2008 - %3, April

Baghdad Not Consulted on Renewal of Blackwater Contract

| Mon Apr. 7, 2008 12:16 PM EDT

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Friday afternoons have long been Washington's dumping ground for stories that various power brokers would rather see whither and die, and last Friday was no exception. Shortly after the Clinton campaign finally released Bill and Hillary's tax returns, showing they've netted over $100 million since 2000, the State Department announced that it would renew Blackwater's security contract to protect U.S. diplomats abroad.

Blackwater's involvement in a shooting incident in a Baghdad traffic circle last September remains under investigation by the FBI, although an earlier Iraqi review (albeit one conducted by the insurgent-penetrated Iraqi Interior Ministry) characterized the incident as "premeditated murder." The U.S. private security firm is also the subject of federal probes regarding illegal weapons transfers and tax evasion. None of this, however, stood in the way of the State Department's renewal of Blackwater's five-year Worldwide Protective Services contract, originally awarded to the company in 2006 and subject to annual review.

The move has proved controversial in Iraq, where Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, weakened by his recent failed attempt to crush Muqtada al-Sadr's Shiite milita, may be attempting to find an issue around which to rally whatever dwindling domestic support remains for his government. Indeed, Blackwater is so deeply unpopular with Iraqis that beating up on the company may be just the thing to distract attention from al-Maliki's other problems, at least for the moment. In an interview with CNN, al-Maliki attacked the State Department's decision, claiming the Iraqi government was not consulted on the renewal of the Blackwater contract, which it surely would have rejected based on the results of its own investigation in the September shooting incident.

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The Status of Pork, 2007

| Mon Apr. 7, 2008 11:53 AM EDT

While we're on the subject of congressional earmarks, I should point out that Citizens Against Government Waste came out with its 2007 Pig Book last week. It notes that due to a little anti-earmark momentum, the amount of taxpayer money that went into pork last year was the lowest in almost ten years. But there are some bad actors, of course. From CAGW's summary:

Introducing the "Soft Earmark"

| Mon Apr. 7, 2008 11:26 AM EDT

Color me better informed.

With great fanfare, Congress adopted strict ethics rules last year requiring members to disclose when they steered federal money to pet projects. But it turns out lawmakers can still secretly direct billions of dollars to favored organizations by making vague requests rather than issuing explicit instructions to government agencies in committee reports and spending bills. That seeming courtesy is the difference between "soft earmarks" and the more insistent "hard earmarks."
How much money is requested for any specific project? It is difficult to say, since price tags are not included with soft earmarks. Who is the sponsor? Unclear, unless the lawmaker later acknowledges it. Purpose of the spending? Usually not provided.
How to spot a soft earmark? Easy. The language is that of a respectful suggestion: A committee "endorses" or notes it "is aware" of deserving programs and "urges" or "recommends" that agencies finance them.

The annual cost of these soft earmarks is not known, though the Congressional Research Service found more than $3 billion in soft earmark expenses in one of Congress's 13 spending bills from 2006. More, after the jump...

Looking at "Labor Standards" in Colombia

| Mon Apr. 7, 2008 10:06 AM EDT

You'll hear Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton talk frequently about how trade agreements need to have labor standards and environmental standards. A perfect example of what they mean when they say "labor standards" can be seen in Colombia, a country with whom the United States is considering a trade agreement. Here's Chris Hayes:

Imagine a country where CEO's live in fear. In just the past five years, 400 CEO's -- from manufacturing, banking, real estate -- have been shot down in cold blood. (Thousands over the past 15 years.) Almost none of these murders have been solved. Indeed, over the past five years the percentage of CEO murders simply brought to trial has declined from 30% to zero. CEO's now more or less live in fear.
Can you imagine the US have friendly relations with such a place? Can you imagine a president expending political capital to treat that country favorably in an international agreement? Right. Of course not.
Of course, such a place does exist, but they're not murdering CEO's.

No, they're murdering trade unionists. And they're getting away with it.

