2010 - %3, February

Blackwater Did Rescue Alan Grayson

| Wed Feb. 24, 2010 5:10 PM EST

Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.), who made his substantial fortune by suing military contractors and later lambasted them as a lawmmaker, was indeed evacuated from Niger by personnel working for Xe Services (the private security empire formerly known as Blackwater), his spokesman confirms.

Earlier today I reported on the testimony of Fred Roitz, an executive vice president at Xe, at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Blackwater subsidiary Paravant. In his prepared remarks, he stated: "Xe Services, through its subsidiary Presidential Airways, provides aviation support and medevac services to Defense Department personnel in Africa. Just last week, our personnel evacuated a congressman from Niger during civil unrest."

This sure seemed to fit the description of Grayson, who was traveling in the country last week when a military coup erupted. The lawmaker was quickly evacuated out the country to neighborhing Burkina Faso. "The flight was arranged through the State Department," Todd Jukowski, Grayson's spokesman, told me. "The Congressman did not know, and frankly did not care, who owned the plane.” Later, Jurkowski followed up with an email confirming that Grayson was flown out of the country on a "Xe helicopter."

I also asked Jurkowski whether the experience had changed Grayson's thinking on the use of private military firms. Jurkowski replied: "The Congressman does not deny that there is admirable work being done by some employees of private contractors.  However, he stands by his criticism of companies who have been found to cheat the American people, defraud our government, and unnecessarily risk the lives of members of our military, all in the name of making a profit."

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8 Health Lobbyists Per Lawmaker

| Wed Feb. 24, 2010 5:05 PM EST

In 2009, the hordes of lobbyists on Capitol Hill trying to influence the course of health-care reform grew to more than 4,500, representing 1,750 different organizations and companies—from the AARP and US Chamber of Commerce to religious groups and the Business Roundtable, according to a new analysis by the Center for Public Integrity (CPI). Here's a better way of visualizing that lobbying total: For each member of Congress, there are now eight lobbyists involved in health-care reform, up from about six lobbyists per lawmaker as was reported last fall when talks had practically paralyzed Congress. 

As CPI's new data makes clear, just about everyone and their uncle has signed up to lobby on health-care negotiations, which are now entering their final act. Among the top groups deploying their influence-peddlers to Washington are advocacy organizations, like the Chamber and Business Roundtable, as well as hospitals, insurers, and manufacturing companies also sending numerous representatives to lobby House and Senate lawmakers. All told, CPI's new report just goes to show that when huge amounts of money are at stake, powerful special interests like the pharmaceutical and insurance industries are willing to bombarding politicians in order to ensure none of their profits slip away.

Below you'll find an interactive graph, courtesy of CPI, letting you dig into their data a bit more.

Vermont to Shut Down Leaking Nuclear Plant

| Wed Feb. 24, 2010 5:02 PM EST

The Obama administration last week issued a loan the first new nuclear project to be initiated in decades, part of their plan to revive the nuclear industry in the United States. But amid the renewed enthusiasm for nuclear power, the Vermont legislature voted on Wednesday to shutter its only nuclear plant after the revelation that the owner had mislead officials about the plant's safety.

The state senate voted 26-4 against a 20-year extension for the Yankee power plant (Vermont is the only state that gives the legislature a say in permit applications). The plant, owned by Entergy Nuclear, has been in operation for 37 years and its current license will expire in 2012. Over the past few months, isotopes of radioactive cobalt, zinc, and tritium have been found to be leaking from the plant.

Last year, vice president of operations at Entergy Nuclear Jay Thayer testified under oath to the Vermont Public Service Board that weren't any underground pipes carrying radioactive water from the plant. It later became abundantly clear, after a panel of nuclear experts looked into it in October, that there were pipes under the plant carrying radioactive waste. Entergy later admitted that there were in fact 40 pipes under the plant. Follow-up studies found that those those pipes have been leaking hazardous waste for years and the levels of radioactive contamination are growing in several on-site wells at the plant.

Navy Lets Women on Subs: Gays Next?

| Wed Feb. 24, 2010 4:55 PM EST

Anyone with an interest in gender equality or fair treatment of gays and lesbians, take note: The Navy announced this week that it will start assigning women to its submarine crews next month. (That is, unless congressional opponents decide to intervene.)

To the uninitiated, that might not sound like a big deal. But it's a true sea change. In fact, it could foretell a faster end to the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy—and even its arcane injunction on women serving in combat roles.

