December 2009 Archives

Commack, NY school busts fifth grader for bottle of organic peppermint oil.

Jonathan Turley blog reports:

School officials have suspended a 10-year-old girl in New York for bringing peppermint oil to the John Mandracchia-Sawmill Intermediate School and giving drops to her fifth grade friends to flavor their water. The Commack School District insists that the oil "is an unregulated over-the-counter drug."

The peppermint-laden drug dealer is Sara Morton-Greiner. She was suspended for one day.

Now many would argue that this could have been handled as an innocent mistake and the girl given a reprimand and letter for her parents. But peppermint oil has long been recognized as a gateway flavor to Spearmint for Mento-heads." Their sweet smelling breath is an well-known indicator of an underground mint-based drug economy at schools. When Sara is clean and her breath is stale, she can resume her education.


Feb 23: Big Test Ahead for Bill of Rights

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If history is any guide (and when it comes to civil liberties it usually is) the failed bombing attempt on Northwest 253 Christmas Day will quickly generate, along with rational reappraisals of security policies, a renewed frenzy to expand government surveillance and prosecutor powers.

In that context the date of Feb. 23 2010 looms, when the Supreme court will hear an appeal on the case of Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, which challenges the constitutionality of key provisions of the "Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act" looms large, noted playwright and First Amendment advocate Jayne Lyn Stahl writes in Counterpunch, as " a test of the strength of the Bill of Rights" in the new political climate.


Stahl reports:

The "Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act" was unmistakably every inch a bipartisan effort, and is easily recognizable as the precursor to the USA Patriot Act. The objective of AEDPA was to cut off all sources of material assistance to any groups the State Department deems to be sources of international terror.

According to Free Expression Policy Project, the measure empowers the State Department to construct a list of "foreign terrorist organizations," and criminalize any "material support" to these groups. While parts of the law were struck down several times by federal courts, plaintiffs in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project are taking legislation that has had the chilling effect of derailing the First Amendment all the way to the Supreme Court.

So, on February 23rd, the highest court in the land will get to decide whether any of the four provisions of AEDPA constitute criminal activity. The penalty for being convicted of providing material support to a State Department blacklisted group can be as much as fifteen years behind bars. The definition of terrorism is said to be simply "any actual or threatened use of a weapon against people or property."

Two years ago, an appeals court found much of the law o be "unconstitutionally vague," and it will soon be the Supreme's turn up at bat to hear a challenge to a measure that, in the words of attorney for the plaintiffs, is "so sweeping that it treats human rights advocates as criminal terrorists...and makes advocating human rights or other lawful, peaceable activity a crime simply because it is done for the benefit of, or in conjunction with, a group the Secretary of State has blacklisted."

Apart from the Carter Center, Human Rights Watch, and coalitions of sociologists and anthropologists, Humanitarian Law Project has another interesting friend.. A group calling itself "Victims of the McCarthy Era," with 32 members many of whom were either themselves blacklisted and/or incarcerated during the 1950's, or had family members blacklisted, for their guilt by association with the Communist Party, has signed onto an amicus brief, and urges that the Supreme Court follow an earlier ruling, Scales v. United States, that suggests "material support" bans must apply only to those who specifically support a group's illegal activities.

When President Obama speaks of threats posed by al Qaeda and what he calls "its affiliates," he invites not only fear and rancor, like his predecessor George W. Bush, but he's essentially comparing political organizations with corporate franchises. Surely, al Qaeda is not the terrorist equivalent of MacDonald's.

 

Consititutionally "Spineless"

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Nat Hentoff on Barack Obama

John W. Whitehead: When Barack Obama was a U.S. Senator in 2005, he introduced a bill to limit the Patriot Act. Now that he is president, he has endorsed the Patriot Act as is. What do you think happened with Obama?

Nat Hentoff: I try to avoid hyperbole, but I think Obama is possibly the most dangerous and destructive president we have ever had. An example is ObamaCare, which is now embattled in the Senate. If that goes through the way Obama wants, we will have something very much like the British system. If the American people have their health care paid for by the government, depending on their age and their condition, they will be subject to a health commission just like in England which will decide if their lives are worth living much longer.

