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Thursday, February 21, 2013

Are Republican Brains Different?




News & Politics  

Are Republican Brains Different?

A new study indicates a biological basis for conservative tendencies.

A brain scan study recently revealed that Democrats and Republican process and understand risk in different ways, with Democrats more attuned to their emotions and those of others, while Republicans are more driven by fear and potential reward.

The study analyzed the brain scans of 83 people as they played a gambling game in which participants could either score the easy low points or hold out for possible higher rewards. Both Democrats and Republicans exhibited similar levels of risk-taking—in other words, they were equally likely to hold out for the higher but riskier rewards—but different regions of their brains were activated during these decisions.

For Democrats, the region of the brain with the most activity was the left posterior insula, a region that is associated with processing emotions and understanding what other people are thinking or feeling. The region is sometimes called the “theory of the mind,” and it’s the part of one’s brain that allows you to estimate, for example, what your friend, partner or even a stranger may be thinking by imagining yourself in their shoes, so to speak. (No word yet on whether woman’s brains have vastly more developed “theory of the mind” regions.) It’s a region that’s associated with empathy and the understanding that each person has their own unique point of view.

For Republicans, the region of the brain that was most active during risky behavior was the right amygdala. This region of the brain is primarily responsible for producing fear, although it can also create anticipation of reward. It’s the part of the brain that teenagers often rely on to make decisions, one of the reasons that teens are  more impulsive and aggressive than adults. The larger role of the amygdala in teenage brains—a role that diminishes as people reach their mid-20s—is one of the justifications for laws that prohibit people from drinking alcohol and doing other things until their early to mid-20s. (Apparently the U.S. military still doesn’t care whether its soldiers have brains that are able to mitigate impulsivity and aggression.) This higher level of activity in the amygdala in Republican brains is something that scientists  have observed before, although not directly in this risk environment.

So, what does this mean? Is this a blank check to write off Republicans’ decisions as rash and fear-inspired? Not exactly, although it does begin to give us some clues into the human behavior that could be behind some of this year’s most important political battles. If anything, it helps put into context the insane debt ceiling / fiscal cliff / sequestration cut controversy, which is pretty much screaming Amygdala, Amygdala!

Plus it allows us to ask the question: If Republicans actually are more heavily influenced by their amygdala, should they really be allowed to rent cars?
Laura Gottesdiener is a freelance journalist and activist in New York City.

Mississippi Finally 'Officially' Banned Slavery -- But It's Alive and Well in America and the Rest of the World


News & Politics  

Mississippi Finally 'Officially' Banned Slavery -- But It's Alive and Well in America and the Rest of the World

Modern-day slavery is still a thriving industry.

In a major step forward, Mississippi banned slavery this week. This type of definite legislative action is ostensibly the type of thing to be excited about in an era of unprecedented political foot-dragging, so congratulations Mississippi for finally ratifying the Thirteenth Amendment. Sure, the state is a little behind the curve on this one, given that the nation is a full 148 years past the official end of slavery (more on that, in a second). But Mississippi isn’t the only state that took awhile to warm up to the idea that people shouldn't own, sell, beat and rape other people in a nation that is largely (and perhaps falsely) recognized as one of the most civilized in the world.

Delaware waited until the turn of the twentieth century to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment, while Kentucky waited another three-quarters of a century, finally ratifying the legislation in 1976. That left Mississippi the last holdout state until it ratified the amendment in 1995. But this leap forward in Mississippi history didn’t become official until earlier this week, mostly because the state forgot to tell anyone--particularly the U.S. archivist--about its 1995 ratification. After a few Mississippians saw Lincoln, they noticed online that their own state wasn’t actually part of this historic ratification, and thus this week’s action.
A lot of people are pretty excited that Mississippi has decided to join the rest of the nation in outlawing human bondage. But in these celebrations, we seem to have forgotten one thing: Modern-day slavery is still a thriving industry, both in Mississippi and in the rest of the nation.
In fact, Mississippi is something of regional slave transportation hub, according to the state’s special assistant attorney general Heather Wagner, who explains that the easy highway access to nearby major cities and the Gulf Coast ports make the state a trafficking corridor. The state recently passed rules requiring longer prison sentences for people caught enslaving and trafficking humans, such as the two Mississippi men who were recently indicted for selling or buying of children after being caught with a video that shows them enslaving and raping a girl about three years old.
To be fair, human and sex trafficking isn’t unique to Mississippi. According to the Department of Homeland Security, this industry--which the website describes as “modern-day slavery”--is thriving across the United States. Recent examples abound: The 17 young women from Mexico who were brought to the U.S., held in captivity in New York State and forced to work as prostitutes; the firefighter in Baltimore who allegedly enslaved women in a brothel; the 20 Togolese women or girls who were transported to the U.S. and forced to work in hair salons in New Jersey. Nationally; an estimated 244,000 American children are at risk of being enslaved and forced into sex work alone--that doesn’t even include the thousands of additional people who are transported to the U.S., held in captivity and forced to work picking tomatoes or strawberries for WalMart.Globally, slavery recognized as one of the most lucrative illegal industries. An estimated 27 million are enslaved, generating $32 billion annually.
And that’s just illegal slavery; state-sanctioned bondage is another thriving industry with that entraps millions of people and generates billions of dollars. With one of the most punitive states in the nation, Mississippi is a model of the incarceration nation. As a Time magazine article writes, “Since the mid-1990s, Mississippi has become one of America's most aggressive incarcerators — a difficult feat, in a nation of jailers.” A few years ago, the state had the second-highest rate of incarceration, with a full 22,646 people imprisoned. Nationally, nearly two and a half million people--mostly minority men--are held against their will in prison in a system that has been described as something between modern-day slavery to the New Jim Crow.
Recently, Mississippi began taking steps to reduce its prison population and punitive criminal justice system in a move that--like recent passage of the Thirteenth Amendment--is being hailed as a leap into the present. Chris Epps, the commissioner of the state’s department of corrections told Time magazine, "I'm proud to say we're moving Mississippi into the 21st century."
Still, as we herald these types of legislative leaps and bounds happening in Mississ
ippi, maybe it makes more sense to deal with the reality of present-day slavery, rather than pretending the practice is alive only in movie theaters screenings of Lincoln.
Laura Gottesdiener is a freelance journalist and activist in New York City.

