Mojo - July 2007

How Do You "Make" a Terrorist Threat?

| Thu Jul. 26, 2007 12:27 PM EDT

Prosecutors have accused Olutosin Oduwole, a student at Southern Illinois University, of planning a Virginia Tech-style massacre on his campus. He has been charged with "attempting to make a terrorist threat," according to today's Washington Post. Police say Oduwole's abandoned car contained a note that demanded $50,000 — to his PayPal account! — to avert a "murderous rampage" at a "highly populated university."

If SIU really was Oduwole's target, he doesn't think too highly of it. According to the Post, the note "suggested the shooting would target a "prestigious" university, but that word was crossed out." (If you want to learn more about Mr. Oduwole, the AP thinks it has found his myspace.com page here).

So yesterday, on his 22nd birthday, Oduwole pleaded not guilty to making a terrorist threat. But how do you "make" a terrorist threat? Is it enough to just have a note in your car? The ATF has noted that Oduwole was legally entitled to the guns he ordered online. His friends ("hundreds" on facebook.com according to the AP) say this is all a big misunderstanding because Oduwole likes violent rap music and guns. What are the laws about planning to make a terrorist threat? Does the first amendment protect threatening writing if you never show it to anyone? And, if Oduwole actually did write the note, what could drive an apparently popular, happy young man — the president of his fraternity, the kid with hundreds of friends — to even consider writing something so stupid?

— Nick Baumann

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Choose Your Friends Carefully - They Could Make You Fat

| Thu Jul. 26, 2007 12:06 PM EDT

The once-permissive society of yesteryear—the one captured on black-and-white celluloid, in which attractive movie stars puff unfiltered cigarettes and shoot their whiskey straight—has been replaced by a world of worrywarts. Yeah, okay. . . We all know that smoking and drinking can kill you. So can bird flu, AIDS, car crashes, and al Qaeda. Hell, add falling pianos to the list. But now comes word of the latest threat: fat friends. According to the results of a study to be published tomorrow in the New England Journal of Medicine, people with obese friends are at a much elevated risk of becoming obese themselves. The study, which analyzed health records collected between 1971 and 2003 on 12,067 adults, enabled researchers to create detailed maps of obesity, linking wives to husbands, brothers to brothers, and friends to friends. From today's front-page Washington Post story on the study:

The researchers found that when one spouse became obese, the other was 37 percent more likely to do so in the next two to four years, compared with other couples. If a man became obese, his brother's risk rose by 40 percent.
The risk climbed even more sharply among friends -- between 57 and 171 percent, depending on whether they considered each other mutual friends. Moreover, friends affected friends' risk even when they lived far apart, and the influence cascaded through three degrees of separation before petering out, the researchers found...
Sophisticated statistical analyses revealed distinct groupings of thin and heavy individuals, and found that siblings and spouses had less influence than friends, supporting the idea that the study's findings were not the result of people eating the same food, engaging in the same activities or sharing genes.
And though environmental factors such as living in neighborhoods with lots of fast-food restaurants and no good grocery stores or sidewalks probably play a role, the researchers found no effect among neighbors unless they were friends, and being friends had an effect, regardless of whether they lived nearby. That ruled out common surroundings as explanations for the findings, the team said.

Scientists are hailing the study as "brilliant" and "groundbreaking." Maybe it is. Its use of social networks to track obesity as if it were a virus is pretty cool. But, as people learn about the study, it makes you wonder how they will relate to their overweight friends. According to the Post:

The researchers cautioned that people should not sever relationships with friends who have gained weight or stigmatize obese people, noting that close friendships have many positive health effects. But the results do support forming relationships with people who have healthful lifestyles.

Law & Order and Campaign Finance (Or: What Will TNT Do Without Fred Thompson?)

| Thu Jul. 26, 2007 11:35 AM EDT

In the campaign finance system, there are two separate yet equally important groups: candidates who have a myriad of film and television credits to their name and the networks who broadcast them. These are their stories:

Wondering why Fred Thompson is taking achingly long to throw his hat in the ring? Well NPR had a nice bit this morning on what role "Law & Order" might have to do with it. Seems that according to "equal time" provisions of campaign finance law, NBC would have to provide Thompson's competitors commercial time that would amount to the time Thompson is on camera in each episode.

