Friday, November 30, 2007

November 29:

1947 : U.N. votes for partition of Palestine

Despite strong Arab opposition, the United Nations votes for the
partition of Palestine and the creation of an independent Jewish

The modern conflict between Jews and Arabs in Palestine dates back to
the 1910s, when both groups laid claim to the British-controlled
territory. The Jews were Zionists, recent emigrants from Europe and
Russia who came to the ancient homeland of the Jews to establish a
Jewish national state. The native Palestinian Arabs sought to stem
Jewish immigration and set up a secular Palestinian state.

Beginning in 1929, Arabs and Jews openly fought in Palestine, and
Britain attempted to limit Jewish immigration as a means of appeasing
the Arabs. As a result of the Holocaust in Europe, many Jews illegally
entered Palestine during World War II. Radical Jewish groups employed
terrorism against British forces in Palestine, which they thought had
betrayed the Zionist cause. At the end of World War II, in 1945, the
United States took up the Zionist cause. Britain, unable to find a
practical solution, referred the problem to the United Nations, which
on November 29, 1947, voted to partition Palestine.

The Jews were to possess more than half of Palestine, though they made
up less than half of Palestine's population. The Palestinian Arabs,
aided by volunteers from other countries, fought the Zionist forces,
but the Jews secured full control of their U.N.-allocated share of
Palestine and also some Arab territory. On May 14, 1948, Britain
withdrew with the expiration of its mandate, and the State of Israel
was proclaimed by Jewish Agency Chairman David Ben-Gurion. The next
day, forces from Egypt, Transjordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq invaded.

The Israelis, though less well equipped, managed to fight off the
Arabs and then seize key territories, such as Galilee, the Palestinian
coast, and a strip of territory connecting the coastal region to the
western section of Jerusalem. In 1949, U.N.-brokered cease-fires left
the State of Israel in permanent control of those conquered areas. The
departure of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs from Israel
during the war left the country with a substantial Jewish majority.

General Interest
1947 : U.N. votes for partition of Palestine

1929 : Byrd flies over South Pole

1950 : Chinese overwhelm Allies in North Korea

1963 : Johnson establishes Warren Commission


Karl Rove's Shameless, Remorseless, Soulless Attempt to Rewrite History

Arianna Huffington

Arianna Huffington

Karl Rove's Shameless, Remorseless, Soulless Attempt to Rewrite History

Posted November 28, 2007 | 12:50 PM (EST)

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I went on Countdown last night to talk about what Keith Olbermann called Karl Rove's "attack on history."

During an interview with Charlie Rose, the erstwhile Boy Genius pulled out his bucket of whitewash and audaciously claimed that "one of the untold stories" about the war in Iraq is that the Bush administration had been "opposed' to Congress holding the vote authorizing the president to use military force in Iraq just a few weeks prior to the 2002 elections because "we thought it made it too political."

Too political? For Karl Rove? That's like saying something was too bloody for Count Dracula.

He went on to paint a picture of a White House pushed into war, and laid the blame for much of what has happened since on a Congress that had "made things move too fast." If not for Congress, you see, there would have been more time for weapons inspections, and to build a broader coalition.

It was a satiric tour de force worthy of Jonathan Swift or Stephen Colbert -- but Rove wasn't joking. He actually expected us to buy his load of b.s. Watching Rove, two things were perfectly clear: his disdain for the truth and his contempt for the American people know no bounds.

Rove's appearance was the work of a shameless, remorseless, soulless political animal taking the first steps on what will no doubt be a high profile and lucrative march toward historical revisionism. He knows that he stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the fanatics responsible for the worst foreign policy disaster in American history -- not exactly the best thing to put on your post-government resume -- so he is hell-bent on replacing reality with the latest incarnation of The Big Lie.

A student of history, Rove is obviously also up on his Orwell: "Who controls the past, controls the future."

Unfortunately for Rove, this isn't 1984; we now live in the Age of Google, and YouTube, and Lexis-Nexis searches. So the refutation of his lies is just a click away.

The evidence that it was President Bush and Vice President Cheney -- and not Congress -- who were hungry for war is overwhelming. For starters, we have Bush's own words before the vote, when he explicitly told Congress that "it's in our national interest" to get the vote "done as quickly as possible." And the insistence of then-Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld that "delaying a vote in Congress would send the wrong message." And the words of then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle who says that when he asked Bush in September 2002 why there was such a rush for a vote on Iraq the president "looked at Cheney and he looked at me, and there was a half-smile on his face. And he said: 'We just have to do this now.'"

And there is the insider evidence provided by Richard Clarke, who wrote that within hours of the 9/11 attacks, this administration had its heart set on heading into Iraq. And from Paul O'Neill, who made it clear that invading Iraq had been Bush's goal before he had even learned where the Oval Office supply closet was.

