Monday, October 22, 2007

What Impressed Me This Week: Telcom Immunity

The Corruption Angle on Telcom Immunity
I've been pointing to you to Glenn Greenwald's coverage of the warrantless spying issue because he's been presenting it from an angle I never hear in the corporate-owned press: corruption. But Glenn can be a little verbose on the topic, so I thought I'd shrink the Telcom Immunity issue down to a few excerpts. First, a summary:
AT&T's customers sued them for violating their privacy in violation of long-standing federal laws and for violating their Fourth Amendment rights. Even with the most expensive armies of lawyers possible, AT&T and other telecoms are losing in a court of law. The federal judge presiding over the case ruled against them -- ruled that the law is so clear they could not possibly have believed that what they did was legal -- and most observers, having heard the Oral Argument on appeal, predicted that they will lose in the Court of Appeals, too. So AT&T and other telecoms went to Washington and -- led by Bush 41 Attorney General (and now Verizon General Counsel) William Barr, and in cooperation with their former colleague, Mike McConnell -- began paying former government officials to whom they give money, such as Jay Rockefeller, to pass a law declaring them the victors in these lawsuits and be relieved of all liability -- all based on assertions that a court of law has already rejected. They are literally buying a judicial victory in Congress
The main argument for retroactive immunity was put forward by the Washington Post like this: By cooperating with the administration's illegal spying program "the telecommunications providers seem to us to have been acting as patriotic corporate citizens in a difficult and uncharted environment." But Glenn notes in a different post that the telcoms are being paid very well to be "good corporate citizens" or collaborators or whatever.
It is a never-ending carousel of multi-billion dollar transactions -- pursuant to which enormous sums of taxpayer money are transferred to these telecoms in exchange for the telecoms serving as obedient divisions of the Government, giving them unfettered access to all of the data and content of the communications of American citizens.
And this issue is more than just about a few mega-corporations. It's also about closing the only remaining loophole in the cover-up of the whole program.

Congress has no intention of investigating any of this, and even if they wanted to -- which they don't -- their subpoenas would simply be ignored and they would do nothing about it. Congress has spent the last six years shutting its eyes towards all of this, except when the White House demanded that it be legalized.

These private lawsuits -- brought by heroic privacy and civil liberties groups -- are the only real mechanism left for discovering what the telecoms and our Government have been jointly doing when it comes to spying on our communications, maintaining surveillance data bases of our actions, and violating a whole litany of long-standing federal laws designed to protect the confidentiality of citizens' communications. A law that gives amnesty to telecoms would mean that those lawsuits are stopped in their tracks, and we would likely never find out -- at least not for a long, long time -- the extent of this oversight-less surveillance by our government on Americans, nor would we be able to obtain a judicial ruling as to its illegality.

It's the overall precedent that bothers me. The administration asked the phone companies to break the law. They did, and now Congress is about to immunize them from any consequences. So what's going to happen the next time a president asks a corporation to break the law? What if a president wants an accounting company to fudge some books for a major contributor like Enron? What if a president wants Blackwater to assassinate somebody, like maybe a political rival? The company depends on the government for billions in contracts. There's a history of granting immunity afterwards. Why would they say no?

Poll Trends: Watch Huckabee
This was the week the mainstream media started to notice Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. (I wrote about him seven weeks ago.) Some new poll results have put him the radar screen. The USA Today/Gallup poll that came out Monday the 15th lists Republican horserace numbers in two-week intervals going back to the beginning of this year. The race is amazingly static except for one thing: Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul have broken away from the other lower-tier candidates. Neither of them polled higher than 1% until June, but now Huckabee is at 6% and Paul at 5%. Put together, they have more supporters than Romney at 10%.

TPM reports that a Rasmussen poll of Iowa Republicans has Huckabee third at 18%, trailing Romney at 25% and Thompson at 19%. Then there was the straw poll from the Values Voters Summit: Romney is fractions of a percent ahead of Huckabee, with both at 27-point-something percent. Ron Paul is third at 15%, Thompson fourth, with McCain and Giuliani put together managing slightly over 3%.

It's questionable how large a constituency the Values Voters group represents, but results like these make it harder and harder to treat Huckabee and Paul as fringe candidates. Paul's positions (get out of Iraq and stop illegal spying on Americans) aren't popular among Republicans as a whole, though he still has some room to rise before he hits that ceiling. But Huckabee could break into the top tier. The Evangelical Republicans haven't warmed to Fred Thompson yet, they've never liked McCain, Romney's Mormonism and past pro-choice and pro-gay-rights positions bother them, and Giulani's current social-issue positions (plus his multiple marriages) make him the least acceptable of all. The thing keeping the Evangelicals away from Huckabee is that he looks like a loser. If that starts to change, it could change fast. David Brooks thinks it will.

Iraq: What's Happening?
In September, General Petraeus' statistics showing violence headed down in Iraq looked cooked. Now more intuitively comprehensible statistics are showing something similar. The average daily death rate for American troops in Iraq is 1.36 for the first three weeks of October, down from 4.23 in May and lower than it has been since March 2006.

There are different theories about why this is happening. General Petraeus' is that the Surge is working. Certainly a decline in violence in Anbar Province (after our alliance with the local Sunni tribes) is part of the picture. But Newsweek raises the question of why violence from Iran-supported Shiite militias is also down. Firedoglake points to a post at the Group News Blog making this claim: Violence in Baghdad, where the Surge is centered, is up, but violence in the rest of the country is down.
This information shows a trend up in the Baghdad region and shows that Iraq does not devolve into civil war when the US pulls out. Does not let al Qaeda take over in their absence. In fact the complete opposite, the local security forces quickly run to ground AQI and end them. It seems once the US forces leave the area the score settling and inter-tribal violence ends. Life seems cheap with tanks and machine guns on every corner. Remove those visual and physical reminders and people work out their differences with something other than a pistol and a power-drill.
But Juan Cole isn't buying it, at least not yet.
I don't agree with the authors' conclusion that a US withdrawal would lead to social peace, since I believe that the low intensity war is only low intensity because the US military imposes limits on intensity. If the US forces weren't there, the local forces would fight their various wars to a conclusion or a stalemate.
Quick Notes
One candidate for the Most Important Story You're Not Paying Attention To is the spread of antibiotic-resistant diseases. Wednesday's Washington Post called attention to resistant strains of staph, which apparently are more common than previously thought. Some day this issue will suddenly vault into the public eye and become a panic.

Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert is making noises about running for president. This could be the most significant comedic campaign since Pat Paulsen in 1968.

On DailyKos, Broken Skull gives a first-hand account of life with Iraq-induced post-traumatic-stress disorder. And Bonddad, who usually blogs about financial issues, lets out his real feelings about the lack of fortitude in the Democratic congressional leadership. And Chris Floyd (guest-blogging for Glenn Greenwald) pretty much agrees.

TPM assembles Sunday talk-show discussion of war against Iran.


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