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Legislation Watch

Earlier this year, as the new Democratic Congress gathered, I highlighted 10 pieces of legislation that I believe deserve to be passed – they would certainly help put our nation back on a path toward a more perfect union. One of the ten bills featured was Representative Ed Markey's Torture Outsourcing Prevention Act which was reintroduced on Tuesday as H.R. 1352.

In the last session of Congress the bill had 33 original cosponsors. There are now 45 original cosponsors of the new bill, and on Wednesday, Rep. Tom Lantos – Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs – also signed on.

"I feel a rising optimism that we can end this repugnant and counterproductive practice of outsourcing torture during the 110th Congress," Markey said.

Let's hope he's right. The practice of sending individuals detained by our government off to other countries that torture – known in Orwellian speak as "extraordinary rendition" – flies in the face of the international Convention Against Torture, ratified by the United States in 1994, and the 1998 Foreign Affairs Reform and Restructuring Act. It has led to the reprehensible and tragic cases of Maher Arar, Khaled El-Masri and Abu Omar – and in all likelihood the torture of many other innocent victims that we have not yet heard from.

Markey's legislation would bar the transfer of any individuals in US custody to any country known to use torture. It would also prohibit the use of "diplomatic assurances" – as the Bush administration claims to have received from Syria in the case of Arar's transfer – as the basis for determining that the threat of torture does not exist. The legislation would require the Secretary of State to submit to Congress a list of countries that engage in torture and forbid the transfer of any individual to those countries (unless the Secretary of State certifies that a country no longer practices torture and a mechanism is in place to assure that the person transferred will not be tortured).

With over 1000 CIA-operated "ghost flights" over Europe reported by the European Parliament; black sites used by the CIA; and cases against CIA agents for the abduction of innocent civilians now being prepared by both Germany and Italy – passing the Torture Outsourcing Prevention Act is a necessary step towards restoring our commitment to human rights and our standing in the international community.

Dems Aren't Urgent Enough About Withdrawal

If we accept scientific estimates of the Iraqi death toll since the U.S. invasion of that country, as detailed in the British medical journal The Lancet, then it is fair to say that an Iraqi dies from violence or deprivation every ten minutes. An American dies every ten hours. And, every ten days, significantly more than a billion dollars from the U.S. treasury is spent maintaining the occupation -- not on helping veterans, not on assisting in the reconstruction of Iraq, but on continuing the physical occupation of a country where polling and circumstances on the ground indicate that the people do not favor the continued presence of foreign forces.

There are those who suggest that America has time to wait before we begin bringing our troops home from Iraq. House Democratic leaders on Thursday proposed legislation that would set benchmarks for progress in Iraq. If those benchmarks remain unmet, a slow process of extracting troops would begin under the plan favored by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California; Wisconsin's David Obey and Pennsylvania's John Murtha, the chair and defense subcommittee chair respectively of the appropriations committee; and Missouri's Ike Skelton, who chairs the armed services committee.

The fact that Democratic leaders are talking about attempting to impose a timeline for withdrawal of troops is good. It puts the opposition party in a position of actually opposing an unpopular president's exceptionally unpopular policies.

Unfortunately, because the president wants to maintain the occupation on his terms, Bush can be counted on to veto legislation establishing benchmarks and a timeline. So the Democrats find themselves in a difficult position. They plan to expend immense time and energy -- and perhaps even a small measure of political capital -- to promote a withdrawal strategy. Yet, the strategy they are promoting is unlikely to excite Americans who want this war to end.

In other words, while Pelosi and her compatriots propose to fight for a timeline, it is not the right timeline.

Theoretically, the Democratic leadership plan would create the potential for the withdrawal of some U.S. troops in six months. Realistically, because the Democratic plans lacks adequate monitoring mechanisms -- even Pelosi says determinations about whether benchmarks are met would be a "a subjective call" -- chances are that there would be no withdrawals for more than a year. The Speaker essentially acknowledged as much when, in announcing the plan, she said, "No matter what, by March 2008, the redeployment begins."

Forcing young Americans and Iraqis to die for George Bush's delusions for another year, while emptying the treasury at a rate of a billion dollars a week, is not an adequate response to the demands -- let alone the realities -- of the moment.

