Thursday, November 18, 2010


By William Fisher

A clear majority of U.S. voters-- 61 per cent -- would choose a punishment other than death for murder if given a choice, the Death Penalty Information Center said today as it released the results of “one of the most comprehensive studies ever conducted” of Americans’ views on the death penalty.

In a national poll of 1,500 registered voters conducted by Lake Research Partners, alternative punishments to execution included life with no possibility of parole and with restitution to the victim’s family (39 per cent), life with no possibility of parole (13 per cent), or life with the possibility of parole (9 per cent).

The researchers said the survey “shows growing support for alternatives to the death penalty compared with previous polls.”

The research shows that in states with the death penalty, a plurality of voters said it would make no difference in their vote if a representative supported repeal of the death penalty; and a majority (62 per cent) said either it would make no difference (38 per cent) or they would be more likely to vote for such a representative (24 per cent).

“For decades, politicians have equated being tough on crime with support for the death penalty, but this research suggests voters want their elected officials to be smart on crime, use tax dollars wisely, and fund the services they care about the most. Capital punishment is not a high priority for voters and is not the ‘third rail’ of politics,” Richard Dieter, Executive Director of Death Penalty Information Center told IPS during a telephone news conference.

“We see a real openness to considering life with no possibility for parole as a punishment for murder and a real awareness among Americans of the many problems with the death penalty. It is likely we will see Americans moving away from support for the death penalty as states and local governments grapple with tight budgets and as today’s younger voters and Latinos move into the core of the electorate,” said pollster Celinda Lake.

Since the start of 2009, many states, such as Maryland, Colorado, Connecticut, Montana, Kansas, and New Mexico considered legislation to repeal the death penalty, and it is expected that trend will continue in 2011.

Voters ranked the death penalty the lowest on a list of budget priorities and expressed strong support for replacing the death penalty with life without parole, if the money saved was used to fund crime prevention programs.

In states with the death penalty, a plurality of voters said it would make no difference in their vote if a representative supported repeal of the death penalty; and a majority said either it would make no difference or they would be more likely to vote for such a representative. In 2011, about five states are expected to consider repeal legislation.

The poll dug deeply into Americans’ thinking about the death penalty and the problems they see in this punishment. For decades, elected officials have equated being tough on crime with support for the death penalty, but this research shows that capital punishment may no longer be a “third rail” of politics.

Additional key findings from the polling research include:

Cost emerged as an important concern for a strong majority of Americans. Sixty-eight percent said cost was a very or somewhat convincing argument against the death penalty. Voters ranked emergency services, creating jobs, police and crime prevention, schools and libraries, public health care services, and roads and transportation as more important budget priorities than the death penalty.

A strong majority of respondents (65 per cent) would favor replacing the death penalty with life with no possibility of parole if the money saved were used to fund crime prevention programs.

Hispanic voters were among those most willing to replace the death penalty with an alternative punishment. They responded most strongly to moral objections to the death penalty rooted in faith, as well as the argument that the death penalty is particularly unfair along racial lines.

The poll explored the information that the public uses to make up its mind about the death penalty and the problems they see with this punishment.

Some of the public’s top concerns about the death penalty were that it is applied unevenly and unfairly; it subjects victims’ families to lengthy trials and years of appeals that interfere with the healing process; and it risks executing the innocent.

Spending millions of dollars on the death penalty, at a time when states are cutting back on services such as police forces, schools, and public health, and when life in prison would cost less, was also of concern to voters.

Moral and religious objections to the death penalty were strong among Latino and Catholic voters.

The nationwide poll was conducted in May 2010 with a margin of error of +/- 2.5%

Death Penalty Information Center, founded in 1990, is a non-profit organization serving the media and the public with analysis and information on issues concerning capital punishment.


By William Fisher

The government of the United Kingdom will reportedly pay millions in compensation to seven British nationals who were unlawfully “rendered” to U.S.-run prisons and tortured with the cooperation of British intelligence.

The British press is reporting that Ministers and the security services appear to have decided that exposure of thousands of documents in open court was a risk they could not take. The documents presumably would confirm British complicity with the U.S. in the so-called “extraordinary rendition” of terrorist suspects.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) represents two of those slated to receive reparations in a lawsuit against Boeing subsidiary Jeppesen DataPlan for its role in the U.S. extraordinary rendition program.

