Saturday, December 31, 2005

delay and abramoff links

I know you will be shocked to imagine that GOP House-Majority-Leader-in-Suspension sleaze-chief Tom DeLay would have anything to do with sleazy business, but this long story in the Washington Post describes the ties between DeLay, disgraced GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff, the US Family Network, Russian oil, the International Monetary Fund, Choctaw Indians, Marianas textiles interests, townhouses, and a job for Tom DeLay's wife.

The US Family Network (USFN) was founded by DeLay's former chief of staff, Edwin Buckham. It was funded entirely by corporations linked to Abramoff who had no apparent interest in the USFN's agenda, the promotion of "moral fitness." It never had more than one staffer and despite being a non-profit, paid half-a-million bucks to Buckham's lobbying firm, which employed Christine DeLay, wife of Tom. Some of the USFN's money was spent to finance attack ads against Democratic candidates; some of it was used to buy (with cash) a townhouse on Capitol Hill used by Tom DeLay for fundraising.

One thing you can say about Tom DeLay, he's an honest crook. When Russian oil interests gave USFN $1 million, DeLay went to bat for them and helped pressure the IMF to lend Russia a few billion dollars... Read the article for more details.

Tom DeLay, the very embodiment of the modern Republican Party. Hip-deep in corruption and sleaze, serving his corporate masters.

eat your kimchi, little birdie?

Scientists at Seaoul National University in Korea fed kimchi juice to 13 chickens infected by the nasty H5N1 avian influenza. Eleven of them survived. And now kimchi sales at an Asian grocery in northern Virginia are way up.

A mortality rate of 15% (2 out of 13) sounds pretty bad... but the Center for Disease Control says the rate can approach 90%, so IF there is any connection between kimchi and surviving the bird flu, that might be interesting.

If you can believe any life-science-connected news coming out of Korea nowadays, that is... Maybe the researchers were spiking the kimchi with Tamiflu!

Friday, December 30, 2005

2005 in the middle east

Juan Cole here summarizes the year 2005 in the Middle East. Not a great year, from our fuck-up in Iraq to the rise of a belligerent rightwing religious zealot insider (who claimed to be an outsider) to the top job in Iran to the increasing representation of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

Cole gives the Bush regime a "D" for the year, brought up from a failing grade by supporting the end of occupations in Gaza and Lebanon. Here's a summary...
Are Americans safer because of the political developments in the Middle East of 2005? The widespread instability introduced into the region by aggressive US policies seems more portent of menace than harbinger of peace. The one development that might have made us safer was the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, but it was done in a hamfisted way that likely guarantees continued conflict and continued bad press for the US, the coddler of the Israeli hardliners. Otherwise, the US may have started some political tsunamis in the region, but the waves have not yet come ashore.

misplaced investigation underway

This story is a nice, short summary of the de facto Bush Administration's attitude. Instead of investigating the crime -- NSA domestic surveillance done without warrants in direct contravention of law passed by Congress in 1978 -- the Department of Justice and Not-Torture is investigating the leak. You know, because they gotta protect classified information.

If done with the permission of the Cheney/Bush junta, it's not a crime. If done contrary to their wishes, it is. Gosh, and to think this used to be a country which boasted of enjoying the rule of law.

Be nice to have an investigation into the NSA program rather than the "leak" (whistleblow is a better word, as in revealing a crime). Surely SOMEBODY at the NSA got a blow job some time?

nsa cookies

In the grand scheme of things for the National Security Agency, I imagine that setting cookies at its official website (search for it yourself, I don't want NSA cookies!) that don't expire for 30 years is pretty low on the scale for their technical ability to capture information and intercept communications.

It is a violation of government privacy policies. But given recent revelations of domestic surveillance without judicial warrants and DHS overzealousness in tracking library records, it is understandable why some may find it difficult to credit the NSA with a simple mistake.

Thursday, December 29, 2005


This profile in today's Washington Post about ethically- and legally-challenged superlobbyist Jack Abramoff is well worth a read. He has been heavily involved in many events over the past 25 years that have lead to today's sorry state of affairs, including Grover Norquist's takeover of the College Republicans, Gingrich's revolution, and DeLay's K Street Project. Not to mention the billpadding, Indian cheating, influence peddling, media buying, and all the rest of it that have brought Abramoff to the brink of prison and (if he is to be believed) bankruptcy.

The surfing rightwinger from California, Congressman Dana Rohrabacher said of his friend: "I think he's been dealt a bad hand and the worst, rawest deal I've ever seen in my life. Words like bribery are being used to describe things that happened every day in Washington and are not bribes."

Funny thing is, Rohrabacher (whom I met once, he is kind of fun to talk to, even if he is to the right of Attila the Hun) is probably half-right -- things like this DO happen in Washington. But he draws the wrong conclusion. This doesn't mean that Abramoff's payoffs aren't bribes. What it DOES mean is that Congress is even more corrupt than we could imagine.

So much for Gingrich's Contract with America. Jim Wright's financial shenanigans (remember Gingrich crucified him for relatively minor corruption involving Wright supporters buying Wright's book in bulk) are strictly minor league compared to what today's Republican Party practices.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

russia no longer democratic

Andrei Illarionov, Vladimir Putin's top economic adviser, quit or was fired on Tuesday. Last week at an annual press conference, Illarionov made that classic politician's mistake: he told the truth. "This year Russia has become a different country. It is no longer a democratic country. It is no longer a free country."

So his departure wasn't surprising. Putin doesn't much like dissent, putting him comfortably in a class with his distinguished Communist and Czarist predecessors on the throne of Russia.

I still don't know what Bush thought he was seeing when he said he had looked into Putin's soul back when they first met in 2001. Given his growing acceptance of torture and domestic spying, maybe Putin's eyes were just mirroring Bush' soul...

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

people with guns kill people

A young guy goes on a Christmas Day rampage in the upscale Great Falls, Virginia suburbs of DC and kills three people, then himself.

Just another mass killing the the good old USA.

