Sunday, May 3, 2009

Channeling Nixon?

Can anyone point out to me any qualitative difference between these two statements?

Former President Richard Nixon, about Watergate:

"When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.”

Former Secretary of State within the George W. Bush administration Condoleezza Rice, regarding waterboarding:

"By definition, if it was authorized by the president, it did not violate our obligations under the Conventions Against Torture."

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Specter of Irrelevance

Anyone reading this will have already heard Arlen Specter, Senator-PA, has announced a change in party affiliation, changing the 'R' after his name to a 'D'. While many Democrats are excited over this, I find myself with some mixed feelings.

The underlying assumption seems to be the switch, combined with Al Franken eventually being seated, will give Democrats the much vaunted 60th-seat, thus bringing an end to filibusters, and thereby ushering in a new era of peace and prosperity, a cure for cancer and aging, unlimited sources of clean energy and so on.

Reality says otherwise. No matter how much the Republican party may have "left" him by continuing to move to the right, Specter will unquestionably be one of the most conservative members of the Democratic caucus. He's already said he won't be an "automatic" 60th vote, and there is no reason to doubt his word on the matter. It's likely Dems will see Specter vote somewhat more often for cloture than he would have if he had remained in the Republican caucus, but how much more often remains to be seen.

If anything, Specter might be in a similar position to Ben Nelson of Nebraska, where he use the threat of withholding his vote to get changes to various bills he might want, but which don't really mesh with a progressive agenda.

On the other hand, it's quite likely Dems could do better if they were simply patient - Specter was motivated to switch affiliation because it became increasingly apparent he would not win a 2010 Republican primary against Pat Toomey. In the 2004 primary Specter narrowly edged Toomey, the definition of a hard-core conservative, but since then many of the voters who helped him squeak by have re-registered as Democrats. However, if Toomey does, indeed, win the Republican nomination, any Dem with a pulse would defeat him in the general ... so why not wait and get a candidate more in line with the full agenda?

In the near term, I suspect the ultimate effect of the swap will be minimal, other than further emphasizing (if any further emphasis was needed) how truly extreme the core of the Republican party has become. Any larger might have to wait until after the 2010 elections - if that vote were held now, Dems would be favored to collect 3-5 more Senate seats in addition to Specter's (which was already among those most likely to switch parties), which truly would give Democrats a filibuster-proof majority, and would consign Republicans to even greater irrelevance.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Kill the Lawyers, redux

The Arizona Daily Star ran an Associated Press update today quoting White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel as saying the administration was not intending to prosecute any Bush administration officials for the acts of torture they officially sanctioned.

Not surprisingly, this position was happily accepted by Republicans. Quoting the article:

GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the idea of “criminalizing legal advice after one administration is out of the office is a very bad precedent. ... I think it would be disaster to go back and try to prosecute a lawyer for giving legal advice that you disagreed with to a former president.”

The problem with this is it creates a backdoor by which the administrative branch can claim unlimited power. Want to spy on any US citizen without a warrant? Simply have a friendly OLC lawyer devise some half-assed argument supporting it. Want to drop a nuke on Canada because you can't stand the way they keeping adding 'eh?' to the end of every sentence? Call in the OLC! Nothing is so far out there we can't find some flimsy justification for it.

So what if, after the fact, the legal reasoning is found to be childish, amateurish, completely lacking of any professional standard - you got done what you wanted to get done. It's time to focus on the future, not look backwards to the past.

Supposedly, lawyers have professional standards, and if those standards are not met, or it is, at best, questionable those standards are met, then it is entrely appropriate to prosecute the lawyers who give such poor advice. The fact we are talking about lawyers making legal decisions which impact policy decisions for our entire nation makes this more imperative, not less.

