Monthly Archives: February 2011

U.S. courts, Iraq and the mass media

After reading my January posting (and you should read it here before reading this one) it is natural to ask the question, What can we do?

To think wisely about that I suggest we need to ask an earlier question: How is it possible that the U.S. could create conditions in Iraq which knowingly led to the deaths of thousands of Iraqi children – maintain those conditions for twelve years until 500,000 children had died – and publicly state that this will continue until the government of Iraq is overthrown – all without any major public outcry?

We are at the 50th anniversary of President Eisenhower’s famous farewell address to the nation, where he warned us of the undue influence of the military-industrial complex. In an earlier draft, he apparently included “congressional” as part of that complex … and with good reason. Without doubt, Congress, the military, and its allied industries all share some responsibility for this happening.

But aren’t U.S. courts supposed to be an independent check on Congress and the Executive?

On the courts

In 2004 lawyers on my behalf brought a law suit against the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). That’s the agency which fined me for my 1997 trip to Iraq. The fine gave me legal standing to challenge in court the U.S. economic sanctions on Iraq.

I learned a lot from this three-year experience in the courts, up to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Here is my short summary: If the U.S. Congress passes laws which lead to the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children in pursuing its foreign policy – and if the Executive carries out those laws as stipulated – then it is legal! At best, if not legal, there is no legal way to challenge the policy.

If this sounds exaggerated, I ask you to read about our most dramatic legal argument: We contended that a policy which knowingly causes the deaths of half-a-million Iraqi children constitutes genocide. The federal district judge ruled to dismiss our suit before we were allowed to present any evidence. The judge, in order to dismiss the case, had to accept that we could reasonably argue this was genocide.

But the judge found that Congress, in partially ratifying the Genocide Convention, “provided that the Convention creates no ‘substantive or procedural right enforceable by law by any party in any proceeding’”! Genocide was made by Congress, not legal, but beyond any U.S. legal remedies!

The treaty’s full name is the “Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.” What prevention or punishment of genocide is possible under these terms? It speaks to the difficulty of challenging U.S. policy in our courts (as does this extensive article, “The Charade of U.S. Ratification of Human Rights Treaties,” by Kenneth Roth).

On the media

But if turning to the courts for remedies of human-rights violations is difficult, there is an even greater barrier. It is public opinion – misinformed or not informed at all – by a mainstream media which is failing our democracy badly.

Frank Blethen is publisher of the Seattle Times. In 2009 he testified before a U.S. Senate committee saying: “The greatest danger to democracy is, and has always been, the ‘untold stories,’ whether due to disinvestment in journalism or corporate-office intimidation ….” I wrote to Mr. Blethen that I could not agree more.

However, in that letter to him I described how badly the Seattle Times failed to report on a major story about the deaths of 500,000 children in Iraq. It took six months for that statistic to make it into the news section of his paper, and then it was buried in the middle of a news article on another subject.

I feel embarrassed to have to point out to Frank Blethen how his own paper has contributed to “the greatest danger to democracy … the ‘untold stories’” by so badly failing to report on a story of national and international import: the number of children who were dying in Iraq … and why they were dying.

Imagine if we knew what the Iraqis knew: they lost their electricity, safe water, good health care, and plenty of food when, in 1991, the U.S. bombed their civilian infrastructure and used economic sanctions to try to overthrow their leader. Would we then have believed Dick Cheney’s promise that American soldiers would be greeted with open arms and flowers by Iraqis when we invaded in 2003? In fact, if we knew what we had done, would we have considered the Iraq invasion a good idea?

It is no consolation at all to report on how poorly virtually all of the U.S. mass media failed to cover this story. I once asked Dan Rather of CBS Nightly News how this could have happened. He had no answer. Over the 15 years that I have been trying to get the Seattle Times to tell these ‘untold stories’ about Iraq, my last email to Mike Fancher executive editor at the time, from June 24, 2004, still has gone unacknowledged. As has my letter to Frank Blethen from January 24, 2011.

What are we to do?