Let's look at a couple of numbers shall we? In 1998, people murdered with handguns numbered 373 Germany, 151 in Canada, 57 Australia, 19 Japan, 54 England and Wales, and 11,789 in the United States. That doesn't include suicides and accidents. And it's interesting because England/Wales have a much higher overall rate of violent crime than the US, but a murder-by-handgun rate about 1/40th that of the US, per capita.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know the refrain: "Guns don't kill people, people kill people." Fact is of course, people with GUNS kill people. The guy in Virginia could have still killed his mother with a knife or his bare hands or a baseball bat or something, but it would've been harder. Harder still to kill the other two people in the second house; those two plus the 20-year-old that hid and lived would have had a much better chance of defending themselves if he had been wielding a knife, not a handgun.

Happy New Year. No doubt somewhere somebody will kill three or four people on that day too, with a handgun.

Monday, December 26, 2005

who are yoo?

Today the Post profiled Berkeley law professor John Yoo. You may remember Yoo (if not by name) for what he did in his previous job, as a lawyer at the Department of Justice. Yoo was the guy who said that you could do whatever you want to prisoners and not call it "torture" as long as it didn't result in pain equivalent to organ failure. Yoo was the guy who said that the President has practically unlimited power to prosecute the "war" on terror however he wanted, including the ability to detain even Americans as "enemy combatants," and the ability to conduct domestic surveillance without judicial approval, despite laws passed by Congress that explicitly required warrants for all such surveillance. Yoo was the guy who said the Geneva Conventions were obsolete.

All of which makes the following quote from Yoo quite ironic: "It would be inappropriate for a lawyer to say, 'The law means A, but I'm going to say B because to interpret it as A would violate American values. A lawyer's job is if the law says A, the law says A."

Pardon my skepticism. Yoo also said he didn't do "policy" but his consistent interpretations of laws and the Constitution in ways that aggrandize the power of the Presidency look more to me like the work of somebody told to "find a way to let us do what we want to do" than an honest legal analysis. OK, maybe Yoo didn't do "policy" -- he was just the guy designated to make up justifications.

In other words, Yoo read laws that mean A, but said B.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

can joe college read?

Seems that over the past decade (that means, "ten years"), the literacy rate for college graduates in the US has actually declined. (That means, people who finished college since 1995 can't read so good as people who finished before then.)

Only 31% of college graduates can read a complex book and extrapolate from it. Fewer than half of grad students and graduates are classified as "proficient" in reading. Reading books for pleasure is down (no surprise) which is arguably not a big deal -- but the ability of grads to understand information presented in tables is also declining.

A researcher says the problems among high school graduates are also growing worse.

I'm sure this is no big deal -- we can outsource reading to the Chinese too, right?

Saturday, December 24, 2005

nsa data mining -- where does it end?

The power of unregulated data mining in private hands is troubling enough without the federal government asserting the right to use it to sniff out bad guys without specific authorization. Apparently, the NSA's unwarranted domestic surveillance has gone beyond wiretaps to include such data mining.

Trust me, I'm as anxious that acts of terror be prevented as anybody. Counterterrorism is a legitimate federal responsibility (too bad the Bushies ignored warnings of outgoing Clintonistas' and their own professionals' that terrorism would have to be their top priority until about 9:30 AM EST on September 11, 2001). But I do not agree with the "ends justify the means" attitude the de facto Bush administration has taken on this. (Let alone the specious link between 9/11 and Iraq, but that's another topic.)

It's ironic that it is the REPUBLICANS -- that party of alleged "strict constructionists" who have for years blamed "activist judges" (liberals, every last one of them) for finding rights not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution are now the ones stretching and distorting the Constitution to the breaking point to find unlimited rights of unsupervised domestic surveillance in the "commander in chief" role for the President.

Where do such assertions end? The "War on Terror" will not, as the de facto President himself has said, end neatly with a peace treaty signed on a battleship. The "war" will last as long as the White House deems necessary, because after all, the absence of a major attack now or in the last four years does not mean people aren't plotting or that one couldn't happen tomorrow, somewhere in the world, against American interests. And this Administration has made explicit (and probably fraudulent) links between terrorism and other forms of crime, for example alleging links to drug smuggling in TV commercials aired on the Super Bowl. Bush officials have tied terrorism to other crimes such as credit card fraud, too. So based on this, the Bushies can use data mining and domestic surveillance on individuals suspected of being involved in drug smuggling or identity theft as part of the "War on Terror?"

Remember -- terrorism conducted by private (as opposed to state) organizations and individuals IS essentially just one more form of violent crime, albeit more heinous than most and conducted for political, social, or religious reasons. You don't have to be a hard-core Ron Paul-style "keep the government off my back and out of my life" libertarian to be concerned about an Administration that asserts the right to secret surveillance without judicial approval, in direct contravention to laws passed by Congress.

If Clinton or Gore or Kerry had done this, the GOP Congress would have impeached him in no time flat. And he would have deserved it.

Friday, December 23, 2005

santorum disavowal of religious legal group surely not connected to his iffy reelection campaign

This just in -- holier-than-thou-and-me godboy Rick Santorum (Republican, The Vatican I mean Pennsylvania) is shocked, shocked to learn that religion might just have been the REAL motivating factor for the (former) Dover, PA schoolboard in mandating that intelligent design be taught alongside evolution. And so Santorum cut off his ties to the Thomas More Law Center, the "sword and shield for people of faith."

Maybe Santorum's Democratic opponent Robert Casey Jr, whose campaign called him "Election-year Rick," was too quick to judge. Maybe Santorum really did just want the kids to get all the theories. No doubt he also pushes the flat-earth theory for geography classes, insists on Marxism being taught in civics classes, and wants to cover both the "tastes great" and "less filling" benefits of certain light beers because he wants to make sure the students are exposed to all sides of the issues. What a great guy.

