Daily Archives: February 8, 2013

House Democrats unveil broad gun control package; mirrors Obama’s

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Reuters/Reuters – A display of 7-round handguns are seen at Coliseum Gun Traders Ltd. in Uniondale, New York January 16, 2013. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

Reuters | Feb 8, 2013

By Thomas Ferraro and Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Top Democrats in the House of Representatives unveiled a broad proposal on Thursday to curb gun violence that mirrors the one offered last month by President Barack Obama, including a ban on semi-automatic assault weapons.

But it remained unclear if the proposals will be put to a vote. The House Republican leadership has said it doesn’t intend to bring legislation to the floor until the Senate has acted, and there are doubts the Senate will pass gun control legislation.

“We know it’s going to be tough, but we also know this is important,” said Mike Thompson, chairman of the 12-member House Democratic Gun Violence Prevention Task that drafted the proposals.

Opponents led by influential and well-financed pro-gun groups charge that new restrictions on firearms would violate the right to bear arms.

Backers disagree. They argue that while Americans have the right to own guns, the government has the responsibility to impose restrictions for the public good.

There has been unprecedented public support for tougher gun laws in wake of the Connecticut school massacre in December that killed 20 children and six adults.

In addition to outlawing semi-automatic assault weapons and imposing limits on high-capacity ammunition clips, the House Democrat package, like one advanced by the White House, would require that all gun buyers be subject to background checks and provide for improvements in mental health services.

At this point the only gun-related proposal with much bipartisan support is the one requiring universal background checks.

The new package was announced on the second day of a three-day retreat by House Democrats that featured a visit by the president. He suggested that despite opposition by gun groups, many individual gun owners favor new restrictions.

“A majority of responsible gun owners recognize that we can’t have a situation in which 20 more of our children or 100 more of our children or 1,000 more of our children are shot and killed,” Obama told the meeting.

“There are common sense steps we can take,” Obama said, “and we should not shy away from taking those steps.”

Vice President Joe Biden, who led the effort to craft the White House proposals, told House Democrats on Wednesday that they have an obligation to step up and take action.

“I don’t want to hear about ‘Well, we can’t take it on because it’s too politically dangerous,'” Biden said. “There’s an overwhelming consensus about the need to act.”

Biden acknowledged that members of Congress who backed a 1994 ban on assault weapons – which expired in 2004 – faced a voter backlash that may have cost many of them their jobs.

“I’m here to tell you the world has changed since 1994,” Biden said.

A bipartisan group of senators on Thursday offered legislation expanding access to mental health professionals and improving the quality of mental health care in the United States.

The group, led by Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and Republican Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, noted that people experiencing severe but undiagnosed psychological disorders are at risk of committing violent acts at a rate 15 times higher than those receiving treatment.

The powerful National Rifle Association has led the charge against stricter gun laws but has agreed with those who have called for improvements in mental health treatment.

It strongly condemned the Democratic proposals on Thursday. “Congress should instead focus its energies on the things that will actually keep our families and communities safer – prosecuting criminals who misuse firearms; securing our schools; and fixing the broken mental health system that keeps dangerously ill people on the street,” the group said.

NATO denies the killings of hundreds of children

NATO rejects UN report on death of Afghan children

The U.N. committee referred to “hundreds” of children killed since 2008 and expressed alarm that the figure had “doubled from 2010 to 2011.”

Associated Press | Feb 8, 2013

By KIM GAMEL

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The U.S.-led international coalition on Friday rejected a U.N. rights group’s concern about reports that U.S. military strikes have killed hundreds of children in Afghanistan during the past four years, saying they are “categorically unfounded.”

The statement by the International Security Assistance Force came a day after the Geneva-based U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child said the casualties were “due notably to reported lack of precautionary measures and indiscriminate use of force.”

The coalition also dismissed that claim, saying that it takes special care to avoid civilian casualties. The coalition said the number of children who died or were wounded from air operations dropped by nearly 40 percent in 2012 compared with the year before, although it did not give specific figures.

The U.N. was reviewing a range of U.S. policies affecting children for the first time since 2008. The release of the report coincides with an intensifying debate in Washington over U.S. policy on drone targeting and airstrikes.

CIA Director-designate John Brennan faced a Senate Intelligence Committee confirmation hearing on Thursday. His defense of drone strikes to kill terror suspects, including Americans, is causing key lawmakers to consider lifting secrecy from what has become an important weapon in the fight against al-Qaida.

In its report, the U.N. committee told the United States to “take concrete and firm precautionary measures and prevent indiscriminate use of force to ensure that no further killings and maiming of civilians, including children, take place.” Human rights and civil liberties groups applauded the findings.

The U.N. committee referred to “hundreds” of children killed since 2008 and expressed alarm that the figure had “doubled from 2010 to 2011.”

It didn’t provide specific numbers, but a report to the U.N. Security Council last April by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s special representative for Children and Armed Conflict said the number of child casualties blamed on airstrikes conducted by international and allied Afghan forces doubled compared with the last reporting period, with 110 children killed and 68 injured in 2011.

