Monday, September 8, 2008

Nearly 600,000 Subject to Possible Caging in Ohio

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By: David Rosenfeld

How many voter-registration mass mailers are "returned to sender" in the run-up to Election Day may determine how many Ohio residents are eligible to vote.

Ohio election officials are sending out a mass mailer stamped “do not forward” to all registered voters today (Sept. 5) with an absentee ballot application and other important notices for Nov. 4.

What’s important here is not so much what’s going out as what’s being returned to sender.

Unbeknownst to the would-be recipients, the same mailer — just 60 days before the election — has the potential to determine their eligibility to vote, challenged not by election officials but by partisan opposition.

A similar mailer in March netted nondeliverable mail from almost 600,000 registered voters in just five Ohio counties who could now have their ballots thrown out for voting under the wrong address.

The National Voter Registration Act prohibits any state from purging names from the voting rolls within 90 days of an election.

The law doesn’t, however, preclude mass partisan challenges on or shortly before Election Day — known as voter caging — based on the same returned envelopes from state-sponsored mailers like the ones in Ohio and others going out across the country.

In 2004, the year the national election hinged on results from Ohio, the Ohio Republican Party challenged 35,000 voters based on returned mail from the GOP's own friendly reminder notices. From 2004 to 2006, Republicans challenged 77,000 voters this way nationwide. A consent decree issued in 1982 and amended in 1987 enjoins the GOP from instituting “ballot security programs” that focus on minority voters.

No evidence so far suggests Republicans — vote caging is essentially a GOP sport — have mounted a caging campaign this year. Yet, in July, Franklin County Election Director and County GOP Chairman Doug Preisse told reporters he didn’t rule out challenges before November, particularly because of increased home foreclosures, which would make failures to change address on voter registration records more common.

A challenged voter will likely cast a provisional ballot, which often requires voters to return to election divisions to prove their identity and address. Nearly a third of all 1.6 million provisional ballots cast in 2004 were thrown out.

Voting-rights groups don’t oppose voter-roll housekeeping, but they cite the federal law as evidence that executing it so close to the actual election isn’t fair.

The fraud that voter caging purportedly roots out is relatively rare, although vote solicitors working for the liberal group ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, in 2004 and again this year were accused of submitting false registration forms. Ohio is one of five states where ACORN employees have been investigated and, in some instances, jailed over submitting false voter registration forms.

Unrelated to ACORN, the Web site cites two voting-fraud court cases in Ohio, both focused on individuals casting a second ballot intentionally.

On Nov. 1, 2004, voter-rights groups reacted and challenged the partisan caging in Ohio all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in just two days but lost in a final-hour appeal. This year, they want to be as proactive as possible, said Donita Judge, Ohio staff attorney for the nonprofit Advancement Project.

“A single returned piece of mail is not a reliable basis for challenging the right to vote,” Judge said. “Mail may be returned for many reasons, including errors in the database from which the mailing is derived, errors in the mailing labels, failure to include an apartment number or poor matching criteria.”

Since 2005, Ohio state law has required a non-forwarded mailer 60 days before each federal election. The suspicious part about the law, Judge said, is that it’s set to expire after the November election.

But it’s not all about throwing votes out. Another aspect of Ohio’s reformed election law is that it opens a window between Sept. 30 and Oct. 6 when voters can register one minute and cast a ballot the next.

That’s generally seen as a benefit for Democrats this year since the new registrations refer mainly to 400,000 or so resident college students in Ohio. Obama holds a 2-to-1 lead over McCain among 18- to 34-year-olds, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released last month.

Following a statewide mailer similar to the one going out today, before the Ohio primary in March, the Advancement Project obtained the lists of returned notices through simple public records requests. The organization requested records from five urban Ohio counties — Cuyahoga, Franklin, Hamilton, Lucas and Summit.

The total came to 600,000 names out of 3 million voters, amounting to 19.7 percent of all registered voters.

Sally Krisel, director of the Hamilton County Board of Elections, said the high percentage was misleading because the mailer in her county included those on the inactive voter roll. Considering only active registered voters, the county received about 5 percent returned in March, she said.

