The Nation

Rush to Judgment in the Ex-Spy Poisoning

As the mystery of Alexander Litvinenko's death by polonium 210 continues to unfold--and the shadowy world of spies, former agents, defectors and seedy characters revealed seems lifted from a twisted Le Carré plot--questions continue to arise about the poisoning of the former FSB agent and defector to Britain.

What we do know is that Litvinenko died in London on November 23. What we also know is that in the days after many in the British and US media rushed to judgment--reporting rumor and speculation as fact.

As one British journalist put it, four days after Litvinenko's death: "As the case rolls on, and the media hysteria continues, more and more, I feel what the situation is exposing is not the evilness of the Kremlin but our own gullibility, the sloppiness of our media, the irresponsibility of our politicians, and the greed of our PR industry." Take the British magazine The Spectator, whose end of November cover featured a caricature of Russia's president and the headline, "The Long Arm of Putin." The story didn't even engage other hypotheses than that the Kremlin was responsible for the poisoning. In one typical paragraph, the author wrote, "poisoning a British citizen on British soil demonstrates a new level of chutzpah even for the Putin regime."

In its editorial on November 25, the venerable Times of London demanded that "President Putin must prove by deeds that he is not linked to Mr. Litvinenko's murder."

In the United States, the Washington Times's Arnold Beichman trumpeted: "Meet today's Murder Inc. Headquartered in the Kremlin." Echoing the charge, the Times's Wesley Pruden wrote, "A hit job worthy of the KGB." Pruden went on to assert that "nearly everybody assumes that the Russian government probably with the assent, if not the encouragement, of Vladimir Putin, ordered the hit and assigned the hit man." The Wall Street Journal on November 26 announced that Russia is "the enemy of the United States," arguing that "Alexander Litvinenko's death is the latest in a series of killings, attempted murders, imprisonments and forced exiles whose victims just happened to be prominent opponents of Mr. Putin." And last weekend, the New York Post's headline told the world that it was "Putin's poison."

In more respected media outlets--such as the Washington Post--regular columnists Charles Krauthammer and Anne Applebaum were more sophisticated in their indictments. Nevertheless, they too concluded that Putin did it. "Well, you can believe," Krauthammer wrote, " in indeterminacy. Or you can believe the testimony delivered on the only reliable lie detector ever invented--the deathbed--by the victim himself, Litvinenko directly accused Putin of killing him" ("The Murder in London," 12/8/06). Applebaum, just a few days earlier, wrote: " But though it's doubtful that he ever gave an actual order to an actual thug, Putin is certainly responsible for Litvinenko's death in this deeper sense: He presides over this web of old intelligence operatives, indeed sits at its center. And he approves of their methods." A central piece of evidence: According to Applebaum, "One of his first acts as Prime Minister in 1999 was the unveiling of a plaque to Yuri Andropov."

What does it reveal about the Western media's standards that so many news organizations--even the most reputable--have rushed to confuse speculation and rumor-mongering with fact-based reporting? "It seems safe to say," wrote a Western commentator in Moscow news, "that the juridical dictum 'innocent until proven guilty' does not apply to Russia."

As the investigation unfolds, we're bound to see more media hype. Witness yesterday's New York Times article, "When an ex-KGB man says they're out to get him" (December 10).

But what is also emerging, as the investigation and radioactivity spread to Germany, is an alternative hypothesis, a counter-story--focusing on the business dealings of members of Russia's private security industry and the security (and health) risks posed by trafficking of the dangerous (and extremely valuable) radioactive isotope polonium 210.

(To its credit, the New York Times's William Broad--in two stories, "Polonium, $22.50 Plus tax," Dec. 3, 2006, and "US and Foreign Regulators Consider Tightening Controls on Deadly Polonium 210," Dec. 10--debunked the conventional media line that only the Kremlin had the wherewithal to administer a lethal dose. Broad writes that "public and private inquiries have shown that it proliferated quite widely during the nuclear era, of late as an industrial commodity.")

