York Dispatch: Real ID "intrusive — and obnoxious"

Yesterday the York Dispatch became the latest Pennsylvania newspaper to editorialize against the Real ID Act.

…possibly the most intrusive federal mandate ever…

The national ID initiative as it exists codifies a mob reaction to terror — “security is all” — reminiscent of that used by dictatorial and other repressive regimes for political and population control since the mid 19th century.

It has no place in a nation where the ideals of expanding individual freedom are held to be paramount. The battle has to be joined in Washington to repeal this curb on our liberties.

It is a fight none of us can afford to lose.

The Dispatch follows fast on the heels of the Philadelphia Inquirer, which made its statement on January 17.

Andy in Harrisburg

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FISA update

A lot has happened this week with FISA, and while those of us at the ACLU of PA have been busy traveling back and forth across the country (for me, that meant from Harrisburg to Allentown this morning but for the rest of the staff, that meant to Los Angeles and back), we haven’t had a chance to give the full update. Maybe you’ve been following it in your local fishwrap, but unfortunately, some papers have not been giving this issue the focus it deserves. Ah, what the hay, it’s only a fundamental shift in government intrusion into our private lives that’s at stake.

On Monday, the Senate Republicans made a motion to invoke cloture, i.e. end the debate. That motion failed and one Republican voted against- Senator Arlen Specter. In one breath, I cheer Senator Specter, and in the next, I scold him (which, frankly, is par for the course with ol’ Arlen). Specter has proposed that the government be substituted as the defendant in civil cases against telecom companies for participating in the illegal surveillance, and in his floor speech on Monday, he stated that he would support telecom amnesty if his proposal fails.

Then yesterday Congress passed a 15-day extension of the Police America Act to allow Congress more time to finish the bill.

I’ve pimped Daily Kos a bit on this issue the last week or so, and deservedly so, but as usual, the best and most extensive writer on these Safe & Free issues is Glenn Greenwald of Salon.com (rated “#1 Blogger” by the Official Andy-in-Harrisburg Blogger Scorecard). You can catch him on this issue here, here, and here.

With all the focus on the travesty of telecom amnesty, it has been easy to forget just how Draconian the Protect America Act really is, how radical are the warrantless eavesdropping powers it vested in the President. In essence, that bill allowed the Government to eavesdrop on every single international telephone call made or received by an American with no restrictions or judicial oversight whatsoever, and further empowered the Government to read every international email sent or received by an American with no restrictions or judicial oversight.

Senator Russ Feingold (rated “#1 Senator” by the Official Andy-in-Harrisburg Senatorial Scorecard) talked with a group of bloggers about how the Police America Act breaks down the wall of privacy for him and his daughter when she sends him an email from England.

Andy in Harrisburg

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The man with the tin ear

It doesn’t take a PHD in political science to figure out why the Democrats have been kicked around by the Republicans all these years. On Friday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid reminded us why the Democrats are the Washington Generals to the Republicans’ Harlem Globetrotters (not that you would ever catch a Republican in Harlem). In reference to the ongoing work on FISA and warrantless surveillance and the attempt to get a temporary extension of the Police America Act, a six month law passed in August, Reid said:

The president has to make a decision. He’s either going to extend the law, or he will…which is temporary in nature, or there will be no wiretapping. (emphasis added)

*Sigh* What should we do with these people? If the Police America Act expires on Friday, there will be wiretapping. Under FISA, the NSA can conduct surveillance with warrants from the FISA court, a court that has been so friendly to the government since its creation that it’s been called “a rubber stamp.” If the surveillance is urgent, it can begin and the agency can go back to the court three days later for approval.

The only problem with FISA is a technical issue. Calls between foreign agents can be routed through the United States while neither party is actually in the U.S., a technical advancement that could not be foreseen in the 1970s. Very few people had any problem with fixing the law to allow warrantless surveillance of those types of calls. But the Bush thugs took advantage of that issue to push for more power, including warrantless surveillance of people in the U.S. and amnesty for telecommunications companies that conspired with the Bush crowd to break the law.

