2009 - %3, September

Embassy Scandal: Eight Guards Fired

| Fri Sep. 4, 2009 11:06 AM EDT

The US embassy in Kabul has fired eight ArmorGroup guards, all of whom appeared in a series of pictures showing the firm's employees partying half-naked and engaging in lewd acts. The AP reports:

The embassy said Friday the management team of the private contractor that provides the guards is also "being replaced immediately."

An embassy statement said the guards who were dismissed left the country Friday. Two other guards resigned and also left.

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White House Does 180 on Visitor Records

| Fri Sep. 4, 2009 9:21 AM EDT

Remember those Secret Service logs of White House visits by health care and coal industry execs the Obama adminstration was refusing to make public? Or the records of visits by lobbyist Stephen Payne, who was caught on tape peddling access to senior US officials in exchange for a sizable donation to the George W. Bush presidential library, that the Bush administration fought to keep secret? Details of those visits will soon be made public by the Obama White House, which up until now had been following its predecessor's policy of blocking access to the Secret Service logs. But not just that. Going forward, the adminstration is planning to implement an historic transparency policy, releasing the names of most White House visitors, along with other information, on an ongoing base.

This policy shift comes as the Obama administration moved to settle four cases related to public access to White House visitor logs filed by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. This morning's release from CREW:

CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan praised the White House, stating, “The Obama administration has proven its pledge to usher in a new era of government transparency was more than just a campaign promise.  The Bush administration fought tooth and nail to keep secret the identities of those who visited the White House.  In contrast, the Obama administration – by putting visitor records on the White House web site – will have the most open White House in history.  Because visitor records will now be available online, CREW dismissed its lawsuits.”  Sloan continued, “Providing public access to visitor records is an important step in restoring transparency and accountability to our government.  CREW is proud to have been part of this historic decision.”

Yesterday’s agreement stems from lawsuits CREW filed after the Bush and later the Obama administration refused to provide White House visitor records in response to CREW’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.  Visitor records are created by the Secret Service as part of its statutory responsibility to protect the president, vice president, their residences, and the White House generally.

In lawsuits for records of visits by Christian conservative leaders and lobbyist Stephen Payne, the Bush administration argued the records were presidential records, not agency records of the Secret Service, and therefore exempt from the FOIA’s mandatory disclosure requirements.  U.S. District Court Judge Royce C. Lamberth disagreed, ruling twice that the records are subject to the FOIA and not within any of the claimed exemptions.  The government appealed those decisions to the District of Columbia Circuit Court.

After President Obama took office, CREW sought records of visits to the White House by health care and coal executives to determine the degree of their influence on health care and energy legislative proposals.  The government initially refused to turn over these records, but now has agreed to produce them, as well as the Bush era records, as part of the settlement.  In turn, CREW has agreed to dismiss all the pending litigation.

Need To Read: September 4, 2009

Fri Sep. 4, 2009 7:26 AM EDT

This morning's must-reads are working for the weekend:

  • At least 80 killed in NATO airstrike in Afghanistan (NYT)
  • Obama's Afghanistan contradiction (MoJo)
  • The internal White House battle over troop strength in Afghanistan (NYT)
  • Hey, What's in That New Afghanistan Report? (MoJo)
  • GOP Campaign Against Blue Dogs: More Bark Than Bite (The Washington Independent)
  • Republican Sen. Bob Corker wants to compromise on health care reform? (WaPo)
  • Maybe California's legislature actually can do something! (NYT)
  • What's Obama going to say in that health care speech next week? (WaPo)
  • A new Israeli government TV ad compares children of intermarriage to kidnapping victims (The American Prospect)

I post articles like these throughout the day on twitter. You should follow me, of course. David Corn, Mother Jones' DC bureau chief, also tweets. So do my colleagues Daniel Schulman and Rachel Morris and our editors-in-chief, Clara Jeffery and Monika Bauerlein. Follow them, too! (The magazine's main account is @motherjones.)

Eco-News Roundup: Friday, September 4

| Fri Sep. 4, 2009 7:00 AM EDT

Calling all tweeps: A tip for Follow Friday: Follow @MoJoBlueMarble on Twitter for updates on all things enviro, health, and science. Such as:

Everything's coming up healthcare: Kevin Drum remains fairly optimistic that a decent healthcare reform bill will pass.