Mark Penn Steps Down as Clinton's Top Strategist

| Sun Apr. 6, 2008 9:18 PM EDT

mark_penn.jpg Mark Penn, the chief strategist for Hillary Clinton's campaign and the CEO of worldwide PR company Burson-Marsteller, has stepped down from his post with the Clinton campaign following the news that he met with the Colombian government to secure congressional approval of a trade agreement that Clinton vocally opposes. Penn met with the Colombian ambassador in his capacity as the head of Burson-Marsteller, which had a one-year, $300,000 contract with Colombia. The conflict of interest raised by the meeting was a black eye for Clinton, who has adopted strongly populist rhetoric in key primary states.

In a press release Sunday evening, Clinton campaign manager Maggie Williams said Penn and his polling shop will continue to do some work for the campaign:

After the events of the last few days, Mark Penn has asked to give up his role as Chief Strategist of the Clinton Campaign; Mark, and Penn, Schoen and Berland Associates, Inc. will continue to provide polling and advice to the campaign.
Geoff Garin and Howard Wolfson will coordinate the campaign's strategic message team going forward.

Penn was (and still is) an unpopular figure. He was disliked by wide swaths of the progressive movement because he ran a multinational corporation that had its fingers in a lot of dirty pots. Burson-Marsteller and its many subsidaries have lobbied for and represented tobacco companies, oil companies, Union Carbide, and Blackwater, among other clients. Penn became a particulary easy target for criticism when it was revealed Burson-Marsteller specialized in busting unions.

Birds Feed Citizen Scientists

| Sat Apr. 5, 2008 3:58 PM EDT

45705967_eb04516a4c_m.jpg But first, the slacker birds. You know them. You've seen them. They flit from one bird feeder to the next, swilling millet, spilling sunflower seeds, covered in hulls and husks. Ever wondered about the ecological effects of feeding these backyard beauties? Well, Gillian Robb, Robbie McDonald, Dan Chamberlain, and Stuart Bearhop of various worthy institutes in the UK have published a research review in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, an online journal of the Ecological Society of America, as reported by AAAS. We dole out 500,000 metric tons of bird seed annually in the US and UK, supporting millions of songbirds. This researchers found that, though beneficial, the bonus seed may be a mixed blessing. From the abstract:

While alteration of the natural dynamics of food supply represents a major intervention in avian ecology, we have a remarkably limited understanding of the impacts of this widespread pastime… We consider positive impacts, such as aiding species conservation programs, and negative ones, such as increased risk of disease transmission. It seems highly likely that natural selection is being artificially perturbed, as feeding influences almost every aspect of bird ecology, including reproduction, behavior, demography, and distribution.

In one study, Robb and her colleagues found that dozens of blue tits that nibbled hand-out peanuts all winter fledged more chicks in the spring than those not fed. But a 2001 study of Florida scrub jays found that fed birds ate too much in winter and laid their eggs too early, so natural food sources weren't available when the hatchlings needed them. The review hints at concerns about indirect impacts too. Namely that fed winter residents could be monopolizing all the good breeding territories and natural food supplies in the spring, outcompeting returning migrants.

On the plus side, feeders and nest boxes offer some swell opportunities for studying bird behavior. The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology has launched some cool citizen-science web efforts:

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State Dept. to Renew Blackwater's Security Contract in Iraq

| Sat Apr. 5, 2008 11:15 AM EDT

After Blackwater operators opened fire on civilians in Baghdad last September, killing 17 and wounding more than 20 others, there was speculation that the controversial firm would be replaced by another security contractor when its five-year contract with the State Department expired in May. After all, initial investigations by the military and the FBI indicated that—contrary to Blackwater's version of events—its contractors were at fault in the shootings. "It was obviously excessive, it was obviously wrong," a military official told the Washington Post back in October. "The civilians that were fired upon, they didn't have any weapons to fire back at them. And none of the IP [Iraqi Police] or any of the local security forces fired back at them." For a company that has maintained that the actions of its contractors were justified, the steps it took immediately after the shootings certainly seemed suspicious. Initially, Blackwater said that damage to its vehicles would prove its side of the story—that its contractors were attacked and were simply defending themselves and their clients. Yet, after the incident, the company reportedly repainted and repaired its vehicles, destroying key evidence that could potentially exonerate the company.

