Headwaters Protesters Pepper Spray Case Returns to Court

The case of eight Earth First! protesters, whose eyes Humboldt County law enforcement officers swabbed with pepper spray, returns to court in San Francisco this week. The first trial ended with jurors deadlocked 6-2 in favor of the protesters, who had staged a sit-in “in the Eureka office of Representative Frank Riggs (R-California) on October 16th” (1997) to protest logging in the Headwaters Forest.

National guidelines governing the use of pepper spray specify that it should not be discharged into the eyes at distances less than two feet, should not be used on people in restraints and should not be used as punishment, the suit said.

At issue is whether the use of “a chemical weapon” under these sorts of circumstances constitutes a reasonable use of force. “‘What we’re trying to do is deal with the situation with a minimum of force and a minimum of hazard,’ [Sheriff Dennis] Lewis told reporters.” The protesters had linked arms inside metal sleeves; officers said using the pepper spray was safer than trying to cut the metal sleeves.

Jury selection is scheduled for Tuesday, April 12, 2005, and is expected to take one day. The trial is expected to begin the following day.

We don’t need no stinkin’ science

[Updated] In the face of budget cuts, and a presidential mandate for manned programs to the Moon and to Mars, NASA is contemplating cutting a number of unmanned programs, including the Voyagers, which are still sending data as they approach the edge of the solar system. This only makes sense, though, for the Bush Administration, which either ignores research or twists it to suit its own ideological purposes.

Whether the evangelicals who have captured our government understand it or not, Rick Weiss argues in the Washington Post that we need to care about basic research. “U.S. scientific enterprise is riddled with evidence that Americans have lost sight of the value of non-applied, curiosity-driven research — the open-ended sort of exploration that doesn’t know exactly where it’s going but so often leads to big payoffs.” Weiss cites the Internet as a project DARPA might not fund today and the Department of Energy decision to kill the “so-called BTeV project at Fermilab in Batavia, Ill., one of the last labs in this country still supporting studies in high-energy physics.” It hasn’t always been this way.

Early research on DNA splicing in bacteria unexpectedly gave rise to the biotechnology industry, a huge economic engine that launched today’s golden age of biology and medicine. Unfettered studies of electronics at places like the old Bell Laboratories gave the world transistors, lasers and the basic information theory that led to computer networking. Albert Einstein often said that his work on the general theory of relativity was too arcane to ever have any practical application. Yet without it we would not have the global positioning satellite system that today tells our cars — and the military’s “smart” bombs — where they are and where they need to go.

A Funeral and Two Handshakes

A request to “show the ‘sign of peace'” at Pope John Paul II’s funeral has created awkward moments for at least a few dignitaries in attendance. A fuss has been raised over a Syrian report that Iranian President Mohammad Khatami had shaken hands with Israeli President Moshe Katsav. Another fuss has been raised as Prince Charles shook hands with Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. The Vatican arranged the seating.

Abu Ghraib General says low-ranking soldiers singled out

Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, who “was in charge of the military police unit that ran Abu Ghraib and other prisons when the abuses were committed,” believes that the low-ranking soldiers who have so far been held responsible for the abuses “did not devise techniques such as stacking up naked prisoners or forcing them to masturbate.” [Emphasis added]

She has previously said that “she was being made a ‘convenient scapegoat’ for abuse ordered by others.” Now she says that the soldiers being court-martialed are being unfairly singled out.

“I guarantee you that none of those soldiers knew enough about the Arab culture to be able to say this is the right thing that we should do,” she said.”

“Somebody who was very familiar with what would work told them how to do those things.”

Her statement does not obviously account for the fact that at least some of the reservists involved, most notably Specialist Charles A. Graner, Jr., were prison guards in the United States, or a suspicion that these abuses might be routine in US prisons. A military court sentenced Graner to ten years.

BART extension to San Jose off track

[Updated, Correction] The problem of extending BART to San Jose wasn’t going to be solved in time to do me, with my commute from the Santa Cruz Mountains to CSU East Bay, any good anyway. But there’s more bad news. The Federal Transit Administration has proposed new cost-effectiveness rules, setting a standard the proposed BART extension “cannot possibly meet.”

The proposed change isn’t a done deal, said Bernice Alaniz, chief spokeswoman for the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, the agency overseeing the 16.3-mile project to extend BART from the Alameda County line to Milpitas, east San Jose and through downtown San Jose before ending in Santa Clara.

