August 2009

  • August 31, 2009

    Debate continues to rage over the proposed Google Books settlement. The subject, which was the topic of an ACS Issue Brief by Prof. James Grimmelman and a ACSblog reply by David Balto, was taken up recently by Steve Pociask, president of the American Consumer Institute Center for Citizen Research.

    The settlement would permit Google to give the public access to scores of "orphan works," or copyrighted material whose owners either are unknown or cannot be found.

    Pociask takes issue with the settlement

    [T]he current book search settlement gives the most dominant online firm a significant competitive advantage over its rivals, delays entry by would-be rivals and hands Google favorable pricing over other Web-centric competitors. The results would likely lead to market power that could permanently lockout competitors, thereby posing anticompetitive risks to the public. Furthermore, this would be accomplished by a single judge's decision, instead of through legislative means or public discourse, or market forces.

    When surfing the Internet, consumers find most of their information using search engines, and mostly using Google. Through Web site rankings and ad placement, Google already influences how we find Web content. Google also tracks and retains your Web site browsing history for the purpose of "behavioral advertising." Now, if this court settlement is approved, Google will know exactly what you are reading.

  • August 31, 2009

    Cameron Todd Willingham (pictured below with his deceased daughter Amber,) was executed in 2004 for setting fire to his home and murdering his three children 13 years earlier. He maintained his innocence to the end, and a new report bolsters his assertions.

    National arson expert Craig Beyler just released his report for the Texas Forensic Science Commission, concluding: 

    The investigators [in Willingham's case] had poor understandings of fire science and failed to acknowledge or apply the contemporaneous understanding of the limitations of fire indicators. Their methodologies did not comport with the scientific method or the process of elimination.

    In other words, the report finds, "A finding of arson could not be sustained."

    Beyler's report generated a flurry of commentary and analysis. This must-read investigative report in the upcoming New Yorker details the case against Willingham from the very beginning to the tragic end. A New York Times editorial excorciated the Texas criminal justice system, stating, "it is outrageous that Texas is conducting its careful, highly skilled investigation after Mr. Willingham has been executed, rather than before." Experts at The Innocence Project (who have previously written about the cases of Troy Davis and William Osborne at ACSblog,) urge sweeping revisions in forensic science to ensure that innocent convicts are executed no more.

    "So what now?" asks the Innocence Project's Barry Scheck.

    Whether our criminal justice system has executed an innocent man should no longer be an open question. We don't know how often it happens, but we know it has happened. Cameron Todd Willingham's case proves that.

    The focus turns to how we can stop it from happening again. As long as our system of justice makes mistakes -- including the ultimate mistake -- we cannot continue executing people.

  • August 28, 2009

    More OLC Memos:  "The Office of Legal Counsel, responding to a Freedom of Information Act request, has now released a treasure trove of new memoranda discussing the Bush Administration's war on terror policies," writes Prof. Jack Balkin at Balkinization. "The highlights include memos by Jack Goldsmith telling the CIA not to do anymore waterboarding in May of 2004, and a memo by his successor at the OLC, Daniel Levin, telling the CIA they can go ahead and do it on August 6, 2004. There are also two memoranda from John Yoo arguing for the President's right to use military force at any time without congressional approval and offering CIA interrogators a good faith defense to torture."

    Dick Cheney is Mad:  From Christy Hardin Smith: "Why is Cheney so irate? Because bluster gets him column inches without having any real fear of direct questions of his own involvement. Why? Because that just isn't how things are done in the Beltway. No inconvenient truths that might rock your access boat."

    Torture Doesn't Work, So ...  Richard Haas, president of the Council of Foreign Relations, is being held to account for what he said during an interview on Morning Joe, including this line: "I really think putting this in legal channels as opposed to just the policy channels is something, just like the politics, we as a society, will regret. We need to look at all of our tools. We may reject some of these things. Let's say on balance they're not worth it. But other things we may say to do it given who we're up against."

    "I'm with Jack Bauer on this one."  That's the quote from Fox's Chris Wallace. Here's the clip

  • August 27, 2009
    Guest Post

    By Scott Horton. Horton is an adjunct professor at Columbia Law School and a contributing editor at Harper's Magazine, where he writes the No Comment blog.
    On Monday, Attorney General Eric Holder appointed John Durham, a career prosecutor from Connecticut, to undertake a preliminary examination of a group of cases in which CIA interrogators apparently exceeded even the scope of torture authorized by the now rescinded Justice Department memoranda to see if the circumstances warranted a more thorough criminal investigation. This decision constitutes an important, but very modest, step forward on the torture issue.

