the media and the political class -- that Congressman Dennis Kucinich will act upon next week, when he offers a privileged resolution on the House floor to bring articles of impeachment against Vice President Dick Cheney.

Kucinich will face an uphill fight in a chamber led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the California Democrat who continues to say that impeachment is "off the table."

The Ohio congressman and long-shot presidential contender may not be following the rules of engagement as dictated by major media and his party leaders. But when Kucinich raises the issue of impeachment, he will be speaking for a great mass of Americans who agree with his argument that, "Congress must hold the Vice President accountable."

How great?

A fresh poll conducted for Vermont's WCAX television station finds that citizens of that state enthusiastically believe that Congress beginning impeachment proceedings against President Bush.

Sixty-one percent of the Vermonters surveyed favor taking steps to impeach the president, while just 33% oppose doing so.

The numbers are even higher for impeaching Cheney. Sixty-four percent of Vermonters favor beginning the process of holding the vice president to account, where only 31 percent are opposed.

The greater level of support for impeaching Cheney parallels the few nationwide figures that have been ascertained. When the American Research Group conducted a national survey in early July of this year, it found that 54 percent of American adults wanted the House to begin impeachment proceedings against Cheney -- with 76 percent of Democrats, 51 percent of independents and a striking 17 percent of Republicans favoring the step.

Forty-six percent of Americans surveyed backed impeachment proceedings against Bush -- with support for impeachment at 69 percent among Democrats, 50 percent among independents and 13 percent among Republicans.

What is notable is that, when Time magazine surveyed Americans in the late spring of 1974, after the Watergate scandal had evolved into a full-scale crisis of confidence in Nixon's presidency, only 43 percent favored impeachment.

A media that actually had a sense of history, not to mention reality, would focus on the fact that Americans are more supportive of a congressional intervention to thwart Bush and Cheney's wrongdoing than they were of moves to hold Nixon to account just months before the former president resigned in disgrace.

Now, it falls to Kucinich to speak the reality that, "The momentum is building for impeachment. Millions of citizens across the nation are demanding Congress rein in the Vice President's abuse of power."

Says the congressman, "Despite this groundswell of opposition to the unconstitutional conduct of office, Vice President Cheney continues to violate the U.S. Constitution by insisting the power of the executive branch is supreme... The Vice President continues to use his office to advocate for a continued occupation of Iraq and prod our nation into a belligerent stance against Iran. If the Vice President is successful, his actions will ensure decades of disastrous consequences."

Kucinich introduced articles of impeachment against Cheney several months ago, and his H. Res. 333 has attracted almost two dozen co-sponsors. All Democrats, they are Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Robert Brady (D-PA), Yvette Clarke (D-NY), Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-MO), Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN), Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), Rep. Sam Farr (D-CA), Rep. Bob Filner (D-CA), Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-TX), Rep. Henry Johnson (D-GA), Rep. Carolyn Kilpatrick (D-MI), Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA), Rep. James Moran (D-VA), Rep. Donald Payne (D-NJ), Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-NY), Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA), Rep. Diane Watson (D-CA), Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) and Rep. Albert Wynn (D-MD).

Frustrated by the refusal of Democratic leaders to set up a process for holding hearings on his proposal, Kucinich will use an arcane House rule allowing for the prodding of the process with privileged resolutions to try and force consideration. Once introduced, a privileged resolution must be addressed within two legislative days.

Kucinich is expected to offer his privileged resolution on Tuesday. He expects to continue pushing it until the House acts. That action is likely to be a successful move by Democratic leaders to table the measure. Such a vote could be instructive, however, in that it would provide a rare measure of the willingness of at least some House members to respond to the popular will -- which is that Dick Cheney be held to account.

Washing His Hands of Katrina

President Bush wasted no time in using the emergency response to the California wildfires as a means of escaping culpability for his Administration from blame for its lethal non-response to Katrina.

According to the the Times-Picayune, while touring the California disaster area, Bush said, "It makes a significant difference when you have somebody in the statehouse willing to take the lead."

