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Sunday, July 29, 2007
By Steven L. Taylor

Via the BBC: Japan’s PM accepts ‘utter defeat’

Japanese PM Shinzo Abe has accepted his ruling Liberal Democratic Party has suffered “utter defeat” in polls for the upper house of parliament.

But as votes were being counted, Mr Abe said he had no intention of resigning.

Projections suggest the LDP will lose control of the chamber for the first time in more than 50 years – handing a landslide victory to the opposition.

A remarkable outcome, in terms of Japanese political history.

The seat counts at the moment:

Half of the 242 seats in the House of Councillors were being contested.

The LDP-led ruling coalition currently controls 132 seats. It needs to win 64 of the 121 seats that are up for grabs in order to retain its majority.

But Japanese TV reports suggest the LDP has fallen far short of its target, winning between 31 and 43 seats out of the 76 it was defending.

No word at this point on the fate of the Last Samurai.

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By Steven L. Taylor

Via the BBC: Farc ‘killed hostages by mistake’

The 11 politicians who died while being held by Farc rebels were killed during an accidental clash between factions, Colombia’s intelligence chief has said.

Andres Penate said intercepted communications showed the left-wing movement had shot dead the hostages after coming across another rebel unit.

Thinking they were security forces, commanders ordered the hostages to be killed rather than let them be rescued.

The Farc said in a statement that they were investigating the incident.

The group had previously insisted the politicians were killed in crossfire when an “unidentified military group” attacked their jungle camp in the western Valle del Cauca region on 18 June.

That is one rather grave mistake. It also demonstrates the ruthlessness of the FARC in regards to kidnapping, as they would prefer to slaughter 11 people instead of letting them be rescued.

The politicians in question were are members of the Departmental Assembly of Valle de Cauca (more or less like a state legislature). They were kidnapped out of the assembly’s chamber in Cali in April of 2002 and had been held until this tragic mistake was made.

This incident may end up having larger ramifications:

The BBC’s Jeremy McDermott in Bogota says that, if it is true, the massacre will pile yet more pressure on the Farc, which after more than 40 years of fighting, has reached its lowest level of public support.

I can see how it might lead to pressure on the FARC to talk to the government, especially since the ELN (the other major guerrilla group) is talking and there has been an ongoing process with the paramilitary group, the AUC. Of course, both sets of talks have some serious issues and it is always dangerous to get overly optimistic about the peace process in Colombia.

Politically this event may redound to the Uribe administration’s advantage as Uribe is suffering some in public opinion over the parapolitica scandal–the linking of the paramilitaries to politicians, including some Uribe appointees. This situation with the FARC diverts, to some degree, a portion of public attention away from the paras situation and also gives Uribe a specific target that he can address with a renewed vigor. Although whether that means expanded military action against the FARC or trying to leverage the situation to try and force talks remains to be seen (the former being an easier route to take).

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By Steven L. Taylor

Via the BBC: Cuban athletes leave games early

Cuban athletes have made a hurried departure from the Pan-American games in Brazil, apparently amid fears of possible mass defections.

The delegation was rushed at short notice to Rio de Janeiro’s airport, leaving the men’s volleyball team no time to collect their bronze medals.

The athletes were said to have been ordered to leave the games before the finishing ceremony on Sunday.

It follows the defection of four Cuban athletes earlier in the tournament.

It’s quite the Cold War era flashback.

When one has to go through these types of measures to make sure that one’s athletes won’t bolt from your control when given the chance, there just might be something wrong with your system. Of course, the willingness of people to put pontoons on old Ford pickup trucks and try and cross the ocean were something of an indication of that as well…

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Saturday, July 28, 2007
By Steven L. Taylor

Via the AP: U.S. coal company not liable for union deaths in Colombia

A jury on Thursday rejected claims that Alabama-based Drummond coal was to blame for the killing of three union leaders in Colombia, a defeat for labor in a test of whether companies can be held responsible in U.S. courtrooms for their conduct overseas.

Jurors sided with Drummond and the head of its Colombian operations, Augusto Jimenez, in ruling against a lawsuit filed by relatives and the union of the dead men, killed by paramilitary gunmen six years ago.

