Monday, January 29, 2007


By William Fisher

Champions of our Constitution’s First Amendment should be resting easier now. ABC’s hiring of Glenn Beck to appear as a regular on its “Good Morning America” show surely proves that, despite the Bush Administration’s efforts, freedom of speech is still alive and well in the United States.

No matter how outrageously uninformed and bigoted that speech may be.

Doubtless, Beck’s arrival will catapult the show’s ratings exponentially. And his former home, at CNN Headline News, will sink further into irrelevance.

Beck, you will recall, is the esteemed Middle East scholar who interviewed Keith Ellison, our first Muslim congressman back in November, and asked him to “prove to me that you are not working with our enemies.”

Surely a question worthy of Bill O’Reilly or Rush Limbaugh.

Beck’s anti-Arab and anti-Muslim rants should be producing apoplexy in Ted Turner, who founded CNN to broadcast news. Just the facts, ma’am.

Here are some of Beck’s recently-broadcast facts:

Muslims “who have sat on [their] hands the whole time rather than “lining up to shoot the bad Muslims in the head” will face dire consequences. One of those consequences being that Muslims will be “looking through a razor wire fence at the West.”

Before joining CNN, Beck hosted a radio talk show, distributed by that star player in the vast left-wing media conspiracy, Clear Channel's Premiere Radio Networks. There, he told his audience that "The world is on the brink of World War III," and then warned:

“All you Muslims who have sat on your frickin' hands the whole time and have not been marching in the streets and have not been saying, 'Hey, you know what? There are good Muslims and bad Muslims. We need to be the first ones in the recruitment office lining up to shoot the bad Muslims in the head.' I'm telling you, with God as my witness... human beings are not strong enough, unfortunately, to restrain themselves from putting up razor wire and putting you on one side of it. When things—when people become hungry, when people see that their way of life is on the edge of being over, they will put razor wire up and just based on the way you look or just based on your religion, they will round you up. Is that wrong? Oh my gosh, it is Nazi, World War II wrong, but society has proved it time and time again: It will happen.”

On September 5, Beck broadcast the same message to his CNN Headline News audience, declaring, "In 10 years, Muslims and Arabs will be looking through a razor wire fence at the West." The “razor wire” is a reference to the internment of tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans during World War Two. About which Beck warned, "The razor wire will be coming. "

He explained: “Since 9/11, Americans have gotten so fed up with the "yes, but" Muslims. The "yes, but" Muslims are the ones who show up on talkshows and in the media and say, "Yes, terrorism is bad, but"—and then they go through a list of reasons on why we should try and sympathize with people who fly planes into buildings.... If, God forbid, there's another attack, we won't have anymore patience for the "yes, buts." The Muslim community better find a spokesman who isn't a "yes, but" Muslim. They shouldn't even understand the word "but," because if they don't, when things heat up, the profiling will only get worse, and the razor wire will be coming.”

“You want the profiling to stop?” he asked Muslims. His answer: “Here's an idea. Stop murdering innocent people. Stop excusing the people who do. You do that for a while, and I guarantee you won't have any more problems at the airports. Stop blowing stuff up and the world just might be your oyster. Otherwise, it's going to be like that movie, The Siege. You remember that movie? The Muslims will see the West through razor wire if things don't change.”

He went on. “Look, I'm not saying all Arabs and Muslims are anti-American. Far from it. We should get to know these people and embrace the good Muslims, and eliminate the bad ones. Here's what I don't know. I don't know if the Muslim community will ever step to the plate like the Japanese-American community did during World War II. You know, it was absolutely disgraceful how we rounded innocent people up then and, sadly, history has a way of repeating itself no matter how grotesque that history might be. The Muslim community can prevent this if they act now.”

In an exercise of obvious futility, the three leading Arab- and Muslim-American advocacy groups dashed off a letter to ABC/Disney expressing dismay and requesting a meeting to discuss their concerns.

They wrote: “During his tenure at CNN Headline News and as a talk-radio host, Beck has demonstrated an obvious anti-Arab and anti-Muslim prejudice in his broadcasts through threats and blatantly inaccurate statements. (Beck's) addition to 'Good Morning America' would disseminate his prejudiced, openly-hostile and ignorant commentary to an even broader national audience, and diminish the credibility of your reputable and highly-rated news show," the letter said, adding, "To provide a platform for his hateful speech is dangerous and irresponsible, and we strongly and urgently implore you to reconsider this move."

The response from ABC News expressed its willingness to discuss the organizations’ concerns, but added that it intends to hire Beck.

Of course it does. It knows the formula:

Rantings + Ravings = Ratings.

Thursday, January 18, 2007


By William Fisher

The senior defense department official who suggested that major corporations should stop doing business with large law firms who represent Guantanamo Bay detainees without charge has apologized for his remarks – but his apology has failed to satisfy some legal and human rights advocates.

The remarks were made on a Washington, D.C. radio program on Tuesday by Charles D. “Cully” Stimson, a deputy assistant secretary of defense and a former Navy defense lawyer. They drew an avalanche of anger from lawyers, legal ethics specialists, and bar association officials, who said they found his comments repellent and displayed an ignorance of the duties of lawyers to represent people in legal trouble.

Lawyers expressed outrage at that, asserting that they are not being paid and that Mr. Stimson had tried to suggest they were by innuendo. Of the approximately 500 lawyers coordinated by the Center for Constitutional Rights, no one is being paid. One Washington law firm, Shearman & Sterling, which has represented Kuwaiti detainees, has received money from the families of the prisoners, but Thomas Wilner, a lawyer there, said they had donated all of it to charities related to the September 2001 terrorist attacks.”

The Pentagon disowned Stimson’s remarks and said they did not represent DOD policy.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales also disowned Stimson’s remarks. "Good lawyers representing the detainees is the best way to ensure that justice is done in these cases," he said.

But in a speech in Washington on Wednesday, he said Guantanamo defense lawyers were responsible for much of the delay in charging detainees and putting them on trial.
He was apparently referring to the delays caused by a lawsuit brought by a Guananamo detainee, Salim Ahmed Hamdan, against then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, in which some of the lawyers referenced by Stimson participated.

That suit resulted in the U.S. Supreme Court last summer striking down the military commissions President Bush established to try suspected members of al-Qaeda, emphatically rejecting a signature Bush anti-terrorism measure and the broad assertion of executive power upon which the president had based it. The court ruled that the commissions, which were outlined by Bush in a military order on Nov. 13, 2001, were neither authorized by federal law nor required by military necessity, and ran afoul of the Geneva Conventions.

Congress then passed the Military Commissions Act (MCA), which is also being challenged in the courts.

Yesterday, Stimson issued an apology, published in the Washington Post newspaper.
It said, “Regrettably, my comments left the impression that I question the integrity of those engaged in the zealous defense of detainees in Guantanamo. I do not," Stimpson wrote in response to the furor over his remarks. "I apologize for what I said and to those lawyers and law firms who are representing clients at Guantanamo. I hope that my record of public service makes clear that those comments do not reflect my core beliefs," he wrote.