Next month I’ll share my thoughts, with an emphasis on what nonviolence might teach us.

In the meantime, those who would like to take some action could begin this way: write or email Mr. Blethen a respectful letter. Follow the hyperlinks here and include the most compelling facts you’d like to raise (or perhaps your own). Remember, be courteous and factual. And also remember that it becomes harder for everyone to admit errors and change when confronted with angry words.

Mr. Blethen’s mail address is Publisher of the Seattle Times, P. O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111, USA. If you prefer to write an email, send it to and I’ll collect and deliver them to him.

Another very important action you can take is to turn off your TV, especially the mainstream news – and don’t rely solely on whatever mainstream newspaper you might read. Instead look to alternative media. For example, my favorite electronic media is Democracy Now! on KBC and streaming on my computer; my favorite print media is now fast becoming Real Change, Seattle’s great street paper.

One final comment and a preview of my thoughts on nonviolence.

I’d like to suggest that there’s a benefit to the person who really tries to practice nonviolence, whatever the ‘outcome’ is. On January 5th, the Seattle Times published a sympathetic op-ed by the conservative editorial writer Bruce Ramsey about the law suit against me. (Ironically, it’s the editorial pages of the paper – at least for a period around the year 2000 – which editorialized about the deaths of half-a-million Iraqi children, while the news section of the same paper was continuing to ignore the story.)

After the op-ed, the first of 52 comments began on the readers’ comment blog. I began to answer them.

Working to remain calm and factual is very good practice in nonviolence. Whatever happened ‘out there’ with other readers, it was an exercise that benefited me. Nonviolence entails speaking the truth, as best you understand it, while wishing well even for those whose views you are working to oppose.

Hard work sometimes!


In thinking or writing about Iraq, the pages Common Myths and References might be especially useful.

In answer to a common criticism that we must all obey all laws, no matter what the laws are, this is part of my answer: “150 years ago it was the highest law of the United States of America that runaway slaves from the South were legally ‘stolen property’ of their owners. Anywhere in this country, an American was breaking the law to help such a slave escape via the ‘underground railroad.’ The people I greatly admire from this terrible era in our history were not law-abiding citizens, but those who broke the law to help slaves. They risked legal penalties and personal danger out of a conviction that slavery was wrong, and that helping slaves to escape was their obligation. I have come to feel a similar obligation to the Iraqi people, especially the children, who suffer and die from sanctions.” Would we wish to obey the law in those circumstances and return a slave to his slave-owner … or would we not?


Senators send Majority Leader letter about transparency abuses


Last week was not the Senate’s best week when it comes to legislative transparency. First the Senate Government Operations Committee chose not to act on SB 5419 (legislative transparency) by the first cutoff despite the support of the State Auditor and Attorney General.

Then even lawmakers were kept in the dark about the bills being heard at public hearings. As we highlighted earlier last week, Sen. Honeyford (ranking member of the Senate Environment, Water and Energy Committee) ultimately walked out of Monday’s hearing after his complaints were ignored that the Committee was moving on substitutes and holding a public hearing without adequate notice for either the public or members.

As a result of this experience the minority members of that Committee sent a letter to Majority Leader Lisa Brown. From their letter:

“Between your Monday blog post asserting ‘legislators have embraced a politics of collaboration rather than of partisanship and division,’ and the scorn that has rightfully been directed toward the Legislature for recent and well-documented failures to be open and transparent, we members of the Senate Environment, Water and Energy Committee were surprised and disappointed by Monday’s committee proceedings.

The lack of consideration for the public and minority party was so prevalent that the ranking member left before the meeting ended, having had more than he could tolerate . . .

SB 5815 is the most egregious example, but not only because of the surprise public hearing and vote that followed immediately. Even though none of us or the general public knew the bill would be heard, two county officials were present to testify in support of the measure. How that happened we can only guess, but is suggests an unseemly sort of collusion that again shut the public out of the process . . .