Even now, with his approval ratings scraping the bottom of the historical barrel, Bush still dominates the Congressional agenda on the war. And Rove wants us to buy that back in the heady days of 2002, when the president was still riding a wave of support forged by 9/11, his desire for caution and reasoned action were overridden by a war hungry Congress? "We don't determine when the Congress votes on things," Rove told Rose. "The Congress does." I guess he and Bush landed on the whole "I'm the Decider" thing later (maybe after they orchestrated that triumphal landing on the Abraham Lincoln).

The truth is that the zealots in the White House were not about to allow their desires to invade Iraq -- which had been laid out years earlier by the Project for a New American Century -- be quashed by anything as piddling as the facts or the evidence or reasoned debate or Congress. Especially a Congress populated with Democratic leaders so rattled and timid that to call them spineless would be an insult to invertebrates everywhere.

Indeed, it was the perfect political environment for an administration intent on shoving a war down the throats of Congress and the American people.

Let's remember, this was the time when the administration had pulled together the White House Study Group (which included Rove himself) with the express mission of marketing the war. These people weren't in the mood to wait, they were in the mood to sell, sell, sell. The Downing Street Memo showed that by July of 2002 they were already fixing the intel to sell the war. By August 2002 the White House was already using Judy Miller and the New York Times as prime advertising space. And by September 2002, Condi Rice was already warning of smoking guns turning out to be mushroom clouds, and Cheney was using aluminum tubes to make the case that Saddam was "actively and aggressively seeking to acquire nuclear weapons."

So the record is irrefutable: the drumbeat of war coming from the White House couldn't have been louder. And no amount of 5-years-down the road spinning by Karl Rove is going to change that truth.

Exiled by Bigots' Edicts

By J. Sri Raman
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Wednesday 28 November 2007

A woman writer who won literary trophies in her twenties. An aged artist once known and loved for his bare-foot charm and innovative brush. Both are on the run today. And no force in the vast South Asian region, stretching from New Delhi to Dhaka, can help either return home in dignity.

Painfully dramatic events over the past week, involving the persecuted Bengali writer and reminding many of the banished painter, illustrate a major threat to peace in the subcontinent - inside and between its impoverished nations. Competing forces of bigotry, whose edicts have condemned both to cruel exiles, can coexist with each other, comfortably so. But they cannot coexist with enduring South Asian peace.

Forty-five-year-old writer Taslima Nasreen is being kicked around like a football for a week now within India, where she sought asylum 13 years ago. She has been living in Kolkata (once Calcutta), capital of the State of West Bengal, which shares a border and the Bengali language and culture with Bangladesh, despite a religious divide. In this city and State, known for its love of literature and arts, she has seemed happy and at home. Not any more. It now appears doubtful whether she can return to even her first place of exile and resume her life there for long.

Maqbool Fida Husain is more than twice Nasreen's age. The 92-year-old painter, among the best-known artists of India, was forced to flee abroad in 2006. He now divides his time between Dubai and London, telling every interviewer about how much he misses his Mumbai (formerly Bombay) and the country that inspired his canvases. He, too, however, has no realistic hope of returning home in the foreseeable future.

Nasreen's exile within an exile began on November 21. That was the day Kolkata, seat of a Left Front State government, surprised the whole country with a violent agitation demanding Nasreen's expulsion from West Bengal, if not her deportation from India. The Muslims of the city and the State, whom the agitators claimed to represent, had never raised this demand in all these years.

What made the event more intriguing was it came as an unexpected twist to a rally supposedly in solidarity with a struggle of farmers in Nandigram, a far-away village that had witnessed much violence earlier. The farmers were soon all forgotten, as agitators turned the city streets into a battlefield and would not relent until Nasreen's flight became known.

Starting as a physician in a government hospital in Dhaka, Nasreen acquired both fame and infamy as she turned increasingly to writing in the early nineties. It is for literary critics to judge the quality of her works. It was her courage of conviction, as a writer for women's rights at the risk of incurring the clerics' wrath, that won her instant recognition and increasing admiration besides opposition of a most obscurantist kind.

Her strong views on this subject inevitably made her a staunch opponent of politico-religious forces that stood for persecution of the minorities (including the Hindus and Ahmedia sect of Islam) in Bangladesh. In 1994, she came out with her best-known novel titled "Lajja (Shame),"' which brought out the sectarian backlash against the minorities following the demolition of the Babri mosque in India's Ayodhya by the far-right hordes.

This brave effort brought her honors abroad, including the Sakharov Freedom of Thought Award from the European Parliament. What followed in Bangladesh, however, was an official ban on the book. The slew of court cases launched against her soon forced her to flee the country with the government encouraging her self-exile.

Husain's troubles also began in the early nineties, which saw the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the political front of the far right, advancing towards power in New Delhi through the Ayodhya agitation. Interestingly, the anti-Husain campaign was initiated with a far-right journal abrupt re-publication of some of his portraits of a Hindu pantheon, dating back to the seventies, and assailing them as a crime against the majority community.

Husain was alleged to have offended "Hindu sensibilities" by painting some of the female deities in an "indecent" fashion. The far-right crusaders for "cultural nationalism" did not even seem to know of the similarly exquisite sculptures of the same deities in shrines where common Indians have worshiped down the centuries without any qualm.

