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DOES TORTURE WORK?: PART TWO (OF THREE)

In History, Law Enforcement, Politics, Social commentary on April 30, 2013 at 12:24 am

In his gung-ho views on torture, New York State Senator Greg Ball has plenty of company.

At the November 12, 2011 Republican debate on foreign policy, all seven candidates endorsed the use of torture as an effective counter-terrorism tactic.

Former Godfather Pizza CEO Herman Cain called for the re-authorized use of waterboarding to “persuade” captured terrArabists to talk.

“I don’t see it as torture, I see it as an enhanced interrogation technique,” said Cain.

Representative Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and Texas Governor Rick Perry agreed with Cain.

And Perry drew sustained applause when he declared, “This is war…I will defend them [waterboarding and other coercive techniques] until I die.”

The use of waterboarding was discontinued late in the administration of President George W. Bush.

Following much heated, internal debate, officials in the FBI and Justice Department admitted that it constituted torture and was therefore illegal.

But after the killing of Osama bin Laden, several Bush administration officials–notably former Vice President Dick Cheney–tried to reinstitute the technique, or at least its reputation.

They suggested that information acquired during the earlier waterboarding years may have provided an essential clue to locating bin Laden.

Unfortunately for Republicans, the truth about torture generally–and waterboarding in particular–is just the opposite.

Victims will say anything they think their captors want to hear to stop the agony.  And, in fact, subsequent investigations have shown that just that happened with Al Qaeda suspects.

Waterboarding a captive

Shortly after the invasion of Afghanistan in October, 2001, hundreds of Al Qaeda members started falling into American hands.  And so did a great many others who were simply accused by rival warlords of being Al Qaeda members.

The only way to learn if Al Qaeda was planning any more 9/11-style attacks on the United States was to interrogate those suspected captives.  The question was: How?

The CIA and the Pentagon quickly took the “gloves off” approach.  Their methods included such “stress techniques” as playing loud music and flashing strobe lights to keep detainees awake.

Some were “softened up” prior to interrogation by “third-degree” beatings.  And still others were waterboarded.

In 2003, an FBI agent observing a CIA “interrogation” at Guantanamo was stunned to see a detainee sitting on the floor, wrapped in an Israeli flag.  Nearby, music blared and strobe slights flashed.

In Osama bin Laden’s 1998 declaration of war against America, he had accused the country of being controlled by the Jews, saying the United States “served the Jews’ petty state.”

Draping an Islamic captive with an Israeli flag could only confirm such propaganda.

The FBI, on the other hand, followed its traditional “kill them with kindness” approach to interrogation.

Pat D’Amuro, a veteran FBI agent who had led the Bureau’s investigation into the 1998 bombing of the American embasy in Nairobi, Kenya, warned FBI Director Robert Mueller III:

The FBI should not be a party in the use of “enhanced intrrogation techniques.”  They wouldn’t work and wouldn’t produce the dramatic results the CIA hoped for.

But there was a bigger danger, D’Amuro warned: “We’ll be handing every future defense attorney Giglio material.”

The Supreme Court had ruled in Giglio vs. the United States (1972) that the personal credibility of a government official was admissible in court.

Any FBI agent who made use of extra-legal interrogation techniques could potentially have that issue raised every time he testified in court on any other matter.

It was a defense attorney’s dream-come-true recipe for impeaching an agent’s credibility–and thus ruin his investigative career.

But there was another solid reason for avoiding interrogations that smacked of torture: Most Al Qaeda members relished appearing before grand juries.

Unlike organized crime members, they were talkative–and even tried to proslytize to the jury members.  They were proud of what they had done–and wanted to talk.

“This is what the FBI does,” said Mike Rolince, an FBI experrt on counter-terrorism.  “Nearly 100% of the terrorists we’ve taken into custody have confessed.  The CIA wasn’t trained.  They don’t do interrogations.”

According to The Threat Matrix: The FBI at War in the Age of Global Terror (2011), jihadists had been taught to expect severe torture at tha hands of American interrogators.  Writes Author  Garrett M. Graff:

“Often, in the FBI’s experience, their best cooperation came when detainees realized they weren’t going to get tortured, that the United States wasn’t the Great Satan.  Interrogators were figuring out…that not playing into Al Qaeda’s propaganda could produce victories.”

And the FBI isn’t alone in believing that acts of simple humanity can turn even sworn entmies into allies.

No less an authority on “real-politick” than Niccolo Machiavelli reached the same conclusion more than 500 years ago.

DOES TORTURE WORK?: PART ONE (OF THREE)

In History, Law Enforcement, Politics, Social commentary on April 29, 2013 at 12:02 am

On the night of April 19, 19-year-old Dzokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bombing suspect, was arrested.

And almost immediately afterward, New York State Senator Greg Ball (R) offered his unsolicited advice on how to deal with him.  Ball took to his Twitter account and called for the Tsarnaev to be tortured:

“So, scum bag #2 in custody. Who wouldn’t use torture on this punk to save more lives?”

On April 22, Ball appeared on CNN’s Piers Morgan Show to elaborate on his approach to law-and-order.

Morgan opened the interview by asking Ball if he still believed that Tsarnaev should be tortured.  The following exchange then occurred:

BALL: Absolutely.  At the end of the day – you know, I think you interview a lot of politicians.  A lot of politicians are full of crap. They’re  scared of their own shadow and scared to say what they feel.  I think that I share the feelings of a lot of red-blooded Americans who believe that if we can save even one innocent American life, including we’ve seen the killing of children, that they would use — and this is just for me — that they would use every tool at their disposal to do so.

