2010 - %3, June

Backlash on Possible Sea Turtle Burning

| Wed Jun. 23, 2010 3:03 PM EDT

So remember that video last week where a boat captain said endangered sea turtles were being burned alive by BP? People are not taking kindly to it, voicing their opposition on Facebook and elsewhere. Credo Mobile* has jumped on the story, issuing a petition telling BP to "Stop blocking the rescue of endangered sea turtles before you burn them alive in your 'controlled burns.'" By today the petition had more than 75,000 signatures.

While wildlife conservation organizations are still reporting they haven't seen any burned turtles, the position and trustworthiness of rescue boat captain seen on the video has been confirmed. And it seems that it's indeed very possible Kemp's Ridleys were killed in the controlled burns, where trawlers use booms to corral oil into a pool before setting it on fire. To date, there have been at least 275 controlled burns in the Gulf, consuming 9.32 million gallons of oil. UC Davis's Dr. Mike Ziccardi, who's heading turtle rescues in the Gulf, wrote me in an email today that:

"Like you, we are very concerned about the possibility of there being impacts to turtles related to controlled burn operations, as juvenile turtles and spilled oil can aggregate in mats of seaweed... Burn operations target these areas when sufficient oil is present, so these are also places where there is risk of harming turtles." Ziccardi noted that his operations had not seen any burned turtles, "but our targeted on-water collection efforts do target very similar areas."

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Gulf Spill Conspiracy Watch: Locusts Coming Soon?

| Wed Jun. 23, 2010 3:01 PM EDT

At day 64, the Gulf spill could surely be described as a catastrophe "of biblical proportions." But apparently there are those out there who believe it is, in fact, a sign that the end is nigh.

Today I stumbled on The World Prophecy website, which from what I gather is a conspiracy-themed site with a special focus on the end of the world. The site's "apocalypse" section asks and then answers the important question:

Is the oil spill in the bible?
Yes it is:
Revelation 16:3 The second angel poured out his bowl into the sea, and it became blood like that of a dead man; and every living thing in the sea died.

I've been trying to keep on top of the various conspiracies related to the spill, and there are quite a few. The Bermuda Triangle? Check. FEMA trailers? Check. BP caused the spill on purpose? Check. Environmentalists blew up the Deepwater Horizon? Check.

But with lightning striking the ship capturing oil last week and robotic vehicles wrecking the containment dome today, even I am starting to wonder if these doomsayers are on to something.

Why Demography Is Destiny

| Wed Jun. 23, 2010 2:27 PM EDT

Over at FiveThirtyEight, Tom Schaller flags a new study by Ruy Teixeira explaining how the Republican Party will be doomed in the long run unless it can accommodate emerging constituencies that are less white and more educated. While the GOP might gain some benefit in 2010 from embracing ideological purism and reactionary views, impending demographic shifts make this approach unsustainable long-term. Via Schaller, here are some of Teixeira's, err, recommendations for the GOP:

*Move to the center on social issues. The culture wars may have worked for a while, but shifting demographics make them a loser for the party today and going forward. A more moderate approach would help with Millennials, where the party must close a yawning gap, and with white college graduates, who still lean Republican but just barely. The party also needs to make a breakthrough with Hispanics, and that won’t happen unless it shifts its image toward social tolerance, especially on immigration.

*Pay attention to whites with some college education and to young white working-class voters in general. The GOP’s hold on the white working class is not secure, and if that slips, the party doesn’t have much to build on to form a successful new coalition. That probably also means offering these voters something more than culture war nostrums and antitax jeremiads.

*Another demographic target should be white college graduates, especially those with a four-year degree only. The party has to stop the bleeding in America’s large metropolitan areas, especially in dynamic, growing suburbs. Keeping and extending GOP support among this demographic is key to taking back the suburbs. White college graduates increasingly see the party as too extreme and out of touch.

Essentially, Teixeira writes, the GOP must "move toward the center to compete for these constituencies," which proved critical to Obama's victory in 2008. And even in the current election cycle, there are signs that Republicans could pay the price for extremism—particularly in parts of the country where these big demographic changes are taking hold.

