Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Justice Is Not A Pony

I never expected the Obama administration to prosecute George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Condoleeza Rice and Don Rumsfeld for murder, though I personally am convinced, along with famed prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, that justice demands indictments on this charge. I am a realist about how historically unprecedented such an undertaking would be in this country. The prosecution of such a case might generate controversy beyond the imagination of the average American. I acknowledge the danger within our ideologically contentious culture, but I believe the concept of justice trumps the divisiveness the pursuit may cause. But I also acknowledge this desire was at the top of a personal wish list as I witnessed the dawn of regime change. I'm well aware that Barack Obama never made any promises, either during or after the campaign for the Presidency, that he would open any new investigations of criminal activity in the Bush administration. My support has no blinders, even before Eric Holder was confirmed as the new Attorney General under the administration of President Obama.

The problem that I and others have encountered upon lamenting the lack of justice for Valerie Plame, Sibel Edmonds, Don Siegelman, Russell Tice or the victims of a war based on lies is that whenever this is addressed in the context of our current Department of Justice failing to take action, many supporters of President Obama interpret such criticism as insulting. After all, if President Obama never made a promise to do anything about those specific cases, why should we criticize Holder's DoJ for not doing anything about it? In some cases, the defense breaks down into condescending hyperbole with the accusation that to desire something the Obama administration never promised is to ask for a "pony". A particularly odious cliche designed to express that the demand of the critic is a fantastical wish as childish as Christmas Eve longings that a pony will be found under the tree the following morning.

As of last week, you can add the name David Iglesias to the list of ponies I had the audacity to wish justice for:

DOJ: Prosecutor firing was politics, not crime

updated 7/21/2010 4:53:26 PM ET

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration's Justice Department's actions were inappropriately political, but not criminal, when it fired a U.S. attorney in 2006, prosecutors said Wednesday in closing a two-year investigation without filing charges.
The decision closes the books on one of the lingering political disputes of the Bush administration, one that Democrats said was evidence of GOP politics run amok and that Republicans have always said was a manufactured controversy.
Investigators looked into whether the Bush administration improperly dismissed nine U.S. attorneys, and in particular New Mexico U.S. Attorney David Iglesias, as a way to influence criminal cases. The scandal added to mounting criticism that the administration had politicized the Justice Department, a charge that contributed to the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
In 2008, the Justice Department assigned Nora Dannehy, a career prosecutor from Connecticut with a history of rooting out government wrongdoing, to investigate the firings.
"Evidence did not demonstrate that any prosecutable criminal offense was committed with regard to the removal of David Iglesias," the Justice Department said in a letter to lawmakers Wednesday. "The investigative team also determined that the evidence did not warrant expanding the scope of the investigation beyond the removal of Iglesias."

So the end result in this bizarro upside down pursuit of "justice" is that Karl Rove and Co. committed no wrongdoing and those who spoke ill of former AG Alberto "Fredo" Gonzales should apologize. Because the prosecutor in charge of this case has "a history of rooting out government wrongdoing" and so she must be above reproach, right?
Not so fast:

Prosecutor Who Cleared Bush Officials Has Ties to Misconduct

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Tue Jul 27, 2010 at 08:26:19 AM PDT

Cross Posted at Legal Schnauzer
The special prosecutor who last week cleared Bush administration officials of criminal acts in the firings of nine U.S. attorneys was connected to evidence suppression in an earlier case.
Nora Dannehy led a team of lawyers that was found to have suppressed evidence in a major political-corruption case in Connecticut, according to a new report by Andrew Kreig at Nieman Watchdog and OpEd News.
The finding of evidence suppression against Dannehy's team dovetails closely with her appointment as special prosecutor in the U.S. attorney firings case. It also raises questions about a Justice Department investigation into a possible Bush-era coverup on torture.