The international coalition acknowledged U.S. forces are sometimes responsible for civilian deaths “despite all efforts to avoid them,” but said the overall number of civilian casualties declined by 49 percent in 2012 compared with the previous year.

It also cited an August report from the U.N. mission in Afghanistan stating that the vast majority of Afghan civilian deaths are caused by the insurgency.

“The U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child’s concerns about reports of the death of hundreds of children as a result of attacks and airstrikes by the U.S. military in Afghanistan are categorically unfounded,” the coalition statement said.

“Equally unsubstantiated is their assertion that U.S. forces use indiscriminate force during their operations. Finally, the committee’s assertion that U.S. troops do not exercise precautionary measures is entirely false.”

US media yet again conceals newsworthy government secrets

The Washington Post
The Washington Post this week admitted it was part of an “informal arrangement” to conceal from its readers a US drone base in Saudi Arabia. Photograph: Alamy

The collective self-censorship over a US drone base in Saudi Arabia is but the latest act of government-subservient ‘journalism’

The entity that is designed to be, and endlessly praises itself for being, a check on US government power is, in fact, its most loyal servant.

guardian.co.uk | Feb 7, 2013

by Glenn Greenwald

The US media, over the last decade (at least), has repeatedly acted to conceal newsworthy information it obtains about the actions of the US government. In each instance, the self-proclaimed adversarial press corps conceals these facts at the behest of the US government, based on patently absurd claims that reporting them will harm US national security. In each instance, what this media concealment actually accomplishes is enabling the dissemination of significant government falsehoods without challenge, and permitting the continuation of government deceit and even illegality.

One of the most notorious examples was in mid-2004 when the New York Times discovered – thanks to a courageous DOJ whistleblower – that the Bush administration was eavesdropping on the electronic communications of Americans without the warrants required by the criminal law. But after George Bush summoned to the Oval Office the paper’s publisher (Arthur Sulzberger) and executive editor (Bill Keller) and directed them to conceal what they had learned, the NYT complied by sitting on the story for a-year-and-a-half: until late December, 2005, long after Bush had been safely re-elected. The “national security” excuse for this concealment was patently ludicrous from the start: everyone knew the US government was trying to eavesdrop on al-Qaida communications and this story merely revealed that they were doing so illegally (without warrants) rather than legally (with warrants). By concealing the story for so long, the New York Times helped the Bush administration illegally spy on Americans.

The Washington Post’s Dana Priest, in a superb act of journalism, reported in 2005 that the CIA was maintaining a network of secret “black sites” where detainees were interrogated and abused beyond the monitoring scrutiny of human rights groups and even Congress. But the Post purposely concealed the identity of the countries serving as the locale of those secret prisons in order to enable the plainly illegal program to continue without bothersome disruptions: “the Washington Post is not publishing the names of the Eastern European countries involved in the covert program, at the request of senior US officials.”

In 2011, the New York Times along with numerous other US media outlets learned that the American arrested in Pakistan for having shot and killed two Pakistanis, Raymond Davis, was not – as President Obama falsely claimed – “our diplomat”, but was a CIA agent and former Blackwater contractor. Not only did the NYT conceal this fact, but it repeatedly and uncritically printed claims from Obama and other officials about Davis’ status which it knew to be false. It was only once the Guardian published the facts about Davis – that he was a CIA agent – did the Times tell the truth to its readers, admitting that the disclosure “pulled back the curtain on a web of covert American operations inside Pakistan, part of a secret war run by the CIA“.

The NYT, as usual, justified its concealment of this obviously newsworthy information as coming “at the request of the Obama administration, which argued that disclosure of his specific job would put his life at risk”. But as the Guardian’s Deputy Editor Ian Katz noted, “Davis [was] already widely assumed in Pakistan to have links to US intelligence” and “disclosing his CIA role would [therefore not] expose him to increased risk”.

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And now, yet again, the US media has been caught working together to conceal obviously newsworthy government secrets. On Wednesday, the Washington Post reported that two years ago, the Obama administration established a base in Saudi Arabia from which it deploys drones to kill numerous people in Yemen. including US citizen Anwar Awlaki and, two weeks, later his 16-year-old American son Abdulrahman. The US base was built after the US launched a December, 2009 cruise missile/cluster-bomb attack that slaughtered dozens of Yemeni women and children.

But the Post admitted that it – along with multiple other US media outlets – had long known about the Saudi Arabia drone base but had acted in unison to conceal it from the US public:

“The Washington Post had refrained from disclosing the specific location at the request of the administration, which cited concern that exposing the facility would undermine operations against an al-Qaeda affiliate regarded as the network’s most potent threat to the United States, as well as potentially damage counterterrorism collaboration with Saudi Arabia.

“The Post learned Tuesday night that another news organization was planning to reveal the location of the base, effectively ending an informal arrangement among several news organizations that had been aware of the location for more than a year.”

The “other news organization” which the Post references is the New York Times. The NYT – in a very good article yesterday on the role played by CIA nominee John Brennan in US drones strikes in Yemen – reported that Brennan “work[ed] closely with neighboring Saudi Arabia to gain approval for a secret CIA drone base there that is used for American strikes”. As the paper’s Public Editor, Margaret Sullivan, explained, the NYT was one of the papers which “had withheld the location of that base at the request of the CIA”, but had decided now to report it. That was why the Post did so.

