2008 - %3, May

"Merchant of Death" Indicted in U.S. Federal Court

| Wed May 7, 2008 3:51 PM EDT

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It was just over two months ago that Viktor Bout, the elusive Russian arms trafficker, was jailed in Thailand after being felled by a months-long DEA sting operation. He remains in a Bangkok prison, pending extradition to the United States, where (short of a plea agreement) he will most likely face federal prosecution in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

Yesterday, U.S. Attorney Michael J. Garcia and Acting DEA Administrator Michele M. Leonhart unsealed the federal indictment (.pdf) against Bout, charging him with four counts of conspiring to commit acts of terrorism.

An excerpt from the press release announcing the indictment:

Between November 2007 and March 2008, Bout agreed to sell to the FARC millions of dollars' worth of weapons—including surface-to-air missile systems ("SAMs"), armor piercing rocket launchers, AK-47 firearms, millions of rounds of ammunition, Russian spare parts for rifles, anti-personnel land mines, C-4 plastic explosives, night-vision equipment, "ultralight" airplanes that could be outfitted with grenade launchers and missiles, and unmanned aerial vehicles. Bout agreed to sell the weapons to two confidential sources working with the DEA (the "CSs"), who represented that they were acquiring these weapons for the FARC, with specific understanding that the weapons were to be used to attack United States helicopters in Colombia...

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Breaking News: Hipsters Live in Cheap, Crappy Buildings

| Wed May 7, 2008 3:47 PM EDT

Yes, NYT trend piece fans, it's time for yet another trenchant observation: Art kids live in squalor in Brooklyn. And since everyone knows bedbug bites are like the purple heart of hipsterdom, they're totally jazzed about their tenement, known as the McKibbin:

"The community is a microcosm of artists, musicians and D.J.'s," said Kevin Farrell, who is 29 and works in video production. "You don't have to leave this building, with the exception of food. I don't really speak to the locals."

By comparison, campaign kids, who whined in the Sunday Times about having to couch surf, look pretty square:

"It's so nice to have your own space," said Erin Suhr, 32, the director of press advance for the Clinton campaign. "To come in and not have to talk to anyone, because you know they're going to want to talk about politics."
Since mid-February, Ms. Suhr has been living in Washington, in the basement apartment of Dick and Joanne Howes. Ms. Suhr has her own entrance and said she rarely sees the couple. But on a recent Monday night, Ms. Suhr appeared at their back door and the trio fell into an easy banter.

Fraternizing with the locals? She'd never make it at the McKibbin.

Myanmar's Epic Floods Seen From Space

| Wed May 7, 2008 3:17 PM EDT

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Go ahead, tell the people of Myanmar that global-warming-related superstorms aren't anything to worry about. That 100,000-plus aren't dead and 95% of the buildings in the path of Cyclone Nargis aren't demolished. These images from the European Space Agency's Envisat satellite, taken a year apart, show the extent of the flooding. Envisat's radar cut through the clouds to reveal critical Near Real Time situation on the ground. The image on the left (above) is from a year ago. The image on the right shows flooding (black areas) two days after the cyclone's passage. Accuweather reported Nargis made landfall with sustained winds of 130 mph and gusts of 150-160 mph—ramping up with frightening speed from a Category 1 to a strong Category 3 or minimal Category 4 hurricane at landfall. Not as big as they get, but combined with an 11.5-foot storm surge, about as deadly as they get.

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NASA's color images from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on its Terra satellite use a combination of visible and infrared light to highlight floodwaters. Water appears blue or nearly black, vegetation bright green, bare ground tan, and clouds white or light blue. The image on the left is from approximately a month before the cyclone. In the May 5 image on the right, the entire coastal plain is flooded. Fallow agricultural areas have been especially hard hit. Yangôn, with a population of over 4 million, is surrounded by floods. Several large cities, with populations between 100,000–500,000, are also inundated. Muddy runoff colors the Gulf of Martaban turquoise.

A Step Towards Victory at the FEC

| Wed May 7, 2008 3:14 PM EDT

Yesterday, President Bush put forward a revised list of nominees for the Federal Elections Commission. As we've reported in-depth, the FEC currently only has two of its customary six commissioners, meaning the body that regulates all federal elections lacks the quorum necessary to do its job. Bush's new slate of commissioners, and the Republicans' new willingness to play ball in the confirmation process, suggests that a fully functioning FEC may be on the horizon.

Here's the deal. Formerly, the nominees were Democrat Robert Lenhard, Democrat Steven Walther, Republican David Mason (the sitting Chairman), and Republican Hans von Spakovsky (HVS). Democrat Ellen Weintraub was already sitting on the FEC. The problem with that roster was that von Spakovsky was objectionable to Democrats, who saw him as the GOP's point man on minority disenfranchisement in his previous activities. Democrats wanted to vote on each nominee individually, leading to the likely rejection of HVS and the acceptance of everyone else. Final result in the Democrats' scenario: a FEC with three Democrats and a sole Republican. The Republicans rejected the idea and said instead that all the nominees, including HVS, had to be approved together. Deadlock ensued.

