2011 - %3, December

Film Review: Scenes of a Crime

| Wed Dec. 21, 2011 7:00 AM EST

Scenes of a Crime

NEW BOX PRODUCTIONS

86 minutes

When Adrian Thomas slams that binder to the floor, we know he's toast. We've just seen excerpts from a 10-hour police interrogation where he not only confesses to killing his infant son but actually reenacts the crime. But wait: Could he have simply been acting out what the detectives said he'd done? Scenes of a Crime is a gripping study of how one homicide suspect is cajoled, soothed, threatened, and lied to in pursuit of a prosecutorial money shot. Once an exhausted and emotionally broken Thomas provides it, it's clear that all the physical evidence in the world won't save him. "False confession is probably the second leading cause of miscarriages of justice," explains Richard Ofshe, an expert on false memory. "Juries don't understand why an innocent person would confess."

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for December 21, 2011

Wed Dec. 21, 2011 6:57 AM EST

Jesse Mead son of US Army Sgt. 1st Class Korey Mead holds a welcome home sign for his dad during the 25th Infantry Division Headquarters redeployment ceremony at Wheeler Army Airfield in Wahiawa, Hawaii December 18, 2011. The 25th ID Headquarters was the last division headquarters under US forces to leave Iraq. Department of Defense photo by US Air Force Tech. Sgt. Michael R. Holzworth.

Your Daily Newt: Playing Nice on the Internet

| Wed Dec. 21, 2011 4:00 AM EST
Asked about his Internet browsing habits in 1995, Gingrich said simply, "I play."

As a service to our readers, every day we are delivering a classic moment from the political life of Newt Gingrich—until he either clinches the nomination or bows out.

Newt Gingrich has always presented himself, with some level of accuracy, as one of the more tech-savvy voices in American politics. He anticipated the the transformative powers of telecommunications in the 1980s, and recognized that Congress' attempt to ban pornography from the internet was a really dumb idea. In 1995, he became the first Speaker of the House in American history to sit down for a 6,500-word interview with Esther Dyson for Wired about the future of the Internet.

But as John Heilemann explained later that year, something didn't quite add up:

[I]t's hard not to feel slightly cynical. The slight grows as you discover that Gingrich is, in fact, something of a technological naïf. He has owned a laptop only since 1994, for example, and does not use e-mail, a fact that shocked [Bill] Gates's people and, apparently, Gates himself—the billionaire made a point of explaining the importance of e-mail to Gingrich at their dinner. When you ask the Speaker how much time he spends roaming the Net, he answers, "Not as much as I'd like." When you ask him what he does in those sadly infrequent moments, he falls silent for at least five seconds—an eternity for him—and then responds, blankly: "I play."

Oh.

Unusual Marine Mammal Deaths on 4 US Coasts

| Tue Dec. 20, 2011 5:20 PM EST
Harbor seal.

As of this week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has declared three "unusual mortality events" (UME)—unexplained death clusters—for multiple species of marine mammals on four US coastlines: the Atlantic, the Gulf of Mexico, the Bering Sea, and the Chukchi Sea.

Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, a UME declaration triggers a scientific investigation into the cause or causes of the die-off. At least two of these UMEs have potential implications for human health.

1) Gulf of Mexico whales and dolphins—ongoing since February 2010. As of Dec. 18, 2011, 611 cetaceans (whales and dolphins) have stranded in the Northern Gulf of Mexico; 5 percent have stranded alive, and 95 percent dead. From the latest NOAA report:

In addition to investigating all other potential causes [including ongoing effects of the Deepwater Horizon debacle], scientists are investigating what role Brucella [a bacterial infection] may have in the UME. Since our original finding of Brucella in 5 stranded dolphins from Louisiana, scientists have been concentrating testing on cases that show pathological changes consistent with the fetal pneumonia or adult meningitis identified in the first 5 cases. Here are our results showing the total number of Brucella cases identified so far. We will update these numbers when new results are available. FAQs on the investigations of the ongoing dolphin die-off and the potential impacts of the Deepwater Horizon BP oil spill on marine mammals are available.

2) New England harbor seals—declared on Nov. 3, for Maine, New Hampshire, and northern Massachusetts. Since Sept. 1, 2011, 162 harbor seals have died, most of them under six months old. From the NOAA declaration:

The UME is ongoing and all mortalities are being thoroughly investigated to the extent possible. The majority of cases have involved young of the year and many have similar skin lesions (ulcerative dermatitis). Unlike historical young of the year harbor seal mortalities, which are often attributed to malnutrition, many of these animals are in good body condition. During the UME investigation, Influenza A H3N8 was confirmed in five harbor seals that stranded in New Hampshire in mid-September/early October 2011... This particular virus subtype, while found in horses, birds, seals, and dogs, has not been detected in humans in recent decades. While the risk to humans from this virus is low (according to the Centers for Disease Control and National Wildlife Health Center), we want to remind people to keep a safe distance from seals they encounter on the beach and in the water and to keep their pets away from these animals. If they see an animal that looks sick, please report it to the NOAA stranding hotline or local stranding network member.