By saying “there will be no wiretapping,” Tin Ear Harry- while trying to sound tough- has played right into the hands of those who would eviscerate our Constitution, specifically the Fourth Amendment. He’s agreeing with their framing of the issue that without this law “there will be no wiretapping,” which is factually incorrect.

It’s only Monday, and I already have a headache.

Updated, 11:10am EST: Daily Kos has an update on the status of today’s cloture vote.

Andy in Harrisburg

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Let Mom get happy!

A friend of mine is struggling with a tough choice. His mother, in her 80s, is dying. She has cancer and the tumors have reached her brain. She is deteriorating. Her concept of linear time has gone out the window. She thinks it’s day when it’s night. She’ll put a pot on a hot stove and forget about it.

My friend’s mother is a non-believer. She is sure no after-life awaits her. So she is scared. Terribly scared. The anti-anxiety medication she has been taking is no longer working. When he was visiting his mother recently, my friend went to her doctor and asked for, as he put it, “a happy pill” that would help her forget that soon, terribly soon, she will be leaving this world.

The doctor prescribed morphine, a really big bottle of it. But his mother has been asking for something else, a drug with fewer side effects, one that doesn’t involve needles, one that will let her appreciate her remaining moments without sending her into a stupor. She’s asked her son to score her some marijuana.

My friend lives in a state in the Northeast. His mother lives in one of those states in the Northwest that has taken the position that maybe if medical marijuana might help dying cancer patients, than who are we to judge and prosecute? And really, don’t we have better things to worry about than suffering old ladies toking a little bit of pot? But even in such enlightened states, getting access to medical marijuana can be difficult.

And my friend is on this side of the country. And his mother is on the other. He will be returning west soon, but because of our draconian federal drug laws, delivering marijuana across state lines remains a pretty serious crime.

But his mother is scared. What does he do? What would you do?

The ACLU’s position on the medical necessity defense for medical marijuana is this:

Medical marijuana is the only hope that some seriously ill patients have for relieving chronic pain, intractable nausea and the other side effects of chemotherapy, radiation treatment, and HIV/AIDS medications. Yet the Drug Enforcement Agency continues to prosecute sick people under federal law.

Even in the 11 states where medical marijuana is legal under state law, patients may have their assets seized, their medical marijuana destroyed, face massive fines and be imprisoned by federal courts. Federal prosecutors and judges often bar juries from hearing testimony about patients’ medical need for marijuana and instead present these patients as run-of-the-mill drug users.

Here’s a video of the Asylum Street Spankers that brilliantly illustrates the insanity of this nation’s War on Drugs.

Lauri in York

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Lies and the lying liars who tell them

It’s easy to get distracted these days by campaign news and the plight of the economy. But last night the Senate started debate on the future of FISA, the power to conduct surveillance without a warrant, and extending amnesty to telecom companies that broke the law. (Funny how some folks can get so riled up over what they call “amnesty” for brown people, but you don’t hear a peep from them over true amnesty for mega corporations. What part of illegal don’t they understand?)

Daily Kos has been all over the issue with posts here, here, here, here, and here. And national ACLU posted the “Greatest Unsung Hits of the FISA Debate“. Here’s a sample of the Daily Kos coverage.

Let’s look at the lies that the Bush administration is using to manipulate Congress into voting for another ill-conceived and shameful policy.

There was, of course, the initial lie. That domestic spying was limited to “people with known links to al Qaeda and related terrorist organizations.” Then we learned the truth: that the net cast was much wider, covering millions of American phone calls. Then there was the lie that the FISA wasn’t flexible enough. The truth, of course, was that spying could take place without a warrant for 72 hours. And then there was the lie that, gosh, darn, there was just too much paperwork to fill out with each FISA application. Even though the truth was that Bush administration was able to fill out over 113 of those applications since 9/11 (the total applications in the FISA court’s 23 year history? 46.) Then there was the lie that the government could have prevented the 9/11 attacks had it not had to ask the FISA court for a wiretap. But the truth was that the failure to tap Moussaoui was a result of a clumsy FBI, and not a paralyzed DOJ. Then there was the lie that this domestic spying program was necessary in the wake of 9/11, but the truth is that the Bush administration approached the telecoms as early as February 21, 2001.