Stimson also said he supports pro bono work and believes the legal system works best when both sides have competent legal counsel.

But his apology failed to satisfy some legal and human rights advocates. Mary Shaw of Amnesty International USA, told us, “Stimson's apology illustrates that he recognizes the grave unfairness of his earlier attempts to discredit the attorneys who represent Guantanamo detainees. Everyone is entitled to due process, including legal representation, and the prisoners at Guantanamo are no exception. This is especially important considering that many detainees have already been released when it was determined that they had been wrongly imprisoned. Supposedly, one is presumed innocent until proven guilty. Discrediting those who work to ensure justice for our prisoners is akin to discounting the very concept of justice.”

And Michael Ratner, President of the Center for Constitutional Rights – an advocacy group that has been responsible for organizing much of the legal representation for Guantanamo detainees -- told us, “After the outcry, what could Stimson do except apologize? But, sadly, his remarks were part of a policy that was approved at the highest levels. This is demonstrated by Gonzales’s fallacious claim that the Guantanamo lawyers are responsible for delaying the trials of Guantanamo detainees and by his attacks on judges who have said Guantanamo detainees have rights. The apology may quiet the waters for a moment, but the denial of fundamental rights to detainees is still at the heart of the administration’s practices.”

The controversy appears to have been triggered when a conservative radio talk show host, Monica Crowley, filed a request under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act for the names of all law firms representing Guantanamo detainees. The information she received contained the names of 14 prominent law firms, 12 of which were named by Stimson in his radio interview.

Stimson said, "I think the news story that you’re really going to start seeing in the next couple of weeks is this: As a result of a FOIA request through a major news organization, somebody asked, ‘Who are the lawyers around this country representing detainees down there?’ and you know what, it’s shocking."

He then went on to say, “I think, quite honestly, when corporate C.E.O.’s see that those firms are representing the very terrorists who hit their bottom line back in 2001, those C.E.O.’s are going to make those law firms choose between representing terrorists or representing reputable firms, and I think that is going to have major play in the next few weeks. And we want to watch that play out.”

When asked in the radio interview who was paying for the legal representation, Stimson replied: “It’s not clear, is it? Some will maintain that they are doing it out of the goodness of their heart, that they’re doing it pro bono, and I suspect they are; others are receiving moneys from who knows where, and I’d be curious to have them explain that.”

The outcry from legal experts and civil and human rights organizations was swift. Four law organizations said in a letter to president Bush that Stimson should be fired for remarks that were aimed at "chilling the willingness" of lawyers to represent Guantanamo detainees.

"The threats by Mr. Stimson are not subtle. They imply these pro bono lawyers are terrorists," read the letter signed by the American Association of Jurists, the International Association of Democratic Lawyers, the National Lawyers Guild and the Society of American Law Teachers.

Stimson's remarks were aimed at "chilling the willingness" of lawyers to represent Guantanamo detainees and were contrary to the "bedrock principles" of the right to counsel and the presumption on innocence, the letter read.

Secretary Stimson should be fired immediately, said George Washington University law school Prof. Jonathan Turley, appearing on Keith Olbermann’s “Countdown” TV show. He asked rhetorically, “What does it take to get someone fired in the Bush Administration?”

But Stimson’s remarks were supported in an editorial in the Wall Street Journal. In a editorial by Robert L. Pollock, a member of the newspaper’s editorial board, quoted an unnamed “senior U.S. official” as saying, “Corporate C.E.O.’s seeing this should ask firms to choose between lucrative retainers and representing terrorists.”

This is not the first time US military officials have criticized Guantanano defense lawyers. In March of last year, Col. Moe Davis, chief prosecutor for the Guantanamo tribunals, told journalists that several major law firms that have defense contractors as paying clients are providing pro bono lawyers to defend Guantanamo detainees in habeas petitions.

"It's somewhat ironic that the weaponry that we use in the war on terrorism is helping fund the defense of the alleged terrorists," Davis said at the time.

About 50 U.S. federal public defenders are also representing Guantanamo detainees, pro bono, in habeas corpus petitions.

About 395 prisoners remain at the Guantanamo prison camp, suspected of al Qaeda and Taliban links. More than 770 captives have been held at the facility which opened five years ago, soon after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in response to the September 11 attacks. Only 10 detainees have charged with crimes.

In the environment created by fear of further terrorist attacks, the question of whether Secretary Stimson’s apology is sufficient is academic. His point of view continues to reflect the Bush Administration’s attitude toward the rule of law and the centrality of due process – even for accused terrorists.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007


By William Fisher

Now here’s a trio that makes Alberto Gonzales look like Clarence Darrow!

This trio consists of a senior Bush Administration official, a member of the editorial page board of the Wall Street Journal, and a conservative syndicated talk show host.

Their tawdry tale begins with right-wing talk show host Monica Crowley, a former Nixon apparatchik, who briefly appeared from California on an ill-fated MSNBC show with co-host Ron Reagan, son of the late president, from New York. It’s a blessing they weren’t in the same city, because their trans-Continental catfights sounded like “Firing Line” on steroids.

Well, seems Ms. Crowley filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the government for the names of all law firms representing detainees at the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba. Why she had to spend her $50 to make this request is known only to her; the names have been available publicly and published innumerable times in various mainstream media and on a thousand Internet blogs.

But request she did, got the list, and was no doubt preparing to make a big media deal of it.

Except that someone stole her thunder. That someone turned out to be the senior Pentagon official in charge of military detainees suspected of terrorism, Charles D. “Cully” Stimson, a deputy assistant secretary of defense.

Stimpson said in a radio interview with a local Washington-based station aimed at government employees that he was dismayed that lawyers at many of the nation’s top firms were representing prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and that the firms’ corporate clients should consider ending their business ties.
Then apparently warming to his task, he went on to say, "I think the news story that you’re really going to start seeing in the next couple of weeks is this: As a result of a FOIA request through a major news organization, somebody asked, ‘Who are the lawyers around this country representing detainees down there?’ and you know what, it’s shocking."

That F.O.I.A. reference was, of course, to Monica Crowley’s rerquest.
Obviously a believer in a boffo close, Stimpson went on to say, “I think, quite honestly, when corporate C.E.O.’s see that those firms are representing the very terrorists who hit their bottom line back in 2001, those C.E.O.’s are going to make those law firms choose between representing terrorists or representing reputable firms, and I think that is going to have major play in the next few weeks. And we want to watch that play out.”

Mr. Stimson, who, as bizarre as it may seem, is himself a lawyer, named more than a dozen of the firms listed on the 14-page report provided to Ms. Crowley, describing them as “the major law firms in this country.”

In my newsgathering work, it happens that I have spoken with a number of the lawyers from these major law firms representing Guantanamo detainees. There isn’t space here to write of their commitment to the rule of law or recount all their tales of military obstruction and interference with their efforts to provide representationation for their clients. But, trust me, almost any other pro bono case would be easier.