The organization said in a statement it was “deeply troubling that while the U.K. and many other countries are now acknowledging and addressing their official complicity in the Bush administration’s human rights abuses, here in the United States the Obama administration continues to shield the architects of the torture program from civil liability while Bush-era officials, including former President Bush and former Vice President Cheney, boast of their crimes on national television.”

The group added, “To date, not a single victim of the Bush administration's torture program has had his day in a U.S. court. The U.S. can no longer stand silently by as other nations reckon with their own agents' complicity in the torture program. Reckoning with the legacy of torture would restore our standing in the world, reassert the rule of law and strengthen our democracy.

“If other democracies can compensate survivors and hold officials accountable for their endorsement of torture, surely we can do the same,” the group said.

Last week, during television interviews to promote his new memoir, “Decision Points,” former U.S. president George W. Bush claimed that techniques such as waterboarding were legal and had protected the U.K. from terrorist attacks.

The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, disagreed with Bush. In fact, it was Cameron’s agreement that lawyers for the former prisoners should begin negotiations with the government that led to the settlement expected to be announced imminently.

The detainees understood to be in line for settlements include Binyam Mohamed, Bisher al-Rawi, Jamil el-Banna, Richard Belmar, Omar Deghayes, Moazzam Begg and Martin Mubanga. Mohamed and Al Rawi, plaintiffs in the Jeppesen case, claim they were kidnapped, forcibly rendered to U.S.-run prisons overseas, and tortured.

The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama invoked the so-called state secrets privilege to have the Jeppesen case thrown out, and a federal appeals court dismissed the case in September. The ACLU has asked the Supreme Court to review that decision.

The U.K. is one of several nations that have taken responsibility for their role in the illegal torture program run by the Bush administration by initiating investigations or public inquiries.

A forthcoming British inquiry will investigate the role U.K. officials played in the program. It was British Prime Minister David Cameron’s agreement that the government should negotiate with the former prisoners that opened the way for a broad inquiry into what British intelligence officials knew about the American rendition and torture programs, and what they did about it. The inquiry is scheduled to report by the end 2011.

The British high court had ruled that confidential documents would have to be released during court hearings. This would take inordinate amounts of time and the documents would likely be highly embarrassing to U.K. officials.

When Guantanamo prisoner Binyam Mohamed sued the British government last year for being complicit in his imprisonment and torture, it caused a major furor in the U.K. foreign office establishment. The former foreign secretary, David Miliband, fought in the high court to have the suit dismissed, on grounds that the Americans had threatened to stop exchanging intelligence with their British allies if the case went ahead. The high court ruled in favor of Mohamed.

The ruling said that Mohamed was subjected to "cruel, inhuman and
degrading treatment" by U.S. authorities and ordered the release of a previously secret seven-paragraph summary of CIA documents on his treatment.

Paying reparations to Mohamed will inevitably further diminish Miliband’s reputation.

It appears that the payment to former Guantanamo prisoners would represent the first time a group of former prisoners has successfully sought financial restitution.

The only other known instance of a prisoner receiving a money award is the case of Maher Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian citizen. He was stopped by U.S. authorities at Kennedy Airport in New York while enroute from North Africa to his home in Canada, shipped off first to Jordan, and finally to Syria, where he was imprisoned, held incommunicado without charge, and tortured for almost a year. The Syrian authorities then released him without charge.

The U.S. had acted on information supplied by the Canadian Government. After a two-year investigation of the incident, Canada made a formal apology to Arar and awarded him close to ten million dollars.

However, he remains on a U.S. “no fly” list and cannot enter the U.S.

Revenge of the Body Scanners

By William Fisher

Privacy advocates today called on the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to end its controversial new initiative of whole-body scans and enhanced pat-downs of airline passengers, calling the program “dangerous to health, ineffective and unconstitutional.”

Led by consumer advocate Ralph Nader, a group of organizations held a telephonic news conference to insist that the “strip-search” program be suspended and turned over the Congress to investigate.

Nader said, “the machines are ineffective, the pat-downs are too invasive, and the use of radioactive technology poses health risks.” Congress should look into these issues, he said.

