The Talking Dog

January 29, 2011, Sputnik Moment

Once again, we're not talking about the nebulous promise of "more better teachers and sh**" that the President "put out there" at the State of the Union (didn't watch it; just heard the highlights and all)... we're talking about the situation breaking out all over the Arab world now, which has already brought down the government of Tunisia, has caused the Egyptian strongman and American ally Hosni Mubarak's police to fire on protesters in Cairo, killing at least one thus far and injuring who knows how many others, and protests have broken out in Yemen as well, and even Jordan and Palestine.

But what does it all mean FOR AMERICA?

Brother Dmitry, in his inimitable way, puts this in perspective, noting that we can expect the American government to, just as has been done with Afghanistan and so many other things, to follow the Soviet playbook to the letter, further hastening ultimate collapse. I did note the kneejerk American response to send at least rhetorical support to our longstanding ally and aid-recipient Hosni Mubarak... even as lip service was also paid to "democracy" (of the kind we have attempted to impose elsewhwere in the Middle East at gun-point).

Well. So much happening, so fast. Is Obama our Gorbachev? He has, ironically, by trying to be even more maniacal in suppressing information than his maniacal predecessors, been part of a process that unleashed a wave of it thus far. The effects of economic, environmental and social "change"... possibly of an "unwelcome" nature, are unfolding in front of us... in some places (far from here... for the moment), political change is afoot too. Where will this stop? Don't know. It's 2011. Could be another... 1789? 1917? 1968? Or... none of the above. I, for one, think we'll need to see how developments unfold-- particularly in Egypt-- at least a little longer-- to make some sense out of this.

Interesting times. Look out for yourselves, your families, your friends, your loved ones. Because you can rest assured... your government isn't... or certainly won't be able to too much longer.

Update: The death toll is , evidently, over 70 protestors dead, as police opened fire on a crowd of people in Cairo. The usual response of martinets everywhere-- brutal repression. Tomorrow's another day... maybe there will be better news. Please God, or Inshallah, or whomever else might be listening.

January 26, 2011, For your viewing pleasure

No, not the State of the Union which, to be frank, I utterly ignored (though I did walk in on Rep. Ryan's non-response response playing on the radio... which I did my best to ignore as well)... but tonight's event in Berkeley (go if you're anywhere near there; watch otherwise), details as described by Candace here. Almerindo sends Facebook info, here. The event will not just feature my friends Candace (interviewed by me here) and Almerindo (interviewed by me here), but a live-feed from England with former GTMO detainee Omar Deghayes. While I haven't met Omar, the simple humanity of this humble man and the injustice he has suffered at American hands came through like nothing else in Andy's film "Outside the Law: Stories from Guantanamo." If you haven't seen or heard Omar before... take this opportunity.

Because, you see, Omar (and Candace and Almerindo) are real. Not like my college classmate The Empty Suit the President, and his "State of the Union" and all the other kabuki trappings of our "Theatrocy," which as you know, is actually mostly just bad theatre masquerading as a democratic republic to cover for its actual role in simply advancing the interests of the super-rich and powerful. Omar, Candace and Almerindo and others like them (and I like to fancy myself in it as well) are in the greatest struggle there is-- the eternal one-- literally, the struggle between justice and the forces of brute power and expedience, where "our side" is bound by rules and order... and justice... and their side... plain old isn't. But we soldier on.

If you haven't seen Omar (or Candace or Almerindo)... do yourself a favor and tune in to the web-cast (7:30 Pacific time... whatever that means for you where you are!). You will not be sorry.

January 23, 2011, Deep sighs

Well, one here in New York could have such a reaction to the valiant second-half efforts of the New York Jets to come back from the immense hole they dug themselves, but still came up short losing to Pittsburgh Steelers, 24-19; the Steel Curtain will play the upstart Green Bay Packers in Dallas in two weeks for the Big Enchilada at Super Bowl XLV... where was I?

For further deep sighs, Candace reports that her client Razak Ali has lost his habeas petition at the District Court level; Andy has more on this, and all matters GTMO....

The great Carol Rosenberg gives us this piece detailing just some of wtf went wrong with the President's efforts to close Guantanamo now two years after he came into office, and one year after his self-imposed deadline to do so. The specific culprit would be Congress (both parties) and its refusal to allow resettlement of any detainees in the United States. At one point, all the Obama Administration had to do was nothing, and drop its appeal of Judge Urbina's directive to bring the cleared Uighurs to his courtroom for resettlement here... but nooooooo....

Of course, many countries wondered why we wouldn't take a single detainee, if they were so "not dangerous"... and wondered why this was true even where our own courts cleared people. And of course... it's still a fair question-- but the need to demonize the swarthy people was more important than the need to deflect diplomatic flak for holding avowedly innocent people.