In terms of the Patriot Act, and all the other things he has pledged he would do, such as transparency in government, Obama has reneged on his promises. He pledged to end torture, but he has continued the CIA renditions where you kidnap people and send them to another country to be interrogated. Why is Obama doing that if he doesn't want torture anymore? Throughout Obama's career, he promised to limit the state secrets doctrine which the Bush-Cheney administration had abused enormously. The Bush administration would go into court on any kind of a case that they thought might embarrass them and would argue that it was a state secret and the case should not be continued. Obama is doing the same thing, even though he promised not to.

So in answer to your question, I am beginning to think that this guy is a phony. Obama seems to have no firm principles that I can discern that he will adhere to. His only principle is his own aggrandizement. This is a very dangerous mindset for a president to have.


$250 fine for waving one's hands

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NY town declares war on day laborers.

The NY Times reports

FIRST came the anti-loitering decrees, then legislation to punish employers and landlords who hire or house immigrants. Now, this Nassau County town of 300,000 people has passed perhaps the most stringent of ordinances attempting to control immigrant day laborers: a law that makes even waving one's hand punishable by a $250 fine.

"The term 'solicitation of employment' includes, but is not limited to, shouting at cars, waving arms or signs, making hand signals, approaching motor vehicles or standing in public roads facing in the direction of oncoming traffic," reads Ordinance 205-32, which the Town Board passed unanimously Sept. 29.

The town's outside counsel, Jonathan Sinnreich, described the ordinance as narrow, lawful and unambiguous. But it has spurred a sorry rift between the officials who approved it -- after residents complained about congestion and worse at an unsanctioned hiring spot in Locust Valley, a hamlet in Oyster Bay -- and the immigrant advocates who deplore it as a law against "waving while Latino."


The day after New Year's will mark the 90th anniversary of one of the darkest moments in the history of civil liberties, the Palmer Raids against suspected radicals, which took place on January 2, 1920. Ordered by then Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, the raids that occurred that night involved a dragnet of over 33 cities in 23 states, directed against suspected members and supporters of the recently formed Communist and Communist Labor Parties, resulting in the round-up of over four thousand people.

Describing the raids in his history of free-speech titled The First Freedom, author Nat Hentoff wrote:

"Government agents enthusiastically engaged in such massive violations of the Constitution as unlawful searches and seizures, holding prisoners incommunicado and thereby denying their right to a lawyer, making arrests without warrants and detaining prisoners for excessive periods of time without having a chance to be heard by a judge."

The true quarry of the raids, according to Hentoff, was less the documents and 'evidence" seized which turned out to be minimal) than what Attorney General Palmer called "A disease of evil thinking".

It's safe to say that the 90th anniversary of the raids, which marked the apogee of the first  American "Red Scare" (to be followed by another in the 1950s) will pass in near total obscurity, with little note by either politicians or the popular news media.

This is unfortunate, because, as Jeff St. Clair and Joshua Frank document in an important new book previewed in Counterpunch, using the specter of domestic threat as an excuse to selectively suspend the Constitution in pursuit of a war against "evil thinking" is an all too contemporary topic.

St. Clair and Frank chronicle the evolution of what they call the Green Scare and its analogies to earlier Red Scares.

As the Espionage Act of 1916 provided the legal pretext for the first Red Scare, so the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act of 2006 and a raft of state legislation broadly seeking to equate non-violent activism against enterprises employing animal cruelty in the production of their goods with terrorism, are seeking to create the legal underpinning for chilling free speech and dissent.

In a new investigative report the National Lawyer's Guild exposes how many of these laws are crafted by industry lobby groups seeking to brand animal rights and other activist groups as terrorists organizations.  

"

While the 2006 Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) has received a great deal of attention from animal and environmental activists--as well as supporters of free speech--similar state-level legislation has faced little to no scrutiny. A conservative organization of state legislators known as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has produced model legislation that is similar to AETA but more extreme in many ways. ALEC's model legislation:

  • Suggests adding the phrase "politically motivated" to the definition of an "animal or ecological terrorist organization," which clearly shows that the bill is designed to suppress speech based on its content.
  • Defines illegal activity so broadly that anyone using the Internet or email to plan (or even express support for) an act of "animal or ecological terrorism" can be charged.
  • Creates a "terrorist registry"--an online database open to the public which contains names, addresses and photos of everyone convicted of "animal or ecological terrorism."