Kreig, a veteran journalist and lawyer, is executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Justice Integrity Project. He reports:
In September 2008, the Bush Justice Department appointed career federal prosecutor Nora Dannehy to investigate allegations that Bush officials in 2006 illegally fired nine U.S. attorneys who wouldn’t politicize official corruption investigations.
But just four days before her appointment, a federal appeals court had ruled that a team of prosecutors led by Dannehy illegally suppressed evidence in a major political corruption case in Connecticut. The prosecutors’ misconduct was so serious that the court vacated seven of the eight convictions in the case.
The evidence-suppression story was covered in the Connecticut press, but it apparently never received scrutiny when Bush Attorney General Michael Mukasey named Dannehy a special prosecutor. Does the public have reason to doubt Dannehy's judgment now that she has found criminal charges were not warranted in the U.S. attorney firings? The Connecticut case indicates the answer is yes. Writes Kreig:
The ruling didn’t cite Dannehy by name, and although it was publicly reported it apparently never came up in the news coverage of her appointment.
But it now calls into question the integrity of her investigation by raising serious concerns about her credibility--and about whether she was particularly vulnerable to political pressure from within the Justice Department.
Kreig puts the profoundly important U.S. attorneys story in perspective:
Now, almost two years later, Dannehy has provided arguably the most important blanket exoneration for high-level U.S. criminal targets since President George H.W. Bush pardoned six Iran-Contra convicts post-election in late 1992.
The DOJ announced on July 21 that it has "closed the case" on the nine unprecedented mid-term firings because Dannehy found no criminal wrongdoing by DOJ or White House officials.
But the official description of her inquiry indicates that she either placed or acceded to constraints on the scope of her probe that restricted it to the firing of just one of the ousted U.S. attorneys, not the others--and not to the conduct of the U.S. attorneys who weren't ousted because they met whatever tests DOJ and the White House created.
Some observers have called Dannehy's findings a "whitewash"--or worse. Reports Kreig:
"This is an outrageous act of cowardice and cover-up!" former Alabama governor and alleged political prosecution victim Don Siegelman emailed me regarding DOJ’s decision and the failure to interview him.
Given what Kreig has revealed about Dannehy's background, perhaps we should have been expecting such a result all along. Reports Kreig:
Dannehy’s probe, my reporting suggests, was compromised from the beginning.
She was appointed by Bush Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey on Sept. 29, 2008. On Sept. 25, the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York City found misconduct in a 2003 trial she had led.
The court found that the prosecution suppressed evidence that could have benefited the defendant, Connecticut businessman Charles B. Spadoni. Spadoni had been convicted of bribing former state Treasurer Paul Silvester to invest $200 million of state pension money with his firm.
But the appeals court found that prosecutors had failed to turn over to the defense an FBI agent’s notes of a key interview they conducted with Silvester's attorney. In doing so, the court ruled, "the government deprived Spadoni of exculpatory evidence going to the core of its bribery case against him."
The court reversed Spadoni’s convictions on seven counts of racketeering, racketeering conspiracy, bribery and wire fraud, leaving intact only an obstruction of justice conviction.
Where does the ongoing torture investigation enter the picture? Kreig provides the answer:
As it happens, the Spadoni case also raises concerns relative to the ongoing federal probe of potential Bush administration wrongdoing in covering up torture that is being led by John H. Durham, another prosecutor from Connecticut. Durham supervised Dannehy’s decade-long prosecution of Spadoni.
He also was appointed by Mukasey in 2008. Durham’s initial charge was to investigate suspected destruction of torture tapes by CIA personnel. In 2009, Holder expanded that probe to other decision-making, including by DOJ personnel.
Until now, neither DOJ nor anyone else has linked Dannehy and Durham by name to the prosecutorial misconduct against Spadoni, as far as I can determine. The court decision doesn’t cite specific actions by the two. But it clearly refers to their case, and the information is readily available online in Lexis and in any good law library.
Have Dannehy and Durham faced any repercussions for their actions in the Spadoni case? That remains unclear:
Prosecutors found by a court to have committed misconduct typically face some sort of internal investigation within the Justice Department. Whether there was any such investigation, and why or why not, is not publicly known.
For now, it appears that compromised special prosecutors were in charge of investigations into both the U.S. attorney firings and possible torture-related coverups. In the case of Dannehy, we know that her investigation was cursory, at best. And that, Kreig says, should give all Americans pause:
Dannehy never contacted obvious witnesses who may have been victimized by wrongdoing. Is there a good reason for that, or is it part of a pattern in which prosecutors tend to find scant wrongdoing against their colleagues? A question reporters need to pursue is whether a culture of error and cover-up prevailed in the Department of Justice under Bush and continues under President Obama. It is one thing to want to look forward, as Obama stated as he took office. But it is wrong and immoral for our criminal system not to examine what appear to be obvious abuses that discredit the justice system, local and regional politics, and, indeed, our nation’s standing in the world as a beacon of democracy and civil rights.

