Thursday, April 26, 2012

Big Brother Wants More

There is a proposed law being discussed in Congress right now that aims to expand the reach of spying on United States citizens within the country. The law is abbreviated as CISPA, the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act, HR 3523. First, it’s important to note the newspeak, making this law sound as if it’s protecting the patriotic sharing of intelligence by our loyal corporations. It’s anything but. What it’s really about is facilitating and legalizing the access by spy agencies like the NSA—which already has access to all your emails, phone calls, cell calls—to all this and more. To do this, the law will provide protection to U.S. companies so that, doing their patriotic duty, they can voluntarily provide information to the government about any ‘suspect’ (and suspicion is in the mind of the beholder) activities that come through their web sites or communications lines. The bill, not incidentally, is authored by ex-FBI agent and now Chair of the House Intelligence Committtee, Michigan Republican Mike Rogers. This is the guy who said in a public interview that he thought anyone (Bradley Manning specifically, who considered his leaks to Wikileaks to be the exposure of war crimes) who revealed classified information ought to be charged with treason—the penalty for which is death.
            According to Michelle Richardson, an ACLU attorney interviewed on this morning’s Democracy Now (, the proposed law creates an exception to all existing privacy laws (requiring such outdated niceties as warrants or subpoenas), by providing protection to companies like AT&T or Google that wish to “share” their information with Federal spies. Most major internet companies support the law, and for good reason: in the event that these companies do share private information, they are completely protected from future lawsuits and actions by those exposed, including protection from FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests in the future. In other words, if a person wants to bring action for violation of privacy, he is shit out of luck: even if he could bring a suit, none of the evidence will be available! The Electronic Frontier Foundation ( also notes that the law includes a truncated 2-year statute of limitations—clearly not enough time to even discover you’ve been spied on, much less gather data and bring any action whatever.
            The law is expected to pass the House—it’s full of Republican dinosaurs who love giving the Feds more power when it’s repressive power that puts people in jail, rather than helping them with food or health care. It may have more trouble in the Senate, now controlled by the Democrats, and with President Obama, who has promised to veto the bill if it comes to him in its present form. However, the Pres has reneged on such promises before, so one can’t place much hope in that.
            Perhaps the best thing to do is listen to some of the guests Democracy Now has been featuring in the past week. William Binney, for example, worked for 40 years at the NSA until, shortly after 9/11, he was so appalled by the amount of illegal surveillance the NSA was doing—he cited the figure 20 trillion! transactions the NSA has assembled on U.S. citizens, which doesn’t even include internet searches or bank transactions—that he resigned in October of 2001. When he became a whistleblower, he was attacked by the FBI, his home was raided (while he was in the shower), a gun was pointed to his head and he was interrogated right there. His colleague, Thomas Drake, was formally charged with violating the Espionage Act for talking to a reporter about his concerns with the NSA spying practices. This type of intimidation against whistleblowers has taken an alarming upturn in the Obama administration, and shows no sign of letting up (five prosecutions so far, described by Gabriel Schoenfeld as “the most draconian crackdown on leaks in our history;” cited in “The Secret Sharer,” by Jane Mayer, New Yorker, May 23, 2011). Democracy Now also interviewed Jacob Appelbaum, a computer security researcher for the Tor Project (, working to provide software that offers a way to browse the net anonymously. This has earned him all kinds of harassment, to the point where he never, he says, communicates by phone or internet in the United States since he knows that all such communications are monitored. He has also been detained at a dozen or so airports:
I was put into a special room, where they frisked me, put me up against the wall. ... Another one held my wrists. ... They implied that if I didn't make a deal with them, that I'd be sexually assaulted in prison. ... They took my cellphones, they took my laptop. They wanted, essentially, to ask me questions about the Iraq War, the Afghan War, what I thought politically. (Amy Goodman, “The NSA Is Watching You,” Truthdig, April 26, 2012) 
Welcome to the Brave New World of America’s surveillance society. How did that song go:
            “Every move you make; every step you take; I’ll be watching you…”
            Long story short: Don’t waste time folks. Don’t let CISPA pass unnoticed. Don’t think it’s only those who “have something to hide” who have to worry. As David Cole observed several years ago when commenting about the wartime violations imposed on enemy aliens: once the government gets away with violating the rights of those without citizenship, it’s never long before they can, and will violate the rights of citizens as well. Once the information is collected—Binney says he is sure the NSA already has copies of every email sent in the U.S., gleaned from interception points in most big cities—it will sooner or later be used. Go to and sign the petition. Call your senators. Raise hell. Liberties, once taken, rarely return.