Inactive voters, tagged for possible removal, are given two years to cast a ballot before they can be removed from the rolls. None of the returned, 60-day notices are used for that purpose, Krisel said.

“We have not purged anybody this year,” she said. “In big counties, we’re often carrying a lot of inactive voters.”

In Franklin County, the March mailer went to all registered voters as well. Out of 780,000, more than 150,000 notices were returned. Those voters are now excluded from receiving another notice this week, said Ben Piscitelli, spokesman for the Franklin County Board of Elections. The only public records request for the list so far came from the Obama campaign, Piscitelli said.

Meanwhile, the sweeping Ohio election law loosens the rules around challenging voters. It also strips much of the ability of voters to know they are being challenged and defend their right to vote before an election judge.

Iraqis Protest Against US Presence In Iraq

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Thousands of Shi'ites protested against the U.S. presence in Iraq, heeding orders from anti-U.S. cleric Moqtada al-Sadr for a peaceful show of force on the first Friday of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Crowds of people waved photos of the reclusive cleric, dancing and shouting, following Friday prayers in Sadr City, a Shi'ite stronghold in northeastern Baghdad.

Several men burned a red, white and blue flag as they pledged support for the reclusive Sadr.

"We all support you, Sayyid Moqtada! We are your soldiers!" they shouted, addressing Sadr by a title of respect.

In the southern holy city of Najaf, several hundred protesters turned out for a parallel protest. "No, no to occupation!" read one banner.

Late last month, Sadr extended indefinitely a ceasefire for the Mehdi Army, the feared militia that until a government crackdown earlier this year controlled Sadr City and swathes of southern Iraq.

The cleric, who is believed to be holed up in the Iranian city of Qom, has asked the bulk of his followers to dedicate themselves to helping poor Shi'ites and countering western influence in Iraq. He also ordered Friday's protests.

The question as violence drops sharply across Iraq is whether the bulk of Sadr's militia will obey orders to put down their arms.

In Sadr City, Imam Muhenned al-Moussawi addressed the thousands of men and boys gathered for prayers under the blistering summer sun.

"Everybody knows that the goals of American wars are commercial. They use war to drain desperate nations economically and socially," he told the crowd.

The protests came as attention focused on the future of the U.S. troop presence in Iraq, and the Shi'ite-led government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki sought assurances from Washington about gradually reducing its military activities in the country.

Pentagon sources said this week they were recommending the withdrawal of one combat brigade, 3,000 to 5,000 soldiers, in early 2009, a move that reflects both improving conditions in Iraq and growing needs in Afghanistan.

Who Lost Iraq?

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By Michael Schwartz

Is the Maliki Government Jumping Off the American Ship of State?

As the Bush administration was entering office in 2000, Donald Rumsfeld exuberantly expressed its grandiose ambitions for Middle East domination, telling a National Security Council meeting: "Imagine what the region would look like without Saddam and with a regime that’s aligned with U.S. interests. It would change everything in the region and beyond."

A few weeks later, Bush speechwriter David Frum offered an even more exuberant version of the same vision to the New York Times Magazine: "An American-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and the replacement of the radical Baathist dictatorship with a new government more closely aligned with the United States, would put America more wholly in charge of the region than any power since the Ottomans, or maybe even the Romans."

From the moment on May 1, 2003, when the President declared "major combat operations… ended" on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, such exuberant administration statements have repeatedly been deflated by events on the ground. Left unsaid through all the twists and turns in Iraq has been this: Whatever their disappointments, administration officials never actually gave up on their grandiose ambitions. Through thick and thin, Washington has sought to install a regime "aligned with U.S. interests" -- a government ready to cooperate in establishing the United States as the predominant power in the Middle East.

Recently, with significantly lower levels of violence in Iraq extending into a second year, Washington insiders have begun crediting themselves with -- finally -- a winning strategy (a claim neatly punctured by Juan Cole, among other Middle East experts). In this context, actual Bush policy aims have, once again, emerged more clearly, but so has the administration’s striking and continual failure to implement them -- thanks to the Iraqis.

