2011 - %3, November

Four Senior Citizens Plotted Killing Spree At A Waffle House

| Wed Nov. 2, 2011 8:55 AM EDT

Four senior citizens walk into a Waffle House planning to go on a killing spree in order to "save the Constitution."

That's not the beginning of a joke, it's the scenario outlined by the FBI in a criminal complaint filed against four Georgia men yesterday who allegedly sought to use the online novel of a frequent Fox News guest named Mike Vanderboegh as a model for a terrorist plot against US government officials. The four men, Samuel Crump, Frederick Roberts, Ray Adams, and Dan Roberts, who named themselves "the covert group" (subtle!) allegedly fantasized about dispersing the toxic agent ricin over Washington DC and Atlanta, and hoped to ultimately obtain botulinium toxin, which Adams believed could kill millions of people in small doses.

"We need somebody to back us with some damn money so we can make that other shit," Crump said at a Waffle House in Toccoa, Georgia. according to the criminal complaint. Crump added that botulinium toxin was "worse than anthrax."

What was the ostensible purpose of all this killing? Saving the country of course. "There is no way for us, as militiamen, to save this country, to save Georgia, without doing something that’s highly, highly illegal: murder,” Thomas reportedly said. “When it comes time to saving the Constitution, that means some people have got to die.” The FBI also alleges that "Thomas, Roberts and others discussed the need to obtain unregistered silencers and explosive devices for use in attacks against federal government buildings and employees, as well as against local police."

So how much more operational was this plot than your average FBI sting involving some hapless al-Qaeda fanboy? That's not really clear. While the group demonstrated an ability to independently manufacture ricin, which is made from widely available castor beans, the criminal complaint begins with a meeting surveilled by an FBI "confidential human source" in March. While the FBI recordings showing the four men expressing an eagerness to kill large numbers of people in pursuit of their political goals will likely preclude any entrapment defense, there's no way to know from the criminal complaint what level of involvement the FBI's confidential human source had in putting together the whole plan, or even the existence of the group itself, or whether the source came upon the plot by other means. 

Bottom line: At first glance this appears to be the right-wing extremist version of the sort of al-Qaeda wannabe stings we've become so familiar with. 

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How the Supercommittee Could Kill New Farmers Markets

| Wed Nov. 2, 2011 6:00 AM EDT
Farmers markets are just one of the sustainable ag programs now on the chopping block.

Remember the farm bill, that monstrously complex, twice-a-decade omnibus legislation that shapes US agriculture and hunger policy? You know, the one that Michael Pollan and other sustainable foodies wrote so much about four years ago? Well, it's back, earlier than expected (the last one doesn't expire until 2012). And it has found itself caught in the crosshairs of DC budget hysteria—in a way that will likely reinforce the worst, most agribiz-friendly elements of US ag policy and defund the best parts, including programs that help farmers transition to organic and help communities start new farmers markets.

What gives?

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for November 2, 2011

Wed Nov. 2, 2011 5:57 AM EDT

A soldier calls in description of person of interest to higher ups. Afghanistan National Police in partnership with Charlie Company, 1-24 Infantry Regiment, search the villages of Musa Khely and Nowrak with the purpose of disrupting a recent string of IED attacks. Photo by the US Army.

Chart of the Day: Republicans and the Filibuster

| Wed Nov. 2, 2011 1:23 AM EDT

We haven't had an excuse to talk about Republican abuse of the filibuster lately, so here's a nice chart for you that spells it out. It comes from JS, a regular reader, and instead of just showing the rise in the filibuster over the past 50 years, it color codes each Senate session to represent the party in the minority. As you can see, Democrats have been responsible for only a tiny part of the increase. The big changes came in the early 70s, the late 80s, and then in the late aughts after Republicans lost the Senate in the 2006 elections. When you add up all the red segments, they represent virtually the entire increase in the use of the filibuster over the past half century.

This isn't a big surprise or anything, but now you have the color-coded data to show to all your friends and relatives. Republicans are the party of obstruction, and they have been for more than four decades now.

