Monday, September 19, 2005


By William Fisher

On the morning after President George W. Bush promised to carry out “one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen,” a coalition of African American leaders laid out their vision of what needs to be done to restore the physical and human damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) urged President Bush and Congress to “set an inclusive and proactive agenda in addressing problems caused by Hurricane Katrina”.

The group said relief efforts should also take into consideration the growing poverty crisis in the Gulf region and other parts of the United States.

Bruce S. Gordon, NAACP President and Chief Executive Officer, said, “We want to make sure that going forward there are safeguards to assure that people displaced by Hurricane Katrina will be the first in line to get jobs rebuilding the affected areas. In addition, we want President Bush to see that there are safeguards to assure equity in the distribution of rebuilding funds and that minority contractors have a fair chance to be awarded some of the work that will be necessary to rebuild New Orleans and other affected communities.”

In a press conference, coalition leaders also called on the Justice Department to review all arrests and detentions to ensure survivors are able to vote in local elections, including the February 2006 elections.

The Coalition, which met at Howard University, issued a “Call to Action” that outlines steps and recommendations to achieve eight “critical” goals.

Rep. Melvin Watt (D., NC), Chairman, Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), said, “The CBC is absolutely committed to the principles addressed in this call to action and we will work across party lines” to have them carried out. The action steps and recommendations proposed by the coalition include:

Ensure displaced families’ immediate and long-term right to return to the Gulf Coast region.

Provide temporary housing at military bases currently closed in the Gulf Coast region.

Provide economic incentives for displaced families to return to the region.

Rebuild and reconnect families and children.

Establish $100 billion Family Reconstruction Fund (providing unemployment assistance, job training, school placement, finding separated children, etc).

Ensure that local residents have first choice at jobs and contracts in rebuilding effort.

Establish a Gulf Coast Region Reconstruction Fund for rebuilding homes, businesses and universities.

Establish timeline to rebuild colleges and universities, including historically black universities, Xavier, Dillard, Southern and Jackson State (Mississippi).

Set a 50 percent residency target for all contracts and a 40 percent minority vendor target for all reconstruction.

Place a moratorium on all contracts until civil rights provision can be reinstituted.

Provide physical and mental health assistance.

Order the admittance of minority community-based counselors in facilities with evacuees nationwide.

Assure health benefits to all affected citizens for a period no less than 24 months.

Ensure displaced persons’ ability to vote in state and local elections.

Ensure homeowners right of first refusal to reclaim property.

Freeze all foreclosure proceedings against property in affected areas for a minimum of 12 months.

Monitor distribution of resources by federal agencies, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), part of the Department of Homeland Security.

Establish a diverse commission to monitor the equitable distribution of relief resources by FEMA and major relief agencies as well as the equitable reconstruction of the affected region.

Develop a comprehensive strategy to address poverty crisis in America.

Earlier, the NAACP urged Congress to establish a Hurricane Katrina Compensation Fund similar to one that was created for victims of the September 11 terrorist attack.

The 911 fund was created by Congress 11 days after the attacks that toppled the World Trade Center office towers in New York City in 2001. Historically, there have been federally administrated victim compensation funds for more than 100 years.

NAACP volunteers and staff have been delivering relief supplies to displaced persons in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama. The organization has set up a
command center in Biloxi.

It is also working with several organizations including the National Medical Association, the Black Psychiatrists Association, the American Psychiatrists Association and American Counseling Association to help hurricane victims deal with the acute trauma and stress as a result of being displaced and losing friends and loved ones.

In his speech from New Orleans last night, President Bush touched on some of the Coalition’s proposals, but did not address many others. He said, however, that he would be open to ideas on what to do and how best to do it.

Mr. Bush said, “The work that has begun in the Gulf Coast region will be one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen.”

Ron Daniels, Executive Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, says, "President Bush's recognition that ‘racial discrimination’ played a role in the impoverished conditions that hampered so many black and poor people from evacuating prior to the onslaught of hurricane Katrina is too little too late. He should have publicly apologized for a lapse of leadership that caused grief, pain and death to so many people. The coalition of African American leaders is absolutely on target in demanding a ‘right of return’ for all residents and affirmative action programs and procedures to ensure that contracts, construction and the redevelopment of the area will be done in a fair and equitable manner. The last thing we need is the gentrification and Disneyfication of New Orleans."