"This plan would require us to believe whatever the president would tell us about progress that was being made," says Congresswoman Maxine Waters, D-California, speaking for the bipartisan Out of Iraq Caucus. "This is same president that led us into a war with false information, no weapons of mass destruction, said we would be (welcomed) with open arms, said that the mission had been accomplished. Now we expect him to give us a progress report in their plan by July?"

Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Lynn Woolsey, D-California, says of the legislation. "There's no enforcement mechanism. We have had the same thing in place for two years and [now] we're expecting [Bush] to do something...?"

Woolsey's question begs another question: Why? Why are Democrats, who just wasted weeks arguing about non-binding resolutions regarding Bush's surge of 21,5OO more troops into Iraq, now preparing to pour their energy into fighting for what appears to be another vague and inadequate proposal?

Rather than try to answer that one, perhaps it is best to note that Peace Action and other anti-war groups are launching a massive, rolling call-in campaign leading up to the vote on President Bush's request for another $93 billion to fund his approach to the war. Peace Action is asking Americans to tell their representatives to stand with Woolsey, who recently said "the only money I will support for Iraq is funding that is used for the withdrawal of every last US soldier and military contractor from Iraq."

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John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

"Tax" Is Not a Four Letter Word

Down in the Texas state capitol for the day, enjoying both the buzz of activity that comes with the legislature actually being in session (they only have regular sessions for five month, once every two years) and the good ole boy lobbyists stalking the halls, making deals. Just had an interesting interview with a Republican State Senator in which he raised an interesting point. Basically, he was complaining about how the conservative movement had essentially been reduced to one single, inviolable principle: never raise taxes ever. It's crazy he said. "I'm as much against having my taxes raised as anybody, but the the voters don't send us to the capitol just to make sure taxes don't get raised, they send us here to spend their money wisely. And if there's some program that can benefit the residents of the state, then we should fund it."

But instead, Grover Norquist's infamous no-tax pledge has created an untenable situation across the country, one in which state governments are increasingly resorting to gimmicks, tricks and the outright Russian-style auctioning off of state assets in order to fund government. This despite the fact, that, as this Republican legislator pointed out to me, spending on social programs is quite popular. "The notion that these are programs Democrats want and Republicans abhor may have been true thirty years ago, but I feel like there's been a shift. Now, everybody wants the programs, but one group [the Republicans] is unwilling to pay for them, and the other group [the Democrats] is unable to pay for them."

The only way this is going to change is if there's a) an organized lobbying effort on the part of citizens and interest groups to increase taxes b) some bold legislators vote for tax increases and find out that they won't necessarily get ridden out of town by angry voters. But I was amazed that this Republican legislator was so frank about the problem. And googling around I see that Republican presidential front-runners Rudy Giuliani and John McCain have both yet to sign the no new taxes pledge. It does suggest that the "tax revolt" may indeed be coming to a close.

The Clean Elections Challenge

My recent Nation article on Senator Max Baucus, "K Street's Favorite Democrat," has been a topic of discussion back in Montana, where Baucus is up for re-election in 2008.

Last night I talked about the article on Montana NPR's Evening Edition and Baucus went on after to respond. Host Sally Mauk said Baucus "laments the need for large corporate donations to his campaign."

Here's what Baucus said: "I've voted for every single campaign reform legislation that's been here. There's too many dollars in politics today. But you have to live with the system. And to live with the system you're gonna have to raise money, regrettably."

Later this month, Senator Dick Durbin will introduce a bill calling for publicly financed clean elections. If Baucus is serious about changing the system, he'll sign on as a cosponsor.

A Wasted War

Let's start with the obvious waste. We know that hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have lost their lives since the Bush administration invaded their country in March 2003, that almost two million may have fled to other countries, and that possibly millions more have been displaced from their homes in ethnic-cleansing campaigns. We also know that an estimated 4.5 million Iraqi children are now malnourished and that this is but "the tip of the iceberg" in a country where diets are generally deteriorating, while children are dying of preventable diseases in significant numbers; that the Iraqi economy is in ruins and its oil industry functioning at levels significantly below its worst moments in Saddam Hussein's day--and that there is no end in sight for any of this.

