Archive for the ‘corruption’ Category

Utah Legislature and Fair Boundaries

September 16, 2009

A couple of years ago I wrote a post on the gerrymandering going on in Utah, and the need to reform the districting process to focus on maintaining the integrity of communities and on eliminating the overwhelming advantage of incumbents. This year a movement has arisen to attempt just that. Fair Boundaries is promoting a citizens initiative to establish an independent, non-partisan commission to offer districting plans with those goals in mind.

While there has been some fairly high-profile bi-partisan support (including from former Representative Jim Hansen, with whom I rarely agree), the response of Republicans in the legislature has been less than enthusiastic. They deliberately ignored the implications of the initiative and assumed two redundant redistricting processes to inflate the published cost of the initiative. Utah House Speaker Dave Clark has staunchly opposed the initiative, complaining that the initiative would invite lawsuits (from whom and on what grounds, Speaker Clark appears to be less forthcoming), and assuring Utahns that the current redistricting process “embraces the system of checks and balances,” —seemingly ignoring the fact that the very nature of gerrymandering insulates incumbents from checks. When a poll on his own website went in favor of the initiative, it mysteriously disappeared. And most recently, Republican legislators attending “Conservative Day” at the University of Utah forced organizers to eject a Fair Boundaries booth staffed by a former Huntsman intern.

One of the central traits of conservatism is a healthy skepticism of government. It is the very nature of government to seek to protect and expand its power, conservative theory correctly asserts. Government should therefore be viewed cautiously. It should be structured in such a way as to minimize the potential for any given government entities to abuse government power, and to subject government entities to accountability.

Except, these conservative government officials seem to believe, when it comes to them. We should just trust them, because they are above reproach. To consider any checks to potential abuse is to insult their integrity.

Just as they did when they attempted to install the school voucher system against the wishes of the citizens of Utah, these Republican legislative leaders show a disregard for the democratic process and their status as representatives of the people.

No system of districting can be perfect. But it is reasonable to try to create a check on the power of the legislature and their incumbents with an independent commission. On such an important issue—and one in which the legislature has such a clear conflict of interest—the public should be able to decide. If you are a registered Utah voter, please go to Fair Boundaries, find out where you can sign the petition*, and if possible, help collect the signatures necessary to put this initiative on the ballot in 2010.

*I currently have a petition available for signatures.

Obama: Let the Sunlight In!

August 5, 2009

It appears to be an inherent risk of the presidential office that its occupants prefer to avoid public accountability for their actions. President Eisenhower coined the term “executive privilege” to avoid revealing government information to Congress and the public. Bill Moyers recalled that President Johnson so despised the ramifications of the Freedom of Information Act that “LBJ had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the signing ceremony,” and threatened a pocket veto. Nixon was notoriously secretive, often deliberately keeping members of his administration out of the loop, and vigorously opposed the publication of the Pentagon Papers and the release of the white house papers and recordings. The policy of the Reagan administration was to classify information at the highest level possible (a reversal of Carter’s policy to classify information as low as possible). Reagan also issued Executive Order 12356, increasing the longevity of information classification, and advocated the Freedom of Information Reform Act of 1986, restricting the original FOIA. While some administrations have been more forthcoming than those—the Carter and Clinton administrations both acknowledged to have taken steps towards greater transparency and access—Phillip Melanson notes in Secrecy Wars: National Security, Privacy, and the Publics Right to Know that virtually all presidential administrations have resisted full compliance with the FOIA and public accountability.

The recent Bush administrations hardly broke that mold. Denying the public information on key meetings on energy policy in which energy industry executives participated; covering up executive actions regarding detention, torture, and public wiretapping; attempting to keep presidential records private indefinitely with Executive Order 13233; administration memoranda encouraging bureaucratic obstruction to confound FOIA requests; a vice president who insisted he was exempt from accountability because he supposedly outside all three branches of government: They seemed to have a absolute passion for secrecy (excepting, of course, when it came to releasing classified identities for political purposes)—not particularly surprising given the illicit nature of their agenda.

Obama made quite a point of transparency during his presidential campaign, as a contrast to the Bush administration. Early in his administration Obama issued a memorandum about “transparency, public participation, and collaboration.” During his short term in office, is he on track to produce the change he promised?