BTW... my current working theory is that a huge part of the refusal to try anyone other than bit players for these nine years is because there is no one other than bit players... while we have been told that KSM and the "high value detainees" are somehow terrorist masterminds... none of these propositions have yet to be tested in any court-- even a controversial military court. So let's just say I'm not convinced that the government is convinced that it could even get flawed convictions... I think the Pakistani ISI, and the Northern Alliance, and whomever else was selling... sold us a bill of goods, as well as some "bad guys"... and then, our own law enforcement and intel people couldn't get the stories to stick... and hence, every excuse imaginable not to have fair trials was invented. And hence, the need to demonize the schmucks we have left, even as, at worst, they were bit players and hangers on... One really does wonder what "the real story" actually is... because the more I see and here of "the official version"... the more convinced I am that the whole thing is a kabuki arranged for the benefit of the rubes... as if they would ask too many questions anyway.

Well... just saying, anyway. I'd look forward to, you know, a trial... to actually test the evidence... That apparently is too radical a concept these days. And probably, you know, bad for business.

January 15, 2011, Actual hopey changey stuff... for a change...

I join those who applaud the President's decision to loosen (albeit inadequately and pathetically, but it's still something)... er, loosen travel restrictions to Cuba. The move allows some minor increase in remittances and increased access for direct travel to Cuba for church groups and students and so forth... and the move goes in the direction of letting any American who wants to travel to Cuba do so (you probably can now, though you have to do so "unofficially" without a passport stamp and through an entry point other than the United States, such as Mexico or another Caribbean country). I say that, because, of course, this might make it easier to go down to Eastern Cuba next January for the tenth anniversary of the opening of the Guantanamo Bay detention center... not exactly a "celebration," but I have little doubt that the Cuban government would be delighted to welcome Americans willing to march to the gates of Guantanamo, as they were a few years ago... our government might feel a bit differently, of course!

American Cuban policy ends up being even more insane (and counter-productive) than the other policies that are driven by specific ethnic pressure groups (those of course, would involve American policies toward Israel, and to a lesser extent, toward Armenia and other places). The half century American embargo is widely seen as the only thing that has kept the Castro regime in place, as communist regimes in Nicaragua, Eastern Europe and even the Soviet Union itself have collapsed, and China has embraced some form of capitalism.

OTOH, Cuba has been forced to live as efficiently as possible with an extremely low dependency on petroleum, and, despite its political repressiveness (although, let's face it-- the most notorious gulag on the island is run by the United States), has, for an otherwise poor country, pretty good literacy and medical care and cultural vibrancy. I have kind of joked that in the coming post-peak-oil collapse, the people likely to be "riding high" would end up being the Amish and the Cubans! Of course, the Amish have the good sense to continue being, well, Amish, regardless of how many strip malls and McMansions are built near them... the Cubans are still subject to the isolation imposed by the American embargo. Query if the President will break through the political-Gordian-knot of fear of backlash by ethnic-Cuban residents of Florida (nearly all of whom vote Republican anyway, btw) and manage to open up Cuba even more... though we all know that if American corporations have their way, the delicate social and environmental balance holding Cuba together now will likely be crushed (though the "good news" is that the Castro regime would likely be crushed with it, although repression by the communist state would likely be replaced by repression from a klepto-capitalist state... lather, rinse, repeat...)

Anyway, baby steps. An actual decent move in the foreign policy/human rights realm. A few thousand more of these, and maybe I'll actually have something nice to say about (my college classmate) the President, in general.

January 12, 2011, TD Blog Interview with Laurel Fletcher

Laurel Fletcher is a Clinical Visiting Professor of Law at Yale Law School. She is also a Clinical Professor of Law at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law (Boalt Hall) and is director of the school’s International Human Rights Law Clinic. She is active in the areas of transitional justice and humanitarian law, as well as globalization and migration. Before joining the Berkeley Law faculty in 1998, she practiced complex civil litigation, including representing plaintiffs in employment discrimination class actions. She is the author, with Eric Stover, of “The Guantanamo Effect: Exposing the Consequences of U.S. Detention and Interrogation Practices,” which provides the findings of a two-year study of former detainees who were held in U.S. custody in Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. She earned a B.A. from Brandeis University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School.  On December 9, 2010, I had the privilege of interviewing Professor Fletcher by telephone.  My interview notes, as corrected by Professor Fletcher, follow.

The Talking Dog: Where were you on Sept. 11. 2001?

Laurel Fletcher: I was at home in Berkeley, California. I got a call from a friend who wanted to know if my brother- in- law-- who lived and worked in New York City-- was o.k. Well, why shouldn't he be?, I thought. In the chaos that morning, no one knew where anyone was for a while. My brother in law was fine, we learned eventually. However, my partner was flying home from New Orleans, and was in the air that morning. The more personal impact of that day on me was the five days that it took him to get home from where the plane was forced to land in New Mexico via his parents’ home in Boulder, Colorado and then an Amtrak train back to the Bay area. My recollection of the events of that day is between trying to figure out where he was and how he would get home and then trying to make sense of the events themselves.

The Talking Dog: Can you tell me what led you to the project that became "the Guantantamo Effect" (and a bit about its methodology)? I understand that you interviewed 62 former detainees in 9 countries, as well as attorneys, government officials, etc.