American Assassination History for Dummies


Civil Liberties  

American Assassination History for Dummies


The idea that President Obama’s extrajudicial drone-assassinations of American citizens is "unprecedented" and "radical" is to ignore decades of recent history.

This article first appeared at Not Safe for Work Corporation.
It’s hard to have a serious conversation about America’s drone assassination policy when no one seems to have a basic grasp of recent history. This cultural amnesia epidemic is starting to get me down— which is partly my fault for paying more than two minutes’ attention to Twitter at a single go.
The problem starts with Reagan, as problems so often do. Most people on the left take for granted that Reagan’s executive order 12333 "banned assassinations" — which is not just a false interpretation, but really awful mangling of one of the dark turning points in modern American history.
That same ignorance of the history of assassination policy runs right through today, with the repetition of another myth: That President Obama’s extrajudicial drone-assassinations of American citizens is "unprecedented" and "radical" and that "not even George Bush targeted American citizens."
The truth is a lot worse and a lot more depressing.
To understand the backstory to Reagan’s deceptive "assassination ban" in 1981, you have to know a bit about what was going on in the 70s, that brief period of American Glasnost, in the aftermath of Watergate and the military’s collapse after losing Vietnam.
All sorts of dirty Cold War secrets were pouring out in that brief period — in late 1974, Seymour Hersh broke the story that the CIA had been illegally spying on thousands of American antiwar dissidents inside of our borders, in violation of the law and the charter that brought the CIA into existence . Later, Vice President Rockefeller’s report said the CIA spied on 300,000 Americans.
Remember, the American public and most of the Establishment back then were very different from today’s. There’s some truth to the "Liberal Establishment" culture that ruled until Reagan took over — those people were serious about their do-gooder intentions and their civic duties and all that, whatever the results on the ground were — nothing at all like today’s armchair Machiavellis and backseat Nietzsches who dominate our political culture, a culture where everyone's jostling to scream "You can’t handle the truth!" at imaginary liberal do-gooders...
One of Hersh’s most incredible exposés focused on an undercover CIA spook who told of how they penetrated the Weather Underground from very early in the Columbia U protest days, right up through their nationwide bombing campaign. Which may finally answer how it was that a handful of upper class Ivy Leaguers managed to expertly set off bombs all across the country, spring Timothy Leary from Vacaville Prison, and "evade" law enforcement officials for so many years — only to get off with a slap on the wrist when they finally went up for air.
Ah well, but that’s another story. What started the assassination policy trend that frames today’s politics was a slip-up by President Ford. It’s a real-life Chevy Chase moment, only instead of stumbling over his podium and crashing to the floor for laughs, the real President Ford called a "meet ‘n’ greet" with theNew York Times’ top editors, wherein the President "slipped" and "blurted out" that he hoped they never found out about the CIA assassination program — an assassination program that none of them had ever seriously suspected until President Ford blurted it out over lunch. Whoa, Liberty! Down, boy!
Here’s how the scene is described in the book Challenging the Secret Government by UC Davis Prof. Kathryn Olmsted:
Toward the end of the luncheon, the subject of the Rockefeller Commission came up. The Times had criticized the dominance of conservatives on the commission. Ford explained that he needed men who could be trusted not to stray from their narrow mission of investigating the CIA’s domestic activities. Otherwise, he said, they might come up on matters that would "ruin the U.S. image around the world" and harm the reputation of every U.S. president since Truman.
"Like what?" asked [editor A.M.] Rosenthal, always the hard-nosed reporter.
"Like assassinations!" Ford blurted out, quickly adding, "That’s off the record."
By standard mainstream journalism rules, Ford’s "blurt" wasn’t off the record. But more importantly: fuck the rules, this was bombshell news, from the highest (and bumblingest) source in the land! Tom Wicker and Rosenthal both insisted on publishing the scoop — Wicker was convinced that Ford meant to blurt it out for reasons unknown, it was hard to imagine someone who spent decades close to J Edgar Hoover and other intelligence officials could be that unbelievably stupid.
But cowardice won the day — Wicker and Rosenthal were overruled by the rest of the Times execs and editors who were there, and they had to sit on their scoop and watch while a grandstanding jackass (in the good sense) named Daniel Schorr stole it from under their noses.
Yep, that crusty old voice on NPR was once one of the pushiest assholes in journalism. Schorr, who worked for CBS News during the post-Watergate era, had heard the rumors about Ford’s "assassination gaffe" at the New York Times. Schorr had assumed that Ford was talking about domestic assassinations of Americans, but he needed confirmation from someone high up. So he arranged an off-the-record interview with CIA chief William Colby, and got another "gaffe" scoop:
Finally, I said, as casually as I could, that I had heard President Ford had a problem about the CIA and assassinations. Colby fell silent.
"Has the CIA ever killed anybody in this country?" I asked directly.
His reply was quick and even: "Not in this country."
"Not in this country!" I stared at Colby as it sank in on me that I had been on the wrong track, but had now been put unintentionally on the right one.
Two gaffes, two Chevy Chase fall-on-their-faces screw-ups buy two of the highest and most experienced lawyer-intelligence officials in the land. What’re the odds!
