Thursday, March 22, 2007

Confessions of a C-Span Junkie - Two Callers Show the Way

Every morning I watch the news until the fake bonhomie and pressing stories of how to make the best fashion decisions or adopt a shelter animal get to me and I feel compelled to change over to C-Span's Washington Journal.

This morning, as I got ready, then left the house and started my usual drive around town, I heard interviews with Dem. Rep. Crowley, and a Texas Republican (blanking out on her name), and finally Rep. Maxine Waters. The call-ins were particularly uninspiring, and in the case of the Texas rep. no less than three callers in a row called in to express support for the war and to say that if "we don't fight them there they'll come over here", the Bush Administration's favorite reason for staying in Iraq forever.

Thankfully, the quality of call-ins changed radically as soon as Representative Waters came on board. The first caller was an older man who said he was sick of all the talk about "get them there or they'll come here" and recalled that back during the days of Vietnam this is exactly the justification used to keep the Vietnam war going. It was all about stopping communism "before it comes here" he pointed out. Then he said "how many terrorists are they talking about coming here? Fifteen, twenty? Where's their army, their air force, their navy? What heavy artillery are they bringing with them? I'm tired of hearing that we have to keep this war going on over there because a handful of terrorists might come over here." Wow. Great comments.

The very next caller stated that he is a Ronald Reagan Republican who believes in the principles of shared responsibility and shared sacrifice. He said "I make $450,000 a year. I have two children in college. In the past few years I've received tens of thousands of dollars in tax relief. I have not been required to sacrifice anything and I have sacrificed nothing. The only two times President Bush asked people like me to make a sacrifice for the war he asked me to go shopping." This caller said he is disgusted at the selfishness of an administration which calls upon only a small portion of the population to make a real sacrifice while refusing even to ask the wealthy to pay their fair share of taxes to make it possible. I think this same caller then commented on the massive government growth under Bush and flagrant violations of civil liberties.

It's callers like these who keep me listening to C-Span although many others cause me to yell at my radio as I drive, much to the consternation of passing drivers.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Jim Webb on the Incarceration Crisis

Cross-posted at Raising Kaine

This comes a little late, but a week ago Senator Jim Webb was on the ABC show This Week with George Stephanopolous and said something which took me by delighted surprise.

We've -- this is a chance to put a lot of issues on the table. One of the issues which never comes up in campaigns but it's an issue that's tearing this country apart is this whole notion of our criminal justice system, how many people are in our criminal justice system more -- I think we have two million people incarcerated in this country right now and that's an issue that's going to take two or three years to try to get to the bottom of and that's where I want to put my energy.

Yesterday I had the chance to thank Senator Webb in person for bringing up this virtually invisible issue at Brian Moran's pancake breakfast and told him how grateful I am as a criminal defense attorney to see a United States Senator calling attention to this enormous crisis. He immediately (and impressively) off the top of his head started reciting the facts and figures of incarceration and expressed dismay that an entire segment of our sociey, the young black male, is growing up incarcerated or under court supervision. He said "it's terrible that you can make a mistake when you're 18 years old and have it follow you around for the rest of your life. We have to change that." He added that this issue is as important as the war and economic fairness. For information on some of those facts and figures see this New York Times article Plight Deepens for Black Men, Studies Warn

Senator Webb mentioned an article he wrote for Parade Magazine in 1984 on the Japanese prison system. What We Can Learn From Japanese Prisons. While I would never endorse the Japanese practice of interrogating prisoners and having them sign confessions without a lawyer present, we could learn something from the Japanese sense of fairness and honesty in dealing with prisoners. An American former prisoner told Webb
he prefers Japan's legal system to ours. Why? "Because it's fair," he says. "They never tried to trick me, even in interrogation. They were always trustworthy. I could have got five years and they gave me two. The Americans who were helping them wanted me to get 20. The guards at Fuchu were hard, but they never messed with you unless there was a reason. You didn't have to worry about the other prisoners coming after you, either. And the laws of Japan are for everybody. That's the main thing. The laws in this country depend on how much you can pay. I'd rather live under a hard system that's fair."

