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Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-HI) on the Iraq War, Lt. Ehren Watada, Hawaiian Self-Governance and the Real ID Act

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Two days after President Bush vetoes the Iraq War spending bill, we speak with Hawaiian Democrat Sen. Daniel Akaka. In 2002, Akaka was one of 21 Democratic senators who voted against the war. Akaka also talks about his efforts to grant Native Hawaiians self-governance rights similar to those of Native American tribes. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia has proposed a measure that would repeal the congressional authorization for the Iraq War. The measure would take effect on October 11, the fifth anniversary of the vote to authorize the invasion of Iraq.

The proposal comes as Democratic leaders have opened talks with the White House on a war-funding bill following President Bush’s veto earlier this week. Democrats are denying a Washington Post report that said they’ve already abandoned their call for a timeline for withdrawal.

On Thursday, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton announced she is supporting Byrd’s effort. Clinton was among 29 Democratic senators to vote for the original resolution. She has refused to call that original vote a mistake.

AMY GOODMAN: Our first guest is one of the 23 Democrats who voted against the war in 2002. Senator Daniel Akaka is a Democratic senator from Hawaii, the first senator of Native Hawaiian ancestry and the Senate’s only Chinese-American member. Senator Akaka is chair of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee and heads the Congressional Task Force on Native Hawaiian Issues. For the last several years, Senator Akaka has led efforts to grant Native Hawaiians self-governance rights similar to those of Native American tribes. Senator Akaka joins us now from Washington, D.C. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Senator Akaka.

SEN. DANIEL AKAKA: Aloha, Amy. It’s great to be with you this morning and to be with your audience of Democracy Now!

AMY GOODMAN: Well, it’s great to have you with us. We wanted to begin by asking: Senator Byrd took to the floor of the Senate yesterday and announced he will introduce a bill to revoke the authorization for war with Iraq; do you support this?

SEN. DANIEL AKAKA: I was one of the few that voted against invading Iraq, as you know. And I have been working to try to withdraw troops from Iraq. And so, this endeavor by Senator Byrd is one that I will certainly consider to again reauthorize and, in this case, to repeal the authorization that was voted on. And I will tell you that I’m leaning on that side. I just wanted to look at the bill and see what it’s all about, before I commit myself.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And could you tell us in Hawaii what the public response has been to the continuing quagmire that our country finds itself in in Iraq?

SEN. DANIEL AKAKA: Yes. The people in Hawaii join the people on the continent in being very, very concerned about the Iraq War and especially the mistakes that have been made over time here. And, of course, we’ve had troops that have been killed there in Iraq and many local troops, as well. And as a result, they’ve been increasingly against the war that’s there now and are looking for ways of changing the course. And what we’ve been doing is to try to convince the president to change the course. And we’ve come to a point in time now where Senator Byrd is not only saying to change the course, but to reverse the course that we have now. And this is picking up, and it’s becoming a very popular position for the people in Hawaii at this time.

AMY GOODMAN: Senator Akaka, I wanted to ask you about a Hawaiian man, about Ehren Watada, the first officer to say no to war. He is the soldier from your state of Hawaii who last year refused to deploy to Iraq. He now faces charges of missing movement and conduct unbecoming an officer. If convicted on all counts, he could be sentenced to a dishonorable discharge and up to six years in prison. He faces a second court-martial on July 16, after his first ended in mistrial in February. We talked to him in January after the military judge ruled he could not present evidence challenging the war’s legality nor explain what motivated him to resist his deployment order. I asked him to explain why he refused to deploy to Iraq. This is Ehren Watada.

LT. EHREN WATADA: In my preparation for deployment to Iraq, in order to better train myself and my soldiers, I began to research the background of Iraq, including the culture, the history, the events going on on the ground and what had led us up into the war in the first place, and what I found was very shocking to me and dismaying, and it really made me question what I was being asked to do, and it caused me to research more and more. And as I found out the answers to the questions I had, I became convinced that the war itself was illegal and immoral, as was the current conduct of American forces and the American government on the ground over in Iraq. And as such, as somebody who has sworn an oath to protect our Constitution, our values and our principles, and to protect the welfare and the safety of the American people, I said to myself that’s something that I cannot be a part of, the war. I cannot enable or condone those who have established this illegal and immoral policy. And so, I simply requested that I have my commission resigned and I separate completely from the military, because of those reasons, and I was denied several times, and I was basically given the ultimatum: Either you deploy to Iraq, or you will face a court-martial.

AMY GOODMAN: That is First Lieutenant Ehren Watada, first officer to say no to deployment to Iraq. Senator Akaka, his mother has visited you in Washington, D.C. You are opposed to the war. What is your response to Ehren Watada? Do you think he should be court-martialed?

SEN. DANIEL AKAKA: I know him, and I know his dad and his mom very, very well in Hawaii. I admire his position. And for me, it’s a position that has grown with him being reared and brought up in Hawaii in a diverse population and with diverse culture and a care for people. And what he has done is so difficult for any young man to take a position like that, to the point where he is willing to resign his position as an officer and to leave the service of the United States. But he bases it on the mistakes that this country has made. And so, he needs to be admired for that.

But he has had a difficult time to try to convince the military courts, as well, to just let him resign. But for me, we’ll let the courts decide that. But I admire his position. It’s very difficult, and we know that we all love our country, and I know he does, too. But his reasons are, as I said, moral, and that’s really basic for anybody, as he makes a difficult decision as he has.

