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Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Rendered to the Mob

How J. Edgar Hoover Found a Way
Not to Implicate the Government In Torture

Gregory Scarpa, Sr. was a Mafia "tough guy," an assassin back in the days when television was still in black and white and a curmudgeonly bulldog (that had a penchant for wearing women's clothes) named J. Edgar Hoover ran the FBI. Scarpa died in prison in 1994, with his nom de guerre of "The Grim Reaper" still intact.

Besides being a murderous thug, Scarpa was something else: an FBI informant. His contact at the Bureau, R. Lindley DeVecchio, is now on trial in New York, charged with helping Scarpa in planning the murders of four members of the Colombo crime family by supplying Sacarpa with inside information that compromised other investigations. In exchange, the agent got the usual swag: jewelry, money, favors, etc. The key prosecution witness is Scarpa's former girlfriend, Linda Schiro. The articles about the trial are a fascinating, Sopranos-like retelling of some of the most gruesome actions of the mob in the eighties.

During the trial this week, Schiro talked about an incident involving Scarpa that has long been considered a legend in Mob circles, that is, Hoover calling on Scarpa to assist in finding the bodies of three young civil rights workers murdered in Mississippi in 1964 by the Klan.

According to the AP story about her testimony, using a gun given to him by the FBI, Scarpa met with with one of the suspected Klansmen, " 'put a gun in the guy's mouth,' " and threatened to kill him. Later, she says, the FBI retrieved the gun from Scarpa and gave him "a wad of cash," the article says.

What Hoover's motivation was in calling on a mobster to do what the FBI was unable to is, of course, speculation. Oliver Stone might note that this is less than a year after President Kennedy's assassination, and Hoover's ties to the mob did not die at Dallas' Parkland Hospital with JFK.

What is clear, is that this mentality of getting a criminally corrupt organization to do the government's dirty work hasn't gone away; it's just been outsourced to Egypt and Saudi Arabia (among others). In Washington, DC, you can't say Department of Justice without saying Hoover. The building is named after him. That a man reviled by so many people of my generation is so venerated that his name is equated with justice is like naming the White House press room the Dick Cheney Wing. Nothing says openness and candor like Cheney.

So choose your heroes carefully, America. Reserve your veneration for the people in your own community who work everyday to end poverty, refute racism, and clean up the planet. Those are the people who should be celebrated. Who would you name your house after, if you could? What about the White House? (No, Mr. Colbert, not the Doritos White House.) Is there a real national hero for whom this country's name could be changed? "The United States of Oprah?" I kid, but you know, there are people out there for whom the Constitution tolls. It tolls for us.


Monday, October 22, 2007

Pavillions of Promise: A Religious Conversation for Peace

"God is no one's pigment, no one's gender and no one's flag."
Sister Joan Chittister
October 21, 2007
Atlanta, Georgia

In the dusk of my dreams I have wandered through pointy roofed pavillions spilling across a shallow hillside, reaching the darkened road that runs below. It is a fair, the greatest exhibition of humankind's noblest pursuit, born out of a quest for the meaning of being alive. These are the laboratories in which different cultures have have created the social alchemy called religion, a construct of humanity that is valued for its endowment of purpose and plagued by the folly of its zealots. Which shelter will I enter? Who will I be when I come out the other side? What if I must chase my soul down the dark road and it hides behind damp brick walls?

If there were a sign over the entry gate to this campus of religious thought, it might say "Teach me to be good, and I will be good." This is the awareness we assume as we enter life. So it seems that in this equation, Karl Marx did not quite have it right. Good is the opiate of the people; religion is just the opium den. Go in and see the guy in the robes. "Hey man, is this where I can score some good? Can you hook me up with some good? I need some good, bad."

And this is what he tells you, or some variation: "Submit yourself to education, and busy yourself with practice, and don't substitute artifice for belief (Thou shalt have no other gods before me)."

How important is this quest? "We want examples of how to behave," but "education alone is not the answer," said the Dalai Lama, in Atlanta, yesterday. "All religions are human religions. All religions carry the message of love and compassion."

Because of that, "Religion has the obligation to feel compunction for its position in the world," according to Sister Joan Chittister, an author and activist who writes for the National Catholic Reporter. We must examine, she said, what we have "contributed to the conversation of love."