Having represented dozens of people suckered by detectives and private security personnel into confessing, usually on the promise of release or of lenient treatment, I say a change would do the entire system good. The bitter fact is that the police lie. They lie all the time. Their lying is trained into them at the academy and accepted by the courts with nary an eyelash batted. They lie about the evidence; they lie about the statements of suspected co-defendants; they lie about the legal effect of a conviction; they lie about their power to affect the outcome of the case once it has gone to the prosecutor. Having been forbidden to use force on criminal suspects they resort instead to interrogation techniques designed to elicit confessions, but not necessarily the truth, and they have little understanding of just how their techniques can in fact result in injustice. It is the poor and uneducated who are most susceptible to these techniques, which can account at least in part for the feeling among many of my young, poor, uneducated, and minority clients that their involvement with the system is an inevitability, perhaps even a rite of passage. Moreover, there is a sense among them that the only difference between their dishonest approach to life and the government's is that the government has power and that is why cops can lie to get what they want while the suspect is punished.

On top of this is the acceptance within our society of brutality and rape of prisoners within our prison system. People talk of such things with a smile and a wink instead of as the appalling thing it is.

Added to this are the extraordinary rates of incarceration, often for decades, for crimes which often involve only dishonesty or non-violent drug offenses. I asked Senator Webb to look into the skewed results produced by mandatory minimum sentencing in which all the power rests with the prosecutor - who chooses what charges to bring against defendants in order to bring about particular dispositions - and reduces the judges to mere clerks imposing sentences based on worksheet calculations.

I asked the Senator to consider the problems of the mentally ill. Few services are available for the mentally ill and they are often incarcerated for crimes committed while in the grip of their delusions or their compulsions. Many of them have fallen through the cracks and are off their medications when they commit their crimes. Don't get me started on how much of this is related to unavailability of mental health treatment services even in so-called "good" health benefit plans. We are warehousing the mentally ill in our jails and prisons.

Last, in a zero-tolerance state like Virginia, where possession of any drug but marijuana is a felony, I have seen long time resident aliens and undocumented aliens either deported for their drug felonies (one ecstasy pill is all it takes for a felony conviction) or denied the ability to apply for citizenship because of their status as felons. Senator Webb replied that he hopes some day soon to hold hearings on this issue and I wished him success.

Looking back, I realize I piled a lot on his plate in a two minute conversation, but at least he's willing to pay attention to this crisis. Once again, thank goodness that Jim Webb won that election instead of George Allen.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Surge Scandal - Army Deploying Medically Unfit Troops

Cross-posted at Raising Kaine

Mark Benjamin of reports that the Army is deploying troops to Iraq who have well-documented unfitness for duty (read here).

Is it any surprise that commanders are feeling the pressure to activate as many of their troops as possible to meet the demands placed on them by this surge? Benjamin reports that

a unit of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division at Fort Benning, Ga., is deploying troops with serious injuries and other medical problems, including GIs who doctors have said are medically unfit for battle. Some are too injured to wear their body armor, according to medical records.
Soldiers reported being ordered to attend a meeting on February 15th at which
Master Sgt. Jenkins and 74 other soldiers with medical conditions from the 3rd Division's 3rd Brigade [met with] with the division surgeon and brigade surgeon. These are the men responsible for handling each soldier's "physical profile," an Army document that lists for commanders an injured soldier's physical limitations because of medical problems -- from being unable to fire a weapon to the inability to move and dive in three-to-five-second increments to avoid enemy fire. Jenkins and other soldiers claim that the division and brigade surgeons summarily downgraded soldiers' profiles, without even a medical exam, in order to deploy them to Iraq. It is a claim division officials deny.
Eight soldiers described being summoned to a perfunctory meeting with "Lt. Col. George Appenzeller, who had arrived from Fort Stewart, Ga., and Capt. Aaron K. Starbuck, brigade surgeon at Fort Benning."
In direct contradiction to the account given by the soldiers, Appenzeller said physical examinations were conducted and that he had a robust medical team there working with him, which is how they managed to complete 75 reviews in one day.
The article does not detail who besides Appenzeller and Starbuck were on this "robust medical team", but it is hard to imagine that a thorough review could have been done in less than a half hour at the least. At the rate of two soldiers per half hour for, say, a ten hour day, that still makes only twenty doable in one full day, doesn't it? Also, there's no information about whether this "robust medical team" contained more than one surgeon.
it is hard to imagine there is not some desperation behind the decision to deploy some of the sick soldiers. Master Sgt. Jenkins, 42, has a degenerative spine problem and a long scar down the back of his neck where three of his vertebrae were fused during surgery. He takes a cornucopia of potent pain pills. His medical records say he is "at significantly increased risk of re-injury during deployment where he will be wearing Kevlar, body armor and traveling through rough terrain." Late last year, those medical records show, a doctor recommended that Jenkins be referred to an Army board that handles retirements when injuries are permanent and severe.