Lest we forget, in 2002 Santorum said in a Washington Times op-ed article that intelligent design "is a legitimate scientific theory that should be taught in science classes." NOW he says he just meant teachers should be allowed to teach intelligent design if they want to, not that they must be required to do so.

Gosh, it's so tough when you misquote yourself.

Splitting hairs further: Santorum said he disagrees with the Dover school board's policy of requiring the teaching of intelligent design, rather than just teaching the controversy surrounding evolution. He said the case provides "a bad set of facts" for a test on whether theories other than evolution should be taught in science class.

Yep -- the trouble for the holy rollers out there that want to force kids to learn a specific set of religious beliefs in our schools is that Republican Judge Jones' 139-page ruling is full of logic and analysis that very nicely summarizes the case:
Evolution IS a valid scientific concept that is widely accepted;
A few gaps in the evolutionary record does NOT automatically mean that the entire theory is invalid nor that creationism or creation science or intelligent design are therefore right;
Despite the perjury committed by some of the (now former) members of the school board, the real impetus behind their decision was religious, not scientific or educational;
Intelligent design simply fails to meet the definition of a scientific concept or theory and "is not supported by any peer-reviewed research, data or publications."
Damn right, Rick, it is "a bad set of facts" for intelligent design -- it shreds the validity of the whole stupid concept. Very bad, indeed, for ignorant theocrats who want to push their beliefs down our collective throats.

china says, trust us

China has issued a policy paper pledging that it would never be a threat to other countries. "Trust us."

Oh well, I feel much better. So nobody need worry about annual increases in the official military budget in the 15% range, right?

pardon me?

This guy is a better person than me, because if I'd been convicted of rape and jailed for 20 years despite a solid alibi, I would be bitter and blaming everybody connected to the case. I'd be crying racism, too. At least the poor sonofabitch wasn't executed. And at least Virginia went back and did DNA testing -- not available in 1985 when he was tried -- to clear this guy's name and get him out of prison.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

defending moby dick?

Greenpeace versus Japanese whaling ships -- not a made-for-TV movie but a battle underway somewhere near Antarctica. The whalehuggers and whalekillers are trading accusations over who rammed who in the icy Southern Ocean.

I must say I'm impressed the two Greenpeace ships managed to find the Japanese whalers at sea. Look for the movie in 2007, although since Pat Morita died, Hollywood will have to find somebody else to take on the role of the grizzled Japanese whaling captain. Richard Gere, perhaps?

Meanwhile, I believe there is no truth to the rumor that Japan will ask the French to take care of their little problem...

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

rule of law

In her column today, Anne Applebaum has it exactly right. Why is this de facto Administration trying to spread democracy abroad while curtailing it at home? We spend years telling foreign governments to follow the rule of law, to quit illegally spying on its people, to stop torturing them. (I could add, to stop fixing elections, but Applebaum didn't touch on that.)

But how do we tell them to stop this when we're doing it ourselves?

And just as the Cold War was won when Eastern Europeans abandoned communism and joined the West, the war on terrorism will be over when moderate Muslims have transformed the Arab world -- abandoning the radicals to their tents and their caves -- and joined the global mainstream.

Before they get there, they'll probably be subjected to a lot of State Department speeches about why it's important to abandon such practices as arbitrary arrest, torture and secret electronic surveillance. They'll probably be told over and over again why it's important for political leaders to subject themselves to the same laws as their citizens. They'll probably hear lectures about due process, and other rights available to people in civilized societies. But as things are going now -- why on earth should they listen?

cheney on our weak presidency?

The Washington Post and LA Times both had stories today about the goal of the de facto Bush administration to strengthen what they -- specifically Dick Cheney -- see as a presidency that was too weak when they took office. The latest domestic spy thing fits the pattern very well -- asserting a right to do something without the appropriate legislative or judicial approval, even though it is CLEAR that they could have gotten Congress to change laws, or could have probably obtained the appropriate warrant from the FISA court on every single occasion, even after the fact if necessary.

Clearly whatever has caused Cheney's perpetual sneer to spread wider across his face has hurt his judgement, too, because nobody else thinks the US presidency is weak. This isn't the post-Watergate era, Dick.

Cheney said, "I believe in a strong, robust executive authority, and I think that the world we live in demands it -- and to some extent that we have an obligation as the administration to pass on the offices we hold to our successors in as good of shape as we found them." In wartime, the president "needs to have his constitutional powers unimpaired."

Nobody wants to impair the President's constitutional powers. It is his ILLEGAL and UNCONSTITUTIONAL assertion that he can do things in defiance of the law that we worry about.

A few comments on Cheney's assertion that the executive needs more power:

"He's living in a time warp. The great irony is Bush inherited the strongest presidency of anyone since Franklin Roosevelt, and Cheney acts as if he's still under the constraints of 1973 or 1974." Bruce Fein, lawyer and former Reagan administration official.

"The vice president may be the only person I know of that believes the executive has somehow lost power over the last 30 years." Senator John Sununu (R-NH), son of Papa Bush Chief of Staff John Sununu.

"The problem is, where do you stop rebalancing the power and go too far in the other direction? I think in some instances [Bush] has gone too far." David A. Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

intelligent design = creationism

Federal Judge John E. Jones III made the proper ruling today in the Dover school board intelligent design case. To quote the Judge, "The evidence at trial demonstrates that intelligent design is nothing less than the progeny of creationism."

Further, he said "We conclude that the religious nature of intelligent design would be readily apparent to an objective observer, adult or child. The writings of leading (intelligent design) proponents reveal that the designer postulated by their argument is the God of Christianity."

One small sign of intelligence today in an otherwise dismal sea of unhappy and scary news. Oh, by the way, Jones is a Republican who once considered running for Governor of Pennsylvania.

more thoughts on domestic surveillance

"This is a different era, a different war. People are changing phone numbers and phone calls, and they're moving quick. And we've got to be able to detect and prevent. I keep saying that, but this . . . requires quick action." de facto President George W. Bush, yesterday at his press conference.