His Holiness and Sister Joan were speaking at a summit hosted by Emory University, called The First Emory Summit on Religion, Conflict and Peacebuilding. Joining them on the dais were: Professor Rajmohan Gandhi, a human rights activist and grandson of the Mahatma; Rabbi David Rosen, an activist in the arena of interreligious dialogue; and Professor Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im, a law professor at Emory and scholar of Islamic law and politics.

When minds like that get together, it is moving, inspiring and sparky. Rabbi Rosen called them all "religious personalities," and I suppose the title fits. I mean, the Dalai Lama is a rock star (and we are all groupies - just what religion needs).

Mischievous People who Cast a Bad Light

Like the title of the summit suggests, it was just a conversation. No pacts were made. No treaties were signed, and despite the larger than life presence of the Dalai Lama, no religion took the lead over any other. The discussion was not about good vs. evil, God vs. the Devil, or do-gooders vs. evil-doers. Instead, there was an instant understanding that, "It is not the traditions; it is the believers," as Professor An-Na'im said. As for the President's "evil-doers", His Holiness forgivingly called them "mischievous" people who cast a bad light on their faith.

Sister Joan was the most direct, talking about how religion is responsible for "a bloody history of oppression in the name of God."

"We have been following the apostolic tradition [of] 'those who aren't with us are against us,' " she said. "That's the seed of division and war."

The Arab-Israeli conflict is the dark forest that has grown from that seed of intolerance. Rabbi Rosen, in speaking about his interfaith work in the Middle East, pointed out that all the parties there feel like they are the victims, and he pleaded with us to have a sense of responsibility, to "get past the victimization." Like Abraham, he said, we should "see the angel, the divine image, in every living being."

"If you make an issue out of every principle," he added, "in the end, you don't have any principles."

Professor Gandhi seems to agree."When you set out to destroy what you dislike, you also destroy what you love," he said, relating the story (from his brother Ramchandra's book Sita's Kitchen) of a group of Hindus that took hammers to an ancient mosque and ended up destroying an even more ancient Hindu holy site known as Sita's Kitchen.

Sister Joan, of course, put it more bluntly: "Quit trying to convert each other like a 'Commie for Christ!' God is no one's pigment, no one's gender and no one's flag."

Be the Change

So what do we do to move the conversation past "mischievous" zealotry? "Be the change you want to make," implored Prof. An-Na'im, quoting Mohandas Gandhi's famous call to action. Right action is up to each of us. "It is my responsibility [to create change]," he said, "not our responsibility."

It is the responsibility of each of us to "be part of the solution," is how Rabbi Rosen put it. By standing up and doing that, perhaps we can satisfy Prof. An-Na'im's call to lead by example (especially in regards to human rights), and "raise our country's commitment and standing to that which we expect of others."

Then, perhaps by the work of each of us who were blessed to attend this summit, and the work you do, dear reader, we can bring alive the light sparked by this amazing event. As the Dalai Lama said, "Light will come from this center, and will reach a more, wider area."

Then no one's soul will have to be coaxed out of dark, damp alleys, for mischief cannot hide where faith will bear no darkness.


Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Words Taken Down

The Murky Puddle Left Behind When Terrible Truth
and Corrupted Consequence Collide

I was watching C-Span Tuesday and California Congressman Henry Waxman got up to speak on behalf of a resolution condemning the State Department's obstruction of the investigation of Iraqi government corruption. This malfeasance not only jeopardizes the future of the people of Iraq, but also presents extra risks and deadly challenges to the U.S. service personnel fighting and dying there.

In voicing his frustration with the Bush administration, Waxman drew an easy parallel between the corrupt intelligence the administration used to get us into this war, and the way the State Department has been stonewalling congressional inquiry by classifying publicly released reports retroactively and refusing to testify publicly about the allegations.

The rebuke passed overwhelmingly, by a vote of 395 to 21. But in his argument for the resolution, Waxman committed a congressional faux-pas. This is what he said:

"We must stop the pattern of dissembling and the misuse of
classified information. President Bush is now asking
taxpayers for an additional $150 billion to support the war
and to support Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. But he
is not being honest about the level of corruption in the
Maliki government."
(from the Congressional Record: October 16, 2007 (House)]
[Page H11576-H11586])

Instead of railing solely against the actions of the administration, he off-handedly referred to the administration as "he." Apparently, you can't say things like that during a congressional debate. No sooner had the words left his lips, then California Republican Rep. Darrell Issa jumped up.

