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Last spring Richard Pollak asked in these pages, "Is GE Mightier Than the Hudson?" (May 28, 2001). Given the Environmental Protection Agency's December 4 decision to dredge the PCB-contaminated river, it is tempting to ring in the new year with a resounding No. Despite the company's multimillion-dollar blitz of lawyering, lobbying and PR, the Bush Administration, in the person of its EPA Administrator, Christine Todd Whitman, has come down squarely on the side of those in New York's historic Hudson River Valley who have been agitating for years to make GE clean up the lethal mess it created by dumping more than a million pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls in the river from the 1940s into the 1970s. This pollution has turned 200 miles of the Hudson, from just above Albany south to New York Harbor, into the biggest Superfund site in the nation; EPA law requires that GE pay the cost of removing the toxic chemicals, which the agency estimates at $460 million. More than once, the company has told its stockholders it can well afford this sum, as a multinational with a market value of some $500 billion surely can.

Still, it may be premature to pop the champagne corks. This past fall, fearing that Whitman might follow the lead of her Clinton Administration predecessor, Carol Browner, and endorse the cleanup, GE filed a federal suit attacking as unconstitutional a Superfund provision that allows the EPA, if the company refuses to dredge, to do the job itself and bill GE for three times the final cost plus penalties of $27,500 a day. GE has plenty of time (and cash) to pursue this and other maneuvers against dredging, which is needed to remove some 150,000 pounds of PCBs still in the Hudson. The EPA estimates it will take at least three years to work out the project's engineering and other details--e.g., what kind of equipment is needed, how much stirred-up sediment is acceptable and what landfills can safely handle the contaminated mud. Many residents along the banks of the river are divided--sometimes angrily--on these and several other issues. During the EPA's 127-day comment period in 2001 it received about thirty-eight boxes of letters and 35,000 e-mails, many spurred by GE's scare campaign--on billboards, in newspaper ads and on TV infomercials--warning that dredging will destroy the river.

The EPA has pledged that the public will have even more of a voice in the project's design decisions over the coming months--a welcome process but one that GE is likely to exploit with more propaganda. At its enviro-friendly-sounding website (hudsonwatch.com), for example, the company continues to insist, on no hard evidence, that the citizens of the Hudson River Valley oppose dredging "overwhelmingly." Some residents do resist dredging and the inevitable inconvenience it will bring to their communities, and not all have arrived at their view because of GE's PR tactics. But after almost two decades of review by the EPA, the burden of scientific evidence shows that the remaining PCBs, which cause cancer in laboratory animals and probably in humans, continue to poison the river a quarter-century after their use was banned and GE stopped dumping them.

The EPA's December 4 order could be the precedent that requires the company to clean up forty other sites where it has dumped PCBs. This would cost several billion dollars, a hit not so easy to reassure shareholders about. Even with GE master-builder Jack Welch retired and busy flogging his bestselling How-I-Did-It book, don't look for the company to roll over anytime soon.

One country that has escaped the current scrutiny of US backing for Arab dictatorships is Morocco, in part because its human rights situation has improved over the past decade. But for most of the late King Hassan II's thirty-eight-year rule, the United States and France provided financial and diplomatic support to this moderate on Arab-Israeli issues, while his henchmen tortured and secretly jailed thousands of domestic critics. Hundreds were disappeared. Now, the revelations of a retired secret policeman living in Casablanca have raised new questions about Washington's role in the repression.

Since the death of Hassan in 1999 and the ascent of his son, Mohammed VI, to the throne, Morocco has enjoyed a somewhat freer atmosphere. Human rights activists, victims' groups and the media are exposing the grim past and debating what mix of truth-telling, reparations and punishment will both deliver justice to the victims and help consolidate the democratization process. Mohammed apparently does not want trials of torturers or the sort of truth-telling that could delegitimize the monarchy and roil the security forces. But he has distanced himself from his father's worst excesses by acknowledging the state's role in past abuses and compensating some victims. His gestures, unprecedented in the Arab world, have helped to brighten the government's image at a time when it has made little headway in combating poverty and unemployment.

The state's script for turning the page on the past has nevertheless been disrupted by Ahmed Boukhari, the first police agent to talk about the dirty war against dissidents during the 1960s and '70s.

Among Boukhari's revelations was the presence of three men he describes as CIA operatives who worked daily in the Rabat headquarters of the secret police from 1960 until 1967. Boukhari says these men helped to build the young agency. "They went through the résumés and picked the men to hire," he told me in a recent interview. "Then they taught them how to conduct surveillance of dissidents."

