2010 - %3, August

Corn on "Hardball": Palin the Big Winner in Alaska Primary

Wed Aug. 25, 2010 4:44 PM PDT

David Corn and Pat Buchanan joined Hardball's Chris Matthews to discuss Sarah Palin's role in helping tea party candidate Joe Miller to an all but certain victory over Lisa Murkowski in the Alaska Republican primary.

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter.

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Ground Zero's Slave Graves

| Wed Aug. 25, 2010 4:32 PM PDT

The outrage about the "ground zero mosque" has turned very ugly, as this video of this recent protest shows. People are calling Mohammed a pig. A New York City cab driver was stabbed today after his passenger asked him if he was Muslim. But I find the righteous outrage of those contending the former World Trade Center site is "hallowed ground" amusing, because they have no idea just how right they are. Before the World Trade Center was even designed (with Islamic architectural elements, incidentally), the ground was indeed sacrosanct: The bones of some 20,000 African slaves are buried 25 feet below Lower Manhattan. As at least 10 percent of West African slaves in America were Muslims, it's not out of bounds to extrapolate that ground zero itself was built on the bones of at least a few Muslim slaves. That is to say, hallowed Muslim ground.

Quote of the Day: Remedial Math

| Wed Aug. 25, 2010 4:24 PM PDT

From a math instructor in the California State University system, after one of his remedial students suggested she might have a mathematics learning disability:

"You very well might have a math learning disability. Such disabilities are prevalent and very real, but in your case, I think there might be stronger indicators at play here. Your attendance thus far is 50%, so you might have a showing up disability. You have turned in 30% of the homework thus far, so you might have a doing your homework disability. While I don't discourage you from getting tested for a math disability, I urge you not to discount those other two factors." Because of that comment, I never taught remedial math again.

Who knows? Maybe this guy is just a prick. But don't tell me you didn't laugh at this.

Obama Endorsed Offshore Drilling Without Asking His Own Oceans Agency

| Wed Aug. 25, 2010 1:32 PM PDT

Just weeks before the Gulf oil spill, the Obama administration announced a massive expansion of offshore drilling. The proposal to open up hundreds of thousands of acres of virgin territory along the eastern seaboard and Gulf Coast and within the Arctic Ocean shocked enviros, but it was clear that the White House saw offshore drilling as an incentive to convince wary senators to support its larger energy plan.

Of course, that plan hit a brick wall on April 20, as the public was reminded that drilling might not be all that safe after all. And it threw a wrench into the already contentious debate over climate and energy policy in the Senate, even as senators tried to quell concerns by modifying the drilling expansion plans. At this point, we know that there's no chance of getting a comprehensive bill this year, and it's not even clear that the Senate can even pass a scaled-back spill-response bill. So a massive expansion of offshore drilling remains on the table, even as hopes dim for the broader plan happening anytime soon.

Now it seems that it's largely up to the president's Oil Spill Commission to determine how to proceed on offshore drilling. But from what the commissioners have said previously, this is a question of how, not if; we shouldn't expect them to advise the Obama administration to changes its plan to expand offshore oil and gas development.

Which is why it was telling Wednesday as the commission held its first hearing in Washington, DC, and repeatedly returned to the question of who, exactly, endorsed the drilling expansion in the first place. Among the witnesses were Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Nancy Sutley, head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. At three points in their hourlong appearance, commission members asked them to clarify whether their offices had been consulted before the vast expansion of offshore drilling was announced. (It was asked repeatedly because it took three tries to get a clear answer on the subject.) Commission Co-Chair Bob Graham, a former senator and governor from Florida, pointed to Obama's own statement on the day the expansion was announced, in which he noted that it was "not a decision that I've made lightly," but "one that Ken and I—as well as Carol Browner, my energy advisor, and others in my administration—looked at closely for more than a year." (Ken, of course, refers to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.)

The answer from both Sutley and Lubchenco about whether they'd been asked to give their opinion on the plan: Nope.

Now, Sutley's job description at CEQ is mostly confined to making sure that federal agencies uphold the National Environmental Protection Act in their decisionmaking. Any involved on the part of CEQ would come down the line as decisions are made about lease sales or permitting. But Lubchenco's role as the head of NOAA is much more central here. This is the agency charged with protecting ocean and coastal resources and responsible for evaluating the extent to which drilling operations might impact endangered species, marine mammals, or fisheries. One would hope that its guidance in the expansion plan would be crucial; but while Lubchenco said her agency offered comments on previous leasing plans and there was "formal and informal agency discussion at various points in this process," NOAA was not asked to approve or disapprove of the plan. Some, though not all, of the agency's concerns were taken into account, she said.