3) Alaska ringed seals and (soon) walruses—declared Dec. 20, 2011. Since mid-July, more than 60 dead seals and 75 diseased seals (mostly ringed seals) have been reported in Alaska, in the Arctic and Bering Strait regions. From the NOAA declaration:

During their fall survey, scientists with the US Fish and Wildlife Service also identified diseased and dead walruses at the annual mass haul-out at Point Lay... Seals and walruses suffering from this disease have skin sores, usually on the hind flippers or face, and patchy hair loss. Some of the diseased mammals have exhibited labored breathing and appear lethargic. Scientists have not yet identified a single cause for this disease, though tests indicate a virus is not the cause... [N]o similar illnesses in humans have been reported. Still, it is not known whether the disease can be transmitted to humans, pets, or other animals. Native subsistence hunters should use traditional and customary safe handling practices, and the Alaska Division of Public Health recommends fully cooking all meat and thoroughly washing hands and equipment with a water/bleach solution.

Defeating the Point of Fact-Checking

| Tue Dec. 20, 2011 5:03 PM EST
Rep. Paul Ryan at the 2011 Conservative Political Action Conference.

Fact-checking, as a genre, probably shouldn't exist. It does largely because of one of the weirder conventions of mainstream journalism, which is to give equal weight to competing claims regardless of whether or not they actually deserve it. Determining the truth or falsity of a given claim is of a lower priority than actually meeting a deadline.

The purpose of fact-checking websites like PolitiFact, then, is to solve an invented problem by focusing on facts rather than "balance," since a commitment to the latter can be easily manipulated in the service of spreading falsehoods. For the past two years, PolitiFact chose as its "Lie of the Year" two Republican talking points. In 2009 the "Lie of the Year" was Sarah Palin's whopper that the Affordable Care Act contained "death panels" that would decide whether people lived or died based on "levels of productivity." The 2010 "Lie of the Year" was that the ACA constituted a government takeover of health care (it actually preserves the private insurance system).

Report: Gingrich Banks $42K Selling Email List to Campaign

| Tue Dec. 20, 2011 4:10 PM EST

This much we know about Newt Gingrich: he has a long, distinguished history of breaking the rules. For reference, see Tim Murphy's invaluable breakdown of the Republican presidential hopeful's ethically challenged history. The timeline culminates in 1997, when the House ethics committee slapped a $300,000 fine on the former speaker for his "reckless" or "intentional" use of nonprofits for partisan political ends, while misleading the House about his relationship to a political action committee.

But there could soon be an unsavory new bullet to add to the list. On Monday, the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) alleging that Gingrich's campaign bought his highly lucrative mailing list for $42,000 during the third quarter of 2011—from Gingrich himself. And that payment wasn't noted on recent FEC disclosures, the Washington Post reports:

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Fracking and the Feds

| Tue Dec. 20, 2011 3:53 PM EST

We all know that the federal government was responsible for the development of the internet. But Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus tell another story of government R&D today that's a lot less familiar. It's about the development of fracking technology that's opened up massive amounts of natural gas in shale formations:

The breakthroughs that revolutionized the natural gas industry — massive hydraulic fracturing, new mapping tools and horizontal drilling — were made possible by the government agencies that critics insist are incapable of investing wisely in new technology.

This will surprise those steeped in the hagiography of George Mitchell, the tenacious Texas oil man who proved that gas could be drawn from shale rock at a profit. The popular telling has Mitchell spending 20 lonely years pursuing the breakthroughs to tap the Barnett Shale, an underground expanse.

Read the rest for the whole story. This doesn't really take anything away from Mitchell, who really did spend a tremendous amount of time and effort to develop the technologies that finally cracked the shale code. But as Elizabeth Warren says, people who make a lot of money do it with the help of huge amounts of public infrastructure that make their businesses possible. Likewise, lots of scientific breakthroughs are done with the help of huge amounts of basic research that are funded and/or run by the federal government. Fracking is just the latest example.

Minor Charges For Alleged Hezbollah Agent In Iraq

| Tue Dec. 20, 2011 3:51 PM EST
U.S. Army Spc. Justin Towe scans his area while on a mission with Iraqi army soldiers from 1st Battalion, 2nd Brigade, 4th Iraqi Army Division in Al Muradia village, Iraq, March, 13, 2007.

Last week the Obama administration announced that the Iraqi government would not be handing over Ali Mussa Daqduq—who is accused of masterminding an attack that killed several US servicemembers in Iraq and of being a member of Hezbollah—to the US for trial by a military commission. The attack involved Daqduq and associates allegedly fooling American servicemembers with false uniforms and ID cards, which is a violation of the Geneva Conventions.

Republicans like Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) accused Obama of "once again completely abdicating its responsibility to hold on to deadly terrorists." As with the Iraq withdrawal itself, Obama's Republican critics seem to be operating on the assumption that the US can simply go ahead and violate Iraq's sovereignty without causing any adverse consequences. 