Republican Primary Results of Note

| Wed May 7, 2008 2:34 PM EDT

Our friends at Reason provide a solid round-up of Republican primary races that were resolved yesterday. Some good news and some bad. Anti-war Republican Walter Jones of North Carolina, subject of a sympathetic 2006 Mother Jones cover story, beat back a challenge from a pro-war candidate.

"I think more and more Republicans are starting to understand after five years that the Iraqis need to step up and take responsibility," Jones said.
Jones retained some strong military support in his district, particularly among retired Marines and other veterans.
"We are close to the veterans and they knew it," Jones said.

On the other hand, anti-sanity Republican Dan Burton of Indiana, subject of a scathing 2008 Mother Jones blog post, topped a Republican primary challenger by seven points, a sizable victory but a much smaller one than Burton is accustomed to in primary or general elections. For more on Burton, see this 1997 MoJo piece from deep in our archives.

Clinton: Damn the Pundits, Full Speed Ahead

| Wed May 7, 2008 12:57 PM EDT

The morning after, the Clinton crew was unbowed. As Hillary Clinton on Tuesday night was being creamed by Barack Obama in North Carolina and eking out a narrow victory in Indiana, pundits throughout Cable News Land were pronouncing her dead, dead, dead. Tim Russert said the race was over. But when a reporter on the campaign's morning conference call, asked Howard Wolfson, Clinton's communications director, if there had been "any discussions about not going forward," he said, "No discussions." And he seemed to mean it.

On the call, Wolfson, deputy communications director Phil Singer, and chief strategist Geoff Garin were forward-looking. They claimed to be "happy" about the 1.8-percent win in Indiana--but without sounding at all jubilant about the squeaker. As for North Carolina--where she lost by 14 points--they claimed "progress" there and pointed to the fact that she beat Obama among white voters by 24 points (as if the increasing racial polarization within the Democratic primary electorate is something to celebrate). They acknowledged that Clinton had in recent weeks loaned her campaign nearly $6.5 million--and claimed it was a sign of her commitment to moving ahead and, of course, fighting for real people. They repeated the campaign's call to seat the disputed delegations of Florida and Michigan, and they indicated they were ready to rumble in the upcoming primaries. Voters in those states, Garin said, should be given the ability "to express their voice." He added, "All we are doing is suggesting the process ought to play out."

In other words, damn the pundits, full speed ahead. It appeared that Clinton--faced with three alternatives: fighting on as if nothing has changed, dropping out, or planning a graceful exit strategy--has for the time being settled on option one.

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Would Seating Michigan and Florida Change the Race?

| Wed May 7, 2008 12:28 PM EDT

Short answer? No. Here is MSNBC's First Read:

...on the delegate front, if Florida and Michigan were seated as is and Obama got the uncommitted delegates in Michigan, Clinton would net an additional 32 delegates from Florida and 18 from Michigan -- for a total net of 50. So add those numbers into the current pledged delegate count and Obama still would lead in the pledged delegate count by more than 100, approximately 110 in fact. So let's use 110 as the baseline. For Clinton to overtake him in the pledged delegate lead using THEIR math on Florida and Michigan, she'd need to win 75% of all remaining delegates. That's an impossible task. Most importantly, knowing the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee the way we THINK we do, the likelihood of the committee NOT punishing Florida and Michigan in some way (say a cut in half of their delegates a la the Republicans) would then make this FL/MI exercise moot.

I made a less precise version of this point yesterday in a post about how shifting expectations affected the race.

NY Times Op-Ed Plugs MoJo Article on Corporate Espionage

| Wed May 7, 2008 11:42 AM EDT

Last month, MotherJones.com broke the story that a private security firm, Beckett Brown International, had spied on Greenpeace and other environmental groups while working for its corporate clients. In today's New York Times, Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser cites the Beckett Brown story and others like it, arguing for congressional hearings on corporate espionage. Doesn't seem hearing-worthy? Maybe you don't know the full story of Beckett Brown. From the piece:

BBI, which was headquartered in Easton, Maryland, on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay, worked extensively, according to billing records, for public-relations companies, including Ketchum, Nichols-Dezenhall Communications, and Mongoven, Biscoe & Duchin. At the time, these PR outfits were servicing corporate clients fighting environmental organizations opposed to their products or actions. Ketchum, for example, was working for Dow Chemical and Kraft Foods; Nichols-Dezenhall, according to BBI records, was working with Condea Vista, a chemical manufacturing firm that in 1994 leaked up to 47 million pounds of ethylene dichloride, a suspected carcinogen, into the Calcasieu River in Louisiana.

