2011 - %3, January

Sarah Palin's Emails Coming Soon?

| Mon Jan. 3, 2011 1:50 PM EST

Last month, I reported that Mother Jones, several other media outlets, and a few citizen activists have been waiting for over two years for the state of Alaska to release emails Sarah Palin received and sent when she was governor. During the 2008 campaign, we each filed requests under Alaska's open records law for these materials, but the governor's office has repeatedly requested extensions from the state attorney general. And all the requests have been granted. But the work has proceeded. In the two years since the requests were filed, the governor's office has located and/or recovered 26,553 pages of emails to and from Palin (including some to and from private email accounts she used for state business). The state, though, won't release the material until all the records are reviewed by the state Department of Law. As of mid-December, that office had only evaluated 7,400 pages—less than one-third of the haul. The slow pace of review made it seem that the emails might not be made public until after the 2012 presidential election.

But late last year, state Attorney General David Sullivan demanded that the governor's office submit a work plan that would state when the request would be finished, and now there's a target date: May 31, 2011. On December 27, 2011, Linda Perez, the administrative director of the governor's office, notified the current attorney general, John Burns, that the Department of Law estimates it will complete its review of the emails by March 31, 2011. (The department has beefed up its review team.) Perez added that her office would then need an additional two months to consult with the lawyers about what material to withhold or redact.

There is, of course, wiggle room in these estimates. Perez noted that the spring will be a particularly busy time, with the state legislature in session. So it would be no surprise if the governor's office were to request an extension beyond May 31. But as the end of this process approaches, another question emerges: what will the state keep secret? Months before Palin was tapped by Sen. John McCain, the GOP presidential nominee, to be his running mate in 2008, her office declined to release 1,100 emails from two Palin aides in response to an open records request filed by citizen activist Andrée McLeod. The state claimed that these emails were exempt because they concerned confidential policy matters. Yet a list of the subject headings of the withheld emails referred to non-policy and political matters, suggesting that the state had taken a decidedly liberal interpretation of the available exemptions.

Might that happen again? First, we'll have to see if the state meets the May 31 date.

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The $11,000 Op-Ed

| Mon Jan. 3, 2011 1:19 PM EST

Felix Salmon isn't too impressed with any of the three main candidates to replace Larry Summers as head of the NEC. Roger Altman and Richard Levin both have substantial ties to Wall Street, and then:

Finally there’s Sperling, who in some ways is the worst of the three when it comes to grubbing money from Wall Street. The other two have well-defined and easily-understood jobs; Sperling, by contrast, signed up with the Harry Walker Agency and started giving speeches to anybody with cash, including not only Citigroup but even Allen Stanford. He also wrote a monthly 900-word column for Bloomberg for $137,500 a year, which works out at about $13 per word.

This really brings things home to a scribbler like me. Being paid a million bucks a year for some kind of ill-defined financial "consulting" is one thing. I don't really know anything about what that entails. But writing? I know all about that, and $11,000 for an op-ed is a wee bit excessive, no? At least, it is if it's really just the writing you're paying for.

The Dems' Wasted Opportunity on Health Reform

| Mon Jan. 3, 2011 1:10 PM EST

Republicans have placed their assault on health care reform at the top of their agenda for the new Congress, planning to put a repeal of the federal law up for a vote as soon as possible. Full-out repeal is unlikely to go anywhere: even if the bill passed the House, it would have trouble clearing the Senate, and President Obama could always veto it in the end. But the GOP hopes the vote will give Republicans the momentum to undermine support for the law on the state level, gut smaller provisions, and pave the way for killing reform under a Republican administration.

That being said, the GOP attack also gives Democrats a second chance to sell health reform to the public, as I've previously explained earlier. The New York Times lays out the Democrats' vow to launch an "all-out effort" to defend the law, aided by outside groups who fought for the bill's passage. But Democrats have been promising to make a full-court press on health reform for months, and the party still has yet to follow through. This week, for example, would have been a prime opportunity for health reform's defenders to step up. Some of the most popular early provisions of the law went into effect on January 1: any co-pays on preventative care are prohibited; health insurers must spend a higher percentage of the cost of premiums on actual medical care; and some Medicare beneficiaries will receive a 50 percent discount on prescription drugs.

But you aren't hearing many Democrats explaining how Republicans are determined to take such benefits away from the American public. Rather, as Jonathan Chait points out, leading Democratic voices like Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY) are only complaining that Republicans are wasting time with their repeal effort. There's no way of avoiding the health care debate at this point, and simply dismissing the Republicans' sturm und drang just allows the GOP to continue dominating the conversation.