MORGAN: But he’s an American citizen, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.  He committed a domestic crime in Boston, and he’ll be tried in a U.S. civilian criminal court system.

BALL: Right.

MORGAN: How you going to torture him?

BALL: I mean, dude, you’re talking to a guy that supports death penalty for cop killers, terrorists.

MORGAN: Yes, but how would you torture him?

BALL: Piers, I would support — I’m talking about me. If you want to talk to the president of the United States about his policies next time you golf or go play basketball with him, you can ask him.  I’m telling you as Greg Ball, I’m telling you as Greg Ball personally –

MORGAN: I understand you’re Greg Ball.

BALL: If you would put me in the room with anybody from the most current scumbags to Osama bin Laden, I’m telling you what I would do. As far as the policy of the United States, you got to take it up with Obama.

MORGAN: I understand. But if you start to torture an American citizen for committing a domestic crime in America, you are crossing a Rubicon.

BALL: Can I ask you a question?  What would you do if you were given the opportunity?

BALL: Before Osama bin Laden was shot, if you had 30 minutes in the room, what would you do? Would you play cards with Osama bin Laden?

MORGAN: It’s really a question -

BALL: What would you do?

MORGAN: Let me put this to you.

BALL: No.  You answer this.  If you met this scumbag –

MORGAN: I’m actually doing the interview, though.

BALL: If you met this scumbag -

MORGAN: No, I really am.

BALL: — before he killed these people and turned people into amputees, what would you do, play cards?  Maybe I should have said it in a British accent.  This man killed innocent men, women and children.

MORGAN: Can you stop being such a jerk?

BALL: What would you do?  You get paid for it.  I figured I would give you a taste of your own medicine.

MORGAN: Seriously -

MORGAN: Because you tweeted this to the world.  I’m curious what you think.  Your behavior so far has been really offensive.

BALL: Because you don’t like it when you don’t have another bobblehead that you can beat up and treat like a coward?  The reality is is these men killed innocent men, women and children.  As a red-blooded American, I said who out there if it would save an innocent –

MORGAN: But you’re not answering my questions.

BALL: — would not use torture.  I would.

MORGAN: I understand all the gung-ho language you’re using.  Here’s the point I’m making to you.  Do you realize that if you torture this man, what you’re basically endorsing is the torture of American citizens for committing domestic crimes inside America?  Would you as a politician want to bring that in as a standard matter of practice in your country, yes or no?

BALL: What I am saying is that as an individual –

MORGAN: Yes or no?

BALL: If given the opportunity –

MORGAN: Yes or no.

BALL:  — to be in a room with somebody like Osama bin Laden, it would be me, Osama bin Laden and a baseball bat. And yes, I would use torture.

MORGAN: It’s very macho.

BALL: It’s not about being macho.  If I wanted to be macho, I would challenge you to an arm wrestling contest.  I’m telling you how I feel. That’s what I said on Twitter.  And that’s what I said today. You can ask it 100 times over.  I will give you the same answer.‏

HANGING UP ON THE PHONE COMPANY: PART TWO (END)

In Business, Self-Help on April 26, 2013 at 12:02 am

From November, 2011 to February, 2012, AT&T demanded that Dave pay them for a service they had failed to provide.

They had promised to supply him with Uverse high-speed Internet–at 25 MBPs a second. Instead, he had gotten only 6 MBPs a second. And a big dot in the middle of his computer screen when watching YouTube videos.

Finally, an AT&T rep told him the blunt truth:

His geographical area was not yet supplied with fiber-optic cables that could provide high-speed Internet service.

Dave canceled Uverse–and began getting a series of bills from AT&T.

First one for more than $400.

Then a reduced bill for $260.

Then another for $140.

And still another for $126.95.

After getting a phone call from a collections agency, Dave asked me to intervene with AT&T on his behalf.

So I decided to go directly to the Office of the President.

Long ago I had learned a crucial truth:

The man at the top of an organization cannot fob you off with the excuse: “I can’t do it.” He can do anything he wants to do. And once he decides to do it, everyone below will fall into line.

I already had the phone number: (800) 848-4158.

I had gotten this via a google search under “AT&T Corporate Offices.” This gave me a link to “Corporate Governance”–which provides biographies of the executives who run the company.

And at the head stands Randall L. Stephenson–Chairman of the Board, CEO and President of AT&T Inc.

I didn’t expect to speak with him. One of his chief lieutenants would be enough–such as a woman I’ll call Margie.

First, I introduced myself and said I was authorized to act on Dave’s behalf. Then I handed the phone to Dave (who was sitting next to me) so he could confirm this.

I then briefly outlined the problems Dave had been having.

Margie–using Dave’s phone number–quickly accessed the computerized records documenting all I was telling her.

She said she would need three or four days to fully investigate the matter before getting back to me.

I said that, for me, the crux of the matter was this:

An AT&T rep had told Dave the company could not supply high-speed Internet to his geographical area because it had not yet laid fiber-optic cables there.

This meant:
1.There was a disconnect between what AT&T’s technicians knew they could offer–and what its customer service reps had been told;
2.Or, worse, the company had lied when it promised to provide Dave with a service it couldn’t deliver.

I said that Dave wanted to resolve this quietly and amicably. But, if necessary, he was prepared to do so through the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

The PUC regulates phone companies at the State level. The FCC regulates them at the Federal level.

Just as I was about to hang up, I said I couldn’t understand why Dave should have kept getting billed, since he had been assured he wouldn’t be.

Margie said that the company felt he owed $150.00 for “breaking” the two-year contract he had signed.