In the past few weeks, the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has made it all too clear that, in the long run, it has little inclination to remain "aligned with U.S. interests" in the region. In fact, we may be witnessing a classic "tipping point," a moment when Washington’s efforts to dominate the Middle East are definitively deep-sixed.

The client state that the Bush administration has spent so many years and hundreds of billions of dollars creating, nurturing, and defending has shown increasing disloyalty and lack of gratitude, as well as an ever stronger urge to go its own way. Under the pressure of Iraqi politics, Maliki has moved strongly in the direction of a nationalist position on two key issues: the continuing American occupation of the country and the future of Iraqi oil. In the process, he has sought to distance his government from the Bush administration and to establish congenial relationships, if not an outright alliance, with Washington’s international adversaries, including the Bush administration’s mortal enemy, Iran.

Withdrawal Becomes an Official Issue

Perhaps the most dramatic symbol of this new independence is the Iraqi government’s resistance to a Washington proposal for a "status of forces agreement" (SOFA) that would allow for a permanent and uninhibited U.S. military presence in Iraq.

With the impending expiration of the UN resolutions that gave legal cover to the U.S. military presence in Iraq, the SOFA negotiations are crucial. They began with a proposal that expressed the full extent of Washington’s ambitions to utilize Iraq as the base for making the U.S. "more wholly in charge of the region than any power since the Ottomans, or maybe even the Romans." The proposal first leaked to the press in June 2008 was essentially a major land grab, including provisions like the following that would not have seemed out of place in a nineteenth century colonial treaty:

*An indefinite number of U.S. troops would remain in Iraq indefinitely, stationed on up to 58 bases in locations determined by the United States.

*These troops would be allowed to mount attacks on any target inside Iraq without the permission of, or even notification to, Iraqi authorities.

*U.S. military and civilian authorities would be free to use Iraqi territory to mount attacks against any of Iraq’s neighbors without permission from the Iraqi government.

*The U.S. would control Iraqi airspace up to 30,000 feet, freeing the U.S. Air Force to strike as it wishes inside Iraq and creating the basis for the use of, or passage through, Iraq’s air space for planes bent on attacking other countries.

*The U.S. military and its private contractors would be immune from Iraqi law, even for actions unrelated to their military duties.

*Iraq’s defense, interior, and national security ministries (and all of Iraq’s arms purchases) would be under U.S. supervision for 10 years.

When leaked (clearly by Iraqis involved in the negotiations), this proposal generated opposition across the political spectrum from parliament to the streets. It was even denounced by the usually silent Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most influential Shia Ayatollah. Soon, Prime Minister Maliki made clear his own rejection of the proposal, setting in motion a chaotic negotiating process in which the Iraqis seem to have argued vehemently for a more modest, briefer U.S. presence, as well as a definite deadline for full withdrawal -- a proposal that was anathema to the Bush administration.

By early August, when the details of a new proposal endorsed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice began to leak out, it was clear that U.S. negotiators had given way, granting significant concessions to the Iraqi side. According to Iraqi insiders, the new draft agreement called for U.S. troops to be completely withdrawn from Iraqi cities, where most of the fighting usually takes place, by the summer of 2009. All U.S. troops -- not just the "combat" troops usually mentioned when Democrats talk about withdrawal timelines in Iraq -- would have to be gone by the end of 2011.

If the leaked draft were implemented, the U.S. would leave behind those 58 bases, including the five massive "enduring" bases into which the Bush administration has poured billions of dollars. Moreover, the unhindered scope of action Washington had originally demanded for its forces would be dramatically limited: The U.S. would not have the right to attack other countries from Iraqi soil, its ability to conduct operations within Iraq would be circumscribed, and immunity from prosecution would be restricted to U.S. military personnel (and then only when they were participating in approved military actions).

Symptomatic of the loosening U.S. grip on its Iraqi client government were the reactions of the two sides to the leaked provisions of the new version of the agreement. Secretary of State Rice declared it "acceptable" and explained uneasily that the timeline proposed was not the sort of fixed withdrawal date that the Bush administration had long adamantly rejected, but an "aspirational" "time horizon" that would depend on "conditions" in Iraq.