A series of court cases hounded Husain too. When threats to his life made it even worse, Husain left India in 2006.

It is not only opponents of religious bigotry who see a parallel in the two cases of persecution. The tormentors of Nasreen actually cite the two cases together as evidence of even-handedness. Their repeated refrain is they had supported the cause of majority sectarianism in Husain's case and would like the courtesy to be reciprocated.

Some observers point to a certain subtle difference between the two cases. Husain's persecution was a punishment the majority meted out to an offender from a minority. Nasreen's torture, however, was an example of a minority community chastising one of its own. While the observation has a certain validity, it is not as if Husain has been a darling of the obscurantists of his own community.

He faced their ire when his experimental film titled "Meenaxi: A Tale of Three Cities" was released in 2004. Clerics took strong exception to one of the songs in the film on the grounds it reproduced words from the Quran and, therefore, amounted to a gross blasphemy. The film had to be pulled out of theaters after a day's showing.

The BJP has not agreed to back the bullying of Nasreen as a quid pro quo for the minority sectarians' support for Husain's banishment. It has, in fact, seized the opportunity to mount an offensive on the Left and the Manmohan Singh government. The episode, the far right claims, exposes the hypocrisy of its political foes and the skin-deep nature of their "secularism."

It is true that often, perhaps too often, parties and forces that claim to fight the BJP and the rest of the far right fail to do so frontally and betray a lack of firmness in the face of a rabble-rousing campaign by religious fundamentalists. This, however, does not make the BJP's allegedly pro-Nasreen agitprop anything but an extension of its anti-minority offensive, which includes demonization of Muslims and Islam as a whole.

The most outrageously funny part of the BJP campaign must be the pro-Nasreen perorations emanating from Narendra Modi. The BJP chief minister of the State of Gujarat, who presided over the anti-minority pogrom of 2002, has offered Nasreen unsolicited protection. He has invited her to seek asylum in Gujarat, if she cannot return to Kolkata. No one has asked him where the thousands of Muslims, who were forced to flee Gujarat and still cannot return home, will find their refuge.

Even as politics rages all around her, Nasreen is being shifted from place to place for "her own safety" as intelligence agencies continue to insist. And, even as his name is being bandied about in the debate over her, there is no word about anyone doing anything to ensure the return of nonagenarian Husain who has brought laurels to his nation as Nasreen did to hers.

A freelance journalist and a peace activist in India, J. Sri Raman is the author of "Flashpoint" (Common Courage Press, USA). He is a regular contributor to Truthout.


Military Progress Doesn't Make War More Popular

By Peter Baker
The Washington Post

Wednesday 28 November 2007

The debate at home over the Iraq war has shifted significantly in the two months since Gen. David H. Petraeus testified to Congress and President Bush ordered the first troop withdrawals, with more Americans now concluding that the situation on the ground is improving.

A new poll released yesterday underscored the changing political environment, finding the public more positive about the military effort in Iraq than at any point in 14 months as a surge of optimism follows the rapid decline in violence. Yet Bush remains as unpopular as ever in the survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, and the public remains just as committed to bringing U.S. troops home.

The evolving public attitudes reflect, or perhaps explain, a turn in Washington as well. While Bush and Congress are still fighting over the war, the debate has moved to the back burner as Iran, spending, health care, the economy and other issues generate more political energy. The focus of the presidential campaign, especially on the Democratic side, has broadened as well. Even antiwar groups that once denied that security has gotten better have recalibrated their arguments to focus on the failed efforts to reach political conciliation among Iraqi factions or the risk of war with Iran.

The shift has strategists in both parties reevaluating their assumptions about how the final year of the Bush presidency and the election to succeed him will play out. If current trends continue, Iraq may still be a defining issue but perhaps not the only one, as it once seemed, according to partisan strategists and independent analysts, particularly if the economy heads south as some economists fear.

"What this reinforces is that Iraq is not as much of a pressure point as it was through much of the year - which is not to say that it goes away as an issue," said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew center. "If Iraq were to either go away or have a much lower profile in the coming election, it would certainly be good for the Republicans and could be a transforming factor. But it's real important to get 'could be' in that sentence."

The Pew poll highlighted the dichotomy in public views. Nearly half of Americans, or 48 percent, believe that the military effort in Iraq is going well, up from 30 percent in February, and 43 percent agree that U.S. forces are making progress in defeating insurgents, also up from 30 percent. The last time Americans felt as positively about the military effort was in September 2006.

Still, the proportion of Americans who want to bring troops home has remained essentially unchanged at 54 percent, as has the share who think the effort in Iraq will ultimately fail, at 46 percent. Bush's job approval rating has actually slipped by three points to 30 percent. (The survey was based on a sample of 1,399 adults interviewed from Nov. 20 to 26 and has a three percentage point margin of sampling error.)

Antiwar groups dismissed the importance of the poll. "The bottom line is the bottom line, and that is that people want out," said former congressman Tom Andrews (D-Maine), national director of a coalition called Win Without War. "That hasn't changed and that isn't going to change."