What Does the Occupy Oakland Strike Have to do With 1946?

| Wed Nov. 2, 2011 1:06 AM EDT

When the acrid fog of flash-bang grenades and tear gas cleared on last week's violent clash between protesters and police in Oakland, the city emerged as a new focal point of the worldwide Occupy movement. On Wednesday, thousands are expected to flood downtown and march on the Port of Oakland—the country's fifth-largest—in a massive daylong protest and general strike. It's an impressive escalation from a patchy idea first tossed out just days ago at a General Assembly meeting in Frank Ogawa Plaza, the scene of last week's showdown. This is collective action on speed, and while most (not all) Occupy protesters are calling for a peaceful protest, city officials are preparing for trouble, just in case.

So can you really organize a citywide general strike in one week? Local Occupiers like to point out that Oakland hosted a general strike in 1946, and are using the city's claim to history as a rallying cry. So what worked then, and what would it take to pull it off again?

Fred Glass, a professor of labor history at City College of San Francisco, recently went on local public radio show KQED to discuss optimal conditions for brewing up a general strike. His recipe calls for four conditions: widespread anger among the working class, a "spark" to kick things off, someone willing to stick their neck out and call for a general strike, and an organizing structure. In Oakland today, the first is largely a given and Occupy Oakland has provided the latter two. If school teachers and port workers don't show up for work en masse on Wednesday, the injury suffered by Iraq vet-turned-activist Scott Olsen last week could be credited as the spark that drew mainstream sympathy to the local Occupy movement.

A Conversation About Greece

| Tue Nov. 1, 2011 8:49 PM EDT
The European Central Bank

Here's a cleaned-up version of a conversation I just had about Greece's sudden U-turn on the rescue deal negotiated last week. Enjoy.

Are the Greeks crazy?

No, they're just at the end of their tether. Europe is asking them to adopt more austerity than they're willing to bear.

Okay, but they're spending too much money. Surely they know they have to cut back?

Sure, but the deals on offer are pretty unattractive. Europe wants to forgive half of Greece's debt and put them on a brutal austerity plan. The problem is that this is unrealistic. Greece would be broke even if all its debt were forgiven, and if their economy tanks they'll be even broker.

But that's the prospect they're being offered: a little bit of debt forgiveness and a lot of austerity.

Well, them's the breaks.

But it puts Greece into a death spiral. They can't pay their debts, so they cut back, which hurts their economy, which makes them even broker, so they cut back some more, rinse and repeat. There's virtually no hope that they'll recover anytime in the near future. It's just endless pain. What they need is total debt forgiveness and lots of aid going forward.

That doesn't sound like a very attractive option for the rest of Europe.

No, it's not.

So maybe they should just let Greece default and wash their hands of them.

Here's the thing, though: Greek debt is largely held by German banks that made the loans. [See update below.] If Greece has been irresponsible, so were the German banks that happily loaned out the money. So if Greece defaults, the banks go kablooey. But they're too big to fail, which means the German government would be forced to bail them out. And guess where the bailout money comes from? Tax dollars.

This means that German taxpayers have a bleak choice. They can shovel lots of money to Greece to keep them from defaulting, or they can refuse, and then shovel lots of money into German banks to keep them from collapsing. Either way, German taxpayers are going to foot the bill. They just haven't quite accepted this in their gut yet, and it's hard to blame them. They're pretty badly screwed no matter what.

Hmmm. Given that choice, they might decide they'd rather give their money to German banks than to Greek civil servants. What happens then?

Greece defaults. And that almost certainly means that Greece exits the euro.

Why?

It's the growth thing again. If Greece defaults, nobody will loan them any money. That means huge cutbacks, which means the economy will tank, which means even more cutbacks, etc. The traditional way out of this spiral is a massive devaluation of your currency. But Greece doesn't have a currency. It has the euro.

So if they want their economy to grow again, they have to (a) default, (b) exit the euro and readopt the drachma, and (c) devalue the drachma. This will cause massive amounts of pain, but it will also make Greek exports super cheap, which will eventually revive their economy.

So why not just let that happen?

It's just too catastrophic to consider. German banks, of course, would collapse and have to be bailed out. Ditto for banks in other countries that have lots of exposure to Greek debt. But that's not the worst of it. If Greece exits the euro, it will become terrifyingly obvious that other weak countries might exit too. Portugal, Spain, and Italy are the obvious candidates. Investors, spooked at the thought of their money being stuck in a country that might exit the euro and devalue all its bank deposits, would start huge runs on banks in those countries. The ECB would have to intervene and provide liquidity without limit. It would be a disaster.

So exiting the euro can't be allowed?

Right.