Maliki, in all likelihood responding to the fervor of public protests to Rice’s comments, immediately declared the agreement unacceptable unless the deadline for withdrawal was time-based and unconditional. In a well publicized speech to a gathering of tribal sheiks, he said that any agreement must be based on the principle that "no foreign soldier remains in Iraq after a specific deadline, not an open time frame." In further clarifying his remarks, a key aide told the Associated Press that "the last American soldiers must leave Iraq by the end of 2011, regardless of conditions at the time."

The latest reports suggest that a further round of secret negotiations had restored some U.S. demands, including full immunity for American soldiers (but not mercenary fighters), and application of the withdrawal deadline to combat troops only. Such concessions by Maliki, however, appeared certain to trigger another round of protest and resistance in the streets and in the Iraqi Parliament.

Whatever their outcome, the still-unfinished negotiations point to something quite new in the relationship between the two governments. Until recently, the Iraqi leadership faithfully sought to enact whatever policies the Bush administration favored (though its capacity to implement them was always in question). With the proposed SOFA, this posture disappeared, replaced by a clear antagonism to Washington’s desires. With its formidable weapons (including 146,000 soldiers on the ground), Washington is bound to win at least some of these confrontations, but what we may be seeing is the end of the dream of a regime "closely aligned" with U.S. policies.

The Re-emergence of Oil Nationalism

Nothing better highlights this transformation than oil policy. From the beginning of its occupation of Iraq, the Bush administration sought to quadruple Iraqi oil production by delivering control of the industry to the major international oil companies. Once given free rein to act on their own discretion, Washington policymakers believed that the oil majors would invest vast sums in modernizing existing fields, activate undeveloped reserves using the most advanced technology available, and discover major new fields utilizing state-of-the-art exploration and extraction methods.

Up until 2007, the Iraqi government was an active ally in this enterprise, even though the vast majority of Iraqis -- including the powerful oil workers union, the religious leadership, and a majority of Parliament -- vehemently opposed these plans, demanding instead that control of the industry remain in government hands. In 2004, the U.S.-appointed Iraqi government enthusiastically endorsed an International Monetary Fund agreement that mandated the development of major Iraqi oil reserves by international oil companies. When those companies found the legal basis for such investment too fragile to risk vast sums of capital, the Iraqi government (surrounded by American advisors) immediately began work on an oil law that would presumably provide a more secure foundation for their investment. In the meantime, informal advice was accepted from the oil majors, whose technicians were placed in charge of various engineering operations within the country.

In 2007, when the oil law was finally delivered to the Iraqi Parliament, it met with unremitting opposition. The always strong oil unions immediately began a ferocious resistance campaign that stalled the law.

None of these developments altered the Bush administration’s determination to push the law through. They did not, however, anticipate that the Maliki administration itself would become a further source of opposition. As Charles Ries told journalists on leaving his position as U.S. Economic Ambassador to Iraq in August 2008 after a year of failure, "When I got here… I was quite optimistic it was only a month or two [before the petroleum bill would be passed, but the] more I understood what the real issues were… it was clear this was going to be a major political challenge."

While Ries was on the job, even the leadership of the Ministry of Oil, until then a pro-American bastion, went into opposition. One symptom of this was its failure to complete five no-bid contracts (that did not include either investment or extraction rights) with oil consortia led by the usual suspects -- Exxon Mobil, Royal Dutch Shell, BP, Total, and Chevron -- designed to increase Iraqi production by 500,000 barrels per day. Oil Minister Hussein al-Shahrastani told the Wall Street Journal that a key reason for the faltering negotiations was the desire of the oil companies for "preferential treatment for future oil-exploration deals." This comment, like the faltering negotiations, hinted at the abandonment of the Bush administration’s long-desired version of Iraqi oil policy.

