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Jan 04

Systemic Rot

President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) today despite his veto threat. The law now restricts detainee transfers out of military prisons in Afghanistan and Guant√°namo Bay. “Obama attached a signing statement claiming that he has the constitutional power to override the limits in the law,” the New York Times reports. “Despite his objections, Mr. Obama signed the bill, saying its other provisions on military programs were too important to jeopardize.”

Obama’s three page signing statement objected to many parts of the bill. For example, Obama objects to what I’m calling the “Romney battleship preservation” clause:

In a time when all public servants recognize the need to eliminate wasteful or duplicative spending, various sections in the Act limit the Defense Department’s ability to direct scarce resources towards the highest priorities for our national security. For example, restrictions on the Defense Department’s ability to retire unneeded ships and aircraft will divert scarce resources needed for readiness and result in future unfunded liabilities.

But, more troublesome to the president and those of us who want to see Gitmo closed, is the NDAA interferes with his ability to close military detention prisons. He writes:

Several provisions in the bill also raise constitutional concerns. Section 1025 places limits on the military’s authority to transfer third country nationals currently held at the detention facility in Parwan, Afghanistan… Decisions regarding the disposition of detainees captured on foreign battlefields have traditionally been based upon the judgment of experienced military commanders and national security professionals without unwarranted interference by Members of Congress. Section 1025 threatens to upend that tradition, and could interfere with my ability as Commander in Chief…

[…]

Section 1028 fundamentally maintains the unwarranted restrictions on the executive branch’s authority to transfer detainees to a foreign country. This provision hinders the Executive’s ability to carry out its military, national security, and foreign relations activities and would, under certain circumstances, violate constitutional separation of powers principles… The Congress designed these sections, and has here renewed them once more, in order to foreclose my ability to shut down the Guantanamo Bay detention facility.

There has been much criticism of the 112th Congress as the worst Congress ever, but writing at Esquire today, Charlie Pierce observes that it is more than just Congress that is out-of-whack when it comes to governance. Presidential signing statements are another alarm warning us that our system of government is broken. Pierce writes:

Yes, Congress has partly tied his hands, and it has done so by making it harder for him to close Gitmo down. But, even against that, the president argues for the supremacy of the executive branch in such matters. That, coupled with a veto warning that was as empty as a toddler’s threat to run away from home, vitiates any case the president might choose to make that what he really wants to do is to protect the Bill Of Rights. The presidency has been allowed to become a dangerous beast over a number of decades, to the point where anyone who seeks it can rightly be presumed to have at least the spark of lawless authoritarianism in him. And, if that spark is there, the presidency will seek it out and bring it to flame. This president is no different.

Despite the conservatives’ deranged bluster, Obama is not acting differently from any other chief executive we’ve had since the end of World War II according to Pierce. For example, the Obama administration has refused to disclose which criteria are used to kill people with drone missile attacks. The legality of the strike that killed American-born Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen is debatable.

Yesterday, a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by ACLU and the New York Times was rejected by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. “Judge Colleen McMahon found that though she agrees that debate on the usage of drone strikes should be made in the open, she is unable to force the government to turn over the documents under FOIA”.

In her ruling, McMahon wrote:

However, this Court is constrained by law, and under the law, I can only conclude that the Government has not violated FOIA by refusing to turn over the documents sought in the FOIA requests, and so cannot be compelled by this court of law to explain in detail the reasons why its actions do not violate the Constitution and the laws of the United States. The Alice-in-Wonderland [sic] nature of this pronouncement is not lost on me; but after careful and extensive consideration, I find myself stuck in a paradoxical situation in which I cannot solve a problem because of contradictory constraints and rules – a veritable Catch-22. I can find no way around the thicket of laws and precedents that effectively allow the Executive Branch of our Government to proclaim as perfectly lawful certain actions that seem on their face incompatible with our Constitution and laws, while keeping the reason for their conclusion a secret.