Healthcare penny pinching: Why the current bills on the table would do very little to cut costs

Coral reefs SOS: How rising carbon levels, acidity, pollution, algae, bleaching and El Niño are killing our reefs [The Guardian]

Bottleneck-Be-Gone: Cars with traffic-savvy GPS navigational systems pollute less. [Treehugger]

Department of parks and recession: As state funding dries up, parks go to seed. [High Country News]

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for September 4, 2009

Fri Sep. 4, 2009 6:54 AM EDT

Mr. Ali Jadaan, a local contractor in Scania, Iraq, welcomes members of Alpha Company, 2-162 Infantry, Oregon Army National Guard, into his home for a pre-Ramadan feast. The feast was also an invitation for the Alpha Company, 2-162 new command to sit and have a non-business meeting. The meal consisted of chicken and rice, soups, fresh fruits and vegetables, pickled vegetables and dates. (US Army photo via army.mil.)

The Geithner Plan

| Fri Sep. 4, 2009 2:16 AM EDT

Via Felix Salmon, I see that Tim Geithner has unveiled his plan — or, more accurately, his guiding principles — for regulating leverage more effectively in the financial industry.  And it's not bad.  Basically it requires (a) stronger capital requirements across the board; (b) higher capital requirements for bigger firms, which would make larger firms somewhat less profitable; (c) an emphasis on real capital, not shell games; (d) higher capital requirements in good times and lower requirements in bad times; (e) a simple leverage constraint as sort of a backup to the more complex main capital rules; (f) stronger regulation of off-balance-sheet vehicles; (g) some kind of minimum liquidity requirement so that banks can't be wiped out in just a matter of days by a bank run; and (h) extension of all these rules to big non-banking entities (the "shadow banking" system).

All of these are described in general terms, and I note that (h) is described in especially dodgy terms.  So we won't know how serious Geithner is about this stuff until he rolls out the details.  But at least he seems to singing the right songs.

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Pulling the Trigger

| Fri Sep. 4, 2009 1:53 AM EDT

Let's check out the news on the healthcare front today.  In the New York Times, we have David Brooks suggesting that Obama throw out all the work of the past six months and start completely from scratch on a wonky curve-bending plan that would have approximately zero support in any known galaxy.  Sounds great.  In the Washington Post, we have GOP Senator Bob Corker telling us that if Democrats would just get rid of that mean old public option, Republicans will flock to support healthcare reform.  You betcha.  And in the LA Times, we're told that a public option might be politically acceptable after all as long as it goes into effect only after something "triggers" it.  What that something might be is still unclear, but basically insurance companies would have to reduce costs somehow, and if they don't do it then the public option would be triggered and they'd all have to start competing with the feds.

In other words, things are all over the map.  The trigger idea is sort of interesting, though.  Not because it's new and innovative, but because it's the kind of thing that seems to pop up as a compromise proposal pretty frequently and to no avail.  Alan Greenspan and Paul O'Neill tried to sell the idea of a trigger for the 2001 tax cuts, but nobody bought it.  The Baker Commission basically proposed triggers for withdrawing from Iraq, but that turned out to be DOA.  And here in California, when higher car registration fees got automatically triggered by a growing budget deficit, it caused such hysteria that we ended up tossing out our governor and electing an action star in his place.  Didn't work out so well.

So triggers don't have a really illustrious history.  But maybe it'll work this time.  Anybody know of any examples of successful triggers?  That is, triggers that actually produced a successful compromise at the time of legislation and didn't cause all hell to break loose when they took effect?  We need some data, people.

Jacko Finally Laid to Rest

| Fri Sep. 4, 2009 1:00 AM EDT

More than two months after his death, Michael Jackson is finally being buried tonight.  With Neverland evidently a no-go, the family chose to inter him intead in the Great Mausoleum at Forest Lawn cemetery in Glendale:

The cemetery prides itself on a high level of security, with guards shooing away loiterers and restricting mausoleum visits largely to people authorized by the family of the deceased.

Mark Masek, who maintains cemeteryguide.com, which tracks entertainers’ graves, said that a couple of weeks ago guards stopped him from taking pictures outside the mausoleum and forced him to delete the images.

“They are not kidding,” he said, predicting fans would have trouble finding and documenting Mr. Jackson’s crypt. “If they wanted to restrict access and keep people out, they could not have picked a better place,” he said.

