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Blackwater's Troubles Deepening

| Fri Sep. 28, 2007 4:00 PM EDT

Blackwater USA's involvement in the shooting deaths of up to 11 Iraqi civilians on September 16 is metastasizing into the the largest scandal the company has yet faced regarding its conduct in Iraq. Numerous investigations are underway, both here and in Baghdad. There is growing speculation that, if the political pressure in Washington continues to build (a big if, given the legion of DC lobbyists the company employs to represent its interests), Blackwater's Iraq contract could be in jeopardy.

Rep. Henry A. Waxman, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, has scheduled a hearing for next Tuesday at which Blackwater founder Erik Prince will make a rare public appearance. In the run-up to the hearing, Waxman's committee has been trying, without success, to obtain relevant documents from Blackwater. The company's reluctance to cooperate has led to a stand-off between Congress and the State Department, whose contracts with Blackwater for the physical protection of its diplomats are at issue in this month's shootings in Baghdad.

According to a letter sent Tuesday from Waxman to Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, "Blackwater has informed the committee that a State Department official directed Blackwater not to provide documents relevant to the committee's investigation into the company's activities in Iraq without prior written approval of the State Department." The State Department issued a statement later the same day, claiming there had been a "misunderstanding" and that all available documentation requested by Waxman's committee "has been or is in the process of being provided."

Perhaps, but according to a congressional staffer I spoke with this morning, Waxman's committee has yet to receive any documentation from the State Department or Blackwater.

Meanwhile, new details have emerged about the September 16 shootings, suggesting that at least one Blackwater operator refused to cease fire when told to do so. He allegedly stopped firing only after another member of the security team leveled a weapon in his direction. A narrative of the incident as reported in this morning's New York Times:

The episode began around 11:50 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 16. Diplomats with the United States Agency for International Development were meeting in a guarded compound about a mile northwest of Nisour Square, where the shooting would later take place.
A bomb exploded on the median of a road a few hundred yards away from the meeting, causing no injuries to the Americans, but prompting a fateful decision to evacuate. One American official who knew about the meeting cast doubt on the decision to move the diplomats out of a secure compound.
"It raises the first question of why didn't they just stay in place, since they are safe in the compound," the official said. "Usually the concept would be, if an I.E.D. detonates in the street, you would wait 15 to 30 minutes, until things calmed down," he said, using the abbreviation for improvised explosive device.
But instead of waiting, a Blackwater convoy began carrying the diplomats south, toward the Green Zone. Because their route would pass through Nisour Square, another convoy drove there to block traffic and ensure that the diplomats would be able to pass.
At least four sport utility vehicles stopped in lanes of traffic that were entering the square from the south and west. Some of the guards got out of their vehicles and took positions on the street, according to the official familiar with the report on the American investigation.
At 12:08 p.m., at least one guard began to fire in the direction of a car, killing its driver. A traffic policeman said he walked toward the car, but more shots were fired, killing a woman holding an infant sitting in the passenger seat.
There are three versions of why the shooting started. The Blackwater guards have told investigators that they believed that they were being fired on, the official familiar with the report said. A preliminary Iraqi investigation has concluded that there was no enemy fire, but some Iraqi witnesses have said that Iraqi commandos in nearby guard towers may have been shooting as well, possibly leading Blackwater guards to believe that militants were firing at them.
After the family was shot, a type of grenade or flare was fired into the car, setting it ablaze, according to some accounts. Other Iraqis were also killed as the shooting continued. Iraqi officials have given several death counts, ranging from 8 to 20, with perhaps several dozen wounded. American officials have said that no Americans were hurt.
At some point during the shooting, one or more Blackwater guards called for a cease-fire, according to the American official.
The word cease-fire "was supposedly called out several times," the official said. "They had an on-site difference of opinion," he said.
In the end, a Blackwater guard "got on another one about the situation and supposedly pointed a weapon," the official said.

In a separate article, the Times also reports that Blackwater operators may be a lot quicker to the trigger than their counterparts from other private security firms. The State Department revealed yesterday that Blackwater contractors have fired their weapons 56 times so far this year while escorting diplomats on 1,873 convoy runs. This may seem like a relatively low number. But compare it with that of Blackwater's biggest competitor, DynCorp International. In all of 2006, DynCorp operators fired their weapons just 10 times during about 1,500 convoy runs—this at a time before the much heralded 'surge' supposedly reduced the level of violence in Baghdad.