We've been down this road before. A Republican administration rejected by voters because of its connection with scandal and corruption. This was the story as we witnessed the exit of Dubya's father, President George H. W. Bush, who before leaving the White House managed to pardon the convicted Iran/Contra felons, in spite of growing concern that the scandal was financed through an international criminal syndicate posing as a bank called BCCI. The Department of Justice response under the Clinton administration? Swept under the rug. The price for abdicating the pursuit of justice? Eight years later, George W. Bush hired many of these criminals into his administration.

Is it too much to ask that our Department of Justice actually pursue justice? I asked this question when Ashcroft and Gonzales held the post and I ask it again of Eric Holder. The promise of justice in this country goes beyond any campaign, beyond any party, beyond any ideology. It is a value enshrined in our Declaration of Independence, codified in our Constitution, and venerated by people of good conscience everywhere. It is not a pony.

Friday, July 23, 2010

What Will a World That is +4C Hotter Look Like?

Since my vacation, it has taken me a while to get caught up with the news again. But rather than blog about the controversy du jour, I thought it would be best to post about a subject that's been pushed to the back of the current news cycle: Global Climate Change. Why does this subject have my current interest? Check this out -

Google climate map offers a glimpse of a 4C world

Interactive tool layering climate data over Google Earth maps shows the impact of an average global temperature rise of 4C

A new interactive Google Earth map showing the impacts of a 4°C world
A new interactive Google Earth map was developed using peer-reviewed science from the Met Office Hadley Centre and other leading impact scientists. Photograph:

Think it's hot this summer? Wait until you see Google's simulation of a world with an average global temperature rise of 4C.
Using a map that was first launched by the former Labour administration in October 2009, the coalition government has taken temperature data from the Met Office Hadley Centre and other climate research centres and imposed it on to a Google Earth layer.
It's a timely arrival, with warnings this month that current international carbon pledges will lead to a rise of nearly 4C and the Muir Russell report censuring some climate scientists for not being more open with their data (but exonerating them of manipulating the scientific evidence).

It's in the article link above, but here is the google link to the interactive map:
You'll need download Google Earth 5 to view it.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Summer Road Trip

Last week I took a wonderful vacation with my wife up to Oregon. One of the things I love the most about traveling up there is renting a car and enjoying the open road. I don't recall doing that during the summer of 2008 when gas was $4.50 a gallon. But with prices at the still historically expensive but much more financially manageable $2.92-2.99 a gallon, there wasn't much to impede my delight of driving up Interstate 5 and taking in the sights around me.

One of the first things I noticed on the ride up beyond the Grapevine but before the heavier traffic of Stockton and Sacramento was a change in the use of the landscape. I first noticed a gradual change starting about five years ago with what I call the Sideways Effect: where I used to see cotton fields blanketing both sides of the I-5 had been replaced by vineyards. This was right around the time the movie Sideways had become a critical and commercial success, which lead to an increase in sales of California wine. On this road trip, I noticed there was still plenty of vineyards with grapes growing, but the change we observed was a huge increase in the amount of corn fields being grown. My wife and I thought it might be crops used as feed for the cattle farms in the area, but there was only a slight increase in the number of cows we observed in the immediate region. When we reached the outskirts of Coalinga, which has a huge cattle holding pen, it seemed to me there were actually less cows than usual. Then it hit me: these are ethanol fields. We now have large sections of land previously allocated to grow material for clothing (cotton) or food and drink (grapes) that switched to growing a fuel source that is a net energy loser. And we wonder why this beautiful bounteous state has such a bad economy!

I say if you want to ride out the twilight of the Infinite Growth Paradigm intelligently, the most comfortable short-term solution is to ride the car we rented, a 2010 Toyota Yaris. We rented a red sedan model, and not only was it comfortable physically, but it turned out to be pretty comfortable on the wallet as well. Usually the drive up the I-5 requires us to refill the tank by the time we reach Santa Nella, one time a rental with really poor MPG only got us to Kettleman City before we had to get more gas. This time we made it all the way to Sacramento on one tank of gas. That's the kind of mileage I'm usually accustomed to hearing hybrid car owners brag about. I suppose hybrid and electric owners think they've got the higher road to ride out that twilight by being kinder to the environment. That may be so, but only as far as emissions are concerned. There are still seven gallons of oil in every new tire, the construction of the average car, regardless of whether it has an internal combustion engine or not, uses 42 barrels of oil. Pick your poison.