If no other Bush administration official is prosecuted for these atrocities, at an absolute minimum the lawyers who provided the flimsy cover of legality which Bush, Cheney et. al. used as justification for their heinous acts must be. Otherwise, we are can no longer claim to be a nation of laws, only a nation of legal justifications.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Kill the Lawyers

The Obama administration has released the memos the preceding administration used to justify it's torture regimen, and not surprisingly they are as ugly as one could expect. The callous disregard for human dignity can really only be appreciated by reading them first hand. The documents are linked to by a number of commentators, including x4mr here. For those interested in more legal analysis, I point you to Glenn Greenwald(here and here) and Anonymous Liberal (here and here).

Greenwald and AL have an exchange of posts discussing the discussing the decision to guarantee no prosecution of the individuals who committed these acts if they relied in "good-faith" on the legal advice provided them. Greenwald makes the case we are obligated to bring them to trial, AL argues as a practical matter any such trial is likely unwinnable, and thus would be counter-effective. From my position, while I understand Greenwald's reasoning and desires, I find myself persuaded to AL's point of view. (And, as has been noted, for those who went beyond what was authorized, or are found to not have acted in"good faith" ... well ... prosecution is too good for them).

However, as AL in particular notes, there is one set of individuals who simply must be prosecuted - the lawyers responsible for creating the flimsy cover which "justified" the abuse, beginning with Jay Bybee and, especially, John Yoo.

Even a cursory reading of the memos makes it clear there was no attempt on the part of the OLC laywers to make a "good-faith" effort to provide well-reasoned, defensible legal advice on the issue. Rather, it's quite obvious the conclusion that torture would be determined to be legal was pre-determined, and the argument would be twisted to support the conclusion - no matter how much that argument had to be tortured in order to make it comply.

The tactics found to be allowable included (from Greenwald) "nudity, "dietary manipulation" involving "minimum caloric intake at commercial weight-loss programs," "corrective techniques" (facial and abdominal slapping), water dousing, "walling," stress positions and "wall standing" (to "induce muscle fatigue and the attendant discomfort"), cramped confinement, and sleep deprivation.", and amazingly in 2005 then OLC chief Steven Bradbury (in one of the memos) affirms the legality of the methods, despite acknowledging the U.S. had termed the use of some of them as "torture" when applied by other nations (Indonesia is mentioned in his memo).

Get Bybee, Yoo, Bradbury, et. al. up on charges and when they are convicted, their punishment should include being subjected to the same regimen of torture they found acceptable when applied to others. After a full cycle completes, we can ask them again about their views regarding the Constitutionality of such actions.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Maybe it's for the best

I had intended to make a post today lamenting the lingering, slow death of print journalism in this country. With the Seattle Post-Intelligencer publishing its final print edition today to go to a pure online format (a step taken late last year by the sorely under-rated Christian Science Monitor), and the Tucson Citizen closing up shop this weekend ... well, rumors of the death of newspapers may be exaggerated, but not by much. The patient is gout-ridden, racked by fever and cough, and clearly on the deathbed.

Instead, I find myself stunned at the reaction of various members of the Washington press corps to the exchange of words between Dick Cheney and White House press secretary Robin Gibbs.

For those who might possibly have missed it, Cheney was on the air last weekend busily deeming the Obama administration a failure, and ranting about how his decisions, particularly vis-a-vis Guantanamo, had weakened America's security. Considering he was in office when the greatest terrorist attack on American soil ocurred, one might recognize him as an expert on weak security ... but that's neither here nor there.

When asked about it during a press briefing yesterday, Gibbs responded "I guess Rush Limbaugh was busy, so they trotted out the next most popular member of the Republican cabal." He subsequently added shots about how Bush and Cheney had failed in their duty to bring swift justice to the 9/11 perpetrators, and the importance of not taking advice from Cheney on the economy.

The admittedly sarcastic tone Gibbs used was immediately sized upon by various reporters, who complained about the manner in which the former Vice President was being addressed. Those complaining included Chip Reid of CBS and Rick Klein of ABC.

Seriously??!! I mean, seriously?? For years these folks allowed Cheney to oversee the virtual destruction of our Bill of Rights as well as instigating a wide-spread regime of torture, just two name two of the hideous innovations he was instrumental in instroducing to our country, yet hardly a peep could be heard. If anyone deserves to be treated with a distinct lack of respect, Cheney is near the top of the list, yet apparently it's more important to defend his dignity than to defend our nation's integrity.