AMY GOODMAN: Senator Akaka, we’re going to break, but we’re going to come back to you. Senator Akaka joins us from Washington, D.C. He is the senator from Hawaii. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is the junior senator from Hawaii. He is 82 years old. He is Senator Daniel Akaka, the only senator of Hawaiian ancestry, as well as the only Chinese-American senator. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan Gonzalez. Juan?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Senator, I’d like to ask you about the recent legislation, the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act, and what it would do. As someone born in Puerto Rico, I’m very aware of this whole question of national groups within the American union. Of course, Hawaii became a state in 1960. But what would this do about the overall situation of the Native Hawaiians vis-à-vis the government of the United States?

SEN. DANIEL AKAKA: Yes. This bill is to bring about a recognition that’s enshrined in our Constitution. Our country does have special agreements with indigenous peoples of this country. And my intention is to bring about parity between this country, as it has with the Native Americans and the Native Alaskans, as well. The intent and purpose of my bill is to bring about and extend a federal policy of self-governance, self-determination to Native Hawaiians for the purposes of recognizing a government-to-government relationship with the United States.

I feel this is important at this time, because we are the only indigenous group in the United States that does not have this recognition. The Hawaiians date back to 1893, when the kingdom of Hawaii was overthrown by the United States forces at that time, really deprived the Hawaiians of their land, their culture, their livelihood. And the Hawaiians have suffered since then. And many attempts have been made to —

AMY GOODMAN: Senator Akaka, can you tell us about your background, your family background, as illustrative of Hawaii, the population there?

SEN. DANIEL AKAKA: Yes. My family is a local family in Hawaii. My mother was pure Hawaiian. My dad was a mixture of Hawaiian and Chinese. His family came from Fukien, China, in the middle 1800s to Hawaii. And in those days the Chinese men married Hawaiian women. And this is where we come from. And my family now, I should tell you — Millie and I have grandchildren, and in the grandchildren we have 14 different bloods around the world. So this is how diverse Hawaii is becoming. And in the case of the Native Hawaiians, we want to bring parity and bring recognition to them and a relationship with the United States government.

AMY GOODMAN: Senator Akaka, there’s been opposition to your bill, from some who say it would actually hurt the cause for Hawaiian sovereignty, and then there are those who oppose Hawaiian sovereignty outright. I want to play a clip from the Senate hearing on the issue. This is attorney William Burgess, a leading voice in the movement against Hawaiian sovereignty.

WILLIAM BURGESS: As to the question of whether this bill could lead eventually to secession, it is my understanding that you, Senator Akaka, actually acknowledged that that is a possible outcome of this bill and that you would leave it to your grandchildren. And there’s many people in Hawaii — I agree with Bill Meheula that it’s probably a minority, I hope so — but they have expressed a desire for independence. I’ve heard how Haunani-Kay Trask, a tenured professor at the University of Hawaii, say that, “God, I would love to see secession. I hate the United States of America.” And there is an active local group of Native Hawaiians who want independence. And as I understand it, the proponents of the bill have gone out of their way to ensure those people that this Akaka bill is just the first step, and it does not rule out eventual secession from the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: William Burgess was speaking at your hearing yesterday, Senator Akaka. Your response? Does this lead to sovereignty?

SEN. DANIEL AKAKA: Yes, William Burgess, as we know, has opposed my bill. The reasons that he mentioned that might come about from the bill — a secession, independence — cannot happen, because my bill will be within the law of the state and within the law of this country. And the intention is not to secede and not to be independent, but to work with the United States government on issues concerning Hawaiians and this country. So, of course, there are those who have other ideas as to what they feel Hawaii should be, but my bill brings about a process that organizes a governing entity. And this governing entity then will discuss these and debate these issues and make a decision. Should a decision be made, it will come before the state government as well as the federal government. But there’s no way, I feel, that we’ll be coming forth with asking for secession or independence using this bill.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Senator, I’d like to ask you about another issue that is parallel to what has happened in the past in Puerto Rico, as well. That is the island in the Hawaiian Islands that the United States military used for many years as a target practice range. Eventually, the military, under the pressure from Senator Inouye, stopped the practice, but the cleanup — what has happened with the cleanup of that contaminated island, similar to what the Viequenses now in Puerto Rico are trying to get the Navy to do, is to clean up the mess that was left behind?

SEN. DANIEL AKAKA: Yes. The cleanup has gone quite well. I would say the Navy has worked hard with contractors to clean up that island. It is not cleaned up completely because of the depth of some of the ammunition that’s there. But things have been worked out where those areas are prohibited from being used, which is a small area, but the rest of the island is being used. The island has been turned over to the state of Hawaii. And a Hawaiian group is setting up activities there, and they’ve been working and replanting the island. So the island is coming back again as a beautiful island, as it was. But we did work hard to get that island back and to stop the bombing that was going on earlier there by the military.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Senator Akaka, the Real ID law, can you explain what it is and why you’re calling for it to be revoked?

SEN. DANIEL AKAKA: Yes, I’m calling for a repeal of that law, because there are so many complications that need to be resolved on different levels of government, and until that’s done well, we should not move into that. Right now, we’ve had discussions with the different levels of government, and it is complex. And I would say that my repeal would be one that’s needed now, and with the improvement of technology, it might be possible in the future.

SEN. DANIEL AKAKA: The ACLU, talking about the Real ID Act, the Identification Security Enhancement Act of 2006, part of a must-pass military appropriations bill, as one that attacks privacy rights, sets the stage for a national ID.

I want to thank you very much, Senator Daniel Akaka, for joining us from Washington, D.C. And aloha to all of the TV and radio stations of Hawaii who are running Democracy Now! Thanks for joining us.


AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us.

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