A copy of Jenkins' profile written after that Feb. 15 meeting and signed by Capt. Starbuck, the brigade surgeon, shows a healthier soldier than the profile of Jenkins written by another doctor just late last year, though Jenkins says his condition is unchanged. Other soldiers' documents show the same pattern.

One female soldier with psychiatric issues and a spine problem has been in the Army for nearly 20 years. "My [health] is deteriorating," she said ... "My spine is separating. I can't carry gear." Her medical records include the note "unable to deploy overseas." Her status was also reviewed on Feb. 15. And she has been ordered to Iraq this week.

Other medically unfit soldiers selected to continue our mission of spreading democracy to Iraq include a captain whose back was "corkscrewed" in a Humvee accident there last year, and a female soldier who had part of her coccyx removed after an accident years ago and suffers from
degenerative disk disease and has two ruptured disks and a bulging disk in her back.
This soldier is now already in Iraq. Another soldier, whose military occupation is truck driver, developed sleep apnea after his return from his last deployment. As a result of his condition he now has narcolepsy and actually fell asleep during his interview for Salon. Nevertheless, he has also been ordered to Iraq, apparently to drive trucks.

These medically unfit soldiers are not only at extremely high risk for injury or death, but pose enormous risk to their healthier comrades. A medically unfit soldier is a burden to his or her unit. This situation should be investigated and the medically unfit personnel already sent overseas called back home before they or their units suffer any losses as a result of their conditions and appropriate sanctions handed out to those who have put them in this position.

UPDATE!! Have just discovered a diary on this very subject at dKos and posted by paddykraska. Visit paddy's diary here and check out her recommendations for ways to draw the attention of elected representatives to this issue. Everyone should be outraged.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Habeas Corpus - Why Congress Must Act

A great article from Aziz Huq, found on the Thomas Paine website, Habeas Corpus Can't Wait

Delay in the day of reckoning occurred not due to the detainees’ lawyers, but through a series of increasingly reckless maneuvers by the administration and its lawyers to avoid any review of the factual grounds for detention. First the government argued that Guantánamo was not part of the United States, and the president’s sweeping judgment that anyone picked up by the CIA from Bosnia to Pakistan via Thailand must be an “enemy combatant,” and therefore undeserving of any judicial solicitude. Then there were legislative efforts, in the form of the 2005 Detainee Treatment Act and the 2006 Military Commissions Act, to stymie review.

It is important again to emphasize that what the government has sought to avoid is not simple “release.” What the D.C. Circuit held last week was that the Military Commission Act stripped the courts of power even to hear the detainees’ pleas. And at best the Supreme Court will determine that the detainees have a right under the Constitution to be heard. None will necessarily be released. None will even immediately get a day in court. The best case scenario is that the mere prospect of review will push the government into moving forward with releases.

But this is not enough. To understand why, look at the section of Guantánamo called Camp Six. Camp Six is the “more comfortable” facility in which detainees who have been “cleared” are held. As James Cohen’s recent account for the National Law Journal makes clear, detainees in Camp Six are kept in cells with walls, floors and ceilings of solid metal for 22 hours a day, denied natural light or air and have virtually no contact with human beings other than guards. Conditions are worse than any Supermax facility in the United States.

Thus, it is not sufficient to ensure that the detainees have their day in court. Even those who the government concedes to be innocent of any terrorist involvement are still kept in brutalizing and inhumane conditions. A comprehensive solution to the Guantánamo problem requires much more. And, acting alone, the courts have only limited capacity to that end.

So Congress too must act, and there is much that it can do now. The court proceedings are no cause for delay. A comprehensive solution necessarily involves multiple branches of government, and the sooner legislators act, the sooner America can remove the moral stain of Guantánamo from its plate.

I can only concur.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

GMU! GMU! GMU! Lookout VCU, we're coming for you ...

