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Blackwater Booted from Iraq for Civilian Killings

| Mon Sep. 17, 2007 8:06 AM PDT

Blackwater has been run out of Iraq. Following an attack on a State Department convoy Sunday, Blackwater contractors serving as guards opened fire in a Sunni neighborhood of Baghdad, killing eight civilians and wounding 13. The behavior may not be characteristic of contractors, exactly, but it certainly plays into the stereotype of them as brutish mercenaries unconstrained by the law or the rules of war.

And while the incident may not lead to charges of any kind — contractors are not bound by the Uniform Code of Military Justice, as soldiers are, nor are they subject to prosecution under Iraqi law — it has gotten Blackwater's license revoked.

''We have canceled the license of Blackwater and prevented them from working all over Iraqi territory," said Interior Ministry spokesman Abdul-Karim Khalaf, according to the New York Times.

So the American government, which employs Blackwater contractors by the hundreds (and possibly by the thousands), will have to find new forces to guard convoys and escort dignitaries. Might be a good opportunity to use an Iraqi firm.

Mother Jones has written a ton about contractors since the Iraq War began. We sent a reporter to ride along with them earlier this year, and sent a different reporter to one of their training camps in 2003. We've noted the "South African hit men, Serbian paramilitaries, and other human rights violators" in their ranks, and twice explained how they work the system to make heaps of cash.

Update: One of Mitt Romney's top national security advisers, Cofer Black, is the Vice Chairman of Blackwater USA.

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Breaking: Wesley Clark Endorses Hillary Clinton

| Sat Sep. 15, 2007 6:11 PM PDT

So lock that endorsement up. Clark is a big-time favorite of the netroots: he was a star at Yearly Kos and routinely does well in self-commissioned polls of the Daily Kos community. Will his endorsement help Clinton amongst the netroots? She trails in the Democratic field with those folks.

More on the ABC Debat Affair: Annotating ABC's Jundullah Report

| Sat Sep. 15, 2007 9:26 AM PDT

A striking comment by ABC's Brian Ross in today's NYT:

ABC News has sent a producer to Pakistan as part of its second investigation into reports involving Mr. Debat. One report it is re-examining concerned a guerrilla organization called Jundullah, which, ABC reported in April, had the support of the United States and Pakistan for operations that led to the kidnapping and murder of several Iranian officials.
Pakistani officials ferociously denied the report, calling it "an absurd and sinister insinuation." ABC announced that it was standing by its reporting and quoted Mr. Debat, saying that he had "just returned from the region." Brian Ross, the correspondent who worked most closely with Mr. Debat, said the Jundullah story had many sources.
"We're only worried about the things Debat supplied, not about the substance of that story," he said.

Does Ross really dismiss the importance of whether the substance of what he reported is true?

That US is backing the Jundullah story represents among the most problematic of the Debat-Ross collaborations. And it's no small matter perhaps that Ross's name is on it.

My annotated version of that story (Brian Ross and Christopher Isham, "The Secret War Against Iran," ABC, April 3, 2007) suggests that the key allegations in the piece were sourced by Mr. Debat, ABC used Debat as a confirming expert analyst in the piece for dubious information he himself supplied, and that other sources cited in the piece deny the basic gist of the report.

Are Debat's interviews with tribal sources -- which form the very essence of this report -- any more real than his interviews with Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Alan Greenspan, Nancy Pelosi, and Kofi Annan? The evidence says no. History shows no. Knowledgeable regional experts say no. That people who fabricate something as easily, provably deniable as an interview with Senators and presidential candidates and the UN Secretary General cannot be trusted to be telling the truth about what the Pakistani tribal sources are telling them is, of course, obvious. The capacity for an extraordinary degree of mendacity demonstrated by Debat claiming to have conducted such high profile fake interviews speaks for itself.

Notice no where in the above report does a US or other official confirm what Debat is providing and the story is asserting. And that ABC used Debat as the channeled reporter on the main substance of the piece, providing the information from the tribal sources, and then featured him as a confirming commenter/analyst in the report. It's a sleight of hand an ordinary viewer might not have noticed, but nevertheless not worthy of a serious news organization that cares about telling its viewers and readers the truth.

