2011 - %3, September

Abu Ghraib on the Allegheny?

| Wed Sep. 28, 2011 4:42 PM EDT

A story out of Pennsylvania reveals the extreme abuse to which some U.S. prisoners are subjected. Yesterday, a suspended prison guard from the State Correctional Institution (SCI)-Pittsburgh was arrested on charges that he sexually or physically assaulted more than 20 inmates–and the district attorney has signaled that there are more arrests to come. As the AP reports:

The 92 criminal charges filed Tuesday include several counts each of institutional sexual assault, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, and official oppression — which amounts to covering up the crimes or allegedly threatening others to do so. The criminal charges mirror allegations contained against [corrections officer Harry] Nicoletti and officials at the state prison in Pittsburgh in two civil rights lawsuits filed by inmates in recent months…

The lawsuits, one filed in 2010 and another on behalf of an anonymous inmate last week, allege the systematic abuse of inmates — especially those convicted of child sex-crimes, or believed to be homosexual —by Nicoletti and other inmates at his direction. The lawsuits say the abuse occurred over the past two years in the prison’s F Block, a reception area where new prisoners are housed for a few days for medical testing and to receive other supplies before they’re moved to permanent cells.

Among other things, Nicoletti is charged with raping inmates, threatening them with other sexual acts, and with having inmates contaminate the food and bedding of his alleged targets with urine and other bodily fluids.

According to the criminal complaint, one of Nicoletti’s victims was a transsexual male who developed female breasts due to hormone treatments. Nicoletti fondled that inmate before raping him, while shouting racial and sexual epithets, including calling him a “weird freaky monkey,” the complaint said.

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Top Pentagon Official Refutes Mullen Statement on Pakistan

| Wed Sep. 28, 2011 4:15 PM EDT
Admiral Mike Mullen meets with Pakistani General Khalid Shameem Wynne in Rawalpindi in April.

It was all a big misunderstanding. At least that's how US military officials are explaining away Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen's assertion that the Haqqani terrorist network operates with the support of Pakistani intelligence. Apparently, Mullen's inflammatory allegations were only "meant to imply broad assistance, but not necessarily direction by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency," the Washington Post reports:

Mullen’s language “overstates the case,” said a senior Pentagon official with access to classified intelligence files on Pakistan, because there is scant evidence of direction or control. If anything, the official said, the intelligence indicates that Pakistan treads a delicate if duplicitous line, providing support to insurgent groups including the Haqqani network but avoiding actions that would provoke a U.S. response.

"The Pakistani government has been dealing with Haqqani for a long time and still sees strategic value in guiding Haqqani and using them for their purposes," the Pentagon official said. But "it’s not in their interest to inflame us in a way that an attack on a [U.S.] compound would do."

U.S. officials stressed that there is broad agreement in the military and intelligence community that the Haqqani network has mounted some of the most audacious attacks of the Afghanistan war, including a 20-hour siege by gunmen this month on the U.S. Embassy compound in Kabul.

A senior aide to Mullen defended the chairman’s testimony, which was designed to prod the Pakistanis to sever ties to the Haqqani group if not contain it by force. “I don’t think the Pakistani reaction was unexpected," said Capt. John Kirby. "The chairman stands by every word of his testimony."

This kinda sorta sounds like the DoD is walking back Mullen's claims. US officials disputing Mullens statement insist that the evidence linking the Haqqani group to the ISI is "open to differences in interpretation."

Given Mullen's stature and prominence, this is a pretty serious slap in the face, and one that ignores a simple historical fact: Pakistan regularly uses extremist groups like the Haqqanis as proxies to secure its influence in Afghanistan. As one senior military official who defended Mullen explained to the Post:

"This is not new," the official said. “Can they control them like a military unit? We don’t think so. Do they encourage them? Yes. Do they provide some finance for them? Yes. Do they provide safe havens? Yes."