Lawrence DiStasi

Monday, April 16, 2012

Cheney and the Undead

No. This blog is not about zombies—though in one sense it could be. It’s about the way the recent heart transplant for our beloved former VP, Dick Cheney, was trumpeted all over the world, first as a miracle of life-saving American medicine, then as a tribute to the great VP managing to survive five heart attacks and what appeared to be imminent death. But thanks to a heart transplant—the word evokes images of gardening, where we buy packets of baby plants to transplant lovingly in our backyard patch—our snarling VP has survived to hunt another day. Hosanna. Just by the way, Cheney has also thanked the donor from whom he received his heart, that donor being an unknown unperson, of course.

And that’s where things start to smell fishy. Cheney’s heart transplant, were he not on the government dole, would have cost him about $1 million. This is according to Dick Teresi, who’s written a book called The Undead (Pantheon: 2012) about precisely this transplant industry. And it is an industry—a $20 billion-a-year business at last count. Transplant surgeons make on average $400,000 a year, while procurement alone, for a heart like Cheney’s, runs about $150,000. Then all the immunosuppressant drugs for all the 30,000 or so yearly transplants come to another $1 billion a year; and the donors? the ones whose hearts and lungs and livers and kidneys and eyes and bone marrow make all these thousands of miracles possible? They get nothing. Zip. Nada. Zero. Because it’s against the law to pay them. Or even know who they were.

It’s worse than that, though--something I personally found out the hard way. Several years ago, my ex-wife was stricken with a ruptured cerebral aneurysm, which flooded her brain with blood, essentially knocking it out of commission. She was rushed to the nearby hospital and put on a ventilator and heart stimulants—life support basically—while we, her family, waited to see if a miracle might save her. It didn’t look good: though appearing to be asleep, she was nonreponsive. Still, my son was flying in from Chicago and we hoped she would survive until he could see her. That’s when the OPO ladies entered. OPO stands for Organ Procurement Organization. Until then, few of us had thought of it other than as a check-off box on a driver’s license. But suddenly these two ladies appeared and began talking to my daughter and me about organ donation. We knew my ex-wife had expressed interest in this on her will, so we were receptive—until one of the ladies mentioned “brain death.” It was the first we’d heard of this and it shocked us, me especially, since I’d had occasion to research the term due to a comp class I was teaching. The term stems from the Harvard Commission of 1968, which, with the advent of transplants, felt a need to find a new definition of death (beyond the stoppage of heartbeat and breathing) that would clarify when a patient might be a donor. As they said in their opening statement: “Obsolete criteria for the definition of death can lead to controversy in obtaining organs for transplantation.” They, and a subsequent committee, came up with the term “brain dead” to signify a person whose brain no longer maintained normal consciousness, sensory responses, motor activity, and in some cases breathing and heartbeat. Such a person could be considered, for all practical purposes (i.e. the “harvesting” of organs) dead. In our case, it was now clear that the hospital, or someone, was now considering my ex-wife brain-dead. The problem was, no one had informed us, the ones most interested in such a decision. Long story short, we exploded, roughly dismissed the OPO people, then unloaded on the surgeon who came out to explain—he was clearly worried that a breach of ethics (calling the OPO before doing the required tests to confirm brain death) had occurred.

As it turned out—though after reading Teresi’s book, I am no longer sure—my ex-wife settled things on her own. Her heart stopped and she was unable to be revived. Nor was the OPO able to “harvest” her organs. And here was the lesson we got: in order to “harvest” a “brain dead” person’s organs, that person must be kept alive or semi-alive (the language here becomes bizarre, oxymoronic). Such a person is referred to in the industry as a BHC, a “beating-heart-cadaver.” The organs, to be harvestable, must be kept irrigated by blood and oxygen; hence, the need to keep donors on ventilators and heart stimulating drugs not only up to, but including organ removal. As Teresi points out in his book, the patient who is a prospective donor gets the best medical treatment of his or her “life.” This “preharvest” treatment was being done to my ex-wife—until, that is, the possibility of organ donation had been dashed by our reaction.

Though I wrote a long essay on this (see “Ladies in Black” on my website, I really didn’t know the half of it. Teresi, however, has done the research, and what he has found, and what you don’t know about organ donation, can literally fill a book. Most important is the basic fact: the designation of death itself. Though the Harvard Committee, and virtually all neurosurgeons, transplant surgeons, and the people who work for OPOs will insist that the “brain dead person”—one who exhibits no reactions—is really dead, too much contrary research indicates that such a verdict rests on shaky ground. That’s because the basic test for brain death is what Teresi terms flash-splash-gasp: a flashlight is shined in the patient’s eyes to see if there’s a reaction, ice water is poured into the ears (a responsive person will shudder), and the ventilator is disconnected for a time (a normal person will attempt to gasp for air). In states like New Jersey, all these tests must be repeated twice, usually six hours apart, with two different doctors administering the tests. If the patient passes (or fails; again the language gets tricky), then brain death is confirmed. Significantly, no EEG (electroencephalograph), to test for brain wave activity, especially in the cortex, is required. That means, as Teresi humorously puts it (his sense of humor in some ways makes a grim book palatable), that a patient “could have been calculating the cross section of the bottom quark using Heisenberg’s matrices, and no amount of ice water squirted into her ear would have detected it.” In short, the standard brain-death tests focus on the activities of the brain stem (which controls basic functions), not the cortex itself.

