Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Fall and Rise of a Lovely Day

By William Fisher

So there I was, sitting in my living room, laptop perched on knees, I-Pod across the room belting out tunes from my collection of jazz, blues and gospel. It was September 28, 2010, the sun was trying to peek out, and I was looking forward to a lovely day.

And just to seal that deal, my I-Pod was playing an old favorite of mine:

America, America, God Shed His Grace on Thee,
And Crowned Thy Good With Brotherhood
From Sea to Shining Sea…

…wailed Ray Charles.

For the first time in a long time, I actually heard the words: And crowned thy good with brotherhood…
Must have been a portent because my next mouse click brought up a story by IPS, the news service I work for. The headline read Iran's "Blogfather" Gets 20-Year Prison Sentence.” The story ran:

SAN FRANCISCO, California, Sep 28, 2010 (IPS) - A week after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told heads of state gathered for the U.N. General Assembly in New York that his government does not jail its citizens for expressing their opinions, Iran's Revolutionary Court sentenced Hossein Derakhshan, an internationally known Iranian-Canadian blogger, to 19 and a half years in prison.


For a lovely day, that’s a killer. What to do? I assess my situation:

Here I am, blessed with that rare breed of editor, who figures I know better than she knows what’s going down in my particular area of interest today. So she rarely assigns me anything to write; apparently used to living on the edge, each day she lets me write what I want to write. Then she edits it to keep me from looking like a fool.

Most of what I write is critical of the President, his Cabinet, or other government officials. The policy doesn’t make sense. Or the policy’s OK, but some particular agency doesn’t have the resources to execute the policy. A member of the Administration is behaving in a way that discredits his team. Members of Congress who’d rather retain campaign talking points by letting critical issues fester rather than by fixing them. A judicial decision I may find particularly shameful because it ruins someone’s career based on the decision of a judge who thinks furthering his ideological agenda is more precious than using the rule of law to further the Republic. The litany is endless. And angry-making.

Yet, I like to think my comments are constructively critical. “What’s gone wrong, why, and does anyone know how to make it better?” are the questions I ask myself as I sit down to write.

But today was to be different. I am not generally a flag-waving hand-on-heart type of guy; my patriotism is quieter, just about silent and always most undemonstrative. Maybe it was my mother, who admonished me: No Public Displays of Affection. Or it’s a British thing I learned during 20 summers in London; the Brits are understated in this way (and just about every other way) except when they find themselves at a football match.

But my hesitancy came before I read the words of Mr. Ahmadinejad, tried to digest his world-class hypocrisy and tried to comprehend how the impact of any blog could be so cataclysmic as to justify taking away 20 years of a young man’s life.

And that’s when the light went on. Sure, the NSA could be monitoring my blog but they can’t just throw me in jail and forget the key. And we do –- collectively. Those who really believe in our Constitution regularly go to court to demonstrate that our Bill of Rights may be suffering from some acute maladies, but reports of its demise are vastly exaggerated.

It is ironic, but the people who insisted that the Constitution contain a Bill of Rights were not afraid of journalists (or Tea Parties) ranting about Big Government encroaching on their freedoms. They were afraid of Big Government grabbing more and more power so as to seriously erode those freedoms.

And it still is. Not much has changed. But one of the things that has are the objectives of the anti-government protesters. These days its examples of “Government Grabbing Too Much Power” are such initiatives as health care, financial re-regulation, and gun control. Half of our country thinks these are the crowning achievements of our First Black President; the other half thinks such accrual of power is putting our country on the slippery slope to Socialism.

But whichever half they inhabit, the rule of law seems to be so deeply embedded in our political DNA that, no matter how bad things get, lawyers will always make a living.

Some of my Republican friends are deeply troubled about the lawyers. They would dearly like to enact legislation resulting in what they call “tort reform ” – which one way or another would limit who lawyers can sue and how much money they can collect if they win.

