Jan 062012
 

 

On December 31st, President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). A lot has been said and written about this “indefinite detention” act and whether it applies to Americans on American soil. I’m not going to add to that debate. I have read various opinions concerning this bill ranging from “due process is dead” to “no big deal, they’re just formalizing what the government has been doing since 9/11” and I find myself more on the side of the “due process is dead” crowd.

I have to admit, however,  that I didn’t see this coming. I have been seriously concerned about the increasingly tyrannical turn that the American government has taken since 9/11 and have written several posts about it. But this act, coupled with previous ones, and with  judicial rulings on limits (or not) to government surveillance techniques and several proposed new laws (for example, SPOA and PIPA), seem to have moved me squarely into the tin-foil hat, conspiracy nut crowd.

What I see coming together is a large expansion of government power into what could ultimately move toward a totalitarian regime. Consider some of the following:

The 9/11 attack and the passage of the Patriot Act lead to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. (Does it bother anyone else that the name “Homeland” sounds so much like “Fatherland” that other notorious regimes used to refer to their country?) The DHS gathered together many smaller agencies under one banner, allowing more effective control by a smaller group of people.

In addition to existing agencies, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was also created under DHS. Notice that TSA is not named the “Aviation Security Administration”. On its website, the TSA says that has “responsibility for security for all modes of transportation” (emphasis mine). After making commercial airplane travel a completely miserable experience, TSA VIPR (Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response) teams have now moved on to other modes of transportation.The VIPR teams have expanded to trains (including at least one incident where passengers were searched after completing their journey and leaving the train) and buses. VIPR teams have also been conducting truck searches and, in  November of 2011, conducted a pilot program in Tennessee. This pilot program was not based on any specific threat but was conducted to provide “a visible deterrence and detection security presence across Tennessee.” Other states are following.

Consider also the case with another part of DHS, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the US Border Patrol. ICE has partnered with local law enforcement to enforce immigration laws, often resulting in what critics claim are instances of racial profiling. This cooperation has lead to a combining of federal and local law enforcement in a way not seen before.

The Border Patrol, on the other hand, has declared the border inspection zone with which they are concerned to include from the nation’s borders to 100 miles inland. In some cases, the Border Patrol will even expand that zone if the area in question is the “functional equivalent” of a border. Customs may also “confiscate and examine” any electronic devices a traveler may have when he or she crosses the border. There is no necessity for probable cause and they (Customs) can look for evidence of any possible crime. They can examine and copy the hard drive contents.

Something that few people took notice of was the John Warner Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2007, signed by President Bush on October 17, 2006, which gives the president the power to employ the armed forces to restore public order in any state of the United States. This further weakens the Posse Comitatus Act (pass by Congress on June 16, 1878) which prohibits most members of the federal uniformed services from exercising state law enforcement powers that maintain “law and order” on non-federal property. It allows the president to, for example, use the National Guard from state A to work in state B, in law enforcement, regardless of the wishes of the respective state governors (to whom the National Guard ostensibly reports).

And now, since NDAA has declared the whole world a war zone, anyone can be declared an enemy combatant and held without charges or access to a lawyer indefinitely. (Until the war is over? When will the “War on Terror” be over? How long has the “War on Drugs” been going on?)

So here’s what I missed. With the Patriot Act, legalized unfettered government surveillance, the ability to stop, search and possibly arrest you without charges, control over travel (by whatever means), and, with SOPA and PIPA, control over the internet worthy of a country such as Iran or China, the government is perfectly positioned to stop any potential uprising by an angered populace. No Jeffersonian revolution for the US.

I sure hope I’m a hopelessly out-of-touch conspiracy nut, because I fear for our democracy.

EDIT: 01/08/2012—Added section on the Posse Comitatus Act and the legislation which made that act moot.

