Months ago, we celebrated the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics' impressive drive to eliminate toxic ingredients from beauty products. Due to an FDA loophole, which exempts personal care product manufacturers from government oversight, many of the cosmetics on shelves today may contain known or probable carcinogens (see Mark Schapiro's "A Makeover for the Cosmetics Industry.")
But by last Mother's Day, the campaign had successfully encouraged more than a hundred companies to sign a compact banning ingredients that are known or strongly suspected of causing cancer, genetic mutation or birth defects from their products.
Recently, the campaign scored an even bigger victory for consumer rights--this one on the legislative front. On October 8th, despite vigorous opposition from the cosmetics and chemical industries, the California Safe Cosmetics Bill was signed into law. The bill--which requires manufacturers to disclose to the California'sDepartment of Health Services any product ingredients linked to cancer, mutations, or birth defects--is the first of its kind in America. After two years of coordinated efforts by the Breast Cancer Fund, Breast Cancer Action and the National Environmental Trust (NET), California residents will finally have the right to know what's behind their beauty products.
According to Stacey Malkan of the Environmental Working Group, the Cosmetics, Toiletries and Fragrance Association (CTFA) fought tooth and nail against the bill, lobbying heavily and shelling out more than $600,000 in a vain attempt to defeat it. "The cosmetics industry opposed this bill as though it were a peasant revolt rather than a right to know bill," said Andy Igrejas, Environmental Health Director of NET. "Now we'll find out what they were so afraid of."
Once the ugly face of the cosmetics industry is revealed, the hope is that companies will finally make the switch to safe ingredients, not only in California but nationwide. A beautiful future indeed!
We also want to hear from you. Please let us know if you have a sweet victory you think we should cover by e-mailing email@example.com.
Co-written by Sam Graham-Felsen, a freelance journalist, documentary filmmaker and blogger (www.boldprint.net) living in Brooklyn.
Today's edition of the New York Times devoted exactly one sentence (on page A18) to one of the most important news stories of the day. "No Rise in Minimum Wage," the headline read. The nation's minimum wage has, shockingly, been stuck at $5.15 an hour since 1997. Yesterday, two proposals--from both Democrats and Republicans--were rejected in the House.
The Democrats' proposal, introduced by Edward Kennedy (MA), called for an increase to $6.25 over an 18-month period. A Republican proposal provided the same $1.10 increase and added various tax incentives for small businesses. Both measures went down in flames as did the hopes of working people coast to coast that they might finally be more fairly compensated for their labor. Moreover, as Kennedy rightly insisted, it's "absolutely unconscionable" that in the same period that Congress has denied a minimum wage increase, lawmakers gave themselves seven pay raises worth $28,000.
In a story posted on Tuesday night, The New York Times, citing unnamed government officials, said that special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald, "is not expected to take any action" in the CIA leak case this week. That's good news for me; I have tickets to see U2 on Wednesday night. But it's also bad news, I am scheduled to go to Arkansas at the end of next week to deliver a speech at Arkansas State University-Jonesboro. (Longtime readers of this blog will recall that I was supposed to speak at Arkansas State University-Mountain Home last April but then the gig was canceled for what appeared to be political reasons. But after a mighty controversy erupted--in which the state legislature decried this apparent act of censorship--the faculty senate at ASU-Jonesboro voted for a resolution requesting that I be invited to speak at the Jonesboro campus, the main hub of the ASU system. The president of ASU took the faculty's recommendation, and I accepted his invitation.) So I am now hoping that if anything happens it happens early next week. The grand jury is scheduled to expire October 28, and lawyers tell me that most prosecutors do not like to wait until the last day of a grand jury's term to announce indictments. But it's possible. It's also possible that new information could cause Fitzgerald to extend his inquiry and impanel a new grand jury. Bottom line: we don't know. On Tuesday, The Washington Post reported Fitzgerald might announce his findings on Wednesday. The Times then reported that would not be likely. What's your hunch?
Most of the Times piece was devoted to the question of whether Fitzgerald would issue a report if he declines to indict anyone. In the old days--that is, when there was an independent counsel law--independent counsels were obligated to issue final reports detailing what they had uncovered and explaining any decisions not to prosecute. Fitzgerald is not an independent counsel but a special prosecutor, appointed in 2003 by then-Deputy Attorney General James Comey because Attorney General John Ashcroft had recused himself. With the independent counsel law expired, there can no longer be independent counsels. Consequently, Fitzgerald is not required to file a final report.
But can he produce such a report if he would like to? As the Times notes, there is a debate among legal experts as to whether he has the authority to do so. Fitzgerald has obtain much of his information through the grand jury process, and grand jury proceedings are supposed to be secret. Some lawyers believe Fitzgerald could issue a report, especially if requested by Congress; others think Justice Department regulations would prohibit that. But you can guess how the political appointees at the Justice Department would interpret the regulations. And would any Republican leaders of Congress ask Fitzgerald for a report? With the Bush administration and congressional Republicans not keen to have a full accounting, it could be difficult for Fitzgerald--if he wants to produce a report--to win a tussle over how to read the regulations. As for whether Fitzgerald wishes to issue a final report, his office has declined to comment on this matter (or any other matter).
Since the start of the leak investigation I have asked congressional Democrats if they were prepared to pressure the administration regarding a final report in this case. A few--most notably, Senator Chuck Schumer--have called for the production and release of such a report. But the Democrats generally have not made this a priority item. That was a strategic misstep. Should Fitzgerald not indict anyone--or should he issue limited indictments--the Democrats (and many within the public) will still yearn for a full accounting of the investigation. Yet demanding a final report after Fitzgerald has made his decisions regarding indictments could look like sour grapes. Republicans will likely argue, "you sore-looser Democrats didn't get the indictments you wanted, so now you're trying to perpetuate this controversy by asking for a report that a special prosecutor is not supposed to release." The Democrats needed to mount a high-profile push for such a report before the end of FItzgerald's investigation. But they have missed their chance.
Final reports from independent counsels in the past have been quite useful. Independent counsel John McKay investigated Edwin Meese, Ronald Reagan's attorney general, and brought no indictments against him. But in his final report, McKay detailed a series of suspicious actions conducted by Meese. Lawrence Walsh, the independent counsel who investigated the Iran-contra affair, released a report rich with details about government officials who were indicted and those who were not. In his report, he included material indicating that Colin Powell on two separate occasions, when he was providing sworn testimony, offered contradictory accounts regarding the notes of Caspar Weinberger, Reagan's defense secretary. Powell had been an assistant to Weinberger. The existence of Weinberger's notes was a critical topic for the Walsh's investigation. and Powell seemed to have changed his story to help Weinberger's legal defense. In his report, Walsh noted he did not have enough evidence to charge Powell with any crime, such as providing false information to Congress. Yet because Walsh outlined this episode in his final report, I was able to report this story. (I was the first journalist--and one of the few--to note Powell's shifting account and his near-indictment. After I broke this news, CNN produced a segment on this story. Then executives in Atlanta killed the piece.)