Which isn't a lot. According to the formula of "Law & Order," the DA figure (now played by Thompson) typically appears three or four times. One: to urge Jack McCoy to take a deal/and or bemoan how the case will hurt his reelection changes. Two: to yell at Jack when he/the cops screw up. Three: Twist in case requires sage insight and/or reprise point one. Four: Witty bot mot at end of episode, typically over a glass of what looks to be mighty fine bourbon.

Still, that probably adds up to 5 minutes. And if NBC had to give all of Thompson's primary opponents 5 minutes of prime time, that could add up. So NBC has decided to stop airing any repeats that contain Thompson once he announces (all hail, Adam Schiff!), and next season Sam Waterson (aka Jack McCoy) will be promoted to DA. (Which, I might add, makes no sense, given how Jack has done everything in his power to piss off the political establishment and voters low these many, many, many years.)

TNT, however, since they are not a broadcast network is taking the stand that it does not have to provide equal time, and is free to continue running "Law & Order" episodes containing Thompson over and over and over and over and over....

To say nothing of The Hunt for the Red October, which they play with mind-boggling regularity.

But there's some chatter that the cable exception to equal time could be challenged and the Thompson campaign would be the test case. So if you're with Fred, the actor, better watch him now, before everything from In the Line of Fire to No Way Out to Curly Sue to old episodes of "Bonanza" get scrubbed from TV Land. The concept, not the channel. Wait, that too!

GOP Candidates Can't Chicken Out on YouTube Debate

| Thu Jul. 26, 2007 10:46 AM EDT

Joe Klein makes an interesting point about the Republican YouTube debate that's scheduled for September: why would they do it? YouTube appears to lean left (otherwise, why would conservatives need to start a right-wing version?), and when you let everyday people ask the questions, instead of professional journalists, the questions are bound to be more raw and biting. And from Iraq, to their flip-flopping, to their various party apostasies, the Republican candidates have a lot of material for angry YouTubers to work with.

Also, speculates Klein, FOX might be whispering to the GOP canidates, "The Dems bailed on our debate, you can bail on CNN's."

But CNN anticipated the problem and Klein reports its solution:

CNN has taken the clever step of getting the Florida Republican Party and Governor Charlie Crist to co-sponsor the CNN/YouTube Republican debate...Which will make it hard for the candidates to chicken out. Can't wait.

Neither can I. As you can tell from my massive live blog from the Democrats' YouTube debate a few days back, I love this format. It's going to be awesome.

If Only a Doping Scandal Could Mean Victory in Iraq

| Wed Jul. 25, 2007 8:57 PM EDT

If you aren't following the Tour de France you're not alone. Without Lance and those yellow bracelets there's little interest (even though an American sits in third place). So instead of following what is quite possibly the most difficult athletic endeavor known to man, Americans are instead fixated on baseball, on Barry Bonds, in his quest to do what only one man has ever done.

Both feats are mired in controversy, and by controversy I mean doping shitstorms. In two years, the Tour went from having an American seven-time, cancer-surviving, positive-drug-test free champion in Lance Armstrong to last year having "winner" Floyd Landis still disputed by his positive tests for elevated testosterone (the results of which he's opened up to a wiki-jury to vindicate himself), to this year's catastrophe.

Only four days from the finish of the three-week, 2,500 mile race, and just after the deciding day in the Pyrenees, race leader, Dane Michael Rasmussen, was booted today for mysteriously disappearing during testing days this spring. And earlier this week another favorite failed a drug test, which revealed he had had a blood transfusion before a stage he ended up winning.

And then there's Barry. A man who has hit 753 home runs—an astounding number. Three more and he'll eclipse Hank Aaron's record. Of course, Bonds has hit many of those while on performance-enhancing drugs, drugs that we are now seeing to be so prevalent that the pitchers he is facing may be as juiced up as he is.

Sports are awash with doping scandals. It ain't good for kids to watch Rasmussen sail up a grueling, 10-mile mountain road in the morning and find out he's a champion because of drugs in the afternoon. But let's be honest, drugs are a technological advance that feeds into the frenzy that is not only sports, but our entire culture.