Early results are not encouraging. I suppose one might forgive the administration for declining to release the FBI interview with Dick Cheney regarding the Valerie Plame incident. While I’d prefer to see the key members of the previous administration held to full account for their misdeeds, perhaps Obama is sincerely trying to avoid the appearance of partisanship by protecting Cheney from “embarrassment,” or believes that a Gerald Ford strategy of letting bygones be bygones and moving on is the best way for the nation to get over the past eight years.

But the Obama administration has also adopted the Bush administration’s policy on secret wiretapping. In a strange case of deja vu, Obama is refusing to release information on administration an energy policy meeting with coal executives. And most recently, he has denied an FOIA request for information related to meetings with health care industry executives. Obama’s repeated rebuff of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and his general reticence to live up to his memorandum show a distressing lack of concern or understanding for the change we needed.

Whether you take Obama to be the messiah or a commie-muslim-criminal mastermind is irrelevant. Government secrecy is dangerous to the nation irrespective of which party or what person is in power. Sunlight is the best protection against even the potential for corruption. Our democratic republic can only function effectively to the extent that the public has access to the data necessary to make informed judgments and hold our government representatives accountable. If Obama thinks we should simply trust him because of his integrity and of his commitment to change, then he is not the agent of change he claims to be.

The Crandall Canyon Disaster and Market “self-correction”

April 1, 2008

In responding to my last post “The Triangle Waistshirt Fire,” one commentor assured me that the market is self-correcting and capable of protecting workers and the public. He raised the example of the Crandall Canyon mine disaster, suggesting that the the owner (Robert Murray) will somehow get his just desserts in the end. Perhaps he will. No mention was made of how the market will play a role in this, but no matter.

Ironically, today The Salt Lake Tribune reported on the status of the disaster fallout.

Crandall Canyon widow Wendy Black minced no words last September when she told a Senate committee: “It would have taken just one MSHA man doing his job to have saved my husband’s life.”

Her bitterness over the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration’s perceived failure to enforce laws protecting miners was reinforced Monday by an internal Labor Department audit that found local, regional and national deficiencies in MSHA’s handling of Crandall Canyon’s roof control plan (“Crandall: Labor audit confirms families’ fears”).

Sounds like any penalty or market “self correction” consequences Murray pays will be rather cold comfort to widows and fatherless children—not to mention the dead themselves.

It is worth noting that the Triangle Shirtwaist Company owners suffered no consequences for their disregard for the lives of their workers. With few prior regulations fully spelling out their responsibilities, they got off scott free. In fact, with the fire insurance payments, they made a tidy profit from the deaths of almost 150 people. Justice is supposed to be blind, but the illustrious market was apparently also deaf to the cries of the victims.

Also inspired by the Tribune’s article, Oldenburg of 3rd Avenue has written a fine post about the essential need not only for regulation, but for government to be committed to enforcing the regulation—something we’ve lacked for quite some time.

Michigan Schemes

January 15, 2008

There are a number of serious problems in the system with which we elect our President. I’ve discussed a couple of the big ones before. But the worst problem with elections is that people keep playing politics with them.

I just learned that the Daily Kos has been encouraging Democrats in Michigan to tamper with the Republican primary. Kos wants voters to cross-over and help Romney win Michigan; not because he respects Romney, but so that the Republican primary remains an open battle without a frontrunner, forcing them to continue spending their money and wearing each other down. He figures that the Democrats can only benefit from a prolonged war within the Republican primary.

Kos justifies this sort of shenanigan because the Republican party has monkeyed with Democratic primaries many times over the past forty years. I doubt the Democrats have been pristine over the same period, it doesn’t matter even if they were heretofore innocent of such political games. Kos should remember the words which his mother, like all mothers, must surely have spoken when he was a child: “two wrongs don’t make a right.” I don’t care what the foes of liberalism have done; I’m concerned with what we liberals do. I’d rather lose with honor than win by betraying the very principles of a liberal democracy.

I have no problem with the concept of cross-over voting itself. As a liberal (though not a registered Democrat), I’ve done it myself. I was rather impress with Bill Bradley during the Democratic race, but felt that Gore had an insurmountable lead. So I chose to vote in the Republican primary (back before the Utah Republican cabal closed their primary). I voted for McCain, because I felt he was the best remaining candidate among the Republicans. I was not committed to voting for him, but I wanted the best possible choices on either ticket, so that no matter who won, the nation would be in good hands.

Why can’t politics be conducted with integrity? Why must so many plot and connive? Democracy is about strategyThat sort of cynical approach is what corrupts a party in the first place. Call me naive, but I truly do believe in the goal of a nation where we participate in the Democratic process in good faith, whether voting or campaigning, and fulfill the potential of democracy.

