Now that Blackwater (renamed "Xe") has lost its Iraq contract, you might have thought it would recede from the headlines. Almost certainly, that's what the company was hoping, what with the name change and the retirement of its founder and president, Erik Prince. Its controversial work in Iraq built the company from a small-time firearms training range into an international private security heavyweight. But it also came at the cost of the company's reputation, the victim of numerous alledged infractions from gun-running to wholesale murder, and ultimately led to the cancellation of its most lucrative source of revenue. The firm's been positioning itself for new markets, notably in Africa (piracy, anyone?), but what you may not realize is that it remains a player in Afghanistan. And recent events involving its contractors there bear an eerie similarity to some of the firm's most infamous acts in Iraq.

From August Cole at the Wall Street Journal:

Four U.S. contractors affiliated with the company formerly known as Blackwater Worldwide fired on an approaching civilian vehicle in Kabul earlier this month, wounding at least two Afghan civilians, according to the company and the U.S. military.

The off-duty contractors were involved in a car accident around 9 p.m. on May 5 and fired on the approaching vehicle they believed to be a threat, according to the U.S. military. At least some of the men, who were former military personnel, had been drinking alcohol that evening, according to a person familiar with the incident. Off-duty contractors aren't supposed to carry weapons or drink alcohol.

The incident occurred as the U.S. is facing rising outrage from Afghan leaders over civilian casualties from U.S. air strikes. For Xe, which is the name Blackwater chose earlier this year to distance itself from its controversial security work in Iraq, the shooting comes as the Obama administration and Defense Secretary Robert Gates reconsider the role of military contractors, a practice that boomed during the Bush administration.

The contractors were trainers hired by Paravant LLC, a little-known subsidiary of Xe. Paravant has terminated contracts with the four men "for failure to comply with the terms of their contract," according to Xe spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell. "Contractual and or legal violations will not be tolerated," she said.

 Photo by flickr user jamesdale10 used under a Creative Commons license.

 

 

 

 

 

I sure have been feeling cranky this week.  I'm not sure whether it showed on the blog, but I have been.  Too much torture blogging, too much healthcare mendacity, too much gutting of carbon policy, too much credit card venality, too much wingnuttery — just too much of everything.

In other words, pretty much like every other week.  So why did it seem worse?  Hard to say.  But I'm sure looking forward to being able to hit the reset button in a couple of days.

In the meantime, though, here are the Friday cats!  Yesterday Inkblot suddenly went crazy and started tearing around the house for no reason, the way cats do, and after finishing up with all the ground level rooms he decided to tear up the stairs and — kaboom!  There was Domino, sacked out in a sunny patch at the top of the stairway.  Stopped him cold.  Domino gave him the evil eye, he stood around for a minute looking confused, and finally turned around and slunk back downstairs.  And who can blame him?  After all, what would you have done?

Congress and the CIA

The CIA says Nancy Pelosi was briefed about its interrogation methods.  Pelosi says they're lying.  Bob Graham, the former Senator with an anal retentive habit of tracking his movements to the minute in a spiral notebook, says they're lying too: the CIA claims they briefed him on four occasions, but Graham's notebook says different — and after he confronted them about this, they caved.  There was only one briefing, and Graham says waterboarding was never mentioned.  Jim Fallows:

Part of the payoff of reaching age 72 and having spent 38 years in public office, as Graham has, is that people have had a chance to judge your reputation. Graham has a general reputation for honesty....If he says he never got the briefing, he didn't. And if the CIA or anyone acting on its behalf challenges him, they are stupid and incompetent as well as being untrustworthy. This doesn't prove that the accounts of briefing Pelosi are also inaccurate. But it shifts the burden of proof.

Agreed.  If the CIA could screw up — or lie, or whatever — that badly in Graham's case, obviously they could have done it in Pelosi's case too.  DougJ has an optimistic view of what this all means:

To me, though, the big take away here is that the right is losing the torture debate. It started with “Dick Cheney was just keeping us safe from teh terrorists, don’t you libtards watch ‘24’?”. Then it became “mistakes were made, but it was a difficult time.” And now it’s “okay, maybe the whole thing was fucked up, but Pelosi knew about it so it’s her fault.” It’s just another variation on “Clinton did it too” and it’s essentially a defensive posture.

I'm not sure I believe this, but it's a nice thought.  Anybody else feel like the good guys are finally making some progress on the torture debate?

Is the Obama administration about to make the same mistakes in regulating Wall Street that led to the current crisis? That's what Frank Partnoy, a professor at the University of California, San Diego and a finance expert, says in a piece in Friday's New York Times. Partnoy would know. Back in the summer of 2008, he told Mother Jones about how the deregulation of financial markets championed by Phil Gramm, the former Senator and John McCain adviser, created a casino-like atmosphere on Wall Street. "Tens of trillions of dollars of transactions were done in the dark," Partnoy said. "No one had a picture of where the risks were flowing.... There was more betting on the riskiest subprime mortgages than there were actual mortgages."

The Obama administration has promised to reign in that kind of reckless, unregulated speculation. They're off to a bad start, Partnoy warns in the Times: the White House's plan calls for derivatives to be split into two categories. The first category, so-called "standardized instruments," would be exchange-traded and regulated. The second category, privately negotiated "swaps," would not be. Only a small amount of aggregate data about the swaps would be released to the public.

Why is it bad to split the "standardized" derivatives off from the swaps? Because the same idea failed before, Partnoy says. Who was responsible for turning that idea into law? Take one guess:

Cui Bono Bono

A few days ago I blogged about a supposedly blockbuster announcement from a group of healthcare executives: they were 100% with President Obama on his crusade to cut skyrocketing medical expenses and figured they could reduce the growth of healthcare costs by 1.5 percentage points a year.  That's a cool $2 trillion over ten years.

