Onnesha Roychoudhuri

How to Find Power and Reclaim the Narrative in Post-Truth America

Traveling through my hometown in North Carolina in the days after the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., I ran into an old friend getting a drink at a bar I used to frequent. He was there with a colleague of his—a fellow high school teacher. The conversation turned to politics pretty quickly, and the friend, B., adamantly put forth the notion that there was nothing to be done except wait out the next four awful years. Look at the numbers in Congress, he said. Look at the Supreme Court. We’re all fucked.

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Is Amazon Evil?

The man sitting next to me takes out his new Kindle. “How do you like that thing?” I ask. He instantly becomes animated, angling the Kindle toward me so that I can better see its face. “It’s great,” he says. “I can download tons of different books and magazines.” Then, eyeing my hefty, hardback of John Dos Passos’s USA trilogy, he adds, “Cheaper than that, too. $9.99.” There, our conversation ends. I am unsure of where I fall on the Luddite spectrum, but I’ll admit to inhaling the odor of leather-bound volumes. Having moved over a dozen times, though, I’ve also found occasion to curse their weight.

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Michael Pollan Debunks Food Myths

The human digestive tract has about the same number of neurons as the spinal column. What are they there for? The final word isn't in yet, but Michael Pollan thinks their existence suggests that digestion may be more than the rather mundane process of breaking down food into chemicals. And, keeping those numerous digestive neurons in mind, Pollan's new book In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto entreaties us to follow our knowledgeable guts when it comes to figuring out what to eat.

Nutrition science and the food industry have been changing their minds about what Americans should eat for years. Low fat, no fat, low carb, high protein. In In Defense of Food, Pollan argues that all of these fixations amount to a uniquely American disease: orthorexia -- an unhealthy obsession with eating. And as statistics on diabetes and obesity can attest, obsessing doesn't seem to be getting us anywhere. Pollan takes the reader on a journey through the science of food and reveals how it is that we've ignored our guts and followed the ever-changing tune of food science. At once a scathing indictment of the food industry, and a call for a return to real food, Pollan's latest book reveals how Americans have been dangerously misled into adopting "low fat" as a fundamental food mantra, and how most of the products on our supermarket shelves should be called "imitation."

Pollan recently sat down with AlterNet to explain why cooking from scratch has become a subversive act, and to tell us things our guts probably already knew.

Onnesha Roychoudhuri: At the very beginning of the book, you indict your own field -- journalism. You write, "The story of how the most basic questions about what to eat ever got so complicated reveals a great deal about the institutional imperatives of the food industry, nutrition science, and -- ahem -- journalism ..."

Michael Pollan: The way journalists report on science contributes to the confusion about nutrition. We over-report the latest findings. Science is this process where hypotheses are advanced, and then they get knocked down. But you lose track of that when they run the big story on page 1: "Study of Low-Fat Diets Finds They Don't Really Work." That makes it sound like a consensus has formed. You look more closely and you realize, well, that's not really what that proved. It really proved that it's very hard to get people to go on a low-fat diet. The people in that study didn't really reduce their fat intake that much. We've tended to amplify a very uncertain science.

The larger issue is that the very nature of journalism and the nature of food don't make a good fit. Food is a really old story. The foods that we do best on are the ones we evolved eating over many thousands of years. But journalism needs a new story every week, and so we tend to play up novelty and surprise. The classic methods are to eat more fruits and vegetables. How are you going to interest an editor in that story? But in fact, that is the story. Nutritionists haven't changed their points of view nearly as much as you would gather from reading the journalism about them.

On the other hand, there is a very good fit between journalism and the food industry, which needs lots of change. The food industry needs to know that the blueberry is the food of the moment and that there's very exciting research showing that it's a "superfood" so they can put blueberries in all their products. That suits both journalism, which needs a new story every week, and the food industry, which puts out 15,000 new products every year.

OR: This constant influx of food products seems to be the result, in part, of this rise in the prominence of focusing on "nutrients." Can you explain how we became fixated on nutrients?

MP: In 1977, Sen. McGovern, who had convened this select committee on nutrition, was looking at why there was so much heart disease post-WWII. The thinking then was that people were eating too much animal protein. So his initial recommendation, quite plain-spoken, was to eat less red meat. Turns out the industry would not let the government say "eat less" of any particular food, so there was a firestorm of criticism. He was forced to compromise on that language. He changed it in a way that would prove quite fateful in many ways. He changed "eat less red meat" to "choose meats that will reduce your saturated fat intake."

There are a couple noteworthy things about that. One is it's a lot less clear and a lot of people aren't going to understand it, which certainly suits the food industry. The other is, it's affirmative. It's saying "choose meats." In other words, eat more of something that will have less of the bad nutrient -- saturated fat. We're no longer talking about eating more or less of a particular food; we're saying eat more or less of a particular nutrient. That became the acceptable way for everyone to talk about food. It didn't offend the food industry because they could always change their products to have more of the good nutrient, less of the bad. And I think it was very confusing to people: Foods are not merely the sum of their nutrient parts.

OR: Can you explain how this focus on nutrients impacts medical studies as well?

MP: The focus on single nutrients, which is to say single variables, is necessary to science. This is part of the nature of reductive science and it's part of its power. But, it is not the way that the rest of us need to look at food. When a scientist learns from the epidemiology that diets high in vegetables, fruit and whole grains seems to confer some protection against cancer, the scientist needs to figure out what in that diet is responsible. So, he or she immediately is going to look for the "x" factor. Is it beta carotene, is it vitamin E? Then they break down the food into its component parts and study them all individually to see if they can find an effect.

As it turns out it's been very hard to do that and, often, when we isolate these nutrients, they don't seem to work the way they do in whole foods. Maybe they'll figure out what's going on. But the point is, for us eaters, it doesn't matter. All we need to know is that eating lots of fruits, vegetables and whole grains confers some protection against cancer. Who cares what the mechanism is. They want the mechanism because they're curious and it's the nature of science to satisfy curiosity, and the industry wants to know the mechanism because then they can make a supplement or they can fortify foods with that magic ingredient.

But, for now, stick with the foods. We know it works.

I'm not a Luddite; I'm not anti-science. I'm fascinated by nutritional science. But I've also acquired a healthy skepticism about how much and how little they know. It has only been around for about 175 years. Its history is of one overlooked nutrient after another. As I see it, nutrition science is kind of where surgery was in the year 1650, which is to say very interesting and promising, but do you really want to get on the table yet?

OR: You describe nutrition science as being, in some respects, "parking lot science." Can you explain this?

MP: You measure what you can see, and you inevitably decide that what you can see is what matters. Cholesterol is a classic example. It's the first factor related to heart disease that we could measure. So, the science got obsessed with cholesterol, and cholesterol became the cause of heart disease, and dietary cholesterol was what you had to eliminate. This is parking lot science. It's based on the parable of a man who loses his key in a parking lot at night. He spends all his time looking for it under the lights even though he knows that's not where he lost it, because that's where he can see best.

We have a science that often proceeds that way. But then new factors emerge. Now we know about triglycerides and C-reactive protein and homocysteine, and we're studying those as well. Scientists understand this about themselves better than the journalists who write about science do. They understand the limitations. They've come out and made recommendations that perhaps were less than helpful, such as get off animal fats and get onto margarine and trans fats, but on the other hand, they understand that what they're doing is still very provisional. It's the rest of us that have taken what are very partial, imperfect findings and tried to organize a food supply around them, such as when we took all the fat out of the foods.

OR: Everyone has heard about the low-fat diet. In the book, you talk about how little evidence there is that this diet -- bolstered by the lipid hypothesis -- is the magic bullet.

MP: I was very surprised when I started delving into that. The big message from nutrition science and public health since the 1970s has been that the great dietary evil is fat -- saturated fat in particular. In the years since, this hypothesis has gradually melted away. There are still people who think that saturated fats are a problem because they do raise bad cholesterol, but they also raise good cholesterol. But there are very few people left who think that dietary cholesterol is a problem. There is a link between saturated fat and cholesterol in the blood. There is a link between cholesterol in the blood and heart disease. But the proof that saturated fat leads to heart disease in a causal way is very tenuous. In one review of the literature I read, only two studies suggested that, and a great many more failed to find that link. Yet the public is still operating on this basis that we shouldn't be eating cholesterol.

In fact, when the government decided to tell people to stop eating fat or cut down on saturated fat, the science was very thin then. But the net result of that public health campaign was to essentially get people off of saturated fat or try to get them onto trans fats, and we've since learned that that was really bad advice because the link between trans fats and heart disease is the strongest link we have of any fat to heart disease. They told us butter is evil and margarine is good, and it turned out to be the opposite.

You still see all these no cholesterol products and no saturated fat, and the American Heart Association is still bestowing its heart-healthy seal of approval to any products that get rid of fat no matter how many carbohydrates they contain. The science has moved on. The science now is much more curious about things like inflammation as a cause of heart disease and the fact that refined carbohydrates appear to increase inflammation and metabolic syndrome. These assaults on the insulin metabolism from refined carbohydrates are perhaps a culprit.

I was surprised at how few scientists would defend this lipid hypothesis as the great answer to the questions of diet and health. Nevertheless, they move on because scientists don't stop and come out and say, "You know, we were really all wrong about that." They just keep moving forward. That's the way science should work. But there should be a big disclaimer saying, "Wait till we figure this all out before you change the way you eat and before the government issues proclamations."

OR: You write that, "Foods that lie to our senses are one of the most challenging features of the Western diet." This is in a discussion of the "imitation food rule" -- can you talk about his?

MP: That was another red-letter day in the rise of nutritionism. Basically, the Food and Drug Administration was started in 1938 with the Food and Drug Act and as part of that was this rule that basically held that there are certain traditional foods that everyone knows like bread and pasta and yogurt and sour cream and if you're going to fundamentally change their identity by substituting one nutrient for another, you had to call them imitations. If you look at the ingredients of something like no-fat sour cream, you will find all sorts of things that have nothing to do with sour cream. You will find carrageenan and guar gum. These are parts of seaweed and beans. These are all substitutes for the fat in sour cream. It is not sour cream, and the law used to require you to say as much, but in 1973, the FDA -- without going to Congress -- simply repealed the imitation rule.

They did it at the behest of organizations like the American Heart Association, who thought that this would be a good thing. That the imitation rule was standing in the way of reengineering the food supply to make it contain less fat. Because no one would buy products called "imitation sour cream." Would you buy imitation pasta? No. But "low-carb pasta" might sound more appealing.

Throwing out the imitation rule essentially allowed the food companies to do what they wanted with things like yogurt or sour cream -- fundamentally change the identities of food without having to disclose it. We've moved from real foods like sour cream to edible food-like substances like low-fat sour cream that I refuse to call food. I think we should restore the imitation rule. We still have it for certain products.

So for example, if you want to sell chocolate, you have to use cocoa butter as the fat in the chocolate. But now there's a move to get that changed. The Hershey's Co. has petitioned the government to change the standard of identity of chocolate so that you could use corn oil or soy oil, which would be cheaper. Fortunately, Mars, Inc. is holding out to let chocolate be chocolate. But this is why I felt I needed to write a defense of food. Food is under assault by industry and nutrition science, who think they can improve on the foods we've had for hundreds of thousands of years. My contention is, they can't.

OR: It was interesting that the FDA, and not Congress, repealed this. What's the legality of that?

MP: I think they were acting without authority. This happens more than you may think. It happened with the organic rules. The original legislation in 1990 that began the process that led to organic certification said that you could use no synthetics in organic processed food. It was very clear-cut. But the industry, when they started writing these rules said, we need these synthetics, we can't possibly make all this wonderfully organic junk food without certain synthetic ingredients.

So the USDA's organic standards board just went ahead and created a list of the law of synthetics. This was completely extralegal. Then this blueberry farmer from Maine sued and he won. Then the industry went to Congress and got them to change the law. It would be wonderful if some enterprising public interest lawyer decided to sue to restore the imitation rule. My guess is Kraft, General Mills, Frito Lay and Pepsi-Cola would all go to Congress, and some very obscure provision would be attached to a very obscure spending bill, and we'd be back where we are today.

OR: You talk about how corn, soy, wheat and rice account for over two-thirds of the calories we eat and how these crops have taken the place of more diverse crops. What's ironic is that while we're seeing a shift to nutritionism -- as we try to supplement foods with the supplements naturally found in foods -- supplements in natural foods are declining.

MP: Over time the nutritional quality of many of our foodstuffs has gone down for a couple different reasons. One is we have been breeding for qualities other than nutrition. We've been breeding for yield, looks and ship-ability. Also, over time, our soils have been simplified by the use of chemical fertilizers. For plants to create all these interesting phytochemicals that nourish us, they need a complex soil. So crops that get lots of nitrogen fertilizer and little else tend to be less complex and less nutritious. In a way, this gives the advantage to the food scientists because they can add as much nutrients as they want to their processed foods. But on the other hand, there is this trend towards organic foods, which restore a lot of those nutrients partly by nourishing the soil with organic matter and party by using older varieties that are often more nutritious.

OR: You explain that weeds are actually some of the most nutritious plants because they haven't been cultivated and that the natural pesticides they develop can be converted into positive qualities once consumed.

MP: They don't even have to be converted. The defensive compounds that plants produce to deal with diseases and pests turn out to be some of the most nourishing things in them. That's what a lot of those phytochemicals are. They're plant pesticides, in effect. They happen to be very useful to us and our bodies. One theory is that since organic plants have to defend themselves, they produce more of those compounds. Whereas, if a plant is pampered and gets lots of pesticides, and the farmer takes care of the pests and the disease, the plant doesn't produce all these chemicals that are good for us. There is a theory that stressed vegetables in various ways are more tasty. If you stress a tomato and don't give it enough water and make it fend for itself, it will taste better, and those compounds that make plants taste good are also the same ones that we're talking about here. A certain level of stress in the plant kingdom is good for us.

OR: And maybe a little stress in our attempts to obtain the food makes it taste better to us?

MP: Well if you work hard to grow that tomato, it will taste better. So maybe there's something to that.

OR: In some ways, this book seemed to make the case for the "shock doctrine" of the food industry. There's this notion that what's bad for us is good for the industry.

MP: There is a disconnect between the economic imperatives of the food industry and the biological imperatives of the human eater. You make money in the food industry by processing food as much as possible. It's very hard to make money selling whole foods as they grow. They're too cheap and common; farmers are too productive. The price of commodities is always falling.

But if you process food, you then have a way to add value to it. For example, it's very hard to make money selling oats. Very simple grain, really good for you. I can buy organic oats for .79 cents a pound. That's a big bag of oats. But there's little money in it for anyone. If you turn those oats into Cheerios, there's a lot more money in it. Suddenly, you have your intellectual property, your little design, donut-shaped cereal, you have a convenience food, you just have to add milk, you don't have to cook it anymore and you can charge about four or five dollars for much less than a pound of oats. So that's a good business.

But in fact, over time, those Cheerios will turn into a commodity, too, and all the supermarkets will have their store brand and it will be hard to expand your market and grow. So what do you do? You go up the next level of processing, and you make honey nut Cheerios cereal bars. These new bars that have a layer of synthetic milk through the middle and the idea is that it's a bowl of cereal that you could eat dry in the school bus or in the car.

OR: You have a way of making that sound really unappealing.

MP: They really are. Look at the ingredients on the label -- it will say "made with real milk." Check out what the real milk is. It's ten ingredients that include some powdered milk and a lot of other strange things. But then you're selling a few ounces of oats for a great many dollars. By the pound, you've taken that 79 cents, and my guess is you're up to 10 or 20 dollars a pound for your oats because you've added all of this excitement and novelty.