Bush Doesn’t Want Congressional “Wasteful Spending”; That’s His Job

December 4, 2007

President Bush gave a stern admonition this morning to Congress in their unwillingness to acquiesce to his spending priorities and demands.

Americans also expect their tax dollars to be spent wisely. Yet today 11 of the 12 annual spending bills that fund the day-to-day operations of the federal government remain unfinished. And now, congressional leaders are talking about piling these bills into one monstrous piece of legislation which they will load up with billions of dollars in earmarks and wasteful spending.

Taxpayers deserve better. And if the Congress passes an irresponsible spending bill, I’m going to veto it.

After all, this administration has proven to be a paragon of financial and government restraint.

An Unjust and Illegal War

November 21, 2007

There are two related charges leveled against the conquest of Iraq. The first regards the essential moral questions about the war—charges that the war is unjust. The second relates to the legal issues regarding the war. While many denounce such charges, sometimes more vehemently than the moral charges, there is a clear body of evidence pointing to the fact that the war is illegal.

The United Nations charter very specifically prohibits the use of force by member states (Chapter I, Article 2, Section 4). It provides exceptions only in the case of self-defence (Chapter VII, Article 51) and in situations in which the Security Council approves the use of force to promote international peace and security (discussed in the various articles of Chapter VII).

The U.S. was under no threat by Iraq, nor was it authorized by the Security Council to use force to enforce the various U.N. resolutions against Iraq which were part of the justification for the invasion. The U.S. did not have the authority to unilaterally make the decision to enforce the U.N. resolutions.

Those who challenge the authority of the U.N. charter or other forms of “international law,” should familiarize themselves with The Constitution.

This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land (Article VI; emphasis added)…”

The U.N. charter was presented to the Senate by the presidential administration and was there ratified, as required by the Constitution (Article 2, Section 2). Until such time as the U.S. officially withdraws from the U.N, the charter agreement is law.

It is sad not only that we have to remind U.S. citizens—and the administration—about the laws according to the Constitution, but that we would have to justify our obligation to follow international law. After all, a person’s integrity is in many ways defined by his ability to follow the conditions of contracts and obligations voluntarily entered in to. If we wish to be considered a principled nation, we should observe and abide by our treaties and international agreements, such as the U.N. charter and its rules against force, or the Geneva Conventions and their rules against torture, simply because we signed them, regardless of whether The Constitution requires us to.

Yes, the U.N. is flawed. Yes, the U.N. is in a great many ways rather impotent. Yes, many participating nations have violated the U.N. charter in the past (including the U.S. in many prior instances). So what? “He did it first!” never worked for me on my mother, and I doubt it did for any of you. If we are going to resort to such puerile rationalizations, our moral state is pathetic indeed.

It is interesting to note that noted neo-con hawk and war supporter, Richard Perle admitted that the war was illegal.

The Iraq war is illegal not only because it violates international law, but domestic law as well. It has been claimed that “Bush went through the same channels as you always do when you start a war,” but this is false. Ron Paul proposed a declaration of war on Iraq in 2002 (one which he insists he planned to vote against) precisely because no legal declaration of war had been made. Nor has one been made since. The legality of a war which has not been legally declared is questionable at best.

What about the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002? Congress made explicit in the authorization that the use of force was conditioned on a number of premises:

  1. Iraq was not complying with various U.N. resolutions.
  2. Iraq still had possession of WMDs in defiance of the U.N. resolution banning that possession.
  3. Iraq was connected with 9/11 or terrorist organizations involved in 9/11 or similar activities.
  4. The administration had exhausted all diplomatic avenues in trying to resolve the issue (contained in section 3 of the resolution).

The U.S, as I’ve already discussed, had no authority to act on the first condition. None of the remaining three conditions were met.

A policeman can go through the proper channels to get a search warrant. But if he falsified the conditions upon which the issuance of the warrant were bases, then the search is now an illegal search.

The administration’s assertion that Iraq was involved in 9/11 and that they were actively pursuing WMDs were fraudulent. They made no more than token efforts to resolve their concerns through diplomatic means.

This war can be no more legal than the policeman’s search conducted with a legal warrant obtained by fraudulence.

