Thursday, December 29, 2005

Unintended results

The police in Pandeborn, Germany, report that a 20-year old man there turned himself in for child pornography charges to the Bundeskriminalamt (BKA - this is the German Federal Bureau of Criminal Investigations).

Was it a belated sense of what he was doing was wrong?

Was it a result of an impassioned plea by a victim?

Was it an epiphany caused by a minister's sermon?

No, it was a computer virus "made him do it."

One of the constellation of viruses currently circulating is an e-mail virus called "Sober Y."

One of the German-language variants of this is an e-mail that states that "an initial investigation has been started" and that evidence on his hard drive was found, and that the e-mail was from the BKA.

Of course, this is patent nonsense, but it appears that this user is not very PC-savvy.

The e-mail so unnerved him that he turned himself in to police, who investigated, and found child porn on his PC, and also found evidence that he has sent some of the porn to others via e-mail.

An *actual* criminal proceeding has been opened.

{The path that led me to the blog entry that led me to the report itself is too convoluted to bother recounting.}

(in German) - POL-PB: ++ Schädlicher Computerwurm hilfreich - Sexualtäter stellte sich der Polizei --

Whatever /L/o/l/a/ Gojira Wants..

I'm at home today.

It's grey, cold and wet outside.

I've got a laundry list of things I need to research for articles for the blog.

There are various "counting games" being bruited about (the "meme(s)" of four and another of seven)

The Heretik has a link to the call for a list of the "ten worst Americans."

I have articles I should be working on on approval of torture by the U.S. government, directly and indirectly (by "extraordinary rendition")

I have another article about some of the media concentration in the brick-and-mortar MSM I want to work on.

So why aren't I?

Well, it'c difficult to keep a sense of continuity going, or do any research, when you are being insisted upon by a three-year old (the afore named Gojira) for reading of Goodnight Moon, Pigion Found A Hot Dog, the Curious George alphabet book, and Green Eggs And Ham.


And over.

And over.

OK, I'm a sucker.

And later on I'm going to take the elder (eight-year old) Gojira off to the Museum of Science.

So There! (I know, I'll pay for the deadlines later)

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Was Bush upset that FISA Court Actually Wanted To Comply With Law?

It appears that the reasoning behind the Bush administration decision to bypass the FISA courts and use warrantless wiretaps was, simply, they were frustrated at not getting their own way.

Faced with the FISA court's refusal to simply rubber-stamp the applications, and realizing that the chances of getting congress to expand surveillance powers over U.S. citizens were slim, the Bush/Cheney White House apparently decided that they did not need to bother with compliance with the existing law, enacted in response to abuse of the federal government's surveillance powers by the Nixon White House.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer's Washington Bureau has an article that details some of the statistics from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court requests over the 26 years the secret court, charged with oversight and authorizations for wiretaps and communications intercepts, has been in existence. ( "Secret court modified wiretap requests" ) .

Since the FISA Court was first seated in 1979, through 2004, it has approved 18,742 requests for warrants, and denied 4 (all 4 were denied in 2003 - obviously numbers are not yet available for the year 2005). Of those, 6,652 of those approvals have been during the time span of 2000 through 2004. This is a little over 35% of the total. (For a table showing the annual count, see "EPIC: FISA orders 1979-2004" ).

During the years before 1995, the average (unweighted) number of annual approvals was 503, In 1996, there were 697 FISA approvals, and the numbers have gone up each year. Again, there have only been 4 outright rejections of FISA requests in the entire history of this court.

So why would the Bush/Cheney White House choose to by-pass the FISA Court? It would not be that there was insufficient time to get a warrant before starting surveillance -- the original FISA legislation allowed for a 24-hour period in which to seek a retroactive warrant, and this time period was lengthened to 72 hours by the PATRIOT Act.

However, the FISA Court may also make changes to the applications, in order to make these requests acceptable under the law, rather than simply deny the request. This may be the bone of contention for the Bush/Cheney White House. From the Seattle P-I article:
... A review of Justice Department reports to Congress shows that the 26-year-old Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court modified more wiretap requests from the Bush administration than from the four previous presidential administrations combined.

The court's repeated intervention in Bush administration wiretap requests may explain why the president decided to bypass the court nearly four years ago to launch secret National Security Agency spying on hundreds and possibly thousands of Americans and foreigners inside the United States, according to James Bamford, an acknowledged authority on the supersecret NSA, which intercepts telephone calls, e-mails, faxes and Internet communications.

"They wanted to expand the number of people they were eavesdropping on, and they didn't think they could get the warrants they needed from the court to monitor those people," said Bamford, author of "Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency" and "The Puzzle Palace: Inside America's Most Secret Intelligence Organization." "The FISA court has shown its displeasure by tinkering with these applications by the Bush administration..."
To win a court-approved wiretap, the government must show "probable cause" that the target of the surveillance is a member of a foreign terrorist organization or foreign power and is engaged in activities that "may" involve a violation of criminal law.

Faced with that standard, Bamford said, the Bush administration had difficulty obtaining FISA court-approved wiretaps on dozens of people within the United States who were communicating with targeted al-Qaida suspects inside the United States.

The 11-judge court that authorizes FISA wiretaps has approved at least 18,740 applications for electronic surveillance or physical searches from five presidential administrations since 1979.

The judges modified only two search warrant orders out of the 13,102 applications that were approved over the first 22 years of the court's operation. In 20 of the first 21 annual reports on the court's activities up to 1999, the Justice Department told Congress that "no orders were entered (by the FISA court) which modified or denied the requested authority" submitted by the government.

But since 2001, the judges have modified 179 of the 5,645 requests for court-ordered surveillance by the Bush administration. A total of 173 of those court-ordered "substantive modifications" took place in 2003 and 2004 -- the most recent years for which public records are available.

The judges also rejected or deferred at least six requests for warrants during those two years -- the first outright rejection in the court's history.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said last week that Bush authorized NSA surveillance of overseas communications by U.S.-based terror suspects because the FISA court's approval process was too cumbersome...

"Too cumbersome" to show probable cause.

I guess that translates to "You *never* let me have any fun! I'm gonna play and not let you know where. So there!"
EPIC is the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt corporation. From their annual report: "The ELECTRONIC PRIVACY INFORMATION CENTER is a public interest research center in Washington, D.C. It was established in 1994 to focus public attention on emerging civil liberties issues and to protect privacy, freedom of expression and constitutional values in the information age"

The table chronicling the FISA requests is exerpted from the list of FISA annual reports, as compiled by the Federation of American Scientists (see "Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act")


Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Just a passing thought...

The same commentators who decry that "the right to privacy" and "separation of Church and State" are not found in the original construction of the U.S. Constitution have absolutely no qualms about finding some inherent absolute power for the Presidency in foreign affairs, even onto, it seems, the ability to assume full powers of a war-time CiC without the U.S. Congress having actually declared a war.

Indeed, these same supporters of the imperial presidency seem to find implications in the Constitution's text that the presidency is not bound by law at all -- yet the text cannot be construed to say such without contortions that a Byzantine theologian would blush at.

Sharing our Heritage

Susie, at Suburban Guerrilla, has a great article about her bone-deep passion brought out by a visit to Independence Hall ("History")

Her last paragraphs show her passion:
I probably wrote about this before, but one of the most amazing moments of my life was when, maybe seven or eight years ago, they removed all the furniture from the Assembly Room during an asbestos cleanup. As a consolation prize, they allowed the visitors to walk up onto the platform where they signed the Declaration and the Constitution.

I was so excited, I could hardly breathe. Imagine, walking in those same footsteps of history. And now, the whole place is on lockdown and crawling with guards. I was so lucky to be there for that moment.

I love this country in my gut, all the way down to my bones. I am proud to call myself a patriot, and I won’t let any right-wing stooge take that away from me. This country belongs to us all, and don’t you forget it.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Happy Boxing Day

Well, I was a good fella and kept away from the news cycle yesterday and today, just hangin' round the house.

Christmas Eve the elder boy and I went to 4:00 PM mass and caught the annual Christmas Pageant, presented in place of the Gospel reading. Actually, attendance was mandatory for me -- I was doing one of the scripture readings from the pulpit. And I thought I had stage fright during sales calls...

Comes The Day, we handed gifts to both boys for unwrapping before my trundling off to Sunday morning services. There were only about a dozen people at the service, and, as usual when attendance is that small (usually only on days like Thanksgiving or Christmas (because of the attendance at Christmas Eve services) or Epiphany) Fr. Paul has the attending congregation migrate from the main pews to the choir pews on either side of the altar, making for a much more intimate service.

Back home, we were trying to decide if we should call my sister and mother to call off our visit, in deference to my wife's getting-more-miserable-cold and mine own return of The Evil Scourge Of Gout, when my sister calls and tells us that both of *them* are In The Throws Of Something That Is Probably Catching and that we should not drive out there.

Cue to the Better Half doing (as she puts it) The Happy Dance across the kitchen -- we have successfully dodged the Bullet of Guilt.