And then you go up another level: Now you have these cereal straws. You take that oat material, and you extrude it through some machine that turns it into a straw and then you line that with that fake milk product. Then your children sip milk through it and you feel virtuous because you're increasing their milk consumption. But at every step of the way, this food has gotten less nutritious. None of them are as healthy as that bowl of oatmeal, and the reason is, the more you process food, the less nutrients it has unless you add them back in. And even if you try to add them back in, you're only going to add in the stuff you know is missing. There are other things you don't know about because nutrition science doesn't see them yet.

So that's the capitalist imperative behind food. The fact is we would be better off with the oatmeal. The industry has many tricks to make sure we don't eat the oatmeal. One is to market the wonders of these processed products. The other is to convince us we're too busy to cook. And they're very good at that. If you look at the picture of American life, family life on view in food commercials for television, you would think it's this frenetic madhouse in every household in America, where the idea of cooking is absolutely inconceivable.

Yet, at the same time, there are images of people lounging in front of the television, doing their email and doing all sorts of other things, but there's simply no time to cook. I think we've been sold this bill of goods that cooking is this heroic thing that only happens on special occasions.

OR: The industry spin isn't especially vague or nuanced -- you cite a trade magazine called the Packer, in which an author asserts that declining nutrients in foods is good news because it just means people will have to eat more food.

MP: You realize that they can spin anything. If the nutritional content of carrots has gone down, that just means that people are going to need to eat three carrots instead of one. I'm full of admiration for the ingenuity of capitalism. It can turn any mess it creates into a wonderful, new business.

OR: Your book draws on scientific studies and provides an incredible amount of information about nutrition science, but it's also a manifesto of sorts. You say that "in our time cooking from scratch and growing any of your own food qualify as subversive acts."

MP: It's funny to think of something as domestic as cooking and gardening as subversive, but it is. It is the beginning of taking back control from a system that would much rather do everything for you. The food industry wants to cook for you, shop for you, they want to do everything but digest for you and if they could figure out a way to do that profitably, they would. It's all about making money. They need to convince you that you can't do this stuff on your own. That gardening is hard, growing your own food is old-fashioned. Cooking is just so hard, we have to cook for you.

I think it's really an important thing to do. The fact is we've had 50 years of letting corporations cook our meals, and it appears now that they were not doing a very good job of it. The food they're cooking is making people sick. It is one of the reasons that we have the obesity and diabetes epidemics that we do. And it's not surprising because they do not take as much care of our health and welfare as our parents do when they cook for us.

If you're going to let industries decide how much salt, sugar and fat is in your food, they're going to put as much as they possibly can. Why? Because they want to sell as much of it as they possibly can and we are hard-wired to like sugar, fat and salt. They will push those buttons until we scream or die. That's in the nature of things. If you want to sell a lot of products, you make it as appealing as possible, but that's not the same as cooking with an eye toward our health. We have responsibility for our health. We shouldn't expect them to look out for us. And indeed, they don't.

OR: It seems like an incredible irony that we Americans are so obsessed with eating, and yet we're eating so poorly. I'm interested in your emphasis throughout the book on the importance of pleasure in food.

MP: I think we've lost track of just how peculiar our view of food has become. We think the only question is health. Historically, people have eaten for a great many other reasons: for pleasure, community, to express their identity, to commune with nature. There are so many equally good reasons to eat than to either improve or ruin your health. But we've narrowed it down to this one thing.

Paul Rozin is a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, and I call him the psychoanalyst of our eating disorder in America. He's done wonderfully creative experiments like conducting word/image association tests with different cultures. For example, he showed a picture of a slice of chocolate cake to an American audience and a French audience. The Americans look at it and their response is "guilt" or "calories," and that seems very understandable to us until you realize that there's another way to look at that. When he shows it to a French audience, their first response is "celebration." How much healthier is that?

We have this very narrow lens through which we're looking at our food, and I think it's robbing us of pleasure. Perhaps it would be worth looking at food in this guilt/health way if it actually made us healthier, but there is no evidence that worrying about your nutritional health makes you any healthier. In fact, we are the great food worriers of the world, and our nutritional health is really very poor. Why is that? I think a lot of our obsession with nutrients ends up becoming just another license for eating badly. When all those products became no-fat, people felt they could eat as much of them as possible, and we ended up getting very fat on that low-fat diet.

OR: I think you refer to a related phenomenon in our relationship with food -- this Puritan bias that "bad things happen to people who eat bad things."

MP: We moralize our food choices. This as an example of how science is more influenced by ideology than perhaps we realize. We've tended to focus on the evil nutrients as the cause of our problems, but of course, it's just as possible that it's the lack of beneficial nutrients. In other words, it may be the problem with meat is not the saturated fat, i.e., the evil nutrient, but the fact that the meat is pushing other foods out of the diet, such as vegetables, fruit and whole grain. You see, that's the complexity of nutritional science: There's always a zero sum relationship. If you're eating more of something, you've got to be eating less of something else. Our tendency has been to focus on the bad nutrients, because we do assume if you get sick, you did something wrong by eating a bad thing, but in fact, maybe you just didn't eat enough good things.

OR: And there are many diets throughout the word that you address in the book -- even diets based heavily on animal proteins -- and nearly every single diet is better than the Western diet.

MP: Weston Price and the researchers from the early 20th century that I look at in this book found many examples of people who were eating almost exclusively animal protein diets and were actually very healthy. There is a great range of nutritional diets to which the human body appears to be very well adapted. You go from the Inuit in Greenland eating their seal blubber and lichens to the Masai in Africa, who eat cattle blood and milk, or the Central American corn and beans. Traditional diets have kept people healthy for a long time with whatever was at hand locally -- as long as they were real foods.

The one diet to which we appear to be very poorly adapted on the evidence of how sick it make us is the Western diet of processed food, refined grain, not that many fruits and vegetables, and lots of meat. After thousands of years, we have invented the one diet that makes people sick and rejected the thousands of diets that make them healthy. How did that happen? Well, it's hard to make money on those traditional diets. We're programmed to like refined grain, sugars and fats. When technology could make them common, we weren't going to reject that. I think that's just the nature of things. We have this reward system in our brains, and if you can figure out a way to trip it with a drug, with a food, you're going to do it, and people are going to fall for it.

OR: In terms of guidelines on how we can eat better, you write that we should keep in mind that "you are what what you eat eats, too."

MP: I assure you that sentence is grammatical. Essentially, the idea is that we're part of the food chain, and in the food chain creatures eat other creatures, and so you can't just say, "This is beef." It's a very different food depending on what that cow or steer ate. A steer that was finished on grass is a completely different food than one that was finished on corn and industrial by-products in a feed lot. We don't pay enough attention to that. If you're eating from a grass-based food chain, you're getting a very different diet than if you're getting a corn-based diet.

If you're concerned about your health when you're eating beef, you should really look at grass-finished beef, because it's got very different kinds of fats. It has lots of omega-3 fatty acids, which are in short supply in the American diet, and it has a lot more minerals. Finally, it has a much happier story in terms of the animal's life. It's worth paying attention to not just where your food comes from, but what your food ate. If you've ever had eggs from chickens that got to eat grass in their life, it's a completely different food: The yolks are bright orange, they're much more flavorful, and as it turns out, they're more nutritious. They have more beta carotene and more omega-3 fatty acids.

OR: You also suggest focusing more on leaves rather than seeds.

MP: Leaves are very important to both our health and the health of animals. Even if you don't eat leaves yourself, and you eat lots of meat, well then eat some leaf eaters and you will be better off. We don't think of leaves as a place to get fats, but in fact you do get omega-3 fatty acids and you get lots of vitamins and antioxidants. Leaves are in the business of collecting solar energy, and that process produces oxygen. The plants need antioxidants to protect themselves from all that oxygen.

Over time, we have moved from a diet with lots of leaves to a diet that's based on seeds. Seeds are very nutritious: they're plant storage devices, so they're very rich and contain lots of stable fats that have a long shelf life. That's the omega-6 fatty acids. We need to correct the balance and get more leaves in our diets and less seeds. Basically, if you limit the seeds in your diet -- and again, I'm not saying eliminate them -- because they're very important and they're really tasty, but if you rebalance toward the leaf side, you're going to find that it will contribute to your health. You're going to get a lot of good nutrients that way. The antioxidants generally aren't in the seeds as much as they are in the leaves, because the seeds are not participating in photosynthesis.

OR: There has been a whole revolution in fake meat soy products. Reading the book definitely gave me a new perspective on soy in terms of how healthy it really is and how much of it are we eating in our diet without consciously being aware of it.

MP: I have a couple basic principles about food, and one is to diversify our diet. We are omnivores. We need to eat a great many different nutrients -- between 50 and a hundred are the estimates that I've seen. Yet, we're really getting most of our calories from four plants, and soy is one of them. Twenty percent of the American diet comes from soy or soy oil. I think that that's putting all your eggs in one basket.

There are two ways to process soy products: There are traditional ways of processing, such as when you ferment and make tofu, and these have been proven to keep populations healthy and alive for a long time. But we have some very novel ways of processing soy. We're isolating the protein and using soy isoflavone as an additive. These are novel and untested, and there is science to suggest that you might not want to eat too much of that. I don't know that we've found real harms, but there are questions.

Soy isoflavones, and soy products in general, closely resemble estrogen in the body. It isn't really clear whether that's a good or bad thing. They may be fooling the estrogen receptors into thinking they're estrogen and blocking estrogen response, which might be a good thing, or they may be acting like estrogen and doing what estrogen does, which would be a bad thing because estrogen promotes certain cancers. There are way too many estrogen compounds already circulating in our bodies, because we get it from plastics and other things. So going crazy over soy might not be such a wonderful idea.

In general, I have more confidence in the traditional ways of processing soy than the new ways. Novelty in biology is guilty until proven innocent. Mutations are novelties, and every now and then there's a great mutation that confers an advantage on the creature. But 99 out of 100 mutations are disasters. So when we come up with a completely new way of using a food, combining a food or processing a food, I'd just as soon watch some other people eat it for a couple hundred years before I try it.

How Phone Companies Team Up With Bush to Spy On You

AlterNet readers have now had more than enough time to digest their disappointment with the Democrats' utter capitulation to President Bush on the FISA law. While the focal point of concern thus far has been the breach of Constitutional authority and the brazen disregard for the separation of powers there's an even more practical concern at hand.

Namely, are your communications -- private communications between Americans without suspicion of terrorist ties -- being listened to? And, if so, with which telecommunications companies' assent? The whole NSA program — and thus the FISA violations — is, in fact, a non-issue without the participation of the telecoms.

Despite the fact that Democrats have since taken control of the House and Senate, there is still no substantive investigation into the relationship between telecommunications companies and the White House. It’s a relationship that warrants investigation as select telecommunications companies have gained nearly inconceivable clout. The past three years have seen a string of massive telecommunications mergers leaving Americans with only two major telecommunications options: AT&T and Verizon.

Justice Department Quashes Wiretapping Inquiries

Though Maine resident Doug Cowie just celebrated his 75th birthday in October, it was only this past January that he retired from the Maine Public Utility Commission (PUC) where he worked for 18 years. It would be easy to think of Cowie as an innocuous grandfatherly type -- particularly after his response when I told him some of his e-mails ended up in my spam folder: "Your what folder?" -- but he is one of a growing number of Americans who are acting, in lieu of Congress, as the only check and balance on the Bush administration's domestic spying program.

When USA Today published an article on May 11 alleging that the National Security Agency (NSA) had teamed up with major telecommunications companies to obtain access to Americans' communication records, Cowie sent an e-mail to Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg, asking if the company was taking part in this program. After ambiguous responses from Verizon, Cowie filed a complaint with the Maine PUC. According to Cowie, the "PUC is supposed to determine whether the complaint has merit and if it does, it's supposed to open an investigation and have a hearing." (He would know -- part of his former position there was managing these very complaints.) After two months of silence, the PUC finally acted, asking Verizon to swear under oath to the veracity of a May press release the company issued in response to the USA Today allegations.

That release claimed that Verizon was not providing records to the government, but was ambiguous enough to leave room for doubt. A deadline was set for Verizon to respond and about an hour after the deadline passed, a response was received -- a Justice Department announcement that it was suing the state of Maine.

The department invoked the state secrets privilege and claimed that for Verizon to even affirm that their previous statement was true would endanger the country. That's ridiculous, says Cowie. "[If] Verizon's public statements had classified information in them, they would have gone to jail."

Minutes after receiving notice of the Justice Department suit, Verizon submitted their filing, which stated that it could not verify its previous press statement because of the lawsuit that had just been announced. At that point, the Maine Civil Liberties Union (MCLU) got involved. The MCLU maintains that the Justice Department has no legal basis to sue the state of Maine for enforcing state law. Shenna Bellows, executive director of the MCLU, says that the department's claim that forcing Verizon to verify its previous statements would threaten national security "doesn't pass the straight-face test."

The Justice Department has sued four other states that launched similar inquiries: Missouri, Connecticut, Vermont and New Jersey -- where the DoJ sued the attorney general for subpoenaing telecommunications companies within the state.

Doug Cowie's call for an investigation in Maine has now been backed up by some 400 other Mainers. That the PUC has yet to be assertive in its investigation confuses him. "I honest to God don't understand it," he says. "I'm so disappointed. The PUC should have tried to do the investigation based on unclassified data. I've been basically told that the staff has been told not to talk to anybody about this." Because the PUC refuses to pursue Cowie's complaint, legal remedy can't be sought.

While the legality of the NSA program has been challenged, the Bush administration has been pushing Congress to keep the cases out of the courts. Bills sponsored by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.) would redefine electronic surveillance and force the cases against the NSA and telecommunications companies into the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review, effectively keeping the cases, and any judicial remedy, from public eyes.

Regardless of the outcome, Cowie intends to spend his retirement making sure Americans' constitutional rights aren't violated. "Who the hell wants to take up all your time doing stuff like this?" asks Cowie. "But something has to be done. You just gotta do it."

Gitmo From the Inside

When Moazzam Begg was abducted from his home in the middle of the night on Jan. 31, 2002, he thought he was being kidnapped by thugs. Those thugs turned out to be the U.S. military and CIA. Begg was shuffled from Kandahar to Bagram to Guantanamo and held for three years before he was finally released in January 2005. As with the majority of the other detainees, Begg was never charged with any crime.

He and others endured routine physical and psychological torture, indefinite imprisonment, and solitary confinement. While it's nearly impossible to fathom emerging from years of this abuse and wrongful imprisonment, it is perhaps even more of a stretch to imagine being capable of forgiving your captors. Begg’s new book, "Enemy Combatant: A British Muslim's Journey to Guantanamo and Back," co-written with Victoria Brittain, puts his experience in context of the broader war on terror. As one of the few English-speaking detainees, Begg is a powerful witness to the massive failure of U.S. and British military intelligence in preventing terrorism.

Onnesha Roychoudhuri: When did you first decide you were going to write this book?

Moazzam Begg: Oddly enough, the suggestions to write the book came from U.S. soldiers, interrogators, and other detainees. They were fascinated by the story, by my experiences. The more open-minded ones even understood that writing about this episode is a very important piece of history.

Roychoudhuri: Can you take me to the beginnings of your story? What led you to Afghanistan and Pakistan? Were you were abducted and taken to Kandahar?

Begg: In 2000, I had already begun working on a project to build wells in the northwest region of Afghanistan. At that time, there were some severe droughts. We had built over ten wells as a community from here where I lived with my family and other members. We'd also begun a project to build a school for girls in Kabul, which was a novelty because we were all told that the Taliban wouldn't allow female education. That's something that my wife and I had invested in and that we pursued as a family in 2001when we moved there to continue to help the progress of the school.

Roychoudhuri: You were first abducted in Pakistan. Can you describe what happened?

Begg: We had evacuated to Pakistan after the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan. Pakistan is where my parents are from, and I speak Urdu, so it was easy for me to be there. I was safe for a few months until I was abducted on the night of Jan. 31, 2002. There was a knock on the door, [and] I answered to be faced with people pointing guns. They pushed me to the ground, dragged me across the floor, took me into the front room, put a bag over my head, bound my legs and wrists, and then carried me off into the back of this vehicle.

