Thursday, June 19, 2008

Big Bad Boom

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By Chip Ward

Radioactive Déjà Vu in the American West

In the American West, we take global warming personally. Like those polar bears desperately hunting for dwindling ice flows, we feel we’re on the frontlines of the new weather regime.

The West is drying up. For example, canyon-hugging conservationists and jet-boating gear-heads have argued for several years about whether to "drain" Lake Powell, the 200 mile-long reservoir that once drowned the redrock Eden which was Glen Canyon. But a funny thing happened on the way to debate -- Mother Nature drained it herself. Almost. The Utah reservoir is now reduced by half and the prospects of it ever reaching "full pool" again are less than dim. A recent Natural Resources Defense Council report suggests that Lake Mead, an even bigger reservoir downstream that feeds Las Vegas and Southern California, may be emptied by 2050.

Many desert denizens now view abandoned archaeological ruins like Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde in the Southwest as more than the remnants of a collapsed, long-lost Anasazi civilization. They increasingly look like haunting hints of our own possible fate as global warming continues to bake the already arid West.

Ghost towns are nothing new in our boom-n’-bust history, of course, but imagine some future tour guide ushering visitors through the awesome ruins of Las Vegas’s Circus-Circus, the Bellagio, or the Luxor Hotel. "They didn’t understand the limits of the landscape that enfolded them," she might say, while holding up a golf-ball excavated from the ruins for the crowd to see. "When drought pushed them across the threshold, they didn’t see it coming, they couldn’t cope, and it all fell apart."

Here we go again… Unfortunately, it’s not only the heat that’s hitting us hard out here. One of the "solutions" to the crisis of climate chaos is about to kick the citizens of the West right in our collective gut before we even have a chance to go down for the count from heat exhaustion. Nuclear power -- once touted as a "solution" to other problems and recently resurrected -- is now being pushed hard as an alternative to carbon-dioxide emitting coal for keeping the lights on. And, unfortunately for us, its raw material, uranium, is right in our backyard.

So we in states like Utah, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and Montana are poised for a mining boom reminiscent of the one in the 1950s when the nuclear age began. Then, the West’s uranium mines provided the raw material for our metastasizing Cold War nuclear arsenal and the nation’s first generation of nuclear reactors. (You remember Three Mile Island, don’t you?) Back then, radioactive ore was often dug out by impoverished Navajo miners desperate for jobs. Many of them later sickened and died from exposure to radioactivity.

After uranium has been turned into "yellowcake," fit for further processing into reactor fuel, and then used to power a nuclear reactor, it is supposed to return to our Western landscapes in the form of "spent" nuclear fuel -- something that is lethally dangerous for tens of thousands of years. Our arid landscapes, we are told, are ideal for waste that must be kept isolated and dry for at least a thousand years.

In other words, we get it at both ends of the nuclear energy cycle -- and the drier we get, the more appealing we look. First, they dig a hole and take it out; then, they dig another and return it to the ground in far more dangerous shape. Lurking between the mines and the waste dumps are processing mills -- and, of course, we have them, too. Even as debris from toxic slag piles in the old mines and mills of the West is still blowing in the wind or leaching into our watersheds, new slag heaps are taking shape in the fevered dreams of the next generation of speculators.

By now you may have heard about Yucca Mountain, the multi-billion dollar facility under construction in Nevada. Yucca was supposed to be the designated repository for the nuclear energy industry’s waste. It has been plagued, however, by faulty science, enormous cost overruns, fierce opposition from local "downwinders," and the problem of transporting all that dangerous nuclear waste across the nation. After years of local resistance and a torrent of bad press, the Yucca project has finally been stalled and, now a distant threat to public health and environmental integrity, is about to be overtaken by a far more clear and present danger -- a new uranium boom in the arid lands of the West.

A temporary town for a thousand uranium miners is already under construction at Ticaboo in southern Utah. It will remind old-timers here of the now popular tourist destination of Moab, which was essentially a trailer-park city for miners in the 1950s and Ground Zero for the first episode of what local historians label "uranium frenzy."

The newest uranium frenzy has opened with a PR campaign to convince a wary public that nuclear power should be an acceptable, if desperate, last-ditch option to stem the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. It has convinced some former skeptics to take a second look at the potential value of non-carbon-dioxide emitting nuclear reactors. But, as Christian Parenti reports in The Nation, the debate about reviving and expanding nuclear power is quickly becoming moot in the United States, if not globally.

Bottom line: Wall Street won’t invest because nuclear power is too expensive, too risky, too complex, takes too long to bring on line, and can’t compete with other energy sources once massive tax-payer subsidies are removed from the equation. (Senators Joe Lieberman and John Warner have, however, proposed more than $500 billion in subsidies to double nuclear capacity in the decades ahead.) But those limitations will not dampen the radioactive rush in the West, especially since the planet’s limited supply of uranium is ever more valuable on international markets -- which means mining and processing uranium ore will continue to defile some of our wildest landscapes.

Flimflam capitalism: Speculation makes the hearts of wannabe tycoons pound harder. Back in the 1950s, prospectors would begin a mine, bulldoze an airstrip, fly in potential investors, swing a Geiger-counter over ore that supposedly came out of that bit of ground and… well, you know how it ends, but, strangely enough, investors often don’t. Scam or legit, there is money to be made simply in building up the infrastructure of speculative exploration.

Even dry holes can be lucrative for a short while. Economically impoverished and vulnerable locals welcome the temporary jobs and merchants want to sell to all those move-in drillers, heavy equipment operators, and miners. Local politicians, eager for access to the pie, will cut deals to open doors. In Utah, for example, two top legislators signed lucrative "consulting" contracts to pave the way for a developer to get the necessary water for a nuclear power plant and formal permission to build it somewhere in the state. Critics charge that the legislators also tried to get generous taxpayer subsidies to sweeten the pot.

The first phase of a mining boom is the rush to stake claims. In Colorado last year, 10,730 uranium mining claims were filed, up from 120 five years ago. More than 6,000 new claims have been staked in southeast Utah. Throughout the West, claims are up tenfold. Next comes exploratory drilling. That means carving roads across the wildlands to bring in equipment. Drilling teams will have no trouble financing their road-building adventures, since profits for the metals mining industry are up 1,400% in the past six years.

Such speculation is as basic to industrial capitalism as the raw materials that power its machinery. Witness the inflated fantasies of the recently punctured housing bubble. Even if the mines never materialize, the run-up will leave lasting scars, especially as the new uranium boom follows on the heels of an oil and gas boom, a desperate effort to wring every last drop of fossil fuel from the depleted reserves of the West.

Bulldozers first, four-wheeled locusts next, then dust in the wind: Like some devastating one-two punch, mineral development and motorized recreation are essentially guaranteed to create the next Great American Dustbowl. First, uranium prospectors bulldoze more roads to add to the thousands of miles of roads already carved across open Western lands in previous booms. Next, a horde of Off-Road Vehicle (ORV) riders take to them, causing more erosion and bio-degradation.

ORV ownership has expanded exponentially throughout the West and most of our deserts have already become weekend ORV theme parks. Those tens of thousands of untrained riders are barely regulated. Enforcement is a joke. They go where they wish and do what they please. Ecological devastation from the exploration and extraction cycle, already substantial, is aided and abetted by the inevitable crush of ORVs. As these riders braid new tracks through lands that otherwise qualify for wilderness protection, they may lose their standing forever, while already compromised wildlife habitats are further fragmented.