Guess who this quote is from? See the end of this entry for the answer. "An evil exists that threatens every man, woman and child of this great nation. We must take steps to ensure our domestic security and protect our homeland."

Talking about the domestic spying by the National Security Agency, Attorney-General Alberto Gonzales said "This is not a backdoor approach. We believe Congress has authorized this kind of surveillance." But then he acknowledged that they decided not to ask for legislation explicitly asking for such authority because it "would be difficult, if not impossible" to pass.

In other words, it WAS a backdoor approach, and Gonzales cannot possibly believe that they were authorized by Congress or they wouldn't have considered asking for new legislation. Congress would be wary about passing such a measure because many members are reluctant to condone the creation of a "security state" that takes civil liberties too lightly. The same reason they made many provisions of the Patriot Act subject to being renewed. Oh, and by the way, Congressional notification is meaningless if they can't see the details of the programs in question AND are banned by law from SAYING anything about it!

Remember -- the special court established in 1978 under FISA has had a record of acting quickly and rarely refusing a warrant. And they are willing, in an instance where time really IS short, to issue warrants after the intercept if necessary. The requirement to seek a warrant is supposed to prevent authorities from abusing the power, not to keep them from doing their job.

Yes, it makes a great deal of sense to monitor international calls of certain individuals, even calling from the United States -- that's fine and probably wise. But NOT to do so in violation of our laws.

Anyway, at his press conference, Bush resorted to the tried and true if-you-aren't-with-us, you're-against-us line: "It was a shameful act for someone to disclose this very important program in a time of war," he said. "The fact that we're discussing this program is helping the enemy." And he wants to investigate the leak that lead to the New York Times story.

I've got news -- I think international terrorists know damn well that the NSA tries to listen to their communications. The disclosure by the New York Times doesn't hurt us one bit. It hurts the Bushies though by again demonstrating their kneejerk reflex for secrecy and their willingness to break the law even when they don't NEED to. THAT was the shameful act. That's why Bush tried to convince the Times bigwigs in person a couple of weeks ago not to run the story.

I just wish they'd run it before the elections last year.

Meanwhile, the FBI is also keeping tabs on various dangerous organizations. You may have heard of some of them. The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. The Catholic League (an organization dedicated to charity which the FBI saw as "semi-communistic"). Greenpeace.

Personally, I'd rather have the FBI looking out for terrorists, not social workers and animal activists and environmentalists. Even apart from being possibly illegal and definitely wrong, isn't it also a waste of time and money?

By the way, the quote above wasn't from Bush or Cheney or Gonzales or Rumsfeld. From a guy you may have heard of called Hitler.

Monday, December 19, 2005

dhs harassing college students

This is outrageous -- the Government sent two agents to pay a call on a Dartmouth student. What was this dastardly radical student up to, you ask? What had he done to bring the unblinking eye of the Department of Homeland Security down on him?

He checked out a book by Chairman Mao.

Specifically, the unnamed senior decided to do a paper on Communism for a class. He decided to do some research into Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong and filed a request with the interlibrary loan people for an unabridged translation of the Chinese version of Mao's book of Communist lore and wisdom, "The Little Red Book."

Well, apparently the Department of Homeland Security is monitoring interlibrary loans too. The request for Mao's book plus the fact that the student (who wishes to remain anonymous) has spent considerable time abroad was just too suspicious to ignore. Two DHS goons showed up at his parents' house to investigate.

You know, I'm beginning to run out of adjectives to describe the sheer scope of stupidity of this regime, or to describe its ready willingness to trample on our privacy and our civil rights. Uh, I thought we were fighting Islamic terrorists? Who the hell cares if a college student gets ambitious and decides to request an unabridged version of Mao's book? How does this protect me in the least? Juan Cole has more on this, too. If you don't read Juan Cole, you should.

Ironically, the student was writing a paper for his class on fascism and totalitarianism. I guess he got a real-life lesson in the dangers of an overweening security state that claims unlimited power in the name of "fighting terrorism."

In any case, I think with this story out, we can expect would-be terrorists or communist plotters to avoid requesting interlibrary loans at the local university.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

on torture, from somebody who ought to know

Today the Washington Post's Outlook section carries a devastating essay on the ineffectiveness and degradation of torture by a former Soviet human rights activist, Vladimir Bukovsky. Read it to better understand how torture wrecks not only the victim but often the torturer and the institutions charged with carrying out torture as well, and to understand again how utterly ineffective it is. And Bukovsky doesn't buy any artificial distinction between torture and "cruel, inhumane, or degrading" treatment (CID), noting that the favored US tactic of sleep deprivation was precisely the torture tactic that Stalin's NKVD (the secret police that preceded the KGB) used to force confessions in the infamous show trials of the 1930s. After ten days of no sleep, people will sign anything without even understanding what they have signed.

Bukovsky begins with an old Soviet joke from the 1950s: One nasty morning Comrade Stalin discovered that his favorite pipe was missing. Naturally, he called in his henchman, Lavrenti Beria, and instructed him to find the pipe. A few hours later, Stalin found it in his desk and called off the search. "But, Comrade Stalin," stammered Beria, "five suspects have already confessed to stealing it."

A couple of other quotes from Bukovsky (but don't stop at my excerpts here, read the whole piece):
So, why would democratically elected leaders of the United States ever want to legalize what a succession of Russian monarchs strove to abolish? Why run the risk of unleashing a fury that even Stalin had problems controlling? Why would anyone try to "improve intelligence-gathering capability" by destroying what was left of it? Frustration? Ineptitude? Ignorance? Or, has their friendship with a certain former KGB lieutenant colonel, V. Putin, rubbed off on the American leaders? I have no answer to these questions, but I do know that if Vice President Cheney is right and that some "cruel, inhumane or degrading" (CID) treatment of captives is a necessary tool for winning the war on terrorism, then the war is lost already.
If America's leaders want to hunt terrorists while transforming dictatorships into democracies, they must recognize that torture, which includes CID, has historically been an instrument of oppression -- not an instrument of investigation or of intelligence gathering.
The description of how Soviet doctors and guards cried while shoving a huge tube for force feeding through Bukovsky's nose and gullet (not to mention Bukovsky's own pain) made me queasy. But the idea that this de facto Administration is condoning -- nay, encouraging -- torture in the name of the American people makes me sick at heart.