Roychoudhuri: What were you thinking at the time?

Begg: That this was a kidnapping. I thought that they were local gangsters. They didn't identify themselves, ask me who I was, or show identification and they didn't search me. For the first ten minutes, I thought that these guys were gangsters until one of them pulled my hood up.

There was a Caucasian trying to look like a local and doing a pretty bad job at it. He had this black thing wrapped around his head in a style that no local would ever do; it just looked funny. It was funny and frightening all at the same time. He produced handcuffs and said that he was an American, and that he got the handcuffs from one of the wives of the 9/11 victims who had told him to go catch the perpetrators. So then I realized that this was obviously the CIA, and that things were going to get worse probably before they got better.

Overkill is a good description of how people reacted in the broader picture of both the terrible terrorist attacks, but also the response to that attack. We occupied two countries with populations in total of over 30 or 40 million. That's a huge overreaction.

Roychoudhuri: When you were first kidnapped, you were taken to a Pakistani jail. What happened there?

Begg: I was afraid of being in Pakistani custody because it's well-known that you get beaten. They're notorious for getting all kinds of confessions. At first, I was glad that there were Americans there. But the irony is that the Pakistanis were extremely apologetic, they called me "son," they said they felt bad about what was happened, that I was fully legal in the country as far as they were concerned. But they said the Americans were telling them to do this, and that they have to be either with them, as the president said, or against them. The great paradox was that the second I was transferred to U.S. custody, that's when the brutality began.

Roychoudhuri: From Pakistan, you were sent to Kandahar, then Bagram?

Begg: I was held in Kandahar for about six weeks. That was the most brutal processing experience I had. When I was held by the Pakistanis, they didn't shackle me, they just put a towel over my head when I was moving around so I couldn't see things. But with the Americans, it was the legs shackled, hands behind your back, clothes torn off with a knife, dogs barking, being beaten, punched, shaved, having trophy photographs taken by soldiers, and being naked and interrogated. I could never have imagined this was how the United States treated people. It was clear that the process of dehumanization was already in effect from the moment I reached Kandahar.

I was held [at Bagram] between 10 and 11 months before I was transferred to Guantanamo. The Bagram facility was an old Russian warehouse, there was no natural light. For almost a year, I didn't get to see any natural light.

Roychoudhuri: Every time you were moved, was there a similar procedure?

Begg: Yes, you were sensory deprived. You would be disoriented as to where you were going, as to what you were hearing and your ability to speak. All of those senses were impaired. And of course, they shackled you with what they call the three piece suit: a shackle around the legs, around the waist, and around the wrists, all of which are attached to the waist.

We were stripped quite regularly and searched regularly in all crevices.

Roychoudhuri: I know it's difficult to talk about, but it seems evident that this was part of a broader attempt to humiliate the detainees.

Begg: I think so. President Bush hasn't denied it. He says we don't condone torture. But in my estimation, what happened in Bagram and Kandahar certainly constitutes all of those things -- psychological and physical torture as well as cruel, inhuman, degrading treatment. My evidence for that is the culmination of is this type of behavior in the deaths of two detainees. There have been heavily documented cases of people who died in Bagram, one of which I was interviewed for by intelligence people who are bringing a murder case forth.

My other experience was when I was threatened be sent to Egypt in order to face further torture. That was where a man previously (Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi) had been sent and tortured. He confessed under torture that al Qaeda was trying to provide Saddam Hussein with weapons of mass destruction. That was used as a justification to enter Iraq. These things were very close to me. I was prospectively going to Egypt myself. That was probably one of my worst fears.

Roychoudhuri: You faced roughly 300 interviews in three years. In the book, you discuss how fixated the interrogators seemed to be in connecting all Muslim groups to al Qaeda.

Begg: Not every interrogation was a classic interrogation. A lot of them were just curious soldiers and interrogators who wanted to speak to the British guy. But certainly, I tried in vain to explain there are all sorts of Muslim groups, all sorts of places in the world where Muslims are challenging their occupations. So, to accuse them all of being synonymous with terrorism is the height of unintelligence. What you're doing is painting us all with the same brush and saying we're all responsible, and by doing this you're making yourselves many more enemies than you ever had after 9/11.

Roychoudhuri: Was there a standard procedure for the interrogations?

Begg: There were occasions when the CIA and the FBI sat together with military intelligence. But for the most part it was clear to me that they were not cooperating with one another. Whenever each alphabet agency came to ask their questions, and I answered them, they acted like it was the first time they were hearing this. I came across FBI agents who were very angry with the CIA, and vice versa. They made it quite plain that they didn't like the interference.

A British government foreign office representative came with a member of MI5. He asked me what the name of my headmaster at school was, as if to say there was some serious doubt as to whether I was British or not. I asked him, "Why has it taken you so long to come here?" And he said, "Why do you think?" I thought, if I knew the answer to that question, why the hell would I be asking you? I don't know. Perhaps he was alluding to the possibility that the Americans weren't cooperating.

Roychoudhuri: There was only one person you came across during your detainment that claimed any connection to al-Qaeda, a man named Uthman al-Harbi.

Begg: The only one I know of in Guantanamo who has said as much. Even in his case, I think he thinks himself to be more than he really is. That's the estimation that the interrogators seemed to have of him. He's not on the radar, not on the most wanted list or anything like that. Perhaps he's someone [who] agrees with the ideology of al Qaeda, but as far as somebody who has actually done anything, I don't know that he's very useful.

Roychoudhuri: He actually says that no one else in Guantanamo is al Qaeda.

Begg: Well, why would there be? Al Qaeda, before all of this, was a very small organization. If you go to the FBI website before 9/11, you'll see that they have the names of the most wanted, but it's a small organization. Now, al Qaeda has now become synonymous with every organization in the world. The reality is that it's much easier to put everybody under this label whereas you could say people use their methodology or synthesize this. But, to say they're a part of the organization is, I don't think, very useful thinking.

Roychoudhuri: What were some of the ways you coped while you were being held? I know you mentioned greeting every detainee in Guantanamo.

Begg: I didn't experience it for very long, but for the time I did, it was a solidarity between the detainees. It was based on Muslim or Islamic ethics, and it would begin of course with phrase "As-salaam Alaikum" which means "peace to you." Then, we would ask each detainee individually, even if there happen to be 40 on the other side that you can't see because they're on a different block, "How are you, how did you sleep, how is your day?" Just before the meal, everybody would shout out the Arab equivalent of "bon appetit." It was quite amazing because you couldn't even see the face behind the voice on the other side, and often these were people of many different nationalities.

Roychoudhuri: Did you ever lose your composure?

Begg: There was an occasion where I had an anxiety attack. I had temporarily lost sanity. I punched and kicked the walls, screamed and cried. A military psychiatrist came along and sat down looking very attentive and asked me, "558, have you ever thought about hurting yourself?" I said, "No, not really. Not willingly."

And then she said, "Have you thought about suicide?" I said, "No."

She said, "Have you thought about getting your trousers and threading them with your sheets and then tying that around your neck, and tying it to the top of your cell and then jumping off the ledge?" I said, "No, not until you put it into my mind." She said, "Well, I was just wondering." I don't know whether she was completely inept and stupid, or whether there was something much more sinister she wanted to convey.

Roychoudhuri: I want you talk about your ability to forge friendships while you were being detained. Was it strange to befriend guards and interrogators who had a positive interaction with you, but were very violent with others?

Begg: That's probably one of the hardest things to deal with. I like to look at the good in everybody, including the guards. Yet, when I hear things, it's so difficult in my mind to regard them in the same way. But all I have is my own experiences and not other people's experiences.

One of the first guards who ever befriended me in Kandahar was a Southern redneck for all intents and purposes, but with one little difference -- he grew up on a Cherokee reservation. He said that when he saw us, he empathized with our plight. He said it reminded him of his people -- the Cherokee -- and how they had been demonized, expelled from their land, and thrown into reservations because they spoke different languages, had different cultures and different colored skin. Yet, he was one of the people who had, by the time his tour was ending, become so desensitized that it was easy for him to beat one of the detainees to the point where, I believe, it led to his death. I saw him dragging the body of a detainee with another soldier across the cell into the medicine room, and then he was carried out on a stretcher with his face covered, not moving at all.

[The Cherokee guard] came into work a few days afterward and told me that he had administered martial-arts-style strikes onto this guy. It was almost as if he was trying to justify himself. He was saying about the guy, "I don't believe he tried to escape, he shouldn't have tried to escape." I think he clearly felt bad about what he had done. But he felt justified in telling me because he thought I was one of the people who would have understood. You know, this guy tried to escape. You understand, you speak English. I can relate to you a lot easier. Perhaps that was in his mind. I don't know.

Roychoudhuri: Being English-speaking seemed to be both a blessing and burden to you. You could communicate better; it also caused some of the guards to assume you must be some sort of criminal mastermind.

Begg: With some of the guards I had the kind of relationship where we could joke. They'd go around saying, "Look, there's a British assassin." I knew they were joking, and they knew I was joking, and we took it all in good cheer. But of course, these types of things get filtered to a guard who doesn't realize this. From him, it goes to an interrogator. When the interrogator finds out, he thinks he's struck gold, that a person has actually admitted to being an assassin. So the rumor was that I was an assassin, that I was a graduate of Oxford, that I was a black belt in various forms of martial arts, that I could speak ten different languages, and that I was al Qaeda's top man.

All of these things are based on some truth. I did do jujitsu, but I only got a green belt, I speak three languages -- Urdu, Arabic, and English. My wife is Arab, my parents are from India, and I'm from the U.K., so it's not surprising that I speak those languages. I'm not a high level al-Qaeda operative, but I'm the perfect anti-hero they're looking for. To put that label on an Afghan villager, who has lived in Afghanistan all his life and is only worried about where he's going to get the next meal for his goat, doesn't make sense.

Roychoudhuri: Some of this miscommunication seems to have its root in supreme idiocy. Can you give an example of an experience in which someone's lack of knowledge led to an accusation? I was thinking in particular of your use of the work "pixelated."

Begg: [laughing] They had taken my computer from my home in Pakistan, and they had miraculously undeleted a whole lot pictures and asked me why I had them. I couldn't tell them straight away because nobody knows what all the graphic image files they have on their computer are. So, I looked at one particular picture and said, "Oh, that looks a bit pixelated, I can't see it properly." And the major who was in charge at that time, who, from that point on, I called Major Idiot, said, "Well, I wouldn't know that word. It obviously means you know a lot about computers because not many people I know would know the term 'pixelated.'" My 7-year-old daughter knows about pixels. They learn about these things in school; why would that make me an expert on computers? He just jumped to these conclusions.

He also jumped to conclusions because there was a picture of the Pope among many of the other pictures on my hard drive. My homepage is the BBC World Service, so anything in current affairs was stored in the cache memory files, and he says to me, "If anything happens to the Pope, I'll break all your fingers. I'm a Catholic." And I said, "Well, bully for you, mate. I'm really glad that you're a Catholic, but what's that got to do with me? Do you think I'm working on a plot to convert the Pope to Islam or something? What is that you're so afraid of?"

Roychoudhuri: You have said in other interviews that you coped with your experiences in part by thinking about it philosophically.

Begg: There was a guard, actually, a Southern Baptist, a very decent guy, with me anyway, and he used to say that when life's troubles and difficulties face you, the first thing people ask is, "Why me?" He'd say, "Well, why not me?" He was talking about all his difficulties in his own life. I thought about that quite a bit.

But nevertheless, I think that one feeling always prevails: What did I do to these guys? What have I done to deserve this? It was just the feeling of being in this limbo, not knowing when I was going to go home, waiting, agonizing, months on end sometimes for communication from home which came sometimes a year after letters had been written. Even then it had been obscured by the censorship department.

Roychoudhuri: That included a letter from your daughter, right?

Begg: I have that letter right here. It's a letter she wrote to me when she was 7. Most of it has been blocked out. The only legible thing that remains is "I love you, Dad." I showed her this letter when I brought it back with me and asked her what it said. She said, "I wrote a poem: One, two, three, four, five, once I caught a fish alive. Six, seven, eight, nine, ten, then I let it go again." And I thought, oh, I see, the American military must have thought this was some sort of enigmatic code. I actually showed this letter to Gen. Jay Hood, the former commander of Guantanamo when he came to visit my cell. I asked him what it is that he feared from a 7-year-old girl. He was embarrassed. He didn't know what to say.

Roychoudhuri: How have you adjusted since being released? What are your plans for the future?

Begg: I value my time alone more than I ever did before. I need to be alone often. There are days when I find myself pacing up and down -- three steps one way, three steps back and back again. That developed when from the quarters I was in. Sometimes I find I'm doing it completely unconsciously.

I plan to keep lecturing up and down the country and talking to the media about Muslims, Guantanamo, and the war on terror. My work is cut out for me. It's sad in one sense because it means I am confined to this identity of former Guantanamo detainee.

Roychoudhuri: I know one of the lawyers that you've worked closely with. Clive Stafford Smith has said that you need think about forgiveness if you want to put this behind you. How do you think of the concept of forgiveness at this point?

Begg: I think about it all the time. Can I forgive, can I forgive? Just yesterday, I was thinking about when I was in Bagram. Specifically, when there was a woman screaming in the next room, and I thought it was my wife, and they had the audacity to say, "Do you think your family is safe?"

Just from that alone, I feel an intense amount of hatred. But then it gets cooled down when I'm sitting with my family and I see my children and my home, and think of humanity in the way I'd like to. It all gets washed away. So, to me, forgiveness on my part is easy in a sense because I'm free. But the hard part is that I can't forgive them for what they're doing to other people. When I was being held, the hardest thing for me wasn't my own humiliation, it was watching other people's. It was watching and being impotent, not being able to do anything to stop somebody else's humiliation, to stop somebody else from being beaten.

I can't be completely forgiving until people are released and come back to their homes with their families and their loved ones. Until that point, I only forgive them myself.

Secret CIA Prisons in Your Backyard

When U.S. civilian airplanes were spotted in late 2002 taking trips to and from Andrews Air Force Base, and making stops in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, journalists and plane-spotters wondered what was going on. It soon became clear that these planes were part of the largest covert operation since the Cold War era. Called extraordinary rendition, the practice involves CIA officials or contractors kidnapping people and sending them to secret prisons around the world where they are held and often tortured, either at the hands of the host-country's government or by CIA personnel themselves.

On Sept. 6, after a long period of official no-comments, President Bush acknowledged the program's existence. But the extent of its operations has yet to be publicly disclosed.

How extensive is it? Trevor Paglen, an expert in clandestine military installations, and A.C. Thompson, an award-winning journalist for S.F. Weekly, spent months tracking the CIA flights and the businesses behind them. What they found was a startlingly broad network of planes (including the Gulfstream jet belonging to Boston Red Sox co-owner Phillip Morse), shell companies, and secret prisons around the world. Perhaps the most disturbing revelation of their new book Torture Taxi: On the Trail of the CIA's Rendition Flights is the collusion of everyday Americans in this massive CIA program. From family lawyers who bolster the shell companies, to an entire town in Smithfield, N.C., that hosts CIA planes and pilots, Torture Taxi is the story of the broad reach of extraordinary rendition, and, as Hannah Arendt coined the phrase, the banality of evil.

Trevor and A.C. joined me by phone to explain how they managed to follow a paper trail that led to some of the most critical unknowns about the extraordinary rendition program.

Onnesha Roychoudhuri: How did the idea for the book come about?

Trevor Paglen: I research military secrecy at Berkeley and there is a community there trying to figure out what military programs are. At some point, this hobbyist community became aware that there were these civilian planes flying around, acting as if they were working in military black programs. These people started tracking the planes and repeatedly seeing them in places like Libya and Guantanamo Bay. It became pretty clear that this was a CIA thing and that these were planes that were involved in the extraordinary rendition program.