The new attitude was underscored when the Oil Ministry revived a Saddam-era agreement with the China National Petroleum Corporation, which was now granted a $3 billion contract to develop the Ahdab oil field. Given the growing U.S.-China rivalry over the control of foreign oil sources, the symbolism of this act couldn’t have been clearer -- especially since the earlier contract had been unceremoniously canceled by the United States at the beginning of the occupation in 2003. No less important, this was a "service contract" whose terms did not follow U.S. guidelines calling for the reduction or elimination of Iraqi government control of the oil industry.

Soon after announcing this new agreement, Oil Minister Shahrastani offered what might be seen as a declaration of oil policy independence. "[Global] oil supplies," he declared, "meet and may slightly exceed current world demand." The world, that is, had plenty of oil, and so there was, he insisted, no global need to rush pell-mell into oil development agreements that might not, in the long run, be of use to Iraq.

This represented an attack on the fundamental premise of U.S. oil policy -- that, as Vice President Cheney told an oil industry gathering back in 1999, "By 2010 we will need on the order of an additional fifty million barrels a day. So where is the oil going to come from? While many regions of the world offer great oil opportunities, the Middle East, with two-thirds of the world’s oil and the lowest cost, is still where the prize ultimately lies."

Significantly, back in 2001 -- and before 9/11 -- the Cheney Energy Task Force, working with the National Security Council, would make this commitment the centerpiece of administration Middle Eastern policy, defining the world situation as one in which the supply of oil must be drastically increased to meet the demand for an "additional fifty million barrels a day."

Oil-producing countries of the Middle East never embraced Cheney’s analysis and consistently resisted U.S. efforts to encourage, induce, or coerce dramatic increases in oil production. Instead, they viewed the "shortage" of oil as a natural result of market forces, beneficial to their own economies.

With the success of the U.S. invasion, the Iraqi government threatened to become a maverick among the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), endorsing U.S. supported plans that, theoretically, would have quadrupled Iraqi production within 10 years. So Shahrastani’s comments were a signal that Iraq was rejoining OPEC’s ranks and potentially opening a new era in post-invasion Iraqi politics in which the government he represented would no longer be a reliable ally of the United States.

A Nail in the Coffin of American Defeat?

Implicit in these actions is a new attitude toward, and assessment of, the U.S. presence in Iraq. Prime Minister Maliki and his cohorts appear to have adopted the viewpoint of journalist Nir Rosen that "the Americans are just one more militia," just the most powerful of the rogue forces that they have to manage and eventually eliminate.

As the Iraqi government accumulates an expanding lake of petrodollars and finds ways to shake them loose from the clutches of U.S. banks and U.S. government administrators, its leaders will have the resources to pursue policies that reflect their own goals. The decline in violence, taken in the U.S. as a sign of American "success," has actually accelerated this process. It has made the Maliki regime feel ever less dependent for its survival on the American presence, while strengthening internal and regional forces resistant or antagonistic to Washington’s Middle East ambitions.

The respected Iraqi newspaper Azzaman pointed to one of these forces in a recent editorial: "Iran has emerged as the country’s top trading partner. Its firms are present in the Kurdish north and southern Iraq carrying out projects worth billions of dollars. Iranian goods are the most conspicuous merchandise in Iraqi shops. Iraq, though occupied and administered by America, has grown to be so dependent on Iran that some analysts see it as a satellite state of Tehran."

To support this contention, Azzaman asserted: "The Ministry of Oil and other key portfolios such the Ministry of Interior and Finance are in the hands of pro-Iran Shiite factions." Citing Oil Ministry sources, it suggested that recent changes in oil policy actually reflected Iranian pressure to "exclude U.S. oil majors from contracts to develop the country’s massive oil fields."

Azzaman may be overemphasizing Iranian influence, since there are myriad internal Iraqi influences that continue to press against Washington’s desire for a client regime. Parliament, the Sunni and Shia religious leaderships, powerful unions, and the Sunni and Shia insurgencies have all registered broad opposition to continued U.S. presence and influence.

