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Wal-Mart's Latest Markdown

Taking time out from its nonstop coverage of the "early admission" policies of a few elite colleges -- could this newspaper appeal to an even tinier, more rarefied demographic? -- the New York Times ran a good front-page story this morning on Wal-Mart's new plan, as revealed in an internal memo, to implement pay caps and increase the percentage of part-time employees in its workforce.

Obviously, some at the company didn't feel the workers were exploited enough! The paper also reported something that I have been hearing from Wal-Mart workers for a long time; scheduling is essentially at the whim of managers, particularly impossible for workers who have children, but hard on all workers struggling to plan their lives (and their budgets, given that they might work 20 hours one week, and eight the next).

It's important that the affluent, urban consumers that Wal-Mart so badly needs not be seduced by the retailer's new offerings -- 400-threadcount sheets, organic food and Earth's-new-best-friend image -- but keep the pressure on the company to improve work conditions, by continuing to shop elsewhere, and to protest Wal-Mart's ever-insistent expansion. The company is betting that its new target -- the Starbucks customer -- doesn't really care about workers' rights, but will go starry-eyed at the first few nebulous signs of "corporate responsibility."

Failure to Protect

Let's examine last week's five bombshells and look for the pattern:

1) According to Bob Woodward's new book, Condi Rice was warned two months before 9/11 of an impending al-Qaeda attack but brushed off the CIA report.

2) George W. Bush's White House had been warned for years that the insurgency was on the rise in Iraq but failed to alter its failing strategy.

3) The recently released National Intelligence Estimate says that the Iraq war has increased the number of terrorists and made Americans less safe.

4) Republican Congressman Mark Foley, who was co-chair of the House Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children, sent sexual emails to underage congressional pages.

5) House Speaker Dennis Hastert, who was warned a year ago that Mark Foley had inappropriately contacted a 16-year-old page, did not act until last Friday because the email messages his office saw were not sufficiently "explicit."

It is now painfully clear that the very Republicans whose job it is to protect us and our children from danger have failed repeatedly, because they're too busy protecting their own political power. The evidence is as overwhelming and repugnant as Mark Foley's emails.

Stop Big Media (Again!)

Once again, media industry lobbyists and their allies on the Federal Communication Commission are working to revise the rules on media ownership to allow a single corporation to own most, if not all, of the newspapers, radio and TV stations and internet news and entertainment sites in your town.

As John Nichols wrote in The Nation mag recently, "This would create media 'company towns' where the discourse is defined by a single newsroom. That means big profits for firms that own the 'news,' and big democracy deficits for citizens--which is why 3 million Americans opposed an FCC move to ease ownership limits when the issue arose in 2003."

Dissident FCC commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein have forced Commission Chairman Kevin Martin, a Republican industry ally, to hold public hearings on proposed policies, as one of many steps they've taken to open up the decision-making process. The first official public hearing on media ownership will be held in Los Angeles on Tuesday, October 3 at two venues--the campus of USC and El Segundo High School--with an afternoon and an evening session; there will be an opportunity for public testimony at both sessions.

This is a singular opportunity to let Martin and the FCC Commissioners know how the media is serving your community. This may be one of the public's final chances to speak out against Big Media before Martin moves to lift the last significant limits to runaway consolidation. Check the Free Press site for background and info on other upcoming public hearings, and click here to write the FCC and implore it to take steps to avoid wholesale consolidation of the US media industry.

George Bush's Iraq in 4 Questions

Over 1,291 days after the first "shock-and-awe" attack on downtown Baghdad, it's not unreasonable to speak of George Bush's Iraq. The President himself likes to refer to that country as the "central front [or theater] in our fight against terrorism" and the recent National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), a small part of which was finally released by the President, confirms that Iraq is now just that -- a literal motor for the creation of terrorism.

So what exactly does George Bush's Iraq look like? A surprising amount of information has appeared in the press recently, but in scattershot form. Here are four questions that bring some of it together, offering a grim snapshot of Bush's Iraq.

How many freelance militias are there in Baghdad?

The answer is "23" according to a "senior [U.S.] military official" in Baghdad -- so write Richard A. Oppel, Jr. and Hosham Hussein in the New York Times; according to National Public Radio, the answer is "at least 23." Antonio Castaneda of the Associated Press says that there are 23 "known" militias. However you figure it, that's a staggering number of militias, mainly Shiite but some Sunni, for one large city.

How many civilians are dying in the capital?