"You say now you were consulted, but were not part of the group that advised the president on the ultimate decision?" asked Graham. "That's correct," Lubchenco replied. Nor was her agency asked if it had the resources available to properly execute the additional responsibilities that this expansion would create, she said. At another point in the hearing, she noted that her agency is already "seriously hampered by a lack of resources" and time to do much of the oversight work it would like to do.

The decision, Lubchenco and Sutely indicated, was in the hands of the Department of Interior. This really makes you wonder what agencies they did consult about the final decision, if not NOAA. It also makes you wonder what this means for the expansion plan going forward.

WikiLeaks Shows CIA's Soft Side

| Wed Aug. 25, 2010 1:30 PM PDT

As promised, WikiLeaks today released a secret CIA memorandum on counterterrorism strategy. And while Julian Assange's website has taken a generally dim view of the US government, the memo it chose to leak portrays an intelligence agency that's surprisingly thoughtful and, well, liberal-sounding.

The document was produced by CIA's "Red Cell" team, which was formed after the 9/11 attacks to think creatively about US security strategy. (The Red Cell "takes a pronounced 'out-of-the-box' approach and produces memos intended to provoke thought rather than to provide authoritative assessment," the agency boasts on its own website.) WikiLeaks has drawn water from that well in the past (PDF), but the new memo—dated February 5—asks agency spooks (PDF) a surprisingly self-critical question: "What If Foreigners See the United States as an 'Exporter of Terrorism'?"

The paper's authors list a host of recent terrorist activities perpetrated by US citizens abroad: Five Virginians traveling to Pakistan for jihad training; a spotter gathering surveillance for the 2008 Mumbai massacre; Jews like Baruch Goldstein plotting against "perceived enemies of Israel"; and well-known "financial and material support" provided by Irish-Americans to fight British influence over the Emerald Isle. Note wholly domestic attacks, like Hasan and Feisal Shahzad, aren't mentioned: CIA in this case is wholly concerned with how American citizens can be used to screw with other nations:

Undoubtedly Al-Qa’ida and other terrorist groups recognize that Americans can be great assets in terrorist operations overseas because they carry US passports, don’t fit the typical Arab-Muslim profile, and can easily communicate with radical leaders through their unfettered access to the internet and other modes of communication.

How can they possibly get away with this under American noses? Because:

Al-Qa'ida and other extremist groups have also probably noticed that the US Government has been more concerned with preventing attacks on the US by homegrown terrorists or foreigners than with Americans going overseas to carry out attacks in other countries. Most foreign governments do not suspect that American citizens would plot or perpetrate attacks against their citizens within their borders.

Some Americans do notice—or obsess over—"homegrown" terrorists, of course: We call them conspiracy theorists, mostly of the right-wing variety. (See: Geller, Pam, and Gohmert, Louie.) They usually only obsess over US-born terror in the context of a supposed fifth column against America or Israel; they don't seem terribly concerned with Americans killing Indians or Europeans. Even if they did care, the worst thing we could do as a society is let them dominate the debate over domestic-based terrorists, because a closing of American society—more profiling, wiretaps, arrests, secret evidence—will probably produce more militants than it catches.

Anyway, what's the CIA care about all of this? Because if the US doesn't keep better tabs on its domestic terrorists going abroad, that could have disastrous effects for the US's goals on combating terror coming in from overseas:

As a recent victim of high-profile terrorism originating from abroad, the US Government has had significant leverage to press foreign regimes to acquiesce to requests for extraditing terrorist suspects from their soil. However, if the US were seen as an “exporter of terrorism,” foreign governments could request a reciprocal arrangement that would impact US sovereignty... In extreme cases, US refusal to cooperate with foreign government requests for extradition might lead some governments to consider secretly extracting US citizens suspected of foreign terrorism from US soil.

Of course, we've set the precedent for unilateral renditions of suspects on other nations' sovereign territory, just as we've set the standard for pre-emptive war. The Bush administration argued that terrorism was a national security issue that transcended state sovereignty. No matter what credence that argument might have had, its logical consequence was that other nations similarly concerned about their security could resort to the same tactics and justifications, too.

If foreign regimes believe the US position on rendition is too one-sided, favoring the US, but not them, they could obstruct US efforts to detain terrorism suspects. For example, in 2005 Italy issued criminal arrest warrants for US agents involved in the abduction of an Egyptian cleric and his rendition to Egypt. The proliferation of such cases would not only challenge US bilateral relations with other countries but also damage global counterterrorism efforts.

