The court scholar serving Hermann of Thuringia.

The court scholar serving Hermann of Thuringia.
The scholar



President Bush made a speech July 24th where he spoke of human rights and how certain nations don't respect those rights.

"Over the past seven years, we've spoken out against human rights abuses by tyrannical regimes like those in Iran, Sudan, and Syria and Zimbabwe," Bush said.
"We've spoken candidly about human rights with nations with whom we've got good relations, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia and China."

All of which may be true (I'm not really aware of speeches concerning the last three countries but, parsing those words carefully, they might have been talks that occurred behind closed doors), but these talks fade into utter meaninglessness compared to the permitted torture methods authorized by the 2002 memo just unearthed by an ACLU Freedom Of Information Act lawsuit:

...authorizes the CIA to use specific interrogation methods, including waterboarding. The memo states that interrogation methods that cause severe mental pain do not amount to torture under U.S. law unless they cause "harm lasting months or even years after the acts were inflicted upon the prisoners."

Which is basically a get-out-of-jail-free card. After all, if one has to wait "years" to see if the mental pain suffered by the tortured person is still there, then authorities have plenty of time to devise a way to see to it that they never spend a single day in jail, regardless of how guilty they are.

To "speak out" against human rights abuses by Sudan or Syria while allowing one's own personnel to torture to their heart's content is the absolute height of hypocrisy and double standards. I'm not aware that Egypt or Saudi Arabia's human rights record has improved, but if they essentially flipped the US the bird, well, I wouldn't blame them one bit.


Calendar vs Conditions

A few weeks ago, a blogger surveyed the field and found that when asked to choose between a calendar-based withdrawal from Iraq and a conditions-based withdrawal, Americans by almost two-to-one chose a calendar-based withdrawal.

In other words, when asked to choose between "The 3rd Division leaves Mosul in February. No ifs, ands or buts about it" versus "The 3rd Division leaves Mosul when commanders on the ground certify that it's appropriate to do so and when the Commander-in-Chief agrees with them," Americans preferred the first option by 55% to 65%, depending on who was doing the polling.

Now that presidential candidate Barack Obama finds himself in agreement with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, that for the US to get out of Iraq sometime in 2010, is a good idea, that left presidential candidate John McCain throughly deflated.

As Crooks & Liars comments on the 21 July Daily Show:

The speculation before Senator Obama left for Iraq that he would possibly commit a presidential-bid-ending gaffe was deafening.

The traditional news media was absolutely dying for Obama to slip up, because the news that Maliki agreed with Obama and not McCain, came as a crushing disappointment to them. Andrea Mitchell was so upset that she accused Obama of conducting "fake interviews" because he treated the press corps in exactly the same manner that McCain treated them back in March of this year. Of course, McCain can do that because he's a Republican and Obama is not.

So, when McCain was asked what he'd choose, a calendar-based withdrawal versus a conditions-based one, he was trapped between simply agreeing with Obama and Maliki or of coming up with his own spin.

McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds said the senator's comments did not reflect a shift in position.
"The two years in his answer today is consistent with his position that we can begin to responsibly discuss the reduction of troop levels in Iraq as long as they are based on maintaining the security and stability of the gains we made," Bounds said.

In other words, McCain is for both a calendar-based withdrawal "two years is okay" and a conditions-based withdrawal " long as they are based on maintaining the security and stability of...," and of course the fact that these positions are mutually exclusive and contradictory won't bother anybody in the traditional media. In fact, McCain's people are now selling the position that a conditions-based withdrawal is more flexible in both directions than a calendar-based withdrawal:

"Whether that happens in 12 months, or 16 months, or 24 months, the important thing is that our troops come home with victory and America's vital national interests secured."

So Obama is now being criticized because his calendar-based approach is too rigid! He's standing in the way of American troops coming home even earlier than his "rigid" calendar allows for. Of course, the whole point of a conditions-based withdrawal is that conditions will never allow a withdrawal!