However, her cold is more miserable, and the recurring marathon on TNT of Jean Sheperd's "A Christmas Story" gave us the idea of Chinese Food! for supper. The local place we like to go to is, indeed, open until 10:00 PM, so I happily went down and got Take Out, including extra orders of Chinese Dumplings for each of the Godzillas.

No, we did not order duck, so the Chinese Turkey did not need to be ritually beheaded.

And the nearest I'm coming to news today, as well, is looking at blogs -- no newspapers, no TV news, no C-SPAN, no CNN. Any TV will be purely Entertainment Purposes Only.

Your regular blogging and fire-breathing will resume tomorrow.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

"Santa Clause is...Tapping your phone?"

The following ditty was supposedly sung at a rollicking U.S. Department of Justice Christmas party during the Carter administration.

You better watch out,
You better not cry,
You better not pout,
I'm telling you why,
Santa Claus is tapping
Your phone.

He's buggin' your room,
He's reading your mail,
He's keeping a file
And runnin' a tail
Santa Claus is tapping
Your phone.

He hears you in the bedroom
Surveils you out of doors
And if that doesn't get the goods
Then he'll use provocateurs.

So you mustn't assume
That you are secure,
On Christmas Eve
He'll kick in your door
Santa Claus is tapping
Your phone.

Courtesy of The Committee on Unjust Sentencing ("Drug War Prisoners")

"Little Red Book" Story Leaves Many Commentators with Faces of Crimson

(I meant to write on this earlier today but the press of The Day Before Christmas stole all my time until now)

Last week a good bit of hullabaloo attended the story carried in a Massachusetts newspaper about Dept of Homeland Security agents paying a "friendly visit" to a student who requested a copy of Mao's "Little Red Book" through Inter-Library Loan(ILL). This was reported on through the blogs of many political persuasions, including here on the Boston Progressive ( "Homeland Security is Protecting Your Interlibrary Loans" ). There was speculation on the veracity of the story, and presumption of the motives and methods of governmental agencies involved (with the, again, presumption of the student's account being true).

On the "it's a hoax!" camp a few "red flags," as it were, questions raised included the sheer volume of ILL requests that would need "friendly visits," doubt that the so-called "watch list" of literature exists, and the detail that the library system in question does not use SSN as an identifier on their ILL requests.

On the "Of course it's true!" camp, the left was eager to jump on the bandwagon of "see! Big Brother *is* watching!" and those on the right proclaiming "we have to have this kind of data-mining so we can protect our citizens and the Constitution!"

Part of the difficulty on getting independent confirmation of whether or not the library systems requests are resulting in Dept. Of Homeland Security (or other agency) involvement is that if any such involvement were in place, the Patriot Act allows for inquiries and action, but also has provisions that the libraries in question would be forbidden to reveal that DHS had made any inquiries. Without the transparency of visible accountability it is harder to prove, or disprove, accounts of this nature.

The paper that broke the initial story (The New Bedford Standard Times ) kept digging for more details, and are now reporting that the story was fabricated out of whole cloth by the students, and that he sold his professors a bill of goods about this. ("Federal agents' visit was a hoax")
NEW BEDFORD -- The UMass Dartmouth student who claimed to have been visited by Homeland Security agents over his request for "The Little Red Book" by Mao Zedong has admitted to making up the entire story.

The 22-year-old student tearfully admitted he made the story up to his history professor, Dr. Brian Glyn Williams, and his parents, after being confronted with the inconsistencies in his account.

Had the student stuck to his original story, it might never have been proved false.
During the whole episode, the professors said that while they wanted to protect the student from the media that were flooding their voice mails and e-mail boxes seeking comment and information, they also wanted to know: Was the story true?

"I grew skeptical of this story, as did Bob [Pontbriand], considering the ramifications," Dr. Williams said yesterday. "I spent the last five days avoiding work, and the international media, and rest, trying to get names and dates and facts. My investigation eventually took me to his house, where I began to investigate family matters. I eventually found out the whole thing had been invented, and I'm happy to report that it's safe to borrow books."

Dr. Williams said he does not regret bringing the story to light, but that now the issue can be put to rest.

"I wasn't involved in some partisan struggle to embarrass the Bush administration, I just wanted the truth," he said.

Dr. Pontbriand said the entire episode has been "an incredible experience and exposure for something a student had said." He said all along, his only desire had been to "get to the bottom of it and get the truth of the matter."

"When it blew up into an international story, our only desire was to interview this student and get to the truth. We did not want from the outset to declare the student a liar, but we wanted to check out his story," he said. "It was a disastrous thing for him to do. He needs attention, he needs care. I feel for the kid. We have great concern for this student's health and welfare."
The questions that we need to look at now are:

  • What was the student's motive for starting the hoax? Was it just something he was trying as a prank on two professors, and it got more exposure than he expected? Or was he deluding himself as to what happened?
  • Why were some in the "blogosphere" so quick to believe this? Did we want to believe that this kind of surveillance happens routinely?
  • Are we too trusting? Naive? Gullible? (The three need not be synonymous)
  • What does this say about the nature of the transmission of information through the internet in general, and blogging in particular?

  • Because of the pervasiveness of the internet, and reliability of transmission (if not reliability of *content*) this took what, in the past, would have been an amusing "silly season" filler, and grew legs that surprised all involved.

    I've gotten correspondence that this has already spawned an urban legend in the guise of a similar story on the west coast, with the library system involved being at UCLA and other speculation that the recantation is part of a cover-up, or a purposeful red herring to raise doubts in regards to future, actual, incidents of this nature. Again, this kind of speculation can go on without being definitively disproven because of the secrecy provisions forbidding acknowlegement.

    Kudos to the Standard-Times for following up, and admitting that they too were (at least initially) taken in.


  • Article from Boston Progressive on 12/18/05 ( "Homeland Security is Protecting Your Interlibrary Loans")
  • 12/17/05 - Original story from Standard-Times ( "Agents' visit chills UMass Dartmouth senior")
  • 12/21/2005 - first follow-up by Standard-Times ( "'Little Red Book' story gets wide publicity")
  • 12/24/2005 - Second follow-up and reporting of hoax by Standard-times ("Federal agents' visit was a hoax")
  • Friday, December 23, 2005

    Update on Military Blogger Paul Berkley's Murder

    A couple of days ago I linked to news reports about Paul Berkley's murder while he was home on leave (Berkley was a Naval Reservist who had been home on leave from his posting with the 5th Fleet in Bahrain). ("Naval Reservist, and Blogger, Murdered")

    At the time of that article local police had arrested Berkley's wife and two local men for the crime.

    Berkley's wife has now confessed that she was part of a plot to kill Berkley and collect his insurance. Neighbors and police say that it appeared that Berkley's wife and one of the men arrested were "romantically involved" while Berkley was stationed overseas, Berkley suspected such and was going to seek a divorce.

    The prosecutor's office has not yet decided if they will seek the death penalty in the case. (Investigator: Slain Reservist's Wife Promised 'Romantic Interlude' Before Shooting)

    Nods to TMV and The Military Outpost for update pointers. There is also more background detail at Military Outpost.

    Wednesday, December 21, 2005

    Mass. Gov Building Cred for Presidential Run

    Following a pattern set by speeches around the country, and recent attempts to bypass the state Legislature, Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney is showing that he is more concerned for the his aspirations of higher office (Prior to being elected Governor, Romney ran an unsuccessful bid for U.S. Senator against Ted Kennedy), at the expense of the care and governance due to the people of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

    A few weeks ago the Commonwealth of Massachusetts had a minor dustup between the Department of Public Health (DPH) and the Massachusetts Attorney General's office over whether or not the Catholic-run hospitals in the Commonwealth had to offer emergency contraception. A law passed during this past summer mandated that all hospitals that treat rape victims have to offer the patient the option of emergency contraception. There are no exceptions in the law. If your hospital treats rape victims they have to offer the option.

    On Dec 6 of this year, the Department of Public Health, likey at Governor Mitt Romney's direction, issued a directive that Catholic and other privately-run hospitals did not have to offer that option to patients, citing a 1975 law that states that privately-run hospitals were not required to offer abortions or contraception services. Romney had stated that he was "supportive" of the DPH ruling:
    "...Romney said earlier through communications director,Eric Fehrnstrom that he supported the department's ruling because it respected ''the views of healthcare facilities that are guided by moral principles on this issue."
    The new law had been passed handily over the Governor's veto.

    On Dec 8, the Governor reversed his stance, after the state's Attorney General, Thomas F. Reilly issued his opinion that the older law was "trumped" by the new regulation, and the Governor's legal team advised him that the prior DPH ruling would not pass legal challenge. (Reilly will be seeking the Democratic Party nomination for Gov. during the next election cycle).

    Supporters of the new law view Romney's earlier endorsement of the DPH ruling as another bid to burnish his "conservative credentials" for his expected run for the GOP nomination for president. Romney is already under fire for traveling across the country and disparaging the people and mores of the Commonwealth. The value of his political capital in the state, not surprisingly, has dropped like a rock. Romney's motives in this matter certainly do not appear to be a concern for the people of the Commonwealth, especially in light of the fact that one of Romney's campaign planks was to increase the access to emergency contraception.

