Mojo - August 2007

Protesters in Berkeley: Up a Tree and Fenced In

| Fri Aug. 31, 2007 12:22 PM EDT

treesitter.jpeg

Okay, so it's Berkeley, not a stranger to protests, but this week's tree shenanigans both play to the historic hippies-in-dreads protest image as well as highlight the era of strapped campuses cracking down on activism in the name of growth.

In case you haven't heard, UC Berkeley students and city residents have been living in oak trees on campus for the past 10 months, protesting their razing for the building of a new sports complex.

This week the protests have elevated to arrests, and even construction. Wednesday, campus police put up an 8-foot chain-link fence meant to both keep protesters inside the grove as well as to prevent conflicts when 72,000 people descend on the area for tomorrow's Cal football game against Tennessee.

The sitters are now going it alone. No one can give them food or water, and once they leave the fenced area they are not allowed to return. This morning, one protester was arrested after putting his arm around a police officer and touching him with a lavender incense wand. "Why is he being arrested?" asked a student. "Battery," the officer replied.

The $125 million sports complex will replace the seismically shaky (and already-cracked) Memorial Stadium, and it will also allow the cash-strapped university to bring in big name recruits, football and otherwise, which can translate into millions a year in revenue. This year Cal is ranked #12 in the nation going into the college football season, something that will bring the university millions in television revenue alone.

Really though, Cal has bigger worries than tree sitters. The city has sued the school to halt construction because the new complex will rest squarely where the old stadium does, on the Hayward Fault. And when it comes to earthquakes, my money's on the oak trees to be left standing.

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Justice Department Starves the Jerry Lewis Corruption Investigation

| Fri Aug. 31, 2007 12:08 PM EDT

The WSJ's Scot Paltrow reports that the investigation of former House appropriations committee chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Ca) has been stalled by lack of funds. "In Los Angeles, a federal criminal investigation of Rep. Jerry Lewis, a California Republican, stalled for nearly six months due to a lack of funds, according to former prosecutors. The lead prosecutor on the inquiry and other lawyers departed the office, and vacancies couldn't be filled. George Cardona, the interim U.S. attorney in Los Angeles, declined to comment on specific cases but confirmed that lack of funds and unfilled vacancies caused delays in some investigations."

Nation Nabs an Exclusive: Maliki Gov't Overrun by Corruption, Unwilling to Change

| Fri Aug. 31, 2007 10:53 AM EDT

Capital Gamesman David Corn of The Nation has a noteworthy exclusive. Corn somehow got his hands on an internal report from the U.S. embassy in Baghdad that has this to say about the Maliki government:

...the Maliki government has failed in one significant area: corruption. Maliki's government is "not capable of even rudimentary enforcement of anticorruption laws," the report says, and, perhaps worse, the report notes that Maliki's office has impeded investigations of fraud and crime within the government.

The simple fact that there is corruption in Iraq isn't surprising, I suppose. But this exclusive isn't all-hat-and-no-cattle. The document Corn nabbed is 70 pages and it's loaded with details. Corn elaborates:

The report depicts the Iraqi government as riddled with corruption and criminals—and beyond the reach of anticorruption investigators...
"The Ministry of Interior is seen by Iraqis as untouchable by the anticorruption enforcement infrastructure of Iraq," it says. "Corruption investigations in Ministry of Defense are judged to be ineffectual." The study reports that the Ministry of Trade is "widely recognized as a troubled ministry" and that of 196 corruption complaints involving this ministry merely eight have made it to court, with only one person convicted.
The Ministry of Health, according to the report, "is a sore point; corruption is actually affecting its ability to deliver services and threatens the support of the government." Investigations involving the Ministry of Oil have been manipulated, the study says, and the "CPI and the [Inspector General of the ministry] are completely ill-equipped to handle oil theft cases." There is no accurate accounting of oil production and transportation within the ministry, the report explains, because organized crime groups are stealing oil "for the benefit of militias/insurgents, corrupt public officials and foreign buyers."

And from there it goes on, with indictments of ministry after ministry (click the link above to survey the full damage). Maliki is a big part of the problem, demonstrating "an open hostility" to externally-led (aka possibly effective) corruption investigations.