I immediately noted that AT&T had not lived up to its end of the contract–that is, to provide the promised high-speed Internet service. As a result, they could not demand that Dave pay for something that had not been delivered.

Clearly, this set off alarm-bells for Margie.

When I asked her, “How soon can I expect to hear from you on your company’s investigation into this matter?” she said there was no need to conduct one.

In fact, she added, she was writing out a credit to Dave of $150.00 that very minute.

Previously, she had told me it would take three or four days.

Thus, Dave did not owe the company anything for his disappointing experiment with its Uverse service.

I felt certain that Dave’s experience with a rapacious AT&T was not an isolated case. Just as banks use every excuse to charge their customers for anything they can get away with, so do phone companies.

I knew that AT&T didn’t want the PUC and FCC to start asking: “Is ATt&T generally dunning customers for money they don’t owe?”

I believe the answer would have proven to be: “Yes.”

And I believe that Margie felt the same way.

So, when dealing with a predatory company like AT&T:
1.Keep all company correspondence.
2.Be prepared to clearly outline your problem.
3.Know which State/Federal agencies hold jurisdiction over the company.
4.Phone/write the company’s president. This shows that you’ve done your homework–and deserve to be taken seriously.
5.Remain calm and businesslike in your correspondence and/or conversations with company officials.
6.Don’t fear to say you’ll contact approrpriate government agencies if necessary.
7.If the company doesn’t resolve your problem, complain to those agencies, and/or
8.Consider hiring an attorney and filing a lawsuit.

HANGING UP ON THE PHONE COMPANY: PART ONE (OF TWO)

In Business, Self-Help on April 25, 2013 at 12:10 am

Lily Tomlin introduced her character of Ernestine, the rude, gossipy, know-it-all telephone operator, in the 1960s series Laugh-In.

A typical skit would open:

“A gracious hello. Here at the Phone Company, we handle eighty-four billion calls a year. Serving everyone from presidents and kings to the scum of the earth.

“So, we realize that, every so often, you can’t get an operator, or for no apparent reason your phone goes out of order, or perhaps you get charged for a call you didn’t make. We don’t care!

“You see, this phone system consists of a multibillion-dollar matrix of space age technology that is so sophisticated even we can’t handle it. But that’s your problem, isn’t it?

“So, the next time you complain about your phone service, why don’t you try using two Dixie cups with a string?

“We don’t care. We don’t have to. We’re the Phone Company.”

All of which was–and remains–hilarious. Except when you face such behavior in real-life with the phone company.

That’s exactly what happened to a man I’ll call Dave.

Dave had had DSL Internet service with AT&T for a year, and had been entirely satisfied with it. So when AT&T offered him Uverse service for less than what he had been paying, he signed up.

But the new service never worked properly.

Dave had been promised that he would get 25 MBPs a second–double his previous download speed.

Instead he got only 6 MBPs a second. He was also being repeatedly disconnected from the Internet.

Dave called AT&T to complain. The company sent a technician to inspect the connection.

The tech told him that the line he was using for DSL was not working with Uverse. He was told he needed to install a new line to solve the problem.

Seeking a second opinion, Dave asked AT&T to send out another technician.

This one said there was already an existing CAT 5 line in Dave’s apartment. He said that by connecting this line to the computer, the problem should be solved.

But after he connected the line, Dave could not watch videos on YouTube because a dot appeared in the middle of the screen.

Since Dave had a Mac, he sought advice at his nearby Apple store. Was there was anything wrong with the computer? he asked.

The Apple rep said the problem was that he wasn’t getting enough download speed.

Dave called AT&T again.

A tech said the problem lay with the modem: Send it back and we’ll send you another.

Dave sent back the modem and AT&T sent him a second.

Dave installed the modem but still found a big dot in the middle of the screen while watching YouTube videos.

A technician tried to resolve the problem from AT&T’s own facilities, but was not able to.

Dave called AT&T and said he was going to disconnect the service because it still wasn’t working.

Suddenly, the blunt truth finally emerged:

An AT&T rep told him that his geographical area was not yet supplied with fiber-optic cables that could provide high-speed Internet service. In six months, the company would probably have such lines set up in his location.

Dave said that in six months, if AT&T had fiber-optic cables installed in his area, he would call back and have service restored.

The rep told him to send back the modem and he would owe nothing.

And that’s when the real trouble started.

Dave soon got a bill from AT&T saying he owed more than $400 for Internet service. He called them back and asked why he had gotten this bill.

The AT&T rep said the bill was to cover the costs of sending over the technicians.

Dave replied that they hadn’t installed any new lines or corrected the problem. They had only checked the line.

AT&T said they would reduce the amount Dave owed to $260. This was to cover about two months’ service and the modem—to be paid one month in advance.

Dave said that he hadn’t gotten service that worked and he would pay the money only if they could get it working properly.

AT&T told Dave to return the modem and he would owe them nothing.

Dave mailed the modem to AT&T in November, 2011.

AT&T then sent Dave a letter saying he owed them $140.

He refused to pay it.

He got another bill that said AT&T was reducing it to $126.95 for Unverse Internet service.

Dave called AT&T and complained.

This time, an AT&T rep said it had been a “computer mistake” and that this would be corrected on his next bill; there would be no such charge.

Shortly afterward, Dave got another letter on February 15, still demanding the payment of $126.95 for Uverse service.

After getting a phone call from a collections agency, Dave asked me to intervene with AT&T on his behalf.

WHEN THE KGB COMES CALLING

In Bureaucracy, History, Humor, Law Enforcement, Social commentary on April 24, 2013 at 12:00 am

A day after bombs ravaged the Boston Marathon, Russian President Vladimir Putin offered his country’s assistance in investigating this latest Islamic outrage.