"I ask that his words be taken down," he declared, "for
disparagement of the Bush administration."

"Words Taken Down" is an objection to words uttered in debate, according to House rules. A representative cannot say anything disparaging , of a personal nature, against the president or vice president. It's alright for David Letterman or Keith Olbermann to call Bush a liar on TV, but they can't do it on the floor of the House of Representatives. Freedom of Speech has rules, I guess, but since they didn't make "a law," it probably doesn't violate the First Amendment. Anyway, the rule says that if, after the clerk reads the passage in question back to the Chair, the words are indeed found to be objectionable, the representative who made the offending statement is disallowed from participating in debate for the rest of the day.

Waxman was forced to sit while the record was recounted, but before a determination was made, he declared that he misspoke, that indeed he intended to say "the Bush administration," and not "he." Indeed, if you check the Congressional Record, you will see ellipses where the "he" was originally spoken.

The Chair checked with Issa to see if that was okay with him, Issa said:
"I have no objection as long as the admonishment of the Chair
would be that, in fact, there is a caution as to disparaging
or appearing to disparage the office or the person of
the President or the Vice President under our rules."
The chair acknowledged the "caution" and Waxman was allowed to continue.

In watching that parliamentary bizzareness, I wondered if the Senate has the same rules. If they do, is it reciprocal? That is, when Cheney said to Senator Pat Leahy in June, 2004, on the floor of the Senate Chamber, "Fuck yourself," was he admonished? Probably not, but that could be for lots of reasons. Maybe the senate has no rule similar to "words taken down." Also, since the Veep's unfortunate remark happened during a photo shoot, and not during open debate, it's not part of the record. Still, what would the consequences be for the Vice President if that were the case? Since he hardly ever takes his presider's chair anyway, what good would it have done to make him sit for a day?

What is clear, and always has been, is that Cheney feels as free to fire insults at his political opponents as he is firing buckshot at his friends, all without fear of consequence. He feels that there are certain powers granted to the executive branch of government that allow it to remain aloof and in charge, privileged and, when necessary, impenetrable. It's all part of his grand plan to expand and consolidate the power of the presidency.

According to the new book Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy, by Charlie Savage:

"[T]he vice president an agenda he had been developing for thirty years.

"...He wanted to reduce the authority of Congress and the courts and to expand the ability of the commander in chief and his top advisers to govern with maximum flexibility and minimum oversight. He hoped to enlarge the zone of secrecy around the executive branch, to reduce the power of Congress to restrict presidential action...and to impose greater White House control over the permanent workings of government." (pp. 8-9)

It seems that ever since Congress imposed greater oversight on the presidency in reaction to the executive abuses of Watergate and the misleading way the war in Vietnam was sold to the American people, Cheney, himself an aide in the Nixon White House, has been talking about restoring the President's power. In 1996, according to Savage, Cheney said:

" 'Congress has begun to encroach upon the powers and the responsibilities of the President,' " and that he wants to, " 'go back and try to restore that balance.' " (p. 9)

It seems to me that the vice president must have some inner ear problems because the lack of balance is in his mind. The "encroaching" Congress gave this administration everything it asked for in the first six years. If Dick Cheney wanted this administration to be an example of what the presidency should be, what powers it should have, then he has left a sad and broken legacy that Congress once again will have to fix. They won't be able to fix it now. Some of the most important reforms that Cheney regrets took place with a Democratic Congress and a Democrat in the White House. This Congress is hampered by not having a clear enough majority, a veto-proof majority - not that it should be an excuse for disappointing congressional capitulation we have seen this year.

I have heard that there are many who are vying for the presidency in 2008 - in both parties - who relish the idea of expanded power, but I urge all of the candidates to keep this in mind: you may become the President of the United States, but this is still a representative government, and if Congress can remain true to its constituency, then their word is the will of the people. "Thy will be done" is a humble obeisance to a god, not a license to a leader to indulge a personal agenda.


