a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Forward — to drones on their own

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 3rd October 2012

(From United States Air Force Unmanned Aircraft Systems Flight Plan 2009-2047, Note the
planned capabilities of the MQ-Lc, far right: “Modular, Autonomous,” “Strategic Attack,” “Global Strike.”  Similar features
are envisioned for “medium,” fighter-sized version MQ-Mc’s.


What could be better than unmanned aerial vehicles raining death on Pakistan in a ratio of three children to one terrorist leader by remote control?  Why, the same thing on autopilot, of course.  J. Michael Cole of “The Diplomat” reports:

…although the use of drones substantially increases operational effectiveness — and, in the case of targeted killings, adds to the emotional distance between perpetrator and target — they remain primarily an extension of, and are regulated by, human decisionmaking.

All that could be about to change, with reports that the U.S. military (and presumably others) have been making steady progress developing drones that operate with little, if any, human oversight. For the time being, developers in the U.S. military insist that when it comes to lethal operations, the new generation of drones will remain under human supervision. Nevertheless, unmanned vehicles will no longer be the “dumb” drones in use today; instead, they will have the ability to “reason” and will be far more autonomous, with humans acting more as supervisors than controllers.

(Via digby at “Hullabaloo”).  Sure, there are concerns and glitches, Washington Post’s Peter Finn notes:  “Some experts also worry that hostile states or terrorist organizations could hack robotic systems and redirect them. Malfunctions also are a problem: In South Africa in 2007, a semiautonomous cannon fatally shot nine friendly soldiers.” 

But the deeper concern is that a war-fighting process already on institutional and public opinion autopilot would now simply go on a computerized one.  Americans think they know what’s going on in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere, but they don’t.  As the authors of Living Under Drones: Death,Injury,and Trauma to Civilians From US Drone Practices in Pakistan put it,

In the United States, the dominant narrative about the use of drones in Pakistan is of a surgically precise and effective tool that makes the US safer by enabling “targeted killing” of terrorists, with minimal downsides or collateral impacts.  This narrative is false.

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Offsetting the Madoff effect

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 30th December 2008

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned that the “JEHT” Foundation had been laid low by the Madoff scandal.  While JEHT will still be going out of business, some of their major beneficiaries are getting a lift from Civic Action.  From the explanatory e-mail:

You’ve probably heard about how Wall Street financier Bernard Madoff scammed investors out of at least $50 billion.

But you may not have heard that his victims included the foundations that support some really important progressive organizations. Groups that fight for human rights, fair elections and racial justice are getting hit hard—just in time for the holidays. We’ve worked side-by-side with many of them.

If these groups can’t replace the funding that came from investment accounts that Madoff stole, they may be forced to start cutting important projects or, in some cases, even lay off staff.

Can you pitch in $25 or $50 for each of the four organizations we’re highlighting below? Our friends at Atlantic Philanthropies and the Open Society Institute will each match every dollar that comes in until January 1! So, for the next three days, your donation of $25 or $50 means $75 or $150 for groups affected by Madoff.

Click here to contribute:

Your end-of-the-year gift will be tax-deductible as if you had made the gift directly to the designated charities; we will forward 100% of your contribution to the organizations you select.

Donations will benefit four groups that are among the most deserving human rights groups there are: the Brennan Center for Justice, Human Rights Watch, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and Advancement Project.  As the message states, any donation will be tax deductible, since all four groups are 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations.

But there are other equally deserving groups. And given the 2 for 1 “deal” you’re getting with the MoveOn Civic Action effort, you might consider giving a year-end, tax-deductible contribution to a couple of other groups also hard hit by the Madoff scandal.

  • First, there’s the well known and highly respected organization Human Rights First (HRF)where a popup message reads, “Two of our major foundation supporters were victims of the Madoff fraud, which has left a gaping hole of more than $1 million in our budget.At the exact moment when we were poised to secure so many of the human rights advances we had not dreamed of in years, Human Rights First is facing the most serious financial challenge in our history.”
  • Also consider helping the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA), an international human rights organization “dedicated to ending torture and other severe human rights abuses around the world and advancing the rights of survivors to seek truth, justice and redress.” One of its directors recently told me “there’s a hole where several hundred thousand dollars used to be.”

I just gave to all three: the MoveOn joint campaign, HRF, and CJA. I hope you will contribute whatever you can as well.

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A loss for human rights: Madoff scandal hits JEHT

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 17th December 2008

The JEHT Foundation is a little known foundation in New York that has quietly been at the forefront of human rights and civil liberties since 2000, by underwriting important yet underfunded and sometimes unpopular work for criminal justice, international justice, juvenile justice, and fair elections.  “Thanks” to Bernard Madoff, they’ll have to shut down:

The JEHT Foundation, a national philanthropic organization, has stopped all grant making effective immediately and will close its doors at the end of January 2009. The funds of the donors to the Foundation, Jeanne Levy-Church and Kenneth Levy-Church, were managed by Bernard L. Madoff, a prominent financial advisor who was arrested last week for defrauding investors out of billions of dollars.

The Foundation was established in 2000. Its name stands for the values it holds dear: Justice, Equality, Human dignity and Tolerance. It supported programs that promoted reform of the criminal and juvenile justice systems; ensured that the United States adhered to the international rule of law; and work to improve the voting process by enhancing fair representation, competitive elections and government transparency.

The JEHT Foundation Board deeply regrets that the important work that the Foundation has undertaken over the years is ending so abruptly. The issues the Foundation addressed received very limited philanthropic support and the loss of the foundation’s funding and leadership will cause significant pain and disruption of the work for many dedicated people and organizations. The Foundation’s programs have met with significant success in recent years – promoting change in these critical areas in partnership with government and the non-profit sector. Hopefully others will look closely at this work and consider supporting it going forward.

JEHT President Robert Crane, still looking shell-shocked, explains more in this video.

The foundation has helped fund all kinds of notable efforts — major ACLU chapters, the Crimes of War project, International War Crimes Conferences, seminars on international law and courts, Human Rights First, and the Center for Justice and Accountability, to name but a few, awarding grants in excess of $24 million (by my count) between 2002 and 2008 for international justice efforts alone.  Annual grant totals in recent years averaged around $4 million.  The JEHT headquarters have also served as a meeting place; recently, for example, the foundation hosted a conference about human rights litigation strategies and current cases, with discussion even touching on how to bring Bush administration figures to justice.

JEHT’s funding and support for efforts like these will be sorely missed.  For what little it’s worth, here’s my thanks to them and the Levy-Churches for their work, and my condolences for their loss.

UPDATE, EDIT, 12/18: Welcome Sideshow readers! — wish I had better news for you. For a spreadsheet summarizing and detailing JEHT’s grants between 2002 (not 2001) and 2008, click here. The “details” part of the worksheet (click a tab at the bottom of the page) provides brief descriptions of each grant, and links to the organizations or schools involved.

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*Every* day is Constitution Day

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 19th September 2008

I helped get a mass mailing out the door on Wednesday, to members of the facebook and “Get FISA Right” groups.  The full text is here or here; from the mailing:

…This election needs to be about more than lipstick, hockey moms, and Blackberries. It’s time to talk about the Constitution and how the two candidates propose to undo the damage of the past eight years.We’re contacting editorial boards across the country asking that they:

  • urge presidential candidates to present their views on constitutional issues on September 17 — and for the rest of the campaign
  • prepare editorials on restoring the rule of law to the next administration and Congress
  • report on and analyze how the candidates would exert their executive authority as President. (Charlie Savage and the Boston Globe did this late last year; it’s time for a remake.)

In addition, we believe it is critical that the televised presidential debates pose questions about constitutional issues like warrantless electronic surveillance, torture, abrogation of habeas corpus, and how to restore our Constitution.

Again, we need your help — in two ways.

1. Please take a moment to write and send a *short* letter (best no more than 4 sentences!) to the editor of your local newspaper, putting these demands in your own words. We wouldn’t be “Get FISA Right” if we didn’t hope you’d mention rolling back the infamous FISA Amendment Act, but these letters will really have more impact if we don’t provide a canned script for you to follow.

If you don’t know your local paper’s letter to the editor email address, use this tool to find ones in your area. (Please don’t send the same letter to multiple newspapers, though.)

2. Help us with our op-ed piece. Collaborative writing — of open letters, blog posts, ad scripts — has always been one of Get FISA Right’s strengths; and with the media attention we’ve gotten so far, we think we’ve got a good shot at getting this op-ed piece placed. Please join in here. […]

The conception and execution of this was interesting; the American Freedom Campaign held a press conference last Friday that a couple of us from “Get FISA Right” attended.  The editorial board outreach effort was AFC’s, and we thought we’d see if we could lend a hand by encouraging a fairly large base of support (about 23,000 people on myBarackObama, and another 2,300 on facebook) to support that with letters to the editor.  The drafting process took place on a “wiki” site (the same one being used for the op-ed piece), which makes it easy to see how a document has changed as different authors add to or subtract from it, and makes collaboration possible even when writers are literally on opposite sides of the country.

Anyhow.  There are plenty of other initiatives going on about constitutional, rule of law, civil liberties and human rights issues this campaign season.  A selection:

Meanwhile, as “Get FISA Right” superactivist Jon Pincus writes, it seems like one of the biggest barriers we face is a deep unwillingness to cover these issues by the media, matched by a general reluctance among politicians to talk about them.  Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick, a rare exception, wrote about this in “It’s the Constitution, Stupid“:

Maybe I live in a teensy little rarefied bubble, in which a handful of constitutional law professors, tetchy libertarians, and paranoid bloggers have been tearing their eyebrows out for the past seven years over the president’s use of the “war on terror” to run his tanks over great swaths of the Constitution and much of the Bill of Rights. Maybe I overestimate American concern that their president likes to eavesdrop on their phone calls and root through their library records. Yet Jane Mayer’s book The Dark Side is on the best-seller list. Sixty-one percent of Americans oppose warrantless wiretapping. And both presidential candidates have recognized Guantanamo for the international disaster it is. So clearly somebody cares about the loss of civil liberties in America. It’s just that nobody wants to talk about it.

Jon concludes:

Like a lot of people, I believe that this election’s a choice between restoring the Constitution and continuing down the path to fascism and a police state.  Okay, maybe that’s not the most pressing issue to everybody … but it certainly seems worth talking about.

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Should all human experimentation be legal?

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 18th December 2001

In an April 16, 2001 National Review article, Should Cloning Be Legal?, Dave Kopel and Glenn Reynolds (of “Instapundit” fame) argued that research into cloning can not be federally banned, since no issues of interstate commerce or other federal powers are involved. (Mr. Reynolds drew attention to the article again in a brief 12/17 comment deriding Congressional inquiries into Advanced Cell Technology’s therapeutic cloning and related matters as a “dumb idea.”) Kopel and Reynolds are two smart fellows, so they may well be right as far as federal oversight per se goes, at least as of 1995 when the main Supreme Court decision they cite (United States v. Lopez) was made.

But this may be less a matter of federal powers than of individual rights, in which case the crux of the matter is or ought to be when we concede those rights to a developing human being. I do not argue for banning “therapeutic cloning”, in which early stage embryos are harvested for therapeutic or medicinal purposes. I see nothing more intrinsically human or spiritual about early stage embryos than I do about a sample of cells scraped from my cheek; federal regulation or Constitutional concern is unnecessary.

But when it comes to “reproductive cloning,” in which the goal is to create a healthy human being by cloning techniques, those concerns become real. At some point, variously defined, but surely by late term, there is a human being involved here. As I’ve argued before (“Cloning debate continued here”, “Cloning followup”), that human being should not be failure number 239 in some research scientist’s quest for a Nobel Prize or a stock option deal. To put the assertion more strongly yet: that human being should not even be failure number 1 in a reproductive cloning research program. I am arguing for the (somewhat paradoxical) rights not to exist, and even not to be attempted under conditions such as these.

Reynolds cites Virginia Postrel’s Reason article on the topic (Don’t Impede Medical Progress). Ms. Postrel takes on the issue of reproductive cloning as follows:

…At the current stage of knowledge, using cloning to conceive a child would indeed be dangerous and unethical, with a high risk of serious birth defects. Anyone who cloned a baby today would rightly face, at the very least, the potential of an enormous malpractice judgment. There are good arguments for establishing a temporary moratorium on reproductive cloning.

But the small possibility of reproductive cloning does not justify making nucleus transfer a crime. Almost any science might conceivably be turned to evil purposes. This particular misuse is neither especially likely — cell biology labs are not set up to deliver fertility treatments — nor, in the long run, especially threatening.

Contrary to a lot of scary rhetoric, a healthy cloned infant would not be a moral nightmare, merely the not-quite-identical twin of an older person. (The fetal environment and egg cytoplasm create some genetic variations.) Certainly, some parents might have such a baby for bad reasons, to gratify their egos or to “replace” a child who died. But parents have been having children for bad reasons since time immemorial.

Fair enough, for the most part. I note with satisfaction that Ms. Postrel approves of at least a temporary moratorium on reproductive cloning — and suggest that research banned temporarily, in this case at least, is research banned permanently: where else would the experience come from to increase the success rate of the procedure, and allay the fears of critics? As I’ve stated before, I suppose that with time and luck, the process might become quite routine. But I doubt very much that it would immediately be that way, and so I oppose trying. And I vehemently deny that anyone has the right to have children for any old “bad reason”, especially including a modern variety of human sacrifice.

Like Shiloh Bucher earlier this year, I write in part because I don’t like that these concerns are being pooh-poohed or dismissed as “stupid” or “dumb ideas.” As for the legal basis for Congressional action, I should think that whatever guidelines apply to forbid human experimentation without informed consent have U.S. Constitutional support, presumably in the Bill of Rights. If not, they should. There may have been nothing in the Constitution at one time to forbid slavery nationwide, either, but there is now. I see a vast difference here, by the way, with the question of testing drugs on children or infants without the power of informed consent: you can call off a drug test as a researcher, you can withdraw or be withdrawn from it as a subject.

Ms. Postrel is no doubt sincere in her call for a reproductive cloning moratorium; perhaps Mr. Reynolds is agnostic on the subject. It won’t happen without a debate, though, and Congress is the proper venue for that debate. I hope they use the occasion of the ACT announcement to consider it. I’m not a lawyer or Constitutional scholar, so I would (of course) leave the crafting of a federal law or, if necessary, a Constitutional amendment, to others. But I see no reason to support Idaho’s right to act differently in this than Ohio or Georgia, any more than I would support any State’s pre-13th Amendment rights to allow slavery, negligent manslaughter, or torture. Any of which could resemble the fate of the inevitable failed victims of reproductive cloning research. (The 8th Amendment’s forbiddance of “cruel and unusual punishment” might apply).

Some may object that in vitro fertilization, in its research phase, had the same potential arguments against it that reproductive cloning research does. But there are major differences between the two techniques. In the case of in vitro fertilization, the only experimentation involved was in preserving the viability of otherwise intact eggs, sperm, and embryos long enough to permit fertilization and implantation. In the case of reproductive cloning, a cell nucleus long since specialized to its tissue and task is extracted, more or less whole, inserted more or less completely into a more or less denucleated egg cell, and shocked into more or less early-embryo like cell behavior by more or less biological means. Quite unlike in vitro fertilization, significant opportunities for gross and subtle genetic error exists at multiple stages in the process (see above). Those errors might often be manifested early and drastically enough that a merciful fetal self-destruction would occur, or detectably enough that an early termination of the pregnancy would be possible. But sometimes they would not be apparent until it was too late.

I acknowledge that it might be difficult to draft legislation that permits in vitro fertilization, but outlaws reproductive cloning. I also acknowledge that such a ban might cost some of us one kind of chance for a biological — in some sense — child. Finally, I see that banning reproductive cloning for this reason is similar to forbidding or limiting procreation by couples likely to produce infirm offspring. I dislike the idea of eugenics in general, and certainly don’t support the racial eugenics of yesteryear. The difference in techniques between, shall we say, “unskilled labor” and laboratory methods seems reasonably clear, but translating that into a clear legal distinction might be a challenge. So I’ll close by saying that I don’t have every answer ready. I just don’t think United States v. Lopez or Advanced Cell Technology possibly could either.

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Cloning debate continued here

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 4th December 2001

Last Thursday, Glenn Reynolds wrote:

Some people see this as an abortion. I don’t. Or, if it is, then God is the biggest abortionist of all. Huge numbers of “pregnancies” spontaneously abort at this early stage, often without the woman even realizing that she is pregnant. Nor do I feel that a couple of hundred cells constitute a human being. […]

Another argument is that permitting this will create a slippery slope to true human cloning. I find two problems with this argument. The first is that it assumes that human cloning is bad, which is itself a highly debatable proposition. The second is that I don’t think it matters. Human cloning will happen either way: the technology is too close to being there, and there are too many people who want to do it.

Shiloh Bucher replied:

God is also the greatest murderer of nonagenarians, but that doesn’t make it moral to kill them for their parts. […]

I say all this as someone who believes, as Clinton claimed to once, that abortion should be safe, legal, and rare. I worry that taking this road offered by therapeutic cloning advocates (TCAs) will make what is, in essence, abortion, tremendously common. And what is being suggested right now are the worst sorts of abortions, in my view, those of pure convenience. […]

…I don’t think that anything done in the name of science or prolonging human life must be moral. I think, for example, that the Chinese use of prisoners for organ transplants is wrong, even if it saves lives. It should not just be up to scientists to decide these things, for they have a vested interest in pushing science to its limits.

I’ve highlighted the positions I disagree with in red, and the ones I have sympathy for in green. I will now genetically recombine Mr. Reynolds’ view of the early stage embryo with Mrs. Bucher’s reluctance to engage in unnecessary experimentation into a new, hardier argument — which neither writer may agree with.

I think that a human clone, if brought to term, might someday be a good thing from that person’s point of view, but getting there would entail a morally reprehensible period of trial and error. The first experimental attempts, as they failed, would fail with dire consequences for the baby, with no compelling reason to allow such tragedies to unfold. Even if the first and all subsequent attempts succeeded brilliantly, I’d say that they were experiments with humans, and ethically beyond the pale, just as Nazi, Imperial Japanese, and U.S. (Tuskegee) medical experiments with prisoners or involuntary subjects were beyond the pale. “Success” in an unethical experiment is at best the absence of tragedy. I’m reminded of the claim that scientists at Los Alamos took bets whether the first nuclear explosion would set off an atmospheric chain reaction that would blow up the world.

Incidentally, this seems to me to be similar to the death penalty debate, at least to my version of that debate. In my view, the chief and compelling argument against the death penalty is that with the death penalty, society is all but certain to eventually execute an innocent person, while without it, society is certain to never make that hideous and avoidable mistake. Similarly, a compelling argument against full term human cloning is (I’m guessing now — but with a different bias than the scientists at Los Alamos) that, over the course of the experimentation necessary to “perfect” the process, there would be human tragedies at worst and late term abortions of convenience “at best” that could have been avoided by simply “never going there.”

That said, I agree with Mr. Reynolds that a 100 cell embryo is not human in any important sense, and that sacrificing it, or even more advanced stage embryos up to some (Roe v. Wade?) point for medical purposes is defensible. (Sacrificing such embryos is arguably well short of an abortion for another important reason: no mother’s physical well-being need be a factor in the decision.) But I don’t at all agree with Mr. Reynolds’ surprisingly relaxed assertion that it doesn’t matter what we think because human cloning will happen anyway. Here I’m much more in sympathy with Mrs. Bucher’s overall attitude: you neither welcome nor resign yourself to something just because it’s convenient, advantageous, or inevitable given wealthy clients and/or unscrupulous scientists. Accordingly, I think we should outlaw bringing human clones to term, or even close to it.

I think Mr. Reynolds is right: as it currently stands, “therapeutic cloning” is ethical, and is potentially a boon to humanity. I think Mrs. Bucher is right, too: we are on a slippery slope, and that matters.


edited 6am: ‘relaxed’; 11am: Mrs.

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Military tribunals

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 29th November 2001

For a sequence of good posts on this topic, you might start with this Talking Points Memo by Joshua Micah Marshall. I’m still up in the air on this one (so currently my own poll responses are: tribunal-no, lawyer eavesdrop-no, 5000 interviews-yes). Marshall actually lays out some of the pro arguments so well that you’re surprised to learn he’s against them, at least as implemented by the Bush order. As I’ve written earlier, the prospect of a Bin Laden trial is not at all attractive to me, and I engage in some ranting that ends with the simplest alternative of just bombing him.

In his “Lake Effect” blog, Dan Hartung posts a link to the verbatim text of Bush’s order. Jeff Jarvis excerpts the order:

“Having fully considered the magnitude of the potential deaths, injuries, and property destruction that would result from potential acts of terrorism against the United States, and the probability that such acts will occur, I have determined that an extraordinary emergency exists for national defense purposes, that this emergency constitutes an urgent and compelling government interest, and that issuance of this order is necessary to meet the emergency.”

His take is “Civil Rights? Maybe later.” I like Jeff, and I assume the “maybe” was a slip. I’ve felt like “later,” too, but with the nagging and clinching objection: when exactly? When is the emergency — no ironic quotes, yet — over? I support hunting Al Qaeda to the ends of the earth, for as long as it takes. But I would think at some point before that’s over, the emergency would be as well. The only limitations in the order that I see, skimming it, are that it applies to non U.S. citizens (2a). The rest basically suggests that this will be a new standing order applicable not just to Al Qaeda members, but to anyone conspiring to commit acts injurious to the U.S.

(edits: 11:05pm; 12/4: link to earlier post)

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