2011 - %3, September

The Wisconsin GOP's Clever Plan to Block Scott Walker's Recall

| Thu Sep. 29, 2011 10:48 AM EDT

Each morning, the Twitter account @RecallWalkerBot announces the number of days until Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker can legally be recalled. As of  today, the count stands at 96 days. But before that countdown hits zero, GOP legislators in Wisconsin are doing their best to give Walker more power over the recall process and make it harder for recall organizers to gather the signatures needed to trigger a recall election.

As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports, the move by Wisconsin GOPers, who control the state Assembly and Senate, would allow Walker to block a policy by the state's non-partisan Government Accountability Board that allows organizers to collect signatures in a recall effort through online forms as opposed to the usual on-the-ground, in-person mode of signature gathering. Democrats see the effort as a brazen power grab aimed at blunting any effort to unseat Walker once he's recall eligible in January 2012. "You have given the governor control of the chicken coop, so to say," said state Sen. Lena Taylor (D).

Here's more from the Journal Sentinel:

The Government Accountability Board, which oversees state elections, adopted policies this month about recall petitions and what student IDs can be used for voting.

Legislative leaders raised concerns about those procedures, and on Tuesday the Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules took testimony from Kevin Kennedy, director of the accountability board. The co-chairs of the committee, Sen. Leah Vukmir (R-Wauwatosa) and Rep. Jim Ott (R-Mequon), expressed skepticism of the policies and said they would likely ask the accountability board to adopt them as administrative rules.

Walker would have to sign off on such rules, and if he declined to do so, he could stop them entirely. If Walker approved them, the rules would then go before the committee, which could eventually block them, approve them or ask for modifications.

It's still unclear if Walker foes plan to mount a recall effort or not. They would need to gather about 540,000 signatures in a 60-day window to prompt a recall election. Although this summer's recall elections targeting nine state senators were a win on paper for unions and Democrats, their failure to reclaim the state Senate majority arguably slowed their momentum and raised questions about the wisdom of a statewide recall effort against Walker. There's also the question of whether Walker's opponents will try to recall him right away and possibly tee up a recall election during the GOP presidential primary season or wait until later in the year so that the recall coincides with the November general election.

All these questions, not to mention the GOP's meddling with the recall process, hang over Wisconsin progressives. Then again, they've got 96 days and counting to figure it out.

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Romney to Share Stage with Far-Right, Anti-Muslim Activist

| Thu Sep. 29, 2011 10:16 AM EDT
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney will speak at the Values Voters Summit in October.

When former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney takes the stage at next week's annual Values Voters Summit in Washington, DC, a gathering of religious-right leaders and activists, he will have interesting company: the GOP presidential candidate will be followed immediately by Bryan Fischer, issues director for the American Family Association.

Since taking the post at the AFA two years ago, Fischer has built a long resume of anti-Muslim, anti-gay, and anti-Native American statements. (He's also written three separate columns calling for an outright war on grizzly bears). Fischer has called for a ban on Muslims in the military, argued that Muslim citizens should be deported, and declared that there should be a moratorium on mosque construction in the United States. He has said that gays are Nazis, and charged that homosexuals were responsible for the Holocaust. Unsurprisingly, he believes that gay sex should be a criminal offense because it is "domestic terrorism."

Fischer has called President Obama a "fascist dictator" and asserted that Native American societies were a "slop bucket" that got what they deserved. Even America's veterans aren't immune to Fischer's criticism: Last November, he warned that the Congressional Medal of Honor had been "feminized."

Making things even more awkward, Fischer has had some pretty icy words for Romney in the past. As he tweeted recently: "All you need to know about Mitt Romney: makes headlines when he DOESN'T pander to somebody." He's also called Romney a "phony" and mocked him for expanding his California home. Perhaps more important, in April, Fischer stated that Romney's Mormon faith "should be an issue" in the 2012 election. Might Fischer raise this "issue" at the Value Voters summit.

Republican candidates have consistently played political footsie with Fischer, despite his extremism. Tim Pawlenty, Newt Gingrich, and Herman Cain have all appeared on Fischer's radio program, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry co-hosted a prayer rally in Houston in August with Fischer's organization, the American Family Assocation. Romney's appearance at the Values Voters Summit might help him court social conservative voters who play an outsized role in Republican primaries. But the appearance is a reminder that even a prominent Republican who has tried to stay clear of fringe right-wing conspiracy theories like those peddled by Fischer cannot succeed within the GOP without hobnobbing with extremists.

Reps. Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul, Herman Cain, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum will also be speaking at the event.

Update: Right Wing Watch digs up audio in which Fischer states that Mormons aren't guaranteed First Amendment rights, because they're not real Christians.

