2010 - %3, March

Quote of the Day: Fed or Zoo?

| Wed Mar. 3, 2010 10:17 AM EST

In today's New York Times, John Taylor, president and CEO of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, blasts the latest iteration of a consumer-protection agency to emerge from the Senate banking committee's closed-door financial-reform negotiations—namely, a consumer agency housed within the Fed. A vocal critic of the Fed for its failure to police banks under its purview and for its utter lack of regard for protecting consumers, Taylor had this to say when asked where he'd rather see a consumer-protection agency housed:

I'd take the National Zoo over these guys. This is a place to bury it, or at least make it ineffective.

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Microsoft Knocks Chamber's Climate Stance

| Wed Mar. 3, 2010 9:49 AM EST

The Chamber of Commerce has yet another critic, and this time it's a big one: Technology giant Microsoft, which on Tuesday distanced itself from the business lobby's position on climate change policy.

"The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has never spoken for nor done work on behalf of Microsoft regarding climate change legislation, and we have not participated in the Chamber’s climate initiatives," Rob Bernard, chief environmental strategist at the company, wrote on its blog.

"Microsoft has stated that climate change is a serious issue that demands immediate, worldwide attention and we are acting accordingly," he continued. "We are pursuing strategies and taking actions that are consistent with a strong commitment to reducing our own impact as well as the impact of our products. In addition, we have adopted a broad policy statement on climate change that expresses support for government action to create market-based mechanisms to address climate change." Part of the company's role in addressing climate, he wrote, is providing "expertise on the role software and technology can play in reducing carbon emissions."

Microsoft has been increasingly vocal on climate issues lately. Chairman Bill Gates gave a speech last month calling for the world to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050 to avert the impacts of climate change.

While the Chamber of Commerce has attempted to take on a softer tone on climate legislation recently, they've opposed all bills so far aimed at addressing the problem of global warming. Last month, they sued the Environmental Protection Agency in an attempt to block its finding that climate change is a threat to human health.

Microsoft joins a number of businesses that have voiced disapproval of the Chamber's rigid position on climate issues. There was a round of defections from the Chamber over its climate stance last fall, with Midwestern utility Exelon Corp., the New Mexico utility holding company PNM Resources, Northern California utility Pacific Gas and Electric, Mohawk Fine Paper all dropping out over a span of several weeks. Nike also resigned from the Chamber's board. Meanwhile, environmental groups have been working to get more green-leaning businesses to distance themselves from the business lobby.

Samantar Speaks

| Wed Mar. 3, 2010 9:45 AM EST

For Bashe Abdi Yousuf, Aziz Mohamed Deria, and three other plaintiffs who suffered under the brutal reign of Somalia's late dictator Mohammed Siad Barre, today is a make or break moment. This morning the Supreme Court is hearing the case of the highest-ranking member of the Siad Barre regime who's still living, Mohamed Ali Samantar, who served as the country's defense minister and later prime minister during a dark era in which a range of human rights abuses were inflicted on the populace. But the high court won't be weighing in on whether the 74-year-old official, who has been living outside of Washington, DC for more than a decade, is the war criminal his accusers say he his. It will render an opinion on whether he—and, by extension, other foreign officials accused of similar abuses—can be sued at all in US courts. When I reported on the case a couple weeks ago, I noted that Samantar, who claims he's immune from suit under a statute known as the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, has drawn an odd coalition of defenders.

Among them were the government of Saudi Arabia, various pro-Israel groups, and three former US attorneys general. At stake is whether foreign officials can be sued in US courts for human rights abuses, or whether they are protected by a swath of immunity that shields them from answering for even the most heinous acts. Supporters of Samantar’s position contend that if the Supreme Court rules against him, it could leave officials from Saudi Arabia, Israel, the US, and elsewhere vulnerable to an avalanche of lawsuits. And the case raises major foreign policy questions, particularly as the Obama administration wages an aggressive fight against terrorism around the world.

Yet, if the court agrees with Samantar's interpretation of the FSIA—and it's important to note that his reading of the law is at odds with the views of both the Bush and Obama administrations—that would effectively gut the Torture Victim Protection Act. The 1991 law, championed by Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) and others, allows torture survivors to seek legal redress against their victimizers in American courts. Part of the irony here is that this law came into being partially as a result of the gross human rights violations carried out by Siad Barre's regime.

The Washington Post ran a story on the case yesterday, based on a elusive interview with Samantar. For the most part, the story paints a fairly sympathetic portrait of the grandfatherly man who J. Peter Pham, an expert on Somalia's history, described to me as "the dictator's enforcer."

Samantar says the claims of his accusers—who collectively say they or their family members were subjected to torture, rape, extrajuducial killings, and other horrors—are "baseless allegations, with no foundation in truth." He added, "I served the people rightly and justly. I always respected the rule of law. I am no monster." Perhaps not. But he's made clear, just the same, that he'd rather not take the chance on whether a judge and jury will agree.