But it's not a blowjob, so let's not worry about impeachment.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

bush defends domestic spying

De facto President George W. "I Spy" Bush today defended his authorization of illegal domestic eavesdropping by the National Security Agency. Bush said
"This authorization is a vital tool in our war against the terrorists. It is critical to saving American lives. The American people expect me to do everything in my power, under our laws and Constitution, to protect them and their civil liberties and that is exactly what I will continue to do as long as I am president of the United States."
Bush has it partly right. We do expect him or any other president to do what they can to protect us and our civil liberties. But it must be done "under our laws and Constitution" -- and it is precisely the cavalier willingness of this Administration to break laws, with this domestic eavesdropping against the intent of Congress as expressed in law and even without judicial warrants as just one more example, is so troubling.

Bush says this has helped prevent terrorist attacks. Well, he presented no proof. If he and the rest of the junta, I mean Administration, hadn't lied so often about so many other alleged terror plots, hadn't raised the terror level at so many politically convenient times, hadn't used the war on terror as a political bludgeon in 2002 and 2004, hadn't condoned torture while denying it, hadn't blundered into war in Iraq either thru deceit or stupidity (your pick, I lean to both), hadn't operated secret prisons and secret kidnapping operations, maybe we'd be more inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. But I don't believe him because I think if they HAD thwarted attacks they would have shouted it from the roof of the White House.

more republican sleaze

Ethically-challenged Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has a charitable organization called World of Hope, dedicated to fighting AIDS. Sounds nice, right? Well... it actually sounds like a political front organization for Doctor Bill.

Seems most of the foundation's $4.4 million came from just 18 sources -- unnamed in the tax forms. Many of the 96 total donors include companies with business before Congress. The foundation gave $3 million to organizations with ties to the Republican Party. The rest of the money -- almost 1/3 the total -- went to overhead, including over $450,000 in consulting fees to a longtime Frist fundraiser.

Forgive me for questioning whether a "charity" like this can be divorced from Frist's political operations. Looks to me this is just a way for Frist to get money from donors tax-free and funnel it to GOP allies like Franklin Graham, putting himself further in the debt of big donors and big business while solidifying his base for his Presidential aspirations in 2008. This might even be worse than his insider trading in the family's HCA stock.

Friday, December 16, 2005

another step closer to being a banana republic

El jefe, I mean the de facto President-Generalissimo-Inquisitor-in-Chief has ordered the top-secret National Security Agency to spy on people in the United States without a warrant. Bush refuses to comment because to do so would tie his hands in the war on terrorism.

This is really disturbing. The NSA is not supposed to eavesdrop on Americans, it's supposed to spy on foreigners in foreign countries. And now it's been turned inward, without any legislative authorization or judicial intervention, without appropriate warrants. The Justice Department claims the executive branch can freely watch foreign agents without warrants despite laws duly passed by Congress. So much for the equality of the legislative and executive.

This Administration locks up people for years without bringing charges -- not just foreigners, but American citizens like Jose Padilla. This Administration fights against anything that would hinder its right to torture people (although it refuses to be honest and rejects the "t" word). This Administration's military illegally keep records on peaceful citizens who speak out against the military. This Administration kidnaps people out of foreign countries -- out of FRIENDLY foreign countries like Italy -- and sends them either to other foreign countries where they will be tortured, or to our own secret prisons. This Administration, lest it be forgotten, stole the Florida election in 2000 and may have stolen Ohio in 2004, after approving a smear campaign impugning the war record of a real war hero. Come to think of it, it smeared a different war hero (McCain) in 2000, too. This is a record an Argentinean general circa 1980 might be proud of.

At least the Senate refused to renew some provisions of the Patriot Act for infringing too much on Americans' privacy. Having the NSA tap your phones might qualify as such an invasion, too.

Look, watching possible terrorists is a legitimate government activity, but doing so in defiance of existing laws undermines the entire fabric of our system of government. Remember, we're supposed to be a country with rule of law? We preach this to other countries all the time, and now we're not practicing it. What stops the executive branch from subtly changing their focus from spying only on foreigners in the US to spying on Americans without warrants? From torturing Americans they suspect may be acting against the country's (or the Party's) security? From detaining additional Americans without charge? From kidnapping Americans and sending them to Egyptian or Moroccan torture chambers?

Congress impeached Bill Clinton for a blowjob. But so far, no noise at all about impeaching a president who led us into a war thru deception and whose administration has regularly flouted the law and the Constitution.

Pass the bananas.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

today's stupidity report: torture, iran's president, spying on peaceniks, locking up cold medicine, banning the cubans, and me

The common thread in today's news is stupidity. Read along with me...

Tortured Logic
Even the wingnut-ruled House of Representatives opposes the de facto Administration on torture. As conservative GOPer Walter Jones said, under torture a prisoner "will tell you what he thinks you want to hear". Torture -- it's ineffective, un-American, and incredibly damaging to our reputation and our anti-terror efforts. And faced with certain defeat, today W accepted John McCain's call to ban cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment of suspects. Watch the White House news operation lie about how they supported this all along -- because after all, we don't torture, so it would be stupid to oppose a law banning torture...

Iran's President on the Holocaust Again
Iran's President Ahmadinejad now calls the Holocaust a myth. Charming fellow, this guy. He's shooting himself in the foot with this sort of stunt, since Iran is trying to avoid sanctions related to its nuclear program, and is trying to get into the World Trade Organization. Hate begets stupidity.

Domestic Surveillance Lives
It's outrageous that the Pentagon is collecting information on peaceniks and Quakers in the name of fighting terrorism. They've admitted it was inappropriate, mostly because they were caught. What is it with security forces who feel the need to keep information about the most innocuous of peace activists? Isn't it stupid to even consider Quakers a threat since their opposition to war is based on non-violence?