Former congressman Vin Weber (R-Minn.), a war supporter and top adviser to former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney's presidential campaign, said it may be too late to change the public's mind when it comes to the fundamental issue. "The central question is not: Are we winning or losing?" he said. "The central question is: Was it worth it? And that was resolved a long time ago."

And yet, at least to an extent, the Washington debate has moved on. Congress made only a faint effort to pass legislation mandating a troop withdrawal as part of a $50 billion war spending bill this month and then quickly shelved it. Not counting the Turkish conflict with Kurdish rebels, Bush at his most recent news conference last month was not asked about the Iraq war until the 10th question. Not a single Iraq question came up at four of White House press secretary Dana Perino's seven full-fledged briefings this month.

Similarly, the Democratic presidential candidates who seemed to talk about little other than Iraq early in the year have spent more time quarreling about other issues lately. At their Oct. 30 debate in Philadelphia, the word "Iraq" was used 44 times, but the word "Iran" came up 69 times. Even Andrews's antiwar group plans to launch a new campaign, including television and print ads, focused on Iran, not Iraq. The message to Democrats, he said, will be: "If you can't act to stop the war in Iraq, can you a least act to stop a war in Iran?"

War supporters are adjusting strategy as well. Former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, who co-founded a group called Freedom's Watch to press Republicans to stick with Bush's war policy, sees an opening to expand the message. "The campaign we launched in August was really to make sure Republicans didn't defect," he said. "Now it's fair to say, because facts have changed on the ground, that we have the opportunity to bring back on board independents who had been lost."

While the Iraq debate has faded for the moment, it promises to resume as funding needs become an issue. In pushing their case to deny Bush further money for the war, opponents have dropped the argument that violence really has not fallen and point instead to the fact that the troop "surge" earlier this year has not yielded the political accord it was supposed to.

"The White House tends to focus on the military situation and ignore the political situation," said P.J. Crowley, a Clinton White House national security aide now at the Center for American Progress. "Remember, the surge is a tactic, and while a discrete tactic may be working better than expected, the overall strategic position has not fundamentally changed."

Even so, it has changed some political calculations. If the violence remains down, it may enable Petraeus when he returns to Washington in March to recommend pulling out more than the 30,000 troops now scheduled to leave by July. If so, the fall general election could be played out against the backdrop of troops coming home.

"Now everybody says they're for pulling out troops," said Christopher F. Gelpi, a Duke University scholar who has studied wartime public opinion. "The question is just how fast. That fuzzes the issue. If violence is still down, if the cost of the mission goes down, that makes it easier to stay there even if there's no progress."


Democrats Switch Tack, Seize on Economic Woes

By Jonathan E. Kaplan
The Hill

Wednesday 28 November 2007

Congressional Democrats will focus on the economy next week in an effort to win political advantage from public fears about an approaching recession.

This underscores the party leadership's concern to avoid getting bogged down in more debate about Iraq and to make sure it is President Bush and Republicans who are blamed in the 2008 election for voter anxieties about the economy.

House leaders have discussed holding an economic summit and are poised to bring a long-awaited energy bill to the House floor next week, Democratic aides said.

Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), a former White House aide, explained the party's thinking, saying, "The executive branch gets credit for a good economy and a bad economy. That's how it works."

The economy has been clouded in recent weeks by oil prices approaching $100 per barrel, inflating heating prices at the onset of winter. Housing prices keep falling and the sub-prime mortgage crisis is expected to get worse. The dollar is weak, at all-time lows against the euro, and the stock market has lost 10 percent of its value since October.

The political environment is no better. Legislative gridlock, a fixture in Washington during the early 1990s when Democrats controlled Congress and President Bush's father held the White House, has returned.

Bush and congressional Democrats have yet to strike a deal on the remaining appropriations bills. Democrats offered to split the difference with Bush on the cost of the appropriations bills, but agreement appears unlikely.

The House passed legislation to curb abusive lending practices and another bill to shield millions of taxpayers from the Alternative Minimum Tax.

The two chambers are also at odds over an emergency spending measure to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The House passed legislation last month requiring Bush to use the money to pay for withdrawal of troops from Iraq, but the bill died in the Senate. Bush would have vetoed the measure anyway.

Unable to change policy in Iraq, especially amid some signs of military progress there, Democratic polling shows that economic news offers the party a way to pivot its message.

Emanuel implicitly rejected the idea that the Democratic leadership was changing tack. "My view is we've got to keep working on the economy and sending the message that we're addressing problems, and that's been our message since day one," he said, referring to Democratic-passed bills addressing issues ranging from tax relief to the cost of college to energy prices.

Presidential candidates from both parties have been emphasizing the economy lately.

"The economy will be among the biggest issues of the campaign next year. It is will be essential for Democrats to have an ambitious economic agenda that is as big as the struggle the middle class is going through today," said Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democratic Network (NDN), a think tank.