In Texas, for example, recent poll numbers suggest that Gov. Rick Perry could end up suffering from the GOP's rightward shift on immigration. A poll released yesterday by Public Policy Polling shows Perry tied with his Democratic challenger, former Houston Mayor Bill White, who had been trailing in earlier polls. PPP explains that Perry's flagging numbers are entirely because of Hispanic voters who've defected to White:

When we polled the race in February Rick Perry led Bill White by 6 points. The race is tied now, and the movement since the previous poll has come completely with Hispanic voters. With white voters Perry led 54-35 then and leads 55-35 now. With black voters White led 81-12 then and leads 70-7 now. But with Hispanics Perry has gone from leading 53-41 in February to now trailing 55-21. And it’s not that the sample of Hispanic voters we interviewed for this poll was somehow fundamentally different from the previous one—Barack Obama’s approval with them on this poll was 49% compared to 47% on the previous Texas poll.

PPP suggests that the shift could be directly tied to fallout from the Arizona immigration law, noting that Hispanic voters had also defected to Democrats in states like Arizona and Colorado. As the Washington Independent notes, the Texas Republican Party has made it clear where they stand: they recently passed a party platform that barred illegal immigrants from "intentionally or knowingly” living in Texas, as a well as an Arizona-like proposal that required local police to verify citizenship when making arrests. Perry, to his credit, opposed these measures—and has been openly critical of the Arizona law. But Perry will have tough time distancing himself from the state and national party given the GOP's increasingly hardline views.

That's not to say that Democrats can simply sit back and reap the rewards of these demographic shifts, even in places like Texas. These newly emerging groups of voters—young people, Hispanics, etc.—also tend to have lower turnout at the polls. But compared to where the GOP is right now, the Democrats definitely have a head start. Will Republicans take this reality to heart and make more than just cosmetic changes to the face of the party?

Pakistan: Mark Zuckerberg Must Die, Maybe

| Wed Jun. 23, 2010 1:52 PM EDT

Can you kill an Internet meme, or at least the folks who facilitate it? Pakistan's going to find out. In a case that pits religious strictures against the wide-open, freewheelin' cyber-world of social media groups, state authorities are mulling formal charges against Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and some of his colleagues for allegedly insulting the Muslim prophet. It's a charge whose punishment ranges from a small fine to the death penalty.

Thing is, the allegations aren't about anything Zuckerburg and Co. did; they're about what Facebook didn't do--namely, put the kibosh on a springtime Muslim-baiting meme. Back in April, when Comedy Central decided to censor a not-so-flattering rendering of the prophet Muhammad on South Park, the blogosphere lit up in response. A spate of Facebook groups sprouted up to express solidarity with the show's creators, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, by promoting an "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day" (graphic depictions of Muhammad are verboten according to Islam's hadith, the traditions and sayings of the prophet).

Of particular interest to angered Pakistani Muslims was a Facebook user identified as "Andy" (apparently a German woman), who launched the "Draw Mohammed" contest ostensibly as a means of "spreading...peace, freedom of speech, and human rights." However, the group had the opposite effect and triggered an Internet debate over the entire campaign's propriety. That's when this speech issue became a legal one. Pakistan recognizes Islamic Sharia law: Penal code 295-C states, "Whoever...by visible representation or by any imputation...defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to a fine."

A flurry of Pakistani court rulings in May put Facebook under the microscope. That all came to a head in Punjab province, where authorities filed an application for a "First Information Report," the initial step in a criminal investigation against Zuckerberg, two other Facebook employees, and "Andy." If prosecuted and convicted, Zuckerberg and the others will become wanted felons in Pakistan, though it's unlikely they'd be extradited.

The fallout doesn't end there. YouTube received a similar ban the day after Facebook's, "in view of growing sacrilegious contents." A draft of new censorship guidelines issued by the Pakastani government proposes the creation of "an effective mechanism to continuously monitor and control the objectionable/obnoxious content over internet [sic] in Pakistan." And the country's UN representative has requested that the issue be brought to the General Assembly for Facebook and YouTube's alleged violation of international communication standards.

Another hearing is scheduled for July 12th. In the meantime, Zuckerberg will most likely not be making any trips to Pakistan; he may need to save up to pay that fine, after all.

Petraeus and the Myth of the Surge

| Wed Jun. 23, 2010 1:52 PM EDT

As soon as the news was reported that Gen. David Petraeus is succeeding soon-to-be-retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal as commander of the US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, the media narrative was set in stone: the super-general who won the war in Iraq with the so-called surge can now work his magic in another theater.