Summers Rallies for Financial Reform

| Wed Mar. 3, 2010 9:26 AM EST

Larry Summers, the top economic aide and somewhat mercurial adviser to President Obama, told leading US business leaders in a speech in New York yesterday to accept the bitter pill of financial reform. "A strong government (that) responds to market failures, provides social protection regulates potential abuses and supports economic conditions is undeniably in the long-run interest of business, he told audience members.

Summers' speech comes as the Senate banking committee, led by Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), is trying to reach an agreement on a bipartisan financial-reform bill. The Obama administration has of late deployed some of its top financial officials—Treasury Assistant Secretary Michael Barr, even President Obama himself—to drum up support in the financial-services community for Congress' proposed crackdown on financial products, the housing markets, and mortgage lenders, while also bolstering consumer protections—a major sticking point for lawmakers in Washington.

Here's a few other highlights from Reuters' report on Summers' stump speech yesterday:

While Summers said he understood business antipathy, "history teaches us that active government is a necessary force," he added.

...

To make his point, Summers suggested that few, if any, major financial institutions would have survived without the emergency liquidity offered by the government.

It was just 18 months ago that leading companies were reduced to borrowing money overnight because they were unable to borrow for a week, he said. The nine financial institutions benefited by the U.S. bailout fund today have a combined market value approaching $1 trillion, he said.

On comprehensive financial reform, he said "On one level, it's mind numbingly complex. On another, it's not that hard."

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for March 3, 2010

Wed Mar. 3, 2010 9:09 AM EST

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US Army Sgt. Van Forbes mans an M-2 .50-caliber machine gun during a resupply mission in support of Operation Helmand Spider in the Badula Qulp, Helmand province, Afghanistan, on Feb. 22, 2010. Photo via US Army.

Ex Army Ranger, Christian Missionary, Full Time Guerrilla

| Wed Mar. 3, 2010 7:05 AM EST

"Mordor is the SPDC [Burmese government], and guys like us are hobbits," Tha U Wa A Pa says by way of explaining why he built a training base for medics in a land-mine-infested war zone in Burma, where he lives with his wife and three children.

Tha U Wa A Pa and his Free Burma Rangers document the atrocities of the Burmese army and provide medical and tactical help to those fleeing from it. It's a quest requiring almost inconceivable bravery and, in Tha U Wa A Pa's case, a conviction that God has chosen him for this task. Though he uses a Karen nom de guerre (meaning "Father of the White Monkey"—a.k.a. his daughter), he's the son of prominent American missionaries in Thailand, an alum of Texas A&M (BA, poli-sci) and a former US Army Ranger. After graduating from Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, Tha U Wa A Pa became a missionary in Thailand himself. Which is where he was in 1997, when a major SPDC offensive sent a flood of Karen refugees across the border. Tha U Wa A Pa loaded up a backpack full of supplies and, together with a KNU soldier he met along the way, rushed into Burma as if it were a house on fire. The two men treated as many wounded as they could, carrying a guy who'd stepped on a land mine to a hospital to have his leg amputated. Over the next three weeks, they ferried supplies and patients back and forth over the border.

Since then, the Rangers have trained more than 110 roving teams who provide medical assistance to (and document the plight of) the more than half a million internally displaced persons in the eastern Burmese jungle. Rangers have treated some 400,000 people for malaria, AIDS, dysentery, diarrhea, malnutrition, worms, anemia, skin disease, and infections. They pull teeth and deliver babies. Six have lost their lives on the job. As the junta's violence escalates, so do their efforts; the Rangers' budget is up to $1.3 million a year, all donations, mostly from churches and their parishioners. "We're just little guys trying to do some good," Tha U Wa A Pa says. "On the surface it seems like Mordor has all the strength and power and might. But if our fellowship of hobbits stays united, good will defeat evil in the end."

In 2006, MoJo human rights reporter Mac McClelland found herself living in Thailand with activists engaged in battling Burma’s dictatorship. What she didn’t know at the time: Those activists were associates of a US-designated terrorist organization. To read an article about Mac’s adventures with the activists/terrorists, click here. To see a slideshow of Burma's dirtiest exports, click here.

 

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Burmese Junta Rejects Opposition Leader's Appeal

| Wed Mar. 3, 2010 7:00 AM EST

Late last week, Burma's oppressive military junta denied the appeal of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, a central opposition leader, over her 18-month house arrest. The politically charged ruling was met with immediate criticism from the international community.

In a statement released by UN Secretary-General's office, Ban Ki-moon said that he "reiterates his call for the release of all political prisoners and their free participation in the political process...These are essential steps for national reconciliation and democratic transition in Myanmar." British ambassador Andrew Heyn said the decision was not a surprise and that Suu Kyi "should be released immediately, along with the other 2,000 and more prisoners of conscience." For his part, French ambassador Jean-Pierre Lafosse said she was "the victim of a sham trial."