5,106 people in July and August, according to a United Nations report. The previous figure of 3,391 offered for those months relied on body counts only from the city morgue. The UN report includes deaths at the city's overtaxed hospitals. With the Bush administration bringing thousands of extra soldiers into Baghdad in August, death tolls went down for a few weeks, but began rising again towards month's end. August figures on civilian wounded -- 4,309 -- rose 14% over July's figures and, by late September, suicide bombings were at their highest level since the invasion.

How many Iraqis are being tortured in Baghdad at present?

Large numbers of bodies are found around the capital every day. These, as Oppel of the Times describes them, commonly display such signs of torture as "gouged-out eyeballs… broken bones of legs and hands, electric and cigarette burns… missing teeth and wounds caused by power drills or nails." The UN's chief anti-torture expert, Manfred Nowak, believes torture in Iraq is now "worse" than under Saddam Hussein.

How many Iraqi civilians are being killed countrywide?

For those two months, the UN Report offers the figure of 1,493 dead outside of Baghdad. However, this is surely an undercount. Oppel points out that officials in al-Anbar Province, "one of the deadliest regions in Iraq, reported no deaths in July." Meanwhile, in Diyala Province, northeast of Baghdad, deaths seem to be on the rise. The intrepid British journalist Patrick Cockburn recently visited the head of Diyala's Provincial Council (who has so far escaped two assassination attempts). He believes "on average, 100 people are being killed in Diyala every week." ("Many of those who die disappear forever, thrown into the Diyala River or buried in date palm groves and fruit orchards.") Based on the UN report, we're talking close to 40,000 Iraqi deaths a year. We have no way of knowing how much higher the real figure is.

***

Last week, the count of American war dead in Iraq passed 2,700. The Iraqi dead are literally uncountable. Iraq is the tragedy of our times, carnage incarnate. Every time the President mentions "victory" these days, the word "loss" should come to our minds. A few more victories like this one and the world will be an unimaginable place.

For a full 21 questions (and answers) on George Bush's Iraq visit Tomdispatch.com.

RIP, Bill of Rights, RIP

On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which led to the internment of 120,000 Japanese civilians, 2/3 of whom were US citizens, in military camps across the western half of the country. Effectively stripping Japanese Americans of virtually all constitutional protections (including rights to property, trial by jury and habeas corpus), 9066 is now widely decried as one of the darkest moments in US history. In 1988, Congress passed Public Law 100-383, which apologized to Japanese internees, provided reparations and created a public education fund to "inform the public about the internment of such individuals so as to prevent the recurrence of any similar event."

Congress should have enrolled in its own re-education program.

By passing the Military Commissions Act (a.k.a. the torture bill), Congress has granted the Bush administration extraordinary powers to detain, interrogate and prosecute alleged terrorists and their supporters. Anyone anywhere in the world at any time may be summarily classified an "unlawful enemy combatant" by the executive branch, seized and detained. Only aliens are subject to military trials (I've updated my original post here to more accurately describe persons subject to military commissions; see sec. 948a-c in text of legislation). As Bruce Ackerman points out in the LA Times, the definition of "unlawful enemy combatant" includes those who "purposefully and materially supported hostilities against the United States" (by say, writing a check to a Middle East charity) and may extend to US citizens. Thanks to the Supreme Court's decision in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, US citizens at least appear to retain habeas corpus rights, a foundation of Western jurisprudence. Foreign nationals do not; the Act explicitly denies them the writ of habeas corpus (the right to be charged and tried and the right to appeal any convictions in a court of law).

These wartime powers rival and exceed those assumed by Roosevelt during WWII. Even worse, unlike the case of Executive Order 9066, Congress has given President Bush the stamp of legislative authority. In this context, perhaps the most craven vote cast for the torture bill came from Senator Arlen Specter. Though he believes the bill to be "patently unconstitutional on its face," he voted for it anyway because he hopes "the court will clean it up." But there's no reason to believe the courts will act in such a manner.

As Ackerman points out, the Korematsu case, which validated Japanese internment, still stands as precedent. Since September 11, federal courts and the Bush administration have used Korematsu-like language to define a state of emergency and justify racial profiling. (And wing-nuts like Michelle Malkin have argued that racial profiling and detention of Japanese during WWII was justified, as is profiling and detention of Arabs in the war on terror). As Ackerman argues "congressional support of presidential power will make it much easier to extend the Korematsu decision to further mass seizures."

Moreover, Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, the Supreme Court case that temporarily jeopordized Bush's extra-judicial detentions, specifically cited lack of Congressional approval. Now Congress has given him this approval.

For those who believe that mass internment can never happen again, the US now holds 14,000 detainees in prisons in Iraq, Guantanamo, Afghanistan and other undisclosed locations. 14,000 people who can be held indefinitely, without a fair trial, by secret evidence to which they have no access or that may be obtained by what most consider torture. 14,000 and counting. Never again is now.