The New York Times reported that when asked in the radio interview who was paying for the legal representation, Stimson replied: “It’s not clear, is it? Some will maintain that they are doing it out of the goodness of their heart, that they’re doing it pro bono, and I suspect they are; others are receiving moneys from who knows where, and I’d be curious to have them explain that.”

According to The Times, “Lawyers expressed outrage at that, asserting that they are not being paid and that Mr. Stimson had tried to suggest they were by innuendo. Of the approximately 500 lawyers coordinated by the Center for Constitutional Rights, no one is being paid. One Washington law firm, Shearman & Sterling, which has represented Kuwaiti detainees, has received money from the families of the prisoners, but Thomas Wilner, a lawyer there, said they had donated all of it to charities related to the September 2001 terrorist attacks.”

But this was a bandwagon that the third member of the trio apparently couldn’t resist. He is Robert L. Pollock, a member of the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, who mentioned the list of law firms in an article about life at Guantanamo. Pollack quoted an unnamed “senior U.S. official” as saying, “Corporate C.E.O.’s seeing this should ask firms to choose between lucrative retainers and representing terrorists.”

Predictably, Stimpson’s comments produced an avalanche of anger from lawyers, legal ethics specialists, and bar association officials, who found his comments repellent and displayed an ignorance of the duties of lawyers to represent people in legal trouble.

The Pentagon, of course, disowned Stimpson’s remarks and said they did not represent DOD policy. You may recall they did the same thing when Gen. Jerry Boykin made disparaging remarks about Muslims while wearing his US Army uniform. And then did – virtually nothing.

But here’s the good news. None other than that valiant champion of the rule of law, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, couldn’t sit still for Stimpson’s bile. Nor could he blow off the whole affair by claiming executive privilege or by refusing to disclose “operational details,” as he has on so many earlier occasions.
"Good lawyers representing the detainees is the best way to ensure that justice is done in these cases," said the AG.

Good job, Alberto!

Secretary Stimpson should be fired immediately, but as George Washington University law school Prof. Jonathan Turley rhetorically asked on Keith Olbermann’s “Countdown” TV show, “What does it take to get someone fired” in the Bush Administration?

Firing is probably not going to happen. As Plan B, however, the Bush Administration should sentence Stimpson to listen to the confirmation hearings of now Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Roberts, you may recall, regailed the committee with many accounts of his pro-bono work for Supreme Court petitioners whose views he didn’t happen to share. Whatever shall we do with these activist jurists?

Or, as an alternative cruel and unusual punishment, maybe Secretary Stimpson should be ordered to watch repeated episodes of Law and Order, where he will hear many times, “You are under arrest. You have the right to remain silent,” et cetera, followed by: “You have the right to an attorney. If you can’t afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you.”

That’s the Miranda warning mandated by a United States Supreme Court decision. And it says nothing about having a second-rate lawyer, nor does it say this right is available only to selective defendants.

But, of course, Secretary Stimpson knows all that. After all, he’s an attorney -- a former Navy lawyer and a graduate of George Mason University.

Maybe he just needs some refresher courses.


Monday, January 15, 2007


By William Fisher

A ton of important news stories got spiked amidst the cacophonous white noise created by the Baker Hamilton report and the Bush “surge” plan and reaction thereto.

One of the more important was the effort by Richard Dreyfuss to reintroduce civics to our public schools. The movie legend has launched a personal campaign to urge educators to teach their young students about the US Constitution, including the Bill of Rights, and other government basics.

As a first step, the actor called together a group of school administrators, television producers, writers, and local leaders in Martha's Vineyard to discuss launching a civics pilot program at one of the island community's elementary schools. He told the media he’s hopeful the effort will become a model for other schools across the country.

"By not teaching civics, our children are not learning about current events and how the government works. They need to be informed on what it means to maintain the system while sharing political space," he said.

Bravo, Prof. Dreyfuss! Americans’ ignorance of their own history and institutions is no longer a matter of debate. It has been verified in survey after survey.

For example, one survey, cited by Rosa Brooks in the Los Angeles Times, found that although 52% of Americans could name two or more of the characters from "The Simpsons," only 28% could identify two of the freedoms protected under the 1st Amendment. Another recent poll found that 77% of Americans could name at least two of the Seven Dwarfs from "Snow White," but only 24% could name two or more Supreme Court justices. Yet another poll showed that only two-thirds of Americans could identify all three branches of government; only 55% of Americans were aware that the Supreme Court can declare an act of Congress unconstitutional; and 35% thought that it was the intention of the founding fathers to give the president "the final say" over Congress and the judiciary.

Other studies sadly point in the same direction. One showed that a majority of college students thinks the press has too much freedom. Another found that most Americans believe the freedoms of American Muslims should be restricted. Still another found that a majority of high school graduates couldn’t find China on a map. And year after year, America’s knowledge scores vis a vis other industrialized democracies keeps going south.

On the birthday of Martin Luther King, it is instructive to quote Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post, who wrote of a recent survey of college students that found that while more than 81 percent knew that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was expressing hope for "racial justice and brotherhood" in his historic "I Have a Dream" speech, most of the rest thought King was advocating the abolition of slavery.

The question we should be asking is: How did these survey respondents ever get to be college students? Could there be a sadder example of the dereliction of responsibility in our primary and secondary schools?

Somehow, No Child Left Behind has managed to leave a heap of kids behind.

Lately, amidst our xenophobic immigration debate, there’s been lots of chatter about the new test the government is proposing to determine which immigrants qualify for naturalized U.S. citizenship. The LA Times’ Rosa Brooks writes, tongue in cheek, that it “will rigorously assess immigrants' knowledge of ‘the fundamental concepts of American democracy’," asking tough questions such as ‘Why do we have three branches of government? , ‘What is the rule of law?’, and ‘What are inalienable rights?’ “

Ms. Brooks says that requiring those who want the privileges of U.S. citizenship to have some minimal knowledge of American civics “is a great idea.” Why, she asks, “should this country mint new so-called citizens who don't know the first thing about American history or law?”

Her zinger, however, is that she wants to make native-born Americans take the test too — and deport them to their last known countries of ancestry if they flunk. Why, she asks, “should we ask first-generation immigrants to know more about the United States than the rest of us?”

Good question.

Many readers will remember Richard Dreyfuss’s 1996 film, “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” about a high school music teacher who "never gives up." In one scene, the principal tells him, "Your job as a teacher, Mr. Holland, is to 'give a compass for life' to the students..."

I’m all for people listening to their emotions and beliefs. But it’s tough to get a reliable compass for life absent information. And there is no information more critical to our country’s future than the history of what has made us Americans. And what is expected of us if we are to remain Americans.

My family, I think, is more fortunate than most. My ten-year-old granddaughter’s current assignment is to research and report on the life and work of Rosa Parks, and what it meant to her country and her countrymen. This, I hasten to add, had nothing to do with MLK’s birthday. It was simply one of many subjects that are a regular part of her curriculum.

Would that this were the situation in most public schools in our country – where civics education has become a seriously endangered species. I hope that at least a few readers will keep that in mind when their local school board chooses football over civics!