On September 8, President Bush issued a proclamation suspending the
minimum wage requirements for relief workers engaged in Katrina recovery operations.

But according to a report from the Congressional Research Service (CRS), said Steven Aftergood in Secrecy News, published by the Federation of American Scientists, “In order to do so, he relied upon a statutory authority that has been dormant for 30 years and that appears to be legally inoperative”.

"I find that the conditions caused by Hurricane Katrina constitute a 'national emergency' within the meaning of section 3147 of title 40, United States Code," Bush declared on Sep. 8 as he removed the Davis Bacon Act wage supports for workers in Louisiana, and portions of Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.

But this emergency statute was one of numerous authorities that were rendered dormant by the National Emergencies Act of 1976, and that can only be activated by certain procedural formalities that were absent in this case,” Aftergood wrote.

He said, “The president must formally declare a national emergency under the National Emergencies Act, and he must specify which standby legal authorities he proposes to activate so as to permit congressional restraint of emergency powers.”

"Pres. Bush proceeded as if the National Emergencies Act did not exist."

Aftergood also noted that California Democrat Rep. George Miller and several dozen other members of Congress have introduced a bill to undo what the president has proposed. The measure would "reinstate the application of the wage requirements of the Davis-Bacon Act to Federal contracts in areas affected by Hurricane Katrina.”


By William Fisher

The U.S. Government’s sluggish and uncoordinated response to Hurricane Katrina again drew public attention to some of the key recommendations of the 9/11 Commission that have yet to be implemented or have made unsatisfactory or marginal progress.

This is the conclusion reached in a new report by the 9/11 Commissioners, now operating privately as the Public Discourse Project. Since the end of its public mandate, the former commissioners have held a series of public hearings on what the government has done – and failed to do – to correct the flaws it exposed in its best-selling report last year.

Many of their recommendations are as relevant to natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina as they are to man-made terrorist attacks.

Among the steps on which the report says the government has made only “minimal progress” is the allocation of radio spectrum that would allow police, fire, emergency medical services and other first responders to communicate with one another, and the National Guard and agencies of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

This was a major shortcoming on 9/11, and cost several hundred lives. Authorities experienced the exact problem during Katrina, four years after 9/11.

The Report said legislation pending before Congress would compel the return of the analog broadcast spectrum and its reallocation, including for public safety purposes. “Congress should mandate this reallocation by the earliest possible date.”

Four senior lawmakers, writing in The New York Times this morning, said, “After watching the horrific communications breakdown that occurred during Katrina, will we wait another four years before acting? How many more lives will be lost? What kind of catastrophic disaster is necessary for Congress to give these heroes the tools they need to save lives?” The four are Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Reps. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) and Curt Weldon (R-Pa.).

The Commissioners’ report also charged that the government has made only minimal progress toward the adoption of an Incident Command System (ICS). “When multiple agencies or multiple jurisdictions are involved, they should adopt a unified command. … In the future, the (DHS) should consider making funding contingent on aggressive and realistic training in accordance with ICS and unified command procedures.”

The lack of a unified command system was one of the major obstacles contributing to widespread chaos and confusion during Hurricane Katrina.

The Commissioners said, “Many fire and police departments and state and local authorities are already well versed in using the ICS — others are being trained in it. Hurricane Katrina demonstrates a major failure: the absence of unified command…Clear lines of command and control for responding authorities are essential to minimize civilian and responder casualties.”

The Commissioners said the DHS set October 2004 as the deadline for full Incident Command System compliance ‘to the maximum extent possible’. ”The hard deadline for full compliance as a condition for federal preparedness funds is October 1, 2006. This date must not slip. All jurisdictions must train and exercise the Incident Command System as it applies to them”, the report warned.

The Commissioners also gave the government a failing grade on preparing a plan to “regularly assess the types of threats the country faces to determine (a) the adequacy of the government’s plans—and the progress against those plans—to protect America’s critical infrastructure and (b) the readiness of the government to respond to the threats that the United States might face.”

It graded the government’s progress in carrying out this assessment as “unsatisfactory”.

It said, “The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 required DHS to issue a report by June 15, 2005, assessing the risks and vulnerabilities of the nation’s critical infrastructure. This report has not yet been released.”

This type of report would have assessed the nation’s ability to respond to natural disasters such as Katrina, as well as terrorist threats.