Putin said in a condolences note published on the Kremlin’s website that the international community should unite to fight terrorism.

Vladimir Putin

Putin said Russia “would be ready to provide assistance” to U.S. authorities with the probe into the bombings at the Boston marathon.

Fortunately, the FBI, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) and Boston police were able, within a week, to identify and kill/arrest the two brothers responsible for killing three people and injuring about 180 more.

But suppose President Obama had taken Putin up on his offer?

Officially, the KGB (“Committee for State Security”) no longer exists.  It was abolished by then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev following the agency’s unsuccessful coup against him in August, 1991.

But its legacy lives on in the renamed FSB (Federal Security Service).

The KGB was formed in 1954, the year after the death of Joseph Stalin, Russia’s 20th century version of Ivan the Terrible.  (Previously, the state secret police had been known, first, as the Cheka–“Extraordinary Commission”– and then as the NKVD.)

Regardless of its name, the agency relentlessly pursued its twin goals: Brutally repressing political oppression at home and spying on its enemies abroad.

Through the reins of Nikita Khrushchev, Leonid Brezhniev, Yuri Andropov, Constitin Chernenko and Mikhail Gorbachev, the KGB acted as “the sword and shield of Russia.”  Among its tens of thousands of members was Vladimir Putin.

Even the worst abuses of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI pale in comparison to those of the KGB, which ran its own prisons, routinely tortured and murdered men and women, and conducted espionage abroad.

The agency remained impervious to control except by its Kremlin masters–who were the ones directing its worst atrocities.

So it’s intriguing to imagine how the KGB would have reacted to the bombings at the Boston Marathon.

Perhaps the best way to do this is to see the KGB–oops, FSB–through the eyes of its former victims: The ussians themselves.

Unable to protest the abuses of the all-powerful police, Russians–in secret, and only among their most-trusted friends and family members–struck back with humor of the blackest sort

  • Q. Why do the KGB operate in groups of three? A. One who can read, one who can write and one to keep an eye on the two intellectuals.
  • A KGB officer tells the next-of-kin that her father committed suicide.  Woman: How did he die?  KGB: Skull fracture.  Woman:  How did it happen?  KGB: He wouldn’t drink the poison.
  • A Russian teacher asks her class, “Who wrote ‘The Communist Manifesto’?”  A boy says, “I don’t know, but it wasn’t me.”  The teacher thinks he’s being flippant, so she sends him home.  The boy tells his father, who complains to a friend who’s a KGB agent.  “Don’t worry,” says the KGB man, “I’ll find out who really wrote it.”  The KGB agent drives to the home of the teacher’s apartment.  The teacher asks, “Why have you woken me up?”  The KGB officer says: “It wasn’t the boy.  His father has confessed.” 
  • A man owns a parrot–until one day it disappears.  The owner rushes to the nearest KGB office.  “Why come to us?  It’s none of our affair,” says the KGB official.  “I just wanted you to know,” says the man, “that if it turns up, I don’t happen to share its opinions.”
  • A KGB agent spots an old man reading a book and asks what it’s about. “I’m learning Hebrew,” says the man, “because it’s the language of Heaven.  When I die, I want to talk to God.”  The KGB man says, “But suppose when you die you go to Hell?”  The old man says: “I already know Russian.”
  • The Egyptian government announces that an unidentified mummy has been found, and asks the world’s best archaeologists to help solve the mystery.  In response, the Soviet Union sends its top archaeologist–accompanied by two KGB guards to ensure he doesn’t defect.  The three men enter the tomb and, three days later, emerge.  “It’s Ramses III,” says the archaeologist.  “How did you figure it out?” asks a reporter.  And one of the KGB guards says, “The bastard finally confessed.”
  • A man knocks at the door of his neighbor’s apartment, yelling: “Quick, get up, get dressed!”  From inside he can hear screams of fear.  “Don’t worry,” he says, “it’s nothing serious.  I’m not from the KGB.  I just wanted to tell you your flat is on fire.”
  • A Russian boy asks his father, “Will there still be a KGB when we achieve Full Communism?”  And his father replies: “No, by then people will have learned how to arrest themselves.”
  • A delegation comes to the Kremlin to visit Leonid Brezhniev.  When they leave, Brezhniev can’t find his  cigarette case.  He telephones the head of the KGB and says, “Find out of one of the delegates took my case.”  Later, Brezhniev finds it under a table.  He calls the KGB director and says, “I found my case.  You can let the delegates go.”  “It’s too late for that,” says the KGB director, adding: “Half the delegates admitted they took your case, and the other half died under questioning.”

ENTITLEMENT, TEXAS STYLE

In Bureaucracy, Business, Law, Law Enforcement, Politics on April 23, 2013 at 12:01 am

Ted Cruz voted against federal aid for victims of Hurricane Sandy–three times.

But the United States Senator from Texas quickly announced he would seek “all available resources” to assist victims of the April 17 explosion at as fertilizer plant in West, McLennan County, Texas.

The blast killed 13 people, wounded about 200 others, and caused extensive damages to surrounding homes.

Last october, Hurricane Sandy killed about 150 people and caused an estimated $75 billion in damage across the Northeast.

The Republican legislator stood foursquare against the Sandy Aid Relief bill, claiming that it was loaded with “pork”:

“Hurricane Sandy inflicted devastating damage on the East Coast, and Congress appropriately responded with hurricane relief,” said Cruz.

“Unfortunately, cynical politicians in Washington could not resist loading up this relief bill with billions in new spending utterly unrelated to Sandy.