It's hard to stop a locomotive meme—which is what the surge story has become. But the success of the surge in Iraq remains debatable to this day. Still, try injecting that point into media discussions of Iraq or Afghanistan. Yet with Petraeus taking over the Afghanistan war, it's worth noting the other side of the surge tale. So as a public service, here are a few analyses that question the surge hype.

From Stephen Walt, a professor of international relations at Harvard:

The surge had two main goals. The first goal was to bring the level of violence down by increasing U.S. force levels in key areas, forging a tactical alliance with cooperative Sunni groups, and shifting to a counterinsurgency strategy that emphasized population protection. This aspect of the surge succeeded, though it is still hard to know how much of the progress was due to increased force levels and improved tactics and how much was due to other developments, such as the prior "ethnic cleansing" that had separated the contending groups.

The second and equally important goal was to promote political reconciliation among the competing factions in Iraq. This goal was not achieved, and the consequences of that failure are increasingly apparent. What lies ahead is a long-delayed test of strength between the various contending groups, until a new formula for allocating political power emerges. That formula has been missing since before the United States invaded -- that is, Washington never had a plausible plan for reconstructing a workable Iraqi state once it dismantled Saddam's regime -- and it will be up to the Iraqi people to work it out amongst themselves. It won’t be pretty.

From Tom Ricks, author/journalist Tom Ricks (March 2009):

I thought some of the surge-era deals in Iraq would unravel but I didn't think that would begin happening this quickly. It's only March 2009, and already Awakening fighters are fighting U.S. soldiers in the streets of Baghdad.

Anyone who tells you that the Iraq war is over should be forced to memorize this paragraph from the Sunday edition of the Washington Post:

As Apache helicopter gunships cruised above Baghdad's Fadhil neighborhood, former Sunni insurgents fought from rooftops and street corners against American and Iraqi forces, according to witnesses, the Iraqi military and police. At least 15 people were wounded in the gunfights, which lasted several hours. By nightfall, the street fighters had taken five Iraqi soldiers hostage.

That is Iraq 2009. Does it sound peaceful to you? Does it seem like the political questions vexing Iraq have been solved?

From Tom Ricks (April 2010):

I've held off on commenting on the situation in Iraq during this unsettled transitional period. The bombings in Baghdad (another big one today) strike as painful but irrelevant. On the plus side, al Qaeda in Iraq has suffered some good hits. On the negative, the political situation looks as unresolved as ever. The other day an Iraqi friend gloomily predicted to me that the question of the next government would remain open until September, and then, once it was solved and the Americans were out of the way, violence would begin to increase.

My gut feeling is that Iraq is adrift, and that this slow centrifugal process ultimately will result in, at best, a loose confederation. In other words, not only do I think the glass is half empty, I am not sure how long the glass can take the strain of what it is holding.

But the truth is that I don't know and neither does anyone else. But as Tom Friedman used to say every year, the next six months in Iraq could be decisive.

From former Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.), who co-chaired the Iraq Study Group:

Former Democratic  Indiana congressman Lee Hamilton told CNSNews.com that the surge in Iraq may have “temporarily” achieved its military purpose of reducing violence, but its political intention of promoting “reconciliation” has not been accomplished....

“The purpose of the surge in Iraq was to reduce the violence, which it did, but it also had a political purpose and the political purpose was to encourage reconciliation, which has not happened,” Hamilton, current president and director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center, told CNSNews.com.

“So the military objective was achieved temporarily, we’ve had a resurgence of violence in recent days,” he added. “The political objective has not been achieved.”

From Diana West, a conservative columnist:

The main reason the "surge" in Afghanistan is on is because the  conventional wisdom tells us the "surge" in Iraq "worked."

The problem is, the Iraq surge did not work. Yes, the U.S. military perfectly executed its share of the strategy -- the restoration of some semblance of calm to blood-gushing Mesopotamian society -- but that was only Step One. The end-goal of the surge strategy, Step Two was always out of U.S. control -- a fundamental flaw. Step Two was up  to the Iraqis: namely, to take the opportunity afforded by U.S.- provided security (see Step One) to bring about both "national  reconciliation" and, as the powers-that-were further promised, the emergence of a U.S. ally in the so-called war on terror.

Step One worked. Step Two didn't. The surge, like an uncaught touchdown pass, was incomplete. The United States is now walking off  the battlefield with virtually nothing to show for its blood, treasure, time and effort. In fact, another "success" like that could kill us.