 Posted by at 5:45 pm
Oct 302011
 

 

Backyard Fountain Moss

A while back, the White House announced and activated an interesting addition to their website called “We the People“. The URL takes you to a page that states

Welcome to We the People on WhiteHouse.gov. This tool provides you with a new way to petition the Obama Administration to take action on a range of important issues facing our country. If a petition gets enough support, White House staff will review it, ensure it’s sent to the appropriate policy experts, and issue an official response.

There have been a number of petitions proposed on the website and I signed several of them. The ones I signed included Abolish the TSA, and use its monstrous budget to fund more sophisticated, less intrusive counter-terrorism intelligence., End the destructive, wasteful and counterproductive “War on Drugs”, Restore democracy by ending corporate personhood., Edit the Pledge of Allegiance to remove the phrase ‘Under God.’, Legalize Marijuana, and several others.

The White house has said that they will respond to petitions gathering enough support (that is, signatures).

Well, I have just received my first two official responses from the White House. The first was concerning “Edit the Pledge of Allegiance to remove the phrase ‘Under God.’.” The response, reproduced in its entirety was:

 Religion in the Public Square
By Joshua DuBois, Executive Director of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships

Thank you for signing the petition “Edit the Pledge of Allegiance to remove the phrase ‘Under God.’” We appreciate your participation in the We the People platform on WhiteHouse.gov.

The separation of church and state outlined in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution is an important founding principle of our nation. Our nation’s Bill of Rights guarantees not only that the government cannot establish an official religion, but also guarantees citizens’ rights to practice the religion of their choosing or no religion at all.

Throughout our history, people of all faiths – as well as secular Americans – have played an important role in public life. And a robust dialogue about the role of religion in public life is an important part of our public discourse.

While the President strongly supports every American’s right to religious freedom and the separation of church and state, that does not mean there’s no role for religion in the public square.

When he was a Senator from Illinois, President Obama gave a keynote address at the Call to Renewal conference where he spoke about the important role religion plays in politics and in public life.

A sense of proportion should also guide those who police the boundaries between church and state. Not every mention of God in public is a breach to the wall of separation – context matters.
That’s why President Obama supports the use of the words “under God” in our Pledge of Allegiance and “In God we Trust” on our currency. These phrases represent the important role religion plays in American public life, while we continue to recognize and protect the rights of secular Americans. As the President said in his inaugural address, “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers.” We’re proud of that heritage, and the strength it brings to our great country.

So there it is. The White House policy expert on religion in the public sphere is the Executive Director of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. This is the guy responsible for overseeing Obama’s expanded version of Bush’s faith-based initiatives. It’s clear that the White House is not going to lead any kind of change in this area regardless of the fact that a large number of people want to see such a change.

The second response I got was concerning the legalization of marijuana. This was one of the most voted for petitions on the web site. The response came from Gil Kerlikowske, Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, as follows:

What We Have to Say About Legalizing Marijuana

By Gil Kerlikowske, Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy

When the President took office, he directed all of his policymakers to develop policies based on science and research, not ideology or politics. So our concern about marijuana is based on what the science tells us about the drug’s effects.

According to scientists at the National Institutes of Health- the world’s largest source of drug abuse research – marijuana use is associated with addiction, respiratory disease, and cognitive impairment. We know from an array of treatment admission information and Federal data that marijuana use is a significant source for voluntary drug treatment admissions and visits to emergency rooms. Studies also reveal that marijuana potency has almost tripled over the past 20 years, raising serious concerns about what this means for public health – especially among young people who use the drug because research shows their brains continue to develop well into their 20’s. Simply put, it is not a benign drug.

Like many, we are interested in the potential marijuana may have in providing relief to individuals diagnosed with certain serious illnesses. That is why we ardently support ongoing research into determining what components of the marijuana plant can be used as medicine. To date, however, neither the FDA nor the Institute of Medicine have found smoked marijuana to meet the modern standard for safe or effective medicine for any condition.

As a former police chief, I recognize we are not going to arrest our way out of the problem. We also recognize that legalizing marijuana would not provide the answer to any of the health, social, youth education, criminal justice, and community quality of life challenges associated with drug use.