Final reports can be quite valuable--but only if they are written. If Fitzgerald does not bring wide-ranging indictments that tell the full story, a report-less investigation will not provide a complete accounting. Oddly, it seems that on Tuesday, the White House endorsed the need for a final report. Press secretary Scott McClellan defined a successful completion of the investigation as one in which Fitzgerald would "determine the facts and then outline those facts for the American people." As the Times reports:
Asked if that meant the White House would favor a public report if there were no indictments, Mr. McClellan said that the decision was Mr. Fitzgerald's, but that "we would all like to know what the facts are."
Do you think Bush truly wants to see all the facts placed before the American public? But on this point Fitzgerald and the Justice Department should take McClellan at his word.
Don't forget about DAVID CORN's BLOG at www.davidcorn.com. Read recent postings on Harriet Miers, the Karl Rove scandal and other in-the-news matters.
BUSH KNEW OF THE COVER-UP? In Wednesday's New York Daily News, Washington bureau chief Thomas DeFrank has an important story--but much of it is between the lines. He writes:
An angry President Bush rebuked chief political guru Karl Rove two years ago for his role in the Valerie Plame affair, sources told the Daily News.
"He made his displeasure known to Karl," a presidential counselor told The News. "He made his life miserable about this."
Bush has nevertheless remained doggedly loyal to Rove....
Waitaminute! Two years ago, the White House--via McClellan--definitively declared that Rove was not "involved" in the CIA leak. But if Bush at some point upbraided his guru about the leak that means (a) Bush knew that Rove was involved and (b) Bush countenanced McClellan's dissemination of a false cover story. This is evidence that Bush was a party to the attempted White House cover-up and that Bush might have directly lied about the issue. On September 30, 2003, he was questioned by reporters about the leak investigation. Here's an excerpt:
Q: Yesterday we were told that Rove had no role in it--
The President: Yes.
Q: Have you talked to Karl and do you have confidence in him?
The President: Listen, I know of nobody-- I don't know of anybody in my administration who leaked classified information. If somebody leaked classified information, I'd like to know it, and we'll take the appropriate action.
Was Bush in this exchange reaffirming McClellan's claim that Rove was not involved? That seems to be the case. Did Bush know at this time that Rove was involved in the leak? The Daily News story does not say when Rove spoke to Bush. Has Bush taken "appropriate action" against Rove? (The information that Rove shared with reporters--Valerie Wilson's employment status at the CIA--was classified.) There is no public indication "appropriate action" occurred.
Is it possible that one White House aide is now leaking a false story of Bush chastising Rove in order to distance Bush from the under-fire Rove? DeFrank reports:
Other sources confirmed...that Bush was initially furious with Rove in 2003 when his deputy chief of staff conceded he had talked to the press about the Plame leak.
If DeFrank got this right, he has a bigger scoop than the paper seems to have realized. His article does not note that these accounts from White House aides indicate that Bush knew the White House had lied in its public statements about the leak scandal.
Ever since evidence emerged this summer that showed Rove had discussed Valerie Wilson's CIA position with reporters, one question has been whether Rove had acknowledged his role in the leak to Bush. The Daily News reports:
A second well-placed source said some recently published reports implying Rove had deceived Bush about his involvement in the Wilson counterattack were incorrect and were leaked by White House aides trying to protect the President."
But if Rove did not deceive Bush, then Bush was a party to the Rove-was-not-involved lie promoted by his White House. And this raises the question of what Bush did after Rove told him of his involvement. Bush certainly didn't do anything to correct the public record. I wonder if McClellan wants to see a chapter in a final report on Bush and Rove's conversations about the leak and how Bush responded.
UPDATE: The White House, according to CNN, is claiming the Daily News story is inaccurate.
Well, of course, the investigation of who leaked CIA agent Valerie Plame's name -- violating the federal law that bars the "outing" of intelligence operatives -- has come around to Vice President Dick Cheney's office. While it may be news to the Washington Post -- which headlined a breathless report on Tuesday: "Cheney's Office Is A Focus in Leak Case" -- the fact is that Cheney and his aides have been likely suspects from day one.
No prominent member of the administration had more to lose as a result of the 2003 revelation by Plame's husband, former Ambassador Joe Wilson, that the White House's pre-war claims regarding Iraq's weapons of mass destruction had been inflated than did Cheney -- who, to a far greater extent than George Bush, had a hand in shaping the arguments for going to war, plugged them in media appearances and defended them after all evidence suggested his pronouncements had been wrong. It is important to recall that, while Bush may have deliberately fuzzed the facts in his 2003 State of the Union address, it was Cheney who leapt off the cliff of speculation with the pre-war declaration that, "We know Saddam Hussein's been absolutely devoted to trying to acquire nuclear weapons, and we believe he has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons."
No key player in the administration was more at odds with the Central Intelligence Agency than Cheney. Indeed, Cheney's badgering of the agency to come up with "evidence" of Iraqi WMDs and al-Qaeda connections was so aggressive -- he regularly stormed into the CIA headquarters to demand a briefing and then, when the information did not fit his biases, demanded that someone else brief him -- that members of the House Intelligence Committee complained in a reprimanding letter, "These visits are unprecedented. Normally, vice presidents, including yourself, receive regular briefings from (the) CIA in your office and have a CIA officer on permanent detail. There is no reason to make personal visits to the CIA."
No top office within the administration was better positioned than Cheney's to gather the information that was used to attack Wilson and his wife and to peddle that information to the press. In fact, as Joe Wilson told me in an interview about the leaking of his wife's name that we did early in 2004, "With respect to who actually leaked the information, there are really only a few people -- far fewer than the president let on when he said there are a lot of senior administration officials -- who could have done it. At the end of the day, you have to have the means, the keys to the conversations at which somebody might drop my wife's name -- deliberately or not -- a national security clearance, and a reason to be talking about this. When you look at all that, there are really very few people who exist at that nexis between national security and foreign policy and politics. You can count them, literally, on two hands."
Wilson added that, without a doubt, "the vice president is one of those people."