 

Letters have historically been understood as a necessary means by which prisoners can communicate with the outside world. They've also, from Martin Luther King Jr. to George Jackson, been the venue of some of the world's most important literature. Now, however, ostensibly to prevent drug smuggling, many US prisons are pushing postcard only policies.

First Amendment Center reports


Jails across the country have imposed restrictive postcard-only mail policies for inmates. The only mail the inmates can receive are metered postcards -- no private letters from family members, no care packages. Officials in Arizona, Florida, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri and Oregon have instituted such measures.

Officials claim postcard policies increase security and reduce costs. They say that people smuggle in contraband to inmates -- such as illegal drugs -- in letters and packages.

A federal district judge upheld such a policy at a jail in Maricopa County, Ariz., last September, finding that it was rationally related to the legitimate penological interest of safety. The judge wrote in Covell v. Arpaio that "the reduction of contraband smuggling is a legitimate goal of the Maricopa County jails and that the mail policy is reasonably related to furthering that goal." Frederick Covell, the inmate who challenged the policy, wished to receive letters from his mother, who was in a nursing home. As he alleged, it was doubtful that his 74-year-old mother was planning on sending drugs to her incarcerated son.

Jail officials and the federal judge in Arizona failed to consider the First Amendment rights of those sending the letters. Family members may have urgent information that they wish to convey to their family member or friend who is incarcerated. They may not be able to provide helpful advice or information in the tight space of a postcard.

For years jails have enforced policies to stop the smuggling of contraband through the mails. Why now is there an institutional obsession to restrict mail to postcards? The Supreme Court has ruled that prisoners have a First Amendment right to receive letters. Maintaining contact with the outside world may be the only chance an inmate has of surviving mentally through the penal ordeal. Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote in his concurring opinion in Procunier v. Martinez (1974): "The mails provide one of the few ties inmates retain to their communities or families -- ties essential to the success of their later return to the outside world."

Granted, the Court has crafted a very deferential standard for prison officials when reviewing inmates' First Amendment claims. In Turner v. Safley (1987), the Court said prison policies are constitutional if they are reasonably related to a legitimate penological interest. However, one part of that standard provides that such deference is suspended if the officials have engaged in an "exaggerated response."

Limiting written communication to postcards is an "exaggerated response" and a First Amendment violation by Supreme Court standards.


Judge upholds law in nation's capital requires licenses to sell political buttons.

The Washington Post reports

A federal judge ruled Tuesday that a 79-year-old vendor must obtain a license to sell political buttons on D.C. streets.

The vendor, Frank Enten, had asked the judge to temporarily block the District from requiring him to get a vending license and site permit to sell his buttons.

He and his attorney, Andrew Tauber, had argued that the District regulations improperly chilled Enten's political speech. They said that the selling of political buttons was protected under the First Amendment and that the District should not be allowed to require him to obtain such paperwork. D.C. police have arrested him and chased him off street corners because he did not have a license.

The District had argued that Enten was no different from people selling hot dogs and T-shirts. They said the restrictions were designed to ensure that the city didn't become crowded and disrupt commerce on sidewalks. District lawyers said the regulations were "content neutral" and did not discriminate against anyone's viewpoints.


The Press Corps supine

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"All Governments Lie", muckraker I.F. Stone's motto is an apt expression of the adversarial role the fourth estate should play toward federal authorities, especially those who cloak their arrogant power grabs in the name of necessary national security driven secrecy. But, when it comes to attempts by the Dept. of Justice to trample on rights and railroad suspects, the current press corps, is more typically a cheering gallery applauding anything federal prosecutors say or do, the constitution be screwe,  civil liberties attorney Harvey Silverglate argues.

