Naming and Shaming: Pro Bono Becomes Political Ammo

By Ben Neumeyer

For the right-wing media, criticizing the Department of Justice under Eric Holder and its handling of the war on terror  has become a bit like the proverbial “spaghetti test”: throw what you can against the wall and see if it sticks.  The newest salvo has come from Keep America Safe, a political advocacy organization dedicated to defending Bush-era policies in the war on terror.  The organization, founded by Liz Cheney, Bill Kristol and Deborah Burlingame, the survivor of a 9/11 victim, released a video calling the patriotism of the Depart of Justice into question.  It’s dishonest, condescending, and wrong, but has to be see to be believed. (Available here)


The video attempts to portray seven political appointees at the DOJ as jihadi sympathizers for fighting for due process for Guantanamo detainees pro bono while they were working at large law firms.  Even better, it suggests that Justice (or the “Department of Jihad”) is covering up their identities for unsavory reasons.   In the past few days, the video has become a minor right-wing news meme.


Published in: on March 23, 2010 at 7:51 pm Comments Off on Naming and Shaming: Pro Bono Becomes Political Ammo
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If You Were the Judge…

Warning: this entry contains graphic and disturbing content of a horrific crime.  Reader’s discretion is advised.

On April 13, 2007, a 23 year old graduate student attending Columbia University School of Journalism headed back to her apartment building in Hamilton Heights, a neighborhood located in Harlem, Manhattan.  She was subsequently followed to her apartment by an “assailant” who forced himself into her room by asking her the location of a fictitious apartment resident.  For over 19 hours, he raped the victim.  When she tried to (unsuccessfully) stab him in the neck with a pair of scissors, he forced her into her bathtub and threw bleach at her face.  After dragging her around the apartment, he ordered the victim to gouge out her eyes with a pair of scissors.  She refused.  The assailant then boiled water and poured it on her body.  After force-feeding her painkillers, he left her apartment to unsuccessfully withdraw money from her bank account.  During this time, the victim lay passed out and tied up on her futon.  Furious that he had failed in his mission, the assailant came back to her apartment and again poured boiling water on her open wounds.  He later came at her with a knife, slit her face/eyelids and threw “something heavy” at the back of her head.  He then used the blunt end of a knife and bashed her face and her eye sockets until she lost consciousness.

During the ordeal, the victim passed out numerous times and even tried to stab herself in the neck during the assailant’s numerous demands for her to “stab out” her own eyes.  When it was all over, the assailant torched her apartment, leaving her to die on the futon.  The victim was able to break the ropes using the fire and escape her apartment.

Detective Fiol, the NYPD officer in charge of the case, was at the victim’s hospital on the night of April 14.  The graduate student was alive, but in critical condition.  Burns covered her torso, chest and most of her arms.  There were chemical burns on her face.  The victim sustained 2nd/3rd degree water/chemical burns on 12-20 percent of her body.  Her skull was cracked and she required skin grafts and surgery on her eyelids, which the doctors testified was “extremely painful.”  The victim’s liver failed due to the painkillers she was forced to ingest.  There was evidence that she was raped.  While her liver recovered and she never did lose her sight, the graduate student was hospitalized for 2 ½ weeks and required months of physical therapy.  However on the first night of her hospitalization, merely several hours after one of the worst acts of violence Manhattan has ever seen, the victim was awake, alert and conscious.  She grabbed a pen and a piece of paper from the detective and drew the gold tooth and the scar she saw on her attacker’s abdomen.  During her ordeal, she took mental notes of the man and committed them to memory.

The assailant, Robert Williams, was arrested five days later in Jamaica, Queens.  He was attempting to rob a house when a resident of the community called the cops.  Upon arriving at the scene, the suspect’s scar and gold tooth matched the victim’s drawing. Williams was then transported to the Manhattan Sex Crimes Unit in questioning of the horrific crime in Hamilton Heights.