That is why the President’s National Drug Control Strategy is balanced and comprehensive, emphasizing prevention and treatment while at the same time supporting innovative law enforcement efforts that protect public safety and disrupt the supply of drugs entering our communities. Preventing drug use is the most cost-effective way to reduce drug use and its consequences in America. And, as we’ve seen in our work through community coalitions across the country, this approach works in making communities healthier and safer. We’re also focused on expanding access to drug treatment for addicts. Treatment works. In fact, millions of Americans are in successful recovery for drug and alcoholism today. And through our work with innovative drug courts across the Nation, we are improving our criminal justice system to divert non-violent offenders into treatment.

Our commitment to a balanced approach to drug control is real. This last fiscal year alone, the Federal Government spent over $10 billion on drug education and treatment programs compared to just over $9 billion on drug related law enforcement in the U.S.

Thank you for making your voice heard. I encourage you to take a moment to read about the President’s approach to drug control to learn more.

This sounded so much like “politicianspeak” that I did a simple exercise. I copied the text and substituted the word “alcohol” for the words “marijuana” and “drug” and ended up with the following:

When the President took office, he directed all of his policymakers to develop policies based on science and research, not ideology or politics. So our concern about alcohol is based on what the science tells us about alcohol’s effects.

According to scientists at the National Institutes of Health- the world’s largest source of alcohol abuse research – alcohol use is associated with addiction, respiratory disease, and cognitive impairment. We know from an array of treatment admission information and Federal data that alcohol use is a significant source for voluntary alcohol treatment admissions and visits to emergency rooms. Studies also reveal that alcohol potency has almost tripled over the past 20 years, raising serious concerns about what this means for public health – especially among young people who use the alcohol because research shows their brains continue to develop well into their 20’s. Simply put, it is not a benign alcohol.

Like many, we are interested in the potential alcohol may have in providing relief to individuals diagnosed with certain serious illnesses. That is why we ardently support ongoing research into determining what components of the alcohol plant can be used as medicine. To date, however, neither the FDA nor the Institute of Medicine have found smoked alcohol to meet the modern standard for safe or effective medicine for any condition.

As a former police chief, I recognize we are not going to arrest our way out of the problem. We also recognize that legalizing alcohol would not provide the answer to any of the health, social, youth education, criminal justice, and community quality of life challenges associated with alcohol use.

That is why the President’s National Alcohol Control Strategy is balanced and comprehensive, emphasizing prevention and treatment while at the same time supporting innovative law enforcement efforts that protect public safety and disrupt the supply of alcohol entering our communities. Preventing alcohol use is the most cost-effective way to reduce alcohol use and its consequences in America. And, as we’ve seen in our work through community coalitions across the country, this approach works in making communities healthier and safer. We’re also focused on expanding access to alcohol treatment for addicts. Treatment works. In fact, millions of Americans are in successful recovery for alcohol and alcoholism today. And through our work with innovative alcohol courts across the Nation, we are improving our criminal justice system to divert non-violent offenders into treatment.

Our commitment to a balanced approach to alcohol control is real. This last fiscal year alone, the Federal Government spent over $10 billion on alcohol education and treatment programs compared to just over $9 billion on alcohol related law enforcement in the U.S.

Thank you for making your voice heard. I encourage you to take a moment to read about the President’s approach to alcohol control to learn more.

The “alcohol” version of this statement (with only minor revisions-who ever heard of smoked alcohol and alcohol plants?) could have been made in support of the 18th amendment to the constitution banning the sale, manufacture and transportation of alcohol in the United States. As you may remember, Prohibition was a dismal failure leading to increased crime and crime syndicates as well as a general decline in societal health (sound much like what the “war on drugs” has caused?)