“Regular national assessments of threat, vulnerability, and preparedness will ensure that government efforts are making measurable progress in reducing the overall terrorist threat. DHS should produce the report…as soon as possible, and demonstrate its capability to regularly review and modify the assessment to reflect the changing threat environment and state of readiness,” the report said.

Finally, it urged the DHS to encourage the private sector, principally the insurance and credit-rating industries, to establish standards for private preparedness, adding that that only minimal progress has been made in this area.

The Commissioners recalled that in a May 2005 speech to private sector representatives, (DHS) Secretary (Michael) Chertoff “correctly noted that preparedness is not solely a government responsibility. The insurance and credit-rating industries are beginning to incorporate national preparedness standards into their underwriting and risk-analysis criteria. Leaders in the legal profession are beginning to evaluate the National Preparedness Standard as a “legal standard of care.”

Still, it said, “awareness of the Standard throughout the corporate sector is low".

“In another attack and in any natural disaster, private-sector employees will likely again be on the front lines. As the 9/11 Commission Report showed, employees of enterprises that institutionalize a high level of emergency preparedness are far more likely to survive in a disaster.”

The Commissioners urged corporate leaders to “take the lead in encouraging all American businesses, especially those in high-risk areas, or who own critical national infrastructure, to incorporate National Preparedness Standards into
their business practices. DHS should make private-sector preparedness a higher priority. The insurance and credit-rating industries should incorporate the National Preparedness Standard into their evaluations.”

Prof. Beau Grosscup of California State University at Chico says, “This provides further proof of two current political realities. First, for the Bush administration the real purpose of the 9/11 Commission was to shift the blame away from it and the Pentagon and onto the 'Clinton-wrecked' intelligence agencies, notably the FBI. Secondly, and more important to the future of the nation, making government work goes against the Bush Administration's privatization agenda and thus is to be systematically avoided.”


By William Fisher

A hunger strike by that began in June by terror suspects imprisoned by the U.S. military at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (GITMO) – and reportedly settled – has been restarted and is growing, with 15 detainees hospitalized and 13 being fed through tubes.

The number of hunger strikers varies. The military has said at various times the number is 89 and 76. But a lawyer for a group of detainees says the number is now 200 and growing.

“As far as their reasons for hunger striking, it seems to be a myriad of different reasons that they all have, the largest one seems to be like they want to protest their continued (detention),” said British lawyer Clive Stafford-Smith, who represents 40 detainees, including one of the hunger strikers — Briton Omar Deghayes, 36.

He added, “Their future is uncertain from a legal point view so they are trying to find out exactly what their future entails.”

The hunger strike is the second since late June. The first ended after the authorities made a number of promises, including better access to books, and bottled drinking water.

"Eventually, because people were near death, the military caved and let us set up a prisoner welfare council of six prisoners,” one detainee is reported to have said.

But the prisoners claim that they were tricked into resuming eating. One said, "The administration promised that if we gave them 10 days, they would bring the prison into compliance with the Geneva conventions. They said this had been approved by (Defense Secretary) Donald Rumsfeld.”

He said, “As a result of these promises, we agreed to end the strike on July 28. "It is now August 11. They have betrayed our trust (again).”

A military spokesman, Sgt. Justin Behrens, said in a written response to questions submitted by the Associated Press, that some of the striking detainees “have not eaten for a month. The others have refused at least nine consecutive meals. Fifteen have been hospitalized and 13 of those were being fed through tubes. Medics are monitoring all 89 and checking their vital signs daily.”

Previously, the military has said that 76 inmates were participating in the hunger strike.

“People are desperate”, said lawyer Stafford-Smith. “They have been there three years. They were promised that the Geneva Conventions would be respected and various changes would happen and, unfortunately, the (U.S.) government reneged on that.”

He added, “Sadly, it is very hard to see how a very obstinate military and a very desperate group of prisoners are ever going to come to an agreement.”

Another Guantanamo prison spokesman, Maj. Jeff Weir, said the military would not allow the detainees’ conditions to become life-threatening.

“Basically, if you stop eating and wait several weeks or months, it is a slow form of suicide,” Weir told British Broadcasting Corp. radio and television. “No detention facility in the world will deliberately let their people commit suicide, so we can’t let that happen.”

