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FISA, Compromised

| Thu Jun. 19, 2008 1:39 PM EDT

A few moments ago, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer released what he refers to as a “bipartisan” “compromise” bill: The FISA Amendment Act of 2008, which he authored along with Jay Rockefeller, Kit Bond, and Roy Blunt (respectively, the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Intelligence committee, and the House Minority whip). The word “bipartisan” is technically indisputable. The word “compromise”, by contrast, is a total farce.

The most controversial elements of the February legislation were provisions that would have allowed the White House to wiretap American citizens without a warrant, and that would have immunized telecommunications companies from participating in the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program back in the halcyon days when warrantless wiretapping was unquestionably illegal.

Here’s how the new bill deals with the immunity question.

Notwithstanding any other provision of law, a civil action may not lie or be maintained in a Federal or State court against any person for providing assistance to an element of the intelligence community, and shall be promptly dismissed, if the Attorney General certifies to the district court of the United States in which such action is pending that…the assistance alleged to have been provided by the electronic communication service provider was in connection with an intelligence activity involving communications that was authorized by the President during the period beginning on September 11, 2001, and ending on January 17, 2007.

That’s the game. Non-profit groups like the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation can sue the telecoms if they want, but if Attorney General Michael Mukasey says “presto”, the lawsuits must be dismissed.

As for the nitty gritty of surveillance powers the bill authorizes, here’s what the ACLU says: “This bill allows for mass and untargeted surveillance of Americans' communications…. The process by which this deal has come about has been as secretive as the warrantless wiretapping program it is seeking to legitimize.” And the media blackout over the last few months is testament to that. None of Congress’ civil liberties stalwarts partook in these negotiations. Neither John Conyers, nor Patrick Leahy–chairmen of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees respectively–got a say. Nor did Sens. Chris Dodd or Russel Feingold. Nor did House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Leahy says “the legislation unveiled today… is not a bill I can support.”

Nonetheless, it looks very much as if Pelosi–who has substantial power to control what does and does not appear on the floor of the House–will allow this to come to a vote.

I’ll keep my eye on the comings and goings.

Brian Beutler is the Washington correspondent for the Media Consortium, a network of progressive media organizations, including Mother Jones.

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Obama Opts Out of Public Financing: Promise-Breaker or Reform-Shaker?

| Thu Jun. 19, 2008 1:00 PM EDT

In the decades after Watergate, the basic thrust of campaign finance reform was this: limit the flow of big-money private contributions to candidates. No more bags of money for the pols. Now, only donations of up to $2300 from individuals are acceptable. And in the presidential race, there is public financing: the nominees--if they agree to forgo fundraising--receive full underwriting of their general election campaigns. This year that subsidy is about $85 million.

This system has been an imperfect reform. There have been loopholes. Well-heeled private interests have poured money into independent efforts to support a preferred candidate or, more often, blast that candidate's opponent. And parties could raise money, while corporations could donate unrestricted amounts to presidential conventions. So the opportunity for one side to outspend the other (using unlimited donations from wealthy individuals, corporations or unions) has remained. The influence of big money has not been eradicated. Still, presidential candidates, once nominated, could focus on campaigning, rather than cash-hunting.

Now comes Barack Obama.

He has run for president as an agent of change who slams the money-talks ways of Washington. As an Illinois state senator and as a U.S. senator, he has passed reform measures. Yet on Thursday, in an email to his supporters, he announced that he would not participate in the public financing system in the general election, despite an earlier promise to stay within this system. He will be the first major presidential nominee to reject public financing for the general election since Watergate. Instead of relying on that check from the U.S. Treasury, he will continue his record-setting fundraising operation. John McCain's campaign immediately and predictably proclaimed that this decision "undermines his call for a new type of politics" and will "weaken and undermine the public financing system."

Obama said:

Under the Radar: The Child Abuse Bill Swap

| Thu Jun. 19, 2008 12:51 PM EDT

Below is a guest blog entry by MoJo author Maia Szalavitz:

Congressman George Miller recently introduced strong legislation to fight abuse in teen boot camps and other "tough love" residential facilities. But the version that passed the House Education and Labor Committee in May is not the version that will be voted on by the House Tuesday.

