2011 - %3, September

Former CIA Official Backs Up Mullen's Pakistan Claim

| Fri Sep. 23, 2011 11:20 AM EDT
Admiral Mike Mullen.

On Thursday, Admiral Mike Mullen, the outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Senate committee that the Pakistan's army intelligence service, the ISI, has been working hand-in-hand with the Pakistan-based Haqqani terrorist network, one of three allied insurgent groups fighting NATO forces alongside the Taliban. But how did the US know that for sure? Reuters posits an answer:

Bruce Riedel, a former top CIA analyst with close ties to the Obama White House, which he once advised, told Reuters administration officials have told him that militants who attacked the U.S. Embassy and NATO headquarters in Kabul on September 13 phoned individuals connected with the ISI before and during the attack.

Following the attacks, Riedel said, U.S. security forces collected cell phones the attackers had used. These are expected to provide further evidence linking militants to ISI.

Mullen has linked the alleged Haqqani-ISI tag team to at least three attacks against the US. This all comes as the Senate appropriations committee voted on Wednesday (the day before Mullen levelled his allegation) to make US aid to Pakistan "more rigorous, and contingent upon its cooperation in fighting militants such as the Haqqani network." But that's not exactly a game-changer for this fraught relationship.

Meanwhile, Reuters says that Mullen's "harsh words appear to represent a new low in U.S.-Pakistani relations"—yes, okay, given his prominence, maybe. But by what measure is this a new low? Apparently there's no drone strike too outrageous, no CIA-linked midnight murder too embarrassing, no terrorist bunker too cozy, and no special ops raid too invasive, for the US or Pakistan to say: At what point is enough enough?

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The Key Moment in Last Night's Debate

| Fri Sep. 23, 2011 11:13 AM EDT

For what it's worth, I just want to highlight this exchange from the debate last night. It's already gotten a fair amount of attention, but I think it was by far the most important exchange of the night. Chris Wallace asked Romney about Perry's support for allowing illegal immigrants to attend Texas universities and pay normal in-state resident tuition:

ROMNEY: To go to the University of Texas, if you’re an illegal alien, you get an in-state tuition discount. You know how much that is? That’s $22,000 a year. Four years of college, almost $100,000 discount if you are an illegal alien go to the University of Texas. If you are a United States citizen from any one of the other 49 states, you have to pay $100,000 more. That doesn’t make sense to me. That kind of magnet draws people into this country to get that education, to get the $100,000 break. It makes no sense.

PERRY: For a decade, I’ve been the governor of a state with a 1,200-mile border with Mexico. We put $400 million of our taxpayer money into securing that border. We’ve got our Texas Ranger recon teams there now....But if you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they’ve been brought there by no fault of their own, I don’t think you have a heart. We need to be educating these children, because they will become a drag on our society.

This really seems like a killer exchange to me. This idea that Perry wants to give a $100,000 subsidy to illegal immigrants is just electoral gold among the Republican primary crowd. And Perry is stuck: not only did he support this, but he's dug himself into a big hole by defending it so uncompromisingly. There's just no way he can back away from it now, and if Romney is smart — and he is — he is going to pound on this over and over and over.

Also note Perry's unusual tin ear here. If you don't see things his way, he said, "I don't think you have a heart." This kind of bluster goes over great when it's aimed at Obama-loving liberals, but it's like waving a red flag in front of an angry bull when it's aimed at fellow conservatives. The audience didn't like it, and I expect Romney to make very good use of this.

Bachmann: I'm Not Responsible For The Words Coming Out Of My Mouth

| Fri Sep. 23, 2011 10:53 AM EDT

In a television interview after the GOP presidential debate on September 12, Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, who was attacking Texas Governor Rick Perry over his decision to mandate that adolescent girls receive a vaccine for HPV, made the shocking suggestion that the vaccine caused "mental retardation." This is what Bachmann said:

"There's a woman who came up crying to me tonight after the debate. She said her daughter was given that vaccine.… She told me her daughter suffered mental retardation as a result. There are very dangerous consequences."

