Saturday, May 27, 2006

Police State?

I don’t know about you, but I'm getting more and more signals indicating that the land of the free and home of the brave is fast becoming a police state. That dreaded word, once absurd in any discourse about the United States, has appeared in several columns lately, not least the end of Frank Rich’s column in the recent New York Times. Is this chicken-little paranoia, or is it based on reality?

Consider recent revelations. First, we find out that the National Security Agency (NSA) the biggest eavesdropping agency in the world has been tapping the domestic phone calls of Americans suspected of making calls to Al Qaeda agents or people connected to Al Qaeda. This has been done without the necessary warrants from the FISA courts, with the NSA simply going around the law of the land, and bragging about it. Both the President, and now his nominee for CIA chief, Michael Hayden, who was NSA head when the surveillance started, have insisted that warrant less wiretapping of Americans affects only communications with Al Qaeda, and hence is limited and legal. To "protect the American people," they have both asserted the President can do whatever he wants, regardless of Congressional statute.

However, USA Today revealed last week that the surveillance wasn’t so limited after all. Its report stated that major communications corporations AT&T, Bell South, Verizon and others, have been routinely turning over their phone records to the government. This means that the government has documented proof of every phone call made by virtually every American. Of course, both the phone companies and the Bush administration insist that this does not constitute phone tapping, because only the phone numbers, not the callers’ names, are revealed. Bush has also insisted that no "data mining" or "trolling" for information is taking place. But what would the government be doing with all these phone records if not trolling through them to see who is calling whom, and why? And who is to determine what use is made of all this information?

In both the above cases, the danger is that some computer program can easily identify an American who has called someone related to a terrorist, or someone whose relations themselves are related to someone related to a terrorist or suspected terrorist, and bingo, he or she lands on the list of terrorist sympathizers. And in the climate that has been created in the so-called "Long War on Terror," that nebulous connection alone could get someone arrested, held without charges, and tortured before anyone figured out whether the original call was significant or not.

Nor is this the end of it. ABC News has learned that all of its phone calls are being monitored as well. Reporter Brian Ross, in an interview with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now says:
"The F.B.I. then, Amy, last night put out a statement essentially acknowledging that they are tracking phone calls of reporters." ("They Track Journalists, Don’t They?" 5/16/06 on Thruthout.com
The reason seems to be that the Bush administration is so apoplectic over "leaks" that it now considers all reporters suspect. The fact that this is a major attempt to intimidate the free press, not to mention its obvious violation of the First Amendment, seems not to have mattered. Rather than address the problems and even crimes exposed in such news stories, the Bush administration chooses to attack those who have the temerity to do their jobs.

Finally, a recent report ((link) has revealed that Kellogg, Brown & Root, that ubiquitous subsidiary of Vice-President Cheney’s old company Halliburton, has been given a $385 million contract to build a series of detention centers, not in Iraq, but in the United States. Now who could the government be contemplating as inmates of those domestic detention centers? Those who report the news? Those who respond with anger to the corruption they see in the government? Those who might be arrested by National Guard troops about to be dispatched as guards for our southern border, in clear violation of the Posse Comitatus Act?

Whatever the answer, one thing is becoming alarmingly clear: the police-state tactics that Americans have always been assured was a mark of totalitarian regimes like the Soviet Union, China, Iraq, or Korea are increasingly becoming the hallmark of this administration and this nation.

Monday, May 22, 2006

The Free-Market Cure for Iraq

To justify its invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration has constantly trumpeted its plans to democratize a country long exploited by a dictator, to introduce the marvels of free-market capitalism to the long-suffering Iraqi people. "Iraq for the Iraqis" was the mantra used early and often, especially with regard to its oil. A recent report by Kathy Kelly ("The Illness of Victors," Counterpunch: 5/13/06) reminds us how deceptive this sugarcoating of aggression and gross exploitation has turned out to be.

Instead of democracy and freedom, the Iraqis have been met with staggering violence, total absence of infrastructure, a healthcare system in ruins, and shortages of what was once plentiful and dirt-cheap gasoline and fuel in a country with the second largest petroleum reserves in the world. And the reason? The rules and regulations imposed by the Bush administration, in direct violation of all laws governing occupying powers, to benefit itself and its corporate cronies. Here is what Kelly says:
"The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have now instituted programs that require Iraq to begin paying back debts incurred by the former dictator, Saddam Hussein. To pay those debts, the interim government in Iraq has agreed to cut back on subsidies that enabled every family to purchase cooking oil and petrol at low prices. The prices have already risen threefold and a tenfold increase is expected by the end of the year. Another austerity measure involves ‘monetizing the ration basket,’ which means that the meager distribution of lentils, rice, cooking oil and tea once available to Iraqi families is being cut back, causing the price of these goods in the market to soar beyond the means of many poor families."
This is called "structural adjustment," the debilitating policies poorer nations worldwide must submit to, in order to conform to the wonders of the "free" market. The result is everywhere the same: in order to pay off their debts, however they are incurred, poor nations must cut off all social programs designed to help their impoverished masses survive because such programs have the odor of that economic pariah, "socialism." No matter if starvation and penury are the result; no matter if Iraq, once the only first-world nation in the Middle East is now a third-world basket case.

A democratic Iraqi government, under the gentle guidance of Uncle Sam, has been elected, and is committed to administering the free-market "medicine" to cure all of Iraq's ills. Meantime, other countries in the Middle East--Syria, Afghanistan, Iran--must be rubbing their hands in eager anticipation wondering: can Uncle Sam's wondrous health injection for us be far off?