The most repulsive lie, however, is that telecoms who aided the administration in turning this nation’s massive spying apparatus on its own citizens were just “doing their patriotic duty.”

National’s action “FISA Flood” is available here.

Andy in Harrisburg

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Roe v. Wade: Celebrating 35 Years and Counting…

Today we honor the 35th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, but we hope that the commemoration continues throughout the year. The Duvall Project will take its show on the road today as we travel to Muhlenberg College to celebrate.

Now, some antis and even advocates might find it twisted to use the term “celebrate” when referring to the anniversary of legalizing abortions. However, it is only fitting to utilize such ecstatic verbiage as this anniversary marks “not only 35 years of reproductive freedom, but 35 years of impressive gains in the fight for women’s equality.”

All across the United States today, protestors will be getting their boxers and panties in an uproar talking about the need to “stop the baby-killing.” Meanwhile, abortion rates are at their lowest since 1976. According to the Guttmacher Institute, the total number of abortions among women ages 15 to 44 declined from 1.3 million in 2000 to 1.2 million in 2005, an 8 percent drop that continued a trend that began in 1990, when the number of abortions peaked at more than 1.6 million, the survey found. The last time the number of abortions was that low was 1976, when slightly fewer than 1.2 million abortions were performed.

All we can do is speculate as to why the rates have declined, but I would like to point out that the “sharp fall came despite a comparatively tiny decline in the number of abortion providers.” While researchers at Guttmacher cannot identify the causes, the pro-choice community would like to contribute the change to the following factors: the widespread use of RU-486 (the abortion pill), the availability of emergency contraception over-the-counter, increasing use of comprehensive sexuality education programs in public schools, and an increasing number of young women and men using contraception to prevent pregnancy.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, the pregnancy rate among U.S. women aged 15–19 has declined steadily from 117 pregnancies per 1,000 women in 1990 to 75 per 1,000 women in 2002. While antis may naively attribute this triumph to widespread abstinence among teenagers, Guttmacher researchers found that only 14% of the decline in teen pregnancy between 1995 and 2002 was due to teens’ delaying sex or having sex less often, while 86% was due to an increase in sexually experienced teens’ contraceptive use.

While this might sound super, we still have a lot of work to do. Despite the decline in teenage pregnancies, the United States continues to have one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the developed world. We also have an access problem: While abortion may be legal it is out of reach for most as the majority of women aged 15 to 44, live in the 87 percent of U.S. counties without an abortion provider. Finally, it may come as no surprise to most that we are the only nation in the world that uses federal monies for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs.

In light of both our triumphs and our challenges, we celebrate the 35th anniversary of Roe v. Wade and vow to not take for granted this immensely important court decision. While we have come so far, we must not forget what life was like before Roe v. Wade, and to be sure to make the connection between gender equality and reproductive rights. In celebrating, we must remember why this decision is important and how we can carry on in the fight towards reproductive freedom.

Stephanie, Duvall Project

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Let’s hear it for our homeboy

Tom Ridge, the first secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, makes it clear – waterboarding is torture. On Friday, the former soldier told members of the American Bar Association at a homeland security conference that there is no doubt in his mind.

In an interview with the Associated Press, he said

One of America’s greatest strengths is the soft power of our value system and how we treat prisoners of war, and we don’t torture. And I believe, unlike others in the administration, that waterboarding was, is — and will always be — torture. That’s a simple statement.

Ed Brayton over at Dispatches from the Culture Wars offers some interesting insight into Ridge’s use of the phrase “soft power.”

In 2005, Ridge quit the homeland security job created in the wake of Sept. 11. His remarks drew a clear line between his position and those of the current administration. On Thursday, the current Homeland Security secretary, Michael Chertoff, refused to say what he thinks of the interrogation technique.

Lauri in York

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This just in: First Amendment still applies to PA farmers

Here’s an item that may or may not have caught your attention. It didn’t seem to get all that much press outside of the agricultural community, despite the significant impact it would have had on dairy farmers’ free speech rights.

