2010 - %3, May

"Drill, Baby, Drill?" Blame Michael Steele

| Wed May 5, 2010 2:34 PM EDT

With environmental disaster unfolding in the Gulf, one would think there might be some reconsideration underway about that whole "Drill, baby, drill" thing. But while many credit former-half-term Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin for the line, let's make sure to give credit where it's due. It was actually Michael Steele who birthed that humdinger into the world at the Republican National Convention on Sept. 3, 2008.

His speech inspired both Rudy Giuliani and Palin later that night.

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GOP Making Love to Wall St.?

| Wed May 5, 2010 1:23 PM EDT

Pissed with Republicans' stalling tactics on financial reform, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid offered his biggest bash of GOPers yet today. GOPers, Reid quipped, are doing nothing less than "making love with Wall Street" with their continued obstruction. Reid's comments come as Senate GOPers continue to stall the Senate's progress on passing a financial reform bill; after voting three separate times to block open debate on the Senate floor last week, Republicans are now refusing to submit their own amendments to the finance bill, which has slowed the bill's progress. They say they won't let the amendment process proceed until Sens. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) reach a strong agreement on how to euthanize too-big-to-fail banks. That agreement appeared to be reached late last night, but it's still not clear if GOPers are ready to move ahead on financial reform.

Today, Republicans released their own version of a new consumer protection division to counter the Democrats' plan. The GOP's version would seriously scale back consumer provisions in the current bill, crafted by Democrats, by both weakening the division's rule-writing power and continuing to let federal bank regulators preempt rules crafted at the state level. The GOP's decision to lay out its own consumer division could signal the party's intention to let the debate go forward, which would allow votes on amendments to happen today.

A Scene From the War on Drugs

| Wed May 5, 2010 1:06 PM EDT

Radley Balko has posted video of the SWAT raid on a Missouri home that he wrote about last February. This is the one where the Columbia Police Department busted in, fired seven shots at the family's dogs, and ended up recovering a small amount of marijuana:

It's horrifying, but I'd urge you to watch it, and to send it to the drug warriors in your life. This is the blunt-end result of all the war imagery and militaristic rhetoric politicians have been spewing for the last 30 years — cops dressed like soldiers, barreling through the front door middle of the night, slaughtering the family pets, filling the house with bullets in the presence of children, then having the audacity to charge the parents with endangering their own kid. There are 100-150 of these raids every day in America, the vast, vast majority like this one, to serve a warrant for a consensual crime.

But they did prevent Jonathan Whitworth from smoking the pot they found in his possession. So I guess this mission was a success.

CPD Internal Affairs continues to investigate whether this was an appropriate response to the "tip" they received that started all this.

Did the Times Square Suspect Game the Immigration System?

| Wed May 5, 2010 1:00 PM EDT

Questions surrounding the Times Square bombing suspect’s path to U.S. citizenship have already spurred some national security hawks to attack the country’s immigration and entrance policies. Authorities never flagged Shahzad for review, and it’s still unclear exactly when he had become radicalized against the U.S. But his arrest has prompted right-wing activists and bloggers to renew their calls for clamping down on foreigners trying to enter the country and become U.S. citizens.

Shahzad had become a naturalized citizen a year ago after marrying an American citizen in 2008, following a decade of staying in the country on both student and work visas. Calling Shahzad’s route a “tried-and-true terror formula,” Michelle Malkin declares that “jihadists have been gaming the sham marriage racket with impunity for years.” Malkin writes:

And immigration benefit fraud has provided invaluable cover and aid for U.S.-based Islamic plotters…Jihadists have knowingly and deliberately exploited our lax immigration and entrance policies to secure the rights and benefits of American citizenship while they plot mass murder -- and we haven't done a thing to stop them.

Similarly, a story at Fox News suggests that the citizenship application process isn’t rigorous enough and fails to ask sufficient questions about travel history and relying too much on an individual applicant’s honesty. “[I]f they've lied to get into the United States before, they are unlikely to admit it during the naturalization process,” argues Fox News.

Shahzad: On Feds' Radar in 2004?

| Wed May 5, 2010 1:00 PM EDT

How long has Faisal Shahzad been on the radar of federal counterterrorism investigators? Read most press accounts and it sounds like the terrorism suspect, who's admitted to the failed Times Square bombing, never raised any red flags up until the day he parked a propane, fireworks, and fertilizer-laden Pathfinder on West 45th Street and fled the scene. For instance, as Time reported earlier, "…So far, the only indication that Shahzad had raised any suspicion among U.S. officials is the fact that he underwent secondary screening at the airport upon his return to the U.S. earlier this year."