Thursday, May 11, 2006

A Crisis in Competence

What’s to be our fate
With a gang that can’t shoot straight?
They hire the whores
And jump into wars
While building the debts
And losing the bets
In every national sector
While playing the latest trifecta

The Bush Administration seems unable to win a war but is quick to start them. They have prosecuted the war in Afghanistan as though it did not matter. In fact, it took them over a year to employ artillery. That was Rummy’s idea of a new light offense. Four years later, we are losing to the Taliban there and to the insurgents in Iraq. Could it be that this War President wants to play the Trifecta by opening a new front in Iran? Every indication is that Bush is simply drooling to attack Iran and to fill out his death wish for our fighting men and women. He deliberately outed an undercover agent and likely all her contacts. Valerie Plame was assigned to develop the intelligence on the Iranian nuclear program but that was all thrown away when Bush “declassified” her mission to cover up his lies about the yellowcake in Niger. If it were anybody else on the planet, the offender would be prosecuted for grave security violations if not treason. Instead, we listen to lame excuses by Bush that he was trying to present the truth about the yellowcake nuclear materials. As was said in the movie A Few Good Men, he can’t take the truth, and the truth is that Bush is completely incompetent.

In case you are wondering about the whores in the verse, we now know that professional prostitute Jeff Gannon visited the White House more than 80 (recorded) times while he pretended to be a reporter. Were those social or professional visits? More recently, we learned that “Duke” Cunningham was paid off by Bush Administration military contractors in money and women who serviced him in Watergate, of all places. What kind of vetting process produces whores and losers in position after position? The answer is that cronyism trumps vetting for this gang of losers. Return to the scene of the crime in New Orleans and you will discover incompetence in depth. Sometimes 15 feet under water! “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.” The contracts went out to the cronies again without a bidding process and yet their performance was abysmal. The chaos and lack of planning was tied to cronyism could not be repainted by FOX to look pretty. New Orleans is still suffering from presidential incompetence in selecting administrators or personally directing recovery. We will say more about White House imaging, but first let us consider fiscal prowess.

Bush has rung up MORE national debt than ALL preceding presidents COMBINED. He has boasted about making tax cuts for the super wealthy a permanent artifact for his legacy, but what he has done is to put every man, woman and child further in debt than anybody can possibly pay off in a lifetime. That is his inevitable legacy. This is the administration that used Dick Cheney to draft up our energy policy in secret. Now you know why it was a secret set of meetings. You can see the reasons at the gas pump as the dollars spin up like a Las Vegas slot machine, except that sometimes you can win at Las Vegas. This is the Bush that claimed, “Of course, you have to have a court order to wiretap.” He then commanded NSA to wiretap with out court orders. The only thing I can say in his defense is that he might not know the difference. Yes, he could be that incompetent.

As for the Bush penchant to spin the news, events have a way of building up where the truth becomes ever more difficult to hide. How many disasters can be rephrased as successes? Yes, he has fired Scott McClellan, but is it Scott’s fault that lies and failure got to the podium before him? Will Tony Snow and FOX be able to paint Iraq and Afghanistan as wins? Will he be able to continue to speak of the “wild speculation” of our likely attack on Iran? At some point, the pattern that is already identical to the buildup for Iraq will become apparent. “No options are off the table.” I once felt that Bush was misguided but capable, but the evidence is building that incompetence is the root cause of tragedy. Don’t look for Bush to solve his own problem. He can’t. Will people in the streets do it?

Monday, May 01, 2006

The Problem with Immigration

The current turmoil over illegal immigration--including the largest demonstrations in U.S. history--has resulted in reams of foolishness. Whether it be the standard complaint that "these people" are lawbreakers and should be criminalized (the approach of House Republicans), or the boilerplate lament that all immigrants, legal or illegal, always help rather than hurt the American economy (the approach of the protesters and their supporters), or the guest-worker program pushed for years by the Bush administration, nearly all arguments have so far suppressed a critical fact: the nefarious role of the North American Free Trade Agreement in stimulating emigration from Latin America. An article by Roger Bybee and Carolyn Winter, "Immigration Flood Unleashedby NAFTA," (THRUTOUT.com) makes this crystal clear.

Where NAFTA was supposed to "solve" the problem of immigration, it has done just the opposite. It has allowed American corporations like Walmart to flood the Mexican market with cheap goods, thus putting small Mexican companies out of business, and forcing already underpaid Mexican workers to compete with labor in China and elsewhere. It has encouraged American agribusiness to overwhelm Mexico with U.S. grown corn, which is so heavily subsidized by U.S. taxpayers that Mexican growers cannot compete (this is reminiscent of what happened in Italy in the 1880s, with exactly the same result: impoverished peasants who fled to America in droves). All this, plus American factories in border towns paying starvation wages, has created such massive displacement (poor farmers and workers moving to overburdened cities with no jobs) and misery that the rate of immigration has dramatically increased since 1996 when NAFTA was signed. Whereas only about 2.5 million Mexican illegals were here in 1996, more than 8 million have crossed the border illegally since then, thanks in large part to NAFTA. "Free trade" has turned out to be the "free fall" of wages and living standards not only in Mexico, but in all of the Americas, and that includes the United States.

As Bybee and Winter put it:
The wholesale surge of Mexicans across the border dramatically illustrates that NAFTA was no attempt at a broad uplift of living conditions and democracy in Mexico, but a formula for government-sanctioned corporate plunder benefiting elites on both sides of the border. NAFTA essentially annexed Mexico as a low-wage industrial suburb of the USA.
No amount of half-baked solutions by politicians trying to appease an aroused electorate will fix this mess. Only a serious and courageous look at the dominant reign of corporatism and globalization can ever hope to stop the massive migration of the world's new wage slaves.