An earlier San Jose Mercury News story stated, “New federal standards make it unlikely that the proposed BART extension to San Jose will ever be part of a Bush administration budget — a critical blow to a project that was already struggling to find funding.” I interpreted this to mean that the change was a “done deal.”

But VTA is now acquiescing to FTA pressure to consider requesting federal funds only for a shorter extension as far as Berryessa Road. Berryessa Road connects with Hedding Street as it crosses U.S. Highway 101.

“The primary benefit of this project can be achieved at Berryessa,” said Stuart Cohen, executive director of the Oakland-based Transportation and Land Use Coalition. “After that, you are spending literally $3 billion for very few riders when that money could be spent on projects all around the county that would carry many more people.”

VTA says, however, that it remains committed to the full extension. Local funds would pay for the remaining portion of the extension.

It would be better than no federal money at all. “The BART proposal is in jeopardy of failing to qualify for any federal funds because the extension’s cost is too great for the limited number of new riders who are expected to use it under Federal Transit Administration standards.” But questions obviously remain as to how an already cash-strapped project will raise the further funds needed.

Some are hoping that, if needed, voters will accept another sales tax increase to help pay for the project:

The new public opinion survey by the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, a prime proponent of the BART project, showed growing support for a new sales tax for transportation needs and continued strong support for the BART extension to the South Bay, but disenchantment with light-rail service.

The survey of 1,000 likely voters showed 61 percent would favor a quarter-cent increase in the local sales tax to pay for transit improvements originally promised when voters approved the Measure A half-cent sales tax in 2000. Funds also would be earmarked for road maintenance, signal upgrades and paratransit service.

That’s a six percentage point bump upward from a survey taken in late 2003, but still short of a two-thirds majority.

“With an improving economy and with 18 months before a ballot measure, we think there’s a good chance” to reach the two-thirds threshold, said Carl Guardino, head of the leadership group, formerly known as the Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group. “We are very encouraged.”

Massachusetts may also require companies to pay for health insurance

The bill requiring Wal-Mart to pay for health care benefits has barely gotten through the Maryland state legislature, when word has come that Massachusetts is considering something broader. The Massachusetts legislation would apply to companies with 50 or more employees.

“We really look at it as a responsibility on the part of employers who don’t provide insurance for these employees that get sick and rely on the free care pool,” said Sen. Richard T. Moore, D-Uxbridge. “It’s to end the free ride that some employers and some employees have been able to get in the last few years.”

Wal-Mart may have to pay for health care in Maryland

[Updated] Being cheap on health insurance benefits, Wal-Mart has effectively passed the cost of its employee health care onto state governments. A bill which was making its way through the Maryland legislature, and has now passed, would change that, but not by much, requiring “organizations with more than 10,000 employees to spend at least 8 percent of their payroll on health benefits — or put the money directly into the state’s health program for the poor.”

“We’re looking for responsible businesses to ante up . . . and provide adequate health care,” said Sen. Thomas M. Middleton (D-Charles), the Finance Committee chairman, as the Senate approved the measure with a majority wide enough to survive an anticipated veto. A similar bill has cleared the House of Delegates, and legislators expect to reconcile their differences easily.

Wal-Mart has responded to a “spate of bad publicity” over the way it treats its workers with a public relations campaign. “Along with tarnishing the folksy image fostered by founder Sam Walton, that sort of publicity could hurt the company’s ability to open new stores and could lead other states to pursue legislation similar to that advancing in Maryland, company officials said.” Wal-Mart was quick to denounce the legislation in Maryland:

Wal-Mart “will have to rethink its future growth in a state that is willing to pass such a bad business bill,” said Nate Hurst, a government relations manager for the company. “This type of legislation, where lawmakers single out one employer, does not create a favorable environment.”

Though it was clear the bill was aimed at Wal-Mart, it does not specifically mention the chain. The bill was strongly backed by a major competitor, Giant Food LLC, and “the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400, which represents Giant’s Washington area workers.” Giant has been losing business to Wal-Mart:

Giant Vice President Barry F. Scher said that health care costs now account for 20 percent of Giant’s payroll expenses. By comparison, Wal-Mart spends between 7 and 8 percent, Hurst said.

CIA detentions too secret to be ‘top secret’

The Bush Administration has limited congressional oversight of CIA detentions to briefings for the ranking Republican and Democrat members on each of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees. “Some Democratic members of Congress say the restrictions are impeding effective oversight of the secret program, which is run by the Central Intelligence Agency and is believed to involve the detention of about three dozen senior Qaeda leaders at secret sites around the world.”