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Friday? Don't Cry For Me Music News Day

| Fri Sep. 28, 2007 4:00 PM EDT

Beyonce

  • Beyonce's November 1 concert in Kuala Lumpur has been cancelled after the singer refused to conform to the country's dress code for performers. Muslim groups had protested the concert, which would have been Beyonce's first Malaysian show. The nation's Ministry of Culture, Arts and Heritage instituted performance rules in 2005 including the dress code, which mandates that female performers show no skin between the tops of their chests and their knees. Insert "Bootylicious" joke here.
  • Radiohead have announced that a website containing a cryptic countdown and purporting to be related to the band is a hoax. Radiohead's actual site features coded messages that many have interpreted to be announcements about the band's upcoming album, including a message that it could be released in March, 2008. Why make us work so hard, Radiohead?!
  • The latest Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominees include Madonna, Beastie Boys, John Mellencamp, Leonard Cohen, Donna Summer, Chic, Afrika Bambaataa, The Dave Clark Five, and The Ventures. Five acts will receive the honor. What's the point of this again?
  • The "Who Killed Biggie Smalls" mystery gets more mysterious: an inmate who had previously implicated the LAPD in the crime has now renounced his testimony, saying it was a "scam" to get money from the city. Waymond Anderson, serving time for murder, says he "did what he had to to survive," and that a lawyer for Biggie's family was in on the scheme. Confused? Me too.
  • Does Scalia Think Clarence Thomas is a Nutter?

    | Fri Sep. 28, 2007 2:48 PM EDT

    In his new book on the Supreme Court, The Nine, Jeffrey Toobin apparently claims that Justice Antonin Scalia called his conservative colleague a "nut" in a public speech. While we can't really blame Scalia if he did, not everyone agrees with Toobin's analysis. Read more about it here.

    What if They Gave a Debate and Nobody Showed? Again.

    | Fri Sep. 28, 2007 1:01 PM EDT

    Well, somebody showed at historically black Morgan State University in Baltimore last night for the All-American Presidential Forum, just no one likely to be our next president and, man, is the Afro-sphere hacked off about it. My inbox was humming like a tea kettle.

    Touted as "the first time that a panel comprised of journalists of color is represented in primetime," focused on 'minority' issues like unemployment and the criminal justice system, and moderated by Tavis Smiley on PBS, you'll understand why the GOP's A-Team all misplaced their invitations. Introducing the world's first invisible perp walk, Rudolph W. Giuliani, John McCain, Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson found themselves silently indicted as spotlights glared on their empty lecturns all night. (If you can name the ones who showed, C-SPAN must indeed be your dearest friend. And why, oh why, was the Ayatollah Alan Keyes allowed to attend, let alone mic'd for sound? I thought the election for the President of Heaven wasn't til after the Rapture.)

    Unsurprisingly, the GOPs usual-suspect mouthpieces made quick work of any notion that their homies were either too scared, too uninterested or too disgusted to show this time either. Having brushed past lame excuses about fundraising cycles and their astrologer's travel advisories, a few addressed the main issue: an auditorium full of hostile Negroes (or, seen another way, the candidates' embrace of an agenda designed to incarcerate every hostile Negro in the auditorium). Jim Geraghty wrote: "when asked about Republicans not showing up for this debate, Smiley responded, "When you reject every black invitation and every brown invitation you receive, is that a scheduling issue or is it a pattern?... I don't believe anybody should be elected president of the United States if they think along the way they can ignore people of color. That's just not the America we live in." Then, Geraghty noted, "When you pretty much accuse candidates of racism before they walk in the door, that doesn't make them more inclined to accept your invitation."

    It also doesn't make your "accusers" anymore likely to vote for you. And note the disgraceful sleight of rhetorical hand: Smiley didn't "pretty much accuse" the candidates of anything except either disdaining or passing on the minority vote. However racist he may believe the GOP and/or its candidates to be, Smiley merely pointed out that minority votes have to be both valued and earned or the GOP should formally renounce its renunciation of the Southern Strategy.

    Still, you have to give Tancredo, whoever he is, the nod for having the vertebrae to shoot back that he couldn't "agree with th[e] race-baiting comments" of his fellow candidates, who did indeed pander with both hands and all day Sunday. I'm a little embarrassed for them. But since when is pandering new?

    But. I started this entry because I, too, am sorta queasy with all these "If not 'A,' then B must be true" denunciations. Barack Obama skips Jena and Jesse Jackson, who endorsed him, accuses him of "acting white". Black Republicans are self-hating sell-outs doing The Man's bidding. Black women who criticize the community's misogyny have been brain washed by white feminists.

    If playing "spot the Uncle Tom" has played itself out, perhaps "spot the racist" should, too. Condemning actions and policies as racist is one thing, but mandatory appearances at prescribed black (or most other) venues should not become a litmus test. I hate myself for it, but I had to give Bush his props for refusing to address the NAACP for so long. The organization's rhetoric regarding him had been far too intemperate for far too long (for instance, Willie Horton-ing him with the men who dragged James Byrd to death behind a pick up truck).

    Landing at Ground Zero but doing a fly-by over Katrina's devastation? Racist.

    Ignoring those who dog you unmercifully, let alone immaturely? Good time management.


    Gary Condit Refuses to Go Quietly

    | Fri Sep. 28, 2007 10:53 AM EDT

    Six years after the disappearance of Washington's second-most famous intern, Chandra Levy's former paramour and ex-congressman Gary Condit is back in the news. On Sept. 24, an Arizona judge ordered Condit to pay $43,000 in legal fees to the editor and publisher of the tiny Sonoran News for bringing a frivolous libel suit against the paper, which had no libel insurance. Condit has filed a host of similar suits against other publications that covered the Levy investigation, most of which have since been dropped.