Overreacting to Meth
This is really stupid. Sudaphed and similar cold medicines can be used as ingredients when making methamphetamines, so the reaction of this group of House members (backed by the cowboys at the Drug Enforcement Agency) is to force stores to lock up ALL the cold medicines that include pseudophedrine AND force people when buying cold medicines to sign for it and show a driver's license AND limit them to one box a day, total of three a month.

What a mindboggling overreaction. Jeez, if this passes it'll be easier to buy a gun than cold medicine. Will stores have to keep computerized records on this so if I go to a local CVS they can say, sorry you bought your quota of three boxes of Sudafed at the Rite-Aid across town, can't sell you any? Hey, I read that meth labs often use pots and pans, let's restrict them too. And let's limit purchases of rock salt, too.

Not that ANY of this will help. The Food and Drug Administration argues that most illegal methamphetamines are imported anyway. All this will do is inconvenience cold sufferers and the stores that stock them -- and cost a few Americans good jobs with their home meth labs. And people without driver's licenses are out of luck if they catch a cold. How utterly ... stupid.

Cuba, Stay Home
And speaking of stupid, what precisely do we gain by banning Cuba from participating in the World Baseball Classic? The rationale of the Treasury Department (which must approve transactions involving Cuba) appears to be that, if the tournament turns a profit, it could theoretically result in dollars flowing to Havana, a no-no under our increasingly absurd 40+ year embargo on Cuba.

How stupid. We should just get rid of the embargo -- if you haven't noticed, it ain't working too well. Castro will be there till he dies -- he's already outlived five US presidents, and all the embargo does is strengthen his claim to the moral high ground in a battle against the giant capitalist gringo colossus to the north. Get rid of the embargo, and let Cubans buy American cars, watch American TV and movies, attend American universities, and deal with American business people and tourists. It'll accelerate the growing realization that the banana-communist Cuban regime is an anachronism and hasten its demise.

Besides, I was hoping for a couple of good Cuban ballplayers to defect and join the Nationals.

And finally...
I didn't realize there was a major civilization called Aksum based in modern-day Ethiopia. Apparently, it was with Rome, China, and Persia one of the four major civilizations from the first to sixth century AD. And I didn't know that. I feel stupid.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

creeping tax hikes are okay, says frist

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist says Congress only has time to handle one tax issue -- so instead of getting rid of the Alternative Minimum Tax, passed nearly 40 years ago to make sure the very wealthy didn't pay zero for income taxes, Frist wants to pass more cuts on dividends and capital gains.

Not rolling back the AMT (foolishly written without taking inflation into account, which is why it is applied far more broadly now than intended) could cost millions of somewhat-better-off-than-average Americans thousands of dollars each. But that's OK, because Frist, a member of the investor class himself, wants to make sure the fat cats can keep a little bit more of their cream.

New York Senator Chuck Schumer had it right: the delay of the AMT measure was "a punch in the gut to the middle class." The minimum-tax fix, he said, "should have been our number one tax priority and instead, because of right wing ideological objectives, the middle and upper middle class will suffer and only the very, very wealthy will benefit."

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

supremes to look at texas

It would surprise me if the Supreme Court does anything about the Texas midterm redistricting that Tom DeLay masterminded. Haven't they dodged gerrymandering cases in the past, ruling they are political issues beyond the Court's jurisdiction? On the other hand, it surprises me that they even accepted the case. Maybe they have a surprise in store for us -- maybe they'll use this case to kill the Voter Rights Act!

Monday, December 12, 2005

ten years of sizzling eyes

Ten years of Lasik. I can't bring myself to do it. First, the description from friends about smelling their own eyes being cooked and hearing the sizzle of their eye-flesh enduring the fiery caress of the laser kind of turns me off; maybe they're exaggerating, maybe not. Second, I was taught to keep bright lights and sharp objects away from my eyes. And no, I have never lost a pair of glasses on an airplane, unlike the shmoe in this article.

No question it has its appeal. I've been wearing glasses or contacts since I was in elementary school, and yes, I'd love to wake up and not have to put on my glasses or stick contacts in my eye. But I'm very scared. I'm scared of the fact that a significant number of patients (30%) STILL need to wear glasses immediately after the surgery, that your eyes' vision will continue to worsen anyway, that some patients end up with permanently dry eyes, and a few with major complications. I can't see ever doing it. I'll keep my $5000 I guess and invest in more contact lenses and glasses.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

tariffs and the poor

Interesting article in the Post today about how US tariffs (taxes on imports) fall much more heavily on cheaper items than on more expensive goods. In other words, tariffs are a bigger part of the final price for items that poorer consumers buy than for those products bought by more affluent consumers. One example in the article shows that drinking glasses that cost 30 cents at the border face a 28.5% tariff; ones that cost more than $5 pay 5%.

The main reason for tariffs is to protect domestic industries, but ironically many of these high-tariff items are no longer made in the US, which completely kills any reason to keep them -- but Congress hasn't gotten around to repealing them.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

tough world cup group for US soccer

Not the easiest draw for the US for the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Same group as Italy, the Czech Republic (rated #2 by FIFA,right behind Brazil), and Ghana, which will appear in its first World Cup but has wone the African championship several times.

On the other hand, the 2002 draw also looked tough: the US was matched against host South Korea; Portugal, which was a trendy pick to win the entire World Cup; and Poland, a usually solid team. But they shocked Portugal with three early goals and withstood furious South Korean attacks in front of a raucous home crow to get thru to the second round, where they spanked Mexico soundly and outplayed Germany despite losing 1-0.

It's not impossible -- the US team can get through. Italy has had occasional embarrassing first-round lapses before, perhaps most famously in 1966, when they were bounced out by North Korea, and as always have the crush of high expectations. The Czechs are tough but can be beat -- they didn't even qualify for the 2002 Cup. And Ghana is an interesting side, but in their first World Cup. The US can get a win and a draw, which would probably be enough to get them into the second round.