And no one, repeat no one, in Washington is known to be more vindictive than Dick Cheney. So the notion that Cheney would not only have been aware of but in fact delighted in punishing Wilson by ruining the career of the ambassador's wife is entirely plausible. By all accounts, special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald is investigating that prospect as his long examination of crimes that may have been committed in relation to the Plame leak draws to a close.
Does this mean that the vice president will be indicted by the federal grand jury that is currently examining the actions of White House political czar Karl Rove and, more importantly, Cheney Chief of Staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby?
Don't bet on it.
Libby is blood-oath, fall-on-the-sword loyal to Cheney. A Reagan-era State Department hand and Congressional staffer who came to know his future boss when Cheney was serving in Congress during the 1980s, Libby went with Cheney to George H. W. Bush's Defense Department -- serving Secretary of Defense Cheney as Principal Deputy Under Secretary for Strategy and Resources and Deputy Under Secretary for Policy. Libby was then a founder of the neo-conservative Project for a New American Century, which promoted the vision of American Empire that Cheney and his staff had cooked up in their controversial draft Defense Policy Guidance statement during their final days at the Pentagon. And when Cheney returned to the corridors of power, as vice president, Libby was at his side.
But the Cheney-Libby partnership is not merely a power and policy connection. Their relationship is more father-son than boss-surrogate. Libby vacations with Cheney at the vice president's $2.9 million villa in Wyoming, and Libby's access is such that he is welcome to invite friends and compatriots along to enjoy the skiing near Jackson Hole.
The likelihood that Libby would give up a relationship that has buttered his bread for the better part of a quarter century is even more remote than the likelihood that Rove would turn on Bush.
Yet, no one who knows about how Cheney and Libby operate will doubt that the two men had no secrets from one another during the period when the attacks on the CIA, in general, and Wilson and Plame, in particular, were taking place.
The vice president is a famously hands-on player. He personally requested information about claims that the Iraqis were attempting to obtain uranium from African countries -- the issue that Wilson examined in 2002, when he was dispatched to Africa and found that the claims were not credible. And while Cheney now says that he knew nothing of the report that Wilson produced before the war, the former ambassador has never believed him.
"If you are senior enough to ask the question, you are senior enough to get a very specific response," said Wilson. "In addition to the circular report that was sent around as a consequence of my trip, I have every confidence that one way or another the vice president was briefed as well." Yet, it was the vice president who continued to claim, long after Bush had dropped the line, that Saddam Hussein was a nuclear threat. And Cheney always went much further than Bush or others in the administration when making that claim. Indeed, it was Cheney who specifically stated prior to the Congressional votes on authorizing the use of force in Iraq that, Hussein had "resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons." Cheney claimed in the same speech that, "Armed with an arsenal of these weapons of terror, and seated atop 10 percent of the world's oil reserves, Saddam Hussein could then be expected to seek domination of the entire Middle East, take control of the world's energy supplies, directly threaten American friends throughout the region, and subject the United States or any other nation to nuclear blackmail."
It is certainly reasonable to argue that Cheney had more reason to strike out at Wilson than anyone else in the administration when the former ambassador revealed the truth in a New York Times opinion piece that appeared in the summer of 2003. And, while Cheney may not have done the deed directly, it is comic to suggest that the vice president -- who was in constant contact with both Libby and Rove around the time of the leak -- could have been unaware of any serious effort to discredit Wilson by "outing" his wife as a CIA agent.
John Nichols' biography of Vice President Cheney, Dick: The Man Who Is President (The New Press, 2004) is currently available nationwide at independent bookstores and at www.amazon.com. An expanded paperback version of the book, which Publisher's Weekly describes as "a Fahrenheit 9/11 for Cheney" and Esquire magazine says "reveals the inner Cheney," will be available this fall under the title, The Rise and Rise of Richard B. Cheney: Unlocking the Mysteries of the Most Powerful Vice President in American History (The New Press).
Maybe two people I met in Owensboro, Kentucky this past weekend knew who Judith Miller was. And on Sunday, when I left town, the local paper devoted far more space to listing the names and addresses of those filing for bankruptcy in the Owensboro-Daviess County area between September 30 and October 10 than to Miller, her case and her notes. (As the Messenger-Inquirer reported,"with new, tougher bankruptcy laws taking effect this week, the Owensboro region saw a record number of filings in the third quarter.")
I don't head to Kentucky often, but I set off for my third trip to my husband's hometown of Owensboro last Thursday. Once called Yellow Banks (the city's name was changed in 1817 in honor of Colonel Abraham Owen), it's a town of about 54,000 perched high above the Ohio River--with a WPA bridge, the International Bluegrass Music Museum and, possibly, the best BBQ (mutton) joint in America (the "Moonlite"). It's also the birthplace of Johnny Depp, whose photograph hangs in the Owensboro-Daviess Tourist Commission's Hall of Fame. (My husband Stephen Cohen's picture is also hanging there--right between a local diner and a horse who won the Kentucky Derby decades ago. The Hall also has several Nascar drivers, some local basketball players who went on to the NBA, and the actor Tom Ewell of The Seven Year Itch--best known for Marilyn Monroe's white dress. )
Another local boy is Terry Bisson, a true Southern boy turned radical in the '60s, who wrote a fascinating "alternate history" book in 1988 exploring what would have happened if Harriet Tubman had been able to join John Brown, as planned, in the Harper's Ferry raid, leading to a successful slave revolt that could have rippled through the South and led to an African-America led revolution. (Bisson dedicated the book to the Black Liberation Army.)
But this is October 2005 and Bisson moved away years ago. Radicalism in 2005 comes in different forms--like standing up for labor rights in a state, in a country, where labor is under siege. The Kentucky, Missouri, Illinois and Oklahoma AFL-CIO chapters were meeting on Saturday in our hotel. And on the grounds of the local courthouse, Owensboro's Central Labor Council put up a black granite "Workers' Memorial" in 2002 with the words: "Mourn for the Dead, Fight for the Living, For All Those who Died, Earning a Living, Because all Work is Honorable."
One of the county commissioners told me that every year, usually around Labor Day, the Labor Council members and others from around the state gather and read the names of those who died that year. "It's a lot of names, and takes some hours," he tells me. "So many die from driving those trucks."
On Saturday night, our friends Burley and Beverly Phelan--he's the director of tourism for the Owensboro-Daviess County area--took me to the 36th annual Democratic Party Wendell Ford Picnic at the Owensboro Sportscenter. (Meanwhile, Steve and our fourteen year old daughter Nika went off to a local institution--"Goldie's Best Little Opryhouse in Kentucky"--which presents every Friday and Saturday night a country music variety show, featuring professionals and amateur musicians in a "Survival" like contest.) The turnout wasn't bad--maybe because Moonlite Barbecue was catering the event--but Beverly lamented that the local Democratic Party was failing to bring in younger people, while the local Republicans seemed so well organized. She thinks it's because so many local Dems just don't have time or the money to volunteer; the Republicans have both money and time.
