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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The "Stand-Up Economist" on the Federal Budget

| Fri Jul. 15, 2011 2:16 PM EDT

I've previously posted the work of Yoram Bauman (no relation), "the world's first stand-up economist." Anyway, here's a new video about the federal budget:

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Breaking: Breathing In Misty, Mushed-Up Pig Brains Is Bad for Your Health

| Mon Jun. 27, 2011 2:05 PM EDT

Hormel, the company that makes SPAM, has outsourced the difficult work of pig slaughtering to Quality Pork Processors (QPP), an affilliated company. Since Hormel likes to use every part of the animal, some of the people at QPP have jobs that revolve around turning pig brains into a pink slurry that somewhat resembles a strawberry milkshake in appearance. (Yum!) From reading Ted Genoways' fascinating, sad story on QPP and Hormel in the latest issue of the magazine, I can tell you the workers do this by inserting a nozzle into the pig skull's brain cavity and firing away with a burst of compressed air. I'll let Genoways take it from here:

The line had been set at 900 heads per hour when the brain harvesting first began in 1996—meaning that the rate had increased a full 50 percent over the decade, whereas the number of workers had hardly risen...Second, to match the pace, the company switched from a foot-operated trigger to an automatic system tripped by inserting the nozzle into the brain cavity, but sometimes the blower would misfire and spatter. Complaints about this had led to the installation of the plexiglass shield between the worker manning the brain machine and the rest of the head table. Third, the increased speed had caused pig heads to pile up at the opening in the shield. At some point in late 2006, the jammed skulls, pressed forward by the conveyor belt, had actually cracked the plastic, allowing more [brain slurry] mist to drift over the head table. Pablo Ruiz, the process-control auditor, had attempted to patch the fracture with plastic bags.

As you might imagine, breathing in pig brain slurry mist is probably not great for your health, and some of the workers at the QPP factory developed a mysterious nerve ailment. Most of them, as you can see from this chart, worked near the brain-harvesting operation:

pig brains operation at qpp

Some of the workers who got sick were undocumented immigrants working with fake papers, because, I assume, "manufacturing pig-brain slurry" is one of those "jobs that Americans don't want" you always hear about. I don't want to ruin the ending, but you can probably guess that being an undocumented immigrant is not an advantage when you're trying to get your employer to compensate you for the health problems you developed while working in the brain-harvesting factory.

Genoways has written a great story chock full of really impressive investigative reporting. You should really read the whole piece. You can also support more of this kind of reporting in Mother Jones by sharing Genoways' piece on Facebook and Twitter (free), signing up for our emails (free), subscribing (cheap!), or making a tax-deductible donation. Thanks.

Kevin is on vacation this week. Andy Kroll and I are filling in for him.

The New Civil Liberties Fight

| Fri Jun. 24, 2011 5:30 AM EDT
Gulet Mohamed, a 19-year-old Virginian, behind bars in a Kuwaiti deportation facility. His family and lawyer allege that he was detained and beaten at the behest of the United States government—a charge the government denies.

Kevin is on vacation this week, so Andy Kroll and I will be filling in.

During the Bush years, America's chattering classes were engaged in a grand argument: should the people we had captured in the war on terror be handled by the courts, or by some other process? Civil libertarians argued that terrorist suspects who were not US citizens should have meaningful access to trials in federal courts.

Civil libertarians have lost that argument. The defeat is total: in the White House, on Capitol Hill, in the courts, and, crucially, in the court of public opinion. Indefinite detention of non-citizen terrorist suspects without charge or trial remains the official policy of the United States, and none of the most infamous non-citizen terrorist suspects will be tried in federal court.

President Barack Obama's administration hasn't added any new prisoners to Guantanamo, but as things stand, it's only a matter of time before that happens. Eventually, there will be another Republican president, and the GOP's position is clear: Mitch McConnell, the party's leader in the Senate, took to the Washington Post op-ed page on Tuesday to call for two Iraqi nationals captured in his home state of Kentucky to be transferred to Gitmo. "Guantanamo is the place to try terrorists," the headline blared.