Sorry, very excited right now after watching GMU dismantle ODU in the Semis at the CAA tournament. Great game, terrific defense, and great teamwork. Congratulations to Coach Larranaga and his team.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Iraqi Insurgency in a Nutshell - Or Why We're Up the Proverbial Creek

Kevin Berger of, recently interviewed Evan Kohlmann, founder of, "a clearinghouse of virtually every communiqué -- video, audio, Internet, printed -- issued by insurgent groups in Iraq." The Iraqi Insurgency for Beginners

Kohlmann has ... emerged with a clear-eyed view of who is fighting whom in Iraq and why. Given his insights, Kohlmann has been put to work as a consultant by the U.S. Department of Defense, the Department of Justice, the FBI and the CIA.

Some highlights:
You have to be careful when you say "insurgency." You have to distinguish between the Shiite militias and the actual insurgency, which is the Sunni groups. Most of the Shiite militia activity is not directed at the U.S., it's directed at the Sunnis. The Sunni insurgency, meanwhile, is directed at everyone -- the U.S., the Iraqi government, the militias.

The best way to divide it up is into three camps. You have Sunni nationalists, initially a large portion of the insurgency; the moderate Sunni Islamists, who use Islamic terminology and talk about establishing a government based on Sharia law; and you have the Salafists, like the group Al-Qaida in Iraq. To them, the fight is not about preserving the borders of Iraq, it's about revolution, about rebuilding something completely new on the basis of some kind of idyllic Muslim empire.
Kohlmann describes the evolution of the Iraqi insurgency from nationalist groups seeking to expel the invader from their midst to increasingly radicalized elements who feel they have no choice but to join forces with Al-Qaida.
Has the U.S. invasion, in fact, strengthened al-Qaida?

Definitely ... The hardcore true believers of al-Qaida at one time were probably 10 percent of the insurgent groups. Now they're 50 percent. Al-Qaida is growing in places it shouldn't. You have groups ... that have transitioned from being traditional insurgents to extremist ones. Or take a popular insurgent group called the 1920 Revolution Brigades. The very name of the group has a nationalist, not Islamist meaning. And yet ... people from the 1920 Revolution Brigade [are] now fighting alongside al-Qaida. The U.S. is failing miserably at containing the spread of al-Qaida.

Why are the more moderate Muslim groups siding with al-Qaida?

They have no choice. There's a group called the Iraqi Islamic Resistance Front ... They ... were also the subject of a flier that was being posted around in Ramadi. The flier was signed by al-Qaida and said the Front was working with the Iraqi Islamic Party, the Iraqi government, and so is no longer a legitimate group. The Front ... issued a statement saying, "We're not working with the government, we're with you guys ..." So there's a lot of pressure to work with al-Qaida or be targeted by it.
Kohlmann notes that those who work for the Iraqi government or for U.S. forces in Iraq are targeted by Al-Qaida and if those who work for anyone else are targeted by the Shiites.
Would al-Qaida have blown up the mosque if the U.S. wasn't in Iraq?

There wouldn't be an al-Qaida in Iraq if the U.S. wasn't there. The story of al-Qaida in Iraq begins in 2003. We handed al-Qaida exactly what it was looking for, a real war in the Middle East where it could lead the way. Al-Qaida is like a virus. It goes for weak victims and it uses conflicts to breed. Iraq gives al-Qaida a training ground, a place to put recruits in combat. If they come back from battle, you have people who have fought together, trained together, you have a military unit. As Richard Clarke has said, it was almost like Osama bin Laden was trying to vibe into George Bush the idea: "Invade Iraq, invade Iraq." This was an opportunity they seized with amazing alacrity. As brutal and terrifying as what they've done is, you have to acknowledge they capitalized on an opportunity that we handed them. (Emphasis added)
And as for democracy:
What happened to the U.S. message of democracy?

It totally failed. The idea of Western-style democracy in Iraq doesn't appeal to anyone. It was our own myth. We thought that if we get rid of Saddam Hussein, people would come together and celebrate and democracy would reign throughout the Middle East. The people who thought that up are people who think Iraq is like Texas ... To Iraqis, tribal affiliations, religion and family mean a lot more than saying, "I'm from Iraq." You know we're doing a bad job of communicating our own message when we're losing the propaganda war to people who cut other people's heads off on camera. Think about it: People in one of the most Westernized countries in the Middle East would rather trust al-Qaida than the United States. That's a terrible sign of things to come.
Of course, now the U.S. is fighting people on all sides of the partisan divide in Iraq.
The U.S. is fighting both the insurgency and Shiite militias, right?

