2009 - %3, January

Criminal Investigation Into Destroyed CIA Tapes Coming to a Close?

| Wed Jan. 7, 2009 3:55 PM EST

For over a year, a federal prosecutor has been quietly conducting a criminal probe into the CIA's destruction of videotapes documenting the interrogations of Al Qaeda operatives Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. The tapes showed the terrorism suspects being subjected to harsh interrogation techniques, possibly waterboarding, and were reportedly destroyed in 2005 due to concerns the videos could prompt legal blowback against agency officials. According to a recent court filing [PDF], the investigation into the matter may soon be coming to close.

Steven Aftergood points us to a declaration filed by John Durham, the US Attorney who's leading the investigation, in a related Freedom of Information Act case. In that case, the James Madison Project, a DC-based nonprofit headed by whistleblower lawyer Mark Zaid, is seeking access to CIA documents pertaining to the destruction of the tapes. Durham was seeking—and on Monday received—a stay in the FOIA case in order to give his team time to wrap up remaining interviews. But it won't be long, he told the court. "Investigators are now in the process of scheduling interviews with the remaining witnesses to be interviewed in this investigation," he wrote in the December 31 filing. "Based on the investigative accomplishments to date, we anticipate that by mid-February 2009, and no later than February 28, 2009, we will have completed the interviews." He also said that a "considerable portion of the work to be done in connection with the investigation has been completed."

Stay tuned.

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Rick Warren's AIDS Work in Africa Has Ties to Anti-Gay, Anti-Condom Activists

| Wed Jan. 7, 2009 3:48 PM EST

Rick WarrenIf you were wondering if there was any way for you to be more perturbed at Rick Warren, get ready to have your life be even more purpose-driven. The Daily Beast is reporting that the mega-church pastor's work on AIDS in Africa, held up by the Obama team as "one of the things on which they agree," has close ties to anti-gay, anti-condom activists, and according to a UN envoy, is "resulting in great damage:"

Warren's man in Uganda is a charismatic pastor named Martin Ssempa. The head of the Makerere Community Church, a rapidly growing congregation, Ssempe enjoys close ties to his country's First Lady, Janet Museveni, and is a favorite of the Bush White House. In the capitol of Kampala, Ssempa is known for his boisterous crusading. Ssempa's stunts have included burning condoms in the name of Jesus and arranging the publication of names of homosexuals in cooperative local newspapers while lobbying for criminal penalties to imprison them.

Of course, Warren also has links to the Bush administration: one official administering the president's $15 billion anti-AIDS initiative who appeared at Warren's church said in 2004 that condoms "have not been very effective." The article details how Republican-allocated funds were used "exclusively" for abstinence education, which of course led to an increase in infection rates. With evidence mounting, the newly Democratic congress tried to remove the abstinence-only earmark last year, only to be fought by Warren, who claimed that the provision's removal would increase sex trafficking of young women. The pastor has also apparently been vocal in his support of virulently anti-gay Ugandan Anglicans. Sure makes comparing gay marriage to pedophilia and incest seem like a friendly pat on the back, doesn't it.

Photo used under a Creative Commons license from Flickr user All About You God.

That Was Fun While It Lasted: Beatles Music Free For a Day

| Wed Jan. 7, 2009 3:21 PM EST

mojo-photo-beatlesnorway.jpgAs a Swede, I have to say it doesn't surprise me that those miserable, cheap Norwegians were behind this. And don't get me started on the Finns. Norway's national broadcaster NRK announced yesterday that it had discovered a crazy loophole in its podcasting rights agreement that allowed it to offer free downloads of basically every Beatles song ever. How, you say? The station had broadcast a series in 2007 called "Our Daily Beatles" in which each episode featured one Fab Four song and the story behind it. Then they discovered that their agreement with London-based recording industry rights organization IFPI seemed to indicate they could offer the series, complete with music, as a podcast, effectively allowing for the entire Beatles catalog to be given away. Since the Beatles are famous holdouts from digital stores like iTunes, this would have been the only legal way to get mp3s of their music.

Of course, there's no way this could have been real, since the Beatles, like Oprah, don't obey the law, they make the law. While I have no evidence anyone from NRK was severely beaten, they did come out with a very contrite statement today: it turns out that they can only "put up shows for download that were aired the latest four weeks, and where the music is less than 70% of the show's length. 'Our Daily Beatles' aired in 2007, so we have to pull the podcast." And please, Yoko, take the electrodes off my nipples!

Joe!

| Wed Jan. 7, 2009 2:50 PM EST

JOE!....Via Atrios, our friends at Pajamas Media have landed an exclusive:

Joe The Plumber is putting down his wrenches and picking up a reporter's notebook. The Ohio man who became a household name during the presidential campaign says he is heading to Israel as a war correspondent for the conservative Web site pjtv.com.

Another triumph for citizen journalism. Maybe Sarah Palin will join him for a surprise appearance at a bomb crater somewhere.

The Curious Case of the Curious Case of Benjamin Button

| Wed Jan. 7, 2009 2:39 PM EST

THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON....Apropos of nothing in particular, I decided to read Fitzgerald's short story "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" after seeing the movie, and it's curious indeed. Aside from not being a very good story (working in the dark ages before the rise of sf, Fitzgerald pretty clearly had no idea what to do with the concept), it's notable that the film doesn't contain even one single element from the story. Not one. Aside from the title, the only thing they have in common is the basic idea of a man aging backward, and even that's treated entirely differently in the film than in the story.

Now, I don't have any problem with this. Screenwriters should write whatever screenplay they want. But what I'm curious about is why the filmmakers even bothered to pretend their movie was based on the Fitzgerald story. If it were, say, I, Robot, I'd get it: the association with Isaac Asimov would be considered good for the box office. Ditto for all the bestsellers made into movies. But the association with Fitzgerald wasn't really played up much in the publicity for the movie, and Fitzgerald is hardly a huge draw for modern audiences anyway. So why bother? Oscar bait of some kind? Or what?