From this Pierce concludes:

This is the way all presidents, most especially including this one, want it to be. This is the way the presidency has insisted on operating ever since the Cold War. This is what you get when you don’t listen to old Ike’s warning, when you let the Kennedys run amuck concerning Castro, when you let Lyndon fake an incident in the Tonkin Gulf, when you impeach Nixon over a burglary and not the illegal bombing of Cambodia, when you let everyone skate on Iran-Contra, when you impeach one president over a blowjob but let another one slide for lying the country into a war, for abrogating treaties and violating international law regarding torture, when you let a sociopath like Richard Cheney anywhere near the levers of power, and when you let a president decide which American lives or dies by standards he declines to share with the rest of us. This is what you get. Barack Obama didn’t sell out the Bill Of Rights today because he’s Barack Obama. Barack Obama sold out the Bill Of Rights today because he’s the president of the United States, and that’s now part of the damn job description.

If the job description for the President of the United States is to sell out the Bill of Rights, then America has more problems than just the worst Congress ever. The separation of powers, our whole system of checks and balances, are rotting away. This is the core of our Constitution.

While many of us on the left trust President Obama to do the right thing. The problem is that Obama will only be at the White House for four more years. Instead of having laws to protect us the abuse of power, we are left with having personalities to protect us from the abuse of power. What happens with the next president? Will he or she ignite that “spark”?

Presidents have proved to be unwilling to relinquish any power secured by their predecessors. For example, in 2008, soon-to-be former Vice President Cheney predicted then President-elect Obama would “appreciate” the expansion of presidential power that happened in the Bush administration. Cheney said:

Once they get here and they’re faced with the same problems we deal with every day, then they will appreciate some of the things we’ve put in place…

I believe very deeply, in a strong executive, and I think that’s essential in this day and age. And I think the Obama administration is not likely to cede that authority back to the Congress. I think they’ll find that given a challenge they face, they’ll need all the authority they can muster.

In turn, then-President-elect Obama said four years ago that he was reluctant to investigate Bush-era abuses of power, citing his “belief that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards.”

The inability of neither our partisan Congress nor our self-interested executive branch nor our law-twisted courts to investigate or limit or hold accountable the expansion of presidential power demonstrates a systemic flaw on our republic. This growing inability to hold accountable those serving in our nation’s highest offices allows for more potential abuses of power.

When presidents believe it is necessary to sign bills with caveats, because a veto means throwing needed legislation back to a dysfunctional lawmaking body; when the presidency collects more power and all that is needed for the person in the Oval Office to get a “spark” of authoritarianism to burst into flame; when our federal judges cannot find themselves in a “Catch-22” situation making it impossible to hold the executive branch accountable nor require them to explain their secrecy, then we have more problems than just the worst Congress ever. We’re getting closer to the worst government ever.

The nation’s constitutional core is rotting away.

Cross-posted from Daily Kos.

Apr 19

Next Big Oil Spill Disaster Set for the Arctic

Shell Oil is on its way right now to a location less than 15 miles from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. “Shell has proposed drilling up to four shallow water exploration wells in Alaska’s Beaufort Sea this summer, beginning on July 1,” Subsea World News reported last month.

The potential harm from a BP-scale spill is almost beyond comprehension,” David Yarnold, president of the National Audubon Society wrote at the Huffington Post.

If there is a spot on Earth as sacred or as critical to the future of our wild birds as the Gulf of Mexico, it is probably the unspoiled Arctic. Here, hundreds of bird species arrive every spring from all four North American flyways — the superhighways in the sky that birds use to travel up and down the Americas. Here, they mate, lay eggs and raise their young. Here also, many of America’s remaining polar bears make their winter dens along the coasts.

Siri wrote earlier today on Daily Kos on how the BP-spill in 2010 has caused unprecedented mutations and deformities in ocean life in Gulf of Mexico. Today, I’ll look at how our government and Big Oil are setting the stage in the Arctic for the sequel to Deepwater Horizon disaster. The script is already written and the leading actors are already on their way to the set.  