As an antidote to the media frenzy, it's been valuable to read investigative writer Edward Jay Epstein's blogs about the Litvinenko case. What sets him apart is his interest in cooly and rationally raising the questions that few are asking. On November 30, Epstein raised the question of whether it was murder--or an accident which, as he put it, is even "scarier." And in "The Polonium Puzzle: The Alternative Hypothesis," Epstein suggests the alternative hypothesis to murder: polonium smuggling--for profit rather than assassination.The real question we have to ask, Epstein says, is not who killed Litvinenko but how did it come about that he was exposed to a very rare isotope--one which is produced only in a few grams? In his latest blog, " A Diversion From Hell: The Polonium Mystery" (December 10), Epstein raises a whole new set of questions--specifically about the relationships Litvinenko had with his contaminated associates--that need to be answered in order to resolve the extraordinary mystery of the poisoned ex-spy.

Stay tuned.

Demand Democracy for Florida

I suspect even many well-informed Nation readers don't know about the 18,382 votes that were lost in one Congressional district in Sarasota, Florida, on Election Day. (I didn't until Katha Pollitt e-mailed me about it last week. It's been reported in the press but not widely.) They were lost on touch-screen voting machines in a tight House race, leaving no paper trail.

What happened was that the more than 18,000 voters, nearly 13 percent of those who showed up at the polls, seemed to cast votes in all possible races except the closely contested Congressional race between Democrat Christine Jennings and Republican Vern Buchanan. This represents a massive undercount compared to other counties, which reported an undercount of less than 2 percent. So it looks almost certain that some glitch sent the votes down the electronic memory hole. The problem is that there's no way to go back and look since there's no paper trail. This makes 2006 the third election in a row shadowed by questions about the integrity of voting machines.

Since this travesty of democracy has come to light, Gov. Jeb Bush and other Florida state officials have refused to take steps that would ensure that each vote is always counted. While citizen groups are rallying in Sarasota, the DC-based group Common Cause is holding a virtual rally nationally to press for legislation that would make something like this impossible in the future. Urge your Senator to support legislation to mandate a paper trail for all votes as well as random audits for all electronic ballots, ask a friend to do the same and click here to learn how to do more.

Pinochet Is Dead. His Legacy Lingers

Former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet died of complications from a heart attack Sunday at age 91. His death has cheated justice, snatching him from the material world just as he faced the possibility of standing trial for the murder of two bodyguards of his predecessor, President Salvador Allende.

A neatly timed exit, considering the former general was also facing charges on how and why he stashed as much as $17 million in overseas accounts, as well as continuing judicial investigations into numerous human rights atrocities that took place during the bloody and dark period of his rule that stretched from 1973 until 1990.

But Pinochet's demise doesn't save him from the harsh judgment of history. He dies not only decrepit and politically abandoned in a Santiago hospital but also discredited and reviled. His very name has come to rightfully symbolize and encapsulate all of the horrors and fears associated with brutal, dictatorial regimes.

It's not just the numbers, though they are horrific in themselves. In a country of barely 11 million at the time of his seizure of power, 3,000 were murdered by the state, more than a thousand disappeared (some of them thrown into the ocean, others into pits of lime), tens of thousands were tortured and hundreds of thousands sent into political or economic exile.

Pinochet also embodied a wave of authoritarianism that swept through all of Latin America during the time of his rule. Similar dictatorships imposed their own brand of fear as they clamped down on Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia and Peru.

Encouraged by the Reagan Administration in Washington and rising Thatcherism in Europe, these military regimes instituted a savage free-market capitalism, in many cases reversing decades of carefully constructed social welfare reforms. At gunpoint unions were outlawed, labor laws were abolished, universities were stifled, tuition was hiked, national healthcare and social security programs were privatized, and these already unequal societies were rigidly stratified into rich and poor, strong and weak, the favored and the invisible.