I especially noted in the original “legalize marijuana” response the two assertions (both totally unsupported by any kind of facts) that “…we are not going to arrest our way out of the problem…” and “We also recognize that legalizing marijuana would not provide the answer to any of the health, social, youth education, criminal justice, and community quality of life challenges associated with drug use.” He (the author, Gil Kerlikowske) “knows” this because he’s a former police chief. How many logical fallacies can you count in just that one paragraph? “Arresting our way out of the problem seems to be the preferred approach, doesn’t it?

Here’s the NORML response to the White House statement that addresses it in detail.

Anyway, rather than rehash why these two responses fail and how the pat responses don’t satisfy, let me just point out that the avowed purpose of the website is that it “…provides you with a new way to petition the Obama Administration to take action on a range of important issues facing our country.” The two responses I have received to date demonstrate very clearly that the Obama Administration is not going to take any action in response to these two petitions, but instead is just going to stay the course.

I almost prefer that they not pretend to listen to us. Then I know for sure they are not working to make any improvements. Pretending to listen only raises hopes that things will get better, only to dash those hopes when you realize that nothing is going to change.

 Posted by at 12:24 pm
Oct 092011
 

Red Rocks State Park, Nevada

There have been, in the United States, groups of people who are lawbreakers and, when someone becomes a perceived danger to the leaders of the group, that someone somehow manages to wind up dead. These groups go by various names including gangs, “the mob”, and organized crime. When such people can be shown to have caused, either by direct action or by enticing others to action, the death of people, they are prosecuted by the legal system for murder.

There have been, in the world over the ages, other groups of people who have attained positions of power and, when someone becomes a perceived danger to the leaders of the group, that someone somehow manages to wind up dead. These people have been monarchs, dictators, war lords, tribal leaders or despots. These groups has never been prosecuted by their own societies, but they have been overthrown by intrigue, war or insurrection. In other cases, the leaders have simply died before any outside agent has been able to bring them to justice.

The United States has long had various bans on killing done outside the judicial system. There are executive orders (Executive Order 11905 signed Feburary 18, 1976 by Gerald Ford banning political assassinations, Executive Order 12036 signed January 24, 1978 by Jimmy Carter further banning indirect US involvement in assassinations and Executive Order 12333 signed December 4, 1981 by Ronald Reagan reiterating the banning of US intelligence agencies carrying out assassinations.), although executive orders can and have been revised and revoked. There are laws (U.S. Code Title 18, Part I, Chapter 51, Paragraph 1119 provides for the punishment of a US citizen who kills another US citizen on foreign soil). There is the Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution which states that the government may not deprive a person of life “without due process of law”. Ever since its founding, the United States has long considered itself a nation governed by the “Rule of Law” rather than by the whim of the leader. This phrase is often used by politicians and and is often summarized with the phrase that “no person is above the law”, including most specifically the leaders themselves. It further implies that “no one can be punished by the state except for a breach of the law and that no one can be convicted of breaching the law except in the manner set forth by the law itself.

There is an October 5th post at businessinsider.com by Dr. John Corbin titled “End of Rule of Law in the United States” that is very thought provoking, particularly in the context just defined. In his article, Dr. Corbin, who now lives in Chile, makes a pretty good case for asserting that the United States has, through its actions, ended the rule of law in this country. His comments mostly have to do with the killing, ordered by President Obama on September 30, 2011, of Anwar Awlaki and Samir Khan. Both Awlaki and Khan were killed by drone strikes, on foreign soil. Neither of the two men had been convicted of any crime in any court of law. Both were American citizens. So, because of the purported activities of the two men which may have constituted treason or other illegal acts, rather than subjecting them to arrest and trial, our elected leaders instead decided to simply take them out, without a trial, without hearings and without public debate. While in this case arrest could have been problematic, this is extraordinary and should make all Americans fear that they may someday cross the boundary where the government thinks they have become inconvenient.