Laurel Fletcher: In the summer of 2006, Patty Blum, then with the Center for Constitutional Rights, and a founding director of Berkeley's International Human Rights Law Clinic, was talking to me about our work. She said that there was a real need to know what was happening to Guantanamo detainees who had been released. Habeas lawyers were getting more notices from the government that their clients were to be transferred to their countries of origin. Attorneys feared that a number of released detainees were in danger of being abused by their home governments. At that time, we expected to see more transfers-- and we did-- but none of the advocates at that time had a clear picture of how detainees were being treated after their release.

Eric Stover, director of the UC Berkeley’s Human Rights Center, and I decided to do an empirical study to try to answer this question. We felt we could do so because we had done previous studies of the effects of war on individuals and communities. The issue of Guantanamo certainly related to a conflict situation, but was different from our past work in the sense that it did not involve a civil war, but nonetheless, involved an armed conflict. Unlike our other work, there was an explicit United States government role, and the whole subject was controversial. In this case, we thought it appropriate to look at the actions of our own government, and how it conducts itself in combating the threat of terrorism.

We interviewed 62 detainees and about 50 others who were working in and around the detention system, including former American government officials. We also interviewed former guards, interrogators and so forth, who served in Afghanistan or Guantanamo. In addition to those who served in the government or military, we interviewed a number of habeas attorneys and representatives of human rights organizations active on the issue. We were trying to get a meaningful picture of "the Guantanamo experience." Our first concern was doing so based on the perspective of former detainees.

We knew that the government had framed this population as "the worst of the worst", but then, was steadily releasing them. Despite the best efforts of habeas attorneys, only a little bit of detail as to who these men were, what they had done (or not done) and how they were treated was coming out publicly.

Our goal was to address two main questions: (1) what was the nature of "the Guantanamo experience," and (2) what was the impact of that experience on the detainees, their families and their communities. We were looking to see what meaning former detainees had given to the experience and what impact the experience had exerted on their lives.

And while we were not trying to determine the “forensic” truth of what former detainees told us, we did try to establish the credibility of common patterns. We "triangulated" the information that former detainees told us by and comparing it to the government's own reports and other NGO reports and accounts.

The Talking Dog: What struck you as the most troubling discovery about what you learned from this project-- be it, the specific treatment these men received while in the custody of our government, the treatment received after (including the lack of compensation, apology, or even acknowledgment that anyone has been wrongly held), the response and reaction of our own government, the arbitrary cruelty of the whole thing... or anything else? Without necessarily identifying the individual, did any individual's response (whether in writing, in person, recorded, or however taken) strike you as particularly of note, and of course, if so why?

Laurel Fletcher: There have certainly been reports of abuse at Guantanamo, as well as about the flawed screening process in Afghanistan where "enemy combatants" were supposed to have been captured. Certainly, none of that was "new".

The "new" information was about what happened to these men when they returned home. They arrived at Guantanamo in the first place as a result of a flawed screening process. No one we interviewed was so much as charged, let alone convicted of a crime. None have received so much as an apology or even an acknowledgment (from our government or their own) that they were captured in error. The men we interviewed were, as best I recall, held an average of over three years and then released.

But the Guantanamo experience, such as it is, did not end once these men returned home. The experience continued to impact them negatively. Only 6 of the 62 men we interviewed had permanent employment. Around two thirds of the men reported suffering from had psychological problems they attributed to their time in Guantanamo. They found it hard to reintegrate with their families-- they had been gone for years, and had to be re-introduced to their own children, some of whom they had not seen since infancy. They found it difficult to resume their role as head of their households, without incomes. During their absence, often, their families had gone into debt, and these men found they have no ability to re-start their lives. And this was true whether they were small shop owners, or farmers, or taxi drivers... they found their capital gone, no jobs, and no ability even to borrow money. Their own government wouldn't clear their name, and neither had ours, and so they came home with a cloud of suspicion. This was not a universal situation, but it was surprisingly common, and this seemed to be true regardless of country.

And of significance, none of these men were subject to the popular media's description of the harshest “enhanced interrogation techniques.” practices that led to "ruined detainees"-- none were the so-called "high value" detainees, none reported they had been water-boarded or held in the harshest conditions. These men simply went through the system. None were deemed "highly significant" by theier captors. Still, over half talked about abuse during their interrogations, although many reported they did not have a problem with interrogators. In fact, some said that their interrogators did not understand why they were in Guantanamo.

So given that, the question is, why are these men still so damaged? It caused us to take a look at illegal torture and cruelty in a different way. The men reported a lot of repeated exposure to individual methods, which, when used in tandem with other methods and conditions-- and they were-- might well cross over the line to torture. The cumulative effect of harsh conditions, combined with cruel and often arbitrary punishments (solitary confinement of up to 30-days for the most minor of infractions, for example) could have caused long term psychological problems. We term this the “Guantanamo Effect,” and there hasn’t been enough attention paid to the harm that can come from subjecting captives to extremely harsh conditions over an extended period of time.

The Talking Dog: You've studied human rights issue associated with such matters as the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the 2004 tsunami, forced labor within the United States, and other issues pertaining to the Dominican Republic and Bosnia, among other places. Do you have a basis for comparison with respect to what you have researched and discovered with respect to these other contexts for the Guantanamo "experience" (or Guantanamo Effect" as your book is called)? Among the worst abuses suffered by people whose experiences you've encountered... where would you place the former GTMO (and let's throw in Bagram) detainees... and where would you place the current and ongoing GTMO/Bagram detainees in the broader context?