The main issue, as I understand it, is that Drummond officials were accused of hiring paramilitary hitmen to take out union leaders. Sadly, the basic accusation is one that is quite possible in the Colombian context.

The Birmingham News has more on the allegations (Company not liable in slayings):

The verdict in the civil trial means the union and families of three slain Colombian labor leaders failed to convince the jury that Birmingham-based coal mine operator Drummond substantially helped right-wing death squads kill the men who worked at its South American mine.

The families and union claimed Drummond supplied the gangs with fuel, vehicles and a safe haven inside its 23,000-acre mine in the remote grasslands of northern Colombia.

Drummond argued the deaths were just an unfortunate three among thousands of others in a country with warring factions, lawless drug traffickers, roaring poverty and not enough police and soldiers to patrol vast stretches of isolated mountains, savanna and wilderness

The trial itself was a big deal in the sense that its outcome could have had consequences well outside the case itself:

The trial, which resurrected an obscure 218-year-old law that holds Americans liable for their overseas conduct, was a centerpiece for an international human rights community that increasingly is using the statute to attack the behavior of big global corporations. The United Steelworkers and the International Labor Rights Fund each supplied lawyers and thousands of hours of work to the five-year-old suit.

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By Steven L. Taylor

Via the NYT: As U.S. Rebuilds, Iraq Won’t Act on Finished Work

Iraq’s national government is refusing to take possession of thousands of American-financed reconstruction projects, forcing the United States either to hand them over to local Iraqis, who often lack the proper training and resources to keep the projects running, or commit new money to an effort that has already consumed billions of taxpayer dollars.

The conclusions, detailed in a report released Friday by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, a federal oversight agency, include the finding that of 2,797 completed projects costing $5.8 billion, Iraq’s national government had, by the spring of this year, accepted only 435 projects valued at $501 million. Few transfers to Iraqi national government control have taken place since the current Iraqi government, which is frequently criticized for inaction on matters relating to the American intervention, took office in 2006.

This is an excellent and telling example of why those who pin their hopes on The Surge, Petraeus or Sunni responses to AQI in Anbar are missing the real problem in Iraq: there is no functioning state and it is unlikely that there will be one anytime soon.

The situation also underscores that even when the administration is providing the much vaunted “good news” that many say is suppressed that, in fact, we aren’t being given the whole picture:

The United States often promotes the number of rebuilding projects, like power plants and hospitals, that have been completed in Iraq, citing them as signs of progress in a nation otherwise fraught with violence and political stalemate. But closer examination by the inspector general’s office, headed by Stuart W. Bowen Jr., has found that a number of individual projects are crumbling, abandoned or otherwise inoperative only months after the United States declared that they had been successfully completed.

So, money, time and lives down the drain for projects that are “abandoned or otherwise inoperative” soon after we hand them over.

The administration clearly had no idea what it was getting into in this war and had no idea how complicated post-invasion circumstances were going to be. You can’t go in, break things, and then hope for the best. Just like handing a constitution to people does not automatically mean a functional government exists, so, too, handing over new facilities to people unprepared to use them does not mean the infrastructure is fixed:

In one of the most recent cases, a $90 million project to overhaul two giant turbines at the Dora power plant in Baghdad failed after completion because employees at the plant did not know how to operate the turbines properly and the wrong fuel was used. The additional power is critically needed in Baghdad, where residents often have only a few hours of electricity a day.

The following pretty much sums the situation up:

“To build something and not have these issues resolved from top to bottom is unfathomable,” said William L. Nash, a retired general who is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and an expert on Middle East reconstruction. “The management of the reconstruction program for Iraq has been a near-total disaster from the beginning.”

Indeed.

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By Steven L. Taylor

Reports the Politico: Schumer to fight new Bush high court picks

New York Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a powerful member of the Democratic leadership, said Friday the Senate should not confirm another U.S. Supreme Court nominee under President Bush “except in extraordinary circumstances.”