Can someone who is comatose still have cortical activity? Here Teresi narrates some cases of coma, locked-in syndrome and persistent vegetative state (PVS), and what he finds is startling. In one famous case from Belgium, Rom Houben had been apparently comatose for 5 years after a car accident. But then an fMRI showed that he had significant brain activity, so much so that he soon learned to imagine playing tennis, and by using that as a “yes” response, was able to answer questions about himself and his family with 100% accuracy. Clearly, while apparently ‘brain dead’ (at least insofar as his brain stem functions), Houben was alive and very conscious. Teresi comments: “The netherwolds of coma reveal our profound ignorance about what the mind is and what constitutes consciousness…it may even be possible to have consciousness without a working brain” (197). When we consider that the verdict “brain dead” focuses specifically on consciousness as the sine qua non of being alive, we see that this is no idle debate. It is also quite relevant to some of the more horrifying information Teresi provides—i.e. that so-called brain dead patients have been recorded as having reacted to the initial surgery that takes their organs. Dr. Andrew Shewmon of UCLA takes very seriously these “stress responses” exhibited by patients when transplant surgeons cut into their bodies to remove organs. One observer, Kathleen Stein wrote an article in Omni magazine (“Last Rights,” Sept. 1987) in which she saw a donor’s heartbeat accelerate from 100 to 200 beats per minute with the beginning of the “harvest” procedure—at which point the alarmed surgeons shocked it back to normalcy. Teresi comments that anesthesiologists “are beginning to wonder about those racing heartbeats and other suspicious symptoms exhibited by donors. What does a “pretty dead” patient experience during a three- to five-hour harvest sans anesthetic?” (150) One hardly wants to know.

Teresi’s information on NDEs (near-death experiences) only adds to the puzzle (i.e. what is “alive” and what is “dead”? what is “conscious” and what is not, and is it solely located in the brain?) One case in particular is stunning (remembering always that the NDE is by nature anecdotal): a woman Teresi calls ‘Pam’ (a pseudonym) had an operation to remove a brain aneurysm which required that she be frozen (to 60 degrees F), her brain emptied of blood, and her heart stopped for 60 minutes—minimal blood flow being maintained by a bypass machine. Pam had a lengthy and detailed near-death experience whereby her ‘consciousness’ left her body and observed the entire operation from above—all details being precise and true to what was done to her body. She also says she saw the usual white light, and met relatives who nourished her and convinced her she had to go back to her body. The point of these experiences (of 334 patients with cardiac arrest Dr. Pim van Lommel found that 44 or 18% had NDEs) is not to affirm or deny life after death but just to ask the key question here: if Pam’s heart was stopped and her brain was emptied of blood for at least 5 minutes, just what was having the experience she remembered so vividly?

The answer any individual comes to is critical, not simply because it’s interesting philosophically, but because life-and-death decisions are being made every day in negligence, or ignorance of the answer. The heart Dick Cheney got came from someone—and he was probably young, with a good chance of having been treated in an inner-city hospital where, as Dr. Abraham Verghese wrote in Cutting for Stone, transplant teams from wealthy hospitals helicopter in to ‘harvest’ organs—someone whose life was judged to be over by doctors doing routine, and, possibly perfunctory tests. As I wrote nearly a decade ago in “Ladies in Black,” the least Americans can do is to become informed about what such procedures involve, what “brain death” means, and whether they are comfortable with doctors (as many as 65% being unfamiliar with precisely the tests needed to confirm brain death) deciding who is dead and who isn’t. Beyond that, Americans should know that the incentives to reaching a “brain-dead” conclusion are pretty strong—given the need for organs, and given the amount of money involved in the entire industry.
In the end, the basic conflict comes down to a basic one: on the one side, the transplant industry insisting, with Dr. Fred Plum (the neurologist who coined the term “persistent vegetative state”), that “The brain is the person, the evolved person, not the machine person. Consciousness is the ultimate.”(271) And on the other, increasing numbers of observers who, like Dr. Candace Pert (the neuroscientist who discovered opiate receptors), conclude that “Consciousness is a property of the entire body.”(272) That is, life, consciousness, personhood cannot be limited to the brain alone. To conclude that it is, and to, on the basis of that conclusion, urge more and more people to commit to procedures they are kept ignorant of, is to reduce humans and their death, like so much else in our culture, to commodities for harvest. It is the final indignity.

Lawrence DiStasi