Stuff You Should Care About

11 Nov

just-one-sweatervest

This is a bit of a dumping ground for stories I think are important and deserve your attention.  I’ll keep a running list of these stories in the sidebar of this site under the Headline “Your Daily Homework”.  I’m not giving you the full backstory on each of these, just links that I hope you’ll follow.  Also, if you have something to add to any of these stories, please post the links and I’ll add them or write a longer piece on what you’ve provided.

Blackwater and The Mercenary Military

Jeremy Scahill is an independent journalist and author who has spent several years documenting the privatization of the American military and what that means for the future of our combat forces and ability to fight.  His latest story highlights a bribery scandal of epic proportions involving Blackwater officials and the Iraqi Government.

The mercenary firm Blackwater has become a symbol of the utter lawlessness and criminality that permeates the privatised wing of the US war machine. The company’s operatives have shot dead scores of Iraqi and Afghan civilians, while former employees allege in sworn statements that Blackwater’s owner Erik Prince “views himself as a Christian crusader tasked with eliminating Muslims and the Islamic faith from the globe”, and that Prince’s companies “encouraged and rewarded the destruction of Iraqi life”. Five Blackwater employees will stand trial in federal court in the US on charges that they slaughtered 14 innocent Iraqis, while a sixth Blackwater operative has already pleaded guilty. The company faces allegations of illicit weapons-smuggling and tax evasion, and is being sued for war crimes. The private army is under fire. And yet, despite all the action, none of the legal bullets has – to date – landed a serious blow.

Institutionalized Torture and Who We Are Becoming As A Nation

Glenn Greenwald tells the story of Maher Arar, a Canadian and Syrian who was tortured through America’s policy of rendition.

In 2002, he was returning home to Canada from vacation when, on a stopover at JFK Airport, he was (a) detained by U.S. officials, (b) accused of being a Terrorist, (c) held for two weeks incommunicado and without access to counsel while he was abusively interrogated, and then (d) was “rendered” — despite his pleas that he would be tortured — to Syria, to be interrogated and tortured.  He remained in Syria for the next 10 months under the most brutal and inhumane conditions imaginable, where he was repeatedly tortured.  Everyone acknowledges that Arar was never involved with Terrorism and was guilty of nothing.

The story that we sanction and commit torture has been told and sadly fails to inspire indignation amongst the chattering class nor the general populace.  However, the shocking aspect of this story isn’t necessarily what happened (even though it’s horrific), it’s that our courts are refusing to scrutinize the actions of the government.

In January, 2007, the Canadian Prime Minister publicly apologized to Arar for the role Canada played in these events, and the Canadian government paid him $9 million in compensation.  That was preceded by a full investigation by Canadian authorities and the public disclosure of a detailed report which concluded “categorically that there is no evidence to indicate that Mr. Arar has committed any offense or that his activities constituted a threat to the security of Canada.”  By stark and very revealing contrast, the U.S. Government has never admitted any wrongdoing or even spoken publicly about what it did; to the contrary, it repeatedly insisted that courts were barred from examining the conduct of government officials because what we did to Arar involves “state secrets” and because courts should not interfere in the actions of the Executive where national security is involved.

Yesterday, the Second Circuit — by a vote of 7-4 —  agreed with the government and dismissed Arar’s case in its entirety.  It held that even if the government violated Arar’s Constitutional rights as well as statutes banning participation in torture, he still has no right to sue for what was done to him.  Why?  Because “providing a damages remedy against senior officials who implement an extraordinary rendition policy would enmesh the courts ineluctably in an assessment of the validity of the rationale of that policy and its implementation in this particular case, matters that directly affect significant diplomatic and national security concerns” (p. 39).  In other words, government officials are free to do anything they want in the national security context — even violate the law and purposely cause someone to be tortured — and courts should honor and defer to their actions by refusing to scrutinize them.