“We should reverse the presumption of confirmation,” Schumer told the American Constitution Society convention in Washington. “The Supreme Court is dangerously out of balance. We cannot afford to see Justice Stevens replaced by another Roberts, or Justice Ginsburg by another Alito.”

To which John Hinderaker of Power Line responds in the headline of a post: Is This A Coup? If Not, What Is It? and in the post likens Schumer’s statement to “announc[ing] a change in the Constitution.”

There are so many things to say here that the mind flies in multiple directions all at once. As such, I’ll start with the most ridiculous and work my way out: no, John, this isn’t a coup and if you don’t know what one is, I suggest taking a Comparative Politics course at a local college of university. Here’s a brief def to keep you going until then: coups are extralegal seizures of power that usually result in a change in the control of the government. Quite frequently there is blood split in the process, although not always. Coups typically result in the suspension of the existing constitutional or legal order for an indefinite period of time and in many cases lead to a restructuring of the rules that govern control of the state. As such, no–no coup here.

That leads me to the next ridiculous point, the idea that this is a “change in the Constitution.” Well, as they are supposed to teach in basic civics classes in middle and high school, and as is noted in every college-level Intro to US Government class in land, there is this little thing in the Constitution called “advice and consent” and it belongs to the Senate and it governs things like, well, appointments to the Supreme Court of the United States (Barbara O’Brien has it quoted this morning in case Google isn’t working at the moment). As such, if Schumer wants to try and use the constitutionally mandated powers of the Senate to attempt to block SCOTUS nominations by this president, it is wholly constitutional for him to do so. So no–no change to the Constitution.

This then leads to some Politics 101 with a dash of Math 101. You see, John, Schumer is what we call in the trade a “politician” and politicians are often known for their deployment of bluster. They frequently say things that they would like to be true, but may not, at the end of the day actually be true. And this is where the math comes in: Schumer is only 1 guy out of 100 in the Senate, and while he has considerable power on the Judiciary Committee, he may or may not be able to leverage that position to block a nominee. If he could, it would require the help of his friends (other Senators who would also be deploying their constitutional powers). That they might support his move would be expected, by the way, as the friends in question would prefer that Bush not make any more appointments to the Court.

Now, John, one may or may not like this situation, but it is wholly legal and constitutional. Indeed, you may recall many of your own political allies deploying the phrase “elections have consequences” back when the GOP controlled the Senate and the Democrats were blocking judicial nominations. Well, we had one of those elections thingies back in November and the Democrats won the Senate. This means, again back to the Math bit, that they have the votes to block a nomination if they so choose. Again, setting aside whether one likes that or not, it remains a firmly established constitutional fact.

Oh, and back to the bluster thing, there aren’t any vacancies on the Court at the moment, and barring someone’s death, there isn’t going to be one before Bush leaves office. As such, the whole discussion is academic anyway.

As a side note, let me state that those (the President included) who seem to think that the Congress exists simply to approve what the President has asked for (like Bush stating that Congress is simply supposed to fund the war and otherwise be quiet) are all showing a great deal of disrespect to the Constitutional order.

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Friday, July 27, 2007
By Steven L. Taylor

“There is one safeguard known generally to the wise, which is an advantage and security to all, but especially to democracies as against despots. What is it? Distrust.” — Demosthenes.

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By Steven L. Taylor

Via Reuters: Report claims “heavy” alcohol use by NASA astronauts

“Interviews with both flight surgeons and astronauts identified some episodes of heavy use of alcohol by astronauts in the immediate preflight period, which has led to flight safety concerns,” the report said.

The panel did not say when the incidents took place or name the astronauts involved.

“We don’t have enough data to call it alcohol abuse,” said U.S. Air Force Col. Richard Bachmann, panel chairman and commander of the Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine, who offered few details of the two incidents cited in the report.

“We have no way of knowing if these are the only two incidents that have ever occurred in the history of the astronaut corps or if they are the tip of a very large iceberg,” Bachmann said during a 90-minute news conference.

