White House FISA Olive Branch?

| Tue Apr. 1, 2008 4:11 PM EDT

The Wall Street Journal says:

The White House, seeking to break a months-long standoff, has signaled to Democratic lawmakers it is open to negotiation over a proposal to expand government spy powers, according to officials familiar with the conversations.

House leadership confirms:

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer , D-Md., said Tuesday he has received indications the Bush administration is interested in negotiating a compromise extension of stalled electronic surveillance legislation.

Of course, the White House will have to be willing to specifically negotiate the matter of immunity. In recent weeks, they have rejected all Democratic offers of limited immunity--proposals that would, for instance, limit damages while keeping lawsuits against telecommunications companies alive. If this olive branch is really an olive branch, that will have to change.

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British to Delay Iraq Troop Withdrawal

| Tue Apr. 1, 2008 2:23 PM EDT


Since October, the British military has reduced its presence in Iraq by 1,000 troops (a fifth its deployed force) and has withdrawn from forward positions in the southern city of Basra to a heavily fortified base at the city's airport. Nothing says security like camping out next to the airplanes that can whisk you home when things go bad. And after officially transferring security responsibilities to the Iraqi army in December, nearly everyone believed that a complete withdrawal of British troops from Iraq was imminent. Indeed, many observers, both in and out of government, have been eying the British departure from Basra as a predictor of what the Americans should expect when the day finally comes for them to leave Baghdad—namely the emboldening of organized crime syndicates that have fed on the power vacuum left behind by withdrawing forces and the Iraqi army's feeble attempts to insert itself as a substitute authority.

The word today is that the British have decided to postpone a larger withdrawal from Iraq. The move stems from concern over last week's bungled attempt by the Iraqi army to dismantle the various criminal gangs and ethnic militias, including Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, that have taken root both in Baghdad and Basra. The Iraqis battled to a draw (to be generous) before having to call on U.S. and British forces for support. The Brits now appear to see a danger that Basra could fall irretrievably into enemy hands should they depart too hastily.

According to UK Defence Secretary Des Brown, as quoted by the BBC:

Before the events of the last week, the emerging military advice, based on our assessment of current conditions then, was that further reductions might not be possible at the rate envisaged in the October announcement - although it remains our clear direction of travel and our plan.
"In the light of the last week's events, however, it is prudent that we pause any further reductions while the current situation is unfolding.
"It is absolutely right that military commanders review plans when conditions on the ground change.
Photo used under a Creative Commons license from Jon.

Obama a Little Too Slick on Oil

| Tue Apr. 1, 2008 2:10 PM EDT

Barack Obama is running an ad in Pennsylvania and Indiana that makes this claim:

I don't take money from oil companies or Washington lobbyists, and I won't let them block change anymore.

The trusty points out something Obama ought to know: of course Obama hasn't gotten money from oil companies; corporations were prohibited from donating to presidential candidates in 1907. But Obama has received $213,000 from people who work for, or whose spouses work for, companies in the oil and gas industry. Also, two oil execs bundle money for Obama. George Kaiser, chairman of Kaiser-Francis Oil, has raised between $50,000 and $100,000 for Obama, according to the candidate's website. Robert Cavnar, president and CEO of Milagro Exploration LLC, has raised the same.

Is Obama better than McCain when it comes to climate change? Or course, all the Democrats are/were. Have Hillary Clinton and John McCain also raised money from the oil industry? Of course. In fact, they've both raised more than Obama.

But Obama is the one making claims of purity. They're claims he and his campaign must know he shouldn't be making.

Jesse Ventura Is Pranking America (Hopefully)

| Tue Apr. 1, 2008 1:04 PM EDT

ventura-beard.jpg CNN is running promos for Jesse Ventura's Larry King Live appearance tonight (Ventura's pimping his new book) that suggest Ventura is set to announce a presidential bid.