A new "bipartisan" draft of HR 5876, the "Stop Child Abuse in Residential Programs for Teens Act of 2008," has been submitted instead. And the provision most likely to hold these programs accountable and reduce abuse—a "private right of action" which would allow parents and children to sue the facilities in federal court and receive reimbursement for attorneys' fees—has been removed. Why?

Why the Offshore Drilling Pander Might Actually Work

| Thu Jun. 19, 2008 10:59 AM EDT

It's a pander, no doubt, but it might be a successful one. Why? Because people don't know that it won't reduce gas prices. Check out these numbers from a recent Rasmussen poll:

In order to reduce the price of gas, should drilling be allowed in offshore oil wells off the coasts of California, Florida, and other states?
67% Yes
18% No
15% Not sure
If offshore oil is allowed, how likely is it that the price of gas will go down?
27% Very likely
37% Somewhat likely
21% Not very likely
6% Not at all likely
8% Not sure

I'll only add that this whole thing may not matter in the long run because offshore drilling seems bound to be one of those election-season issues that flare up for a few weeks and then disappear, never to be heard from again. Remember the gas tax holiday that we all went bonkers over?

How You Know McCain's Offshore Drilling Reversal Is a Pander

| Thu Jun. 19, 2008 10:39 AM EDT

It might seem obvious that McCain's new-found support for offshore drilling is a pander: after all, the federal government itself says that if you were to drill all over the continental United States, you'd find enough oil to last America just two and a half years, meaning we're not talking about a long-term solution. Moreover, offshore drilling will cause only a marginal impact on prices, and even that tiny impact won't be felt for another seven to 10 years, according to the American Petroleum Institute, the oil industry trade group that points out that production cannot start right away.

But maybe McCain didn't check the numbers. Is there any other way you can tell that offshore drilling is actually pointless, and serves only as a base election-season pitch to voters angry about high gas prices? There is. There are no ships.

Warning: This Durex Condom May Be Completely Useless

| Wed Jun. 18, 2008 6:56 PM EDT

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If you happened to read the tiny print on the back of a box of Durex Avanti condoms before you bought them, you'd see this: "The risks of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases (STD's), including AIDS (HIV infection), are not known for this condom." Hmm. Since most people, I think, actually use condoms specifically for those purposes, and not for the diminished sensation in their genitals, should this product really be on the market?

"Perfectly reasonable question," said company PR rep Mark Weaving. "And the answer is that these [studies] were completed. When the Avanti first came out in the US, it formed a completely new category of product, so the FDA wanted some extra studies to be done" on the (novel) polyurethane (as opposed to traditional latex) condoms. In the meantime, Durex could sell the condoms as long as it printed the inconspicuous warning on the box. Those additional studies have since been completed and shown slippage and pregnancy rates to be "well within the normal range." (Durex recently announced that it is discontinuing the Avanti, not because of any issue with the product, but to make way for a new version of it.) Still. As you can't really be too careful when it comes to condom effectiveness, it seems the FDA probably should have made the company postpone Avanti's release until the studies were done. And why wouldn't Durex have voluntarily waited to sell the questionable—and crucial—product in the first place? Speculated Weaving, "I think the pregnancy studies can go on for quite a long time."

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Navy Spends Your Precious Tax Dollars ... Buying Crate After Crate of Manga

| Wed Jun. 18, 2008 5:19 PM EDT

manga.jpg

Residents of Yokosuka, south of Tokyo, are concerned about the massive nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS George Washington, which is set to be permanently deployed outside their city. Some say the American ship will hurt the fishing industry; others have safety concerns, especially justified after there was a fire on the George Washington last month.

Solution: charm offensive! Specifically, the Navy dropped $72,000 to commission "Manga CVN 73," a 200-page Japanese-style comic book. Produced by two Japanese artists and named after the ship's hull number, it follows the experiences of fictional Japanese-American Petty Officer 3rd Class Jack Ohara. Over 20,000 copies were printed and, earlier this month, a huge crowd lined up outisde the American base to get their free copies. Commented a naval spokesman to the Navy Times:

"The most-read, most-used medium is manga — not TV, not radio, not the Internet. Manga is a traditionally read, heavily sold medium in this country. We went, OK, there you go, the Japanese people have given us the way to talk to them."