The thin and fragile soils of our deserts, barely held in place by a delicate microbiotic crust, have already been overgrazed and overrun. It can take twenty years to grow that protective microbial mat, but one spinning tire can destroy it in one second. If you live to the east of us, expect to see the dust under that "crypto" crust released into your air, as high desert winds churn it up and carry it away. Recent research concludes that snowpack in the Colorado mountains is melting earlier and faster due, in part, to dust blowing in from Utah and Nevada that covers the snow fields and absorbs heat. The Dustbowl, of course, is another old story. Unlike the dust storms of the 1930s, however, our Western dust may have the added charm of being radioactive.

Guinea pigs in an uncontrolled experiment: If you live downwind from us, you might want to pay a little attention to what’s happened to Navajos living on a 26,000 square mile reservation that spans the Four Corners region where Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado meet. For three generations now, they have been breathing uranium-laden dust from mine tailings and drinking from wells tainted with minute traces of radioactive mining waste. From 1946 into the late 1970s, more than 40 million tons of uranium ore was mined near Navajo communities.

More than a thousand mines were abandoned on the reservation. For every 4 pounds of uranium extracted, 996 pounds of radioactive refuse was left behind in waste pits and piles swept by the wind and leached into local drinking water. In addition to the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Navajo miners who sickened and died of cancer and respiratory illnesses -- it’s hard to say just how many, since nobody in power bothered to keep track -- epidemiological studies reveal a terrible ongoing toll. Navajo children living near the mines and mills suffered five times the rate of bone cancer and 15 times the rate of testicular and ovarian cancers as other Americans. Exposure to uranium has also been linked to kidney damage and birth defects.

Recent research indicates that, in addition to being toxic and radioactive, uranium is also an endocrine disruptor and can have a devastating effect on health -- even when only scant traces are present in the air we breathe or the water we drink. Uranium’s ability to bind to and deceive hormone receptors evidently interferes with cellular communication that governs metabolism, cell production, organ development, and gland function. Dr. Stephanie Raymond-Whish, a Navajo scientist, believes, for instance, that uranium exposure is one explanation for sky-high rates of breast cancer on the reservation.

No wonder, then, that the Navajo Nation imposed a ban on uranium mining and milling on Indian lands in 2005. Despite the ban, Hydro Resources Inc. (HRI) is trying to open four major mines near the Navajo communities of Crownpoint and Churchrock. HRI specializes in mining uranium by pumping water and bicarbonate into uranium-bearing strata, then withdrawing the solution and recovering the uranium in it.

Assisted by the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, the Navajo tribal government has been resisting, insisting that it, and not the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the federal agency that oversees all aspects of the nuclear energy industry, has the authority to keep the company off tribal lands. The tribe fears that the kind of injection-leach mining that HRI plans to do will consume vast quantities of scarce water, while contaminating precious groundwater used for drinking by people and livestock. At just such an operation in Grover, Colorado, groundwater radioactivity was found to be 15 times greater than before mining began.

Nor will mining be limited to Indian lands. As with oil and gas exploration, the likelihood is that nothing will turn out to be off limits. Claims for the right to mine within five miles of Grand Canyon National Park, for example, have jumped from 10 in 2003 to 1,100 today. The Grand Canyon Trust, the Center for Biological Diversity, and the Sierra Club just blocked a mine proposal for nearby Deer Tank Wash because flashfloods could easily carry left-over radioactive materials down into the park. As applications pile up, however, conservationists will be hard pressed to keep ahead of the onslaught of challenges to the Grand Canyon’s integrity. So if you want to see this national treasure, fill up this summer on $4-5 a gallon gas and come soon, before a dusty haze envelops the area, dump-truck traffic becomes the norm, and the wildlife flees.

Virtually all of southern Utah’s famed national parks and monuments -- Arches, Zion, Bryce, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Natural Bridges, and Grand Staircase Escalante -- are surrounded by potential uranium deposits. Unlike the first uranium boom of the atomic era, which took place in sparsely populated and remote canyons and mesas, the new boom is likely to go wherever uranium is found. To take but one example, the Powertech Uranium Corporation is opening a mine just ten miles from the sprawling city of Fort Collins, home of Colorado State University.

Here’s the reality of the new West -- like the old West: The boom will suffer no limits because speculators and mining companies enjoy so few restrictions.

Manifest Destiny on a mule: In the nineteenth century, Manifest Destiny sometimes rode in on a sleek stallion, armed with guns and a sword, but sometimes it carried a pick and shovel and arrived on the back of a mule. Mining was encouraged and empowered by laws that provided prospectors and investors with every imaginable incentive. Public lands were seen mainly as storehouses for commodities like timber and metals. No ecological context was considered, because none was available -- other than the rantings of that ol’ crank John Muir and the mumblings of defeated Indians.

Today, we know better but, unbelievably enough, the Mining Act of 1872 still rules. That Act is, in fact, the Methuselah of taxpayer boondoggles. It obligates the Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service and the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management to approve applications for exploratory drilling without environmental review. Once ore is found and taken, no payment of royalties is required. The giant mining conglomerate, Phelps Dodge, recently acquired the mineral rights to national forest land in Colorado for just over $100,000. The company expects to extract $9 billion in molybdenum from the land. If, to speculators, the prospect of mega-profits is like sex, the Mining Act of 1872 has always been their Viagra.

To add insult to injury, the Act makes taxpayers responsible for any clean-up of the land after the mining companies are through extracting its mineral wealth. Utah, for instance, has 5,000 abandoned uranium mines that have yet to be cleaned up. They were simply abandoned after the first boom 50 years ago.

A massive uranium tailings pile between Arches National Park and Moab sits right beside the Colorado River, leaking radioactive and toxic debris into water that is eventually used for agriculture and drinking by 30 million people downstream in Arizona, Nevada, and California. Because one enormous flashflood could wash tons of that radioactive milling waste into the river, a $300 million federal clean-up is underway. Taxpayers will pay for 16 million tons of uranium milling waste to be moved away from the river.

Almost half the headwaters of Western rivers are polluted by some kind of mining waste. In Colorado, 37 cities and towns depend on drinking water that exceeds federal levels for uranium and its associated nuclides. It would take an estimated $50 billion to clean up all the abandoned mines and processing sites in the West.

Big, dumb, dangerous cousins: Nuclear power is now offered as an alternative to coal power. But, in actuality, Big Nuke is Big Carbon’s mad-scientist cousin. Both externalize their costs: to the land, to the atmosphere, to miners, to consumers, to communities near the mines and refining facilities, and especially to future generations who will live with the long-term consequences of our short-term gains. The damage that both do is, of course, justified as necessary and unavoidable.

In addition to the ecological devastation they cause, their most compelling similarity is that both can get under your skin and make you sick. Westerners who live near uranium mines and mills will tell you that those activities can be as dirty and noxious as coal mines, coal-fired power plants, tar sand pits, and oil refineries. Cancer from inhaling coal dust feels the same as cancer from uranium dust. In the age of carbon and fission, what we refer to as "environmentalism" could just as well be called "embodimentalism," since the decisions we make about what we allow into our air, water, and soil get translated into flesh, blood, bone, nerve, and experience.

Perhaps those iconic cooling towers we picture when we think about a nuclear power plant are like industrial cathedrals, monuments to our hubris and the unsustainable materialism it generates. Our fervent faith in economic growth makes us blind to natural processes, ecological relationships, the long scales of time, and ultimate consequences.

We believe that, because we live above and beyond nature, we can act without context or caution. Our industrial missionaries drive thumper trucks, drill holes, send samples to the labs, and convert investors. Like the conquistadors of old, who searched for gold, they stake their claims on the land for its imagined riches. They declare ownership, no longer for church and king, but for corporation and investors. Ecosystems, communities, and future generations are sacrificed, and still salvation recedes.