Statements from the hunger strikers were declassified by the U.S. government last week and turned over the Stafford-Smith. He said they reveal that the men are starving themselves in protest at the conditions in the camp and at their alleged maltreatment - including desecration of the Qur'an - by American guards. The statements were written on August 11.

In another declassified statement, British detainee Omar Deghayes, said: "In July, some people took no water for many days. I was part of the strike and I am again this time. Some people were taken to hospital, and put on drip feeds, but they pulled the needles out, as they preferred to die. There were two doctors. One wanted to force-feed the men, but they got legal advice saying that they could not if the men refused. In the end the military agreed to negotiate. We came off the strike [on July 28 2005], but we gave them two weeks, and if the changes were not implemented we would go back on strike."

That is apparently what occurred. However, the Department of Defense today declined to comment beyond Maj. Weir’s prepared statement.

U.S. human rights groups are expressing concern “We are very concerned about the health of individuals held at Guantanamo,” Avi Cover, an attorney at Human Rights First, said, “The hunger strike is a tragic and inevitable consequence of a detention system that is distinguished by secrecy, contempt for the rule of law, and that is fraught with physical and mental abuses,” he said, adding, “At the very least independent monitors and independent physicians should be permitted access to the prisoners. Family members of those striking should be notified of their relatives’ physical condition and whether they have been hospitalized.”

Like Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, infamous for its much-photographed abuse of prisoners, Guantanamo has become a lightning rod for criticism by human rights advocates, lawyers, foreign governments, and many American lawmakers.

Sen. Lindsay Graham, a conservative Republican Senator from South Carolina, has called on lawmakers to enact legislation that would force the U.S. military to strictly adhere to the U.S. Code of Military Justice (USCMJ) in its treatment of prisoners. The USMCJ forbids cruel and degrading treatment.

Others in the U.S. Congress have called for an independent commission to investigate conditions at Guantanamo. These include Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican who was held in captivity for eight years and tortured by the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War.

Many American lawmakers, including Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, have called for the prison facility to be shut down.

But Guantanamo has also had its defenders. For example, Sen. Jeff Sessions, a Republican from Alabama, told a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that the prison “is ideally placed, “overlooking the water…It would make a beautiful resort.” Obviously looking for endorsements from influential opinion leaders, he urged his fellow senators to visit the facility.

And the powerful chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, put on a presentation of what he called GITMO’s “five-star cuisine: Lemon fish, two types of fruit, two types of vegetables”. This is lemon fish,” he told a press conference. “And this is what the 20th hijacker [of the September 11th attacks] and Osama bin Laden's bodyguards will be eating this week in Guantanamo."

The uncertain legal status of Guantanamo detainees has been a principal source of controversy. Various Federal Courts have expressed differing views on whether detainees have access to the U.S. criminal justice system, or whether they can be held without charge indefinitely as ‘enemy combatants’ as determined by President George W. Bush. The military legal review system at Guantanamo has been widely criticized.

There are numerous appeals of court decisions now on their way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Brian J. Foley, a professor at the Florida Coastal School of Law in Jacksonville, says the hunger strike is “a direct result of the minimal legal process that our leaders, using our government and in our name, have deigned to provide for these men to prove they're not ‘enemy combatants’. The process doesn't give these men a meaningful opportunity to be heard. Nor do most of these men have access to lawyers or the outside world. What else is left for them to do?”

The prison at Guantanamo opened in January 2002 and now holds around 520 prisoners from 40 countries. More than 230 others have been released or transferred to the custody of their home governments. Many were captured during the U.S. war in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks.


By William Fisher

The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies’ report on the Egyptian elections says the mass media were generally biased toward the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) candidate. The performance of audio and visual mass media was different from state-owned and private mass media. State-owned newspapers, in particular daily newspapers, continued to be flagrantly biased toward the ruling party's candidate, as they were during the first week of the campaign, it said.

In the U.S., where media is not controlled by the State but is usually owned by large corporations, journalists and commentators appeared to divide neatly into two camps. One clung to the Bush Administration’s view that the election represented “a first step toward democracy.” The other was that the election and the process leading up to it was “a shameless sham” intended only to ensure the uninterrupted flow of aid funds from Washington to Cairo.

In a real democratic election, said the New York Times, “The ruling party should not be allowed to shape the election arrangements and intimidate voters. The candidates should be able to compete on a reasonably level playing field. Impartial observers should be welcome and given time to deploy themselves at polling places nationwide. Not one of these defining features was evident in last week's Egyptian presidential voting, whose main purpose was to usher President Hosni Mubarak into his fifth six-year term.”

