Mojo - February 2006

Killing Privatization, Again

| Fri Feb. 10, 2006 2:55 PM EST

As Allen Sloan of the Washington Post reported last week, President Bush tried to sneak in Social Security privatization into his latest budget proposal. Much reference to the zombie that wouldn't die and all of that. (Sloan made a good catch, although his remark that Social Security is any sense "unsustainable" is, of course, totally false.) It's doubtful that Congress will want anything to do with that fiasco again. Just today, Chuck Grassley, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, blanched at even Bush's more "modest" cuts to Social Security:

"I have no plans to pursue these proposals," said GOP Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

The budget that Bush submitted to Congress on Monday proposes eliminating a $255 lump-sum death benefit that has been part of Social Security for more than 50 years. It also urges Congress to cut off monthly survivor benefits to 16- and 17-year-old high school dropouts.Other Republican luminaries, such as Bill Frist and Dennis Hastert, praised Bush's budget but specifically offered "no comment" on his measures to take away benefits from impoverished widows. It's almost enough to make them seem all cuddly inside. Meanwhile, the official position around these parts is that Social Security needs to be expanded, not trimmed—in particular, disability insurance is sorely inadequate for hundreds of thousands of workers at present—but that doesn't seem to be on the agenda right now.

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Key States Miss Reform Deadline

Thu Feb. 9, 2006 10:27 PM EST

Two years after the 2000 presidential election was determined by a mere 537 votes (and the Supreme Court), Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) to solve many of the problems that arose that year. HAVA aimed to make state electoral practices more consistent by developing statewide voter databases and addressing each component of the voting process: registration, identification, ballots and machines. The deadline for these changes was supposed to be January 1, 2006, so as to allow enough time for these upgrades to be fully integrated by the midterms this year.

But according to a new report from electionline.org, approximately half of the states, including California, Florida, New York and Ohio have failed to meet that deadline. Doug Chapin, the president of electionline.org, acknowledges the concerted efforts made by many states, but is concerned about widespread distrust towards the system if these faulty electoral systems are not rectified. "The possibility for error, and the willingness of people to challenge those errors, are both growing every day. And that could have tremendous impact on elections in 2006 and beyond," he said.

More on the Los Angeles 'Thwarted Plot'

| Thu Feb. 9, 2006 9:25 PM EST

For those a bit sick of hearing the president dredge up details about some "terrorist plot" or other every time he needs to change the subject, Zachary Abuza has an interesting post over at the Counterterrorism Blog wondering whether the thwarted Los Angeles plot being touted today might not be all it's cracked up to be. And it does sound a bit dodgy. Then again, whether the Bush administration stopped a hijacking plot in 2002 or not is irrelevant to the question of whether it's allowed to break the law when engaging in domestic surveillance.

Evangelicals Against Global Warming

Thu Feb. 9, 2006 5:11 PM EST

Yesterday the Pew Center for Global Climate Change released a report outlining a comprehensive set of recommendations to address climate change. Interestingly, 85 evangelical Christian leaders have come forward in support of the Pew proposal, taping a television campaign proclaiming, "With God's help, we can stop global warming for our kids, our world and our Lord."

The spot calls for Congress to prioritize legislation that would require both transportation industries and power plants to cut their greenhouse emissions. Hoping to gain visibility nationwide, the evangelical leaders are hosting televised sermons on the issue over more than 1,400 radio stations. Although some of President Bush's notable evangelical backers—such as James Dobson—are absent from the push, it's still a welcome move to bridge what had often been seen as a purely partisan issue.

So with several conservative Christian leaders on board, what are the actual recommendations to address climate change? The Pew report is here, and notes that there won't be one single technological fix to slow the increase in greenhouse gases—any effort will require a combination of: new science and technology; market-based programs; a reduction in sectoral emissions; a change in energy production and use; and international engagement. Among other things, the report recommends that the United States "Engage in negotiations to strengthen the international climate effort." The fifteen components of Pew's proposal are all capable of being implemented immediately.

Who's in Guantanamo?

| Thu Feb. 9, 2006 4:09 PM EST

Jeralyn Merritt of Talkleft looks at a new report by Joshua Denbeaux, a law professor at Seton Hall, which finds, using data supplied by the Pentagon, that "55% of the detainees [in Guantanamo] are not determined to have committed any hostile acts against the United States or its coalition allies."