Florida GOP Group Shuns Muslim-American

| Wed Sep. 28, 2011 2:19 PM EDT

In a contentious public meeting Monday night, the Broward Republican Executive Committee, a Republican group in Southern Florida, voted to deny Nezar Hamze, a Muslim-American Republican, membership. The group maintains that Hamze's religion had nothing to do with their vote, but group members told reporters that the man's affiliation with an Islamic relations group made members uneasy and could have been the basis for his rejection. 

In early September, conservatives in Broward County, where the committee is based, were outraged after hearing of Hamze's plans to apply to join their ranks. Hamze, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations of South Florida (CAIR), later explained to Salon's Justin Elliott why he applied: "A lot of Muslims I know, their values really line up with the conservative values of the Republican party. I'm a strict social conservative, a fiscal conservative, a very strict constitutionalist. The protection of civil liberties for all Americans is supreme." Furthermore, Hamze told Mother Jones that he wanted to "bring Muslims into the mainstream political process."

Dan Rather Explores the Bee Collapse/Pesticide Connection

| Wed Sep. 28, 2011 1:20 PM EDT

Is a pesticide marketed by Bayer—used on millions of acres of US corn—the factor that's pushing honey bees into steep annual die-offs that have become known as Colony Collapse Disorder?

A ragtag group of commercial beekeepers has gathered an impressive cache of evidence supporting that claim. In series of articles starting December 2010 on Grist, I dug into the evidence and told the story, which features discredited studies used by Bayer to push the pesticide through EPA registration, an alarming study from a USDA scientist, and more.

I fully expected my work to spark stories in larger, more influential mainstream media, which might in turn inspire progressive Congresspeople to get involved, or force the EPA to reconsider.  I mean, we're talking about a pesticide whose range extends to nearly the entire US corn crop, and a species critical to producing about a third of the food we eat. Instead, though, silence. In the 2011 growing season, corn farmers once again planted seed treated with Bayer's suspect bug killers, with nary a peep from Congress or The New York Times, Washington Post, etc.

Well, now, a mainstream-media legend has taken note and filed an excellent report on the topic. Trouble is, Dan Rather isn't of the mainstream media anymore; he now plies his trade on the upstart network HDnet (still winning Emmy's though!). As the below segment will show, Rather's reportorial chops remain intact. I hope other journalists take note—the bee collapse/pesticide story is one that needs to be heard and debated. The bee section of Rather's show ends at about the 27-minute mark. (Hat tip to the ever-excellent Pesticide Action Network.)

Bee Aware from Greg Stanley on Vimeo.

 

The Alan Simpson For President Movement Comes of Age (Video)

| Wed Sep. 28, 2011 11:34 AM EDT

When we last heard from Alan Simpson, the former Wyoming Senator and GOP co-chair of the Simpson-Bowles Debt Commission was railing against today's disrespectful youths, "walking on their pants with their caps on backwards listening to the Enema Man and Snoopy Snoopy Poop Dog." All of which make the calls for him to run for president as inevitable as they are inexplicable.

It began over the summer, when New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman said at the Aspen Ideas Festival that "If Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles want to run as president and vice president, I will vote for them." Former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer reprised the idea in an interview with Simpson on CNN a few days later. For folks like Friedman, who pride themselves on the boldness of their ideas in the face of a crippling status quo (accurate or not), Simpson is a tantalizing choice.

And now, with Republicans still freaking out about their choices for President and Friedman still pining for some sort of third-party savior capable of making tough choices and magically transcending checks and balances, the calls for a Simpson candidacy have picked up again (even though he's not running). It's not a Chris Christie-sized surge, but it’s loud enough that, for instance, Fox News’ Neil Cavuto is hosting a segment on Simpson’s presidential prospects tonight. Then there's this website, which produced the following mix tape:

Simpson is a pro-choice Republican who opposed Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and doesn't actually seem to understand how Social Security works—despite making it a signature issue. He is also, reportedly, old. But maybe this is his year.