    Now the Governor has announced another plan that appears that be a bid to highlight him for the religious conservatives that are currently the power-mongers in the GOP. He has unveiled a new program to introduce an abstinence-only education program into selected high schools. From the Boston Globe (State to push abstinence in schools)
    The campaign, scheduled to last through June 2007, will only target certain schools and will be aimed especially at teens in black and Hispanic communities, who tend to have higher rates of sexual activity. The proposal by the state Department of Health, quietly posted on its website earlier this month, would add an abstinence education program for 12-to-14-year-olds in an unspecified number of schools.

    The campaign would be funded by a $50 million federal abstinence-only grant program, which provides money to states for initiatives that teach abstinence but deliberately do not address condoms and other methods of contraception.

    Romney communications director Eric Fehrnstrom said that the program will be taught in addition to comprehensive sex education programs already in place, and that students will still learn about contraception methods. He said the administration simply wants to spend the federal grant money more effectively
    This initiative is another tussle between the legislature and the Governor, as the legislature repealed a law that mandated using the federal funds for in-school teaching rather than in public advertising. The Governor vetoed the repeal, but his veto was overridden.

    Abstinence-only programs are coming under fire because they do not offer comprehensive information about all aspects of pregnancy prevention, and have been shown to be dangerous for youth who don't follow the "just say no" regimen, because they do not have the information on how to prevent pregnancies and venereal diseases. Additionally, it is now coming to light that a number of the vendors for these programs are using them to spread false information about the actual effectiveness of other pregnancy prevention strategies, as well as outright falsehoods about condom use and abortion, and that some of these programs are injecting a Christian religious education into the process.

    This is also troubling because this program is aimed at a segment of the Commonwealth's youth that historicity have higher rates of sexual activity and need to have full and comprehensive education available.

    From the Globe article:
    ''The message is that we're hoping . . . teens will make good decisions and will learn about making good decisions, and with that develop self-esteem and feel good about where their life is going," Fogerty said.

    The state's 2003 Massachusetts Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that 63 percent of seniors reported being sexually active by the time they left high school. The same survey found that among all adolescents, 59 percent of Hispanic teenagers reported being sexually active, compared to 56 percent of black teens and 37 percent of white teens.

    Critics of the new approach say it reflects a change in Romney's position on abstinence-only education since he answered ''yes" when asked on an April 2002 Planned Parenthood questionnaire: ''Do you support the teaching of responsible, age-appropriate, factually accurate health and sexuality education, including information about both abstinence and contraception, in public schools?"

    ''Governor Romney said one thing when he was running in Massachusetts, because he knew there was broad support there for comprehensive sex education," said Melissa Kogut, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts. ''And now he seems to be using Massachusetts as his launching pad to run a presidential campaign, and he's got a different message."

    The debate first flared last year when the Legislature passed a measure directing the state to use the federal grant for classroom abstinence instruction, rather than the publicity campaign. Lawmakers later sent Romney a measure repealing that vote, but Romney vetoed it, sending it back to the Legislature with a message: He wanted the money spent on in-school programs. Lawmakers handily rejected that request.

    But through the Department of Public Health, Romney has the authority to decide how the state uses the federal money, and he worked closely with the department on a new grant application directed at a school-based abstinence program. The Legislature could move to restrict how the money is spent, or reject the funding altogether, but it's unclear how much support among lawmakers that would have. Three states -- California, Maine, and Pennsylvania -- don't accept the money, called Title V, according to the US Administration for Children and Families.

    Opponents of abstinence-only programs say they have no problem with teaching abstinence -- in fact, many believe it should be the primary message of any sex education program. But they say any program that teaches only abstinence is putting teens at risk.

    ''The problem here is not the abstinence, it's the only," said Angus McQuilken, director of public relations and governmental affairs for the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, a leading provider of comprehensive sex education in the public schools. ''We're doing them a disservice if we deny them medically accurate information about how to protect themselves."

    The administration's new classroom approach, according to McQuilken and other critics, is far more worrisome than the publicity campaign, because it will actively promote abstinence at the expense of information about contraception.

    The federal grant program began under President Clinton, but the US government has funded abstinence education for more than two decades. President Bush has made it a priority.

    Jeff Trimbath, director of abstinence education for the US Administration for Children and Families, said initial results from an ongoing evaluation of the grant program show that the abstinence message was getting through to more teenagers.

    ''The interim result was pretty positive," he said.

    But opponents cite a 2004 congressional report released by US Representative Henry A. Waxman, a California Democrat, which found that many federally funded abstinence programs provide teenagers with distorted, misleading, and incorrect information about sex, pregnancy, and contraception.
    Romney has already announced that he will not seek reelection to the Governor's office, but claims that he will wait until 2007 to decide if he will run for president. It appears fairly clear, from my seat at the table, just what that decision will be.


  • - Boston Globe, 12/07/2005 - ,Private hospitals exempt on pill law
  • - Boston Globe, 12/07/2005 - Romney says no hospitals are exempt from pill law
  • - Boston Globe, 12/21/2005 - State to push abstinence in schools
  • - Written testimony from the Massachusetts Catholic Conference during the legislative debate on the mandate to offer the option of emergency contraception to rape victims - Legislative testimony - re: Emergency Contraception Access Act, H. 2438/S. 546 (PDF file)
  • Monday, December 19, 2005

    Naval Reservist, and Blogger, Murdered

    Naval Reservist Paul Berkley, home on leave from his duty station in Bahrain, was murdered just before 3:00 AM on Sunday morning.

    From the published news reports ( "Double Shooting At Raleigh Park Not Random, Police Say," "Wife In Fatal Raleigh Park Shooting Charged With Murder") this appears to be deliberate murder, not a random attack.

    Two local men and Berkley's wife have been charged with murder.

    Berkley was a military blogger, who had been on-line since at least April of this year, and whose last blog entry was about his enjoyment of a night out with his daughter for pizza and a movie, and reflecting on his occasional duty, at his duty station at the Navy 5th Fleet HQ in Bahrain, to be a transition officer, to help in getting new personell settled and familiar with the area.

    His blog page ("far from home in a strange hot land") has clocks showing "home" and Bahrain time, and another clock exhibiting a countdown to when he would be "Home for Good!"

    The announcement and news are at The Military Outpost.

    I never met Paul Berkley, I never saw his blog page before tonight.

    But these tragedies come home to us, as well, when we have some connection to the people involved. In this case, a blogger with a wife and kids.

    It's no longer just a name in a newspaper story, but "one of us."

    Other than that, words fail.

    Our world has more than just politics...

    ...Exasperation, indignation and rage.

    The Heretik (always an appealing place, with with pleasing texture in words and images) reminds us
    "..when the snow cold melts to run down our faces we are alive."
    Maybe we need to remind ourselves to take the time to dance?

    Just for the dance?

    Sunday, December 18, 2005

    Homeland Security is Protecting Your Interlibrary Loans

    You think that you have to actually *do* something *wrong* to get the Department of Homeland Security to notice you? Think again.

    A Student at the University of Massachusetts' Dartmouth campus got himself a visit from federal agents about two months ago.

    Because he requested a book, for a class, through interlibrary loan. It wasn't "The Anarchist's Cookbook" or some tome on how to grow pot in a national forest, or the "Turner Diaries," but Mao's "Little Red Book."

    From the New Bedford (MA) Standard Times ("Agents' visit chills UMass Dartmouth senior")
    NEW BEDFORD -- A senior at UMass Dartmouth was visited by federal agents two months ago, after he requested a copy of Mao Tse-Tung's tome on Communism called "The Little Red Book."

    Two history professors at UMass Dartmouth, Brian Glyn Williams and Robert Pontbriand, said the student told them he requested the book through the UMass Dartmouth library's interlibrary loan program.

    The student, who was completing a research paper on Communism for Professor Pontbriand's class on fascism and totalitarianism, filled out a form for the request, leaving his name, address, phone number and Social Security number. He was later visited at his parents' home in New Bedford by two agents of the Department of Homeland Security, the professors said.

    The professors said the student was told by the agents that the book is on a "watch list," and that his background, which included significant time abroad, triggered them to investigate the student further.
    // snip//
    The student told Professor Pontbriand and Dr. Williams that the Homeland Security agents told him the book was on a "watch list." They brought the book with them, but did not leave it with the student, the professors said.

    Dr. Williams said in his research, he regularly contacts people in Afghanistan, Chechnya and other Muslim hot spots, and suspects that some of his calls are monitored.
    Dr. Williams said he had been planning to offer a course on terrorism next semester, but is reconsidering, because it might put his students at risk.

    "I shudder to think of all the students I've had monitoring al-Qaeda Web sites, what the government must think of that," he said. "Mao Tse-Tung is completely harmless."
    Well, last I heard, The Chairman *is* dead...

    See the update to this story at "Little Red Book" Story Leaves Many Commentators with Faces of Crimson

    Jack Anderson, 10/19/1922 - 12/17/2005

    This has been a bad month.

