Monday, March 23, 2009

Understatement of the Day. The Month. The Year.

From an AP Dispatch today, March 23, 2009:

    US officials said earlier this month that Iraq was experiencing its lowest levels of violence since 2003.

    But since then there have been several major bombings.

The AP dispatch told of a suicide bombing in Diyala province, which killed 25. earlier, in the Abu Ghraib district, another bombing killed 8.  And, AP added--

    Another attack in Abu Ghraib on 10 March killed 33 people.

    In the same week, more than 30 people died in an attack on a police recruitment centre and another 10 were killed in an explosion at a cattle market in Babel province.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Six years Too Long - End the War

I'm feeling more than a little embarrassed as I write this post. Six years ago tonight, bombs and missiles began crashing down on Baghdad and other targets, in what was arrogantly billed as the "Shock & Awe" opening to the Iraq war.  
Each year since, we've had some kind of protest or vigil. From 2004 through 2007, we helped organize sizeable peace rallies here in Fayetteville.

But this year, the anniversary crept up on me, and as I write we are scrambling to put on a small vigil downtown tomorrow. It's bound to be small; but as far as I can tell, it will be pretty much all the local action there is.

We're still pretty busy otherwise: our GI Rights Hotline is taking lots of calls; our "Sgt. Abe" character is still working to bring more Truth into Recruiting; and we're pressing for
 accountability for the torture that so 
disgraced the nation in recent years.

Yet there's no denying that the peace movement in March 2009 is in deep disarray. National groups are fading; uncertainty is widespread about how to project a strong peace message given the changes in Washington. And it seems that everything, even wars and rumors of war, is being swept from our field of vision by the noise and impact of the economic collapse.

No wonder it's been hard to stay focused lately. But here it is, the beginning of Year Seven of the Iraq war, and at Eugene O'Neill wrote in "Death of a Salesman," Attention must be paid.
So tomorrow I'll be carrying the poster I made in the summer of 2003, when the number of US casualties was about 250, a figure that was updated for each new vigil.

The sign is scuffed, smudged and battered now, held together with tape. But the message still appplies, the numbers are current, and the totals are depressingly familiar: 4200+ US troops killed; 500,000+ Iraqi civilians dead.

And there are more unhappy numbers that don't fit on the sign:

     -- Five million Iraqis turned into homeless refugees in their own homeland;
     -- More than 50,000 US troops seriously wounded;
     -- Hundreds more dead by suicide, in Iraq and afterward;
     -- Un-numbered military families torn apart by the stresses of repeated deployments;
     -- The financial costs of the war are well into multiple trillions of dollars (which 
used to be a lot of money), with no end in sight.

And despite announced plans to pull out some troops from Iraq, there's another war in afghanistan waiting to claim them.

Which reminds me -- I was against the Afghanistan war first, all the way back in late 2001. And now, more than seven years later, this response has not dimmed: Afghanistan is a quagmire. Despite the skill and courage of US troops, I agree with military columnist and Vietnam veteran Joseph Galloway, who recently wrote:
  "The Taliban insurgents now have a chokehold on as much as 70 percent of Afghanistan, and they're proving to be flexible and adaptive in their attacks on American, NATO and Afghan forces.

If the new American team has some new ideas about how to succeed in Afghanistan, now would be the time to lay them out. Nothing that Alexander the Great, Queen Victoria or Leonid Brezhnev tried in their attempts to subdue the quarrelsome Afghan tribes worked, and nothing we’ve tried in the last eight years has, either.

While we're waiting for a new strategy, perhaps we should break out some old Kipling:

"When wounded and left on Afghanistan's plain

"And the women come out to cut up your remains . . . ."

Etc., etc."

Current plans call for leaving at least 50,000 US troops in Iraq for the indefinite future. To me, that suggests that there may well be many more such anniversaries to mark, before the sentiment we saw on this Welcome Home banner at Camp Lejeune is fulfilled.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Accountability Curtain-Raiser: First "Truth Commission" hearing led by Sen. Leahy

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the March 4 2008 US Senate hearing chaired by Pat Leahy on a Truth Commission (or TC), to me at least, was the preview it offered of the legal fights that are almost certain to surround the accountability movement’s efforts. It also gave viewers glimmpses of some of some figures who will likely be central to the upcoming battles.

The four supportive witnesses laid out arguments familiar to most of us who have been following this debate: torture and other crimes disgrace the US in the eyes of the world, make our soldiers less safe, and undermine the Constitution. They have also very likely involved actual violations of numerous existing US and international laws – i.e., crimes. We need to get the truth, all the truth.