We certainly had hoped this session would not bring more of the surprise public hearings, votes on ‘ghost’ bills and other tactics that prompted responses such as Senate Bill 5419, which would mandate specific notice and waiting periods before legislative action. However, the EWE committee’s proceedings were not only reminiscent of what we saw in 2009 and 2010 but also did not represent, as your Monday blog put it, ‘working honestly together.'”

Though the letter was sent on Tuesday, according to Sen. Honeyford, no response from Sen. Brown has been received yet.

We sent Majority Leader Brown a letter last year documenting our concerns with legislative transparency abuses. No response was ever sent.

As he did during Monday’s hearing, Sen. Honeyford on Thursday night objected to holding a public hearing on a bill that was not added to the Ways and Means Committee agenda until an hour after the hearing started. The Chair ultimately decided to postpone the hearing until Friday morning since the bill wasn’t on the agenda when the Committee waived the five day notice requirement. Here is a short video of that exchange:

(Click here for video)

Do the honorable members of the Senate truly believe the routine waiving of the five-day notice requirement for public hearings and adding bills for public debate on the same day is what passes for an open and transparent public process?

Are there at least 25 Senators willing to bring SB 5419 (legislative transparency) to the Senate floor for amendment and consideration before the March 7 cutoff?


Jason Mercier is the director of the Center for Government Reform at the Washington Policy Center. He serves on the Executive Committee of the American Legislative Exchange Council’s Tax and Fiscal Policy Task Force and is the private sector chairman of ALEC’s Fiscal Federalism Working Group. He is a contributing editor of the Heartland Institute’s Budget & Tax News, serves on the board of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, and was an advisor to the 2002 Washington State Tax Structure Committee. In June 2010, Governor Gregoire appointed Jason as WPC’s representative on her Fiscal Responsibility and Reform Panel. Jason holds a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Washington State University.

Regulatory flaws, repeated violations at Tesoro and other refineries put workers at risk

One evening last April at the Tesoro Corp.’s refinery in Anacortes, Washington, Matt Gumbel and six co-workers cautiously returned to service a stack of giant, radiator-like tubes filled with volatile hydrocarbons. The tubes, known as heat exchangers, tended to leak, especially during start-up, and workers sometimes armed themselves with long, steam-spewing lances to keep any escaping vapors from igniting.

Nearby, another stack of exchangers droned at full temperature and pressure.

Not long after midnight, as the crew monitored the equipment being brought back online, welds on one of the exchangers running a few feet away suddenly blew, engulfing the seven workers in a fireball of naphtha, a mixture of liquid hydrocarbons. The inferno melted aluminum up to 100 feet away. Four of the workers died instantly, three later.

Events like the April 2 Tesoro explosion, as well as many harrowingly close calls, occur more often at the nation’s 148 refineries than is widely known. While public and government attention focuses on singularly catastrophic events, such as the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, problems quietly fester at the factories that refine the nation’s fuels — labyrinthine complexes full of hazardous chemicals that are plagued by often-preventable accidents, putting workers at risk and endangering nearby communities.

Documents reviewed by the Center for Public Integrity, along with interviews of top safety officials and refining industry insiders, confirm an array of contributing factors ranging from haphazard enforcement to resistance from a politically influential industry. An easily manipulated regulatory system allows companies to challenge citations for years and postpone mandated fixes. Despite calls for change, some refineries still run equipment to failure rather than maintaining it.

 “We have a problem with the refinery industry,” said Rafael Moure-Eraso, chairman of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, an independent government agency whose investigations of refinery accidents have uncovered a pattern of safety lapses.



Read the full special report here…

How I passed my U.S. citizenship test: By keeping the right answers to myself



ProPublica senior reporter Dafna Linzer at her swearing-in ceremony. (Photo courtesy of Abigail Gellman). This ProPublica story was co-published [1] with Slate.

Last month, I became an American citizen, a tremendous honor and no easy accomplishment, even for a Canadian. After living here for 12 years, I thought I knew everything. Then I learned how we mint Americans [2].