As all this occurs, U.S. leverage over the Iraqi government, though still formidable, is in decline. The Bush administration -- or its soon-to-be elected successor --- may face a difficult dilemma: whether to accept some version of the withdrawal demands of the Iraqi government or re-escalate the war in yet one more attempt to create a government that is "aligned with U.S. interests." The recent declaration by the Pentagon that only the most modest of troop reductions is militarily feasible in the foreseeable future may be a symptom of this dilemma. Without a full complement of U.S. troops, after all, it will be increasingly difficult to convince the Maliki regime to re-embrace policies favored by Washington.

The question remains: Can anything reverse the centripetal forces pulling Iraq from Washington’s orbit? Will the President’s "surge" strategy prove to have been the nail in the coffin of its hopes for U.S. dominance in the Middle East?

If this turns out to be the case, then watch out domestically. The inevitable controversy over "who lost Iraq" -- an echo of those earlier controversies over "who lost China" and "who lost Vietnam" -- is bound to be on the way.

Bush Still Fights House Subpoenas

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By Jason Leopold

The Bush administration still is resisting a congressional subpoena seeking testimony from former White House counsel Harriet Miers on the firing of nine federal prosecutors in 2006, taking the unprecedented executive privilege battle to the U.S. Court of Appeals.

A three-judge appeals court panel – two Republican judges and one Democrat – granted the White House a stay of a lower-court order that would have required Miers to testify before the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday. The judges set deadlines this week for submitting arguments in the case.

The administration’s continued resistance to permitting the testimony – even in the face of a July 31 ruling by U.S. District Court Judge John Bates, who called the White House position “entirely unsupported by existing case law” – shows how President George W. Bush can thwart congressional oversight with delaying tactics.

A parallel situation is developing in Alaska where Gov. Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential nominee, and her top aides are refusing to cooperate with an independent counsel investigation into allegations that Palin abused her authority in firing the public safety commissioner.

Palin’s strategy of forcing the state legislature into a subpoena fight follows in the footsteps of the Bush administration resisting congressional oversight investigations into the so-called “prosecutor-gate” and other scandals. [See’s “Palin’s Trooper-gate Cover-up.”]

The Bush administration won at least a temporary victory on Friday with the appeals court’s decision to grant the stay.

“The purpose of this administrative stay is to give the court sufficient opportunity to consider the merits of the motion for stay,” the three-judge panel wrote in its decision. But the three-judge panel cautioned that the temporary stay “should not be construed in any way as a ruling on the merits of that motion.”

The House Judiciary Committee subpoenaed Miers and White House chief of staff Joshua Bolten last year, but they were instructed by President Bush to ignore the subpoenas. Bush claimed that Miers and Bolten were immune from congressional subpoenas, protected by the theory of executive privilege.

The House voted to hold the two officials in contempt of Congress, the first time in 25 years a full chamber of Congress has voted on a contempt-of-Congress citation.

Documents released by the Justice Department last year show that Miers was briefed by department officials about the decision to purge the nine U.S. Attorneys who were deemed insufficiently loyal to Bush and that she was aware of a planned cover story to explain the dismissals.

Judge Bates, a Bush appointee, ruled that the White House’s legal argument of blanket executive privilege lacked legal precedent and that Miers must comply with the congressional subpoena and invoke executive privilege only on a question-by-question basis.

“The Executive cannot identify a single judicial opinion that recognizes absolute immunity for senior presidential advisors in this or any other context,” Bates wrote in a 93-page opinion that was seen as a rebuke to the White House.

"In fact, there is Supreme Court authority that is all but conclusive on this question and that powerfully suggests that such advisors do not enjoy absolute immunity,” Bates wrote.

After Bates’s ruling, White House Counsel Fred Fielding sent a letter to House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers requesting a meeting to negotiate possible parameters for the testimony of Miers and Bolten.

However, House counsel Irv Nathan said negotiations with the White House have been "completely useless."

"We have not found willing partners on the other side of the table," Nathan said. "We’re being dunced around here."

Unable to get Bates to issue a stay of his order, the Justice Department turned to the U.S. Court of Appeals of the Washington, D.C., Circuit, which is dominated by conservative Republican appointees.

A three-judge panel of the Appeals Court then granted the stay, although putting consideration of arguments on a fast track. House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers had scheduled a hearing with Miers on Thursday.