Then again, there really was something of a whiff of failure in the air those years — Hell, even our assassins couldn’t hit the side of a barn if they stood right in front shooting, as Sara Jane Moore and Squeaky Fromme proved that year, the Lucille Balls of would-be presidential assassins...
This is where the slapstick ends, and things get deadly serious and depressing. Over the next several months, the Church Commission and Pike Commission exposed a number of CIA assassination plots — in the Congo, Haiti, Chile, Cuba, Indonesia, Dominican Republic, who knew where else — and the public reacted with genuine shock and horror. Not just the public, but most of the Liberal Establishment was shocked and horrified also — Democrats and Republicans, back when they had "moderate" and "liberal" Republicans in Congress. Hypocrites, sure, but after a couple of decades with the Col. Jessups who dominate our political discourse today, I’d take those old pre-Carter Cold War liberal hypocrites any day.
The CIA assassination program shocked the public more than any other revelation from that period. JFK and MLK conspiracy theories went mainstream. Robert Redford wouldn’t take a script if he wasn’t being chased by CIA villains. Everyone hated the CIA in America, and the fastest way to becoming a hero was being hated right back — like Daniel Schorr was.
In mid-1975, Schorr was anointed "CIA Enemy No 1" by none other than ex-CIA director and silver-spoon fascist Richard Helms himself — which Schorr proudly recounted in his memoir Clearing The Air:
Though, in a sense, my broadcast about assassination plots may have helped to spark the investigation that had brought Helms back [from Teheran, where Helms served as US ambassador], I was not thinking of it in personal terms as I waited in the corridor, with three or four other reporters, for him to emerge from the Vice President’s office and to invite him to be interviewed before camera staked out in the press room across the hall.
As I offered my hand in greeting, with a jocular, "Welcome back," Helms’ face, ashen from strain and fatigue, turned livid. "You son-o-f-a-bitch!" he raged. "you killer! You cocksucker! ‘Killer Schorr’ — that’s what they ought to call you!"
In that atmosphere, in early 1976, President Ford issued executive order 11905 — which has been wrongly described over the years as "banning assassinations," but at the time Ford signed it, 11905 was more properly understood as a window dressing largely designed to keep the liberal activist Democratic Party Congress from legislating changes to the CIA themselves. (Keep in mind, the Democratic Congress that swept into power after Watergate was, for a brief time, aggressively reformist and nothing like the Democratic Party of today.) Even Ford’s language banning assassinations or CIA domestic spying left a lot to be interpreted — a recurruing problem later on, with the exception of Carter.
Sen. Frank Church, who headed the Church Committee (sort of a "Truth Commission), dismissed Ford’s "reforms" when they were first announced in early March 1976, as Newsweek reported at the time:
"Over-all, the President’s proposal is clearly to give the CIA a bigger shield and a longer sword with which to stab about," argued Sen. Frank Church.
["Ford’s CIA Shake-Up", Newsweek, March 1, 1976]
Rather than creating conditions for greater accountability, Ford centralized power in the White House — and as Newsweek reported, the biggest beneficiary of Ford’s reforms (and likely its author) was none other than new CIA chief George H. W. Bush:
Ford's Executive order put its emphasis on a firmer chain of command - starting with the President - even though the investigations of most intelligence abuses have shown them to be the result of White House interference, not uncontrolled cloak-and-daggering. Might increased Presidential control lead to more abuses in the future?
"I would hope that the American people will elect a President who will not abuse that responsibility," Ford said. "I certainly don't intend to."
The biggest beneficiary of the new plan was CIA director Bush, who now will serve as chairman of the new Committee on Foreign Intelligence ... The committee will control the budgets for all the nation's foreign intelligence operations as well as the domestic counterintelligence activities of the FBI.
Finally, although Ford technically banned assassinations, his order left a giant loophole that could allow the CIA to spy on American dissidents all over again, as Newsweek reported:
Aside from the ban on assassinations, however, no new limits were set on covert operations overseas.
Ford did set some limits on surveillance, electronic eavesdropping and infiltration aimed at U.S citizens or groups. But [...] critics said his Executive order was ambiguous enough to open the way for domestic operations previously considered questionable or prohibited by law. The CIA, for example, illegally opened mail for twenty years; last week Ford proposed the agency be given authority to do so under appropriate court orders. Under Ford's proposal, a court order would also allow the FBI and NSA to bug U.S. citizens for intelligence purposes; at present, this can be done only in criminal cases.
But then something went wrong in Bush-Ford’s plans — the curse of the bumbling American fascist returned, in the form of Gerald Ford’s 1976 campaign chief, Dick Cheney, who flubbed Ford’s odds-on election victory simply by being there and putting in his two cents. That meant a do-gooder peanut farmer named Jimmy Carter was in control at the peak of the last gasp of Democratic Party liberal activism.
As everyone knows, Carter’s presidency was one long bummer. But what most people don’t know — or have forgotten — is that Carter did more than any president to bring the national security state under control. Especially the CIA, which Carter gutted, purged, and chained down with a whole set of policies and guidelines meant to protect American citizens’ civil liberties.