Laurel Fletcher: I will resist the arc of the question to "rank" the abuses described against each other; a human rights abuse is a human rights abuse. In terms of the disruption of people's lives, whether it was in terms of discrimination in the Dominican Republic, or the access to assistance after Katrina... all of these events disrupted people's lives. Is there a measurement of some metric applicable to all of these situations?

A depredation of human dignity causes harm, and that harm can manifest in different ways. To the extent the harm is a result of state-sponsored violations of rights, they have that in common. Nonetheless, each of those situations had differences and similarities.

The Talking Dog: Let's talk a bit about the guy who it just so happened went to school with both of us (he was in Columbia's class of '83, as was I, and in Harvard Law School's Class of 1991 ... where you were a year ahead of him)... that guy being, of course, Barack Obama, President of the United States. Your book closes at an optimistic moment, to wit, the apparent end of the Bush era just before Barack Obama took office. The book proposes the creation of a non-partisan commission vested with subpoena (and presumably, criminal referral if not indictment) power, designed to ferret out exactly what happened with respect to American detention policy, particularly the extent that laws were violated. I take it that, two years into the Obama Administration, it's pretty clear that President Obama's "look forward not backward" record thus far makes clear that that's not going to happen any time soon, correct? Do you have any "alternative" proposals, that you think, in context, have say, a greater than zero chance of being implemented by the Obama Administration... or, like me, do you fear we will have to wait for yet the next Administration-- or the courts-- for an ultimate "solution" (short of the eventual death by natural causes of the last GTMO prisoner, or perhaps, the "end" of the "War on terror" or at least the Afghan component of it)?

Laurel Fletcher: Although like you, I remember him in one of my classes, I've certainly gotten a better sense of his record as President than I do of him personally. From the perspective of detainees, there has certainly been a disappointment.

Still, one of the more interesting aspects of the recent Wikileaks disclosure is that the Obama Administration is actually doing a lot behind the scenes to try to resolve some of the key questions, particularly, about transferring detainees to other countries when they can't be returned to their own country because they may be tortured. Quite frankly, the Obama Administration’s record on this has been much better than the Bush Administration's; the Obama Administration has been getting transfers to such third countries, and that is significant.

Nonetheless, there are still 170 or so detainees left at Guantanamo. Those who can or will be prosecuted for anything remain a tiny fraction-- and that has not changed. Some of these problems have of course been inherited from the Bush Administration. Since Obama took over, there have been a tiny number of prosecutions, and some number of men have been transferred out. The Bush Administration could not figure out what to do with the Yemeni detainees-- now the largest nationality group left at Guantanamo-- and neither can the Obama Administration.

The so-called category of "too dangerous to release but cannot otherwise be prosecuted" remains. We continue to ask the question, "where is the judicial review supporting that determination?" If the law of war applies, then combatants can be held until the end of hostilities. The policy has, nonetheless, been to keep these people locked up.

And we see the problem of "just what is the adjudicative process?" Is it sufficient to say that the United States can detain them? The answer from the Supreme Court in the Boumediene case is that the detainees get habeas review to challenge their detentions. And these reviews are taking place, but unfolding slowly. And yet, it leads to the next question-- if a federal judge says "you should be released"... will the Administration -- MUST the Administration-- release them? And to what country? That question has not been firmly resolved, notwithstanding the Supreme Court's recognition of a habeas right arising from the Constitution itself.

And so the question of what's going to be the ultimate outcome remains. So far, the government has lost most of the habeas cases, but not all, and yet, the government still holds a number of detainees who have prevailed.

As far as an ultimate "grade" for the Obama Administration, it's really too soon to judge it; I'd give it a "pass" under the Berkeley Law grading system, i.e. good but not great.

The Talking Dog: Let's talk a bit about the big picture and perhaps a little about the methodology of relying on CCR and detainees' lawyers and so forth... you've done, albeit in a more systematic say, and with a different mix of players, essentially what I've tried to do for the last 5 or 6 years on this blog, to wit, get a bunch of "first person perspectives" from players such as soldiers, ex-detainees, attorneys and others... I should note that in my own case, present and former government officials responsible for the policies invariably declined to speak with me when I asked, and hence, although I personally believe so-called "journalistic balance" is a cop-out for the lazy and/or corrupt, I recognize that my presentations might seem to some arguably "one-sided" (although as I like to point out, that one-side is likely to be "the truth")... but it's not that I didn't try to get "the other side's perspective." While you certainly quote from (and provide) a number of governmental sources, given the weight of responses you received (correct me if I'm wrong on this) were from detainees and attorneys for detainees, and presumably, from people sympathetic to the proposition that there is something wrong with American detention policy, while you've obviously made a great contribution to scholarship, my question, if I ever get it out, is "how would you respond to the argument that your respondents all had a political motive to try to maximize their accounts of abuse at the hands of the American military and the extent that they continue to suffer personal trauma and other ill-effects of their detention?"