    Serial plaintiff Condit is also about to become a defendant. The Modesto Bee reports that his Baskin-Robbins franchise has flopped, and his former business partners are about to sue him over his role in the meltdown.

    Party Ben Tries Out the New Amazon.com MP3 Store

    | Thu Sep. 27, 2007 10:10 PM EDT

    Amazon.com MP3s
    In our next story, "Monkey learns to type!" But seriously folks, Amazon.com launched its highly-anticipated MP3 store on Tuesday, the first serious competitor with Apple's dominant iTunes service, and I'm interested in checking it out. I'm a pretty big fan of the whole iTunes experience (although a bit annoyed with the protected files and stuff), and I'm somebody who happily grabs free mp3s, or buys mp3s, and then buys CDs, so I consider myself a skeptical yet open-minded consumer. I began my self-administered experiment this afternoon.

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    Senate Passes Matthew Shepard Act

    | Thu Sep. 27, 2007 9:38 PM EDT

    The U.S. Senate passed the Matthew Shepard Act today. The Act expands federal hate crime laws to include the commission of violent crimes based on the victim's sexual orientation, gender identity, gender, and disability, and provides new resources to help law enforcement prosecute such crimes.

    The act passed by a voice vote. Its companion legislation in the House of Representatives is the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which passed the House with a vote of 237 to 180. The legislation is supported by a strong contingent of organizations, including the National Sheriffs Association, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the National District Attorneys Association, the Episcopal Church of the U.S., the League of Women Voters, and the United Methodist Church.

    George W. Bush has called the legislation "unnecessary," and is threatening to veto it.

    Arctic Lands Slumping From Heat

    | Thu Sep. 27, 2007 8:04 PM EDT

    Temperatures got so hot in the Arctic this summer that researchers are scrambling to revise their forecasts—fast-forwarding to a future they thought was decades away. On Melville Island, site of a Queen's University study, July air temperatures soared over 20ºC (68ºF). Average July temps run 5ºC (41ºF). The team watched in amazement as water from melting permafrost lubricated the topsoil, causing it to slide down slopes, clearing everything in its path and thrusting up ridges at the valley bottom that piled up like a rug. Scott Lamoureux, leader of the International Polar Year project, and an expert in hydro-climatic variability and landscape processes, described: "The landscape was being torn to pieces, literally before our eyes. A major river was dammed by a slide along a 200-metre length of the channel. River flow will be changed for years, if not decades to come. If this were to occur in more inhabited parts of Canada, it would be catastrophic in terms of land use and resources." Well, guess what? It is going to occur in inhabited parts of Canada. It's going to occur in your neighborhood, too, wherever you live, whatever your local variant of catastrophe: flood, drought, thaw, freeze, cyclone, or strange, mutant combinations thereof… On a personal note, I just got back from the high Sierra (Nevada), where the glaciers have dwindled to dirty icefields and the creeks run with dust and hungry bears are biting sleeping tourists, then getting killed for it. Makes you want to cry. JULIA WHITTY

    Gray Whales Grow Thinner, Fewer

    | Thu Sep. 27, 2007 7:14 PM EDT

    The Pacific gray whales' near-miraculous return from the edge of extinction (twice) may be more precarious than we thought. From the AP a couple of days ago, notice of a new DNA study out of Stanford estimating we've underestimated the whales' historic population by a factor of five. In other words, there weren't 20,000 or 30,000 whales pre-whaling, but 100,000. Worse, our current (supposedly recovered) population is starving. The National Marine Fisheries Service reports this year that at least 10 percent of gray whales are underweight and hungry. It seems our increasingly impoverished ocean can no longer support the whales it once did. Why not? Well, let's start with that ugly symbiosis between food shortages and climate change. Then factor in the more than one billion of us—that's right, one in six people on Earth—who are overweight, 300 million of whom are clinically obese, according to the World Health Organization. Add the fact that humanity gobbles more than a quarter of the planet's natural resources. Presto! The lardass equation: more of us equals less of them. JULIA WHITTY

    When Justice Delayed Starts to Look Pretty Good

    | Thu Sep. 27, 2007 6:05 PM EDT

    Big businesses have long argued that arbitration is cheaper and quicker than lawsuits for resolving disputes. That's why they now force customers to waive their constitutional right to sue every time they get a credit card or buy a computer and submit to private arbitration for any future conflict resolution. Now comes the consumer group Public Citizen with a new report on how consumers actually fare when they face off with credit card companies, the major purveyor of arbitration agreements.

    As it turns out, arbitration is almost never used to "resolve" a dispute. Instead, credit card companies are using arbitration as a sneaky and unaccountable way to collect debts from overextended customers, even when those customers have been the victim of identity theft or billing errors. In 34,000 cases Public Citizen reviewed, arbitrators (all hired by the credit card companies, of course) ruled against consumers 90 percent of the time, to the tune of $185 million.

    Public Citizen's most intriguing finding, though, was the case of arbitrator Joseph Nardulli, who, in a single day, resolved 68 cases—one every seven minutes— all in favor of the credit card companies who hired him. Now that's swift justice!