Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Torturers’ Manifesto

To read the four newly released memos on prisoner interrogation written by George W. Bush’s Justice Department is to take a journey into depravity.

Their language is the precise bureaucratese favored by dungeon masters throughout history. They detail how to fashion a collar for slamming a prisoner against a wall, exactly how many days he can be kept without sleep (11), and what, specifically, he should be told before being locked in a box with an insect - all to stop just short of having a jury decide that these acts violate the laws against torture and abusive treatment of prisoners.

In one of the more nauseating passages, Jay Bybee, then an assistant attorney general and now a federal judge, wrote admiringly about a contraption for waterboarding that would lurch a prisoner upright if he stopped breathing while water was poured over his face. He praised the Central Intelligence Agency for having doctors ready to perform an emergency tracheotomy if necessary.

These memos are not an honest attempt to set the legal limits on interrogations, which was the authors’ statutory obligation. They were written to provide legal immunity for acts that are clearly illegal, immoral and a violation of this country’s most basic values.

It sounds like the plot of a mob film, except the lawyers asking how much their clients can get away with are from the C.I.A. and the lawyers coaching them on how to commit the abuses are from the Justice Department. And it all played out with the blessing of the defense secretary, the attorney general, the intelligence director and, most likely, President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.

The Americans Civil Liberties Union deserves credit for suing for the memos’ release. And President Obama deserves credit for overruling his own C.I.A. director and ordering that the memos be made public. It is hard to think of another case in which documents stamped “Top Secret” were released with hardly any deletions.

But this cannot be the end of the scrutiny for these and other decisions by the Bush administration.

Until Americans and their leaders fully understand the rules the Bush administration concocted to justify such abuses - and who set the rules and who approved them - there is no hope of fixing a profoundly broken system of justice and ensuring that that these acts are never repeated.

The abuses and the dangers do not end with the torture memos. Americans still know far too little about President Bush’s decision to illegally eavesdrop on Americans - a program that has since been given legal cover by the Congress.

Last week, The Times reported that the nation’s intelligence agencies have been collecting private e-mail messages and phone calls of Americans on a scale that went beyond the broad limits established in legislation last year. The article quoted the Justice Department as saying there had been problems in the surveillance program that had been resolved. But Justice did not say what those problems were or what the resolution was.

That is the heart of the matter: nobody really knows what any of the rules were. Mr. Bush never offered the slightest explanation of what he found lacking in the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act when he decided to ignore the law after 9/11 and ordered the warrantless wiretapping of Americans’ overseas calls and e-mail. He said he was president and could do what he wanted.

The Bush administration also never explained how it interpreted laws that were later passed to expand the government’s powers to eavesdrop. And the Obama administration argued in a recent court filing that everything associated with electronic eavesdropping, including what is allowed and what is not, is a state secret.

We do not think Mr. Obama will violate Americans’ rights as Mr. Bush did. But if Americans do not know the rules, they cannot judge whether this government or any one that follows is abiding by the rules.

In the case of detainee abuse, Mr. Obama assured C.I.A. operatives that they would not be prosecuted for actions that their superiors told them were legal. We have never been comfortable with the “only following orders” excuse, especially because Americans still do not know what was actually done or who was giving the orders.

After all, as far as Mr. Bush’s lawyers were concerned, it was not really torture unless it involved breaking bones, burning flesh or pulling teeth. That, Mr. Bybee kept noting, was what the Libyan secret police did to one prisoner. The standard for American behavior should be a lot higher than that of the Libyan secret police.

At least Mr. Obama is not following Mr. Bush’s example of showy trials for the small fry - like Lynndie England of Abu Ghraib notoriety. But he has an obligation to pursue what is clear evidence of a government policy sanctioning the torture and abuse of prisoners - in violation of international law and the Constitution.

That investigation should start with the lawyers who wrote these sickening memos, including John Yoo, who now teaches law in California; Steven Bradbury, who was job-hunting when we last heard; and Mr. Bybee, who holds the lifetime seat on the federal appeals court that Mr. Bush rewarded him with.

These memos make it clear that Mr. Bybee is unfit for a job that requires legal judgment and a respect for the Constitution. Congress should impeach him. And if the administration will not conduct a thorough investigation of these issues, then Congress has a constitutional duty to hold the executive branch accountable. If that means putting Donald Rumsfeld and Alberto Gonzales on the stand, even Dick Cheney, we are sure Americans can handle it.