Roychoudhuri: When did the pieces start to come together?

Paglen: Late last year, there was a big uproar about secret prisons in Eastern Europe. Dana Priest at the Washington Post broke the story and Human Rights Watch put out a press release. At that moment the pieces started making sense and we could start explaining what was going on. By that time I had collected a number of files on this just as a curiosity. I brought them over to A.C.'s job, where he has access to some tools to do investigative journalism.

A.C. Thompson: Trevor had this aviation and military expertise and all this information when he came to my office. I've been doing corporate research for years and when we started looking at these possible CIA front companies associated with the planes, it immediately became very apparent that we were looking at phony companies.

Roychoudhuri: How did you track the extraordinary rendition program?

Thompson: We wanted to gather up as much information as we could to create this mosaic of evidence to show the broad picture of extraordinary rendition. We went from Smithfield, N.C., to Gardez, Afghanistan, to piece it together. This is something that people have only really had snapshots of thus far. We reverse-engineered the program. We used the paper trails and evidence left behind, from FAA flight logs to the testimony of former prisoners in Afghanistan to piece it all together.

Paglen: We conceived of the book as a travel diary. We showed up at the addresses on this paper trail and followed the leads. The point was to find the story behind the address. Then we would go to the places where those companies actually fly those airplanes and provide the pilots. Then, when we saw that the airplanes frequently landed in Afghanistan, we went there, too.

Roychoudhuri: You relied on data from amateur plane-spotters with data from all over the world. Can you explain how that works?

Paglen: There are many plane-spotting websites with data regarding the movements of these aircrafts along with pictures. The data can be very scattered and difficult to do much with. But some of these plane-spotters have developed advanced techniques to get information on aircraft movement. That became very helpful in piecing some of this together. If you are a plane-spotter and you are interested in the history of a particular aircraft, you know there are many documents publicly available: registration papers and airworthiness certificates from the FAA. You can also get flight data from the FAA. And in the cases that data has been blocked, people have figured out ways to get around those blocks. When the plane-spotter community and journalists came together, it became one of the few ways to see the outlines of this program.

Roychoudhuri: The fact that the CIA is using civilian planes actually makes it easier to track them.

Paglen: Civilian law around aviation is much looser than those governing military. Civilian planes can basically fly wherever they want in the world. The U.S. military needs special permission to fly over somebody else's airspace. Using the civilian companies is a way to create mobility and avoid drawing attention.

Thompson: The CIA wants to exist in the civilian world. It wants to create these entities so that it can move without a lot of scrutiny. But in the civilian world, you have to interact with other parts of the government all the time. If you create a shell corporation that is going to supposedly own an airplane that will be used to transport people to dungeons around the world, you have to file incorporation papers with the state the company is based in. When you go and get these corporate papers, you can analyze things like the signatures on the documents.

Roychoudhuri: What did you find when you examined some of these documents?

Thompson: We found Colleen Bornt who was an exec at a company called Premier Executive Transport Services. Premier was the company that owned the plane that took Khaled el-Masri to the Salt Pit. When you go look at the paper documents that Colleen signed, you find that every one of her signatures looks completely different. That's because each one was made by a different person. When we started looking for more traces of Colleen there was no home address, no phone number, nor any other proof that she's existed at all.

That's the same with all these companies. They don't have real headquarters, staff or anything besides these paper documents they filed to incorporate and a handful of lawyers who helped set these companies up and serve as the registered agents for them. These are the people who receive summons and subpoenas for the companies.

Roychoudhuri: What are these lawyers?

Thompson: These lawyers are the only humans you can find who actually exist in these companies. We went to look to talk to people at Keeler and Tate, another shell company implicated in el-Masri's abduction. Keeler and Tate were sued by el-Masri with the help of the ACLU. We went to the only address for Keeler and Tate--a law office in Reno, Nevada. We told the secretary "One of the lawyers here is a registered agent and you have been named in a lawsuit alleging a connection to the CIA and extraordinary rendition, what do you think of that?" She didn't seem at all surprised, but she threw us out pretty quickly.

Roychoudhuri: Who are these lawyers?

Thompson: The kind of people we're talking about are Dean Plakias in Dedham, Mass., outside of Boston. He is not a high-profile guy. He's a family lawyer with a small practice and how he ended up in this world is still a mystery. This is an American story, a neighborhood story. When we started looking at all the front companies the CIA had erected, we realized our neighbors were helping the CIA set up these structures. These are family lawyers in suburban Massachusetts and Reno, Nevada. People in our communities are doing dirty work for the CIA. This is not just people being snatched up from one faraway country and taken to a country that's even farther away.

Roychoudhuri: When you have a false entity like Colleen Bornt signing for purchases of planes, is that breaking business laws?

Thompson: As far as I can tell, it's 100% illegal under the business and professions codes in any state. I don't think that it would be legal anywhere. I also don't think that it's legal in any state for a lawyer to set up a phony business for people who they know don't exist. It's also likely at odds with the ethics provisions of most state bar organizations for lawyers. Strictly speaking, I don't think any of these things are legal.

Roychoudhuri: Where was the most interesting place you traveled?

Thompson: We went to Nevada, Massachusetts and New York to track down the front companies. We went to Beale Air Force base in Northern California to track U2 spy planes. We went to Smithfield, N.C, which is home to the airfields that many of these airplanes fly out of. Then we went to Kabul and Gardez, Afghanistan.

But the two most interesting places were the rural town of Smithfield and Kinston down the road, where there's another airstrip that a company called Aero Contractors uses. Aero is the company that flies many of these missions for the CIA. We went there and talked to a pilot who had worked for Aero about exactly what they did and how the program worked. There's nothing random about the CIA using this rural area in North Carolina. If you wanted to shut up a secret operation, this is where you would do it. It's a God, guns and guts area.

Roychoudhuri: When you asked questions, what kind of answers did you get?

Thompson: What you start to figure out by spending time in Smithfield is that a lot of people know about the company and have at least an inkling of what goes on at the airport. Most don't want to talk about it and don't take a critical view of it. Folks we met there framed the debate within this religious discourse. The activists that we talked to were god-fearing devout Christians who felt like this was not what they signed up for as religious people, that it violates the religious tenets they adhere to. Interestingly, folks on the other side of the debate seem to be coming from a similar place, but just coming to a different conclusion. The subject of whether or not torture was permitted by the Bible was discussed in church there--and many congregants believed it was.

Paglen: It's this small town with this open secret that nobody wants to talk about. It shows what's going on culturally. When a country starts doing things like torturing and disappearing people, it's not just a policy question, it's also a cultural question.

Roychoudhuri: When you started to put the pieces of the rendition program together, what did you see?

Paglen: Take Khaled el-Masri for example. His case was a blueprint for this program because it's the most complete account. He showed up in Germany after having disappeared for five months and told this incredible story. His interrogators told him not to tell anybody because they wouldn't believe him anyway. But when you excavate his story, there is a trail of evidence to corroborate it.

He says he was kidnapped in Macedonia on a certain day. It turns out that a plane-spotter took a picture of a known CIA airplane in Majorca [Spain] the day before el-Masri was kidnapped. German journalists went to the airport of Skopje [Macedonia] with this picture and verified the plane was there on that date. The plane had also filed a flight plan from Macedonia to Kabul. El-Masri said he was taken to Kabul. In Kabul, he said he was taken on a 10-minute drive to a prison. He drew a map of what he thought the prison floor plan was. We got on Google Earth, looked at Kabul and drew a ring around how far you could go in about 10 minutes. Then we compared the buildings in that ring to the map that el-Masri had drawn. We found a building that looks exactly like it. So we drove out there. There is indeed a giant facility with Americans there. He could not have made this up.

Roychoudhuri: You actually went to one of the places el-Masri believes he was held--the Salt Pit in Afghanistan.

Paglen: There have been at least three or four black sites in and around Kabul, Afghanistan. The one we definitely knew the location of was the Salt Pit. We found a driver who would take us out there. When you drive out to the Salt Pit, you have these wide plains; it's very isolated. We were driving up and there was a traffic jam which was a goat herder with a bunch of goats on the road. As we're waiting, he turns around and he's wearing a hat that says KBR--Kellogg Brown and Root (a subsidiary of Halliburton). As we drove farther, we saw a huge complex with a big wall around it. There are signs in English saying this is an Afghan military facility, no entrance. There's then a checkpoint. We were stopped. We told the guards we were turning around and going back to Kabul. We asked what goes on there and the guard said he didn't know exactly. Then we asked if there were Americans there. And he said, "Oh yes, there's lots of Americans here." And we saw some Americans sitting on a Humvee.

Roychoudhuri: Did you get a sense of the scope of the rendition program through your travels in Afghanistan?

Thompson: When Trevor and I went to Afghanistan we realized that this wasn't about a handful of CIA secret prisons. The U.S. military has erected some 20 detention centers throughout Afghanistan --which all operate in near total secrecy. These are facilities that the U.N., the Afghan government, journalists, and human rights groups can't get into. Extraordinary rendition is one facet of a much broader story of secrecy and imprisonment that spans the globe.

In Kabul and Gardez, we interviewed many people--in human rights organizations, NGOs, local journalists, and former detainees. We realized that the kinds of distinctions that we were making between CIA and military black sites, CIA and military torture made absolutely no sense to people. It's more like the U.S. is treating this whole country as if it were a giant black site.

Paglen: This rendition and torture is one flavor of a larger thing going on: the U.S. taking people all over the place, imprisoning and torturing them without charge.

Thompson: From interviewing a lot of detainees and Dr. Rafiullah Bidar, regional director of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, it was clear that the Americans had grabbed hundreds and hundreds of people. They're being held without charges, in some 20 different facilities.

Roychoudhuri: Who are these people?

Paglen: When A.C. interviewed people who had been held at the military air base Bagram, prisoners told him that there were Iraqis, Yemenis, an international cast of characters at this DOD prison. So what the hell are they doing there? These are not high-profile renditions like el-Masri or Khaled Sheikh Mohammed. So who are these guys? How did they get there? Is this part of the rendition program, or has the practice of transferring prisoners to these different places around the world become a standard practice?

Roychoudhuri: In the book, you make clear that the rendition program has been around for years. What has changed?

Paglen: The program was established over multiple administrations, Democrat and Republican. For example, Aero Contractors was set up under the Carter administration. The counter-terrorist unit in the CIA was set up under the Reagan administration, but the rendition program was set up under Clinton. It's an accumulation of the capacity of this infrastructure. After 9/11, the CIA went about setting up this entire infrastructure. Materially, they started getting airplanes and secret prisons together. They also started putting together a corporate structure, meaning shell companies. All of this was already in place, but not solidified. All the controls seemed to be taken off of it. They're not planning each operation so meticulously, they're not getting presidential authorization for each operation.

We're hearing about it now because it grew so big, clearly expanding beyond what the intention of the program was at first. There is no question that some of these guys they're picking up did nothing and are the wrong people. One of the differences between the pre- and post-9/11 is that the CIA becomes squarely in charge of the program. Before, the CIA was working with the FBI.

Thompson: The pre-9/11 program was geared more towards adjudicating people domestically who were suspected of crimes against American citizens. That was obviously not quite as controversial as running this huge program that's snatching people and taking them to secret dungeons around the world.

Roychoudhuri: Clearly, other countries have to be at least partially aware of the program in order for the U.S. program to operate. Did you get a sense of the level of collaboration?

Paglen: We know that immediately after 9/11 the CIA set up a program to collaborate with 80 foreign countries to varying degrees. The CIA also started funding other intelligence services in order to use them as proxies. We also know that some of these collaborations were kept off the record; supposedly there is no paper trail.

Roychoudhuri: Has that off-the-record quality caused glitches in the program?

Paglen: What happened in October of 2001 is that one of these airplanes landed in Pakistan. The Pakistani intelligence service (ISI) picked up a guy named Jamil Qasim Saeed Mohammed. The plane landed on the tarmac; they had this guy in chains. That guy was handed over to the Americans and put into this Gulfstream. They were going to fly him out of there, but the air traffic controllers require a landing fee and they refused to pay. The ISI then went to the airport officials and told them to waive the landing fee, so the plane took off. But it created a stir, and drew attention to the aircraft. A Pakistani journalist heard about this and published it, including the tail number of the plane in the newspaper. American journalists then got their hands on this tail number, and this is one of the very early keys that began to unlock parts of this story.

Roychoudhuri: As journalists have begun tracking plane numbers, the CIA has attempted to reshuffle. They change the number on the plane, or they change the phone line of the shell companies. How much do you think public scrutiny can achieve?

Thompson: A ton. If people want the CIA to be reined in and if they feel we shouldn't go around the world summarily detaining and torturing people, they can truly pressure their government to make that happen. They did it in the '70s through Frank Church, the Idaho senator, and the Church Committee. They severely curbed the transgressions and the misdeeds of the CIA. The thing is, by and large Americans don't care about this. Europeans, who play a much smaller role in this, are absolutely outraged about it; their governments are outraged about it. The day Americans decide that they don't think torture is something we should do, than maybe we'll see some pressure to change these things.

Roychoudhuri: You quote 9/11 Commission member Jamie Gorelick in the book: "In criminal justice, you either prosecute suspects or let them go. But if you've treated them in ways that won't allow you to prosecute them, you're in this no man's land. What do you do with those people?" Based on the fact that it's so difficult to bring these people back out of this extralegal system, do you have any sense of where the rendition program is going?

Paglen: This is the crucial question that we are facing right now. Bush transferred a handful of guys to Guantanamo and acknowledged they were kept in these secret prisons. Congress has to come up with a framework to prosecute these guys. It's common knowledge that most of the guys at Guantanamo are nobodies. Many were turned in by bounty hunters. But the guys that Bush transferred to Guantanamo Bay are guys that everybody agrees are bad guys. The sticking point is that they have tortured them for years and the evidence against them is totally tainted by rendition and torture. These are guys that people definitely want to see put on trial. By moving them to Guantanamo Bay, Bush is basically challenging Congress and saying, "If you want to put Khaled Sheikh Mohammed on trial, you're going to have to retroactively authorize torture, rendition, and the black site program."

If Congress does authorize the president's version of the bill, they're not only retroactively authorizing torture, they're creating a legal framework for the future. That would create a system where disappearing and torturing people would become a part of the law.

The Growing Threat of Right-Wing Christians

"I don't want to be alarmist, but this is actually quite alarming," Michelle Goldberg said. She was referring to the subject of her new book, "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism," which chronicles the steady rise of the neocons of Christianity.

Whether she's attending a Ten Commandments conference or joining Tony Perkins' conference calls to listen in on what D.C. agenda will be passed on to congregations, Goldberg's reporting offers insight into a movement that has reshaped the nation's political and cultural landscape. Goldberg did not go undercover, nor wear any disguise. Rather, she simply showed up, listened and learned. And what she has learned is definitely alarming.

Traveling around the country on her book tour, Goldberg notes that many people have approached her with stories that illustrate the religious intolerance that is the hallmark of an aggressive Christian movement. On a muggy day in Brooklyn, Goldberg sat down with me to discuss the need for Americans -- particularly progressives and liberals -- to recognize the sophisticated intellectual structure of Christian Nationalism, and how it has succeeded in constructing a parallel reality based on Biblical rhetoric and revisionist history.

Onnesha Roychoudhuri: How did the idea for the book come about?

Michelle Goldberg: I've done reporting on the subject for a long time. One of the first pieces I did on the Christian right was on the ex-gay movement. What struck me going to the Exodus Conference was that it takes place in this whole entire parallel universe. They have their own psychologists, psychological institutions and their own version of professional medical literature. The amount of books, magazines and media, and the way it almost duplicated everything that we have in our so-called reality, is remarkable. What struck me years later when I was reporting on the Bush administration was that the parallel institutions that I had first come into contact with were replacing the mainstream institutions -- especially in the federal bureaucracy.