On Thursday night, Bachmann was asked directly about those remarks, which, as my colleague Tim Murphy reported, are not only completely false but could have serious health consequences by dissuading people from vaccinating their children. Asked about her validating paranoid junk science, Bachmann disavowed all responsibility, insisting that she was just the messenger.

Well, first I didn't make that claim nor did I make that statement. Immediately after the debate, a mother came up to me and she was visibly shaken and heart broken because of what her daughter had gone through. I so I only related what her story was.

Bachmann went on to explain a far more justifiable objection to Perry's decision, namely that the mandate was really about his desire to help a campaign contributor. 

For what it's worth, Bachmann's excuse is also false. She said that there "are very dangerous consequences" that come from mandating the HPV vaccine, and in context, it's clear she's referring to the false assertion that the vaccine causes mental problems. She wasn't merely "relaying" false information, she was endorsing it. Instead of simply admitting that it was wrong to validate and amplify a conspiracy theory, Bachmann basically said she's not at all responsible for making sure anything that comes out of her mouth is actually true. This is a shockingly glib response for someone who wants to run the most powerful country in the world.

Breaking: Public Still Doesn't Understand Obamacare

| Fri Sep. 23, 2011 10:08 AM EDT

Another month, another Kaiser poll about healthcare reform. This month they focused on pre-existing conditions. The Kaiser pollsters found that (a) lots of people have pre-existing conditions, (b) quite a few of them have had trouble getting insurance, (c) a large majority are aware that ACA prohibits insurance companies from denying coverage to those with pre-existing conditions, and yet (d) those with pre-existing conditions are pessimistic that ACA will do anything to help them:

Sarah Kliff notes that this is similar to the results last month, when the uninsured were similarly pessimistic about the new law:

The explanation for the two poll results is probably pretty similar: The major parts of the health-reform law — the end to preexisting conditions and health insurance subsidies — don’t start until 2014. Health reform did have a few popular insurance reforms come online early, like the extension of dependent coverage up to age 26 and the end to preexisting conditions for kids. Those, collectively known as the Patients Bill of Rights, actually hit their one-year anniversary today. But even though those reforms are very popular, they haven’t had a wide reach. The health-reform law has yet to impact the vast majority of Americans.

I guess that's right. And yet, this poll showed that 61% of the country knows that ACA will prevent discrimination against those with pre-existing conditions. So it's not just lack of knowledge at work here. It's possible, I suppose, that people with pre-existing conditions tend, on average, to be low-information types, so they're less aware of ACA's provisions than average. We'd have to see some crosstabs to be sure. But one thing is certain: it continues to be the case that people have a pretty poor understanding of just what's in the law. Maybe that's inevitable, but it's hard not to think that it's also due to a pretty lousy sales job from the left to balance out the constant and uncompromising attacks from the right.

Weekly Standard on GOP Debate: "Yikes"

| Fri Sep. 23, 2011 10:08 AM EDT

As our post-circus wrap-up suggests, none of us here at MoJo Politics were particularly blown away by Thursday night's GOP presidential debate in Orlando. At various points, candidates trumpeted easily debunked conspiracy theories, declined to recognize the service of a military veteran, and went at each others' throats over the issue of allowing undocumented children to go to college.

But don't take it from us. After last night, even conservatives are starting to freak out about the Republican field. Here's Bill Kristol's special editorial at the Weekly Standard, one of the leading publications of the Republican establishment:

THE WEEKLY STANDARD’s official reaction to last night’s Republican presidential debate: Yikes.

Reading the reactions of thoughtful commentators after the stage emptied, talking with conservative policy types and GOP political operatives later last evening and this morning, we know we’re not alone. Most won't express publicly just how horrified—or at least how demoralized—they are. After all, they still want to beat Obama—as do we. And they want to get along with the possible nominee and the other candidates and their supporters. They don't want to rock the boat too much. But maybe the GOP presidential boat needs rocking.

