Nick Baumann

Nick Baumann

Senior Editor

Nick is based in our DC bureau, where he covers national politics and civil liberties issues. Nick has also written for The Economist, The Atlantic, The Washington Monthly, and Commonweal. Email tips and insights to nbaumann [at] motherjones [dot] com. You can also follow him on Facebook.

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One Amusing Tidbit from the CIA Rendition Lawsuit Documents

| Fri Sep. 2, 2011 11:02 AM EDT

The Washington Post, the Associated Press, and the Guardian reported Thursday on a court fight between two firms involved in the Central Intelligence Agency's extraordinary rendition program. These sorts of billing disputes between CIA contractors happen occasionally, but they don't normally make it far enough to reveal anything—usually, the government steps in and invokes the state secrets privilege and the case gets thrown out of court. But this time, someone messed up, and the case went forward, leading to the creation of hundreds of pages of almost entirely unredacted records that touch on many previously unrevealed aspects of the CIA program. (The international human rights group Reprieve first discovered the documents.)

The two firms involved in the court battle are Richmor Aviation, a New York-based company that operated charter planes, and Sportsflight Air, which served as a middleman between charter firms like Richmor and companies that needed planes—in this case, the government contracting giant DynCorp.

The plane that Richmor provided to SportsFlight, with the tail number N85VM, was just one of many used in the extraordinary rendition program. But N85VM, which was owned by Boston Red Sox co-owner Phillip Morse, was particularly notorious not only for being owned by Morse but also for being used in the case of Abu Omar, an Italian imam whose bungled 2005 rendition Peter Bergen covered for Mother Jones. (Afterward, the Italian judiciary sought to prosecute the CIA agents involved in the rendition. I interviewed Steve Hendricks, who wrote a book on the affair, last year.) The Post and the AP stories both note that the Richmor-Sportsflight records show N85VM traveling all over the world, with stops not just in Guantanamo Bay, but also in foreign countries famous for hosting secret CIA prisons or torturing prisoners on America's behalf.

The Associated Press uncovered one particularly interesting tidbit in the court records. When Richmor flew to foreign countries under the Sportsflight-Dyncorp contract, its pilots and crew were provided with letters from a State Department official, Terry A. Hogan, that said the flights entailed "global support for U.S. embassies worldwide." There's just one problem: Hogan doesn't appear to be a real person:

The AP could not locate Hogan. No official with that name is currently listed in State's department-wide directory. A comprehensive 2004 State Department telephone directory contains no reference to Hogan, or variations of that name — despite records of four separate transit letters signed by Terry A. Hogan in January, March and April 2004. Several of the signatures on the diplomatic letters under Hogan's name were noticeably different.

Lawrence Wilkerson, who was chief of staff for Secretary of State Colin Powell from 2001 to 2005 during the Bush administration, said he was not familiar with the Hogan letters and had not been aware of any direct State Department involvement in the CIA's rendition program. Wilkerson said the multiple signatures would have raised questions about the documents' authenticity.

This makes a lot of sense. The CIA is never especially eager to let other government agencies—especially the State Department—in on its most secret activities. So as ProPublica's Eric Umansky (a Mother Jones alum) notes, it's possible these documents were forged. (State declined to comment to ProPublica or the AP on the matter.)

There's some (darkly) funny stuff in the court documents, which are mostly incredibly banal. (I obtained copies of them yesterday.) When Richmor's president, Mahlon Richards, tells the judge, Paul Czaka, that Morse owned the plane used for the rendition flights, Czaka (presumably a Yankees fan) says, "I guess that concludes the case as far as you're concerned. We can go home now—or I should say, get the heck out of my courtroom."

But my favorite bit of the trial comes when William Ryan, one of the attorneys for Richmor, is questioning Richards, the firm's president. Throughout the case, all parties were fairly careful about describing exactly what Richmor was doing for SportsFlight (and for DynCorp, and ultimately for the government), referring to the passengers as "government personnel and their invitees." This bit of the trial centers around whether Richmor's ultimate client, the government, was happy with Richmor's performance. Some confusion ensues:

No, I imagine the government's "invitees" would not appreciate the service that Richmor was providing.

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A Venn Diagram for Rick Perry: Social Security Is Not a Ponzi Scheme

| Mon Aug. 29, 2011 4:30 PM EDT

On Saturday, Texas Gov. Rick Perry told a group of voters that Social Security is a "Ponzi scheme" and a "monstrous lie" to younger Americans. It's not the first time the GOP presidential candidate has made such claims. The Texas governor also described Social Security as a Ponzi scheme in his 2010 book, "Fed Up!," and has argued the program is unconstitutional and could be handed over to the states.