I think that’s a terrible idea, because the number of court cases lawyers bring each year has become for me something like a barometer of political strength. Yes, there are far too many ridiculous - - frivolous, they’re called -- lawsuits filed. Yes, there is prosecutorial misconduct we’ll probably never hear about. Yes, there is a deeply unjust set of sentencing rules that puts a hugely disproportionate number of African-Americans behind bars. And, yes, there are rallies in many streets by faux Colonials, whose participants are inspired by the know-nothings of the world, the Glenn Becks and the Sarah Palins – and nourished by the big money of giant corporations, the newest ventriloquists for “small business.”

What? You’d prefer riots in the streets? I don’t think so. Or agents of the “security services” swooping down on you and your wife and kids as they sleep and carting your whole family off to neverland, which means you will never be heard from again.

We’ve already seen – and we keep seeing – evidence that such outrages are in fact happening now, that they began to happen with some regularity after 9/11. That they are not happening on a far more toxic scale is attributable to one of the great and unique attributes of the United States of America.
The rule of law.

It is that glorious attribute that most conspicuously distinguishes America from Iran – and from all those countries to which we sell arms but who care not a jot about the people of their own country.

Try working this into a riff about Mr. Ahmadinejad :

Iran, Iran, God Shed His Grace on Thee,
And Crowned Thy Good With Brotherhood
From Sea to Shining Sea…

Is This How We Say Thank You?

By William Fisher

Election-year interparty political wrangling is threatening to again sabotage congressional efforts to provide medical help for tens of thousands of firefighters and other first responders whose health was damaged by the September 11th 2001 terrorist attacks on New York’s World Trade Center.

As of June 2010, 836 of those who worked at Ground Zero have died and an estimated 70 per cent of the more than 70,000 first responders have declared illnesses they say are related to the dust and other toxins present at the World Trade Center site during and after the attacks.

This week, both the House of Representatives and the Senate are poised to introduce virtually identical versions of the “James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act” that would provide long-term and health care and monitoring for people whose health has been compromised.

But in both Houses, Republicans are threatening to filibuster the measure because they say it adds billions of dollars to the federal deficit without any attempt at cost-cutting elsewhere. The GOP successfully blocked the measure last year on the same grounds, charging that it would create a new entitlement program and waste taxpayer dollars. Republicans also objected to the inclusion of undocumented workers who helped respond to the disaster and clean up 9/11 sites.

In addition, in the Senate, Democrats have included the legislation in a bill containing an amendment that would end the "don't ask, don't tell” policy regarding homosexuals in the military. Another amendment would give children of illegal immigrants a pathway to U.S. citizenship if they serve in the armed services or attend college. Republicans in Congress are overwhelmingly opposed to both these policy choices.

But some Democratic sources say that if the Senate can muster the three-fifths vote –60 senators – to break the filibuster, a majority would vote for the bill.

The legislation has drawn strong support from a wide range of individual and organizations, including human rights advocates.
Sharon Singh, Media Relations Director for Amnesty International USA, told IPS, "Amnesty International urges Congress to pass H.R. 847 as it would be a strong step to fulfilling the right of victims of crimes to reparations. This includes medical care and compensation.”

“The U.S. government needs to remember the people who put their lives in jeopardy and are involved in rescue, recovery and clean up endeavors. Nine years later, it is time to move beyond the rhetoric of being in 'solidarity' with victims and act. The U.S. government needs to actually pass the laws and adequately fund the programs that victims need," she said.

Detective James Zadroga, for whom the bill is named, was identified in 2006 as the first rescuer to die from inhaling dust at ground zero. However, the city’s medical examiner concluded that his death was not directly related to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Nevertheless, his name remains on the legislation.

One of the most vocal among groups supporting the legislation is an organization known as “9/11 Health Now.” In a statement, the group said,
“ On September 11, 2001, tens of thousands of Americans converged on New York City’s World Trade Center site in the most impassioned rescue and recovery effort in the history of the country.”

