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Iraq Contract Fraud: Senators Call For Arrests, Recovery of Funds

| Wed Jul. 23, 2008 2:55 PM EDT

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This morning, the Senate Appropriations Committee, chaired by West Virginia Democrat Robert Byrd, heard testimony from Pentagon officials about their efforts to counter waste and fraud in federal contracts related to the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Byrd expressed outrage at the "appalling" mismanagement of funds. "Tens of billions of taxpayer dollars are lost, ... gone!" he cried, his outrage visibly building as he spoke. "How many minutes have passed since Jesus Christ was born? A billion! So, that's a lot of money! ... This is a failure of leadership. Individuals think they can get away with bilking—they're not just milking—bilking the U.S. and Iraqi governments... taking bribes, substituting inferior workmanship, or plain, old-fashioned stealing! Stealing!" he exclaimed.

Byrd cited a April 2007 GAO report (.pdf) that concluded, among other things, that the Pentagon "lacks clear and comprehensive guidance and leadership for managing and overseeing contractors" and "does not have a sufficient number of oversight personnel to ensure that contracts that are in place are carried out efficiently and according to contract requirements." To illustrate the scale of the waste and fraud, the report estimates that the Army Material Command loses about $43 million each year solely on the provision of free meals to contractors who also get per diem food allowances. Another GAO report (.pdf), released in May 2007, found that the amount of money obligated in DOD contracts for support services "exceeded the amount the department spent on supplies and equipment, including major weapons systems." [Emphasis added.] And with all this money being spent, often under cost-plus arrangements (the more a contractor spends on expenses, the more it collects in fees), the scale of abuse, fraud, and "plain, old-fashioned stealing" has been historic. We still do not know exactly how much money has been lost, and we may never know. But last year, the Defense Contract Audit Agency identified $4.9 billion wasted on overcharging or fraud, and an additional $5.1 billion spent without any documentation. Since only a sampling of contracts have yet been audited, the murky waters of corruption remain largely undisturbed.

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Vanity Fair Parodies New Yorker Cover, Includes Actual Comedy

| Wed Jul. 23, 2008 2:08 PM EDT

mojo-photo-vfmccainsm.jpgSure, you could look at this as a little faw-faw fancy-pants insider jab-taking over at the Conde Nast building. And you'd be right. But Vanity Fair has managed to one-up the New Yorker's now-infamous Obama cover with an image that's actually funny, and come to think of it, they kind of stole my idea (although I admit it was pretty obvious). The cover shows the McCains also celebrating their arrival in the White House with a fist bump, although John's head is decorated not with a turban, but with bandages, and he leans precariously on a walker. Cindy clutches pill bottles in one hand (snap!) and a portrait of a doofy-looking W hangs on the wall, while the constitution burns in the fireplace. It's funny cause it's true! See the full-sized image after the jump.

MoJo Prison Issue Banned From Prisons

| Wed Jul. 23, 2008 1:38 PM EDT

We must be more street-smart than we thought here at Mother Jones. Apparently, our list of cellblock slang in the current issue was too realistic for actual prison censors. One would-be reader wrote us from Pickaway Correctional Institution in central Ohio after his copy of Mother Jones was confiscated because—according to the prison's Notice of Withholding Printed Material—the article "appears to be written in cipher or code, or that instructs in the use of cipher or code."

The magazine-less 73-year-old prisoner who wrote us reported "evidently, you are doing something right. Alas, I shall never know what it is, since the state of Ohio won't deliver your July issue." But he's not going to just let it slide: "I intend to ask if they will deliver the magazine, after excising p. 59." On the envelope he wrote: "First Amendment! First Amendment! First Amendment!"

Hopefully the censors will reconsider their definition of the First Amendment for our wanna-be reader, especially since they already allow books like The Hitler We Loved And Why in prison libraries.

Will John McCain Make Exorcism (Literally) a Campaign Issue?

| Wed Jul. 23, 2008 12:49 PM EDT

As John McCain moves to select a running mate, it seems--at least for the moment--that the star of potential veep nominee Bobby Jindal, the Louisiana governor, is rising. This is good news for Democrats.

On one level, Jindal is impressive. The son of Indian immigrants, he's only 37 years old, and he has already been elected a member of the U.S. House and a governor. (Talk about a Junior Achiever!) Yet can McCain, who claims Obama is not sufficiently experienced to become president, say with a straight face that Jindal is prepared to take the helm? And Jindal's record in Louisiana--including his stint in charge of the state health department--has its spotty moments. Then there's that exorcism.