While not much is known about the assailant, Robert Williams was born in Hamilton Heights in 1977.  His father was a gang lord and his mother was a heroine addict.  In Elementary School, teachers would describe Williams as the type of child who would become very angry when he could not answer a multiplication problem correctly.  He also would bring in hundreds of dollars into class and sport expensive leather jackets.  Williams later joined his father’s gang and, at the age of 14, shot a rival gang member to death.  He received five years in jail.  Within three weeks of getting out, he shot a man six times in the back during a robbery attempt.  The man survived and he received seven years for attempted murder.  Williams was often kept in solitary confinement due to his violent behavior towards fellow inmates and throwing feces at prison guards.  Upon his release at the age of 26, Williams had lived in prison more than he had lived outside of prison.  During his four years out of jail, the ex-convict had drifted from one homeless shelter to the next.  His father (who was now in jail), wanted nothing to do with him and his brothers avoided him on the streets.  Then the attack came.  Williams was thirty at the time of the attack.  He weighed 180 pounds and was six feet tall.  He was black and his victim was white.  Unlike Williams’ muscular physique, his victim was five feet tall, petite and weighed 130 pounds.


Published in: on October 7, 2009 at 10:54 pm Comments Off on If You Were the Judge…

Obama’s Education Plan

“Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today.”- Malcolm X

No matter where individuals may fall on the political ideology spectrum,all can agree with Malcolm X’s statement. A child without a quality education is a child with little hope for a prosperous future, which is why President Obama plans to make changes in three major areas of education. He intends to expand early childhood education programs such as head start, so that all kids are more prepared for kindergarten. As far as post-secondary education, the President aims to ensure that all high school graduates receive at least one year of higher education or job training. The most challenging area to improve will probably be K-12 education. Merit pay, expansion of charter schools, lengthening schools hours of operation, and revamping No Child Left Behind(NCLB) are just some of the ways President Obama plans to tackle this area of education.

Increasing teacher salary based on student performance is one the more controversial Obama administration initiatives, particularly among teachers unions. There are two major problems with merit based pay. First, is the difficulty in determining an accurate measure of student success and the amount of success necessary to trigger a salary increase. Every teacher faces unique challenges depending on the type of students they work with and the environment they work in. If success is measured by standardized test scores, then a teacher who works with gifted students has an advantage. He or she is naturally going to have more high scoring students than a teacher who works with students who are ESL, behind in reading, or have learning disabilities. The disparity in test scores does not indicate superior teaching talent of the teacher with gifted students over other teachers. For example, a 4th grade teacher, who has students reading on a 1st grade level has done a commendable job if by the end of the year, those students are reading on a 3rd grade level. This increase in reading ability may not translate into high scores on a standardized assessment.The dilemma is that it is obviously unfair to measure student achievement solely based on standardized tests, yet impractical to create measuring tools unique to each teachers student demographic and teaching environment.

Second, merit based pay may cause teachers to manipulate test scores and other measures. A teacher who feels pressured to produce results has an incentive to inflate grades or test scores in order to earn the extra money. The upside of merit pay is that it may incentivize teachers to work harder. Most teachers have altruistic motives, and would not be any more motivated by financial gain than they already are by their desire to make a difference.


Published in: on September 30, 2009 at 5:33 pm Comments Off on Obama’s Education Plan

Some Truths About Guantánamo Bay

Guest Blogger: Lawrence Wilkerson

There are several dimensions to the debate over the U.S. prison facilities at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba that the media have largely missed and, thus, of which the American people are almost completely unaware.  For that matter, few within the government who were not directly involved are aware either.

The first of these is the utter incompetence of the battlefield vetting in Afghanistan during the early stages of the U.S. operations there.  Simply stated, no meaningful attempt at discrimination was made in-country by competent officials, civilian or military, as to who we were transporting to Cuba for detention and interrogation.  This was a factor of having too few troops in the combat zone, of the troops and civilians who were there having too few people trained and skilled in such vetting, and of the incredible pressure coming down from Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and others to “just get the bastards to the interrogators”.   It did not help that poor U.S. policies such as bounty-hunting, a weak understanding of cultural tendencies, and an utter disregard for the fundamentals of jurisprudence prevailed as well (no blame in the latter realm should accrue to combat soldiers as this it not their bailiwick anyway).

The second dimension that is largely unreported is that several in the U.S. leadership became aware of this lack of proper vetting very early on and, thus, of the reality that many of the detainees were innocent of any substantial wrongdoing, had little intelligence value, and should be immediately released.  But to have admitted this reality would have been a black mark on their leadership from virtually day one of the so-called Global War on Terror and these leaders already had black marks enough: the dead in a field in Pennsylvania, in the ashes of the Pentagon, and in the ruins of the World Trade Towers. They were not about to admit to their further errors at Guantánamo Bay.  Better to claim that everyone there was a hardcore terrorist, was of enduring intelligence value, and would return to jihad if released.  I am very sorry to say that I believe there were uniformed military who aided and abetted these falsehoods, even at the highest levels of our armed forces.

