2007 - %3, January

Military Contractors Lose Their "Get Out of Jail" Card

| Thu Jan. 4, 2007 3:25 PM EST

Five years into the war on terror, American military contractors have finally lost some of their immunity from prosecution for dirty deeds done on the federal dime. In a post over on DefenseTech, the Brookings Institution's Peter Singer reports on a quiet insertion into the 2007 Pentagon budget that means "contractors' 'get out of jail free' card may have been torn to shreds." Basically, contractors are now subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which means they can be court martialed:

This means that if contractors violate the rules of engagement in a warzone or commit crimes during a contingency operation like Iraq, they can now be court-martialed (as in, Corporate Warriors, meet A Few Good Men). On face value, this appears to be a step forward for realistic accountability. Military contractor conduct can now be checked by the military investigation and court system, which unlike civilian courts, is actually ready and able both to understand the peculiarities of life and work in a warzone and kick into action when things go wrong.

The scope of new law is not entirely clear; it may include embedded journalists, too. (Not that they go around playing soldier—Judy Miller aside.) But overall, says Singer, this move brings a bit of much-needed oversight to a largely unregulated industry. "Last month," he writes , "DOJ reported to Congress that it has sat on over 20 investigations of suspected contractor crimes without action in the last year." Sounds like a good place to begin.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Fed Agency Votes No-Confidence on Voting Machine Inspection Process

| Thu Jan. 4, 2007 2:32 PM EST

just_try_voting_here120.gif

Why are we still using electronic voting machines?

The true outcome of one election is already lost in the bowels of a computer somewhere, to which the once and future candidate, Christine Jennings, has been denied access. Even if electronic voting machines work fine, popular concern that they don't introduces unnecessary uncertainty into the electoral process. Uncertainty that will likely grow after today's revelation in the New York Times that the company charged with inspecting the lion's share of voting machines, Ciber, Inc., has been barred from future inspections. Ciber Inc. cannot document that it conducted all of the required tests, and its quality-control practices are also in question. The federal Election Assistance Commission barred Ciber Inc. from conducting any further inspections this summer, but has only recently disclosed its actions. Many machines already in use were inspected by Ciber Inc., making the Commission's reasons for waiting until after the elections to reveal the problem fairly transparent.

Would that voting were equally transparent.

Nowhere To Run To

| Thu Jan. 4, 2007 2:14 PM EST

I wrote last month that some are warning the Iraqi refugee crisis could be the globe's most dire yet. The sheer number of Iraqis displaced by the war in the last 3 years -- 3.1 million -- are enough to make groups like Refugees International and Human Rights Watch take notice and demand UN and U.S. action. 1.8 million have fled their country and the remaining are displaced within Iraq's borders.

But although the crisis demands attention, the complexity of it begs the question as to whether it will only get worse. Saddam's recent execution, the handling cheered by some and reviled by others, was protested in Jordan, one of the only two countries which accepted Iraq's citizens following the U.S.-led invasion. Some think the execution was a sectarian lynching, an aggression carried out by fundamentalist Shi'ites of the Mehdi Army. Jordan already essentially closed its borders in 2005 after the hotel bombing in Amman and the treatment of refugees in this country has been on a steady decline. Iraqi refugees are now treated as temporary visitors, but attaining a visa is almost impossible, so many are deported. Others remain living in hiding within the country and some face refusal at the border.

Will the backlash from Saddam's execution make matters even worse, especially for Shi'ite refugees? Shi'ites already face the most difficult time in both Jordan and Syria (the only Middle Eastern country that still accepts refugees). What if Shi'ite refugees, those already inside Jordan and those who are fleeing due to the ever-increasing violence, are greeted with even more discrimination?

Their options are limited and waning further. The Bush administration has shown no sign that it will increase the number of Iraqi refugees allowed entry into the U.S. from the current number of 500 to the allowed 20,000 (which wouldn't come close to the tens of thousands of refugees who have shown interest in migrating to the U.S.). And even if the administration loosens its restrictions, who will be granted the privilege -- Shi'ites? Very doubtful.

Saddam's Execution: You Call that Justice?

| Thu Jan. 4, 2007 12:33 PM EST

With all the tough talk from Congressional Democrats about the myriad investigations they are set to launch, their first order of business should be to look into just how and why the U.S. turned over its most important P.O.W., Saddam Hussein, to a death squad for barbaric execution.

Here is how Juan Cole, the respected Middle East scholar, described the situation this morning:

A Ministry of Interior official admitted to Reuters on Wednesday that Saddam's execution was carried out by militiamen rather than by IM security guards, as planned. It is alleged that militiamen infiltrated the guards. That is, the earlier Sunni charges that Saddam was handed over to the Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr for execution were more or less correct….

Even the noose that hanged Saddam has ended up in the possession of Muqtada al-Sadr. A Kuwaiti businessman is trying to buy it as a memento. Saddam killed Muqtada's father and also invaded Kuwait.