Right. But the Shiites aren't a simple group either. They have divided themselves into two factions: the pro-Arab Shiites who are Iraqi nationalists and the pro-Iranian Shiites. There have been some incidences involving the Shiite Mahdi Army and the U.S. and British military. But the scope of activity between the Mahdi Army and the U.S. military is minute. The militias pose less of a day-to-day insurgent problem and more of a problem in the way they have infiltrated the Iraqi police force and other Iraqi government services, particularly the Interior Ministry, and how they arranging the murder of Sunnis through those agencies. They are creating instability, and that's the main reason we're going after them. It's also the No. 1 reason why Sunnis fight and are upset: The Shiite militias have essentially taken over the law enforcement and are using it to murder Sunnis.

We invaded Iraq to rectify crimes by Saddam Hussein against the Shiites, right? We wanted to bring him to justice. What the Sunni groups are saying is, "How come there's no justice to people who are drilling holes in people heads right now? Never mind 20 years ago." ... So the Sunnis are saying to the U.S. "... we're going to take matters into our own hands." And the Shiites are saying the same thing. They're saying, "You can't protect us from al-Qaida's suicide bombers. Your idea of strengthening security is to crack down on the Mahdi Army, who are the only ones preventing suicide bombers from coming into Sadr City. Why should we trust you? We should rely on ourselves. You can't trust anyone but your own people."
Kohlmann dismisses the Administration's ratcheting up of hostilities toward Iran for its alleged complicity in the deaths of 170 American servicemen while Saudi Arabia is not even criticized for its support of the insurgents
Money and weapons and personnel have been coming across the Saudi and Syrian borders for four years and have been directly aiding Sunni insurgents, who are responsible for the lion's share of U.S. casualties. It's the height of hypocrisy to attack Iran and not criticize Saudi Arabia ... if you want to know who is responsible for the fact that al-Qaida is succeeding in Iraq, it's Saudi Arabia. The most common nationality of foreign insurgents in Iraq has been Saudis. Where do you think all the money comes from to pay for these operations? It's from Saudi donors. I'm not blaming this necessarily on the Saudi government. But they have made some very provocative statements about the idea that if the U.S. withdraws from Iraq, they're going to actively aid Sunnis in their war against Shiites. If we're going to put pressure on Iraq's neighbors, let's put pressure on all of Iraq neighbors to stop contributing to the violence.

Kohlmann is opposed to withdrawal from Iraq due to his fear that it may become a situation akin to Rwanda, and he describes the Iraqi government as a "joke".
So what's the solution?

We have to give people a reason to stop supporting al-Qaida. And the only way to do that is to punish the people who are harming them. We have to show that democratic forces can also hold up justice. Right now, democracy for Iraqis amounts to Shiites in control of the police force and running everything. The things that might convince Sunnis to move back in the other direction would be a real step at trying to reform the Iraqi police force, the Interior Ministry, and try and bring some of the individuals in those places, which have committed gross crimes, including crimes on the scale of Saddam Hussein, to justice.

Does the Bush administration have the smarts to figure that out?

I'm not sure they do. I thought perhaps, in invading Iraq, they had some long-term view that nobody else could see. But that hope faded very quickly. The Bush administration didn't reach out to anyone credible when they were asking about, for instance, the connections between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein. Anybody with any real knowledge of the region would have told them there are no connections between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida. The only people who believed that nonsense were lunatics.

Kohlmann's bleak assessment concludes that the "best solution is not to have invaded at all." There are no good options in Iraq, just some options which may be worse than others, and each with its own disadvantages. General Odom is on record as saying that we should leave Iraq because it would remove us as the irritant driving the Iraqi nationalists and perhaps force the warring parties to step back and decide whether they want to continue their downward spiral into mass murder or come to some agreement with each other.

Any solution here would have to include the countries in the region which are using Iraq as their proxy for political jockeying, and even more clear is that the surge will not work. This problem cannot be solved by military force but by diplomatic pressure on neighboring countries and direct pressure on the corrupt and Shiite dominated Iraqi government, police, and Interior Ministry.