Those Democrats who allowed themselves to vote in favor of the authorization and who have not taken the steps to hold the administration accountable should be held accountable by their constituents for abetting crimes. But the fact that Congress allowed themselves to be manipulated into issuing the authorization and then did not have the moral courage to hold the administration to the conditions of the authorization does not make it any less illegal.

I’ve heard it said that what separates a Republic from other forms of government is that a Republic is a government of law. A Republic is not governed by the whim of an individual, of a small group of oligarchs, nor even the tyranny of the majority; all governance is confined to and shaped by established code. Whether or not this is strictly true, I think it fair to say that many of those involved in the American Revolution and the founding of the U.S. were most concerned about so constraining government. As they themselves saw, without the constraint of law government all too easily becomes tyranny.

Perhaps the most important area in which the government must be circumscribed to legally established practices and procedures is in the use of military force. For the sake of the Republic, it is imperative that we recognize offenses to that law for what they are. Abuses are far too costly to our nation to do otherwise—not only in gold, but in blood.

LDS Connections to Torture

September 29, 2007

Speaking of the CIA and morally bankrupt foreign policy, the Centerville Citizen noted some bizarre news back in August (unfortunately, my feed aggregator seems to be acting strangely regarding the CC blog, repeatedly flagging an old post about a foreign guest as new and neglecting to show new posts; I was unaware of this entry until the CC author mentioned it in a comment on my page on torture). In a report that I would have dismissed as absurd rumor had I not read it myself, Vanity Fair uncovered that the torture policies which have been accepted by the administration during their foreign misadventures of the past five years were authored by a pair of LDS psychologists.

Having become very financially successful paving the way for increased human rights abuses by U.S. forces, these two “brethren” have boldly proclaimed “We are proud of the work we have done for our country.”

Others are less convinced. The policies these men enabled have increased the already grave tension between the U.S. and the Muslim communities of the Middle-East and helped alienate the rest of the world. “I think they have caused more harm to American national security than they’ll ever understand,” says Kleinman [Air Force Colonel].

How loathsome to find that I share the religion of men who devised methods of torture. What a disgrace to our faith.

I can’t decide whether I’m more perplexed by this revelation, or by the defense of torture by Antonin Scalia, who pointed to the successful capers of a fictional character to justify the use of torture.

“Jack Bauer saved Los Angeles,” he told a panel of judges, referring to the torturer protagonist of the Fox series 24. “Are you going to convict Jack Bauer?”

(Murphy Brown, Tinky-Winky, and now Jack Bauer. Maybe the leaders of the Right need to stop watching so much TV…)

Honestly, could the tabloids have concocted a more bizarre story? Truth is stranger (and sadder) than fiction.

A Milestone for a Government Millstone

September 29, 2007

A couple weeks ago (while I was still incommunicado; I apologize for the tardy post) the federal government observed a particular milestone. With little fanfare (appropriately enough), the CIA turned sixty.

Forgive me if I’m not ecstatic about this anniversary.

The CIA’s history is, to put it charitably, a dubious one at best. The more recent scandals of allowing intelligence information to be doctored to support the administration’s desire to invade Iraq, the CIA’s support of torture in “extreme rendition” and in possible “black sites” are only the most recent—and in many ways, least damning—in a long history of scandal.

The CIA was born as the descendant of the WWII OSS, and was created with an essentially legitimate purpose: “…procure intelligence both by overt and covert methods and will at the same time provide intelligence guidance, determine national intelligence objectives, and correlate the intelligence material collected by all government agencies.” Unfortunately, it was also considered a prime candidate to pursue subversive operations, and suffered a dearth of oversight. As is typical in such cases, it became increasingly independent and expanded its operations without any significant accountability (most notably under Director Allen Dulles). Administrations of all stripes succumbed to the temptation to use it for illicit and illegal activities which they felt important to the interests of the nation—or their administration.

The CIA has been involved in overthrowing several legitimate, democratically elected governments—often supporting in their place corrupt dictators and butchers (Iran in 1953; Guatamala 1954; The Democratic Republic of Congo in 1960 and 1965; Iraq in 1963 and 196, paving the way for Saddam Hussein; Chile on 9/11 of 1973)—not to mention several unsuccessful efforts at regime change in nations such as Nicaragua and Cuba.

The CIA is also known to play a role in supporting and protecting already established tyrants and unsavory groups considered “favorable” to U.S. interests (such as recent warlords in Somalia, past and present despots in Pakistan, Indonesia, and various brutal autocracies in the Middle East).

