2011 - %3, February

Judge Rules Gulf Claims Czar Not "Independent"

| Thu Feb. 3, 2011 1:32 PM EST

A Louisiana judge ruled Wednesday that Kenneth Feinberg, the administrator of the $20 billion Gulf coast recovery fund, can't call himself "independent."

The Obama administration tapped Feinberg to determine how the money BP agreed to put in the fund would be dolled out to those affected by the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. But the fact that BP is paying Feinberg for his services (and paying him pretty well, I might add) has prompted a good deal of criticism. US District Judge Carl Barbier ruled on Wednesday that Feinberg must fully disclose his ties to BP in his conversations with Gulf coast residents seeking money from the Gulf Coast Claims Facility. "A full disclosure of the relationship between Mr. Feinberg, the GCCF, and BP will at least make transparent that it is BP's interests" Feinberg is representing, the judge wrote.

Feinberg's law firm is receiving $850,000 a month from BP to administer the fund. The facility has paid out $3.3 billion to 168,558 claimants so far. There are 316,949 claims still in the pipeline, according to the latest figures from the GCCF. But lawyers for some of the people impacted by the spill have argued that Feinberg is asking victims to accept lower payments then they could receive by suing BP.

Feinberg's office didn't respond to the judge's ruling. "We have no comment on the ruling," said Feinberg spokeswoman Amy Weiss in an email. "We are focused on moving forward paying claims."

The ruling also came on the same day that Feinberg released a draft methodology proposal for long-term payments from the fund. The proposed methodology, created in consultation with "scientific and economic experts," estimates that the Gulf will, for the most part, recover by 2012:

There is evidence of a strong recovery underway. However, the GCCF has concluded that it is reasonable to base its future payment calculations on the principle that a full economic recovery in the Gulf region is likely (but not certain) within two to three years from the date of the Oil Spill.

It does, however, acknowledging that the "prediction is not an exact science," and proposes a reevaluation of the science and economic findings every four months.

The draft proposes paying out double the documented loses sustained in the first year after the spill to those whose livelihoods are tied to the Gulf. It also predicts that oysters will take longer to cover, and proposes a payment for four years for oystermen. Claimants still have several options—taking a lump-sum payment now based on the current estimate of losses, accepting interim payments while they wait to see what their future losses might actually be, or opting out of the fund entirely and taking their claim to court. The draft proposal is open for public comment through Feb. 16.

The methodology raised some controversy, as other scientists looking at the long-term impacts to the Gulf argued that it's far too early to make such sweeping predictions about the long term impacts. "This is not a scientific report—it's an opinion. There’s just no data here. It doesn’t propose any methodology by which its assumptions and predictions could be tested,” says Ian MacDonald, a professor of oceanography at Florida State University.

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Egypt: Exchanging a Dictator for a Torturer

| Thu Feb. 3, 2011 12:30 PM EST

As it now stands, the United States appears content to contemplate exchanging Hosni Mubarak for Egypt's new Vice President, Omar Suleiman, the Egyptian spy master--that is, one dictator for another-- to maintain the status quo. Of course, Israel must sign off on this deal, assuring the U.S. that Egypt can remain as its main base in the region, straddling as it does North Africa and the Middle East. Without it, the U.S. would most definitely have to rethink its entire neo-colonial policies  in the region.

As for Suleiman, he looks to be a  nasty piece of work.  Agence France Press has pulled together the basics:

For US intelligence officials, he has been a trusted partner willing to go after Islamist militants without hesitation, targeting homegrown radical groups Gamaa Islamiya and Jihad after they carried out a string of attacks on foreigners.A product of the US-Egyptian relationship, Suleiman underwent training in the 1980s at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare School and Center at Fort Bragg in North Carolina....

After taking over as spy director, Suleiman oversaw an agreement with the United States in 1995 that allowed for suspected militants to be secretly transferred to Egypt for questioning, according to the book "Ghost Plane" by journalist Stephen Grey...