    Holder's decision is amply justified by a report prepared by the CIA's Inspector General, substantial parts of which were released Monday. Indeed, reading it we are bound to ask whether Holder is doing enough-whether he has not in fact unreasonably limited the scope of Durham's investigation. Here are a few points to consider.

    1. Torture was approved at the top and implemented with close supervision from senior administration actors. Policies of torture and official cruelty adopted by the administration incorporated new interrogation practices that were up to that point condemned by the United States as torture: this included waterboarding, hyperthermia and sleep deprivation, as now well documented. But the CIA report shows that experimentation was encouraged in a policy that a top officer, Cofer Black, described in congressional testimony with the words "take the gloves off," and CIA agents drew on a range of techniques that seem inspired not by legal guidance and prior practice, but by Hollywood and Fox television: a power drill was turned on, firearms brandished, mock executions staged, threats were made to kill, rape or abuse the children or parents of prisoners. In one case, an agent repeatedly applied pressure to the carotid artery, which feeds oxygenated blood to the brain, until a prisoner reached the point of collapse. In another, prisoners were "buttstroked" with a rifle, and given knee kicks (a procedure documented in the Oscar-winning film Taxi to the Dark Side, which resulted in death to an innocent young Afghan named Dilawar. Roughly half of the case study information remains blacked out, and context suggests that it contains incidents still more gruesome than those disclosed. The report shows CIA supervisors, lawyers and healthcare professionals (most likely psychologists) deeply involved in the process at almost every stage. The notion, therefore, that these were rogue agents off on a lark is absurd. Were the practices employed and documented by this report are practices the Bush White House wanted to see used? That's a pressing question that the CIA report raises without resolving.

    Attorney General Holder has drawn a fine distinction between what the OLC memos explicitly authorized and what was done in excess of the guidance given. It's not clear that this distinction is tenable. If Durham pursues any of these cases, he is almost certain to run into claims from those involved in the interrogation process that they did what they understood to have been authorized based on communications up the chain of command. They will say there was a perpetual green light. And the CIA report contains a great deal of support for this understanding. A good example comes in the practice of waterboarding. When the inspector general established that the limits imposed by the OLC memos had been exceeded, Attorney General John Ashcroft was consulted. According to the report, Ashcroft expressed the view that he was perfectly happy with whatever was done. That reaction is extremely telling about the attitude the Justice Department adopted towards the process, which appears more geared to facilitation than regulation. The record also supports the view that a large part of the communication between Bush officials and interrogators wasn't committed to writing, so it's a reasonable inference that the "edgier" approvals were conveyed orally.

    2. The introduction of torture and cruelty as official practices damaged the morale and reputation of the CIA. The major argument raised repeatedly by Directors Tenet and Hayden against disclosure of the CIA report is that disclosure would damage the morale and reputation of the CIA. But the report squarely addresses that issue. It shows that the torture and abuse practices themselves severely damaged morale inside the agency. In fact, the report was launched as a result of numerous complaints recorded by valued career CIA officers who explicitly said they felt the practices were a violation of criminal law and would likely result in prosecutions of agency personnel. The report shows that the number of persons raising this objection is substantial. And this is supported by the stream of ex-CIA agents who appeared on television the day of the disclosures: Tyler Drumheller, Jack Rice, Bob Baer, James Bamford and a number of others, all welcoming the appointment of a prosecutor and saying that enforcement measures were welcome. By contrast the number of CIA officers involved in and supporting the torture program is extremely limited, likely not more than two dozen figures, led by three veterans who remain in place: John O. Brennan, Steven Kappes and Michael Sulick.

  • August 27, 2009

    President Obama has an opportunity not just to reshape the federal judiciary ideologically, but also to make it look more like America. A new report from the Brookings Institution shows that, while diversity is lacking on the federal bench, it is improving drastically.

    This mirrors a recent conversation hosted by ACS at the National Press Club recently, where Prof. Sherrilyn Ifill said that during Justice Sonia Sotomayor's confirmation hearings, our country lost an opportunity to have a healthy discussion about the value of and obstacles to more diversity in federal courts. 

    The Washington Post also reports, "President George W. Bush had nominated 48 people to district and courts of appeals judgeships at this point in his presidency ... [and] Obama has nominated 16 besides Sotomayor, the only nominee so far confirmed by the Senate." So far, President Obama's nominees to the lower courts include "six white men, two white women, three black men, two black women, two Asian American women and one Asian American man," according to the Post.