Some liberals defend the Obama administration's record on civil liberties by arguing that standing up for the rights of terrorist suspects would be political poison for the White House. Perhaps they're right. But it would be foolish to assume that the battle lines on this issue are static, or that hardliners see a bright line between how we should treat non-citizen terrorist suspects and how we should treat terrorist suspects who are American citizens.

The Joe Liebermans of the world see no such bright line. If we as a society have decided that non-citizen terrorist suspects shouldn't have the right to a real trial before we lock them away indefinitely, it's only a short leap to the idea that all terrorist suspects should have fewer rights.

Why shouldn't we be consistent? Why are non-citizen terrorist suspects captured abroad "unprivileged belligerents" while those captured in the US are simply criminals? Why are American-born terrorists criminals and not unprivileged belligerents? Does the difference between committing a crime and being illegally at war with the United States really just depend on where you are captured or where you are born? The Obama administration does not have compelling answers to these questions. Its compromises and cave-ins on civil liberties have left its counterterrorism policy an inconsistent mishmash of Miranda warnings for foreigners and proxy detention and Hellfire missiles for Americans.

But forget foreigners—they're screwed. The rights of US citizens are at the heart of today's fight over civil liberties in the war on terror. And, not coincidentally, the rights of US citizens suspected of terrorism are on retreat on a whole host of fronts.

The family of Anwar al-Awlaki, a US citizen who is reportedly on a list of people the military is authorized to kill without charge or trial, lost their court case to force the government to explain why it believes it has the legal right to order his death. Young Muslim American men travel overseas only to discover that they're on the no-fly list when they try to return—and that they can't go home unless they answer the FBI's questions. Americans with dark skin tones and "suspicious" names find US-government-owned GPS devices on their cars. The PATRIOT Act gets renewed while everyone is busy talking about how great it is that the SEALS killed Osama bin Laden. And senior members of Congress call for US citizens suspected of terrorism to be stripped of their citizenship and sent to—where else—Guantanamo.

The rights of all people accused of terrorism have been dramatically rolled back over the past ten years. So don't expect that American citizenship will protect you when the government decides that you might be a terrorist, too.

Yemen Is Not A Good Place To Imprison Terrorist Suspects

| Thu Jun. 23, 2011 11:56 PM EDT

Kevin is on vacation this week, so Andy Kroll and I are filling in a bit.

The Washington Post reports on a massive jailbreak of Islamic militants from one of Yemen's largest prisons:

Among the escapees Wednesday were members of an al-Qaeda cell that has killed foreign tourists and tried to attack the U.S. Embassy in Yemen and other Western targets, according to Yemeni officials. [Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] was behind the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound commercial flight on Christmas Day 2009 and the mailing of bombs on cargo planes destined for the United States....

...The prison break Wednesday, though far from the first in Yemen, came at a moment of political crisis in the country and seemed likely to heighten fears among U.S. counterterrorism officials that AQAP is gathering strength as the authority of the central government weakens.

Even in the best of times, Yemen was not a great place to imprison radical Islamists. The prisons there have always been leaky at best, and the central government's authority didn't extend very far past the capital. Now the country is even more wracked by chaos and intranational violence than usual, and AQAP has scored some successes—the latest being this prison break. The Obama administration has apparently decided, in the wake of the Christmas Day and cargo bomb attacks, that this is a threat worthy of a semi-secret drone war but not, well, an "actual" war.

In a "real" war, we'd go in and detain these guys ourselves, rather than relying on incompetent and potentially backstabbing proxies. That doesn't, thankfully, seem to be on the table right now. (I don't think America can afford another land war in Asia.) But the war on terror does produce some odd paradoxes. In today's world, it's easier, politically and legally, for America to vaporize a foreigner it suspects of terrorism than it is to keep that person in prison. That's pretty weird.

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