After eight years without transparency or accountability, Mr. Obama promised the American people both. His decision to release these memos was another sign of his commitment to transparency. We are waiting to see an equal commitment to accountability.

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/19/opinion/19sun1.html?th&emc=th

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

WHO Escalates to Phase 5 on Swine Flu Pandemic

The Geneva-based World Health Organization on Wednesday raised its alert level for the fast-spreading swine flu to its next-to-highest notch, signaling a global pandemic could be imminent.

The move came after the virus spread to at least 10 U.S. states from coast to coast and swept deeper into Europe.

"It really is all of humanity that is under threat during a pandemic," said WHO Director General Margaret Chan. "We do not have all the answers right now but we will get them."

In the United States, President Barack Obama mourned the first U.S. death, a Mexican toddler who had traveled with his family to Texas. Total American cases surged to nearly 100, and Obama said wider school closings might be necessary.

In Mexico, where the flu is believed to have originated, officials said Wednesday the disease is now confirmed or suspected in 159 deaths, and nearly 2,500 illnesses.

The WHO said the phase 5 alert means there is sustained human to human spread in at least two countries. It also signals that efforts to produce a vaccine will be ramped up.

Update from the WHO

29 April 2009 -- The situation continues to evolve rapidly. As of 18:00 GMT, 29 April 2009, nine countries have officially reported 148 cases of swine influenza A/H1N1 infection. The United States Government has reported 91 laboratory confirmed human cases, with one death. Mexico has reported 26 confirmed human cases of infection including seven deaths.

The following countries have reported laboratory confirmed cases with no deaths - Austria (1), Canada (13), Germany (3), Israel (2), New Zealand (3), Spain (4) and the United Kingdom (5).

Further information on the situation will be available on the WHO website on a regular basis.

WHO advises no restriction of regular travel or closure of borders. It is considered prudent for people who are ill to delay international travel and for people developing symptoms following international travel to seek medical attention, in line with guidance from national authorities.

There is also no risk of infection from this virus from consumption of well-cooked pork and pork products. Individuals are advised to wash hands thoroughly with soap and water on a regular basis and should seek medical attention if they develop any symptoms of influenza-like illness.

Epidemic Not Slowing Down

WHO says the swine flu epidemic shows no signs of slowing down.

The epidemic remains at Phase 4 but WHO is getting closer to declaring a Phase 5 pandemic.

http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20090429/ap_on_he_me/swine_flu_world

Monday, April 27, 2009

WHO Moves from Pandemic Phase 3 to Phase 4 on Swine Flu

The WHO has just raised the pandemic phase on the Swine Flu epidemic from Phase 3 to Phase 4. There are six phases or stages, followed by a post peak phase.

The WHO pandemic phase definitions are as follows:

In nature, influenza viruses circulate continuously among animals, especially birds. Even though such viruses might theoretically develop into pandemic viruses, in Phase 1 no viruses circulating among animals have been reported to cause infections in humans.

In Phase 2 an animal influenza virus circulating among domesticated or wild animals is known to have caused infection in humans, and is therefore considered a potential pandemic threat.

In Phase 3, an animal or human-animal influenza reassortant virus has caused sporadic cases or small clusters of disease in people, but has not resulted in human-to-human transmission sufficient to sustain community-level outbreaks. Limited human-to-human transmission may occur under some circumstances, for example, when there is close contact between an infected person and an unprotected caregiver. However, limited transmission under such restricted circumstances does not indicate that the virus has gained the level of transmissibility among humans necessary to cause a pandemic.

Phase 4 is characterized by verified human-to-human transmission of an animal or human-animal influenza reassortant virus able to cause “community-level outbreaks.” The ability to cause sustained disease outbreaks in a community marks a significant upwards shift in the risk for a pandemic. Any country that suspects or has verified such an event should urgently consult with WHO so that the situation can be jointly assessed and a decision made by the affected country if implementation of a rapid pandemic containment operation is warranted. Phase 4 indicates a significant increase in risk of a pandemic but does not necessarily mean that a pandemic is a forgone conclusion.

Phase 5 is characterized by human-to-human spread of the virus into at least two countries in one WHO region. While most countries will not be affected at this stage, the declaration of Phase 5 is a strong signal that a pandemic is imminent and that the time to finalize the organization, communication, and implementation of the planned mitigation measures is short.

Phase 6, the pandemic phase, is characterized by community level outbreaks in at least one other country in a different WHO region in addition to the criteria defined in Phase 5. Designation of this phase will indicate that a global pandemic is under way.