Silverglate writes

In a discussion on WAMU Radio yesterday, host Kojo Nnamdi noted that vagueness in the federal criminal law has recently made "strange bedfellows" of the political left and right. This same "emerging consensus" was also the subject of an insightful November 23 article by Adam Liptak, The New York Times' Supreme Court reporter.

What has occasioned this coming together? As I mentioned here on Monday, individuals and organizations of all political stripes are realizing the danger to all when prosecutors are empowered with exceedingly broad and--worse--hard-to-define federal laws. A diverse coalition of groups--including the Heritage Foundation, the Federalist Society, the Cato Institute, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and the ACLU, among others--have been sounding a clarion call against this species of executive expansion. They have pointed out that, from webmasters to fund managers, no segment of civil society is safe.

But this phenomenon is not new. As I document in Three Felonies a Day, the proliferation of vague laws--and prosecutions under them--began in the mid-1980s. Why has widespread recognition, especially from the American public, taken so long?

For one thing, the Department of Justice has a very effective public relations machine. With every major indictment, there is a press release and, not infrequently, a press conference that major national media typically attend with bated breath. Flanked by FBI, IRS, DEA, SEC, and members of the other myriad supporting agencies, prosecutors feed reporters the government's side of the case, often a matter of hours after a hapless defendant has been rousted out of bed and paraded in the infamous "perp walk" (much to the delight of press photographers who have been tipped off in advance). At the end of this prejudicial circus-like performance, prosecutors often refuse to answer media questions on the ironic ground that they are bound by the federal court's rules against pre-trial publicity and, in any event, they do not want to cause the public (especially potential jurors) to prejudge the case!

But the press corps itself is ultimately responsible for the one-sided coverage of what I call "three-felonies-a-day" cases (a reference to my new book, Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent). The fact is that there is an unseemly relationship between the Department of Justice and much of the news media. While in some areas the press and the DOJ have developed an appropriately adversarial, or at least skeptical relationship, by and large the DOJ plays the press corps like a fiddle.

Consider the Houston Chronicle's slanted coverage of the arrest, indictment, and trial of former Enron President Jeffrey Skilling, convicted in May 2006 on charges of conspiracy, securities fraud and depriving the now-defunct Houston-based energy company of his "honest services." Vitriol for Skilling was not limited to the Chronicle's opinion pages; news articles, sports stories, and columnists vilified Skilling well before his day in court. Despite affirming his conviction, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the media coverage created a community prejudice against Skilling. The three-judge panel wrote (PDF) that the Chronicle published "nearly one hundred...personal interest stories in which sympathetic individuals expressed feelings of anger and betrayal toward Enron," and that even "the Chronicle's 'Pethouse Pet of the Week' section mentioned that a pet had 'enjoyed watching those Enron jerks being led away in handcuffs.'" (Emphasis in original) In Houston, the so-called Fourth Estate played the role of prosecutorial lapdog.

The Supreme Court decided on October 13 to review the Skilling case as part of its trio of honest services cases this term, and one of the issues on appeal is the extent to which jury prejudice affected the verdict. But, if the previous hearing on honest services is any indication, the justices will use the Skilling case to look at the broader constitutional due process question surrounding the infamously vague 28-word fraud provision. Oral argument is set for March 1.

Another public figure, disparaged in the public eye even before he was indicted (much less convicted) will be intently watching the high court's decisions in all three honest services cases. The prosecutor's press machine has been so effective that even mentioning his name causes some to chuckle with derision. But the case of former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich deserves a closer look.

Illinois U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald framed the case, from the start, as an altruistic Department of Justice mission to clean up state and local politics. At a December 9, 2008 press conference, held shortly after Blagojevich's early-morning arrest on a variety of political corruption charges, Fitzgerald announced his most sensational allegation: The governor deprived Illinois' electorate of his "honest services" when he sought to sell to the highest-bidder the Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama. The headlines were, predictably, nationwide, in large type above-the-fold (or the on-line equivalent).