Nuclear, coal, gas, or oil: "same old same old," as they say. It’s getting hot out here in the West and we need a new story.

Kucinich: Impeachment Not "Off the Table"

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By Christopher Kuttruff

While Congressional leaders silently opt to table impeachment articles against President Bush, Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) vows to speak out and keep the articles alive and in the public conscience. Kucinich spoke on Tuesday to Truthout about his resolution.

Last week the House voted 251-166 to refer Kucinich’s articles of impeachment to committee - an action that most political analysts view as a desire by the Congressional leadership to bury the resolution. Kucinich, however, promised to keep impeachment from being swept "off the table" in order to provide a historical record of the Bush administration’s policies.

The 35 articles of impeachment include charges of violating domestic and international laws against torture, misrepresenting intelligence in the lead-up to the war, illegally spying on American citizens, obstructing justice and governmental oversight, and many other violations.

When asked why impeachment has not bee seriously considered, Kucinich recalled to Truthout:

"Back in October of 2006 ... the Democratic leaders, expecting that they would be in a position of being in charge of the Congress, when asked about impeachment, said no. So, what happened is the tone was set early on that impeachment would be off the table even before the Democrats took over.

The problem is that such an approach unwittingly licensed misconduct and violations of US and international law. This was not very well thought out by Congressional leaders. Because the inaction has nullified the historical role - the constitutionally mandated role - of separation of powers and checks and balances. Two years ago it was too early ... now it’s too late. The only question that should be asked is did he violate the law? The answer to that question is yes."

On MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann on June 10, Jonathan Turley, professor of constitutional law at George Washington University, commented on the articles of impeachment. "The framers, I think, would have been astonished by the absolute passivity, if not the collusion, of the Democrats in protecting President Bush from impeachment," Turley stated.

"Frankly some of these claims are not really impeachable offenses. For example, it’s not impeachable to be negligent. But there are plenty of crimes there. What’s really disturbing for many of us, is that it takes a real effort for Democrats to walk from the floor to their offices and not trip over crimes. They are all over the record. What’s amazing is that the president is hiding in plain view. He hasn’t really denied the elements of these offenses. So, all that is lacking is political will," Turley noted.

"Speaker Pelosi will continue to lead legislative efforts to find a new direction in Iraq but believes that impeachment would create a divisive battle, be a distraction from Congress’ efforts to chart a new course for America’s working families and would ultimately fail," Nadeam Elshami, spokesman for Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, said in a statement.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer has questioned the effectiveness of challenging President Bush in the "waning months of this administration’s tenure."

With elections approaching, many Congress members dismiss the impeachment resolution as implausible and politically unwise, but few have attempted to dispute the substance of the articles. Sending the resolution to committee, a tactic frequently used to block debate on an issue or piece of legislation, reflects the Congressional leadership’s unwillingness to debate the articles.

But while most legislation can go to committee and not be heard from again, impeachment is a privileged resolution, meaning that it has to be initially voted on in a timely manner, and it can be brought up again. Kucinich vowed to do exactly that. He stressed that if the resolution is not acted on by the House Judiciary committee, he will reintroduce the articles. "I’ll bring it back," Kucinich emphasized. "The minute I introduced it, someone from the media said ’Well the leadership says this is dead’; and I said ’well, then, I hope they believe in life after death’ because I’m bringing this back. And it’ll be brought back within about 30 days of when I introduced it. And there’ll be more. There’ll be 60 items. And I’ll read them. And people need to hear exactly what’s happened in this government."

Congressman Robert Wexler (D-Florida), Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-California) and Lynn Woolsey (D-California) have come out in support of the resolution, but most Congress members have avoided the issue completely, trying not to marginalize themselves before the 2008 election. Kucinich said that he is talking to other House members to try to get them on board, and that he was also going to speak to Judiciary Chairman John Conyers this week, and provide Conyers more information and evidence supporting the articles.

"I’ve talked to Republicans who support the resolution, but they’re not prepared to come out. There are Democrats who support it, and hopefully they’ll put their names to it. But whether they do or not, I feel that this needs to be on the record," Kucinich said.

Asked why the conflicting principles of the Democratic Party and the Bush administration have not resulted in a more defined impasse between the two branches, Kucinich stated, "The Bush administration has promulgated this concept of a unitary executive, which essentially nullifies, again, the Congress. And if the Congress goes along with that, it’s essentially engaging in self-negation. We don’t have any right to destroy the Constitution any more than the president does. And we have to look at the consequences of our failure to act here."

Kucinich refused to accept the notion that articles of impeachment were an exercise in partisanship that would not result in any action.

"There are hearings that take place, but of what consequence. There are letters being written, but where do they lead? If there’s no accountability, hearings and letters are for naught. This impeachment resolution is a document, which should be the basis for hearings.

I am not going to relent in my determination to protect this Constitution and to show the American people that the government that they have had for the last two terms has been based on lies - lies that have separated us from the world..."

Easing of laws that led to detainee abuse hatched in secret

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By Tom Lasseter

WASHINGTON — The framework under which detainees were imprisoned for years without charges at Guantanamo and in many cases abused in Afghanistan wasn’t the product of American military policy or the fault of a few rogue soldiers.

It was largely the work of five White House, Pentagon and Justice Department lawyers who, following the orders of President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, reinterpreted or tossed out the U.S. and international laws that govern the treatment of prisoners in wartime, according to former U.S. defense and Bush administration officials.

The Supreme Court now has struck down many of their legal interpretations. It ruled last Thursday that preventing detainees from challenging their detention in federal courts was unconstitutional.

The quintet of lawyers, who called themselves the “War Council," drafted legal opinions that circumvented the military’s code of justice, the federal court system and America’s international treaties in order to prevent anyone — from soldiers on the ground to the president — from being held accountable for activities that at other times have been considered war crimes.

Sen. Carl Levin, who’s leading an investigation into the origins of the harsh interrogation techniques, said at a hearing Tuesday that the abuse wasn’t the result of "a few bad apples" within the military, as the White House has claimed. "The truth is that senior officials in the United States government sought information on aggressive techniques, twisted the law to create the appearance of their legality and authorized their use against detainees," said Levin, a Michigan Democrat.

The international conventions that the United States helped draft, and to which it’s a party, were abandoned in secret meetings among the five men in one another’s offices. No one in the War Council has publicly described the group’s activities in any detail, and only some of their opinions and memorandums have been made public.

Neither the White House nor the Department of Defense has taken responsibility, and the U.S. military’s top uniformed leadership remained silent in public while its legal code was being discarded. It was left to lawyers in the military’s legal system, the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, to defend the rule of law. They never had a chance.

Only one of the five War Council lawyers remains in office: David Addington, the brilliant but abrasive longtime legal adviser and now chief of staff to Cheney. His primary motive, according to several former administration and defense officials, was to push for an expansion of presidential power that Congress or the courts couldn’t check.

Alberto Gonzales, first the White House counsel and then the attorney general, resigned last August amid allegations of perjury related to congressional hearings about the firings of U.S. attorneys.

The Defense Department in February abruptly announced the resignation of William J. Haynes II, the former Pentagon general counsel, amid sharp public criticism by military lawyers that he failed to ensure a just system of detainee trials at Guantanamo.

Even some conservatives have condemned former Justice Department lawyer John Yoo for what many called sloppy legal work in drafting key memorandums about detention policy. He’s now a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

The last and least known member of the group, Timothy E. Flanigan, a former deputy to Gonzales, withdrew his nomination to be deputy attorney general in 2005 amid mounting questions in the Senate about his role in drafting the administration’s legal definition of torture and other issues.

