Devil in the Details

Minimal Monitors

Thorough election monitoring is a staple in countries recovering from long periods of civil strife. In post-conflict zones such as Bosnia, East Timor, and Haiti, large numbers of foreign experts and trained local monitors have been instrumental in granting legitimacy to the election results, thereby helping those nations' transition to democracy.

But not in Afghanistan. On October 9, as Afghans take to the polls in their country's first presidential election since the Taliban's ouster in 2001, not a single foreign monitoring body will have a significant presence in the country. The European Union and other intergovernmental organizations with experience monitoring elections in post-conflict areas once had high hopes for robust monitoring in Afghanistan. Increasing violence and attacks on foreign aid workers, however, have since forced the EU and others to scale back their commitments.

In fact, as of mid-September, the only nationwide election monitoring is to be conducted by the Free and Fair Elections Foundation for Afghanistan (FEFA), a group of Afghans trained by the Washington-based National Democratic Institute (NDI) and funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. The FEFA's monitors number around 1,400 -- a paltry figure compared to the 10.5 million Afghans who have registered to vote. The ratio of election monitors to voters in Afghanistan comes to one monitor for every 7,142 voters. In East Timor the ratio was one monitor for every 444 voters.

Of course, the sparse election monitoring is a direct consequence of the dire security situation throughout Afghanistan. Nearly 1,000 people have been killed in political violence there in the last year, and the Taliban and al-Qaeda remnants have pledged to disrupt the October elections. According to a report by the NDI, in some regions the Taliban are reportedly distributing fliers proclaiming that those who vote will be killed.

Few blame the intergovernmental organizations for their reluctance to put a significant number of monitors on the ground this October; no one wants to see foreign aid workers killed. Rather, many in the aid community question the timing of these elections as such. As Andrew Wilder, head of the Afghan Research and Evaluation Unit, a Kabul-based nongovernmental organization, told Agence France Presse in September, “If it is too dangerous for monitors to monitor, isn't it too dangerous for Afghans to vote?”

--Mark Goldberg


525, 526, 527 …

If George W. Bush truly believes that “shadowy 527” groups (independent campaign organizations established under Section 527 of the tax code) are “bad for the system,” the last few weeks must have driven him batty. New 527s are forming at a rate of 30 to 40 a week; in the two weeks after Bush called on John McCain to join in legal action against the whole mess of them, 84 new groups filed with the IRS, up from 75 in the preceding two weeks.

But there may not be nearly as many 527-ers as there are 527s. One of the keys to a successful shadowy 527 campaign can be the construction of multiple parallel organizations. Establishing several organizations, says Democracy 21's Fred Wertheimer, can have distinct advantages: It can help groups “get around existing contribution limits” and “make it more complicated for the media and the public to keep track of what is going on.”

In Washington state, for example, business interests are so up in arms about Democratic state attorney-general candidate Deborah Senn that one 527, the Voters Education Committee (VEC), spent $585,000 on ads opposing her even before the Democratic primary was held. The VEC's director, Bruce Boram, who's also co-chair of Voters for Legislative Action, filed the same day as the VEC; he additionally directs a political action committee called United for Washington, which has in the past funded attack ads by People for Honorable Representation, another Boram 527. Asked about the goals of, say, Voters for Legislative Action, Boram conceded, “I don't remember. … I have a lot of these.”

Similar 527 cloning is also under way in Nevada, where the industrious Chrissie Hastie, controller of the state Republican Party, filed three 527s in just 24 minutes on September 5. One of these groups, Citizens for Fair Taxation, has already made a splash attacking sitting state Senator Ann O'Connell, a Republican. Neither Hastie nor the Nevada gop could be reached for comment as to the propriety of a Republican official attacking a Republican candidate through the kind of vehicle denounced by our, yes, Republican president.

And as for the 527 with the Orwellian name that sparked the recent news blaze, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, it's inspired a wide range of knockoff “Truth” squads, from its sibling organization Vietnam Vets for the Truth to anti-Bush Texans for Truth, not to mention Coal Miners for Truth, founded by Scott Pullins -- one of at least four Pullins 527s in Ohio.

--Jeffrey Dubner


Will Unions Exist?

Among the issues to be determined by the upcoming presidential election, there's the little item of the right of workers to secure a union. As things now stand, the Bush-appointed majority on the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) may just relegate that right to history's dustbin.

Currently pending before the NLRB are two cases that deal with the validity of “card check” recognition. Under card check, employers agree to recognize a union if a majority of their employees sign pledge cards indicating their support for the union. It's the method through which the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has organized janitors over the past 15 years, through which the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) organized the Vegas strip, and through which the United Auto Workers (UAW) organized parts manufacturers. Indeed, there are precious few examples of unions winning private-sector recognition in the past decade by any method other than card check.

Until innovative unions began insisting on card-check recognition, labor relied almost entirely on elections supervised by the NLRB. But over the past four decades, employers have routinely manipulated those elections to thwart their workers' pro-union desires. As Cornell professor Kate Bronfenbrenner has documented, employers routinely threaten workers during organizing drives with plant closings and firings -- indeed, 5 percent of workers involved in such drives are fired, an act that is totally illegal but for which the penalty to employers is negligible. Though polling has shown that more than 40 percent of workers in nonunion workplaces would like to join unions, the rate of private-sector unionization is now an anemic 8 percent -- in large part because companies have been so successful at rigging the NLRB process to their advantage.