The existence of this drone base in Saudi Arabia is significantly newsworthy in multiple ways. The US drone program is drenched with extreme secrecy. The assassination of Awlaki is one of the most radical acts the US government has undertaken in the last decade at least. The intense cooperation between the US and the incomparably despotic Saudi regime is of vital significance. As Sullivan, the NYT’s Public Editor, put it in defending the NYT’s disclosure (and implicitly questioning the prior media conspiracy of silence):

“Given the government’s undue secrecy about the drone program, which it has never officially acknowledged the existence of, and that program’s great significance to America’s foreign policy, its national security, and its influence on the tumultuous Middle East, The Times ought to be reporting as much and as aggressively as possible on it.”

As usual, the excuses for concealing this information are frivolous. Indeed, as the Guardian’s Roy Greenslade noted, “the location of several drone bases was published as long ago as September last year on at least one news website, as this item on the North America Inter Press Service illustrates.” Gawker’s Adrian Chen documents numerous other instances where the base had been publicly disclosed and writes:

“In the case of the Saudi drone base, the Times and the Post weren’t protecting a state secret: They were helping the CIA bury an inconvenient story. . . . The fact that the drone base was already reported renders the rationale behind the months-long blackout a farce.”

In an article on the controversy over this self-censorship, the Guardian this morning quotes Dr Jack Lule, a professor of journalism and communication at Lehigh University:

“The decision not to publish is a shameful one. The national security standard has to be very high, perhaps imminent danger. The fact that we are even having a conversation about whether it was a national security issue should have sent alarm bells off to the editors. I think the real reason was that the administration did not want to embarrass the Saudis – and for the US news media to be complicit in that is craven.”

The same dynamic drives most of these acts of US media self-censorship. It has nothing to do with legitimate claims of national security. Indeed, none of these facts – once they were finally reported – ultimately resulted in any harm. Instead, it has everything to do with obeying government dictates; shielding high-level government officials from embarrassing revelations; protecting even the most extreme government deceit and illegality; and keeping the domestic population of the US (their readers) ignorant of the vital acts in which their own government is engaged.

There are, of course, instances where newspapers can validly opt to conceal facts that they learn. That’s when the harm that comes from disclosure plainly outweighs the public interest in learning of them (the classic case is when, in a war, a newspaper learns of imminent troop movements: there is no value in reporting that but ample harm from doing so). But none of these instances comes close to meeting that test. Instead, media outlets overwhelmingly abide by government dictates as to what they should conceal. As Greensdale wrote: “most often, they oblige governments by acceding to requests not to publish sensitive information that might jeopardise operations.”

As all of these examples demonstrate, extreme levels of subservience to US government authority is embedded in the ethos of the establishment American media. They see themselves not as watchdogs over the state but as loyal agents of it.

Recall the extraordinary 2009 BBC debate over WikiLeaks in which former NYT executive editor Bill Keller proudly praised himself for concealing information the Obama administration told him to conceal, prompting this incredulous reply from the BBC host: “Just to be clear, Bill Keller, are you saying that you sort of go to the government in advance and say: ‘What about this, that and the other, is it all right to do this and all right to do that,’ and you get clearance, then?” Keller’s admission also prompted this response from former British diplomat Carne Ross, who was also on the program: “It’s extraordinary that the New York Times is clearing what it says about this with the US Government.”

After the Guardian published the truth about Raymond Davis, former Bush DOJ laywer Jack Goldsmith, in 2011, defended the New York Times’ concealment of it by hailing what he called “the patriotism of the American press“. He quoted former Bush CIA and NSA chief Gen. Michael Hayden as saying that “American journalists display ‘a willingness to work with us’ . . . but with the foreign press ‘it’s very, very difficult'”. Goldsmith said that while foreign media outlets will more readily report on secret US government acts (he named The Guardian, Al Jazeera and WikiLeaks), US national security journalists with whom he spoke justified their eagerness to cooperate with the US government by “expressly ascrib[ing] this attitude to ‘patriotism’ or ‘jingoism’ or to being American citizens or working for American publications.”

That is the key truth. The entity that is designed to be, and endlessly praises itself for being, a check on US government power is, in fact, its most loyal servant. There are significant exceptions: Dana Priest did disclose the CIA black sites network over the agency’s vehement objections, while the NYT is now suing the government to compel the release of classified documents relating to Obama’s assassination program. But time and again, one finds the US media acting to help suppress the newsworthy secrets of the US government rather than report on them. Its collaborative “informal” agreement to hide the US drone base in Saudi Arabia is just the latest in a long line of such behavior.

China cracks down even harder on Tibet

China Tibet protests
Ethnic Tibetan monks demonstrating in Qinghai province: nearly 100 people have set themselves on fire since 2009 in protest at Chinese rule. Photograph: Free Tibet/EPA

Beijing arrests 70 in ethnic Tibetan areas as it steps up efforts to blame Dalai Lama for self-immolations in protest at Chinese rule

guardian.co.uk | Feb 8, 2013

China‘s government says it has detained 70 people in ethnic Tibetan areas as it cracks down on self-immolation protests against Chinese rule.