All five refused to answer questions from McClatchy for this story. Only Flanigan gave a reason, saying that he doesn’t discuss past clients, in this case the U.S. government. Yoo previously has denied any connection between his work and detainee abuse.

The quintet did more than condone harsh treatment, however. It created an environment in which it was nearly impossible to prosecute soldiers or officials for alleged crimes committed in U.S. detention facilities.

The Bush administration pursued a strategy from the beginning to exempt American soldiers and operatives from legal repercussions for their actions, said Nigel Rodley, a British lawyer and professor who was the United Nations’ special rapporteur on torture from 1993 to 2001.

The U.S. said it was continuing to follow the rule of law but at the same time it sidestepped any international treaties that could create problems for soldiers or officials, said Rodley, a member of the U.N. Human Rights Committee.

The legal architecture, he said, hinged on the notion that "The treaties that were relevant to U.S. criminal law were not relevant. That was the trick."

The administration, in other words, set out to circumvent any law that might have restricted Bush’s detainee and interrogation programs.


A handful of legal opinions opened the way to the abuses documented in McClatchy’s investigation. Among them:

  • In a Jan. 9, 2002, memorandum for Haynes, co-author Yoo opined that basic Geneva Convention protections known as Common Article Three forbidding humiliating and degrading treatment and torture of prisoners didn’t cover alleged al Qaida or Taliban detainees — the entire incoming population of detainees in Afghanistan and Guantanamo.

  • In a memorandum to Bush dated Jan. 25, 2002, Gonzales said that rescinding detainees’ Geneva protections "substantially reduces the threat of domestic criminal prosecution under the War Crimes Act." Doing so, Gonzales wrote, also would create a solid defense against prosecutors or independent counsels who may in the future "decide to pursue unwarranted charges based on Section 2441," the U.S. War Crimes Act, which prohibits violations of the Geneva Conventions. Gonzales added that by withholding Geneva protections and prisoner-of-war status, Bush could avoid case-by-case reviews of detainees’ status.

  • On Feb. 7, 2002, Bush issued a memorandum declaring that alleged al Qaida or Taliban members wouldn’t be considered prisoners of war and, further, that they wouldn’t be granted protection under Common Article Three. Most nations accept Article Three, common to all four Geneva Conventions, as customary law setting the minimum standard for conduct in any conflict, whether internal or international.

  • An Aug. 1, 2002, memorandum that Gonzales requested from the Justice Department defined torture as "injury such as death, organ failure or serious impairment of body functions," a high bar for ruling interrogation techniques or detainee treatment illegal. U.S. law, according to the memorandum’s analysis, "prohibits only extreme acts."

  • A March 14, 2003, memorandum that Yoo prepared at Haynes’ request concluded that even if an interrogation method violated U.S. criminal statutes — such as the one against war crimes — the interrogators involved most likely couldn’t be prosecuted because they were operating within the scope of Bush’s constitutional authority to wage war against al Qaida and other militant groups.

"In wartime, it is for the president alone to decide what methods to use to best prevail against the enemy," Yoo wrote.

Now it appears that reinterpreting the law to lift legal protections for detainees could backfire. On May 13, the Pentagon announced that it was dropping all charges against Mohammed al Qahtani, a Saudi man held in Guantanamo who’s accused of planning to take part in the 9-11 attacks as the "20th hijacker."

The official overseeing the case, Susan J. Crawford, gave no reason for the move, which followed the leak of an interrogation log that detailed harsh attempts at Guantanamo to break Qahtani mentally. Among the methods used were forcing him to act like a dog, putting women’s underwear on his head, keeping him in stress positions and accusing him of homosexuality.

In its decision last week, the Supreme Court restored the right of habeas corpus, that is, the detainees’ right to challenge the cause of their detention.

The five lawyers on the War Council met every few weeks behind closed doors in Gonzales’ or Haynes’ office to plot legal strategy, according to Jack Goldsmith, a former senior Justice Department lawyer.

Several other former U.S. officials confirmed that the group was the driving force for White House policy on detainees.

Fears of future prosecution motivated many officials in the administration, Goldsmith said in his book "The Terror Presidency," published last year. The five lawyers saw legal opinions drafted by Yoo and others in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel as a shield, Goldsmith wrote, that would make it hard to convict someone of acting on legal advice from the premier legal office in the administration.

"In my two years in the government, I witnessed top officials and bureaucrats in the White House and throughout the administration openly worrying that investigators acting with the benefit of hindsight in a different political environment would impose criminal penalties on heat-of-battle judgment calls," wrote Goldsmith, who declined interview requests.

As the head of the Office of Legal Council from the fall of 2003 to the summer of 2004, Goldsmith reversed the August 2002 and March 2003 opinions.


The military’s lawyers were among those who were most concerned about what the new policies would mean for soldiers in the field.

Though not well known to the public, the Judge Advocate General’s corps prides itself on defending the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the military’s law book, which demands strict discipline and moral behavior in wartime. The legal officers are fond of saying that military commanders can depend on two people for honest advice: their chaplains and their JAG lawyers.

The military legal community complained, to little avail, that the policies hatched with the consent of Bush, Cheney and then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld were replacing decades of U.S. military policy on handling detainees.

When they protested, the War Council shut them out.

"We were absolutely marginalized," said Donald J. Guter, a rear admiral who served as the Navy’s judge advocate general from 2000 to 2002. "I think it was intentional, because so many military JAGs spoke up about the rule of law."

Thomas Romig, a major general who was the Army’s judge advocate general from 2001 to 2005, agreed that the JAGs were pushed to the side: "It was a disaster," he said.

Trust between the uniformed military lawyers and the Bush administration collapsed in the months after 9-11.

Guter said he began to think that Haynes "was playing games" in late 2001, when the two met regularly to figure out how to handle detainees in Afghanistan.

Haynes, then the Pentagon’s head lawyer, had asked whether hundreds of the prisoners could be detained on Navy warships. The security and logistics involved in operating a ship while maintaining a maximum-security prison onboard would have been impossible. Guter thought that Haynes was raising such ideas to push him toward establishing a prison at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base.

Guter said "it became apparent pretty quickly" that Haynes wanted a place "outside of the courts," where no judge could consider whether detainees were being held lawfully or under appropriate conditions.

"What they were looking for was the minimum due process that we could get away with," said Guter, who’s now the dean of Duquesne University’s law school. "I felt like they knew the answer they wanted to hear."

Romig recalled tense discussions with Yoo in November and December 2001 about setting up military commissions to try detainees.

"John Yoo wanted to use military commissions in the manner they were used in the Indian wars," Romig said. "I looked at him and said, ’You know, that was 100-and-something years ago. You’re out of your mind; we’re talking about the law.’ "

The military commissions that the U.S. used against Native Americans during the mid-19th century were often ad hoc and frequently resulted in natives being hanged or shot.

"As they viewed it, due process is legal mumbo jumbo," said Romig, who’s now the dean of Washburn University’s law school. "They wanted to get them, get the facts and convict them. ... If you’re caught as a terrorist, you’re presumed guilty and you have to prove you’re innocent. It was crazy."

When Romig objected to pushing the boundaries of interrogation procedures during meetings in late 2002 or early 2003, he recalled that civilian defense officials replied that the time for law had passed.

"Guys, it’s time to wake up and smell the coffee. It’s time to take the gloves off," Romig said he was told by Marshall Billingslea, a deputy to Douglas Feith — who was then the undersecretary of defense for policy, the Pentagon’s third-ranking official.