While a cloud still hangs over Blackwater, and it remains the subject of multiple investigations, including one by Henry Waxman's House oversight committee, the State Department shocked some Blackwater watchers yesterday by announcing that it would renew the firm's contract for another year.

The Internal Black Debate over Obama

| Fri Apr. 4, 2008 8:16 PM EDT

Glenn Loury posted on TPM this week an amazing response to the challenge leveled in Obama's "Black, But More Than Black" speech. All I can say is—Wow.

Coming from someone like Glenn, who is a friend (I kept my list of wedding invitees brutally short. He and his lovely, accomplished wife were on it), this is utterly unexpected and a welcome relief! He completely disagrees with me on the import of the speech, but he does so in such a worthy, worldview-tilting way, I'm still rereading it, trying to make sense of a rebellion so cogently, unapologetically worded. Now, it's on! This, as opposed to the kneejerk "how dare white people tell us what to do?" reflexive response of the stick-it-the-man crowd, we can work with.

In short, Loury demands to know where Obama, who inherited but played no part in earning freedom, gets off telling him he's a neurotic, tragic figure for still being angry. More, he argues that elder-generation black anger is not a pathetic symptom of PTSD, but a legitimate reflection of how far blacks' limited freedom falls short of true equality. Just as young women refuse to accept that we old school feminists are right that they don't yet know how un-liberated they still are—that they're living in a post-feminist fool's paradise that will dissolve before their eyes when the boss suddenly demands sex in exchange for a promotion that will otherwise go to his mistress—older, Talented Tenth blacks furiously reject the notion that past racism has made them incapable of noticing that Jim Crow is dead and that being black is just a state of mind.

Loury argues that black anger, as funneled through the black prophetic tradition that runs from (at least) Frederick Douglass through MLK and onto Wright, is all that stands between America and kinder, gentler apartheid (I exaggerate, but see his post to get my drift). Its counterintuitiveness was bracing for those, like me, who want us to pragmatically stifle our anger in exchange for something like separate but truly equal (again with the oversimplifying exaggeration).

Finally, a real debate with unexpected twists and turns that can't be dismissed as mere defiance! I'm all tingly! Sometimes, not often when a dance floor remains uninvolved, it's a hoot to be black. Whatever else you think of Obama, he is engendering the kind of dialogue and debate which alone can move America forward on race. That an intracommunal fracas is raging among blacks is the surest sign of that; we have to gain ground in-house before we can gain ground with outsiders. Offerings like this will do exactly that.

You simply have to read the post in its entirety, but here's a slice of the frontal assault Loury flings right back in "his son's" face:

Pentagon Greenlights Same-Sex Partner for Military Flight

| Fri Apr. 4, 2008 8:10 PM EDT

Last month, the House's only openly gay memberone of the House's two openly gay members, Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin, was granted permission to bring her partner Lauren Azar on a congressional military flight. In line with Pentagon policy, which only allows members to bring legally defined spouses on military flights when there is room and when it is "necessary for protocol purposes," Azar was initially barred from boarding the flight. Baldwin and Azar have exchanged vows, but their home state of Wisconsin does not recognize same-sex marriage. No matter, though: Clinton's 1996 Defense of Marriage Act would have made state recognition null and void to the Department of Defense.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stepped in and appealed to Defense Sec. Robert Gates. Gates requested a formal letter of authorization from Pelosi, which allowed him (and the Pentagon) to conveniently sidestep taking responsibility for setting precedent on the rights of same-sex couples in Congress. Azar was subsequently allowed on the flight, but the Pentagon made crystal clear that such an allowance does not reflect any change in policy.

Our Presidential Candidates on Talk Shows: Who Does Better?

| Fri Apr. 4, 2008 7:24 PM EDT

Recently, our three major presidential candidates have made high-profile appearances on TV talk shows, with varying results. Does an ability to share easy jokes and gentle ribbing with our nation's nighttime sleep-inducers and afternoon time-wasters correlate to success in the polls? Let's take a look at some clips and see who's best at the gabfests.