Pinochet even attempted to build a new Terror International by setting up what became known as Operation Condor. Established in Santiago, the short-lived network aimed at making repression and murder more efficient through increased coordination, information-sharing and joint secret operations among the allied dictatorships. The most prominent victims of this alliance in murder were former Chilean Ambassador Orlando Letelier and his associate Ronni Moffett, blown apart by a 1976 car bomb in downtown Washington, DC--a bomb set by Pinochet's dreaded secret police, known as DINA.

Even after this barbaric act of terror, even after the world began to learn of Pinochet's other mass crimes, it was jarring to see how much the American press still pandered to him as the man who was bringing economic revival to Chile. No matter that his "shock therapy" nostrums prescribed by the recently deceased Milton Friedman pushed Chile to the brink of bankruptcy and that the first public rebellions against the regime in 1983 were motivated as much by hunger as political rage.

Years after Pinochet was voted out of power in a 1988 plebiscite (which he unsuccessfully tried to rig), the swaggering general seemed impugn. He remained head of the army until 1998 and then promoted himself to senator-for-life under the terms of a military-written constitution.

Only because of the intrepid efforts of a couple of crusading Spanish magistrates looking into the political murder of co-nationals in Chile and the bad luck of Pinochet being served with an international arrest warrant from them while visiting London in 1998 was the course of history righted. Five hundred days of British custody eroded the political magical shield that Pinochet had borne. He shrunk from invulnerable strongman to wanted war criminal. Upon his return to Chile, two decades of social taboo were shattered, and Pinochet was formally indicted for murder by the courageous former Judge Juan Guzmán Tapia.

The cascading indictments of Pinochet, the gruesome truths revealed by judges and government commissions, the accelerated erosion of his legacy, coincided with a tectonic political shift on the continent. A twenty-five-year cycle of military rule produced a radical counter-cycle of civilian and leftist reform. The chairs of power in Montevideo, Buenos Aires, Santiago, Brazila and La Paz--once occupied by dictators and generals---now seat democratically elected reformers, liberals and socialists.

Their task is formidable: to heal the trauma, reverse the damage, and bridge the yawning social gaps that are the real legacy of the Pinochet era. In Brazil, President Lula struggles-–decades after the supposed economic miracle brought by the previous military dictatorship---to feed tens of millions who slip below the hunger line. In Chile, even the center-left government faces protests from a riled student population feeling enough self-courage to demand reform of an educational system left in tatters by the dictatorship. And so on.

Burying Pinochet this week in itself won't make this task any easier. In some odd ways it might make even make it more difficult. As long as he was alive, even in a gargoyle state, he was a grotesque reminder of all that has haunted the continent, all that has been left unresolved. Good, let's bury him now and post an armed guard at his grave site, making sure he again never rises. And then back to the work of healing what he has wrought.

Who's Paying for Rummy's Final Show?

I have a short, direct question. Don Rumsfeld's shameful tenure as Defense Secretary comes to an end a week from Monday.

Meanwhile, he jaunts off on a "secret trip" to Baghdad this weekend for what's being billed as personal farewell to the troops. We know he's not conducting any real government business. If he wanted to personally thank "his" generals, he could have signed onto to a cheapo Web teleconference.

So why are the taxpayers underwriting this PR junket? why should one penny of public funds be spent to bolster the personal legacy of this disgraced architect of the catastrophe in Iraq?

Considering that we will be paying for this misadventure for the rest of our lives, isn't it fair that Rumsfeld be passed the tab for this last, gratuitous weekend in Baghdad?

A Closing Call for Impeachment

"President George W. Bush has failed to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States; he has failed to ensure that senior members of his administration do the same; and he has betrayed the trust of the American people," Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney explained in remarks prepared to accompany her submission on Friday of articles of impeachment against Bush, Vice President Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

McKinney, in her last legislative act before leaving the House at the end of her current term, represented not merely a final thrust by the Georgia Democrat against the Bush administration that she has so consistently opposed but a challenge to the new House Democratic leadership to pay more than lip service to its Constitutionally-mandated duty to check and balance the executive branch.