Or what about this, from an internal Beckett Brown document cited in our piece:

Received a call from Ketchum yesterday afternoon re three sites in DC. It seems Taco Bell turned out some product made from bioengineered corn. The chemicals used on the corn have not been approved for human consumption. Hence Taco Bell produced potential glow-in-the-dark tacos. Taco Bell is owned by Kraft. The Ketchum Office, New York, has the ball. They suspect the initiative is being generated from one of three places:
1.Center for Food Safety, 7th & Penn SE
2.Friends of the Earth, 1025 Vermont Ave (Between K & L Streets)
3.GE Food Alert, 1200 18th St NW (18th & M)
#1 is located on 3rd floor. Main entrance is key card. Alley is locked by iron gates. 7 dempsters [sic] in alley—take your pick.
#2 is in the same building as Chile Embassy. Armed guard in lobby & cameras everywhere. There is a dumpster in the alley behind the building. Don't know if it is tied to bldg. or a neighborhood property. Cameras everywhere.
#3 is doable but behind locked iron gates at rear of bldg.

Want more of the dirty details? Read the full story.

With the Media Seemingly Decided, Clinton Faces Three Options

| Wed May 7, 2008 7:31 AM EDT

hillary-clinton-truck-bed-250x200.jpg It took a long time for the results from Lake County, Indiana, to be filed on Tuesday night. Was it long enough for the conventional wisdom to be cemented?

As the hours passed into the night yesterday, Hillary Clinton's chances dimmed. By mid-evening, she had lost North Carolina by 14 points and was clinging to a diminishing lead in Indiana. By 10 pm, the political world was all staring at the same situation: Clinton, up on Obama by an unexpectedly low 30,000-40,000 votes in Indiana, endangered by the still-absent results from the northwestern county known as Lake County, home of Gary and just outside of Chicago.

As the pundit class waited for Lake County to tabulate, Clinton's precarious position became the only topic of conversation. On MSNBC, Tim Russert declared the race over, saying that Clinton had no realistic path to the nomination after the events of the day. Chuck Todd, normally beholden to the numbers and unaccustomed to bold proclamations, conceded that Russert may have been correct. On CNN, David Gergen said that Clinton's ability, seen repeatedly in the campaign, to respond with a victory when her campaign was on the precipice had finally failed her. Democratic superdelegate and CNN contributor Donna Brazile stated that it was in the best interests of the Democratic Party to unify around one candidate. In fact, the entire broadcasting team at CNN, seemingly over a dozen people, was so dismissive of the New York Senator's chances that Clinton surrogate Lanny Davis complained about the coverage on air.

But then, after midnight, Lake County finally submitted its result and Clinton won Indiana by two points, momentarily jeopardizing the media narrative already in the making. But it appeared that Obama's miserable two weeks leading up to election day Tuesday set the bar for him so low that his 14-point victory in North Carolina and his two-point loss in Indiana were effectively a victory in the media's eye, which, jaundiced by the expectations game, doesn't see a win as a win and a loss as a loss. Adam Nagourney, the New York Times's lead political reporter, published a news analysis Wednesday morning that began, "In this case, a split was not a draw." The Drudge Report ran a simple headline under a picture of Obama: "The Nominee."

And maybe rightfully so. Clinton won Indiana by 23,000 votes. That means if 12,000 late-deciding Indianans had woken up on the other side of the bed, or seen one fewer Clinton ad, or had one more conversation with their Obama-loving granddaughter, the election would be, for all practical purposes, completely over. And besides, Obama's lead in the delegate count grew because of a split decision in Indiana and a significant delegate pickup in North Carolina. Moreover, Clinton now has fewer pledged delegates with which to close the gap. She must now win a staggering percentage of the superdelegates to overturn Obama's lead in the pledged delegate count.

That that leaves her with three options.

Clinton Continuing On... For Now

| Tue May 6, 2008 11:44 PM EDT

"We've let states like Kentucky and West Virginia slip out of the Democratic column for too long... [it is] so important that we count the votes of Florida and Michigan. It would be a little strange to have a nominee chosen by 48 states."

In Clinton's speech in Indiana moments ago, she made it clear that she isn't quitting the Democratic race in the face of tonight's disappointing results. (The fact that the Clinton press office blitzed out an email to reporters spinning the night's results suggests the same.) West Virginia's primary is May 13, Kentucky and Oregon are May 20, Puerto Rico is June 1, and Montana and South Dakota bring up the rear on June 3. Obama will likely get beat badly in West Virginia and Kentucky (polling shows him getting murdered in both states). If you accept the conventional wisdom forming by the minute that Hillary Clinton has no path to the nomination, and if you accept the idea that the superdelegates' primary role is to officially hand the nomination to the best and most likely candidate, in order to protect him or her from dangerous primary challengers, the logical time for the superdelgates to step in and start endorsing would be... now.

That said, Hillary Clinton's supporters have shown time and time again that they are most willing to step up for their candidate when she is in trouble. The post-loss fundraising appeals from Bill and Hillary really open up the pocketbooks. Furthermore, as I've said before, the Clintons are at their best when their backs are against the wall.