In 2006, NDN-commissioned exit polling showed the economy was a bigger factor than Iraq in the Democratic takeover. Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg's recent findings echo that conclusion.

Republicans dismissed Democratic efforts to blame them for the economy's performance.

"They're making this up as they go along," Rep. Adam Putnam (Fla.), the Republican Conference chairman, said. "They will politicize whatever they perceive to be going badly."

While some polling shows voters are angry with Washington, Rep. Phil Hare (D-Ill.) sensed more "disappointment" than anger in three town hall meetings he held during the past 10 days.

"I heard a lot about healthcare, Iraq and the cost of putting kids through school," he said. "It was a pretty broad brush."

Anxious to amplify their legislative accomplishments amid dismal congressional approval ratings, 18 freshman Democrats have held at least one economy-related event in their districts this year, a Democratic leadership aide said.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) rallied Democrats in Florida, Texas and North Carolina last month. She spent Tuesday in Oregon touting Democratic legislation that created tax incentives to spur innovation and job creation. Bush signed the bill last summer.

California Democratic Reps. Jerry McNerney and Dennis Cardoza will hold a workshop next week for families facing foreclosures. Counselors from federal and state government agencies and nonprofit organizations will be available to offer advice.

In Ohio, Rep. Zack Space (D) trumpeted the help he gave 114 constituents to secure unclaimed tax refunds.

In Florida, Rep. Tim Mahoney (D) held a symposium on Tuesday for high school students and parents to discuss the 2007 College Cost Reduction and Access Act, which increased spending on student aid by $20 billion.

"There's a lot of nervousness even among people who have jobs," Hare said. "They're concerned about slowdowns and shutdowns."


Set in Steel: Prison Life Without Parole

By Maya Schenwar
t r u t h o u t | Special Report

Wednesday 28 November 2007

For federal prisoners, the prospect of early release expired in 1987. As prisons bulge and recidivism persists, why is the parole ban still in place?

In 1982, when George Martorano pled guilty to charges of marijuana possession and drug conspiracy, he was expecting ten years in prison, at most.

Today, after 24 years, Martorano holds the honor of longest-serving nonviolent first-time offender in the history of the United States. He's all too ready to forfeit that mark of distinction, but if his sentence plays out as issued, he'll be looking at several decades more: Martorano is serving a life sentence for three years of transporting and selling marijuana. Despite his spotless prison record - not to mention his suicide-prevention volunteer work, his yoga practice and the 20 books he's written while incarcerated - he has no hope of being released.

Martorano is just one of almost 200,000 inmates in federal prison, many of whom have no chance for early release, thanks to the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, which abolished parole at the federal level. The toughening of prison legislation over the past 20 years has also meant longer sentences for nonviolent offenders, combining with the parole ban to prompt a sharp increase in the federal prison population. As it stands, the beefed-up federal prison system costs taxpayers $40,000 per year for every inmate, and it costs inmates whole decades of their lives.

"We're being warehoused," Martorano said in a phone interview. "It's taken a million dollars just to keep me in."

Since the parole ban took effect, the federal prison population has more than quadrupled, according to Bureau of Justice statistics.

In the past few years, the sentencing system has been slowly changing in other ways. For example, the US Sentencing Commission recently shortened its recommended sentences for crack cocaine offenses, and Congress has shown signs that it will consider bills addressing the disparity between penalties for crack and powder cocaine. The Supreme Court is deliberating whether judges should be able to grant sentences that dip below established guidelines for sentence lengths.

However, Congress has taken no steps toward reversing course on federal parole. Although a bill to revive parole for federal prisoners has been introduced repeatedly in the House over the past few years, it has never made it to the floor for a vote. And an official at the US Sentencing Commission, who asked not to be identified, said he was not aware of any impetus that would bring back parole anytime soon.

As the prison population continues to explode, many influential voices in Congress and the public sphere are still touting a hardline philosophy when it comes to criminal justice, according to Representative Danny Davis (D-Illinois), who has sponsored the federal parole reinstatement bill for the last two Congresses.

"People don't want to be characterized as being 'soft on crime,'" Davis said in an interview. "They are still afraid that characterization will follow them. You would think that a country that is supposed to be as progressive as ours would've recognized that this approach is not working."

Toward Sentencing "Truth"

In the 1980s, when the movement to abolish parole swept across state sentencing systems and reached the federal government, "tough on crime" was the mantra of the day. The federal parole ban, part of a broad Sentencing Reform Act, which also lengthened and standardized prison sentences, passed in 1984 and was enacted in 1987. It represented one step in a movement toward "truth in sentencing": Abolishing parole was intended to ensure that judges - and the families of victims - would know how much time defendants would actually be serving.

"Truth in sentencing" eliminated the authority of a third party, the Parole Board, which could substantially alter a sentence after the judge was out of the picture. A paroled prisoner might serve as little as one-sixth of his or her sentence. After the ban, a prisoner could only earn "good time," a subtraction of no more than 54 days a year.