    Jack Anderson, investigative journalist and Pulitzer winner and self-described muckraker, passed away at his Bethesda home. An article in the Washington Post once described his column as
    "a column of tweaks, leaks and piques, born of idealism, stoked by cynicism, a brazen, high-risk, righteously indignant antiwaste, anticorruption, anticommunist watchdog of a column that has been called everything from 'gold' to 'garbage.' Sometimes on the same day. Sometimes in the same sentence."

    Washington Post memorial is at "Investigative Journalist Jack Anderson, 83, Dies"

    Friday, December 16, 2005

    Even IRS agents need jobs...

    From INDYSTAR.COM: Diabetic wins suit against his employer
    Jury awards $78,000 to local IRS agent who was denied promotion

    Gary Branham didn't anticipate striking a blow for diabetics who face discrimination because of their disease. The Pendleton man didn't even know such discrimination existed.

    Until it happened to him.

    In 1999, he was told he would be promoted to special agent with the Internal Revenue Service if he passed a background check and a physical. He was sailing through the process until he volunteered a list of medications he takes.

    "I listed insulin," Branham said.

    To his shock, the IRS rescinded the tentative job offer, which would have required him to carry a gun. One fear was that Branham might go into insulin shock and become unresponsive.

    "They told me that I couldn't have the job because I posed a threat to myself or others," he said.

    Branham sued. Monday night, a federal jury in Indianapolis ruled in his favor and awarded him $78,000 in back pay

    I don't know if a discrimination suit award classes as a settlement for "personal injury."

    If it does, the award would be tax-free.

    Bush Agrees to Blink on Torture Ban - UPDATED

    (see bottom of article for update from Philidelphia Inquirer)
    President Bush has agreed to stop opposing the McCain amendment to the defense authorization bill, which bans torture of detainees in U.S. custody ("Bush accedes to McCain in backing ban on torture").

    This is more a matter of political reality than any change to a kinder heart for Bush -- the House voted on Wednesday to support McCain's amendment by 308 to 122, setting Bush up for an override of any veto he might chose to invoke.

    It remains to be seen if the U.S. authorities might simply do an "end-run" around this new restriction, by either "extraordinary rendition" or simple extradition to countries that don't have qualms about using "extreme interrogation techniques."

    Or they may simply decide to violate the law (the abuse of prisoners in U.S. custody in prisons in Iraq were against the law as well -- and they still happened), as has happened in the past (can you say "contra-dancing" and "arms for hostages," boys and girls? I knew you could)

    But at least we have, as a nation, agreed in principle that we *are* a part of a greater whole regarding our presence in the world at large.

    One can hope that the next round of elections in the U.S. will have voters take a hard look at the 10 Senators and the 112 Representatives in the House who have gone on record as being in support of the use of torture.
    Update -- The Philidelphia Inquirer has an article that details a new amendment to John McCain's anti-torture bill. ( "Senate, White House hypocrisy on torture" )

    Sen. Lindsay Graham (R.-S.C.)has appended a second amendment to the defense authorization bill --
    This one bars Guantánamo detainees from going to federal court to enforce the rights that McCain would declare sacrosanct.

    A shabby compromise is in the making. Bush removes his veto threat - as long as Graham's amendment remains in the bill - to transform McCain's principles into a hypocritical gesture: Listen up, world, we are against torture at Guantánamo - as long as nobody can complain about it.

    To deflect critics, Graham has created an exception to allow Guantánamo inmates their day in court once they are finally convicted of a crime by a military tribunal. But this exception creates more perverse incentives. If a detainee has been victimized, the best way to cover it up is to hold him indefinitely as an "enemy combatant" and never send him before a military tribunal. That way, he will never get access to a federal court


    Despite the high stakes, Graham did not even give Congress a fair chance to consider the matter. He made an end run around the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Sen. Arlen Specter (R., Pa.), and persuaded the Senate to accept his court-stripping rider as a floor amendment. Specter eloquently protested, but he was outvoted in the rush to push the matter into a conference committee.

    The Senate leadership plans to continue its rush tactics this week. It will ask the Senate to rubber-stamp the final conference bill before it begins its Christmas recess. But Specter should stand firm against a cynical compromise that will defang McCain's anti-torture initiative. Given the grave issues raised by the Graham amendment, a filibuster is entirely appropriate to give the judiciary committee a chance to expose the Graham amendment to sober second thought. It would be tragic if McCain's admirable proposal becomes an occasion for yet another assault on the fundamental principles of the American Constitution.

    As they say in Parliment: "Shame! Shame!"

    Wednesday, December 14, 2005

    Rumors of Torture and "Black Ops" Prisons Hurt U.S. Abroad

    Dick Marty, a Swiss Senator who is leading a probe into CIA counter-terrorism tactics in Europe has said he has information that the US intelligence agency has "abducted and transferred terrorism suspects in Europe 'without respect for any legal standards' ".

    From a Washington Post article ("Investigator Sees Signs of CIA Role in Abductions"):
    In a brief status report released Tuesday in Paris, Marty said he "deplores the fact that no information or explanations had been provided on this point by Ms. Rice during her visit to Europe" last week.

    He said the only formal response he has received from U.S. officials was a copy of a Dec. 5 speech by Rice in which she defended U.S. policy and said Europe had benefited from the aggressive American approach to tracking down terrorism suspects around the world.

    The U.S., apart from one speech from Secty. Of State Condaleeza Rice where she said The U.S. would not engage in torture, and President G.W. Bush's bald statement that the U.S> does not torture, is not being very convincing to the rest of the world, especially since the White House is not moving very quickly to endorse Sen. John McCain's anti-torture bill.

    Meanwhile, in Europe,from the same WaPo article:
    Rene van der Linden, president of the Council of Europe's parliamentary assembly, called on the U.S. Congress to pass a pending torture ban as a way to reassure its allies that the U.S. government would not resort to abusive measures when dealing with terrorist suspects.

    "If these allegations remain unresolved, they risk damaging the image of the USA in Europe and thus transatlantic relations, at a time when global security requires a strong alliance amongst our countries," van der Linden said in a statement

    Now is only the Bush White House would figure out what most of Europe sees..

    Monday, December 12, 2005

    U.S. Supreme Court to hear Texas Redistricting Challenge

    A few weeks ago, I visited the matter of the redistricting plan that passed the Texas Legislature in 2003 ("DeLay's Redistricting Master Stroke illegal? **Gasp!!**"), and the new controversy surrounding the fact that the D.O.J. Voting Rights Section analysts recommended (4-to-1) that the plan not be allowed to go forward. With no explanation, the DOJ kept the analysis undisclosed and approved the change in voting districts. Under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, several states must "pre-clear" all changes to voting districts or procedures with the Department of Justice to ensure that the changes do not unnecessarily dilute the voting effect of minorities in those states (known as the "one-man-one-vote" rule).

    The Texas redistricting plan was challenged in court, but was upheld by a 3-judge panel in 2004. However, the DOJ refused to allow the analyst's work to be entered into evidence in that case, leaving the impression that the analysis had been in favor of the redistricting plan.
    The panel stressed that it was deciding "only the legality" of the redistricting plan, "not its wisdom."

    Because the federal panel did not have access to the Section 5 staff memo, they may have given extra weight to the factor that the DOJ preclearence had supposedly been without controversy when deciding on that "legality."

    The U.S. Supreme Court has now agreed to hear arguments in this case.

    As noted in a Washington Post story ("Supreme Court to Review Texas Redistricting"):
    The Supreme Court today agreed to consider arguments by Democrats and minorities against a controversial Republican redistricting plan, spearheaded by Rep. Tom DeLay, that redrew congressional boundaries in Texas and helped the GOP gain House seats in last year's elections.

    The high court consolidated four separate appeals in the matter, noted "probable jurisdiction" and allotted two hours for oral arguments in the case. The arguments are likely to be heard in April, and a decision could be rendered by the end of June

    In a Reuters' story on the same subject ( "High court to decide Texas redistricting plan" ):
    Democrats twice stymied efforts to adopt the plan in the Texas Legislature by leaving the state and denying the majority Republicans a quorum but it was finally passed in a third special session.

    In the 2004 elections, the Texas redistricting plan helped Republicans add to their slim majority in the House. If upheld by the Supreme Court, the plan is expected to make it harder for Democrats to win control of the House in the November, 2006, elections.

    Those challenging the redistricting plan argued it amounted to an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander by manipulating voting districts to give one party an unfair advantage and that it diluted the voting strength of minorities.

    The Reuters story also notes:
    After the 2000 census, the Texas Legislature failed to act on redistricting and a court-drawn plan was adopted. After months of turmoil, the Republican plan pushed by DeLay finally was adopted.

    House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California said the Supreme Court's action to take up DeLay's redistricting scheme "is a hopeful sign that the voting rights of millions of minorities will be restored."

    Earlier this month, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales defended the decision by political appointees in the Justice Department to approve the redistricting plan. Career employees objected to the plan and said it would harm minority voters.