People will say, of course, that this was just another internal Iraqi matter over which the U.S. had no say. Nobody believes that. Saddam was a U.S. prisoner, sentenced to death, who was turned over by U.S. authorities to a paramilitary death squad. The White House, for its part, calls this justice.

There is a theory, needless to say, that the execution was all part of some Byzantine deal whereby al-Sadr, after getting off abusing Saddam at the execution, will now act as an intermediary with the Sunnis to end the civil war. Meanwhile, al-Sadr's militiamen may get another chance to mock two more Iraqi prisoners. Next in line for the gallows are Saddam Hussein's half-brother Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti and former chief judge Awad al-Bandar.

Honeymoon Poll Shows Support for New Congress

| Thu Jan. 4, 2007 12:02 PM EST

As Nancy Pelosi is sworn in and a new Congress takes the reigns it's worth noting that on three major issues Dems are set to tackle early on -- minimum wage, stem cell research and prescription drugs -- the majority of Americans, including lots of Republicans, are behind them, for now.

An Associated Press-AOL poll released yesterday finds that Congress' early goals have widespread appeal:

Nearly six in 10 U.S. adults support easing restrictions on federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research. Democratic congressional leaders this month plan to approve a bill similar to the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act. Dems are also poised to boost the federal minimum wage, which has wallowed at $5.15/hr for a full decade, and 80% of survey respondents, including 65% of Republicans, support the increase.

On the prescription drug front, where Congress will look to facilitate the purchase of more affordable drugs from other countries, seven in 10 Americans favor the government taking such steps.

Poll takers took the most pause when asked about their view of Pelosi as a leader. While equal parts, 22% each, view her favorably and non-favorably, more than half of Americans, 55%, say they just don't know enough about her yet. Surely, as her leadership begins this hour, her actions to come will vault this majority into one camp or the other.

Nancy, show us what you've got.

Whistleblowers Get Their Own Wikipedia

| Thu Jan. 4, 2007 11:46 AM EST

wikileaks.gif

This could be cool. A new site, Wikileaks, is setting up an open-source, online repository for leaked information. Using a wiki interface, it will allow anonymous whistleblowers to upload confidential info—but unlike Wikipedia, unhappy bosses and government agencies won't be able to edit or delete the entries. The site already claims to have received 1.1 million documents and plans "to numerically eclipse the content the English Wikipedia with leaked documents." Sounds like a potentially great source for activists and journalists. Not everyone is excited, though. Steven Aftergood of Secrecy News, who often passes on leaked or declassified documents from the U.S. government, writes: "In the absence of accountable editorial oversight, publication can more easily become an act of aggression or an incitement to violence, not to mention an invasion of privacy or an offense against good taste." Which gets to the heart of the wiki issue—unfettered authorship versus the demands of accuracy. Let's see what happens here.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

El Nino + Emissions = Our Toastiest Year Yet

| Thu Jan. 4, 2007 9:04 AM EST

Today the U.K's weather forecasting division (why can't we have one of those?) released its projection that the one-two punch of El Niño and global warming could net the world's warmest ever year on record.

Each January the Met Office issues a global forecast, which takes into account solar effects, El Niño, greenhouse gases concentrations and other multi-decadal influences. Over the previous seven years the annual global temperature forecasts have been right on, with a tiny error mean of just 0.06 °C.

This year the data says there's a 60 percent chance that 2007 will be hotter than 1998, the current warmest year. The main factor behind the prediction is the onset last year of El Niño, a warming of the eastern Pacific's equatorial waters that occurs every two to seven years.

Worldwide, the 10 warmest years since 1850 have all occurred in the past 12 years. And with every year of rising temperatures we are seeing species and ecosystems altered beyond their tipping points, with everything from jellyfish to African storks feeling the burn.

In 1998, global temperatures were 0.52 degrees above the long-term average, and this year, the Met Office's central forecast is for them to be 0.54 degrees above the mean. The forecast explains that while the current El Niño effect -- warming parts of the Pacific by between 1 and 3 degrees -- isn't as strong as the 1997-1998 pattern when the ocean warmed in parts by as much as 4 degrees, the signifincantly greater volume of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is likely to make 2007 warmer still than 1998.

Later this year the U.N.-created Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will publish its fourth assessment on changing weather patterns (and the first since 2001). The report will synthesize data and predictions from thousands of climate scientists from around the world, and offer critical information on climate change. We'll see if President Bush finds it's important enough to actually read.

Where free speech ends and threats begin

| Wed Jan. 3, 2007 9:40 PM EST

Even the most enthusiastic supporter of free speech understands why you cannot--to use a worn-out, but still good example--shout "fire!" in a crowded theater. Our courts and our law enforcement agencies have long disagreed on when a threat is dangerous and when it is "just a threat." Until we had stalker laws, many citizens were told that nothing could be done about the people who threatened them, and in some communities, stalker laws are still ignored by law enforcement.

People who have used the Internet to make threats against others have also found that their threats are often protected by First Amendment principles. Reasonable people can disagree over the First Amendment, but surely there are some circumstances in which threats can be seen as nothing but dangerous.

