2010 - %3, December

Democratic Senators: Lockerbie Bomber's Release "Unjustified"

| Wed Dec. 22, 2010 2:33 PM EST

The release of convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was "unjustified," four Democratic Senators conclude in a report that was released Tuesday. Megrahi was the only person who has been convicted of the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing that killed 270 people in 1988. He was sentenced to life in prison in 2001, but was released in August 2009 on compassionate grounds after doctors told a court that he was facing terminal prostate cancer and only had three months to live. Now, 16 months later, Meraghi's still alive—and it appears that political pressure may have led to his release.

Since then, one of the doctors that testified about Megrahi's condition has said he was paid by the Libyan government to make that determination, and Megrahi could actually live another ten years. His release made it back into the news over the summer when, in the midst of BP's big Gulf oil spill, allegations were raised that BP lobbied for his release in order to secure a $900 million deal to drill in Libya's Gulf of Sidra.

In July, four Democratic senators—New Jersey's Robert Menendez and Frank Lautenberg and New York's Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand—called for an investigation by the State Department. On Tuesday, the four released their own report on the release, concluding that "the three-months-to-live prognosis was unwarranted and, thus, the basis for his release on compassionate grounds was unjustified." The report draws on available government documents in the involved countries, staff interviews with American, UK, and Scottish officials, and input from medical and business experts. The report looks at two questions: whether medical evidence actually supported al-Megrahi’s three-month prognosis, and if not, what motivated the UK and Scottish governments to support his release.

On the first, the report concludes:

The three-month prognosis given to al-Megrahi by Scottish doctors was inaccurate and unsupported by medical science. During the course of this investigation, Scottish officials presented two conflicting factual scenarios: one stating that al-Megrahi did not receive chemotherapy and another stating that he did. Neither scenario supports a three month prognosis.

On the second question, the report notes that both the Scottish and British governments "refused to respond to questions." It concludes that the UK government played a "direct, critical role" in Megrahi'S release—motivated by the "threat of commercial warfare" with Libya. In particular, energy companies in the UK gunning for access to Libya's oil and natural gas resources, the report states. The report also details some historical examples of the UK government intervening on behalf of the British oil giant BP in particular. From the report:

The U.K. knew that in order to maintain trade relations with Libya, it had to give into political demands. Faced with the threat of losing the lucrative BP oil deal and other commercial ties, the U.K. agreed to include al-Megrahi’s release in a Prisoner Transfer Agreement (PTA) with Libya. Around the same time as al-Megrahi’s release, the U.K. and Libya were moving forward with other lucrative deals. Normalizing relations with Libya – and al-Megrahi’s release – clearly benefited U.K. business interests.

The Scottish government, the report states, seems to have bowed to pressure from the UK:

Evidence suggests that U.K. officials pressured Scotland to facilitate al-Megrahi’s release. The U.K. communicated to the Scottish Government that there were significant national interests in expanding trade relations with Libya. While Scotland has enjoyed a measure of independence from the U.K. since 1998, the U.K. government retains considerable powers over Scottish affairs. Thus, it would not be surprising that the Scottish Government would be susceptible to pressure from the U.K. The Scottish Government may also have been influenced by lobbying from the Qatar government and the opportunity act independently on the world stage.

The report is an interesting read, but what will be more interesting is if anything comes of it. Both Scottish and British officials declined to appear before a hearing by the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on Megrahi's release earlier this year. The Obama administration, for its part, has said it believes Megrahi should be returned to prison.

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Senate Deal on First Responders Gets Closer

| Wed Dec. 22, 2010 1:33 PM EST

Greg Sargent reports that the 9/11 first-responders bill might pass after all:

UPDATE, 12:43 p.m.: Senate aides say they are now hopeful they can pass the bill via "unanimous consent," which means it can happen quickly today. More when I learn it.

UPDATE, 1:08 p.m.: GOP Senator Mike Enzi, one of the lead Republican negotiators on the 9/11 bill, supports the deal, Enzi spokesperson Jessica Straus confirms to me. That's a big step forward: It means Republicans are on board, which makes "unanimous consent" passage — which is the fastest way forward — more likely.

Straus also confirms to me that the deal trims the cost of the bill from $6.2 billion to $4.2 billion.

So pressure from the base combined with garden variety dealmaking (unanimous consent in return for cutting the bill to $4.2 billion) wins the day after all. And everyone gets to go home for Christmas. More details at the link.