Named after retired Senator Wendell Ford, the picnic's keynote speaker this year was state senator Dan Mongiardo, from Hazard in the Eastern (and poorer) part of the state. (Mongiardo nearly beat Jim Bunning, the incumbent Republican, last year--losing by 22,000 votes after the national GOP unleashed a vicious smear campaign against him, implying that because he was single he was gay.) Mongiardo, a dark-eyed, intense man, lashed out at the Bush Administration for rolling back prevailing wages in the Gulf Coast, calling it "modern-day slavery."
I also had a chance to talk briefly with another state representative, Mike Weaver (D-Elizabethtown), who hopes to challenge Republican incumbent Ron Lewis in the state's 2nd District in next year's congressional elections.
Weaver, a Vietnam vet, denounced Bush for misleading the country into a war which had made us less secure. Weaver also helped craft--and pass--a freedom of information style bill that protects the public's right to examine governmental performance. As a result, his legislation has pushed the Associated Press of Kentucky to take on the state's corruption-challenged governor, Ernie Fletcher, demanding that he release the most basic information about the state government's role in Vice-President Cheney's visit to Kentucky. (While Fletcher fights back against the public's right to know, his administration is the focus of a wide-ranging criminal investigation into politically-based hirings in violation of the state merit system law. Eleven current or former aides have been indicted in the probe, and in late August Fletcher announced a pardon of the first nine people indicted--and anyone else who might be charged, not including himself. The day I left, the local paper reported that the lawyer just hired by Fletcher to weed out political bias in Kentucky's hiring process had been a blogger who "routinely praised Republicans and jeered Democrats." "Does he think we're stupid?" asked Jerry Lundergan, Chair of the Kentucky Democratic Party.)
At a small forum on Friday afternoon at the city's Museum of Science and History--this month featuring a Monster Truck exhibit--Steve and I talked about our work. (Later that day, Steve spoke about Russia to the Owensboro World Affairs Council.) What I found were people of all ages--high school students, teachers, retired folks--who defy most of the simplistic antinomies: liberal vs conservative, red state vs blue state, freedom of choice vs family values and so on. You know, the categories that a lot of us use to categorize contemporary American life. I get a sense that there's a hunger for clean government among people who define themselves from all political perspectives, for open and honest political debate, for a media that cares about what matters in people's lives.
Several of the high school kids said they got their news from the Daily Show; surprisingly, very few used the internet to gather news and info. None read blogs; a few of the older people knew of MoveOn. No one read the papers we take as daily staples--the New York Times, the Washington Post or even the Wall Street Journal. In the best hotel in town, you can find the local paper, a few copies of USA Today and, if you're lucky, a vending machine with the Louisville Courier-Journal--which even as a Gannett paper, still does some superb reporting and features a liberal editorial page.
Most of those who came Friday afternoon were fed up with the divisive winner-take-all polarization that seems, to them, to afflict the media and the political establishment. They cared about the responsible use of America's power and worried about how (and when) we'd get out of Iraq. If I had to categorize people I met, they were independents looking for a politics and leaders who would speak to the reality of their lives, their work, their aspirations.
Yes there are Baptist and Methodist and Catholic churches everywhere. And one of the high school kids described the increasing religiosity in the community--how Christian youth groups have started after-school programs with school support. And over the weekend, the local paper featured news of "Elevation 2006"--a local Christian rock festival coming to town in March. And Friday's Messenger-Inquirer published a letter from a local experimental physicist arguing that Intelligent Design is more plausible than evolution. But at Brescia University--Owensboro's Catholic college--I met a professor of theology, a man in his forties, who teaches a course every spring on social justice. He had read The Nation, and when I gave him one of our Nation classroom packets he said he would find it valuable in teaching his students. We talked about Dorothy Day and Michael Harrington and the Maryknoll sisters and liberation theology.
I got home Sunday night, after a few days out of New York, away from the parsing of Miller's testimony and the New York Times's treatment of her, and found a comment on my latest blog, about a Central American film I had highlighted. "Are you this out of touch?," some person named Colmes asks. Why are you "shilling for some Latin American movie when there are real issues right her in the previously good ol' US of A." Colmes then lists Rove and Miller and McLellan and so on.
There are real issues right here in the good ol' US of A. But maybe we need to spend more time paying attention to the record number of bankruptcies being filed in towns like Owensboro, or the workers' lives lost with an end to safety and health regulations, than to Judith Miller and her notes.
George Bush has given up.
We should have seen this coming. During the first debate of the fall 2004 campaign, a weary and frustrated Bush repeatedly referred to how the presidency had proven to be a difficult job for him. Again and again, the commander-in-chief responded to questions about the missteps, mistakes and misdeeds of his first term by pleading that, "It's hard work."
The guy was clearly overwhelmed a year ago. So it can't really come as much of surprise that he has thrown in the towel.
The evidence of his surrender is all around. The man who spent years denying global warming is now borrowing talking points from Jimmy Carter to call for energy conservation. He can't even convince himself -- let alone anyone else -- that the "mission-accomplished" occupation of Iraq is functional, let alone a success story. He has essentially abandoned his primary domestic-policy initiative for 2005, admitting during a Rose Garden press conference that there is a "diminished appetite" for his scheme to privatize Social Security. And when it came to what is arguably the most important appointment of his presidency -- the selection of a replacement for the critical "swing" justice on the U.S. Supreme Court – he didn't even try.
In defending his selection of his attorney, Harriet Miers, to succeed retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, Bush claimed that, "I picked the best person I could find."
He obviously did not look very hard. Maybe that's because the guy who used to tell him who to nominate for judicial openings, Karl Rove, is busy trying to avoid a indictment by a federal grand jury. Maybe it is because Vice President Dick Cheney's office is in crisis, as the veep's chief of staff, "Scooter" Libby, is targeted by the same investigation into who in the White House revealed the identity of an intelligence operative in order to punish the husband of that operative, Ambassador Joe Wilson, for revealing that the administration had warped intelligence in order to make the "case" for invading Iraq.
Whatever the explanation, the Miers nomination is a signal of surrender.
Miers is a dramatically less inspired selection for an open seat on the nation's highest court even than the last great "crony" appointment: former President Lyndon Johnson's naming of his sometime attorney and longtime pal Abe Fortas to replace Associate Justice Arthur Goldberg in 1965. Like Miers, Fortas had no record of judicial service. And, like Miers, Fortas's primary qualification was unquestionably his friendship with the man making the appointments.