First They Came for the Lawyers

By Marjorie Cohn

In one of the most severe blows the Bush administration has dealt to our constitutional democracy, the Pentagon attacked the lawyers who have volunteered to represent the Guantánamo detainees. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Charles Stimson threatened corporate lawyers who agree to defend the men and boys imprisoned there. Flashing a list of corporations that use law firms doing this pro bono work, Stimson declared, "Corporate C.E.O.'s seeing this should ask firms to choose between lucrative retainers and representing terrorists."

In 1770, John Adams defended nine British soldiers including a captain who stood accused of killing five Americans. No other lawyer would defend them. Adams thought no one in a free country should be denied the right to a fair trial and the right to counsel. He was subjected to scorn and ridicule and claimed to have lost half his law practice as a result of his efforts. Adams later said his representation of those British soldiers was "one of the most gallant, generous, manly and disinterested actions of my whole life, and one of the best pieces of service I ever rendered my country."

Federal Judge Green, who has handled the many habeas corpus petitions filed by the Guantánamo detainees, expressed appreciation for the lawyers: "I do want to say we are very grateful for those attorneys who have accepted pro bono appointments. That is a service to the country, a service to the parties. No matter what position you take on this, it is a grand service."

More than 750 men and boys have been held like animals in cages during the last five years at Guantánamo. Many were picked up by warlords and sold to the US military for bounty. None has been tried for any crime. Very few even have any criminal charges against them.

Ironically, there were no alleged terrorists connected with 9/11 there until Bush recently transferred 14 men from his secret CIA prisons to Guantánamo. Meanwhile, hundreds of detainees languish in custody, aided by 500 courageous lawyers from 120 firms who have volunteered countless hours to represent them.

Under the Military Commissions Act Bush just rammed through Congress, the Guantánamo prisoners could be held for the rest of their lives without ever seeing a judge. Those who decide that death could not be worse than life at Gitmo have participated in a hunger strike. Rather than subject the Bush administration to embarrassment when prisoners die in US custody, military guards force feed them. Thick plastic tubes are forced down their throats with no anesthesia. Tubes are not sterilized before being reused on other prisoners. The UN Human Rights Commission called the force-feeding "torture." Many prisoners also report being tortured during interrogations.

Guantánamo has become the symbol of US hypocrisy. While fighting the "war on terror" and attacking other countries for their human rights abuses, the officials in the Bush administration have become war criminals. Torture and cruel or inhuman treatment are punishable as war crimes under the US War Crimes Act.

The Supreme Court held in Rasul v. Bush that the Guantánamo prison is under US jurisdiction, so prisoners there are entitled to the protections of the Constitution. The Sixth Amendment mandates that every person charged with a crime has the right to be defended by an attorney. The government is forbidden by the Fifth Amendment from denying any "person" - US citizen or not - due process of law. The presumption of innocence is enshrined in our legal system.

Bush's attack on lawyers is the latest assault on our civil liberties, which now includes warrantless surveillance of our phone calls and email, and most recently, our US Mail. Although Bush says he's spying on the terrorists, those who criticize his policies, including his illegal and immoral war on Iraq, are also invariably in his cross hairs.

All Americans should heed the words of Martin Niemoller: "First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist, so I said nothing. Then they came for the Social Democrats, but I was not a Social Democrat, so I did nothing. Then came the trade unionists, but I was not a trade unionist. And then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew, so I did little. Then when they came for me, there was no one left who could stand up for me."

George W. Bush must immediately renounce Stimson's threats and relieve him of his duties. A country that would sacrifice its own values under the guise of protecting them has no moral authority in this world.

Marjorie Cohn, a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, is president of the National Lawyers Guild and the US representative to the executive committee of the American Association of Jurists. Her book, "Cowboy Republic: Six Ways the Bush Gang Has Defied the Law," will be published in June.

Saturday, January 13, 2007


By William Fisher

It’s now a few days since President Bush spoke to the American people about his new “strategy” for “victory” in Iraq. Reading the newspapers, listening to radio and watching television, one would think all the words that could possibly be written or spoken on this speech have finally been exhausted.

But when the punditocracy gets hold of this kind of issue, the last word is never written or spoken. And I am under no delusions that my words will be anything near the last.

But I will write them anyway, because there were a couple of things that struck me.

One of them was the way of most of both the print and broadcast media bought into the President’ s characterization of his plan as both “new” or a “strategy.” It is not new; we’ve had several unsuccessful “surges” in the past. And what Mr. Bush terms a “strategy” is little more than a tactical adjustment. It is “stay the course” 101.1.

The second thing that struck me was the almost total America-centricity of the media coverage. This seemed especially true on cable television. On MSNBC, for example, analysis of Bush’s speech was left in the hands of such well-known Middle East scholars as Chris Matthews, Pat Buchanan, and assorted retired US military officers. The result of choices like that took all the complexity and nuance out of the discussion. But I suppose that, since John Kerry’s 2004 campaign, nuance has become a dirty word.

Granted, America has a huge stake in how this misadventure unfolds. It is the blood of our surging troops that will be spilled and our tax dollars that will get spent. Still, with all its bulging rolladexes, wouldn’t you think the cable news folks might have come up with a commentator or two who actually knows something about the war zone, its history, its customs, and its idiosyncrasies?

The fact is that without this kind of information, the American public has little chance of really understanding the roots or the dynamics of what’s happening in Iraq today.

As I listened to Pat Buchanan spouting on about the US political party maneuvering going on behind the scenes, I recalled an experience that said a lot that wasn’t being explained.

When I lived in Egypt, I had a driver named Said. I once went with Said to his little village about 30 miles outside Cairo, where we were greeted by and spoke with many of his brothers, sisters, cousins, neighbors, etc. These were people Said knew all his life; he watched some of them being born. This was his part of his tribe.

But I noticed that Said passed one guy by several times and never even said hello. Later, I asked him why. He said his family had a "vendetta" (that's the English equivalent of the Arabic word he used) against this man's family. It was a feud that started some 300 years earlier, but no one in either family has forgotten it, although Said told me he had long since forgotten what it was all about. The vendetta resulted over the years in continuing hatred and periodic murders between these two families. And both families happen to be Sunni, as are most Egyptians. This was the Middle East version of The Hatfields and The McCoys!

So, with Chris Matthews chattering on in the background, I thought: If these two families, from the same branch of Islam, haven’t been able to reconcile their differences in 300 years, how can we expect Iraqis from different Muslim sects to reconcile theirs?

They won’t. And understanding the importance of this tribalism is a very important part of MidEast history and of the Iraq war, and one before and now largely ignored by the president.

The suffering inflicted on Shia Muslims – to say nothing of the Kurdish minority -- by Sunni Saddam Hussein’s apparatchiks is of much more recent vintage. It is burned into the consciousness even of those unborn when the Ba’ath Party took power. Little wonder then that the Shias now seek their revenge. It’s their vendetta. That’s what we see in the piles of tortured and executed bodied that grace our TV screens every morning. That’s what we saw when we watched an official lynch mob hanging Saddam. And the Shias ain’t giving it up just because America says they should.