In other words, if you remove the information provided by Mr. Debat in this report, and his presence in the report as an expert analyst, there would be nothing there but background information on Jundullah, and U.S. officials denying the report.

See my original story, "Subject to Debat" here.

(Parts of this cross-posted here)


Update: Spoke with Brian Ross, who says that "I feel very comfortable very with the thrust of that [Jundullah] report. ... We really did have a number of U.S. and European government sources who walked us through that story, which essentially is the US is not funding that group, but is offering advice and guidance and is in contact with that group." He couldn't provide more details on the record but could say that "We feel comfortable wih sources not from Debat that the U.S. has at least contact with and communication with that group on an ongoing basis ... to help fight al Qaeda."

Aftershocks of MoJo's Cover Story on 'School of Shock'

| Fri Sep. 14, 2007 3:30 PM PDT

One of the most rewarding things about working for Mother Jones magazine is when you get to see one of our articles make a difference in the legal system. Yesterday the Boston Globe reported that our current issue's cover story "School of Shock," which documents how the Judge Rotenberg Center (JRC) uses electric shock to punish its students, "has reignited efforts to pass legislation limiting the facility's use of skin shock and aversive therapy."

Massachusetts state senator Brian A. Joyce, whom we interviewed for the story, has circulated a copy of the piece to every state legislator and is working to push up hearings, originally scheduled for January 2008, on existing legislation that would curb the use of the skin shock device and create a regulatory commission. And as we blogged last month, the Chancellor for D.C. schools opened an investigation into the JRC's use of electric shock.

O.J. Simpson, At It Again

| Fri Sep. 14, 2007 3:24 PM PDT

AP reports: "O.J. Simpson says he only went into a casino hotel room to retrieve memorabilia that he felt was stolen from him. But police are investigating it as an armed robbery and named the fallen football star as a suspect Friday in yet another surprising chapter to his legal saga."

Read the rest here.

Brooklyn Oil Spill Now Dwarfs the Exxon Valdez

| Fri Sep. 14, 2007 3:10 PM PDT

basil65x70.jpg The EPA just released a report saying that the Brooklyn oil spill Frank Koughan writes about in our current issue may be as extensive as 30 million gallons, not the 17 million gallons previously estimated. If so, that would make the spill nearly three times larger than the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989. Yes, three times as much oil, stewing under Brooklyn.

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Senate Forecast Looking Sunny for Dems

| Fri Sep. 14, 2007 12:52 PM PDT

From the LA Times:

Bottom-line: barring a major reversal of political trends, Democrats not only are poised to build on the narrow Senate majority they surprisingly captured in the 2006 election, they could substantially expand it.

They're going to need a substantial expansion. It takes 60 votes in the Senate to get anything done, due to procedural rules, and a 51-member majority, when one of those members is Joe Lieberman, just isn't going to cut it. The vulnerable seats:

  • Virginia, where Republican John Warner is leaving and Democrat Mark Warner (no relation) will mount a strong challenge.
  • Nebraska, where Republican Chuck Hagel is leaving and Democrat Bob Kerrey will mount a strong challenge if he gets in.
  • Colorado, where Republican Wayne Allard is leaving and Democrat Mark Udall will mount a strong challenge.
  • And Maine, New Hampshire, Minnesota, and Oregon, where Republican incumbents are particularly vulnerable.

That's seven states. Then you've got a bunch where a Republican incumbent is kinda sorta vulnerable: New Mexico, Alaska, and Kentucky. No promises there, but still: looking good, folks.

More Questions for ABC

| Fri Sep. 14, 2007 10:16 AM PDT

See my report on questions about how ABC handled the Debat matter here. In the meantime, I have more questions for ABC:

How did ABC choose to use Debat as a consultant, and also on the blog as a reporter, also sometimes citing him as a source?

Did ABC inform its viewers and readers that Debat had a Pentagon contract? How clear was ABC in telling readers/viewers about Debat's multiple paid affiliations?

What other consultants have this sort of arrangement with ABC? Will ABC be more transparent in the future about whether its sources are being paid, what are the relevant other potential conflicts of interest in terms of paid other appointments and contracts?