The death knell for the Fourth Amendment

Eric Lichtblau of the NY Times writes the epitaph for FISA and the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States that was then printed in the Inky today. In it, he makes a most curious statement:

The vote came two and a half years after public disclosure of the wiretapping program set off a fierce national debate over the balance between protecting the country from another terrorist strike and ensuring civil liberties.

Funny, I don't remember a "fierce national debate," I remember the blogs quickly shooting down all the legalistic arguments that the Bush Administration brought up and I remember the traditional media just giving the whole issue a yawn and a pass. It would have been a debate had the Bush Administration ever been able to muster any real arguments for their side, but aside from those early legalistic arguments, they just relied on fearmongering and on throwing money at the Blue Dog Democrats to split the Democratic vote. At no point did they ever convincingly show that America had to surrender its civil liberties in order to be safe from the terrorists. As Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) pointed out:

I sit on the Intelligence and Judiciary Committees, and I am one of the few members of this body who has been fully briefed on the warrantless wiretapping program. And, based on what I know, I can promise that if more information is declassified about the program in the future, as is likely to happen either due to the Inspector General report, the election of a new President, or simply the passage of time, members of this body will regret that we passed this legislation. I am also familiar with the collection activities that have been conducted under the Protect America Act and will continue under this bill. I invite any of my colleagues who wish to know more about those activities to come speak to me in a classified setting. Publicly, all I can say is that I have serious concerns about how those activities may have impacted the civil liberties of Americans. If we grant these new powers to the government and the effects become known to the American people, we will realize what a mistake it was, of that I am sure.

Which doesn't sound to me as thought members of Congress were fully briefed and informed. In fact:

None but a few government insiders knows what they’ve got, who gets to look at it, what becomes of it. And because the FISA revision bill gives the telecoms immunity from lawsuits, we may never know the extent of this illegal spying. More important, we won't know how our private information becomes misinterpreted and misused – that is, used against us, without us knowing why or being able to do anything about it.
Only a handful in Congress have been briefed, and given this Administration's pervasive lying, we have no reason to trust that even these few were told the truth. Most in Congress remain blissfully ignorant of what these programs involve, and their attempts to explain their support for the revisions reveal they have no clue what they’re approving.

Back on 5 May, when the bill was still just an awful rumor, FDL pointed out that:

There is no public outcry to "free Dick Cheney." There is no constituency ready to storm the halls of Congress unless the telecoms are given immunity, just a lot of K Street money pouring into the coffers of the Blue Dogs.

I guess the most utterly pathetic statement had to come from Speaker Pelosi:

Democrats pointed to some concessions they had won. The final bill includes a reaffirmation that the FISA law is the “exclusive” means of conducting intelligence wiretaps — a provision that Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the House speaker, and other Democrats insisted would prevent Mr. Bush or any future president from evading court scrutiny in the way they say that the N.S.A. program did.

But keep in mind that FISA was already the "exclusive" means for the American government to spy on the American people. The Bush Administration never found any legal way to get around that provision. They simply ignored it in a procedure known as "breaking the law."

To brag that Democrats got the bill to reaffirm a law that everyone knew should be followed is hardly a victory to crow about. Will Bush continue to break the law? Seems doubtful as the bill allows him more or less unlimited freedom to act as he sees fit. Kinda like saying "The thieves were having trouble removing the statues from my garden, so I knocked down a section of the wall so they could simply carry the statues out to the street" and then bragging that you've prevented the thieves from tracking mud from the garden into the house.

Update: Now that I've thought it over a bit and have done some more reading, I should mention that the ACLU and The Nation have decided to initiate lawsuits against the FISA cave-in atrocity of a bill.

[The Nation] filed suit along with a coalition of other plaintiffs including Amnesty International USA, Human Rights Watch, Global Fund for Women, PEN American Center, Washington Office on Latin America, Service Employees International Union and several private attorneys.

Also, the Electronic Frontier Foundation is determined to continue it's suit against AT&T and Strange Bedfellows is building up a campaign war-chest to take on selected "Blue Dog Democrats" (They're up to over $325,000 as of the evening of 10 July). Blue America just awarded $1000 in campaign contributions to each of a dozen of the pro-FISA stalwarts who hung tough in there. And:

Davin Hutchins at the American News Project follows the money trail to find out how telecom dollars influence Congressmen to say what they say and vote the way they do.