Boycott Minerals From Congo? Not So Fast

| Thu Sep. 29, 2011 10:00 AM EDT
A UN peacekeeper takes stock of weapons collected as part of the demobilization effort in eastern Congo.

As the fact-checker for Mac McClelland's "To Catch a Warlord," I started thinking about the topic of her piece as the "Bosco Paradox." The feature is about ICC-indicted Congolese warlord Bosco Ntaganda, and it investigates the competing priorities that have made his arrest (which should be easy–even Mac has his home address) a near-impossibility. Delving into DRC history, I saw that the Bosco Paradox is just one example of a long-standing pattern: In Congo, obvious solutions often aren't implemented because they'll simply create other problems.

This idea has cropped up recently in reference to a small, Congo-related provision of the year-old Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act. The rule—Section 1502—aims to regulate four of Congo's "conflict minerals:" gold, wolframite, cassiterite, and coltan. These are key for producing popular electronics like laptops and cell phones, and their trade has, for decades, financed DRC human rights abuses. So, Section 1502 requires US companies getting minerals from the DRC to disclose how they're doing so, submitting reports to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) on the measures they're taking to ensure that their business isn't benefiting DRC rebel militias.

Schools Say No To Tea Party's Constitution Lessons

| Thu Sep. 29, 2011 9:59 AM EDT

Earlier this year, tea party groups sparked a bit of an uproar when they announced plans to pressure public schools into teaching their version of constitutional history during the federally mandated Constitution week that began September 17. Led by a large umbrella group, Tea Party Patriots, activists planned to pressure local school officials into using controversial curriculum developed by the National Center for Constitutional Studies (NCCS). The NCCS was founded by Glen Beck's favorite pseudo-historian, W. Cleon Skousen, who argued in his book The 5,000 Year Leap that the creation of the US was a divine miracle. When the news got out, liberal legal groups expressed outrage and urged schools to reject the plan.

As it turns out, many schools weren't that keen on having tea partiers in their midst. There have been only scattered reports of the Tea Party Patriots successfully getting their curriculum into schools, but there have also been a number of complaints from educators who say tea party activists have been trying to intimidate them. In northern California's Nevada County, a hot-bed of tea party activism, tea partiers were giving out their materials and surveying local schools to ensure compliance with the federal mandate to teach the Constitution. One educator told the local paper that she didn't appreciate the meddling. The Union reported last week:

When Tea Party Patriots starting demanding proof of lesson plans, suggesting instructional materials and even informing administrators that the media would be notified about their level of compliance, some area administrators felt attacked.

“It seems that we aren't being believed for some reason,” said Debra Sandoval, superintendent of Pleasant Valley and Ready Springs School District, which was singled out by local Tea Party Patriots as being the only district that did not respond to their inquiries.

Then, this week, two districts in Florida rejected donations of pocket Constitutions distributed by local tea party and Glenn-Beck-associated 9/12 groups. The booklets were stamped with tea party information and included some language that the district found either too religious or too political to make them suitable for public schools. Many of the booklets came from NCCS. And the St. Petersburg Times reported that while the booklets contained things like the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address, the foreword stated, "Unless Americans remember and preserve our rich heritage of liberty, a new Dark Age of tyranny could lock the majority of mankind into the harsh chains of totalitarian slavery." Other donated Constitutions came with propaganda from the libertarian Cato Institute, which claimed that the Constitution has been misinterpreted, leading to "a government that's effectively unlimited … and increasingly unaffordable."

The school districts said no thanks and send the booklets back. As one of the superintendents told the Times, "When you add all of those things together, it's not just a simple Constitution. You've got to be real careful when you're passing out information to the kids."

Piranha Attacks: Not Like The Movies

| Thu Sep. 29, 2011 9:14 AM EDT
Warning: Piranhas have been known to occasionally nibble humans in a non-lethal way.

Sometimes, a headline comes along that reads like it was taken straight out of a Roger Corman flick: Over the weekend, schools of ravenous piranhas attacked scores of swimmers who were relaxing at a lake resort in northeast Brazil. AFP, the Daily Mail, the Huffington Post, and even late night talk show host Craig Ferguson giddily reported on the attacks. But the piranhas are getting a bad rap.

For all the hysterical coverage, the piranhas produced scant little carnage. There were no sexy teens perishing terribly in the water, and there was absolutely no feline-stroking Bond villain chuckling on the sidelines watching the water boil with flesh-eating fish. The worst of the reported injuries? "Bitten heels and toes after the predators attacked," according to the Daily Mail. The area has seen a recent spike in piranha-related wounds, supposedly due to both a food shortage and overpopulation caused by the fishing of species like the peacock bass, which naturally feed on piranhas. (There's an alternate theory that the piranhas were simply protecting their nests located in the resort's shallow waters).

