Thursday, December 17, 2009

Michael Ruppert, a Torture Case, and Green Economies

Two weeks ago I went to see Michael Ruppert, author of a popular 9-11 conspiracy theory/peak oil book called “Crossing the Rubicon”, at a showing of a recently released documentary about him called Collapse. And then on Tuesday morning, I sat in on an extraordinary rendition/torture case being heard in a federal courtroom in San Francisco.

These two items are, of course, related. As a nation, we have never really probed the reasons for those attacks on September 11, 2001 (“They hate our freedom” is far too simplistic). However, it’s pretty clear to me that the ideologues who attacked us on September 11 were out to destroy the sisterhood between our military and the financial engine that keeps that military humming on an imperial scale. That doesn’t mean they were good guys or that they were working for good guys – they weren’t, and Al Qaeda and their Taliban allies are, at the very least, no fun, and at worst, extremely dangerous.

On the surface, the attacks did not succeed, as in response the United States has ramped up its militarism and its presence in the oil- and natural gas-rich parts of the world that the 19 ideologues who commandeered the planes intended for us to leave. But the point of Ruppert’s recent documentary is to inform people about peak oil and the downsizing of western civilization that is sure to result. That downsizing will surely include the end of the American military empire …

A Protection Racket?

And yet our government continues to operate like protection in defense of the rackets that keep propping up that empire.

On the morning of Tuesday, December 15, 2009, I went to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to sit in on the most recent round of Mohamed v. Jeppesen. In this case, five terror suspects who were kidnapped and subjected to illegal extraordinary rendition and torture, starting in 2001, are suing Jeppesen DataPlan, Inc. – a subsidiary of Boeing – for “[participating knowingly] in the forcible disappearance and torture of the men by providing critical flight planning and logistical support services to the aircraft and crews used by the [Central Intelligence Agency] to carry out their extraordinary rendition.”

This case was first brought in May 2007 when it was heard in the federal courtroom of Judge James Ware who ruled that the case could not be litigated on the basis of a statement issued by then CIA Director Michael Hayden. Hayden had announced that state secrets vital to national security would be put in jeopardy if the case were litigated. Plaintiffs in the civil suit appealed to the Ninth Circuit where a three-judge panel heard their case on February 9. Their lawyers hoped that under the new administration of President Barack Obama Justice Department lawyers would relent and allow their case to go forward. To the great disappointment of many, Justice Department lawyers continued to assert state secrets, though the three-judge panel did rule in favor of the plaintiffs on April 28, punting the case back to court of Judge Ware. But then the government appealed to have the case heard en banc, and that’s what happened on Tuesday – the case was again heard in the Ninth Circuit, but this time in front of 11 judges, including Chief Judge Alex Kozinski.

Again the government, represented by attorney Douglas Letter, is continuing to argue that the case cannot be heard due to state secrets, but lead ACLU attorney Ben Wizner argued that the court itself could decide whether or not the information deemed necessary to prosecute the case was a state secret, and if it found that it was, it could hear the case in camera – meaning in closed session.

One of Wizner’s plaintiffs, Ahmed Agiza was first abducted in December 2001. “In the ensuing eight years,” said Wizner, “There has been an extraordinary public debate. But one voice has been entirely absent – the voice of the judiciary.” For the courts in this case to side with the government, he said, “Would mean that the role of the court is entirely ministerial.”

“We have asserted a case of reckless disregard,” said Wizner. Noting that a former Jeppesen employee has come forward to confirm the plaintiffs’ allegations, he added, “Jeppesen engaged in these activities.”

Letter countered that much of Jeppesen’s role was a state secret that he could explain in closed session.

Gray Mailing?

On Wednesday, December 16, 2009 I was listening to Fresh Air host Terry Gross interview Jeremy Scahill, the investigative journalist who has written an expose of Erik Prince’s mercenary company, Blackwater. Few people had ever heard of Blackwater before Scahill began writing about the company, though the number of mercenary soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan is about equal to the number of US military personnel. Prince, according to Scahill, recently agreed to participate in a January 2010 Vanity Fair story. In that story, Scahill says that Prince is practicing ‘gray mailing’ – leaking a certain amount of information that reflects poorly on the US government so as to fend off any future war crimes indictments of him or his company due to incidents in Iraq.