Staffers leading corruption investigations "have been 'accosted by armed gangs within ministry headquarters and denied access to officials and records.' They and their families are routinely threatened. Some sleep in their office in the Green Zone. In December 2006, a sniper positioned on top of an Iraqi government building in the Green Zone fired three shots at CPI headquarters. Twelve CPI personnel have been murdered in the line of duty."

So what does this all mean?

Today is Karl Rove's Last Day on the Job

| Fri Aug. 31, 2007 10:41 AM EDT

August 31 is Rove's last scheduled day at the White House, so take a big smile into the holiday weekend. Mother Jones on the Rove resignation here, here, here, and especially here.

Inspectors Find Iraq's Chemical Weapons... in New York City

| Fri Aug. 31, 2007 10:06 AM EDT

Just weeks before it is set to go out of existence, the UN Monitoring and Verification Commission (UNMOVIC)—whose inspectors scoured Iraq unsuccessfully in search of Saddam's stockpiles of WMD—has finally found something. Problem is, the discovery was made not in Iraq, but in its own New York offices.

According to news reports (here and here), inspectors were archiving old files last Friday when they came upon an unidentified liquid. Subsequent testing, completed Wednesday, revealed it was a small sample of the deadly chemical agent phosgene, apparently removed from Saddam's Muthanna chemical weapons facility in 1996. Inspectors were at a loss to explain how it could have gotten to New York, not to mention how it would then have been forgotten and left in a filing cabinet. The UN has said it will investigate the matter.

The phosgene was discovered in UNMOVIC's 48th Street storage unit, about a block away from UN Headquarters, along with with "an Iraqi Scud missile engine, Russian gyroscopes and 125 cabinets filled with sensitive information on Iraq's past weapons programs." The materials, including the chemical agent, were originally gathered by the agency's predecessor, the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM).

The FBI and New York police collected the phosgene yesterday. It was flown by helicopter to a U.S. military laboratory in Aberdeen, Maryland. Environmental testing of UNMOVIC's storage facility revealed no contamination. According to Russian weapons expert Svetlana Utkina, who works with UNMOVIC, accidental release of the phosgene would have been deadly for those exposed. "Your lungs would collapse immediately if you inhale this substance," she told reporters. Inspectors reportedly found about a gram's-worth of the phosgene in a soda-can-sized container sealed in a plastic bag. Asked what would happen if the container broke open, Utkina said, "probably about five people will get severe problems, (and a) couple of people will be dead."

The Larry Craig Interrogation Tapes, Ready for Your Consumption

| Fri Aug. 31, 2007 10:00 AM EDT

Wonkette has audio of the Larry Craig interrogation from immediately after he was arrested in the Minnesota airport bathroom. Worst. Interrogator. Ever. I'm no expert in police work, but I'm guessing yelling "Disappointed! Disappointed!" at your suspect over and over isn't in the manual.

Speaking of Craig, "well-placed" Republican sources are telling CNN that he will resign soon, possibly as early as today. If Craig hasn't actually made his decision yet, that'll certainly be a kick in the pants. FYI, Friday afternoon before a long weekend is a great time for a news dump — people getting an early start on the holiday, and that's basically everyone, will miss the news.

Update: Salon has a truly excellent article called "Why bathroom sex is hot: Larry Craig is the latest politician to get caught with his pants down. So what is the eternal allure of sex in a stall, and does it make you gay?" Highly worth a read if the events of the last few days have left you scratching your head. Of even if they haven't. Good piece of writing.

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Why the Texas Governor Commuted a Death Sentence

| Thu Aug. 30, 2007 7:31 PM EDT

Kenneth Foster clearly did not deserve to die. His crime: driving a car used in a robbery that led to a murder he never took part in. But his case was by no means unique in Texas, and so it came as a surprise today when Gov. Rick Perry commuted his sentence. "I'm concerned about Texas law that allows capital murder defendants to be tried simultaneously," Perry said in a statement, "and it is an issue I think the legislature should examine." A conservative Republican wants to examine capital murder law? To say the least, Perry is doing his part to Keep Austin Weird.