So no, the fight is FAR from over!


Controversial piece in the Inky

The Philadelphia Inquirer's Chris Satullo causes a fuss. A while back, Satullo had written a pretty annoying, pat-on-the-head type of piece where he congratulated the left for "actually" having some sensible ideas (He presented mostly warmed-over right-wing ideas), so his July 1st column, in my view, brought him "up to zero."

As of midday July 4th, that latest column garnered 480 comments and the Inquirer published a "Readers Respond" section (Only five comments so far, also at noon on the 4th).

Two points to respond to:

Anthony P. Schiavo says

But is it more honorable to allow tens, even hundreds of thousands of Americans to die rather than to twist the arm of a terrorist who knows how to stop it?

This has long since been known as an entirely theoretical point. As Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) put it before hearing testimony on coercive interrogation techniques:

Too often those who would have us use torture or other harsh interrogation techniques say it cannot be ruled out because in the post 9/11 world, you may need to get information quickly from a suspect to save lives, or even to prevent another catastrophic attack. But as today's witnesses will make clear, this is just not so. Experienced interrogators, like 27-year veteran FBI Special Agent Jack Cloonan will tell us that this "ticking bomb" scenario is a red herring. A committed terrorist will use those situations to his advantage either to provide interrogators false information or simply to act in defiance, hoping to become a martyr. The ticking time bomb scenario is not taken seriously by experienced interrogators, and cannot and should not be used to justify illegal acts or torture.

John D. Froelich says:

It has been accepted as doctrine that aggressive interrogation techniques like waterboarding, stress positioning and sleep deprivation are examples of torture. But those techniques are routinely applied to our special forces during training so they are prepared for what might happen in the field. I have never read of a claim by a member of our elite military that he was subjected to torture.

I was once examined in a way that was, shall we say, left me in "a world of pain." The examination left me physically shaken for the rest of the day. It had no psychological effect on me, no nightmares, etc. Why not? Very simple. I knew that the doctor had no intention of hurting me. Hurting me was simply not the point. Hurting me was simply the unfortunate by-product of a procedure that needed to be performed. Hence, the examination was entirely different from a procedure where the person doing the procedure appears to enjoy the fact that the person suffering from the procedure is in pain.

The perceived motivation of the person inflicting the pain is extremely important to whether the pain is perceived as torture or not. I would presume, by the way, that the normal attitude on the part of the interrogators who are demanding information is one of "So, our evil al Qaeda captive feels pain, does he? Hey well, tough #$@%!" Obviously military members being trained are going to trust their "interrogators" not to take their pain any further than absolutely necessary, thereby making their experience something other than torture.

One of the common complaints I have heard from people who are frustrated that Americans are "squeamish" about torture is that "Al Qaeda does it too!" whereupon they launch into hair-raising descriptions of the tortures that these evil people inflict. But consider the words of the Plymouth Colony Governor John Winthrop (1588-1649):

For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.

America wasn't founded to be just another state. It wasn't a destination simply because riches could be had there. It was founded because it was meant for grander things. Of course there were evil people about at that time. My father pointed out that typical behavior by soldiers was far worse in ages past. To enter a city and to slaughter all of the inhabitants was a pretty standard operating procedure. To read of the Sack of Rome (Chapter 10 of Rome: the Biography of a City) is to understand just how horrifying it was to be a non-combatant back in the old days of the early 1500s:

...the Pope tried to come to terms with the commanders of the advancing armies, now well over 20,000 strong...They rounded upon their leaders, shouting that they would not go back until they had had their way with Rome...they continued under the nervous direction of the Duke of Bourbon who was as much the servant as the master of the undisciplined, heterogeneous force he commanded. These forces, half-starved, their ragged uniforms soaked by torrents of rain and the swirling waters of the mountain streams through which they stumbled, holding hands in gangs of thirty, drew ever nearer to Rome, excited by thoughts of plunder.

