Political Intelligence

Amateurs Run Amok


Oxymoron or Merely Moronic

They were being all they could be, or so two young Army spies thought when they walked on to the UT Law School campus on February 9. Special Agent Jason Treesh and an unidentified agent drove to Austin from the Army intelligence base at Fort Hood to question law students in a troubling sign of our post-PATRIOT Act environment. Deborah Parker, the chief of public affairs for the U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, confirmed that the Army special agents were on an authorized intelligence operation in Texas. She refuses to release more information on the incident because it is “under review.”

Jason Treesh has made news before, less than two years ago talking about, ironically, spycraft. He was working for the operations section of the Army’s 308th Military Intelligence Battalion, based in Fort Meade, Maryland, when a then-25-year-old Treesh attended the grand opening in July 2002 of the International Spy Museum in downtown Washington. The Washington Post Metro section covered the event. A staff writer interviewed audience member Treesh, just then getting started in the field, as confetti exploded and James Bond theme music played. “I think it’s a very misunderstood kind of thing,” Treesh told the Post. “Spying is actually very benign.”

Sahar Aziz thinks not, at least not the way Special Agent Treesh went about it at UT. Special Agent Treesh flashed his Army intelligence identification badge in front of students inside the office of the Texas Journal of Women and the Law. The young Army agent asked Jessica Biddle, a third-year law student from Houston, about fellow students including Sahar Aziz, a third-year law student from Dallas who helped organize a conference, “Islam and the Law: The Question of Sexism” that had been held the week before. The same agents never contacted Aziz. But Special Agent Treesh did leave a business card with his phone number on it.

When the Observer called Treesh’s direct line at Fort Hood, the man who answered denied he was Special Agent Treesh, although he agreed to take a message. A man with the same voice called the Observer back a few minutes later, and identified himself as Special Agent Treesh. Other than to say he was on official business while at the UT Law School, he declined to comment further.

The conference that sparked so much attention from the U.S. military intelligence command focused exclusively on issues of women’s rights within the tenets of Islamic faith. Neither the panels listed on the law school’s web site nor the attendees reported any discussion of other issues like U.S. foreign policy.

It is unusual for Muslim women to publicly discuss any sexual issues. In most Muslim communities male Muslim clerics have long interpreted what Muslim women may or may not do with their own bodies. As anyone who knows anything about Islam understands, this is the kind of reformist discussion that fanatical Muslims like Osama bin Laden have never tolerated.

But such nuances were apparently lost on the U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command when it got word about the UT Law School conference. Army officials said that two Army personnel went undercover to attend the conference, and reported back that one attendee asked them a hostile question about U.S. policy. Military intelligence commanders decided to send operatives from Fort Hood to investigate. Special Agent Treesh told UT’s Biddle that the government wanted a list of the conference attendees along with a videotape of the event, in addition to asking her about Sahar Aziz.

“I was flustered and suffered a lot of anxiety that they would come to my house that night,” said Aziz, who lives with her husband and is in the last month of a pregnancy. “I kept wracking my brain, ‘Did anything happen at the conference?'”

She said that there was no registration list of the attendees of the conference, since it was open to the public. Aziz says she and other organizers of the event welcome everyone including Army personnel to attend such conferences and learn about Islam. But she is afraid that Special Agent Treesh’s intimidating tactics are likely to scare people away from open discussions in the future. Such tactics hardly earn government agents the confidence of Muslims, added Aziz, and if it is cooperation from people that they are looking for, “they’re not going to get it because they abused that authority.”

Fightin’ for A Living Wage

To date, Valley Interfaith’s living wage campaign has helped raise the incomes of an estimated 8,500 low-wage workers in the Rio Grande Valley. In the past six years, local governments in Cameron and Hidalgo counties, as well as several area cities, have passed living wage ordinances, surrendering to Interfaith’s trademark combination of persuasion and muscle-power.(The group is famous for its accountability sessions where candidates pledge to support platform issues like immigrant rights, indigent healthcare, and publicly financed job training.)

Government workers in the two counties and their school districts receive more than $8 an hour, up from the state minimum wage of $5.15. The state’s minimum wage adds up to a little less than $11,000, based on a five-day workweek without a vacation. The living wage fight has raised wages for other workers, too. Some private sector employers have also increased their salaries to keep workers from moving to better-paid government positions.