Laurel Fletcher: I look at this as a selection bias question. We have a small sample-- 62 men out of over 500 released detainees, and our sample is not representative. How do we know that the former detainees we talked to didn't have their own biases? Well, given the level of dispersion, we are reasonably sure these men were not in contact with each other. And we weren't looking for individual outliers of experience-- we were looking for trends and commonalities, reporting of the same kinds of treatment.

Further, we only considered reports from detainees that they themselves experienced or witnessed first hand, and not rumors or hearsay. We did what we could to control for selection bias. Again, none of the people we interviewed were held in the most severe, restrictive housing or received the harshest interrogation techniques-- factors that, in some sense, go both ways for our conclusions. In other words, we didn’t interview those most likely to have experienced the harshest treatment so in this sense those we interviewed might have better things to say about their treatment. On the other hand, those who spoke to us may have wanted to talk particularly ill of the U.S. government. But given the range of responses, that does not appear to be the case.

The Talking Dog: Can you briefly describe media interest and coverage of your work for "the Guantanamo Effect," and, say, how it compares to your other human rights work, and can you describe it in general, and whether you are satisfied, unsatisfied, or something else, both with respect to your own work, and Guantanamo and American detention policy in general?

Laurel Fletcher: These things are a little hard to gauge. You can take a look at book sales, or media hits, and draw whatever conclusions you want or can. We certainly got attention when our report was released. It was right after the elections of 2008, and candidate Obama certainly talked about Guantanamo and generated more interest in the subject.

Overall, and certainly now, there is "media fatigue" with the subject-- we see fewer stories on this than we did two years ago. As a general matter, getting press attention for human rights abuses is hard. And news about abuses received by foreigners is a harder sell still. Overall, we have probably seen more interest in Guantanamo than we have for other abuses, but this in some sense, reflects the national attention, which right now, would be more focused on the economy.

The Talking Dog: Let me briefly to ask you to predict the future-- in a micro sense-- for the men released by our government from GTMO (mostly by the Bush Administration), and for the men still held... in any sense you chose-- material, emotional, existential... and do you see anything (such as an official apology, compensation, accountability commissions, an American special prosecutor for war crimes committed by the American government, etc.) as likely to change any of this?

Laurel Fletcher: My guess will be that, if things hold as they have thus far, we will continue to see a slow trickle of men off the base. The biggest question is "what about the Yemenis?" I don't know-- I assume they'll stay in Guantanamo for the foreseeable future, and Guantanamo will remain open. It does not look like any will be released, or even moved into other prisons, in the United States itself.

And we will see military commissions, in those limited number of cases in which prosecutions go forward. As for the men released, the government says very little about them. Released detainees only seem to get attention when there has been one who has "returned to the battlefield". Those numbers are very, very low. Nevertheless, the United States government has made no investment in reintegrating or reeducating detainees, although rehabilitation could and should be seen as an investment in our security. It is in the government’s interest that detainees who leave Guantanamo be given some support in reintegrating into their communities. But giving released detainees an alternative to seeking help from a local, radical Mosque-- just doesn't seem to be in the offing. If one is concerned about minimizing the risks of future attacks, this might be a good reason to consider such an investment.

The Talking Dog: Let me close with my usual lawyer's weasel question, and ask you if there's anything else I should have asked you but didn't, or anything else the public needs to know on these important subjects?

Laurel Fletcher: What does the public need to know? We don't have a full picture. There are still memos out there that have yet to be released. We know that our government now says "we are no longer torturing" and has made reforms in detainee treatment. But do we have even that same level of information regarding reforms to insure that the screening process for picking up men to detain are any better than they were in 2001? What's to say next time that we'll do a better job? And so, of the two questions, (1) why are the wrong people at Guantanamo? and (2) how are they treated?, we seem to have only paid attention to the second question, and less so to the question of, do we get the right picture? What happened, exactly, to get us to the point we are now at, and how can we make sure the apparatus for doing so works better than it did in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

The Talking Dog: I join all of our readers in thanking Laurel Fletcher for that interesting interview, and encourage those interested to take a look at "The Guantanamo Effect".