The number of Romans who died after the raiders entered was never determined. The raiders arrived thoroughly soaked and hungry and miserable and took their anger out on the city, leaving it devastated and depopulated. The barbarity of drilling holes in people's heads with hand power drills while they're still alive (Something al Qaeda likes to do) sure is awful, but that sort of barbarism is hardly unprecedented.

Barbarity is nothing new, but we can be proud of America for having decided to be something better. As the blogger emptywheel puts it:

Two hundred-some years ago, a bunch of guys fought hard to make this country special. It's our fight now, to make our country back into the leader and beacon of hope it ought to be.

There's no need to descend to al Qaeda's level.


Motivations for war with Iran

Washington Post reporter Dana Priest does not take seriously the idea that the Bush Administration may launch an attack on Iran before January 2009 and most likely soon after Barack Obama wins the election in November. The post where this is mentioned cites several conservative persons (John Bolton, Bill Kristol, Joe Lieberman and Liz Cheney) who either explicitly advocate such an attack or who at least consider it "a good idea."

So, what would be cited as the provocation for such an attack? It's actually not clear at all. Columnist David Ignatius wrote a piece full of rhetoric that was really scary about Iran, with phrases like:

In the new cold war between America and Iran
"...Some things are being done, but not with the seriousness that's needed."
"'s not a tied-together, long-term strategy that would make Iran change its policy."
The Iranians, by contrast, seem adept at interweaving aggressive operations and diplomacy.

[emphases added]

Ok, but what exactly is Iran doing? Ignatius cites a story about Iran tracking and then eliminating "dissident Iranian operatives," but this sounds like a purely defensive (and highly understandable) move. Iran's "covert-action campaigns" have to do with Hamas and Hezbollah. Hamas is described in Wikipedia (The entry is described as one in which the neutrality of the piece is disputed) without even mentioning Iran in the opening description and Hezbollah is described as having been inspired by Iran, but as with Hamas, it arose in opposition to Israel. Neither appears to be in an organization similar to the Comintern that was operating in Western countries in the 1920s and 1930s and was tightly controlled by Moscow.

Ignatius then claims:

The Iranians have used Syria effectively as a platform for these intelligence operations, from political action to paramilitary operations to clandestine terrorism.

Sounds pretty awful, but this is a really vague set of accusations. By the way the paragraph reads, these operations appear to function simply to deliver "extensive financial and military support" to Hamas and Hezbollah.

Saudi Arabia seems angry about "Iranian meddling in the region," but Ignatius again fails to cite exactly what it is that Iran is actually doing. As has been pointed out in many pieces, yes, it's possible that Iran is supplying Iraqi insurgents, but if so, the insurgents are receiving ordinary, plain-vanilla weapons that can come from just about anywhere. The AK-47 submachine gun, for instance, is ubiquitous in the Middle East.

As it's been made quite clear lately that the Iraq War was launched for oil, that appears to be the default explanation for a possible war on Iran as well.

And I'm sorry, but I really have to comment on the next-to-last paragraph:

The proponents of a tougher U.S. strategy argue that Iran should be confronted everywhere it operates, much as the Reagan administration decided to challenge the Soviet Union, from Afghanistan to Nicaragua. [emphasis added]

Erm, I was paying close attention to the news back then and US attacks on Nicaragua had nothing to do with challenging the Soviet Union. Back during the Vietnam War, there was a direct land connection between the Soviet Union and North Vietnam via Red China. The Soviets made very heavy use of ships from Vladivostok to Haiphong and that route was vulnerable to interdiction, but it was impossible for the US to cut off all supplies. As a result, neither the Soviets nor the Chinese made any attempt to hide where North Vietnam's weapons came from.

In the case of the Soviet Union getting supplies to Cuba, that country could very easily be blockaded by the US and the active drug trade interdiction in the Caribbean made it a rather simple exercise for the US to interdict supplies moving from Cuba to Nicaragua as well.

So yes, for the US to supply Afghan rebels was indeed a direct challenge to the Soviet Union. Attacking Nicaragua? Not so much.