Why Did Christie Hit Perry On Immigration?

| Wed Sep. 28, 2011 9:04 AM EDT

For some time now Republican elites have been hoping New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will enter the GOP presidential race and save the party from a lackluster presidential field. On Tuesday, Christie gave a speech reiterating that he isn't running—but he also took a strangely aggressive swipe at Texas Gov. Rick Perry for signing a law that granted in-state tuition to undocumented students brought to the US as children, saying that opposing the law wasn't "a heartless position... That is a common sense position." (Perry had suggested in the last GOP debate that people who didn't support the law "don't have a heart.")

Why is this strangely aggressive? Because Christie hasn't exactly been a border hawk up till now. Last year he called on Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform, saying that lawmakers have to "step up to the plate, they have to secure our borders, and they have to put forward a commonsense path to citizenship for people." Immigration restrictionists view any support for "comprehensive reform," which includes a path to citizenship as an admission we won't be deporting every undocumented person in the country, which for them is unacceptable.

As Dan Amira pointed out yesterday, Christie also understands the difference between being in the country illegally and entering the country illegally, the former being a civil violation and the latter a felony. The distinction, which immigration hawks don't recognize because they think of all undocumented immigrants as hardcore criminals, is usually used by people who think the US should be focused on deporting unauthorized immigrants who pose an actual threat to public safety. That's why as US Attorney Christie said, "If there are people out there committing crimes, they should be dealt with," but that "[b]eing in this country without proper documentation is not a crime."

Likewise, he hasn't exactly jumped on the Arizona bandwagon, telling Politico's Maggie Haberman and Ben Smith last July that immigration was a federal problem and that restrictive state immigration laws aren't the answer. "I'm not really comfortable with state law enforcement having a big role," he noted. He also reiterated his support for a "path to legalization"—this translates to "amnesty" in GOP-base-speak.

Christie's advantage is that, unlike Perry, he doesn't have any actual policies to apologize for just statements hinting at a moderate immigration stance. Reversing yourself on past remarks isn't as hard as explaining away something you've signed your name to. So if Christie does choose to run and tack to Perry's right on immigration (Romney's strategy of late), he'll probably have a much easier time than Perry has. The question is whether his new hard line on immigration means getting serious about running for president—or just teasing the GOPers desperate to see him enter the race. 

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Housekeeping Note

| Wed Sep. 28, 2011 8:14 AM EDT

I'll be in San Francisco for the next three days at a MoJo staff meeting, so blogging will be light. Maybe even nonexistent. It all depends on my mood, my schedule, and the vagaries of WiFi availability. Catblogging, however, will appear normally, though it will be reduced by 50%. I'll be back this weekend, and normal blogging will resume on Monday. 

Americans Dislike the Tea Party More Than Ever Before

| Wed Sep. 28, 2011 5:36 AM EDT

It's hard out there for a tea partier.

The upstart conservative movement was all the rage in the summer of 2009, and channeled that energy into a wave of victories in the 2010 midterm elections, sending dozens of hard-line, intransigent Republicans to Congress. However, a new CNN/ORC poll (PDF) out Tuesday shows that the pendulum of public opinion has swung away from the tea party.

Just 28 percent of Americans hold favorable views of the tea party, an all-time low in the 19 months that CNN/ORC pollsters have gauged Americans' feelings about the movement. At the same time, 53 percent of Americans think poorly of the tea party, an all-time high. According to CNN/ORC, the movement's popularity peaked in the spring of 2010, when 38 percent of Americans said they liked the tea party and only 36 percent said they didn't.

CNN's polls aren't the only ones to pick up a decline in support for the tea party. In a pair of Pew Research Center polls conducted in February 2010 and August 2011, disapproval of the tea party jumped from 18 percentage points; the percentage of those who said they liked the movement increased from 33 to 36 percent. Washington Post-ABC and Wall Street Journal-NBC polls also found declining support for the tea party from 2009 to 2010.

More interesting tidbits from the new CNN/ORC poll: Hillary Clinton remains one of the most popular public figures in American politics, with a 69 percent favorable rating and a 26 just unfavorable rating. She beats out Vice President Joe Biden (42-41), First Lady Michelle Obama (65-28), House Speaker John Boehner (37-39), and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (23-33).