A 2000 study by Dr. Paul Osterman of MIT’s Sloan School of Management found the Valley’s living wage movement to be an almost unmitigated blessing. According to Osterman, the higher wages represented only incremental increases in local government budgets, which were mostly or entirely recouped in higher productivity and lower employee turnover.

According to Father Alfonso Guevara, an Interfaith organizer with the Church of St. Joseph the Worker in McAllen, workers receiving the higher wages are beginning to buy houses and settle in the area, rather than moving north in search of better pay.

“It speaks to their dignity, that they can support their families,” Guevara says. “The difference is amazing–night and day.”

Guevara says the group will continue to prod county and city governments in the Valley that have yet to take the living wage pledge. “Our position is to keep them on track,” he says. “They have surprised me. They want to do what is right. People are good.”

Penny Wise, Pound Foolish

The Montgomery County Hospital District is asking Attorney General Gregg Abbott to decide whether state law requires or merely permits the district to provide tax-subsidized healthcare to indigent, undocumented immigrants. A majority on the seven-person board favors turning undocumented immigrants away from district clinics. It’s just too expensive, they say, and budget cuts in Austin have winnowed the state’s contribution. A contingent of far-right Republicans run many of the institutions in Montgomery County, a white, mostly wealthy suburb of Houston. One resident in testimony to the board described those seeking care as “medical moochers from around the world,” reported the Houston Chronicle.

Only a minority of the Republicans on the board have the guts to point out how foolish turning away sick immigrants would be. Board member Nicol Huff identifies herself as a staunch fiscal conservative. She is also a member of three local Republican Women’s groups. “People are looking at this as a political issue, but it’s just common sense,” she says. “If you see them in a clinic setting, it’s more cost-effective.”

Poor, undocumented immigrants refused care at local clinics are likely to wind up in the district’s emergency rooms, which are mandated by state law to turn no one away. When they get there, they are likely to be sicker, more expensive to treat, and harder to cure. Studies by Texas non-profit Save Our ERs estimate that ER trips cost somewhere between four and ten times as much as preventive clinic visits. That’s largely at taxpayer expense. Hospitals then pass on increased costs to insurance companies, who in turn pass the bill on to policyholders. It also jams more sick people into the Houston area’s already overcrowded emergency care system. “It’s basically pay less now or pay more later,” says Montgomery County physician Dr. Steve Farber. “It’s cheaper to treat high blood pressure than a stroke.”

Even more dangerous, untreated people may pass infectious diseases like tuberculosis or meningitis on to the rest of the population. Farber speculates that school children may be especially susceptible to this sort of epidemic. “It’s a massive public health issue,” Farber says. “People think we shouldn’t be paying for these people because they shouldn’t be here. We’re not the INS. If they’re going to be here, they need to receive care.”

The hospital district board’s vote to seek Abbott’s counsel comes as a result of a rider slipped into the massive health services reorganization bill HB 2292 by Rep. Rick Noriega (D-Houston). The rider makes undocumented immigrants eligible for clinic visits, but leaves it up to hospitals whether to provide care. In January, Tarrant County hospitals interpreted the law as mandating care for undocumented immigrants. At least 250 of the state’s 254 hospital districts provide such care.

But the vote to involve the AG’s office is not just about health care and who pays for it; it’s also the latest move in an ongoing struggle for the soul of the Republican Party in Montgomery County. One of the most outspoken opponents of care for undocumented workers is Jim Jenkins, chair of the county’s Republican Leadership Council, who proposed that undocumented immigrants seeking care be “gathered up and sent home.” (Despite its name, the Council has no official affiliation with the Montgomery County GOP.)

No coincidence, Jenkins is running for chair of the Montgomery County GOP against 40-year incumbent Dr. Walter Wilkerson. When Wilkerson voiced concerns about untreated immigrants at a hospital district board meeting, and called for compromise, Jenkins launched a smear campaign, saying his comments defied common sense and the sacred tenets of the Republican Party platform.

The frenzy whipped up over the care of undocumented immigrants is just the latest stunt by the folks over at the Montgomery County RLC. In 2002, the group successfully lobbied a Conroe shopping center to add a plaster fig leaf to cover a reproduction of Michelangelo’s David. A local Italian restaurant was similarly harassed until managers removed photographs of nude marble statues. RLC members also spearheaded a successful push to have the county library place under lock and key two children’s sexual education books depicting frontal nudity. While it’s easy to laugh at these small-minded activities, when it comes to the health care of those who tend the lawns and provide the services for Montogmery County’s wealthy, it turns deadly serious.