United States News Digest
Graham: Congress Should Make Detainee Policy
Senator Lindsay Graham (R-N.C.), the chairman of the Personnel Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee, during a hearing on July 14 noted that Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution gives Congress, not the Executive, the authority to make rules regarding enemy captures, and added that Congress should give that guidance. The hearing was held in order to hear from the Pentagon's top legal officers, and one of the recurring themes of the hearing was that the Guantanamo prison has been operating without statutory guidance and without even a legal definition of "enemy combatant," with the result being that legal challenges to the Pentagon policy regarding interrogation and disposition of the detainees have tied up the planned military tribunals for an indefinite period of time. Graham demanded to know from the witnesses whether or not such statutory action by Congress would clear the situation up. Daniel Dell'Orto, the Defense Department (DOD) principal deputy general counsel, answered that "the current framework gives us the ability to prosecute the war on terror, and new legislation is not necessary," an answer which, not surprisingly, left Graham unsatisfied.
Graham got a second chance to ask questions, after Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass) had grilled the witnesses, who included the top military lawyers for each of the services, on whether or not they objected to a DOD directive issued by General Counsel William Haynes, subordinating detainee interrogation policy to the infamous torture memos issued by the Department of Justice in early 2003, memos which the Armed Services Committee still doesn't have in its possession. "DOD was second to DOJ," Graham said, "and that was your problem, and if they (meaning the policymakers in the Pentagon) had listened to you at the outset we wouldn't have these problems."
Sweeney Working To Prevent AFL-CIO Split
AFL-CIO president John Sweeney is attempting to prevent a threatened split in the Federation in the period leading up to the AFL-CIO national meeting scheduled for late July. Sweeney told AP in an interview that he pledged to offer "strong proposals for change," to avoid losing five unions that have formed a dissident coalition within the Federation called the Change to Win Coalition. The dissident unions are the Teamsters, the Service Employees International Union, the United Food and Commercial Workers, Unite Here, and Laborers' International Union. The Carpenters' Union, which is no longer part of the AFL-CIO, joined the coalition in late June. The coalition represents more than 5 million of the Federation's nearly 13 million members.
The dissidents have proposed: 1) 50% of dues to the AFL-CIO be returned to unions to spend on organizing; 2) unions within the same industry be consolidated to increase their clout; 3) the Federation play a more aggressive role in setting standards for contract settlements; and 4) the Federation make changes in the way the AFL-CIO is governed.
Sweeney is trying to bridge differences, including how much money is made available for organizing, and whether unions representing workers in the same industries can be encouraged to merge. Last week, top leaders of the AFL-CIO agreed on a plan to give the Federation more power to ensure all unions are honoring industry standards on pay and benefits. The plan also sets new rules aimed at giving workers more power to organize unions that can take on large industries.
However, Andrew Stern, the president of SEIU and putative spokesman for the opposition group, recently questioned whether Sweeney can make the necessary changes to reverse years of decline in union membership. Gerald McEntee, president of AFSCME, said that Stern's "major demand is that John Sweeney leave, and I don't think that will happen." McEntee questioned whether the AFL-CIO will go along with the request that unions get a 50% rebate on their Federation dues to use for organizing. If Sweeney went along with that, the AFL-CIO would have to shut down its Washington headquarters.
Judge Hands Halliburton a 'Get Out of Jail Free' card
Judge T.S. Ellis on July 12 issued a ruling in a fraud case that could ultimately clear Halliburton of any legal liabilities for the billions of fraudulent billings issued to the Coalition Provisional Authority in the early stages of "Iraqi reconstruction." Ellis made his ruling on an aspect of the False Claims Act, an act that offers protection to insider "whistle-blowers" who have the courage to come forward and charge a corporation with foul play. The case at issue involves the company Custer Battles, which won hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts for "security and logistical contracts" in "postwar" Iraq. Former employees have charged that the company engaged in false billings, using shell companies to overcharge for work never done. Ellis' ruling specifically limits the reach of the False Claims Act, by requiring that, for whistleblowers' charges to be prosecutable, the companies, while working overseas, must have been paid with American (taxpayer) money.
The loophole, large enough for Halliburton to fit through, is that the majority of the compensation for Iraqi contractors was done with Iraqi money. While Ellis' ruling will allow the particular case to go forward, the long-term effect on pending cases is devastating. A lawyer representing the two employees charging fraud by Custer Battles is quoted as saying, "This ruling will significantly limit the ability of the government and whistle-blowers to act against frauds involving Iraqi oil funds. If that's going to be the law, it's a terrible shame."
Judge Ellis sits in the U.S. District Court of Alexandria, Va., the infamous "rocket docket" court system, in which all "CIA-related" cases are heard, and which convicted Lyndon LaRouche and six codefendants in 1988.
Sensenbrenner Introduces Patriot Act Renewal
With the House and Senate disagreeing among themselves, and with Republicans in the House disagreeing among themselves and also with the White House, House Judiciary Committee chairman Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc) on July 11 introduced a bill re-authorizing provisions of the so-called Patriot Act which are scheduled to expire at the end of this year. Sensenbrenner reportedly wants to bring it to the House floor next week.
Sensenbrenner's bill does the following:
* It reauthorizes all 16 provisions of the Patriot Act which would expire on Dec. 31, and eliminates the "sunset" or automatic expiration provisions that were part of the first Patriot Act. The Senate Judiciary Committee, however, is planning to include sunset provisions for some of the re-authorized sections.
* It extends "pen register" and "trap-and-trace" provisions which lowered the standard for allowing the government to trace outgoing and incoming telephone and Internet communications.
* It continues the controversial Section 215, pertaining to "business records"which allows the government to go the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court, and get ex parte authorization to obtain a person's financial, travel, even library, records from a third party; Sensenbrenner's bill adds some new restrictions, such as permitting the third party (but not the target) to challenge the government's demands.
According to the New York Times, Judiciary Committee Democrats wanted much tougher restrictions, but the Democrats were frozen out of discussions on the new bill.
* Sensenbrenner's bill does not include the legislation recently approved in a closed session by the Senate Intelligence Committee for expanded use of Administrative Subpoenas, or "National Security Letters," in terrorism cases. This allows the government to obtain third-party financial information or other records without obtaining approval from the FISA Court or from any other court.
Supreme Court Stops Virginia Execution
The Supreme Court granted a stay of execution in the case of Robin Lovitt, a Virginia Death Row inmate, just hours before he was to be put to death July 11. The Court did not give a reason for the stay, but Lovitt stated that he would have been able to prove his innocence if state officials had not destroyed DNA evidence from his case after his trial. The stay, issued by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, will remain in place until the full court reconvenes in October. The court will then either hear Lovitt's appeal or allow Virginia to execute him.
Lovitt's case is important because he has a strong claim of innocence, and because the evidence used to convict him, including the murder weapon and DNA evidence, was "accidentally" destroyed after his trial. Lovitt's attorneys maintain that DNA evidence would prove that he is not guilty of the 1998 murder of Clayton Dicks.
The case against Lovitt is described by the Death Penalty Information Center as "weak and circumstantial." According to a recent article in the Virginian-Pilot, there were conflicting statements from witnesses; Lovitt's fingerprints were not found on the alleged murder weapon or at the crime scene; and none of the victim's blood was found on Lovitt's clothes. Moreover, the key person linking Lovitt to the crime was a fellow inmate, a "jailhouse snitch," who had testified in several other trials.
Among those fighting the execution is Kenneth W. Starr, the former independent counsel, who is acting as one of Lovitt's attorneys.