THE WEEK IN FEARING FEAR ITSELF

Big week on the not-trampling-over-all-of-our-values-and-freedoms-in-the-same-of-security front. I’m skeptical of how much difference the McCain ammendment committing us not to torture will make on the ground, but it’s a good sign that even after sending Dick Cheney out of his undisclosed location and onto Capitol Hill, Bush wasn’t able to keep Congressional Republicans on the reservation (the anti-anti-torture reservation, that is). The ultimate result, in which Bush met McCain much further than halfway from his original “waterboarding is freedom” position, shows him to be a weakened President and puts this nation back on record against willfully inflicting abusive pain on prisoners. The urgency of the issue, and the limitations of legal language like McCain’s in addressing it, are reinforced in Human Rights Watch’s announcement today on pervasive torture in secret US-operated foreign prisons:

Eight detainees now held at Guantánamo described to their attorneys how they were held at a facility near Kabul at various times between 2002 and 2004. The detainees, who called the facility the “dark prison” or “prison of darkness,” said they were chained to walls, deprived of food and drinking water, and kept in total darkness with loud rap, heavy metal music, or other sounds blared for weeks at a time. The detainees offer consistent accounts about the facility, saying that U.S. and Afghan guards were not in uniform and that U.S. interrogators did not wear military attire, which suggests that the prison may have been operated by personnel from the Central Intelligence Agency…Some detainees said they were shackled in a manner that made it impossible to lie down or sleep, with restraints that caused their hands and wrists to swell up or bruise. The detainees said they were deprived of food for days at a time, and given only filthy water to drink. The detainees also said that they were held incommunicado and never visited by representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross or other independent officials.

This “dark prison” report follows Friday’s New York Times revelation that President Bush has been authorizing the NSA to spy on Americans without even going through the secret courts designed for the purpose, which should shake any confidence one might have that better laws will fully set this administration straight. Bush apparently believes that he is authorized to personally designate Americans as surveillance targets based on the congressional resolution authorizing him to go to war in Afghanistan.

That Congress showed much less deference on Friday, when Bill Frist could only muster 52 votes for cloture on the Conference Committee’s version of the PATRIOT Act reauthorization, which took out all the civil liberties protections that Russ Feingold and others managed to get into the version passed unanimously by the Senate. In a striking victory for sensible privacy protections over fear-mongering, Feingold, Leahy, and company have kept the Senate from approving the Conference Committee Draft. It’s also a huge victory for Feingold personally, who has gone from being the only Senator to vote against the PATRIOT Act to leading a charge to continue debate on the bill which saw more Republicans cross over to oppose cloture than Democrats crossing over to support it. Looks like the Democratic leadership, rather than marginalizing him, is now trying to pull him into the party establishment, handing him a seat on the Intelligence Commission.

Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, made the news for her own sorry contribution to the discourse on patriotism and freedom: a proposal to ban flag-burning. Hers is ostensibly a compromise position in that it’s a bill rather than a constitutional amendment, and it only applies on public property or when someone is intimidated. But legitimating speech restrictions based on how uncomfortable the speech makes other people feel makes a mockery of free speech. She should know better.

ON EMBOLDENING

In the wake of Russ Feingold’s call last week for a clearly-defined timetable for withdrawl of American troops from Iraq, President Bush has been stirring himself from his vacation long enough to offer a series of iterations of the same tired argument that announcing plans to withdraw troops would be letting the terrorists win (a category which, to review, includes smkoing pot, buying knock-off merchandise, and treating intelligence claims with skepticism, but doesn’t include buying an SUV, writing gay people out of the constitution, or renewing the PATRIOT Act). The latest edition of this argument, deployed for the liberal policy threat du jour, is dressed up in tactical sounding language about “emboldening” terrorists, but the thrust is nothing new: There are evil people who must be defied, and they want us to take troops out of Iraq, so we must do the opposite. Comforting rhetoric for some, but not much of a military strategy.

In Iraq, as elsewhere, there may be a certain number of fanatics willing to sacrifice anything under any circumstances, but there’s a much larger number of people who weigh their choices based on an array of perceptual, factual, emotional, and social, factors which drive one towards or against an act of terrirism. Bush would have us believe that an announcement of a schedule for American withdrawl would inspire more of these people to take Iraqi and foreign lives. This would require that there be a significant number of angry people not currently “emboldened” to take action because it seems futile, who on hearing that US troops would be leaving would decide that insurgents could make a dent after all and would suddenly become violent, targeting – according to Bush’s rhetoric – the very troops whose tenure in Iraq had just been announced to be temporary. The sad truth is that terrorists are indeed making a dent in Iraq, and they seem to be plenty emboldened. More credible, I’d say, is the opposite theory: the creation of a clear timetable for American withdrawl, with doing little to satiate insurgent leaders, would deprive them of their greatest recruiting tool and send a signal well beyond Iraq’s borders that the United States government does not have imperial ambitions in the country. As Feingold himself argued two months ago:

When I was in Baghdad in February, a senior coalition officer told me that he believes the U.S. could “take the wind out of the sails of the insurgents” by providing a clear, public plan and timeframe for the remaining U.S. mission. He thought this could rob them of their recruiting momentum. I also think it could rob them of some unity. All reports indicate that the forces fighting U.S. troops and attacking Iraqi police, soldiers, and civilians are a disparate bunch with different agendas, from embittered former regime elements to foreign fighters. The one thing that unites them is opposition to America’s presence in Iraq. Remove that factor, and we may see a more divided, less effective, more easily defeated insurgency.