But at least Fortas had argued landmark cases before the Supreme Court, putting together the team of lawyers that won the unanimous Gideon v. Wainwright ruling that secured the constitutional right of criminal defendants to legal counsel. Fortas had also taught at Yale Law School, served as Undersecretary of the Interior during Franklin Roosevelt's presidency and earned acclaim in the legal community for his courageous defense of the victims of former Senator Joe McCarthy's ideological witch hunts of the 1950s.
Miers can point to no such record of accomplishment. Where Fortas had earned a place in legal history books before he was ever considered for a place on the Supreme Court, Miers hadn't even garnered footnote status before Bush tapped her for the lifetime sinecure.
Yet, while the Fortas nomination was easily confirmed in 1965 by a Senate that was friendly to Johnson, his story still serves as a reminder of the perils of cronyism. Three years later, when Johnson tried to name Fortas as the replacement for Chief Justice Earl Warren, the nomination faced a Senate filibuster that ultimately derailed it. A year later, when it was revealed that he had accepted a $20,000 fee from a foundation controlled by a financier who was under investigation for violating Federal securities laws, Fortas was forced to resign from the court.
Harriet Mier's closet may not have as many skeletons in it as did Abe Fortas's.
But the story of the last crony appointment to the high court remains a cautionary one for Bush. Lyndon Johnson nominated Fortas for the job of Chief Justice in June of 1968, after he had announced that he would not seek a second full term. Like Bush, Johnson had given up. He lacked the political capital to hold his own party's senators in line. The Fortas nomination was blocked when Democrats abandoned the nominee of a Democratic president.
With the rising tide of conservative criticism of the Miers nomination, Bush's primary problem at the moment is with Republicans -- not with the Democrats who, as usual, are having a hard time figuring out how to respond to crass cronyism. Columnists George Will and Ann Coulter, former presidential speechwriter Peggy Noonan and other prominent conservatives have condemned the nomination, as has Manual Miranda, who heads the Third Branch Conference, a coalition of 150 grassroots conservative and libertarian groups across the country. And Bush's feeble defenses of his nominee have done little to silence the outcry. If the Miers nomination fails -- either because it is withdrawn or because it fails to gain traction in the Senate -- the reason for that failure will be the same as it was for the Fortas flop: a failing president's inability to keep his own partisan allies in line. If enough right-wing senators – led by Kansan Sam Brownback and Oklahoman Tom Coburn – abandon Miers, and by extension Bush, this nomination could yet be crushed in a right-left vice grip. There's no guarantee that will happen. The current Senate has a penchant for confirming stealth nominees such as Miers. But if Miers is rejected as the result of a right-wing revolt, it will not merely be a defeat for Bush. It will be the inevitable consequence of his decision – conscious or otherwise – to just give up.
Finally, the New York Times and Judith Miller speak, and the paper and reporter leave their readers with as many questions as answers. In Sunday's edition, the Times publishes a lengthy account by three reporters (Don Van Natta Jr., Adam Liptak and Clifford Levy) of what it calls "the Miller case" and a first-person account by Miller. Neither piece explains all.
Miller spent eighty-five days in a federal prison after she refused to cooperate with special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, who has been investigating the Bush Administration leak that outed undercover CIA officer Valerie Wilson, the wife of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, a critic of the Bush White House. She was released from jail after she received a personal waiver from a confidential source, Scooter Libby, Dick Cheney's chief of staff, that granted her permission to discuss their conversations with Fitzgerald. With that waiver in hand, she cut a deal with Fitzgerald that limited his questioning only to her discussions with Libby (not other sources) and that compelled Miller to turn over her notes of these conversations with Libby.
The denouement of Miller's legal tussle with Fitzgerald was rather puzzling. Libby's lawyer indicated that Miller could have had the personal waiver a year earlier. And after Miller and the Times had spent months crowing that Miller--unlike other reporters--would stand on principle and not submit to Fitzgerald's zealous pursuits, her final settlement with Fitzgerald (which resembled that of the other reporters) was not in sync with the grand we're-protecting-journalism rhetoric the Times and Miller had hurled. Moreover, there were new and old questions about Miller's involvement in the case. Why had Fitzgerald subpoenaed her? How did it come to happen that she only recently discovered a notebook containing notes of Miller's first conversation with Libby about Joseph (and possibly Valerie) Wilson? What had Libby told her? What sort of relationship did she have with Libby? Was Miller eager to discredit Wilson because her prewar reporting on Iraq's WMDs had overstated and hyped the claim that Saddam Hussein presented a WMD threat?
The Times's double-header does not clear up all the mysteries. Let's start with Miller's article, "My Four Hours Testifying in the Federal Grand Jury Room." Miller does not explain the disappearance and discovery of a notebook that contained notes of a June 23, 2003, conversation she had with Libby. This chat occurred two weeks before Wilson published an op-ed piece for the Times in which he revealed that after being sent to Niger in 2002 by the CIA he had concluded that it was highly unlikely that Iraq had been able to obtain weapons-grade uranium there. For weeks, Wilson had been talking to reporters--off the record--about his trip to Niger, and media stories regarding the trip had appeared without naming Wilson as the former diplomat who had gone on this mission.
Miller's account of the June 23, 2003, discussion with Libby indicates that the White House was already looking to discredit Wilson's account prior to Wilson going public with his story--and that this was part of a White House effort to protect itself from intelligence leaks suggesting that the Bush Administration had played up the prewar intelligence on WMDs in Iraq. This was, of course, occurring at a time when the absence of WMDs in Iraq was becoming a problem for the White House. It is not surprising that Libby tried to peddle to Miller the argument that the White House had not relied on skimpy intelligence to go to war. And in this conversation, according to Miller, Libby told her that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA.
How did Libby know this? Why did Libby know this? Miller may not possess the answers to these critical questions. But Valerie Wilson's employment status at the CIA was classified information. Wittingly or not, Libby was passing classified information to a reporter whom he obviously hoped would be sympathetic to the White House's cause.
In a second meeting on July 8, 2003--two days after Wilson's op-ed appeared--Libby and Miller again discussed Wilson. Once again, Libby was telling Miller that the White House had based its claim that Iraq had been seeking uranium in Niger on solid intelligence. Miller writes that Libby cited the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq produced in October 2002 and said it had firmly concluded Iraq had been pursuing uranium. (It seems that Libby did not tell Miller that this NIE contained a dissent from the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), which said, "the claims of Iraqi pursuit of natural uranium in Africa are, in INR's assessment, highly dubious.") At this meeting, Libby again referred to Wilson's wife, apparently telling Miller, according to her notes, that she "works at Winpac," the CIA office on Weapons Intelligence, Nonproliferation and Arms Control.