State of Denial

Mark Foley's sexuality was never much of a secret to those who served with him in the House.

The New York Times and every major newspaper in Florida had been writing articles on the congressman's agonizingly inept attempts to remain closeted for years. Indeed, it was the embarrassing manner in which he had attempted to cloak his sexuality that prevented Foley from securing his party's nomination for the U.S. Senate in 2004 and again this year.

Tragically, as a Florida Republican, Foley felt that if he wanted to remain a political player he needed to live a lie. He was probably wrong; Republicans who have come out of the closet, such as retiring Arizona Congressman Jim Kolbe, have often thrived politically. Openly gay men and lesbians have been elected and reelected to the House as Democrats and Republicans, and Foley -- whose relatively moderate voting record could have appealed to both Main Street Republicans and Democrats -- might well have broken the barrier in the Senate.

But Foley didn't trust Florida Republican voters to accept him for who he was, so this otherwise personable and capable congressman engaged in an increasingly challenging and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to hide a huge part of his identity.

The pressures imposed by such secrecy appear to have been too much for Foley. Unlike the vast majority of homosexuals -- who, as a group, are less likely to be attracted to children than heterosexuals -- the congressman began to engage in activities that were inappropriate and potentially illegal. Details that have surfaced in recent day suggests that Foley had made a mess of his life – a mess that exploded on him and his party when it was revealed that the co-chair of the Congressional Caucus for Missing & Exploited Children had sent "Do I make you a little horny?" e-mails to teenage boys.

Foley's Republican colleagues, who are champions when it comes to shooting the wounded, immediately began trashing him. ``This type of behavior is what I try to protect my grandchildren from," snarled Clay Shaw, the GOP representative from a neighboring Florida House district. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois, Mouse Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Majority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Missouri, issued a statement condemning Foley's behavior as "an obscene breach of trust."

"His immediate resignation must now be followed by the full weight of the criminal justice system," Hastert, Boehner and Blunt said of Foley.

Fair enough. But what do these Republican leaders think about those who knew about Foley's undue interest in male pages, covered the fact up for months – perhaps years -- and then lied about what they knew. Should they, too, face "the full weight of the criminal justice system"?

When the news of Foley's emails broke in the media, Hastert declared, "I was surprised."

Really? That's strange.

Congressman Tom Reynolds, who chairs the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, revealed on Saturday that he had informed Hastert months ago about concerns regarding Foley's habit of sending sexually suggestive – "strip down and get naked" -- e-mails and instant messages to male congressional pages.

Congressman Rodney Alexander, the Louisiana Republican who brought those concerns to the attention of party leaders after learning about Foley's e-mails from the family of a former page in 2005, has confirmed that his office contacted Hastert's office regarding the matter. Additionally, Alexander personally discussed the issue with Reynolds and Boehner.

Another Republican with close ties to the House leadership, Illinois Representative John Shimkus, admits that he investigated the e-mail issue in 2005 – apparently after it was reviewed by Hastert's office and the office of the Clerk of the House – and says he warned Foley to break off contact with a particular teenager and, in a more general sense, to stop stalking male pages. Then, Shimkus dropped the matter – to the apparent satisfaction of Hastert, Boehner, Blunt, Reynolds and other House Republican leaders.

Some readers may be surprised that these top Republicans, who go on and on about the need to fend off supposed "threats" posed by loving and responsible gay and lesbian couples, would be so accepting of Foley. The truth is that the hands-off approach to this whole scandal is entirely in character for the current crop of Republican leaders, who could care less about the sexuality of members of their caucus.

They only employ "moral values" appeals to scare up votes at election time; it's never been something they believed in.

Hastert and his compatriots care only about winning elections and keeping power – even when that involves looking the other way after concerns have been raised about what a good many Americans see as the stalking of underaged pages.

Dennis Hastert and the other Republican leaders certainly were not surprised to learn last week that Mark Foley had acted inappropriately with male pages. They knew all about Foley's e-mails and all the issues raised by those communications.

Hastert and his colleagues have gotten caught in a lie. And it's a big one.

What's the proper response? Hastert, Boehner and Blunt have got the right idea. Those who knew about Foley's actions and failed to respond in any kind of serious manner are guilty of "an obscene breach of trust."

Since they control the machinery of the House Ethics Committee, it is doubtful that Hastert and his colleagues will face a serious investigation – let alone "the full weight of the criminal justice system." But this is an election year, and political campaigns can also extract a measure of justice.