Also: "Only 8% of the detainees were characterized as al Qaeda fighters. Of the remaining detainees, 40% have no definitive connection with al Qaeda at all and 18% are have no definitive affiliation with either al Qaeda or the Taliban." Perhaps not surprisingly, the vast majority of detainees in Guantanamo were captured not by U.S. forces, but by either Pakistan or the Northern Alliance at a time when the United States was offering very large rewards for any "suspected enemies."

So why are they all still being held? See also Corine Hegland's cover story on Guantanamo in National Journal, which reports, among other things, that evidence considered "persuasive" in the military tribunals "is made up almost entirely of hearsay evidence recorded by unidentified individuals with no firsthand knowledge of the events they describe," according to one legal adviser to the tribunals.

TIA Is Back

| Thu Feb. 9, 2006 3:22 PM EST

Back in 2003, Congress voted to deny funding to TIA, the "Total Information Awareness" program originally run by convicted felon and Iran-Contra star John Poindexter, because of privacy concerns. Well, the Christian Science Monitor is reporting today that the vast data mining program may be back, under a somewhat different name:

The US government is developing a massive computer system that can collect huge amounts of data and, by linking far-flung information from blogs and e-mail to government records and intelligence reports, search for patterns of terrorist activity….

The core of this effort is a little-known system called Analysis, Dissemination, Visualization, Insight, and Semantic Enhancement (ADVISE). Only a few public documents mention it. ADVISE is a research and development program within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), part of its three-year-old "Threat and Vulnerability, Testing and Assessment" portfolio. The TVTA received nearly $50 million in federal funding this year.Meanwhile, in Newsweek, Michael Hirsh reports that "today, very quietly, the core of TIA survives with a new codename of Topsail." And William Arkin of the Washington Post reports that the NSA is centralizing its domestic eavesdropping capabilities in a new "warning hub and data warehouse" in Denver, Colorado, which will become the new hub of "data mining" and analysis development, working in conjunction with the CIA and the military's Northern Command.

How ominous is all of this? It really depends. After all, credit card issuers use data-mining to identify fraud, and that seems to fly under the radar of most civil libertarians. But without the appropriate protections in place, Poindexter's "brainchild" starts to seem a lot more disconcerting. According to CSM, no one really knows what the scope of ADVISE is—even Curt Weldon, the vice chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee hasn't been briefed on the program "yet." Yet? Another expert notes that "ADVISE has no funding for privacy technology." Given that we're dealing with an administration that treats congressional oversight with contempt, none of that should go by without strict scrutiny—even if "total information awareness" could be useful at foiling this or that terrorist plot.

MORE: Kevin Drum has a few good questions that should be asked about any data mining program.

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VA Nurse in New Mexico accused of sedition

| Thu Feb. 9, 2006 1:24 PM EST

Here is part of the text of a letter to the editor written by Laura Berg, a clinical nurse specialist in Albuquerque, New Mexico:

I am furious with the tragically misplaced priorities and criminal negligence of this government. The Katrina tragedy in the U.S. shows that the emperor has no clothes!...The public has no sense of the additional devastating human and financial costs of post-traumatic stress disorder....

Bush, Cheney, Chertoff, Brown, and Rice should be tried for criminal negligence....This country needs to get out of Iraq now and return to our original vision and priorities of caring for land and people and resources rather than killing for oil. . . . We need to wake up and get real here, and act forcefully to remove a government administration playing games of smoke and mirrors and vicious deceit.

Otherwise, many more of us will be facing living hell in these times.

Berg, who works at Albuquerque's VA Medical Center, wrote the letter to the weekly paper, the Alibi. When it was published in late September, VA officials seized Berg's computer, accusing her of using it to write the letter, and accusing her of sedition.

The head of the human resources management services later acknowledged that Berg's office computer hard drive did not contain the letter, but he defended the sedition charge.

In your letter...you declared yourself "as a VA nurse" and publicly declared the Government which employs you to have "tragically misplaced priorities and criminal negligence" and advocated, "Act forcefully to remove a government administration playing games of smoke and mirrors and vicious deceit."
The ACLU of New Mexico has filed a Freedom of Information Act request for documents relating to the incident, and is asking for a public apology to Berg. In the meantime, Berg has learned that the VA may have contacted the FBI about her, a charge the VA denies.