"With a heavy heart and in the deepest spirit of patriotism, I exercise my duty and responsibility to speak truthfully about what is before us," continued McKinney, according to a copy of her remarks distributed by the Atlanta Progressive News network. "To shy away from this responsibility would be easier. But I have not been one to travel the easy road. I believe in this country, and in the power of our democracy. I feel the steely conviction of one who will not let the country I love descend into shame; for the fabric of our democracy is at stake. Some will call this a partisan vendetta, others will say this is an unimportant distraction to the plans of the incoming Congress. But this is not about political gamesmanship. I am not willing to put any political party before my principles. This, instead, is about beginning the long road back to regaining the high standards of truth and democracy upon which our great country was founded."

There will be many who dismiss McKinney's filing of articles of impeachment against the president and members of his administration as an act of little consequence. The congresswoman has been a controversial figure during six terms in the House, often placing herself well to the left of her own caucus, particularly on issues of presidential accountability. And her impending departure from the chamber means that her resolution will only be a factor in the next Congress if another member takes it up. With incoming-Speaker Nancy Pelosi telling fellow Democrats that they must keep impeachment "off the table," that may not happen in the short term.

But McKinney's move ought not be casually discounted. As a legislative veteran whose service at the state and federal levels goes back almost 20 years, she well understands that the coming investigations of administration wrongdoing could well put impeachment back on the table.

McKinney knows that speaks for a great many House Democrats who, while they may currently be honoring their leadership's calls for caution on the issue, fully recognize that the president and vice president need to be held to account for their disregard of the rule of law and their Constitutionally-defined responsibilities. Remember that McKinney, who lost a primary runoff earlier this year, was just one of 38 members of the House who cosponsored a resolution submitted last year by Congressman John Conyers, the Michigan Democrat who will take charge of the Judiciary Committee in January, to create "a select committee to investigate the Administration's intent to go to war before congressional authorization, manipulation of pre-war intelligence, encouraging and countenancing torture, retaliating against critics, and to make recommendations regarding grounds for possible impeachment."

McKinney speaks, as well, for the 51 percent of Americans who, according to a Newsweek Poll conducted on the eve of the November 7 election, expressed support for impeachment of the president. In that poll, 47 percent of Democrats said that impeachment should be a "top priority" of their party if it took control of the House, as did an intriguing 5 percent of Republicans.

A measure of the pro-impeachment sentiment will be on display this weekend, as activists rally in dozens of communities across the country to express support for sanctioning the president with the Constitutional remedy provided by the founders.

McKinney's impeachment resolution, the last legislation she will introduce as a House member, echoes the concerns that have underpinned the movement to impeach the president and members of his administration: allegations that the White House manipulated intelligence to convince members of Congress and the American people to support going to war in Iraq, the president's approval of an illegal warrantless wiretapping program, seizure of powers and failures to cooperate with Congressional investigations.

Perhaps more importantly, McKinney made clear in the statement she prtepared for the Congressional Record that she was concerned not only with presidential wrongdoing but with congressional inaction.

A failure to uphold the delicate system of checks and balances that was put in place by the founders does not occur in isolation. Just as the executive branch pushes the envelope in exceeding its authority, so the Congress must at least to some extent allow the envelope to be pushed.

As a departing member of Congress, McKinney is perhaps freer than most to criticize the House as a whole, and she is doing so with appropriate sternness.

"We have a President who has misgoverned and a Congress that has refused to hold him accountable. It is a grave situation and I believe the stakes for our country are high," read the congresswoman's prepared remarks, which will appear in the Congressional Record next week. "No American is above the law, and if we allow a President to violate, at the most basic and fundamental level, the trust of the people and then continue to govern, without a process for holding him accountable, what does that say about our commitment to the truth? To the Constitution? To our democracy?"