Romig said that he and other military officers asked, "Do you realize the implications of what you’re saying?"

Like many in the military, Romig doubted the quality of intelligence gathered by physical coercion.

Haynes, who also was present, had no objections to what Billingslea had said, according to Romig. Billingslea and Haynes declined requests for comment.

In June 2006, over the objections of the White House, the Supreme Court ruled that Common Article Three of the Geneva Conventions was applicable to detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

Four months later, Bush signed the Military Commissions Act, which said that no foreign unlawful combatant subject to trial by military commission could invoke the Geneva Conventions as a source of rights, and that no U.S. court or judge has jurisdiction to hear cases in which such detainees contest their incarceration.

The bill also rewrote part of the U.S. legal code on war crimes, changing the definition of a war crime from conduct that "constitutes a violation of Common Article 3" to the much higher standard of "a grave breach of Common Article 3."

Within that new definition, it excluded "pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions," meaning harsh treatment that’s allowed by the Bush administration’s legal interpretations.

Among those whom Bush thanked at a bill-signing ceremony were Cheney — Addington’s main backer in the White House — and Gonzales.

Two years later, the Supreme Court ruled that detainees have the right to challenge their detention before federal judges, striking down that section of the Military Commissions Act. The 5-4 decision said the law applied to everyone: "From an early date it was understood that the king, too, was subject to the law."

The policies hatched in the offices of Gonzales, Addington and Haynes muddied decades of U.S. military policy on handling detainees.

Changes to detainee law such as rescinding Common Article Three give a "dehumanizing message about the people (detainees) we’re dealing with," said Lt. Col. Bryan Broyles, a defense attorney in the Office of Military Commissions, which was set up to try detainees at Guantanamo.

"The people who pursue that sort of academic, intellectual pursuit," said Broyles, who represents Qahtani, "don’t understand the effect it has on the people (soldiers) who only see the end result."

Market Full Of Oil, Price Trend "Fake": Ahmadinejad

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The market is full of oil and the rising price trend is "fake and imposed," Iran's president said on Tuesday, partly blaming a weak U.S. dollar which he said was being pushed lower on purpose.

"At a time when the growth of consumption is lower than the growth of production and the market is full of oil, prices are rising and this trend is completely fake and imposed," President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in a televised speech.

"It is very clear that visible and invisible hands are controlling prices in a fake way with political and economic aims," he said when opening a meeting of the OPEC Fund for International Development in the central Iranian city of Isfahan.

Iran, the world's fourth-largest oil exporter, has repeatedly said the market is well-supplied with crude and blames rising prices on speculation, a weak U.S. currency and geopolitical factors.

"As you know the decrease in the dollar's value and the increase in energy prices are two sides of the same coin which are being introduced as factors behind the recent instability," Ahmadinejad said.

Oil steadied on Tuesday after touching a record near $140 the previous day, with traders caught between a weaker dollar and expectations that top exporter Saudi Arabia will ramp up output to its highest rate in decades.

Iran has often said it sees no need for the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to boost output.


Ahmadinejad reiterated his view that oil should be sold in a basket of currencies rather than U.S. dollars, an idea which has failed to win over other OPEC members, except Venezuela.

"The ever-increasing decrease in the dollar's value is one of the world's major problems," he said.

"A combination of the world's valid currencies should become a basis for oil transactions or (OPEC) member countries should determine a new currency for oil transactions," he said.

Iran, embroiled in a standoff with the West over its nuclear program, has for more than two years been increasing its sales of oil for currencies other than the dollar, saying the weak U.S. currency is eroding its purchasing power.

Ahmadinejad, who in the past has called the dollar a "worthless piece of paper," suggested "some big powers" were driving it lower on purpose:

"The planners for some big powers are acting to decrease the dollar's value," he said. "For years they imposed inflation and their own economic problems to other nations by injecting the dollar without any support to the global economy."

Foes since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, Tehran and Washington are also at odds over Tehran's disputed nuclear activities as well as over policy in Iraq. Iran says its atomic work is peaceful.

Deals With Iraq Are Set to Bring Oil Giants Back

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BAGHDAD — Four Western oil companies are in the final stages of negotiations this month on contracts that will return them to Iraq, 36 years after losing their oil concession to nationalization as Saddam Hussein rose to power.

Exxon Mobil, Shell, Total and BP — the original partners in the Iraq Petroleum Company — along with Chevron and a number of smaller oil companies, are in talks with Iraq’s Oil Ministry for no-bid contracts to service Iraq’s largest fields, according to ministry officials, oil company officials and an American diplomat.

The deals, expected to be announced on June 30, will lay the foundation for the first commercial work for the major companies in Iraq since the American invasion, and open a new and potentially lucrative country for their operations.

The no-bid contracts are unusual for the industry, and the offers prevailed over others by more than 40 companies, including companies in Russia, China and India. The contracts, which would run for one to two years and are relatively small by industry standards, would nonetheless give the companies an advantage in bidding on future contracts in a country that many experts consider to be the best hope for a large-scale increase in oil production.

There was suspicion among many in the Arab world and among parts of the American public that the United States had gone to war in Iraq precisely to secure the oil wealth these contracts seek to extract. The Bush administration has said that the war was necessary to combat terrorism. It is not clear what role the United States played in awarding the contracts; there are still American advisers to Iraq’s Oil Ministry.

Sensitive to the appearance that they were profiting from the war and already under pressure because of record high oil prices, senior officials of two of the companies, speaking only on the condition that they not be identified, said they were helping Iraq rebuild its decrepit oil industry.

For an industry being frozen out of new ventures in the world’s dominant oil-producing countries, from Russia to Venezuela, Iraq offers a rare and prized opportunity.

While enriched by $140 per barrel oil, the oil majors are also struggling to replace their reserves as ever more of the world’s oil patch becomes off limits. Governments in countries like Bolivia and Venezuela are nationalizing their oil industries or seeking a larger share of the record profits for their national budgets. Russia and Kazakhstan have forced the major companies to renegotiate contracts.

The Iraqi government’s stated goal in inviting back the major companies is to increase oil production by half a million barrels per day by attracting modern technology and expertise to oil fields now desperately short of both. The revenue would be used for reconstruction, although the Iraqi government has had trouble spending the oil revenues it now has, in part because of bureaucratic inefficiency.

For the American government, increasing output in Iraq, as elsewhere, serves the foreign policy goal of increasing oil production globally to alleviate the exceptionally tight supply that is a cause of soaring prices.

The Iraqi Oil Ministry, through a spokesman, said the no-bid contracts were a stop-gap measure to bring modern skills into the fields while the oil law was pending in Parliament.

It said the companies had been chosen because they had been advising the ministry without charge for two years before being awarded the contracts, and because these companies had the needed technology.

A Shell spokeswoman hinted at the kind of work the companies might be engaged in. “We can confirm that we have submitted a conceptual proposal to the Iraqi authorities to minimize current and future gas flaring in the south through gas gathering and utilization,” said the spokeswoman, Marnie Funk. “The contents of the proposal are confidential.”

While small, the deals hold great promise for the companies.

“The bigger prize everybody is waiting for is development of the giant new fields,” Leila Benali, an authority on Middle East oil at Cambridge Energy Research Associates, said in a telephone interview from the firm’s Paris office. The current contracts, she said, are a “foothold” in Iraq for companies striving for these longer-term deals.

Any Western oil official who comes to Iraq would require heavy security, exposing the companies to all the same logistical nightmares that have hampered previous attempts, often undertaken at huge cost, to rebuild Iraq’s oil infrastructure.

