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The Nation

Some Sanity When It Comes to the "War" on Drugs

In a bold step forward in the campaign to reduce the damage the war on drugs is causing, the U.S. Sentencing Commission voted unanimously today to make a recent amendment reducing recommended sentences for crack cocaine offenses retroactive. The decision come a day after the US Supreme Court ruled that federal judges can sentence individuals below the guideline recommendations in crack cocaine cases.

The sentencing commission's decision means that up to 19,400 currently incarcerated people will be eligible for early release. "The government has spent hundreds of billions of dollars and incarcerated millions of Americans --disproportionately black or brown Americans--yet drugs are as available as ever," said Bill Piper, national affairs director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "It's time to start treating drug use as a health issue instead of a criminal justice issue."

While the three leading Presidential candidates support ending the sentencing disparity that punishes crack cocaine offenses one hundred times more severely than powder cocaine offenses --(although Clinton is the only one, based on a recent report, who opposes retroactivity) the House Democratic leadership, according to the Drug Policy Aliance's Piper, has posed "the biggest obstacle to eliminating the racist/crack/powder disparity." (The House leadership has reportedly prohibited committees from dealing with the issue.) In the Senate, on the other hand, Senator Joe Biden has a bill to completely eliminate the disparity; and two Republican bills reduce the disparity, but do not elmininate it. Hearings are expected in February. (Write your Representative and urge them to demand hearings so as to send a clear signal that they care about reducing racial disparities.

It's time to end this senseless war on drugs which has filled our prisons, fattened our prison-industrial complex and incarcerated too many people of color.

Who Was in That Torture Chamber?

In Wednesday's Wall Street Journal, reporter Siobhan Gorman offered a striking little portrait of Jose A. Rodriguez, who, in 2005, as chief of the CIA's National Clandestine Service, ordered the destruction of those "hundreds of hours" of CIA videotapes of the…

Now, what do we want to call it? Gorman refers to "extreme techniques" of interrogation (putting the two words in quotes), then repeats the phrase a second time later in the piece without the quotes: "… [Rodriguez] took a careful approach to controversial practices such as renditions--sending detainees to countries that use more extreme interrogation methods…"). In this mini-portrait of Rodriguez, as painted by his colleagues, and of the disappeared videos, the word "torture" is never used, but don't blame Gorman. As Greg Mitchell of Editor & Publisher pointed out recently, she's hardly alone.

 

"One Associated Press article referred simply to 'interrogation' on the tapes, at one point putting 'enhanced interrogation' in quotes. Another AP article called it 'harsh interrogation.' Mark Mazzeti in The New York Times used 'severe interrogation methods.' Eric Lichtblau in the same paper chose the same phrase. David Johnston, in a Saturday article for [the] paper's Web site, referred to 'aggressive interrogations' and 'coercive techniques.' Reuters, in its lead, relied on 'severe interrogation techniques.' Dan Eggen and Joby Warrick in The Washington Post on Saturday opted for 'harsh interrogation tactics.'"

 

Whatever is on those tapes, we've come a long way, baby, since, in Medieval Times in Europe, waterboarding was crudely known as "the water torture."

In any case, Rodriguez, according to his colleagues, turns out to be for the little guy--or the little torturer, anyway. He supposedly destroyed those videos so that "lower-level officers would[n't] take the fall" for the high-level ones who dished out the orders. But there's a slight catch in the text. What if some higher-level ones might have been in danger of taking the fall as well?

Here's Gorman's money passage, just dropped into the middle of the piece without further explanation or discussion: "One former official said interrogators' faces were visible on at least one video, as were those of more senior officers who happened to be visiting." Happened? Visiting? Keep in mind that we're talking about CIA officials in a torture chamber, not tourists at a local landmark.

Then again, for background, Gorman offers this on Rodriguez: He is, she writes, "a product of what one former agency colleague called ‘the rough-and-tumble' Latin American division" of the CIA from the 1980s. "Rough and tumble"? You won't find out what that means from her column. For that, you need to read Greg Grandin's recent piece, "Unholy Trinity, Death Squads, Disappearances, and Torture--from Latin America to Iraq." In our period, men like Rodriguez, under the leadership of George W. Bush, have essentially globalized those "rough and tumble" methods of the CIA's Latin American division. As Grandin--whose superb book, Empire's Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism, nails those "rough-and-tumble" years--points out, they have turned the "unholy trinity" that the U.S. developed in Latin America into a global operation. "U.S.-funded and trained Central American security forces would disappear tens of thousands of citizens and execute hundreds of thousands more. When supporters of the ‘War on Terror' advocated the exercise of the ‘Salvador Option,' it was this slaughter they were talking about."