This discovery from the wiretap and bug planted by Fitzgerald's agents in the governor's office and home was deemed so threatening to the public weal that the prosecutors, rather than give the plot time to play itself out and result in an outright sale-and-purchase of the Senate seat, pulled the plug and arrested Blagojevich before any deal was consummated--or so the nation was told. At the press conference, Fitzgerald informed a rapt audience of newsmen that he had to act precipitously to prevent the governor from carrying through this "most appalling conduct" that was the pinnacle of the governor's "political corruption crime spree."

So the prosecution is for a "conspiracy," or plan, to sell the Senate seat, rather than for an accomplished act. Without having to show that Blagojevich actually sold the Senate seat, and with the notoriously vague federal conspiracy law, securing a conviction is much easier. In a sense, no real crime is required. Yet neither the media nor the public questioned Fitzgerald's motives for failing to wait until the Obama seat was actually sold. (Had such a sale taken place, of course, the Senate would surely not have seated the governor's nominee. Hence, there was no good reason for Fitzgerald to fail to wait for the completed crime--except, as I suggest, that no such sale was in fact going to take place.)

Blagojevich has some quite different perspectives on his pre-arrest political machinations, which he sets out in a remarkable, even if unbalanced and in some places downright silly, memoir published after his indictment, entitled The Governor. The former governor claims that his motive for choosing Obama's successor had to do with getting his political enemies out of the way of his legislative agenda. If Blagojevich's account is to be believed, Fitzgerald pulled the plug prematurely not to serve the people of Illinois, but to save his own case. Had the matter been allowed to play itself out, says the former governor, it might have become increasingly obvious that what Blagojevich was doing was perfectly legal--even if unsavory to some refined sensibilities--Chicago politics. Indeed, Blagojevich tried, without success, to obtain the full, unedited eavesdrop tapes to play at his impeachment trial, claiming they would exonerate him, but was unable to do so due to Fitzgerald's objection. At the very least, the tapes might have portrayed conduct deemed lawful, or at least acceptable under Illinois state law.

Blagojevich's benign (even if unrefined) political explanation is lent credence by something Fitzgerald said during the December 2008 press conference. He noted that an Ethics in Government Act was pending in Illinois, scheduled to take effect January 1, 2009 that, according to Fitzgerald, "would bar certain contributions from people doing business with the state of Illinois." And so, explained Fitzgerald, Blagojevich and his cronies "were working feverishly to get as much money from contractors, shaking them down, pay-to-play before the end of the year." In other words, Fitzgerald appeared to be conceding that at least some of Blagojevich's conduct was in accordance with state law as it stood at the time. Not a single reporter, however, pointed out that this "crime spree" was apparently occurring before the new ethics laws were enacted, and that the governor's actions therefore conformed to and were permissible under state law.

Were these "crimes" the work of an arch criminal, or merely the machinations of a master political opportunist doing what Illinois law allowed? While it is true, of course, that the honest services fraud statute enables the feds to prosecute state officials for conduct allowed under state law--this is one of the statute's problems that the Supreme Court presumably will rule upon in the upcoming cases--it is, or should be, difficult to brand a politician as on a "political corruption crime spree" if he is scrupulously adhering to the statutes and codes duly enacted by a sovereign state legislature.

Until we have a more skeptical press corps, the public discussion of whether and how federal prosecutions on the basis of vague statutes should be reined in is going to have to be conducted without the essential participation of an educated citizenry. This Fourth Estate cheering gallery is not what Thomas Jefferson envisioned.



Off the books detention, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) style.

The Nation reports

"If you don't have enough evidence to charge someone criminally but you think he's illegal, we can make him disappear." Those chilling words were spoken by James Pendergraph, then executive director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Office of State and Local Coordination, at a conference of police and sheriffs in August 2008. Also present was Amnesty International's Sarnata Reynolds, who wrote about the incident in the 2009 report "Jailed Without Justice" and said in an interview, "It was almost surreal being there, particularly being someone from an organization that has worked on disappearances for decades in other countries. I couldn't believe he would say it so boldly, as though it weren't anything wrong."