“Unbeknownst to these American patriots, the conditions at Ground Zero --in spite of Federal and State warnings to the contrary -- were exceedingly toxic: hundreds of contaminants, including asbestos, lead, mercury and benzene--to name a few—were present in unprecedentedly high levels, both within the billowing dust cloud that settled over Lower Manhattan and the surrounding areas, and in the emissions from the Pile that smoldered for months afterward during the nine-month recovery and cleanup operation,” the group declared.

It characterized as “mind-boggling” what it called “the lack of protection offered to First Responders, volunteers and recovery personnel at the site: the majority were issued a paper dust mask, or -- more commonly -- no protection at all.”

At the time, former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman, then administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), announced that at Ground Zero “the air is safe to breathe and the water is safe to drink."

Now, the group says, “more than nine years after the disaster, huge numbers of first responders, plus their fellow exposed New Yorkers are grievously ill. Afflictions range from chronic bronchial disease to asbestosis, leukemia and cancers, plus a host of other diseases including systemic organ failure.”

It adds that “The combined poisons of the dust and emissions are now widely considered to be one of the most toxic combinations in the history of US disaster relief, affecting not only First Responders, but hundreds of thousands of residents, workers and students of Lower Manhattan and the surrounding areas who returned to homes, jobsites and schools which--shockingly--received little or no government-mandated cleanup.”

The World Trade Center Health Registry estimates that 410,000 people have been ‘heavily exposed’ to WTC toxins (includes Responders), and may become seriously ill in the future.”

The legislation is supported by members of the New York and New Jersey Congressional delegations, including some Republicans, and by the Uniformed Fire Officers Association.

The legislation would ensure:

That every 9/11 responder exposed to the toxins of Ground Zero and related
sites has a right to be medically monitored.

That every 9/11 responder who is sick as a result of exposure has a right to

That care is expanded to the exposed community, including residents, area
workers, students, and the thousands of people who came from across the country in response to the 9/11 attacks.

That the 9/11 Victim’s Compensation Fund would be reopened to provide
compensation for economic loss and damages.

The legislation would continue funding and support of the ‘Centers of Excellence’ in New York and New Jersey (the New York City Fire Department, and a number of major hospitals and universities), which currently provide monitoring, support and care to First Responders.

It would also establish a Research and Support program by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for the diagnosis and treatment of WTC-related conditions and diseases.

Has J. Edgar Hoover Come Back to Haunt Us?

By William Fisher

The FBI’s recent raids on the homes and offices of Minneapolis and Chicago activists are being viewed by civil libertarians as further proof that the U.S. is morphing into a “surveillance state” where the right to privacy and other Constitutional protections are being quietly whittled away.

Last Friday morning agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) raided the Minneapolis homes of five antiwar activists, the office of a Minneapolis antiwar organization, and the Chicago homes of the head of an Arab-American organization and a prominent peace activist.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune newspaper reported that the raids were part of a probe of "activities concerning the material support of terrorism." No one was arrested in any of the raids.

FBI spokesman Steve Warfield told the newspaper that the searches were conducted at about 7 a.m. Lawyers said the agents seized computers, cell phones and documents in the protesters' homes.

The outrage of the civil liberties community was summed up by Chip Pitts, president of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee.

Pitts told IPS, “The continued shocking harassment of peaceful anti-war, environmental, and other activists and dissidents under the Obama administration in this and other recent cases -- such as those highlighted in the DoJ Inspector General’s recent report -- is inexcusable and must stop.”

He said these actions “illegally deter future as well as current dissent, impoverish the marketplace of ideas, discourage rather than support the informed exercise by citizens of their duties, and make bad governance and decision-making more rather than less likely.”

He added: “This once again highlights the urgency for folks of all parties, ages, and viewpoints to join the civil liberties community in efforts to resist the growing surveillance state and restore the usual constitutional requirements for individualized suspicion that has been watered down by the Patriot Act and similar laws enacted in the post-9/11 climate of politically manipulated fear.”

Protest leaders are quoted by the Minneapolis newspaper as saying the raids “surprised them.” One of the targets, Mick Kelly, whose home was searched, played a central role in the 2008 demonstrations at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul. Asked by the Star Tribune if he was involved in illegal activities, he replied, "Absolutely not.''