And work in the deserts and swamps that contain much of Iraq’s oil reserves would be virtually impossible unless carried out solely by Iraqi subcontractors, who would likely be threatened by insurgents for cooperating with Western companies.

Yet at today’s oil prices, there is no shortage of companies coveting a contract in Iraq. It is not only one of the few countries where oil reserves are up for grabs, but also one of the few that is viewed within the industry as having considerable potential to rapidly increase production.

David Fyfe, a Middle East analyst at the International Energy Agency, a Paris-based group that monitors oil production for the developed countries, said he believed that Iraq’s output could increase to about 3 million barrels a day from its current 2.5 million, though it would probably take longer than the six months the Oil Ministry estimated.

Mr. Fyfe’s organization estimated that repair work on existing fields could bring Iraq’s output up to roughly four million barrels per day within several years. After new fields are tapped, Iraq is expected to reach a plateau of about six million barrels per day, Mr. Fyfe said, which could suppress current world oil prices.

The contracts, the two oil company officials said, are a continuation of work the companies had been conducting here to assist the Oil Ministry under two-year-old memorandums of understanding. The companies provided free advice and training to the Iraqis. This relationship with the ministry, said company officials and an American diplomat, was a reason the contracts were not opened to competitive bidding.

A total of 46 companies, including the leading oil companies of China, India and Russia, had memorandums of understanding with the Oil Ministry, yet were not awarded contracts.

The no-bid deals are structured as service contracts. The companies will be paid for their work, rather than offered a license to the oil deposits. As such, they do not require the passage of an oil law setting out terms for competitive bidding. The legislation has been stalled by disputes among Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish parties over revenue sharing and other conditions.

The first oil contracts for the majors in Iraq are exceptional for the oil industry.

They include a provision that could allow the companies to reap large profits at today’s prices: the ministry and companies are negotiating payment in oil rather than cash.

“These are not actually service contracts,” Ms. Benali said. “They were designed to circumvent the legislative stalemate” and bring Western companies with experience managing large projects into Iraq before the passage of the oil law.

A clause in the draft contracts would allow the companies to match bids from competing companies to retain the work once it is opened to bidding, according to the Iraq country manager for a major oil company who did not consent to be cited publicly discussing the terms.

Assem Jihad, the Oil Ministry spokesman, said the ministry chose companies it was comfortable working with under the charitable memorandum of understanding agreements, and for their technical prowess. “Because of that, they got the priority,” he said.

In all cases but one, the same company that had provided free advice to the ministry for work on a specific field was offered the technical support contract for that field, one of the companies’ officials said.

The exception is the West Qurna field in southern Iraq, outside Basra. There, the Russian company Lukoil, which claims a Hussein-era contract for the field, had been providing free training to Iraqi engineers, but a consortium of Chevron and Total, a French company, was offered the contract. A spokesman for Lukoil declined to comment.

Charles Ries, the chief economic official in the American Embassy in Baghdad, described the no-bid contracts as a bridging mechanism to bring modern technology into the fields before the oil law was passed, and as an extension of the earlier work without charge.

To be sure, these are not the first foreign oil contracts in Iraq, and all have proved contentious.

The Kurdistan regional government, which in many respects functions as an independent entity in northern Iraq, has concluded a number of deals. Hunt Oil Company of Dallas, for example, signed a production-sharing agreement with the regional government last fall, though its legality is questioned by the central Iraqi government. The technical support agreements, however, are the first commercial work by the major oil companies in Iraq.

The impact, experts say, could be remarkable increases in Iraqi oil output.

While the current contracts are unrelated to the companies’ previous work in Iraq, in a twist of corporate history for some of the world’s largest companies, all four oil majors that had lost their concessions in Iraq are now back.

But a spokesman for Exxon said the company’s approach to Iraq was no different from its work elsewhere.

“Consistent with our longstanding, global business strategy, ExxonMobil would pursue business opportunities as they arise in Iraq, just as we would in other countries in which we are permitted to operate,” the spokesman, Len D’Eramo, said in an e-mailed statement.

But the company is clearly aware of the history. In an interview with Newsweek last fall, the former chief executive of Exxon, Lee Raymond, praised Iraq’s potential as an oil-producing country and added that Exxon was in a position to know. “There is an enormous amount of oil in Iraq,” Mr. Raymond said. “We were part of the consortium, the four companies that were there when Saddam Hussein threw us out, and we basically had the whole country.”

Jeremy Scahill: Blackwater is Still in Charge, Deadly, Above the Law and Out of Control

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By Antonia Juhasz

On June 3, Jeremy Scahill’s bestselling Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army was released in fully revised and updated paperback form. The new edition includes reporting on the now-famous Nisour Square massacre on Sept. 16 of last year, in which Blackwater mercenaries opened fire in a Baghdad neighborhood, brutally murdering 17 Iraqi civilians. The killing spree, which the U.S. Army would label a "criminal event," would reveal the extent of the lawlessnewss enjoyed by private contractors abroad and the lengths the Bush administration will go to protect its private army of choice.

Antonia Juhasz caught up with Scahill on the phone the day the new edition was released. A fellow at Oil Change International and author of The Bush Agenda, Juhasz is also the author of the forthcoming book The Tyranny of Oil: The World’s Most Powerful Industry, and What We Must Do to Stop It. Juhasz and Scahill discussed, among other topics, the story behind Blackwater, congressional inaction, radical privatization, Barack Obama, corporate vs. independent media, GI resistance in the age of private mercenaries, getting real about challenging corporations and the power of dissent.

Antonia Juhasz: I first have to admit that, until now, I had not read Blackwater and that, as someone who had been reading your Nation articles, I had quite erroneously assumed that I knew what you had to say about this company. I could not have been more wrong. This is a fantastic, informative, insightful and critically important book.

Jeremy Scahill: Thank you. I started writing this book by accident. I’d been writing about Blackwater when my [Nation] editors Katrina vanden Heuvel and Betsy Reed sat me down and said, "We’ve published ten articles about one company and you’re doing great work, but you either need to write a book or get a new beat." Once I began researching the company in the context of a book, I realized that, in many ways, it was a metaphor for so much that was happening with the country, particularly with the privatization agenda of the war machine. So, while there are some parts of the book that are based on reporting I did for the Nation, the vast majority is new investigative research.

AJ: What drew you to Blackwater?

JS: I was in Yugoslavia during the 1999 NATO bombing that Bill Clinton prosecuted ... Halliburton and other war contractors, like Dyncorp, were very much present on the ground during the Yugoslavian civil war, primarily in Bosnia. And so that was really my first direct interaction with this sort of parallel army of contractors.

Then the [U.S. attack on] Iraqis in Falluja was very important to me as a reporter, because I had been there many times and had friends inside of Falluja. I remember watching on March 31, 2004, when those four Blackwater contractors were ambushed and killed inside Falluja, and my immediate response after seeing the way it was covered in the press -- that they were "civilians" [or] "civilian contractors" -- was "Oh my god, Bush is going to destroy that city."

I began my reporting on Blackwater [in April 2004] based on a very simple question: "How were the deaths of these not-active-duty U.S. soldiers -- not civilians, but four corporate personnel working for Blackwater, a mercenary company -- how do their deaths warrant the destruction of an entire city?"

I realized that it was a story that spoke volumes to what we were seeing happening in this country with the export of this incredibly violent foreign policy, the connections of political allies of the president to the war industry… [So I began] an in-depth investigation of Blackwater: Who runs the company? What are their connections to the Bush administration and the national security apparatus of the U.S., etc.?

AJ: What did you hope that writing the book would accomplish -- and has it?