Pendergraph knew that ICE could disappear people, because he knew that in addition to the publicly listed field offices and detention sites, ICE is also confining people in 186 unlisted and unmarked subfield offices, many in suburban office parks or commercial spaces revealing no information about their ICE tenants--nary a sign, a marked car or even a US flag. (Presumably there is a flag at the Veterans Affairs Complex in Castle Point, New York, but no one would associate it with the Criminal Alien Program ICE is running out of Building 7.) Designed for confining individuals in transit, with no beds or showers, subfield offices are not subject to ICE Detention Standards. The subfield office network was mentioned in an October report by Dora Schriro, then special adviser to Janet Napolitano, secretary of Homeland Security, but no locations were provided.

State ban against theatrical smoking declared constitutional.

Law week Colorado reports

Public health concerns trumped freedom of expression in a Colorado Supreme Court ruling this morning. In a 6-1 decision in Curious Theatre v. Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, the high court held that the state's indoor smoking ban, enacted in 2006, bars actors from smoking onstage as part of plays.

The plaintiffs, a group of local theaters, had argued that smoking onstage is protected expression under the First Amendment. The court ruled that even assuming smoking can sometimes be protected conduct, the smoking ban can't be called unconstitutional because it is narrowly tailored for a specific purpose.

The theaters argued that fake cigarettes aren't an adequate substitute. But the majority opinion, written by Justice Nathan Coats, held that using fake cigarettes, "like the theatrical use of substitutes for virtually every other type of dangerous or illegal conduct, is capable of amply communicating to an audience an intended message."
Justice Gregory Hobbs was the lone dissenter. He contended the ban is not narrowly tailored because it bans the smoking of any plant matter, not just tobacco, which "renders alternative means of the protected First Amendment expression untenable and even laughable."
Taylor Pugh, a 4 year old living in suburban Dallas, was growing his hair to donate it for wigs for cancer patients.

The Houston Chronicle reports

Taylor Pugh has been suspended from pre-kindergarten because he likes his hair a little on the floppy side.

The four-year-old sat with a teacher's aide in a suburban Dallas school library Wednesday while his friends played and studied together in a classroom.

"They kicked me out that place," said Taylor, who prefers the nickname Tater Tot. "I miss my friends."

Taylor's locks -- long on the front and sides, covering his earlobes and shirt collar -- violate the school district's dress code. He has been punished with in-school suspension since late last month.

His parents say the boy plans to eventually cut his hair and donate it to a charity that makes wigs for cancer patients. And they are not happy with the district's rules.

Thanks to Jonathan Turley

Cruel (and not unusual) punishment

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In the Collier County Jail in Florida, Joan S. repeatedly sought medical attention because she was near her due date and leaking amniotic fluid; this went on for almost two weeks. By the time she got an ultrasound, the doctor informed her that all of her amniotic fluid was gone and her fetus's skull had collapsed. Jail officials then delayed taking her to the hospital, putting her at risk for septic shock the longer the dead fetus remained inside her. As if this were not bad enough, the jail delayed giving her a shot she needed because she has RH-negative blood, which could cause complications if she becomes pregnant in the future. She was only 22.

The malign neglect of Joan S. is hardly an anomaly. Rather, as Rachel Roth, documents in The Nation, it's closer to business as usual in US prisons.

The Nation reports

Over the past year, incarcerated women and their allies have achieved a remarkable string of victories against inhumane treatment. First, they persuaded the Bureau of Prisons to issue a new policy in October 2008 limiting the use of restraints on women who are in labor, giving birth or recovering after childbirth; the Marshals Service, which transports people in federal custody, followed suit. Next, they won legislation in the spring and summer of 2009 restricting the use of restraints on pregnant women in New Mexico, Texas and New York. Finally, they successfully petitioned the US Court of Appeals Eighth Circuit for a rehearing of the full court in a case from Arkansas, which resulted in a ruling in October that shackling women in labor is unconstitutional.

These developments send a strong signal to the rest of the country to stop subjecting women to this dangerous and degrading practice. But what happens to pregnant women in prison before they wind up in chains at a hospital?

When women are brought to a hospital in shackles, the pain and humiliation they endure likely caps months of difficulty from being pregnant behind bars, months without adequate prenatal care or nutrition, or even basics like a bed to sleep on or clothes to accommodate their changing shape.