That’s how we got to the 60 percent solution. Iraq’s Shias represent some 60 percent of the country’s population. Sunnis and Kurds make up the remaining 20 percent each. The president of the country may be a Kurd, but the real power is with the Prime Minister, a Shia, and his supporters, including some of the most bloodthirsty murderers in the country.

These murderers have their own armies – Muqtada Al-Sadr alone has some 60,000 fighters -- and have seriously infiltrated both the official Iraqi army and the police. It is overwhelmingly from these Shia gangs and police that the death squads and sectarian cleaners have risen. They act out their vendettas every day, and of course the Sunnis fight back. Neither side needs Al-Qaida, despite what George W. Bush says.

Does our President really believe that Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki has asked for a surge in US troops so they can go into the Sadr City slums of Baghdad and kill off his fellow Shias? When pigs fly! That’s exactly why Mr. Al-Maliki has resisted this surge – despite what the President says -- and why most of the Iraqi army troops promised in the past somehow never showed up.

I have serious doubts they will show up this time. That will leave thousands more of our troops knocking down doors in a country where we can’t even understand what anybody’s trying to say to us.

So, in a best-case scenario, Iraq will end up with a 60 percent solution – a Shia government determined to get even with their Sunni countrymen. And it will have been American military force – and American incompetence, ignorance, and hubris – that opened this Pandora’s box.

That vendetta could go on, like Said’s, for another 300 years.

But now for the good news. America and Iran are finally on the same page: accepting, if not exactly sharing, the same vision of the Iraq of the future. A Shia future.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007


By William Fisher

Will we always have GITMO? Will it always be the 800-pound gorilla in the room?

This week, the world marks the fifth anniversary of the arrival of the first detainees at the U.S. naval facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. And still a growing number of people and organizations – from military officers to religious leaders to legal scholars to human rights groups – continue to label the prison a black hole of injustice and demand that it be closed.

The facility, established following the war in Afghanistan in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York City and the Pentagon, has been controversial throughout the world as the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) imprisoned hundreds of alleged terrorists. It has been widely condemned for prisoner abuse and for the absence of any meaningful process to separate genuine wrongdoers from people detained because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Recently departed Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld repeatedly declared all the detainees “the worst of the worst.” But from its peak inmate population of 773, several hundred detainees have been released – mostly because the DOD concluded that they no longer represented a threat to U.S. national security -- the camp continues to house more than 400 prisoners.

While the US military claimed Guantanamo inmates were captured “on the battlefield” in Afghanistan, and designated by the Bush Administration as enemy combatants, there has been mounting evidence that a number were victims of what is known as “extraordinary rendition” – capturing a person and sending him to a site recognized for practicing torture.

President George W. Bush has implicitly admitted that others, including 14 so-called “high value” prisoners said to have played significant roles in the 9/11 attacks and other terrorist act, were sent to Guantanamo after long detentions in the CIA’s “black hole” secret prisons in Afghanistan, Eastern Europe, and other locations.

None of these prisoners have been tried nor have any charges been brought against them.

Mary Shaw of Amnesty International USA, a human rights group that has labeled Guantanamo as the “American Gulag,” told us, “The U.S. administration chose Guantanamo as the location for this detention facility in an attempt to hold detainees beyond the reach of U.S. and international law. For five years, the vast majority of these men have been held in indefinite detention, without charge or trial. For five years, we have heard stories of torture and ill-treatment. And for five years, we have been assured that these detainees were captured ‘on the battlefield’ and represent the ‘worst of the worst’. Yet the U.S. government's own tribunals have determined that over half of those detained never committed any hostile acts against the United States. And most of those held at Guantanamo were not captured on any battlefield, but were handed over to the U.S. by others in exchange for cash rewards. Undoubtedly, this practice of paying bounties for prisoners has led to mistakes; yet for five years the U.S. government has denied that these men have the basic right to challenge their detentions.”

Or, as well put to us by Elizabeth de la Vega, author of the recent book, “U.S. v. Bush,” “Even before the drafting of the United States Constitution, since John Adams's famous decision to represent the British soldiers who were accused of the Boston Massacre, the right to counsel for all defendants -- regardless of the crime with which they are charged--has been a bedrock of the American criminal justice system. The vast majority of prisoners at Guantanamo, however, have not been charged with anything at all. By abolishing habeas corpus and now, with the casual change of a regulation, the Bush Administration has effectively prevented an entire group of people, many of whom may well be innocent, from having any means of redress whatsoever. Every American should be appalled by these actions."

Over the past five years, there has also been increasing disclosure of prisoner abuse, violating the Geneva Conventions. This evidence has flowed the testimony of released prisoners and from documents provided by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union. This evidence centers on written communications from FBI agents who witnessed ”cruel, inhuman and degrading” prisoner treatment and interrogation, and reported it to their FBI superiors.

There have been three suicides among prisoners and hundreds have been force-fed to keep them alive during intermittent hunger strikes. The Department of Defense has acknowledged 41 suicide attempts among 29 prisoners.

The New York Times has reported that, while the June 10, 2006, suicides were the first inmate deaths at Guantanamo, “some prisoners tried suicide almost immediately after their arrival in 2001. By mid-2002, there had been numerous suicide attempts, and DOD renamed these acts as ‘self-injuries’."

In January 2005, the Times reported that there had been 350 incidents of "self-harm" in 2003. Of those, 120 were attempts by prisoners to hang themselves. Twenty-three prisoners participated in a simultaneous mass-suicide attempt.

President Bush has said he would like to close the facility, but the U.S. military has recently completed construction of new buildings to house cellblocks.

Among the most widespread criticisms of Guantanamo is the system set up by the Bush Administration for adjudicating individual cases.

That process began with the establishment of CSRTs – Combatant Status Review Tribunals -- in July 2004, more than two years after most detainees were imprisoned there. The CSRTs, while deeply flawed according to many military and civilian legal authorities, have been responsible for the release of some prisoners. In some cases, they concluded that the detainees had been captured by Afghan militias, Pakistani border guards and other surrogates, and some had been turned in for bounties, intelligence officials have said.

But the CSRT process itself proved to be ineffective. The New York Times reported that “Information about detainees’ identities and actions was often vague and secondhand. Physical evidence, if any existed, was sometimes lost before reaching Cuba.” Information obtained by coercion was allowed to be admitted as evidence.

The CSRTs required three military officers to decide cases by majority vote, based on a “preponderance of the evidence.” Midlevel officers – not military lawyers -- were ordered to help detainees prepare for their hearings.

Lawyers for detainees contended that the military placed insurmountable obstacles to their defense. For example, more than a week after a hearing for a Pakistani businessman accused of ties to Al Qaeda, a civilian lawyer who had been trying to help him said he had not been advised of the hearing.

Amidst growing international criticism, the Bush administration in May 2004 set up an annual parole system, called Administrative Review Boards, to assess whether a detainee represented a continuing threat or had intelligence value.