So why did this happen? It certainly helped that Foster had become an international anti-death penalty cause celebre supported by President Jimmy Carter, South African Archbishop Desmund Tutu and Susan Sarandon. Still, celebrities and activists have adopted other death row inmates (free Mumia!) to little effect.

Weird as it may sound, the pardon is probably best explained as the result of a gradually increasing skepticism in Texas of the criminal justice system and, yes, the death penalty. Consider this: death penalty prosecutions in the nation's execution capital, Harris County, Texas, have been in steep decline; every major newspaper in Texas has called for a moratorium on the death penalty or opposes it entirely; and in 2005 the state legislature passed a law allowing life imprisonment without parole, which has given judges and jurors a new way to be "tough on crime" without killing people. "Perhaps the reality that people aren't so hip on the death penalty anymore is finally getting across, even to Rick Perry," Jeff Blackburn, the founder and chief counsel of the Texas Innocence Project, told me. "I think this is about where people are at in the State of Texas--the old lies that have been told them are starting to be revealed."

Anyone living in Texas in recent years couldn't help but notice a string of high-profile criminal justice scandals--racism in Tulia, pervasively botched evidence in the Houston crime lab, and most recently, a striking number of exonerations in Dallas on DNA evidence. "Ten years ago if you told people that the criminal justice system falsely convicts the innocent, you were either a communist or a nut or both," Blackburn says. "Now, everybody gets that. Everybody has seen it fail."

Including Perry. Which is not to say that he cares most of the time. Blackburn and other defense advocates still believe plenty of people are wrongly put to death in the state. But Perry is a good politician: he appears to understand that the pendulum--or the scythe--is swinging the other way in Texas, and that he needs to get out of the way before it lops his head off.

Want to Know Where the Hurricane Relief Money Went?

| Thu Aug. 30, 2007 4:59 PM EDT

The Institute for Southern Studies has released a report suggesting some ways out of the various social, physical, and financial quagmires caused by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The paper also dedicates a section to that ubiquitous question, "Where did the Katrina money go?" A few answers:

Amount that Bush administration says has been spent on Gulf Coast recovery since 2005 hurricanes: $116 billion
Estimated percent of those funds that are for long-term recovery projects: 30
Amount of FEMA's 2005 disaster relief budget that was spent on administrative costs: $7 billion
Percent of the 2005 relief budget that represented: 22
Of $16.7 billion in Community Development Block Grants earmarked for long-term Gulf Coast rebuilding, percent that had been spent as of August 2007: 30
Of $8.4 billion allocated to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for levee repair in Louisiana, percent that had been spent as of July 2007: 20
As of June 2007, value of controversial "cost plus" Katrina contracts given out by three federal agencies, which allows companies to charge taxpayers for cost overruns and guaranteed profits: $2.4 billion
As of August 2006, value of Gulf Coast contracts that a Congressional study found were "plagued by waste, fraud, abuse or mismanagement": $8.75 billion

So the answer to that ubiquitous question in devastated areas—"When will I get my f*cking check?"—still appears to be, "Don't hold your breath."

For more details, check out the report.

D.C. Schools Chancellor to Investigate "School of Shock" That Mother Jones Exposed Saying, "It's Nuts On Multiple Levels"

| Thu Aug. 30, 2007 2:51 PM EDT

In her Washington Examiner column, Jonetta Rose Barras follows up on Mother Jones' "School of Shock" piece and prompts the new D.C. Schools Chancellor to investigate why Washington is sending 10 kids to this controversial facility. Writes Barras:

The District government is spending millions to send children to a controversial special education residential facility in Massachusetts that uses electric shock to discipline students. The Judge Rotenberg Educational Center in Canton accepts individuals diagnosed as autistic, mentally retarded, schizophrenic, bipolar and emotionally disturbed. It is "the only facility in the country that disciplines students by shocking them, a form of punishment not inflicted on serial killers, or child molesters, or any of the 2.2 million inmates now incarcerated in U.S. jails and prisons," says Jennifer Gonnerman, writing in the current issue of Mother Jones magazine.
Typically, a student at Rotenberg is equipped with a "backpack containing five 2-pound, battery-operated devices, each connected to an electrode attached to" the person's skin. The student is zapped for so-called misbehavior, which could include minor offenses like "yelling or cursing," according to Gonnerman.
Gonnerman's story — "School of Shock" — focuses on students from New York and Massachusetts. But five other states and the District send individuals to the facility. The District's connection isn't detailed. Still, the horrific portrait painted sent me racing to determine how many children from this city are at Rotenberg.
For weeks, I sought answers. The Department of Health and the Department of Mental Health claim no relations with Rotenberg. Marla Oakes, head of special education reform at DCPS, failed to respond to repeated requests for information. (Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee can't clean the central administration fast enough.)
The chief financial officer reports the District paid Rotenberg nearly $4 million — $809,498.50 by the Department of Human Services and $2.93 million by the DCPS — between fiscal 2004 and fiscal 2007.
Matthew Israel, psychologist, founder and executive director of Rotenberg, confirms 10 District children are being treated at the facility.During a telephone interview, he takes exception to Gonnerman's article, calling it "an obviously negative hatchet job."
He directs me to the center's Web site for a detailed rebuttal, in which he calls the center the last resort for many of its residents; says electric shock is an "extremely effective" aversive that is "used for only 43 percent of JRC's school-age students."
In a conversation Wednesday, Rhee told me she has asked for an investigation into the Rotenberg treatment of District students. "It's nuts on multiple levels," she said.
For decades the District has sent some of its most vulnerable children to out-of-state facilities. A 2006 D.C. Board of Education white paper indicated there are more than 11,000 special education students. Twenty percent of them attend 131 private institutions; 91 are residential.
Mayor Adrian Fenty has promised to bring District students home. Let's hope he starts with the 10 at Rotenberg. Tax dollars shouldn't be used for a treatment modality that includes the regular infliction of pain on children already struggling against enormous odds.

Indeed. And I concur with my old Washington City Paper coworker Jonetta, that it is long since time that D.C. clean house when it comes to the school system and the special ed program in particular. Sounds like Teach For America alum Rhee is game to try. Godspeed.

More on other officials taking on the Rotenberg Center here.

Meddling in Elections (in Iraq)

| Thu Aug. 30, 2007 12:30 PM EDT

In a column in today's Washington Post, David Ignatius says the U.S. should have done more to interfere with the January 2005 Iraqi elections, supposedly to counter "Iranian influence."

Joe Klein agrees that the administration was naive if it expected an anti-Iranian result from an unmanipulated election. But he says the idea that CIA interference could have positively influenced the elections (or won them for "former CIA favorite Iyad Allawi") is just as silly. Was the CIA going to magically change the demographics of Iraq? As Klein points out, every Iraqi election is effectively a "census," with voting split along ethno-religious lines:

Kurds vote for Kurds. Sunnis vote for Sunnis. Shi'ites vote Sadr or the Hakim family.

Shias were likely to win any Iraqi election with or without Iranian help. The "Iranian influence" Ignatius talks about isn't the problem. The Iranians have influence in the first place because there are so many Shias in Iraq. And the inevitably Shia Iraqi government was inevitably going to be friendly to Iran because Iran is a Shia country.

Pinning American hopes on a change in leadership is just as naive as assuming that "if we can just hold elections, everything will turn out all right." It's unlikely that any Iraqi leader could truly bridge the sectarian divides. And Matthew Yglesias reminds his readers that we've heard the whole "a change of leadership will save us" narrative before:

Back when Allawi was booted from power in January 2005 in favor of Ibrahim Jafari, folks proclaimed this a great success and said Bush's Iraq policy had been vindicated. They were wrong. Back when Jafari was ousted in favor of Maliki, people proclaimed this, too, as a crucial step in the right directed. They were wrong. Now Maliki's the problem and Allawi -- again! -- is the solution. But they're still wrong.

The Iraqi leadership obviously isn't the problem. The whole nation-building project would almost certainly be a lot easier if Iraq was ethnically and religiously homogeneous. But the Shias aren't alone. There are also Kurds and Sunnis, and all three groups hate each other. This is not a good starting point for a democracy. And putting someone new in charge isn't going to solve the fundamental problem that Iraq is an ethnically and religiously divided country.

—Nick Baumann