But I digress, I shouldn't be worrying about that stuff on vacation. And I certainly wasn't by the time we drove past Redding. There was a spectacular view of Mount Shasta on that sunny Saturday. Because we only had to stop once to refuel, we made it to Medford, Oregon by 3:45pm, a 10 1/2 hour drive. It was very relaxing staying at the Ramada Hotel there. We had a delicious dinner of pesto pasta and Pinot Noir at Vinny's Italian Kitchen with my sister, who recommended the place. There we finalized our plans for the next day, 4th of July, our Mom's birthday. My three sisters and I planned to surprise our Mom at Crater Lake, where she works as a park ranger. The surprise had been in the works for months and now we would finally know if we had been able to pull it off successfully or not.

Our surprise turned out to be a complete success! It turned out our Mom was caught completely offguard. Her chagrin at not being able to get her birthday off of work because she had to give a presentation to a group of 10 that requested her turned to elation at discovering that group was comprised of loving relatives who traveled from all over just for the opportunity to shout, "Happy Birthday!" Once she finished her admittedly "addled" presentation, the party began. We had a scrumptious lunch at her apartment consisting of cheese and crackers, smoked salmon and avocadoes, fruit salad, potato chips and hummus. We washed it down with a few bottles of sparkling wine that my wife and I brought. Then we finished with a birthday cake that had some of the creamiest frosting I've ever tasted. Once that party wound down, several of us went back to Medford and had a wine tasting at RoxyAnn, where my wife and I bought a 2008 Pinot Gris that was really smooth. Finally, the night ended for us with dinner at India's Kitchen and then fond farewells to Mom, right as the fireworks started blasting off.

That was just the first leg of the road trip. The next morning we checked out of the Ramada and stocked up at Food4Less on some Shasta diet cream soda, a personal favorite. Then we drove to Ashland, Oregon for some caffeinated delights. We stepped into The Beanery, a coffeehouse I used to work at 19 years ago. There we bought bags of Allann Bros. coffee beans for co-workers when we got back to L.A. and for relatives we would be meeting later on our journey. Before getting back on the I-5, we couldn't resist getting an iced chocolate coffee drink from the Dutch Bros. drive-thru. That pumped us up for the trail back into California all the way to the Rodeway Inn at Rohnert Park, a little town just south of Santa Rosa that was inexpensive and a convenient location for a short drive to wine tasting in Napa Valley.

We began our vino imbibing on Tuesday morning at the magnificent Castello di Amorosa in Saint Helena. The idea was to start off with a big tour, then work our way down to progressively smaller wineries until we hit our limit. Castello di Amorosa certainly didn't disappoint in its size. It is a tremendous 107 room castle, built in the style of 13th century Italian. The tour lasted over an hour and included a barrel tasting of a 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon and then stopping in a tasting room to sample 15 other wines. We ended up buying a bottle of 2005 Merlot that had a strong jammy flavor but a supple aftertaste. All the wines there were very high quality. Though the winery itself was young, the winemaker Dario Sattui is a 4th generation Napa winemaker whose great-grandfather Vittorio Sattui found the winery V. Sattui, which we were told was celebrating its 125th anniversary. So that was our next stop down the road for another tasting and self-guided tour of their cellar. Finally, we stopped at a small charming winery called Milat. Tastings there were the least expensive in Napa, $5 refunded with any purchase. What a deal, and great wine to boot! They had a fantastic dessert wine and chocolate sauce, but what really surprised me was the 2009 Chenin Blanc. I had never really appreciated that varietal until this one, so fruit forward yet complex; constantly changing all the way down the tongue. What a treat!

Totally wined out, we spent the next day exploring a town south of Rohnert Park called Petaluma. Petaluma is famous for many things, including being the location site for much of the filming of American Graffiti and for being the hometown of Winona Ryder. But we wanted to explore some of the deeper history of the town. While there were still many buildings in the historical downtown district still standing from the late 19th and early 20th century, I think we were a little disappointed with how yuppified it felt. A town of 50,000 people really shouldn't have more than a dozen overpriced restaurants spelled ristorante. Which is probably why we ended up eating at Hallie's Diner, where they served fantastic turkey sandwiches filled with some really sweet cranberry sauce. That wasn't the only highlight, there were other fascinating places in Petaluma. We enjoyed spending time at the Petaluma Adobe State Historic Park, where General Vallejo lived on his sprawling rancho during the 1830s and 1840s. They've done a great job of preservation of the building and recreations of how people lived, ate and slept in those days. I hope it lasts, it was a bit troubling that due to state budget cuts, there were no park personnel there. One other building I found fascinating was downtown; the historic Sonoma County National Bank building. Within this old bank is a thriving business appropriately called the Seed Bank. This business sells heirloom seeds with no GMO content. Every kind of seed from amaranth to watermelon. It was very encouraging to see the stomping grounds for a new generation of farmers.