In his first year in office, Carter purged nearly 20% of the Agency’s 4500 employees, gutting the ranks of clandestine operatives, sending hundreds of dirty trickster vets into the private sector to seethe for the next few years. Carter signed an executive order worked out with Frank Church and the Senate committee on intelligence putting more serious limits on the CIA’s powers — unequivocally banning assassinations, restricting the CIA’s ability to spy domestically, and putting their covert operations under strict oversight under the president, Congressional committees and the attorney general. The CIA’s paramilitary was even disbanded, though not banned.
Carter’s people understood that real fundamental change in the CIA and national security state would only come through democratic politics — through passing laws. He and Sen. Church tried, but they were outmaneuvered and ground into mulch.
A Washington Post article from the summer of 1978 captured the changing mood, and the first early wave of gloom setting in with Democrat reformers that their days were over and their chance was missed:
Two years ago, when David Atlee Phillips and like-minded defenders of the Central Intelligence Agency set out on the college lecture circuit, they were routinely confronted by hecklers and protesters denouncing them as "assassins."
The climate has changed. The investigations are over. The recriminations have subsided. The apologists have turned into advocates, urging, even demanding a stronger hand for the CIA and the rest of the intelligence community despite the record of abuses.
A comprehensive piece of legislation, the National Intelligence Reorganization and Reform Act of 1978 (S.2525), has been drafted and debated at Senate hearings for months now, but all sides dismiss it as nothing more than a talking paper, a starting point.
Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho), who served as the chairman of the original Senate Intelligence Committee and its unprecedented investigations, thinks it is already too late.
"Reforms have been delayed to death," he said in an interview. "This has been the defense mechanism of the agency and it could easily have been foreseen . . . Memories are very short. I think the shrewd operators, the friends of the CIA, recognized that time was on their side, that they could hold out against legislative action."
And yet even as comparatively progressive as Carter’s and Church’s proposed reforms were — this was the brief high point for civil liberties, it’s all downhill from here — nevertheless, pretty much everyone across the spectrum hated Carter’s and Church’s reforms for their own reasons, and Carter did little to inspire.
Carter’s gutting of the CIA and his new guidelines restricting domestic surveillance by the FBI and other agencies won him few friends among grandstanding professional liberals. If anything the country turned against Carter as the world went to shit around him — Iran, Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Jonestown — paving the way for Reagan to "restore" American power.
Which brings us to early 1981, and Reagan’s executive order 12333 which has been falsely described as "banning assassinations" by critics of Bush and now Obama.
Scott Horton, writing in Harpers last year, has a good description:
But as with so much U.S. national-security legislation, this order turns out to be far less than meets the eye. Simplified, [Reagan’s EO] could be summarized this way: "No one shall be assassinated—unless the president authorizes it, in which case we will refrain from calling it an assassination."
But it’s much worse than that.
From the minute Reagan’s team took power, they went to work rewriting the rules to give themselves enormous unlimited power to re-animate the empire and the national-security state. In early 1981, it didn’t seem possible that the political culture could slide back so far after all those hard-won battles; by the end of the year, it was as if there’d never been a Church Committee or reforms of any kind.
To get a sense of how this developed, here’s a kind of timeline I put together:
March 10, 1981: "Reagan Administration Weighs Broader CIA Role in Domestic Spying"
The Reagan administration is considering a broad expansion of the CIA's authority to use break-ins, physical surveillance and covert infiltration of American groups and businesses, sources say. (AP)
June 15, 1981: "Recouping Under Reagan; CIA Is on the Rebound"
The Central Intelligence Agency, whose public image and private morale have been battered during much of the past decade, appears to be regaining some of its lost money, manpower and maneuvering room under the Reagan administration. (WaPo)
October 13, 1981: "Draft Order May Let CIA Resume Its Police Ties"
The Central Intelligence Agency, under a proposed administration order, apparently could resume many of its ties with local and state police agencies in addition to embarking on its own infiltrations of domestic organizations. (WaPo)
October 22, 1981: "Reagan Official Says Carter Overprotected Civil Liberties"
A Reagan administration official said Thursday a proposed order relaxing restrictions on CIA domestic activity is needed to strike a new balance between civil liberties and national security.
"President Carter went too far in protecting civil liberties. He erred in placing too many restrictions on the intelligence community," the official said at a briefing held on the condition that his name and position not be used. (AP)
In December 1981, Reagan signed the executive order 12333 undoing the previous decades’ reforms with the stroke of a pen. For cover, Reagan’s people planted fake scare stories through Jack Anderson about non-existent Libyan assassination squads infiltrating U.S. borders, waterskiing their way across the Great Plains to spring John Hinckley and wreak havoc on the American Way of Life.
And that is the back story to Reagan’s executive order 12333, the one that allegedly banned assassinations and allegedly made him so much more progressive than Bush or Obama.
