Monday, May 18, 2009

The Trouble with Genetic Engineering

I received an alert this week concerning President Obama’s new Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack (former Republican governor of Iowa, a big corn state.) It said that “Upon returning from the G8 summit in Italy, Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack pledged to promote Big Biotech abroad as part of President Obama's foreign policy.” The alert went on to explain that “agricultural development” for this administration seems to mean “exporting the United States’ toxic industrial agriculture model, with genetically engineered crops at the forefront.”
            Big Biotech. Genetically engineered crops. To get a sense of what all this portends, read Claire Hope Cummings recent book, Uncertain Peril: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Seeds (Beacon Press: 2008). It’s an eye-opening study, only a few snippets of which I can convey here.
            To begin with, no one should underestimate the problem, for as Cummings reminds us, fully 80% of the processed foods now on our grocery shelves contain GMOs (genetically modified organisms.) From this, and from industry hype, one might imagine that genetic engineering of crops is a successful enterprise. The truth is that it’s one of the biggest money-losing industries of all time. That’s partly because it’s hugely expensive: as Cummings points out, the old way of developing a new plant variety—which farmers and, more recently, botanists have been doing for thousands of years—can cost $52,000. The typical plant-development cost of the transgenic method? Nearly $1.5 million! So the big corporations like Monsanto who develop this stuff have a lot invested, and they will do anything to protect their investment. One early ploy was the invention of the “pseudo-scientific concept” called “substantial equivalence.” This says, without any scientific evidence, that GMO products are the same as their natural counterparts. Therefore, the biotech companies don’t have to investigate reports of the harm their products cause. No tests, no toxicology studies, nothing. As a Monsanto spokesman put it: “Monsanto should not have to vouchsafe the safety of biotech food. Our interest is selling as much of it as possible. Assuring its safety is the FDA’s job.” The FDA passes the buck back as well, saying its policy is not to test or even label GMOs. So in the end, it’s not only that no one is responsible; it’s worse: we humans are being used as guinea pigs. As Cummings puts it, “the feeding trials are taking place at our dinner tables.”
            Trials are also going on in fields worldwide. Hawaii seems to be testing central for big biotech, with corporations like Monsanto, Dow, Syngenta/Garst and DuPont/Pioneer Hi-Bred using all five islands as sites for their GMOs. And it has not been without its cost. In one case in 1998, the University of Hawaii developed transgenic papaya trees to resist the rinspot virus. Through cross-pollination, the new variety began contaminating other, natural papaya varieties such that by 2004 “almost 50% of papayas tested on the Big Island were contaminated.” Evidence of other genetic contamination is widespread: Starlink corn, a transgenic variety meant to be used only for animal feed, was discovered in taco shells, which means it’s almost everywhere; Liberty Link 601 herbicide-resistant rice, supposedly not for human use, was found by a consumer in U.S. long-grain rice. Because of this contamination, rice futures for U.S. rice have plummeted. And what is Big biotech’s response? Why to lobby the United States Department of Agriculture to approve the contaminated rice for humans retroactively! (reminds us of the Bush Administration and its successful tactic of getting retroactive immunity for its spies and torturers.) This same tactic is being used for all other transgenic crops: the world, says Big Biotech, should simply accept the “adventitious presence” of transgenes. In other words, genetic contamination is just a natural accident, as when non-native plants turn up in soil not natural to them. The upshot is that we can expect much more of this in the future, including the spread of genetically modified trees, and the increase of “superweeds, which result when weeds develop resistance to not one, but several different herbicides (such weeds have already been found in Canada and several other countries including our own.)
            In truth, the more one reads about this chemical industry posing as agriculture, the more the horror stories multiply. Cummings gives us a witches brew of potions that have already been engineered into food plants:  “corn that produces the hepatitis B virus, corn with a human contraceptive, corn with rat genes, chicken genes, jellyfish genes that glow in the dark; growth hormones from carp genes in safflowers; human genes in tobacco, sugar cane, and rice; rat genes in soybeans; wheat genes in chickens.” And my favorite, goats “engineered with spider genes so that they produce spider silk in their milk.” Among the fallout from all this tinkering with seeds—the literal source of life—are a serious rise in allergies, stunted growth damage to the immune system in test animals, and a host of other ailments including liver damage and blood cell formation problems. The very first GMO food, the Calgene Flavr Savr tomato, fed to rats, caused stomach lesions, with 7 of the 40 test animals dying. But since there has been an FDA policy against testing, only a few studies have been done, with even fewer done by independent labs. One of the latter showed not only that GMOs affect the immune system, but that “transgenes can transfer out of GMO food and into bacteria in the gut at detectable levels after just one meal.”
            The most sophisticated part of Cummings’ book is the material on the supposed scientific basis for genetic engineering, i.e. that DNA is the secret of life, and now that scientists have that secret, and the precision to manipulate it, they can create whatever they wish. The truth is that GMO seed construction is anything but precise. As Cummings points out, “What the successful genetic transformation of plants depends on is not design but random luck.”  For though what is called a “cassette” of genes can be inserted into a plant’s cells, no one can really predict where it will end up. The key is to make multiple insertions, thousands of insertions in thousands of trials, discarding all the “monsters” that are created, and saving the few happy accidents. There is lots more in the book about the methods used to insert the desired set of genes—including, early on, using a 22-caliber rifle to shoot the DNA into the cells, and using bacteria to infect wounded plants cells so as to transfer the new DNA. And even when “successful,” the target plants are subject to unexpected mutations and modifications: Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soybean, for example, has been found to contain some mysterious DNA, which Monsanto, of course, said was “natural,” but was later found to have resulted from the transformation process. In short, no one knows what the results of all this diddling with the basic unit of life will be. And we’re the experimental animals.
            The point of all this experimentation, for the biotech companies, is to patent, i.e. have exclusive ownership rights to each new plant product. Then farmers worldwide can be made to pay dearly for new seeds each year, rather than, as farmers have traditionally done, save their own seeds from one year to the next. The Indian physicist/activist Vandana Shiva has raised the cry about this biopiracy worldwide, about the ruination of traditional farmers who are being driven into debt and robbed of their inheritance—their generations of work developing seeds perfectly suited to a specific environment. Now, moreover, they are being inundated with so-called super seeds, and then, if they try to use the seeds on their own, sued by the huge corporations that produce them. Since this is all a bit messy for the biotech giants, their main method of patent enforcement has become “terminator technologies.” Using their DNA-insertion skills, they have now engineered seeds that will not germinate after the first crop; or produced other seeds that are kept from germinating until they are “awakened” by a specific (costly) chemical; or, most bizarre of all, created terminator seeds that are laced with antibiotics designed to turn traits off or on—guaranteeing that farmers can’t re-use them. These “suicide” seeds are labeled “technology protection systems” by their promoters, protecting, they say, plants from being contaminated by transgenes, thus helping farmers.
            The conclusion by Cummings, and by anyone else not polluted by the propaganda pouring from the huge agribusiness sector, is chilling: “Seeds, instead of being a source of life, are now becoming a source of death.” And her crusade, via this book, is to wake all of us to the dangers we face, not simply from the fact of contamination of our entire botanic heritage, but from the overturning of the very genetic, moral basis of our world. Here is how she puts it: “I believe that the use of genetic technologies to re-create the world is the defining moral issue of our time. This technology, more than any that came before it, redefines who we are, what makes us human, and how we see ourselves in relation to the rest of the natural world…Now we are faced with a choice. Do we accept the triumph of the techno-elites, meaning do we let them decide what’s best for us, or do we use our common sense and moral compass to restore the public role of humanity in evaluating and governing technology?”
            When we hear the Secretary of Agriculture promising to promote this technology, not only in the United States, but throughout the world, we can only hope that Cummings’ message will somehow get through, somehow attract a large enough counterforce to compel a rethinking of what we’re here for. Because if it doesn’t, we will leave ourselves at the mercy of corporations which seem driven by the idea that inserting a technology of death into that which is meant to sustain us is as good a raison d’etre as any, and certainly more profitable than most. 
Lawrence DiStasi

Monday, May 11, 2009

Where Have You Gone, Dom DiMaggio

I only met him once, but when I heard the news of his death on Friday night, it felt as if a friend had died. That might stand as one measure of the man. Though he was small for a major league ballplayer, especially compared to his more famous brother, Joe, he was large in that indefinable something called “class” in its noblest sense. In Italian he would’ve been called un’ galantuomo—a man of integrity.
            Dominic Paul DiMaggio was born February 12, 1917 in San Francisco, the ninth child of a North Beach fisherman. Though at first his father had contempt for baseball as a frivolous sport for boys, the elder DiMaggio fathered not one nor two but three major league centerfielders: Vince, the oldest, who played for the Boston Braves and several other teams; Joe, the “Yankee Clipper,” and perhaps the greatest of all time; and Dom, who played 10 seasons in center field for the Boston Red Sox. Playing in the shadow of that great Yankee icon might have discouraged most younger brothers. It didn’t hinder Dom, but rather drove him to work harder to compensate for his short stature (he was 5’9” and weighed 140 when he started) and his nearsightedness (he was one of the rare major leaguers of his time to wear eyeglasses). One of the ways the “little professor” did it was by playing “smart.” His knowledge of the game, and of all the little details of batting and especially fielding, were legendary. He studied hitters and where they hit and always seemed to be one step ahead of the ball, always knowing where to throw to cut off a run or an extra base. Oddly, the most famous play in this regard was one he couldn’t take part in—the throw to second base in the 7th game of the 1946 World Series by his replacement for the ninth inning, Leon Culberson. The throw, which allowed the St. Louis Cardinal’s Enos Slaughter to score from first and defeat the Red Sox in the series, happened because DiMaggio had injured his hamstring in trying to stretch a hit the inning before, and had to be replaced. Enos Slaughter himself said that if Dom had been playing centerfield, he would never have scored (“Baseball’s Little Professor, Dom DiMaggio, Dies,” by Tom Fitzgerald, SF Chronicle, May 9, 2009). Ted Williams, Dom’s teammate and close friend, rated Dom at the very top: “He was as good a centerfielder as I ever saw,” said Williams, this from a man who not only saw Dom’s brother Joe, but Mickey Mantle, and Willie Mays as well. “Dom saved more runs as a centerfielder than anybody else. He should be in the Hall of Fame.” (quoted in “Dom Dimaggio” by Michael Bamberger, Sports Illustrated, July 2, 2001.)
            Sadly, and despite Ted Williams’ constant efforts to promote him, Dom DiMaggio died without being nominated to the Hall. This is reportedly the result of his short career (10 seasons with the Red Sox), and his batting average remaining just below .300 (.298 lifetime). But as the Ted Williams Museum advertises with its Dom DiMaggio display, he scored 1,046 runs in 10 seasons, second only to Williams himself, and had more hits, 1,679 than anyone else. He also holds the American League record of 2.99 chances per game by an outfielder, and the Boston Red Sox record for his 34-game hitting streak—a streak which, ironically, was ended by a diving catch of a sure base hit by his older brother, Joe. Of course, a key reason for the shortness of his career is that he volunteered to serve for three years in the U.S. Navy during World War II, a time when he could have been most productive. Also left out is the fact that when he was benched for the first time in his life in 1953, he retired, deciding that rather than hang on as a pinch hitter or fielder, or be traded as his physical stamina and reputation waned (as most stars do), he would rather walk away on his own terms to pursue other options. Thus began the “little professor’s” second career, as a textile manufacturer. Though his Delaware Valley Corporation, in Lawrence, MA has no connection to baseball, DiMaggio’s intelligence and business acumen made it thrive, and made him very comfortable indeed. In his later years, he spent much of his time either watching the Red Sox or investing in the stock market, which became another passion of his.
            It was in these later years that I met him. Having idolized his older brother, and having grown up as a Yankee fan hating “our” arch-rivals, the Red Sox, I remembered Dom all too vividly. He played for the Red Sox teams of the 40s and early 50s that boasted a “murderer’s row” of hitters, with Dom as the leadoff batter who always seemed to be on base, to be driven home by probably the greatest hitter of all time, Ted Williams. What I never knew about him was his persona, expecting him to be, perhaps, aloof and distant like his brother Joe. Instead, what I encountered was a warm, engaging man who knew who he was and felt no need to advertise it. Our first meeting was by phone: I had been asked to call him to see if I could persuade him to come to Washington in October of 1999 to testify on behalf of the legislation we had introduced—the Wartime Violation of Italian American Civil Liberties Act. It was a bill that had grown out of the exhibit I directed, Una Storia Segreta, detailing the little-known story of the internment and evacuation of Italian enemy aliens during World War II. Dom’s father, as a San Francisco fisherman, had been one of the so-called enemy aliens severely restricted during the war, and we had a photo of him on Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco just before he was banned from fishing. Dom’s presence would not only add specificity to that story, but would no doubt impress both the press and the members of the Judiciary Committee holding the hearings.
            When I called, he was at first wary, saying he was quite busy. But as I reminded him of those wartime days, he warmed up, and began reminiscing a little about the prejudice he grew up with, and which, he admitted, sometimes dogged him even as an adult: he had applied for membership to an exclusive club, the Everglades, near his summer home in Palm Beach, he said, and been rejected. He wasn’t sure what the reason was, but opined it could have been his Italian name. His response, he told me, was to say “the hell with them; I’ve got more to offer them than they have for me.” Telling me that story seemed to loosen something, and with a few more questions and a few more laughs, he agreed to come and testify if I thought it would help.
            A man in his 80s by then, Dominic DiMaggio appeared at the hearings smartly dressed, with an easy grin, a surprisingly firm handshake, and a mind as crackling as one of his signature line-drives. Despite his major league fame—and everyone, from the other witnesses, to Congressmen Engel and Lazio testifying for the bill they’d sponsored, to the Chair of the Judiciary Committee, Henry Hyde, wanted to talk to him about his career—he was as down-to-earth as, well, as a fisherman’s son. He chatted easily, he signed booklets and baseballs, he talked knowledgably about the stock market, and charmed everyone, including Doris Pinza, the rather reserved wife of the late opera-and-Broadway star Ezio Pinza (an enemy alien who had been arrested on suspicion during the war) who was testifying before the committee as well. And while DiMaggio’s testimony presented no new revelations, it was evident that his very presence added an extra measure of dignity and weight to the proceedings. When it was over, and we had lunched in the Congressional dining room, everyone sensed that something significant had happened. And it had. Within weeks, Henry Hyde had presented the legislation to the House, had it passed by voice vote, and sent it on to the Senate. The bill would take another few months to be reconciled, but on November 7, 2001, it was signed into Public Law #106-451. 
            Not long after that, I read David Halberstam’s masterful portrait of a quartet of Boston Red  Sox friends from a bygone era—Dom DiMaggio, Bobby Doerr, Johnny Pesky and Ted Williams—and the deep affection they still retained for each other. Titled The Teammates, the book turns on the trip two of them, DiMaggio and Pesky, took to see the ailing Ted William (a sportswriter named Dick Flavin filled out the trio driving from Boston to Florida, Bobby Doerr being unable to make the trip due to his wife’s illness), and the loving way they tried to buoy the spirits of their dying friend. Along the way, it fills in the biographies of all four players, as well as some of the highlights of their Red Sox careers, including that devastating score by Enos Slaughter to defeat the Red Sox in the 1946 Series. It recounts how they had always stayed in touch, how Doerr had always been the only one who could criticize or calm Williams in any way, and how DiMaggio eased into that role in later years. One of the elements that remains with me, especially now, is the nickname Williams—always known as a tempestuous, critical, near-misanthrope of a player—applied to DiMaggio: he called him “Dommy.” The name seems so unlikely, and yet so sweetly affectionate, especially coming from a man like Williams who knows he is dying, that it almost brings tears to one’s eyes.  So does Halberstam’s account of the great slugger’s last days, when he is finally joined by DiMaggio, Pesky and Flavin, and at which visit Dominic sang him an Italian song he called “I Love Her, But I Don’t Know How to Tell Her,” and finished with the classic “Me and My Shadow.” When he was done, Williams was overjoyed, enthusing, “Dommy, Dommy, you did really well.”  
            Williams lasted through the winter and spring after that, at which point DiMaggio “called him every morning with the latest Red Sox scores and an update of how they were playing. If he called a little late, Ted’s attendants would tell him that Ted had been asking about him and whether he had called in yet.” In Julycame the final call, when there was mostly silence at the other end, and DiMaggio was told that his friend had fallen asleep. “Well please tell him I called,” Dominic said; the next day Ted Williams died. (Halberstam, pp 197-98).
            I have not been able to determine if Dominic DiMaggio had his own crew of friends tending to him when he died. It would not have included his brother Joe, who died in 1999, and for whom Dom gave the eulogy at St. Peter and Paul’s church in San Francisco’s North Beach. But it surely would have included his wife of 61 years, Emily, and their three children, Paul, Emily and Peter. It would also have included the prayers and good will of anyone who knew him, who felt his loyalty and affection and heart, and who will miss him. For though he never married America’s movie icon, or appeared in an iconic song (the title of this piece is a play on a line from Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson”), perhaps he should have, for he was not just a great baseball player; he was a true galantuomo.
Lawrence DiStasi

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Ponzi and Pecora: the Yin and Yang of Banking in Crisis

Though it might at first seem highly unlikely, the roots of the present financial crisis can be found in the “work” of two Italian immigrants: Charles (Carlo) Ponzi and Ferdinand Pecora. They are the Yin and Yang, the Alpha and Omega of American finance. As such, their stories are highly emblematic of our current predicament.

            Take Ponzi first. So iconic was his meteoric career that his name now identifies the scheme he made famous: the Ponzi scheme, wherein early investors are paid off with the money paid by later investors in a kind of pyramid fraud. It’s the scheme that was used to even greater advantage by Bernard Madoff (in fact, according to William K. Black, the whole fraudulent loan system was a “Ponzi-like scheme”). But Ponzi made it a true American game.

            He was an Italian immigrant who claimed Parma as home, but was actually from a tiny Italian village called Lugo. He arrived in New York in 1903 with only $2.50 in his pocket (having gambled away almost $200 he had originally). After several menial jobs like dishwashing, he learned English well enough to become the manager of an immigrant bank in Montreal owned by one Luigi Zarossi, himself a swindler who claimed he paid 6% interest on bank deposits (apparently using a kind of Ponzi scheme himself). When Banco Zarossi failed, Ponzi resorted to forging the check of a former customer, was caught, and sent to prison for two years. Released in 1911, he got involved in a smuggling scheme, spent two more years in prison in Atlanta, and eventually ended up in Boston where he married the former Rose Guecco in 1918 and started a business trying to sell advertising. Though the business failed, Ponzi picked up an idea for his greatest scam: redeeming postal stamps (International Reply Coupons) sent from one country, in the currency of another. Ponzi figured that IRCs could be bought cheaply in Italy and exchanged for U.S. stamps to a higher value. Then the U.S. stamps could be sold at what Ponzi claimed was a 400% profit.

            Though his stamp scheme quickly aborted on red tape and volume problems, Ponzi promoted it so skillfully among friends (he promised to double their investment in 90 days) that he was able to start his own Securities Exchange Company and pay off his initial investors as promised. This was in early 1920. Word of the fantastic profits spread, and investors began besieging his Boston office with cash. Ponzi had to hire agents to handle the volume, paying them lavishly for business they were now bringing in from all over New England. By May of 1920 Ponzi had made almost half a million dollars, and deposited so much in the Hanover Trust Bank (in Boston’s Little Italy) that he was soon able to buy a controlling interest in that bank. By July of 1920, he was being called Boston’s “Wizard of Finance,” had purchased a mansion in Lexington, MA, and was able to bring his mother from Italy to join him. He would arrive at work in a cream-colored limousine driven by a Japanese chauffeur, whence crowds would cheer him like a movie star. After one little speech he gave, one fan called him the greatest Italian of all.

            “But what about Columbus,” Ponzi asked. “He discovered America.”

            “But you discovered money!” was the reply.

            Several times, suspicions were raised and there were runs on Ponzi’s company, but each time he paid off his investors and restored confidence. But it was not to last. The financial analyst Clarence Barron made calculations regarding the supposed source of the investment returns, and found that 160 million postal reply coupons would have to be circulating, while in truth, only 27,000 were. Another panic resulted, but Ponzi again managed to dodge the bullet. He hired a publicity agent, William McMasters, who quickly found the secret to Ponzi’s scheme. McMasters, a former newspaperman, took his information to the Boston Post’s editor, got $5000 for his exposé, and on August 2, 1920, the front-page headline blared: “Declares Ponzi is Now Hopelessly Insolvent.” McMasters pointed out that Ponzi was millions in debt, and was paying off early investors with new incoming deposits. To make things worse, on August 11, the Montreal Police identified Ponzi as the Zarossi clerk once jailed for forgery. Federal agents seized Ponzi and his holdings, while swarms of investors screamed for Ponzi’s head.

            The new Columbus served a combined seven years on both a federal and a state count, and when he was released, he was deported to Italy for an immigrant violation (having never become an American citizen.) After several more jobs, one for Mussolini’s Latin Airlines in Rio di Janeiro, Ponzi remained in Brazil trying to eke out a living teaching English, but in the end died in a charity ward there, in January 1949, broke and alone at the age of 66.


            Ferdinand Pecora, at first glance, seems the opposite of Ponzi. Ponzi hailed from a small town near Italy’s east coast between Ravenna and Bologna, while Pecora was born in the deep south, in Nicosia, Sicily, from whence he emigrated to the United States with his shoemaker father. Where Ponzi was all flash and showmanship, Pecora is described as dogged and implacable, a lawyer and prosecutor who mastered details and never forgot a fact. Where Ponzi presented himself as a mandarin of finance, outfitted like the banker he pretended to be, Pecora is described as an “earthy populist” who liked to play pinochle and smoke inexpensive cigars (his salary with the Senate committee was $255 a month). But in another sense, the two were brethren: like Ponzi, Pecora had a flair for the dramatic and an eye for the limelight, which shone brightly upon him when he was featured on the cover of Time Magazine’s June 12, 1933 issue. And like Ponzi, Pecora made his name in connection with wrongdoing—only on the opposite side of the law. The irony, of course, is that the fierce upholder law, Pecora, was largely forgotten until recently, while the felonious Ponzi became a household word and the subject of countless stories and reports.

            Still, of the two, Ferdinand Pecora is, or should be, the more relevant to our time. This is due to his hero’s stint as chief counsel to the Senate Banking and Currency Committee and its 1933  hearings on the causes of the Great Depression.  It was a signal moment in American economic history: since the crash of 1929, 40% of all American banks had closed, with 9 million individuals and families losing their savings. The Stock Exchange had sunk to a fifth of its 1929 value, and 17 million Americans were unemployed. Refugee camps called “Hoovervilles” dotted the landscape, with desperate souls emerging from them to beg for food and work. As for Pecora himself, he had worked his way through New York Law School, become an assistant district attorney in New York, and helped to prosecute more than 100 “bucket shops”—fly-by-night brokerage houses that preyed on gullible investors. This became his on-the-job-training in the seamy side of Wall Street, and the background which led to his selection as the counsel for the Banking Committee.

            Beginning in February of 1933, the hearings, which were soon known as the Pecora Hearings, called Wall Street’s most powerful figures—Richard Whitney, president of the NY Stock Exchange,  Albert Wiggin of Chase National Bank, Charles E. Mitchell of National City Bank (today’s Citibank) and J. P. Morgan Jr.—before it to testify.  Pecora himself interrogated many of them, driving them into corners, forcing them to reveal astonishing bits of chicanery that had helped fuel the 1929 Crash. Where Wiggin of Chase and Mitchell of National City had been praised for their supposedly Herculean efforts to halt the Depression, Pecora showed that Wiggin had actually profited from his bank’s falling prices by selling shares short. Mitchell and his cronies at National City had not only given themselves millions in interest-free loans to get them through the crash, but had also passed off bad loans to Latin America by concealing them in securities sold to investors (sounds a lot like the legendary “mortgage-backed securities” that have poisoned our own global financial system.) Pecora’s greatest moment probably came when he grilled J. P. Morgan Jr., the “Lion of Wall Street,” about his taxes. Pecora asked Morgan if he had paid income tax in 1930. After a silence, Morgan replied, “I cannot remember.” It was a lightning bolt, but Pecora was not finished. He asked Morgan about his taxes for 1931, and again for 1932. Each time Morgan answered in the same way: he couldn’t remember. Bulldogging even deeper, Pecora asked about the Morgan banking partners. The Lion of Wall Street knew nothing about taxes paid by them either. Pecora did know, and stated for the record that the sum of the taxes paid by J.P. Morgan and its partners for 1931 was $5,000. The resultant furor led Time Magazine, in its cover article, to coin a name for the bankers that Pecora had now made infamous: “banksters.”

            Pecora’s hearings rocked the nation and are considered key to the passage of the New Deal regulations that followed, regulations like the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 that created the SEC and reined in Wall Street’s worst excesses for more than 50 years. It was not until the 1990s that laws like the Glass-Steagall Banking Act were jettisoned to pave the way for the Wall Street piracy we have witnessed recently. As for Pecora himself, after his investigations closed in July 1934, President Roosevelt made him a commissioner on the SEC his hearings had helped establish. After that, Pecora was appointed to the New York State Supreme Court in 1935, where he held forth until 1950 when he resigned for an unsuccessful try at the Mayor’s job in New York. When he died in 1971, he left his own account of his hearings in the book he wrote in 1939, Wall Street Under Oath: The Story of Our Modern Money Changers. Too bad some of our own Wall Street “banksters” and alleged regulators didn’t read it before the roof fell in. Now they may get the chance, for increasingly we are hearing calls for a new Pecora and new congressional hearings to investigate the “banksterism” that led to our recent financial collapse. As Michael Winship said in his article on Pecora that appeared recently on Truthout:

            “Ferdinand Pecora, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you.”


Lawrence DiStasi

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Torture: Crime versus Punishment

We have our ways
On the ship of State
To win your praise
While pushing fate
For the detainee
That is so unlucky
To be positioned
For Inquisition
And then to drown
While we clown

I can no longer remain silent on the false debate on torture. I have tolerated countless right wing extremists defending the US practice of torture, and now otherwise prudent and moderate people argue that torture can be legitimate under two conditions: If it is legal and if it works. The logic is bizarre more than faulty and we will explore the arguments that are essentially extensions of the logic proffered by the Spanish Inquisition. We have rule of law or we do not. That fact is independent of patriotism.

Let us first consider the issue of the law. The US signed the Geneva Accords and we proclaim that we accepted the international law on torture. Precedent from WW II and even the war in Vietnam also supports the prosecution of torture. Conviction of Japanese soldiers who tortured by using the techniques defended by Yoo and Bybee led to sentences of 15 years hard labor. Those techniques included beating, wall-banging, waterboarding (or the water cure), prolonged exposure to cold, etc. It has not always been a military issue. According to Progress Politics: “In 1983, Texas Sheriff James Parker was charged, along with three of his deputies, for handcuffing prisoners to chairs, placing towels over their faces, and pouring water on the cloth until they gave what the officers considered to be confessions. The sheriff and his deputies were all convicted and sentenced to four years in prison.”

Torture, including waterboarding, is illegal. There is no room for debate on that fact. As for what constitutes torture, beyond waterboarding, the examples abound, but precedent mentions stress positions, nakedness, prolonged interrogation and waking periods, denial of food or water, infliction of pain including emotional pain. Those all sound familiar if you have kept up with the Bybee and Yoo legal advice or the Gitmo reporting. Mostly, it is common sense administration for controlling the treatment of captives who have no other protection from abuse than the laws themselves. Merely naming a practice “enhanced interrogation” that, in fact, uses the already defined techniques of torture does not alter the practice or the offense. Requesting and receiving an attorney’s opinion that attempts to create a loophole in the laws on torture is meaningless if the techniques actually applied are already defined as torture. The crime is in the application of illegal methods, not in the advice whether the advice was sincere or an artifact of a conspiracy to commit torture.

Recently, former Vice President Cheney has offered: 1) that the techniques worked, and 2) that only 3 detainees were waterboarded. Let’s take a look at those claims. If the techniques worked, why was one detainee waterboarded 183 times in one month? It would seem that besides being irrelevant, it is hardly an efficient approach to get accurate and usable information. The techniques were “reverse engineered” from the Communist Chinese methods used during the Korean conflict. We actually set up the SERE Program to orient our own military to the Chinese Communist methods that extracted FALSE confessions from our fighting men and women. The underlying premise was that if we trained our military, that they would be less likely to provide false confessions. The method used by the Chinese Communists worked and false confessions were extracted so that our military were exploited for propaganda by the Chinese Communists. Our complaint then and even now is that the confessions were FALSE, not that they were true. Now Cheney has proclaimed a minor miracle that methods made famous for extracting false information now bring forth the TRUTH. Amazing!

If I waterboard only three detainees or otherwise only torture only three detainees, guess what? I tortured three people with multiple counts of torture on those three? That is parallel to extorting or assaulting or robbing or killing only three people. If torture is applied to only one person and only one time, then the offense has been committed. In terms of committing a crime, it takes only one offense. You don’t need to be a serial killer to be tried for murder. And the issue of patriotism as a motive for depriving a person of his rights under the laws of torture simply fails muster. If I rob a bank and assault a teller because I wanted to pay for an operation for my mother or to give money to the poor, the “motivation” is meaningless except in mitigation after conviction for the crime. If an intent is to be examined for a violation of the law, it is the intent to deprive a person of his or her rights under the applicable laws, not the intent to be patriotic. That may come after the trial and conviction for the violation of the law.

My personal interpretation of the myriad pronouncements by Cheney and others is that the truth is coming into daylight and that Cheney knows that he could serve jail time if he were tried and convicted of promoting methods otherwise defined as torture. He may or may not be evil, but surely, he is not stupid and does not look forward to being called out by our courts or by the international courts to defend his actions regarding torture. This is a basic case of conflict of interest. We have a right of free speech and Cheney is exercising that right, but please consider the source when evaluating the content. Others, including Bybee and Yoo and Rumsfeld and Gonzales have been less garrulous, but they must also be hoping all this will blow away or that people will accept their framing of the arguments and lose sight of the real offenses committed. The nation of Spain may again be in the limelight, but this time on the side of the law and against the Inquisition. The irony is worth noting.

In summary, the techniques of torture are illegal and while I seriously doubt that they work, that issue is irrelevant for all the reasons already cited. If US perpetrators (high and low) are not, in fact, tried by US courts, they may well be tried by foreign courts and, if so, we will have lost the initiative to control our own fate and reputation as a nation of law. Torture at Guantanamo and at Abu Ghraib and other sites has been credited as the greatest recruiting tool for the Taliban and Al Qaeda. We need to demonstrate that we have the courage to do the right thing and to practice what we preach…even if it hurts. Let the Taliban and Al Qaeda recruit on their own and without our help. Otherwise we face the ever increasing numbers of enemy at a time when we should be making it more difficult and less attractive for them to sign on. If these officials were criminals and were also patriotic, may they receive reduced sentences. First, we need to try them in courts of law as happens in other civilized countries.

George Giacoppe
10 May 2009