Boukhari's most sensational disclosure, if confirmed, would solve a nagging political mystery: the fate of the socialist opposition leader Mehdi Ben Barka after he was picked up by French police in Paris in 1965 and never seen again. Exiled at the time, Ben Barka was a charismatic and rising star in the progressive Third World alliance known as the Tricontinental Conference. He is still revered by the Moroccan left.

While no one ever doubted Ben Barka's abduction to have been engineered by senior Moroccan officials with the collusion of French and Israeli agents, details of what followed remained murky. According to Boukhari, who maintained the daily logs for the police's formidable countersubversion unit, Ben Barka died the night he was kidnapped while being tortured under interrogation in a villa near Paris. His corpse was then flown secretly to Morocco, where police dissolved it in a vat of acid--a technique of disposal that Boukhari says was introduced by a CIA agent he knew as "Colonel Martin."

Martin allegedly had unfettered access to the countersubversion unit's logs and attended the agency's meetings at which the Ben Barka operation was planned. Reporting to work on the morning after the kidnapping, he would have learned that Ben Barka's body was to be spirited off to Rabat.

Although the Ben Barka affair triggered a diplomatic crisis between Morocco and France, the United States remained circumspect. Washington viewed King Hassan as a key ally in a region where Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser's pan-Arab socialism enjoyed broad appeal and newly independent Algeria seemed to be drawing closer to the Soviet camp.

Two retired US diplomats stationed in Rabat at the time, political section chief William Crawford and economic officer Frederick Vreeland, denied in a recent interview any knowledge of the three agents Boukhari describes, or of any CIA role in helping the King police his opponents. Both Crawford and Vreeland mentioned Morocco's well-known collaboration with Israel's intelligence agency, the Mossad, including in the surveillance of dissidents. Vreeland said the men Boukhari describes might have been Mossad agents posing as CIA agents, since Israelis working for Moroccan intelligence couldn't disclose their nationality.

In the wake of Boukhari's testimony, Moroccan, French and US human rights organizations have urged Washington to declassify the more than 1,800 documents it has admitted having on the Ben Barka affair. The government has responded neither to this plea nor to my requests for comment on Boukhari's allegations about the CIA.

Boukhari's plight since he blew the whistle reveals the fear of Moroccan authorities that the current reckoning with the past will escape their control. In August he was arrested and sentenced to three months in prison for writing bad checks. A month after his release he was given another three-month sentence and a fine for libeling three of the Moroccan agents he implicated in Ben Barka's abduction. What authorities have not done is approach Boukhari as a valuable new witness in unsolved cases of political murder and disappearance, or issue him the passport he needs to comply with subpoenas to testify before a judge in France who is investigating Ben Barka's disappearance.

Although fitting the past into the future is primarily a task for Moroccans, Washington can play a crucial role. Ahmed Hirzeni, a Rabat sociologist who served twelve years in prison on political charges, observed, "We don't want to dwell forever on the dossier of the past. The Americans can help us turn the page by clarifying their role in the Ben Barka affair." Whatever it yields, US disclosure will pressure the Moroccan state to acknowledge more fully the torture, political arrests and disappearances it carried out in the past. And that, say activists like Hirzeni, will help to prevent their recurrence.

That would-be martyr John Walker--the mujahid of Marin County--has done something more than give a bad name to my favorite Scotch whiskey. He has illuminated the utter unfitness of our police and intelligence chiefs for the supreme power they now wish and propose to award themselves. And he has also accidentally exposed the stupidity and nastiness of the Patriot Act.

The regulations proposed to implement George W. Bush's order establishing military commissions for the trial of "international terrorists" are mere window dressing and will not cure the fatal defects of the order. They provide the accused with so little protection as to raise a suspicion that they are made primarily to disarm the critics.

The fundamental problem is that the proposed system, including all its "judicial" elements, still lies entirely within the military chain of command and subordinate to the President, who is the ultimate authority over every aspect of the proceedings. But independent impartial judges who are not beholden to any side are the indispensable bedrock of any credible system of justice. They must be the ones to make the basic decisions or at least to review them. Without such a tribunal to monitor them, the various "protections" provided by the proposed regulations--the presumption of innocence, guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, even outside counsel--mean little or nothing.