After years of steep filing fees and paperwork (including one letter from Homeland Security claiming that my fingerprints had “expired”), it all came down to a test. I passed, and, my fellow Americans, you could, too — if you don’t mind providing answers that you know are wrong.

Friends told me I didn’t need to study, the questions weren’t that hard. But I wanted to and so for months I lugged around a set of government-issued flashcards [3], hoping to master the test. I pestered my family and friends to quiz me. Sometimes I quizzed my sources. I learned things (there are 27 amendments to the Constitution) and they learned things (there are 27 amendments to the Constitution). But then we began noticing errors in a number of the questions and answers.

Take Question 36. It asks applicants to name two members of the president’s Cabinet. Among the correct answers is “Vice President.” The vice president is a cabinet-level officer but he’s not a Cabinet member. Cabinet members are unelected heads of executive departments [4], such as the Defense Department, or the State Department.

The official naturalization test booklet even hints as much: “The president may appoint other government officials to the cabinet but no elected official may serve on the cabinet while in office.” Note to Homeland Security: The vice president is elected.

Still, a wonderful press officer in the New York immigration office noted that the White House’s own website [5] lists the vice president as a member of the Cabinet. It’s still wrong, I explained. I told her that my partner wrote an entire book about the vice president and won a Pulitzer Prize [6] for the stories. I was pretty sure about this one. A parade of constitutional scholars backed me up.

In fact, the Constitution aligns the vice president more closely with the legislative branch as president of the Senate. Not until well into the 20th century did the vice president even attend Cabinet meetings.

Then there is Question 12: What is the “rule of law”?

I showed it to lawyers and law professors. They were stumped.

There are four acceptable answers: “Everyone must follow the law”; “Leaders must obey the law”; “Government must obey the law”; “No one is above the law.”

Judge Richard Posner, the constitutional scholar who serves on the U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago, was unhappy. “These are all incorrect,” he wrote me. “The rule of law means that judges decide cases ‘without respect of persons,’ that is, without considering the social status, attractiveness, etc. of the parties or their lawyers.”

So, where do these questions come from?

The 160 newly minted Americans at the swearing-in ceremony on Jan. 28. (Photo courtesy of Abigail Gellman)

The 160 newly minted Americans at the swearing-in ceremony on Jan. 28. (Photo courtesy of Abigail Gellman)

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services [7], a department within Homeland Security, spent six years consulting scholars, educators, and historians before the current test was introduced in 2008. The result: 100 questions and answers designed to provide an in-depth treatment of U.S. history and government.

“The goal of the naturalization test is to ensure America’s newest citizens have mastered a basic knowledge of U.S. history and have a solid foundation to continue to expand their understanding as they embark on life as U.S. citizens,” said Christopher Bentley, a spokesman for USCIS.

During the citizenship interview, applicants are asked a randomly selected 10 questions from the test and must answer six correctly. In addition to the questions, there is a reading and writing test for English proficiency.

My immigration lawyer accompanied me to my interview. In the security line, I told her I was bothered by Question 16: Who makes the federal laws?

Each of the three possible answers, it seemed, was incomplete. The official answers were: “Congress”; “Senate and House (of representatives)”; “(U.S. or national) legislature.” I’m not a lawyer but even Canadians watched Schoolhouse Rock [8]. Where, I wondered, was the president, whose signature is what makes a bill into a law?

My lawyer sighed, she agreed. But: “If you get asked that question, just give the official answer,” she said. I didn’t get that question.

I also wasn’t asked Question 1: “What is the supreme law of the land?”

The official answer: “the Constitution.” A friend and legal scholar was aghast. That answer, he said, is “no more than one-third correct.” He’s right.

Article VI, clause 2 in the Constitution, known as the Supremacy Clause [9], explicitly says that three things — the Constitution, federal laws, and treaties — together “shall be the supreme law of the land.”

Question 96 asks: Why does the flag have 13 stripes? The official answer: “because there were 13 original colonies.” In fact, the flag has 13 stripes for the 13 original states.