But before those hearings ever began, the Supreme Court ruled that the Bush Administration must conduct a one-time review of all Guantánamo detainees using the sort of panels called for by Army regulations — and by the Geneva Conventions. This year’s round of parole-type review hearings ended last month. Most of the detainees eligible to appear at these hearings have reportedly stopped trying because of the perceived bias in the procedure and the haste with which hearings are carried out.

Meanwhile, in an effort to restrain President Bush from claiming inherent powers to determine what kinds of treatment constituted cruel or inhumane treatment of prisoners, Congress passed the Detainee Treatment Act. The President signed the bill into law, but at the same time issued a “signing statement” that essentially claimed that the commander-in-chief could disregard the law when he deemed it not in the national interest to do so.

Last year, the Supreme Court also played a pivotal role in rejecting President Bush’s assertion that his commander-in-chief authority gave him inherent power to establish Military Commissions to try Guantanamo detainees.

In a landmark decision in a 2006 case known as Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, the court ruled that the military commissions set up by the Bush administration "violate both the military’s Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) and the four Geneva Conventions." The suit was brought by Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a Guantanamo detainee.

The case considered whether the United States Congress may pass legislation preventing the Supreme Court from hearing the case of an accused combatant before his military commission takes place, whether the special military commissions that had been set up violated federal law, and whether courts can enforce the articles of the 1949 Geneva Convention.

On June 29, 2006, the Court ruled 5-3 that it had jurisdiction and that the federal government did not have authority to set up these particular military commissions.

Congress then quickly passed the United States Military Commissions Act (MCA) of 2006, which was signed by President George W. Bush in October 2006. The Act's stated purpose was to "facilitate bringing to justice terrorists and other unlawful enemy combatants through full and fair trials by military commissions, and for other purposes."

Under the MCA, the Bush administration and the US Congress retroactively shielded from prosecution for illegal criminal activities those who have been involved in illegal detention, torture, and rendition.

But Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.), John Warner (R-Va.) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), strong backers of the MCA, agreed to the administration's "alternative" definitions of torture, which essentially meant that torture techniques could continue to be used by the U.S. military, the CIA, and contract employees. Attempts by the Senate Judiciary Committee to preserve the rights of habeas corpus hearings for detainees also failed.

Headlined by these and other lawmakers as a “compromise” with the president, the MCA essentially gave the administration all the powers it had claimed previously, as well as a few others. Congress allowed the president to prevent prisoners from appealing to the U.S. courts, and immunized government personnel from prosecution for all but the most serious abuses.

The new Democratic Party-controlled Congress is reportedly considering whether to challenge the suspension of habeas corpus hearings for detainees.

The Bush administration claims it plans to charge up to 70 Guantanamo detainees in the military commissions authorized by the MCA. But legal experts point out that this still leaves more than 300 men held in Guantanamo without charge and without any clear explanation of what they are accused of doing.

Amidst the continuing uncertainty about this and other issues at Guantanamo, pressure for its closure is likely only to increase over time.

But what then? Where do we put the prisoners? And what do we do with them? And will anyone know?

At a bare minimum, and no thanks to the Bush Administration, we know where GITMO is and we know a lot of what has gone on there. GITMO’s “justice system” is a travesty, but arguably it is better than no system at all – and that might be the consequence of sending all the detainees to other facilities. With world attention focused on this Caribbean Devil’s Island over such a long period of time, it might just be that the Bush Administration finally understands that it has no place to hide – it has to run a model prison. Or be subjected to still more scorn from friends and adversaries alike.

Along with Abu Ghraib, GITMO has become emblematic of the colossal blunders our government has made in conducting the so-called War on Terrorism and in following the president’s messianic vision of a world chockablock with liberal Western-style democracies.

If the president still believes in this vision – mandated, as he said, by “a higher father” – he is truly delusional. If he is not, what he needs to do now is ensure that prisoners left at GITMO receive justice with due process and the right of appeal. Congress can now play a role by amending the MCA. Then the remaining cases should be swiftly and transparently adjudicated. Justice not only must be done; it must be seen to be done.

How Mr. Bush handles this issue will be a significant part of his legacy, about which every president must be concerned. Doing the right thing at GITMO – now -- could help remove a bit of the tarnish that promises to characterize his legacy. And begin to rebuild a little of the respect the world once had for our country.

Saturday, January 06, 2007


By William Fisher

More than 20 prominent religious leaders have launched an online petition demanding that Rep. Vigil Goode (R-Va) reexamine his opposition to newly-elected Rep. Keith Ellison, a Muslim from Minnesota, taking his unofficial oath of office using the Qur'an, and to apologize for his statement that, without punitive immigration reform, "there will be many more Muslims elected to office demanding the use of the Qur’an."

The petition warns, “An attack against one religion is an attack against them all. Next week, it could be Jews. Next month, it could be Christian fundamentalists or evangelicals. Right now, it is Muslims. It is they who feel targeted by repression and abuse, and they who live among us in a growing climate of fear. … We hold it to be self-evident that all Americans have the right to practice their faith, whatever it may be, and that any Americans - regardless of race, color or creed - may be elected and sworn into office holding whatever book they consider sacred…We would point out that there are some five million Muslims in the US. Many have been here for generations. They are every bit as American as Rep. Goode. Some Americans have also converted to Islam, including Rep. Ellison. We call for a renewed unity among people of conscience and of faith.”

The petition adds, “In a spirit of reconciliation and peace, we invite Rep. Goode to join with us in an inter-religious delegation to visit a mosque in his district, in order that the healing may begin.”

The Goode-Ellison firestorm was triggered by remarks by right-wing talk-show host and writer Dennis Prager, who got the ball rolling about a month ago, arguing that Ellison, Congress’ first Muslim, will literally “undermine American civilization” and “embolden Islamic extremists” if he takes the oath of office on a Koran instead of a Christian Bible. Rep. Goode was part of a wide assortment of right-wing critics who came forward with similar denunciations. Goode argued that Ellison is proof that we need immigration reform to prevent Muslims from entering the United States.

On swearing-in day last week, Rep. Ellison did in fact place his hand on the Muslim holy book in a private ceremony for family, friends, and staffers at the Capitol. The Qur’an he used had belonged to Thomas Jefferson, who was a native of Goode’s Congressional District.

Earlier, following the en masse swearing in of the 110th Congress – at which no holy book is used – Rep. Goode was seen making his way to Rep. Ellison on the floor of the House. The two shook hands, but Goode has refused to retract his statements.

Appearing on Fox's "Your World" program with guest-host David Asman, Goode insisted he does not want to forbid Keith Ellison from using the Qu’ran outright. "But," he said, "I am for restricting immigration so that we don't have a majority of Muslims elected to the United States House of Representatives."

To block the invading hordes, Goode wants to curtail legal immigration for Middle Easterners, and end Diversity Visa programs that were created to increase the immigrants from non-European countries.