    Gonzales told reporters the decision by the political appointees had been upheld by the three-judge panel. The Supreme Court will decide whether the panel was correct in its ruling

    This is the second time the U.S.S.C. has reviewed this case. In October of 2004 the Court sent the case back to the three-judge panel for further review.

    Just what does it mean that the federal Supreme Court is going to reexamine this case? My own thinking is that two instances (Georgia and Texas) of previously-undisclosed memos from the DOJ Section 5 staff have been found be recommending courses of action that the DOJ has ignored, without presenting any justification, may be troubling to the Court. In one of those instances (Georgia's new voter-id requirements), the law in question has been struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court.

    The revelation of the Texas Section 5 memo may be prompting the court to look at this.

    Also, Attorney General Gonzales has now stated that these memos and analysis may not be the basis that DOJ is using for these decisions. The Court may direct that such a course is reasonable, and that DOJ need not make its internal deliberations public, or the Court may decide that such analysis must be made available to the public for review either when, or before, the DOJ preclearence/objection actions are taken.

    At stake, potentially, is also that Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act may be declared null.

    April should prove interesting. Bring the popcorn.

    See also:
  • "Sometimes It Really *Is* A Poll Tax"

  • "DeLay's Redistricting Master Stroke illegal? **Gasp!!**"

  • "Memo? What Section 5 Memo?"

  • "About that DOJ memo..."
  • Sunday, December 11, 2005

    Robert Sheckley -- 07/16/1928 - 12/09/2005

    Robert Sheckley, a premier writer of science fiction died on 12/09/05, in Poughkeepsie, from complications of a brain aneurysm.

    Author of more than 40 science fiction, fantasy and "adventure/action" novels, over 400 stories/novelettes and screenplays (including 15 episodes of the early 1950's television series "Captain Video" ) - the exact count of short stories is a problem -- he was often published under a pseudonym so that his byline would not appear multiple times in the same issue of a magazine.

    Adaptations of Sheckley's stories to movie form have included the 10th Victim (based on "The Seventh Victim"),Freejack (based on "Immortality, Inc"), Le Prix du Danger (based on "The Prize of Peril"), Condorman (based on "The Game of X"), The Utilizer (based on "Something for Nothing")and Escape from Hell Island.

    Sheckley's work was known for his biting humor and all-too-jaundiced view of the human condition, and is considered by many to be a trailblazer for the acceptance of humor in SF, as shown in the works of authors such as Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett, as well as being a master of the short form in the SF/F genre.

    I never met him, except through his writings, but I am told he was a much gentler soul than his works would lead. Reportedly his health has been frail for some time.

    The NY Times obit is here:
    "Robert Sheckley, 77, Writer of Satirical Science Fiction, Is Dead".

    The Bob Sheckley web site is at

    Saturday, December 10, 2005

    Memo? What Section 5 Memo?

    Readers of these pages will recall some of the coverage about the revelations about the DOJ decisions to "preclear" changes to voting procedures in Texas and Georgia, that went directly against the recommendations of career lawyers and analysts (in the Georgia case, the recommendations to block the changes, a bill requiring state-supplied photo-id before being exercise the franchise, was a 4-to-1 count of the analysts, in Texas, it was the Tom DeLay sponsored-and-engineered redistricting plan, that was recommended against unanimously by all 8 lawyers and advisors, including the section chief).

    The "Section 5" in the article title refers to that portion of the Voting Rights Act that requires changes in voting procedures, in several states, to be referred to the Department of Justice for examination and being "pre-cleared" before they can be enacted.

    In both of these cases, the DOJ decision to allow the changes came very close to the submission of the analysis (in the Georgia case, the decision to allow the change came one day after the dissenting opinion was delivered), indicating that the decisions were not dependent upon the analysis at all.

    In both cases the analysis memos were not made public along with the decisions, but later, by the Washington Post newspaper, which broke the stories. Without these memos being made public, the DOJ approvals left the presumption that the internal staff analysis was for clearance, not objection. Indeed, the Texas legislators that are challenging the redistricting plan say that if this memo were available to them when the redistricting plan was challenged in court, the courts may have had a different verdict (the DOJ refused to make the memo available to the challenging lawyers in the case).

    The Georgia law was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court and the Texas redistricting plan is being challenged in the courts.

    It appears that those were not isolated cases, but were part of a new strategy to prevent the analysis of the experienced career lawyers and advisors from being passed on to either the public, the courts or the members of congress charged with oversight.

    Prudence and good governance might indicate that decisions be made by listening to the staff, and if a contrary decision is made, give rigorous justification.

    The Washington Post has a story in the 12/10/05 edition (Staff Opinions Banned In Voting Rights Cases).

    From the WaPo article:

    The Justice Department has barred staff attorneys from offering recommendations in major Voting Rights Act cases, marking a significant change in the procedures meant to insulate such decisions from politics, congressional aides and current and former employees familiar with the issue said.

    Disclosure of the change comes amid growing public criticism of Justice Department decisions to approve Republican-engineered plans in Texas and Georgia that were found to hurt minority voters by career staff attorneys who analyzed the plans. Political appointees overruled staff findings in both cases.

    From looking at the effects of these changes in vote tabulation (with the redistricting) and challenging the ability for voters to exercise the franchise (with the photo-id requirement), we see explicit (by gerrymandering to create safe GOP districts) and indirect (by making it harder to exercise the franchise of those who traditionally have voted Democratic in the past) effects to maintain the GOP majority in the Congress, and leaves some with the impression that the Congressional majority is more important than the voting rights of the citizens of the states affected.

    In light of the legal trouble the House and Senate leadership has found itself in, (DeLay indicted in money-laundering and campaign fraud and Frist under investigation for insider trading) the decisions to allow these changes in voting conditions, and the deliberate decision to ignore, without providing offsetting reasoning, the recommendations of the staff tasked with investigations, is certainly going to give many voters who might be undecided reason to reconsider whether the GOP is really in favor of good governance for the country's sake, or simply governance for the GOP's sake.

    Also from the WaPo article:

    In response to a request to comment yesterday, Justice Department spokesman Eric Holland wrote in an e-mail: "The opinions and expertise of the career lawyers are valued and respected and continue to be an integral part of the internal deliberation process upon which the department heavily relies when making litigation decisions." He declined to elaborate.

    Tensions within the voting section have been rising dramatically, culminating in an emotionally charged meeting last week in which Tanner criticized the quality of work done by staff members analyzing voting rights cases, numerous sources inside and outside the section said. Many employees were so angered that they boycotted the staff holiday party later in the week, the sources said.

    Under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Georgia, Texas and other states with a history of discriminatory election practices are required to receive approval from the Justice Department or a federal court for any changes to their voting systems. Section 5 prohibits changes that would be "retrogressive," or bring harm to, minority voters.

    For decades, staff attorneys have made recommendations in Section 5 cases that have carried great weight within the department and that have been passed along to senior officials who make a final determination, former and current employees say.

    Preventing staff members from making such recommendations is a significant departure and runs the risk of making the process appear more political, experts said.

    "It's an attempt by the political hierarchy to insulate themselves from any accountability by essentially leaving it up to a chief, who's there at their whim," said Jon Greenbaum, who worked in the voting section from 1997 to 2003, and who is now director of the Voting Rights Project at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. "To me, it shows a fear of dealing with the legal issues in these cases"

    And if the deliberations and investigations of the experienced staff are not to be used as input to these decisions, just what *is* the basis?

    Friday, December 09, 2005

    Speaking Spanish, in a private conversation, is disruptive?

    The United States is a multi-etnic nation.

    It is also, unofficially at least, a multi-lingual nation.

    We still do not have, under federal statute, an official "national language."

    English is still the predominant tongue, but is not exclusive.

    But apparently a teacher and a principal at a public High School in Kansas City, Kansas thought it should be, at least in *thier* fiefdom.

    From today's Washington Post(Spanish At School Translates to Suspension):
    KANSAS CITY, Kan., Dec. 8 -- Most of the time, 16-year-old Zach Rubio converses in clear, unaccented American teen-speak, a form of English in which the three most common words are "like," "whatever" and "totally." But Zach is also fluent in his dad's native language, Spanish -- and that's what got him suspended from school.

    "It was, like, totally not in the classroom," the high school junior said, recalling the infraction. "We were in the, like, hall or whatever, on restroom break. This kid I know, he's like, 'Me prestas un dolar?' ['Will you lend me a dollar?'] Well, he asked in Spanish; it just seemed natural to answer that way. So I'm like, 'No problema.' "

    But that conversation turned out to be a big problem for the staff at the Endeavor Alternative School, a small public high school in an ethnically mixed blue-collar neighborhood. A teacher who overheard the two boys sent Zach to the office, where Principal Jennifer Watts ordered him to call his father and leave the school.

    Watts, whom students describe as a disciplinarian, said she can't discuss the case. But in a written "discipline referral" explaining her decision to suspend Zach for 1 1/2 days, she noted: "This is not the first time we have [asked] Zach and others to not speak Spanish at school."