McKinney's answer is an appeal to the people who Thomas Jefferson correctly identified as "the safest depository of the ultimate powers of government."

"To my fellow Americans," declared McKinney, "as I leave this Congress, it is in your hands to hold your representatives accountable, and to show those with the courage to stand for what is right, that they do not stand alone."


John Nichols' new book, THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure for Royalism has been hailed by author Gore Vidal as "essential reading for patriots." David Swanson, co-founder of the AfterDowningStreet.org coalition, says: "With The Genius of Impeachment, John Nichols has produced a masterpiece that should be required reading in every high school and college in the United States." Studs Terkel says: "Never within my nonagenarian memory has the case for impeachment of Bush and his equally crooked confederates been so clearly and fervently offered as John Nichols has done in this book. They are after all our public SERVANTS who have rifled our savings, bled our young, and challenged our sanity. As Tom Paine said 200 years ago to another George, a royal tramp: 'Bugger off!' So should we say today. John Nichols has given us the history, the language and the arguments we will need to do so."

The Genius of Impeachment can be found at independent bookstores and at www.amazon.com

McCain’s Hatchet Man

During the 2000 Republican primary in South Carolina, GOP operatives spread the lie that Senator John McCain had fathered an illegitimate black child, when in fact his family had adopted a young girl from Bangladesh.

McCain denounced the smear as politics at its worst--and it was.

Now McCain is dipping into that very same race-tinged well by hiring operative Terry Nelson as his campaign manager for another presidential run, the man responsible for the racist television "bimbo" ad run against Harold Ford Jr. this year in Tennessee. Wal-Mart dropped Nelson as a consultant after the ad generated controversy and was eventually pulled from the air. McCain promoted him.

Nelson's palate is not simply limited to racist ads. He was an unindicted co-conspirator in the effort spearheaded by Tom DeLay to illegally funnel corporate cash to Texas legislature candidates in 2002. He oversaw the guy who was convicted of improperly jamming Democratic Party phones in New Hampshire in 2002.

It's more than a little ironic that McCain, Mr. Straight Talk Express, has chosen a campaign manager whose career represents a laundry list of scandal. It begs the question: Is McCain a hypocrite, a fraud, or both?

John Lennon's Legacy

On the anniversary of John Lennon's murder (Dec. 8, 1980), I've been thinking about his famous argument with Gloria Emerson in December, 1969 – filmed by the BBC, and included in the recent documentary The U.S. vs. John Lennon.

Emerson was a celebrated war correspondent for the New York Times who had just returned from the bloody battlefields of Vietnam; Lennon had just written "Give Peace a Chance" after he and Yoko declared their honeymoon a "bed-in for peace"--they had stayed in bed for a week, "in protest against all the violence in the world."

Emerson told him in her haughty upper class voice, "You've made yourself ridiculous!"

"I don't care," Lennon replied, "if it saves lives."

"My dear boy," she said, "you're living in a nether-nether land. . . . You don't think you've saved a single life!"

"You tell me what they were singing at the Moratorium," Lennon shot back – he was referring to the biggest anti-war demonstration in American history, which had been held in Washington DC a month earlier.

Emerson wasn't sure what he was talking about: "Which one?"

"The recent big one," Lennon explained. "They were singing "Give peace a chance."

"A song of yours, probably."

"Well, yes, and it was written specifically for them."

"So they sang one of your songs," she said with some irritation. "Is that all you can say?"

Now he was angry. "They were singing a happy-go-lucky song, which happens to be one I wrote. I'm glad they sang it. And when I get there, I'll sing it with them."

The film presents the exchange as an example of the mainstream media's relentless hostility to Lennon's peace activism, and celebrates his put-down of Emerson. But 37 years later, it's worth reconsidering Emerson's question: did "Give Peace a Chance" save a single life? Did the anti-war protest of 1969, or any other year, save any lives?