And I have to wonder if Jeppesen is also engaging in gray mailing.

(January 1, 2009 update: A federal judge has dismissed charges against five Blackwater guards who had been accused of the manslaughter of 17 Iraqi civilians on September 16, 2007. But the judge dismissed the charges on a technicality, and prosecutors may appeal.)

New White Trash

So many people have hopes that cases such as Mohamed v. Jeppesen and any cases that might be brought against Blackwater would lead to the holy grail of Dick Cheney and George W. Bush, but Michael Ruppert advises that we not hold our breaths.

“It’s too late to do anything about 9-11,” he said after the screening of his film. “No court in the world will do anything.” Instead, he predicts that another huge oil shock (presumably much more massive than the one in 2008) is coming and that there will be a “monstrous collapse” of the global economy within the next six months.

“Another round of bailouts will threaten democracy around the world,” he warned, and getting ready for “the collapse of industrial civilization … is more important than hanging Dick Cheney.”

And in any case, Michael Ruppert himself is moving on, focusing on his band – New White Trash, named for all the people hit hard first by the recession and now by the jobless recovery – and encouraging people to invest time and energy locally in such a way that their own communities are prepared as oil becomes more scarce and prices rise.

Going Green?

I want to do that, and today I even participated in a ‘Green Jobs Webinar’, led by the co-founder of Global Exchange, Kevin Danaher. It was an upbeat event, and yet this is the piece of information that is resonating with me most profoundly: in recent years, growth in the ‘green business’ sector of the American economy has surpassed growth in all other sectors of the economy. Well, all other sectors except for two, and you get to guess which two:

1) toothpaste
2) polenta
3) weapons
4) oil

Friday, December 4, 2009

Muni Rider Appeals Service Cutbacks

Notice of service changes -- including the elimination of route segments (the Number 2 Clement) and the elimination of entire lines (the Number 4 Sutter)

At my right on my desk is a copy of 14-page appeal of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s decision to cut service on Muni buses and light rail starting on Saturday, December 5, due to a fiscal emergency, which the agency declared last spring. I knew that this appeal was in the works, and so starting writing up a story, but the appeal did not get handed to me until last night when I was in a meeting. Also, I'd been trying for weeks and weeks to extract from the SFMTA the exact approximate amount that the agency expected to save based on the changes. On November 3, it was reproted to the SFMTA Board of Directors that the amount would be $13.4 million. But on Tuesday, a staffer told me that the figure was $3.2 million. "That's nothing," I said. Here’s my write up so far …

A Muni rider has appealed the changes to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors based on his belief that the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s waiver of the California Environmental Quality Review Act (CEQA) in the spring was illegal. He hopes that significant Muni service changes planned for December 5 – including the elimination of some bus lines, reductions in service on others, and enhanced service on the 38L and the 14L – could be postponed indefinitely at the very least and halted at best.

Responding to a fiscal shortfall of $128.9 million for fiscal year 2009-2010, the seven members of the SFTMA Board of Directors voted four to three on April 21 to declare a fiscal emergency in order to waive CEQA reviews and launch immediately into service reductions, service changes, fare increases, and increases in the costs to park at meters.

However, Muni rider David Pilpel is arguing that the Board of Directors of the SFMTA is not legally permitted to waive CEQA and implement changes without doing an environmental review, at least not according to Public Resources Code 21080.32. This section of the state code permits publicly owned transit agencies to waive environmental reviews of service changes when faced with budget shortfalls if the agency determines that the planned service changes are unavoidable.

“The MTA is not a publicly-owned transit agency within the meaning of the law. It’s a city department, a multi-modal transportation agency with a broader array of policy choices to address a revenue shortfall than just a single-purpose transit agency, particularly one with no taxing power,” says Pilpel.