I won’t repeat these arguments in more detail here, as they are likely familiar to most readers. (The list of favorable witnesses is at the end of this post.) And a more detailed summary of the testimony and questioning is here.
    And if you missed the hearing, you can watch a video of the whole thing -- about two hours-- here .)

Much more interesting were the challenges to a TC, as laid out by the two witnesses added to the panel at the request of Republican Senators: lawyer David Rivkin and law professor Jeremy Rabkin.

Rivkin has already published an Op-Ed in the Washington Post blasting any “truth commission” idea as a constitutional travesty. 
He has also vigorously defended the overall Bush “war on terror” approach to prisoners, insisting that “detainees in U.S. custody today enjoy the most fulsome due process procedures of any detainees or prisoners of war in human history.

Hmmm. “Fulsome”?? What does that mean?

Webster’s offer an intriguing range of definitions:

1: characterized by abundance : copious. (This is probably how Rivkin meant it.)

But Webster’s also offers more. "Fulsome":

2: aesthetically, morally, or generally offensive.

3: exceeding the bounds of good taste : overdone.

In line with #3 above, Rivkin fulsomely called the Leahy TC proposal a “profoundly bad idea,” and “a dangerous idea,” He said it would involve an extra-constitutional “out-sourcing” of law enforcement functions that properly belong to regular government agencies such as the Department of Justice. He also contended that the TC’s investigations would encroach upon the civil liberties and privacy of the former officials who would be investigated.

Significantly, Rivkin also asserted that the TC’s work would be bad in another way: even if it did not result on prosecutions, he argued – or perhaps especially if it did not – its findings would encourage foreign prosecutors to ramp up potential criminal cases against former US officials in their countries. This risk would be the greater, he correctly noted, because some of the potential criminal charges – such as torture – are subject to claims of “universal jurisdiction” under international law.

Such foreign prosecutions, Rivkin insisted, would amount to a “soft form of rendition” for those implicated.  He speaks with some knowledge in this area: besides working for the Reagan and first Bush administrations, his experience includes defending the government of Croatia against war crimes charges in the International Criminal Tribunal.

Jeremy Rabkin, the other Republican witness, is a law professor at George Mason University near Washington. As a writer he has been especially vocal in denouncing international legal efforts, as two titles of his articles suggest: “Global Criminal Justice: An Idea Whose Time Has Passed,” and “The Case Against the World Court.”

He declared that a Truth Commission is what a government does with war criminals when for various reasons it is unable to prosecute them. Despite Leahy’s protestations that he only wants to get at the facts, Rabkin said the supporters of the TC idea see it as a forum for branding former Bush administration officials as war criminals, while leaving them no way of defending themselves, as in a real court proceeding. 

Rabkin said that if there needed to be actual prosecutions, there are agencies already available to undertake the prosecutions. Congress should not be involved in setting up platforms for “shaming people.”

Between the two hostile witnesses, Rivkin’s points were the ones most likely to end up entangling accountability efforts in years of delaying litigation. Rabkin’s main complaint, that it would be an exercise in public humiliation, is not a legal objection; shaming someone, so far as I know, is not a crime.

I expect to hear Rivkin's assertions again: that a TC would be unconstitutional and illegitimate; that its proceedings would violate the civil liberties of those called before it; that its conclusions would promote foreign meddling in matters of US law. (And behind these legalities is Rivkin’s stated belief that the Bush administration did nothing wrong in its “war on terror.”)

Leahy did not really debate Rivkin and Rabkin at any length. Instead, he remarked dismissively that the largest hayloft in his home state of Vermont could not produce as many straw men as this pair had presented. (Scott Horton has also posted a more nuanced but more scathing analysis of their line of argument. )

Most impressive to me at the hearing was the performance of Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse. Whitehouse is my pick to become the star of the congressional accountability process. His statement on February 25, announcing the hearing with Leahy, was easily the most eloquent declaration on the topic I have seen from an elected official. 

Whitehouse took on Rivkin and Rabkin with a combination of controlled fury and cool mockery. After dissecting what he called Rivkin’s “gallery of horribles,” he rebuked their fallback “everybody does it” line of defense with, “Until you know and we all know what was actually done, do not be so quick to throw other generations under the bus and assume they did worse.”

We shall hear more from Whitehouse, and doubtless Rivkin too. Indeed, as the accountability process picks up momentum, I expect it will supply Rivkin and his right-wing lawyerly ilk with plenty of high-ticket billings for years to come – both, as Rivkin noted, in this country and others.