Horserace hyperventilation: Will Ventura pull enough votes in his native Minnesota to throw the state to either McCain or Obama? There's isn't much love lost between Ventura and Minnesotans after Ventura's very underwhelming term as governor, but he still has his fans there.

Reality check: Ventura will likely raise, oh I don't know, zero dollars and be out of the race in a month, if he runs at all.

Double reality check: This has to be an April Fool's prank. If it isn't, I suggest Ventura fight Nader to see who gets to be the national sideshow for the next few months. There can be only one!

Pressed by Shrinking Budgets, Cities Return to Gravel Roads

| Tue Apr. 1, 2008 12:32 PM EDT

This isn't an April Fools prank. Apparently things are getting really bad in Michigan.

McCain Gets the Facts Wrong on Iraq - Again

| Tue Apr. 1, 2008 11:45 AM EDT


Call it a pattern of mischaracterizations. John McCain recently got the facts wrong on Iraq again when he tried to portray Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's disastrous attempt to take on Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr as a success. (You can learn more about Sadr here.) He said this on the campaign trail:

"Apparently it was Sadr who asked for the ceasefire, declared a ceasefire. It wasn't Maliki. Very rarely do I see the winning side declare a ceasefire."

That's completely misleading. Not only did Sadr come out of the fighting just as strong as he was before (check out Robert Dreyfuss in The Nation), but his people were celebrating what they called a victory over the Prime Minister and, by extension, America:

At the Sadr Office in the centre of the massive slum in northeast Baghdad, home to 2.5 million impoverished Shias, the receptionists greeted visitors with sweets to mark their victory over Nouri al-Maliki, the increasingly isolated Iraqi Prime Minister, who directed the assault on Shia rogue militias in Basra, the lawless southern oil city. "This is for victory over Maliki," one said with a grin. "The fighting ended on our terms."
Certainly Mr al-Maliki's huge gamble appeared to have failed yesterday. Having vowed to crush Shia militias with a 30,000-strong force in Basra, he ended up suing for peace with the people he had described as "worse than al-Qaeda." Al-Mahdi Army kept its weapons and turf.

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Military Report: Let's Co-Opt Blogs

| Tue Apr. 1, 2008 11:26 AM EDT

Wired's Danger Room has found a 2006 report titled "Blogs and Military Information Strategy," written for the Joint Special Operations University. It has some interesting ideas about how the military can deal with that dang blogosphere.

Information strategists can consider clandestinely recruiting or hiring prominent bloggers or other persons of prominence... to pass the U.S. message. In this way, the U.S. can overleap the entrenched inequalities and make use of preexisting intellectual and social capital. Sometimes numbers can be effective; hiring a block of bloggers to verbally attack a specific person or promote a specific message may be worth considering. On the other hand, such operations can have a blowback effect, as witnessed by the public reaction following revelations that the U.S. military had paid journalists to publish stories in the Iraqi press under their own names. People do not like to be deceived, and the price of being exposed is lost credibility and trust.
An alternative strategy is to "make" a blog and blogger. The process of boosting the blog to a position of influence could take some time, however, and depending on the person running the blog, may impose a significant educational burden, in terms of cultural and linguistic training before the blog could be put online to any useful effect. Still, there are people in the military today who like to blog. In some cases, their talents might be redirected toward operating blogs as part of an information campaign. If a military blog offers valuable information that is not available from other sources, it could rise in rank fairly rapidly.

Members of the armed forces need "cultural and linguistic training" before they can blog? Are they serious? The military is filled with cynical 20-somethings—it's built for blogging! There are hundreds, probably thousands, of military men and women already doing it. Of course, they're doing it in good faith, which is not what this report is suggesting.

A military spokesman says the comments were "not 'actionable', merely thought provoking." I don't believe it. Which prominent blogger is a undercover secret agent? Any guesses?