Aug 03

Jobs for K-Street: Super Congress Creates Lobbying Bonanza

Who said Congress wasn’t focused on jobs? Just a couple of weeks ago, Politico reported “Boom time on K Street is over.” Divided government meant that legislation was getting bogged down with posturing and politics.

“It’s taken all the air out of the room,” said Mike House, director of the law firm Hogan Lovells’ legislative practice.

“For the first time, the lobbying community is going through a belt-tightening, and you could see some firms get out of the business,” he added.

But worry no more K-Street, job salvation is at hand thanks to the extra-Constitutional Super Congress! Roll Call reports the new panel may trigger a Lobbying Bonanza! It’s a no-holds-barred, “Defense Spending vs. Everything Else” corporate grudge match.

Jan 05

Climate Change ‘no longer newsworthy’ says Media in 2010

The Daily Climate has a breakdown of the past decade of America’s corporate-held media’s coverage of climate change, where they found that 2010 was the year climate coverage ‘fell off the map’. Media coverage of climate change in 2010 dropped globally by 30 percent since 2009 and “slipped to levels not seen since 2005”.

Corporate broadcast news coverage of climate change was so insignificant that Robert Brulle, a Drexel University professor, who has analyzed nightly news coverage of climate change stories, said he is doubting his data. “I can’t believe it’s this little. In the U.S., it’s just gone off the map,” he said.

“The cycle of media interest in climate change has run its course, and this story is no longer considered newsworthy,” Brulle said. Total coverage of the UN climate talks in Cancun last month by the networks was a single 10-second clip, he said.

Jan 02

Fascinating 1860 Map of the U.S. Slave Population

2011 marks the sesquicentennial of the start of the American Civil War. On New Year’s Day 150 years ago, South Carolina had already seceded from the United States and the next months would see ten more states secede from the Union, the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, the formation of the Confederate States of America, and the start of the war.

Historian Susan Schulten wrote about the 1860 Census and map showing American slavery in The New York Times last month. The United States Coast Survey used the 1860 Census data, the last time the federal government counted the slave population, to produce two maps illustrating slave population – one of Virginia and the other of the entire South.

The map depicts each county’s slave population, with “the darker the shading, the higher the number of slaves”, which is a “visually arresting way to see the range of slavery across the South without having to read a single data point,” she writes. It was popular with President Lincoln and the American public after its publication. It was sold throughout the war “for the benefit of the sick and wounded soldiers.”

Dec 21

How to Win Friends and Influence Nations

Reading the news of this past week, it is easy to see why the U.S. strategy in Pakistan is failing. Over the weekend, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao of China was in Islamabad praising Pakistan’s efforts fighting terrorism and pledged to increase trade between the two countries, the NY Times reported.

China has not uncovered any new secret in diplomacy that is allow it such breakthroughs. Really, it almost seems as if Wen is following the advice found in the book 人性的弱点 (The Weakness of Human Nature) or as it is better know, How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie.

Consider three of Carnegie’s key principles:

  1. 不要批評,責怪或抱怨 or don’t criticize, condemn or complain.

  2. 獻出你真實,誠懇的讚賞 or give honest and sincere appreciation.

  3. 引起別人的渴望 or arouse in the other person an eager want.

Nov 13

DNA evidence shows man may have been wrongly executed by Texas

Claude Jones was executed by Texas on December 7, 2000. He was the 152nd person executed while George W. Bush was governor of Texas. Now, nearly 10 years after his state execution, the single strand of hair used to convict and sentence Jones to death has been found to have belonged to the victim.

Texas may have killed an innocent man.

The Texas Observer reports DNA Tests Undermine Evidence in Texas Execution.