Reagan not only gave the CIA carte blanche in the US to spy, but he also massively expanded the powers of the FBI and law enforcement to spy on Americans domestically with another executive order in 1983, paving the way for a repeat of all the awful abuses uncovered by Sen. Church, which only started coming to light at the end of Reagan’s presidency.
As reported in the AP on March 7, 1983:
Rules Relaxed On FBI Surveillance
Attorney General William French Smith today relaxed the rules governing FBI surveillance of domestic groups that advocate social change through violence….
Specifically, the guidelines make these changes:
* Allow the FBI to use new informants and infiltrators during a preliminary inquiry, where there is not yet enough evidence to warrant a full investigation. Levi had restricted those techniques to full investigations.
* Specifically authorize the FBI to continue low-level monitoring through informants and other means of groups that have gone dormant and pose no "immediate threat of harm." The FBI had been closing such investigations when a group went one year without committing violence.
* Authorize, for the first time, full investigations based solely on public statements advocating crime or violence when there is an apparent intent to carry out the threat.
* Authorize the FBI to collect publicly available information that satisfies a law enforcement purpose but does not necessarily involve a group under investigation.
Cut to: 1988, and we’re on repeat from the 70s, like a bad sitcom, with scandals and exposes of police state overreach.
Here’s one example from the Chicago Tribune dated January 31, 1988:
Files of an FBI investigation of groups opposing President Reagan's policy in Central America show that secret guidelines for national security investigations gave the agents enormous latitude to delve into the lives of Americans who simply had criticized government actions.
The disclosures from FBI files have raised questions in the public and Congress about whether the relaxed guidelines, designed to make it easier for agents to examine groups suspected of trying to "achieve political or social change" through violence, are a sufficient protection for individual rights. President Reagan has ordered an internal review of the FBI surveillance, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said Friday.
As you can probably guess, the Democrats made some noise, complained, opened hearings — but no one had the courage or stamina to go through all that again.
Meanwhile, on the assassination front, here’s a snapshot of what Reagan’s EO 12333 led to. This WaPo article, "Covert Hit Teams Might Evade Presidential Ban" dated February 12, 1984, needs to be unpacked to understand how little things have changed in the past three decades:
The Reagan administration has debated whether to authorize covert operations abroad that would allow military or CIA hit teams to secretly attack terrorist groups responsible for recent bombings of U.S. installations. By one account the debate is still going on and no decision has been made.
[S]ome CIA and military officials argue that the most effective way to retaliate--with the fewest mistakes and fewest innocent victims--is through a surgical strike by a hit team, run and organized by the United States but probably composed of U.S. military personnel or even foreign nationals.
Air strikes or bombardments with 16-inch, one-ton shells from the battleship New Jersey do not have the precision of a small hit team with a definite target, these officials have argued.
One senior intelligence official in Beirut recently said that air strikes, while in theory more "morally" acceptable and conventional, have killed many unintentionally.
This amazing passage gets right to one of the dark absurdities that informs our own debate today about how to fight terrorism — that it’s "legal" and considered essentially "normal" to shell with destroyers or bomb villages from the air if terrorists are suspected of being in those villages — but considered completely beyond the pale of civilized behavior to actually aim and target suspected terrorists.
It was a similar debate as this in the Bush years that led to increased use of drones and targeted assassinations — and now that we’re using drones, the sense is that the American imperial machine has crossed a Rubicon of death and evil unheard of. What Reagan’s war on terror reveals to our post-Reagan eyes is the absurdity of conducting imperial wars, period — whatever the choice of weapon is.
And then there’s this black comedy part of the story — putting the fate of the American imperial machine and justice in the hands of lawyers and "rule of law"-tards rather than in the public forum where it belongs:
Those officials opposed to using hit teams say it would be assassination. And, they noted, an executive order concerning the intelligence community, first signed by President Ford in February 1976 and later reaffirmed by Presidents Carter and Reagan, prohibits assassination. The order says: "No employee of the United States government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, political assassination."
One official said the order could be revoked or simply ignored, arguing that covert action against terrorists could be defined as something other than "political assassination." This apparently could be done in secrecy. The law does not require the administration to give Congress prior notification of covert operations.
Both a White House and a State Department official confirmed last week that the use of a covert hit team was still being debated. They indicated that if any effort was made, the CIA would probably not be involved and the action would be called and considered "military activity" or even a "commando strike."
See what happens when you put assassination policy in the hands of lawyers? It’s not even assassination anymore — it’s "military activity"! And terrorists aren’t political targets! And you didn’t support Bush’s invasion of Iraq, you supported the institutions that supported the institution of the presidency which decided independently of the institutions you supported to invade Iraq. Duh!