Beijing has stepped up its efforts to blame the exiled Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama, for the protests, in which nearly 100 Tibetan monks, nuns and lay people have set themselves on fire since 2009.

The harsh measures are a sign new Chinese leaders installed in November are not easing up on Tibet despite international condemnation.

The protesters are calling for Beijing to allow greater religious freedom and the return from exile of the Dalai Lama, who lives in India.

The latest detentions took place in an ethnic Tibetan area of Qinghai province, which borders Tibet, the government’s Xinhua news agency announced late on Thursday. It said 12 of those detained were formally arrested but gave no details of the charges.

Beijing has responded to the protests by sending in security forces to seal off areas and prevent information from getting out, arresting protesters’ friends and seizing satellite TV dishes. Despite that, the pace of self-immolations accelerated in November as the ruling Communist party held a leadership transition.

The government has blamed the burnings on hostile foreign forces that want to separate Tibet from the mainland.

The burnings have galvanised many Tibetans, who see them as selfless acts of sacrifice, making it hard for authorities to denounce the immolators.

On Thursday, Voice of America, a US-government-financed broadcaster, denied accusations by Chinese state television and a government newspaper that it encouraged the burnings. The US state department has expressed concern about the “deteriorating human rights situation in Tibetan areas” and the use of criminal laws against people associated with protesters.

“Our concern is that there are deep grievances within the Tibetan population which are not being addressed openly and through dialogue by the Chinese government,” said a department spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland.

Nuland said Washington urged Beijing to “engage in a substantive dialogue” with the Dalai Lama. “We continue to call on Chinese government officials to permit Tibetans to express their grievances freely, publicly and peacefully, without fear of retribution,” she said.

Chilling memo from Obama DOJ justifies killing US citizens

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Obama assumes Hitlerian powers

The president’s partisan lawyers purport to vest him with the most extreme power a political leader can seize

guardian.co.uk | Feb 5, 2013

by Glenn Greenwald

The most extremist power any political leader can assert is the power to target his own citizens for execution without any charges or due process, far from any battlefield. The Obama administration has not only asserted exactly that power in theory, but has exercised it in practice. In September 2011, it killed US citizen Anwar Awlaki in a drone strike in Yemen, along with US citizen Samir Khan, and then, in circumstances that are still unexplained, two weeks later killed Awlaki’s 16-year-old American son Abdulrahman with a separate drone strike in Yemen.

Since then, senior Obama officials including Attorney General Eric Holder and John Brennan, Obama’s top terrorism adviser and his current nominee to lead the CIA, have explicitly argued that the president is and should be vested with this power. Meanwhile, a Washington Post article from October reported that the administration is formally institutionalizing this president’s power to decide who dies under the Orwellian title “disposition matrix”.

When the New York Times back in April, 2010 first confirmed the existence of Obama’s hit list, it made clear just what an extremist power this is, noting: “It is extremely rare, if not unprecedented, for an American to be approved for targeted killing.” The NYT quoted a Bush intelligence official as saying “he did not know of any American who was approved for targeted killing under the former president”. When the existence of Obama’s hit list was first reported several months earlier by the Washington Post’s Dana Priest, she wrote that the “list includes three Americans”.

What has made these actions all the more radical is the absolute secrecy with which Obama has draped all of this. Not only is the entire process carried out solely within the Executive branch – with no checks or oversight of any kind – but there is zero transparency and zero accountability. The president’s underlings compile their proposed lists of who should be executed, and the president – at a charming weekly event dubbed by White House aides as “Terror Tuesday” – then chooses from “baseball cards” and decrees in total secrecy who should die. The power of accuser, prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner are all consolidated in this one man, and those powers are exercised in the dark.

In fact, The Most Transparent Administration Ever™ has been so fixated on secrecy that they have refused even to disclose the legal memoranda prepared by Obama lawyers setting forth their legal rationale for why the president has this power. During the Bush years, when Bush refused to disclose the memoranda from his Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) that legally authorized torture, rendition, warrantless eavesdropping and the like, leading Democratic lawyers such as Dawn Johnsen (Obama’s first choice to lead the OLC) vehemently denounced this practice as a grave threat, warning that “the Bush Administration’s excessive reliance on ‘secret law’ threatens the effective functioning of American democracy” and “the withholding from Congress and the public of legal interpretations by the [OLC] upsets the system of checks and balances between the executive and legislative branches of government.”

But when it comes to Obama’s assassination power, this is exactly what his administration has done. It has repeatedly refused to disclose the principal legal memoranda prepared by Obama OLC lawyers that justified his kill list. It is, right now, vigorously resisting lawsuits from the New York Times and the ACLU to obtain that OLC memorandum. In sum, Obama not only claims he has the power to order US citizens killed with no transparency, but that even the documents explaining the legal rationale for this power are to be concealed. He’s maintaining secret law on the most extremist power he can assert.