Roychoudhuri: Can you give an example?

Goldberg: In the Department of Health and Human Services, the people they hired to formulate sex education policy, at both the national and international level, didn't come from the American Medical Association or the big medical schools. They're coming from places like the Medical Institute for Sexual Health, which is this Christian Nationalist medical group. [The group says it is a "nonprofit scientific, educational organization to confront the global epidemics of non-marital pregnancy."]

One of the earlier stories I did for Salon was on the UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) which does family planning, but they don't do abortion, mostly safe childcare and reproductive health through clinics all over the world. Congress had appropriated $35 million to the UNFPA. There's this group called the Population Research Institute -- another one of these parallel institutions. They're radically anti-family planning and claim that population control policies are part of this "one-world conspiracy" to cull the population of the faithful so that the "one-world government" can more easily assert its control. On the website it said that not only is overpopulation a myth, but all the people on Earth could live comfortably in the state of Texas. I did this story in 2002. I still had this naïve idea that this kind of thing would remain marginal.

But what's amazing is that Population Research Institution went on to testify before Congress saying that the UNFPA promotes forced abortions in China. These kinds of accusations start echoing up the ladder to the point where Bush froze the UNFPA funding. This despite the fact that the State Department had already sent a delegation to China to investigate and said there was nothing to these accusations at all.

There's a myth on the left that's been fostered by Thomas Frank. I think it's a mistake to think that the religious right hasn't got anything. Frank has fostered this idea that the right votes to end abortion and gets a repeal of the estate tax. They've actually gotten quite a bit. One of the main ways they are rewarded below the radar is by being given vast amounts of control over American family planning policy abroad.

Roychoudhuri: What is "Christian Nationalism" and what characterizes it as a political movement?

Goldberg: Christian Nationalism is a political ideology separate from evangelicals. Evangelicals are about 30 percent of the American population. Christian Nationalism is a subset of 10-15 percent. It's less a religion than it is an ideology about the way America should be governed. It has this whole revisionist history claiming that America was founded as a Christian nation, that the separation of church and state is a fraud perpetrated by seculars. What follows from that are ideas about Christianization of institutions in American life, and that the courts have vastly overstepped their authority in the enforcement of the separation of church and state.

Roychoudhuri: Throughout the book, you show examples of the Christian Nationalist movement pushing for special privileges under the banner of equal rights. The change in the hiring rights of faith-based social programs seems to epitomize this.

Goldberg: The words that they use for that is "religious freedom in hiring rights." Religious groups have been able to get government checks for a long time. But they used to have to abide by 1956 civil rights law which has an exemption for religious groups. So, if you're a church you can prefer Christians, mosques can prefer Muslims, but the catch has always been that if you're contracting with the government, then you have to abide by the same civil rights laws as everybody else. Bush, by executive order, overturned that so that government-funded charities are no longer bound by the laws. Now, there is job training, drug treatment and preschool programs that are totally separate. The job is 100-percent taxpayer funded, but they can say in the help-wanted ad, "Christians only."

Bush wanted to get the Salvation Army aboard the faith-based initiatives. The Salvation Army then brought in a consultant to Christianize certain divisions. He asked the human resources director at the Salvation Army headquarters, Maureen Schmidt, whether one of the human resource staffers at the social services division, Margaret Geissman, was Jewish, because she had a "Jewish sounding name." Schmidt told him that she wasn't. So then he went to her and said, "I want a list of homosexuals who work there."

She said no. She's a really conservative lady, but she was totally appalled and refused to do it.

Roychoudhuri: How did this kind of shift occur? Is there an architect behind these faith-based programs?

Goldberg: The architect of the faith-based initiative is Marvin Olasky. He was an advisor of Bush's campaign. Bush wrote the foreword to Olasky's book, Compassionate Conservatism, I think people hear "compassionate conservatism," and it sounds like a banality, but if you know Olasky's book, you know it's outlining something very specific. Olasky believes that America is in moral decline and that we need to return social services to churches. He also believes that conversion is an important part of the process. This book laid out exactly what he thought we should be doing, and Bush went and did it.

Roychoudhuri: Your book discusses the role that megachurches play in the politics of the right. Can you explain the ties?

Goldberg: It's not all of the megachurches, but it is many of them. There's different kinds of connections. New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Ted Haggard is the pastor there. He has a call with the White House every single week. Other churches are networked in through the Family Research Council in D.C. It's run by Tony Perkins who has these conference calls that I actually got the number for and started listening in on. All these pastors call in and Perkins basically updates them on his latest conversations with the White House and the congressional leadership. He tells them what kind of issues he needs to focus their congregations on. So he would say you need to have your congregants write to their senators about abolishing the filibuster or about confirming a certain judge. He's literally relaying marching orders from Washington, D.C.

Roychoudhuri: Do you think congregants are aware of the connection?

Goldberg: I kind of doubt that people in the congregations know that but I'm not sure that they would be particularly angry or outraged about it. It would only outrage you if you believe in the separation of church and state, that church shouldn't be a political party.

Roychoudhuri: You frequently discuss the similarities between Christian Nationalism and fascism and totalitarianism. Were you conflicted about broaching this?

Goldberg: Among liberals, there is always talk about fascism and there's a kind of agreement that you can't talk about it more publicly without sounding like a lunatic. You don't want to sound like you're comparing Bush to Hitler. We have no language to talk about the intermediate stages of this kind of thing. But there are these really unmistakable parallels to fascism, not as a government system, but to fascism in its early stages. Before fascism is a government, it's a movement. It's not born in power, it comes to power. I think it's time to talk about fascism or another word for it. Christian Nationalism is one way to talk about it. But there are things that are going on that are not normal, they're not politics usual.

These things are always subtle and gradual, but there are moments when all of a sudden you think "Oh, they're drawing up lists of people who are gay at public agencies." I don't want to be alarmist, but this is actually quite alarming. Just recently, there was a story about a Jewish family in Delaware who moved after fearing retaliation for filing a lawsuit regarding state-sponsored religion. As I've been traveling around the country, and I've been traveling a lot, I keep hearing about things like this happening all over the place.

There's one abortion clinic in Mississippi right now and Operation Rescue is planning to close it down. In parts of the country, doctors are living under constant terrorist threat and it's a daily battle. If you're in other parts of the country, you can be completely unaware of it. I keep hearing from people on the coasts who say, well, I'm sure the pendulum will swing back. But my sense is that, for instance, gay people who are living in conservative states or Jews who are living in places where there aren't a lot of other Jews, definitely feel something is going on and it's affecting them on a day to day basis.

Roychoudhuri: You see this becoming an even more polarized battle in the future -- the secular vs. religious. Barack Obama recently gave a speech in which he advocated for a middle ground, and for progressives to embrace their faith. Do you think that's a viable option?

Goldberg: Obama's speech to me was interesting. I thought that there were some things about it that were really valuable, and some things that were really destructive. What he said about people feeling that there's something missing in their life, and speaking to that, was right on. The religious right gives people the narrative arc both for their own lives and then the country as a whole and it's very comforting to people. Giving someone a list of policies -- even policies that will make their lives better can't really compare to that.

But what was destructive was that he took for granted right-wing rhetoric that has no basis in fact. He said, "What's the matter with the Pledge of Allegiance, I don't think anybody is really bothered by the 'under God.'"

He's right; most people aren't bothered by it. It's a myth that liberals, not to mention Democrats, have done anything against the Pledge of Allegiance. The only people trying to take the "under God" out are a few individuals representing themselves. When that California guy sued to have the "under God" taken out of the pledge of allegiance, he wasn't being represented by the ACLU, or the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. He was representing himself.

Roychoudhuri: What do you think it's going to take for progressives and liberals to gain more currency?

Goldberg: One thing that the right does have that you don't have on the left are these umbrella organizations. Most years, I go to the Conservative Political Action Conference which brings together the religious right, but also the neocons, the hate government people like Grover Norquist, and the gun owners. They see each other there once a year, they have weekly meetings that Grover Norquist holds where he brings together representatives from all the different right-wing groups. Then there are institutions like the Heritage Foundation that has religious right social policy thinkers but also neocon defense people. Not everybody believes everything in the movement, but there are these interlocking circles and this social milieu where people meet and ideas circulate. We don't have that.

We don't have one meeting that brings together the feminist groups, gay groups, civil liberties and environmental groups. I feel like I'm always talking to like-minded organizations, and they don't know what the other group is up to.

Roychoudhuri: Any sense why that is?

Goldberg: There is progressive funding available for programs, but not for institution-building. It's just now that they're starting to come up with journals about these ideas that should underlie where the progressive Democrats should go. There has been a real neglect in part because people held the right in such contempt. There was never any appreciation for the depths of the intellectual infrastructure. Even though the stereotype is that liberals are the academics, there is, in certain senses, anti-intellectualism among policy and political people who don't see how that structure roots people, shapes ideas. It's more than just crafting a message; it creates this whole interwoven skein of values and assumptions. Now we're starting to see an attempt to create that on the left.

The other thing that I think is really necessary is creating something parallel to the right's Concerned Women for America. Let's say it gets in the news that the Dover school board is talking about introducing creationism. We know the ACLU is great when it gets to the legal issues, but even before it gets to that stage, we need consultants calling up the people on our side saying, "Here's what we're up against, this is what to expect, this is how you can talk about it in a way that will resonate with people." You have the information, but it's just not getting to those people. Whereas, on the other side, you do have consultants calling up coaching people through it before it even gets to the table.

Roychoudhuri: You're very solution-oriented in the last chapter of the book, but you clearly state that you think it's going to get worse before it gets better.

Goldberg: It's already worse since the book came out. There's an idea out there that once Bush is gone, or maybe if the Republicans lose Congress, then we'll all be free and clear. Obviously, there's nothing more important to me than seeing the Republicans lose Congress. But, it's entirely possible that most Americans are going to vote Democratic in the polls but that Republicans will still control Congress. The huge structural advantages the Republicans have created for themselves have to be addressed before anything else can be solved. I would say the collapse of the Republican Party is really important, but the Christian Nationalist movement is not a majority. I don't think there needs to be a majority to affect policy.

Roychoudhuri: You write of a pretty enormous communication chasm: "Dialogue is impossible without some shared sense of reality... What's lacking isn't just truth, it's the entire social mechanism by which truth is distinguished from falsehood." How can we regain that?

Goldberg: I found the last chapter the hardest to write because I do feel like in certain ways the problem is much larger than any solutions I've come up with. There are all these voices on the right that can say almost anything without consequence. You would never see Kerry joining hands with someone from the Black Panther Party or someone from the ANSWER coalition. But there are people on the right who are calling for theocracy and almost nothing they say discredits them; they're still treated as respectable mainstream voices.

It's important to get people to pay attention to who these people really are. People don't know what Reconstructionism is, so it doesn't occur to them to be shocked when they see a Reconstructionist on a panel or at a banquet table with congressmen. That should be politically damaging; that should be embarrassing. And the media needs to stop treating it as "some people say this" and "some people say that" as though it's balanced, as though they're legitimate points of view.

Also, journalists should take these religious groups seriously enough to ask about them. I'm totally agnostic on the question of whether Bush is a true believer or totally cynical, I think he's some combination. Somebody asked Bush at a public meeting whether any of his Middle East policies are informed by his vision of the End Times. That to me is a totally legitimate question and he didn't really answer it. If these people are saying they take their religion seriously, then people have a right to ask what is it and do you believe x, y or z.

Fatal Desperation at Guantanamo

After 40 official and numerous unrecorded suicide attempts in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, three detainees were finally successful in taking their lives. Detainees Yasser Talal Al Zahrani, 22, (imprisoned when he was 17), Mana Shaman Allabardi Al Otaibi, 30, and Ahmed Abdullah, 33, hung themselves with clothing and bed sheets late Friday night, allegedly concealing their bodies from guards with laundry hung from the ceiling to dry and arranging their beds to appear as though they were still sleeping.

For the lawyers who represent some of the 465 people currently held in the naval base, the news came as no surprise. Officially, there have been over 40 suicide attempts since the detention facility opened. But as anyone with access to the detainees knows this deflated number is as fictitious as the claims of evidence against those being held without official charge. In a May 2005 interview, former military linguist Erik Saar said that suicide attempts occurred weekly when he was stationed at Guantanamo. He noted,

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The Guiltiest Guys in the Room

After enduring four months of testy and often sensational testimony, jurors finally reached a verdict yesterday in the case against former Enron CEO Jeff Skilling and founder Ken Lay. Found guilty of both fraud and conspiracy, Skilling and Lay each face a minimum of 25 years in prison.

Sift through the headlines on the Enron verdict, and you're likely to be left with the sense that the American public has emerged victorious, in the process establishing a zero-tolerance policy of fraud in business. While the verdict will certainly serve as a cautionary tale to future corporate leaders, it would be misleading to assume that the chapter on the culture of corporate corruption has been closed.

The simple fact that Skilling and Lay went to trial, took the stand and maintained, throughout the proceedings, that their actions at the helm of Enron were legitimate, reveals how normalized the chasm between morality and legality in the business world has become. Lay's and Skillings' performances in court (as well as those of their lawyers) revealed a mind-boggling disdain for the judicial process. It was clear from the very start of the trial that Lay and Skilling would be using the courtroom as a stage. Both were eager to take the stand, not primarily to deny the alleged charges, but rather to quibble over whether or not the activities were actually corrupt and illegal.

Before the jurors left to deliberate, Lay's lead lawyer, Mike Ramsey, gave them a crash course in the nuance of "innocence," explaining, "When you're say[ing you are] not guilty, you're not saying innocent. You're saying not proven to my satisfaction without hesitation." Lay himself took a similar tack, trying to further obfuscate his machinations of Enron's accounting by telling jurors that "aggressive accounting does not mean illegal accounting. People misunderstood things that were new and different as being wrong, and they weren't.''

Lay was referring to "mark-to-model" accounting, a form of numeric manipulation that Peter Elkind, co-author of "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room," explains quite simply: "Your profits are basically whatever you say they're going to be. So if you need to book additional profits for a period, you could just say that the price of energy will go up." It is this type of market manipulation that set Enron apart from other companies, contributing to the California energy crisis, which Americans are still paying the price for.

Yet, one of the focal points of both Lay and Skilling's defense was their complaint that the prosecution was criminalizing "normal" business practices. Skilling and Lay, caught with their hands in the cookie jar, turned the tables and used the stage to aggressively argue that stealing the cookies should not be considered criminal -- tacking on the childish coda, "Everyone else is doing it anyway" for good measure.

The only thing that Lay and Skilling have expressed remorse for is that the company collapsed at all. While Enron's market manipulations and corruption ultimately cheated Americans out of over $1 billion in retirement funds and obliterated some 4,500 jobs, Lay and Skilling have seemed preoccupied only by the ego blow dealt them by their company's demise. In his closing remarks to the jury, Skilling's lead lawyer, Dan Petrocelli, piled on the pathos: "He's a tortured soul now for the rest of his life. What happened to the business that he built and now forever what it will be known as -- that's his legacy."

Blaming "hostile journalists" and "poor market confidence," the two Enron bigwigs maintained throughout the four-month proceedings that it was America's inability to understand their business and lack of confidence that led to the corporation's downfall.

This twisted attitude didn't escape prosecutor Kathy Ruemmler, who stated in her closing argument that this "extraordinary arrogance is the exact same tactic that they used when they were running Enron."

There is certainly some cause for celebration. It was by no means a foregone conclusion that Skilling and Lay would be found guilty. The pathological personalities of both men established them as "true believers" in their company -- making it, at times, difficult to prove criminal intent. Skilling lawyer Daniel Petrocelli opened the trial by posing this question to the jury: "In 1999, [Skilling] had more money than he ever dreamed of having. So why would he do it? What is Jeff Skilling's motive?" But it is clear that both Skilling and Lay's egos were tied up in the success of the company and neither had reservations about using any legal loophole and manipulation to increase profits and remain afloat for the sake of greed.