We spent the final evening of our road trip north of Santa Rosa in the town of Windsor, where my cousin lives with his wife and new baby boy. It was our first time seeing their beautiful baby and their beautiful house. We took them out to dinner, feasting on pizza, pasta, and a rich Pinot Noir from a Sonoma winery they love, Amphora. Then they treated us to dessert at Powell's Sweet Shoppe where in addition to engorging on peanut butter and chocolate gelato, we bought candy we haven't seen since we were kids; Zotz and Fruit Stripe gum. It was a very fun evening with them. The next morning we checked out of the motel and hit the road for home. We stopped on the way down in Paso Robles. It was a temptation to have one final day of wine tasting, but instead I showed some restraint and limited myself to picking some guides and brochures to plan a future road trip!

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

I think I pulled a muscle in my back while working out on my Iron Gym before dinner last night. Not excruciating pain, but the gradually building soreness grew aggravating. I thought it might be relaxing to spend the rest of the evening lying on the couch watching a movie. Then I made the inappropriate decision to watch a movie that recently came out on DVD, The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.

Bad timing on my part. The movie opens in the wake of the levee breaks in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. After rescuing an imprisoned man about to drown in the rising waters, Sergeant Terence McDonagh (Nicolas Cage) is promoted to the rank of Lieutenant for his bravery, but pays the price by injuring his back. Informed by his doctor that he may have lower back pain the rest of his life, McDonagh in one year's time adds a cocaine habit to his Vicodin prescription. Watching Cage live through this affliction and addiction only heightened my own misery.

It's been a long time since Cage has really invested himself into a character with such commitment. The past decade has pretty much been filled with performances set on autopilot, with only a faint glimmer here and there of the level of brilliance he exhibited in the 80's and 90's. But in Bad Lieutenant, Cage is absolutely unhinged. Imagine the intensity of his inebriated highs in Leaving Las Vegas combined with the manic impulsiveness on display in Vampire's Kiss or Wild at Heart. That's the closest I can come to describing the energy on display. He is a man possessed by demons both physical and spiritual, and the result is a performance that is emotionally explosive.

Being a big fan of the original Bad Lieutenant from 1992 directed by Abel Ferrara and starring Harvey Keitel, I was interested in how director Werner Herzog would reimagine the story by taking it out of the mean streets of New York City and placing it in the post-Katrina morass of New Orleans. The results are both exhilarating and confounding. Both movies feature a similar character in a similar predicament: a corrupt cop whose personal demons drive him into a deep descent fueled by drugs, sex and gambling. But whereas Ferrara's incarnation is a brooding furrowing into the darkness of a tortured soul, Herzog's take is an exercise in insanity lapsing into surreal giddiness. Both movies are journeys into the darker side of life, but Herzog and Cage somehow manage to find the sick truth that debauchery has its sense of joy too.

What I found confounding was the differences in how each movie found resolution in the arc of their respective characters. At the end of Harvey Keitel's descent into a proverbial hell, he finds a spiritual redemption that saves his soul. What starts as a gritty crime drama morphs into a Catholic moral fable. Nicolas Cage's resolution is a little harder to label. As with Keitel's journey, there is a descending spiral of darkness tied to a criminal case the detective is following that fuels his drug and gambling frenzy. But the miracles that occur that transform Cage are much more temporal compared to the miracles that transform Keitel. This results in a resolution that is not as tragic/transcendental as Keitel's arc, but is more down to earth about the reality of dealing with addiction.

But I'm not sure if Herzog's Bad Lieutenant, for all its manic highs and bluesy lows, is as emotionally satisfying as its predescessor. Perhaps this is because it avoids passing moral judgment. My gut reaction in the wake of this rollercoaster is that the moral of the story is: Corruption Pays. Maybe that's an overly simplistic reading of the resolution, but that is reality, especially where the subject of narcotics is concerned. An article titled Solari Rising by Catherine Austin Fitts does an excellent job of analyzing how our economic infrastructure is addicted to the $500 billion to $1 trillion annual money laundering windfall from narcotics trafficking and all organized crime profits. So maybe Herzog isn't being too glib in showing that sometimes all you need to turn your life around is a lucky crackpipe.