At the time it passed, the parole ban seemed something of a panacea: It fulfilled the goals of not only the "tough on crime" crowd, but also of a group of Democrats pushing for "fairness in sentencing." They hoped the abolition of parole, along with clarified guidelines for sentence lengths, would help to overcome the justice system's glaring racial disparities in sentences.

The act passed, garnering little attention. No public hearings were held before it was debated.

Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, who served on the US Sentencing Commission prior to his court appointment and, before that, participated in the shaping of the 1984 law, described the act as promoting "greater honesty in sentencing."

"Under previous law the Parole Commission determined (within broad limits) how much time an offender would actually serve," Breyer said in a speech at the University of Nebraska College of Law in 1998, of the thought process that went into the crafting of the legislation. "A judge might sentence an offender to 12 years, but the Parole Commission might release the offender after four. No one - not offender, judge or public - could say in advance what a 12-year sentence really meant."

Without parole, Breyer explained, he and the other crafters had hoped the sentencing system would be "transparent, more candid, than before."

However, when the new guidelines were enforced, some began to question whether the power to discriminate was simply being shifted from the Parole Commission to the prosecutors, according to Nora Callahan, executive director of the November Coalition, a nonprofit organization working for drug sentencing reform.

The prisoners getting the longest sentences, Callahan said, were not necessarily the ones who had committed the most egregious crimes. They were often the ones who didn't know much about judicial system, since they had less money, less education and less access to legal aid.

Take Danielle Metz, a nonviolent first offender and mother of two, who was sentenced to three life sentences plus 20 years for helping her husband distribute cocaine. She pled innocent despite evidence of her guilt. Later, she discovered her public defender was primarily a traffic lawyer.

"When you lack knowledge of the law, they can do whatever they want to you," Metz said in a phone interview. "No one explained to me what was going on until it was too late."

Soon, thousands of cases like Metz's were cropping up: nonviolent first offenders sentenced to life in prison, without a hope of early release.

Another such prisoner, David Correa, who was incarcerated 18 years ago for transporting 495 grams of powder cocaine, pointed to the way the strict-guideline sentencing system can still trip up defendants in court, depending on which aspects of their crimes are highlighted and which legal moves they choose.

"Because I really had nothing to offer the prosecutor, because I took my case to trial, because in order for me to take a plea deal I had to say I was guilty of gun charges that I never had, and because I had to give names that I didn't have either, I am now doing a life sentence," Correa wrote in a letter to me.

Parole Forgotten

Once the parole ban was in place, though, it did not budge. Most people - outside of prisoners and their families - had no idea it had happened, noted parole activist John Flahive, who was first clued in when he accidentally received a wrong-number call from a prisoner: George Martorano.

The two began chatting on a regular basis, and Flahive began to lobby in Washington to bring back parole.

"As I got more involved, I found out there were thousands like Georgie," Flahive said, noting that about 60 percent of federal inmates are currently incarcerated for nonviolent crimes.

In 2002, the first bill to revive parole, introduced by Rep. Patsy Mink, made its way to the House - and died in committee when Mink died of chicken pox and pneumonia. Since then, Davis has proposed the bill twice. Both times, it died in the Judiciary Committee, then headed by Rep. James Sensenbrenner, who has consistently voted to toughen sentences, maintain the death penalty and reduce opportunities for appeals.

With a Democratic majority now in Congress, parole advocates hope for a victory sometime soon. However, a restoration of parole in the near future would be surprising, according to Mark Bransky of the Federal Parole Board, which remains in operation for prisoners sentenced prior to 1987, some of whom are still eligible for parole.

"Things tend to go in cycles, so I'm not sure," Bransky said. "But for now, there doesn't seem to be much unhappiness in Congress with the new system."

Jeralyn Merritt, a Denver criminal defense attorney and drug law analyst, concurred, adding that lobbying for an increase in "good time" might be the only route for earlier release.

"Federal parole won't be instated as long as we have these guidelines," Merritt said. "They're not looking at changing these guidelines."

However, unlike in the Reagan era, the parole ban is not riding on the wave of "tough on crime" fever. Public sentiment has softened to a certain extent, and, according to Callahan, most of the liberal advocates of parole abolition have long since changed their stance.

In a 2003 Dan Jones survey in Utah, widely held to be the most conservative state in the nation, almost two-thirds of respondents favored the return of parole - once they were informed it had been banned.

"It's something a lot of people don't think about until it personally touches them," Davis said.

Parole may not be a highly contentious issue; it's just an invisible one.

No More Carrots

Despite lawmakers' original rationale of the parole ban as a "tough on crime" measure, it has hit the lives of nonviolent offenders much harder than it has hit crime, according to Callahan. Although prisoners now do more time, she said, without a tangible motivation to "do good," they may actually be less likely to change their ways.

"In 1987, all the incentives for corrections to work in a rehabilitative way were taken away," Callahan said. "This affects violent crime, because so many people are getting out with nothing but bitterness."

According to FBI statistics, violent crime increased steadily in the five years after the parole ban was established.

