Archive for December 17th, 2006

Showdown looms over domestic spying

SAN FRANCISCO – Federal agents continue to eavesdrop on Americans’ electronic communications without warrants a year after President Bush confirmed the practice, and experts say a new Congress’ efforts to limit the program could trigger a constitutional showdown.

High-ranking Democrats set to take control of both chambers are mulling ways to curb the program Bush secretly authorized a month after the Sept. 11 attacks. The White House argues the Constitution gives the president wartime powers to eavesdrop that he wouldn’t have during times of peace.

“As a practical matter, the president can do whatever he wants as long as he has the capacity and executive branch officials to do it,” said Carl Tobias, a legal scholar at the University of Richmond in Virginia.

Lawmakers could impeach or withhold funding, or quash judicial nominations, among other measures.

The president, however, can veto legislation, including a law demanding the National Security Agency obtain warrants before monitoring communications. Such a veto would force Congress to muster a two-thirds vote to override.

“He could take the position he doesn’t have to comply with whatever a new Congress says,” said Vikram Amar, a law professor at the University of California, Hastings, and a former Supreme Court clerk.

Douglas Kmiec, a former Justice Department official under former presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush, speculated the younger Bush would assert executive authority to continue eavesdropping in the face of new legislation — perhaps leaving the Supreme Court as the final arbiter.

“He has as much a constitutional obligation to assert himself, just as much as Congress does,” Kmiec said. “We do need an arbitrator, an interpreter. That’s what the courts, the third branch of government, was intended to be.”

On Dec. 17, 2005, Bush publicly acknowledged for the first time he had authorized the NSA to monitor, without approval from a judge, phone calls and e-mails that come into or originate in the U.S. and involve people the government suspects of having terrorist links.

Bush said he had no intention of halting what he called a “vital tool” in the war on terror.

When the Republican-controlled Congress adjourned last week, it left the spying program unchecked.

The next move falls to the Democrats who take control in January and are considering a proposal to demands Bush get warrants and others lengthening the time between surveillance and when a warrant must be obtained.

A spokesman for Sen. Harry Reid (news, bio, voting record), the incoming Senate majority leader from Nevada, said the eavesdropping issue “is something he expects to tackle early next year.”

“He doesn’t believe in giving the president a blank check to listen to the phone conversations of millions of Americans,” spokesman Jim Manley said.

Jennifer Crider, a spokeswoman for Nancy Pelosi, the San Francisco Democrat who will become House speaker, said eavesdropping legislation was under consideration and hearings on the topic were likely early next year.

Decisions are pending in dozens of lawsuits challenging the program.

The Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the highest court squarely confronted with the issue so far, is to hear the American Civil Liberties Union’s challenge Jan. 31. One stop short of the Supreme Court, the appeals court will review a Detroit judge’s ruling that the program was unconstitutional.

The case is American Civil Liberties Union v. National Security Agency, 06-2095.


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U.S. soldiers lead Iraq children in obscene chant

American troops lead a group of Iraqi children in a profane chant, as seen in a video viewed by RAW STORY.

In the brief, undated video at the site liveleak.com, a U.S. soldier appears atop a military vehicle as another mills about, directing the children to shout, “F*ck Iraq.” The youngsters, though smiling, do not seem to understand what it is they are saying.

The soldiers have a laugh, presumably at the childrens’ expense, with one at the end heard saying with a chuckle, “Oh God, that was so wrong.”

Morbid humor has long been a tradition among soldiers in combat zones, and the Iraq war has been no exception. Recently a video of an American G.I. taunting an Iraqi boy with a bottle of water made the rounds of the Internet, reportedly leading to a Pentagon investigation.

Warning: The link contains profanity.

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Blair Makes Surprise Visit to Iraq

More Than Two Dozen Kidnapped by Gunmen in Iraqi Army Uniforms

BAGHDAD, Dec. 17 — British Prime Minister Tony Blair arrived in Baghdad Sunday on an unannounced visit and said his country’s troops will remain in Iraq “until the job is done,” while gunmen in Iraqi army uniforms burst into Red Crescent offices and kidnapped more than two dozen people at the humanitarian organization.

“British troops will remain until the job is done and that job is building up the Iraqi capability,” Blair said, echoing similar statements from President Bush about American troops.

Blair made his comments to reporters after emerging from a one-hour meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

When asked about his defense minister’s statement a few weeks ago that most British troops will be pulled out by next year, Blair said: “It has always been our strategy . . . with Saddam [Hussein] removed to have a political process that is democratic and to have our forces in support of that Democratic process, but as the Iraqi capability grows, then to stand our forces down.

“This is not a change in our policy. This is our policy,” Blair said.

Blair told reporters that he and Maliki had discussed the need for national reconciliation and building up Iraq’s security forces to fight the increasingly violent sectarian fighting that is killing scores of civilians every day. Sunday was the second day of a two-day national reconciliation conference in Baghdad intended to unite ethic, religious and political groups behind a strategy to end the deadly sectarian fighting.

“We stand ready to support you in every way that we can so that in time the Iraq government and the Iraqi people can take full responsibility for their affairs,” Blair said at the news conference, Reuters news service reported.