That was on Monday, and nobody seemed to have a problem with the announcement.  Ditto for Tuesday and Wednesday.  On Thursday, however, after, um, consultations, the healthcare honchos started rowing things back:

The president of the American Hospital Association said Thursday that a deal with the White House to cut the growth in health care spending has been “spun way away from the original intent.”

....But in a conference call Thursday, President Richard Umbdenstock told 230 member organizations that the agreement had been misrepresented. The groups, he said, had agreed to gradually ramp up to the 1.5 percentage-point target over 10 years — not to reduce spending by that much in each of the 10 years.

I'm sure the reason it took them three days to correct the record is because they were in such a state of shock initially that they could hardly pick their jaws off the ground.  And the reason they all stood around beaming for the cameras when Obama made the announcement is because they were simply paralyzed in The Presence.  And the reason they're changing their tune now, away from the spotlights, has nothing to do with the fact that they never had the slightest intention of seriously following through on their cost-cutting promises in the first place.

And I have a bridge to sell you.

Look: I never believed the $2 trillion number.  But after weeks of work and a big public announcement, it's just pure mendacity to pretend that they were taken by surprise and had never agreed to anything beyond a "general commitment to be part of bending the cost curve."  Spare me.

These guys are never going to be partners in any kind of real reform of healthcare.  Never.  Beneath the smiles and the photo-ops, I sure hope the Obama team understands this.

Here's a good example of what's been wrong with congressional oversight of the intelligence agencies for decades: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says the CIA did not tell her at a September 2002 briefing (when she was the senior Democrat on the House intelligence committee) that it had used waterboarding on a captured al Qaeda operative; the CIA says it did. And this dispute apparently cannot be settled. From The Washington Post:

Government officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss classified briefings, suggested that the record might never be clear as to what Pelosi and [Republican Rep. Porter] Goss were told. One official familiar with the congressional briefings acknowledged the difficulty of establishing exactly what lawmakers were told. Internal CIA memos about the briefings were "not designed to be stenography" but were based on recollections after the fact, the official said. There were no recordings or precise transcripts, he said.

Shouldn't there be better record-keeping? It's pretty absurd that the CIA cannot say what it actually told a legislator during an official briefing.

Ticking Time Bombs

OK, here's my view on ticking time bombs.  It's not original:

Torture should always be illegal.  But if you're really, truly convinced that a nuke is about to go off in downtown Atlanta and the human filth in your possession can tell you where it is, then do your worst.  I'll cheer you on, the president will pardon you, and the nation will be grateful.  OK?

I wish everyone could just agree on this.  It's not as if it's ever going to happen, after all, and if it does, well, the guy who saved Atlanta really would get a presidential pardon, wouldn't he?

In the meantime, it would allow Charles Krauthammer to apply his allegedly vast IQ to less barbaric sophistries.  And the rest of the pro-torture crowd would have to think up some real reasons for supporting the Spanish Inquisition instead of endlessly bringing up Philosophy 101 arguments as if they were somehow original.  And that would make the world an ever so slightly better place.

Beckenstein

Rush Limbaugh?  Maybe not your cup of tea, but his appeal isn't too hard to get.  Sean Hannity?  Sure, he's a buffoon, but ditto.  And then there's Glenn Beck:

Every time I see a clip of his show I feel as though I’m watching a surrealist dystopian epic where the protagonist, prisoner in a world he no longer recognizes, gazes horror struck at the television. Forget the substance of what he is saying, or his rhetorical style. He could be agitating for The Graeme Wood Quarterly or demanding that his viewers fund my blog on California’s best burrito joints near surf spots and I’d still be freaked out by his schizophrenic, paranoid, Willy-Wonka-on-uppers affectations.

Or at least I assume he’s just pretending (about his demeanor if not his views). I understand why he might do that. Look at the ratings he gets. What I don’t get is... why that drives ratings. You’ll see conservative pundits and bloggers go to the mattresses for Rush, defend Hannity, and even on occasion defend Ann Coulter. I’ve yet to come across anyone who defends Beck... and yet astonishing numbers of people are tuning into his show every afternoon.

That's Conor Friedersdorf.  I think he's just jealous.

When he took office, President Barack Obama claimed that "transparency and the rule of law" would be the "touchstones" of his presidency. But did he really mean it? He has a chance to keep his word by reversing a key Bush administration decision that's still shielding crucial details of the White House emails scandal from the public eye.

Back in 2007, the Bush administration abruptly decided that the obscure White House Office of Administration would be exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. For more than three decades, the OA had responded to FOIA requests just like any other government agency. But the OA is responsible for overseeing the White House email archiving system. And by 2007, those archives were missing millions of emails that could have shed light on numerous scandals: the outing of Valerie Plame, the U.S. attorney firings, and the lead-up to the war in Iraq.

The Bush administration didn't want to release documents explaining how the emails got lost. So it claimed that the OA wasn't a federal agency, but an advisory office, and therefore didn't have to respond to FOIA requests. (Mother Jones readers may recall the moment, in January 2008, when litigation surrounding this unusual claim caused a DC district court to allow limited discovery in order to find out whether OA was, in fact, a federal agency.)

Newt Losing It

Man, Newt Gingrich is really losing it.  Here he is on Nancy Pelosi:

I think this is the most despicable, dishonest and vicious political effort I've seen in my lifetime. She is a trivial politician, viciously using partisanship for the narrowest of purposes, and she dishonors the Congress by her behavior.

We all know how much Newt loves his list of "contrasting words" for people he doesn't like, but now he's just sort of stringing them together randomly.  What the heck is "trivial" supposed to mean?  And why use "vicious" twice?  It's like he's getting political Alzheimer's or something.