Will Pelosi Get Congress to Give Bush Another $70 Billion in Ira

Just days after it was revealed that she was briefed in 2002 on the use of waterboarding and other torture techniques by U.S. interrogators an raised no objections, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, is preparing to ask Congress to approve a dramatic increase in funding for the occupation of Iraq that has been sought by the Bush administration.

This $70 billion spike in spending for the president's Iraq project that, despite the absurdly optimistic spin now being advanced by the administration and its media echo chamber, remains a disastrous failure that shows little promise of ever producing political stability or security in the Middle East nation that the U.S. invaded under false pretenses in 2003.

While Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, achieved their positions as part of a 2006 Democratic sweep that was powered by public fatigue with the continued occupation -- and by a sense that Democrats would move to end the endeavor and to hold those responsible for it to account -- this new spending plan is expected to advance with no strings attached.

What can only be described as a major "win" for the president comes as part of a behind-the-scenes agreement between Congressional Democratic leaders and the White House to enact a omnibus spending bill to fund the government for the coming year. Instead of provoking a showdown with the administration that might have forced the president to accept a timeline, Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, have botched another negotiation.

As a result, another $70 billion is U.S. tax dollars will likely be directed into the quagmire that is Iraq -- or, more precisely, into the accounts of profiteering contractors such as Dick Cheney's Halliburton and Blackwater. Because occupation funding moves through the pipeline slowly -- tens of billions of dollars that have been authorized by Congress have yet to be spent on the president's occupation project -- this new allocation includes money that will maintain a massive U.S. troop presence in Iraq after Bush leaves the White House in January, 2009.

But Pelosi will not get the money for Bush without a fight from an increasingly restive anti-war bloc in the House.

Out of Iraq Caucus chair Maxine Waters, D-California, and the co-chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Lynn Woolsey, D-California, and Barbara Lee, D-California, have written a letter urging Pelosi and other House Democratic leaders to change course and refuse the authorization of more funds for Iraq without a timeline for withdrawal.

"As leaders of the Progressive Caucus and Out of Iraq Caucus, we write to urge you not to include funding for the continued military occupation of Iraq in any Fiscal Year 2008 omnibus spending bill unless it requires these funds to be used solely for fully-funding the safe and timely redeployment of our troops and military contractors from Iraq within a specified timeline," the letter begins. "Should legislation come to the House floor that does not strictly limit funding to protecting our troops and a timeline for commencing and completing their complete redeployment out of Iraq, we will not be able to support such a bill."

Arguing that "the only way to end the violence against US forces and bring stability to Iraq and the region is to declare that forces will be redeployed from Iraq as soon and safely as is possible and that we have no designs to have an indefinite military presence there," Waters, Woolsey and Lee say: "It is critical that we keep faith with the clear majority of Americans who voted us into the majority last year to end the disastrous U.S. military intervention in Iraq, use the momentum we have gained to end our occupation of Iraq and bring our troops and military contractors home, and strictly fence any additional appropriated funds accordingly."

Congress will be hearing from the clear majority of Americans. The anti-war group with which Waters, Woolsey and Lee are closely associated, Progressive Democrats of America, is mounting a campaign to: "Flood both your senators and representatives with phone calls through the Capitol Hill switchboard (202-224-3121) with this message: 'Vote NO to any funding for the occupation of Iraq that does not require the rapid withdrawal of all U.S. troops and contractors.'"

The vote on the bill, which could come as early as Tuesday, will provide another measure of the extent to which Pelosi has abandoned the constituency that put her in the Speaker's position. It will, as well, indicate the extent to which Democrats in the House and Senate are willing to do what the House Speaker and the Senate Majority Leader are unwilling to do: Respond to the will of the people rather than the demands of the White House.