Miller says she told Fitzgerald's grand jury that she believes this is the first time she had heard that Wilson's wife worked at Winpac. But she cannot recall--she says--why Libby was discussing Wilson's wife. That seems strange. It's not odd that someone would not recall the details of a conversation that happened two years ago. But six days after this conversation--when Novak outed her--Valerie Wilson was big news. Did Miller--who now says she was annoyed she had been scooped on the Plame/Wilson story by Novak--at that point not recall her six-day-old conversation with Libby on this matter and not develop a deeper impression of the portion of their chat that covered Valerie Wilson?
There's more on this point. In the notebook in which she recorded her notes from this meeting with Libby, Miller wrote the words "Valerie Flame." Clearly, this was a reference to Valerie Plame. Was Libby the source for this name? Miller says she does not think so and that she told Fitzgerald "I believed the information came from another source, whom I could not recall." Again, it might be hard for a reporter to remember who told them what over two years ago. But isn't it difficult to believe that come July 14, 2003--the day the name Valerie Plame became public--Miller would not have recalled who had told her days earlier about this CIA officer? And isn't it hard to believe that she would no longer remember that?
There is something else odd about her July 8, 2003, discussion with Libby. When the subject turned to Wilson, Libby asked Miller that he be identified in any story she would write as a "former Hill staffer." Previously the two had agreed that Miller would refer to Libby as a "senior administration official." Now Miller agreed that she would ID him as a "former Hill staffer." (Libby had once worked on Capitol Hill.) She assumed, she writes, that "Libby did not want the White House to be seen as attacking Mr. Wilson." But this shows the dishonest game that reporters can play. Technically, Libby was a former Hill staffer, but he was talking to Miller--and trying to undermine Wilson's account--as a White House official. Calling Libby a "former Hill staffer" in print would have been highly misleading. (Miller never did write a piece on Wilson.) Is this how the Times plays ball? This small slice of Miller's piece deserves a response from executive editor Bill Keller.
In a notebook that chronicled a third pre-leak conversation with Libby--which transpired on July 12, 2003--Miller scribbled the words "Victoria Wilson." Miller writes, "I told Mr. Fitzgerald I was not sure whether Mr. Libby had used this name or whether I just made a mistake in writing it on my own. Another possibility, I said, is that I gave Mr. Libby the wrong name on purpose to see whether he would correct me and confirm her identity." She says she might have been calling others about Wilson's wife, but she is not sure on this point. There is a lot of don't-know in her account. Can Miller not answer a simple question: Did you know Joseph Wilson's wife was named Valerie Wilson (or Plame) and did counter-WMD work at the CIA before Novak published his column? If so, how did you learn this?
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Miller's piece, fittingly, ends on a weird and uncertain note. When she was before the grand jury, she recalls, Fitzgerald asked her to read from a letter that Libby sent her last month while she was in jail. The letter encouraged her to testify and said, "The public report of every other reporter's testimony makes clear that they did not discuss Ms. Plame's name or identity with me." Miller told Fitzgerald that she was surprised by the letter because it might be perceived as an attempt by Libby to encourage her to testify that she had not discussed Valerie Wilson's CIA identity with him even though they had. Fitzgerald asked Miller about the letter's closing lines. "Out West," Libby had written, "where you vacation, the aspens will be turning. They turn in clusters, because their roots connect them." What, Fitzgerald wondered, did Miller make of this reference to connected roots? In her Times piece, Miller says she answered Fitzgerald by recalling the last time she had seen Libby. In August 2003, she was at a rodeo in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and a man in jeans, a cowboy hat and sunglasses approached her and asked her about a conference she had just attended in Aspen, Colorado. She had no idea who this fellow was. "Judy," he told her. "It's Scooter Libby." And that was--literally--all Miller wrote.
This may be a nice anecdote for ending an article, but it hardly was responsive to Fitzgerald's question. As for her readers, Miller fails them by not providing a clearer answer. Why did an editor not send this page back to Miller with the query: "Funny bit, but irrelevant; tell reader what you think odd sign-off in Libby letter means"? But given the article Miller has produced, it is, in a way, an appropriate conclusion.
The news story that appears in the Times is less exasperating. But it too leaves one wanting more. It doesn't tell the reader anything else about the missing notebook, the "Valerie Flame" reference, or Miller's dealings with Libby. In a section covering Miller's history at the paper, the story quotes Miller on her WMD stories:
"W.M.D.-I got it totally wrong," she said. "The analysts, the experts and the journalists who covered them--we were all wrong. If your sources are wrong, you are wrong. I did the best job that I could."
The paper did not note that there were experts and journalists before the war who were skeptical of the WMD claims. For instance, Mohamed ElBaradeii and the International Atomic Energy Agency said before the war that there was no evidence Iraq had revived its nuclear weapons program. The day after Colin Powell's infamous--and misleading--show at the United Nations, The Washington Post published several articles that quoted technical experts taking issue with his Powell's pronouncements. Miller was not wrong because everybody was wrong. She was wrong because she relied upon sources--administration officials, Iraqi exiles connected to Ahmed Chalabi--who had a reason to hype the WMD threat. But the Times gives her a pass on this, allowing her to spin away.
The triple-bylined article does not advance the story much beyond the account presented in Miller's piece. Regarding who else might have told Miller about "Victoria Wilson," this article has no additional information and only notes, "In an interview, [Miller] would not discuss her sources." Well, thanks for cracking that nut.
The article does dig slightly further into the dispute between Miller's legal camp and Libby's attorney over what happened during their negotiations. According to Miller, her attorney, Floyd Abrams, said that Libby's attorney, Joseph Tate, pressed Abrams to tell him what Miller would say to the grand jury should she testify. Abrams also claimed that Tate said that Libby had already testified that he had not mentioned Valerie Wilson's name or her undercover status to Miller. This raises the possibility that Libby was seeking to shape Miller's testimony, which could be illegal. Tate calls such an interpretation "outrageous." But the Times account does not sort this out as clearly as a reader--or a prosecutor--might like.
The Times story also further undermines Miller's attempt to become the Joan of Arc for modern-day journalists. The article notes that her attorneys had tried early on to arrange a deal under which Miller would testify before the grand jury if Fitzgerald limited the scope of the questions. In public, Miller and the Times management struck an absolutist and noble-sounding stance. But in the suites, they were trying to reach a compromise. The article also chronicles how the Times was constrained in covering the Miller case and Fitzgerald's investigation:
In August, Douglas Jehl and David Johnston, two other Washington reporters, sent a memo to the Washington bureau chief, Mr. [Philip] Taubman, listing ideas for coverage of the case. Mr. Taubman said Mr. Keller did not want them pursued because of the risk of provoking Mr. Fitzgerald or exposing Mr. Libby, while Ms. Miller was in jail.
