Mojo - August 2007

Some Good News for "Dollar Bill" Jefferson

| Fri Aug. 3, 2007 1:02 PM EDT

Today, "Dollar Bill" Jefferson received the first bit of good news he's had in some time, at least since August 2005, when the FBI descended on the Louisiana congressman's home and turned up $90,000 in alleged bribe money stashed in his freezer. A federal appeals court ruled today that the bureau's subsequent raid of the lawmaker's congressional office in May 2006, an unprecedented move which sparked outcry from Jefferson's colleagues on both sides of the aisle, was unconstitutional and infringed on the independence of Congress. ''The review of the Congressman's paper files when the search was executed exposed legislative material to the Executive,'' the court ruled. ''The Congressman is entitled to the return of documents that the court determines to be privileged.'' Jefferson's not out of the woods yet. Far from it. According to the Justice Department, it didn't rely on the documents in question when making its case against Jefferson, who was indicted on 16 counts in June.

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The New Bosses Congregate at YearlyKos

| Fri Aug. 3, 2007 12:17 PM EDT

I'm sitting in a YearlyKos panel called "Evolution and Integration of the Blogosphere." The panelists are the blogosphere's heavy hitters: Matt Stoller and Chris Bowers, now of OpenLeft, formerly of MyDD; Duncan Black of Atrios; Amanda Marcotte of Pandagon and the John Edwards controversy; Ali Savino, co-founder and Program Director of the Center for Independent Media; and Amanda Terkel of Think Progress. Basically, all the folks we quasi-attacked in Dan Schulman's piece entitled "Meet the New Bosses."

Bowers, moderating the panel, begins by describing the entrenched nature of the top of the blogosphere: the most-viewed 50 progressive blogs have remained constant the last two years and hot new bloggers are just becoming diarists or contributors to these blogs. And, lest we here at MoJoBlog forget it, those 50 blogs get 95 percent of the blogosphere's traffic.

Some panelists reject the idea of a blogosphere establishment, even in the face of Bowers' facts, but Stoller makes the only legitimate point: the growth of the blogosphere may have occurred a few years back because the Bush Administration was so nasty and the mainstream press was so unwilling to expose the truth. There was a space for blogs. But now the press is critical of the administration and there is slightly less need for blogs. I'll consider that. Savino, perhaps more willing to accept Bowers' point than the rest, points out new bloggers' best hope: local blogs and niche blogs.

In my mind, the facts are irrefutable: the blogosphere isn't really the wild frontier with thousands of disparate voices that some people think it is. It has its own hierarchy, and even those who advocate opening up the voices in American democracy are content to perpetuate that hierarchy if they are at the top of it.

Man, I am never going to get on Townhouse.

Iran Launches English-Language News Channel

| Fri Aug. 3, 2007 11:09 AM EDT

If you prefer that your news come from the mullahs in Tehran, try Press TV. The channel is funded by the Iranian government, but claims it will operate without interference from the state. Press TV's "vision," as spelled out on its website:

1- To break the global media stranglehold of western outlets.
2- To bridge cultural divisions pragmatically.
3- To highlight the versatility and vitality of political and cultural differences, making up the human condition.

What's Up With Nouri al-Maliki?

| Fri Aug. 3, 2007 11:02 AM EDT

If you're wondering why the Iraqis haven't met those pesky benchmarks, today's Washington Post provides an explainer. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki hails from Iraq's Dawa party, a secretive Shiite organization that was forged in opposition to Saddam's regime. It is tight-knit and suspicious of outsiders, even (and perhaps most especially) those belonging to competing Shiite political groups. According to the Post:

Maliki, observers say, is trying to compensate for his party's frail position against his Shiite rivals. Unlike influential Shiite clerics Moqtada al-Sadr or Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the Dawa party controls no militia and has a small grass-roots following today.
"He's trying to strengthen the Dawa party at the risk of marginalizing other political groups," said Wamidh Nadhmi, a political analyst.

And divisions among Shiites pale in comparison to the chasm that has developed between them and the Sunnis. Much has been made of the recent American effort to enlist Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar Province and elsewhere to assist in the fight against foreign al Qaeda fighters. The strategy appears to be working (at least for now), but the Post article notes that it is also fueling Shiite paranoia:

Maliki and his advisers are already mistrustful of new U.S. alliances with Sunni insurgents and tribal leaders who have turned against al-Qaeda in Iraq. Where the Bush administration sees a success story, Maliki and other Shiites worry that the United States is empowering groups still determined to overthrow their government.