* * * *
Around this time, another revelation about Reagan and assassinations was discovered by the great investigative reporter Robert Parry working at the AP: A new CIA training manual for Latin American death squads, published in 1983, included instructions on various methods of murdering and torturing. Hundreds of thousands in Central America were butchered, disappeared, raped and tortured during Reagan’s tenure, by death squads trained up by our forces. All carried out under Reagan’s alleged "ban" on assassinations:
The House Intelligence Committee chairman Wednesday night denounced a CIA psychological warfare manual produced for Nicaraguan rebels as "repugnant" and a "disaster for U.S. foreign policy."
The manual advises U.S.-backed Nicaraguan rebels that some officials of the nation's leftist government can be "neutralized" with the "selective use of violence" and recommends the hiring of professional criminals to carry out "selective jobs."
...The manual suggests arranging a violent demonstration that will lead to the death of one or more rebel supporters and the creation of a "martyr." It also instructs the rebels in how to coerce Nicaraguans into carrying out assignments against their will.
Reagan’s people claimed that the AP got ahold of one of a handful of defective copies of the CIA manual, swearing on their grandmothers’ graves that the real CIA manuals distributed around Latin America made no mention of assassination.
But as soon as George Bush Sr became president in 1989, he dispensed with whatever remained of the charade with an "aw, fuck it" attitude — and that was that:
Administration Redefines Ban on Foreign Assassinations
The Bush administration, without changing an executive order banning assassinations of foreign leaders, has chosen to legally interpret "assassination" as referring only to premeditated political murder, according to a published report.
Unidentified administration officials quoted by the Times said the ruling would significantly expand the scope of military operations the United States could legally launch against terrorists, drug lords or fugitives abroad, the newspaper reported.
"None of the executive orders defined the term assassination, which created a lot of confusion," a Pentagon official said. "This ruling takes away the excuse for indecision.".
Did you catch that? Does it even matter anymore? You can already see where the real problem lies here — the complete absence of any politics, leaving American democracy at the mercy of lawyers and their various interpretations of "rule of law."
The Clinton years don’t bring any improvements — the best you can say about Clinton is that he didn’t escalate the Reagan-Bush national security state evils to new insane levels. Instead, he played the liberal by squirting a few for the hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans massacred under US supervision — then got his little wars on in Kosovo and cruise-missile attacked Saddam Hussein.
Ironically, during one of Clinton’s Baghdad-bombings in 1998, Republicans backed by all the armchair Machiavelli pundit class started making a bunch of noise demanding Clinton stop pretending once and for all that we don’t assassinate foreigners, on the theory that being "hypocritical" about assassinating foreigners is somehow a lot worse than tearing off our shirts outside the proverbial bar, screaming, "Yeah, we assassinate! Whatcha gonna do about it, huh? We’re here, brah! Not fuckin’ afraid to admit it, we assassinate, cuz that’s how we roll, brah!"
Clinton, however, chose to stick with his liberal hypocrite strategy. Ultimately, it made no goddamn difference to his successor, George W. Bush, but in hindsight you really do have to wonder why our culture got so laughably sanctimonious about a "hypocritical" assassination policy versus what the other side demanded, "at least being open about it." No one ever explained how being "open" about assassinations made us more just.