But if there's no exit, there's no devaluation, and Greece is pretty much screwed forever.

Right.

So who wins?

It depends on who blinks. Exiting the euro would be no picnic for Greece. But they could decide it's better than endless indenture and threaten exit in order to get a better deal from the Germans. Then the Germans have to decide whether to call their bluff.

Wow.

Exactly. Wow. Everyone knows that somebody's going to lose a huge pile of money over this. What's really happening right now is a very high-stakes negotiation to figure out just how the losses are going to be parceled out. Stay tuned.

UPDATE: It's actually a little unclear just which country has the biggest exposure to Greek debt. Maybe Germany, maybe France, maybe Switzerland. See here, here, and here. And the ECB owns a lot of Greek debt these days too. But the general principle doesn't change much. One way or another, Europe's big countries have to decide whether to bail out Greece or whether to let them default and then bail out their own banking systems.

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IPCC Forecasts More Wacky Weather

| Tue Nov. 1, 2011 7:41 PM EDT

In a forthcoming report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change finds that extreme weather events—like the floods, droughts, and major storms so far in 2011—are increasingly linked to climate change. Seth Borenstein of the Associated Press got an early copy of the report's summary, and writes:

The final draft of the report from a panel of the world's top climate scientists paints a wild future for a world already weary of weather catastrophes costing billions of dollars. The report says costs will rise and perhaps some locations will become "increasingly marginal as places to live."
The report from the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will be issued in a few weeks, after a meeting in Uganda. It says there is at least a 2-in-3 probability that climate extremes have already worsened because of man-made greenhouse gases.

Scientists, of course, are cautious about saying that any specific weather event happened because of climate change. But they generally acknowledge, as this report does, that these kinds of extreme weather events are increasing in frequency and severity, and will continue to do so in the future as the world warms. (The report notes that scientists are "virtually certain" that there will be more periods of extreme heat, for example.)

The US has already seen quite a few expensive weather disasters this year, as has the rest of the world. Guess it's time to batten down the hatches.

Glenn Beck's Favorite Gold Company Charged With Fraud

| Tue Nov. 1, 2011 7:02 PM EDT
Glenn Beck shills for Goldline in 2010.

Goldline International, the California precious metals retailer promoted by Glenn Beck and other right-wing radio hosts, was formally charged with 19 criminal counts—including grand theft by false pretenses, false advertising, and conspiracy—on Tuesday by the Santa Monica City Attorney's Office. The criminal complaint also implicates Goldline CEO Mark Albarian, along with two other company executives and two salespeople.

The charges detailed in the complaint support what MoJo's Stephanie Mencimer first reported in 2010: Using aggressive telemarketing tactics, Goldline employees routinely pressured customers to purchase expensive coins with mark-ups so steep that it was very unlikely the consumer would ever make his money back. The company racked up a long list of complaints with the Federal Trade Commission, and at one point was sanctioned by the state of Missouri. But Beck and other endorsers (including liberal talker Ed Schultz) lent an air of legitimacy to the whole operation, sowing fears of a total economic collapse to help make the pitch for Swiss Francs. Beck's pitch went a step further, arguing that in the event of a total financial meltdown, the government would confiscate gold bullion—meaning you should invest your money in coins instead. 

You can check out the full complaint here:

 

 

The charges today are the culmination of a yearlong investigation from the city attorney's office. Each of the counts carries a maximum sentence of one year in prison or a $10,000 fine.

Update: Brian Ross gets the company's response:

"The company will vigorously contest the allegations," Brian Crumbaker, Goldline's Executive Vice President, said in a statement emailed to ABC News early Wednesday. "We believe Goldline has industry best-practices in customer disclosures enabling the most informed decisions."

Open Letter from Oakland Police Union: "We Are Confused"

| Tue Nov. 1, 2011 6:46 PM EDT

On the eve of a planned general strike in Oakland, the city's 645-member police union is blasting Mayor Jean Quan for "mixed messages" about the #occupyoakland tent city and tomorrow's labor protest. The strike is expected to draw thousands to downtown Oakland and its industrial port, hot on the heels of last week's violent clash between protesters and police. Facing down furious accusations of police brutality and blame for an Iraq war veteran's serious injury, Oakland police say they're part of the 99%, too, and they just want the mayor to make up her mind. Full letter:

AN OPEN LETTER TO THE CITIZENS OF OAKLAND FROM THE OAKLAND POLICE OFFICERS’ ASSOCIATION

1 November 2011 – Oakland, Ca.

We represent the 645 police officers who work hard every day to protect the citizens of Oakland. We, too, are the 99% fighting for better working conditions, fair treatment and the ability to provide a living for our children and families. We are severely understaffed with many City beats remaining unprotected by police during the day and evening hours.