Darrell Issa's Agenda

| Mon Jan. 3, 2011 12:56 PM EST

Dave Weigel says that Darrell Issa's trash talk about Barack Obama being "one of the most corrupt presidents in modern times" is just that: trash talk. It's gaining him the spotlight, and now that he's got it he's going to pursue a fairly ordinary investigatory agenda:

Issa's in roughly the same position that John Conyers and Henry Waxman were in when they took over their committees in 2007. At one point, both of them went on record saying they'd consider ("keep an open mind" was Waxman's phrase) impeachment hearings. Voila, instant attention, instant pushback from leadership, and they went on to investigating the stuff that they'd intended to, like the U.S. attorney firings.

Issa became a national figure by taking a bank shot and bankrolling the petition to force the 2003 California recall; if anything he's savvier about media coverage than either Conyers or Waxman. He's got people primed for a 1995 redux of investigations of picayune scandals, but his talk about those scandals are only the entry point into what he really considers "corrupt." That's liberalism and corporatism, transparency about the ugly kludges that marked our response to the recession.

Maybe so — though I'm not sure Issa is quite as savvy as all that. Remember, when he bankrolled the recall of Gray Davis in 2003, it was because he figured it would make him California's next governor. That turned out to be a somewhat less than savvy read of the political situation.

That said, Weigel may be right about Issa's agenda. Still, my experience is that, for the most part, it's best to take politicians at face value. There aren't nearly as many of them pursuing clever three-bank shots as pundits tend to think. Issa's agenda will probably be 80% fairly normal conservative harassment, but I'd be surprised if the other 20% wasn't some pretty crazy red meat Dan Burton-esque lunacy. He may well decide that ACORN and the New Black Panthers are yesterday's news, but just wait. New stuff like that will crop up, and Issa probably won't be able to resist diving in.

Is Michael Mukasey Helping Terrorists?

| Mon Jan. 3, 2011 12:33 PM EST

Georgetown law professor and Supreme Court lawyer David Cole has an important op-ed in Monday's New York Times about the wide reach of America's anti-terrorism laws. The country's "material support for terrorism" law is so broad, in fact, that it could possibly be applied to a handful of former Bush administration officials and other public figures who have advocated on behalf of groups the government labels as terrorist organizations. In particular, Cole points to former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, former homeland security chief Tom Ridge, and former national security adviser Frances Townsend, who all went to Paris last month to speak on behalf of the Mujahedeen Khalq, an Iranian opposition group the government has labeled as a terrorist organization. Cole explains:

The problem is that the United States government has labeled the Mujahedeen Khalq a "foreign terrorist organization," making it a crime to provide it, directly or indirectly, with any material support. And, according to the Justice Department under Mr. Mukasey himself, as well as under the current attorney general, Eric Holder, material support includes not only cash and other tangible aid, but also speech coordinated with a "foreign terrorist organization" for its benefit. It is therefore a felony, the government has argued, to file an amicus brief on behalf of a "terrorist" group, to engage in public advocacy to challenge a group's "terrorist" designation or even to encourage peaceful avenues for redress of grievances.

Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, the case Cole argued before the Supreme Court last year, was an attempt to challenge the constitutionality of the current material support laws. But Cole and the Humanitarian Law Project lost that fight. The court's five more conservative justices upheld the current statute. So now the only option is congressional action:

Congress should reform the laws governing material support of terrorism. It should make clear that speech advocating only lawful, nonviolent activities — as Michael Mukasey and Rudolph Giuliani did in Paris — is not a crime. The First Amendment protects even speech advocating criminal activity, unless it is intended and likely to incite imminent lawless conduct. The risk that speech advocating peace and human rights would further terrorism is so remote that it cannot outweigh the indispensable value of protecting dissent.

I can't imagine a Democratic Congress, let alone a Republican one, changing the anti-terror laws any time soon. But Cole's op-ed is drawing attention to the huge amount of power the current law gives to prosecutors. Many public figures appear to have violated the statute in one way or another. But many of the people who have been actually targeted for investigation and possible prosecution are leftist, pro-Palestinian, and anti-war activists. In other words, the law appears to be selectively enforced. There seem to be two sets of rules here: one for current and former government officials, who are almost never charged or even criticized for speaking on the behalf of designated terrorist groups; and another set of rules for everyone else.

UPDATE: Glenn Greenwald has more.

