Sunday, August 20, 2006

Political news of the week take 20

[You can skip to the end of this post, if you want. See also: political news of the week takes 19, 18. 17, 16, 15, 14, 13, 12, 11, 10, 9b, 9a, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1.]

NSA eavesdropping program ruled unconstitutional - A major ruling (that will certainly be appealed) on a topic I've written about many times before:
A federal judge on Thursday ruled that the U.S. government's domestic eavesdropping program is unconstitutional and ordered it ended immediately.

In a 44-page memorandum and order, U.S. District Judge Anna Diggs Taylor, -- who is based in Detroit, Michigan -- struck down the National Security Agency's program, which she said violates the rights to free speech and privacy.


The defendants "are permanently enjoined from directly or indirectly utilizing the Terrorist Surveillance Program (TSP) in any way, including, but not limited to, conducting warrantless wiretaps of telephone and Internet communications, in contravention of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and Title III," she wrote.

She further declared that the program "violates the separation of powers doctrine, the Administrative Procedures Act, the First and Fourth amendments to the United States Constitution, the FISA and Title III."

She went on to say that "the president of the United States ... has undisputedly violated the Fourth in failing to procure judicial orders."


The lawsuit, filed January 17 by civil rights organizations, lawyers, journalists and educators, "challenges the constitutionality of a secret government program to intercept vast quantities of the international telephone and Internet communications of innocent Americans without court approval."

The complaint was filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. Plaintiffs included branches of the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the Washington and Detroit branches of the Council on American-Islamic Relations and Greenpeace.

A Defiant Hezbollah Rises From the Rubble:
Hezbollah's urban nerve center is a shattered shell. Its most loyal followers trudged homeward to a heartland laid to waste. And yet the Shiite organization lighted up the night sky with fireworks Monday and declared itself triumphant over Israel.

Israel meant to break Hezbollah with its monthlong offensive, but instead the militant organization has been strengthened politically in Lebanon, analysts say. The movement has a fresh boost of popularity, at least for now, and a renewed sense that it is entitled to keep its armed militia outside the control of the Lebanese army, they say.


The U.N. resolution that paved the way for the truce calls for Hezbollah's disarmament. So, for that matter, does an earlier, long-ignored resolution. But the terms for giving up the weaponry are vague. And as a prominent party in the Lebanese government, Hezbollah will have a hand in deciding how and whether the language translates into fact.

If anything, analysts say, the war has worsened Lebanon's underlying instability, bolstering Hezbollah at the expense of more moderate, secular figures in government.

"Most of the government really thought that Hezbollah could be trimmed by the Israelis, and that would give them less of a problem," said Judith Palmer Harik, a Hezbollah expert. "But it didn't work out that way, and now there's nothing they can do, in my opinion, to get Hezbollah away from doing what it wants.

"This is a victorious group. Do they want to be disarmed at this point?" Harik said. "That is such a nonstarter."


But even the anticipated deployment of 15,000 Lebanese and 15,000 international troops won't necessarily drive Hezbollah's militia from the southern borderlands. Many analysts believe the Lebanese army is more likely to fight shoulder-to-shoulder with Hezbollah than to shut it down. Foreign troops are no novelty, either — the militia was founded and flourished under Israeli occupation and amid international observer forces and is deeply rooted in the civilian population of the southern towns and villages.

Before the war erupted in mid-July, Hezbollah representatives had agreed to participate in national negotiations about disarmament.

Even then few analysts put much stock in the notion that the guerrillas would voluntarily lay aside their guns. Nevertheless, the fact that the powerful organization agreed to talk about its weapons was taken as a sign that Hezbollah sensed it had to compromise with domestic critics of its militia.

Not so now.

It is unclear what remains of Hezbollah's arsenal. But the group made it plain Monday that the sacrifice of its weapons was off the table for the time being. Nasrallah scoffed at the idea that the "resistance" should lay down its guns in order to build a strong Lebanon. It should be the other way around, he argued.

Iraqi Death Toll Rose Above 3,400 in July:
July appears to have been the deadliest month of the war for Iraqi civilians, according to figures from the Health Ministry and the Baghdad morgue, reinforcing criticism that the Baghdad security plan started in June by the new Iraqi government has failed.