There is some evidence that this was a group decision. An October 6th article by Glenn Greenwald at salon.com titled “Execution by secret WH committee” explored the existence of a secret panel, operating out of the White House, which “is empowered to place American citizens on a list to be killed by the CIA, which (by some process nobody knows) eventually makes its way to the President, who is the final Decider.” The fact that there is a committee does little to diminish the far-reaching implications of this action. As Thomas Jefferson said,

The concentrating [of powers] in the same hands is precisely the definition of despotic government. It will be no alleviation that these powers will be exercised by a plurality of hands, and not by a single one.

A New York Times article published October 8, 2011 written by Charlie Savage titled “Secret U.S. Memo Made Legal Case to Kill a Citizen” describes a document that the Obama administration used to justify this killing of an American citizen without a trial. This legal opinion seeks to justify what has, until now, been an illegal, unconstitutional act. Of course, the government will not release the document and most certainly will cite the state secrets privilege to prevent its release. It may be the case that the legal opinion is solid and will hold up under scrutiny by legal scholars and experts outside the administration. But we may never know, if the document is not released.

The Council of Europe (An international organization in Strasbourg which comprises 47 countries of Europe. It was set up to promote democracy and protect human rights and the rule of law in Europe.) has issued a draft resolution objecting strongly to the increasing use of the state secrets privilege which states

Security and intelligence services, the need for which cannot be put into doubt, must nonetheless not become a “state within the state”, exempted from accountability for their actions. Such lack of accountability leads to a dangerous culture of impunity, which undermines the very foundations of democratic institutions.

In some countries, in particular the United States, the notion of state secrecy is used to shield agents of the executive from prosecution for serious criminal offences such as abduction and torture, or to stop victims from suing for compensation.

But it considers that information concerning the responsibility of state agents who have committed serious human rights violations, such as murder, enforced disappearance, torture or abduction, should not be subject to secrecy provisions. Such information should not be shielded from judicial or parliamentary scrutiny under the guise of “state secrecy”.

These actions by the US government should engender outrage on the part of its citizens. It is part and parcel of the host of changes to the way the government operates that have come about since the attack of September 11, 2001. Some of the changes have a basis in law (flawed as those laws may be), others have come about through Executive Orders or simply by someone in the executive branch deciding that they wanted to accomplish some specific objective. The Justice department and other legal aides have abetted the actions by providing legal opinions allowing such actions. This trend started in the Bush administration, but in continues under President Obama. We should demand more of our government. We are slipping into despotism. As Daniel Webster said,

Whatever government is not a government of laws, is a despotism, let it be called what they may.

The War on Terror and the attendant effort to instill fear in the minds of the public have had a devastating effect on this country. James Madison saw this 200 years ago,

If Tyranny and Oppression come to this land, it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy.

We as a people need to rise up and demand the undoing of the ill-conceived practices instituted under the mantle of the War on Terror. We need to demand that those responsible for illegal and unconstitutional acts be held responsible. We need to insist that the legal system do its job before we are left with a hollow Constitution and a despotic, non-democratic, non-representational government. I hope it’s not too late.

Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.
Frederick Douglass

 Posted by at 1:03 pm
Sep 232011
 

Sequoia National Park

When the Tea Partiers were getting all upset about the health care plan, one of their rallying cries was “We want our country back!” The refrain was taken up by birthers with an unstated, but rather obvious, at least to me, tinge of racism. Giving the phrase its most charitable interpretation, people who support the tea party will say that the slogan is about out of control government: too much spending, too much regulation, just too much government.

That’s not what I mean when I say I want my country back. The country I want back is one that may have never existed, or at least, one that only partially existed, but is no more.

The country I want back seems to have started disappearing about 30 years ago, around the time Ronald Reagan was President.

The country I want back is the one where each succeeding generation could look forward to doing better financially than their parents; having more to spend, enjoying more leisure time. I’m old enough to remember when a married couple could prosper in the middle class on a single wage-earner’s income. In most cases, that meant the husband had a paying job outside the home and the wife worked in the home, raising the kids and running the household. How many families could do that today? Do you know anyone who could afford that?