The third basically unknown dimension is how hard Secretary of State Colin Powell and his deputy Richard Armitage labored to ameliorate the GITMO situation from almost day one.  For example, Ambassador Pierre Prosper, the U.S. envoy for war crimes issues, was under a barrage of questions and directions almost daily from Powell or Deputy Secretary Armitage to repatriate every detainee who could be repatriated.  This was quite a few of them, including Uighurs from China and, incredulously, citizens of the United Kingdom (“incredulously” because few doubted the capacity of the UK to detain and manage terrorists).  Standing resolutely in Ambassador Prosper’s path was Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld who would have none of it.  Rumsfeld was staunchly backed by the Vice President of the United States, Richard Cheney.  Moreover, the fact that among the detainees was a 13 year-old boy and a man over 90, did not seem to faze either man, initially at least.


Published in: on March 16, 2009 at 3:46 pm Comments Off on Some Truths About Guantánamo Bay

Secret Courts Multiply in the U.S.

Mohamed v. Jeppesen Dataplan, Inc

Oral arguments available here (audio .wma).

Mohamed, and 4 other plaintiffs, are suing an airline for transporting him around the world, against his will, for the purpose of subjecting him to the torture of foreign governments. Apparently he has some pretty damning quotes which (if believed) make it as clear as day that the executives in the airline company knew what was going on and made the calculated choice to participate nonetheless. If that’s true, and barring any defenses they might raise, it sounds like they are pretty clearly liable to Mohamed for damages.

But then the government ‘intervened’ (unilaterally requested that it be made a defendant) and argued that, under the ill-defined ‘state secrets privilege,’ the case could not go forward because it would necessarily require testimony on a subject of state secrecy.

Published in: on February 16, 2009 at 11:52 pm Comments Off on Secret Courts Multiply in the U.S.

Replacing Guantanamo: Where Do We Go From Here?

Much of what Barack Obama intends to accomplish as president will have to abide by the rhythm of politics. Drafting new policies, gaining public and congressional support, and shepherding bills through the legislative process are the cost of doing business in Washington. However, there is one messy issue in particular that has the potential to be a political and symbolic trap for the Obama administration. That is the question of what to do with Guantanamo Bay.

A prominent symbol of the Bush Administration’s war on terror, with all the moral ambiguities and international condemnation that entails, closure of Guantanamo Bay has long been a cause célèbre. Almost universally condemned by the political left and world opinion, it is viewed as the kind of thing that only could have happened on Bush’s watch. So naturally there is much hope that our next president, who never missed a chance during the campaign to stress that he was not George W. Bush, will promptly get rid of it. Unfortunately, the fact that this is obviously a good idea does not mean it won’t be messy and difficult.

It’s not that Guantanamo’s closure itself is controversial. Anxiety over the consequences of the United States having a very public prison camp that doesn’t bother with things like due process is no longer limited to Amnesty International and the ACLU. It is increasingly becoming conventional bipartisan wisdom to opine that Guantanamo’s time has come. The costs to America’s image of having its own personal zone where the Geneva Conventions and habeas corpus don’t apply now outweigh the benefits. Even Secretary of Defense Gates and Secretary of State Rice have gone on record agreeing that it needs to be closed down.


Published in: on November 28, 2008 at 11:41 am Comments Off on Replacing Guantanamo: Where Do We Go From Here?

Retroactive Immunity: Not A Compromise

A deal has been reached in the House under which the telecommunications companies, which permitted the President to illegally spy on Americans, will have the cases against them dismissed once the Attorney General represents to a US District court that the Government requested their cooperation in obtaining wiretaps of American citizens in violation of congress’ own prior law on the subject. The deal has now passed the House and goes to the Senate next week where a vote will be held on removing this provision, but which no one seriously expects to succeed. I don’t have much more to say about the merits of the arguments in favor or against this retroactive immunity that I haven’t already said before. I do, however, have two observations to provide, for whatever they are worth.