In October, Dept. of Agriculture Sec. Dennis Wolff announced that Pennsylvania dairy farmers who do not inject their cows with artificial growth hormones, often referred to as rBST, would no longer be able to point out that fact to their customers on their product labels. (The synthetic hormones are said to boost milk production by about 10 percent, and were approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1994. They are banned in Canada and Europe.)

Referred to as “absence labeling,” Pennsylvania was the first state in the country to ban the practice. In his most sincerely paternalistic way, Wolff argued that there’s no difference between milk from cows injected with rBST and those that aren’t, so all those fancy big words just confuse customers.

See, Wolff explained, he’s just looking out for you and me. He doesn’t want us moms trying to choose milk for our children to get all muddle-headed with choices in the grocery aisles.

Following outcry from small farmers and consumer rights’ activists, yesterday, Gov. Ed Rendell’s office announced that the Dept. of Agriculture was revoking its proposed ban, amid the creation of new labeling standards.

The Philadelphia Inquirer has the update. It’s not exactly a victory for free-speech rights, since this should have never been an issue in the first place.

The article says

Though labels are once again permitted to mention that hormones were not used, the standards require a disclaimer stating there is no difference in milk from cows injected with hormones and milk from cows that are not injected. Such disclaimers already are printed on many milk cartons.

Most scientists agree that it is almost impossible to detect the artificial hormone in milk. But there are other related issues that concern customers. Users of rBST are warned that the drug increases incidents of mastitis. Cows with mastitis must be treated with antibiotics. And here’s a nice tidbit, mastitis also increases the amount of puss in your milk. (Don’t know about you, but that fact alone is reason enough for me to support rBST-free labels.)

One doesn’t have to go back very far to find Monsanto’s tentacles intertwined in the process. The agri-business chemical giant and maker of Agent Orange is also the maker of rBST, marketed under the name Posilac.
For the past year, Monsanto has been lobbying state farming organizations to support labeling bans. And for good reason, according to this absolutely terrific report by Susan Erem for the Voice of Central Pennsylvania, Monsanto earns $64,000 per day just in Pennsylvania solely from the sale of Posilac.

The article is long, but it’s the best comprehensive account of the issue that I’ve seen written anywhere. If you’re interested in this issue, I encourage you to read it.

Pennsylvania is the fourth largest state producer of milk in the country. But the fight isn’t yet over. Monsanto has been bullying organic dairy farmers for years over the labeling issue. It appealed its case to the FDA, but was rejected. Other states, such as Ohio, New Jersey and Michigan, are now mulling over similar bans.

Quite simply, as long as the claims are not fraudulent, farmers who reject using rBST should be free to say what they want on their labels. And here’s an idea: Farmers who proudly use rBST are free to point out that fact on their labels too. That way, rather than allowing government to silence discourse, they can simply battle it out in the free market.

Lauri in York

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Sameh Khouzam free tomorrow?

We just found out that the Third Circuit Court of Appeals denied the government’s request for a stay of the release of Sameh Khouzam. Unless the government tries any other legal maneuvering, Sameh will walk out of York County Prison tomorrow a free man with protection from the Convention Against Torture.

There was quite a bit of media coverage, both national and in PA, on the decision last week. The best story I saw was in the New York Times, which included insight from academics on how this case will affect future cases.

Philip G. Schrag, a professor of law at Georgetown University and an expert on asylum issues, said the ruling was significant.

“The importance of this case,” he said, “lies in its rejection of the Bush administration’s claim that secret diplomatic assurances by a foreign government that it will not torture a person preclude judicial review.”

The American Civil Liberties Union, which represented Mr. Khouzam, echoed that view. And Marc D. Falkoff, assistant professor of law at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb and counsel for 16 Yemenis held at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, said the ruling could have sweeping implications for those detained at Guantánamo.

“It’s tremendously important,” Mr. Falkoff said. “It’s not a binding precedent outside the jurisdiction of the Third Circuit but the ruling has persuasive authority in any federal court and, without a doubt, it will be brought to the attention of any federal judge who has a case pending where a detainee or prisoner is challenging the government’s right to transfer him to a country where he might be tortured.”

Andy in Harrisburg

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