Blogs and news outfits have already picked over a 1994 essay that Jindal, a convert to Catholicism, wrote for a Catholic magazine, describing an exorcism of a friend in which he was an observer/participant. Not only did Jindal and his pals manage to drive the Satanic demon out of their friend; the exercise, Jindal suggested, also cured her skin cancer. The article was entitled, "Physical Dimensions of Spiritual Warfare."

Americans tend to be quite religious. Most tell pollsters they believe in heaven and hell (and assume they are heading upward, not downward, once they expire). Many tend to believe literally in the devil. But how will an amateur exorcism--that violated Catholic law (which allows only certified exorcists to perform the ritual in very limited circumstances)--play with, say, swing voters? No doubt, Jindal will have to discuss the episode. With Oprah perhaps? That would indeed be Must See TV.

Here's one excerpt of his article that an interviewer might want to ask about:

While Alice and Louise held Susan, her sister continued holding the Bible to her face. Almost taunting the evil spirit that had almost beaten us minutes before, the students dared Susan to read biblical passages. She choked on certain passages and could not finish the sentence "Jesus is Lord." Over and over, she repeated "Jesus is L..L..LL," often ending in profanities. In between her futile attempts, Susan pleaded with us to continue trying and often smiled between the grimaces that accompanied her readings of Scripture. Just as suddenly as she went into the trance, Susan suddenly reappeared and claimed "Jesus is Lord."
With an almost comical smile, Susan then looked up as if awakening from a deep sleep and asked, "Has something happened?" She did not remember any of the past few hours and was startled to find her friends breaking out in cheers and laughter, overwhelmed by sudden joy and relief.

As a vice presidential candidate, Jindal would be under great pressure--and ought to be--to make other participants in the event available for interview. In the article, he used fake names. But he insisted every single detail was true. Given that such an event must have had a profound impact on him--he came face to face with a real demon!-- this possible president-in-waiting would be obligated to prove that he got the story right, that he was not exaggerating. (Remember how the press and the GOPers went after Al Gore's claims in 2000 with a vengeance?) And the media, of course, would be on the hunt to find "Susan" to get her side of the tale. (Enquiring minds might want to know if her skin cancer is still gone.)

Is Jindal prepared to disclose more about this exorcism? Is the McCain campaign prepared to see more disclosed? The event is a legitimate target for voter interest and media scrutiny. After all, Representative Dennis Kucinich had to explain his UFO sighting. And Jindal should not be allowed to hide behind the cloaks of faith and personal privacy. Barack Obama had no choice but to explain his relationship to a particular minister. He didn't duck the issue by claiming it was a private relationship based on faith. So if Jindal is anointed by McCain, the exorcism will be fair game.

America may or may not be ready for a national political debate about exorcism and Satanic demons. By picking Jindal as a running mate, McCain would give the country a chance to find out.

High Gas Prices Save Lives

| Wed Jul. 23, 2008 12:31 PM EDT

One happy upside to the $4 gallon of gas: traffic deaths have plummeted. The National Safety Council finds that in some states, deaths from traffic accidents have declined by as much as 20 percent this year compared with the same period last year. Indiana, which has seen a 26 percent decline, may hit the lowest number of traffic deaths in 18 years. The country hasn't seen such a precipitous fall in traffic deaths since the Arab oil embargo in 1973. The AP reports on speculation that people are simply driving less, thus fewer accidents, but also that high gas prices and a sour economy might be keeping drunks at home rather out on the roads.

One possible contributor they don't mention is Americans' mass abandonment of the SUV, which has been responsible for a disproportionate number of highway deaths both from rollovers and also from squashing other smaller cars that might survive an accident with a sedan. Now, if Congress would follow Sen. John Warner's advice and lower the speed limit, the nation might see a massive reduction in highway carnage that would even make Ralph Nader proud!

The World's Five Worst Policy Advisors

| Wed Jul. 23, 2008 11:50 AM EDT

Foreign Policy helpfully compiles a top five list of the world's worst policy advisors. Making the cut is the former vice premier of Taiwan, Chiou I-Jen, who "in an effort get Papua New Guinea to recognize Taiwan...recommended the allocation of $30 million to two men whom he believed had influence over officials in Papua New Guinea." Cash in hand, the men and the money promptly disappeared; Chiou promptly resigned in disgrace. Also singled out is South Africa's health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, who in 2006 told an international AIDS conference that the disease could be treated using lemon, beet root, and garlic.