“Emergency relief for the families who are suffering from this natural disaster should not be used as a Christmas tree for billions in unrelated spending, including projects such as Smithsonian repairs, upgrades to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration airplanes, and more funding for Head Start.

“This bill is symptomatic of a larger problem in Washington–an addiction to spending money we do not have. The United States Senate should not be in the business of exploiting victims of natural disasters to fund pork projects that further expand our debt.”

Another Republican, Rep. Bill Flores, who represents West, also voted against the Sandy relief package.  But this didn’t stop him from requesting federal aid for the disaster in his home district.

Such hypocrisy.

U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas)

But, according to PolitiFact, “A big portion of the $17 billion in ‘immediate’ assistance, more than $5 billion, went to replenish FEMA’s disaster relief fund, which may fund relief from future disasters.”

Furthermore, Rick Ungar, writing at Forbes, pointed out that the “pork” came from having to bribe red state Republicans–including Texas–to get the package passed over their filibuster:

“However, as it turns out, the pork portions of the Senate bill were not earmarked to benefit Democratic members of the upper chamber of Congress….

“The answer can be found in a quick review of the states that are set to benefit from the Senate’s extra-special benevolence—states including Alabama, Mississippi, Texas and Louisiana.”

In fact, according to a September 29, 2011 article in iWatch News: Texas had the most FEMA-declared disasters since the start of 2009:

“Eleven Republican U.S. senators who represent the states with the most FEMA-declared disasters since the start of 2009 voted against a bill designed to keep the agency’s disaster relief fund from running out of cash.”

“The top two states, Texas and Oklahoma, combined for more than a quarter of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s declared disasters since Jan. 1, 2009.”

Click here: As FEMA funds run out, senators from states with most disasters oppose funding bill  The Center for Public Integrity

Yet the hypocrisy doesn’t end there.

“The nation’s number one resource is its workers,” said Keith Wrightson, safety expert at Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group. “But the agency that’s charged with protecting them is not given the resources to do it. I think it’s worrisome for the nation.”

The West Fertilizer Company facility hadn’t been inspected by the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) since 1985, when the company was fined $30. Why did the facility go for almost 30 years without further inspections from OSHA?

As a small employer, the fertilizer facility may have been exempt from some forms of OSHA scrutiny.  Years ago, Congress attached a rider to agency funding that forbids OSHA to perform inspections of workplaces with 10 or fewer employees and whose industries have low injury rates.

Lawmakers reason that small businesses shouldn’t have to shoulder the same costs of compliance as larger ones.

But smaller worksites aren’t necessarily less dangerous.  According to safety advocates, small companies often  have fewer resources to invest in worker safety and, with less government oversight, even less incentive.

On April 20, the damning news broke in a Reuters story:

“The fertilizer plant that  exploded on Wednesday, obliterating part of a small Texas town  and killing at least 14 people, had last year been storing 1,350 times the amount of ammonium nitrate that would normally trigger  safety oversight by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).”

Yet a source told Reuters that West Fertilizer, the company that owns the plant, did not tell DHS about the potentially explosive fertilizer as it is required to do.

The DHS is a major regulator of ammonium nitrate–which can also be used in bomb making.  Thus, it was left totally unaware of the potential danger posed by the plant..

Fertilizer plants and depots must report to the DHS when they hold 400 lb or more of the substance. Filings this  year with the Texas Department of State Health Services, which  weren’t shared with DHS, show the plant had 270 tons of it on hand last year.

In short, this situation offers the ultimate combination of disaster-producing circumstances:

  • A state with lax regulation of corporate businesses.
  • A plant crammed full of highly explosive materials.
  • Hypocritical U.S. Senators callously ignoring the hardships nature inflicts on other states while greedily demanding the lion’s share of emergency resources for their own constituents.
  • A state–Texas–whose governor has openly threatened secession greedily sucking at the tit of the otherwise despised Federal Government.

SCIENCE VS. SUPERSTITION

In Bureaucracy, History, Politics on April 22, 2013 at 12:01 am

Bureaucracies are not made up of robot-like machines. They are comprised of flesh-and-blood men and women.

That includes even the most important bureaucracies–such as those of the House, Senate and White House.

And as much as Americans like to believe their elected leaders always behave rationally and intelligently, they don’t. In fact, they can’t.

In a democracy, those who hold public office reflect the values of those who sent them there.

Consider the following:

On the eve of the 2012 Republican primaries in Alabama and Mississippi, a Public Policy Poll survey revealed a series of startling truths about the voters in those states.

Among the Republican voters of Alabama:

  • Only 26 percent believe in evolution.
  • Sixty percent don’t believe in it.
  • Thirteen percent aren’t sure about it.
  • Twenty-one percent still think interracial marriage should be illegal.
  • Twelve percent aren’t sure whether it should be.
  • Forty-five percent believe President Barack Obama is a Muslim.
  • Fourteen percent think he’s a Christian–although he’s always attended a Christian church.
    •Forty-one percent aren’t sure.

Among Republican voters in Mississippi:

  • Only 22 percent believe in evolution.
  • Eleven percent aren’t sure.
  • Fifty-four percent think interracial marriage should be legal.
  • Twenty-nine percent believe it shouldn’t be.
  • Seventeen percent aren’t sure.
  • Fifty-two percent think President Obama is a Muslim.
  • Only 12 percent think he’s a Christian.

These are among the voters who vilified a black, Harvard-educated, rationalist Obama–first as a Presidential candidate, and then as President.

And they aren’t going to change. It’s easier–and more comforting–to believe we are fallen angels instead of risen apes.