An average of more than 110 Iraqis were killed each day in July, according to the figures. The total number of civilian deaths that month, 3,438, is a 9 percent increase over the tally in June and nearly double the toll in January.

The rising numbers indicate that sectarian violence is spiraling out of control and seem to bolster an assertion that many senior Iraqi officials and American military analysts have been making in recent months: that the country is already embroiled in a civil war, not just slipping toward one, and that the American-led forces are caught between Sunni Arab guerrillas and Shiite militias.

The numbers also provide the most definitive evidence yet that the Baghdad security plan started by Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki on June 14 has not quelled the violence. The plan, much touted by top Iraqi and American officials at the time, relied on setting up more Iraqi-run checkpoints to stymie movement by insurgents. Those officials have since acknowledged the plan has fallen far short of its aims, forcing the American military to add thousands of soldiers to the capital this month and to back away from proposals for a withdrawal of some troops by year’s end.

The Baghdad morgue reported receiving 1,855 bodies in July, more than half of the total deaths recorded in the country. The morgue tally for July was an 18 percent increase over June.


The American military in recent weeks has been especially eager to prove that Baghdad can be tamed if American troops are added to the streets and take a more active role — in effect, a repudiation of earlier efforts to turn over security more quickly to Iraqis.

The American command has added nearly 4,000 American soldiers to Baghdad by extending the tour of a combat brigade. Under a new security plan aimed at overhauling Mr. Maliki’s efforts, some of the city’s most violent southern and western areas are now virtually occupied block-to-block by American and Iraqi forces, with entire neighborhoods transformed into miniature police states after being sealed off by blast walls and concertina wire.

When the tally for civilian deaths in July is added to the Iraqi government numbers for earlier months obtained by the United Nations, the total indicates that at least 17,776 Iraqi civilians died violently in the first seven months of this year, or an average of 2,539 a month.

The Health Ministry did not provide figures for people wounded by attacks in Baghdad but said that at least 3,597 Iraqis were injured outside the city in July, a 25 percent increase over June.

United Nations officials and military analysts say the morgue and ministry numbers almost certainly reflect severe undercounts, caused by the haphazard nature of information in a war zone.

Baghdad, a City of Enclaves:
Conditions that lead Pentagon generals to say civil war is close are already polarizing many neighborhoods. Although Shiites and Sunnis still live side by side in some places, about 200,000 Iraqis, most of them from Baghdad, have left their mixed neighborhoods and taken refuge in communities where they can live among their own. In July, the Baghdad morgue reported more than 1,800 violent deaths.


Baghdad has become a sinister parlor game of unmasking affiliations with subtle and not so subtle questions: Where does your family come from, north or south? Who is your uncle? What tribe do you belong to? It is a place where death squads call the family of someone they've kidnapped and ask: Is he a Shiite, or a Sunni? A wrong answer can mean a trip to the morgue to identify a body streaked with acid burns and drill holes.

Jabbar Dulaimi bobs along in this vortex. A calm man with neatly combed hair, he's a councilman in Mansour, a once mixed neighborhood that is increasingly dominated by Sunnis. More than 150 shops are shuttered on 14th of Ramadan Street, many of them after owners received fliers from insurgents telling them to close or die. Garbage blows on sidewalks, rats scurry, sewage backs up in homes.

Dulaimi's cellphone buzzes and blinks with calls from constituents, but what can he do if fear keeps his municipal crews from work?

"I can't even pick up the garbage anymore," said Dulaimi, a Sunni. "One ward leader in Mansour told me, 'I can't send my trash collectors in there, they'll kill them.' "

Sectarian bloodshed has escalated since February, when Sunni insurgents attacked a Shiite shrine in Samarra. In the old arithmetic of Iraq, Sunni Arabs, many of them Baathists who benefited under Saddam Hussein, despised the American occupation. The majority Shiites wanted the U.S. to help rebuild a country. Now the Shiites are in control, and their death squads have forced Sunnis to inch toward the Americans for cover.


Fatima Omar lives across the river in the Sunni neighborhood of Amiriya. The tallest female student in the English department at Baghdad University, she is slim and wears a hijab. She has a degree, but no job, and sometimes when she looks for one, she must cross into dangerous neighborhoods that U.S. troops are steadily turning over to Iraqi forces, which are often ambushed by insurgents.