You can read all of this as a push within CIA to have more power for domestic surveillance of terror suspects—something that, before 9/11 at least, was supposed to be an FBI gig. But more likely, America's spooks are themselves spooked by the blowback that could result if America doesn't do a better job of practicing what it preaches on counterterrorism. If so, it seems the Red Cell authors are intent on putting the "intelligence" back in "Central Intelligence Agency."

Taking Down Fox News

| Wed Aug. 25, 2010 1:25 PM PDT

After Glenn Beck blamed Obama for harboring a "deep-seated hatred for white people" during a morning chat on Fox and Friends more than a year ago, ColorofChange.org's director James Rucker decided that enough was enough. "Beck's comments about the president perfectly captured what has been going on at the network for a long time," Rucker told reporter Alexander Zaitchik, who wrote about the incident in our July/August issue this year. Color of Change is an online civil rights group focused on strengthening the political voices of people of color. Under Rucker's direction, it successfully urged several advertisers, including Best Buy, Wal-Mart, and RadioShack, to pull their ads from Beck's show. But Rucker didn't exactly get the outcome he was hoping for. Fox News did nothing to reign Beck in: instead, he's been allowed to blather on with few boundaries ever since. "Nothing has essentially changed," says Rucker. So Color of Change has launched an even larger offensive: convincing local businesses to silence Fox News.

Rucker had been bothered by catching glimpses of figures like Beck on television in the gym or restaurants. True Fox devotees, who see the world through that lens, should be able to watch Fox in their own homes, says Rucker. "But no one else should be subject to that." The Turn Off Fox campaign, which launches today, wants to de-legitimize Fox in public places. The campaign provides anyone with a kit, including instructions on how to persuade store owners to become "Fox-free" and a flyer detailing why.

"Fox's race-baiting and fear mongering is more than just deceptive and offensive," reads the campaign literature. "It's bad for the country, it's dangerous, and it can result in violence." In a letter asking for signatures, Turn Off Fox makes a case for how Fox's divisive reporting has sparked recent acts of violence. For example, when a man open fired at highway cops on an Oakland freeway in July, he told them that he wanted to start a revolution, with planned bloodshed at the Tides Foundation in San Francisco. Tides is a little-known non-profit, argues Turn Off Fox, that Glenn Beck chose to demonize on his show. A report by Media Matters suggests that the trigger-happy man could have drawn inspiration from Beck's proselytizing, and the shooter's mother admitted that her son "watched the news on television and was upset by 'the way Congress was railroading through all these left-wing agenda items."

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Alaska Senate Race Gets Complicated

| Wed Aug. 25, 2010 1:09 PM PDT

Well, this could make things even more interesting in Alaska. Tea party candidate Joe Miller looks likely to unseat incumbent Lisa Murkowski, but now the Daily Beast is reporting that the state's senior senator is mulling a third-party run.

While the deadline for independent candidates to file has passed, "a source within the Murkowski campaign says they know of one possible legal option to pursue a third party run."

And then it gets even more complicated, as rumors fly that Democrats might substitute former Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles for Scott McAdams, the winner of yesterday's primary, on the November ballot.

Oh, Alaska. Let no one ever say you don't give us plenty of stuff to write about.

Will BP Own Up to the Real Flow Rate?

| Wed Aug. 25, 2010 12:48 PM PDT

The federal government determined that 53,000 barrels of oil were dumped into the Gulf of Mexico every day over the course of the BP disaster. So why is BP still "continuing to evaluate available inforomation" to come up with its own flow rate figure?

We know that BP has consistently low-balled the figure, trying for days to convince us that just 1,000 barrels of oil was coming from the well before they finally acknowledged a revised (and now known to be far too low) 5,000 barrel initial government estimate. It looks like the oil giant might still be trying to avoid acknowledging that the spill was far worse than BP led us to believe.

Rep. Ed Markey has been dogging this issue. In a letter to the company on August 11, he asked "whether BP will accept this more definitive" estimate from the flow rate technical group (FRTG) "as the basis for its per barrel spill liability and for other legal purposes." Basically, he wants BP to say that it won't challenge this figure in court, a figure that will be crucial to determining things like how much money BP owes for Clean Water Act violations and for the damages to natural resources.

"BP acceptance of a flow rate number is fundamental to its claim that it 'is doing everything it can to make this right' for the families and businesses of the Gulf," said Markey. "Oil may have stopped flowing from the well, but the suffering in the region continues. Low-balling or litigating the flow rate estimate would be just one more insult to the people of the Gulf."