JS: When I was writing, I wasn’t thinking of it in terms of what I hoped to accomplish. What I was looking at was: Here is this company that was on no one’s map, basically, before March 31, 2004, and even in the weeks and months after that, was really just a blip on the media radar screen. I was hoping to expose this company as something much bigger than just its boots on the ground in Iraq, or its role in Falluja, Najaf and elsewhere -- but to explain, in a readable way, that this is a very dangerous trend that has been put on a radical fast track almost overnight.

Once we started to realize just how deeply embedded in the occupation of Iraq Blackwater has been, and its connection to the Bush administration, then the point of the book (became) raising hell in Congress and in the public -- saying to people, "We have to wake up and do something about this!"

Has that been a success? Well, probably not. I learned a very humbling lesson after the Nisour Square killings in September 2007, when it really appeared as though this company was on the ropes, and that it was quite possible that their time in Iraq was at an end. And I largely blame the Democrats in the Congress for failing to deliver that knockout blow. Because this was a company that had been involved in the worst massacre of Iraqi civilians to date in the Iraq war involving a private company, and yet their contract gets renewed in April 2008 and the Democrats continue to fund their operations -- and with the exception of [congressman] Henry Waxman [D-Calif.], almost no one in the Congress has done anything to effectively take on these individuals or this company.

AJ: You write in the book about the lack of both serious congressional inquiry and mainstream media coverage, but the book is filled with examples of congressional hearings, investigations, stand out members and references to many mainstream media reporters and stories. You also write in the new introduction to explain Democratic inaction, almost as a throwaway line, that "the Democrats take mercenary money too," but then you tell a story that is uniquely about the Bush administration in particular and the Republican Party in general. Talk about these seeming inconsistencies. What explains congressional inaction? And, in terms of informing the public, why aren’t a few excellent stories at the LA Times, Washington Post, New York Times and other outlets enough?

JS: Change does not happen through one-off articles or one-off hearings. Only drumbeat coverage in the media, drumbeat action by Congress, leads to change. You can find examples of corporate media outlets doing a great job explaining one incident involving Blackwater or a congressional hearing where some very important things were said, but the action has not been aggressive, and most importantly, it has not been sustained.

Blackwater is unique among war contractors in that it only butters one side of the bread -- the Republican side. [Founder and CEO] Erik Prince and other senior executives at Blackwater are die-hard ideological Republicans. They are foot soldiers for President Bush’s domestic and international agenda … But Blackwater is unusual. Most war contractors give depending on which way the political wind is blowing. Right now, Antonia, for the first time in 14 years, weapons manufacturers are actually donating more to the Democrats than to Republicans -- about 52 percent of the defense industry’s donations. In 1996, Democrats got just 32 percent.

AJ: Could Democratic inaction be summarized as: (1) money, and (2) there is an inherent contradiction that, if they really blow the cover on the private contractors, they will simultaneously be challenging the very continuation of the war, which far too many are not truly prepared to do?

JS: I interviewed one Democratic congressperson starting to work on this issue, and he said repeatedly, "I don’t want to be portrayed as anti-contractor," almost like contractor was the new Israel … No one who has political aspirations is going to give the perception that they are anti-business, and war is very, very big business in this country. I’ve also learned that congresspeople are just flat-out lazy. A lot of them have a pack of kids in their early 20s, in the case of the House, who are only looking at job listings for jobs on committees and to hop over to the Senate, and they couldn’t care less …

AJ Jeremy, you do know that I was once one of those kids, right?

JS You would have been extraordinary and an exception. I’ve had congresspeople say to me, "My staffers are a bunch of frat boy idiots whose only aspiration is to move up the chain." One congressman asked me to help him write a bill. I asked him about his legislative aides and he said, "Legislative aides? Are you kidding me?! I’d have to write my own bill. These kids couldn’t write their way out of kindergarten."

I’d never had any experience on the Hill. I learned the lesson that if the member wants to do something, unless the member makes this a priority, probably nothing will be done. I also think that the Democrats are too busy funding the war … they can’t even get straight what they want to do about official U.S. forces in Iraq, much less the shadow army of contractors.

AJ: Talk about the presidential candidates.

JS: There is something deeper here when you talk about Sen. Obama’s Iraq plan … (which) is going to necessitate using these private contractors for the foreseeable future in Iraq … Obama refuses to rule out using Blackwater or other private security companies in Iraq. The reason is simple, [there is] no one who can step in and fill Blackwater’s role come Jan. 21, 2009 … [Obama has] identified them as unaccountable, above the law, out of control, jeopardizing the safety of U.S. troops -- but, because he does not plan to end the U.S. occupation, he may very well have to use them.

[However] Obama is the author of the Democrats’ contractor reform bill that passed the House and is now before the Senate [the "Transparency and Accountability in Military and Security Contracting Act"]. He introduced it eight months before Nisour Square. I have problems with that legislation, but it’s a start … Obama more than probably anyone in the Senate, except for Bernie Sanders [I-Vt.], probably understands this issue.

But, I did a story in the Nation in February 2008 [in which Obama’s] staffers acknowledge that … he will not sign on to the Sanders-Schakowsky bill, "Stop Outsourcing Security Act," which seeks to ban the use of these companies in U.S. war zones and make all of the diplomatic security agents full-time employees of the U.S. government, which means that they would have an accountability structure in place.

AJ: Is it a good bill?

JS: I would back it 75 percent. There is a part of it that will allow a sort of permanent status of a paramilitary force in the U.S. State Department and just transfer the job from the private guys to full-time State Department employees. But in terms of trying to get those companies out of Iraq and shut down their operations there, the bill would go very far in doing that.

AJ: Let’s talk about the impact of private mercenaries on U.S. troops and anti-war organizing.

JS: That’s my challenge to the anti-war movement moving forward … This plays into some of the actions that you’ve been involved with, Antonia. Right now in Iraq there are 180,000 private contractors operating alongside 150,000 American troops, those contractors are not all armed individuals. In fact we don’t know the exact numbers.

AJ: What percentage do you think are mercenaries?

JS: The GAO estimated approximately 70,000 people working for private security firms in Iraq. In 2006, the estimate was about 48,000. But it’s incalculable because of the labyrinth contracting system. It took Congressman Waxman three years just to find out who the Blackwater contractors were working for when they were attacked in Falluja.

So, when you realize that there are 630 companies on the U.S. government payroll in Iraq right now, with personnel from 100 countries -- we would need hundreds of people working in the Congress making this their priority to get the kind of answers to the question you’re asking. Realize that we’re in a situation now where the private army, the corporate army, is now bigger than the U.S. military presence in Iraq.

The top priority of anti-war movement should be a two-pronged attack: Go after the war corporations, without whom the occupation of Iraq would be absolutely untenable, and those congresspeople who purport to be for change and continue to fund this corporate army.

We have many allies who are coming out of the ranks of the U.S. military, we should embrace them as a lot of us have with Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) and move forward and realize that this is now a corporatist state, and the corporations have been let off the hook for far too long with the exception of a few dedicated activists across the U.S. This needs to be priority No. 1 for the anti-war movement, because that’s the way to shut down the war, is to shut down the business of the companies that make it possible.

AJ: You and I were both at IVAW’s Winter Soldier hearings in Maryland, and I was just at the Northwest Winter Soldier in Seattle. GI resistance, the organizing of veterans, and counter-recruitment are all key organizing strategies against this war. Much of this is based on a model from Vietnam. But, the key difference today is the role of private mercenaries. Talk about this resistance within the context of the private mercenaries. Is there an impenetrable weakness in this strategy if private contractors can simply take their place? Or, would it be impossible to entirely fight a war using private contractors? What about organizing the private contractors against the war?