"If all you can do is raise fares and cut service, then it makes sense to have an exemption. CEQA should be narrowly construed for that kind of emergency," Pilpel says. He suggests that there are other things that SFMTA could be doing to balance the agency budget – it could be looking at labor costs and renegotiating bargaining agreements, cutting staff, changing the way work gets done, and prioritizing work.

And considering the fact that the service reductions and changes that were to go into effect on December 5 amounted to a savings of, according to a staff presentation at the November 3 Board of Directors meeting, $13.4 million (this figure has since been revised downward to $3.2 million), many transit advocates think that the Board of Directors should have agreed to expand the hours of parking meter operation, a proposal that staff said would bring in an additional $9 million annually. Staff first proposed expanding the hours in the spring, but some members of the Board of Supervisors and the mayor opposed the plans, which were sure to be politically unpopular. At a special meeting of the SFMTA Board of Directors on April 30, called to amend the two-year budget that had been adopted the previous spring, Director Tom Nolan introduced an amendment to staff’s proposed budget,which had included expanded metering hours. Nolan’s amendment to excise the expanded metering hours proposal was adopted six to one as a part of the entire amended budget.

When it came time for the Board of Supervisors to approve that amended budget – with fare increases and service reductions and changes – there were only five votes to reject the budget (seven are necessary according to the City Charter): District 1 Supervisor Eric Mar, District 5 Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, District 6 supervisor Chris Daly, District 9 Supervisor David Campos, and District 11 Supervisor John Avalos. Board President David Chiu was able to negotiate givebacks that included enhancement of service on some lines and a promise to renegotiate MOUs with the police department, totaling about $10.5 million. The SFMTA also agreed to conduct a 90-day study on metered parking enforcement.

Following the Board of Directors and Board of San Francisco votes, on July first, one-time bus and light rail fares were raised from $1.50 to $2.00, adult monthly passes went up from $45 to $55, and passes for seniors, youth and disabled riders went up to $15. The fares for passes will rise again in January to $60 – or $70 for riders who want to use their passes for travel on BART within the city.

Staff also set about creating plans to reduce service. Those plans – including the elimination of the 26 Valencia, the 7 Haight, and 4 Sutter, reductions in service on the 31 Balboa and other lines, and eliminations on segments such as the part of the N-Judah that goes to the ballpark (this will only be eliminated on weekends), the 38 Ocean Beach beyond 33rd Avenue, and the 2 Clement beyond Park Presidio. In recent weeks layoff notices have also been sent to 58 SFMTA employees, including 21 parking control officers (PCOs) and some of their supervisors.

“PCOs generate $200,000 more than they cost to employ,” says Robert Haaland of the Service Employees International Union Local 1021 which represents the PCOs. “Under [SFMTA Executive Director] Nat Ford there’s been an exponential management growth. … The current round of layoffs is almost exclusively 1021. There’s a systematic breakdown in City government because people who do the actual work are either getting laid off or bumped.”

Note: Haaland’s assertion is disputed by staff at the SFMTA. SFMTA staff note that about 50 additional PCOs have been hired in recent years, but that due to the recession and reduction in street cleaning, these PCOs are not paying for themselves.

In recent weeks SFMTA staff have also released the results of the 90-day parking study and recommended that the Board of Directors adopt its findings and implement metering hours in particular neighborhoods – such as along Geary Boulevard, Clement Street, the Inner Sunset, Mission and Valencia streets, and in large swaths of Polk Gulch, the Tenderloin, and South of Market. The study predicts that if metering hours are expanded parking availability will increase, and congestion and double parking will decrease. Annual revenues are expected to be $8.83 million, with one-time implementation costs of $2.5 million.

It is not clear what impact Pilpel’s appeal will have on the agency’s plans to role out service changes starting on Saturday, December 5, as members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors will not have time to consider the matter until its next regularly scheduled board meeting on Tuesday, December 10.

Pilpel rests his legal right to appeal on Section 21151c of the state Public Resources Code.