I'm embarassed for my former profession ... all-in-all, maybe it's for the best it's a dying field.

Update: Shortly after posting this, I saw via Tedski at R-cubed the Citizen has been granted at least a temporary stay of execution.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Pluripotent possibilities

There has been great resistance in this country to using stem cells derived from embryos for medical research, even though the alternative for those stem cells is to see them simply be destroyed. I've never understood this viewpoint (it would make sense to me if there was some possibility the embryos in question might actually be brought to term ... ), but that doesn't change the fact the resistance is there.

Embryonic stem cells are prized because of their pluripotency, which in theory might allow them to be used for a wide range of difficult-to-treat problems, most notably spinal injuries. Partly because of the sheer amount of time it takes to go through the research process, and partly because of delay caused by the Bush administration's lack of support for the research, it was only this past January that the FDA granted approval for the first human trials involving embryonic stem cells. It will be at least a couple more years before any definitive conclusions can be drawn from this initial trial.

Meanwhile, recent years have seen the development of an approach which attempts to circumvent the resistance to use of embryonic stem cells. Termed induced embyonic stem cells, the approach involves taking normally non-pluripotent cells and transforming them to be pluripotent. This has been done by introducing various types of viruses into the cells. After a period of roughly a month, some small percentage of these cells exhibit pluripotency, and these cells can be separated out and cultured to grow more.

Until now, however, there has been concern about any serious use of these cells because of the use of potentially harmful viruses to create them - no one has been sure elements of the virus are not left behind in the cells.

However, in potentially big news, a team of researchers from Canada and Scotland announced yesterday they have succeeded in creating induced pluripotent stem cells using a non-viral process. If the procedure works out, it could remove any need for embryos, and thereby remove the primary sticking point for most of those opposed to their use.

That doesn't mean research using embryonic stem cells should stop - it's possible this process won't work well, or won't create cells as useful as embryonic strains. Still, it would be nice if the reason for resistance could be removed, and the research could move forward unfettered.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Settlement issues

I often hear the assertion Israel's West Bank settlements are illegal, and I expected to be able to find a clear statute, treaty or some such which the existence of the settlements unquestionably contravenes. However, after several days of research, and with the full understanding I am not a lawyer (nor do I play one on TV), while I still feel the weight of the arguments supports the claim the settlements are illegal, I am forced to concede there is more murkiness surrounding the issues than I expected.

What isn't murky is there will be no lasting peace in the region until those settlements are removed, and Israel's prospects for future security necessitate removing them.

For decades now most parties have agreed a "two-state" approach is the only one which can be successful, and for a separate Palestinian state to be feasible Israel would have to cede control of the West Bank to a new, independent, Palestinian nation. Despite this general acknowledgment, however, the number of Israeli settlers in West Bank territories has continued to grow, from 110,000 in the early 1990's to nearly 300,000 today ... without counting East Jerusalem (which I see as a separate issue).

Not surprisingly, Palestinians view this continuing influx of settlers as tantamount to explicit sabotage of any peace negotiations. The logic is not hard to follow - if all parties agree peace requires a separate Palestinian state, and that state will be founded in the West Bank, yet Israel continues to actively claim more land in the West Bank, Israel must not seriously desire peace.

A number of Israelis have suggested any serious effort to forcibly remove the settlements might well lead to an Israeli civil war, which is not a pleasant prospect. It is, however, a threat which Israel has to stop tap-dancing around and confront the issue. Making a clear, large, concerted effort to remove the settlements would do more to promote peace and security in the region than any number of bombs dropped in Lebanon or Gaza.

The vast majority of Israeli settlers are themselves religious extremists, who hold the entire country hostage to their demands that Arabs be evicted from the "Promised land". Moderate Israeli's, by-and-large, seem fed up and exasperated with them, yet little is done to rein them in. Until Israel gets serious about dealing with its own extremists, why should they expect Palestinians to be serious about dealing with theirs?