Film Review: American Teacher

| Wed Sep. 28, 2011 5:30 AM EDT

American Teacher

THE TEACHER SALARY PROJECT

81 minutes

When Rhena Jasey decided to become a public-school teacher, her friends were appalled: "You went to Harvard!" she recalls them saying. "You should be a doctor or a lawyer." Jasey is one of four teachers profiled by director Vanessa Roth and coproducers Dave Eggers and Nínive Calegari as they address the hottest question in education reform: how to attract and retain great teachers? That, education experts agree, is the single most effective thing a school can do to boost student achievement. Real wages for teachers, the filmmakers argue, have been in a 30-year decline. One subject, a history teacher and coach, makes just $54,000 after 15 years on the job. He supplements that by driving a forklift—indeed, the film reports that 31 percent of US teachers take second jobs to get by. But instead of support, they get the blame for lackluster test scores. With more than half of the nation's 3.2 million public pedagogues coming up for retirement in the next decade, American Teacher succeeds in reframing education's abstract ideological battles in terms of kitchen-table realities.

Even Organic Strawberries Are Grown With Toxic Fumigants

| Wed Sep. 28, 2011 5:00 AM EDT

Conventionally grown strawberries are hard orbs, bred to endure long-haul travel and leisurely stints on supermarket shelves, not to taste good.

Aesthetics aside, their real scandal is chemical. It takes a lot of pesticides to keep them healthy and growing in vast monocrops, including some of the very most toxic ones available in the US: fumigants that sterilize the soil and imperil farm workers.

For years, I've been urging consumers to denounce the use of such poisons by buying only organic strawberries. But it turns out, in California at least, most organic strawberries have a dirty secret: they come from plants that spend time on nurseries that use "millions of pounds of toxic chemicals," including methyl bromide, before being transplanted to organically managed fields, The New York Times reports.

To be clear, dramatically fewer toxic chemicals are used in the production of organic strawberries, because such poisons are banned in the fields where the fruit is actually grown. But to me and no doubt to many others, the fact that they're used at all is jarring news.

The Times points to a letter signed by three California organic farmers and the Pesticide Action Network urging the USDA's National Organic Program to clarify rules around organic seed and plant stock. Organic code stipulates that farmers must use organically produced seeds and plants whenever they are "commercially available," meaning they can resort to non-organic ones otherwise. Consumers have shown they want an alternative to fumigant-grown strawberries. It's time for the USDA to step up.

According to the Times, the state doesn't have a single organic berry nursery—hence the the practice of relying on plants that grew on fumigant-using nurseries.

But here's the kicker: From 2005 to 2009, the Times reports, the state did have a commercial-scale organic nursery, run by farmer James Rickert of Prather Ranch, one of the letter's signees. But Rickert's plant-starting operation languished and went out of business because farmers were wary of paying a premium for organically grown plants that they feared they might carry disease, Rickert told the Times:

"The reality is that a lot of the organic growers want nothing to do with organic plants" because it scares them, said Mr. Rickert, who has since gone back to herding organically fed cattle at his ranch in Butte Valley. Indeed, for many organic strawberry growers, using organic stock amounts to taking a big financial risk with little chance of reward.

But the problem evidently wasn't the quality of Rickert's products or some inherent difficulty in raising strawberry plants organically. Indeed, pioneering California organic strawberry grower Jim Cochran of Swanton Berry Farm (briefly profiled on Mother Jones here), who also signed the letter, used  Rickerts' plants extensively and found them "always of excellent quality," he told the Times.

The problem was that lax enforcement of the "commercially available" rule, combined with the risk-averse nature of most farmers, allowed most organic farmers to avoid trying Rickert's products. As the whistle-blowing farmers' letter to the USDA puts it, "Without clear enforcement we fail to create the marketplace for new technologies, especially alternatives to chemical fumigation."

If the USDA had enforced the rule in the first place, Rickert's business would likely have succeeded—and drawn more organic nurseries into the market. And Rickert himself told Pesticide Action Network that he would "jump-start" his nursery business as soon as the USDA shows it's serious about enforcement.