We know that, while the new crew of American military officials in Baghdad are starting to tout the "successes" of the President's "surge" plan, they actually fear a collapse of support at home within the next half-year, believe they lack the forces necessary to carry out their own plan, and doubt its ultimate success. What a tragic waste.

We know that while the U.S. military focuses on the Iraqi capital and al-Anbar Province, the heartland of the Sunni insurgency, taking casualties in both places, fleeing Iraqi refugees are claiming that jihadis have largely taken over the city of Samarra, north of Baghdad, and renamed it "the Islamic Emirate of Samarra" -- a grim sign indeed. (Here's just one refugee's assessment: "that large areas of the farms around Samarra have been transformed into camps like those of Al-Qaeda and Taliban in Afghanistan.")

We know that, as the US military concentrates its limited forces and the minimal Iraqi units that fight with them, in a desperate battle to control the capital, for both Sunnis and Shia, the struggle simply spreads to less well-defended areas. We also know that the Sunni insurgents have been honing their tactics around Baghdad, their attacks growing deadlier on the ground and more accurate against the crucial helicopter support system which makes so much of the American occupation possible. Some of them have also begun to wield a new, potentially exceedingly deadly and indiscriminate weapon--trucks filled with chlorine gas, essentially homemade chemical weapons on wheels which can be blown up at any moment.

In other words, before the Bush administration is done two of its bogus prewar claims -- that Saddam's Iraq was linked to the Islamic extremists who launched the 9/11 attacks and that it had weapons of mass destruction -- could indeed become realities. What a pathetic waste.

We know that, while Americans tend to talk about the "Iraq War," with a few exceptions like the fierce battle with Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia in Najaf in 2004, it has actually been a remarkably unsuccessful pacification campaign against a Sunni insurgency alone; that is, a war against less than 20% of the Iraqi population (even if every Sunni supports some insurgent faction). We know that billions and billions of dollars have gone down the rat-hole of Iraqi "reconstruction"--with multimillions more simply stolen or utterly unaccounted for by American financial overseers--and that what reconstruction has been done is generally substandard and overpriced in the extreme. What a waste of resources.

We know, on the other hand, that a series of vast military bases have been built in Iraq of a permanency that is hard to grasp from thousands of miles away and that the largest embassy in the history of the universe has been going up on schedule on an almost Vatican-sized plot of land in Baghdad's highly fortified Green Zone to represent the United States to a government whose powers don't extend far beyond that zone. Talk about waste!

We know that we stand at the edge of a possible war with Iran. It could come about thanks to a Bush administration decision to launch a massive air attack on that country's nuclear facilities; or it could simply happen, thanks to ever more provocative U.S. acts and Iranian responses, leading to a conflict which would undoubtedly play havoc with the global energy supply, threaten a massive global recession or depression, and create untold dangers for the American military in Iraq, which might then have to face something closer to an 80% Iraqi insurgency. What a ridiculous waste.

[Part 2 of this series, "Wasting Our Soldiers' Lives," will appear Friday at The Notion.]

Left Forum 2007

One of the country's premiere progressive events, this weekend's Left Forum brings together activists and intellectuals from across the globe to share ideas for understanding and transforming the world.

An outgrowth of the former Socialist Scholars Conference, the Left Forum was started in 2005 after a factional split over strategy and personalities led to the resignation of seven SSC board members and the formation of a similar annual conference but with a greater emphasis on activism, organizing and practical politics.

With close to one hundred panels and three major cultural events, this year's Forum will tackle Big Questions like can the Left advance an alternative vision capable of capturing the popular imagination, and is reform the farthest possible horizon for our hopes?

Featuring a roster of dynamic speakers including Nation writers Gary Younge, Liza Featherstone, Doug Henwood, Christian Parenti and Dave Zirin as well as Frances Fox Piven, Cornel West, Dennis Brutus, Marion Nestle and many more, this year's Forum should be an invaluable opportunity for progressives to trade notes, numbers and ideas.

The conference's opening plenary (chaired by Featherstone) takes place this Friday, March 11, at 7:00 at Cooper Union at 7 East 7th Street (at 3rd Avenue) in Manhattan. The panels and events take place all day on both Saturday and Sunday. Various panels will also be streamed and archived online. Check the Left Forum site this weekend for details.