“Most of all I reiterated our determination to stand full square behind you and the Iraqi people in assuring that your democracy is not destroyed by terrorism, sectarianism, by those who wish to live in hatred rather than in peace,” he said.
Blair, who is traveling in the Middle East to push for Israeli-Palestinian peace, flew to Baghdad by a Royal Air Force transport plane from Cairo, the Associated Press reported. The British prime minister was whisked into the heavily fortified Green Zone from the airport on a military helicopter. It was his sixth trip to Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

Britain has some 7,000 troops in Iraq, most based around Basra in the south — the largest commitment of any country after the United States. More than 120 British personnel have died in the country since the 2003 invasion, the AP reported.

In the latest sign of Iraq’s growing violent chaos, gunmen in five pickup trucks on Sunday pulled up at the office of the Iraqi Red Crescent in downtown Baghdad and kidnapped 25 employees and three security guards from an adjacent building, police said, according to wire service and CNN reports. The kidnappers took only the men.

The Red Crescent, which is part of the international Red Cross movement, has about 1,000 staff and 200,000 volunteers in Iraq. It works with the International Committee of the Red Cross, which visits detainees and tries to provide food, water and medicine to Iraqis.

“We don’t know who they are. We don’t know why they did this,” said Antonella Notari, a Red Cross spokeswoman in Geneva, the AP reported. She also said the Iraqi Interior Ministry denied any involvement and had assured that it was searching for the people who were kidnapped.

Mazin Abdellaha, the secretary-general of the Iraqi Red Crescent, appealed to the kidnappers to release the captives. “They represent a humanitarian agency that works for the general good, and this agency helps all people regardless of their sect or ethnicity,” Abdellaha said, according to the AP.


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Stubborn or Stalwart, Bush Is Loath to Budge

In the late 19th century, the queen of England sent the president of the United States a desk made from the timbers of a decommissioned ship, the HMS Resolute. Almost every occupant of the White House since then has made the Resolute his desk. Perhaps more than most, President Bush has taken its name to heart.

But now, as Bush rethinks his strategy in Iraq and approaches one of the most fateful moments of his presidency, he confronts difficult questions: At what point does determination to a cause become self-defeating folly? Can he change direction in a meaningful way without sacrificing principle?

For Bush, this is a tension that goes to the heart of his political identity and governing style. He captured and retained the presidency in part by portraying two successive Democratic opponents as finger-in-the-wind politicians without a core set of beliefs. The notion of bending to critics or even popular will cuts against his grain. Yet it is also true that at key moments in his career, Bush has been willing to abandon his position and shift gears dramatically.

No position has been more central to Bush’s leadership than his decision to invade Iraq in 2003 and his unyielding defense of his conduct of the war ever since. But he went out of his way last week to give the appearance of a man genuinely seeking new ideas as he shuffled between the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon’s ultra-secure “tank,” and then delayed making a decision while he and his team debated the options.

“I think George W. Bush is a totally pragmatic politician,” said former senator Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.), a member of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, which recommended a new course. “He’s going to do outreach. . . . He is a total realist. He knows that the solid, march-in-step Republicans, at least in the House, are gone. . . . Now his legacy depends on the national interest, not partisanship.”

Others don’t buy it. On its Web site last week, the Democratic National Committee said Bush could be “the most stubborn man on Earth” for not immediately embracing the study group’s plan. Critics predicted that any new strategy he announces after the holidays will be little more than a dressed-up version of “stay the course.” And a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 66 percent of Americans do not think Bush is willing to change his policies in Iraq.

“I just don’t believe that this president, with this vice president whispering in his ear every moment, is oriented to change,” said retired Col. Larry Wilkerson, who was chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell in Bush’s first term. “And even if he were, I don’t believe his administration is capable of implementing change.”

Lawrence J. Korb, a former Pentagon official under President Ronald Reagan, agreed. “When it comes to Iraq, he has basically confused stubbornness with steadfastness,” said Korb, who is now at the liberal Center for American Progress. “I think he believes that regardless of what other people say, if he simply stays the course, he’ll be eventually proved right. But what he fails to see is the current course isn’t working and he has options.”

The perception of Bush as unusually stubborn has defined his tenure to some extent, much to the consternation of adversaries and sometimes even allies. But Bush was deeply influenced by the fate of his father, whose decision to break his no-new-taxes pledge as president helped doom his reelection. The lesson: Stick to decisions regardless of shifts in political winds.

The seemingly unshakeable confidence in the rightness of his positions has helped the current president weather political storms that might overwhelm others. For a man who presides over an unpopular war, just lost Congress and faces a final two years with constrained options, Bush gives little sign of self-pity. At holiday parties for friends and family in recent days, he has found himself bucking up others depressed by the turn in his political fortunes. “Don’t worry, it’s not as bad as it looks,” he told one friend visiting the White House. “There’s a lot we can get done.”

The friend, who shared the private moments on the condition of anonymity, was struck by how upbeat Bush seemed. “But he’s not a fool,” the friend added. “He knows how bad all this is, trust me. There is some resignation that this is where he finds himself. I know he’s got a lot of second thoughts about how he got there. Anybody would.”

Bush decided a long time ago that expressing second thoughts publicly would be seen as a sign of weakness, according to some close to him. “I’m oftentimes asked about, ‘Well, you’re stubborn,’ and all this,” Bush told a group of conservative journalists in September. “If you believe in a strategy, in Washington, D.C., you’ve got to stick to that strategy, see? People want you to change. It’s tactics that shift, but the strategic vision has not, and will not, shift.”

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