Readers interested in legal issues and related matters associated with the "war on terror" may also find talking dog blog interviews with former Guantanamo military commissions prosecutor Darrel Vandeveld, with former Guantanamo combatant status review tribunal/"OARDEC" officer Stephen Abraham, with attorneys Ellen Lubell, Ramzi Kassem, George Clarke, Buz Eisenberg, Steven Wax, Wells Dixon, Rebecca Dick, Wesley Powell, Martha Rayner, Angela Campbell, Stephen Truitt and Charles Carpenter, Gaillard Hunt, Robert Rachlin, Tina Foster, Brent Mickum, Marc Falkoff H. Candace Gorman, Eric Freedman, Michael Ratner, Thomas Wilner, Jonathan Hafetz, Joshua Denbeaux, Rick Wilson,
Neal Katyal, Joshua Colangelo Bryan, Baher Azmy, and Joshua Dratel (representing Guantanamo detainees and others held in "the war on terror"), with attorneys Donna Newman and Andrew Patel (representing "unlawful combatant" Jose Padilila), with Dr. David Nicholl, who spearheaded an effort among international physicians protesting force-feeding of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, with physician and bioethicist Dr. Steven Miles on medical complicity in torture, with law professor and former Clinton Administration Ambassador-at-large for war crimes matters David Scheffer, with former Guantanamo detainees Moazzam Begg and Shafiq Rasul , with former Guantanamo Bay Chaplain James Yee, with former Guantanamo Army Arabic linguist Erik Saar, with former Guantanamo military guard Terry Holdbrooks, Jr., with law professor and former Army J.A.G. officer Jeffrey Addicott, with law professor and Coast Guard officer Glenn Sulmasy, with author and geographer Trevor Paglen and with author and journalist Stephen Grey on the subject of the CIA's extraordinary rendition program, with journalist and author David Rose on Guantanamo, with journalist Michael Otterman on the subject of American torture and related issues, with author and historian Andy Worthington detailing the capture and provenance of all of the Guantanamo detainees, with law professor Peter Honigsberg on various aspects of detention policy in the war on terror, with Joanne Mariner of Human Rights Watch, with Almerindo Ojeda of the Guantanamo Testimonials Project, with Karen Greenberg, author of The LeastWorst Place: Guantanamo's First 100 Days, and with Charles Gittings of the Project to Enforce the Geneva Conventions to be of interest.

January 11, 2011, Hammer nailed

In an otherwise grim world, where we ponder the aftermath of the Arizona shooting and the fact that today marks nine years since the Guantanamo Bay prison-beyond-law was opened [a commemmorative protest will take place starting at 11 am across the street from the White House for those in the D.C. area]... at least one thing can bring a smile to our faces-- when a bad man gets his, in this case, former House Majority Leader Tom "The Hammer" DeLay receiving his just recompense, a three year prison term for his role in money laundering and attempted laundering associated with his illegally steering corporate campaign contributions to Texas state legislators who then turned around and redistricted Texas mid-census so that the Republicans could hold on to control of the U.S. House of Representatives. Sweet.

Before there was Bristol Palin, it was Tom DeLay giving us a song and dance on Dancing with the Stars, although he pulled out with an injury in an early round before he could be retired by the audience and the judges. The one-time exterminator and all-around jerk epitomized the cesspool that national politics have become in the post-Gingrich era, rising to Republican Whip and then eventually Majority Leader... though it was understood that even as Denny Hastert might be Speaker, it was really DeLay running the show for so very long... making American politics about well... what we think it's about, but would like to believe different... that being... money. Money. And just money. The dirtier the better. And power. Power... so you could get more MONEY.

And to his immense credit, DeLay was always nasty and unpleasant about the whole thing. Anyway... payback's a bitch, eh, Tom? Remember that time you tried to have the feds track a bunch of Texas state senators who were trying to avoid a quorum so they could avoid the bullshit redistricting you set up? Good times. Or how much you fun you had with your pal Jack Abramoff? Oh... that was the stuff.

Well, give American justice it's due... once in a while, the hammer...gets the slammer.

January 8, 2011, Congresswoman shot

I obviously have my own conclusions about [what is being reported now] as the shooting of Congressman Gabrielle Giffords (DEMOCRAT, Arizona) in Tucson, at a constituent meeting in a grocery store there; a total of twelve people were shot during a shooting spree, and apparently six are dead as well. The L.A. Times reports that the gunman is in custody.

I suppose at the moment, until more information is available, I should restrain myself from making conclusions, other than to note that "civility" in our society has been breaking down for a long time, and, along with a failing economy and an ever-more-premissive gun culture, is the sort of thing that will lead to ever more troubling and tragic breakdowns of order and humanity.

This is just horrible.

Update: Among the six victims were a nine year old girl born on Sept. 11, 2001 no less and the Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court of Arizona, a George W. Bush appointee who was himself mired in Arizona's ongoing immigration controversy. Sarah Palin is (rightly) taking severe criticism for her posting cross-hair targets on "targeted" Democratic members of Congress posted on her web-site. The suspect, as is true in virtually all of these kinds of incidents, a White male, was "disturbed." To quote the great Pete Seeger... "when will we ever learn?" The answer to that, at least collectively, is that we won't, because, of course, gunz iz sooo kewl. America, fuck yeah.

"Will Congress be the same?" I'm not sure I really care all that much about that-- I don't really live in that rarefied world of privilege, corruption and asinine recitations of the pledge of allegiance and lock-step support of the total national security state... then again, the point of that last piece notes the new dangers of "retail democracy"-- Congresswoman Giffords, for example, was huge on meeting constituents at public events... perhaps something that many will now seriously reconsider... isolating our political "representatives" still more into their inside-the-Beltway bubbles of privilege and lobbyists' goodies, relying ever more on paid-media rather than "direct retail" for their reelections; it's an interesting point, actually, when American politicians have to be as worried about facing their constituents as do, say, politicians in Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan...