Net Neutrality Fever

| Wed Dec. 22, 2010 1:18 PM EST

The FCC approved new net neutrality rules yesterday, and conservative talkers have gone ballistic. It's a "Trojan horse"; it's "total government control of the Internet"; it's "yet another government takeover." ThinkProgress provides a handy greatest hits compilation on the right, and George Zornick notes just how crazy this all is:

Of course, these provisions do nothing of the sort. Network neutrality rules are explicitly designed to prevent anything like Internet censorship or control — they prohibit providers from being able who gets to “determine who gets to say what, where, how often,” in Limbaugh’s words. In fact, as noted, open Internet groups like Free Press believe the new rules do not go far enough because they do not protect the Internet over mobile devices, and contain exemptions for companies like AT&T. Needless to say, there is nothing in the provisions that would allow the government to censor or control Internet access.

I've had an email conversation lately with a conservative reader who is absolutely convinced that this is an effort by Democrats to rid the internet of conservative voices. But as Zornick notes, this is nuts. The whole point of net neutrality is just the opposite: it would continue to allow internet providers to discriminate on the basis of volume but not on content. So if you're a heavy internet user and have a lot of bits streaming through your pipe, they can charge you more. But that's it. They can't charge either content providers or you based on what you say or who you are. It's hard to think of anything that should assuage conservative concerns more. And yet, somehow this has become the latest grand conspiracy theory. It's craziness.

The War on Pensions

| Wed Dec. 22, 2010 1:03 PM EST

Dave Weigel reports in Slate that Republicans are determined to wage a battle in 2011 to slash public employee pensions. And it might work:

What could the pension fund people and the public sector unions be so worried about? Right-leaning Reuters columnist James Pethokoukis laid it out for them. If the states aren't bailed out, they're going to have to start cutting budgets. If there's total transparency about pension funds—and voters are already in the mood to shave the benefits and numbers of public workers—then that's where you can cut. Republicans might even be able to pass legislation that would allow states to declare bankruptcy, which would move the pension debate from politics to court, zapping all of the unions' leverage. "From the Republican perspective," wrote Pethokoukis, "the fiscal crisis on the state level provides a golden opportunity to defund a key Democratic interest group."

In a nutshell, state pension problems are twofold. First, states haven't been keeping up the necessary contribution levels over the past decade. Second, the recent financial collapse has hit pension funds hard. Pension funds always look bad during recessions, and they look especially bad now. So if you create forecasts based on the current depressed values of the funds, as pension critics like to do, they look like disaster areas. In reality, if you use more reasonable forecasts, public pension funds are stressed, but not quite the monster black holes that Republicans are making them out to be. Dean Baker has a bit more on that here.

Politically, though, this could work anyway. In the past, taxpayers accepted the tacit tradeoff between low pay for public employees and high pensions. But public employees aren't low paid anymore. The bulk of the evidence suggests that the upper echelons (doctors, lawyers, managers) are underpaid compared to comparable private sector employees, but the lower echelons (clerks, mechanics, trash collectors) aren't. And those are the workers that most taxpayers think about. The model public employee for most people isn't a public defender, it's a unionized DMV clerk or a unionized public school teacher. Both are pretty unsympathetic figures these days.

(I was talking to a union guy a few weeks ago for a story I'm writing, and he mentioned with a grimace that whenever he talks to white collar types about unions, they always bring up teachers unions. They don't necessarily hate public sector unions generally, but they loathe teachers unions, which are the ones they actually come into contact with on a regular basis if they have kids in school. That loathing then seeps into their attitude toward every other union as well.)

This promises to become a pretty serious battle. For Republicans it's got everything: the tea parties will love it, it provides an alternative to raising taxes, and as Pethokoukis says, it helps defund a key Democratic interest group. What's not to like?

And Democrats are going to have a tough time with it. You can make a pretty good argument that pension funds aren't as badly off as their worst critics say, but the fact remains that they're in bad shape. And hitting up recession-weary taxpayers for a tax increase to make them solvent is going to be very, very unpopular. This could very well turn into a latter-day version of the tort reform war, which also (from the GOP point of view) combined an ideological win with a chance to defund a major Democratic donor group. It could get pretty ugly.

Republicans Heart Ethics Reform?

| Wed Dec. 22, 2010 1:00 PM EST

Setting the rules for his GOP-controlled House, incoming Speaker John Boehner has preserved the Office of Congressional Ethicsthe independent investigative panel that has been criticized for overreaching by members of both parties. Good government groups and other watchdogs had warned that the new GOP majority might try to kill off the OCE, which was created in 2008 as part of the Democrats' sweeping ethics reforms. Though Boehner and other Republicans opposed the OCE from the start, they were joined more recently by members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who believed their members were unfairly targeted by the independent panel, which can use publiceven anonymouscomplaints to initiate investigations.