If you’re interested in the details as to how the United States sent this innocent man to Syria to be tortured, you can read it here.  You can also read the details of his treatment while rendered by clicking here.  He was kept in a six foot whole, unfed, naked, urinated upon and beaten with electrical cables.  What did they get from him?  Nothing, he was innocent.  Detained due to false confessions given by other prisoners in exchange for an end to their torture.  All done in your name, for the security of America.

Senator Bernie Sanders Introduces the “Too Big To Fail?  Too Big To Exist!” Bill

Sen. Bernie Sanders introduced a very sensible bill into the Senate the other day, essentially saying that if a bank is to big to fail, (“any entity that has grown so large that its failure would have a catastrophic effect on the stability of either the financial system or the United States economy without substantial Government assistance.”) it needs to be identified by the Treasury Secretary and broken up into smaller corporations.  We all hate bailouts, right?  Both lefties and righties agree that bailouts are bullshit.  So, let’s do something about it.

Glass-Steagall

And while we’re at it, how about we go ahead and listen to Paul Volcker and re-institute the Glass-Steagall Act which kept commercial and investment banks separate.  Repealing Glass-Steagall in 1999 was a primary precursor to the huge economic collapse we just experienced.

“The banks are there to serve the public,” Mr. Volcker said, “and that is what they should concentrate on. These other activities create conflicts of interest. They create risks, and if you try to control the risks with supervision, that just creates friction and difficulties” and ultimately fails.

The only viable solution, in the Volcker view, is to break up the giants. JPMorgan Chase would have to give up the trading operations acquired from Bear Stearns. Bank of America and Merrill Lynch would go back to being separate companies. Goldman Sachs could no longer be a bank holding company.

In the Volcker resurrection of Glass-Steagall, commercial banks would take deposits, manage the nation’s payments system, make standard loans and even trade securities for their customers — just not for themselves. The government, in return, would rescue banks that fail.

On the other side of the wall, investment houses would be free to buy and sell securities for their own accounts, borrowing to leverage these trades and thus multiplying the profits, and the risks.

The bill was enacted shortly after the Great Depression began and helped maintain sanity in the banking sector until 1999.  The largest economic downturn since that Great Depression began shortly after it’s repeal.  Coincidence?  Not really.

The Right Wing In American Politics

As I discussed last week, the right wing is regionalizing and religifying in the runup to the 2010 and 2012 elections.  No politician represents the growth of the stupid in American politics like Sarah Palin.  At a speaking engagement in Wisconsin, Palin banned all recording devices, but one guy sneaked in an audio recorder.  Palin spent a lot of time talking about the “change” that Obama has brought and how that “change” doesn’t represent “real” American values.  As an anecdote, she points out that our new American coins no longer say “In God We Trust” on the front or back.  She was troubled by the fact that our national motto was moved to the edge of the coin and was no longer as visible as it once was.  She wondered who would make a decision like that.  Well, Crazypants McGee clearly didn’t do her research as it was the 2005 GOP Congress and President Bush who made that decision, not Obama.

Two things on this; (1) “In God We Trust” was adopted as our national motto during the McCarthy Red Scare.  The motto was originally “E Pluribus Unum”. or “Out Of Many, One”…too collectivist and socialist-y for today, I would imagine.  (2) Palin defines herself not by the issues she advocates or the positions she holds, but rather by her enemies.  She connects with people left behind by corporatism and capitalism by making it seem as if she is just as persecuted and left behind as they.  To them, she seems a regular person who reflects their values and is fighting against the machine that seemingly ridicules their uneducated and faith-based existence.  As America grows less educated and more angry by the year, Palin becomes a very dangerous politician and a very troubling threat to those of us who value intellectual analysis and thoughtful policy in our governmental leaders.

9 Responses to “Stuff You Should Care About”

  1. Brian Castner November 11, 2009 at 9:06 pm #

    I applaud Scahill’s reporting on Blackwater, but his brush is far too broad. He’s spent all of his time on them, and then assumes every military contractor is stealing money, on a Crusade, or both. Blackwater is uniquely crazy, and has that reputation in theater among other military contractors. KBR is making money hand over fist on cost-plus contracts, but the Army CoE is the one that let the contracts, you name me another firm that can mobilize in a war zone and do those jobs. Bechtel? Yeah, they have other half. For every Blackwater there is a Triple Canopy or MPRI – reputable firms doing good work.