January 8, 2011, Twits

The only thing I can say about Justice Dept. efforts to subpoena Twitter account private messages of a member of the Icelandic parliament (and more importantly, former Wikileaks volunteer) is... at least they're doing it in a way that can be talked about, to wit, a subpoena, rather than a "national security letter." The reason is somewhat obvious: the use of a subpoena means that anything obtained by subpoena can eventually be used in a hypotehtical court prosecution of Emmanuel Goldstein Julian Assange, whereas anything obtained by a national security letter might have a slight Fourth Amendment problem. For whatever reason, the show must go on viz Assange... well, he not only embarrassed the Imperium... the mother f***er used his notoriety to get laid.

Anyway, this Wikileaks angle is a most interesting coincidence, I suppose, as the connection between Wikileaks, Guantanamo and not-so-slow-ascent of American totalitarianism is the basis of Andy's visit to our shores (and to Stately Dog Manor)... that, along with the ignominious 9th anniversary of the opening of Guantanamo Bay (Candace has more). The mirth and merriment will continue on Tuesday, at yon 9th anniversary, commencing 11 am on 1-11-11... with a big protest event in front of the White House. (Candace advises me that at that very moment, Judge Richard Leon will be reading his verdict in the case of her client Razak Ali in the D.C. federal courthouse... oh, what to do... what to do? [BTW... Candace's client Razak is an Algerian who would actually like to go home... unlike Farhi Saeed bin Mohammad, who had won his habeas case, but nonetheless, asked to remain at GTMO rather than be returned to Algeria, where he feared abuse, torture or worse... even as Farhi's petition for review in the U.S. Supreme Court was pending, the Obama Administration shipped him back to Algeria anyway. My interview with Farhi's lawyer Buz Eisenberg is here, for some background.] Sufficeth to say... the Obama Administration has given up on trying to find third countries to house our military's house guests... even as it continues to vilify detainees the Administration has already concluded pose no threat to anyone... even as the President signs laws that supposedly restrict his "flexibility" to release admittedly illegally held men... lather, rinse, repeat...]

Well, not sure if I'll go down to D.C. for the mirth and merriment myself, but for those of you who can... I strongly urge you to show the un-shameable Barack Obama some "tough love" on Tuesday and show him that the perfect is not the enemy of the good, but the good is very much the enemy of his "Bush's third term" excuse for governance. (Barack himself will, much as his predecessor, likely have the curtains drawn, while, perhaps unlike his predecessor, he ponders why so many people who went out of their way to support him don't like how he's doing things quite so much... but he'll just attribute it to us being "retarded" and otherwise "impractical.")

I will note that I was at a New York City educational event yesterday, which was about as insanely disorganized as anything could be, when a gentleman with a thick Russian accent observed it, and said something akin to "This country is crap; I lived in Africa and nothing was as disorganized as this... ten years... this country goes the way of the Soviet Union!." I looked at him, and said, "Ten years? You're an optimist, my friend." You see, creeping totalitarianism is expensive... it's going to bankrupt us long before it fully manages to enslave us. And that's the good news.

Snapshot of a country that has lost its moral compass some time ago... a country that long ago traded its birthright for SUV's, happy meals and I-phones (with a prozac chaser)... and whose populace knows not to ask too many questions. This has been... "Twits."

January 2, 2011, Sunday talking dog bear blogging

"Wow!" is the only available reaction to this movie review of "Yogi Bear" that Dean rightly suggested just might be "the greatest movie review ever."

Once in a while I go into a meta-level discussion about talking dogs, which, of course, are not something one sees that could be described as "normal" and hence are something that one would find "disturbing"... [as an aside now, let's talk about just why the name of this here blog is "the talking dog" which is, of course, based on the joke way down at the bottom of the home-page (go look if you want... then come back here!)... The title was chosen after a vote of the progenitors of this here blog, three of us from Barack Obama's college class (Columbia '83), m'self, "the Unseen Editor" and the Raving Atheist, met in a downtown Manhattan eatery just a few blocks from the WTC and just a few weeks before 9-11, and contemplated our group web-site... my first suggestion, "New York Jew Nature Walk" was vetoed, and the compromise candidate, based on my favorite joke, was selected. The rest is blogging history (of course, prior to 9-11, the neologism "blog" or "web-log" was not widely used.)] Notwithstanding that on this blog, it's always about me... back to our main theme for this post.

IO9's review has an elegance that can almost be described as a unified field theory for our current social order. On the canvas of what by all accounts is a movie that should never have been made (when I saw the previews, my own reaction was "just what the world needs-- a live action Yogi Bear!") and transforms it into a masterwork for the ages... the moviemakers, trapped as they are in our culture along with the rest of us, presumably had no idea of what they were accomplishing, until IO9 pulled it out as the defining metaphor of our social order. "Jellystone Park is District 9 (for Bears)" is more than just hilarious. It sums up all of the troubling "isms" that pervade our consciousness ("racism," "sexism," age-ism" not to mention "fascism" and "consumerism")... and it does it expeditiously and clearly.

IO9's observation is that while within the conceit of the movie, "talking bears" are very unusual but are not unheard of, nonetheless, there is more than just a bizarre indifference to Yogi's speech, and his clear intelligence as well as familiarity with both the ways of modern humanity and other brown bears, [poor Boo Boo's obvious intelligence seems a complete oversight to everyone] the universal reaction seems to be, rather than "Holy S***! A talking bear!" is, instead, the somewhat more troubling "you are disturbing our perceived order of things... why can't you go back to being like the other bears, to wit, not anthropomorphic (let alone sentient and articulate) and leave us alone to the neat little reality we have constructed for ourselves."