Religious leaders and organizations backing the petition include Dr. George Hunsinger of the Princeton Theological Seminary, Rev. Robert Edgar of the
National Council of Churches, Rabbi Steven B. Jacobs of the Rabbi Steven B. Jacobs Progressive Faith Foundation, Rev. Dr. Larry L. Greenfield of the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago, Rev. Cedric A. Harmon of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Joseph C. Hough, Jr. of the Union Theological Seminary, Vincent Isner of Faithful America, a program of the National Council of the Churches of Christ USA, and Rev. Timothy F. Simpson of the Christian Alliance for Progress.

Readers wishing to read the full petition and original signatories can do so at

In a statement, Rep. Ellison said, “We seem to have lost the political vision of our founding document -- a vision of inclusion, tolerance and generosity. I do not blame my critics for subscribing to a politics of scarcity and intolerance. However, I believe we all must project a new politics of generosity and inclusion. This is the vision of the diverse coalition in my Congressional district. My constituents in Minnesota elected me to fight for a new politics in which a loving nation guarantees health care for all of its people; a new politics in which executive pay may not skyrocket while workers do not have enough to care for their families.”

He added, “I was elected to articulate a new politics in which no one is cut out of the American dream, not immigrants, not gays, not poor people, not even a Muslim committed to serve his nation.”

Right-wing religious groups and the Republican Party have remained largely silent on the Goode-Ellison controversy. Only one prominent Republican, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, has publicly defended Ellison’s Qur’an decision and criticized Rep. Goode. Conservative religious groups have deviated little from promoting their more customary issues, such as opposition to “activist judges” and gay marriage. But there is mounting evidence that the more inclusive religious communities in the U.S. are determined to make their voices heard.

Princeton’s Dr. George Hunsinger, one of the original petition signatories, told us, "We were outmaneuvered by the Religious Right. We have a 20-year deficit to make up for. But remember that it wasn't so long ago that the likes of Martin Luther King and Rev. William Sloane Coffin were on the scene…From a Christian point of view, faithfulness is a higher virtue than effectiveness. Which doesn't mean that we can afford to be slackers when it comes to making a difference."

Goode was elected to Congress in 1996 as a Democrat, representing the historically conservative 5th Congressional District of Virginia, located in the southwest part of the state, where the largest city is Charlottesville. Like many Southern Democrats, Goode strongly opposed abortion and gun control and vigorously supported the tobacco industry. He is also a long-time opponent of same-sex marriage and gay civil unions. He officially became a Republican in August 2002 before the primary election, making him the first Republican to represent this district since Reconstruction.

In 2005, Goode faced questions when a major corporate campaign donor, defense contractor MZM, Inc., was implicated in a bribery scandal that resulted in the criminal conviction and resignation of California congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham. Although Goode insisted that his relations with MZM were motivated solely by his interest in bringing high-paying skilled jobs to his district, in December of that year he donated the $88,000 received in MZM contributions to regional charities.

In July 2006 Richard Berglund, a former supervisor of the Martinsville, Va. office of MZM Inc., pleaded guilty to making illegal donations to Goode's campaign. Court papers indicated that Berglund and MZM owner Mitchell Wade, who previously pleaded guilty, engaged in a scheme to reimburse MZM employees for campaign donations.There was no allegation of wrong-doing on the part of Goode's campaign.

Friday, January 05, 2007


By William Fisher

One needs a well-honed sense of irony to truly appreciate 2006. Some of these ironies were funny. Some were embarrassing. A lot were downright tragic. Before we finally consign the old year to the historians, let us recount some of some of them.

Arguably the most depressing irony of 2006 was that the country to which we claim to be bringing the rule of law turned the execution of a true miscreant into a lynch mob. We didn’t do it – that was the handiwork of Iraq’s so-called unity government. But we’re getting blamed anyway. This piece of Kafkaesque theater is going to do wonders for our Public Diplomacy programs! Karen Hughes, where are you when we need you?

But there was a lot more.

While we fretted about North Korea’s A-bombs and Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the Pentagon and the Energy Department chose the first new, nuclear-weapon design for development since the end of the Cold War. But not to worry -- the new warhead will be safer, cheaper, more secure, easier to manufacture, and never need explosive testing. This latest toy would be the first step toward an entirely new U.S. nuclear arsenal. But it’s far from the first step in the perception that America might just have a tad of a double-standard problem in the proliferation business.

Then, there was the irony of Iraqi refugees. Members of Muslim and Christian minorities, as well as doctors, university professors, scientists, people who worked for the U.S. authorities, and just average citizens, fled this “liberated” country in the tens of thousands. But the Bush administration had planned to resettle just 500 of these refugees in the U.S. As the year drew to a close, the New York Times reported that State Department officials were “open to admitting larger numbers, but are limited by a cumbersome and poorly financed United Nations referral system.” The Times cited some critics of the Bush administration as claiming the U.S. “has been reluctant to create a significant refugee program because to do so would be tantamount to conceding failure in Iraq.” Someone needs to remind President Bush of Colin Powell’s Pottery Barn analogy: “You break it, you own it.” Equating refugees with “collateral damage” just doesn’t cut it.

Then there were the grotesquely mixed messages being sent to American citizens who happen to be Muslims. The Pentagon and the armed forces, for example, started a big push to recruit more Muslims into the military because of the dearth of Arabic-speakers who understand the culture of places like Iraq and Afghanistan. To win “hearts and minds” of American Muslims, West Point, the other service academies, and military installations, opened Muslim prayer rooms, appointed Imams to serve as chaplains, and got non-Muslim officers and Pentagon officials to celebrate religious events with Muslims. The FBI, CIA, and DHS also continued their campaigns to recruit Arab-Americans as analysts and linguists – and turned down most of the many applicants because they had families and friends in the Middle East. Surprise, surprise!

At the same time, however, Muslims were being harassed, intimidated and attacked not only by wing-nut talk show hosts and many of their fellow citizens, but by people who should know better – like Virginia Rep. Virgil Goode. This distinguished gent said Muslims were not welcome in the United States. He told us he believes Muslims “should not be allowed to enter this country and that they should seek their political or economic aspirations in other countries.” This redneck no-nothing attacked a newly-elected member of congress – Keith Ellis, the House’s first Muslim – for using the Koran instead of the Bible for his informal swearing in. That Koran, by the way, belonged to Thomas Jefferson. Goode then administered the coup de grace by tying American Muslims to the urgency of building a very tall fence to seal off our borders and prevent a tsunami of illegal Muslim immigration.

The xenophobia didn’t apply only to people like Goode. Our government, too, was more than complicit. “Terrorist” Maher Arar, who was “rendered” from Kennedy Airport to ten months in a torture chamber in a Syrian jail, then acquitted after a two-year Canadian investigation, remained on America’s famous no-fly list, along with Senator Ted Kennedy, aging grandmothers and numerous infants. He is barred from traveling in the U.S. or even flying over U.S. airspace -- but the State Department won’t tell him why. Then, the Department of Homeland Security had to apologize to a Muslim traveler who was unnecessarily strip-searched at the Pinellas County Jail, and held in a maximum-security cell for two days after being detained at Tampa International Airport. And six Muslim-American Imams were removed from a US Airways flight in handcuffs after a passenger complained to a flight attendant that they were acting “suspiciously.” They had prayed in the airline’s waiting room before boarding their flight.