The country I want back is the one where we didn’t have a homeless problem, where the homeless were mostly “hobos’ or men who chose to live free of the constraints of society.

The country I want back is one where young kids felt safe playing outside, often far away from parents, sometimes even after dark when hide and seek was the most fun. How many parents would let their kids do that today?

The country I want back is one where people were free to go where they wanted and do what they wanted without intrusive government surveillance of their every action. Where there were no traffic cameras, no surveillance cameras.

The country I want back is one where people could arrive at the airport 15 minutes before the flight left and simply board the aircraft without having to wait in line for a security check, endure a virtual strip search by an X-ray machine or a “pat-down” search that could be properly classified as sexual molestation. One where train trips and car trips could be entirely without hassle or without anyone from the government stopping you and asking whether you are a citizen.

The country I want back is one where merchants aren’t able to track your every purchase through the use of credit card receipts and “preferred customer” cards. Where on-line data aggregators can’t keep track of every move you make, every web search you do, every site you visit and then sell that data on you to anyone that wants it without any oversight. Where cell phone companies can track every place you have been and then willingly and without pressure give that information to government authorities.

The country I want back is one where the healthcare insurance industry is not controlled by a handful of companies that effectively ration the healthcare in the country by the decisions they make concerning coverage and what they will and won’t pay for; where the doctors and patients don’t have to fight with the insurance companies to get the treatments that the doctor and patient agree are most effective.

The country I want back is one where, although they disagreed on many things, the two major parties could work together and actually accomplish things of great import for the good of the country, things like major infrastructure investments such as the Tennessee Valley Authority, the  interstate highway system, Hoover dam. Where social advances such as women’s suffrage, voting rights and racial equality could be recognized, sometimes after long debate, as worthy accomplishments and worth the effort it takes to enact them.

The country I want back is the one where the educational system was recognized as one of the best in the world and prepared generations for competition in the world they were entering. I want the country where the most serious disciplinary problems facing school teachers were talking and chewing gum in class and teachers were free to concentrate on teaching.

The country I want back is one where we were generally at the head of the pack of all countries in a whole host of measures including education, infrastructure, science, manufacturing and health care instead of ranking much lower, in some cases towards the bottom, in all of these categories.

The country I want back is one which could dream of big things, like putting a man on the moon, and then have the means to actually achieve it.

As I said before, this country probably never existed as I envision it. But all of the things I want did exist at one time or another. The common saying is “9/11 changed everything”, but the effect I’m describing goes back much further than that. And the causes are many. In education, the lack of well planned and executed tests of new educational approaches and the willingness of the educational establishment to try out untested hypotheses have contributed to the decline. But so have the rise of families with two parents working outside the home, the push for “back to basics” education, the rise of illicit drugs aided by the ill-conceived “war on drugs”, struggles to measure progress based on standardized tests and a host of other things.

The decline in manufacturing has resulted from companies’ increased emphasis on short term profitability, outsourced jobs, globalization, and increased competition from emerging economies. The decline in infrastructure is a result of “benign neglect” as Nixon said in another context and the increasing polarization and politicization of government.

While we still have a robust science community, there are pressures here too. Other countries have gained on us, particularly in areas where asinine religious objections have stymied basic research for years (for example, stem cell research). The increasing influence of religion in government has resulted in a de-emphasis and distrust of science. The government has also seemed to lose a good deal of interest in funding basic research in response to the overblown deficit crisis.

We ourselves have contributed to making this not the country I want back, primarily through our desire for the latest new gadgets, expansive use of the internet and other technology in which we have given up the expectation of privacy for the convenience that such technological improvements provide us. I often wonder if it is worth it or if we realize what we have given up.

In spite of the causes, the country I want back is the one where we can say “We’re number one!’ and actually be correct. We were there once, and I don’t know if we can be again, but I believe we can’t get there if we don’t try. We have to try.

 Posted by at 4:40 pm