Tales from the Debt Collection Crypt

| Mon Jan. 3, 2011 8:55 AM EST

When the widespread use of "robo-signers"—low-level employees signing mountains of foreclosure legal filings without actually reading what they said—bubbled to the surface this fall, it sparked public outrage and a 50-state investigation of mortgage companies by state attorneys general. But now the seamy debt-collection industry has one-upped the foreclosure industry's robo-signing disaster. One of America's largest debt collectors, Portfolio Recovery Associates, used court filings that were signed by a woman who'd died nearly a decade earlier.

Martha Kunkle died in 1995. Yet her name and hand-written signature appeared on debt-collection filings submitted by Portfolio Recovery Associates as late as 2006 and 2007, according to the Wall Street Journal. Facing a fraud lawsuit, Portfolio announced that documents with Kunkle's name were "defects" and couldn't be used in court. That was in early 2008, the Journal reports, more than a decade after Kunkle's death. But even then, Portfolio tried to use a Kunkle-signed document in July 2009 to collect on $2,892.10 of credit card debt.

The revelations have grabbed regulators' attention. Chris Koster, Missouri's attorney general, said he wants to investigate whether any Kunkle-signed documents were used for debt-collecting purposes in his state. Another attorney general, Lori Swanson of Minnesota, is already probing whether consumer debt buyers and collectors have falsified affidavits in debt-collection suits.

As shocking as it sounds, Portfolio's use of a dead woman's name to execute legal documents is right on par with the practices of the foreclosure industry. As myself and others reported this fall, for years major mortgage servicers—the underregulated middlemen who collect payments, assess late fees, and foreclose on homeowners—like GMAC and JPMorgan Chase charged employees with scrawling their name on tens of thousands of crucial foreclosure filings. The goal: to ram through foreclosures as fast as possible. Problem is, it's a violation of federal court rules to sign legal documents without reading and understanding what they say. "Foreclosuregate," which exploded into a national controversy, cast doubt on the legitimacy of foreclosures from Maine to California.

It's difficult to know how widespread dubious practices like Portfolio's are throughout the debt collection industry. But debt collectors, as you've probably heard, are hardly a bastion of ethical behavior.

What is clear, though, is how little regard certain mortgage companies and debt collectors have for the American legal system. Because, at the end of the day, that's what the robo-signing scandals tell us: that these financial heavyweights cared so little about the integrity of our judicial system that they saw nothing wrong with employing robo-signers to mass-produce faulty foreclosure documents, or with using a dead woman's name and signature to collect on old debts.

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Boots Riley Is Sorry to Bother You

| Mon Jan. 3, 2011 7:47 AM EST

It's been a few years since we last checked in with Raymond "Boots" Riley, front man of the Coup—a funk and hip-hop group known for its humor, intelligence, and in-your-face agitprop. Steeped in radical street politics, the Oakland, California-based group has been shaking things up for two decades with albums like Kill My Landlord, Genocide & Juice, Steal This Album, and Party Music—which gained notoriety for songs like "5 Million Ways to Kill a CEO," but revealed a softer Riley in cuts like "Wear Clean Drawers," a heartfelt facts-of-street-life for his baby daughter. The band's 2006 Epitaph album, Pick a Bigger Weapon, which made Rolling Stone's Top 50 albums of that year, includes the track "BabyLet'sHaveABabyBeforeBushDoSomethin'Crazy." Nowadays, besides raising three kids and working on new Coup material for an indie film, Riley is collaborating with Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello in a newer group called the Street Sweeper Social Club. For a Mixed Media special in our November/December issue, I asked him about his recent projects, favorite tunes, and the joys of fatherhood.

Mother Jones: You're working on your first new album since 2006, right? Give us a taste for where it's headed, thematically.

Boots Riley: Actually, I put out an album in 2009 and an EP in August 2010 with Street Sweeper Social Club. The next album by The Coup will be the soundtrack to a movie that I've written, and in which I play the lead. It's a dark comedy with magical realism inspired by my days as a telemarketer. It's called Sorry To Bother You.

No Haiti, No Louisiana Purchase

| Mon Jan. 3, 2011 7:00 AM EST

When I was in Haiti this fall, a leader of PAPDA, the grassroots Haitian Platform to Advocate Alternative Development, got a little pissed at me. During an interview across a stately wooden table in PAPDA's quiet, clean office, Ricot Jean-Pierre raged against the thousands of NGOs that are  ostensibly helping Haitians but, in his opinion, more often helping themselves. Haitians need to get control of the recovery process, he explained, get fired up, take back their country from the Americans and the UN and all the other self-serving interfering foreign powers.