Of course the Vietnam war didn't end in 1969, even though Nixon had been elected the previous year after declaring he had a secret plan for peace. The Paris Peace Talks were already underway, but the American war didn't end for another four years – during which 20,000 Americans were killed, along with more than half a million Vietnamese and Cambodians.

You might ask Gloria Emerson's question about the anti-war demonstrations on the eve of the Iraq war, in New York, Los Angeles, London, Rome, and elsewhere. They were the biggest anti-war demonstrations in world history, but Bush invaded Iraq the next month anyway, and as of Dec. 8, 3,000 Americans have been killed there, and perhaps 650,000 Iraqis, according to the Johns Hopkins study published in The Lancet. Did those demonstrations in 2003 save a single life?

Maybe not, or at least not yet. Stopping a war takes a long time. But apathy in the face of an unjust war is simply unacceptable. As Rebecca Solnit argues in Hope in the Dark, you have to keep trying to win people over, because you can never be sure the forces of darkness will triumph, and because the most impossible things sometimes happen.

Lennon did come to the US, and eagerly embraced the steady work of anti-war persuasion and organizing. "Our job now is to tell them there still is hope," Lennon said at an anti-war rally in Michigan in 1971. "We must get them excited about what we can do again." It was hard to see it in 1969, but eventually the US did end its war in Vietnam. And today the people who were singing "Give Peace a Chance" in 1969 can be glad they sang it.

Gates’s GOP Critics

Yesterday the Senate confirmed Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense by a vote of 95 to 2. Who were the two dissenters? Barbara Boxer? Russ Feingold? John Kerry?

Nope. Republicans Jim Bunning and Rick Santorum, aka Senator Dementia and Senator Man on Dog.

Both Bunning and Santorum rejected the idea--peddled by Gates and many others--that the US should negotiate with Iran and Syria as a way of resolving the mess in Iraq. "I do not support inviting terrorists to the negotiating table," Bunning said. "We should not be negotiating with Iran," Santorum added, "we should be confronting Iran."

In perhaps his final speech as a member of the Senate, Santorum did not mince words. He called the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, of which Gates was a member, "a prescription for surrender."

With views like these, it's little wonder why he'll be unemployed next month.

A Safe Haven for Torturers

Yesterday's indictment of Roy Belfast, Jr. aka Charles "Chuckie" Taylor, the son of former Liberian President Charles Taylor, was understandably applauded by human rights groups. Taylor was the head of Liberia's Anti-Terrorism Unit (ATU), which according to Human Rights Watch "committed torture, including various violent assaults, rape, beating people to death and burning civilians alive." Taylor was indicted by a grand jury in Miami under a federal law (18 USC sections 2340A and 2441) that allows the US to prosecute citizens (Taylor was born in Boston) who commit torture abroad. His arrest and indictment is an act of justice. But don't hold your breath waiting for more torture prosecutions.

Last May, the UN Torture Committee slammed the US for limiting prosecution of torture to extraterritorial cases and for failing to prosecute even those acts that fall under its jurisdiction. Indeed, to date, Taylor's indictment is the first and only case in the law's 12-year history. Moreover, the Military Commissions Act (aka the torture bill) passed by Congress this fall essentially legalizes all but the worst forms of torture in the war on terror, ensuring that US interrogators, contractors and higher-ups are immune from prosecution. Taylor stands accused of burning his victim with a hot iron and scalding water, electrically shocking genitalia and other body parts and rubbing salt into his victim's wounds. These acts appear to constitute the "serious physical pain or suffering" prohibited by the torture bill, but the administration has made it abundantly clear that waterboarding, extreme sensory deprivation (see the Padilla case) and other techniques do not. And when Congress passed the Military Commission Act, it (and by extension the American people) agreed.

In a press release announcing Taylor's indictment, Homeland Security Assistant Secretary Julie Myers, who heads the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office (ICE), said "This is a clear message that the United States will not be a safe haven for human rights violators."

It will take more than one case to prove to the world that we, a nation of torturers, are not a safe haven for human rights violators.