    Note that this was a *private conversation.*

    The issue was not that there was any suspicision of "plotting" anything, but just that the principal doesn't want Spanish spoken in the school.

    And there is no actual policy to back up this principal's action:
    "So I went to the principal and said, 'My son, he's not suspended for fighting, right? He's not suspended for disrespecting anyone. He's suspended for speaking Spanish in the hall?' So I asked her to show me the written policy about that. But they didn't have" one.

    Rubio then called the superintendent of the Turner Unified School District, which operates the school. The district immediately rescinded Zach's suspension, local media reported. The superintendent did not respond to several requests to comment for this article.

    Since then, the issue of speaking Spanish in the hall has not been raised at the school, Zach said. "I know it would be, like, disruptive if I answered in Spanish in the classroom. I totally don't do that. But outside of class now, the teachers are like, 'Whatever.' "

    Thursday, December 08, 2005

    Ann C Has 1st Amendment rights too

    Yes, *that* Ann C.

    On Wednesday (12/6/05) Ann Coulter cut a short the speech she was giving to a University of Conneticut audience of 2,600 when boos and jeers from the crowd drowned out her prepared text.

    According to an AP story ("Heckling causes Coulter to cut UConn speech short") :
    Coulter cut off the talk after 15 minutes and instead held a half-hour question-and-answer session.
    "I love to engage in repartee with people who are stupider than I am," Coulter told the 2,600 people at Jorgensen Auditorium.

    Coulter's appearance prompted protests from several groups, including Students Against Hate and the Puerto Rican/Latin American Cultural Center. They criticized her for spreading a message of hate and intolerance.

    Nearly 100 students gathered inside the Student Union for a rally against Coulter. About a half-dozen people held protest signs outside the auditorium.

    After a book signing following her appearance, Coulter called the
    audience's reaction "typical."

    Coulter, originally from New Canaan, Conn., has a history of bashing Democrats in best-selling books, frequent television appearances and speeches. Harding University in Arkansas dropped her from its lecture series in September, citing her abrasive image.

    Last April, the president of the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota denounced a speech on the campus by Coulter, calling it hateful. In October 2004, University of Arizona police arrested two men who ran on stage and threw custard pies at Coulter; one of the pies glanced off her shoulder.

    When she takes her dog-and-pony show* on the road she is doing no more than Limbaugh would do if he had the nerve to address more than a hand-picked audience.

    Yes, they are both spewing filth.

    Racist, xenophobic and bigoted.

    But, in the U.S. at least, both she and Limbaugh do have the right to express themselves, within very broad limits.

    What the opposing audiences needs to realize is that every one of them that shows up for one of her speeches just to boo her feeds the pseudo-con frenzy. They, and Coulter, can then make the claim that "liberals are trying to prevent her from speaking the truth!" Neither side "wins," and the far-right bigots get to look put-upon and victimized, which, in *their* book, equals a virtual "win"

    The only time to actually show up for an "Ann Coulter event" is if it will actually be a debate between her and someone who is articulate and can ignore her B.S. without getting hot under the collar.

    Yes, there will be throngs of the tighty-whiteys who will show up and stroke her ego, but it violates no constitutional rule to just ignore her. And, after awhile, when only her hard-core fans show up, the novelty will wear off.

    Don't want to have her go unchallenged? Fine. Take her published works, and publicly demolish them, point by point - it's not like it's rocket science.

    Want to show her up as the blowhard she really is? Get articulate opposing speakers who will be able to nuke her arguments without letting her absurdity get them mad. And, every time she refuses such a venue, *publicize it*

    Soon enough, she will be shown as the fool and liar she is (when she accepts) and as the coward and liar she is (when she refuses).

    As with publication of such hateful and abhorrent works such as Mien Kampf and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, let them be published. Let her speak. Let the world see what the hatemongers really believe.

    Leave it in the open light of day.

    When you deny open examination and discussion the true hate speech is just given the patina of having "legitimacy," for then the hatemongers can say "see -- it must be true, else they would not be afraid of it being seen!"

    TMV has an article on this speech of Coulter's, and especially look to the comments section, in order to see examples of just what I was speaking of, from both the left and the right sides of the aisle.

    On the subject of "spontaneous" comments in the Q&A session, I heard, on the radio, a sound bite of Coulter repeating her "stupider than I am" remark. It was on the Hannity and Coombs show. I guess if you work that hard to find a "good" line you want to keep using it.

    Over and over.
    "Dog and Pony show" has several possible interpretations. Choose the least personally offensive.

    Tuesday, December 06, 2005

    How to Make Enemies and Embarrass Your Friends

    Producing fake "news reports" to push initiatives such as the Medicare drug benefit insurance plan, "Iraqi-American-man-in-the-Iraqi-street" reaction to the fall of Baghdad, and other subjects.

    Purchasing favorable mentions from columnists (who initially "neglected to mention" the payments) for the Healthy Marriage", No Child Left Behind and abstinence-only programs.

    Sanctioning the start of a "strategic disinformation" agency that would put biased propaganda into the news stream of our own allies.

    Flat-out refusal to publish authenticated counts of civilian dead on the ground in Iraq.

    Domestic disinformation on just what equipment and manpower was being allocated/used in the Gulf of Mexico states as mitigation for the back-to-back devastating hurricanes.

    Building a Potemkin village with an "unscripted and spontaneous" interview with troops on the ground in Iraq.

    Trying to revise the transcripts of an official White House briefing.

    Paying civilian Iraqi newspapers to print stories with "positive spin" that were actually written by U.S. armed forces personnel (but don't tell the readers)

    All are attempts to "manipulate the media coverage" (if one is being charitable) or "create propaganda for consumption at home and abroad" (if one is not being charitable)

    Now, it appears that someone (of *course* not anybody in the G.W. Bush/Dick Cheney administration) has arranged for a right-wing piece of puffery doggeral to be inserted into the textbooks of an English-Language course for Pakistani 16-year olds.

    The 16-line poem, titled "The Leader," is composed to have the first letter of the first line of each verse spell out the name "PRESIDENT GEORGE W BUSH."

    (See the BBC article for the full poem).

    From the BBC's article:
    Officials cannot explain how the poem entered the curriculum. Pupils are being told to ignore it.

    The BBC's Zaffar Abbas in Islamabad says it is a bizarre episode which has left education officials short of explanations.

    At first they put the poem's appearance in the grade 11 textbook down to a coincidence.

    Then on Monday they said it may have been downloaded from the internet by a textbook writer, and later approved for publication by the curriculum committee.

    An education ministry spokesman argued that the poem was a good description of a true leader - which might explain how it got through the vetting process.

    But the poem has prompted criticism in local media in Pakistan, where there is opposition to President Pervez Musharraf's support for the US-led "war on terror".

    Some opposition members say the poem shows the government has gone over the top in its support for the US.

    Pakistan's government has denied any deliberate attempt to promote the US president.

    The education ministry said it would remove the poem from the textbook and discipline the person responsible for including it.

    I first saw the poem itself yesterday, when someone pinned up the text on a bulletin board in the common lunch room at work. I didn't think much about it. Semi-clever in intent, bad verse, otherwise.

    Then today the poem was gone,and had been replaced with a print-out of the BBC article.

    Pakistani President Musharraf is in a delicate position -- he is trying to keep his own country from flaring into civil war, provide some logistical and basing support for some of the U.S. planes that are being used for offensives inside Iraq, and keep his own head on his shoulders.

    This does *not* help.

    Monday, December 05, 2005

    Just when you think they might have bought a clue...

    WalMart, long vilified as an abuser of its workers, cause for the failure of numerous local businesses, indirectly supporting censorship, seen as a cause of many layoffs of their suppliers, and the target of many "...It could only happen at WalMart.." comments about the number of bizarre attacks and other violence that seem to occur at their stores, just doesn't seem to know how to deal with presenting a positive image to the public.

    Lately they have been faced with a new documentary that purports to show the cost of the "WalMart Way," (a movie I haven't seen yet) a Jib-Jab cartoon aimed squarely at them (which I *have* seen), revelations that executives knew that contractors were using illegal aliens as cleaners in the stores, and the publication of a very damaging memo by the HR director that was presented to their Board of Directors that laid out personnel policies of subtle discrimination against older workers, because they use too many benefits and are paid more, agreed that many of the policies they have leave "associates" with too few hours for company group health plans and too little money to buy individual plans (and thus are forced onto the public health insurance rolls).

    Their most substantive response has been to establish a "war room" and try to present a better image.

    Well, some people evidently didn't get the message.

    According to a story in Friday's (12/2/2005) St Petersburg Times, "Racial profiling feared at Wal-Mart," the head of HR at a Florida unit of GAF Materials Corporation was kept cooling his heels for two hours at a WalMart service counter, and arrested for allegedly presenting a forged check.

    Reginald Pitts, the HR manager for that GAF unit, was at the WalMart store to pay for, and pick up, the GAF unit's supply of gift cards that are used as employee incentives and as corporate gifts. The order, this time, was for $13,600.