The United States military has always been preoccupied with its hidebound traditions. In that respect, the Navy is like other military branches, only more so, with 21st-century sailors speaking of the Joneses—Davy and John Paul—like immediate family. Within that culture, there's always been an even more heritage-obsessed fraternity: the submarine service. It was officially born in 1900 with its first undersea ship of war, the USS Holland. It was also the first branch to truly go nuclear, with the atomic-powered USS Nautilus in 1955. In all those years, the "silent service" has reveled in its exclusivity, operating as a fraternity for some of the Navy's smartest and ablest sailors.

Except that it's a fraternity no more.

If that were the whole story, what a happy story it would be. But opponents of the move have a possible trump card to play.

If it Looks Like Blackwater and Acts Like Blackwater...

| Wed Feb. 24, 2010 4:32 PM EST

Why did Blackwater set up a new corporate identity when it inked a subcontract with Raytheon to train Afghan troops? Masking its scandal-tainted brand was the brainchild of its defense contractor client, according to a top executive for Xe Services (as Blackwater is now known).

Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday, Fred Roitz, an executive vice president at Xe, pulled back the curtain on the creation of Paravant, LLC. He suggested that Raytheon wanted to do business with Blackwater—so long as it didn't appear that it was actually doing business with the controversial security firm. Roitz said it was his "understanding... that the request for a company other than Blackwater came from Raytheon."

So Paravant was born. As Brian McCracken, a former Paravant vice president who now works for Raytheon, acknowledged, the subsidiary and Blackwater were effectively "one and the same." Along with a bank account and address, Paravant also shared its corporate parent's propensity for stirring up controversies. In May, two of the firm's trainers, Justin Cannon and Christopher Drotleff, opened fire on an oncoming car, killing two Afghan civilians and wounding a third. The men are currently being prosecuted by the Justice Department on second-degree murder and weapons charges. A months-long investigation by the armed services committee followed, unearthing evidence [PDF] that Paravant personnel had acted recklessly, disregarded military regulations, and improperly acquired hundreds of AK-47s and other firearms that were intended for use by the Afghan National Police. The probe also indentified a series of vetting lapses by Blackwater and major oversight failures by the army officials that were supposed to be supervising its work.

"Guess Your Age" Goes Digital

| Wed Feb. 24, 2010 3:23 PM EST

According to Pew's "How Millennial Are You?" quiz, I am not, in fact, a Baby Boomer. Interpolating from the graph, they think I was born in 1969, which makes me sort of an early Gen Xer. Only 11 years off!

I'm not sure why. Is it because I have a Facebook profile? A cell phone? Because I think interracial marriage is just fine? I'm not sure. The reason I'm nowhere close to being a Millennial is obvious (no text messaging, no tattoos, no video game playing, etc.), but the reason I don't fit the Baby Boomer profile is a little more mysterious.

Anyway, this either means I retain some youthful vigor or else that I have failed to grow up. Take your pick. The quiz is here.

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LOST Chat: To the Lighthouse

| Wed Feb. 24, 2010 3:20 PM EST

 

Season Six, Episode 5: "Lighthouse" (February 23)

The final season of Lost is on a roll! On the heels of last week's amazing ep came another doozy, complete with Hurley humor, an emotionally wrenching Jack storyline, Claire as a crazy bad-ass, and a lighthouse scene that should give fans plenty to ponder over the next week.

To help us make sense of things, we invited Danny McAleese, a blogger for the fan fave Lost Easter Eggs blog and author of Things You Never Noticed About LOST, to join us. Thanks to Danny! And tune in for more surprise guests in the coming weeks.

Jen Phillips, Assistant Editor: I was happily surprised by last night.
Laurin Asdal, Director of Development: Me too.
Nikki Gloudeman, New Media Fellow: Yes, I thought it was awesome. It reminded me a lot of season one, with the emotional heft.
Danny McAleese, Lost Easter Eggs blogger: Heya.
Nikki: Hey! Thanks for joining us, Danny. We're really excited to have you.
Danny: I'm excited to be here!
Nikki: We're discussing the general awesomeness of last night's episode. Agree?
Danny: Totally agree. Last night was a great episode with a lot of fantastic reveals, all done without any action, explosions, or gunplay.
Nikki: Yes, that was appreciated.
Jen: The mirrors! Amazing! A bit heavy with the Alice in Wonderland allusions, but cool.
Danny: Mirrors are a tremendous part of what's going on in Lost.