The fear was that Daqduq would be released by the Iraqi government, but it appears he'll instead be charged with a minor offense associated with his passport. At Lawfare, Robert Chesney writes that they're "plenty of blame to go around" for this outcome, but I'd argue that this line in the Associated Press report Chesney links to explains who is really at fault:

Under former President George W. Bush, prosecutors had planned to charge Daqduq in a U.S. criminal court. But those plans were scrapped after President Barack Obama took office and lawmakers began restricting his ability to bring terrorist suspects into the United States for trial.

There's no guarantee that the Iraqi government would have turned him over if he had been promised a federal trial, but National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor told the New York Times that "a transfer to Gitmo was a non-starter for the Iraqi government." If Daqduq is indeed guilty, the fact that he will not be punished is in part the result of Republicans' arbitrary politicization of terrorism trials and the Obama administration's meek acquiescence to them doing so. The consequences to individual rights and liberty here in the United States have been terrible, but the same is true of efforts to hold terrorists responsible for their crimes

*This post has been edited from its original version.

I Guess Posting Videos Online Can Make You a Terrorist

| Tue Dec. 20, 2011 3:14 PM EST

Tarek Mehanna, the Boston native who was accused of material support for terrorism based on what prosecutors said was his online advocacy on behalf of al Qaeda, was found guilty on all counts Monday

Defense lawyers argued that Mehanna did not provide support to Al Qaeda. They said he was simply expressing his own views in opposition to US foreign policy, particularly to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, activity that was protected by the First Amendment.

They also called Mehanna a budding young scholar committed to his religion, saying he had traveled to Yemen in search of education -- to further his studies on Islamic law and on Arabic.

But a series of Mehanna’s former friends testified against him that he had promoted extreme ideology, endorsed the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and once called Osama bin Laden his father. Together, the former friends said, they watched videos glorifying suicide bombings in Iraq.

The verdict could turn out to be significant because Mehanna was not only accused of lying to prosecutors and seeking terrorist training in Yemen—prosecutors also charged that his translating of Al Qaeda documents and posting of extremist Internet videos was meant to sway Westerners to Al Qaeda's cause, and therefore constituted material support for terrorism.

In the indictment, the authorities alleged that Mehanna responded to specific requests from individuals associated with Al Qaeda to translate and post materials. Prosecutors don't seem to have raised that allegation at trial. Instead, they focused on the argument that Mehanna was responding to a general call made by Al Qaeda to spread their ideology. The distinction is important because, as I reported in my piece last week, the Supreme Court recently ruled that even nonviolent activities, if performed at the direction or under the control of a terrorist organization, could be crimes. Before, speech could only be a crime if it is both meant to and could credibly lead to "imminent lawless action."

My personal view is that the prosecution's other charges were strong already and Mehanna was likely guilty of those. However, by convicting Mehanna of material support for terrorism based on his online activities, the prosecution may have established a path through which the government can throw people in prison on terrorism charges for expressing abhorrent opinions, even if the individual in question has no direct ties to a terrorist organization.

For government authorities increasingly worried about the growth of the English-speaking extremist community and the possibility of homegrown terror, the Mehanna conviction may provide what is, in their view, a salutory chilling effect. For civil libertarians concerned about the government being able to prosecute ugly speech as a crime, that chilling effect is anything but salutory, because it could end up curtailing the rights of other critics of the US government, not just those who commit crimes based on their beliefs. It's hard to escape the conclusion that at some level the US government is now in the business of policing which views are appropriate to express. 

Racism and Tolerance of Racism

| Tue Dec. 20, 2011 2:45 PM EST

Which is worse?

  • Openly espousing viciously racist sentiments.
  • Systematically turning a blind eye toward viciously racist sentiments from others for both profit and political advantage.

Genuine question. Which is more repellent? Background here.

UPDATE: In comments, Thersites makes an eloquent argument for Door #2:

Both are repugnant but I'll go with B as being more repugnant.

My wife and I had some ugly experiences in our former home in outer suburbia.

The people who called my wife a n****er pissed me off. But we knew who they were, and where they were coming from.

The "good" people who pretended that the incidents didn't happen, or made excuses for the perpetrators, they pissed me off, broke my goddamned heart and made me deeply ashamed of my community. We finally got the hell out of there but the bitterness will last a lifetime.

So yes, the "good" people who turn a blind eye, for any reason, are far more repugnant.

Turning a blind eye to racist sentiment is, obviously, far more common than overt racism these days. But as Thers says, that very fact can sometimes make it even worse. After all, everyone already knows that the world contains a few virulent assholes. In some cases you can shrug that off. But learning that lots of people who otherwise seem perfectly decent are willing to tolerate it? That can be pretty disheartening.

Still and all, lots of us fail to do the right thing sometimes because we lack moral courage. Ron Paul's failings go quite a bit further. He didn't tolerate the racist views in his newsletters merely because he didn't have the gumption to put a stop to it. He actively let it continue because the newsletters made money and because he was hoping to appeal to a paleocon constituency beyond his small libertarian base. That's pretty repellent.