The lack of common sense and compassion with which imprisoned pregnant women are treated is chilling. Three stories illustrate the dangers women face when they cannot get anyone to take their medical needs seriously.

 

Walt Staton was dropping off water jugs for people who attempt the often deadly trek into Arizona from Mexico when the Feds ticketed him for "knowingly littering."

Alternet reports

On Friday December 4th, an Arizona District Court judge told Walt Staton, a 28 year-old seminary student, that he might be facing 25 days in a federal prison. His crime was "knowingly littering" along the U.S.-Mexico border.

One day last December, Staton and a friend named Victor Ceballos, loaded 70 plastic water jugs into the back of a truck and drove from Tucson to outer stretches of Sonora desert. Temperatures in the desert are extreme, reaching 120 degrees during summer months and dropping below 30 degrees in the winter. Many people who attempt the four-day trek between the Mexico border and Phoenix do not survive; this year, a human rights group found the remains of 206 people. The main causes of death, the group believes, are heat overexposure or hypothermia, but corpses decompose so quickly in the desert that it is often impossible to tell.

Staton and Ceballos are volunteers for a group called No More Deaths, which offers humanitarian aid to those trying to cross the Mexico-Arizona border. Volunteers hand out water bottles and socks; they provide food and basic medical care. These actions carry risks of their own; in July 2005, two No More Deaths volunteers were charged with multiple felonies for driving three travelers to get medical care. Their case was eventually dismissed.

When it comes to the water bottles, volunteers are precise; they monitor each drop-off point to see if they've left too many or too few and they pick up any debris. "We put the water jugs right on the trail. So you can't miss them. Because a lot of people walk at night," Staton explained in a phone interview with AlterNet.

"We hear stories from people about how they were literally crawling on the ground and thought they were going to die and came across gallon jugs of water and were able to live."

It was ten days before Christmas when Staton and Ceballos were almost finished with their route. "We were dropping off 70 bottles total over five different locations," Staton recalled. The second to last spot that day was the Buenos Aires Wildlife Refuge, ten or so miles from the U.S.-Mexico border. As they were entering the refuge, Staton noticed a border patrol helicopter overhead. "That's really common. We interact with border patrol quite a bit. I didn't think anything of it."


Drone War

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To drone (as in launching unamanned aerial attacks on suspected terrorists, or, sometimes on areas where suspected terrorists are suspected to be); or not to drone?

That is, so far, NOT the question being asked by the Obama administration, the military or most of the Beltway media mavens.

As Wired News points out, "With a wink and a nod from Pakistan, the US government has been carrying on a clandestine drone war over Pakistan for nearly two years. Now the question is whether those operations may expand to include drone strikes to the southern province of Baluchistan, where the Taliban's Quetta Shura maintains a leadership base."

Today, as the administration according to news reports, debates the military and political merits of  escalation of drone attacks against suspected Taliban enclaves, what's also not being asked nearly enough is what the moral and legal implications of conducting a covert war on terror by remote control.

Although the conventional wisdom is that drone strikes are a surgically clean, acceptable tactic of counter-terror with minimal "collateral damage", the reality is quite other-wise, Max Kantar, a human rights investigator and activist, writes, in an important paper titled International Law: The First Casualty of the Drone War. 

"The United States," Kantar argues, citing 'relevant and uncontroversial legal precedents established by the International Criminal Court", is "in violation of international law on several counts in regards to its bombings of Pakistan."

Kantar writes:

For nearly four years, the United States has been using unmanned aerial vehicles, also known as "drones," to repeatedly bomb targets in Pakistan.[1] The drone strikes, operated primarily by the CIA, are reportedly launched with the intention of killing top al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders and holding the Pakistani government accountable. Since the Obama administration has taken office, the U.S. campaign of drone strikes in Pakistan has markedly intensified, consistent with the trends established in the final eight months President Bush's second term. Although the bombings of Pakistan fall into a much broader strategic U.S. policy in the region, it is the purpose of this analysis to focus solely on the legal implications and human costs of the drone strikes in Pakistan.