Anyway, the word is "alienation" (as in the fascinating film starring Mandy Patinkin from some time ago)... people are not merely alienated from talking bears like Yogi and Boo Boo, or from sentient aliens in "District 9," but of course, from each other, in the almost infinite varieties of apartheid we have created for ourselves (and, if you like, rather than concern ourselves with the more overt "bantustans" of the apartheid era in South Africa, how about "gated communities" or "exclusive suburbs," or for that matter, "private property" or "nation-states.") I know what you're thinking: ever thus. Man's inhumanity to man is evidently an essential part of being human, and the cruelty that can be inflicted once man forms into tribal groups is legend, and of course, dominates the [war-torn, with no small assist provided by your American tax dollars] planet to this very day... "what else is new?" might you be astutely saying.

Ah... but that's not the alienation I was going for. I'm not even going for Yogi's and Boo Boo's own (tragic) alienation from other brown bears (perhaps their choice of neck-and head attire has something to do with that). I'm going for man's ultimate alienation-- alienation from his own soul, his own inner essence... that it's not merely the casual passer-by (from whom Yogi is purloining a pic-a-nic basket) who wishes Yogi would go away, but people who should really be interested-- like the park ranger or the scientist--, even they wish Yogi [and Boo Boo] would just go "be like the other bears." We have lost the child-like wonder that made new things exciting... opportunities to learn more about them, and in doing so, learn about ourselves.

Instead, the quotidian "normalcy" of a world where bears don't talk, or at least, don't disturb us with their talking, is what is to be preserved at all cost. Kind of like our currently unsustainable, isolated suburban existences... no matter who must be killed, nor how much must be stolen, our vaunted life-styles are not subject to introspection or reflection of any kind... the assumptions on which we live our lives become irrebuttable presumptions. And hence, fundamental revelations about existence that cause us to question ANYTHING... are to be isolated... placed out of view so as not to infect the purity of essence of the hermetically sealed current arc of our existence. If you ask me... this is all our loss. People sit in funny, painful positions on hard floors for years for this kind of enlightenment and realization.

"Yogi," it would seem, capable of this kind of zen realization, is a most apt name for this "smarter than the average" bear.

January 1, 2011, Happy new year

I'll get right to it for this 2011, and today's amusingly one-tensive day (1/1/11): oil prices are going up, and hence, gasoline prices are going up. The Global Recession [TM] kept a lid on things for a while, but China ain't getting any less industrial, and it needs to buy oil, and it is. So some time during this calendar year, many if not most Americans can expect to pay over $4 per gallon for gasoline... which is only the beginning, as virtually all relevant commodities-- from heating fuel and electricity, to food, to all goods that have to be trucked somewhere (that's pretty much everything), will be more expensive, during a time when national non-super-rich income is flat or declining. All I can say is... if you haven't yet started growing some of your own food and getting around by means other than your private gasoline powered vehicle... this would be an excellent year to start.

I suppose I should trot out some New Year's resolutions (I'll-- somehow-- qualify for the Boston Marathon this year, I'll write that long overdue book, I'll quit smoking... oh wait... I don't smoke...)... but my view is there's nothing magical about these annual calendar turnovers: you either live your life in a way that you find fulfilling, or, like nearly all Americans, you do not; the calendar is simply a tool for an artificial partitioning of time (kind of the way fences and other assertions of private property rights are simply a tool for an artificial partioning of space).

And so, as we come to yet another calendar turnover... there's no point in telling you about my profound disappointment with politicians, headed by my college classmate Barack Obama now-- I do that the rest of the year!

I will continue to try to live more "consciously" via this blog; I'd like this year (and the rest of my time here, however long that is) to increase my own level of consciousness, and help you increase yours, in whatever way is available to do it. That's really the best we're going to do. What we have to recognize is that the dissonance we feel from a world in which people we don't like or respect nonetheless get to tell us how to live our lives, and are increasingly aggressive in doing so... stems from a fundamental lack of consciousness on someone's part-- including our own, if we don't realize that in most cases, we can simply chose not to submit to self-defeating conformity, be it of rampant consumerism, or belief in "American exceptionalism," or belief in the integrity of politicians or even that there is any relevant difference between "the two" political parties (and we can thank The One[TM] for disabusing all of us of that one, and in world record time), and we can, at least to some extent anyway, simply "opt out," and live our own lives on our own terms.

And so, I'll try to begin (for a change) a little optimistically, in this world racked as it is by economic and environmental unsustainability, creeping totalitarianism and despair and other not nice things. We're Americans. We're not stupid: after all, we generally don't vote, and we don't like soccer. That's something, at least. Now, to use our traditional versatility and "can-do" spirit (the kind that won World War II, and built the Pyramids the Great Wall the interstate highway system, but which has been missing for a while) to do something constructive... like... growing our own food and getting around without our own internal combustion engine...

Happy new year, everybody!