When politicians make clearly false claims, reporters have an obligation to explain to readers why those claims are false—or at least quote someone who can. I would suggest political scientist Jonathan Bernstein:

Very simple: anyone who says that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme either misunderstands Social Security, misunderstands Ponzi schemes, is deliberately lying, or some combination of those...After all, a Ponzi scheme is a deliberate fraud. Saying that Social Security is financed like a Ponzi scheme is factually wrong, but saying that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme or is like a Ponzi scheme is basically a false accusation of fraud against the US government and the politicians who have supported Social Security over the years.

Andrew Sullivan's readers also have a number of good reasons why Social Security is not a Ponzi scheme. The Social Security Administration also has a good web page explaining why Social Security is not a Ponzi scheme. But I find that charts often make understanding things easier, so here's a Venn diagram I made that explains some of the differences and similarities between Social Security and a Ponzi scheme:

social security ponzi scheme venn diagram

Book Review: A Dance With Dragons

| Sat Aug. 6, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

a dance with dragonsA Dance With Dragons (Book Five of "A Song of Ice and Fire")

By George R.R. Martin


At 62, novelist and former Hollywood screenwriter George R.R. Martin is more famous than he's ever been. "A Song of Ice and Fire," his epic fantasy series, just finished its first season as an HBO television show, and his latest book, a 1,040-page tome called A Dance With Dragons, recently hit No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list. The HBO show, dubbed Game of Thrones after the first book in the series, has been a commercial success, spurring sales of all five novels. Martin has been praised as the American J.R.R. Tolkien and profiled in The New Yorker, and HBO has vowed to continue making Game of Thrones "as long as [Martin] keeps writing."

Martin is popular because his books are "fantasy for people who hate fantasy," or "The Wire in Middle Earth,"  as some reviewers have explained. Fair enough: Martin's descriptions are rich, his plotting detailed, and his writing engrossing. I'm a fan—I've read all of the books several times, and even the most flawed bits of the series (and A Dance With Dragons may be the most flawed) leave you desperately wanting to know what happens next.

But all is not well in Westeros. A Dance With Dragons is the fifth of at least seven books. At this point in the narrative, readers have been following the action in Martin's magical, medieval world for years. The number of named characters has risen into the hundreds, the series is laboring under its own weight, and Martin's most pedantic critics are beginning to negatively affect his work.

What's Happening With the Debt Ceiling Explained

| Tue Aug. 2, 2011 8:45 PM EDT
President Barack Obama signs the Budget Control Act of 2011.

Welcome to our debt ceiling explainer. As of August 3, this explainer is no longer being updated on a daily basis. You can read on for the basics of Congress' debt ceiling fight and a blow-by-blow account of the action from late June to the day President Obama signed the Budget Control Act of 2011 into law, on August 2. In addition, you can read about the deep, painful cuts to public investment and safety exacted by the bill, Kevin Drum on why the bill sucks, David Corn on the White House's strategy and Nancy Pelosi's crucial role in sealing the deal, and why this fight was just one of many to come. Going forward, major developments will be noted on our main Political Mojo blog.

The Basics: On August 2 (or maybe a few weeks later), the US government will reach the point where it can no longer pay its bills. That's because, earlier this spring, the federal government reached the legal limit on how much money it can borrow—a.k.a., the "debt ceiling." It's currently set at $14.3 trillion. The government borrows money to pay for everything from tax refunds to wars and veterans' benefits, not to mention repaying our creditors, which include China, Japan, the United Kingdom, state and local governments, pension funds, and investors in America and around the world.

A debt ceiling has existed since 1917. Before that, Congress had to provide its stamp of approval each time the Treasury Department wanted to sell US debt to raise money. (Here's a wonky history of the debt ceiling [PDF], courtesy of the Congressional Research Service.) Putting a borrowing limit in place gave the federal government more flexibility to fill its coffers without going to Congress over and over. Lawmakers in Congress have raised the debt ceiling on many occasions, including eight times in the past decade, and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner has said that failing to raise it and allowing the US default "would shake the basic foundation of the entire global financial system."

What Happens If Congress Doesn't Raise the Debt Limit? In a word: Catastrophe.

At least that's what Geithner told Congress in January. In an ominous letter, he wrote that a US default would wreak havoc on the domestic economy and essentially result in a hefty tax on all Americans.

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