    Now, normally, when you walk into a retail store, and walk up to the service desk, and say you want to pay for and pick up $13K worth of merchandise you would expect to be escorted to a comfortable office and at least be given a cup of joe.

    Not at *this* WalMart.

    At least, it appears, not if you are black.

    Normally an assistant to Mr. Pitts (the assistant is a white woman) picks up the cards, but she was on vacation. So Mr. Pitts went down to pick up the cards himself. ($13k is not an exchange that you usually leave for Chuck from the mailroom to deal with, especially when corporate accounting has issued the check for *your* department).

    From the St. Pete article:

    GAF has been spending about $50,000 a year on gift cards at the Wal-Mart Supercenter at 11110 Causeway Blvd. in Brandon. For years GAF sent a white, female administrator to buy them without incident. This time, when she was on vacation the day before Thanksgiving, Pitts did the job himself. He phoned in the order for 520 cards, got the accounting department to issue Wal-Mart a $13,600 check and then encountered a royal hassle trying to exchange it for gift cards at the store.
    For about two hours, store managers stalled on accepting the check for the already-printed gift cards, while Pitts stood waiting by the customer service desk. He had handed over his GAF business card, his driver's license and the toll-free numbers to GAF's bank. His accounting supervisor assured them over the phone that GAF, the nation's biggest roofing systems maker with revenues of $1.6-billion in 2004, was good for the check.

    Two African-American Wal-Mart clerks watching all this from nearby told Pitts that several similarly sized transactions were made for other companies that day without delay, Pitts said.
    Dressed in khaki pants and a blue button-down-collar dress shirt, Pitts finally got upset over the lengthy wait. He asked for the check back so he could go to another store. But store managers, who had kept huddled in a nearby office during most of his two-hour ordeal, refused to return it. The only explanation he got was that the store was having trouble "verifying" the check or who Pitts was.

    Later, two Hillsborough County sheriff's deputies appeared. One grabbed Pitts by the arm. He objected to the rough handling and asked if he was being arrested.

    "We need to talk with you about this forged check that you brought in here," Pitts recalled deputy Bryan Wells saying. Later Wells explained the reason for the firm arm grab: "Well, Wal-Mart called us and reported to us that you committed a felony, and that's the way we approach felons," Pitts recalled.

    Within 19 minutes deputies reviewed the evidence, determined there was no grounds for a criminal charge and learned Wal-Mart would not press the issue further. Wells handed the check to Pitts.

    "Our deputies didn't even see enough (of a case) to write a report," said Lt. Carmen Rivas, the shift commander. "We responded only because Wal-Mart called in a bad check report."

    To road deputies, the dispatch code means a possible felony.

    Wal-Mart store manager Mark Cornett, who could not be reached for comment Thursday, told Pitts that he only "did what he had to do" before saying "have a great day, sir," according to Pitts.

    Pitts was so shaken that he called his boss, Dennis Branch, a regional vice president for GAF in Savannah, Ga. Branch called Cornett and confirmed Pitts' version of the story.

    "I was appalled," Branch said. "He wouldn't answer questions like, "Do you call the sheriff every time you cannot verify a check?' He got very defiant. He would not apologize and eventually hung up on me. Reggie had given them the names of several GAF VPs who could vouch for him. All they did was call the GAF guard house number they found in the phone book," which was not answered.

    Wal-Mart said it has opened its own investigation of the matter after Pitts called Wal-Mart's complaint line and GAF, based in Wayne, N.J., and a closely-held unit of G-I Holdings Inc., lodged a complaint. GAF, which has 26 plants around the country, employs about 125 people in Tampa.

    "We are very concerned about the way Mr. Pitts was treated by Wal-Mart," said Patricia Kim, GAF vice president of employment and labor. "We are awaiting Wal-Mart's response."

    Wal-Mart's critics were not surprised. Wal-Mart, like many large retail chains, has been confronted by employment and promotion discrimination suits. In Boston, one suit claims Wal-Mart engaged in a form of racial profiling to prevent shoplifting.

    "There has been a string of news reports and lawsuits around the country alleging discrimination and racial profiling in Wal-Mart stores over the past several years," said Paul Blank, director of, a group backed by the United Commercial and Food Workers union that launched a campaign against the nonunion retailer in April. "Only time will tell if it's by policy or by practice."

    So far, four Wal-Mart officials, including a regional vice president of operations at corporate headquarters in Bentonville, have called Pitts and apologized for the incident. But no one from the store did. And nobody from the company has offered an explanation of what happened.

    "They have it all on tape someplace. I have been trying to find some reasonable explanation why they did this to me other than something racial," Pitts said. "So far they have not provided one."

    $13K for this one transaction.

    $50K /year for multiple years.

    I can see being careful to verify a check of this size, but two hours?

    And then it took the cops all of 20 minutes?

    Come on guys, get that clue!

    It must be nice to be able to just throw away that much revenue over your own bigotry.

    Aint' the free market wunnerfull?

    Oh, by the way -- for this year, at least, all that gift card business for the GAF unit will be going to Target.

    Saturday, December 03, 2005

    About that DOJ memo...

    My article below about the Texas redistricting flap and the DOJ Section 5* staff memo reminds me of another possible use for the DOJ memo. As evidence in Tom DeLay's trial.

    This memo, which documents DeLay's very prominent intrusion into the process, along with one of the aides currently under indictment for money laundering, point to close coordination with DeLay and that aide.

    This memo also points up a strengthening of the perception of motive for the conspiracy -- the money transfers that DeLay is allegedly complicity in were for campaigns for the election cycle that was affected by this plan, using this redistricting map.

    The coordination shown, and the close (obviously) working relationship between DeLay and this aide would certainly indicate that DeLay knew, either ahead of time, soon after, or participated/directed the money transfers, and knew that the actions were illegal. Obviously, if Delay was a willing participant he is part of the conspiracy. However, if he was not an active participant, is he did know about the transfers (either before or after the fact), and did not report them, he made himself, by that inaction, a willing participant in the conspiracy.

    Or so it appears to this layman.

    Another reason (for the tin-foil hat crowd, at least) to believe that there were more than the DOJ's hand stirring the pot in regards to the gag order about the Section 5 staff memo.


    "Section 5" refers to the portion of the Voting Rights Act the requires several states to submit any changes in voting procedures or apportionment to the U.S. Department of Justice before the changes can be implemented.

    Friday, December 02, 2005

    DeLay's Redistricting Master Stroke illegal? **Gasp!!**

    Part of Rep Tom DeLay's (R-TX) "legacy" was the redistricting plan that was forced through in Texas, and that "gave" the GOP extra seats in the House of Representatives.

    At the time, it was controversial on several fronts:
  • - It was designed and implemented between census cycles. By itself this is not illegal, but poor choice, because (in theory) redistricting is meant to provide fairer representation, not just Gerry-mandering, and the demographics may have shifted significantly since the census reporting (which is presumably why the redistricting was done, due to shifts from the *prior* census cycle)

  • - The plan was seen as a strictly partisan effort to maximize the number of seats the GOP could win, not to provide a fairer distribution that could more fully implement the "one-man one-vote" test

  • - In what was seen as a symbolic, and very public, move, the Democratic members of the Texas legislature refused to take their seats for the vote, thereby depriving the legislature of a legal quorum. They even went so far as to absent themselves from the state of Texas entirely, so they could not be arrested and compelled to attend the session

  • - In a move that proved very embarrassing to Delay, when it was fully disclosed, Delay tried to use the services of the Department of Homeland Security to track down where the truant legislators had gone, and to send officers of the Department of Texas Public Safety (the "Texas Rangers") to arrest them, only to have the officers find that they could not so arrest the legislators, because the Rangers were out of their jurisdiction and they could not find a judge sympathetic enough to grant them jurisdiction

  • - The redistricting plan, as devised, was very similar to one that had already been struck down by the courts as being in violation of mandated corrective measures

  • - Many thought that the redistricting plan shouldn't pass muster, as it appeared to violate several points of law, but the Department of Justice declared that it was legal and met all the requirements of federal law

  • Except, that maybe, it really didn't meet those requirements, and maybe it really shouldn't have been approved by DOJ.

    The Washington Post is reporting that the DOJ lawyers tasked with reviewing the redistricting plan unanimously (six lawyers and two other advisers) recommended against the approval, but were overridden by senior officials at DOJ, who approved the plan (Justice Staff Saw Texas Districting As Illegal)

    This tactic, in a voting rights/representation case, of the career staff being overridden by the political appointees senior staff should sound familiar -- it's the same actions that were taken in Georgia, when the senior DOJ officials "pre-approved," over the objections of the career staff, the change in the voter-identification process. (See my earlier article here) Texas, as in Georgia, must submit any changes in voting procedures or redistricting to DOJ before they can be implemented.

    This information is just now coming to the fore because a previously undisclosed memo, where the career staff detailed their analysis, has been obtained by the Washington Post (the .PDF file of the 73-page 12/12/03 memo is here)

    (Please see the full text, "Under The Fold.")