* * * *
Which brings us to our time. May 4, 2001. George W. Bush just seated himself in the White House. That same month, who should be lobbying for a bill granting Dubya unfettered power to assassinate whomever he wants butlibertarian hero Bob Barr, as reported in the Tulsa World:
Tough guys: Time to get back into the assassination business?
In case there was any doubt that the tough guys are back in charge in Washington, some of the new unilateralists making American policy these days seem to want to get us officially back into the assassination business.
[W]e search out individuals who might be inclined to harm one or more of us -- and we kill them. Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia is stepping up to that one, and he seems to be doing it on White House orders or suggestion.
Barr, who wanted to take out President Clinton last year, has other targets in his sights this time. On Jan. 3, he introduced HR 19, "The Terrorist Elimination Act of 2001." It is a bill, in its own words, "to nullify the effect of certain provisions of various Executive Orders."
A few months later, Bob Barr’s services were no longer needed by the Bush Administration.
Which brings me to the last part of this attempt at jolting your short-term memory. One of the other myths informing our feckless and half-baked debates is the meme going round claiming that President Obama, by approving extrajudicial assassinations of Americans suspected of being terrorists, crossed a line that supposedly "even Bush" never dared to cross.
For example, Wired recently declared:
Like the Bush administration before it, the Obama administration white paper rejects any geographical restriction on where it can launch its drone strikes and commando raids. But the Bush administration actually stopped short of declaring that it had the authority to kill American citizens.
And Salon’s Joan Walsh expressed outrage over the lack of liberal outrage at Obama’s "policies that Bush stopped short of, like targeted assassination of U.S. citizens loyal to al-Qaida."
(Walsh’s outrage is shared by other outraged liberals.)
There are more examples of this, but you get the point.
For better or for worse — I say for worse — this story doesn’t have a neat made-for-TV narrative arc of evil. It’s pretty goddamn flat throughout, excepting the Carter years. And that non-dramatic flat evil holds true with Obama as well.
First, it’s not true that Americans were not assassinated by extrajudicial drone or missile attacks during the Bush years. There are two for sure that we know of: The first American-born citizen assassinated by a targeted drone attack was Kemal Derwish, blown up by a Predator in Yemen in 2002.
As Dana Priest wrote in the Washington Post:
Word that the CIA had purposefully killed Derwish drew attention to the unconventional nature of the new conflict and to the secret legal deliberations over whether killing a U.S. citizen was legal and ethical.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush gave the CIA, and later the military, authority to kill U.S. citizens abroad if strong evidence existed that an American was involved in organizing or carrying out terrorist actions against the United States or U.S. interests, military and intelligence officials said. The evidence has to meet a certain, defined threshold. The person, for instance, has to pose "a continuing and imminent threat to U.S. persons and interests," said one former intelligence official.
That piece was written in 2010, but early in Bush’s term, articles like this one from the New York Times in 2003 made it clear that Bush approved of extrajudicial targeted assassinations of American suspected terrorists:
On Nov. 3, 2002, a missile fired from a C.I.A. Predator drone incinerated a car carrying six men through the Yemeni desert. The target, according to government sources, was Qaed Salim Sinan al Harethi, believed to be a key Qaeda operative in the Cole attack. But in a report issued Nov. 19 by the Yemen news agency, Saba, the country's interior minister, Maj. Gen. Rashad al-Alimi, confirmed that one of the passengers was Kamal Derwish.
Afterward, American officials said the president had the power to order a strike on Al Qaeda operatives overseas, including American citizens.
In a recent interview, Mr. Ridge said Mr. Derwish's death had been discussed within the administration. "If that's what you have to do under these circumstances of 9/11 to protect America," he said, "that's what we have to do."
Ridge’s interview confession to Lowell Bergman can be found at the PBS site.
The second American targeted for assassination that we know of was Ruben Shumpert of Seattle, killed by a US missile strike in Somalia in 2008.
And now here we are today, with a "progressive" president who absorbed all the rancid policies of Ronald Reagan and George W Bush and adopted them as his own as titular head of the American Empire.
Now, if someone could just distill that down to 140 characters.