Bush's blame game further underlines the importance of getting at the truth about what was perhaps the most colossal failure of emergency response by the government in our nation's history.

I posted earlier this year about Senator Joe Lieberman--chair of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee--doing a 180 on the need for hearings after his favorite Kisser, President Bush, helped him get re-elected against antiwar Democratic nominee Ned Lamont. I raised the question then of whether Senator Barack Obama--also a member of the committee--would speak out on the need for hearings that Lieberman himself had once described as necessary, saying, "Only through a thorough and comprehensive investigation of what went wrong [can] we be assured that the government will know what steps are necessary to get it right the next time." At the time, it seemed Obama had no interest in taking on another Democratic Caucus member. But now, as he attempts to wage a more aggressive campaign to become the next President, Obama again has the opportunity to distinguish himself by speaking the simple truth that our nation needs to uncover what transpired during Katrina. On the House side, Representative Henry Waxman, chair of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, had told me, "I have a strong interest in the response to Hurricane Katrina, and it is under consideration by the Committee." It remains to be seen whether any action will be taken there as well.

In the absence of such hearings, Bush and too many in the mainstream media will continue to engage in revisionism. For example, this recent Washington Post editorial carried water for the Bush Administration: "Californians have something that Louisianans, in particular those in New Orleans, didn't have when they needed it most: leadership, in this case from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the San Diego mayor on down." In a letter to the editor, Representative Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security, responded, "Californians have other things that Louisianans and Mississippians did not: running water, electricity, open stores, passable roadways and an engaged federal partner."

Why wasn't that federal partner engaged? And don't the American people need and deserve those answers?

Environmental Action Surges

Mark Hertsgaard recently wrote in The Nation about the growing surge of environmental activism in the US. As he put it, "Washington's sluggish pace is calling forth a surge of activism aimed at persuading the next President and Congress to be far bolder--to advocate and deliver solutions as big as the problem."

Last April 14 saw a significant step forward for this new movement when the unified Step it Up day of actions nationwide launched a citizen's movement with more than 1,400 events in 50 states, the largest global warming event in US history. This Saturday, November 3, the movement is stepping out again with a series of gatherings coast to coast designed to pressure our elected reps to adopt three key priorities to combat global warming--1) Creating five million Green Jobs by 2015, 2) Radically cutting carbon by 2050 and 3) a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants.

"Americans are demanding real solutions that will reduce carbon emissions and stop global warming before it is too late," said Step It Up co-coordinator Jamie Henn. "Many events will occur in historic places such as the Lincoln Memorial or on Paul Revere's route to symbolize the need for politicians to provide leadership on global warming."

"November 3 represents a new move towards political accountability," said author and Step It Up founder Bill McKibben. "So far it's been enough for politicians to say: I care. Now, one year out from a pivotal global warming election, it's time to see who's going to lead."

While Step It Up rallies issue a call for action from local communities, thousands of youth will gather at the University of Maryland at College Park, calling for change at the November 2 to 5 Powershift 2007 conference.

Find an action near you this Saturday.

The Media on Iraqi Oil--Don't Ask, Won't Tell

History… phooey!

Or, more mildly, Americans traditionally aren't much interested in it and the media largely don't have time for it either. For one thing, the past is often just so inconvenient. On Monday, for instance, there was a front-page piece in the New York Times by Elisabeth Bumiller on Robert Blackwill, one of the "Vulcans" who helped Condoleezza Rice advise George W. Bush on foreign policy during the 2000 election campaign, Iraq Director on the National Security Council during the reign in Baghdad of our viceroy L. Paul Bremer III, and the President's personal envoy to the faltering occupation (nicknamed "The Shadow"), among many other things.