Last but not least on the list is a former US official, Douglas Feith, the Pentagon's onetime undersecretary of defense policy, whose foreign policy intellect General Tommy Franks once had some choice words for. (His opinion was apparently seconded by Colin Powell's former chief of staff, Larry Wilkerson.)

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Recession Be Damned: Rich Still Getting Richer

| Wed Jul. 23, 2008 9:34 AM EDT

The Wall Street Journal reports today on new IRS data showing that in 2006, the richest 1 percent of Americans claimed the largest share of the nation's adjusted gross income in 20 years. The level is so high that the IRS suspects it might be the highest it's been since the onset of the Depression. Naturally, as their income goes up, rich people's taxes are also going down. The tax rate for the richest 1 percent in 2006 fell to its lowest level in 18 years, in large part because of the Bush tax cuts that John McCain wants to extend.

Horse Virus Spreading to Humans

| Tue Jul. 22, 2008 9:43 PM EDT

Horses.london.750pix.jpg Heads-up on new developments on a new disease. Australia's biggest outbreak yet of the highly virulent Hendra virus is underway. The disease is transmitted from fruit bats to horses and from horses to humans.

It was identified in 1994—the last year there was a major outbreak. One human trainer and 14 horses died then, reports the Sydney Morning Herald. A second infected person recovered.

Now changes in symptoms in Queensland horses are suggesting a new strain. Perhaps one capable of human-to-human transmission.

New Scientist reports that two veterinary workers became infected roughly four weeks ago and remain hospitalized. Fifty more people who may have had contact with horses will undergo a second set of tests.

So far this year at least seven horses are infected. Five have died. Thirty-six more will be tested for a second time tomorrow.

The classic symptom of Hendra virus in a horse is severely labored breathing, frothy nasal discharge and swollen muzzle. The animals often die within days.

But this year's horses are suffering from neurological symptoms, including paralysis and loss of balance.

Human symptoms include a severe flu-like illness, headache, high fever, and drowsiness, which can progress to pneumonia, convulsions, or coma.

The Hendra virus has not been identified outside of Australia. Every outbreak since the first has been successfully contained to only one horse. Between 1994 and now, one other person was infected and survived. Though, confusingly, the US Centers for Disease Control reports that two out of three human infections prior to this year were fatal.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award.

New Snickers Ad Encourages Drive-By Shootings of Unmanly Men

| Tue Jul. 22, 2008 2:41 PM EDT

mojo-photo-snickersad.jpgVia Towleroad comes a new spot for Snickers which appears to endorse violence against the effeminate, or at least against speed-walkers. In the spot, a yellow-shorts-sporting butt-shaking speed-walker is attacked by former A-Team star Mr. T (?!) with a Snickers-shooting machine Gatling gun, for being "a disgrace to the man race." Ga-wha? The ad was created by AMV BBDO, a subsidiary of the retro-futuristically named Omnicom, which turns out to be the company also responsible for a Dodge spot and another Snickers ad that inspired claims of homophobia. Ad Age critic Bob Garfield has written an open letter to Omnicom calling the spots "simply sick."

I've been a vocal proponent of everybody chilling out over fictional portrayals of LGBT people and the gender non-conformist, but this is appalling, and also completely unfunny: making fun of racewalkers is so, like, 1993. Watch the offending ad after the jump. What do you think, Riffers, does it make you feel like "getting some nuts" and having a Snickers?

Yearning for Better Coverage of Polygamists

| Tue Jul. 22, 2008 2:30 PM EDT

yfz200.jpgToday the New York Times teased a Sunday magazine feature on the young women of the the Yearning for Zion Ranch—the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints' (FLDS) Texas compund that was raided in April.

Times photographer Stephanie Sinclair, the teaser says, "was given rare and intimate access to some of the young women who have found themselves at the center of the often-bilious battle between the state of Texas and the F.L.D.S." The result is an eye-catching essay of 16 photographs.

Contrast is really what makes these photos work so well artistically. The juxtaposition of the pastel prairie-style dresses against a run-of-the-mill suburban ranch house lends an appealingly surreal quality, reminiscent of the uncanniness of Diane Arbus' work and the magic realism of Gregory Crewdson's. But what are those strange-looking ladies really like?