The newspaper said Ted Dooley, Kelly's attorney, called the raids "a probe into the political beliefs of American citizens and any organization anywhere that opposes the American imperial design." He said the warrants cited a federal law making it a violation to provide or conspire to provide material support to designated foreign terrorist organizations.

The warrants were said to have focused on terrorist groups in the Palestinian territories and Colombia.

Subpoenas were issued to the activists to appear before a federal grand jury next month in Chicago. Raids also were conducted on two homes in Chicago, and grand jury subpoenas were issued in Michigan and North Carolina.

Attorney Bruce Nestor, who frequently represents the activists, told the Star Tribune that the FBI seemed to focus on allegations of support for foreign organizations designated as terrorist by executive order of the president.

"There is no process whereby you can contest the designation," he said. "Ever since these laws were passed in 1996, there is a concern that they reach so broadly as to certainly chill or intimidate people in speaking out on foreign policy or support for groups that oppose U.S. foreign policy."

Following the raids, anti-war and similar organizations began to strategize their response. Last Friday night, the Star Tribune reported that more than 100 people gathered at Walker Community United Methodist Church in Minneapolis to sign statements of solidarity with those whose homes were raided and to make plans for further protests.

"We refuse to let the accusations of a notoriously untruthful, repressive government divide us in any way," read the statement in the Star Tribune. "Our struggle will continue."

Word of the raids also sent a ripple throughout Chicago activist circles. The Chicago Tribune reported that one group of anti-war activists in Chicago called an "emergency meeting" on Chicago's South Side on Sunday to plan demonstrations and rallies for Monday and Tuesday.

"These raids are an attack on the entire anti-war movement," said Maureen Murphy, a member of the Palestine Solidarity Group in Chicago. "Everyone in peace and social justice is deeply concerned."

The anti-war activists targeted by FBI agents with search warrants Friday said they did nothing wrong, voicing resolve at a West Side rally today to continue opposing U.S. policy in the Middle East and South America.

Meanwhile, in a separate development , the New York Times reported this morning that the Obama administration is drawing up legislation to make it easier for US intelligence services to eavesdrop on the Internet, including email exchanges and social networks.

The White House intends to submit a bill before Congress next year that would require all online services that enable communications to be technically capable of complying with a wiretap order, including being able to intercept and unscramble encrypted messages, the Times reported.

The services would include encrypted email transmitters like BlackBerry, social networking websites like Facebook and peer-to-peer messaging software like Skype.

Washington Cowpuncher

By William Fisher

Thousands of firefighters and other first responders are still waiting for the government to help treat the illnesses they contracted while working in the toxic dust of Ground Zero.

But they are not alone. Others believe that they too have paid a price for their treatment in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. And they are seeking redress through the courts.

Among them are hundreds of people who believe they were falsely detained and imprisoned by the Department of Justice in the wake of the attacks. The exact number of 9/11 detainees is unclear, as no lists were released publicly. According to a report released by the Office of the Inspector General in 2002, 475 9/11 detainees were arrested and detained in New York and New Jersey. Hundreds more were arrested across the country.

Some of these men are plaintiffs in a federal class action lawsuit against former Attorney General John Ashcroft and other top officials in the administration of former President George W. Bush who were responsible for their illegal roundup, abuse and detention.

The suit charges that the detainees were kept in solitary confinement with the lights on 24 hours a day; placed under a communications blackout so that they could not seek the assistance of their attorneys, families and friends; subjected to physical and verbal abuse; forced to endure inhumane conditions of confinement; and obstructed in their efforts to practice their

Some of the abuse included beatings, repeated strip searches and sleep deprivation. The allegations of inhumane and degrading treatment have been substantiated by two reports of the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General, and several defendants in the case have been convicted on federal charges of cover-ups and beatings of other prisoners around the same time period.

On September 13, six new plaintiffs joined the lawsuit, which is still a proposed class action; there has not yet been a ruling on class certification.