Another mixed message came from Christian military officers who continued their proselytizing at the Air Force Academy, despite the findings of a special investigative panel that promised to clean up the Academy’s act. Mikey Weinstein, an Academy graduate, called for an investigation into several officers who appeared in a promotional video for a Christian organization while in uniform. Weinstein said evangelistic efforts by Christian officers directed toward their colleagues or subordinates amounted to "coercion" and "fanatical unconstitutional religious persecution."

But my favorite irony has to be the fence caper. It’s about the Golden State Fence company, which helped build San Diego's border wall in the 1990s. That fence served as a model for the recently legislated 700-mile border fence because it successfully stopped immigrants from crossing at points along its 14-mile stretch. (However, the fence simply pushed would-be immigrants to more dangerous terrain in Arizona.)

In 2006, company executives pled guilty to hiring illegal immigrants. The executives may serve jail time in addition to paying nearly $5 million in fees. Their attorney told NPR that the case proves construction companies need guest workers.

There were many more ironies in 2006, too numerous to recount here. But don’t despair; we’re likely to have an even bigger crop at the end of 2007.

Monday, January 01, 2007


By William Fisher

It’s encouraging to know that President Bush is taking a hard look at economic initiatives as he prepares to let the nation in on his new strategy for Iraq.

But he faces two huge problems. The first is that he’s been here before – and his Coalition Provisional Authority, under the aegis of Viceroy Jerry Bremer botched this job as he did most others back 2003 and 2004.

The second is that, whatever economic development projects Bush may try to put in place, it may just be too late for any of them to be effective.

The Washington Post reports that the initiatives Bush is considering include a short-term work program, a micro-lending project, and a reappraisal of potentially viable state-owned industries that could be re-started.

Officials told the Post that these kinds of programs are part of a “classic counter-insurgency strategy” that also includes military and political components.

The military piece would presumably include the much-discussed “surge” in U.S. boots on the ground. The political part would be largely out of U.S. control; it would turn on the ability and the will of Iraq’s so-called “Unity Government” to take on the armed militias and death squads now wreaking so much death and destruction.

Some administration officials consider the economic package the most important of the three components. But, even if it’s not too late, it seems clear that projects of this type will be largely useless absent security and political reconciliation. And the Malaki government seems paralyzed to confront these realities.

As to the nature of the economic initiatives themselves, there is certainly nothing new or innovative here. These kinds of projects have been used by the U.S. Agency for International Development, USAID, virtually since the agency was founded more than 40 years ago.

Short-term work programs that would follow up a military sweep by immediately hiring people in the neighborhood to clear up trash or do other small civil-affairs jobs, is a sometimes useful band-aid that USAID has applied dozens of times, in many parts of the world, and in areas not necessarily beset by insurgencies. Short-term, it might prevent some Iraqis from joining armed gangs, but it is unlikely to change the allegiances of the thousands who have already made that bloody decision. And it is doubtful that, given the nature of both military and civilian bureaucracy in Iraq, such programs could be implemented quickly enough to have any significant impact on unemployment, which is far higher today than during the rule of Saddam Hussein, Iraq's late leader.

Micro-lending programs are also an old USAID chestnut, recently brought to public attention by the Bangladeshi efforts for which Muhammad Yunus and his Grameen Bank won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize. Micro lending involves making modest loans to help individuals get businesses going and create new economic activity in poor neighborhoods. USAID and other countries’ aid agencies have used the technique to help poor but entrepreneurial men and women in villages in every part of the developing world. In many of these, a loan of $10 or $100 dollars has started to help lift thousands of communities out of poverty. The loan repayment rate would be to die for by any commercial banker. In some iterations of this program, there is a rule that no one in a community can get a new loan if any borrower in that community misses a payment on his or her current loan. That gets the whole village involved. Where these programs have not worked, it is more often than not because of red tape and corruption by their national governments.

But will micro-lending work in war zones where vendors are afraid to take their handicrafts and other wares to the markets that are prime targets for suicide bombers and IEDs? Will it work in towns where there is no electricity to, say, power the sewing machines needed to turn out the inexpensive T-shirts and other garments that are traditional products made with micro-loans?

Most international development experts would find this proposition extremely problematic.

Then there’s the review of dormant state-owned industries to try to determine which ones are economically viable and worth reopening. This, too, is an old USAID approach, especially since the Reagan Administration, when such reviews almost always recommended not resuscitation but privatization. And in many cases, they were right. State-run industries in developing countries are almost always inefficient, over-manned, and often corrupt. In countries where unemployment is high, the governmental industrial sector is little more than a dumping ground for young men and women who can scrape together a bribe for the factory manager. In many situations, private investors could probably do better. But the problem has been that there were few bidders for these dinosaur industries.

If the Bush Administration elects to resurrect these losers, it may keep some Iraqis off the streets and collecting a paycheck. That may well be useful, but we should be under no illusions that Iraq can build an economy on losers.

If all this has a deja vue feel to it, it’s because most of these initiatives – any many others -- have been tried before, only to go down in flames under the supervision of the inexperienced, ideologically-driven political appointees sent to Iraq to supervise the “reconstruction” of the country – at a cost well in excess of $20 billion.

During 2003 and 2004, the CPA hired some of the most respected and successful international development consulting firms as contractors. When their projects failed to achieve their objectives, the contractors were blamed. No doubt some under-performed. But spotty performance was overwhelmingly the fault of the CPA folks charged with supervising these contractors. Few had any experience with international development. They knew nothing of the country, its culture, its languages. They showed a disgraceful indifference to the CPA red tape that prevented critical supplies, and salaries for contractors’ Iraqi employees, from reaching contractors on a timely basis. They pushed for a Baghdad stock exchange to rival New York’s. They recommended privatizing virtually everything that didn’t move. They constantly changed the missions and workplans of their contractors, who often worked under life-threatening conditions. They rarely ventured outside the Green Zone to review progress or lack thereof. They were heavily populated by Bush political appointees full of grandiose ideas that served only to expose their ignorance of the country they were sent to help.

Doubtless, some of the same contractors will win bids to execute Mr. Bush’s “new” economic strategy – if there is one. That’s to be expected, since they are among the best in the world. But these kinds of contractors cannot operate as free-lancers in a vacuum. I draw on years of personal experience when I say that they depend on – and welcome – informed eyes-on supervision and oversight. We’re not talking about Halliburton here.

The CPA, thankfully, is gone – its leader now the proud recipient of the Medal of Freedom. But there is no evidence that it has been replaced by international development specialists who actually know what they’re doing. Remember that these are the same folks who still can’t deliver electricity or clean water.

Even if I’m wrong about that – and I hope I am – the devil will still be in the details. The U.S. Government is not famous for its rapid response skills.
So it will likely be months between President Bush’s unveiling of his new plan and the signing of contracts and the arrival of new contractors on the ground.

The big problem is that the U.S. has run out of months.