In our current issue, Mother Jones human rights reporter Mac McClelland reports on her time palling around with so-called terrorists in Burma. Mac's story explains in grotesque detail the daily life of many Burmese, and the particularly horrifying risks that people opposing the government expose themselves to every day:

If you're one of those stragglers, and you're a woman, or a girl five or older, prepare to be raped, most likely gang-raped, and there's easily a one-in-four chance you'll then be killed, possibly by being shot, possibly through your vagina, possibly after having your breasts hacked off. If you're a man, maybe you'll be hung by your wrists and burned alive. Maybe a soldier will drown you by filling a plastic bag with water and tying it over your head, or stretch you between two trees and use you as a hammock, or cut off your nose, pull out your eyes, and then stab you in both ears before killing you, or string you up by your shoulders and club you now and again for two weeks, or heat up slivers of bamboo and push them into your urethra, or tie a tight rope between your dick and your neck for a while before setting your genitals on fire, or whatever else hateful, armed men and underage boys might dream up when they have orders to torment, and nothing else to do.

Reading Mac's story, it's easy to understand why Aung San Suu Kyi would risk everything to hold the Burmese junta accountable for its actions against the country's Karen ethnic minority. It also becomes glaringly clear that the international community needs to be much stronger in its political and economic opposition to the Burmese government if there's any hope to end the treatment that Mac describes. Read the story for more on Aung San Suu Kyi, the Karen people, and the United States' inadequate repudiation of Burmese leadership.

Kerry, Swift Boat Kingpin Make Nice

| Wed Mar. 3, 2010 4:23 AM EST

Well, if lions and lambs can work things out, why can't John Kerry and Swift Boat Veterans for Truth? Politico is reporting that, in his search for support on a climate change bill, the Massachusetts senator is reaching out to an old political foe: the billionaire energy maven (and brillantly named) T. Boone Pickens.

Pickens has acquired some juice, earned or not, in the past couple of years as an advocate for alternatives to fossil fuels. But he was also the overstuffed wallet behind the Swift Boat campaign against Kerry in the 2004 presidential election—a campaign that's become, in many ways, the model for today's GOP and the Tea Parties. At the time, Pickens gave the Swift Boaters $3 million and offered another $1 million prize to anyone who could debunk the group's attack ads. (He subsequently reneged when some former sailors did just that.)

Back then, Kerry was not a happy camper. "It is disturbing that in reaffirming the challenge you issued, your parsing and backtracking seems eerily reminiscent of the entire approach of the SBVT," Kerry wrote in an open letter to Pickens during the campaign. "Say one thing, put out an allegation, then duck and weave, hedge and bob when your words catch up with you."

Coakley’s Pollster Joins Halter Campaign

| Wed Mar. 3, 2010 3:09 AM EST

After Martha Coakley's disastrous run for the Senate in Massachusetts, one might wonder what's next on the agenda for the consultants and operatives who staffed her campaign. Coakley's pollster Celinda Lake has landed well. She's now working for a very different kind of candidate: progressive darling Bill Halter, the Arkansas Lieutenant Governor who announced Monday that he would challenge Sen. Blanche Lincoln in the state's Democratic primary.

Lake confirmed to Mother Jones that she is working for Halter's primary bid, though she declined to comment further without clearance from the campaign staff. A leading Democratic pollster, Lake was among those whom Rahm Emanuel and other top officials reportedly blamed for Coakley’s spectacular defeat.

Can Climate Legislation Be Salvaged?

| Wed Mar. 3, 2010 1:57 AM EST

Yesterday I posted briefly about a new climate change proposal floated last week by the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman team in the Senate. The problem they're trying to solve is a political one: since the cap-and-trade bill in the House (ACES) has become radioactive, they need to somehow implement carbon pricing without looking like they're just doing the same thing as the House bill. But how? Their answer is a change in policy: instead of a single, economy-wide cap on carbon, how about treating various sectors differently? Maybe a cap on coal, a tax on oil, and something else for industry.

But what was the problem with ACES in the first place? David Roberts figures there were three big ones. The first is that too many people just fundamentally misunderstood how it worked and who would benefit. Plus this:

Second, relative to Big Coal, Big Oil got the short end of the stick in ACES. Unlike the utilities, oil companies (or rather, their representatives in the House, who are mostly Republican) weren’t in the room during negotiations, so they didn’t get many favors. But while coal has a lot of power in the House, oil has enormous power in the Senate, particularly over the conservadems and Republicans needed to put the bill over the top. Big Oil’s choke hold on the Senate explains a great deal about the dynamics of climate legislation in that body.

And third, senators — particularly conservadems and Republicans — have an obsession with nuclear power that is nothing short of pathological. It would take a post, nay, a book to dig into all the reasons why, but suffice to say, to get any conservative votes in the Senate will require major sops to nuclear. Again, these particular senators, not being the sharpest pencils in the box, never understood that a cap on carbon would in and of itself provide a massive boost to nuclear. They want something special for nukes. Special and big. Something that will really piss off liberals. And they’ll get it.

So will the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman proposal fix these problems? The short answer is no: it will just piss off some brand new constituencies without really gaining the support of the folks who were opposed to ACES in the first place. For the long answer, click the link.