Though the success of the surge is regarded in much of the media as an article of faith, it remains open to discussion and examination. Looking at Iraq these days, it's certainly arguable that Petraeus did not work a miracle there. And the mission he faces in Afghanistan is tougher. To achieve anything resembling victory in Afghanistan, he'll likely need far more success than the Iraq surge produced—in reality or myth.

Prisoners Scored $9 Mil in Housing Tax Credit

| Wed Jun. 23, 2010 12:45 PM EDT

More than a thousand prisoners, 241 of whom were behind bars for life, pocketed more than $9 million in tax breaks as part of Congress' highly popular first homebuyer tax credit. All told, the housing tax credit, which has propped up the US' wounded housing market for months, has lost nearly $30 million to fraud, according to a new Treasury Department report.

Here's CNN Money on the report:

According to the report, 4,608 state and federal inmates filed for these tax credits, and that fraudulent refunds were doled out to 1,295 of them.

The inspector general's report said the most "egregious" fraudsters were 715 prison lifers, including 174 who filed with the help of paid preparers. From this group, 241 lifers were awarded $1.7 million.

The problem was particularly bad in Florida: 61% of the lifers who got credits were incarcerated in the Sunshine State.

The homebuyer tax credit program was very specific about the time period in which homebuyers were allowed to participate, though this rule seems to be the most widely violated. The credit was for home purchases that happened after April 8, 2008, with a cut-off date that was eventually extended to May 1, 2010.

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Breaking: Gulf Geyser Uncapped

| Wed Jun. 23, 2010 12:06 PM EDT

After an accident involving the containment system, the Gulf gusher is spewing oil at full force yet again. Here's the breaking news blast from the Washington Post:

Adm. Thad Allen said Wednesday that an accident triggered the removal of a containment cap on the oil geyser. Officials are examining the cap to look for hydrate formation and hope to replace it on the gushing well.

The Associated Press reports that a robotic vehicle hit the containment dome's venting system, which caused gas to rise through the vent. The system cares warm water through the dome to keep ice-like crystals from forming, which is what foiled previous capping attempts.

BP said that between the containment dome and burning off the oil at the surface, they captured 27,100 barrels yesterday. Now all that oil is gushing unrestrained into the Gulf again, as the video feed shows.

How much oil? We still don't know for sure. The last official government estimate said it could be as high as 60,000 barrels per day. But Allen also said earlier this week that BP and the Coast Guard have set a goal of raising their siphoning capacity to 60,000 to 80,000 barrels a day by mid-July, which would indicate to me that the latest official estimate is still lowballing the total flow.

UPDATE: Here's what the official press release from Unified Command says:

This morning at approximately 8:45 a.m. CDT, a discharge of liquids was observed from a diverter valve on the drill ship Discoverer Enterprise,which is on station at the MC252 well-site. As a precautionary measure,the lower marine riser package (LMRP) containment cap system, attached to the Discover Enterprise, has been moved off the Deepwater Horizon's failed blow-out preventer to ensure the safety of operations and allow the unexpected release of liquids to be analyzed.
Capture of oil and gas through the LMRP cap is therefore temporarily suspended until such time that the cap can be re-installed. Capture of oil and gas through the BOP's choke line to the Q4000 vessel on the surface continues.

UPDATE 2: More horrifying news: Allen also said that two cleanup workers have died. Reuters reports: "The deaths did not appear work-related but were under investigation, he said."

The Great Health Reform Divide

| Wed Jun. 23, 2010 11:32 AM EDT

This week marked the three-month anniversary of the passage of health care reform. On Monday, Obama used the occasion to issue a harsh warning to health insurance executives against exorbitant rate increases. "[W]e’ve got to make sure that this new law is not being used as an excuse to simply drive up costs,” Obama thundered. He also unveiled what the White House calls a new "Patients' Bill of Rights," which highlights some of the new consumer protections and explains how insurers will be force to comply with the law.

Despite Obama's tough rhetoric, the "Patients' Bill of Rights" also makes it clear that the reach of the federal government will only go so far, even when it comes to the kinds of rate hikes the White House has condemned. The New York Times explains:

But for all of Mr. Obama’s browbeating, the new health care law stopped short of giving the administration the power to reject or limit rate increases. Instead, it established the annual reviews, starting next year, and makes available $250 million in grants to states to implement the review process.