    Now, if you want to have the conversation about whether you want to contract anything out at all, that’s completely different. There is a long term trend to discuss. But I don’t think the American people are ready to have a standing Army of 1.5 million just so every cook, bulldozer operator and truckdriver is a uniformed soldier.

    • Christopher Smith November 11, 2009 at 10:41 pm #

      I’ve spent more than my fair share of years working as a defense contractor. I’ve been a direct beneficiary of Cost Plus contracts with the Air Force as part of three separate defense contractors. I’ve also grown very familiar with the idea of planned obsolescence as a tactic for manufacturing and software development as it pertains to keeping the money tap running from the DoD. Lockheed, Northrup, CSC, etc have been part of the military contracting equation for decades and that’s not going to change. There are specialties and technologies that are essentially reliant upon outside contractors in order to make the provisioning of military force a possibility.

      The difference here, and it’s not a small one, is the contracting of what amounts to American mercenary armies on foreign soil in lieu of troops. Especially when those troops are given near immunity from prosecution and contravene the UCMJ and the Geneva Conventions because they are not held to the same standard as our soldiers. That IS a discussion I will have, because it’s unethical and not in concert with our values as a nation.

      • Pete@BuffaloStuff.net November 11, 2009 at 10:46 pm #

        I like the new “Respond” function….AND…I agree…not in concert with our values as a nation. Fair and consisent should be up there for any world leader.

      • Brian Castner November 12, 2009 at 1:16 pm #

        There is certainly a difference between armed contractors shooting people in Iraq and many other defense contractors. And for full disclosure, I’m a consultant for a defense contractor as well, that has staff in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the problem with applying the UCMJ to Blackwater is they aren’t in the military. And we don’t have enough soliders to do everything we want done (like guard State Dept officials, who have always used their own civilian security or contracted it out). Sooo, your options are to make more soldiers, or create a new set of laws to cover US citizens operating under government contracts in foreign countries. I don’t hear anyone talking about that. All I hear is the Geneva Convention (laughably vague) and the UCMJ – civilian contractors don’t have the protection of the US military, why should they have its code. What we have now is the least worst solution. Which is different than a good solution.

  2. Pete@BuffaloStuff.net November 11, 2009 at 9:54 pm #

    Chris – so what you’re saying is that Sarah Palin made a statement about something without doing her homework? That is an absolute shocker…

    What’s more shocking to me is that there is a contingent of people that buy into her. A contingent of people that either don’t notice or don’t care that she is completely out of her league and that she is lazy and doesn’t do her homework EVER.

    The good news is that we have Tina Fey. Sadly, that will play to sarah’s mantra that she is a victim, but it’s damn funny, Chris…damn, funny.

    • Christopher Smith November 11, 2009 at 10:45 pm #

      Well, that’s rather the point about Palin, Pete. The more she is ridiculed, the more she is discounted and insulted, the stronger she grows in the eyes of the dixiepublican belt of voters. Palin is defined by her enemies, which makes her more attractive to those who also feel left behind by “east coast” sensibilities and intellectuals. The more they identify with her, the more they will fight for her. It’s a fascinating study on the devolution of political populism in America’s rural regions. Palin is very talented at the manipulation of “us and them”.

      • Pete@BuffaloStuff.net November 11, 2009 at 10:49 pm #

        Wouldn’t work if she looked like Susan Boyle. Some people allow for it because they refuse to believe that someone so “cute” can be so manipulative.

  3. mike hudson November 11, 2009 at 10:04 pm #

    your right chris, palin is an imbicile. she seems to believe that obama has changed something.

  4. Pete@BuffaloStuff.net November 11, 2009 at 10:08 pm #

    @mike hudson – he has changed things…he’s not a member of the religious right.

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