Last night, NBC News’ Michael Isikoff released a 16-page “white paper” prepared by the Obama DOJ that purports to justify Obama’s power to target even Americans for assassination without due process (the memo is embedded in full below). This is not the primary OLC memo justifying Obama’s kill list – that is still concealed – but it appears to track the reasoning of that memo as anonymously described to the New York Times in October 2011.

This new memo is entitled: “Lawfulness of a Lethal Operation Directed Against a US Citizen Who is a Senior Operational Leader of Al-Qa’ida or An Associated Force”. It claims its conclusion is “reached with recognition of the extraordinary seriousness of a lethal operation by the United States against a US citizen”. Yet it is every bit as chilling as the Bush OLC torture memos in how its clinical, legalistic tone completely sanitizes the radical and dangerous power it purports to authorize.

I’ve written many times at length about why the Obama assassination program is such an extreme and radical threat – see here for one of the most comprehensive discussions, with documentation of how completely all of this violates Obama and Holder’s statements before obtaining power – and won’t repeat those arguments here. Instead, there are numerous points that should be emphasized about the fundamentally misleading nature of this new memo:

1. Equating government accusations with guilt

The core distortion of the War on Terror under both Bush and Obama is the Orwellian practice of equating government accusations of terrorism with proof of guilt. One constantly hears US government defenders referring to “terrorists” when what they actually mean is: those accused by the government of terrorism. This entire memo is grounded in this deceit.

Time and again, it emphasizes that the authorized assassinations are carried out “against a senior operational leader of al-Qaida or its associated forces who poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States.” Undoubtedly fearing that this document would one day be public, Obama lawyers made certain to incorporate this deceit into the title itself: “Lawfulness of a Lethal Operation Directed Against a US Citizen Who is a Senior Operational Leader of al-Qaida or An Associated Force.”

This ensures that huge numbers of citizens – those who spend little time thinking about such things and/or authoritarians who assume all government claims are true – will instinctively justify what is being done here on the ground that we must kill the Terrorists or joining al-Qaida means you should be killed. That’s the “reasoning” process that has driven the War on Terror since it commenced: if the US government simply asserts without evidence or trial that someone is a terrorist, then they are assumed to be, and they can then be punished as such – with indefinite imprisonment or death.

But of course, when this memo refers to “a Senior Operational Leader of al-Qaida”, what it actually means is this: someone whom the President – in total secrecy and with no due process – has accused of being that. Indeed, the memo itself makes this clear, as it baldly states that presidential assassinations are justified when “an informed, high-level official of the US government has determined that the targeted individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the US”.

This is the crucial point: the memo isn’t justifying the due-process-free execution of senior al-Qaida leaders who pose an imminent threat to the US. It is justifying the due-process-free execution of people secretly accused by the president and his underlings, with no due process, of being that. The distinction between (a) government accusations and (b) proof of guilt is central to every free society, by definition, yet this memo – and those who defend Obama’s assassination power – willfully ignore it.

Those who justify all of this by arguing that Obama can and should kill al-Qaida leaders who are trying to kill Americans are engaged in supreme question-begging. Without any due process, transparency or oversight, there is no way to know who is a “senior al-Qaida leader” and who is posing an “imminent threat” to Americans. All that can be known is who Obama, in total secrecy, accuses of this.

(Indeed, membership in al-Qaida is not even required to be assassinated, as one can be a member of a group deemed to be an “associated force” of al-Qaida, whatever that might mean: a formulation so broad and ill-defined that, as Law Professor Kevin Jon Heller argues, it means the memo “authorizes the use of lethal force against individuals whose targeting is, without more, prohibited by international law”.)

The definition of an extreme authoritarian is one who is willing blindly to assume that government accusations are true without any evidence presented or opportunity to contest those accusations. This memo – and the entire theory justifying Obama’s kill list – centrally relies on this authoritarian conflation of government accusations and valid proof of guilt.

They are not the same and never have been. Political leaders who decree guilt in secret and with no oversight inevitably succumb to error and/or abuse of power. Such unchecked accusatory decrees are inherently untrustworthy (indeed, Yemen experts have vehemently contested the claim that Awlaki himself was a senior al-Qaida leader posing an imminent threat to the US). That’s why due process is guaranteed in the Constitution and why judicial review of government accusations has been a staple of western justice since the Magna Carta: because leaders can’t be trusted to decree guilt and punish citizens without evidence and an adversarial process. That is the age-old basic right on which this memo, and the Obama presidency, is waging war.

2. Creating a ceiling, not a floor

The most vital fact to note about this memorandum is that it is not purporting to impose requirements on the president’s power to assassinate US citizens. When it concludes that the president has the authority to assassinate “a Senior Operational Leader of al-Qaida” who “poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the US” where capture is “infeasible”, it is not concluding that assassinations are permissible only in those circumstances.

To the contrary, the memo expressly makes clear that presidential assassinations may be permitted even when none of those circumstances prevail: “This paper does not attempt to determine the minimum requirements necessary to render such an operation lawful.” Instead, as the last line of the memo states: “it concludes only that the stated conditions would be sufficient to make lawful a lethal operation” – not that such conditions are necessary to find these assassinations legal. The memo explicitly leaves open the possibility that presidential assassinations of US citizens may be permissible even when the target is not a senior al-Qaida leader posing an imminent threat and/or when capture is feasible.