But despite the bipartisan opposition to the OCE, Republicans "found it untenable to gut an ethics office while calling for greater accountability in Congress," writes Politico's Jonathan Allen, and the House GOP has preserved the rules governing the panel so far. There's still a chance that the OCE could end up being undermined during the appropriations processlawmakers will have to approve funding for staffing the panel, and cutting off the OCE's purse strings would be an easy way to defang the office without eliminating it entirely. But the GOP may have also decided that gutting the office isn't worth the risk of a public backlash. Also not lost on the GOP is the fact that Democrats have been the main targets of the office's investigations.

Boehner certainly wants to send the message that the GOP is tough on ethics: one of the new rules bars former legislators who become registered lobbyists from access to the House gym, to clamp down on informal wheeling and dealing. The party has also waged its tea party-backed war on earmarks under the auspices of cracking down on favor-trading and other blights of Beltway culture.

But though the pro-ethics rhetoric has flown freely, real solutions are much more murky, given all of the workarounds that are available: the GOP has welcomed influence-peddling through outside spending groups, incoming freshmen are bringing scores of ex-lobbyists on staff, and earmarks are a miniscule portion of government appropriations and designated spending on pet projects. Meanwhile, even if the OCE is preserved, the House Ethics Committeethe internal body that actually doles out punishmentsis in complete turmoil over the impending trial of Rep. Maxine Water (D-Calif.), and Boehner has yet to indicate whether such investigations with be conducted with the same fervor in the next Congress.

Obama's Tax Deal and the Future of Social Security

| Wed Dec. 22, 2010 12:36 PM EST

It’s worth pointing out once again that  last week’s  tax deal is hardly the victory for the American people it is made out to be. One of the biggest chunks -- 13 percent of the total monies — comes from Social Security and Medicare in the form of a one-year cut in payroll taxes. The government promises to pay back what it is taking from the Social Security trust fund by borrowing the money, then floating bonds to guarantee  repayment.

This one year abeyance might not seem like much. But with the coming of a right-wing Republican House, under pressure from the further fringes in the tea party, it does not augur well for the future of the program. From its inception under FDR, the Republicans have dreamed of getting rid of Social Security, along with such other things as the Federal Reserve, the income tax, the Department of Education, and the UN.

“Social Security’s dedicated funding base is jeopardized by this deal in an unprecedented way and there is a grave risk now that the retirement benefits of America’s workers will have to compete with our other priorities for a share of the general budget,” said Rep. Loyd Doggett (D-Tex.) at a press conference held by the National Committee To Preserve Social Security and Medicare. ”It would result in Social Security being as dependent on annual Congressional action as public television or our national parks.”

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Conservatives Finally Turn on Their Own

| Wed Dec. 22, 2010 12:21 PM EST

When liberals complained about Republican opposition to the 9/11 first-responders bill, it wasn't news. But when conservatives complain, suddenly it can no longer be ignored:

The remarks by Mr. Giuliani capped several days of withering criticism from all corners of the political spectrum as it appeared that Congress could depart for the year without voting on the first responders bill because of Republican efforts to block it.

Headlines in normally conservative news outlets blasted Republicans. Newsmaxx.com wrote that: “Giuliani Raps Fellow Republicans for Holding Up 9/11 Heroes Money‎.” Fox News host Shepard Smith drew attention to Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who has said he will try to block the legislation.

....On Wednesday morning, the MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman, called the G.O.P.’s opposition to the bill “a terrible mistake” for the party.

I suppose this is useful in a way. Some days I wonder just what it takes to get conservatives to treat anything as an actual issue, rather than just a partisan cudgel, and I guess now I know. This is their limit.

Vitter Blames Immigrants for Louisiana's Census Problems

| Wed Dec. 22, 2010 12:12 PM EST

Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), who was recently (and inexplicably) re-elected after a scandal involving prostitution and an alleged diaper fetish, knows who to blame for Louisiana's recent loss of a congressional seat in post-Census reapportionment: illegal immigrants in other states. He's definitely on to something here. Surely Louisiana's slower population growth relative to other states couldn't have anything to do with a certain hurricane that devastated the state's biggest city and drove a large portion of the black population out of the state entirely—making Vitter's road to re-election this year that much easier. No, it's definitely the fault of illegal immigrants. Here's what Vitter told Politico:

"Louisiana stands to lose clout in Congress, while states that welcome illegal immigrants stand to unfairly benefit from artificially inflated population totals," the Republican senator said in a statement Tuesday.