He is now--here's a giant shock--a lobbyist. And, among those he's lobbying for (in this case to the tune of $300,000) is Ayad Allawi, former CIA asset and head--back in Saddam's day--of an exile group, the Iraq National Accord. Bumiller identifies Allawi as "the first prime minister of the newly sovereign nation--America's man in Baghdad." She also refers to him as having had "close ties to the CIA" and points out that he was not just Bremer's, but Blackwill's "choice" to be prime minister back in 2004. Now, he's Blackwill's "choice" again. Allawi is, it seems, yet once more on deck, with his own K-Street lobbyist, ready to step in as prime minister if the present PM, Nouri al-Maliki, were to fall (or be shoved aside).

But there's another rather inconvenient truth about Allawi that goes unmentioned -- and it's right off the front page of the New York Times, no less -- a piece by Joel Brinkley, "Ex-C.I.A. Aides Say Iraq Leader Helped Agency in 90's Attacks," published in early June 2004, just at the moment when Allawi had been "designated" prime minister. In the early 1990s, Brinkley reported, Allawi's exile organization was, under the CIA's direction, planting car bombs and explosive devices in Baghdad (including in a movie theater) in a fruitless attempt to destabilize Saddam Hussein's regime. Of course, that was back when car bombs weren't considered the property of brutes like Sunni extremists, al-Qaeda in Iraq, and the Taliban. (Just as, inconveniently enough, back in the 1980s the CIA bankrolled and encouraged the training of Afghan "freedom fighters" in mounting car-bomb and even camel-bomb attacks in a terror campaign against Soviet officers and soldiers in Russian-occupied Afghan cities (techniques personally "endorsed," according to Steve Coll in his superb book Ghost Wars, by then-CIA Director William Casey).

But that was back in the day--just as, to randomly cite one more inconvenient piece of history also off the front page of the New York Times (Patrick Tyler, "Officers Say U.S. Aided Iraq in War Despite Use of Gas," August 18, 2002), years before we went into Iraq to take out Saddam's by then nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, we helped him use them. The Reagan Pentagon had a program in which 60 officers from the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency "were secretly providing detailed information on Iranian deployments" to Saddam's forces, so that he could, among other things, wield his chemical weapons against them more effectively. ("The Pentagon 'wasn't so horrified by Iraq's use of gas,' said one veteran of the program. 'It was just another way of killing people -- whether with a bullet or phosgene, it didn't make any difference.'")

Of course, when it comes to America's oily history in Iraq, there is just about no backstory--not on the front page of the New York Times, not basically in the mainstream. Even at this late date, with the price of crude threatening to head for the $100 a barrel mark, Iraqi oil is--well, not exactly censored out--just (let's face it) so darn embarrassing to write about. In fact, now that all those other explanations for invading Iraq -- WMD, freedom, you name it -- have long since flown the coop, there really is no explanation (except utter folly) for Bush's invasion. So, better to move on, and quickly at that.

Unfortunately, history, even when not in sight, matters. And the deeper you go, as Michael Schwartz proves in a recent piece, "Why Did We Invade Iraq Anyway?", the more likely you are to find that gusher you're looking for.

Frances Moore Lappé's Recipe for Radical Renewal

Frances Moore Lappé has, for the better part of four decades, done her very best to guide the United States toward a more rational relationship with the planet and its inhabitants. It has not been easy work, and the current circumstance would suggest that it has not been nearly so successful as Lappé or the readers of her groundbreaking books would have hoped.

But the truth is that Lappé has succeeded, masterfully.

No popular intellectual has been so very successful in reshaping the character and content of debates about environmental and food policy as this remarkable woman. It is true that there are still deniers of the truths she advances. But they are increasingly isolated in the West Wing of the Bush White House. And their days are numbered.

The future belongs to Frances Moore Lappé -- who in on a national book tour that will take her to Burlington, Vt.; Madison, Wi.; St. Louis and Worcester, Ma., in coming days -- and to those who have been guided by her wise assessments of the most fundamental issues.

Lappé will always be known as the author of Diet for a Small Planet, the 1971 book that reshaped the debate about famines, food shortages and consumption. In it, the author argued that it was not patterns of over-population, bad weather or technological inadequacy that caused human beings to be denied the sustenance they required to survive. Rather, it was the unfair distribution of the world's resources and a deficit of democracy, which undermined the ability of citizens to make that distribution fairer and more responsible.