These plaintiffs include two Pakistani men, Ahmer Iqbal Abbasi and Anser Mehmood; two men from Egypt, Ahmed Khalifa and Saeed Hammouda; Benamar Benatta; an Algerian man who has sought and received refugee status in Canada; and Purna Raj Bajracharya, a Nepalese Buddhist whose prolonged detention after 9/11 prompted outrage not only by civil libertarians, but even by the FBI agent who originally investigated him.

Bajracharya was videotaping the sights of New York City for his family back in Nepal when he inadvertently included an FBI office. He was taken into custody, where officials found he had overstayed his tourist visa, a violation punishable by deportation. Instead, Bajracharya wound up in solitary confinement in a federal detention center for three months, weeping constantly, in a 6-by-9 cell where the lights were never turned off. Bajracharya, who speaks little English, might have been in there much longer if James Wynne, the FBI agent who investigated him, had not summoned Legal Aid.

Despite the fact that the government never charged any of them with a terrorism-related offense, immigration authorities kept the men in detention for up to eight months, long past the resolution of their immigration cases, according to attorneys at the Center for Constitutional Rights, which brought the class action on behalf of the plaintiffs.

They say “the government treated these men as terrorists during that time, placing them in ultra-restrictive, super-maximum security confinement and abusing them. The treatment was based not on any actual evidence tying the men to terrorism, but merely because of their race, religion, and national origin.”

“I was deprived of my liberty and I was abused at the hands of the U.S. government simply because of my religion and ethnicity. Now, nine years later, I seek to vindicate my rights and hold the people who mistreated me accountable,” said Benamar Benatta. “My hope is that this never happens to
anyone again.”

Benatta succeeded in having a criminal charge for possession of false immigration documents thrown out of court when the federal judge in his case ruled that his immigration detention was a “subterfuge” and “sham” created to hide the reality that, because Benatta was an “Algerian citizen and a member of the Algerian Air Force, [he] was spirited off to the MDC (Metropolitan Detention Center) in Brooklyn…and held in the [Administrative Maximum Special Housing Unit] as ‘high security’ for the purposes of providing an expeditious means of having [him] interrogated by
special agents of the FBI.”

“After 9/11 hundreds of men were swept up and detained in deplorable conditions based only on their religion and ethnicity. Nine years later, my clients are still determined to hold the masterminds of these sweeps accountable, and we will continue this fight until former Attorney General John Ashcroft, and his cronies, are forced to answer for their policy of profiling and abuse,” CCR Attorney Rachel Meeropol told IPS.

She added, “No matter what exalted position they hold, cannot get away with ordering abuse and racial profiling. This battle is far from over.”

The suit names as defendants then-Attorney General John Ashcroft; Robert Mueller, current Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI); former immigration Commissioner James Ziglar; and officials at the MDC, where the plaintiffs were held.

It includes additional detail regarding high-level involvement in racial profiling and abuse, including allegations that former Attorney General Ashcroft ordered immigration authorities and the FBI to investigate individuals for ties to terrorism by, among other means, looking for Muslim-sounding names in the phonebook.

In the resulting dragnet, hundreds of men were arrested, many based solely on their physical appearance – “Middle Eastern-looking men.” Many other arrests were based on anonymous tips called in to the FBI. The complaint also discloses, in some cases for the first time, the “discriminatory and nonsensical tips” that led to each plaintiff’s arrest and detention, the CCR says.

Lead plaintiff Ibrahim Turkmen, for example, was arrested after his landlady called the FBI to report that she rented an apartment to several Middle Eastern men, and “she would feel awful if her tenants were involved in terrorism and she didn’t call.”

Among other documented abuses in detention, many of the 9/11 detainees had their faces smashed into a wall where guards had pinned a t-shirt with a picture of an American flag and the words, “These colors don’t run.” The men were slammed against the t-shirt upon their entrance to MDC and told “welcome to America.”

The t-shirt was smeared with blood, yet it stayed up on the wall at MDC for months.