In the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the CIA relied on Suleiman to accept the transfer of a detainee known as Ibn Sheikh al-Libi, who US officials hoped could prove a link between Iraq's Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda.The suspect was bound and blindfolded and flown to Cairo, where the CIA believed their longtime ally Suleiman would ensure a successful interrogation, according to "The One Percent Doctrine" by author Ron Suskind. A US Senate report in 2006 describes how the detainee was locked in a cage for hours and beaten, with Egyptian authorities pushing him to confirm alleged connections between Al-Qaeda and Saddam.Libi eventually told his interrogators that the then Iraqi regime was moving to provide Al-Qaeda with biological and chemical weapons.When the then US secretary of state Colin Powell made the case for war before the United Nations, he referred to details of Libi's confession.The detainee eventually recanted his account.

Thus our loyal ally Egypt provided the fake information used by the United States to go to war in Iraq.

Housekeeping Note

| Thu Feb. 3, 2011 11:00 AM EST

I'll be up in San Francisco today and tomorrow hobnobbing with the powers that be at Mother Jones. I might have some free time to post a thing or two, but I'm not sure about that. At best, posting will be light — though catblogging will appear at its regular time. I'll be back on Saturday.

House GOP Caves On Redefining Rape Bill

| Thu Feb. 3, 2011 10:55 AM EST

Last week, Mother Jones' Nick Baumann broke the story on Chris Smith's "No Taxpayer for Abortion" Act, which would rule out federal assistance for abortions in many rape cases, including instances of statutory rape. For years, federal laws restricting the use of government funds to pay for abortions have included exemptions for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest. But Smith's bill contained a provision that would limit the rape exemption to "forcible rape," ruling out federal assistance for abortions in many rape cases—such as statutory rape—in which force was not involved or could not be proved. "It is absolutely outrageous," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.). "I consider the proposal of this bill a violent act against women."

Now, Smith has retreated, excising the "forcible" rape language from the bill, reports Politico. "The word forcible will be replaced with the original language from the Hyde Amendment," Smith spokesman Jeff Sagnip says, referring to the ban on the federal government paying for abortions that's been in place since 1976.

The GOP effort to rewrite the meaning of rape incited a Twitter campaign of protest (using the hashtag #dearjohn). Editorial pages and columnists protested. Progressive groups initiated a crusade to kill the bill. And The Daily Show, of course, got in the act (around 9:15) too. MoveOn.org launched a petition against the bill, saying Smith's legislation would "set women's rights back by decades…As far too many women know, bruises and broken bones do not define rape—a lack of consent does." EMILY's List, issued its own petition, declaring war on the bill and one of its most prominent proponents: Speaker of the House John Boehner. Its website, BoehnersAmerica.org, urged "Boehner and his cronies to stop using rape victims as political pawns." The group said, "it was known from the beginning that Boehner and his boys would fight to take away women's freedoms whenever possible."

Smith's bill did unsettle some GOPers. Differentiating between types of rape, Politico reports, befuddled Republican aides. "Such a removal would be a good idea, since last I checked, rape by definition is non-consensual," one GOP aide says.

I Have A Scheme

| Thu Feb. 3, 2011 8:03 AM EST

If you think that race relations in your urban hipster enclave have much improved since the 1950s, you probably haven't seen Clybourne Park, a hilarious, devastatingly spot-on play by Bruce Norris that has been making audiences squirm in New York, London, and Washington, DC. At moments during Clybourne Park's West Coast premiere in San Francisco last week, some people laughed and others scowled, as one would expect from a play that mercilessly shreds Obama-era pretensions to social enlightenment.

Expertly directed by Jonathan Moscone at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater, Clybourne Park juxtaposes two scenes in the same Chicago townhouse across the span of a half century. In the first, a war-scarred white family is selling the house, which looks like the set to a cheery postwar sitcom, to an African-American couple over the objections of the all-white neighborhood's Rotarian booster (theater buffs will notice this as a re-imagining of "A Raisin in the Sun," a famous 1959 play about race). The second act shows the same house bare and mouldering as two white bobos (Steve and Lindsey), who want to replace it with a modernist tower, square off against black neighbors (Kevin and Lena), who view themselves as defenders of the neighborhood.