JS: It would not be possible to fight the entire war with contractors. Right now, we have the most powerful army on earth and a parallel army of contractors in Iraq, yet the U.S. is still militarily losing the war to a disorganized resistance that is also killing itself. The U.S. military is far more coordinated and organized than any army of contractors would ever be.

We have to adapt and adjust our tactics to those of the war machine. The war contracting companies are also taking advantage of the economic conditions of those they end up hiring. Who gets killed in Iraq for Halliburton? Poor people who go over there as truck drivers because they are in debt.

I think that raising the visibility of the counter-recruitment movement to include those people targeted for employment with these war companies would be a very difficult undertaking, but a very important one if we’re serious about ending this war and stopping this system of radical privatization of the war machine.

AJ: Do you think that private mercenaries should be outlawed? That they shouldn’t exist?

JS: Yes. I think that we have a grave threat, not only to democratic processes of the U.S., but to global peace and stability when a system that intimately links corporate profit to an escalation of war and conflict is not only permitted but actively supported. And we can talk until we’re blue in the face about the misdeeds of Blackwater in Iraq, but the reality is, Blackwater wouldn’t be there if there wasn’t a demand. Blackwater is the fruit of a poisonous tree -- this unquenchable thirst for offensive war and U.S. domination. The only function that these companies play in U.S. society is to enable unpopular, aggressive wars of conquest and a subversion of democratic oversight and accountability over U.S. taxpayer-funded operations.

AJ: I was fascinated by your discussion of the role of private security companies and oil corporations. We are in a historic moment with cases moving in U.S. courts against Chevron for its operations in Nigeria and against ExxonMobil in Indonesia. The companies are accused of using domestic military forces to brutally suppress local resistance. What if the companies had used private mercs? Mercenaries against whom, as you describe in great detail, we essentially have no laws?

JS: That’s a very interesting question, and I don’t know. Blackwater has a private intelligence company called Total Intelligence Solutions that offers what they describe as "CIA-type services" to Fortune 1000 corporations when they go into hostile areas. The U.N. Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries said recently about Latin America that, and I quote, "an emerging trend in Latin America and also in other regions of the world indicates situations of private security companies protecting transnational extractive corporations whose employees are often involved in suppressing legitimate social protest of communities and human rights and environmental organizations of the areas where these corporations operate." It’s on right now, and it’s growing by leaps and bounds.

I think it would be very difficult for local people in those communities to even know who did the action if mercenaries did it. Nigerians knew exactly who the people were who attacked them, from their insignias on their uniforms. And that information is being used in the case brought against Chevron. In the case of these private companies, often they operate with no indicator of who they are. It would take a huge amount of effort just to discover who the hell it was doing the torturing or whatever. We’ve already seen that its tremendously difficult to get any information about the official work of official forces, not to mention when you put it through layers of secrecy that come with contractors and subcontractors.

AJ: Let’s talk about the incredible success of the book. What makes a politically charged book, which bucks the popular narrative, an international bestseller?

JS: When the book came out -- and, really, up until this moment -- corporate newspapers largely ignored it. There were no reviews. When it debuted at No. 9 on the New York Times bestseller list, the paper did a favorable little 150-word article on it. But that’s it. Instead, it was a tremendous victory for independent media that the book debuted in the way it did because it was community media, grassroots activism, and online media activists and journalists that pushed this book around the country and raised awareness about it.

We did this very long book tour organized largely through the network of community radio stations that I’ve worked with over my life. In many places these were fund-raisers for stations [which] are often at the center of activism in their local communities. They connected me to activists, independent newspapers, online journalists, etc. The power of grassroots community media around the U.S. is what kept the book afloat and the issue afloat for the many months preceding the Nisour Square killings.

AJ: Nisour then brought the issue in to the headlines and brought you into mainstream media. Talk about that experience.

JS: On Sept. 16, I was just starting to think to myself that maybe I should start working on something different. I wouldn’t drop this issue, but I was wondering, "What’s the next phase of this work for me?"

I woke up the next morning and before I know it, I’m in a car on my way to CNN. I’m on live for five minutes, and it was clear from the beginning that they didn’t exactly know who I was, that maybe a producer had just quickly googled "Blackwater," saw there is someone who wrote a book, and let’s get them on the show. A lot of the interview was about the basics of Blackwater. Then at one point the host says, "So it sounds like you’re critical of these companies and of Blackwater," and asked, "So, what are the alternatives?" What I think he meant was, "Should the military do this instead? Is there another company?" But I said, "I think that U.S. should withdraw all of its military forces from Iraq, all of the mercenary companies and the army of contractors." I thought for certain that was it, that they would shut down in the interview, and there was sort of a pause, and I decided well, hell, I’ll just keep going if they’re going to let me talk, and I said, "and I think that the U.S. should pay reparations to the Iraqi people for the destruction of their country." And with that the interview ended.

I left there thinking that I’d likely never be on CNN again or any other corporate media. [Instead] I was asked to be on almost every corporate media outlet except FOX. In one night, I was on ABC World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, and NBC Nightly News. All of a sudden all of these journalists who were ignoring the book and the story systematically for a year were calling me up and demanding to speak with me.

I took it deadly seriously, and it was a very humbling experience, because I felt like this is one chance that we have to have someone who is firmly against this war to get on corporate media. I viewed it as a campaign to try to inject as much truth about the war as possible into the corporate media landscape. For almost two months, all I was doing with my life was going on these shows. It really seemed as though it was having an impact, as though something was really going to happen in Congress. I learned a lesson about power, and Congress, and media … The ball was dropped at the moment when it mattered the most.

AJ: What does it say about the mainstream media that they were so eager to have you on? Why did they continue to have you on after it was clear that you were an anti-war voice?

JS: In all candor, I have no idea. It was one of those rare moments where the media took this story very seriously and realized that this was legitimate criticism of a very powerful company. I also think it was a sensational story in a true tabloid sense, so everyone was interested. There were also very few people who have any sort of in-depth knowledge of Blackwater and what it is and does.

To your bigger point, though, about the anti-war movement, I think its one of the great media crimes of our lifetime that articulate anti-war people have been completely and totally wiped out of the media landscape in this country.

But did it go anywhere? You know, it’s sort of depressing when I think about that … I think it did raise awareness in a much broader segment of the population about the dangers of the radical privatization agenda with these companies. But, where it really matters, in the halls of Congress -- I don’t know that it had any real effective impact.

If anything, the real lesson was a very powerful reminder of the importance of small groups of grass-roots activists who are determined, who show up every Thursday afternoon in front of the federal building or at a company headquarters. It reinforced my belief that the conscience of this country can be found in those people in small groups across the country who are standing up against this madness. Those who have made a personal lifelong dedication. Congress is fickle, but activism is consistent.

Our challenge is to keep those actions going and growing but also to become very serious about what we’re doing to stand up to the Democrats in the Congress about the war and what they’re doing (or not doing) to confront these corporations. The war machine is very sophisticated. We have brilliant people in our movement -- there’s no reason why we can’t elevate to the level of taking them on in a way that actually impacts their bottom line.

Antonia Juhasz is a Tarbell Fellow, Oil Change International, and a Visiting Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies. She is author of The Bush Agenda: Invading the World, One Economy at a Time (HarperCollins Publishers, 2006), now available in paperback, updated with a new afterword. Juhasz is also the author of the forthcoming book The Tyranny of Oil: The World’s Most Powerful Industry, and What We Must Do to Stop It