    Thursday, December 01, 2005

    NC & voting machines. [Redux[redux[and so on]]]

    I thought that I'd seen it all.

    Voting the graveyards.

    Voting the "moved left no forwarding address" mailboxes.

    Challenging the residency of people who have been living at the same address for decades.

    Reestablishing the poll tax.

    Purposely making the phone lines for the "get out the vote" efforts unusable.

    Police pulling over voters and harassing them with nonsense until after the polls closed.

    Voting machines that registered hundreds more voters using the machines than were registered.

    Machines that were purposely designed to prevent audit trails and recounts.

    Hearing voting machine vendors claim that their "trade secrets" are so inviolable that the public cannot see what (if any) process was used to "certify" that their votes would be counted at all, never mind counted with the same vote that was *cast.*

    ".. Oh, the list goes on...."

    When I saw the new law in place in North Carolina, requiring certification of machines, and code escrow, my thought was " about f-----g time."

    Then the vendors started trying to get out of the provisions. One of the vendors looking to dip into that cookie jar, Diebold, managed to convince a judge to not only let them get at the cookies (be able to bid on the contracts without having to escrow the code), but started to give the whole cookie jar away, when the judge worded a temporary restraining order (TRO) such that *none* of the penalty provisions in the law would apply to *anybody.*

    Now, I don't know if the briefs filed by organizations such EFF had any educational effect, or the courts realized that Diebold and the other vendors didn't need to be protected from the law, or the courts realized what a PR nightmare this could be, with AP happily writing away for a national audience. But the courts decided to lift the TRO and the companies would have to comply with the law after all. (See my earlier article here

    And, according to as story in the UK's The Register, Diebold was going to pull out of the North Carolina markewt for voting machines, rather than comply with the law ("It's official: Diebold election bugware can't be trusted")

    But now, it appears that the *State of North Carolina* doesn't need to be compliant with the law, either.

    According to an AP story carried in today's Durhan, NC Herald-Sun, ("Diebold among winning bidders for N.C. voting equipment sales " ) Diebold, Sequoia Voting Systems and Election Systems and Software have all decided to "stay the course," and have all been "certified" to sell electronic voting terminals and optical scanners.

    This quick turnaround means that the N.C. Elections board has done some pretty fancy testing of these machines. One of the Election board "advisors", Keith Long, claims

    "none of them have the source code for all of their software they use."

    If this is true, then these vcompanies are going to be, pretty plainly, in violation of the N.C. Law that requires them to have source to escrow for all relevent portions of their systems.

    And, in the event that the escrow libraries have to be opened, how is the state of North Carolina going to be able to *use* the escrowed code to either keep machines running or to fix bugs?

    But, it gets better -- this same Keith Long used to work *for Diebold,* and claims to have been instrumental in several big ticket projects for the firm. Too bad for the State of Georgia, at leqast one of those projects created major headaches for that state's voters.

    Maybe he's pulling a "Brownie," -- he's screwed up enough that he can now trade on his "expertise" on not what to do?

    Matters are even more complicated, because there will be demos in mid-December, a Jan. 20 deadline to ddecide on a vendor and equipment, and primaries in April and May. This is going to provide even more incentive to cut corners. From the AP article:
    Now state and county election officials must select vendors, choose machines, have them delivered and train precinct workers on the new units before early primary voting begins in April.

    That means counties need to meet a Jan. 20 deadline to contract with a vendor. The machines will be demonstrated at four locations statewide the week of Dec. 12.

    "For this timetable to work, the gods are going to have absolutely on you and having everything in place," state elections board chairman Larry Leake said. He didn't rule out recommending the election be delayed or counties resort to paper ballots if counties and the vendors can't get the machines ready in time for the May 2 primary.

    "Everyone needs to cross their fingers," he said

    I think the voters of North Carolina are getting shafted, and their own tax dollars are going to pay for it.

    Why do I care? I'm from Yankee-land, after all.

    Aside from the outrage, in general, I know that these machines are coming, and if the crappy ones aree allowed to be the benchmark, it means that elections in my state are going to be suspect as well. Call it enlightened, self-interested, outrage.

    "Pam's House Blend" caught it before I did with "Diebold somehow slips into NC", and so did The Brad Blog with "'IMMACULATE CERTIFICATION'! DIEBOLD ALLOWED IN NORTH CAROLINA AFTER ALL!"

    Oh C/h/r/I/s/t/m/a/s/ errr, F/e/s/t/i/v/u/s/ uhhh H/o/l/i/d/a/y/ ummm, Seasonal Tree

    There has been a bit of a scuffle, in print, this year, with various commentators making hay/noise/lathering-at-the-mouth about some supposed plot to "kill Christmas."

    There is the usual complaints about some areas not allowing crèche to be put up on taxpayer-funded properties.

    Blog and journal entries about how terrible McDonald's is, over an apparently apocryphal policy of having employees say "Happy Holidays" instead of "Marry Christmas."(I say apparently apocryphal, because when I got my juice&McMuffin special the other morning the drive-in lady wished me "Merry Christmas" instead of "happy holidays")

    A *certified* apocryphal tale about how the USPS is supposedly out to discredit "Christian Christmas" because they didn't have 2005-issue Madonna & Child stamps (no, they don't have 2005-issue Madonna stamps because they still have 2004-issue Madonna stamps left, and won't print a new issue until they run out of what they have)

    And the free-fire zones around what to call municipal celebratory trees -- such as the one in Boston, that the City Fathers have decided to call the "Holiday Tree" instead of the 'Christmas Tree" this year. And I can just see someone trying to claim that Boston is some hotbed of atheism and anti-religious and anti-Christian action, considering the wealth of Irish-Catholic, Italian-Catholic, Polish-Catholic, Vietnamese-Catholic, //fill in the nation//-Catholic, Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Baptist and, well, Congregational congregations. (the logger who cut the thing is now claiming he wouldn't have sold it to the city if he knew it wouldn't be called a "Christmas tree." Oh well, There Are Other Loggers)

    Part of the theatre this year is (where else?) in Washington DC, where there are two trees of note - in the White House itself and on the ellipse between the Senate and House of Representatives.

    Today's NY Times has a short piece about it ("Three Trees, but Only One Star?" -- the "third tree" refers to the one in New York City's Rockefella Plaza, where the "architects" involved always conspire to light theirs the night *before* either of the Washington trees)

    On the White House Tree:

    The National Christmas Tree is elaborately decorated and lighted by General Electric Co. There are snowflakes, a giant model train and singers, dancers, movie stars and TV personalities.

    The event has evolved since the first tree was decorated in 1913. The lighting became a presidential ceremony in 1923, when White House aides told a somewhat reclusive Calvin Coolidge they couldn't afford an extension cord that would reach from the tree to his office

    On the Congressional Tree:

    In the 1960s, Congress decided it was time for a Capitol tree. After several failed attempts to cultivate live trees, the U.S. Forest Service delivered a 40-foot Norway spruce from West Virginia in 1970, giving birth to an annual tradition.

    The Capitol tree comes from a different national forest every year, and states jockey to donate. They form fundraising committees and throw fundraising galas, in the manner of political campaigns.


    The Capitol tree is decorated with thousands of handcrafted ornaments made by students and artists. Home-state politicians surround it during the lighting ceremony.

    "I think the tree is the people's tree; it complements the other tree by the White House," said Eva Malecki, spokeswoman for the Architect of the Capitol, the office responsible for the tree. "I think of the White House tree as the one in your formal living room. Then the Capitol tree is the one in your family room, with the ornaments you made."

    Paul Pincus, a former chief Capitol landscaper and the tree's steward until his retirement in 1995, had a less flattering comparison: "The feeling, the emotion that goes into the Capitol tree is something really special. That other tree, some decorator does that tree; there's nothing personal about it. It looks like it could be in any shopping mall."

    There has been some disagreement, over the years, about which tree in DC should be first energized -- the one in the White House or the one on the Ellipse. During the Reagan years Tip O'Neil (Speaker of the House 1975-1987). used to have the congressional tree lit before the White House tree. These days, with the House, Senate and White House under GOP occupation, the White House tree gets primacy (the Congressional tree will be lit up on THursday, 12/8/05).

    As for "naming" the tree,

    But there is always room for adjustment. In the early 1990s, the Capitol tree became known officially as the "Capitol Holiday Tree," a nod to non-Christians. Pincus said he was proud that there were no angels on top of the tree -- it was festive but nondenominational.

    "We got lots of letters back then from people who thought it should be called the holiday tree, simple as that," said Pincus.

    Not this year. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) wrote a letter to the architect of the Capitol asking that the tree be renamed the Capitol Christmas Tree, and the architect obliged.

    "The speaker wanted the name changed to reflect what it is -- a Christmas tree," said Hastert's spokesman, Ron Bonjean. "The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive."

    Over on the Ellipse, supporters of the White House tree said they approved of the name change. As long as it is not lighted first.

    I wonder, just *how* did the nation's congress *survive* without a "Christmas tree" for a decade?

    Shocking, just shocking, I say.