But it won't be easy! I admit, I'd hoped for the US to be grouped with serial World Cup chokers Spain, Angola, and Ukraine. But I guarantee the Czechs won't beat the US 5-1 like they did in 1990.

Friday, December 09, 2005

iran's president and the holocaust

Iran's new hardliner President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, isn't exactly subtle. He's already called for Israel to be "wiped off the map" -- now he says the Holocaust never happened.

And he said that European countries should provide Israel with a homeland in Europe, which he would be glad to support. How kind of him.

I have generally thought the US should see if any sort of rapprochement with Iran is possible. Not sure if it is possible right now. Ahmadinejad, wow, he comes off like a Farsi Dick Cheney on the hard-core lunatic zealot scale.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

an unrepentant wolfowitz

Paul Wolfowitz, the neocon former Deputy Defense Secretary turned World Bank President, spoke at the National Press Club yesterday. Oddly enough, the topic of Iraq didn't feature in his prepared remarks, but questioners pressed Wolfie. One asked, "How do you account for the intelligence failures regarding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?"

From the Post, his response: "Well," he said after a long pause, "I don't have to."

Incredible. But at least he didn't deny the existence of intel failures. Wolfowitz elaborated further on his buck-passing riff:
"And it's not just because I don't work for the U.S. government anymore. In my old job I didn't have to. I was like everyone else outside the intelligence community. . . . We relied on the intelligence community for those judgments, so the question is, in a way, how do they account for it?"
Oh, the lies. How does Doug Feith's special intelligence group at the Pentagon, which picked thru the intel to find nuggets (no matter how poor its sources) that they could twist into supporting what they wanted to see and reported to Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz, account for it?

But still, Wolfowitz pressed on, invading Iraq was the right thing to do:
"I still think that what has been done for the United States and the world is something important," he said. Praising the sacrifices of U.S. and allied troops, he added that Iraq will become a place of "tolerance and freedom" in the Muslim world. "I think the whole world, frankly, should be enormously grateful."
We're just a bunch of ingrates, I guess.

more for the rich, courtesy of the house

The one thing the Washington GOP establishment is good at is passing tax cuts. The House has just passed another round of cuts totalling over $90 billion. Of course, a month ago the House passed a bill slashing $50 billion in spending as an alleged act of fiscal discipline. Huh? Is the House bipolar or something?

No -- this is quite consistent behavior. The benefits of the $90 billion tax cut will go overwhelmingly to the wealthy and upper-middle class. About $150 million of that will help our soldiers in Iraq qualify for Earned Income Credit (that shows how little we pay our troops), so the House can wave the flag and hug a veteran when describing their newest tax cuts. But the overwhelming bulk of the cuts will be to wealthy investors. The $50 billion in spending cuts will come at the expense of recipients of Medicaid, food stamps rolls, and student loans. And it will cut federal child support enforcement, making it easier for dads to be deadbeat dads. Yes, this is your family-friendly GOP in action.

From the article:
"By cutting taxes, you grow the economy, and you generate an enhanced flow of revenues to the Treasury," said Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Rules Committee.
Uh no, that is not true. It wasn't true under Reagan and it ain't true now, and no reputable economist whose paycheck isn't signed by the GOP believes that.

Also from the Post:
"Our economic policies have done the trick," said Rep. Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio). "We are in the middle of one of the strongest economies this country has ever seen."
Also not true. The de facto Bush Administration GOP crows over 200,000 jobs being created in a month. Job creation was much stronger under Clinton -- that would not have been a number to be proud of. In any case, consumer confidence and other indicators belie the alleged strength of the economy, to say nothing of the rapidly growing economic disparity in America, reaching levels normally seen in banana republics. As the article noted:
The liberal watchdog group Citizens for Tax Justice says that the richest 1 percent of Americans, with an average income of almost $1.3 million in 2009, would enjoy 53 percent of the value of the extension that year, while 78 percent would receive no benefit.
The House did all this yesterday using rules designed for non-controversial bills to ram them thru quickly. Because for Tom DeLay's House of Representatives, fleecing the middle classes and the poor to the benefit of the rich isn't controversial. It's the standard operating procedure.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

humbug and freedom from religion

Seems that some conservatives are irked that the Bush White House sends out holiday cards that don't say "Christmas" on them and instead wish the million-plus recipients a happy holiday season. One schmuck who got a card griped that the President claims to be a born-again Christian but "doesn't act like one".

Tim Wildmon, who certainly believes that he is holier than thou or me, heads up some organization called the American Family Association. Wildmon, son of far-right moralist anti-TV/anti-pop culture/anti-fun crusader Donald Wildmon, said "Sometimes it's hard to tell whether this is sinister -- it's the purging of Christ from Christmas -- or whether it's just political correctness run amok. I think in the case of the White House, it's just political correctness." Wildmon also said, "It bothers me that the White House card leaves off any reference to Jesus, while we've got Ramadan celebrations in the White House. What's going on there?"

Wildmon and his ilk somehow think Christmas is "under attack," and they're trying to force businesses to use the "C" word. Latest target of his tender ministrations is Target. Meanwhile, William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, which aggressively promotes a very conservative/moralistic version of Catholicism, is boycotting Lands End for not saying "Christmas". Even that stupid and not-so-funny comic strip Prickly City today had its little black conservative girl moaning that "they" have "declared war on Christmas." (See Dec 7, although Stantis has been on this riff for a few days now.)

Here's the truth: nobody has declared war on Christmas. Really. It's still a holiday, the only religious holiday the Federal Government observes, by the way. If you say "Merry Christmas" in front of a cop or an FBI agent, they won't arrest you -- hell, they might say "Merry Christmas" back, or even wish you a "Happy New Year."