Check out the full program, including info on a special, free Saturday night series of readings from Howard Zinn's Voices of a People's History of the United States by Amy Goodman, Anthony Arnove, Staceyanne Chin, Brian Jones, Deepa Fernandes, and Erin Cherry. Click here for info on registering, getting there and anything else you might need to know.

Time for Celebration and Protest

A few nights ago, after putting the baby to bed, I watched The L-Word, then lay on the sofa and read Jennifer Baumgardner's excellent new book, Look Both Ways: Bisexual Politics, which quotes veteran Second Wave feminist and writer Alix Kates Shulman on how relations between the sexes have improved since the fifties and sixties. "It's so different nowadays that it's almost impossible for someone like you to comprehend," Shulman tells Baumgardner. Drinking a glass of Cabernet while my husband made dinner, I had to agree.

It's International Women's Day, so let's give the global feminist movement props for the progress that women have made in recent decades. It's also a good time to call attention to the considerable work that remains. Two sobering reports released yesterday bear witness to some horrifying realities. Promising Democracy, Imposing Theocracy: Gender-Based Violence and the US War on Iraq, written by Yifat Susskind, communications director of MADRE, a women's human rights organization, shows that women in Iraq are being exposed to "unprecedented levels" of assault, honor killings, and other forms of gender-based violence. Another report, released by a coalition called Women Won't Wait, finds that international agencies -- the U.S. President's Emergency Fund for AIDS Relief, Global Fund, UN AIDS and others -- are failing to address the relationship between gender-based violence and the spread of HIV.

So, both celebration and protest are in order this International Women's Day, and you can find festivities and political actions here (at this writing, over 422 events in 41 different countries).

Hold Dick Cheney to Account

The conviction of Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff on charges of obstruction of justice, perjury and lying to the FBI confirms the suspicions that millions of Americans have had for years about the lawlessness of this administration.

And the focus of the Libby trial on a particular aspect of that lawlessness -- the determination of the administration to punish critics of the manipulation of intelligence to make the "case" for invading and occupying Iraq – means that these convictions go to the heart of the current debates about how to end that war and about how to hold those responsible for it to account.

Make no mistake about what has happened: An essential member of the Bush-Cheney administration has been convicted of attempting to undermine a Federal Bureau of Investigation inquiry into scheming by the vice president and others to punish former Ambassador Joe Wilson for revealing that statements made before the start of the war by the president and others were in conflict with intelligence that had been provided to the White House.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, got it right when he said: "It's about time someone in the Bush Administration has been held accountable for the campaign to manipulate intelligence and discredit war critics."

Reid got it right, as well, when he said, "(The Libby) trial revealed deeper truths about Vice President Cheney's role in this sordid affair. Now President Bush must pledge not to pardon Libby for his criminal conduct."

But Reid and other Congressional leaders have their own responsibilities now.

The Libby trial revealed stunning details about Cheney's direct and aggressive involvement to attack Wilson. In the course of the trial, it was revealed by Catherine J. Martin, who served as the vice president's top press aide in 2003, that Cheney dictated detailed "talking points" for Libby, and others on how they could impugn Wilson's credibility

The vice president ordered press aides to closely track press coverage of Wilson and ordered Libby to begin making behind-the-scenes contacts with reporters covering the story. So engaged with the "get-Wilson" initiative was Cheney that, while he and Libby were traveling on Air Force Two, the vice president personally prepared materials to be slipped to a Time magazine reporter who was on the story.

That level of involvement by the vice president in an effort to discredit a former ambassador of the United States who was participating legally and appropriately in a national debate about how the war in Iraq began begs the question: Will Cheney be held to account?

"This case doesn't end with Mr. Libby's conviction," says Congressman Maurice Hinchey, D-New York, the House's most consistent and aggressive critic of Cheney. "Testimony in the Libby trial made it even more clear that Vice President Cheney played a major role in the outing of Mrs. Wilson's identity. It is time to remove the cloud hanging over Vice President Cheney and the White House that Special Counsel (Patrick) Fitzgerald so aptly described in his closing remarks and expose all of the lies that led to the outing of Mrs. Wilson's identity."