Pelosi and Torture

That House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been a disappointing leader for House Democrats, few serious observers of the congressional condition will deny. But, now, she appears to be something more troubling: a serious hindrance to the fight against the use of crudest and most objectionable torture techniques.

Democrats and Republicans with a conscience have gotten a good deal of traction in recent months in their battle to identify the use by U.S. interrogators of waterboarding – a technique that simulates drowning in order to cause extreme mental distress to prisoners -- as what it is: torture. Arizona Senator John McCain, a GOP presidential contender, has been particularly powerful in his denunciations of this barbarous endeavor. And Senate Intelligence Committee chair Jay Rockefeller, D-West Virginia, and key members of the Senate Judiciary Committee have effectively pressed the issue on a number of fronts.

Now, however, comes the news that Pelosi knew as early as 2002 that the U.S. was using waterboarding and other torture techniques and, far from objecting, appears to have cheered the tactics on.

The Washington Post reports that Pelosi, who was then a senior member of the House Intelligence Committee, was were informed by CIA officials at a secret briefing in September 2002, that waterboarding and other forms of torture were being used on suspected al-Queda operatives. That's bad. Even worse is the revelation that Pelosi was apparently supportive of the initiative.

According to the news reports, Pelosi has no complaint about waterboarding during a closed-door session she attended with Florida Congressman Porter Goss, a Republican who would go on to head the Central Intelligence Agency, Kansas Republican Senator Pat Roberts and Florida Democratic Senator Bob Graham.

"The reaction in the room was not just approval, but encouragement," recalls Goss.

How encouraging? It is reported that two of the legislators demanded to know if waterboarding and other methods that were being employed "were tough enough" forms of torture to produced the desired levels of mental anguish to force information from suspects who, under the Geneva Conventions and the U.S. Constitution, cannot be subjected to cruel or unusual punishment.

Was Pelosi one of the "tough-enough" cheerleaders for waterboarding?That is not clear, as the speaker has refused to comment directly regarding her knowledge of torture techniques and encouragement of their use. Another member of the House who is closely allied wit Pelosi did tell the Post, however, that the California Democrat attended the session, recalled that waterboarding was discussed, and "did not object" at the time to that particular torture technique.

If this is the case, Pelosi has provided aid and comfort to the Bush administration's efforts to deviate not just from the standards set by international agreements regarding war crimes but from the provision of the Bill of Rights that establishes basic requirements with regard to the treatment of prisoners who in the custody of the United States.

Those deviations are precisely the sort of impeachable offenses that Pelosi has said are "off the table." Her association with the administration on the matter of torture necessarily calls into question the speaker's credibility on questions of how and when to hold the administration to account. It also begs a more mundane political question: At a point when Republicans like John McCain are earning points with their forthright stances against waterboarding, isn't the credibility and the potential effectiveness of the House Democratic Caucus as an honest player in the debate profoundly harmed by the involvement of its leader in behind-the-scenes meetings that by all accounts encouraged the use of that technique?

Is The New York Times Obsessed with Moscow's Oligarch-ettes ?

In the last few weeks, the New York Times has devoted at least four articles to extolling the opulence of the"new" Russia --especially the orgy of conspicious consumption in today's Moscow. It's as if the NYT decided to morph into US Weekly covering the lifestyles of Russia's rich and greedy. Each article exudes a kind of breathless excitement. "Moscow is renewing itself with a vigor and opulence seen in few other places on the planet....Few cities have sloughed off as much leaden history to reinvent themselves."

There's the endless and excited recitation of the fact that Russia now has 53 billionaires (aka oligarchs) worth a total of $282 billion.

A recent article, "Not Down and Out in Moscow," devoted some several thousands of words to the city's annual Millionaire Fair--designed to introduce wealthy Muscovites to foreign luxury brands (Gulfstream jets, diamond-encrusted car grilles, resembling interlinked chain bracelets, for Rolls-Royce Phantoms at $55,000 each) that they may not have encountered on their travel to popular watering holes like Cap Ferrat, Gstaad and Courchevel. This year's show is estimated to generate about $745 million. (Did the two page coverage of this crass greed-fest have anything to do with the fact that the conference,as disclosed in the article, was sponsored by the International Herald Tribune, which is owned by the New York Times Company?)