Published in: on June 23, 2008 at 10:30 am Comments Off on Retroactive Immunity: Not A Compromise

Telecom Spying– You Are Still Not Safe

You’re still not safe because there’s still no terrorism exception to the rule of law. That was the message from the Attorney General this week in his address to the Commonwealth Club of California. After his initial remarks (which were on the ongoing effort to fight public corruption) he solicited a question on the debate over retroactive immunity for the telcoms violations of the statutes protecting the privacy of their customers at the behest of the President.

I don’t write this because I expect to change anyone’s mind, this isn’t that kind of issue. I am writing this because I am tired of being talked down to by people who exude a sense of entitlement to conduct themselves as they see fit, the rule of law notwithstanding. We may see legal protection for the telcoms fairly soon – Congress will reconvene on April 14th – but it will be all the more tragic because we won’t be able to hide behind a claim of ignorance like we did with the Patriot Act.

The Attorney General began by explaining, from his perspective, why the telcoms are being sued:

“[The telcoms] are being sued … because they are believed to have responded to the direct assurance by those in authority that the President had asked them to help collect foreign intelligence against foreign targets – we’re not talking about domestic surveilliance … of targets located abroad, and that it was legal”

Wrong. The telcoms are being sued because they broke the law. This is one of the most offensive aspects of the rhetoric being used. What the Attorney General is trying to describe is a legal justification for what the telcoms did. If he is right, there is a good chance that they in fact did not break the law. Fantastic right? So why do we need to immunize them, just let them win in open court. In fact, if the claims are half as frivolous as the Attorney General suggests, the plaintiffs would have been thrown out a long time ago. Later on, he comes back to this, saying “we need and get court permission … to [conduct surveillance on Americans here in the United States],” again saying this is about foreign intelligence and foreign targets. Whatever planet the Attorney General is living on, the lawsuits here in the United States are brought by Americans who claim that THEIR rights have been violated.


Published in: on April 4, 2008 at 11:48 pm Comments Off on Telecom Spying– You Are Still Not Safe

Senate Immunizes Warrantless Wiretapping

Jim Webb, John Warner, and a supermajority of the Senate (68-29), just sold you out. The Senate just passed a bill which would excuse the telecommunications companies for violating the rights that same Senate conferred upon you. Make no mistake, there hasn’t been the slightest suggestion that what they did was legal. Rather, those supporting retroactive immunity for the telcoms suggest that they are entitled to break the law when they do so for the sake of national security. Specifically, when the government asks them to provide your private communications without even trying to get a warrant from a secret court, or complying with the already expansive powers conferred upon it following 9/11.


But the whole national security angle is a farce — the President vowed to veto the very legislation very that would give him access to FISA warrants unless it contained retroactive immunity for his cronies. It is, sadly, understandable, since the power to act outside the law is more valuable than the authority to act within its constraints, but the fact that every Republican senator was willing to wager (See “Update III”) the ability to obtain legal FISA warrants against the prospect of obtaining retroactive immunity for those who broke FISA should be inexcusable in a country that believe it is governed by laws, not men.


Published in: on February 14, 2008 at 2:45 pm Comments Off on Senate Immunizes Warrantless Wiretapping

Guantanamo: Representing the Unseen

On October 10, students at William and Mary packed room 124 to hear Jeff Colman, a lawyer at Jenner & Block, speak about his experiences representing clients at Guantanamo Bay. January 11, 2007 was the five-year anniversary of the first man being placed in Guantanamo. Colman, a lawyer with 35 years of legal experience, has done all manner of pro-bono work. He’s assisted with death-penalty matters in California, Georgia, and Illinois. But none of his experiences prepared him for Guantanamo.” As Colman put it, the work was “the most challenging, the most depressing, and in some ways, the most fulfilling work I’ve done.”

By June 2004, about 800 men were imprisoned at Guantanamo, isolated from lawyers, families, and the world around them. In June 2004, the Supreme Court ruled that federal courts have a right to hear Habeas Corpus claims of the Guantanamo prisoners. After the ruling came down, Colman and other members of his firm took the cases of four men after reading a call for volunteers. In 2006, the firm took on sixteen more clients. So far, ten have been released from Guantanamo. Throughout his involvement, Colman has worked with lawyers from across the country, Democrats as well as Republicans, all of whom believe strongly in their work and their clients.

Colman stated that, for him, the work wasn’t about politics, or about making a statement. It was “about doing a lawyer’s professional responsibility, representing people who need legal assistance.” (more…)

Published in: on October 12, 2007 at 9:52 am Comments Off on Guantanamo: Representing the Unseen