Nader cited testimony from a number of physicians who agreed that radioactivity “could cause skin problems” and might pose a public health threat to passengers.

Nader said there is also the issue of how protective these TSA initiatives are. He pointed out that “passengers and crew of 17,000 business jets are not screened at all.”

He added: “The TSA has no strategy. This new program is a commercially driven, knee jerk reaction to the shoe bomber and the underpants bomber. The program should be ended and turned over to Congress.”

Additionally, he said, “What concerns us is the TSA’s secrecy – their obscurantist approach to government...not responding to members of congress, the press or the public.”

In San Diego yesterday, an airline ticket-holder declined to use the electronic body scanner and opted for a pat-down instead. The TSA inspector then explained the intimate anatomic details of the pat-down, at which point the would0-be passenger threatened to sue of the TSA official touched his private parts. He was denied access to the aircraft and threatened with arrest and a civil fine.

Another conference participant, Chip Pitts, a lecturer in law at Stanford University law school, talked about the ineffectiveness of the body scanning technology.
“Despite the secret, corrupt, and deceptive claims under which these machines have been sold by DHS, TSA, and their contract manufacturers, the body scanners don’t detect the sorts of plastic explosives that were their main justification. They’re easily evaded by real terrorists even as they render everyone else a suspect, increasingly relegating the innocent to an unacceptable choice of a radiation scan, or a groping pat-down, or not flying at all.”

“Adopted with utter disregard for a host of laws including the Administrative Procedure Act, the Privacy Act, and other specific statutes, these machines not only reverse the presumption of innocence, but violate the Fourth Amendment and other core provisions of the Bill of Rights, including by placing discriminatory burdens and risks on vulnerable groups and individuals such as religious minorities, children, pregnant women, airport crews, and frequent travelers,” he added.

“They’re thus of a piece with other discredited post-9/11 programs like ‘Total Information Awareness’, ‘Secure Flight,’ and the massive warrantless surveillance and ongoing data mining programs, representing a misplaced techno-utopianism that’s utterly ineffective in achieving the promised objectives -- but quite effective in crushing our deepest values and true security, “ he said.

Other groups participating in the conference included the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), Flyers' Rights. Org, We Won’t Fly. org., and the Libertarian Party.

Kate Hanni of Flyers', which claims to have 30,000 members, asked, “Are we getting ahead of terrorists or merely reacting to recent events?”.

Mark Hinkle of the Libertarian Party, said “Everyone who cares about civil liberties should be outraged. The Obama administration shows no respect for the constitution. It believes there is no limit on government power.”

We won't is promoting a national opt-out day, Nov. 24, to encourage people to protest the TSA program by not flying. Nov. 24 comes at the start of busiest travel season of the year.

EPIC has filed a lawsuit to suspend the body scanner program, calling it "unlawful, invasive, and ineffective." Opposition to the program is growing. The Libertarian Party, the American Pilots Association, Airline CEOs, flyers rights organizations, religious groups, and others are calling for an end to invasive searches at airports. A National Opt-Out Day is scheduled for November 24.

Libertarian Party Chair Mark Hinkle said today, "The TSA should end the strip-search machine program immediately. We've reached a point where our government has no qualms about humiliating us." Hinkle expressed support for the EPIC lawsuit aimed at suspending the body scanner program. Hinkle further said, "We encourage Americans to call their newly-elected members of Congress and tell them that they don't want this expensive, worthless, intrusive, unconstitutional program."

The EPIC lawsuit challenges the unilateral decision of the TSA to make body scanners the primary screening technique in U.S. airports. Three frequent air travelers are joining EPIC in the lawsuit: security expert Bruce Schneier, human rights activist Chip Pitts, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations legal counsel Nadhira Al-Khalili.

The Petitioners have brought claims under the Administrative Procedure Act, the Privacy Act, the Video Voyeurism Prevention Act, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and the Fourth Amendment. The Petitioners are seeking the suspension of the body scanner program.

In its brief, EPIC argues that the Department of Homeland Security "has initiated the most sweeping, the most invasive, and the most unaccountable suspicionless search of American travelers in history." EPIC further argues that the Transportation Security Administration "must comply with relevant law, and it must not be permitted to engage in such a fundamental change in agency practice without providing the public the opportunity to express its views."