THE WEEK IN COMPASSIONATE CONSERVATISM

Well, the Republican Majority has finally left DC for another one of those extended vacations that most of them like to impugn when French workers take them. They didn’t go home nearly soon enough though.

Wednesday night – by two votes – the House passed CAFTA, voting to accelerate the corporate-driven race to the bottom in working standards. As Mark Weisbrot reminds us:

CAFTA will increase some barriers to trade while lowering others. One of the barriers it increases is on patented pharmaceutical drugs. This is the most costly form of protectionism in the world today. The benefits from free trade in these goods are much appreciated by the millions of Americans who cross the Canadian or Mexican border to get their prescription drugs. But CAFTA will make it more difficult for countries like Guatemala to get access to affordable medicines…Over the last 30 years the typical (median) wage in the United States has hardly grown — only about 9 percent. Productivity — output per employee — has grown by 82 percent over the same period…Over the next decade, the dollar will fall further and our trade deficit will shrink. Measured in non-dollar currencies, the value of U.S. imports is expected to decline over the next decade. This means that CAFTA countries are making costly concessions for a prize that most likely won’t be there.

House Democrats did a much better job of bucking the “Washington Consensus” than their counterparts in the Senate, a quarter of whom backed the bill. That only fifteen House Democrats voted with Thomas Friedman on a “free trade” bill is a hopeful sign of how much that consensus has fractured in the past decade. Those fifteen votes, sadly, seem to have made all the difference Wednesday. David Sirota provides a helpful list of the eleven Democrats in Congress who voted not just for CAFTA but for the Bankruptcy and “Class Action Fairness” bills as well, and some much-needed skepticism about claims that they acted out of electoral necessity.

As if CAFTA wasn’t bad enough, yesterday the Senate passed up a bill protecting detainees’ human rights and passed a bill curtailing victims’ rights to a day in court against the gun industry. And an Energy Bill which, as John Podesta observes,

gives away our tax dollars to energy companies already making record profits. The challenges we face in moving to more secure and sustainable energy use are large. We need a bold energy policy for the United States. Sadly, even the modest commitment to increase the use of renewable sources for electricity or language acknowledging the danger of climate change did not survive in the final bill. We must continue to challenge the Bush administration and Congress to get serious about decreasing the oil consumption of the United States and combating global warming. The energy bill the Senate will vote on today ignores those challenges.

And the Senate voted to extend the PATRIOT Act, though in a slightly more constitution-friendly version than that passed by the House. As Lisa Graves of the ACLU said yesterday:

Although the ACLU was unable to endorse the final bill, it contains some provisions mindful of the Bill of Rights, and does not include such broad and unnecessary powers like administrative subpoenas.

Small victories.

A couple thoughts about the State of the Union Address:

Glad to see so many Democrats clapping when Bush announced that the PATRIOT Act was set to expire next year and before he had called for it to be renewed. Nice to see glimmers of resistance from the Dems – maybe this time they’ll vote against the damn thing.

Have to say I’m not quite sure what Bush meant by “weapons of mass destruction-related program activities” – but I guess that’s the idea. Were the Iraqis hosting academic conferences about WMD?

If Bush believes that alluding to a constitutional marriage denying homosexual couples the right to marriage without explicitly calling for it with mollify both the “religious right” and the “soccer moms,” he’s got another think coming.

Giving gay couples the same legal protections as heterosexual ones? Not, contrary to conservative dogma, “special rights.” Giving religious groups a free pass to ignore anti-discrimination law and still receive federal funding on account of being religious? There are your special rights.

Howard Dean’s primal scream Monday night I think we can agree didn’t make him new friends. But how many people actually found the Daschle-Pelosi fireside chat to be a more effective response to a speech that was a paen to the radical right?

The Center for American Progress offers some line-by-line parshanut (commentary).

From an interview with Rep. Bernie Sanders:

And this is clearly an outrage for a dozen different reasons, but many librarians all over this country are worrying about the chilling impact it has on people’s reading habits. Is someone taking out a biography of Osama Bin Laden? Are you going to read a book on anarchy? Are you going to read books that might be controversial if you think the F.B.I. is going to know what is you are reading and that information will get out? So what I’m happy to say is we have the support of the American Librarians Association who have been very, very active on this issue. The book sellers all over America have come out and said, hey, the people of this country have the right to read what they want to read. If the F.B.I. has reason to believe somebody is a terrorist involved in terrorist activities, there are proper law enforcement mechanisms by which we can investigate those people. The good news is that I think yesterday’s victory, as you indicated, this is the first time that an aspect of the U.S.A. Patriot Act has come to the floor of the House and it was soundly, soundly defeated.