Callahan also links prisoners' decreased motivation to rehabilitate to recidivism.

One element of the logic behind the parole ban was "many prisoners released on parole were committing new crimes," Bransky said.

Yet ex-prisoners were significantly more likely to be rearrested in 1994 than in 1983, according to the Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Since 1987, the atmosphere within prison walls has changed, too, according to Martorano, who has witnessed life in multiple federal prisons firsthand since the parole ban kicked in.

"The institutions were much less violent [before 1987], because there was a light," he said. "If you've got ten life sentences, with no chance of parole, there's no carrot."

Lack of parole also makes life tougher for prison guards, according to Alan J. Williams, a former prisoner who is now chair of the Delaware branch of the advocacy organization, Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants, Federal Prison Chapter (FedCURE). Without the incentive of getting out on good behavior, there's no substantive reason to treat guards well. Additionally, no chance of early release breeds anger toward the prison system, which often takes the form of violence, according to Williams.

Williams also pointed to the frustration-provoking divide between prisoners sentenced prior to 1987, many of whom still eligible for parole, and prisoners sentenced after the ban kicked in - a rift that triggers fights among inmates.

"We've been going about this the wrong way, emphasizing incarceration rather than rehabilitation," Davis said. "We're not reducing crime or recidivism. Since that's not the case, why do we continue to follow a flawed policy?"

Parole and Electoral Reality

Although some '80s-style tough-on-crime Congress members remain, the persistence of the parole ban may have less to do with hard-line philosophy and more to do with political priorities, according to Callahan. Between federal prisoners, ex-federal prisoners and their families and friends, millions of Americans are seriously impacted by federal prison policy. However, those millions are, by in large, not policymakers.

"The 'war on crime' is just as insidious as the war in Iraq," Callahan said. "But a war like this is different from an Iraq War. The middle class doesn't see this war."

Not many prisoner advocates were surprised the last two bills to revive federal parole never made it out of committee. Sensenbrenner chaired the Judiciary Committee, which was also stocked with such stalwarts as Randy Forbes, who led the successful movement to abolish parole in his home state of Virginia in the 1990s. Both still hold places on the committee, with Forbes as its ranking member.

When a Democratic majority won Congress last year, the shift did not prompt a face-off with tough-on-crime Republicans.

The issue doesn't always break down in line with the party divide, according to policy analyst Ryan King of the Sentencing Project. Just as the original Sentencing Reform Act was a bipartisan venture, the maintenance of the sentencing status quo requires the consent - at least implicitly - of members of both parties.

Lawmakers have to pick their battles, and picking parole is not a politically savvy move.

"I've never seen anyone lose an election for being tough on crime," King said. "You might see a candidate say they would overturn every parole board decision in the state. But I doubt a candidate would set sentencing reform as the centerpiece of a campaign. No candidate wants the public to think they would let individuals off easy."

Shying away from sentencing and parole reform basically boils down to fear, on the part of both the public and politicians, according to King. People are afraid of early-released prisoners wreaking havoc on their communities. Lawmakers are afraid that, should they push for reform, a high-profile case of a parolee committing a crime could sabotage their campaigns.

The fear is grounded in precedent: 1998 Democratic presidential candidate and Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis supported his state's "furlough" program, which allowed inmates temporary leaves of absence from prison as part of a rehabilitation plan. When Massachusetts prisoner Willie Horton committed armed robbery and rape while on furlough, the incident became a major issue in the 1988 election and a basis for attack ads against Dukakis.

In Connecticut last July, two parolees committed a triple murder and arson. In September, Connecticut's attorney general ruled that parole-ineligible sentences could not be commuted to parole-eligible, and a Quinnipiac University poll in early November showed 72 percent of Connecticut voters thought the parole system let prisoners out too soon.

"It's a cost-benefit analysis," King said. "There's not a lot of benefit for those politicians to step out and support parole, but the costs could be enormous."

As with many prison issues, convincing lawmakers to take a stand on parole is an especially tough sell because many of the people to whom parole is most important - prisoners and felons - can't vote.

Money Motives

Many Americans who can vote benefit from prisoners staying behind bars with no chance of early release, noted both Martorano and Metz.

Though keeping millions of people in prison is a drain on taxpayer dollars, inmates bolster the economy by working for less than $1 an hour for companies like Microsoft and AT&T. ("Most of the time when people call directory assistance, they don't realize they're speaking with an inmate," Metz said.)

Noah Robinson, the half-brother of Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. and a federal prisoner serving a life sentence in Terre Haute, Indiana, points out as private prisons expand, a growing sector of the small-town vote will have the preservation of the parole ban at heart. The local economies of "prison towns" benefit from the lack of parole, since a guaranteed (and increasing) number of prisoners means a constant source of jobs for guards, administrators, food service workers, cleaning people and suppliers of everything from toilet paper to office supplies.

"With prisoners confined forever (i.e. no parole), job security [is] totally unaffected by inflation and recession; contracts for local businesses are ongoing," Robinson wrote to me.