Today's (December 9th) New York Times outdoes itself as the lifestyle paper for the rich. "From Russia With Luxe" offers a guided tour to Moscow's most obscenely expensive hotels and restaurants. Turandot, the Times tells us, is a lavishly recreated 18th century European gilt palace, complete with servers in period dress--expect a meal for two to cost you over $1000 a head; the new Ritz-Carlton has rooms starting at about $700 a night. Another article, "Rubles, A Girl's Best Friend," features Russia's new socialistas....many of whom are the oligarchettes--designer-outfitted wives of the billionaires who benefited from the looting of the country's assets in the greatest firesale of the 20th century. All of this may be fascinating for the one percent of Russians and Americans who can afford to think about such trips or such social silliness.

Might it not be time for the Times to do a series about how Russia's middle class, working class or poor are faring? Russia's inequality has reached staggering heights --and while the Times loves to report about how the country is booming, the paper ignores the many people who still barely get by. The latest Russian government estimates show that as many as 5 million of its people are homeless. The Russian National Center for Living Standards reveals that about 23 million-- or 16% of the population-- live below the poverty level. (And independent surveys here and in Russia put that number far higher.) Roughly 33% of the country could not afford necessary medical care in 2007, according to the Center for the Study of Public Opinion. And with the scores of opeds and articles about Putin's assault on democracy, maybe a few of them could have noted that inflation and poverty, according to a recent Russian independent poll, were problems most on voters' minds in the runup to the December 2 parliamentary elections.

And with all the hyped coverage of the oil and gas boom fueling Russia's economy, and its fantastically expensive nightclubs, restaurants, hotels and designer clothes stores, maybe one, just one, story about how in a country which controls more than a quarter of the world's natural gas reserves, could report on how many people still use firewood to heat their homes? Here's a plea for a few articles in 2008 about the lifestyles of the poor, the near poor, the middle class...others.. besides the richest of the rich?

Help Keep Bookwoman Alive!

Remember when feminist bookstores dotted the land? In l993 there were 124. A woman writer could give readings in women's bookstores from Los Angeles to Baltimore. But 1993 was the high point. Ever since, like other independent bookstores--I'm still mourning the death of Ivy's Books at 92nd Street and Broadway, which closed a year ago--ones catering to feminists have been closing, felled by economic forces with which we are all familiar: chain stores and online sellers who offer big discounts, skyrocketing rents, changing neighborhoods and, arguably, declining interest in reading. True, every Barnes & Noble now has a women's section, but feminist bookstores, even more than most independents, are not just places where books are sold They are places where small-press, new, local and midlist writers are cherished and hand-sold by staffers who actually care about books, where there's room to stock offbeat items, pamphlets and magazines, and where literary and political communities are shaped through events, readings, book groups, talks, and parties. It can't be good, for either books or feminism, that there are only around 15 women's bookstores left in the United States.

That number will get even smaller if BookWoman, in Austin, Texas, goes under. For over thirty years, BookWoman has anchored the local feminist community: now it's been priced out of its home at 12th and Lamar, once a funky area of independent shops, now increasingly posh. Owner Susan Post is trying to raise $50,000 by mid-December. It's what she needs in order to keep the business open and negotiate a new lease at a new address. Kind donors have raised about half that amount. Can you help take it over the top? You can make a quick donation at www.savebookwoman.com.

If you're within striking distance of Austin, drop by and browse. If you can't make it to the bricks and mortar, shop online at www.ebookwoman.com. Why not help the store and make life easy for yourself at the same time, by doing your holiday shopping there?

And don't forget that quiet evening curled up with a book you've been promising yourself as a reward for having your whole family over for Chanukah latkes, Christmas turkey or, I dunno, atheistical baba ganoush. Let Bookwoman send you Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, or Mary Gordon's fabulous memoir Circling My Mother. Or any other book that takes your fancy. They have cool t-shirts too. Just in case you have all the books your shelves can hold for now.

Read more about BookWoman here.

Heck of a Job! Bush's Mortgage Helpline Is Working Now

Need mortage relief fast? Well, the White House is there for you...no wait, they're not there after all, but now I think they finally are.

At a press conference this afternoon announcing mortgage relief for victims of subprime lending, President Bush said that the White House had come up with an administration hotline so frightened homeowners could work with a "certified financial counselor."