 

Inside the Chamber's Free Enterprise Campaign

| Wed Feb. 24, 2010 2:57 PM EST

National Journal has a fantastic new piece out today about the Chamber of Commerce's advocacy campaign to "defend and advance America's free enterprise values." Turns out, it's not going quite as well as they hoped, and is even drawing criticism from some conservatives for being more about raising money for the Chamber than it is about promoting an agenda in a meaningful way.

But that's not to say it hasn't been effective. The Chamber is expected to report $250 million in revenues last year, a 25 percent increase over 2008. It spent $123 million on lobbying last year, nearly twice as much as it did in 2008. The group has launched a campaign to gather 1 million voter contacts that it can use to advance its electoral and policy agenda. And its non-profit wing, the National Chamber Foundation, is planning an initiative to get educational information about "the free enterprise system" into elementary and high schools across the country (nothing like starting early!).

Among the more interesting elements of the article: apparently the Chamber approached some major corporations, like ExxonMobil, about funneling more money into the group's advocacy work, but met hostility. Instead, Chamber president Tom Donohue is turning increasingly to very wealthy individuals for support:

When he launched the campaign last spring and summer, Donohue initially talked to ExxonMobil and some other longtime financial angels about committing new funds to the project, according to lobby sources. Executives at two companies that he approached let it be known that they had already made big contributions to other chamber efforts, such as the Institute for 21st Century Energy. (Chamber officials dispute that these corporations gave them the cold shoulder.)
The executives suggested that Donohue consider approaching wealthy individuals in such sectors as energy, financial services, and high tech, according to a lobbyist close to the chamber.
Donohue has done just that. For the first time in chamber officials' memory, he is seeking to finance most of the campaign through donors outside of the corporate community. He has been searching out individuals, who, as Donohue puts it, "have done exceedingly well in a free enterprise system" and asking them for contributions as high as six and seven figures. "These are people who said, 'Hey, I never could've done this anywhere else in the world, and it's probably a good idea to remind everybody how it worked.' "

The piece is worth a read.

Obama: Markets No Better than Pre-Crisis

| Wed Feb. 24, 2010 2:49 PM EST

In a speech today to the powerful coalition the Business Roundtable, President Obama tried to rally some of the biggest players in the US economy around his plans to re-regulate the financial system—a system, he warned, "with the same vulnerabilities that it had before this crisis began." Obama was speaking to the Business Roundtable at their quarterly meeting in Washington, and set aside a few minutes in his speech—which ranged from job creation to international trade to health care—to emphasize the need for reining in Wall Street and preventing the kinds of reckless risk-taking and outright gambling that fueled the subprime meltdown and the Great Recession. "If we don't pass financial reform," he said, "we can expect more crises in the future of the sort that we just saw."

Here's more from his speech calling on the need for greater—and smarter—financial reform:

[A]s I said in the State of the Union, my goal is not to punish Wall Street. I believe that most individuals in the financial sector are looking to make money in an honest and transparent way. But if there aren't rules in place to guard against the recklessness of a few, and they're allowed to exploit consumers and take on excessive risk, it starts a race to the bottom that results in all of us losing.

And that's what we need to change. We can't repeat the mistakes of the past. We can't allow another AIG or another Lehman to happen again. We can't allow financial institutions, including those that take your deposits, to make gambles that threaten the whole economy. What does that mean? It means we've got to ensure consolidated supervision of all institutions that could pose a risk to the system. It means we have to close loopholes that allow financial firms to evade oversight and circumvent rules of the road. It means that we need more robust consumer and investor protections.

And I ask the Business Roundtable to support these efforts. There are lobbyists on the Hill right now trying to kill reform by claiming that it would undermine businesses outside of the financial sector. That is not true. This is about putting in place rules that encourage drive and innovation instead of shortcuts and abuse. And those are rules that will benefit everybody.

The Oath Keeper Candidate

| Wed Feb. 24, 2010 2:20 PM EST

Debra Medina almost certainly won't be the next governor of Texas. According to recent polls from Public Policy and Rasmussen, the Tea Party insurgent's momentum has crashed full-speed into the proverbial wallor, as the case may have it, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison's wire fence. But I think the fixation, by TPM and others, on Medina's drop in the polls in the wake of her Vesuvian performance on Glenn Beck really misses the point. Medina was bound to lose at least a handful of swing votes; what's remarkable is just how much of her base (16 to 20 percent of likely voters, depending on the poll) is sticking with her.