Here's the response to Markey's request, provided by Douglas F. Curtis, an attorney at WilmerHale, on behalf of BP:

Without addressing the letter's premise, BP agrees with you that it is important to determine the amount of oil that was discharged from the MC 252 well into the Gulf of Mexico. BP is continuing to evaluate available information, including estimates previously released by the FRTG. The company is also cooperating with the various government agencies looking into this important matter.

Of course, BP faces tens of billions of dollars in fines based on this figure. The company has every reason to remain coy about whether or not it will fight the government's estimate.

Why We Sue

| Wed Aug. 25, 2010 12:24 PM PDT

Matt Steinglass is in Amsterdam, and he's pleased to find that his daughter can swim in the Amstel River if she wants. "If I'd tried letting my daughter do this in, say, the Potomac River in Washington, DC," he says, "I would have likely been arrested." Why the difference? Because in America everyone is afraid of getting sued, so they insist on putting in place ever more restrictive rules on what we are and aren't allowed to do:

The reason you can [swim freely in public waters] in the Netherlands is that if anybody tried to sue the city of Amsterdam because they or their child had been injured while swimming in the river, the suit would almost certainly be dismissed....Essentially, you still have the freedom to swim in the river in Amsterdam because people assume you have the common sense to avoid stupid behaviour, like diving in when you don't know what's underneath, or not keeping to the sides of the river during barge traffic hours. And if you don't, it's nobody's fault but your own.

But there's another reason why I can let my daughter swim in the Amstel, and that is that I'm pretty sure that in a well-regulated country like the Netherlands, the water is reasonably free of heavy pollutants and raw sewage. (I would not, for example, let her swim in the Mekong.) This, I think, outlines a useful distinction between different kinds of regulation....To generalise: for risks I can assess myself, I don't want regulations that prevent me from doing as I please just because I might end up suing the government. For risks I can't assess myself, I do want regulations that give me the confidence to do as I please. One kind of regulation stops me from swimming in a pond in Massachusetts. The other kind lets me swim in a river in the Netherlands. One kind of regulation makes me less free. The other kind makes me freer.

It's worth digging into this a bit. Why is America more litigious than Europe? With the obvious caveat that not every country in Europe does things exactly the same way, here are a few reasons:

  • America's common law culture has always given lawyers more power and greater scope for action than in continental Europe. Tocqueville commented on this 200 years ago.
  • In civil cases, most European countries have adopted a "loser pays" rule. If you sue and lose, you have to pay the other side's costs. This obviously makes people think a lot harder before they decide to file a suit.
  • In most European countries torts are tried in front of judges. In the United States the constitution guarantees jury trials, and juries are probably more likely to award damages than a panel of grizzled old judges. (Or even grizzled young judges.)
  • Largely thanks to conservatives, America has developed a litigation culture rather than an enforcement culture. In Europe the tradeoff generally goes the other way: they have more rules and tighter enforcement of those rules, which means that private litigation is less necessary.
  • On a related note, Sean Farhang argues that at the level of federal legislation, Congress actively encourages private litigation as an enforcement mechanism because it doesn't trust enforcement to the executive branch (which might be headed by someone who prefers to take it easy on favored constituencies).

Long story short, this difference between Europe and the U.S. is so deeply rooted that it's not likely to change — and it's not really due to a national culture that promotes a refusal to accept personal responsibility or anything like that. It's mostly institutional in nature, and the incentives of our institutions point in the direction of more lawsuits instead of more regulations. Conservative tort reform advocates are huge fans of implementing a European-style loser pays rule in America, and I might be too if they were willing to make the other half of the bargain and support European-style regulation and enforcement designed to make our institutions safer and fairer in the first place. But they're not.

Where the West Begins (or Doesn't)

| Wed Aug. 25, 2010 12:04 PM PDT

Interior, South Dakota—Ask any 10 sources where the West begins and you'll get 10 different answers: St. Louis tells us it begins at the Arch; Rapid City tells us it's the Black Hills; the writer William Least Heat-Moon says it's the tall-grass prairie of Chase County, Kansas. Someone in the UP once told me that the West begins at the Cumberland Gap. It's like unobtanium.

Except, I think I've actually found it.

Drive west through South Dakota, head south at Wall, and cut through the Badlands, and sooner or later find yourself in Interior, population 77, perched off to the side of the highway like a just-ripened piece of fruit.