The e-mails flooding into our inbox during the evening were less guarded. Early on, we received this missive from a bright young conservative: "I'm watching my first GOP debate...and WE SOUND LIKE CRAZY PEOPLE!!!!" As the evening went on, the craziness receded, and the demoralized comments we received stressed the mediocrity of the field rather than its wackiness. As one more experienced, and therefore more jaded, observer wrote: "I just thought maybe it's always this bad...they're only marginally worse than McCain and Bush."

Kristol goes on to suggest that Perry's performance was "close to a disqualifying performance." Before Kristol writes another epic poem calling for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to get into the race, though, it's worth noting that 1.) The debate started at 9 p.m., finished at 11 p.m., and was going head to head with Man, Woman, Wild on the Discovery Channel, and 2.) See point 1. Last night's debate was disspiriting for any number of reasons, but very few people watched it except for those of us who had to, and it likely did nothing to diminish Republicans' chances next November.

Talk About a TRAIN Wreck

| Fri Sep. 23, 2011 9:37 AM EDT

The House is poised to vote on yet another attempt to block Environmental Protection Agency regulations. This latest attempt is the "Transparency in Regulatory Analysis of Impacts on the Nation"—or the "TRAIN Act"—which would create a committee to evaluate the economic impacts of a litany of environmental rules. The premise, of course, is that EPA rules are killing jobs rather than, you know, preventing polluters form killing people. The upshot is that this is a bill with a cute acronym that seeks to tell a regulatory agency not to do its job.

Given this, a bunch of environmental and public health groups were rather surprised to see their names listed in a press release last night as "supporters" of the TRAIN Act. The press release, from Republicans on the Energy and Commerce Committee, touted 108 supporters of the bill, including groups like Clean Air Watch, the Earth Day Coalition, and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. "Over 100 Groups Voice Support for TRAIN Act," said the release headline.

Shortly after the release went out, Frank O'Donnell, head of Clean Air Watch, sent a note to reporters last night clarifying that the group did not in fact support "the mother of all dirty-air bills." An hour and 40 minutes later, the committee issued a correction, with a headline that now only claimed "strong" support for the act. The list had shrunk significantly—now down to just 53 groups. Opps.

Anyway, the TRAIN Act probably still merits some attention. It will probably pass in the House but go nowhere in the Senate, but it's a good reminder of what Congressional Republicans would like to do if they had full control of Congress and the White House right now.

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Reza Aslan: Expert in Exile

| Fri Sep. 23, 2011 5:03 AM EDT
Reza Aslan.

In 1979, a seven-year-old Reza Aslan clutched his younger sister's hand as he and his family ran through the airport, fleeing an Iran entering the peak of the Islamic Revolution. They planned to return soon, but after Ayatollah Khomeini's hardliners consolidated power, their temporary exile became permanent in California. More than 30 years later, another revolutionary wave courses through the region. And Aslan, who's since emerged as one of America's leading commentators on the Middle East and Islam, likes what he sees. "Across the board, what has happened is that the regimes in the region now understand that they can no longer just ignore the will of the people," he says.

Even as the Middle East's latest revolutions chart a path very different from the one that forced Aslan from Iran, they've continued to spark his fascination with the intersection of religion and politics. Today, he's as comfortable expounding on the theological fine points of Sufi mysticism as he is sparring with those he blasts as "pseudo-experts" peddling anti-Muslim "bullshit." A professor of creative writing at the University of California at Riverside, Aslan is the consummate public intellectual. He has written or edited four books, including his recently rereleased 2005 bestseller No god but God, frequently appears on television and radio, and traverses the globe giving talks at universities, film festivals, synagogues, mosques, and churches. A few days ahead of his speaking engagement this Saturday evening at De Anza College outside San Jose, I talked to Aslan about Islamophobia, Al Qaeda's role in igniting the Arab Spring, and the death of the two-state solution.

Mother Jones: You've argued that anti-Muslim sentiment in the US has gotten significantly worse of late, especially within the last few years. Why do you think that is?