This simple calculus, which even now is neglected by many policy makers, was revolutionary. It returned the debate about how to deal with famines and related crises to the fundamental issues of inequality and inhumanity.

The response was unprecedented. More than three million copies of Diet for a Small Planet have been sold, and the 15 books Lappé has written in ensuing years have added nuance and perspective to her original arguments while taking the debate about the human condition to new and exciting places.

The value of Lappé's contribution is now broadly recognized. She has received 17 honorary doctorates from distinguished institutions, along with the global Right Livelihood Award and the Rachel Carson Award. "A small number of people in every generation are forerunners, in thought, action, spirit, who swerve past the barriers of green and power to hold a torch high for the rest of us. Lappé is one of those," says historian Howard Zinn. The Washington Post made the same point with the observation that, "Some of the twentieth century's most vibrant activist thinkers have been American women – Margaret Mead, Jeanette Rankin, Barbara Ward, Dorothy Day – who took it upon themselves to pump life into basic truths. Frances Moore Lappé is among them."

It would be easy to rest on such laurels.

But Lappé is not resting. She's out campaigning -- to renew civic and democratic values, to restrain corporate excess and governmental abuse, to stop fearing fear itself and to start embracing the radical responses that will make America and the planet as peaceful, as healthy, as humane and as fulfilled as our knowledge and our technology makes possible.

That's the "gospel" Frances Moore Lappé preaches in her terrific new book, Getting a Grip: Clarity, Creativity and Courage in a World Gone Mad (Small Planet Press), and on the national tour she's now on to herald its publication.

Lappé is saying what every presidential candidate should, and she is doing so with the boldness that is required if we hope to break with Bushism and shape a future worthy of a nation founded on revolutionary promise and a world that will only be set right if that promise is kept.

"I just want to go for it," Lappé asks in the introduction to Getting a Grip. "Why can't we have a nation - why can't we have a world we're proud of? Why can't we stop wringing our hands over poverty, hunger, species decimation, genocide, and death from curable disease that we know is all needless? The truth is there is no reason we can't. They say - whoever the "they" are - that as we age, we mellow. I don't think so. I'm getting less and less patient. Why? Because I realize that humanity has no excuses anymore. In the span of my own lifetime, both historical evidence and breakthroughs in knowledge have wiped out all our excuses. We know that we know how to end this needless suffering, and we have all the resources to do it. From sociology and anthropology to economics, from education and ecology to systems analysis - the evidence is in. We know what works."

Frances Moore Lappé is as right now as she has been in the past. It is time to go for it -- no half steps, no half measures. We have a name for the failures of the past: Bush. Now that the Bush era is ending, we need to name and claim the future.

Is Hillary the Next Grover Cleveland?

"We hope we're about to elect FDR," New York Times op-ed columnist Paul Krugman told me earlier this week, "but we might be about to elect Grover Cleveland." He said he was referring to the front-runner, Hillary Clinton.

Grover Cleveland, for those who don't know their 19th century presidents, was the only Democrat who made it to the White House between 1860 and 1912, the decades when Republican big money ruled the country. Cleveland, elected in 1885 and again in 1893, mobilized the army to crush the 1894 Pullman strike of railroad workers, and joined Wall Street in supporting the gold standard. "He was what they called a ‘Bourbon Democrat,' as in the French royal family," Krugman explained. "He wasn't that different from the Republicans at the time."

Krugman said it appears that the key issue in the 2008 election will be health care, and that the Democrats have a health care plan that will work. His "biggest concern," he said, was "whether the next occupant of the White House will triangulate it into oblivion." He reiterated that he was talking about Hillary.

Earlier that day, the New York Times had reported on page one that the health care industry has already contributed $2.7 million to Hillary, more than any other candidate in either party. Krugman indicated he was concerned that she might do too much compromising and negotiating with the insurance, pharmaceutical and hospital companies, as she did as First Lady in 1993.