Tiger Woods has laser eye surgery to improve his game. Actors have plastic surgery to extend their lucrative careers. We invent Teflon to keep our food from sticking to cookware. Cars that go faster, or that use less gas, do so because of science, the same science used to dope athletes.

We like advances that make life easier, better, more exciting. And we want to see winners, bikers chugging up mountains, men hitting baseballs unfathomable distances. After all, it distracts us from what we are losing, soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, hearts and minds everywhere. Win at all costs, isn't that the American Way?

FEMA's Post-Brown Efficiency Melts Away

| Wed Jul. 25, 2007 8:36 PM EDT

When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast and the levees broke in New Orleans, people in Louisiana and Mississippi desperately needed ice to prevent spoliage of tons of food. But despite urgent pleas for ice, none came. You may recall that several trucks filled with ice sat in another state for days--just sat there. Finally, when the ice did arrive, there was way too much of it.

FEMA's own regulations clearly state that unused ice must be disposed of after three months, but FEMA ignored its own rules and put the ice in storage in various parts of the country. Now, after two years, the agency has realized that the ice may be contaminated, and is dumping it. But only after taxpayers--you and I--paid $12.5 million to store it.

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Department of 'Cover Your Ass'

| Wed Jul. 25, 2007 7:01 PM EDT

It may be the best barometer available to gauge our risk of terrorist attack: the degree to which politicians scramble to cover their asses. If so, head for the hills, because there isn't a bare butt left in town.

First, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff famously confessed his "gut feeling" that we're due for another attack. Then, last week, the U.S. intelligence community released the latest National Intelligence Estimate, stating that al Qaeda has reconstituted itself in the ungoverned tribal regions of northwest Pakistan and is preparing to strike. Finally, today, a late-scheduled joint session of the House Intelligence and Armed Services committees was called to examine the NIE's findings.

For a moment, there was a sense of anticipation that something new would be revealed, some light shed on the degree of the terrorist threat or the current disposition and capability of the enemy. Reporters climbed over each other to reach their seats along the back wall of the hearing room. A capacity crowd overflowed into two additional rooms equipped with closed-circuit TVs. A panel of witnesses from the Defense Department and the National Counterterrorism Center assembled at a long table under harsh lights. Then the hearing began...and the anticipation quickly faded to boredom.

Reporters scribbled half-heartedly in their notebooks, if only to keep up appearances, but there was very little hard information on offer. Even the congressmen looked uninterested; at one point, almost half of them were cradling their chins and staring off into space. Perhaps they were just waiting for the closed session (scheduled to follow the public one), but it seems doubtful that the classified version would be much better. The take-aways:


  • Al Qaeda has reconstituted itself along Pakistan's northwest frontier.
  • Osama Bin Laden is probably there.
  • Al Qaeda's "safe haven" in Pakistan is troubling, but there's not much we can do about it.
  • There's no evidence that al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan are cooperating with insurgents in Iraq to attack the United States.
  • (Note: This last point doesn't quite mesh with what Bush has been saying this week, but, hey, he's never been one to let facts get in the way of a preconceived notion.)

    Despite the lack of new information, the congressmen seemed eager to express publicly their outrage that more was not being done to disrupt al Qaeda. One even told of how reading the NIE was a wake-up call that "set my hair on fire." Is it summer 2001 all over again? Who knows, but with all the political cover being taken, it seems that Chertoff's gut feeling is spreading.

    Alabama: Where the Constitution and DNA Don't Matter

    | Wed Jul. 25, 2007 5:48 PM EDT

    Solid evidence indicating that lethal injection is cruel and unusual has halted executions in several states over the past two years, but Alabama's not one of them. The constitutionality of the state's lethal injection protocol will be challenged in federal court this October, however Darrell Grayson, a black man convicted of robbing, raping, and killing an 86-year-old woman by an all white jury in 1982, doesn't have time to wait. He's scheduled to die at 6 p.m. tomorrow.

    Grayson, who admits he doesn't remember whether or not he committed the crime because he was, well, wasted, recently filed an unsuccessful challenge to lethal injection. The 11th Circuit Court, which rules over Alabama, dismissed it because Grayson waited too long to file his appeal. Grayson has also petitioned to have DNA testing performed, but the courts have denied that request as well despite evidence that points to Grayson's innocence. Two men claim Grayson was passed out in another location at the time of the crime and his co-defendant mysteriously asked for Grayson's forgiveness before he was executed in 1999.