That's when things really get interesting. The PC blather deployed by both sides—the acknowledgements of past injustices, the oblique claims to victimization, the emphatic repetitions of "I hear you"—thinly veils the same jurassic territoriality of the '50s. A rhetorical arms race has complicated and in some ways deepened the old divisions, with matters of "taste" substituting for race and class in an an ostensibly post-racial world.  

Even the well-educated, well-off, obviously liberal San Francisco theater audience had trouble navigating these shoals at times. There were jokes about deaf people, gay people, black men, and white women that may or may not have been funny. (Why are white women like tampons? "They're both stuck up cunts!"). There was the moment when several people in the audience cheered as Steve tried to find common cause with Kevin by condemning the War in Iraq, only to learn that Kevin's minivan was plastered with three "support our troops" magnets, one for each of his relatives fighting overseas (statistically, African-Americans are overrepresented in the armed forces). But in other ways Kevin is a classic latte liberal.

Clybourne Park ends by suggesting that neither side in the gentrification wars really pays enough heed to the true nature of the history that it enshrines. I hear you, Bruce Norris. I totally hear you.

Meet Egypt's Power Brokers

| Thu Feb. 3, 2011 8:00 AM EST

Protesters rage on in Egypt, but who's negotiating its political future behind the scenes? On Sunday, Egypt's political opposition groups formed a 10-person Negotiation Steering Committee that is strategizing to pressure President Hosni Mubarak's regime to step down. Since the protests broke out a week ago, opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei has stated he has the political backing necessary to form a "unity government" and that the committee is capable of "running a smooth transitional period." But there is disagreement over ElBaradei’s leadership among the committee, which represents a wide range of political interests and ideologies. Here's a run-down of the committee members:

1. Mohamed ElBaradei: ElBaradei, the most internationally prominent figure in the Egyptian opposition movement, heads the National Association for Change (NAC), a broad opposition coalition (which includes the Muslim Brotherhood) that emphasizes democratic constitutional reforms. When he was heading the International Atomic Energy Agency, ElBaradei won the Nobel Peace Prize (2005) for his efforts to curb nuclear proliferation. In the 2011 protests ElBaradei, a secular liberal, has emerged as the widely supported choice for Egypt's next president. But his support isn't unanimous: his time abroad has earned him criticisms that he lacks an understanding of Egypt's daily political life.

2. Ayman Nour: As chair of the Ghad ("Tomorrow") Party, Nour leads the liberal-secular faction in Egypt. Nour, a politician and lawyer, has used his platform to call for constitutional reform, limiting presidential powers, and opening up the presidential elections to multiple candidates. He garnered international attention in 2005 when the Mubarak regime sentenced him to prison on charges that he forged documents when setting up the party. His absence left a power vacuum and a subsequent series of internal struggles plagued the party. Nour, released from prison in January 2009 on health grounds, was re-elected as chair last August.

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Podcast: Does Punxsutawney Phil Believe in Climate Change?

Thu Feb. 3, 2011 7:00 AM EST

Climate scientists have for years complained of their inability to educate the public about the dangers of global warming.

Maybe they can learn a thing or two from Punxsutawney Phil.

The world's most famous groundhog prognosticator has little trouble getting attention for his weather predictions. And on Wednesday, the world will tune in once again to watch as Phil emerges from his home on Gobbler's Knob and looks for his shadow. [UPDATE: Phil failed to see his shadow Wednesday morning, signaling an early spring.]

Few know as much about Phil as Mike Johnston, the vice president of the groundhog's Inner Circle, and one of Phil's closest confidants. In honor of this year's Groundhog Day, Need to Know spoke with Johnston to discuss the history of Phil's predictions, the mysteries of the Inner Circle and whether Phil believes in anthropogenic climate change.

As Johnston revealed, Phil does study the work of other climatologists — but mostly for laughs.

"He's a student of weather predicting, weather forecasting, for one day," Johnston said of Phil. "He studies the models, he likes a little light reading, and maybe some humor mixed in with it. And I think that's what he gets with most other weather predictions."