States that accept the grants must recommend whether insurers with patterns of excessive pricing should be allowed to market policies through newly created exchanges, which will help individuals and businesses shop for coverage starting in 2014.

As it turns out, the White House had actually proposed giving the federal government the authority to reject unreasonable rate hikes, but the measure never made it into the final bill because of rules governing the reconciliation process. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has tried to reintroduce the proposal as a stand-alone bill, but the current political climate makes it difficult to imagine passing it any time soon. So the onus is now on the states to act, and it's quickly becoming clear which states will take the initiative (and federal money) to do so. The White House points out that states like California, New York, and Maine are already taking the opportunity to strengthen their oversight and require more transparency from companies that want to raise rates. And it's no surprise that the states with the most initiative are largely Democratic strongholds that already have a strong history of enforcing consumer protection measures. It's the start of the great divide between red and blue states that will become increasingly apparent as more parts of the law are put into place.

There's still some leeway for the federal government to assert greater authority and oversight over premium hikes, even in red states that are unwilling or reluctant to embrace the health law. The annual review process will require the federal government to work with state regulators to flag and scrutinize "unreasonable" premium increases. Though this will demand a measure of cooperation from state officials, the process could still create a more uniform standard for scrutiny and ramp up oversight in the twenty-odd states that currently don't have a "rate review" authority to examine premium hikes. That said, the administration has yet to finalize the rules defining exactly what an "unreasonable" rate hike is. And the insurance lobby that the White House has so thoroughly villified is doubtlessly doing all it can right now to shape the rules that will govern them.

Did Barton Just Unapologize?

| Wed Jun. 23, 2010 11:29 AM EDT

Which is more ridiculous: Republicans pardoning Joe Barton's apology to BP last week and letting him keep his prized seat as Ranking Member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, or Barton taking to Twitter this morning to validate himself in the third person?

Barton's feed linked to this piece, titled "Joe Barton Was Right," which Barton posted to his page on the social networking site Amplify. That post reprints a portion of an American Spectator piece on the same subject.

The real question though, is what this says about Barton's apology for the apology last week. Which one did he actually mean to offer?

UPDATE: Now it looks like Barton deleted the Tweet. Good thing David Weigel got a screen shot. Does this mean he's apologizing for un-apologizing?

A Kinder, Gentler Blackwater?

| Wed Jun. 23, 2010 10:46 AM EDT

Jeff Stein reports this morning that the company formerly known as Blackwater has been awarded a CIA contract worth about $100 million to provide security in "multiple regions." This comes days after the company landed a $120 million State Department contract for work in Afghanistan. Stein's piece includes an interesting quote from an official who defends the government's decision to provide Blackwater 2.0 with more work, given the litany of abuses and scandals in the firm's recent past:

"Blackwater has undergone some serious changes," maintained a U.S. official who is familiar with the deal and spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss it freely.

"They’ve had to if they want to survive. They’ve had to prove to the government that they’re a responsible outfit. Having satisfied every legal requirement, they have the right to compete for contracts. They have people who do good work, at times in some very dangerous places. Nobody should forget that, either."

If Blackwater (which is currently up for sale) only now has to prove it's a responsible, legally compliant company, you have to wonder what type of standard government contracting officers were applying previously, as they handed the firm (and its affiliates) contract after contract despite serious questions about its conduct. The offical Stein quotes is echoing the line Blackwater's new management team has been pushing —that the company has been reformed, chastened by the mistakes of its past. It may even be true. Otherwise it's a shrewd, if predictable, PR campaign.

In February, when he was called before a Senate committee to answer for the misconduct of employees of a Blackwater-created shell company named Paravant, Fred Roitz, a senior VP at Xe (as the company is now known), insisted [PDF] the company had truly been transformed into a model corporate citizen: "These changes in personnel, attitude, focus, policy and practice, ownership, and governance represent a break from the past. The new Xe Services remains committed to our nation’s critical missions. We are equally committed, however, to a culture of compliance that in all circumstances reflects a responsible US government contractor." Following the hearing, I approached Roitz to pose a couple questions about his testimony and Xe's new corporate culture. I'd barely introduced myself when he refused to speak with me, brushing past trailed by an entourage of lawyers and crisis management specialists. It sure seemed like the old Blackwater to me.