Thursday, October 04, 2007

Back Rooms and Back Doors: The N.Y. Times Torture Story

Rationalizing the Secrets that Define a Presidency
and 'Shock the Conscience' of a Country

Continuing to leave the gashes of my once great country bleeding and unchecked has left a festering wound on the future of our nation. The long-fingered fist of war has crushed thought and trust in this country, and too few have recognized the need for social action against a government that in brazen secrecy "shocks the conscience" of its people.

In 1953, the Supreme Court threw out the evidence, in Rochin v. California, against Richard Rochin and his appeal of a conviction for morphine possession. It seems the cops took him to the hospital and induced vomiting in order to obtain the evidence. The Court said that using evidence obtained in this manner "shocks the conscience" of a society's "decencies of civilized conduct." The "shocks the conscience" test is often applied to cases where there is a question as to whether evidence is admissible or actions permissible under the law.

When the McCain Anti-Torture Bill went through congress in late 2005, there was talk about including the "shocks the conscience" text to the bill, but it never made it. Instead, it was added as part of the record through a maneuver called a colloquy by Georgia Congressman Jim Marshall.

But even the congressman was pessimistic about its application to this bill. In an op-ed piece in the Macon Telegraph, dated December 24, 2005, he said:

"No, 'shocks the conscience' is not the bright line test we would all prefer. One is not possible here as in so many other conflicts between societal need and individual rights. Ultimately appropriate treatment of our prisoners and detainees requires judgment, control and leadership in many different circumstances."

The New York Times today reports that regardless of Congress' anti-torture legislation, regardless of what the Supreme Court said in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, the Justice Department has issued secret memorandum after secret memorandum to the CIA telling it that its methods are OK:

"[In 2005], as Congress moved toward outlawing 'cruel, inhuman and degrading' treatment, the Justice Department issued another secret opinion, one most lawmakers did not know existed, current and former officials said. The Justice Department document declared that none of the C.I.A. interrogation methods violated that standard."
"Secret U.S. Endorsement of Severe Interrogations,"
S. Shane, D. Johnston and J. Risen,
New York Times, October 4, 2007

If signing statements weren't enough, secret memos redefining the reach and permit of the Executive Branch beyond the law are enough to wonder just which of us our government will go after next. They have created an environment where they are no longer bound by Constitution or law. Naomi Wolf, former editor of The Nation, has written a fascinating book documenting the abuse and abandonment of America's commitment to the rights and ethical treatments of her citizens. In the book, called The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot, Wolf asserts her belief that fascism is already upon us, that it is only a matter of time before a journalist (or a blogger) is declared an enemy combatant, and after that, there is no turning back.

"The Bush administration has started to use the notion of treason in its Stalinist sense," she says on page 133, "as a weapon designed to harass critics and to frighten opposition leaders."

Blaming the Messenger

Indeed, on CNN's Situation Room tonight, Fran Townsend, the White House Homeland Security Adviser, railed against the published reports, saying, "it is incredibly irresponsible to leak classified information that threatens our national security and the effectiveness of the techniques we do have at our disposal." She implied that the New York Times was to blame for the disclosures of Republicans who actually have a conscience.

Our only salvation is that our national legacy of an open, honest and free society is (for the time being) stronger than the blind loyalty of a few corrupt men who, despite all decency, rationalize their movements in the shadows.

Call to Action

The call to action is once more laid at Congress' door. I'm sorry, Senator Leahy, but the time for civil discourse, of waiting for the White House to deliver documents so that you can come to an "understanding" about what they are doing is long past. The House and Senate Judiciary Committees must file contempt charges against the AG's office and the White House for circumventing the law signed by Bush in December 2005 that said that the US does not torture.

Even now the Executive denies it, using the euphemism "harsh techniques" when they mean "torture." The secret memos, you see, said that despite the law, what the CIA was told it could do was not a violation of the law, even though the law was passed months after the memoranda were written.

We can either stand up to yet another illegal abuse of power, or let our freedoms be swallowed by it. Frankly, I think prison is too good for them. They should not only be thrown out of office, but out of the country as well - them, their children and their grandchildren. Otherwise, they will continue to be the kind of god-driven, self-righteous, greedy, militant opposition that we all dread.