The CIA apparently fears that if locations of its secret facilities–where torture is likely used–are disclosed, the host governments would force the CIA to shut them down. “Since the detention program was established in 2002, the officials said, the C.I.A. detention effort has been classified as a ‘special access program,’ a category that puts it off limits even to most of those with top secret security clearances. In general, such restrictions have been applied only to covert operations and ongoing espionage investigations, Congressional officials say.”

Iraq policy defeats Bush ally?

In the wake of the shooting of Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena by American soldiers, Prime Minister Berlusconi’s party suffered a “stinging defeat” in regional elections. Berlusconi had strongly supported US President George Bush’s policy in Iraq despite substantial domestic opposition. After Italian intelligence agent Nicola Calipari was killed protecting Sgrena, and was promptly elevated to the status of a national hero, Berlusconi announced he would begin withdrawing Italian forces from Iraq. “The centre-left coalition won 11 of the 13 regions at stake, and Mr Berlusconi’s House of Liberties alliance kept two, its northern strongholds Lombardy and Veneto.”

Cold War back in Nicaragua

This comes from FAIR:

Reviving Cold War Reporting on Nicaragua

April 5, 2005

As the Bush administration carries out what the New York Times (4/5/05) describes as a “concerted effort” to block the return of the left-wing Sandinista party to power in Nicaragua, U.S. media are returning to the kind of distorted reporting on Nicaragua that characterized coverage during Washington’s war against that country in the 1980s. The New York Times’ April 5 article on the administration’s anti-Sandinista campaign provides a prime example of this one-sided and inaccurate media treatment.

The article, by Ginger Thompson, characterized the U.S. attempt to overthrow the Sandinista government as part of “the global struggle against Communism”– though Nicaragua under the Sandinistas had a mixed economy, multiple opposition parties and a very active opposition press, features that were not found in actual Communist countries. She refers to Daniel Ortega, the Sandinista president of Nicaragua, as a “revolutionary strongman,” even though he was elected to the presidency in 1984 with 67 percent of the vote, in balloting that international observers found to be “free, fair and hotly contested” (Extra!, 10-11/87).

Referring to the Sandinista-led government of the 1980s and the U.S.-sponsored Contra rebels as opposing “armies,” Thompson wrote, “The armies fought each other to a standstill, until both sides agreed to elections in 1990, which Mr. Ortega lost.” This summary leaves out the election that Ortega won in 1984, and wrongly suggests that the 1990 elections were held because of Contra pressure, when the Nicaraguan constitution at that time required elections to be held every six years. (That sentence also implies that the Contras directed their fight against the Nicaraguan army, although in fact they chiefly targeted civilians and civilian infrastructure– see Nicaragua: The Price of Intervention, Peter Kornbluh, pp. 39-50.)

Though the article’s focus is on the United States’ opposition to Ortega, Ortega is never quoted; the article says that he “did not accept several requests for an interview.” Despite a reference to “extensive talks with Mr. Ortega’s supporters,” no members of this group are quoted either. (A supporter of a Sandinista rival to Ortega is quoted at the end of the piece, explaining why in his view Ortega is not likely to ever be re-elected.)

The piece does, however, repeatedly quote an anonymous “senior State Department official” who makes unsubstantiated charges about Ortega and the Sandinistas (e.g., “The Sandinista Party that Daniel Ortega represents is not a democratic party,” the Sandinistas are using their influence to “extort the country.”).

New York Times policy supposedly discourages the use of anonymous sources. “We do not grant anonymity to people who use it as cover for a personal or partisan attack,” a February 25, 2004 statement released by the paper declared. “If pejorative opinions are worth reporting and cannot be specifically attributed, they may be paraphrased or described after thorough discussion between writer and editor.” When an anonymous source is attacking an official enemy, it appears, the rules do not apply.

ACTION: Please contact the New York Times and urge them to correct the inaccurate history of Nicaragua contained in this article. Encourage the paper to quote more than one side of a story, even when reporting on people or parties that are seen as enemies by the U.S. State Department.

New York Times
Daniel Okrent, Public Editor
Phone: (212) 556-7652

As always, please remember that your comments have more impact if you maintain a polite tone. Please cc fair@fair.org with your correspondence.