This is where our rift occurred. The 12,000 troops running Haiti's streets are from the UN; the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission is co-chaired by Bill Clinton—whom, as Jean-Pierre himself had just reminded me, locals often call the governor or president of Haiti. So I asked Jean-Pierre, gently but a little skeptically, if he thought his foreigner-ousting goal was realistic.

He was instantly agitated. And he reminded me, not so gently, that Haitians OVERTHREW THE FRENCH.

The rebellion of Saint-Domingue, as the French colony was called back then, started on an August night in 1791 when slaves set fires and massacred ruling whites. It took 12 years, but after the defeat of plantation owners, and local French troops, then an army of Spaniards, a British invasion, and ultimately Napoleon's army in 1803, the Republic of Haiti was born. It was the most successful slave revolt in history. It created the first independent state in Latin America, and the first black-led nation in the world. As a footnote, it also helped ensure the survival of another fledgling republic: the United States.

How? Well for starters there may not have even been a United States to save by 1803 had Haiti not been such a fabulously profitable colony. French aid to America's revolutionaries was delivered not only because they wanted to stick it to the British, but also to protect Saint-Domingue, which provided 40 percent of the world's sugar. The treaty of alliance between America's Continental Congress and France explicitly stated that the US would help them do so. Haiti was also a critical way station for French naval assistance and weapons smuggled to US rebels, including dozens of French ships and thousands of French troops that helped take Savannah.

However when, in 1802, the United States found out Spain secretly ceeded the Lousiana Territory to France, an alarmed Thomas Jefferson wrote of our erstwhile allies: "There is on the globe, one spot the possessor of which is our natural and habitual enemy. It is New Orleans, through which the produce of three-eighths of our territory must pass to market. The day that France takes possession of New Orleans...we must marry ourselves to the British fleet and nation."

Napoleon, meanwhile, needed to quell the Haitian rebellion to keep sugar profits flowing and maintain a foothold in the New World. He wanted to invade England. He even had an eye on invading the American mainland to assert control over the Louisiana Territory. But without Haiti as a base, that was going to be tough. And who needed the port of New Orleans if France didn't have to supply or defend a Caribbean colony? By the spring of 1803, French victory in Haiti was looking less likely. Napoleon didn't need the Gulf Coast, and didn't have the troops to spare on it, either; the war for Haiti had taken out more than 40,000 French soldiers. What he did need was money to fund his war against England. And so the historic deal was struck. We got 828,800 square acres and control of the Mississippi for $219 million in today's dollars. Not bad.


There's of course a lot of sociogeographipolitical context surrounding the fall of France's New World empire. The above version is oversimplified. But, with apologies to Ricot Jean-Pierre, let me never imply again that Haitians don't have a history of radically altering history despite the interference of the world's superpowers. As one historian wrote, "Napoleon's decision to divest himself of his North American ambitions was not due to one or two factors, but was rather part of a complex calculus. Timing, shifting circumstances, and his own ambitions had as much to do with his decision to sell the Louisiana Territory as did Haiti's victory over France. However, it is undoubtedly true that rebel army's stubborn resistance combined with [the French commander in Haiti's] losses in men and materiel would force the First Consul's hand, and this fact would forever alter America's destiny."

Read my feature on Haiti's reconstruction hell and a photo essay on its tent cities.

Video: Mac Talks With Quake Victims in Haiti

| Mon Jan. 3, 2011 7:00 AM EST

Read human rights reporter Mac McClelland's dispatch from Haiti, or see the full Mother Jones special report on Haiti's reconstruction.

Mac McClelland went to Haiti in September to explore the displacement camps, and we sent along a handheld Flip camera and set her up with a videographer. Below, you can see the conditions for yourselves: cramped tents, blistering sun, and torrential rainstorms that destroy the few houses people do have. In the video, Mac talks with Daniel Julian—who you'll meet here in her dispatch from Haiti—and tours the "model city" of Corail Cesselesse where there's little food, no work, and few services.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for January 3, 2011

Mon Jan. 3, 2011 6:30 AM EST

U.S. Army Sgt. Michael L. Zickefoose, a team leader assigned to Company B, 2nd Battalion, 30th Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, provides security while keeping an eye on a recent avenue of approach Taliban used at the Charkh bazaar Dec. 11. Zickefoose, a Warren, Ohio, native, recently volunteered to leave the battalion’s scout platoon to lead troops in Charkh. Photo by U.S. Army Sgt. Cooper T. Cash, Task Force Patriot