Mr. Taubman said he felt bad for his reporters, but he added that he and other senior editors felt that they had no choice. "No editor wants to be in the position of keeping information out of the newspaper," Mr. Taubman said.
So much for without fear or favor. This is an awful acknowledgment for the nation's leading paper. Taubman and Jill Abramson, a managing editor, called the situation "Excruciatingly difficult." It was worse. As I've written before, Jayson Blair bamboozled his editors; Judy Miller handcuffed hers. If a deal could have been reached a year earlier, the Times would not be as embarrassed as it is today. No wonder, as the paper reports, when Miller made a post-release speech in the newsroom, claiming a victory for press freedoms, her colleagues "responded with restrained applause."
When the Times reporters interviewed Abramson and asked her what she regretted about the paper's handling of the Miller case, she replied, "The entire thing." That was a refreshing shot of candor. But Miller's account and the paper's extensive take-out do not totally clear the air. They leave the impression that we're still not getting all the news that ought to be fit to print.
Last week the US Senate voted overwhelmingly (90-9) to stand solidly against torture. The amendment, introduced by Senator John McCain (R-AZ), calls for prisoners and detainees to be treated according to guidelines established by the Army Field Manual. In short, it outlaws degrading and inhumane treatment of anyone in US military custody. McCain's bill, as The Nation writes this week in the magazine's lead editorial, "stands as a singular legislative attempt to corral Bush into compliance with international law and human rights standards."
Politically, McCain has played this well. The amendment was appended to the massive defense appropriations bill. Consequently, passage of the $440 billion defense budget depends on the adoption of this vital amendment. Nonetheless, President Bush has threatened to veto the entire piece of legislation in order to kill the anti-torture amendment. This despite a recent report by Human Rights Watch documenting US soldiers' accounts of abuses against detainees committed by troops of the 82nd Airborne stationed at Forward Operating Base Mercury (FOB Mercury), near Fallujah. (Click here to read, and circulate, it in full.)
For once, the Senate has done the right thing. Now, a coalition of groups, led by FaithfulAmerica.org, an online community of progressive people of faith, is calling for all Americans to ask their Senators to stand strong against the president's threatened pro-torture veto.
From every angle, this veto would be a disaster: It would hurt US standing in the world, serve to enable the torture of innocent people, and likely fail to produce actionable information even if applied on someone plotting terror attacks. (The counter-productiveness of torture in strategic terms was driven home by the bill's endorsement by more than two dozen retired military officers, including Colin Powell and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff John Shalikashvili.)
McCain and his colleagues are trying to extricate the government from direct complicity in war crimes. Join them by clicking here to send a letter of support to your Senators on this issue.
As I noted previously, it has been interesting to watch Karl Rove's defense evolve. After the news broke in September 2003 that the CIA had asked the Justice Department to investigate the leak in Bob Novak's July 14, 2003, column that outed former Ambassador Joseph Wilson's wife, Valerie, as an undercover CIA officer, the White House declared that Rove and Scooter Libby, Dick Cheney's chief of staff, were not involved in the leak--no ifs, ands or buts. Speaking of Rove, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said, "He wasn't involved. The president knows hewasn't involved." The White House was signaling--rightly or wrongly--that it had no worries about its uber-strategist. And a year later, a White House aide who had just left his job at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue told me that the consensus view within the Bush gang at that point was that Rove was too smart for special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald and that there was no reason for Rove to explain--or admit--anything. (One prominent Washington defense attorney said--after I recently mentioned this conversation--"only a fool would think he or she could outsmart a prosecutor.")
This past July, after Time agreed to turn over Matt Cooper's notes to Fitzgerald, Newsweek's Michael Isikoff revealed that Cooper had spoken to Rove about Joe Wilson. Responding to Isikoff's scoop, Rove's attorney, Robert Luskin, said that Rove "did not tell any reporter that Valerie Plame worked for the CIA." But a week later, Isikoff disclosed that Cooper and Rove had discussed Wilson's wife and her employment at the CIA and that an email from Cooper to his editors had confirmed this. And days later, news reports--probably relying upon Luskin as an unidentified source--disclosed that Rove had told Novak that he, like Novak, had heard that Wilson's wife was a CIA officer. All this undermined the Rove camp's claim that Rove never mentioned Valerie Plame and her CIA position to any reporter. (I supposed Luskin could argue that Rove, during his chats with Cooper and Novak, had not referred to Wilson's wife as "Valerie Plame.")
In the three months since, Rove's defense has shifted further. This week, Luskin told CNN that "Karl has truthfully told everyone who's asked him that he did not circulate Valerie Plame's name to punish her husband, Joe Wilson." (When CNN asked if that included George W. Bush, Luskin added, "Everyone is everyone.") This line--Rove did not circulate Plame's name to punish Joseph Wilson--is a far cry from the assertion that Rove did not tell any reporter that Valerie Plame was a CIA officer. It appears that Luskin and Rove are making up lyrics as the music changes. Rove detractors might find this legalistic squirming perversely enjoyable. But what's telling is a comparison between Rove's position (the current one) and that of his boss.
Two years ago, when Bush was asked about the Plame/CIA leak, he said:
I have told our administration, people in my administration, to be fully cooperative. I want to know the truth. If anybody has got any information inside our administration or outside our administration, it would be helpful if they came forward with the information so we can find out whether or not these allegations are true.
A journalist then asked:
Yesterday we were told that Karl Rove had no role in it. Have you talked to Karl and do you have confidence in him?
Listen, I know of nobody--I don't know of anybody in my administration who leaked classified information. If somebody did leak classified information, I'd like to know, and we'll take the appropriate action. And this investigation is a good thing....And if people have got solid information, please come forward with it....And we can clarify this thing very quickly if people who have got solid evidence would come forward and speak out. And I would hope they would....I want to know who the leakers are.
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By Rove's own admission--or that of his attorney--Rove did pass classified information (Valerie Wilson's employment status at the CIA was classified) to at least two reporters (Cooper and Novak). By Bush's statement, Rove deserves "appropriate action." Yet so far no "appropriate action" has apparently been taken. Why might that be?