This is not a novel insight. Congress and the military have recognized how indispensable an independent judiciary is to a meaningful system of justice: Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, verdicts are not final until they have been reviewed by a civilian Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces. The provision of an appeal mechanism, especially in cases as politically and internationally sensitive as these, thus adds nothing to the fairness of the process--it merely insures that the final decision will be made by higher-ranking military officers who are still subject to military and presidential control.

White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, aware of these shortcomings, has sought to reassure doubters by noting that habeas corpus review will be available. But the order itself, which the regulations are only supposed to implement, expressly prohibits recourse to any court, as he well knows. For this reason, he was careful to describe the review as just a check on the jurisdiction of the tribunal, that is, whether the commission has the legal authority to try the particular accused. But review of a tribunal's jurisdiction does not touch on any substantive or procedural aspect of a proceeding, such as apprehension, detention, pretrial procedure, trial, evidentiary rulings, verdict or the sentence.

Moreover, as noted, the order specifically mandates that the ultimate authority is the President. Since the initial decision to apprehend someone is also the President's, and since everyone in the decision-making process, including the prosecutor, is subordinate to the President as the Commander in Chief, the police, prosecutor, some defense counsel, judge and jury are all rolled into one entity subject to one man--the antithesis of a just system. And given the rigidity of the military hierarchy and the natural desire of military personnel for promotion, who would challenge a judgment of their Commander in Chief that there is reason to believe someone is guilty of international terrorism and must be taken into custody--even if, as in so many instances, the action is as much for political reasons as for national security?

Compounding the difficulty is the absence of any real limit on what evidence may be admitted. The tribunal still may admit single, double and triple hearsay, affidavits, opinion and other dubious evidence. None of this can be effectively tested by cross-examination, especially since some of this evidence can be kept secret from the accused and his lawyers.

The decision to open up the proceedings to public view looks good, but it is only conditional--they may be closed if evidence that the tribunal considers worthy of secrecy is to be admitted. We have learned to our dismay how quick government officials are to classify information, even when it is already in the public domain. This Administration is particularly secretive, as shown by Bush's order holding back presidential papers from public release, as well as the refusal to reveal any information about the 1,000-plus detainees held since September 11. Moreover, the usual reason for secrecy is that disclosure will reveal methods and sources. But reliance on sources often involves very subjective judgments based on inaccurate or untrustworthy information. Yet it is just this kind of evidence that is most likely to be kept secret.

These are not tribunals worthy of a nation governed by law. And we don't need them. In the past eight years we have convicted twenty-six terrorists for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and other cases in ordinary criminal trials and without revealing any secrets. The Administration realizes this, for it has decided to try the alleged "twentieth hijacker," Zacarias Moussaoui, in the criminal justice system.

The problem with these proposals is not that some people will never be satisfied--it is that the demands of justice have not been satisfied.

Once roundly condemned for his use of using military courts for civilian crimes, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is now in good company now that the US and the UK have adopted similar measures.

Enron's Ken Lay is no stranger to not only the Bush family, but the Bush administration. Finally, reporters are starting to take notice and ask questions.

The New Republic strains credibility with its 'Idiocy Watch'—it might want to keep itself in its sights.

The war on terror is threatening to overshadow a far more deadly threat—the AIDS epidemic.

With developments in the Mumia Abu-Jamal case and Pacifica's re-emergence, the left has a couple of victories under its belt; the Enron scandal develops further.

Blogs

Every week, Nation interns cut through the echo chamber and choose one good article in their area of interest that they feel should receive more attention. 

August 4, 2011

Times columnist Frank Bruni ignores the dramatic toll the economic downturn has taken on women. 

August 4, 2011

Last weekend, two very different speeches on the future of the teaching profession made news.

August 3, 2011

Sexuality education in the United States has evolved to teach everything besides sex itself.

August 2, 2011

Although unknown to many liberals, Red State’s Erick Erickson is an exemplar of the new right-wing media activists pushing the GOP to extremes. 

August 2, 2011

The solution to the NBA's lockout lies in confronting the culture of fear created by David Stern.

August 2, 2011

Rarely do two bills on the same issue appear in Congress with such diametrically opposed names and policy goals as the DREAM and HALT Acts.

August 1, 2011

 The NAACP has just passed a historic resolution demanding an end to the War on Drugs.

July 31, 2011

How racial violence during segregation shaped the present-day wealth gap between blacks and whites.

July 29, 2011