Hinchey says that, "The question which has always needed to be addressed is why Mrs. Wilson's CIA position was revealed to the press. The answer is that the administration was attempting to undermine and weaken the credibility of her husband, Ambassador Joe Wilson, who publicly disclosed his findings that Iraq never sought uranium from Niger for a nuclear weapon. Ambassador Wilson publicly proved that the administration's case for war -- that Iraq had an active weapons of mass destruction program -- was false. He demonstrated that multiple senior administration officials, including President Bush himself, deliberately made false and misleading statements to win congressional approval and public support for an invasion of Iraq."

Hinchey's right. Fitzgerald, who says there is a cloud hanging over the office of the vice president, should pursue the matter of Cheney's wrongdoing. But so, too, should Congress, where House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chair Henry Waxman, D-California, is reportedly talking with House leaders about dusting off his 2005 proposal that issues related to the scandal should be the subject of congressional hearings. "It's ridiculous that Congress should stay out of all of this and not hold hearings," Waxman said at the time.

It is even more ridiculous to think that, with Libby now convicted, and with so much new evidence of Cheney's inappropriate activity now in the public domain, the House and Senate would fail to open hearings.

At issue is the most fundamental of all questions in a republic: Can a member of the executive branch of the federal government, perhaps the dominant member, deliberately deceive the legislative branch, then set out to use to punish Americans who expose those lies, and get away with it?

That is not just a legal question for prosecutor Fitzgerald, it is a Constitutional question for Congress.

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John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

Investigating Attorneygate

The Nation's Washington intern, Stephanie Condon, reports on yesterday's Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the dismissal of eight US attorneys by the Bush Administation:

Senators at a Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday tried to get to the bottom of whether the Bush administration inappropriately fired eight federal attorneys for political reasons.

If so, the GOP plan has backfired: at least two Republican lawmakers could be mired in scandal, and the administration, having lost eight faithful and proficient public servants, finds itself in another PR disaster.

The reasons for the firings have continued to evade the former attorneys, as well as lawmakers. There is "no accountability in the Department of Justice," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Judiciary Committee. Instead, he said, there has been a "series of shifting explanations and excuses from the administration."

"Not since the Saturday Night Massacre have we witnessed anything of this magnitude," Leahy said, referring to the series of resignations and a dismissal during Watergate.

DOJ initially claimed the firings were performance related. Then it came out that seven of the eight attorneys had received glowing performance reviews. Now the administration claims that they did not meet certain department priorities.

The latest rationale seemed "awfully convenient" to Sen. Russ Feingold and the testifying attorneys.

"Why would I be a political liability when just a few years ago I was a political asset?" David C. Iglesias, the former U.S. Attorney for the district of New Mexico, said he wondered after his dismissal. He is convinced that his forced resignation was not performance related.

Carol Lam, the former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of California, spoke of her success in meeting the administration's expectations for immigration trials. "Our immigration trial rate more than doubled from 2004 to 2005," she said.

When she inquired why she was fired, she was told by the DOJ that they "didn't think that information would be useful to me."

The unstated reason may have been that Lam, like four of her fellow prosecutors, were leading corruption investigations into Republicans at the time of their dismissal.

Prosecutors looking into instances of Democratic corruption, like Iglesias of New Mexico, were pressured by GOP lawmakers to produce indictments before the November elections. Rep. Heather Wilson, who found herself in a tight re-election race, asked Iglesias on Oct 16, "What can you tell me about sealed indictments?" Sen. Pete Domenici asked him: "Are these going to be filed before November?" When told no, Domenici replied, "I'm sorry to hear that."

"I felt sick afterwards," said Iglesias. It now appears that both Wilson and Domenici violated Congressional ethics rules by pressuring a prosecutor in an ongoing legal investigation.

The plot gets even thicker inside Congress. Ed Cassidy, the chief of staff to Washington Rep. Doc Hastings, called dismissed prosecutor John McKay of Seattle to inquire about an investigation into voter fraud in the 2004 gubernatorial election. McKay said he cut the call short. In February 2005, Hastings became Chairman of the House Ethics Committee. Cassidy is now a top staffer to House Majority Leader John Boehner.

Yesterday's hearings deserve to be the first of many. It's becoming more and more obvious that attorneygate reaches into the upper echelons of Congress and the administration.