As your police officers, we are confused.

On Tuesday, October 25th, we were ordered by Mayor Quan to clear out the encampments at Frank Ogawa Plaza and to keep protesters out of the Plaza. We performed the job that the Mayor’s Administration asked us to do, being fully aware that past protests in Oakland have resulted in rioting, violence and destruction of property.

Then, on Wednesday, October 26th, the Mayor allowed protesters back in – to camp out at the very place they were evacuated from the day before.

To add to the confusion, the Administration issued a memo on Friday, October 28th to all City workers in support of the “Stop Work” strike scheduled for Wednesday, giving all employees, except for police officers, permission to take the day off.

That’s hundreds of City workers encouraged to take off work to participate in the protest against “the establishment.” But aren’t the Mayor and her Administration part of the establishment they are paying City employees to protest? Is it the City’s intention to have City employees on both sides of a skirmish line?

It is all very confusing to us.

Meanwhile, a message has been sent to all police officers: Everyone, including those who have the day off, must show up for work on Wednesday. This is also being paid for by Oakland taxpayers. Last week’s events alone cost Oakland taxpayers over $1 million.

The Mayor and her Administration are beefing up police presence for Wednesday’s work strike they are encouraging and even “staffing,” spending hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars for additional police presence – at a time when the Mayor is also asking Oakland residents to vote on an $80 parcel tax to bail out the City’s failing finances.

All of these mixed messages are confusing.

The Weekly Standard Doesn't Get That "Friend" And "Policy Adviser" Aren't The Same Thing

| Tue Nov. 1, 2011 6:17 PM EDT

Although the Weekly Standard has taken the militant background of Mitt Romney's Middle East Policy Adviser Walid Phares a little more seriously than National Review, it nonetheless feels the need to draw a false equivalence between Phares and President Barack Obama's former University of Chicago colleague Rashid Khalidi:

Barack Obama and Columbia University professor Rashid Khalidi both taught at the University of Chicago in the ’90s, and at a farewell dinner for Khalidi in 2003, Obama warmly praised Khalidi’s advice, which took the form of “consistent reminders to me of my own blind spots and my own biases.” Since the Los Angeles Times never released its videotape of the event, we may never know Obama’s blind spots or the enlightenment on offer from his friend and colleague Khalidi​—​a PLO spokesman in Beirut during the Lebanese civil wars.

The Standard attacks former CIA Official Paul Pillar, quoted in my piece, for not acknowledging Khalidi when he told me that he could not "think of any earlier instance of a [possible presidential] adviser having held a comparable formal position with a foreign organization." The unsigned Standard editorial then absurdly goes on to criticize Pillar for erasing Khalidi from his memory. The problem is that Phares not only has an official position as an adviser to the Romney campaign but also, according to one of Phares' longtime associates, was promised a high-level job making policy in the Middle East should Romney become president. Neither the Romney campaign nor Phares' defender Mario Loyola chose to dispute that account.

The Weekly Standard, meanwhile, can't say that Khalidi and Obama were ever more than friends. Khalidi never held any sort of official position with the Obama campaign, and Obama's policy towards Israel has been as consistently one-sided as previous American presidents. It's as though the Standard couldn't bring itself to acknowledge Phares' problematic background without also taking a completely gratuitous shot at the Obama administration for the crime of being friends with someone with pro-Palestinian views and indulging in a little random score-settling with Pillar for past criticism of the Bush administration.  

The editorial unintentionally reinforces the double-standard at play here. Phares' militant past and official role as a Romney adviser draws the most mild of rebukes, while Obama's friendly relationship with Khalidi provokes hysterical speculation about Obama's "true feelings" about Israel and Palestine, as though he doesn't have an actual record on the issue to evaluate. Observe the Standard's consternation over Obama's friendship with Khalidi, and try to imagine the teeth-gnashing rage towards Obama from conservatives had he actually appointed an adviser who played a role in PLO comparable to the one Phares played in the Lebanese Forces during Lebanon's civil war.