But that may not be true. Shahzad, who lived in the US on and off since 1999, apparently drew the scrutiny of federal investigators long before the failed bombing that led to his dramatic arrest at Kennedy Airport. According to an intriguing paragraph buried deep in a New York Times story published Wednesday, members of the national Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF), the same FBI-led interagency group whose agents hunted down and apprehended Shahzad on Monday, were keeping tabs on him as many as six years ago. The Times reported:

George LaMonica, a 35-year-old computer consultant, said he bought his two-bedroom condominium in Norwalk, Conn., from Mr. Shahzad for $261,000 in May 2004. A few weeks after he moved in, Mr. LaMonica said, investigators from the national Joint Terrorism Task Force interviewed him, asking for details of the transaction and for information about Mr. Shahzad. It struck Mr. LaMonica as unusual, but he said detectives told him they were simply "checking everything out."

If the Times' account is correct, why did JTTF investigators zero in on Shahzad back then?

So far, the media attention has focused largely on the lapses that lead to Shahzad's near-escape—the fact that he eluded the federal agents who'd been surveilling him and was able to buy a plane ticket and board his flight even after his name had been added to the no-fly list. But a bigger question may be how long the feds had Shahzad in their sights and how he came to be there to begin with. The matter was addressed briefly at Wednesday's White House press briefing, when ABC News correspondent Jake Tapper asked Robert Gibbs about the passage in the Times story:

TAPPER: And do you have any response to reports that this individual Shahzad, Faisal Shahzad -- the Joint Terrorism Task Force did know about him, had been alerted about him years before? Is there any new information you have about it?

GIBBS:  Not that I'm aware of.  No, not that I'm aware of.  I have not seen that report.  Let me take a look at it and see where the best place is --  

I have a call into the FBI for comment. I'll update this post when I hear back.

UPDATE: Well, I heard back. Only the FBI's response deepened the mystery rather than solving it. You'll see what I mean.
 

Can You Eat Oil-Slick Oysters?

| Wed May 5, 2010 12:34 PM EDT

A researcher from the University of New Orleans happened to tell me the answer yesterday. Find it on MoJo's environmental blog, The Blue Marble.

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How the GOP's Consumer Plan Screws You

| Wed May 5, 2010 12:10 PM EDT

Senate Republicans have put forward their own proposal for a new consumer protection agency, a plan that significantly kneecaps the consumer division Democrats are pushing for and does little to actually help consumers. Republicans' plan would establish a consumer protection division within the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, but it wouldn't be independent or autonomous, a condition seen as a dealbreaker for consumer advocates. (The Democrats would put an independent agency in the Federal Reserve.) In the GOP's plan, the division's ability to write new rules would be seriously constrained by the FDIC, which have to agree to those new rules before they became law.

The GOP's consumer proposal would also allow federal consumer laws to continue to override, or preempt, state laws. (The Democratic plan, on the other hand, would let states' attorneys general and other regulators, who are nimbler and respond to on-the-ground events faster, to craft laws at the state level.)

Can You Eat Oil-Slick Oysters?

| Wed May 5, 2010 12:00 PM EDT

Good news for oyster eaters—sort of. Oil from the BP/Deepwater Horizon spill hasn't hit Lousiana's oyster reefs yet, but according to the National Ocean Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, it could within days. Yesterday I talked with Thomas Soniat, a professor and researcher at the University of New Orleans' Department of Biological Sciences, and he told me that, yes, oysters will take up oil as the slick comes through, so  you wouldn't want to eat oysters harvested around that time—they'd even taste like oil.

But: "Oysters are very good at cleansing themselves. They're very resilient." The process, if you want to impress your friends with the fancy name, is called depuration, and self-cleansing oyster tissue means that they're safeand deliciousto eat again just two weeks after their exposure to oil ends. (They also filter the water around them; one design firm has suggested cultivating oyster villages in Brooklyn's Gowanus Canal to help clean up the Superfund site.) The only thing they can't cleanse is the bad post-spill PR. "The public-perception problem persists much longer than the true problem," Soniat says, "and expands over a much broader geographical area."