Bush's HUD Secretary Finally Gets Some Press

| Mon Mar. 31, 2008 11:43 PM EDT

When Alphonso Jackson announced today that he would be stepping down as secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), he joined a growing list of disgraced or, at the very least, incompetent former secretaries of that agency produced by Republican presidents. Jackson is currently facing investigations by the HUD inspector general, a federal grand jury, and the Justice Department's public integrity section for a host of alleged corrupt practices. The only thing surprising about Jackson's departure, or the scandals that precipitated it, is that it didn't come sooner.

Republicans have never liked HUD very much. GOP presidents tend to turn it into a political backwater, a neglected place where they repay campaign favors rather than orchestrate major policy initiatives. As a result, the agency has been the source of a considerable number of GOP scandals. Jackson's announcement brought back memories of Samuel Pierce, Ronald Reagan's longtime HUD secretary who was plagued by allegations that many of his close associates had engaged in cronyism, mismanagement, and in some cases, outright theft at the agency, all of which occurred as Reagan dismantled the nation's low-income housing infrastructure. At least six major Reagan administration officials ended up convicted of crimes stemming from HUD corruption. Pierce was never convicted of anything, but the rot in his agency was so deep that even the former EPA secretary James Watt got convicted in the mess, as did Pierce's former assistant Deborah Gore Dean (who recently remade herself into a Georgetown antique shop owner).

Modern GOP presidents have relegated the HUD secretary to an affirmative-action posting, a spot where Republicans like to demonstrate their alleged commitment to diversity in the cabinet, while giving those people authority for all the programs Republicans don't care about, or would like, ideally, to get rid of. Indeed, back in the early years of the Reagan administration, Pierce, the only black member of Reagan's cabinet, once famously came to the White House for a reception at which Reagan greeted him by saying, "How are you Mr. Mayor? I'm glad to meet you. How are things in your city?"

Ice Blocking Canada's Seal Hunt

| Mon Mar. 31, 2008 8:56 PM EDT

HarpSeal.jpg Good news. Thick ice is slowing sealing boats from reaching the baby harp seals in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, reports Planet Ark. Consequently, only three pups out of a quota of 275,000 were killed the first day. This after last year's "hunt" was affected by a lack of ice. The Canadian government has promised the slaughter will be more humane this year. How? After a hunter shoots or clubs a seal, he now must check its eyes to ensure it is dead, and if not, the animal's main arteries must be cut.

Okay, let's get clear about this. That does not qualify as humane.

The Canadian seal hunt is the largest mass slaughter of marine mammals on Earth, according to the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Just what are they doing with all those dead baby seals? The furs are made into coats and clothes. And there's a growing market for seal oil, high in omega-3 fatty acid… and PCBs:

American West Heating Twice as Fast

| Mon Mar. 31, 2008 7:52 PM EDT

317488203_967e4514e6_m.jpg Don't think climate change is going to affect you? Well, if you live in the American West, it already is. In fact the west is heating up faster than the rest of the world, reports the National Resources Defense Council. The average temperature rise in the drought-struck Colorado River basin is more than double global average—especially bad news for the 30 million people living in Denver, Albuquerque, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Los Angeles and San Diego, among the nation's fastest growing American cities and all dependent on the Colorado for water.

The Rocky Mountain Climate Organization analyzed temperature data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for 11 western states and found the average temp in the Colorado River Basin, from Wyoming to Mexico, was 2.2 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than the historical average for the 20th Century, and more than twice the global rise of 1.0 degree. Throughout the West, the average temperature increased 1.7 degrees. "We are seeing signs of the economic impacts," says study author Stephen Saunders, including $2.7 billion in crop losses since 2000, commercial salmon losses, reduced hunting revenues, and shorter, less profitable ski seasons. The Colorado River Basin is in the throes of a record drought and climate scientists predict more and drier droughts in the future as hotter temperatures reduce the snowpack and increase evaporation. "We need strong leadership from western senators to pass America's Climate Security Act," said Spencer.

How about any leadership? You know, turning off the lights one hour a year ain't gonna work. In 2007 I was optimistic about Earth Hour. A year later, I'm like, is this all we're ever going to do?

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.