In June, however, the three-member Bush-appointed majority on the five-member NLRB voted to hear two cases, backed by the anti-union National Right to Work Foundation, that challenge card-check agreements reached by the UAW with parts manufacturers. Much of the mischief that the Bush administration has accomplished has transpired in the relative obscurity of regulatory rulings, but a backroom decision to ban the primary means by which workers can obtain union representation is a bit much even for the Bush presidency.

For his part, John Kerry supports legislation that would make card check mandatory. So just in case you didn't think a lot was riding on this election, add the continued existence of unions in America to the list.

--Harold Meyerson


Gitmo Justice

To the relief of most of civilization, the Supreme Court ruled in June that the United States has an obligation to grant the roughly 585 detainees held at Guantanamo Bay (a k a Gitmo) an opportunity to challenge their status before a “neutral decision maker.” Since then, casual news observers may have perceived an uptick in government efforts to implement such judicial proceedings. Closer observers may have detected just how fraudulent those efforts really are.

There was, for one, the inauspicious debut in late August of the military commission's process for criminal trials at Gitmo. Authorized by the president in 2001, the slapdash system took nearly three years to produce actual charges against any detainees (four have been charged with relatively low-level offenses, with several more set to be charged this fall). According to human-rights officials allowed to observe this first week of proceedings, the blatantly ad hoc process unfolded over four days of near Keystone Cop chaos.

“We had a number of problems with the process as it was set up,” says Amnesty International's Jumana Musa, one of the observers. “And having it play out in action really magnified problems even beyond what we were expecting.” Defense attorneys complained of understaffing and lack of resources. Problems with the translation system were chronic. Of the commission panel's five members, only the presiding officer, Colonel Peter Brownback, had any legal training. According to Musa, Brownback had to explain basic legal terminology to his fellow panelists -- “things like what is ‘jurisdiction,' what is ‘lead counsel.'” One alternate on the panel helpfully admitted under defense questioning that he didn't know what the Geneva Conventions are.

This lack of rudimentary understanding of the laws of war was hardly the panel's only shortcoming. Several panelists had combat experience in the same Afghan theater from which the detainees were plucked, and alternate panel member Lieutenant Colonel Curt S. Cooper admitted that he had referred to all Gitmo prisoners as “terrorists.” At one point, a defense attorney confronted Brownback with a taped record of statements that just moments before he had denied ever having made.

The spectacle of the commission's opening week only served to overshadow an even more troubling development: namely, the new system of Commission Status Review Tribunals (CSRTs), the judicial innovation the administration came up with to satisfy the Supreme Court's June rulings. (All 585 detainees are set to go through CSRTs; 55 of those proceedings have been completed since they began on July 30.) To Human Rights Watch's Sam Zia-Zariffi, these tribunals “are the more problematic ones. There is no defense counsel, an almost nonexistent right to call any witnesses, and no ability to challenge the evidence brought against you.” There are also no bars to admitting evidence obtained through coercion.

Ah, but don't worry, Navy Secretary Gordon England assured the press on September 8, saying, “The process is doing what we asked the process to do.” Maybe that's the problem.

--Sam Rosenfeld


While You Were Sleeping

It wasn't the oil, it wasn't the neocons, and it wasn't a dream of democratic transformation throughout the Middle East. It turns out that the decision to invade Iraq may have been based on a simple case of mistaken identity.

As Donald Rumsfeld made clear in a commemorative speech on September 10, our defense secretary still can't tell Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden apart. Just before the September 11 attacks, he recalled, “[T]he leader of the opposition Northern Alliance, [Ahmed Shah] Massoud, lay dead, his murder ordered by Saddam Hussein, by Osama bin Laden, the Taliban's co-conspirator.” In fact, Hussein had nothing to do with it, though bin Laden certainly assisted in the plot.

Later in the speech, Rumsfeld elaborated on this theme. “Saddam Hussein,” he said, “if he's alive, is spending a whale of a lot of time trying to not get caught.” Hussein, of course, is most certainly alive, already was caught, and is currently on trial for war crimes in Iraq. Bin Laden, on the other hand, may be dead, and if he is alive we don't know where he is, but he's probably trying pretty hard not to get caught.

Continuing to warm to this theme, Rumsfeld plowed ahead. “We've not seen [Hussein] on a video since 2001,” he declared. But Hussein was making videos well into 2003, and we saw footage of him on television when he was caught. Rumsfeld even bragged about it at the time.

The confusion is a bit hard to understand seeing as the two men don't particularly resemble each other (one is short, with a moustache; the other tall, with a beard, etc.), but it would explain a great deal -- like why more than 100,000 troops are in Iraq and not a one is in Pakistan looking for bin Laden, America's most dangerous adversary.

--Matthew Yglesias


Brave New Words

FLIP-FLOP Something John Kerry does. Not to be confused with

BOLD LEADERSHIP, which is the way to characterize George W. Bush's reversals when he opposed the creation of a 9-11 commission, then decided to appoint one, then opposed its recommendations, then decided to adopt them.

UNEMPLOYMENT A misleading and unduly gloomy index of the nation's economic condition, as Dick Cheney explained on September 9, because the official statistics miss the fact that “400,000 people make some money trading on eBay.”

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