This obsessive maneuvering pervaded their legal defense. The recent Enron verdict is a heartening chapter, but it provides the beginning, rather than an end, of reckoning with a culture of blame-dodging that bleeds far beyond Enron. One needn't look far to connect the dots. Banks like Citi, JP Morgan, Chase and Merrill Lynch all aided and enabled Enron's scamming. Accounting monolith Arthur Anderson helped Enron perform impossible numerical acrobatics. And, most notably, political ties between Ken Lay and the Bush family enabled strategic appointments that led to an atmosphere of deregulation.

These banks, politicians and accountants all helped pave the way for characters like Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling to push the envelope in the business world, and to assert that the crimes they were committing were merely a matter of standard operating procedure. To the end they insisted the mounds of evidence against them were just a series of coincidental "mistakes." "Mistakes are not a crime," Skilling lawyer Petrocelli told the jury. Toppled white-collar criminals who follow in Lay and Skilling's wake may well use the same desperate plea.

Making Justice Moot

Abu Bakker Qassim and Adel Abdul Al-Hakim have been held in Guantanamo since 2002. Natives of China’s Xinjiang Uighur Region, it wasn’t until March of 2005 that it was acknowledged that they were not "enemy combatants." Because they face persecution in China, it was determined that the men should not be returned to their home country.

For over a year, Qassim and Al-Hakim were kept in Guantanamo while U.S. authorities looked for a third country to send them to. But they didn't seem to be in much of a hurry. Both men were still in Cuba this past December when a federal judge ruled that it was unlawful to continue their indefinite imprisonment.

Qassim and Al-Hakim’s have been kept in Guantanamo until just this Friday when they were released to Albania. Why the sudden action? Oral arguments for Qassim and Al-Hakim’s legal challenge to their detainment were scheduled in the Supreme Court for this Monday.

True to their manipulative relationship with the courts, the DoJ just this Friday filed an "Emergency Motion to Dismiss as Moot" the appeal. The six page document is worth reading in full [PDF]. Again, as with most legal requests to keep something from the courts, the DoJ tone is one of pompous self-righteousness. Rather than focusing on why they believe the case to be moot, the DoJ seeks a pat on the back for getting around to releasing the men:

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Dirty words in politics

Michael Crowley over at TNR gives us a look-see at the latest RNC fundraising email:

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Enron still wreaking havoc

With Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling currently in trial, and the former Enron headquarters empty, you might be tempted to think the old corporate monster has been vanquished. But you would be wrong: There is still the fallout to be reckoned with.

On Monday, The Seattle Times reported on the Snohomish County Public Utility District (PUD) which has been fighting Enron over the inflated electricity rates during the West Coast energy crisis. Enron creditors are looking to get Snohomish PUD to pay over $100 million in contract cancellation fees and seeking to pay "22 cents on the dollar for $40 million in overcharges that the PUD claims were caused by Enron's market manipulation." That would mean that Snohomish residents could be looking at a 25 percent increase in electricity rates.

Enron lobbyists have approached a group of senators that have been fighting on PUD's behalf, asking them to back off. The senators have written the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to oppose a settlement under these terms. This letter may just end up on the desk of Phil Moeller -- a recent nominee to a FERC vacancy. As The Seattle Times notes, "It could be an awkward issue for Moeller because Lay recommended him for FERC in early 2001 in a letter to the George W. Bush transition team."

Yesterday, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) filed a FOIA request to FERC -- asking for the release of hundreds of hours of tape recordings between Enron officials. The FERC's ongoing Enron investigation has uncovered many recordings that remain sealed. Truly dastardly: Enron's proposed settlement with FERC regarding PUD would "require FERC staff to work to prevent the release of Enron evidence that remains sealed."

That evidence is important because it could prove instrumental in future crafting of federal policies on trading in energy commodities. Senator Feinstein writes,

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Bush can disobey 750 laws

The fact that Bush wants to rule as something like a dictator is nothing new. Heck, he even said it himself. But a startling new article in Sunday's Boston Globe shows just how far he's already taken his wish: Bush has reserved the right to ignore as many as 750 laws passed by Congress during his presidency.

In the piece, Charlie Savage provides a rundown of how President Bush has used signing statements in lieu of the presidential veto. In contrast to Bush The First's 232 such challenges, and Clinton's 140, George W. has challenged 750 new laws in this manner.

The effects? Jack Balkin over at Balkinization neatly sums them up for us: The signing statements enable the president to pick certain portions of legislation that he doesn't fancy, undermining the will of Congress without any public accountability or effective recourse from Congress or the courts. George W.'s allergy to vetoes smack of a specific intent to avoid public scrutiny of his interpretation of the constitution. As Balkin writes,

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Easter with the LGBT community

Last Christmas, my mother gave me a travel guide, wrapped in shiny green paper. Where was I off to? It was a Lonely Planet guide to the United States. An anthropologist who has spent her fair share of time observing the natives of other countries, my mother has never been more gob-smacked and intrigued than by those comrades closer to home -- our fellow Americans.

I wasted no time in using my new Lonely Planet guide to re-educate myself on the dating rituals, latest lingo, and tips for interacting with my Southern compatriots. A step removed, the advice seemed trite and humorous. But it was fascinating to have a distinct out-of-culture experience.

When you head to the Lonely Planet website on U.S. travel information, and click on the "People & Society" link, you'll be sent straight to this:

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Facing Up to Modern Censorship

Just last month, the FCC leveled a record fine against more than 100 television stations. The $3.6 million penalty was based on the FCC's determination that programming violated "decency standards." The orders for the fines were in response to some 300,000 "consumer complaints" -- many of which were lodged by organized groups rather than individual viewers.

No matter where the complaints come from, the end result of such fines is the same: TV networks will shy away from any material that might be deemed objectionable and could therefore cost them money -- eventually trickling down to creators of programming who then self-censor in order to make their material more marketable.

The compulsion to avoid being objectionable has led to a false narrative in which offense is spoken of as an empirically understood term. Whether it's in the art world, publishing or politics, modern censorship has defined the parameters of what we are and are not willing to say.

It is these subtle and insidious forms of censorship that Robert Atkins and Svetlana Mintcheva explore in their new anthology, "Censoring Culture: Contemporary Threats to Free Expression." With writings from folks as varied as Lawrence Lessing and Judy Blume, the book articulates new challenges -- from corporate conglomerations to self-censorship -- impeding the freedom of expression.

Robert Atkins spoke with AlterNet to discuss why his work on the book has led him to see modern censorship as the problem of our times.

Onnesha Roychoudhuri: How did this book come about?

Robert Atkins: The book came from a series of public panel censorship discussions that my co-editor Svetlana and the artist Antonia Munta organized at the New School which were titled "Censorship in Camouflage." This was the starting point for the book. There was a great poverty of language. If you think about a term like, say, "gentrification," it describes a phenomenon that seems self-evident once we have the language to talk about it.

Our intention is to broaden the whole discussion about what censorship is, how it operates and who is a censor. We saw that artists were inhibited by so many phenomena, conditions, whether it was copyright laws or whether it was more stringent policing of the internet. We also realized these things were not limited exclusively to artists. Artists are often the canary in the coal mine.

OR: Is this a book about politics as much as it is about art?

RA: You can't have one without the other. Artists are both a reflection and a mirror of the social conditions around them -- which is why there is change in art. You couldn't have an artist like Andy Warhol critiquing consumer culture prior to the late-19th century. As an art historian, I believe that the arts are firmly embedded in their moment, and the possibilities for artists are totally tied to the social conditions around them. The idea that artists are visionaries ahead of their time is silly. When an artist's observations are acute, they may be there before anybody else, but they're limited by social and political phenomena.

OR: If artists are canaries in the mine, what are politicians?

RA: I think politicians are always the slowest to react -- it's the squeaky wheel theory. No politician will go out on a limb for anything unless he feels his constituency is affected. While I don't believe artists are visionaries -- it seems like much too strong a word for me -- it does seem that artists and politicians are at the opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to quick responsiveness.

OR: Can you discuss the standard perception of censors and censorship, and why it's inadequate to discuss the kind of censorship we currently face?

RA: We did informal surveys as we wrote introductions to the various parts of the book, and nobody thinks of themselves as a censor or self-censor. When in fact we censor ourselves all the time, often for logical reasons and to logical ends. Can you imagine if we all spoke our minds all the time? But these have become such nasty words in the language. When people think of a censor, they think of some bureaucrat in a former Soviet bloc country, sitting with a red pen, removing salacious references out of plays. We tend to think of censorship as an official action being done by governmental officials to limit speech. In the U.S., we have such a wall in some areas between public and private that many things that the government are held to, citizens and corporations are not. I think there's such a problem with the language.

Gov. Pataki recently spoke on the new World Trade Center development and the museum of freedom. The families of the victims of 9/11 made such a deep impression on him. They seem to have such powerful clout that art was being eliminated from the mix of cultural programming downtown. It was feared that artists might say something critical, or might offer some less than pious observations or commentaries about what the memorial was intended to commemorate. It's the same kind of holiness that used to surround the Holocaust. There's so many ways that people can be censored.

OR: Self-censorship is unique in that it can influence someone before they have expressed or created a thought.

RA: Yes -- the unborn expression. For instance, if some playwright feels like there is no possible audience for this work, he or she may not write it at all or the notion of the commercial viability of any kind of production is so deeply engrained that people's imaginations become inhibited, thinking first of what is possible rather than what needs to be expressed. This certainly is not good for the arts, and it certainly isn't good for democracy.

We have one of the most widespread and stringent set of laws regulating expression in terms of copyright that this keeps getting extended. If pop art were to have emerged today, it's very unlikely that it could even weather that first round of litigation. Any kind of intellectual property protection suggests that if you don't enforce your trademarks or your copyright, then the person who breaches that can point to that the next time around. So, people are encouraged to litigate.

OR: Why is this antiquated perception of censorship so entrenched in our minds?

RA: I think it's just denial. Our country's founding ideals and our methodology is all about freedom -- especially the First Amendment of the Constitution. And yet, the reality so often differs from the abstract principles. That's exactly what politicians and demagogues play on -- as if we have the perfect democracy.

I think the world, during the Gore-Bush election were so shocked to see that we really don't have this "one man, one vote" principle to which we pay lip service -- that someone could win and still receive a minority of the votes. This extends to so many areas of public life. We're trained on this idea that we have complete freedom of speech, freedom of press. Anyone who suggests that this isn't the case is looked upon traitorously. It's an ironic embodiment of the fact that we really haven't perfected those important goals.

OR: Is self-censorship on the rise?

RA: Absolutely. Some self-censorship is logical, but it becomes dangerous when organizations don't apply for National Endowment for the Arts grants because they think that they're not going to get them because their thinking is too radical or because there's the slightest bit of sexual content involved. I think self-censorship is very much on the rise, and it's a condition.

If you think back to communist East Germany, and the famous Stasi, the secret police that had people spying on their neighbors. When you make everybody a spy, then you, the government, don't really have to worry about this. You engrain the standards of appropriateness in people already. We see that here with the Christian right -- how quickly standards have changed about a reasonable interest in sex and sexuality.

OR: It's unsettling how an issue is framed in such extreme language that a more "moderate" approach to the issue is still often incredibly conservative.

RA:: Or even worse -- if you're a member of the House of Representatives, any sound bite suggesting that it's not a black and white situation is something you avoid at all costs. This is where legislators censor themselves. Reasonableness is just out the door. We see this particularly in reference to one of the mechanisms by which censors work, which is in the name of the alleged "protection" of children.

OR: There is a whole section of the book dedicated to a discussion of the evolution of litigation surrounding child pornography that was particularly interesting. Could you explain the relevance?

RA: Nothing exists outside of politics. There were no child pornography laws until the Reagan administration in 1982. Dr. Amy Adler writes in the book how the law is so vaguely written -- if an image might arouse a pedophile, then it should be considered child pornography. This included entirely clothed images, and it essentially instructed judges, jurors, prosecutors and defendants to imagine what a pedophile would be turned on by. This included things such as jeans that were too tight.

If you think about fashion photography, it's kind of a joke. Except, why these laws are so horrible in many ways is that this only applies to things in the publicly funded realm. So a Calvin Klein ad, which in many cases is more lascivious by these legal standards than is works by female photographers, is exempt. We have a chapter of memoirs by mothers and grandmothers -- professional photographers who were arrested because they photographed their children and grandchildren in the buff.

OR: In the past few years, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has engaged in some of the highest fining of television stations in history. FCC officials insist that only "obviously offensive" material is fined -- as though there is some empirical definition of what offends people.

RA: It's ironic how little fidelity there is to any particular point of view from most administrations. The Supreme Court has a three-prong law -- for something to be deemed pornography, it must pass three litmus tests. One of them is that it doesn't have any redeeming social or artistic value.

Another one has to do with community standards -- and this was a way it worked to conservatives' advantage to try to take internet purveyors of any kind of sexually related material to court in Louisville, Ky., rather than in San Francisco. This underlines the fact that community standards can be very different in different places. These terms are ridiculously vague. The idea that anyone would know what was patently offensive, or would not see that this was a subjective terminology really isn't awake.

OR: You mentioned the pressure on politicians to couch everything in black and white terms. Do you think this is what Americans want, or do you think they're more interested in some nuance?

RA: I think people are underestimated all the time and, when given real information, are really quite savvy. The problem is that unless something is so important, like Saddam Hussein and WMDs, it's difficult to get through the layers of deceit, exaggeration and hyperbole. I think, ultimately, people have common sense.

Some people might say that we Americans get the politicians we deserve. But whoever said that we get the best politicians we can buy is really much more on the mark. You and I don't have the clout that General Electric has, and it's no coincidence, particularly in the Bush administration, that legislators and lobbyists essentially write legislation. They're catered too so deeply.

OR: Is this a partisan issue?

RA: No. These sins are almost as egregious coming from the left as they are from the right. This isn't a Republican vs. Democratic issue at all. People are crazy at all points of the political spectrum. Diane Ravage was first a member of the first Bush administration and then the Clinton administration as an educator and specialist. She writes wonderfully in the book about how standardized testing has gone so far as to be an injunction against talking about mountains if the testing is being done in a state that doesn't have them. The policing of what people think kids should think about has gone to totally absurd lengths.

OR: Could you give and example of the growing influence of private and corporate funding of museums?

RA: Museums face this chronic shortage of funds. Many people think that it's the problem of museums -- they have a board of trustees that, whether public or private, are mostly very well to do. They in turn seem to have embraced the model of corporations that museums must continually grow in order to be good at all -- so they create a situation in which the resources needed to run a museum continually rises. If you add an extra wing, you need extra guards and curators.

The seeds of the problem may come from there, but federal funding and state funding has diminished so drastically that museums turn to other sources of funding. You can hardly bite the hand that feeds you. Phillipe de Montebello, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, pointed out to Newsweek in 1982 that corporate funding is tantamount to censorship. Yet, that museum is so large, and requires so much money to keep themselves operating. Like every other museum, it turns to corporate funders. and the recent show Chanel was almost totally funded by the House of Chanel.

This was a completely uncritical view -- a whitewashed celebration -- of Coco Chanel who appears to have a quite dubious past as someone who made her money during Vichy France buying properties that previously belonged to Jews. This isn't really a museums function. Museums are tax-exempt institutions; they're mandated to be educational. It's clearly a conflict of interest. This is the position museums find themselves in and not out of any evil motive. It's really the only way in this historical moment that they can operate when we have a government that funds the arts at less per capita than any other industrialized country.

OR: One of the results of this more behind the scenes corporate influence is that the public is often times unaware of what they aren't seeing. Can you give an example of this?