Hastert and Boehner are scheduled to attend fund-raising events on behalf of embattled Pennsylvania Republican Congressman Don Sherwood in coming weeks. Sherwood's Democratic challenger, Chris Carney, a Lieutenant Commander in the United States Navy Reserve who served as a senior advisor on intelligence and counterterrorism issues at the Pentagon, has asked the Republican congressman to cancel the events."Holding happy hour fundraisers with people who cover-up the cyber-molestation of children should be below even the questionable morals of Don Sherwood," explained Carney campaign manager Andrew Eldredge-Martin. "Sherwood should immediately cancel his upcoming fundraisers with Hastert and Boehner. Don Sherwood has already brought Washington's values back to the district, now he wants to bring a depraved cover-up home."

Ouch! There's a new twist on the old Republican appeal to values voters.

Doolittle for Democracy

On Capitol Hill Thursday, about 60 citizens wearing "Got Paper?" t-shirts attended a packed hearing on H.R. 550, a bill introduced by Representative Rush Holt with 218 bipartisan co-sponsors that would require all electronic voting machines to produce a voter-verified paper record. This paper trail would be utilized for mandated manual audits that would increase the reliability of our democratic process.

"The last six years have brought us example after example of the problems caused by unverifiable voting machines," Holt said in a released statement. "There is legitimate cause for the current crisis in voter confidence, yet Congress has done nothing to make election results auditable."

Dr. Edward Felten, Director of the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University, demonstrated the ease by which a Diebold machine could be hacked in order to change the outcome of an election.

But opponents to the bill – such as Republican Representative John "My name says it all" Doolittle – pointed to a recent recount in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, which showed problems with 10 percent of the paper receipts.

Barbara Simmons of the Association for Computing Machinery countered that the Cuyahoga problem occurred because "the voting machine companies came out with… the cheapest way to do it. It's bad technology. We need to hold vendors to high standards."

Holt was dismayed that the bill didn't receive a hearing until the day before Congress was scheduled to adjourn. He called on Speaker Dennis Hastert to bring it to the House floor for an up-or-down vote immediately.

"We still have time to protect the integrity of this year's vote," Holt said. "But only if the House acts before the October recess."

In this Doolittle Congress, don't count on it.

Height of Hypocrisy

Rep. Mark Foley co-chaired the House Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children.

So it's particularly sickening that Foley suddenly resigned from the House today after details emerged that he'd kept up a highly questionable e-mail correspondence with a 16-year-old male page in his office, who dubbed the exchanges, "sick sick sick sick sick sick."

Talk about the height of hypocrisy.

Here are the emails.

And ABC News just released excerpts of instant messenges exchanged between Foley and another underage male page.

Foley asked the teen, "Do I make you a little horny?" When the kid responded, "a little," Foley wrote, "Cool."

Foley has been a leading proponent of cracking down on pedophiles. He should start with himself.

Rigging the News in Iraq (continued)

You remember the Lincoln Group? The guys the Pentagon paid tens of millions of dollars to pay-off Iraqi media and plant stories favorable to the U.S.?

The same guys The New York Times revealed to have lied about "partnerships with major media and advertising companies, former government officials with extensive Middle East experience, and ex-military officers with background in intelligence and psychological warfare" in order to receive those hefty contracts?

In short, just the kind of guys Bush, Cheney & Co. enjoys working with.

So it's hardly surprising – though completely outrageous – to read Walter Pincus' story in yesterday's Washington Post that the Lincoln Group has been handed a new "two-year, $12.4 million contract to handle strategic communications management…." Lincoln competed against seven other groups and was the lowest bidder "to help military commanders in Baghdad get what they consider the positive side of their operations in the news…."

At least one competitor might challenge the contract decision based on Lincoln's record. But when one considers Halliburton, Kellogg Brown and Root, Blackwater, Custer Battles, Bechtel and others… one can't be too terribly optimistic about the outcome of any appeal.

Pincus also notes that one day after the State Department poll revealed that the Iraqi people want U.S. forces to withdraw immediately and would feel safer if they did, the military now aims "to hire a private firm to conduct polling and focus groups in Iraq ‘to assess the effectiveness of operations as they relate to gaining and maintaining popular support.'"

Once again, the modus operandi of this administration is perfectly clear: if you don't like the news delivered (in this case, by the State Department), contract out to a hired gun (or Rummy). And if you don't like the news reported by Iraqis, hire the Lincoln Group.

And if you don't like the twisted thinking of this sick bunch, vote Democrat in November. It's the only way we will achieve any oversight of this continuing debacle in Iraq.