On the one hand one’s immediate reaction is that that can’t be a good thing. On the other I suppose the severity of the issue would depend on who exactly was getting liquored up. If it was the pilot, co-pilot or the like, then NASA, we really have a problem. If it is a flight specialist who is having a hard time getting ready to be blasted into space, well then that’s another thing.

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By Steven L. Taylor

Via the St. Petersburg Times: Freed man still in limbo

Mark O’Hara left jail without handcuffs Wednesday, two years after he went to prison and one week since an appeals court ordered him a new trial.

He was serving a 25-year sentence for having 58 Vicodin pills in his bread truck. Jurors weren’t told that it is legal to possess the drug with a prescription, which he had.

[...]

Tampa airport police arrested O’Hara in August 2004 after they found the hydrocodone and a small amount of marijuana in his illegally parked and unattended bread truck.

He refused plea agreements from prosecutors before trial, one for three years in prison. Instead, jurors heard from two doctors who said they had been treating O’Hara since the early 1990s for pain related to gout and auto accident injuries.

Prosecutors did not contend that O’Hara, who went to prison in the 1980s for cocaine trafficking, sold any of the 80 Vicodin pills he had been prescribed in the eight months before his arrest. Under the law, simply possessing the quantity of pills he had constitutes trafficking.

This case underscores the patently absurd nature of our drug laws. Setting aside anything else, how could we get to the point where possession of 58 Vicodin pills could in any way be sufficient grounds for a 25-year jail sentence? As it stands the man has already spent two years in jail for drugs which he had a prescription, not to mention the personal cost:

He sold two condos, his car and his bread business to pay for the appeal. But the state took the proceeds, according to family friend Eric Mastro, to pay toward the $500,000 fine that came with his conviction.

This is an example of the abuse of state power that has grown out of an unhealthy societal fear of drugs. Such examples also point to why I am extremely concerned about, and often quite critical of, many of the anti-terrorism policies that have emerged since 9/11. If we are at a point in the drug war that a guy can lose two years of his freedom and over $500,000 in assets for having 58 painkiller he acquired legally, how far will our fear over terrorism allow us to fuel the power of the state?

h/t: Radley Balko at Hit and Run.

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By Steven L. Taylor

Via the NYT: F.B.I. Chief Gives Account at Odds With Gonzales’s.

I have not had time to fully pay attention to Alberto Gonzales’ testimony this week, although I am interested in the entire situation.

It would seem that Gonzales is lying about why he went to the bedside of the then-AG Jon Ashcroft. Not only has an eye-witness (acting AG James Comey) testified about the reason that Gonzales and then WH Chief of Staff Andy Card visited Ashcroft, now FBI Director Mueller’s testimony backs up Comey, not Gonzales:

The director, Robert S. Mueller III, told the House Judiciary Committee that the confrontation was about the National Security Agency’s counterterrorist eavesdropping program, describing it as “an N.S.A. program that has been much discussed.” His testimony was a serious blow to Mr. Gonzales, who insisted at a Senate hearing on Tuesday that there were no disagreements inside the Bush administration about the program at the time of those discussions or at any other time.

[...]

“I had an understanding that the discussion was on a N.S.A. program,” Mr. Mueller said in answer to a question from Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, Democrat of Texas, in a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee.

Asked whether he was referring to the Terrorist Surveillance Program, or T.S.P., he replied, “The discussion was on a national N.S.A. program that has been much discussed, yes.”

Mr. Mueller said he had taken notes of some of his conversations about the issue, and after the hearing the committee asked him to produce them.

Now, the reason why Gonzales may be trying to obfuscate the purpose of the Ashcroft visit is because Gonzales had already testified before the Congress that there had been no internal disagreements within the administration over the TSP. However, the Ashcroft incident underscores that there were objections by acting AG Comey and AG Ashcroft (who refused to sign the document that Gonzales brought to his bedside).

Of course, as lies go, this isn’t a very smart one because there were several witnesses in the room, and Mueller’s testimony indicates that there were conversations about the incident with others soon thereafter.

Clearly there are issues that the administration simply doesn’t want to talk about and I suspect that they are hoping that they can simply run out the clock on the administration’s final year and a half in office so as not to have to talk about them.

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