Even more directly, some of the lawmakers who could most influence the prospect of the parole bill - Judiciary Committee members - take campaign money from corporations that build and maintain private prisons.

The two largest private prison companies, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and Wackenhut Corporation (now the GEO Group), entered the business in the mid-80s, when, due to tougher drug laws and the loss of parole, government-run prisons were bursting at the seams. The corporations' expansion paralleled the continued Congressional reinforcement of hard-line prison policies.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, in the 2006 election cycle, the CCA contributed thousands of dollars to the campaigns of six House Judiciary Committee members, including Sensenbrenner, who kept the parole bill off the floor every time it was proposed. He now sits on the Homeland Security subcommittee, which deals most closely with sentencing and parole.

Sensenbrenner's office did not return repeated calls for comment.

The CCA also funded the campaign of ranking member Lamar Smith, who, in this Congress alone, has introduced two bills which would increase prison terms.

In the Senate, the CCA financed the campaigns of four out of the nine Republicans on the Judiciary Committee.

Wackenhut, on the other hand, developed a reputation for giving to both the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee. Its new incarnation, the GEO Group, also contributes to both parties. In fact, for the 2008 election, GEO has so far contributed more to the campaigns of Democratic legislators than to Republicans, and has donated to the campaigns of both Hillary Clinton and Bill Richardson.

Even Democratic Congressman Bill Nelson of Florida, to whom both John Flahive and David Correa's mother have appealed for help in reviving parole, took $10,000 from GEO in 2006, according to data from Capitol Advantage.

"Financial drive is such a huge factor for both sides of political aisle," said King, who noted economic pressure from prison employees' unions plays a large role in pulling Democrats away from parole and sentencing reform.

The American Federation of Government Employees, to which federal prison workers belong, gives almost exclusively to Democratic candidates.

Nevertheless, according to King, prisons are at a breaking point. Contractors and government funding aren't keeping up with the demand for new prison facilities, and overcrowding is rampant. For policymakers, King said, dwindling resources and their effect on profit - not a realization of the system's injustices and ineffectiveness - will likely be the turning point for parole and sentencing reform.

Though King does not foresee a vote to reinstate parole right away, he argues measures like Davis's parole bill are still necessary to put the idea "on the radar screen," triggering momentum toward sentencing policy change. As resources become scarcer, he reasons, more lawmakers may get behind such legislation.

As for Davis, he has been cooperating with FedCURE and other organizations on a new bill to revive parole. He hasn't yet introduced it, he said, because he did not want people to confuse it with his less controversial Second Chance Act, a bipartisan-supported bill that just passed the House, which provides resources for prisoners reentering society.

The passage of the Second Chance Act may begin to pave the slow road to a criminal justice system that emphasizes rehabilitation over punishment, according to Davis. He hopes someday parole will follow.

Until then, for prisoners like Metz, it's becoming increasingly difficult to fight off despair.

"My kids grew up while I was in prison, but I've been stuck in time," Metz said. "If they don't bring back parole, I'll be stuck until I die."

Maya Schenwar is a reporter for Truthout.


23 Republican Retirements So Far and More to Come

Posted by Howie Klein, Down With Tyranny! at 1:00 PM on November 27, 2007.

Howie Klein: The premature retirements of Hastert and Lott are just a small part of a larger trend.
Hastert, looking like he's about to melt

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This post, written by Howie Klien, originally appeared on Down With Tyranny!

Yesterday Trent Lott's unexpected resignation from the Senate and Denny Hastert's long overdue one from the House, brought the number of Republicans leaving electoral politics to 17 in the House and 6 in the Senate. The Chairman of the NRCC, right-wing extremist Tom Cole (R-OK) tried to put on a brave face. "I don't hear a drumbeat that 'We're not effective and I don't like it here anymore.'" Maybe he needs to listen more carefully.

But with so many lawmakers -- including a large number from competitive states and districts -- heading for the exits, it's hard not to point to the GOP's newfound minority status in Washington, the turnover in party leadership and the perilous political environment heading into 2008 to explain the exodus.

Chris Cillizza in this morning's Washington Post thinks it's no exaggeration to say Republicans find themselves in serious danger of falling deeper into the minority in both houses. He points out how retirements seem to be throwing Republican held seats in New Mexico, Virginia and Colorado to Democrats Tom Udall, Mark Warner and Mark Udall, respectively.

"It's in the House, however," according to Cillizza., "where surprise retirements in swing districts have badly crippled Republican attempts to bounce back from 2006. And it's in the House where there are likely to be even more retirements. Currently on Republican retirement watch are John Doolittle (CA), Bill Young (FL), Tom Davis (VA), and Roscoe Bartlett (MD). And although increasingly unstable Chris Shays (CT) says he's not retiring (as of this week), he's become so bizarre that you never know what to expect from him.

And there is still a chance for some surprises out of New York, Florida and... well an indictment is likely to trigger a retirement (or two) in Alaska.


Tagged as: democratic congress, republican party, lott, hastert

Howie Klein is the creator of the blog Down With Tyranny!