The San Francisco Chronicle said, “In effect, the BBC's Cairo-based correspondent Fergus Nichol pointed out, alluding to influence from the Bush administration in preparing for this latest ‘democratic’ contest, Mubarak's regime had been ‘forced by outside pressure into an election it never wanted. ...’ As a result, Mubarak ‘set out not to adapt to change, but to control it, in the process drawing a new template for cynical election management’.”

The influential Washington Post wrote, “For the first time in Egyptian history, multiple candidates were allowed to stand in the election. And many assume
that credit is due the Bush administration for its persistent pleas for democracy in the Arab world. But the far more significant outcome of the presidential election is that over the last year, as Egyptians anxiously anticipated election day, a strong and significant opposition movement against Mubarak went public. And who is the backbone of this opposition movement? The Islamists. For the first time since the 1970s, thousands of Egyptians of all political and religious persuasions joined forces in street protests, demanding political reform and an end to the regime. While a fractured opposition had operated behind the scenes for years, this election inspired secularists, leftists and, most of all, Islamists to take the unprecedented step of coordinating their various campaigns against Mubarak's expected victory.”

And in the heartland of America, the Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Journal-Sentinel wrote, “One in every four Arabs in the world is an Egyptian. Mainly because it is so huge, Egypt has traditionally been the most influential country in the Arab world, which, in turn, is why the slightly democratic election that was held in that country last week was an event to be saluted. ‘Slightly democratic’ is a term of faint praise, which is what President Hosni Mubarak deserves. The election he permitted - or acquiesced in - featured nine opposition candidates, and it allowed for the possibility, however remote, of a Mubarak defeat after 24 years in power.”

On America’s West Coast, the Los Angeles Times editorialized, “When Mubarak announced in late July that he would run in a real presidential campaign, it might have been a watershed moment for the United States. Egypt, its most stalwart Arab ally, was finally coming around to democracy. But then came events that undermined what seemed like a positive step: security forces cracking down on peaceful public protests; the government disqualifying 19 candidates without explanation; state-run press and TV openly stumping for Mubarak despite rules requiring them to be neutral. Mubarak also refused international monitors for the election, disregarding U.S. requests. The result was an election under the watchful eye of the state, with voters filling out ballots as Mubarak supporters peered over their shoulders. The turnout was 23%, with fewer than one in four registered voters casting a ballot.”

One of America’s more thoughtful liberal news-weeklies, The New Republic, said, “Last week, in the state controlled newspapers, the president offered a vague promise to expand civil liberties, though he stopped short of promising to release some of the thousands of political prisoners who have languished in jails for years under the Emergency Laws. The Muslim Brotherhood, which gained new stature and visibility during the campaign, has vowed to keep the pressure on the regime. ‘We want the abolishment of all the laws that limit the freedom of the Egyptian citizens’, Mohammed Mahdi Akef, supreme guide of the Brotherhood, told Newsweek. ‘We will not rest until the people of Egypt know what it is to live in a free society’. In the November parliamentary elections, analysts predict, the regime will almost certainly allow opposition parties to make substantial gains, though not enough to loosen the regime's hold on power. The question for the newly energized opposition--and for the youngbloods--is whether Egyptians will settle for that.”

USA Today, one of the country’s few national newspapers, wrote, “The government said the decision to allow challengers signals a move toward greater democracy in a country that has seen only authoritarian rule for more than a half-century. Opponents dismissed the reform claims as a sham, noting that Mubarak's party controls most of the government, including the election process, and that restrictions make it difficult for opponents to gain ground. The country's biggest Islamic group, the Muslim Brotherhood, is banned entirely.”

In Boston, the Globe newspaper wrote, “There should be no illusions about the authenticity of Wednesday's presidential election in Egypt. Even if reports of workers for President Hosni Mubarak's ruling party paying people to vote for him are unfounded, and even if objective monitors had been permitted at all 10,000 polling stations in Egypt, the exercise, with its foregone conclusion, would still be a derisory mimicking of a truly democratic election.”

Whether the election created an opening for a more inclusive, more transparent and more representative process in the future will be argued for years. Speaking personally, I wouldn’t hold my breath!