Of course, depending on the slick's ultimate size and the weather patterns, oil could settle over the reefs and cover them for an extended period of time, which could kill some of them and would lengthen the depuration process. Even so, Soniat is optimistic. "Oysters are very fecund"—fecund enough to weather an oil leak during spawning season, which this happens to be. "It's not gonna destroy the oyster industry in Breton Sound on a permanent basis. The industry will survive. The oysters will survive. The reefs could be safe to open again within weeks." That is, if the oil stops leaking so cleanup can really get under way. "It's just hard right now because the extent of the hardship is unknown."

When Immigrants Are Actually Indentured Servants

| Wed May 5, 2010 12:00 PM EDT

In 2007, after seven years' research and writing, Random House published my book, Nobodies, an examination of modern American slave labor. Each year, as documented by the State Department and there CIA, there are some 17,500 new cases of trafficking on American soil. Many involve domestic workers, sex workers, and farmworkers, illegally present, hard to account for, and easily abused. Just as troublesome, I discovered, are guestworkers, legally brought into the country by state sanction, then abused with numbing regularity.  My article "Bound for America," just published in MoJo's latest issue, digs into this significant slice of the immigration debate.

The story involves over a thousand workers from Thailand who, in 2005 and 2006, paid between $11,000 and $23,000 for the privilege of coming to America as farmworkers. They worked in fourteen different states for a Los Angeles-based company named Global Horizons. Having signed contracts based on three years of employment, workers took tremendous risks, borrowing money against homes and ancestral land, where they live with their extended families. Now, after being sent home early, prior to paying off their enormous recruiting debts, many of these workers —and their families—are losing that land. Their lives are ruined, thanks to their transaction with our guest worker program.

I traveled to Northern Thailand and farms in Maui and Utah to report on the story from beginning to end. I met with dozens of families coping with bankruptcy. I visited farms in the middle of nowhere, where despite the presence of 12 million undocumented workers (some say 20 million), it seemed necessary to fly in workers from far away Thailand.

The complaint, according to the labor contractor who brought the workers, as well as numerous growers sick of hiring Mexicans, is that "Mexicans run away." That's right, some farmer down the road offers fifty cents an hour more, and they just take off, like the ingrates they are. The answer, apparently, is to seek a population more captive, more encumbered by debt and cultural dislocation.

As the immigration debate rears its painful, ugly head once more, it is my hope that the facts become known, and that America's H2-A and H2-B guestworker programs aren't seized upon as a panacea for politically difficult compromises. Although nothing has been decided, current proposals under consideration plan to ENLARGE our guestworker population by hundreds of thousands.

To those who would rely on this complex, obscure, and deceitful solution to our ills, it should be known that the case of which I write appears to be blossoming into the largest case of human trafficking ever seen on American soil. Is this the solution to our problems?

More Key Primaries Ahead

| Wed May 5, 2010 11:44 AM EDT

While the Senate fields are set in Ohio and Indiana, more big primaries loom in the next week. Incumbent Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) could very well lose his seat on Saturday when he faces that state's GOP nominating convention. If Bennett doesn't do well enough there, he won't even get to contest a primary. His crime: working on a bipartisan health care reform proposal with Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden. If the polls of the convention delegates are accurate, Bennett is doomed. He could soon become Utah's first incumbent senator to lose his party's nomination in 70 years. The message is clear: Democrats are the enemy, and any work with them—however inchoate—is a grave sin for a true Republican.

There are primary elections for three House seats in Nebraska and three in West Virginia next Tuesday. Of the incumbents, only Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), a 14-termer, faces a real challenge. Both Mollohan and his challenger, state Sen. Mike Oliverio, have released polls showing themselves with high single-digit leads.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this race is the dynamic: Oliverio is running against Mollohan from the right, and has even said he would support someone other than Nancy Pelosi for Speaker of the House. That's a weird thing to say. The vote to  elect a speaker at the beginning of each session of congress is basically what separates Democrats from Republicans—it's one vote when you really have to vote with your party. You can bet Nancy Pelosi will be the Dems' "candidate" for speaker. And you can bet that she'll expect Oliverio to vote for her.

Followers of Massey Energy, the coal company associated with the mining disaster last month, will be focusing on the Republican primary in another West Virginia district. In the north of the state, Elliot "Spike" Maynard, a former state supreme court justice, is running for the right to face incumbent Dem Nick Rahall. Maynard is famous for being photographed vacationing with Don Blankenship, the notorious Massey CEO, on the French Riviera while Massey was appealing a $50 million case to his court.