Many of the test questions, organized under topics such as “system of government,” “geography,” and “American history” are correct and informative. Since I’m a reporter, one tugged at my heart.

Question 55 asks: What are two ways that Americans can participate in their democracy? Among the correct answers: “write to a newspaper.”

At my interview, I was asked questions on presidential succession, the Cabinet, Senate terms, and the Supreme Court. I was asked to name a branch of government. (I went with the executive.)

I was asked Question 8: What did the Declaration of Independence do?

Heeding my lawyer’s advice, I went with the official answer: “declared our independence.”

I answered six consecutive questions correctly and moved on to the language section of the exam. Native English speakers are not exempt from this section and I was asked to read aloud the following sentence: “Columbus Day is in October.”

I was then asked to write a sentence in English. Remarkably, it was the same sentence: “Columbus Day is in October.”

Next, I reaffirmed answers I had given on my citizenship application [10].

Was I a member of the Communist Party? Was I member of a totalitarian party? Am I a terrorist? Although I was born in 1970, I was asked: Between March 23, 1933 and May 8, 1945, did I work for or associate in any way with the Nazi government of Germany? Had I worked at a concentration camp?

The officer who interviewed me, Sandy Saint Louis, had to ask me the questions. But she didn’t even look up or wait for my responses. She checked off “No” after each one.

She did pay attention when she asked whether I was a habitual drunkard, a polygamist, a drug-smuggler, a felon, a tax-evader.

My paperwork was in order, my background check was complete. When the interview was over, Saint Louis pressed a large wooden seal into a red ink pad and stamped “approved” across my application. A wave of relief washed over me and my lawyer shot me a sweet smile. Ten days later, when I returned for the swearing-in, a brief and final questionnaire asked if I had engaged in prostitution since the interview. I checked “No.”

On Friday, Jan. 28, accompanied by my family, I was among 160 citizens-in-waiting who filed into a 3rd floor auditorium in lower Manhattan to be sworn in as Americans. On our seats were an American flag, a copy of the Constitution, a booklet featuring the stories of prominent naturalized Americans, and a welcome letter from President Obama.

Reading the letter, I began to cry. I had spent more than one-quarter of my life hoping to become American, and I was suddenly overwhelmed by the honor and the significance of the moment. The place I have called home for 12 years was finally claiming me as well.

I looked around the room and saw other fortunate souls with long journeys now behind them, quietly weeping with joy.

An immigration official asked us all to stand, and to remain standing, when the name of our country of origin was called out. After he read through the names of 44 countries, we were all standing, waving our flags.

Together, we took the Oath of Allegiance and were then seated as citizens of one nation.

Everyone in the room that day had scored a perfect 100 percent on the test and, for fun, an official decided to test us all once more. Who wrote “The Star Spangled Banner”? he asked. Only a few called out “Francis Scott Key,” perhaps because that question is no longer on the test. It was prominently removed four years ago. [11]

The video message from President Barack Obama showed at every swearing-in ceremony. (Photo courtesy of Abigail Gellman)

The video message from President Barack Obama showed at every swearing-in ceremony. (Photo courtesy of Abigail Gellman)

A newly sworn-in citizen led us in the Pledge of Allegiance. We sang the national anthem and then watched a video message [12] from the president shown at every swearing-in ceremony across the country.

“It’s an honor and a privilege to call you a fellow citizen of the United States of America,” Obama told us. “This is now officially your country.”

There were more tears. At the end of the hour, we received certificates of naturalization and were given instructions on how to obtain U.S. passports.

My family and I left soon afterward. It was 10:30 a.m. and cold outside. We took the subway uptown. Three children got off at three different stops, headed to their schools or the library. We took the youngest up to his school. He walked in clutching his American flag and announced proudly to his teachers that “Mommy is American.”

At a party that evening, I displayed the letter from Obama and laid out the flashcards. Over Sam Adams beer and mini-burgers, I spoke about the ceremony and test. The host led us all in the Pledge of Allegiance, my second of the day. Looking around the room, I realized that a significant number of my friends are journalists, writers, academics, and lawyers. It’s a nitpicky crowd and during three hours of celebration they noticed additional errors in the questions.