Critically, the rationale of the memo – that the US is engaged in a global war against al-Qaida and “associated forces” – can be easily used to justify presidential assassinations of US citizens in circumstances far beyond the ones described in this memo. If you believe the president has the power to execute US citizens based on the accusation that the citizen has joined al-Qaida, what possible limiting principle can you cite as to why that shouldn’t apply to a low-level al-Qaida member, including ones found in places where capture may be feasible (including US soil)? The purported limitations on this power set forth in this memo, aside from being incredibly vague, can be easily discarded once the central theory of presidential power is embraced.

3. Relies on the core Bush/Cheney theory of a global battlefield

The primary theory embraced by the Bush administration to justify its War on Terror policies was that the “battlefield” is no longer confined to identifiable geographical areas, but instead, the entire globe is now one big, unlimited “battlefield”. That theory is both radical and dangerous because a president’s powers are basically omnipotent on a “battlefield”. There, state power is shielded from law, from courts, from constitutional guarantees, from all forms of accountability: anyone on a battlefield can be killed or imprisoned without charges. Thus, to posit the world as a battlefield is, by definition, to create an imperial, omnipotent presidency. That is the radical theory that unleashed all the rest of the controversial and lawless Bush/Cheney policies.

This “world-is-a-battlefield” theory was once highly controversial among Democrats. John Kerry famously denounced it when running for president, arguing instead that the effort against terrorism is “primarily an intelligence and law enforcement operation that requires cooperation around the world”.

But this global-war theory is exactly what lies at heart of the Obama approach to Terrorism generally and this memo specifically. It is impossible to defend Obama’s assassination powers without embracing it (which is why key Obama officials have consistently done so). That’s because these assassinations are taking place in countries far from any war zone, such as Yemen and Somalia. You can’t defend the application of “war powers” in these countries without embracing the once-very-controversial Bush/Cheney view that the whole is now a “battlefield” and the president’s war powers thus exist without geographic limits.

This new memo makes clear that this Bush/Cheney worldview is at the heart of the Obama presidency. The president, it claims, “retains authority to use force against al-Qaida and associated forces outside the area of active hostilities“. In other words: there are, subject to the entirely optional “feasibility of capture” element, no geographic limits to the president’s authority to kill anyone he wants. This power applies not only to war zones, but everywhere in the world that he claims a member of al-Qaida is found. This memo embraces and institutionalizes the core Bush/Cheney theory that justified the entire panoply of policies Democrats back then pretended to find so objectionable.

4. Expanding the concept of “imminence” beyond recognition

The memo claims that the president’s assassination power applies to a senior al-Qaida member who “poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States”. That is designed to convince citizens to accept this power by leading them to believe it’s similar to common and familiar domestic uses of lethal force on US soil: if, for instance, an armed criminal is in the process of robbing a bank or is about to shoot hostages, then the “imminence” of the threat he poses justifies the use of lethal force against him by the police.

But this rhetorical tactic is totally misleading. The memo is authorizing assassinations against citizens in circumstances far beyond this understanding of “imminence”. Indeed, the memo expressly states that it is inventing “a broader concept of imminence” than is typically used in domestic law. Specifically, the president’s assassination power “does not require that the US have clear evidence that a specific attack . . . will take place in the immediate future“. The US routinely assassinates its targets not when they are engaged in or plotting attacks but when they are at home, with family members, riding in a car, at work, at funerals, rescuing other drone victims, etc.

Many of the early objections to this new memo have focused on this warped and incredibly broad definition of “imminence”. The ACLU’s Jameel Jaffer told Isikoff that the memo “redefines the word imminence in a way that deprives the word of its ordinary meaning”. Law Professor Kevin Jon Heller called Jaffer’s objection “an understatement”, noting that the memo’s understanding of “imminence” is “wildly overbroad” under international law.

Crucially, Heller points out what I noted above: once you accept the memo’s reasoning – that the US is engaged in a global war, that the world is a battlefield, and the president has the power to assassinate any member of al-Qaida or associated forces – then there is no way coherent way to limit this power to places where capture is infeasible or to persons posing an “imminent” threat. The legal framework adopted by the memo means the president can kill anyone he claims is a member of al-Qaida regardless of where they are found or what they are doing.

The only reason to add these limitations of “imminence” and “feasibility of capture” is, as Heller said, purely political: to make the theories more politically palatable. But the definitions for these terms are so vague and broad that they provide no real limits on the president’s assassination power. As the ACLU’s Jaffer says: “This is a chilling document” because “it argues that the government has the right to carry out the extrajudicial killing of an American citizen” and the purported limits “are elastic and vaguely defined, and it’s easy to see how they could be manipulated.”

5. Converting Obama underlings into objective courts

This memo is not a judicial opinion. It was not written by anyone independent of the president. To the contrary, it was written by life-long partisan lackeys: lawyers whose careerist interests depend upon staying in the good graces of Obama and the Democrats, almost certainly Marty Lederman and David Barron. Treating this document as though it confers any authority on Obama is like treating the statements of one’s lawyer as a judicial finding or jury verdict.