Moreover, if Rove used his current defense--that he did not circulate the Plame name to punish Wilson--in his conversations with Bush, as Luskin suggested to CNN, then Rove engaged in insubordination. Bush had said that he wanted to know the truth and that anyone with information should "come forward and speak out." Did Rove do that? No. According to Luskin, Rove told people--including the president--that he did not circulate the name of Wilson's wife. This seems to indicate that Rove did not tell Bush that he actually had spoken to Cooper about Wilson's wife and that he had confirmed the leak to Novak--actions that Rove and Luskin apparently do not consider "circulating." In other words, Rove did not respond to Bush's public request for information. Bush said he wanted to know who the leakers were. Yet Rove, if Luskin is to be believed, only assured Bush that he had not disseminated Valerie Wilson's maiden name in an act of vengeance. That was not being responsive to Bush. That was not sharing the full truth with the president. That was being insubordinate.
Perhaps the latest version of Rove's defense is--shall we say--not fully accurate. Perhaps Rove told Bush more. That would mean that Bush knew the White House line--Rove ain't involved--was false and took no steps to better inform the public.
There is no way to reconcile Bush's statements on the leak investigation and Rove's new-and-improved defense. Rove disobeyed Bush's I-want-to-know command. And Bush has let this slide and tossed aside his vow to take "action" against the Plame/CIA leakers. The wait for indictments continues, but Rove is already guilty of spreading--if not circulating--classified information, and he is guilty of either disobeying the president or drawing him into a White House conspiracy to mislead the public. His continued presence at the White House indicates that Bush does not take his own words seriously.
When Oscar Torres saw a Venezuelan band perform the song "Casas de carton" ("cardboard houses") in 2001, he knew that he wanted to "write something about the song" that he remembered so well from his childhood days growing up in war-torn and impoverished El Salvador. Soon after, Torres started working on a screenplay that ultimately served as the basis for the film Innocent Voices which will begin playing in 11 US cities on October 14.
The film has received critical acclaim after being released in Latin America and shown at this year's Amnesty International Film Festival. It deserves a wide audience in the United States. Directed by the talented Mexican filmmaker Luis Mandoki, Innocent Voices tells the story of Torres' embattled youth. The narrative is exquisitely told through the eyes of an 11-year-old boy named Chava whose character is based on Torres' boyhood. (Chava, appropriately, is a nickname for "Salvador.") Innocent Voices depicts the horror of war and its impact on children caught in the middle of El Salvador's civil strife in the 1980s.
There are no "good guys" in this conflict (though it's fair to say that the government paramilitary militias are definitely the "worse guys.") The film shows the government's soldiers hunting down and conscripting all 12-year-old boys in the village to serve in the military. But the bullets of the rebel-led Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) kill children just as effectively as the guns of the right-wing government's forces. And then there are the US soldiers who train and arm the government's military and who come across as depraved and without remorse.
Innocent Voices is Mandoki and Torres' reminder that "No child should ever bear arms." As Mandoki recently said in an interview, "Children were born to play." One question that Chava poses to himself at the beginning of the film--as he is being held prisoner by government soldiers--haunts the rest of the film: "Why do they want to kill us if we haven't done anything?"
Much of the film's tension stems from the government's policy of conscripting 12-year-old boys. We see the soldiers arriving at Chava's middle school, shouting out the names of the school's 12-year-olds and rousting them out of their classes. Chava, 11, understands that his turn is next, and that If he is lucky, he has just one year of innocence left, one year before he, too, will be conscripted to fight the government's battle against the peasant rebels of the FMLN.
The soldiers patrol the streets, invade the village's church and menace the children in the village center. As the children stroll along in neatly pressed white school shirts, the soldiers hover in the background with rifles slung over their shoulders. The children could fall prey to the combatants at any moment, and the atmosphere is claustrophobic.
Other scenes reveal the painful ways in which war shortens the lives of every child unlucky enough to be caught up in it. Chava and his friends must climb onto the roofs of their homes to evade detection by soldiers who ransack the village in search of recruits. When Chava and his friends encounter an old classmate by the banks of a river who is now a soldier, they see him transformed into a trained killer who has been instructed in warfare by "gringos" who had served in Vietnam.
Torres and Mandoki have made a film that is both gripping and highly entertaining, interspersing moments of laughter and light and scenes of beauty with the inhumanity of war itself. They pit Chava's childhood, his relationship with his family and his falling in love for the first time against a backdrop of horrific violence. And we see him struggling amid the bloodshed to hold onto his innocence.
Chava flies paper fireflies at night with his friends. He pretends to be a bus driver rumbling through the streets of his village. He smears lipstick on his face to make his screaming younger brother burst into laughter as bullets fly through the family's cardboard home. And Chava sings and dances in the street while serenading his first love. These episodes of what should be a normal childhood make the plight of children in war all the more poignant. It's clear that Chava, like all children, shouldn't be caught in the middle of this or any other armed conflict.
Innocent Voices, however, is more than just the story of how Oscar Torres survived El Salvador's civil war. The movie reminds us that more than 300,000 children are serving in armies in some 40 nations and that hundreds of thousands of children have their childhoods destroyed by wars.
Torres recalled in a recent interview that prior to beginning work on his screenplay, the story of his boyhood was a "story that he always wanted to forget." But, as Torres, Mandoki, and the film's politically astute producer Lawrence Bender understand, Innocent Voices was a story that had to be told. Bender said in an interview that the film combines his passion for film with his political activism. Above all, it shows pictures that we never see on TV or in the movies--"pictures of children" and parents struggling to survive amid war.
Torres' story could be happening "anywhere in the world," Bender said. He hopes that the United Nations and UNICEF will put a spotlight on the issue of recruitment of children as soldiers and that we will be able to "shame countries" that allow children to be conscripted to fight in wars into ending this horrible practice.
Ultimately, Innocent Voices makes us understand that war exacts its most awful toll on the most vulnerable people in any society. It is an antiwar classic.
P.S. Innocent Voices could not only draw attention to the issue of child soldiers, but the film also could help force compliance with the United Nations Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict. (It's a mouthful, but it's a crucial document.)
The Protocol entered into force in 2002. It outlaws the use of children under 18 in armed conflict, and it requires its signatories to raise the age of compulsory recruitment and fighting in conflicts to 18, along with other common-sense provisions. While the United States ratified the UN's principal treaty on child soldiers in December 2002, it is, incredibly, one of only two countries, along with Somalia, that has still not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. (Right-wing opponents in the US are afraid that the Convention will cause the US to promote abortion and sex education.) If you want to get active in the campaign to stop the use of child soldiers in war, click here to check out The Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, make a donation to its work, and learn more about what steps the world can take to put an end to one of the horrors of our times.