At the end of the night, one of the catering staff gathered up the flash cards and as she held them out to me, she revealed that next month she too will take her citizenship test. I was thrilled. I closed my first day as an American citizen by handing them over to her. “Which ones did you say were wrong again?” she asked. “Just give the official answer,” I said, “and you’ll do fine.”

You can follow Dafna at @dafnalinzer [13].

Why don’t Seattle cops live in Seattle?

After we posted our map of where Seattle cops live, we got several emails from SPD officers, explaining why they choose to live outside of the city. Here’s one:

On the surface the quick answer is I would love to live in the city. 

 The whole idea of living in the big city has always been a draw to me, especially living in a city that is on first glance a really safe for most people. (more)





Why DO Seattle cops live in Seattle?


5 reasons microfinance is in crisis — and why it matters

The popular anti-poverty scheme of providing small loans and other financial services to poor people, generally known as microfinance, is in crisis.

“In one sense, you could say it’s a coming of age,” says Alex Counts, CEO at the Grameen Foundation, a leading non-profit microfinance organization with offices in Seattle and Washington D.C.. “Controversy often comes along with growing in size and impact.”

You could also say microfinance is actually suffering from several different crises: An external appearance of a crisis based on a damaged public image; a related, but slightly different, internal “identity crisis” and, at least according to one leading observer, a cash crisis in reverse — too much money.

Here are five reasons for the crisis:

  1. Microfinance has grown rapidly, from a simple anti-poverty program into a major player in the financial industry.
  2. Some now view microfinance primarily as an investment opportunity, with reducing poverty as either a secondary goal or not really the goal at all. (more)
Yunus watch: Microfinance pioneer further piled on

What will it mean if microfinance pioneer Yunus is ousted?

Two views on George Clooney, statesman

Treasury’s inability to raise debt limit could cause problems

The debt limit, which is the ceiling on Treasury’s ability to pay obligations already incurred, could be reached as early as April.

The debt limit does not control the federal government’s ability to run a deficit or incur obligations, but reflects previously enacted tax and spending policies. If Congress delays raising the debt limit, it will create problems for Treasury.

In the past, Treasury had taken drastic measures to avoid reaching the debt limit, like suspending investments or temporarily divesting securities in federal employee retirement funds, but these actions are not keeping pace with the government’s borrowing needs. Treasury has also postponed the auctions of notes and dramatically reduced the amount of bill outstanding, which compromises the supply Treasury relies on to achieve the lowest borrowing rates over time.

Once the debt limit is reached and these extraordinary measures are exhausted, there could be disruptions in government programs and services, like Social Security beneficiaries not receiving their monthly checks.



Murder of sailors leaves unanswered questions

As boaters in the Northwest reeled at the news that two of their own were among the four American sailors murdered by pirates off the coast of Somalia this week, many were asking a question that may never be answered.

Why, they wonder, did the 58-foot sailboat Quest separate from a flotilla of boats traveling together and sail alone through some of the most dangerous waters in the world?

The decision tragically sealed the fate of California couple Scott and Jean Adam, Quest’s owners, and their two crew members, Seattle sailors Phyllis Macay and Bob Riggle. All four were shot to death Tuesday, four days after 19 pirates boarded their vessel between the northern tip of Somalia and the island of Socotra.


Nicolette Jahnke at Pogacha of Issaquah

UNICEF issues latest report on the state of the world’s children

Today, UNICEF launched its flagship publication The State of the World’s Children Report.

This year’s report, entitled Adolescence – An Age of Opportunity, focuses on the 1.2 billion young people around the world from ages 10 to 19.

In the most recent addition to the ‘Beyond School Books’ podcast series, UNICEF Radio podcast moderator Amy Costello talked with two adolescents who have contributed essays to The State of the World’s Children 2011 Report on how education can empower young people to realize their full potential and contribute to shaping the future of their nations.

To listen to the podcast, please visit: