Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Burqas, Bikinis, Bullets, Bombs, Biden And Broken DC Metro

Burqas, Bikinis, Bullets, Bombs, Biden And Broken DC Metro

Should the Burqa Be Banned? Many Women Think No, But Others Disagree

By Sarah Seltzer, RH Reality Check. Posted July 13, 2009.

We must continue to target the pressure, coercion, and social compulsion that affects how women dress. But we must never attack women themselves.

How can so many American feminists have come out against a burqa ban in France (as they largely have this past month) when the burqa, along with other excessively modest religious garb, appears to be a classic tool of gender oppression?

The answer is that singling out the burqa as the only article of clothing patriarchal enough to merit legal regulation -- or even strident criticism -- is racist. Critique of women's clothing, from burqas to cleavage, is often leveraged for other purposes, whether they be religious, cultural or political, and should be called out when it's faux feminism, as Aziza Ahmed argued on RH Reality Check.

But it's also true that almost every cultural or religious group sets standards of appearance that oppress women. Most fashion, from the corset of yore to the bikini to the FLDS prairie dress to the Nike sneaker (made by women in sweatshops, marketed to Western women), tends to hew in some way to patriarchal norms. So the quandary we grapple with, as feminists, is how to acknowledge that fact without alienating, targeting or harassing groups of women for the way they dress.

Remember the Manolo Blahnik pinkie toe-removal phenomenon, which hearkens back to Cinderella's stepsisters in terms of the lengths women go to mutilate themselves on the altar of fashion? Imagine if we outlawed those heels for fear that some women would shorten their pinkie toes. In each instance of an oppressive custom of dress or beauty, it's right to support those feminists who debate it. It is also crucial to examine the implications for women and for gender roles of dressing one way or another -- it's a clear example of the personal being political. But we have to do that without punishing or shaming women for their choice of outfit, as the French would seek to do.

Rather than single out other people's problematic dress, we should all be engaged in a robust critique and examination of the way gender norms inform beauty standards everywhere. In France, a country that many of its citizen claim is paradoxically so sexually liberated the burqa isn't welcome, American-style short-shorts are still a novelty, for instance, likely to garner stares or catcalls. Women there tend to dress marginally more modestly than they do in America -- except on beaches, where topless bathing is accepted. Evidently, the pressure to cover up, or to uncover, in various contexts may be stronger than we think, even in "free" Western countries.

Here in secular/commercialized America, women try to live up to a prepubescent ideal, buying into a diet industry that's a racket and causes eating disorders, using chemical bleaches on our hair, and undergoing sometimes-painful waxing, peeling or plastic surgeries to look eternally young, slim and buxom. The beauty myth has always been part of our culture, but as feminist commentators like Naomi Wolf and Susan J. Douglas have noted, the craze for ever-smaller female bodies coincided with women taking up a more space in the workplace. Some women claim that restrictive fashion trends, obsessive calorie-counting and makeup make them feel great, but both women who love it and those who loathe it are spending money and energy on their looks in a way that most men simply don't have to. The Daily Show played with this idea last week:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart-Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c

Burka Ban

And yes, in conservative communities of all denominations (and non-religious ones as well) modest dressing restrictions treat all women like jezebels, so unendingly sexual and distracting that their figures must be kept out of sight. Such garb -- even if it has different meanings for different wearers -- reinforces a misogynist ideal that puts the burden on women to cover up rather than men to avert their gaze.

This isn't meant to equivocate between all patriarchal fashion or grooming trends -- (certainly, styles that are restrictive or unhealthy are worse than those that are just silly), but to point out that they exist on a spectrum. Feminists stand up for women at either end of the spectrum even when both ends do have pernicious aspects. Yes, we criticize "porn culture" at the same time as excoriating the "modesty movement." But then we should also support women kicked off airplanes for wearing outfits deemed too skimpy -- and rush to defend women denied jobs because they choose to wear the hijab.

Just because feminists acknowledge the problematic roots of a practice doesn't mean that we can, or want, to bully it away. The way humans dress is an extension of our self-expression, our identity and an indication of how we align ourselves in terms of community norms and expectations. Attacks on individual clothing or grooming choices often feel deeply personal and can put people on the defensive.

The truth is, rarely will clothing choices not be loaded, complex and full of contradictions -- here in the US we have cheerleaders and beauty queens in suggestive outfits who wear chastity rings, and religious women who accent their modest clothing with perfume and Botox while toting a copy of Gender Trouble. Oppressive mainstream beauty standards may make modest clothing appealing, while puritanical religious customs may spur women to express their sexuality by stripping down. It's not so easy to reject patriarchal standards in their entirety -- if we didn't shave, wax, or wear makeup (or at times, conceal the fact that we don't) in strategic ways, we may well have a much harder time taken seriously by the world (except if the world were a hippie commune).

Open, nonjudgmental discussion of these complexities may lead some women to turn towards comfort and away from custom -- ditch their high heels or experiment with less modest clothing. But at the end of the day, different women have different reactions to what they wear. The feminist group Ni Putes Ni Soumises andother Muslim women have taken a convincingly strong stance against the burqa while some burqa wearers say it's a choice they make freely. Many women get a rush of happiness from high heels while other women curse them and wish their workplace was more accepting of less chic footwear.

That doesn't mean we should throw up our hands and refuse to examine the meaning and history of clothing styles and fashion expectations -- we should. It's important to note which styles of dressing get women rewarded in patriarchal societies and why. But when we do delve, we should delve holistically, not focus mono-maniacally on habits -- literally -- of other women.

Reproductive rights advocates strive for a society where choice means getting rid of social and legal obstacles to reproductive health access instead of criticizing women's individual reproductive decisions. When feminists talk about clothing we try to focus on getting rid of the gender, race and class expectations that feed into the way we dress and how we judge women's appearance.We need to continue to target the pressure, coercion, and legal and social compulsion that affects women, not women themselves. And imposing laws that regulate clothing does not accomplish that goal, but curtails women's freedom even more seriously.



TUESDAY JULY 21, 2009 06:22 EDT

First steps taken to implement preventive detention, military commissions

(updated below - Update II)

A task force appointed by President Obama to issue recommendations on how to close Guantanamo announced yesterday it will miss its deadline and instead needs a six-month extension, potentially jeopardizing Obama's promise to close Guantanamo within a year. The announcement was made in a briefing given by four leading Obama officials, where the condition of the briefing was that none of the officials could be named (why not?) and all media outlets agreed to this condition (why?).

Though the Task Force's final recommendations were delayed, it did release an interim report (.pdf) which -- true to Obama's prior pledges -- envisions an optional, three-tiered "system of justice" for imprisoning accused Terrorists, to be determined by the Obama administration in each case: (1) real trials in real courts for some; (2) military commissions for others; and (3) indefinite detention with no charges for the rest. This memo is the first step towards institutionalizing both a new scheme of preventive detention and Obama's version of military commissions.

From this interim report, it's more apparent than ever that the central excuse made by Obama defenders to justify preventive detention and military commissions -- there are dangerous Terrorists who cannot be released but also cannot be tried because Bush obtained the evidence against them via torture -- is an absolute myth. That's clear for multiple reasons:

First, the Task Force is formulating detention policy not only for detainees already at Guantanamo, but also for future, not-yet-abducted detainees as well. From the first paragraph of the memo (click image to enlarge):

The memo goes on to state that they are examining "what the rules and boundaries should be for any future detentions under the law of war." The anonymous Obama officials emphasized in the briefing that "the goal . . . is to build a 'durable and effective' framework for dealing with the detainees at Guantánamo and future detainees captured in the fight against terrorists."

Nobody is talking about confining the power of preventive detention or military commissions to current Guantanamo detainees who were tortured. The opposite is true: this is to be a permanent, institutionalized detention scheme with the power vested in the President going forward to imprison people with no charges. Claiming this is necessary because of what Bush did to the 230 remaining Guantanamo detainees is a total nonsequitur. If, as Obama defenders claim, that is really the justification, why will these powers apply well beyond that? And relatedly, as I've asked dozens of times with no answer: how can Obama's military commissions be a solution to the problem of torture-obtained evidence when, according to Obama, those commissions -- exactly like federal courts -- also allegedly won't allow evidence obtained by torture?

Second, as a result of breathtakingly broad criminal laws in the U.S. defining "material support for terrorism," there are few things easier than obtaining a criminal conviction in federal court against people accused of being Terrorists. Even if the only thing someone has done is joined a group decreed to be a Terrorist organization, without even engaging in (or even planning) any violent acts, federal prosecutors are well-armed to convict them. In May, the DOJ obtained a conviction in a federal court of a Somalian-Canadian on "material support" charges for doing little more than expressing loyalty to Al Qaeda. Two other Americans of Somalian descent were just indicted on the same charge as a result of their alleged membership in a "militant Islamic group," Shabaab. The FBI website even boasts:

Since the 1990s, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York (SDNY) hasinvestigated and successfully prosecuted a wide range of international and domestic terrorism cases—including the bombings of the World Trade Center and U.S. Embassies in East Africa in the 1990s. More recent cases include those against individuals who provided material support to al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, as well as against international arms trafficker Monzer al Kassar and the Somalian pirate charged in the hijacking of the Maersk Alabama.

To convict accused Terrorists in court, they need not engage in any violent acts; any involvement with Al Qaeda or other Terrorist groups will suffice. The Task Force's interim report released yesterday itself recognized that the Federal Government is already equipped with extremely broad powers to obtain convictions of Terrorists in federal court:

If we can't even prove in a real court that someone has such minimal involvement with a Terrorist group, then should we be imprisoning them indefinitely? And if the only evidence we have against them was obtained by torture -- evidence which, one should recall, Democrats and progressives insist is unreliable -- then should we really seek to imprison them indefinitely based on such evidence?

Manifestly, this isn't about anything other than institutionalizing what has clearly emerged as the central premise of the Obama Justice System: picking and choosing what level of due process each individual accused Terrorist is accorded, to be determined exclusively by what process ensures that the state will always win. If they know they'll convict you in a real court proceeding, they'll give you one; if they think they might lose there, they'll put you in a military commission; if they're still not sure they will win, they'll just indefinitely imprison you without any charges [adocument accompanying the interim report (.pdf) states: "if the prosecution team concludes that prosecution is not feasible in any forum, it may recommend that the case be returned to the Executive Order 13492 Review for other appropriate disposition"]. It's Kafkaesque show trials in their most perverse form: the outcome is pre-determined (guilty and imprisoned) and only the process changes. That's especially true since, even where a miscalculation causes someone to be tried but then acquitted, the power to detain them could still be asserted.

Just look at this intrinsically absurd declaration from the Memo:

For "enemy terrorists" who "have violated our criminal laws," the Obama administration will give people trials "where feasible" -- meaning where it's definite that the Government will win. If everyone the President wants to imprison is going to end up in a cage no matter what -- remember: we're not going to release anyone the President decrees dangerous under any circumstances -- then, other than creating a mirage of due process, what's the point of giving some of them trials? By definition, it's just all for show. I quoted this once before, but it's so apropos; this approach is exactly what is hauntingly described as the Queen's justice in Chapter 12 ofAlice in Wonderland:

"Let the jury consider their verdict," the King said, for about the twentieth time that day.

"No, no!” said the Queen. "Sentence first -- verdict afterward."

"Stuff and nonsense!" said Alice loudly. "The idea of having the sentence first!"

"Hold your tongue!" said the Queen, turning purple.

"I won’t!" said Alice.

"Off with her head!" the Queen shouted at the top of her voice.

The Queen's pronouncement -- "Sentence first -- verdict afterward" -- is a fine expression of Obama's approach here: these prisoners are decreed to be Dangerous and Guilty and are sentenced to prolonged, indefinite imprisonment and must not be released; now let's tailor a process for each of them to ensure that this verdict is produced. It's far better to dispense with the ludicrous facade, simply imprison everyone the President wants with no charges, and let the world and the citizenry see what we're really doing.

Third, equally false is the Task Force's claim that Obama's military commissions are nothing more than a continuation of longstanding military tradition and, worse, that Obama's commissions resolve the objections long raised by Democrats to Bush's military commissions. Here's what the Task Force asserts in order to make it seem like Obama's military commissions are perfectly normal and consistent with past Democratic objections:

These claims are demonstrably false. While it's true that the Bush/Cheney military commissions were initiated with no Congressional authorization, the commissions were eventually authorized by Congress when it passed the Military Commissions Act of 2006 -- with the opposition of most Democrats, including then-Sen. Obama. As I documented at length here, Democratic objections to Bush's military commissions -- including from key Obama officials -- were not dependent upon any specific procedures, but were opposed to the entire idea of military commissions themselves. If anyone has any doubts about that, just go read the excerpts I posted there from progressives, Democrats and leading newspapers objecting to military commissions themselves, not to the specific Bush/Cheney incarnation of them. What happened to all of that?

The principal argument that was made in the Bush era was that military commissions may be appropriate for standard wars between uniformed armies, but not for the abduction of accused Terrorists far away from battlefields, which -- in terms of the potential both for error and abuse -- far more resemble the apprehension of accused criminals. A November, 2001 New York Times Editorial said the "plan to use secret military tribunals to try terrorists is a dangerous idea" because "by ruling that terrorists fall outside the norms of civilian and military justice . . . . Mr. Bush has essentially discarded the rulebook of American justice painstakingly assembled over the course of more than two centuries." The NYT argued: "American civilian courts have proved themselves perfectly capable of handling terrorist cases." During the 2004 campaign, Obama's current Deputy Solicitor General Neal Katyal vowed that "a John Kerry administration would scrap the military commissions now being used at Guantanamo Bay and replace them with a system patterned on military courts-martial" and he concluded:

The danger with these commissions comes not only in their threat to our Constitution, and our standing in the world as a beacon of fairness, but also in their challenge to the perception of military justice. Our nation—whomever the next president may turn out to be—should admit it made a mistake and return to using our powerful and fair system of courts martial—a system that would generate swifter convictions of terrorists. As our nation's great Chief Justice John Marshall put it in 1803, ours is a "government of laws, and not of men."

Obama State Department counsel Harold Hongju Koh wrote in 2003that creating military commissions and/or using a new tribunal "are wrong because both rest on the same faulty assumption: that our own federal courts cannot give full, fair and swift justice in such a case," and argued: "No country with a well functioning judicial system should hide its justice behind military commissions." Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Pat Leahycondemned all military commissions, arguing: "it sends a terrible message to the world that, when confronted with a serious challenge, we lack confidence in the very institutions we are fighting for- beginning with a justice system that is the envy of the world." And current Obama State Department official Anne-Marie Slaughter said that, in the past, military commissions had "been used to try spies that we find behind enemy lines" where "you can't ship them to national court, so you provide a kind of rough battlefield justice in a commission," but with the "War on Terror": "That's not this situation. It's not remotely like it."

In fact, the entire 2004 campaign the Democrats ran was based on the argument that Terrorism should be treated far more like a law enforcement problem than a "war." John Kerry famously said: "The war on terror is far less of a military operation and far more of an intelligence-gathering law-enforcement operation." After a series of Terrorist plots were disrupted using normal law-enforcement means, even George Will wrote a column declaring that Kerry was right about this. That the extant system of American justice was perfectly adequate to try accused Terrorists -- and that whole new systems of "justice" need not be created in the name of so-called "war powers" -- was long a central plank of Democratic and progressive objections to the Bush/Cheney approach to Terrorism.

What happened to all of that? As of January 20, 2009, it seems to have disappeared in a cloud of obfuscating smoke, replaced by chest-beating "war"-rhetoric used to justify the creation of whole new "systems of justice" and, worse, locking people up with no trial. Like all new powers vested in the President, once this system is institutionalized, it will be virtually impossible ever to abolish it, or even to prevent its continued expansion.

Missing Cho Records Discovered

Virginia Tech Gunman Was Treated At College's Counseling Center Before Rampage.

Records of Virginia Tech Gunman Discovered

Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine announces today that previously lost medical mental health records of Virginia Tech shooter Seung-hui Cho have been recovered. (Dean Hoffmeyer - AP)

By Brigid Schulte and Rosalind S. Helderman

Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, July 22, 2009; 11:26 AM

Virginia Tech gunman Seung Hui Cho had been treated at the college's counseling center before the shooting rampage in which he killed 32 students, contradicting earlier accounts of his psychiatric history, according to newly discovered mental health records located in the home of the center's former director.

According to a memo written by a university lawyer and obtained by The Washington Post, the former director, Robert Miller, had moved the records into his home more than a year before the April 16, 2007, massacre, during which Cho also took his own life.

Word the records had been found first came from Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine during a Wednesday morning news conference. Kaine said only that missing mental health records were located at the home of a former employee of the college's counseling center.

Kaine said a criminal investigation is underway to determine how the employee was able to take the records and why the documents were not uncovered during state investigations following the shooting.

The Associated Press reported that Miller, reached at his private practice, declined to comment.

The records were discovered during preparations by lawyers representing the families of two of Cho's victims who have sued the state, the university, the counseling center and others citing negligence in treating Cho's mental health issues. It is unclear who found them.

The university obtained the records Thursday, according to the memo -- dated July 22, 2009, and written by Mary Beth Nash, the university's legal counsel.

Other families reached a legal settlement with the state earlier, in lieu of a lawsuit, with the understanding that Cho's file from the center was missing.

"I'm not allowed to say more about the circumstances of the recovery of the file," Kaine said. "But what I want to say is this: We think it is imperative that the file be made public as quickly as possible."

Kaine said that he was alerted to the discovery of the file Monday and that he has not seen its contents. He said he hoped the records would be made public within a matter of days, either with the permission of the administrator of Cho's estate or through the use of a state subpoena.

In the years since the shooting, Cho's mental health treatment by local and university officials has been the subject of speculation. The discovery of the records could be particularly significant if, as Nash's memo seems to indicate, they show he had greater contact with counseling center officials than has been previously known.

The families of Erin Peterson and Julia Pryde, two of Cho's victims, were the only ones who did not participate in a settlement paid last year by the state of Virginia. They sued the state in Fairfax County Circuit Court in April, and the suit was transferred last month to Montgomery County, Va., where Virginia Tech is located.

In December 2005, some odd behavior by Cho resulted in his being temporarily hospitalized for psychiatric reasons. He was then ordered to undergo outpatient therapy. A 2007 report commissioned by Kaine that looked into the Virginia Tech shootings determined that records from the Cook Counseling Center at the university could not be found, and were considered to be missing by the time investigators began looking into Cho's mental health treatment.

Kaine said Wednesday he was very concerned that the files were not discovered during that inquiry.

Georgia Seeks U.S. Arms to Deter Russia

Request poses dilemma for the U.S. as it seeks to improve ties with Russia while continuing to support nations in the former Soviet sphere.

Georgia's Saakashvili Seeking U.S. Weapons to Deter Russia

President Mikheil Saakashvili, on the eve of a visit by Vice President Biden, said the arms "would make any hotheads think twice" about military action. (By Irakli Gedenidze -- Pool)

By Philip P. Pan

Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 22, 2009

TBILISI, Georgia, July 21 -- Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili urged the United States on Tuesday to supply his country with advanced defensive weapons, warning on the eve of a visit by Vice President Biden that a decision not to provide such arms would encourage a Russian invasion.

In a wide-ranging interview, Saakashvili said that discussions about a weapons deal remained at "very early stages" but that he planned to press Biden to speed up delivery of antiaircraft and antitank systems, saying such weaponry was "purely defensive" and "would make any hotheads think twice about further military adventures."

"I think the decision to help us is there," he added, noting recent meetings between Georgian and U.S. defense officials. "It's a matter of speeding up the process. . . . We want the country to still be around when those things start to arrive here. That's ultimately what's right now at stake."

The United States has been working to train and modernize the Georgian military for more than a decade, but Russia has warned strongly against new arms shipments to the former Soviet republic, which it routed in a brief war last year.

The Kremlin says that Georgia started the war by ordering an attack on the breakaway region of South Ossetia and that new weapons would encourage further aggression by Saakashvili. In January, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev told the cabinet to draw up economic sanctions against countries that supply arms to Georgia.

Saakashvili's request underscores the difficult choices facing the Obama administration as it seeks to "reset" and improve relations with Russia while continuing to support Georgia, Ukraine and other countries in the former Soviet sphere where the Kremlin says it has "privileged interests."

Georgia has also suggested that the United States and other countries join the European Union's civilian monitoring mission along its border with South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another breakaway enclave recognized by Russia as an independent state. U.S. participation would amount to a "long-term security guarantee," and the idea has received "positive feedback" from European and U.S. officials, Saakashvili said, but talks have been delayed.

Briefing reporters last week ahead of Biden's visit, Antony Blinken, the vice president's national security adviser, was noncommittal when asked whether Washington would refrain from supplying arms to Georgia in an attempt to reduce tensions in the region. "We are working with Georgia with defense reform and defense modernization," he said. "Our focus is on doctrine, on education and on training, and preparing for Georgia's future deployments to Afghanistan."

In recent years, the Pentagon has tried to improve the Georgian army's command-and-control systems and trained Georgian troops for peacekeeping and police operations inIraq. But Saakashvili said the focus of U.S.-Georgian military cooperation has now shifted to "homeland defense."

He said he was "realistic" about the impact any new weapons would have on Georgia's ability to fend off Russia's much larger army for very long. But he argued that a stronger military deterrent would "strengthen our political hand" and help prevent a new conflict.

A decision by the United States and its NATO allies not to supply Georgia with defensive arms, on the other hand, would be seen as weakness, he said. "I think that would be the surest sign for the Russians: 'Go and get them,' " he said.

Saakashvili argued that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin may be tempted to start another war because he faces "a pretty desperate situation," with the Russian economy in crisis, his domestic political standing in question and former Soviet republics increasingly ignoring Moscow's wishes. "There are hundreds of reasons to attack Georgia," Saakashvili said. "The only thing to stop him is a clear unequivocal message from the West that there's going to be very grave consequences."

Saakashvili said President Obama exceeded his expectations by forcefully defending Georgia's sovereignty during a recent visit to Moscow. He also said he has detected no "reluctance or hesitation" about providing Georgia with weapons.

Still, he said, "It's a much slower process than we would like it to be. It's just a matter of: Are we a regular country in a regular situation that can wait many years . . . or can we make it faster and more efficient?"

Saakashvili said the decision could affect the entire region, because other nations might give in to Russia's imperial ambitions if Georgia fell. "I think Biden gets it," he said, noting that Biden visited after the war and spoke about upgrading Georgia's defensive capabilities. "We hope he's still the old Biden."

Biden rejects Russian sphere of influence (AP, July 22, 2009; 11:47 AM)

TBILISI, Georgia -- Washington rejects the Kremlin's claim to a sphere of influence over former Soviet nations, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said Wednesday, before he arrived in Georgia a year after its war with Russia.

Biden flew to Tbilisi on Wednesday evening from Ukraine, another ex-Soviet republic trying to throw off Russian influence and integrate with the West.

He is on a mission to reassure the two nervous Russian neighbors that the United States will not abandon them as President Barack Obama seeks to improve badly strained ties with Russia.

Georgia's five-day war with Russia last August turned the small nation on the far frontier of Europe into the epicenter of the simmering conflict between Moscow and the West. Obama's attempt to rebuild relations with Russia has raised concerns among some East European nations that the U.S. might sacrifice their interests for the sake of better ties with Moscow.

Biden has been attempting to assuage those concerns on his four-day trip to Ukraine and Georgia.

"As we reset the relationship with Russia, we reaffirm our commitment to an independent Ukraine, and we recognize no sphere of influence or no ability of any other nation to veto the choices an independent nation makes," Biden said in a speech in the Ukrainian capital Kiev on Wednesday.

At the Tbilisi airport, Biden was met by an honor guard in cream-colored uniforms. He warmly greeted officials who came to meet him, and put an arm around the prime minister.

Before his arrival, Georgian authorities took steps to prevent more mass demonstrations by the opposition, generated in part by Georgia's defeat in the war.

President Mikhail Saakashvili's government was shaken this spring by mass street protests demanding his resignation. Ahead of Biden's arrival in the Georgian capital, police were removing dozens of metal cages the opposition had erected in front of the country's parliament to block traffic along Tbilisi's central street.

No arrests were reported, and no resistance from opposition activists was visible along leafy Rustaveli Avenue, which remained closed to vehicles after police set up portable metal fencing. The cages were meant to represent jails - symbolizing what opponents say is Saakashvili's increasing authoritarianism.

The vice president also will meet with leading members of the opposition who had taken part in the monthslong demonstrations. Political foes blame Saakashvili for the August war's disastrous results and accuse him of riding roughshod over democratic rights.

Saakashvili has said he tried to defend Georgia from Russian aggression, and he announced a series of political reforms Monday meant to address his critics' complaints that his administration was restricting rights.

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Metro Discovers Problems In Additional Track Circuits

Tests are run to learn when the train operator in the crash would've seen the one in front of hers. Rail chief Dave Kubicek says none of the circuit issues found are anything close to the magnitude of the one at the crash site. (Marcus Yam - The Washington Post) | Links to this article

By Lena H. Sun and Lyndsey Layton

Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The train control system designed to prevent Metro crashes is malfunctioning across the railroad, suggesting that a technological failure at the heart of last month's fatal crash might be widespread, according to officials and documents.

At least a half-dozen track circuits on four of the transit system's five lines have failed to properly detect the presence of trains in recent weeks, records show. The safe operation of a transit system requires that the location of trains be known at all times.

In addition to the continuing failure of a track circuit at the accident site between the Takoma and Fort Totten stations, the agency found "anomalies" in six other track circuits, Metro rail chief Dave Kubicek said. In some instances, workers troubleshooting the problematic circuits have taken the unusual step of turning off those which could not be immediately fixed. Officials are closely monitoring circuits between Grosvenor and Medical Center on the Red Line and at Foggy Bottom on the Orange/Blue Line, Greenbelt on the Green Line and Court House on the Orange Line. The Greenbelt circuit was put back into service early Tuesday and the circuit at Court House was disabled Monday, officials said.

Kubicek said Metro officials do not know what is causing the problems. He also said that none of the problems are anything close to the magnitude of the track circuit problem at the crash site. Some malfunctions might be related to track maintenance, he said. In a statement Tuesday night after The Washington Post article appeared online, Metro said that "the rail system is safe" and that it is a "gross exaggeration" to suggest that the problem is widespread.

When crews disable track circuits, they create "dark" stretches. That means trains have to proceed one at a time through the affected section of track at a maximum speed of 15 mph, which is creating delays. It also means that controllers in Metro's downtown operations center can't "see" the train as it moves through the affected area and that the safe operation of the train is entirely in the hands of the operator. Track circuits range in length from 400 to 500 feet up to about 1,000 feet, with shorter circuits closer to the stations.

A disabled track circuit would also not be able to detect a broken or cracked rail, which can cause a train to derail.

Some of the circuits were shut down last week after the agency intensified reviews of recorded track circuit data, conducting them after each rush period. It is unclear how long they will be disabled, Kubicek said.

In addition, The Post obtained internal agency documents that show at least six other problematic track circuits, including ones near stations at Clarendon, Farragut North, Metro Center and the Green Line platform at Fort Totten, which was not involved in the crash. Kubicek said that it was possible that the additional problems were found as part of regularly scheduled maintenance and that he would look into them.

The documents show that Metro technicians have detected malfunctions since at least July 11. Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. said publicly as recently as Thursday that the agency physically inspected all 3,000 circuits and did not note any problems.

Since last month's accident, the agency has switched from running a computerized report monthly to twice a day to check track circuitry. "Any little thing that we see, we follow up -- immediately," Metro's statement said. The computerized report is "an added layer of inspection" beyond the physical inspection done earlier.

The Metro system relies on track circuits to maintain a safe distance between trains. The circuit system detects the presence of trains using audio frequencies transmitted between the train and the steel rails and automatically transmits signals to the next train down the line. If the following train gets too close, the system sends a "zero" speed signal that forces it to stop.

Bill Petit, an independent consultant in automatic train control, said Metro's actions were highly unusual. "Turning off the track circuits means you have to run the trains through under [absolute block] every time -- I've never heard of anything like that," Petit said. "It would slow things down substantially."

On Monday, for example, a Red Line train heading toward Shady Grove just before 7 p.m. had to stop repeatedly between Woodley Park and Medical Center because of the disabled track circuit at Grosvenor. The dark stretch creates delays down the line.

Kubicek said the additional tests began early last week to look for instances in which track circuits fail to detect the presence of a train for longer than one second. He said the agency was exercising extra caution.

Other than the track circuit at the crash site, where a key piece of equipment was replaced five days before the accident, officials have not done the deeper record review to determine whether circuits were malfunctioning before the June 22 crash. "This system has never been scrutinized at this level," Kubicek said. Metro officials have informed investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board, he added. In some cases, federal investigators have accompanied Metro crews to inspect the malfunctioning track circuits.

Federal investigators have not pinpointed the cause of the crash, which killed nine and injured 80 when one train rammed into another between the Takoma and Fort Totten stations. The NTSB has said it appears that the train control system did not detect the stopped train and that the following train did not receive a command to slow or stop. On July 13, the NTSB said Metro's train protection system is inadequate and urged the transit agency to add a real-time backup.

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