John McCain vs. Why We Fight

Wed Feb. 8, 2006 8:23 PM EST

Eugene Jareki's much-anticipated film, Why We Fight, is currently in limited release across the country. And it's already causing a stir among major politicos, including Sen. John McCain. According to Roll Call, McCain's chief of staff, Mark Salter, is up in arms, accusing Jareki of manipulating clips in which McCain is portrayed as critical of both Dick Cheney and Halliburton. McCain is scheduled to appear on David Letterman tomorrow, during which the clip in question will be shown.

The film, inspired by Eisenhower's famed 1961 farewell address referring to America as an "industrial war machine," tries to examine how the military-industrial complex both profits from war, and perpetuates it. With stratospheric defense budgets and international violence dominating the current political landscape, one can identify with Eisenhower's concern that this "machine" could potentially threaten democracy on a worldwide level. In making the film, Jareki is trying to address why our nation "has become the savings-and-loan of a system whose survival depends on a state of constant war." The film includes military and political insiders such as Gore Vidal, Air Force secretary James Roche, Richard Perle, Jon Eisenhower and Charles Lewis, among others, who explore what road all this violence will lead us down. Hopefully, McCain's spot on the late show will lead a broader audience to the theater.

Sweden to Go Oil-Free

| Wed Feb. 8, 2006 4:37 PM EST

This is genuinely exciting news (there's so little these days…). It looks like Sweden is preparing a plan to become an "oil-free" economy by 2020:

The attempt by the country of 9 million people to become the world's first practically oil-free economy is being planned by a committee of industrialists, academics, farmers, car makers, civil servants and others, who will report to parliament in several months.

The intention, the Swedish government said yesterday, is to replace all fossil fuels with renewables before climate change destroys economies and growing oil scarcity leads to huge new price rises.Sweden has a decent head start—about 26 percent of its energy already comes from renewable resources (the EU average is 6 percent)—and plans to meet its goal by using biofuels, along with wave and wind power, to generate the needed electricity, rather than relying on new nuclear plants, which already supply half of the country's electricity.

The Volvos, meanwhile, will all run on hydrogen. Or at least that's the plan, though granted, lots of smart people think hydrogen-run cars are easier said than done. Joseph Romm, a former Energy Department official under Clinton and the author of The Hype of Hydrogen, has leveled a number of criticisms along this front—for one, a hydrogen-powered economy can end up using more total energy because all of that hydrogen needs to be transported around to filling stations, and it's harder to ship than gasoline. And a relatively recent study by Argonne National Laboratory estimated that installing the vast infrastructure to equip 40 percent of American vehicles to run on hydrogen would cost $500 billion or more. Obviously Sweden's not as big as the United States, but that's a lot of money, and it will be interesting to see whether the Swedes can pull this all off.

Now the obvious question: Why can't the United States do something like this? There are major differences between us and Sweden, sure: the latter is much smaller, uses less oil, has an abundance of rivers, more nuclear power plants, and less sprawl. That all makes things much easier. And, according to Prime Minister Goran Persson, Sweden's farms and forests are more conducive to generating biofuel than America's. But as I've pointed out before, it's physically impossible to power the whole world—or even more than a small portion—with biofuel, and the United States would have to find its own mix of renewable resources no matter what (most likely involving a heavy dose of solar). So Sweden's not, in a strict sense, a "model" here.

Still, this is what a grown-up approach to energy policy looks like. Nothing mind-blowing. Nothing impossible. All you need is a government willing to act. The contrast between the Swedes and an administration that backtracks from even modest statements on ending our oil addiction—and then lays off 32 workers at the National Renewable Energy Lab because of a $28 million budget shortfall there—pretty much speaks for itself. Lucky us.

Purging the State Department

| Tue Feb. 7, 2006 8:40 PM EST

This sort of story is pretty commonplace nowadays, but Warren Strobel reports: "State Department political appointees have sidelined career weapons experts who don't share their animosity to arms control agreements and have placed less experienced political operatives in key slots, according to 10 current and former officials and documents obtained by Knight Ridder."

Meanwhile, SALT I, the 1991 treaty that is currently the "only mechanism for verifying U.S. and Russian nuclear arms cuts" is set to expire in three years, and the Bush administration is in the middle of purging any State Department expert with experience in arms control. Luckily, though, their replacements will all be "loyal" to the president and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, and we all know that's almost as good as expertise.