Other witnesses: Thomas Pickering, a retired career diplomat.
Admiral Lee Gunn(ret.): former Inspector general of the Navy.
John J. Farmer Jr., former Attorney general of New Jersey and Senior Counsel to the 9-11 Commission.
Frederick A. O. Schwarz, Jr. Chief Counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice and chief counsel for the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activity (1975-1976), widely known as the Church Committee.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Back from the Dark Side: Hello, Johnston County: Torture Accountability Is Coming. Time to Get Ready.

I joined our partners in NC Stop Torture Now Monday night to visit with the Johnston County Commissioners at their monthly meeting. Stop Torture NOW is a terrific group, which all concerned with this issue could well learn from.
Johnston County is home to Aero Contractors, the notorious CIA front company that has been linked to many of the "torture taxi" flights called "extraordinary rendition" in official euphemistic parlance.
The report in the March 3 edition of the Clayton NC Star-News makes it sound like our mission was a failure:

  "Despite impassioned pleas and warnings of irreparable damage to Johnston County’s image, the county’s Board of Commissioners on Monday refused to ask for an investigation of a local company accused of participating in the kidnapping and transportation of suspected terrorists to foreign countries for interrogations that allegedly include torture . . . ."

This report was entirely accurate in a journalistic sense. Yet despite the board's official refusal to act on our proposal, I came away feeling almost triumphant. That's because I felt able to read between the factual lines, and somehow take the temperature of the group before us.
And what I think I read was an underlying nervousness and unease.
That's because, while they could easily say no to us last night, there's just no question that after so many years of a cozy connection to Aero and its shadowy patrons, which has yielded many millions of dollars of income for a poor county, the ground has suddenly shifted, the winds have changed.
The Clayton Star summed up this perception well:

 "Other speakers warned the commissioners that investigations currently being lobbied for in Congress could lead back to Johnston County, with dire results for this area’s public image in the rest of the nation and world. “The engine of accountability is gearing up in Washington,” Fayetteville resident Charles Fager said. “What we’re offering you is the opportunity to get out in front of that train before it runs you over.” 
 I'm almost certain that there were those among the Commissioners who have an increasingly ominous sense that just such unsettling changes are getting underway. In fact, a high county official approached me at the end of the session to express a kind of sotto voce agreement with this assessment.

Another hint of this came when the Chairman, Wade Stewart, who had earlier said he approved of waterboarding and thought that torture was often effective, agreed that he would take up the matter of possible future accountability actions with the U.S. Representative from that district, Robert "Bobby" Etheridge. 
Members of Stop Torture Now have approached Etheridge on several occasions, trying to raise questions about Aero, and have been met with stonewalling and anger.
But if Etheridge responds to Commissioner Stewart (who said he talks with Etheridge "all the time"), the Congressman will speak of such items as:  

      >>the fact that the U.S. Senate is beginning hearings on a "Truth Commmission" (scheduled for Wednesday March 4);
      >>the fact that the Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. John Conyers, is also readying a plan for an investigation;
      >>the fact that there is a growing stream of shocking public revelations about illegalities and torture being planned and carried out by previous high officials, many of which implicate such entities as Aero Contractors. And
       >> last but hardly least, there is likely to be much more of this to come.

No one has spoken of this prospect more tellingly than U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, a former prosecutor who is deeply involved in the burgeoning accountability work in Congress. Read this excerpt from his statement of February 25, 2009, announcing plans for the Senate investigation:

We also have to brace ourselves for the realistic possibility that as some of this conduct is exposed, we and the world will find it shameful, revolting. We may have to face the prospect of looking with horror at our own country's deeds. We are optimists, we Americans; we are proud of our country. Contrition comes hard to us.

But the path back from the dark side may lead us down some unfamiliar valleys of remorse and repugnance before we can return to the light. We may have to face our fellow Americans saying to us, "No, please, tell us that we did not do that, tell us that Americans did not do that" - and we will have to explain, somehow. This is no small thing, and not easy; this will not be comfortable or proud; but somehow it must be done.
(Emphasis added.)

The engine of accountability for torture is indeed gathering steam. And it will soon have in its sights what has gone on, not only at Gitmo and Abu Ghraib, but also what has happened at Aero Contrators in Johnston County North Carolina.

I hope Bobby Etheridge will speak plainly to Wade Stewart about this.  And for the good of the county they have in trust, I hope Stewart and his colleagues will reconsider and get out in front of of this process while there is still time.