The Machine Gun Preacher: Saint or Scoundrel?

| Fri Sep. 23, 2011 5:00 AM EDT

Today, moviegoers will meet a new action hero: the Machine Gun Preacher, the eponymous protagonist of a just-released film starring Gerard Butler (300) and directed by Marc Forster (Monster's Ball, The Kite Runner). Butler plays Sam Childers, a shotgun- and smack-shooting biker who hits rock bottom, gets religion, and travels to Sudan, where he discovers the devil in the form of the Lord's Resistance Army, the nihilistic child-kidnapping guerrilla group. Childers builds an orphanage and rescues kids from the LRA, then arms himself for all-out war on the group. "Hope is the greatest weapon of all," goes the movie's tagline. But judging from the trailer (watch it below), a rocket-propelled grenade will do in a pinch.  

"Hope is the greatest weapon of all": Relativity MediaHope is the greatest weapon of all, but an RPG will do in a pinch Relativity MediaThe Machine Gun Preacher is a familiar Hollywood character: The white Westerner who stumbles into a foreign land, discovers locals in desperate need, and embarks on a mission to kick ass in their name. (For more examples of this trope, from Lawrence of Arabia to Avatar, check out this clever video of Anglos Valiantly Aiding Tragic Awe-inspiring Races.) One reviewer, unimpressed by the movie's predictable righteous-Rambo plot, sneers, "Did you guess that there was a scene where Childers screams to the Heavens as he clutches the legless corpse of a child?"

None of this would really matter if Machine Gun Preacher weren't "based on the inspiring true story of one man's extraordinary journey." That man is a gruff 49-year-old whose arc from hell-raiser to holy warrior pretty much matches his celluloid version's. Since 1998, Sam Childers' orphanage in Nimule, near the Sudan-Uganda border, has provided shelter to more than 1,000 kids. After building the orphanage, his website explains, "Sam began to lead armed missions to rescue children from the LRA. It wasn't long before tales of his exploits spread and villagers began to call him 'The Machine Gun Preacher.'"

Until now, Childers has been largely unknown outside of evangelical circles. The new movie promises to make him a celebrity and fill his charity's coffers. But it's also inviting scrutiny from those who suspect his claims are exaggerated and that his gunfire-and-brimstone tactics, which reportedly include arms trafficking, are a disaster.

"Death hides in the tall grass of South Sudan," opens Childers' 2009 memoir, Another Man's War, the inspiration for Machine Gun Preacher. The book burnishes his hard-charging humanitarian image, though from the start it's clear that Childers has no use for turning the other cheek. "Less talking and more shooting would bring this whole conflict to an end sooner and save who knows how many lives," he writes in the first chapter. Should you find such blood lust un-Christian, Childers adds: "The important thing to remember is that it wasn't me doing all these incredible, even miraculous, things. It was always God." 

The book recounts many miraculous occurrences, such as an episode in which Childers hears that 200 LRA fighters are raiding a village and decides to ambush them with his four Sudanese bodyguards. "I liked those odds. I figured each of us was equal to forty of them," he recalls in pitch-perfect screenwriter-ese. Childers hops into the driver's seat of his truck, AK in hand. "That way I could pick it up and shoot one-handed while driving. Fully automatic, three- and four-shot bursts. I've done it plenty of times." The gamble works, and the LRA fighters (30 of them, it turns out) flee. Childers later shrugs, "I should have died in ambushes a hundred times."

Beyond Childers's book and website, the most detailed picture of his work is in a profile by New York Times reporter Ian Urbina in the April 2010 issue of Vanity Fair. It portrayed Childers as a loose cannon who stockpiles weapons at his orphanage and moonlights as an arm dealer. Childers tells Urbina that he's sold guns to armed groups in Rwanda and Congo. Pressed where he gets his arms, Childers snarls at Urbina, "You ask me another question about the arms dealing, I'm going to throw you out of the car." When Childers comes across a Sudanese man whose baby is in desperate need of medical care, he barks, "I ought to beat you right here, you know that?" Intimidated, the man agrees to let Childers take the child to a clinic. The child lives, but Urbina is left wondering if Childers has ever taken a child from her parents against their will.