Because of everything bad horror films, urban legends, and Teddy Roosevelt have told the American public about piranhas, the species has earned the reputation of being a bloodthirsty breed of water creature that would probably jump at the opportunity to eat your family. In reality, the freshwater fish typically avoids preying on people, and statistically you have a far greater chance of getting executed by Rick Perry than being torn apart by piranhas. But that hasn't stopped people from believing that a run-of-the-mill onslaught of starving piranhas would play out something like this:

The piranha has been the victim of a baseless prejudice for decades now. Below is some sensible debunking courtesy of Discovery Channel, in which the fish are described as timid "vultures of the Amazon" with no recorded history of claiming human lives. So if you're planning a trip to Brazil, go ahead and pack your bikini and swim trunks.

Fear and Loathing in Congo

| Thu Sep. 29, 2011 5:00 AM EDT

The feature on war criminals in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that I reported this spring is out. In honor of its publication, I'd like to share a scene that was in my notes but that didn't end up in the final product. Like the outtake from the time I was on camera for PBS and ripped a five-inch hole in the crotch of my pants. Except this one's less funny because it's about murder. Also Hall & Oates.

The story: My translator Joey and I are interviewing a slew of witnesses and sources who are running for their lives because, they say, International Criminal Court-indicted warlord Bosco Ntaganda is threatening to kill them. I'm so paranoid that when one of Ntaganda's colonels says something possibly innocuous to me, I think maybe he's actually telling me he's been following me, and Joey's having paranoid nightmares that the colonels will come after us in our hotel, and one of my Congolese drivers nearly throws me off a motorbike while whipping around to see if he's being tailed.

That's all in the feature. Not included, however, is one of my sources warning me not to write anything about Ntaganda until I've left the country. Don't worry, I tell him; we'll delay running any stories until at least my arrival in Uganda. He shakes his head. Uganda is right next door, and the bad guys have alliances there. "They could easily kill you in Uganda," he says, not because he is being dramatic, but because he's been chased farther across the continent than that. Then one morning, some suspected assassination-plotters we've met call my cell: "Hey! Just want to say hello! See what you're up to!" That's the deleted lead-up to this deleted scene.

I go upstairs to my hotel room and put my iPod on shuffle, and it picks "Private Eyes." They're watching you. They see your evvvvveryyy moooove. I stop dead in my tracks on my way into the bathroom, toothbrush in hand. Oh I see you, oh I see you, private, private, private eyes, girl. I look out the wide window for something awry in the empty lot next door, turn toward the door and watch it hard, trying to intuit what might be on the other side in the dark hallway where the lights never, ever work, just for a second, before laughing and congratulating myself for not believing in signs and letting the paranoia paralyze me. Though that's easy for me to say. I'm leaving tomorrow.

Anyway, there's a lot of extremely brave Congolese trying to live their lives and tell their stories despite imminent danger. Read the whole story here. (And while you're at it, check out this related photo essay about the war on Congo's women.)

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for September 29, 2011

Thu Sep. 29, 2011 4:57 AM EDT

Soldiers from the Lexington-based Company B, 1st Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment, 116th Brigade Combat Team train on military operations in urban terrain Sept. 20, 2011 at the Fort Pickett MOUT village. The soldiers exercised their infantry specific warrior skills during their two week annual training period. US Army photo by Staff Sgt. Andrew H. Owen, Virginia Guard Public Affairs.

 

San Francisco Meetup

| Wed Sep. 28, 2011 10:26 PM EDT

In the comments downblog, a few people asked if I planned to meet up with Bay Area readers while I was in town. This slipped my mind, actually, but as it happens I'm free Thursday night. So here's the deal: I'm going to be largely tied up most of the day, so someone will have to organize this in the comment section. If it's just one or two people, that's fine. If it's a bigger crowd, that's great too. I have a strong craving for Chinese food at the moment, but anything else will do if the masses speak up in unison for something different. I can make it to any place that's fairly easily accessible from downtown.

So.....any takers for dinner on Thursday? I'll try to check in around noon, and if there's some kind of consensus I'll post it as an update.

UPDATE: I don't have access to comments at the moment, but compromising a bit between various suggestions, times, and closeness to my hotel....how about R&G (on Kearney just north of Sacramento) at 7:00? Can I get a show of hands in comments for how many people are OK with that? (It's fine to show up late or leave early, of course.)

CONFIRMATION: This is to confirm the meetup. We'll be at R&G at 7:00 tonight. It looks like maybe half dozen folks will be there. But maybe more! See you there.