Just as it was easier for Germans in 1920s Germany to deny they had been defeated on the battlefields of World War 1.

It was far more satisfying to believe–and assert–that they had been “stabbed in the back” by Jews and “slackers” and Communists at home. Out of this denial of reality came the Final Solution.

Now, fast-forward to the 21st century.

The winter of 2011-2012 was the 4th warmest winter on record, behind 2000, 1999, and 1992. Winter temperatures have increased by about 1.7°F per century.

Despite ever-mounting evidence that global warming is indeed a reality, millions of right-wing voters refuse to accept it. The largest portion of these are concentrated in the South.

In April, 2010, America suffered its worst oil-spill disaster. For the next three months, 4.9 million barrels worth of crude oil poured into the Gulf of Mexico from a BP oil rig.

BP tried one oil-capping method after another–and the country feared that nothing might work. Those who had cheered on Sarah Palin in her chant of “Drill, baby, drill” during the 2008 Presidential race suddenly fell silent.

The second anniversary of America’s worst environmental disaster–April 20–is fast approaching.

And the country’s oil- and coal-producing conglomerates are flooding the airwaves with billions of dollars’ worth of lying propaganda.

“Clean coal” ads promise that America can meet its needs for energy and protect the environment. These ads never mention that the technologies for supposedly doing this are still in the experimental stage.

But most of the people watching these ads take them at face falue. They want to believe they can have all the cheap gas they can get– and not feel guilty about destroying the world for their children.

Once again, millions of Americans–including those who live in the still-damaged Gulf of Mexico–are demanding that President Obama ”unleash America’s energy resources.”

President Obama is easily one of the best-educated men to occupy the White House. Like John F. Kennedy, he believes in rationality as a problem-solving tool.

But smarts at the top cannot make up for irrationality at the bottom.

During the 2008 Presidential race, Obama made a near-fatal mistake.  He said that many Americans “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

The fact that this was–and remains–absolutely true did not help Obama. In fact, it threatened to cost him the election.

When a leader who believes in rationality must persuade a largely irrational electorate, he must reshape his message accordingly.

The strategy must be the product of rational planning.  But the arguments aimed at these audiences must appeal to emotions rather than reason.

Republicans learned the lessons of emotion-driven politics long ago.  Consider the words they routinely use to describe their political opponents:

Liberals…radicals…treason…subversion…slander…terrorists…socialissts…communists.

In Mein Kampf—”My Struggle”—Adolf Hitler outlined his principles for the effective use of propaganda:

“…all effective propaganda must be confined to a few bare essentials and those must be expressed as far as possible in stereotyped formulas. These slogans should be persistently repeated until the very last individual has come to grasp the idea that has been put forward.”

Rationalistic politicians like Barack Obama believe they can attain their goals by appealing to the rationality of voters.  They forget–or ignore–the bitter truth that most people decide with their emotions, not their intellect.

Until Obama and other Democrats learn this lesson and start making use of it, they will continue to lose to their Republican enemies–as they most recently did on background checks for gun-owners.

TAXING CRIMINALS FOR REVENUES: PART TWO (END)

In Bureaucracy, Politics, Social commentary on April 19, 2013 at 12:19 am

Come visit San Francisco and you’ll see all the famous sights so beloved by tourists: Ghirardelli Square, the cable cars, the Golden Gate Bridge.

What you won’t see is one of the biggest blights facing the city: The behavior of predatory slumlords, who own both hotels and apartment buildings.

This behavior-–and the City’s steadfast refusal to change it-–poses a daily threat to the lives of San Francisco tenants. And it poses an equal threat to the City’s long-term ability to sustain its Number One source of revenues: The tourism industry.

To take one example: San Francisco is now facing an infestation of bedbugs. Everyone in the Department of Public Health (DPH) knows it. And everyone in DPH knows that many of the slumlords who own hotels plagued with these creatures refuse to do anything about them.

Bedbug

The reasons are twofold.

First, there’s a stigma attached to bedbugs that isn’t attached even to cockroaches. Roaches are filthy, but they don’t suck your blood. So when people learn that a hotel (including name-brand ones) has a bedbug infestation, they take their business elsewhere.

Second, combating bedbugs can be expensive. The most effective method involves a combination of poisons and heat treatments on a building-wide basis. Most landlords–-and certainly all slumlords-–don’t want to take on that sort of expense.

San Francisco depends overwhelmingly on tourism for its revenues. A city whose hotels and apartment buildings are centers of contagion of any kind is a city destined to become a tourist ghost town, not a tourist mecca.

So, how to cope with this challenge? Here’s how:

  1. Greatly expand the Inspection Division at the Department of Public Health (DPH). This agency is legally charged with ensuring the health of San Francisco’s tenants-–both guests and residents.
  2. DPH should demand that a portion of those monies now directed toward entirely tourist-related issues be transferred to its Inspection Bureau. With those monies it can hire additional-–and badly-needed-–inspectors.
  3. Greatly expand the Inspection Division at the Department of Building Inspection–-and       make it independent of the agency. As matters now stand, too many high-ranking DBI officials tilt toward landlords because they are landlords themselves.
  4. End the culture of secrecy at DPH. The Department of Building Inspection is responsible for ensuring compliance with San Francisco building and housing codes. If a slumlord, for example, refuses to fix a tenant’s clogged bathtub drain or replace a window that’s about to fall out, the tenant calls DBI.
  5. DBI’s complaint records are immediately accessible at its website. Copies of its Notices of Violation–-ordering slumlords to correct problems-–can be obtained through the mails by request.  If a tenant wants to learn if other tenants have lodged complaints against his landlord, he can simply go online.
  6. By contrast, DPH offers nothing of this type of informational service.
  7. DPH should immediately make its records publicly available via the Internet, the same way DBI now does.
  8. DPH and DBI should order landlords to post their Notices of Violation in public areas of their buildings–-on pain of serious financial penalties for failing to do so.
  9. When DPH or DBI orders a slumlord to take corrective action, the only person who is notified of this is the landlord.   Thus, if that slumlord refuses to comply with those directives, s/he is the only one who knows about this. Given the pressing demands on DPH and DBI, weeks or months will pass before DPH/DBI learns about this violation of its orders.
  10. DPH and DBI should abandon their “gradual” approach to combating health/safety code violations in slumlord-owned apartments and hotels and hit the owner up-front with a heavy fine, payable immediately.  The landlord could recoup 75% to 80% of this money only if s/he could prove that the health threat had been totally eradicated within 30 days.
  11. If it were not, the slumlord would then be hit with a second fine twice the size of the last one and given another 30 days to correct the problem. So a slumlord hit with a $2,000 fine in January would face a $4,000 fine in February, and an $8,000 one in March.
  12. This would put the onus on the slumlord, not DBI/DPH.  These agencies now give landlords 30 days to correct a health/safety code violation. If the slumlord claims he needs more time, he’s automatically given another 30 days–minimum–to do so. This means the tenant must live with the discomfort–if not threat–of that violation until the slumlord finally decides to correct it.
  13. Inspectors for DPH and DBI should be armed with cross-jurisdiction authority. That is, if a DBI Inspector spots a health/safety violation covered by DPH, he should be able to cite the slumlord for this–and pass this information on to DPH for its own investigation. And the same should apply for Inspectors from DPH.
  14. This would instantly turn DBI and DPH into allies, not competitors. It would also make life far easier for tenants needing help. Whether a citizen called DBI or DPH, s/he could be assured of getting the assistance s/he needed. Currently, DPH and DBI Inspectors often tell citizens, “I’m sorry, that doesn’t lie within our jurisdiction. You’ll have to call—.”

By standing up to predatory slumlords, San Francisco can achieve three goals at once:

  1. Protect its residents and all-important tourist industry from predatory slumlords.
  2. Create new and popular sources of revenue for its cash-strapped public services.
  3. Set a shining example for other cities and states for how they can do the same.

TAXING CRIMINALS FOR REVENUES: PART ONE (OF TWO)

In Bureaucracy, Politics, Social commentary on April 18, 2013 at 12:00 am

The power of slumlords throughout the Nation calls to mind the scene in the 1987 movie, The Untouchables, where Sean Connery’s veteran cop tells Eliot Ness: “Everybody knows where the liquor is. It’s just a question of: Who wants to cross Capone?”

This holds true even in San Francisco, the so-called “renters paradise.” The files of the City’s Department of Public Health (DPH) and Department of Building Inspection (DBI) are filled with the names of slumlords whose buildings pose real dangers to those living in them.

All that the City needs to do is find the courage to enforce its own laws protecting tenants.

By refusing to do so, the City is losing millions of dollars in revenues that it could be collecting every year from slumlords violating its health/safety laws.

Here’s the way DBI and DPH now work: A landlord is given 30 days to correct a health/safety violation. If he drags his feet on the matter, the tenant must live with that continuing problem until it’s resolved.

If the landlord claims for any reason that he can’t fix the problem within one month, DBI and DPH automatically give him another month.

A slumlord has to really work at being hit with a fine—and that means letting a problem go uncorrected for three to six months. And even then the slumlord may well avoid the fine by pleading for leniency.

Many tenants have lived with rotting floors, nonworking toilets, chipping lead-based paint and other outrages for not simply months but years.

The City could vastly improve life for its thousands of renters—and bring millions of desperately-needed dollars’ worth of revenues into its cash-strapped coffers—by making the following reforms:

  1. Hit slumlord violators up-front with a fine—payable immediately—for at least $2,000 to $5,000 for each health/safety code violation.
  2. The slumlord would be told he can reclaim most of this money only if he fully corrected the violation within 30 days.
  3. If he fails to correct the problem within that time, he should be hit again with a fine that’s at least twice the amount of the first one. The fine should increase twice as much for each month the violation goes uncorrected. Thus, if it’s $2,000 in January, it should be $4,000 in February, and $8,000 in March. And so on.
  4. The slumlord would be allowed to reclaim 75% to 80% of the fine levied against him. This appeal to his greed would ensure his willingness to comply with the ordered actions. The other portion would go directly into the city coffers to maintain needed services.
  5. If he fails to comply with the actions ordered, the entire fine should go into the City’s coffers.
  6. Inspectors for DPH and DBI should be armed with cross-jurisdiction authority. Thus, if a DBI Inspector spots a health/safety violation covered by DPH, he should be able to cite the slumlord for this—and pass this information on to DPH for its own investigation. And the same would apply for Inspectors from DPH.
  7. This would instantly turn DBI and DPH into allies, not competitors—and would mean that whether a citizen called DBI or DPH, s/he could be assured of getting the assistance s/he needed. (Currently, DPH and DBI Inspectors often tell citizens, “I’m sorry, that doesn’t lie within our jurisdiction. You’ll have to call—.”)
  8. DPH and DBI should have their Inspectors divisions greatly expanded.  Cutting back these units is a no-win situation for San Francisco renters–and for desperately-needed City revenues.
  9. Turning these agencies into revenue-producing ones would enable the City to raise desperately-needed revenues—in a highly popular way. Fining delinquent slumlords would be as unpopular as raising taxes on tobacco companies. Only slumlords and their hired lackey allies would object.
  10. Slumlords, unlike drug-dealers, can’t move their operations from one street or city to another.  Landlords aren’t going to demolish their buildings and rebuild them somewhere else. So they have to stay put.
  11. Landlords should be legally required to give each tenant a list of the major city agencies (such as DBI, DPH and the Rent Board) that exist to help tenants resolve problems with their housing. 
  12. Landlords should be legally required to rehabilitate a unit every time a new tenant moves in, or at least have it examined by a DBI inspector every two years.  A tenant can occupy a unit for ten or more years, then die or move out, and the landlord immediately rents the unit to the first person who comes along, without any repairs or upgrades whatsoever.
  13. Landlords should be required to bring all the units in a building up to existing building codes, and not just those in need of immediate repair.
  14. Landlords should be legally required to hire a certified-expert contractor to perform building repairs.  Many landlords insist on making such repairs despite their not being trained or experienced in doing so, thereby risking the lives of their tenants. 