Politico notes that Louisiana "also" lost residents due to Hurricane Katrina, and reminds readers of Vitter's failed 2009 effort to try to force a question about citizenship onto the census questionnaire. What the paper doesn't mention, however, is that Vitter is really complaining about the Constitution, which mandates that the Census count "persons" (and 3/5 of every slave), not just "citizens." So sorry, Senator: to fix this "problem" of yours, you're probably going to need a constitutional amendment. Of course, it might be easier to save Louisiana's extra congressional district if you built a time machine and went back to tell your Republican friend George W. Bush not to gut the Federal Emergency Management Agency and urge him not to hand its reins to the failed, fired head of the International Arabian Horse Association. Just a thought. 

Fact-Checking Liu Xiaobo Critics

| Wed Dec. 22, 2010 10:38 AM EST

Liu Xiaobo, an imprisoned activist who was awarded this year's Peace prize for his "long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China," is best known for his participation in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and penning articles discouraging violence as a tool of pro-democracy Chinese dissidents. But according to his critics, he's also a fervent supporter of US-led wars.

Last Wednesday, Hong Kong-based professors Barry Sautman and Yan Hairong published a piece in The Guardian arguing that the Western media and Nobel committee have failed to recognize Liu's support of US war-efforts in Vietnam—and that Liu's imprisonment "was unnecessary," because "If Liu's politics were well-known, most people would not favour him for a prize, because he is a champion of war, not peace." To support this point, they cite a quote (translated below) from Liu's 1996 essay, "Lessons From the Cold War":

The free world led by the US fought almost all regimes that trampled on human rights...The major wars that the US became involved in are all ethically defensible.

Since an English translation of Liu's essay doesn't seem to exist, we read his essay in its original Mandarin, but we were unable to locate the quote Sautman and Yan mentioned. Just to be sure, we had another multilingual friend spot-check us, but he couldn't find it either. Looks like Sautman and Yan broadly misquoted the Nobel prize-winner at best. At worst, they deliberately fabricated his views about US involvement in the Vietnam and Korean Wars. One thing they didn't mention: Liu's essay was less concerned with the West's involvement in the Cold War, and is ultimately more interested in China's human rights failures [PDF], stating:

It was not the Americans that destroyed Communist authoritarianism, but that was caused by the self-destructive forces of this system's anti-human nature.

 

 

A Transocean Employee on the Deepwater Investigation?

| Wed Dec. 22, 2010 10:30 AM EST

The Houston Chronicle's Fuel Fix posted an interesting piece late Tuesday night about a notable conflict of interest in the investigation into the cause of the Deepwater Horizon explosion. The paper cites documents that indicate that a supervisor from Transocean, the rig's owner, has participated in tests on the blowout preventer—a key piece of evidence in the ongoing investigation.

According to the documents, the paper reports that "the Transocean employee has manipulated equipment on the 50-foot-tall, 300-ton blowout preventer, while a government contractor runs it through a battery of tests in New Orleans." More from the article:

The government contracted the forensic analysis firm Det Norske Veritas to run the equipment through tests designed to shed light on why key pipe-cutting and hole-closing components failed to slash through drill pipe and seal off the well hole.
DNV later arranged for Owen McWhorter, onetime subsea supervisor on the Deepwater Horizon, to assist in the testing.
The government instructed DNV to terminate its contract with McWhorter after concerns were raised last week by the Chemical Safety Board, a federal agency also investigating the disaster.
The decision to use the Transocean employee as a consultant appeared to violate a conflict-of-interest provision in the government’s contract with DNV, acknowledged Michael Farber, a senior adviser for the ocean energy bureau, in a letter to the Chemical Safety Board.

Yikes. The piece says the government instructed DNV to remove McWhorter from the project after the conflict was pointed out. The tests they are conducting on the blowout preventer are crucial to figuring out what exactly went wrong on the Deepwater Horizon, since, as the name would imply, this device was supposed to prevent such a disaster from occurring. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement (BOEMRE) and the Coast Guard are investigating the causes of the disaster.

As Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) noted in a letter to BOEMRE head Michael Bromwich on Tuesday, the involvement of a Transocean staffer should raise "serious questions as to the credibility and objectivity" of the investigation.