The series of reports infamous as “the family jewels” details a litany of activities ranging from widespread illegal domestic surveillance, to attempted assassionation of foreign leaders, to mind control experiments on non-consensual and often unwitting participants.

In “The Intelligence Community in the 21st Century” by the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, US House of Representatives (1996), it is estimated that the clandestine service of the nation’s various intelligence agencies break “extremely serious laws” several hundred thousand times a day.

This is reprehensible. Such actions cannot be justified in a moral nation. Its history is an albatross hanging around our neck.

There is certainly a need for entities within the government to collect, correlate, and interpret data vital to making policy decisions of this nation. We need reports such as the national intelligence estimates which the U.S. intelligence community produces each year (which seem to contradict the “intelligence” coming from the White House, and which the White House seems determined to ignore). But covert operations involving the invasion of privacy of U.S. citizens and residents or interfering with the political affairs of other nations are corrosive to foreign relations and to the integrity of our nation.

The recent scandals mentioned above suggest that despite efforts by Congress in the late Seventies and early Eighties, the CIA has changed little. The CIA must be reformed to provide the sort of accountability to keep the agency on a short leash and prevent the sort of nefarious operations in which they’ve engaged so often in the past.

If our government cannot provide such oversight, then the agency should not be around to celebrate its 70th birthday.

Utah’s Congressmen & Executive Eavesdropping

August 7, 2007

This last weekend was not a particularly encouraging one regarding Utah’s congressional delegation.

Congress passed a bill modifying the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act, allowing the administration a more free hand in eavesdropping on electric communication. It isn’t terribly surprising that the entire Utah delegation voted in favor of the bill, some rather enthusiastically.

While the bill isn’t catastrophic , I’m still very wary. Congressional Republicans (and their moderate Democrat allies) seem to have forgotten the fact that one of the most essential principles of our government is that of checks and balances. The Constitution, for example, is specifically set up to minimize the possibility that any individual, branch, or political will accumulate too much power. The President is the Commander-in-Chief of the military forces and can send those forces to battle, but it is up to the Senate to declare war and in doing so permit continued deployment of those forces. The President can veto the bills of congress, though he can be overridden. The Supreme Court is the final arbiter as to whether the work of both Congress and the President is consistent with the Constitution. Every time the founders listed a power, they strove to provide a method by which some other body in the government could reign in that power.

Note that most of the men who negotiated the Constitution were especially concerned with checking the power of the President. They’d seen all to well in their lives and study of history the tragic consequences of an unrestrained executive power.

Yet Utah’s congressmen, along with many others, seem perfectly willing to abdicate their responsibility to contain executive power and to trust in the discretion of an administration and an Attorney General who, as R.Johnson of succinctly points out, has provided little evidence of such discretion.

I’m very cautious about giving any government the approval for surveillance. The temptation to abuse such power is extremely strong, and the surveillance is all too often used for less-than-savory purposes. It is ironic that the very day I heard the news, I was reading in H.W. Brands’ The Devil We Knew about the intensive FBI surveillance in the ‘50s and ‘60s of members and organizations in the Civil Rights movement—not because these people posed any legitimate threat to national security, but because the Civil Rights movement posed a threat to the Southern (and national) institutions favored by powerful political constituencies and individuals at the time. I’d like to avoid giving any government similar opportunities at this time; as prone as this administration appears to be to abuse its power in pursuit of its agenda, I’m particularly concerned now.

Worse yet, this temporary bill is not the end of the changes President Bush is seeking.

We must remember that our work is not done. This bill is a temporary, narrowly focused statue to deal with the most immediate shortcomings in the law.

Given the support of Utah’s congressmen for virtually anything this administration wants, I’m not terribly optimistic that they’ll help hold out for more accountability and checks on further surveillance legislation.

I’m not Going to Talk About It

February 14, 2007

I was rather intrigued this morning during the President’s press conference when he was asked whether or not he had authorized the leak of Valerie Plame’s identity. President Bush steadfastly—and rather petulantly—refused to answer the question. Why not? If the President is as opposed to leaks as he claimed while condemning the leak about the financial tracking of suspected terrorist agents, why not deny any involvement and publically condemn the leak? Does he have something to hide? Is there some unexplained double-standard when it comes to leaks? “Leaks that may potentially threaten the lives of operatives and punish opponents of the administration are okay, but leaks that expose questionable government operations are disgraceful.” What does the President’s testy response say about his integrity?