Snubbing Obama?

| Wed Jan. 7, 2009 2:00 PM EST

SNUBBING OBAMA?....Last month, Barack Obama asked the White House if he could move into Blair House a couple of weeks early so that his daughters Malia and Sasha could start school. They turned him down, saying there were guests already booked to stay there, and at the time I assumed this was legitimate. George Bush is many things, but turning down the request just out of personal pettiness didn't seem like his style.

But as so often happens, whenever I give Bush the benefit of the doubt, I turn out to be wrong. ThinkProgress has the dope. It's still possible that bureaucratic bungling or miscommunication might be the culprit here, but it doesn't really look like it.

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Quote of the Day - 01.07.09

| Wed Jan. 7, 2009 1:31 PM EST

QUOTE OF THE DAY....From Megan McArdle:

I recently realized that over the past few weeks, without really noticing, I've slipped quite naturally into referring to the current crisis as "the Depression". I also realized that no one I've spoken to has challenged that description.

It's sort of stunning to step back from the daily minutiae once in a while and realize just how bad this economic crisis is. As near as I can tell, the underlying shock really is as intense as the one that kicked off the Great Depression, and the only thing preventing soup lines these days is that we've learned a helluva lot since the 1930s. Retirees all continue to have purchasing power and healthcare thanks to Social Security and Medicare. The unemployed are receiving unemployment insurance. Deposit insurance is preventing bank runs. The Fed has lowered interest rates to zero and is prepared to intervene massively to prop up the money supply. Barack Obama is readying a massive federal spending stimulus package. The Treasury is pumping capital into the banking system to prevent a complete collapse of the credit markets. Aside from tinkering around the edges, most countries have agreed (so far!) not to ratchet up protectionist tariffs and trade barriers. We aren't hobbled by reliance on the gold standard.

Take that stuff away today and unemployment might already be in double digits and still heading up. Put this stuff in place in 1929 and we probably never would have had the original Depression (or World War II). So thanks, FDR! Thanks, modern mixed economy! Thanks, countercyclical policy measures! I sure hope it's enough.

Black Women Are Getting Shorter. Really.

| Wed Jan. 7, 2009 1:26 PM EST

From WaPo:

On average, black American women are getting shorter.

That's the conclusion reached by John Komlos, an economist who researches the relationship between standards of living and human health and body size. His study, which has not yet been published, analyzes data recently released by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), part of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Read the article to find out why height is such a crucial component of overall health. This is a very disturbing finding, especially since researchers aren't sure why/how it's happening. Until we know that, we can't reverse the trend, and something tells me research bucks are going to be increasingly difficult to score.

On "Middle Class Values"

| Wed Jan. 7, 2009 1:19 PM EST

I'm wondering why Naomi Riley wrote this short piece in the City Journal. She served (pretty diligently it seems) as a Big Sister to an inner city girl living in a chaotic environment, and found that some people are opposed to mentors consciously trying to instill "middle class values" in their charges. Are we still playing these word games? Call them middle class values, call them "get yourself together" values, call them the road to success if you like—if someone's mired in disadvantage and likely to repeat the patterns they've grown up with, surely something needs to change.

Gupta vs. Moore

| Wed Jan. 7, 2009 12:51 PM EST

GUPTA vs. MOORE....Barack Obama has nominated celebrity doctor Sanjay Gupta to be Surgeon General, and over at his place Ezra Klein has a full rundown of the smackdown between Michael Moore and Gupta after Sicko came out a couple of years ago. I remember being annoyed by this at the time, primarily by Gupta's idiotic insistence that, no, America doesn't spend $7,000 per person on healthcare, it spends only $6,000. Wham! Take that, Moore!

This seemed even more egregious than Gupta's other errors, since it was a purely technical disagreement and Gupta knew perfectly well that (a) there was nothing wrong with Moore's number and (b) it was a trivial difference anyway. Moore's point was that we spend way more money than other countries without getting better results, and that's beyond argument. In the end, though, I wrote it off not so much to mainstream dislike of Moore as to mainstream insistence that if you're going to fact check something, then by God you'd better find some errors even if there aren't any.

Gupta had a few other issues with Moore that Ezra didn't comment on (is national healthcare "free"?, do other countries have longer waiting times than the U.S.?), and he didn't do much better on those. Still, I guess in the end I agree with Ezra that this has been blown out of proportion:

But it's not, as some of the e-mail has suggested, evidence that Gupa is either conservative or an opponent of universal health care. He's read Obama's plan. He's coming on in a largely communications capacity. And that'll be his role. Krugman says that the problem with Gupta's performance was that it was another example of elites engaging in "Village" behavior. He's right about that. But at the end of the day, if the villagers support Obama's heath reform plan, it has a far better shot than if they don't. That's why Gupta's hire is good for health reform, even if it's not good for pundit accountability.

Surgeon General just isn't that big a deal. Gupta will be an effective public face for healthcare, but it's not likely he'll have any major input into the policy end of Obama's primary healthcare plan. It's not worth getting too excited about.

UPDATE: Over at Kos, DrSteveB writes the brief for the opposition. The main problem is that Gupta has a long string of connections with various pharma and healthcare companies. I'm not sure how unusual this is, and I'll wait to hear more about it before saying more. But it's certainly something that needs to be addressed.

UPDATE 2: Oops. Turns out the long string of connections belongs to a different Sanjay Gupta. DrSteve has updated accordingly. Obviously the usual vetting is still in order, but there's no evidence that Gupta has any inappropriate industry ties.