During the post-peak period, pandemic disease levels in most countries with adequate surveillance will have dropped below peak observed levels. The post-peak period signifies that pandemic activity appears to be decreasing; however, it is uncertain if additional waves will occur and countries will need to be prepared for a second wave.

Previous pandemics have been characterized by waves of activity spread over months. Once the level of disease activity drops, a critical communications task will be to balance this information with the possibility of another wave. Pandemic waves can be separated by months and an immediate “at-ease” signal may be premature.

In the post-pandemic period, influenza disease activity will have returned to levels normally seen for seasonal influenza. It is expected that the pandemic virus will behave as a seasonal influenza A virus. At this stage, it is important to maintain surveillance and update pandemic preparedness and response plans accordingly. An intensive phase of recovery and evaluation may be required.

Three Possible Cases of Swine Flu in Guatemala

The Ministry of Health announced three possible cases of swine flu in Guatemala.

Guatemalans are urged not to travel to Mexico where there are 103 confirmed deaths so far. The true number might be 147.

Avoid contact with people, avoid crowds, wash your hands often, don't touch your face, especially eyes, with unwashed hands.

See more detail and updates here:

http://maya-paradise.blogspot.com/

Swine Flu Tracking Maps

It's not clear how often these maps will be updated. So far they are being well maintained, but no promises:

Tracking Map

Another Tracking Map

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Salticidae vs. Odonate

Posted a new series of photos in Flickr showing a jumping spider killing a damselfly.

Jumping Spider Killing Damselfly - DSCF4410

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Americans or Cuban-Americans?

Some articles about President Obama's relaxed restriction on travel to Cuba say "Cuban-Americans", others say "Americans", others refer to both in the same article. Which is it?

And if it's Cuban-Americans only, I have another question: since when can the government discriminate between the rights of certain Americans versus other Americans? An American citizen is an American citizen, and it's illegal to discriminate between groups, whether along ethnic lines, race, color, religion, or any other parameter.

Why is this not mentioned in the news?

Sunday, April 12, 2009

U.S. Now Deporting Citizens

Pedro Guzman has been an American citizen all his life. Yet in 2007, the 31-year-old Los Angeles native — in jail for a misdemeanor, mentally ill and never able to read or write — signed a waiver agreeing to leave the country without a hearing and was deported to Mexico as an illegal immigrant.

"The more the system becomes confused, the more U.S. citizens will be wrongfully detained and wrongfully removed," said Bruce Einhorn, a retired immigration judge who now teaches at Pepperdine Law School. "They are the symptom of a larger problem in the detention system. ... Nothing could be more regrettable than the removal of our fellow citizens."

It's impossible to know exactly how many citizens have been detained or deported because nobody keeps track. Kara Hartzler, an attorney at the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project in Arizona, testified at a U.S. House hearing last year that her group alone sees 40 to 50 jailings a month of people with potentially valid claims to citizenship.

"These cases are surprisingly, painfully common," she said.

Read the full AP story here.

Friday, April 3, 2009

The U.S. is Going to Miss the Biggest Opportunity of the 21st Century

Electric vehicles are the wave of the future. Bio-diesel (algae, bacteria), and electric, and combinations of the two are where the future lies. But the U.S. is going to blow it.

For most of the 20th century, the U.S. was the world leader in car manufacturing. This is no longer the case and it looks like the mammoth dinosaurs that are called "Detroit" are so hidebound as to be unable to cope with the coming changes. Now it's looking like the whole thing is going to go bankrupt in the U.S.

But cars are not dead. In fact, there will be more car sales in the 21st century than in the 20th century as the billion people in China, and the billion people in India reach a level of income that enables them to have cars. The U.S. car industry could be there, ready for the market, but it won't be.

In order to change this, just about everything from the past must be dropped and new procedures put in place, from corporate governance down to the lowest position in the company. Design cycles must be vastly accelerated. It's no longer possible to spend five years taking a car from concept to production. In five years, all of the technology changes, and any product that passes through the standard Detroit design cycle will be obsolete before it hits the streets. Consider the Chevy Volt. How long have we been hearing about it? Years. And it's still years from introduction. That's ridiculous.

Will it get fixed? I doubt it. But there's a tremendous opportunity sitting there. The U.S. could again become the leading car maker in the world with the latest technology and best value. But I fear it will not happen. By the time things change in the U.S., if they change, market leadership will have already moved to Asia where the problem is understood and companies move much more quickly to adapt to technology and changing markets.

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/02/business/global/02electric.html?th&emc=th