    Grayson's request to delay the execution is pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, but things aren't looking good. Alabama Attorney General Troy King argued yesterday that "justice has been delayed too long." Ironically, justice will be denied forever if Grayson is killed before his DNA is tested and the challenge to Alabama's lethal injection procedure is resolved.

    —Celia Perry

    Bush/Cheney Threats to the Endangered Species Act

    | Wed Jul. 25, 2007 5:35 PM EDT

    Two government entities are investigating the Bush administration over the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The Christian Science Monitor reports the US Interior Department is reviewing the scientific integrity of decisions made by a political appointee, Julie MacDonald, who recently resigned under fire. Fish and Wildlife Service employees complained that MacDonald bullied, insulted, and harassed the professional staff to alter their biological reporting. The inspector noted that although she has no formal educational background in biology, she nevertheless labored long and hard editing, commenting on, and reshaping the endangered species program's scientific reports from the field. Last week Fish and Wildlife announced that eight decisions MacDonald made under the ESA would be examined for scientific and legal discrepancies.

    Meanwhile Congress is investigating evidence that Vice President Dick Cheney interfered with decisions involving water in California and Oregon resulting in a mass kill of Klamath River salmon, including threatened species. As the CSM reports, both episodes illustrate the Bush administration's resistance to the law. Earlier, the Washington Post ran the story of Cheney's personal interference in the water decision that killed the salmon in 2002:

    In Oregon, a battleground state that the Bush-Cheney ticket had lost by less than half of 1 percent, drought-stricken farmers and ranchers were about to be cut off from the irrigation water that kept their cropland and pastures green. Federal biologists said the Endangered Species Act left the government no choice: The survival of two imperiled species of fish was at stake. Law and science seemed to be on the side of the fish. Then the vice president stepped in. First Cheney looked for a way around the law, aides said. Next he set in motion a process to challenge the science protecting the fish, according to a former Oregon congressman who lobbied for the farmers. Because of Cheney's intervention, the government reversed itself and let the water flow in time to save the 2002 growing season, declaring that there was no threat to the fish. What followed was the largest fish kill the West had ever seen, with tens of thousands of salmon rotting on the banks of the Klamath River.

    Or, in the words of Bruce Barcott in MoJo's piece, What's A River For?:

    On the morning of September 19, 2002, the Yurok fishermen who set their gill nets near the mouth of the Klamath River arrived to find the largest salmon run in years fully under way. The fish had returned from the ocean to the Klamath, on the Northern California coast, to begin their long trip upstream to spawn; there were thousands of them, as far as the eye could see. And they were dying. Full-grown 30-pounders lay beached on shore-line rocks. Smaller fish floated in midriver eddies. Day after day they kept washing up; by the third day, biologists were estimating that 33,000 fish had been killed [since revised upward to 70,000] in one of the largest salmon die-offs in U.S. history. The Yurok knew immediately what had happened. For months they, along with state experts and commercial fishermen, had been pleading with the federal government to stop diverting most of the river's water into the potato and alfalfa fields of Oregon's upper Klamath Basin. But the Bureau of Reclamation, the agency in charge of federal irrigation projects, refused to intervene.

    Contempt of Congress! Will Likely be Ignored!

    | Wed Jul. 25, 2007 3:14 PM EDT

    A big step in the U.S. Attorneys case.

    The House Judiciary Committee voted today to issue contempt citations for two of President Bush's most trusted aides, taking its most dramatic step yet towards a constitutional showdown with the White House over the Justice Department's dismissal of nine U.S. attorneys.
    The panel voted 22-17, along party lines, to issue citations to Joshua B. Bolten, White House chief of staff, and Harriet E. Miers, former White House counsel. Both refused to comply with committee subpoenas after Bush declared that documents and testimony related to the prosecutor firings were protected by executive privilege.

    It remains to be seen what this means, because after these contempt citations pass the full House they are referred to the U.S. Attorney of the District of Columbia, an employee of the Justice Department. And the White House has already said, in an unprecedented move, that it will block the DOJ from prosecuting any contempt charges. My dream scenario: Supreme Court showdown!