Actually, that's not the half of it.  My father's parents are buried in the Great Mausoleum — granddad was apparently great friends with Forest Lawn founder Hubert Eaton — so a few years ago I trekked up there to take a look at their crypt.  The folks in the front office looked up the location for me after I demonstrated that I was indeed named Drum and therefore likely to be a genuine relative of the deceased, and off I went.  But lemme tell you: the place is a maze.  I found the right location and took a few pictures, and then spent the better part of an hour trying to find my way out.  I was afraid I'd end up spending the night there.

Plus the whole place is sort of creepy.  Not a good place to get lost.  So even if you're a Jacko fan, I recommend you skip the whole crypt worship thing.  The guards will hassle you if you're not on their approved list, and even if you do manage to finagle your way in, you might never get out.  You have been warned.

Who Let Lehman Fail?

| Thu Sep. 3, 2009 10:12 PM EDT

Hmmm.  Last we heard, the official story about the collapse of Lehman Brothers blamed it on pesky legalities: Barclays was ready to do a deal to acquire Lehman at the last minute, but only if they got government backstopping as part of the acquisition.  Treasury, however, didn't have the legal authority to provide any guarantees, so there was no acquisition and Lehman went into bankruptcy.

Now, this story has always seemed a little fishy, partly because it's changed a bit from time to time, and partly because Treasury had already provided support for the rescue of Bear Stearns, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac, and would provide support for AIG just a few days later.  So if they had the legal authority for that, why not Lehman?

In the Guardian today, Larry Elliott and Jill Treanor report that the real reason the deal fell through was entirely different: it was just a cockup.  The Brits thought the Americans would support the deal all along, and the Americans never made it clear they wouldn't:

In London, the Treasury, the Bank of England and the Financial Services Authority all believed that the US government would step in with a financial guarantee for the troubled Wall Street bank. The tripartite authorities insist that they always made it clear to the Americans that a possible bid from Barclays could go ahead only if sweetened by US money.

....The UK tripartite authorities — the FSA, the Bank of England and the Treasury — had expected the US government to stand behind Lehman in the way that it had backed two crucial mortgage lenders the previous week and helped to orchestrate the bailout for Bear Stearns in March.

If the UK authorities were expecting the Americans to bail out Lehman, that means the Americans never brought up any legal hurdles.  And they surely would have mentioned it if that's what was really standing in the way of a deal.  Right?  So what's the real reason?

Mysteriouser and mysteriouser.  Especially since the Guardian piece has absolutely no sourcing whatsoever aside from the typically dramatic all-purpose British lead, "a Guardian/Observer investigation has revealed."  So take this with a grain of salt — particularly since the most likely British sources have an obvious interest in making sure someone else is to blame for the post-Lehman global financial meltdown.  No one is very eager to take the blame for that, after all

Guilt-Free Meat?

| Thu Sep. 3, 2009 9:56 PM EDT

I suppose it's a sign of some kind of progress that people are thinking about ways to produce meat without the guilt. But these ideas give me the creeps.

As New Scientist points out, we eat 300 million tons of meat a year—50 percent more than in the 1960s. Much of it comes from inhumane factory farms.

Enter Adam Shriver's controversial paper in Neuroethics arguing that we are close to, if not already at, the point of genetically engineering factory-farmed livestock who cannot suffer.

Wow. Pain-free cows. You know, that doesn't work for me. It's right up there with the Cheney method of torture. I mean, what does hurting an animal who can't (or can) feel pain do to the miserable souls stuck with (or desiring) those jobs? Post-traumatic meat disorder.

Why not genetically engineer people to abhor meat?

Meat is more bad than good for us, bad for livestock, and bad for the planet. Eating a quality vegetarian diet would benefit every single living person. Here's why and why and why and why and why and why.

Plus, eating meat is bad for cows and sheep and goats and chickens and fish and every other wiggling thing we insist on putting into our mouths. Whether they feel pain or not.

MoJo has covered more than once some of the compelling and ever accumulating reasons that eating meat is bad for the planet.

Now some thinkers are suggesting producing in-vitro meat bioengineered in Petri dishes. Jennifer Jacquet blogging at Seed calls it Frankenmeat.

I'm feeling the need to fight back against the strange bacon fetish sweeping the sweepable world.

Tofu never suffers.