Andrew Jackson once said: “One man with courage makes a majority.” And one city—acting with courage—can ensure protection for its tenants and general revenues for vitally-needed services.

If San Francisco can do this, so can California. And then so can the rest of the Nation.

LET THE SUNSHINE IN

In History, Politics on April 17, 2013 at 12:02 am

President Barack Obama and Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney raised and spent millions of dollars for campaign ads. They logged thousands of miles, crisscrossing the nation, speaking to millions of Americans.

And yet, when the 2012 Presidential race finally ended on November 6, history recorded the contest was settled with a single video.

It’s the infamous “47%” video of Romney speaking–for once, truthfully–at a private fundraiser:

“Well, there are 47% of the people who will vote for the President no matter what. All right? There are 47% who are with him. Who are dependent upon government. Who believe that–that they are victims. Who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them.

“Who believe that they’re entitled to healthcare, to food, to housing, to you name it. But that’s–it’s an entitlement.”

“…These are people who pay no income tax. 47% of Americans pay no income taxes. So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect. And he’ll be out there talking about tax cuts for the rich.”

A great deal of speculation has centered on: Who filmed it?

And now history has repeated itself–with another Republican caught telling the ugly truth behind closed doors.

In this case, it’s Kentucky United States Senator Mitch McConnell.  A microphone (probably stationed outside his Senate office) caught him discussing how to attack Ashley Judd’s mental health if the actress decided to challenge him in 2014.

“She’s clearly, this sounds extreme, but she is emotionally unbalanced,” a McConnell aide said. “I mean, it’s been documented.  Jesse can go in chapter and verse from her autobiography about…she’s suffered some suicidal tendencies.  She was hospitalized for 42 days when she had a mental breakdown in the 90s.”

“I assume most of you have played the game Whac-A-Mole,” said McConnell.  “This is the Whac-A-Mole period of the campaign…when anybody sticks their head up, do them out.”

McConnell, the Senate Minority Leader, refused to answer reporters’ questions about whether an opponent’s mental health or religious beliefs are fair game in a political campaign.

Instead, he accused “the political left” of mounting “quite a Nixonian move.”  An ironic charge, considering that Nixon and McConnell rose to power within the same political party.

As in the case of the Mitt Romney videotape, the focus of the press has been on: Who recorded it?  But this totally misses the point.

It doesn’t matter who provides vital information. What does matter is: Is that information accurate?

In Romney’s case, it opened a window into a world seldom-seen by voters: The world of big-league donors and their money-grubbing political solicitors.

In McConnell’s case, it cast light on the how entrenched politicians ruthlessly defend their turf.

It should be clear that money-grubbing politicians have two versions of campaign speaking: One for donors whose money they seek, and another for the public whose votes they seek.

Rich and greed-obsessed donors are too smart to be fobbed off with appeals to their fears and prejudices. They expect a tangible return for their support–namely:

  • Lower (preferably no) taxes
  • Freedom to pollute
  • Freedom to pay their employees the lowest possible wages
  • Freedom to treat their employees like serfs
  • Freedom to churn out shoddy or even dangerous goods

So what a candidate says in private, to his wealthy donors–or his campaign strategists–reflects what he really means and intends to do.

A similar frenzy of speculation centered on the identity of “Deep Throat”–the legendary source for Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward during the Watergate scandal. For decades, this proved a favorite guessing game for Washington reporters, politicians and government officials.

Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein working on Watergate

In the end, “Deep Throat” turned out to be W. Mark Felt, assistant director of the FBI.

Commentators have endlessly debated his motives for leaking crucial Watergate evidence that ultimately ended  the corrupt Presidency of Richard Nixon.

And, in the end, despite all the theories, it didn’t matter.

Felt provided Washington Woodward with the evidence necessary to keep the Watergate investigations going–by both the Post and the FBI.

W. Mark Felt

Thus, the question making the rounds about the McConnell discussion shouldn’t be: Who taped it?

It should be: How can more private fundraisers and political strategy sessions be penetrated and recorded–so voters can learn the truth about those who would become our elected rulers?

Definitely, those who specialize in “opposition research” should be thinking hard about this.

Private investigators–who regularly unearth secrets others want to keep secret–might also take an interest in this line of work.

And news organizations should offer financial rewards to those who provide such secret information.

With the advent of billionaires trying to buy the Presidency, and the unwillingness of Congress and the Supreme Court to stop the flow of unsavory money into politics, this may be our only chance to preserve what is left of the Republic.

Anyone who’s ever turned on a light to find roaches scurrying quickly over a kitchen floor knows the truth of this.

Turn on the lights–and watch the roaches scurry away.

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