Well, the number, 1-888-995-HOPE, first didn't work. But after a few minutes of waiting to speak with a "specially trained professional," I can report that I finally just spoke to someone who said he could direct me to such a professional.

So, don't worry, the hotline is up and running and our country's foreclosure crisis could be over by the end of the business day.

Facebook's About-Face on Privacy

The popular social networking websiteFacebook just backed down from a controversial new advertisingprogram after a revolt by thousands of members.

Facebook had launchedBeacon, which was using "social advertising" technology to broadcastinformation about online purchases without many users' consent. The ideawas to convert private commerce into public endorsements: "Ben Bloom ateat the restaurant Junnoon," read one ad, with a prominent head shot of Bendisplayed next to the company logo. But what if Ben didn't want hislunch date to be an ad? Beacon enrolled people automatically, offeringusers a choice to "opt out" of each ad on an individual basis.

Many people didn't like that, so they protested, naturally, onFacebook. MoveOn started a group demanding that Beacon switch to"opt in"--a default to protect uninformed users--and allow people toreject the program completely in one click.

A new group, Facebook: StopInvading My Privacy!, quickly swelled to more than 50,000 members. Itwas a hub for activism, news and stories about Beacon snafus, includingChristmas surprises spoiled by posted ads.

Students from across the country signed up to lead the group as self-declared "privacy avengers,"and its message board drew more than 1,000 posts in less than two weeks.Then Facebook conceded to the first demand, scaling back Beacon so usersmust choose to participate.

MoveOn declared victory, crediting "everydayInternet users." The partial retreat was especially striking becauselast year, a much larger protest group of 700,000 users did not compelFacebook to abandon the "feed," a new feature that blasts updates aboutpeople to their personal networks.

This time, however, the activism wasnot limited to decentralized complaints. MoveOn added criticalleadership and a practical reform agenda, while users spread the wordabout Facebook on Facebook.

Robert Greenwald Wages War on Greed

Henry Kravis, founding partner in the private equity company KKR, made$450 million last year--that's $1.3 million per day, or $51,369 perhour. He did it largely by borrowing money to take over publiccompanies, then selling off the company's assets to pay the debt, layingoff thousands of workers, and slashing benefits for those who remained. (If you've seen Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, you knowthe drill.)

And for his efforts to move us closer to Gilded Age-like inequality, the government rewards Kravis by taxing most of his income at the 15 percentcapital gains rate--one-half the rate paid by secretaries, teachers,firemen, and cops among others--instead of a 35 percent ordinary income rate. A gift from Congress to the private equity and hedge-funders who linetheir campaign coffers and pay lobbyists millions to maintain an unjuststatus quo.

I've written previously about this tax loophole travesty, and the factthat Democrats have taken a pass on rectifying it. Today, Robert Greenwald premiers the first in his War on Greed series of short films that will take on this outrage. He hopes to build momentum and pressure for change and, with that in mind, he's holdingthe film premiere outside of Kravis' 29-room penthouse on Park Avenue. (One of Kravis'five homes, this one features a wood-burning fireplace in every roombut the kitchen.)

Take a look:

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Greenwald does a terrific and spirited job shining a light on thisissue. As Andrew Ross Sorkin reportsin the New York Times today, "The War on Greed, Starring the Homes ofHenry Kravis, is a tongue-in-cheek story--think "Lifestyles of theRich and Famous" meets "Roger & Me"--detailing Mr. Kravis's homes andlifestyle, juxtaposed against the homes and incomes of workingfamilies." An engineer interviewed in the film cuts to the heart of thefairness issue: "When I borrow money on a credit card, I'm rewarded withhigh interest payments, hidden fees, annual charges that could put meover the limit. It affects my credit negatively. When Henry Kravisborrows money, he gets rewarded with millions of dollars in tax breaks. And he ends up paying less in taxes percentage-wise than his maid. That's just not fair."

Greenwald is aiming to create an environment which mobilizes outrage inpopulist and intelligent ways, and makes these titans of greed and theirmoney toxic. Look for the next three in this series of short films tofeature interviews with workers around Martin Luther King, Jr.'sBirthday; workers screwed by Kravis on Valentine's Day; and promotingactions to take around legislation to close the loophole, culminatingwith an April 15 demand to make the richest among us pay their fairshare.