Why is ABC only sending an investigator to Pakistan to investigate Debat's reports now? History shows that people who misreprsent their resumes tend to misrepresent lots of other things as well. Why do my sources say ABC did not conduct a more extensive investigation of his work when it asked him to resign back in June? Why had it not contacted until now other reporters who could help investigate his reports?

In vetting or second sourcing the information that Alexis brought to the network, were ABC News resources outside of the Ross unit deployed? e.g. the Justice, State or Pentagon correspondents?

Did Alexis ever appear on camera as an expert/analyst for a story on which he was also the source?

How was he hired? Who introduced him to ABC?

How is ABC investigating the information that Alexis reported from Iran and Pakistan? Is it being investigated by the Ross unit only or reporters outside of that unit?


One good thing has according to sources apparently come of the recent reports, including Riche's. Finally, three months after dismissing him, ABC finally appears to be undertaking a serious investigation of the accuracy of the reports. It's just curious it didn't do so when it learned of misrepresentations with his CV back in June when it asked him to resign.

"Humor is a Form of Common Sense": Further Notes on Franken's Minnesota Run

| Fri Sep. 14, 2007 9:40 AM PDT

My story on Al Franken's Minnesota senate run hits the web today, and I thought I'd round it out with some more material on the blog.

There were three things that I heard consistently when I was on the ground in Minnesota. First, no one seemed to mind that Franken's background is an unconventional one for a Senate candidate. Here were some responses I got when I asked about it:

  • "I think a lot of comedians find real big problems in our world. And they point out problems by making humor out of them."
  • "It may be time we sent someone different to Washington."
  • "Anybody who listens to [his radio show] knows he knows his stuff. If you read his books, you know he knows his stuff."
  • "You can be a comedian and you can still be serious."
  • "Humor is a form of common sense anyway."

I was genuinely surprised that Minnesota Democrats (known as DFLers) were not more worried about Franken's history of dirty jokes and lack of public service. The national media seems to think those two factors make Franken's candidacy a non-starter, and Norm Coleman, the Republican incumbent, and other GOP forces are trying to play them up as much as possible.

The second thing I found is that Minnesotans deny being abnormally open to oddball candidates. It's a common media meme, based on the fact that Minnesota elected Paul Wellstone, a short, bald college professor with a fanatical devotion to extremely liberal beliefs, and Jesse Ventura, a wrestler and C-level actor. "I don't know if it's just an anomaly," Franken told me. "People embraced Paul because of his uniqueness, and I don't know if that was just… unique." He made the point that Wellstone connected in a very special way with people and was almost genetically truthful, and that voters from any state would have found him appealing. "And Ventura won in a three-way race at a point when the state was totally flush, when the economy was just tooling along, we had a surplus in the country and in the state. And I really believe that during that period... people went like, "How hard is it really to do this?"

M.I.A. Terrible on Letterman

| Fri Sep. 14, 2007 1:34 AM PDT

M.I.A.Well, at least it wasn't Britney Spears bad. Anyone out there who's been reading all my posts on rapper M.I.A., but hadn't really heard her music, and decided to check her out on Letterman tonight, now you think I'm nuts. Yes, you're right, it was terrible. I stayed tuned in all the way through Martha Stewart's segment just to see M.I.A. make her Letterman debut, and to say it was disappointing is an understatement, but I don't know if it was necessarily her fault. She performed "Paper Planes," a Clash-sampling highlight from the new album Kala, but something was wrong with the mix, and you could barely hear her or the backup vocalist. I get the sense that maybe they were running her mic through the DJ rig, because his scratching on the gunshot FX was so loud it seemed to knock the sound out a few times. Even worse, when the prerecorded backup vocals came in during the chorus, they were so much louder than M.I.A.'s live vocals they made her seem like she was, well, relying on prerecorded vocals. Poor M.I.A.! And if you've never heard her before, please give her another chance.

[update 9/17] Video below. People are reporting that she was not allowed to use gunshot sounds during her performance, so those are apparently just gunshot-like percussive noises.