I'm sorry for those who are offended that for many people the commercial element of what we know as "Christmas" has become so overwhelming (I also am sick of the commercialization, although not for the same reason as Wildmon, Donahue, & company). But freedom of religion in the US of A is still in the Constitution last I checked, and will be alive until people like Wildmon and Donahue succeed in their efforts to force THEIR version of religion down our throats.

Remember, a big part of religion of freedom is the right to be free FROM any one particular religion. If Target doesn't want to use the phrase "Merry Christmas" because it hates Christmas or just doesn't want to put off people who celebrate Christmas or for whatever reason, fine. Similarly, I don't really mind if Best Buy or Sears or that little corner convenience store run by immigrants from Pakistan use "Merry Christmas" in their advertising. I just don't want self-selected theocrats like these guys trying to undermine two of our rights -- freedom of religion, and freedom of speech.

Happy holidays!

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

2005 hurricane records...

So in the past couple of years, we've had the first hurricane in history in the south Atlantic, and the first tropical storm to ever hit Spain and Portugal. Nah, couldn’t be any connection to global warming, right?

But from the Christian Science Monitor, here are a few records from 2005:
• Dennis, then Emily, set records for the most intense
hurricane before August.
• Katrina became the most destructive storm on record
with an estimated $50 billion of insured damage,
breaking the estimated $25 billion record (in 2005
dollars) set by Andrew in 1992.
• Wilma became the third Category 5 storm of the
season - the first time three Category 5 storms have
formed in one year.
• Alpha became the 22nd named storm of the 2005
season, breaking the record of 21 named storms in
• Beta became the 13th hurricane of the 2005 season,
breaking the record of 12 hurricanes in 1969.
• Epsilon became the 26th named storm of the 2005
season, according to NOAA.
Sources: William Gray and Philip J. Klotzbach,
Colorado State University and NOAA.

Monday, December 05, 2005

hotel news

Interesting report that Westin hotels will soon ban all indoor smoking. If they smell cigarette smoke in you're room, they'll charge you $200 for "cleaning". The hotels will have designated outdoors smoking areas. The hotel said 92% of its guests were already requesting non-smoking rooms.

Interesting concept. Clearly Westin thinks at least 92% of its guests won't have a problem with this new policy, and heck, I know smokers who prefer non-smoking rooms and have their cigarettes elsewhere. Wonder if it'll catch on with other hotel chains. But I must admit pangs of sympathy for smokers -- their legal habit is growing more inconvenient by the day, and it ain't getting any cheaper.

Also a "news" report in today's Washington Post about people who, impressed by the decor in hotel rooms, are buying hotel supplies for home. One Maryland woman even went as far as to equip her guest bedroom entirely in the style of a hotel where she recently stayed.

This is kind of pathetic. Hey, I've stayed in plenty of hotels, many of them pretty nice and pretty expensive, but I have NEVER felt the urge to recreate a hotel room's decore at home! As interior designs go, they are more safe than interesting, imho. People are strange.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

winning enemies and upsetting people, and enemas & diapers in the fight against terrorism

Today the Post carries the story of Khaled Masri, a German citizen of Arab descent, and his wrongful incarceration by the CIA. Seems he made the mistake of driving to Macedonia after arguing with his wife, and somebody decided his passport looked funny. Turns out his passport was legitimate, and after a few months in Afghanistan, he was released, one of his captors telling him "he had been held because he 'had a suspicious name'". Oops. 'Course, Masri was lucky -- the CIA actually decided to release him and returned him to Germany, where unsurprisingly Masri has "very bad feelings" about the good old US of A.

The following passage caught my eye, about the CIA group responsible for kidnapping (excuse me, I mean lawfully arresting) suspects to send to Afghanistan:
Members of the Rendition Group follow a simple but standard procedure: Dressed head to toe in black, including masks, they blindfold and cut the clothes off their new captives, then administer an enema and sleeping drugs. They outfit detainees in a diaper and jumpsuit for what can be a day-long trip.
Although one counterterrorism official enjoyed the work -- "It was the Camelot of counterterrorism, We didn't have to mess with others -- and it was fun." -- personally, I'd hate it if I joined the CIA and had to give enemas and put diapers on prisoners!

Hey, maybe all those oddballs who think they've been abducted by aliens and subjected to anal probes were really under the tender mercy of the CIA's Rendition Group!

Saturday, December 03, 2005

those non-existent secret prisons where americans don't torture people are necessary

So -- the de facto President has denied that the CIA or anybody else in the employ of the United States tortures people, despite Dick Cheney's passionate opposition to John McCain's amendment to spell out clearly that all US government employees are banned from conducting torture.

And we deny the existence of secret prisons in Europe. In response to a formal request from the European Union, Secretary of State Rice is expected to rebut during her upcoming trip to Europe reports by the Washington Post and various human rights organizations that such prisons do exist. In fact, she is expected to claim that various European governments were aware of the operations (whose existence we deny) so back off.

Meanwhile, a senior State Department official Elizabeth Cheney, defending her dear old dad (VP Cheney), told Arab reporters this week that we had to use a "new set of rules" when dealing with terrorists, referring specifically to tactics used at our not-secret detention center at Guantanamo.

lies about texas redistricting, environment

Attorney General and prominent pro-torture advocate Alberto "Organ Failure" Gonzales defended the de facto Administration's decision to okay Tom DeLay's Texas redistricting plan despite a unanimous decision by Justice lawyers and analysts that it violated the Voting Rights Act. Gonzales said, "The fact that there may be disagreement within the ranks does not necessarily make it a wrong decision." Of course, there was NO disagreement within the ranks -- the professionals all thought it WOULD violate the law, but the politicos over-ruled them in their quest to gain a few more seats for the GOP in the House.

This wasn't even the only example of the de facto Administration ignoring the judgment of professionals in today's Washington Post. The Congressional Research Service has found that the Environmental Protection Agency exaggerated (a polite word for "lied about") the costs and underestimated the benefits of more stringent pollution law restrictions. EPA fixed a study to make the Administration's "Clear Skies" bill look better than a version offered by Senators Carper (Democrat) and Jeffords (Independent).