It seems to me (and actually, I am one of those people who believes we should take all threats seriously) that most people would take seriously a threat that is both significant in meaning and specific in content. If it were repeated over time, that would, I believe, make it even more potent. Which brings me to radio host Hal Turner, who is already well known for his verbal attacks and threats on African Americans, Jews and illegal immigrants.

Prior to the November elections, Turner stated that he might have to assassinate some members of Congress if the "wrong" people were elected. He recently posted on his website the following:


ANY MEMBER OF CONGRESS WHO INTRODUCES, CO-SPONSORS OR VOTES IN FAVOR OF ANY SUCH AMNESTY [for illegal immigrants] WILL BE DECLARED A DOMESTIC ENEMY AND WILL BE CONSIDERED A LEGITIMATE TARGET FOR ASSASSINATION

Turner is also running this disclaimer on his website: "Due to recent Denial of Service Attacks and Bandwidth Leeching Fraud, most of the content on this site was intentionally removed by Hal Turner."

The radio host says that by stating that we (whoever "we" are) "may" have to kill the Congresspeople, he is just commenting, as opposed to advocating (saying we "will" have to kill them). The first, he says, is an opinion, and the second is a threat. But this is what Turner said on the air recently:

This seems to be "it," folks. I'm going to do what I have to do to protect my nation from its government. I know where all of my New Jersey Congressmen and Senators live. Do you know where yours live? If not, you better find out before January so you can scope out their neighborhoods and prepare yourselves.
Those of you who, for years, have said you're "gonna do this" or "gonna do that" when the time comes; are about to face ugly reality. In January, "the time" will come. In January the entire world will find out if you're real or just a bigmouth coward.
If Turner can construe that as "commentary" rather than "threat," I would certainly like to hear how. The FBI, for its part, will not (as opposed to "may not") confirm whether Turner's remarks are the subject of an investigation.

Maliki, Too, Thinks He's Not Right For The Job

| Wed Jan. 3, 2007 3:10 PM EST

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal reported on its extensive interview with the much criticized Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Upon his return to Baghdad in 2003, after spending more than 20 years in Syria, Maliki enthusiastically supported the total elimination of the Baath Party's institutions, one of the Bush administration's many early decisions that have henceforth evoked disapproval. (Maliki is a member of the Dawa Party, whose members faced execution under Saddam's regime.) Maliki has since been denounced by his own government, many wondering if he really has what it takes to lead this dividing country to any semblance of peace.

Most recently, the Prime Minister has been called to task by the media for his large role in pushing up Saddam's execution to last Friday, at dawn on Eid al-Adha, a holy muslim holiday. The decision to speed up Saddam's execution, which may have been a calculated political move to regain popularity among his fellow Shi'ites (whose faith in him has been waning), appears to have done just that. So maybe it is too early for the Prime Minister to back down, but he himself has doubts about his ability, and his desire, to rule. He didn't even want the position in the first place. In the Journal's December 24th interview with the Prime Minister, in response to whether he will accept this position again, he responded, "I didn't want to take this position. I only agreed because I thought it would serve the national interest, and I will not accept it again...I wish I could be done with it even before the end of this term."

Waiting for Cures

| Tue Jan. 2, 2007 8:37 PM EST

Good news for the new year. New Scientist reports that a deal struck in a London pub a few years is leading to new hope for 200 million people worldwide suffering from the fatal liver disease, hepatitis C. The researchers' aim was to bypass big pharma's patents on interferon treatments, since their $13,000-a-year drugs were affordable to only 1 in 6 sufferers. Best of all, the new interferon drug , which will be available to the poor, actually cures hep-C.

The British Medical Journal publishes a paper out of the Mayo Clinic on mining historical documents for clues to potential new drugs. The authors cite a 400-year old report by Georg Everhard Rumphius, an employee of the Dutch East Indies Company, who described the anti-diarrheal properties of extracts from the fruit kernels of atun trees. Turns out to be an antibiotic new to science, old news to the Ambon islanders of Indonesia.

Delayed gratification was nothing new to Rumphius, say the authors:

It is amazing that Rumphius's work was ever published. In 1670 he went blind, and four years later his wife and daughter were killed in an earthquake. Thirteen years later, in 1687, a fire levelled the capital of Ambon's European quarter, and his manuscripts and the botanical illustrations that he had drawn himself were burnt. Yet Rumphius took this opportunity to begin the herbal again; he dictated a new and revised text in Dutch to scribes, and he commissioned draftsmen to do the illustrations.

Finally, in 1692, the first half of the Ambonese Herbal was finished, and the governor general at the time ordered the manuscript and the illustrations to be copied. This order was fortunate, as the original herbal text was destroyed on the way to Holland when the transport ship was sunk by a hostile French naval squadron. Again, upon notification of the disaster Rumphius did not surrender to despair. Rather, he took the opportunity to augment and correct the first half of his text while he completed the six volumes of the second half. Rumphius added new material (to make volume seven) only a few months before his death at the age of 74.