Indeed, recall the primary excuse used to shield Bush officials from prosecution for their crimes of torture and illegal eavesdropping: namely, they got Bush-appointed lawyers in the DOJ to say that their conduct was legal, and therefore, it should be treated as such. This tactic – getting partisan lawyers and underlings of the president to say that the president’s conduct is legal – was appropriately treated with scorn when invoked by Bush officials to justify their radical programs. As Digby wrote about Bush officials who pointed to the OLC memos it got its lawyers to issue about torture and eavesdropping, such a practice amounts to:

“validating the idea that obscure Justice Department officials can be granted the authority to essentially immunize officials at all levels of the government, from the president down to the lowest field officer, by issuing a secret memo. This is a very important new development in western jurisprudence and one that surely requires more study and consideration. If Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan had known about this, they could have saved themselves a lot of trouble.”

Life-long Democratic Party lawyers are not going to oppose the terrorism policies of the president who appointed them. A president can always find underlings and political appointees to endorse whatever he wants to do. That’s all this memo is: the by-product of obsequious lawyers telling their Party’s leader that he is (of course) free to do exactly that which he wants to do, in exactly the same way that Bush got John Yoo to tell him that torture was not torture, and that even it if were, it was legal.

That’s why courts, not the president’s partisan lawyers, should be making these determinations. But when the ACLU tried to obtain a judicial determination as to whether Obama is actually authorized to assassinate US citizens, the Obama DOJ went to extreme lengths to block the court from ruling on that question. They didn’t want independent judges to determine the law. They wanted their own lawyers to do so.

That’s all this memo is: Obama-loyal appointees telling their leader that he has the authority to do what he wants. But in the warped world of US politics, this – secret memos from partisan lackeys – has replaced judicial review as the means to determine the legality of the president’s conduct.

6. Making a mockery of “due process”

The core freedom most under attack by the War on Terror is the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of due process. It provides that “no person shall be . . . deprived of life . . . without due process of law”. Like putting people in cages for life on island prisons with no trial, claiming that the president has the right to assassinate US citizens far from any battlefield without any charges or trial is the supreme evisceration of this right.

The memo pays lip service to the right it is destroying: “Under the traditional due process balancing analysis . . . . we recognize that there is no private interest more weighty than a person’s interest in his life.” But it nonetheless argues that a “balancing test” is necessary to determine the extent of the process that is due before the president can deprive someone of their life, and further argues that, as the New York Times put it when this theory was first unveiled: “while the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of due process applied, it could be satisfied by internal deliberations in the executive branch.”

Stephen Colbert perfectly mocked this theory when Eric Holder first unveiled it to defend the president’s assassination program. At the time, Holder actually said: “due process and judicial process are not one and the same.” Colbert interpreted that claim as follows:

“Trial by jury, trial by fire, rock, paper scissors, who cares? Due process just means that there is a process that you do. The current process is apparently, first the president meets with his advisers and decides who he can kill. Then he kills them.”

It is fitting indeed that the memo expressly embraces two core Bush/Cheney theories to justify this view of what “due process” requires. First, it cites the Bush DOJ’s core view, as enunciated by John Yoo, that courts have no role to play in what the president does in the War on Terror because judicial review constitutes “judicial encroachment” on the “judgments by the President and his national security advisers as to when and how to use force”. And then it cites the Bush DOJ’s mostly successful arguments in the 2004 Hamdi case that the president has the authority even to imprison US citizens without trial provided that he accuses them of being a terrorist.

The reason this is so fitting is because, as I’ve detailed many times, it was these same early Bush/Cheney theories that made me want to begin writing about politics, all driven by my perception that the US government was becoming extremist and dangerous. During the early Bush years, the very idea that the US government asserted the power to imprison US citizens without charges and due process (or to eavesdrop on them) was so radical that, at the time, I could hardly believe they were being asserted out in the open.

Yet here we are almost a full decade later. And we have the current president asserting the power not merely to imprison or eavesdrop on US citizens without charges or trial, but to order them executed – and to do so in total secrecy, with no checks or oversight. If you believe the president has the power to order US citizens executed far from any battlefield with no charges or trial, then it’s truly hard to conceive of any asserted power you would find objectionable.

 

Communist party cancels Chinese New Year celebrations to quiet public outrage over extravagance

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Bars and restaurants in the Xicheng District, Beijing, China. Photo: ALAMY

Some of Beijing’s most sumptuous restaurants and hotels are facing an uncertain future after a new Communist Party austerity drive robbed them of their best customers.

Telegraph | Feb 8, 2013

By Malcolm Moore, Beijing

For years, many of Beijing’s finest establishments have paid premium rents to be close to government ministries and state-owned monopolies.

They were rewarded, especially in the month leading up to Chinese New Year, the country’s biggest holiday, with bookings for extravagant banquets for Communist Party officials.

High-end restaurants can rake in more than a third of their annual income in the month leading up to the New Year, which falls on Sunday.

Restaurants like Xiang E Qing, near a hub of government departments in Beijing’s Xicheng district, would normally be full to bursting and loud with carousing, drunk officials.