This podcast was produced by Need to Know for the Climate Desk collaboration.

Is Jon Huntsman the Greenest GOP Presidential Hopeful?

| Thu Feb. 3, 2011 7:00 AM EST

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman is looking like the most climate-cognizant contender for the Republican presidential nomination. In fact, he downright looks like a climate hawk.

Huntsman—who is resigning his position as ambassador to China in order to, as they say, explore his options—has been outspoken about the need for climate action, and, as governor, signed his state up for a regional cap-and-trade program as part of the Western Climate Initiative.

He's obviously greener than outright climate deniers like Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and flip-floppers like Newt Gingrich, but he might also be more climate-hawkish than Tim Pawlenty, who called for moderate climate action while he was governor of Minnesota but more recently has questioned the degree to which climate change is human-caused. A number of Republican presidential hopefuls have, like Pawlenty, backed away from climate concern in the past year as skepticism has come into vogue in the Tea Party camp. Huntsman, who's been out of the country and out of the spotlight since heading to Beijing in August 2009, has not backtracked—at least not yet.

In 2007, Huntsman brought his state into the Western Climate Initiative, the only Republican governor other than California's Arnold Schwarzenegger to do so. In 2008, he set a goal for Utah to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 2005 levels by 2020. His climate activism ticked off the heavily Republican state legislature, which hit Huntsman with a resolution calling on him to back out of the WCI, but the state's heavily Republican electorate didn't seem to mind, as it reelected Huntsman in November 2008 with 78 percent of the vote.

In January 2009, Huntsman said he found it "enormously frustrating" that Republicans had not been working toward a national climate policy. "We would not need the Western Climate Initiative if it were not for the foot-dragging nature of Congress," he said. "If Republicans had identified this problem earlier and tackled it aggressively, we would all be working together."

When Huntsman resigned from the governorship to become ambassador to China, Marc Heileson of the Sierra Club's Utah office lamented that the state was losing "a national leader in the world's most important environmental issue."

Huntsman carried his call for climate action into his ambassadorship, saying that one of his top goals would be collaborating with China on climate solutions:

We have entered an era in which all nations are called upon to work together to address the urgent problem of global climate change. The United States and China should be part of the solution, and collaboration on clean energy and greater energy efficiency offer a real opportunity to deepen the overall US-China relationship. US agencies have been encouraging their counterparts in China to expand cooperation on clean energy and other emission-reducing activities and to advance the international climate change negotiations. As Utah's Governor, I have been deeply involved in exploring clean energy options for the Western States. During my chairmanship of the Western Governors' Association, we focused specifically on the global nature of climate change, working directly with China and other major carbon emitters on this critical issue. If confirmed, I will continue my personal interest in working with China to identify and take action in areas that are mutually beneficial and which promote low-carbon economic growth in ways that are consistent with our trade and investment policies.

The political climate (ahem) is much different now than it was in mid-2009. If Huntsman decides to make a run for the Republican presidential nomination, will he distinguish himself from his competitors by sticking to his guns and insisting that climate change is a real problem that needs urgent action? Or will he follow the herd and make mealymouthed noises about uncertain science and the economic apocalypse that cap-and-trade would bring on?

This post was produced by Grist for the Climate Desk collaboration.

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

Thu Feb. 3, 2011 6:30 AM EST

U.S. Army soldiers conducted squad training after unloading from a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, Jan. 26, 2011. The soldiers, assigned to 164th Military Police Company, 793rd Military Police Battalion, 3rd Maneuver Enhancement Brigade, are preparing for an upcoming deployment to Afghanistan. U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Jason Epperson

Priorities! Or, Malawi's Flatulence Law

| Wed Feb. 2, 2011 8:48 PM EST

I don't know how I missed this, but it's really important, so in case you did too: The Malawian government has proposed a bill that would criminalize passing gas in public. The new local courts established to prosecute such impolite infractions would also arraign challengers of duels and insulters of women's modesty.

For those keeping track: Still legal in Malawi? Making immigrant detainees stand for 16 hours a day in overcrowded prisons.