Krugman pointed to one big difference between the Clintons' triangulation over health care in 1993 and the situation today, when "we have a self-conscious, aggressive progressive movement in a way we did not when Bill Clinton came into office. I think that does at least somewhat change the calculus," he said. If Hillary does concede too much to the other side, "there is an organized group that will make it clear that this is not what you're supposed to do."

On health care, Krugman said that, speaking as an economist -- which he is --the best plan would be a single payer system, like the "Medicare for All" bill introduced by John Conyers. That would have the lowest administrative overhead and thus provide the most cost-effective system. In his book, "The Conscience of a Liberal," he writes "America loves Medicare; let's give it to everyone." But politically that would be a struggle, because it would require a substantial tax increase.

Thus "the perfect can be the enemy of the good," Krugman says. The most politically feasible plan is the one proposed first by John Edwards and then by Barak Obama – a universal health care system run though private insurance companies. It mandates coverage for everybody and prohibits insurers from denying coverage to anyone or charging different premiums to different people, and it provides government subsidies for low-income people.

The main advantage is that it could be paid for without a tax increase, simply by reversing the Bush tax cuts for the rich. That's the one the Democrats will be pushing after the 2008 election, Krugman says, and that's the one Hillary must be prevented from triangulating into oblivion.

Krugman spoke with me at a public event, ALOUD at Central Library, a free series at the Los Angeles Public Library presented by the Library Foundation of Los Angeles.

CPSC Not Protecting Children's Safety

Thirteen million toys have been recalled in the last two months due to unsafe levels of lead. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) -- the watchdog agency charged with protecting consumers from such risks -- has exactly one full-time toy inspector. That's right, one. It has 15 inspectors who oversee all of the imports under the agency's jurisdiction -- a $614 billion market.

So when the Senate took up legislation to double the agency's budget, beef up its staff by 20 percent, impose stiffer penalties for company and executive violations, and "give the commission broad new powers to police the marketplace," it of course would have no greater advocate than acting chair, Nancy Nord, right?

Who are you kidding -- not in this White House.

According to the New York Times, the former lawyer for Eastman Kodak sent not one, but two, letters opposing the bill . Whistle-blower protection (which not even industry opposes), increased transparency for reports on faulty products, and raising the cap on penalties from $1.8 million to $100 million are just some of the measures Nord finds most objectionable.

"It was remarkable to send a letter like that to a committee, when you're in dire straits and you need increased funding and you've acknowledged that," Ellen Bloom, director of federal policy at Consumers Union, told the Times.

The Bush administration's ideological contempt for any government role in protecting the public interest is limitless. So, even though Americans are already more vulnerable, for example, than other developed countries when it comes to the safety of our children's toys, you can count on the Bushies to continue to gut the government so that their cronies in Big Business continue to have their run of the place.

Fight GOP Tricks with Courage

Thanks to Nation writer and Occidental College professor Peter Dreier for tipping me off to the following item with which California Nation readers are likely already familiar.

It's Halloween season and the Republicans have launched another "dirty tricks" effort to try (again) to steal the White House. Under the guise of good government, the GOP is trying to change California election rules so the state's electoral college votes can be split according to Congressional district. The end result would be to deprive the Democratic nominee for president about twenty of California's Electoral College votes next fall.

According to the San Jose Mercury News, Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani's gang of out-of-state consultants are behind this Rovian dirty trick, having "already raised $2 million" to hoodwink Californians into subverting the Constitution by ballot initiative. Consultants Ed Rollins and Anne Dunsmore are leading this ugly mob. Both have strong connections to Giuliani and, more ominously, former Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris.

Liberal stalwart Bradley Whitford of West Wing fame has made a YouTube video on behalf of the Courage Campaign to spread the word on the GOP's dirty trick. Watch it now.

Then check out the Courage Campaign website to find out what you can do to help combat this blatantly pro-Republican "reform."