Here's my question: Where does this sort of thing appear on the Navy's budget justification? Download the 18 meg .pdf file here here, in Kanji or English text. (via)

Lil Wayne Breaks "A Milli"

| Wed Jun. 18, 2008 4:52 PM EDT

mojo-photo-lilwaynesm.jpgTake that, internet naysayers: Lil Wayne's new album Tha Carter III has sold over 1 million copies in the US in its first week, the first time such a figure has been reached since 50 Cent's The Massacre way back in early 2005. Since Wayne has been, shall we say, slatternly when it comes to online mixtapes and file-sharing downloads, the press seems astonished: why are people buying CDs from an artist with so much free stuff out there? The New York Times even set up the dichotomy in the headline, proclaiming that "Despite Leaks Online and File Sharing, Lil Wayne's New CD is a Hit." Maybe they should change that "despite" to a "because"? As file-sharing tracker BigChampagne CEO Eric Garland says in the article, fans who download Lil Wayne grab an average of ten of his tracks (as opposed to two for other artists) and "while people who like an individual song are not going to open their wallets for you, people who like 10 songs will." So having a prodigious amount of your work out there for people to hear may actually help you sell more CDs? Karrr-azy!

Although, as Vulture points out, people may just like candy-themed oral sex metaphors, as both The Massacre and Tha Carter III feature lead singles that "compared a sexual act to the consumption of lollipops." Although if that's the case, why wasn't Lil' Kim's "How Many Licks" a smash?

After the jump: Was Party Ben wrong about Tha Carter III?

Simon Mann In Full: African Coup Plotter Points Fingers

| Wed Jun. 18, 2008 4:15 PM EDT

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You wouldn't know it from the American newspapers, but if you click on virtually any British news site today (try here, here, and here), you'll read of a courtroom drama currently unfolding in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, in which British mercenary Simon Mann is casting blame far and wide for the failed 2004 coup plot that aimed to topple the local dictator, President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo.

Details of the coup itself are already widely known, the subject of numerous magazine articles and several books, but in case you missed it: In March 2004, Mann was arrested along with 70 other mercenaries while their plane was refueling on the tarmac of an airport in Zimbabwe during a brief, late-night stopover while en route from South Africa to Equatorial Guinea. The mercenaries were carrying with them 61 AK-47s, 20 light machine guns, 50 heavy machine guns, 100 RPGs, along with tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition—equipment they said they intended to use to secure a mine in the Congo. The Zimbabwean authorities didn't buy it, and Mann spent the next several years in a Harare prison. He was later released for good behavior, but immediately extradited to face criminal charges in Equatorial Guinea, where, if convicted, he could serve up to 32 additional years in prison.

Today in the Malabo courtroom, testifying in his own defense, Mann seemed eager to bring down his co-conspirators, if only perhaps to lessen his own sentence. The Eton-educated, former British special forces officer gave detailed accounts of the plotters motivations—namely, to replace Obiang with a new president who would give conspirators a cut of the country's sizable oil wealth—as well as the leadership structure of the conspiracy.

Among Mann's accusations:

New Details About Life in Gitmo Don't Bode Well For GWOT

| Wed Jun. 18, 2008 3:50 PM EDT

McClatchy is running an excellent series this week on US overseas detention centers, focusing on the abuse, carelessness, and mismanagement that have encouraged global terrorism rather than deterred it. What's new here are the details: the news organization accumulated eight months worth of interviews, collected a number of primary source documents, and put together in-depth profiles of recently-released detainees. The specifics of these men's stories take on additional significance in the wake of the Supreme Court's recent ruling on detainees' habeas rights: Due process seems a lot more important when you realize that every day an innocent person spends in Guantanamo is essentially an al Qaeda recruitment opportunity. Things are so bad that even the former US commander of the camp acknowledges that we've more or less enabled our very own terrorist sleeper cell:

Rear Adm. Mark H. Buzby, until recently the commanding officer at Guantanamo, acknowledged that senior militant leaders gained influence and control in his prison.

"We have that full range of (Taliban and al Qaida) leadership here, why would they not continue to be functional as an organization?" he said in a telephone interview. "I must make the assumption that there's a fully functional al Qaida cell here at Guantanamo."

The commander's assumption, if true, adds another layer of complexity to the detainees' status—how do we handle the release of someone who was innocent of terrorism when we picked them up, but is now eager to work for al Qaeda? If, as alleged, such cases are common at Guantanamo, then the administration has created a self-justifying system that will be extremely difficult to disrupt. Unless we completely overhaul that system, we're stuck with this Catch-22.