But this year, the order has gone out for all departments to cancel their celebrations and to demonstrate more humility after public anger that the Party was splurging some £60 billion, the equivalent of the official Defence budget, on “entertaining”.

A waitress said the restaurant had been subdued, “definitely more quiet than usual”. At Shiji Tanfu, which claims recipes passed down from the Qing dynasty, a waitress said that usually its tiny, but exclusive, set of nine private rooms would all be booked out. “But this year, we still have plenty of space,” she said.

Party planners have also seen their blue-chip government clients cancel their New Year parties.

“Our business has dropped by a third,” said a spokesman for Zhaoshun Cultural Communications, a major events planning agency. “Pretty much all the government departments have cancelled and we are thinking of changing our business model”.

Mr Wei, the manager of the Jiutian Heming party planning agency, said all his national-level state-owned companies had called off their parties. “The few that are going ahead have slashed their budgets pretty steeply”.

The gift hamper business is also down. At Tuangouba, a company that delivers nuts, olive oil and organic foods, a spokesman said government clients made up half their sales and that this year was looking bleak indeed.

Meanwhile, delegates to this year’s People’s Congress in Beijing will find that potted plants, flowers, fruit and yogurt have been banned. “We will have buffet lunches, not banquets,” said Liu Weilin, a spokesman for the city.

Perhaps the worst hit are the drinks companies, who make huge sums from lubricating government dinners. “We have had to discount heavily,” said one alcohol wholesaler to the Beijing Evening News. “My clients are mainly the army and the restaurants next to government ministries. But even the army has stopped drinking!” he lamented.

On the day that the army announced it was entering prohibition, the stock market value of Moutai, the most prestigious brand of Chinese spirits, dropped by 12.5 billion yuan (£1.25 billion).

However, enforcing the new austerity outside China’s capital has been more difficult. Xinhua, the official news agency, reported that local governments were still holding lavish parties inside their head offices or discreetly renting out function rooms inside hotels.

“Sometimes the food in these internal canteens is even more expensive than in a five-star hotel,” wrote the Beijing News. “Some big parties have also been broken up into lots of smaller ones, and registered under secret names,” it added.

Meanwhile, to comply with orders not to eat out, some ministries have apparently started building new staff restaurants.

“I was doing some work for a government department recently,” said Xu Hefeng, an employee of the China Real Estate Information Company. “They said since there are orders from the top not to hold banquets, they had decided to build a new canteen, which was astonishingly luxurious.”

Moats dug around Chinese villagers’ houses to drive them out

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Trenches dug around ‘nail’ houses in Guangzhou Photo: Quirky China News/Rex

Villagers in one of China’s largest mega-cities have reportedly found themselves cut off from the outside world after waking to discover moats had been dug around their homes.

Telegraph | Feb 7, 2013

By Tom Phillips, Shanghai

Yangji village in the southeastern city of Guangzhou has reportedly existed for some 900 years.

As China’s economy exploded and the port city’s population ballooned to more than 12 million, real estate developers moved in and Yangji’s 4,000 residents found themselves facing eviction.

Some 99 per cent of Yangji’s villagers are now reported to have abandoned their homes, but at least six families have refused to budge.

(Quirky China News/Rex)

Now, in an apparent attempt to force them from their homes, villagers who have already accepted compensation deals have reportedly used earth-diggers to carve out moats around their former neighbours’ homes.

The plight of Yangji’s resisting villagers came to light this week in a series of astonishing photographs published by the Guangzhou-based newspaper, Southern Metropolis Daily.

“The ‘moat digging’ has been going on for over a month,” state news agency Xinhua reported on Monday.

Some of the houses are completely surrounded by six-foot deep moats up to 12 feet long on all four sides, it added.

A villager named Mr Qin, who has refused to leave his home, said the moats were just one tactic “hostile” former neighbours had used to render the community uninhabitable.

(Quirky China News/Rex)

Since last November, Yangji’s electricity and water supplies have been repeatedly sabotaged, he claimed.

At least one villager, named as Li Jianming, was also beaten up. “The corner of his mouth, his teeth, and arms were covered with blood [and] his lips were split,” Xinhua reported.

In 2010, the China Daily newspaper reported that Yangji village was one of 138 communities in Guangzhou facing eviction as city officials embarked on major urban-renewal campaign.

Some 600,000 people were to lose their homes under the city’s plans to demolish “much of its old downtown, its urban villages and ageing factories”.

“As one of the key cities in south China, Guangzhou has seen a severe shortage of land for buildings,” local official Chen Jianhua told the newspaper.

Urban China’s thirst for land has created thousands of so-called “nail houses”, whose owners refuse to relinquish their homes.

In December, China’s most famous nail house – a five-storey building in Zhejiang province surrounded on all sides by a motorway – was demolished after achieving global fame as a symbol of forced evictions.

Forced evictions and land disputes are a major cause of social unrest in China, where there are tens of thousands of mass incidents each year.

This week, Chinese internet users weighed in on the unusual tactics being used to force Yangji’s remaining families from their homes.

“The property developer is really smart,” wrote one micro-blogger.

“The idea of natural moats is shockingly unprecedented. Really clever!”