Coming Soon: The Tea Party Recession of 2011?

| Wed Sep. 28, 2011 10:09 PM EDT

Back in 2008, during the worst of the financial crisis, I remember that many of us were shaking our heads a bit over Europe. American banks were clearly overleveraged, which led to the collapse of Bear Stearns and Lehman and Wachovia, and the near collapse of several others, but European banks mostly came through unscathed. Outside of Great Britain (and Iceland, of course), Europe suffered only a few bank failures, and they were pretty easily contained. And yet, European banks, on average, were more highly leveraged than ours. Shouldn't they have collapsed even worse than ours? What gives?

Well, now we know: European banks were in worse shape than ours, but they were overleveraged in a different way that allowed them to hang on a couple of years longer. But now the jig is about up. Greece is about ready to fail, and after that, maybe Spain and Italy too. Ezra Klein talks to Desmond Lachman about what this means:

EK: And if some of these dominoes fall, how bad are things likely to get?

DL: What’s really at stake here is the European banking system. These countries might be relatively small, but if you just look at Greece, Ireland and Portugal, that’s $1 trillion in sovereign debt. If you add Spain, that’s another trillion. If you add Italy, that’s another $1.9 trillion. If the European banks take the hit, that could really cause another Lehman moment. It would be a credit crunch that would throw the European economy into a meaningful recession.

Bummer. But hey, that's just Europe. At least we'll be OK, right? Sadly, no. We're highly exposed in a number of ways to trouble in Europe. In fact, it might even be worse this time around:

EK: And what are the chances that this leads us back into a recession?

DL: If you want me to depress you some more, let me tell you what really worries me. If we do go into recession this time around, what will be different from 2008 and 2009 is even if the recession isn’t as deep, we either don’t have the policy ammunition to fight it or we have convinced ourselves that we don’t have the policy ammunition to fight it. So what will the policy response be? Bernanke just showed you he thinks he has very little ammunition left. There’s no way Congress will go in for another big stimulus package. And the Europeans are tied up in the belief that they need to balance their budget.

Just remember: it doesn't have to be this way, no matter how often and how loudly Republicans shriek about austerity and budget deficits. If we want them to, both monetary and fiscal policy can have plenty of bite left. Bottom line: If we plummet into a second recession, it will be solely the fault of fanatical conservatives in Congress who refuse for reasons both partisan and ideological to acknowledge that we can do something about this. It'll be the Tea Party Recession of 2011.

Charges Referred Against Alleged U.S.S. Cole Bomber

| Wed Sep. 28, 2011 5:41 PM EDT
The U.S.S. Cole, after the 2000 bombing.

Almost ten years since he was captured, the alleged mastermind of the U.S.S. Cole bombing is closer to getting a trial.

The Pentagon announced Wednesday afternoon that it's going forward with military commissions charges against Abd Al Rahim Hussayn Muhammad Al Nashiri, accused of planning of the 2000 bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen, which killed 17 American sailors. Military prosecutors are seeking the death penalty, which will require a unanimous jury verdict, as opposed to the two-thirds majority needed in non-capital cases.

What's strange is that Nashiri is being charged in a military commission at all. Attorney General Eric Holder originally said that the attack on the Cole "was an attack on a United States warship, and that, I think, is appropriately placed into the military commissions setting." While the attack occurred after Osama bin Laden's declaration of war on the United States, it took place prior to the 9/11 attacks, and therefore before the military commissions system was created. The case was investigated as a law enforcement matter—in fact, last year, one of the FBI investigators on the Cole case, Ali Soufan, chastised the Bush administration for not prosecuting Nashiri earlier.

While such obstacles were not unexpected, what surprised us was the lack of support from home. No one in the Clinton White House seemed to care about the case. We had hoped that the George W. Bush administration would be better, but except for Robert Mueller, the director of the F.B.I., its top officials soon sidelined the case; they considered it, according to Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy defense secretary, "stale." Even the families of the sailors were denied meetings with the White House, a disgrace that ended only when President Obama took office—and a precedent I hope the administration maintains.

Nashiri's prosecution by military commission may simply be a consequence of his treatment at the hands of American authorities. Nashiri was one of three terror detainees who were waterboarded. He was also subjected to other so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques," including mock executions involving a gun and a power drill. Despite the fact that Nashiri's treatment appears to fall outside even the "legal" enhanced interrogation guidelines authorized by the Bush administration, the Obama administration, which conducted an investigation into interrogations that went beyond those guidelines, decided against filing any charges related to Nashiri's treatment. Since the Obama administration said their intention was to try Nashiri by military commission even before Congress placed restrictions on its ability to transfer Gitmo detainees to the US for trial, it's a good bet that the reason he's being tried by military commission has more to do with the fact that the case against him has been marred by torture.

There's no guarantee of course, that given his past treatment, prosecution by military commission will be any easier. During the trial of former Gitmo detainee Ahmed Ghailani for his involvement in the bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, Judge Lewis Kaplan wrote that even in a military commission, the Constitution would likely bar evidence gained through coercive means.