While Urbina uncovered no holes in Childers' story, some find parts of it too good to be true. Brett Keller, an international-development blogger, looked closely at Childers' increasingly slick promotional materials and found that his claims of death-defying exploits have multiplied over the past few years. Earlier versions of his charity's website depicted him as a peaceful do-gooder; he now says he's dedicated to hunting down LRA leader Joseph Kony and claims to be an honorary member of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (one glowing profile described him as its "only white commander"). But two different SPLA generals have said Childers has no connection with the group, which is the dominant political faction in the newly formed South Sudan. Even if Childers is actually part of the SPLA, Keller notes that it is hardly squeaky clean: "While better than the LRA, the SPLA also has been known to use child soldiers during the period Childers sold them arms." (Childers has since told Keller that he has never sold weapons to anyone.)  

"Sam and the SPLA on patrol.": MachineGunPreacher.org"Sam and the SPLA on patrol." MachineGunPreacher.orgWhile Keller didn't find solid evidence that Childers is guilty of the kind of fabrication or financial shenanigans ascribed to Three Cups of Tea author Greg Mortenson, he's certain the Machine Gun Preacher is up to no good. "We can choose to believe that Childers' claims are true, in which case he is dangerous, or that they're false and he's untrustworthy," he writes. "The reality is probably that he's a bit of both."

Childers has also been denounced by aid workers—the kind who don't carry submachine guns. The humanitarian-aid blog Tales From the Hood dubbed him a "douchenozzle," explaining that "every time he fires off a few rounds (you know, for the children), he further cements in the minds of insurgent groups around the world that humanitarian workers are also mercenaries." Similarly, an aid worker in South Sudan describes him as "batshit insane" and finds his tales of pursuing the LRA across Sudan's borders "AWESOME. Except by AWESOME, I mean horrifying." She continues: "Don't get me wrong, the LRA is an awful group and Kony is an egotistical maniacal nutjob, but somehow I think that some arrogant American 'leading' the SPLA across borders might cause just a touch of international outrage. Which is why I, like many others, have doubts as to the full truths of his claims."

It's unlikely that any of this criticism will dampen the excitement surrounding Machine Gun Preacher. But it certainly raises the possibility that the action-movie version of Sam Childers' life is a lot more morally and factually tidy than the real thing. Three Clips of Ammo, anyone?

Update: The case against Childers just got some added ammo from an investigation by Christianity Today, which reports that things are going badly at his Sudanese orphanage: "A government inspector in Nimule confirmed this week what community leaders have told CT: Childers is rarely on the premises and many of the children are living in poor conditions, lacking food, medicine, and proper hygiene." Locals who have become disenchanted with Childers also say that he's staged photos of combat and and child-rescue scenarios "to make his story sound more compelling and to attract more donors to his ministry." The whole piece is worth a read.

 

Fight Back Against Corporate Control of Politics

| Fri Sep. 23, 2011 5:00 AM EDT

A few weeks ago marked my third anniversary with Mother Jones. That's 36 months of fact-based liberal wonkery, 156 weeks of Friday catblogging, and, oh, something like 8,000 blog posts or so.

And, of course, 18 issues of the magazine itself. During that time we've broken stories about the Republican plan to redefine rape, the real long-term damage done by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the nighttime raid that killed a sleeping seven-year-old in Detroit, and much more. If you missed any of these stories, you missed some of the best reporting being done in America today.

But all this reporting is expensive, and this week we're trying to raise $75,000 to keep it humming along—and to keep my blog online and free for everyone at the same time. So if you enjoy what I do every day, please show it by donating a few dollars to keep the entire MoJo operation going. Even $5 or $10 makes a difference, and $50 or $100 makes an even bigger difference. Plus, your donation is tax deductible. So please take a minute right now to give via credit card or PayPal.

Thanks to the Citizens United case, corporations and the rich have more influence over the political system than ever. Someone has to fight back, and that's something that I and the rest of the MoJo crew do every day. So please—help us out today.

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for September 23, 2011

Fri Sep. 23, 2011 4:57 AM EDT

A child plays with two flags while soldiers with the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade spend their last moments with their family before leaving to Afghanistan for a year-long deployment in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. US Army photo by Staff Sgt Donna Davis, 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade Public Affairs.