First I will review the existing reports entailing the legal status--combatant or noncombatant--of those killed in U.S. attacks. Secondly, I will provide a brief and basic overview of the laws of war and their immediate applicability regarding the protection of civilians and noncombatants in international armed conflicts in accordance with the Geneva Conventions of 1949, the Additional Protocols of 1977, and customary international law. Third, I will examine several case studies of various U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan in order to determine whether or not international law is being observed by United States. Fourth, I will briefly evaluate the fundamental legal credibility underlying the attacks using both the existing analyses provided by legal scholars and rights groups and well-established principles of law rooted in the Fourth Geneva Convention and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Fifth, using the available body of documentary evidence compiled by independent journalists, human rights groups, strategic analysts, media reports, and legal experts, as well as taking into consideration the basic tenets of international law in the context of the U.S. attacks, I will juxtapose the substance of U.S. actions with fundamental American legal standards with the purpose of establishing an appropriate technical classification for the United States' drone policy in Pakistan. Lastly, I will conclude this analysis with a few final remarks addressing unanswered questions while also making some basic recommendations.

 

 

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Because she only made $10 an hour cutting hair at Supercuts and lived with her two kids in a room she rented at her parent's house single mother Rachel Porcaro became the target of an IRS audit costing her tens of thousands of dollars in order to prove she was really poor. an audit driving her more deeply into poverty.

The Seattle Times reports

Rachel Porcaro knows she's hardly rich. When you're a single mom making 10 bucks an hour, you don't need government experts to tell you how broke you are.

But that's what happened. The government not only told Porcaro she was poor. They said she was too poor to make it in Seattle.

It all started a year ago, when Porcaro, a 32-year-old mom with two boys, was summoned to the Seattle office of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). She had been flagged for an audit.

She couldn't believe it. She made $18,992 the previous year cutting hair at Supercuts. A few hundred of that she spent to have her taxes prepared by H&R Block.

"I asked the IRS lady straight upfront -- 'I don't have anything, why are you auditing me?' " Porcaro recalled. "I said, 'Why me, when I don't own a home, a business, a car?' "

The answer stunned both Porcaro and the private tax specialist her dad had gotten to help her.

"They showed us a spreadsheet of incomes in the Seattle area," says Dante Driver, an accountant at Seattle's G.A. Michael and Co. "The auditor said, 'You made eighteen thousand, and our data show a family of three needs at least thirty-six thousand to get by in Seattle."

"They thought she must have unreported income. That she was hiding something. Basically they were auditing her for not making enough money."

Thanks to the Agitator
Asheville, NC councilman-elect Cecil Bothwell is being held up from assuming office by a state law forbidding atheists in public office.

Asheville Citizen-Times reports

North Carolina's constitution is clear: politicians who deny the existence of God are barred from holding office.Opponents of Cecil Bothwell are seizing on that law to argue he should not be seated as a City Council member today, even though federal courts have ruled religious tests for public office are unlawful under the U.S. Constitution.

Voters elected the writer and builder to the council last month.

"I'm not saying that Cecil Bothwell is not a good man, but if he's an atheist, he's not eligible to serve in public office, according to the state constitution," said H.K. Edgerton, a former Asheville NAACP president.

Article 6, section 8 of the state constitution says: "The following persons shall be disqualified for office: First, any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God."

Thanks to Jonathan Turley


Holding Rogue Governments Accountable

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Illegal spying and surveillance of US citizens. Circumvention, or outright flouting, of international and domestic laws forbidding kidnapping, "preventive" detention, torture and assassination of suspected security threats. These rogue government activities, and the struggle to bring accountability to them, are all too timely topics as we head into 2010.

They are hardly new issues, however, nor did they emerge ex nihilo after 9-11.

Recalling the still unpunished murder of Black Panther activist Fred Hampton four decades ago by the Chicago police in collusion with the FBI as part of the government's infamous COINTELPRO program, attorney Jeffrey Haas, author of the book The Assassination of Fred Hampton, discusses the threads of continuity connecting government secrecy and crimes then and now.

On the 40th anniversary of Hampton's murder on December 4th Haas spoke with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now.

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