RA: Book publishing people used to laughingly refer to it as a gentleman's trade. The thinking was that small profit margins were okay and that the blockbuster books would fund the smaller books -- the ones that would contribute to our enlightenment. They might not have a huge audience, but they were important books to publish. Since the consolidation of the book industry, there are only a few very large international corporations that own the major publishers.

Random House, the biggest American publishing house, is owned by Bertelsmann, the German publisher. While publishing companies are still running on small profit margins, they're not funding important books. They're wasting that money in huge advances to people like the Clintons and the Colin Powells -- and many of those books are flops. Their money is also going to bloated corporate salaries so that their CEOs now make the equivalent of what Hollywood CEOs make. Yet, the profit margin stays just the same. There are just as many books being published, but there are many worthy books that don't get published. We're talking about books we don't see -- books that are critical.

OR: While there is a long history of protesting government, protesting corporations is a newer concept. What are some of the challenges in this?

RA: Corporations have a special legal status essentially on par with individuals. It's shocking to consider that. Wallace Kurault was an independent bookseller who took his case all the way to the Supreme Court. He was taking the major booksellers to task for wheedling huge discounts out of publishers who, in many cases, had no choice when dealing with the Barnes and Nobles of our times.

Kurault charged that this was monopoly practice. I can't imagine a more monopolistic practice or a less level playing field than when you can get goods for less than Joe Smith down the block -- you can demand them and receive them from publishers. Kurault was joined by many righteous litigants including the American Booksellers Association, but the court ruled in favor of the big money. In some ways, it's remarkable that we still have any independent booksellers given that.

I think that people begin to make choices about where they purchase things. Maybe you can get it a dollar cheaper down the block, but maybe that's not what you want to do given the power of our shopping dollars and the implicit support it shows for particular practices.

OR: Can you explain what the role of the media in depicting "culture wars"?

RA: The media plays an equally negative and positive role because conflict is what often drives it -- particularly in terms of television and moving images. One of the real points we want to make in this book is regarding the "culture war" controversy. The famous moments -- the shuttering of a play or the closing of the exhibition -- are really not the main event. There's a phenomenon that gets fueled by the media and by politicians because they can score points.

There was a huge controversy in New York about a show about the Holocaust at the Jewish Museum a couple of years ago. The show was contemporary art that was related to the Holocaust. In many ways it tried to create ambiguities, and to broaden the conversation from the black and white conversations that we have about the Holocaust as the most inherent of all evils to return it to its more sociopolitical conditions of the time.

The museum was very aware that it might be controversial and studied it with community groups. Curators brought their board into the discussion, and the board urged them to tackle the problems. They did a very intelligent exhibition that raised important issues. Their mistake was allowing the catalog to be published two months before the exhibition opened.

One of the tabloid presses owned by Rupert Murdoch, read the catalog and looked at the pictures. Of course, none of these people could imagine that a work of art might be different in person than it is on a printed page, and savaged the museum two months before the show opened and suggested that it was a celebration of Hitler.

This undoubtedly sold lots of newspapers and pressure on politicians came down on the side of the censors because of the pressure. One has to feel a little sorry for politicians who believe they never have any choices. I think we elect them to make choices. Essentially, it's another situation where the media and politicians are in cahoots. The more controversy the better, as long as you're on the "right" side of it.

OR: Given your experience and observation, what conditions enable an exhibit to reach a level at which it can be openly experienced and discussed?

RA: I think it takes great determination, courage and savvy from the museum powers that be. They have to say that it's more important to have this dialog than to not have it, which might be risky for a museum director. There was a recent case in New York with a play that had been quite successful and uneventfully presented in London called "My Name Is Rachel Corrie."

The New York Theatre Workshop decided to shut it down after they had committed themselves to it. It had been published in their calendar, and they were quite far along the way when they got an inkling that this might bother some people. They simply chose not to present it -- which to me seems like an enormous betrayal of their audience. It's this assumption that no one can handle it and that "we know best."

OR: Why do you think enabling these kinds of difficult discussions is so important?

Take the recent international incident about the Danish cartoons about Islam. It showed these cartoons that had versions of Islamic prophets, including Mohammed. This got drawn into this black-and-white situation where suddenly we had these supporters of freedom of the press taking an absolutist position and then you had people around the world manipulated into seeing this, not as expression of one person or a newspaper, but scapegoating it for representing the way the west looks at Islam.

If you say, "Let's have a conversation about this" early on, then people can handle it. It's clear to me that the process will determine the outcome of the situation. If you want to hide and obfuscate, and stand on a soapbox, you're going to elicit the exact same response from the other side.

OR: What did you learn in the process of putting together this book?

RA: This book began through the lens of the arts and imagining that artists really suffered more from these sorts of inhibitors. But, we came away feeling that this is part of the problem of our time. The book got bigger and bigger, and at one point, we had to eliminate everything that didn't impact on artists, which is pretty broad. What we essentially eliminated was a section on the censorship of scientific research and the attempted invalidation even of what science is.

We could have even made the case that this affects the arts. There's a great show about Darwin and the theory of evolution at the Museum of Natural History in New York. This was the first exhibition in their recent history for which they couldn't get corporate support. The right wing early on had raised the alarm. I think we really need to watch out for people who don't want to have these kinds of discussions. What is it that ought to be placed off limits remains the ultimate question and I would frankly say that I don't think anything should be.

What we need is more conversation, intelligence and nuanced viewpoints.

Putting the toothpaste back in the tube

George Washington University's National Security Archive recently discovered a covert program that has been hiding the CIA, Air Force's (and a redacted third authority -- likely the NSA) reclassification of public documents. Archive staff members had observed that some documents that were 50 years old had been reclassified. Through a FOIA request for one such reclassified document, a March 2002 "Memorandum of Understanding" (MOA) was obtained by the Archive staff.

The document, signed by an Air Force official and an archivist at the D.C. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) outlines a program through which some "55,000 pages of declassified documents, dating back to the World War II era have been removed from the open files."

The MOA also states that

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The update on Padilla

The case of Jose Padilla has been shuffling from one court to another. Deemed an "enemy combatant, Padilla was kept in a naval brig for over three years without charges. When a U.S. District judge ruled that the government either had to charge or release Padilla, the DoJ insisted that the enemy combatant status was necessary for the security of the nation and appealed the decision:

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The endurance of impermanence

There has been quite a bit of talk of late about whether or not "permanent" military bases are being built in Iraq -- and what this means for American troops.

The AP reports,

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Throwing Stones at Venezuela

It's certainly no surprise. Even over a year ago, journalists were remarking at the "left turn" that so many Latin American countries were making. Of late, however, we only hear about Hugo Chavez and Venezuela. The South American country has taken the place of Cuba as the new whipping boy of alternative political models. But the targeted arguments -- coming mainly from the United States -- that depict Chavez as a tyrannical despot do little more than make the United States look the defensive paranoid for so mischaracterizing Venezuela's politics.

From Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to Pat Robertson, absurd public comparisons of President Hugo Chavez to Hitler and calls for assassination, it's clear that U.S. public figures love to vilify Chavez. The defamations have now been firmly established in mainstream politics -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice continues to allege that Venezuela poses the greatest threat to Latin America. Why? Rice accuses Chavez of leading a "Latin brand of populism that has taken countries down the drain."

AlterNet spoke to Bernardo Alvarez, Venezuela's ambassador to the United States, during his recent trip through California to meet with civil society groups and Latino leaders. When asked why he thought Chavez and Venezuela were so vilified, Alvarez stated, "For the first time, people are taking seriously that the major problems in the world are poverty and social exclusion -- not terrorism. These allegations are simply to avoid discussing these true problems; they are an attempt to undermine and divert from true economic development."

Whether or not this is the true motivation behind this administration's reluctance to engage in dialogue is up for debate. One thing, however, is clear: The press has spent far more energy exploring largely unsubstantiated allegations of fraud and corruption targeting Chavez than exploring the reality of his agenda.

After getting the obligatory controversial questions out of the way -- is Chavez planning to run for president in 2013? Are the United States and Venezuela too ideologically different to have meaningful discussions? What do you say to the allegations that Venezuela is becoming a dictatorship akin to Castro's Cuba? -- a common thread emerged in Alvarez's oft-repeated answers. Strung together, it goes something like this:

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The legalese of betrayal

There is some argument out there that impeachment and censure isn't capturing Americans' attention as it should because it comes down to eye-glazing talk of executive power and checks and balances. Is all this talk of violating the Constitution too high-minded for Americans? Sure, executive power can be an abstract notion. But the consistent accusations that this administration has violated the limits of executive power, has violated the fundamental principle of checks and balances enshrined in our Constitution, provides an important category in which we can file some of the most appalling actions that we read about in the news every day. It is, therefore, a vital instrument that enables a more thorough understanding of the depth of misconduct.

For instance, today: We learn that Sergeant Michael Smith has been found guilty of abusing detainees at Abu Ghraib. Smith used his dog to intimidate prisoners and competed with other dog handlers to see who could first get detainees to soil themselves out of fear. While he and nine other soldiers have been convicted of abusing detainees, all are junior-ranking soldiers. This despite the now public information that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld approved the use of dogs on detainees. Just to top off the blatant contradiction, Pentagon-led investigations into detainee abuse found "no link between approved interrogation techniques and detainee abuse."

There's no shortage of cases clearly showing conduct that violates the common interpretation of laws. Any rational person reading this onslaught of information sees the monumental disconnect between extralegal actions by members of the Bush administration, and accountability.

Lawyer and writer Rosa Brooks makes the argument that every American is responsible for enabling this shift in power, pushing a vital point about the artificial divide between the people and the law:

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The circular poetry of executive power

Ohio Senator Michael DeWine’s new Terrorist Surveillance Act [PDF], introduced yesterday, reflects the new political affinity for circular logic. If you want the round-up of the legal implications, read Glenn Greenwald’s blog. But for those of you who would prefer a Friday poem, I’ve distilled the Act to its essence:

To Make Legal The Illegal

"The President determines, the President shall establish and maintain, the President determines, the President shall, what the President considers appropriate, the President shall determine…

…that the surveillance is necessary
shall update a list of groups and organizations
that are subject to electronic surveillance
that there is a reasonable likelihood that the group or organization
whether it intends to engage in an act of international terrorism
whether the Program remains necessary...

The President determines…
what…
the President considers appropriate."

Justice without the DoJ?

The transgressions were by no means unique. But the fact that the case of Custer Battles' contracting fraud was made public set it apart from the many other allegations of fraud that have remained out of the public eye. Three years into the Iraq war, the other 50 corruption cases remain sealed by the Department of Justice.

Attorney Alan Grayson brought forth the whistleblower case, representing two former Custer Battles employees. Grayson's clients alleged that the company defrauded the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) of millions of dollars during its time in Iraq. Robert Isakson and William Baldwin also accused Custer Battles of "war profiteering" that resulted in the serious injury of four employees due to faulty trucks.

This past week, some two years after the legal battle began, the jury in the case finally ruled in favor of Grayson's clients. While Isakson and Baldwin are eligible for up to 30 percent of the monies, the bulk of the funds that Custer Battles took from the government, with the government's knowledge, will now be returned -- to the government.

The body of evidence against Custer Battles is phenomenal. The company's documents revealed that Custer Battles forged invoices and overpriced the U.S. government by millions. Grayson told AlterNet that according to sworn testimony of the court, both his clients face incredible intimidation -- including death threats. Said Grayson, "One had a $50,000 bounty on his head from one of the defendants."

The defendants Grayson speaks of are the company cofounders Scott Custer and Mike Battles -- no strangers to Republican circles. Mike Battles ran for Congress back in 2002 (where he managed to get fined by the FEC three times for "misstatement of financial activities"). His partner, Scott Custer once stated, in an interview with two federal agents, "Battles is very active in the Republican Party and speaks to individuals he knows at the White House almost daily."

This may help explain the refusal on the part of the Department of Justice to take a role in the proceedings despite the clear fraud. It's likely that the case Grayson took on was unsealed in the hopes that it could set a precedent that would make the other 50-odd, still sealed cases moot. Those bigger cases would be against defendants tied even more closely to the Administration, like Halliburton/KBR.

The three and a half weeks of testimony, laying out the specifics of Custer Battles corruption leads to an unsettling conclusion: contracting companies are undermining the war effort in Iraq on a scale that the Bush administration would be loathe to have the public aware of. The FBI and the Defense Criminal Investigative Service still have two fill time investigators assigned to the case -- but with the DoJ refusing to get involved, there is little they can do with what they have uncovered.

Grayson recalled the testimony of Hugh B. Tant III, a retired general: "34 out of 36 trucks that Custer Battles delivered were inoperative. Materials deliveries came so late that rooms designed for one or two had six or seven sleeping on the floors. This was in Mosul in December -- in the mountains. Americans soldiers were sleeping in tents on the dirt in the cold. The general said that the plumbing and sewage in the camps was so poor that he couldn't stand to be in them because the smell was so bad."

Dying for you to listen

In the first suicide note to be declassified by the U.S. government, Jumah Al Dossari explains why he saw no other choice but to try to take his own life. Written back in October of 2005, this was one of a number of his thwarted suicide attempts. Jumah's lawyer Joshua Colangelo-Bryan discovered him hanging in his cell (read his account) with a deep gash in his arm. Jumah survived.

The U.S. military has concealed the true number of suicide attempts by reclassifying many attempts as "self-injurious manipulative behavior." True numbers are, therefore, impossible to come by. Former military linguist, Erik Saar, noted that when he was in Guantanamo back in 2003, suicide attempts were a weekly phenomenon.

One can only imagine how this rate has increased after three further years of detainment.

The numbers of detainess who are taking part in hunger strikes as a form of protest (and, simply, to die) are similarly skewed. Many detainees are accepting one out of every nine meals that they are served in order to escape the technical definition of "hunger strike" -- and subsequently avoid the violent forced feeding that those who skip nine meals in a row endure.

Stay tuned for the March 22nd arguments -- the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia will consider the government's motion to dismiss Guantanamo detainees' right to challenge their ongoing imprisonment.

Jumah's letter:

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The not-so-secret CIA

Yesterday, the Chicago Tribune published a story with the headline "Internet Blows CIA Cover." Writer John Crewdson didn't need to leave the confines of his cubicle for his investigation finding that a simple online search yielded "a virtual directory of more than 2,600 CIA employees, 50 internal agency phone numbers and the locations of some two dozen secret CIA facilities around the United States."

The article opens with, "She is 52 years old, married, grew up in the Kansas City suburbs and now lives in Virginia, in a new three-bedroom house." That would be the description of a covert CIA operative. Kindly, the Tribune agreed not to publish the less-than-inside info they discovered.

The CIA's response? "Cover is a complex issue that is more complex in the internet age. There are things that worked previously that no longer worked."

Yes, well, and apples are a kind of fruit.

Of course it's more complex. What's disturbing is that the CIA seems to just now be realizing this basic premise at a time when we are facing, according to this administration, unprecedented terrorist threats. And yet, when confronted with the Tribune's revelations, senior U.S. officials are saying things like this: "I don't know whether Al Qaeda could do this, but the Chinese could."

Forget the ethnicity, affiliation, or country of origin -- a seven year old could do this. It just begs the question -- if our security is in the hands of these people, how safe could we really be? President Bush, in his defense of the secretive nature of the NSA wiretaps, has repeatedly implied that riding roughshod over Congress and the law was necessary to keep al Qaeda from finding out that the NSA is listening in on phone calls. For those with functioning minds (come on…the NSA is known as "the big ear") this simply makes no sense. But we see this naivete (purposeful or not) rearing its ugly head again.

So how are our security agencies plugging critical intelligence and security gaps? Just this past week, a professor at Pomona College in Southern California was allegedly questioned by FBI anti-terrorism officials on the status of the Venezuelan community in the U.S. Tinker Salas, a professor of Latin American history told the AP that "the detectives' line of questioning focused on publicly available information such as where he went to school and whether there was a Venezuelan consulate in Los Angeles."