Helicopters shake the night sky and flares float like bright ghosts over the rooftops. A curfew keeps the streets mostly empty, but come daylight, rolling sectarian checkpoints appear, looking for anyone with the wrong last name, like hers.

"A lot of Omars have been killed crossing certain checkpoints," she said. This is why the neighborhood boys, even though they swagger, don't roam far from home, and why her father wants to reinvent himself with a fake ID card.

Lebanon Approves Troop Deployment:
Lebanon’s divided cabinet voted Wednesday night to send the national army into the south beginning on Thursday under a United Nations-mandated cease-fire, but finessed the delicate issue of disarming Hezbollah.

It seemed probable that when the army moved past the Litani River into the long-held separate realm of Hezbollah, the militia’s fighters would simply put their weapons into hiding and melt away into the civilian population.


In the hard-hit Shiite suburbs just south of Beirut, Hezbollah supporters fanned out Wednesday to assess war damage. Around them, residents and visitors wandered in stunned silence through a charred, bombed-out landscape. Someone had hung a banner with the words “Made in U.S.A.” over the ruins of one collapsed building; passers-by stopped to stare and take pictures. Here and there, gunmen could be seen watching over the streets.

But the group’s army of civilian volunteers and its advance plans for rebuilding were far more apparent. One slim young man walked down a rubble-strewn street holding a pink folder and a stack of printed damage assessment forms. He carried a yellow baseball cap with the name and symbol of Jihad al Binaa, the Hezbollah reconstruction committee.

“This not overnight work,” said the volunteer, a 30-year-old architect who declined to give his name. “The work being done now was prepared over the past month, with the collaboration of architects and engineers.”

He showed a reporter his map, which included numbers for each building on the small sector he had been assigned. There were also forms for each building, with spaces for the names of every resident and a description of damage to the units and needs. Photographs were being taken, to be used as comparison after the rebuilding has been done, he said.

He is one of 250 to 300 architects and engineers who are already assessing damage, the architect said, and the group hopes to finish 70 percent of its assessments in the Dahia, or Shiite suburban area, by the end of the week. Then will come the second and third phases, he said, in which the group will reimburse residents for damage, and start the long process of rebuilding.

The plans also include a strong dose of publicity for Hezbollah. A few blocks away, volunteers had set up a tent and plastic chairs for the press, and Ghassan Darwish, the group’s Beirut information officer, was giving interviews.

The group divided the Dahia into 70 districts, each one with two to four buildings in it, Mr. Darwish said. The goal was to get people back into their homes, or into alternative houses, or to give them enough cash to rent another apartment, all within 72 hours, he said. In the meantime, a team of architects was being assembled, he said, from Dubai, Qatar, Egypt, and Syria as well as Lebanon, to reconstruct the entire Dahia within a year. The money, he said, was coming from “people who hate Israel and believe in the resistance.”

Bureaucracy impedes bomb-detection work:
As the British terror plot was unfolding, the Bush administration quietly tried to take away $6 million that was supposed to be spent this year developing new explosives detection technology. Congressional leaders rejected the idea, the latest in a series of Homeland Security Department steps that have left lawmakers and some of the department's own experts questioning the commitment to create better anti-terror technologies.


Lawmakers and recently retired Homeland Security officials say they are concerned the department's research and development effort is bogged down by bureaucracy, lack of strategic planning and failure to use money wisely.

The department failed to spend $200 million in research and development money from past years, forcing lawmakers to rescind the money this summer.

The administration also was slow to start testing a new liquid explosives detector that the Japanese government provided to the United States earlier this year.

FCC cracks down on 'fake news':
The Federal Communications Commission has mailed letters to the owners of 77 television stations inquiring about their use of video news releases, a type of programming critics refer to as "fake news."

Video news releases are packaged news stories that usually employ actors to portray reporters who are paid by commercial or government groups.

The letters were sparked by allegations that television stations have been airing the videos as part of their news programs without telling viewers who paid for them.

FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein said Tuesday the letters ask station managers for information regarding agreements between the stations and the creators of the news releases. The FCC also asked whether there was any "consideration" given to the stations in return for airing the material.

"You can't tell any more the difference between what's propaganda and what's news," Adelstein said.

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