Claude Jones always claimed that he wasn’t the man who walked into an East Texas liquor store in 1989 and shot the owner. He professed his innocence right up until the moment he was strapped to a gurney in the Texas execution chamber and put to death on Dec. 7, 2000. His murder conviction was based on a single piece of forensic evidence recovered from the crime scene-a strand of hair-that prosecutors claimed belonged to Jones.

Nov 05

SCOTUS hears cases that may kill Establishment Clause lawsuits and make way for theocracy

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Wednesday on two cases that have the potential to further ease the way for theocracy in the United States.

At stake is whether or not citizens can sue when tax credits are used to fund religious education and whether or not taxpayers have the right to sue to stop it. “The Obama administration says taxpayers have no right to sue if a state uses tax funds for parochial school tuitions,” the Los Angeles Times reports.

The ‘ability to sue over church-state claims at stake‘, The Associated Baptist Press reports. A 5-4 conservative Roberts Court decision “has the potential to change the way the law handles cases dealing with government endorsement of religion.”

If the court sides with the state, one consequence could be a significant reduction in taxpayers’ ability to sue governments over violations of the First Amendment clause that says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

Nov 05

SCOTUS hears cases that may kill Establishment Clause lawsuits

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Wednesday on two cases that have the potential to further ease the way for theocracy in the United States.

At stake is whether or not citizens can sue when tax credits are used to fund religious education and whether or not taxpayers can the right to sue to stop it. “The Obama administration says taxpayers have no right to sue if a state uses tax funds for parochial school tuitions,” the Los Angeles Times reports.

The ‘ability to sue over church-state claims at stake‘, The Associated Baptist Press reports. A 5-4 conservative Roberts Court decision “has the potential to change the way the law handles cases dealing with government endorsement of religion.”

If the court sides with the state, one consequence could be a significant reduction in taxpayers’ ability to sue governments over violations of the First Amendment clause that says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

Nov 05

SCOTUS may kill Establishment Clause lawsuits and make way for theocracy

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Wednesday on two cases that have the potential to further ease the way for theocracy in the United States.

At stake is whether or not citizens can sue when tax credits are used to fund religious education and whether or not taxpayers can the right to sue to stop it. “The Obama administration says taxpayers have no right to sue if a state uses tax funds for parochial school tuitions,” the Los Angeles Times reports.

The ‘ability to sue over church-state claims at stake‘, The Associated Baptist Press reports. A 5-4 conservative Roberts Court decision “has the potential to change the way the law handles cases dealing with government endorsement of religion.”

If the court sides with the state, one consequence could be a significant reduction in taxpayers’ ability to sue governments over violations of the First Amendment clause that says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

Nov 05

SCOTUS hears cases that may kill Establishment Clause lawsuits and make way for theocracy

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Wednesday on two cases that have the potential to further ease the way for theocracy in the United States.

At stake is whether or not citizens can sue when tax credits are used to fund religious education and whether or not taxpayers can the right to sue to stop it. “The Obama administration says taxpayers have no right to sue if a state uses tax funds for parochial school tuitions,” the Los Angeles Times reports.

The ‘ability to sue over church-state claims at stake‘, The Associated Baptist Press reports. A 5-4 conservative Roberts Court decision “has the potential to change the way the law handles cases dealing with government endorsement of religion.”

If the court sides with the state, one consequence could be a significant reduction in taxpayers’ ability to sue governments over violations of the First Amendment clause that says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

Oct 21

All according to plan…

The New York Times reports that “Efforts to Prosecute Blackwater Are Collapsing“.

Nearly four years after the federal government began a string of investigations and criminal prosecutions against Blackwater Worldwide personnel accused of murder and other violent crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, the cases are beginning to fall apart, burdened by a legal obstacle of the government’s own making.

This is the kind of justice I’ve come to expect in America. The rules set up to protect people against malfeasance are being exploited instead to shield people with connections to wealthy and powerful conservative interests.

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