Can't you just see a FBI official, face set in a skeptical sneer, ignoring office hours and barging in on the professor. Asking, pen and pad in hand, Mr. Salas, how about you explain this whole "history" thing to us.

The liberal phaseout

This month's Foreign Policy has a downright provocative cover. "Why Men Rule and Conservatives Will Inherit the Earth." I'm a sucker for doom and gloom, so I bit. The argument in "The Return of Patriarchy" goes like this: Birthrates are falling below replacement levels in many countries because cultural and economic conditions are discouraging parenthood. Patriarchy will return. It's this final leap in logic that remains inadequately explained. But, there are some stats relating to the change in "national temperament" (read, phaseout of progressive/liberal ideology) that are of interest.

Phillip Longman writes that some 20 percent of women born in the late 1950s have chosen not to have children.

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The reverse Jesus complex

...the most self-serving…in…history -- a man whose government has repeatedly passed legislation that favoured his business interests, and altered the law to ensure he would not be convicted of any of the many alleged offences.
Who is this in reference to?

Actually, it's the Economist on Italy's corrupt prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. But I can see how you might be confused. Amend "altered the law" with "and claimed to be above it" and you've got yourself a political leader a little closer to home.

Seems Mr. Berlusconi thinks he’s something of a prophetic figure, telling the press, "I am the Jesus Christ of politics. I'm a patient victim. I endure everything. I sacrifice myself for everyone."

Apparently, Berlusconi uses statements like this as catnip for the press -- keeping the papers filled to distraction with accounts of his self-proclaimed martyrdom rather than, say, his unilateral rewriting of electoral law.

This kind of distraction -- via absurd and humorous statements -- has me pining for the days of Bush hijinks, when the President's alternate perception of reality was almost amusing ("You work three jobs? Uniquely American, isn't it? I mean, that is fantastic that you're doing that.") It seems so long ago that simply hearing the President say the word "nuclear" made me chuckle.

These days, the only thing to distract us from a scandal (hey, guess what? Bush was repeatedly warned about the devastation Katrina was going to cause) is another scandal (hey, guess what? He also was warned by intelligence officials two years ago that the Iraqi insurgency was going to get worse because of the presence of American troops).

Nope. There’s just nothing amusing about this President’s deceit, and the suffering and death it has caused -- and he’s got that paltry 34 percent approval rating to prove it. This rate echoes that of another President. One who was thisclose to impeachment when he chose to resign.

The New Marriage Contract

It's the same old story: Husband tries to kidnap wife and gets caught. Ah, but here's the twist: wife provides police with a copy of a four-page marriage contract written up by husband.

Travis Frey of Iowa is the esteemed author of "Contract of Wifely Expectations" which, fortunately, was never signed by his wife.

Frey, it seems, was quite a demanding man, laying out specific expectations for pubic hair length ("You will shave every third day which includes underarms, chest, legs, and pubic area…and will maintain a hair length of less 1/3"), and underwear ("You will wear only thigh highs, and garters, and only thong panties.").

My favorite: "Half of your shoe purchases will be high heels, 2" or more. You will then wear these high heels more often."

It's worth reading in its entirety, if only because it's so incredibly absurd (and features an oddly orgiastic angel font). Sure, sure, he's a colossal sicko, but maybe he's just crying out to be loved: "When we are in bed together I can cuddle, spoon, hold, or touch you in any way, as long as it does not excessively disruptive your sleep."

Now that's consideration. Don't know about you, but I hate when people excessively disruptive my sleep.

(The Smoking Gun)

Bringing an End to Illegal Wiretaps

Despite the heated controversy over warrantless wiretaps, recent Senate Judiciary Committee hearings did little to bring the Bush administration to account. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales simply repeated the same tired lines. According to Gonzales, Congress' Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) in Afghanistan allows the president to conduct domestic wiretaps. And, the argument goes, even if that's not true, President Bush's executive power enables him to do whatever he deems is necessary in the war on terror.

The ineffectual nature of the hearings has struck a chord with concerned Americans. If Congress can't hold the administration to account, who can? Luckily, there are groups that are working to pick up the slack. The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have both filed complaints against the administration and security agencies, charging that the president's warrantless wiretaps are a violation of the Constitution. The Electronic Frontiers Foundation (EFF) recently joined the cause, filing a class action suit against AT&T. EFF charges that the monolithic communications company has collaborated with the National Security Agency (NSA) wiretap program -- providing the agency with millions of its customers phone and email records.

Because the the wiretap program is secret, it's difficult to prove that anyone has been targeted by the program. This secrecy makes it difficult to bring legal charges against the administration. Nevertheless, the nature of the program has struck many lawyers as an obvious violation of our civil liberties. Shayana Kadidal, one of the CCR lawyers bringing the suit against the administration, told AlterNet that there is simply no question that the administration has violated the law. Kadidal spoke with AlterNet about the specifics of CCR's case and why the wiretap program endangers not only our civil liberties but our national security.

Why did CCR decide to bring legal action against the president and security agencies?

It's an interesting case. Usually, when you start a case, you know an awful lot about the facts, and you're a little uncertain as to where the law is going to go. Here, it's exactly the opposite. It's clear from the descriptions given by administration officials that the program they're conducting is completely illegal. Congress has made any electronic surveillance outside of the wiretap act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) a felony. Really, the only mystery in this case is why it was done and whether or not our clients, people we've been communicating with, or even our lawyers, have been direct targets of the program.

Who are the parties, in addition to the president, that you are bringing these charges against?

The agencies that the media have reported are ones that NSA routinely shared information with -- Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and John Negroponte, who sits on top of the whole system and certainly sees a lot of the information and reports to the president about it. It's a felony to use or disclose any information knowing that it has been garnered outside of either FISA or the wiretap act.

What is your specific legal claim against those involved in the warrantless wiretaps?

Essentially, there are two claims. One is that the program violates the statutes that Congress has provided -- a subset of this is that it violates the separation of powers, and that the president is acting in a way that ignores the role that has been assigned to Congress and courts in deciding on individual wiretaps under the statutes. The second is the Fourth Amendment. These are essentially unreasonable searches because they're carried out without any judicial oversight.

Both the CCR and the American Civil Liberties Union's (ACLU) complaints cite violation of the First Amendment. Can you explain how this comes into play?

Our claim is that we are inhibited from forming attorney-client relationships, from doing our jobs as attorneys, and from carrying out the political role that our nonprofit litigation occupies in our political system. This surveillance program is hanging over our heads, our clients' heads, the witnesses we communicate with, and the other human rights' lawyers overseas that we communicate with. Under the First Amendment we have a significant role to play in the political system as part of our freedom of expression to be able to bring these kinds of cases. It is our First Amendment right to do political advocacy through litigation, and the National Security Agency's (NSA) program interferes with our rights as lawyers to do these things.

How do you expect that the defense will come at you?

They'll probably say that we don't know that our conversations were eavesdropped upon. That's basically accurate. Nobody knows that their conversations were eavesdropped upon because it's a secret surveillance program. Our complaint lays out that we represent a lot of individuals who are targets of the governments' war on terror in terms of its detention and interrogation policies. For instance, we represent Guantanamo detainees, people who were swept up in immigration sweeps right after 9/11 and deported after being abused in custody. All of these people are people the government suspects of some sort of linkage to al Qaida. We believe this means that our communications with them, and witnesses in their cases, are exactly the kind of communications that the government has said it's going to be listening in on under this program.

What are you seeking as relief?

Our complaint asks for an end to the program, disclosure of which conversations of ours have been eavesdropped upon, turning over that information to us, and then destruction of those records in the hands of both the NSA and all the other agencies that we believe they've shared the information with.

Do you think this is a strong case?

I feel very confident about the fact that we have standing in this case. As a lawyer here, I know that the existence of this sort of surveillance program makes it difficult to do my work. I think it will be very easy to convince a court of that. At the end of the day, it does require a certain amount of courage for a court to stick its nose into a program that the administration is so vociferously defending as essential to national security even when the facts appear as strong as those we have right now. It's going to require a courageous judge.

You think that the biggest challenge is going to be for courts to be courageous?

Yes, to basically do what the law says. It's obviously a challenge for the administration; I hope it's not going to be a challenge for the federal court as well. But, in our post-9/11 docket, we've had four years of very difficult litigation over a number of things that we would have characterized as the most basic due process rights. I don't expect this to be any different.

Do you think that the AUMF authorizes the wiretaps?

Not only do I not believe it, I don't think the administration officials believe it either. In the first press briefing on the program, in December of 2005, the attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, said the administration thought about asking Congress for approval of changes to the FISA statute to make this kind of program legal, but they didn't because they thought Congress wouldn't grant it. It's completely disingenuous to say that Congress implicitly approved this program while also saying that they thought, if asked for explicit approval, Congress would have rejected it.

What is the administration's justification for the wiretaps aside from the AUMF?

The one really amazing one the president started implied in the SOTU was that, prior to the attacks of Sept. 11th, our government failed to connect the dots because we didn't have these wiretaps. He was referring to two guys who were in San Diego -- Khalid al Midhar and Nawaf al-Hamzi. They were in the United States, and the NSA knew this in 2000 because they had a legal wiretap on an al Qaida safe house in Yemen. But Gen. Hayden, who was head of the NSA at that time, said that they never bothered to provide that information to the FBI or to other law enforcement agencies because they didn't realize its significance. It was a failure to communicate between intelligence and law enforcement agencies that caused them to not catch the San Diego hijackers -- not that wiretapping laws were too strict. It's so appalling that Bush and some of the other administration officials have made that the centerpiece of their defense because it's absurd.

Are there precedents for this kind of wiretapping?

One of the things the administration says over and over again is that there are historical precedents for presidents doing this sort of wiretapping. But all the cases they cite are before FISA was passed in October 1978. FISA was intended to ensure that Congress would have a word in any type of wiretapping that took place. That was in reaction to the excesses of the Nixon administration. This was all documented in the Church Committee reports on domestic surveillance. One of the concerns the Church Committee had was that wiretapping was going to be used against political opponents of the administration. That's a real concern. We think to some extent that we fit into that category because our post 9/11 cases are proving very embarrassing to the government. Individuals they hilighted as being big figures in the war on terror turned out to be nobodies. But beyond that, there are law enforcement policy reasons why one would hope that a judge always has a role in checking off on wiretap orders.

Why is legal oversight of wiretapping so important?

Judicial oversight ensures that law enforcement is going to focus its attentions on real threats, so judicial oversight makes law enforcement more efficient. The New York Times story that came out the day we filed our case is a great example of that. It documents how the NSA dumps huge loads of phone numbers and leads on the FBI. Those agents would have to go investigate a thousand phone numbers, and none of them have any link to anything. Yet they have to spend a huge amount of resources on it. Historically, this is actually typical. Even the Church Committee said that there was a lot of waste and duplication when intelligence was gathered without any supervision from a court.

Do you believe that Congress intended to authorize things like wiretapping through the Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF)?

Congress tweaked the FISA in December of 2001, a few months after the AUMF was passed. Before, you had to go to a court within 24 hours of putting a wiretap order in place. They extended it to 72 hours. If they thought they had given the president carte blanche to carry out all sorts of domestic wiretapping just because they had approved the use of military force in Afghanistan, then they never would have bothered doing that. James Risen noted in his new book State of War that 10 to 20 percent of all FISA wiretap orders now are based on evidence that's been collected illegally through the NSA program. Any criminal prosecutions that are based on the evidence that comes out of this are going to be tainted by the illegality of this NSA program. This is going to be huge blow to the law enforcement efforts against international drug dealers and whoever else is involved in all those contaminated wiretap orders. Those convictions could be overturned if it's found that they're based on the fruits of the illegal NSA program.

Why do you think the administration went around FISA?

That's one of big mysteries. The basic justifications that they have made -- the thing about speed and the idea that Congress authorized it -- are clearly disingenuous. This administration, in general, is interested in reversing what Vice President Cheney has referred to as the erosions of presidential power that occurred in the Watergate era. The administration has a lot of ideologically minded people who believe that the presidency is not strong enough as an institution, and that it needs to have more power than Congress and the courts. This program is an attempt to say, We don't need Congressional approval, and we don't need to go to a judge every time we want to listen in on someone's conversation.

It is obvious why organizations like yours, the ACLU, are pursuing legal actions. But, some Americans might ask what motivation the administration would have in spying on them. Why is this an important issue for all Americans?

Americans tend to have this confidence that there is something about our political culture that prevents us from descending into the kind of state that East Germany was before the wall fell. The reality is that there's only the law preventing us from turning into that kind of total surveillance society. It's not just listening in one or two of your calls. You have to think of what it was like for those people in East Germany -- a country of 16 million people. The goal of the government was to have a file on every single citizen of East Germany. They had 90,000 full-time employees in a country of 16 million. 10,000 people employed just to transcribe telephone calls that were being eavesdropped upon.

There's also this ominous sort of thing looming out there, which is that a lot of seemingly lawful wiretap orders under the wiretap act or FISA may be contaminated by information that came from this NSA program. This may lead to a huge number of overturned convictions. That's something that ought to concern people regardless of who they voted for.

Sticking Up for the Big Guys

Page through a recent copy of the New York Times or Washington Post, and you're likely to find quite a few articles on the unethical goings-on of lobbyist Jack Abramoff. But the great irony is that those articles are often sandwiched between misleading ads funded by an even more brazenly corrupt lobbyist who has evaded the law for decades.

One of these full-page ads proffers something called "the new union label." The graphic features a "closed" sign hanging over a padlocked fence. "Brought to you by the union 'leaders' who helped bankrupt steel, auto, and airline companies." In the bottom right corner is the website "UnionFacts.com," with the slogan, "The facts they don't want you to know."

If you missed the quarter-million-dollar ad campaign, perhaps you caught the giant, inflatable dinosaur installed outside AFL-CIO headquarters, with picketers sporting signs: "AFL-CIO: Colossal Fossil," "Smart Union Leaders: Extinct?" and "Labor Leaders: Dis-organized."

Who is behind the campaign? It's actually nearly impossible to tell who's behind the Center for Union Facts. While you can read extensively about the nonpartisan, educational motives of the site, what appears only once on the site, buried in a press release is Richard Berman's name. Yet it is Berman, the Washington lobbyist for the tobacco, restaurant and beverage industries, who is behind the high-visibility campaign.

A former labor law director for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Berman served as vice president of the restaurant chain Steak and Ale as well as the Pillsbury Restaurant Group before founding his own lobbying group, Berman & Co.

Berman's work on behalf of his clients -- among them Monsanto, Coca-Cola, Tyson Foods, Philip Morris and Hooters -- includes opposing the Americans with Disabilities Act and arguing against increases in federal minimum wage. Berman also helped defeat legislation that proposed a lower blood-alcohol threshold to qualify as drunken driving (In response to the MADD campaign, Berman said, "I don't believe that having a glass of anything makes it unsafe to go behind the wheel.") And his clients? Monsanto, Coca-Cola, Tyson Foods, Philip Morris, Outback Steakhouse, Hooters, Red Lobster, just to name a few.

Berman is talented enough that he can apparently serve as both an industry lobbyist and "consumer advocate," protecting our rights to ingest whatever those industries send our way.

But the AFL-CIO labor union believes UnionFacts.com is in fact a front group designed to stealthily aid business groups. AFL-CIO spokeswoman Esmerelda Aguilar sent AlterNet a document stating in part:

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More on Executive Order 13292

Peek has the scoop on where Cheney's alleged powers to declassify came from. Executive order 13292 gives VP Cheney similar classification powers as the President. Evan writes, "The Order essentially takes extant Executive Orders regarding classified material and the declassification thereof and replaces 'and the Vice President too!' wherever it says 'president.'"

However, it may be that, in President Bush's haste to let Cheney in on his favorite pastime -- the secret-ification of everything -- Bush may have overlooked the importance of commensurate de-classification privileges. LiberalOasis points out that,

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