GOP Mission: Dismantling Democracy


Civil Liberties  

GOP Activists Behind Three Troubling Supreme Court Cases Aimed at Dismantling Our Democracy

The 2013 Supreme Court term could roll back decades of progressive law.

Three troubling U.S. Supreme Court cases -- one that has already undermined public participation in elections and two new ones threatening to further tilt the balance toward wealthier and whiter slices of society—have all been brought by Republican activists who want to change the rules to benefit their shrinking political party.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a campaign finance case in which a wealthy Alabama Republican sued because he wanted to give more money than federal law allows in two-year election cycles. Shaun McCutcheon, the businessman-activist, joined by the Republican National Committee, challenged the $46,200 limit on donations to candidates and their committees, and $70,800 donation limit to other political committees. Less than 1 percent of Americans give this much to campaigns.
Next week, in another lawsuit originating with activist Republicans, Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court will hear a case on whether the heart of the federal 1965 Voting Rights Act, Section 5, is outdated and should be overturned. That section lets the Justice Department veto changes in election laws in 16 states that have had histories of race-based discrimination in elections. The VRA was used in 2012 to block GOP-backed voter ID laws in several states, as well as to overturn GOP-drawn legislative districts in Texas that diluted the possibility of electing Latinos to Congress. Republicans argue that racism in elections is a thing of the past. However, dozens of briefs filed by liberals argue that is not the case.

And in 2010, the Supreme Court, in the infamous Citizens United case, ruled that wealthy individuals and unions could make unlimited donations to political groups that were not formally connected to a candidate’s campaign. That suit originated with GOP activists’ efforts to smear then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in a fall 2008 video.

The Citizens United ruling and another that followed in federal court were responsible for 2012’s billionaire political venture capitialists who bankrolled super PACs, which were shadow campaigns for specific candidates—first in the Republican primaries and then used by both parties in the fall election. These uber-wealthy groups were responsible for filling the airwaves in swing states with political mud, which dumbed down the debate and prevented down-ballot candidates from getting their messages out.

Stepping back from the devilish details of election law, this disturbing pattern emerges: Republican activists, with the backing of their party, have been successful in using the federal courts to rewrite—and to try to further rewrite—the rules of who participates and has the biggest megaphones in American elections. And they’re doing so as the Supreme Court has a Republican president-appointed majority that believes the wealthiest Americans and big businesses should spend freely in elections (suggesting they’ll rule for McCutcheon), and has previously said there were serious questions whether the Voting Rights Act’s Section 5 was needed.

To be fair, the Democrats and President Obama are not angels when it comes to campaign finance reform. The president has done nothing to clean up the system that he mastered to gain office. And the Democrats have copied the GOP’s big money tactics, notably super PACs. However, it is the GOP that is leading the attacks on the equalitarian structures remaining in U.S. elections.

Next week, it will be an amazing spectacle to watch the arguments unfold at the Supreme Court as Republicans argue that there are no race-based prejudices at play in American elections—and accuse the Democrats and civil rights groups of cynicism for saying the Voting Rights Act is still needed. This will be an example of lawyering at its worst—arguing anything on behalf of a client and hoping those on the bench are uninformed enough about the realities to believe it.

You might think that the Supreme Court is smarter than that, but its political niavete was on full display in the Citizens United ruling, where the conservative majority said that wealthy individuals, unions and corporations could 1) make unlimited donations to supposedly "independent" political committees—those not working with specific candidate campaigns; and 2) that the public would know who the big donors were because their identities and contributions would be fully disclosed.
Both assumptions were more than a little wrong. Many 2012 super PACs were run by political consultants who previously had worked for the same candidates their super PACs backed; and donor identities were hidden by political non-profits run by Karl Rove and his ilk, shielded by federal tax law. 

The Court’s pro-electioneering spending prejudice was seen in announcing that it would hear the McCutcheon case. Election law experts were not surprised and have said for some time that the Roberts Court is poised to dismantle modern campaign finance laws. Still, the decision to hear the case caused dismay in progressive circles because it threatened the one remaining legal pillar in federal campaign finance law—that contributions could be limited to prevent the appearance or occurance of corruption. Even though there are plenty of loopholes for big money in American elections, this case could set precedents to unravel those modest controls.

It’s noteworthy that these attacks on the legal underpinnings of how elections are run come from a political party whose largely white and aging base is shrinking when seen against America’s demographic changes.

The Republican Party may be in disarry and fighting among themselves—such as the Tea Party faction accusing and backtracking from calling Karl Rove a Nazi—and it may be increasingly unpopular among young voters and communities of color. But when it comes to targeting the rules that dictate who can participate in and influence American elections, it has been successful in bringing cases to the Supreme Court that have and can continue to further unbalance participation in American elections. The Republican Party may be declining, but it is not going quietly into the night.          
Steven Rosenfeld covers democracy issues for AlterNet and is the author of "Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting" (AlterNet Books, 2008).