It does make you wonder... If we arm, equip, and train Sunni tribesmen to fight al Qaeda and organize Sunni "neighborhood watches" to help protect them against Shiite death squads, it might earn us their short-term appreciation and deter them from attacking U.S. troops. Then again, it might fuel the civil war that many people believe will follow our departure from Iraq. This is surely not lost on American planners. General Petraeus recognized the risk, telling a reporter: "You have to make sure that the neighborhood watch doesn't end up watching someone else's neighborhood." Good luck.

Democrats' Ground Game for 2008 Revealed at YearlyKos

| Fri Aug. 3, 2007 12:35 AM EDT

Earlier today at YearlyKos, the Democratic Party's plan for winning the 2008 ground game was presented to interested activists, bloggers, and members of the media by the DNC's new political director, David Boundy.

The Democrats' number one priority is to "organize everywhere," an unsurprising fact to anyone familiar with DNC Chairman Howard Dean's 50 State Strategy. The second priority is to "count everything," which means that any get-out-the-vote (GOTV) tactic from this point forward must be measurable. Boundy asked how many people in the room had held up signs on a freeway. Several attendees raised their hands. "How many votes do you think you got from that?" he asked. No one answered, some laughed nervously. "We're not doing that anymore."

Boundy claimed that local activists constantly approach him with new widgets that improve canvassing or direct mailing. He responds to them, "How do you know?" "Well," they say, "we used it in my state and we won three state senate seats." But if the local organizer can't prove quantitatively that his or her widget was responsible for victory, Boundy isn't interested in working with them. "If I don't know how I'm going to gain votes from what you are doing, I'm not going to do it," he said. "You can work with someone else. Hopefully the Republican Party."

If the party/D.C./establishment arrogance inherent in any of this rubbed the people in the room the wrong way—they were, after all, local activists, who probably thought they were helping the party by developing new tools in the absence of institutional support—it was washed away by the sense that the Democrats are finally getting their act together and developing a GOTV machine that rivals Karl Rove and the Republicans.

Building that machine anew—and Boundy admits it is a work in progress—instead of using a holdover from 2000 or 2004 likely has serious advantages because the rules have changed since even a few years ago. Cable and TiVo have reduced the importance of television advertising, satellite radio and mp3 players have lessened the impact of radio ads, and caller ID and cell phones have damaged the power of robocalls, push polls, and other forms of direct phoning. (The cell-only generation is a factor here: 15 percent of Americans don't have landlines; in the mid-30s-and-lower age demographic, that number raises to 40 percent.)

Minneapolis Residents Look for Answers

| Thu Aug. 2, 2007 10:00 PM EDT

Minneapolis was my home for four years, as it was for many of us who just graduated from the University of Minnesota this May. Some of us have moved away, but wherever this community resides now, we share something in common. We're worried about Minneapolis. I used to cross the Minneapolis bridge that collapsed last night every week and never once gave the safety of the bridge a second thought. It's a big, sturdy bridge. I didn't think there was anything to worry about.

But I guess I was wrong. I read that the bridge collapsed minutes after it happened and immediately sent text messages to two of my best friends who still live in the area. Thankfully they were safe; one had actually yet to hear about the disaster. I was not alone in this panic. Minneapolis friends and families flooded house and cell phone lines so much that area phone numbers reportedly weren't working. Some, like me, were able to connect with people but the not-so-lucky ones are still painfully waiting for a snippet of any news at all.

Today, divers searched through submerged debris, citizens poured over news reports, and officials made plans to investigate similar bridges in the area. Police are planning to put the bridge back together, as if made of puzzle pieces, to determine what caused the collapse. Bush has made $5 million available to the city to remove debris and organize traffic and is planning on visiting the site Saturday. And, in the meantime, people want answers, and they're not getting them.

But there are some places where people can start to look for answers. My former student newspaper, the Minnesota Daily is providing up-to-date news, photos, videos, and commentary on the developing situation. I highly encourage you to turn to some of the most thorough and comprehensive coverage available right now, coming from whom some consider to be unlikely candidates: students.

—Anna Weggel

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Chiquita Secrets Unpeeled

| Thu Aug. 2, 2007 7:31 PM EDT

Front-page stories in today's Washington Post and Wall Street Journal detail the latest news from the a Justice Department probe into Chiquita's dealings with Colombian paramilitaries. According to the Post:

On April 24, 2003, a board member of Chiquita International Brands disclosed to a top official at the Justice Department that the king of the banana trade was evidently breaking the nation's anti-terrorism laws.
Roderick M. Hills, who had sought the meeting with former law firm colleague Michael Chertoff, explained that Chiquita was paying "protection money" to a Colombian paramilitary group on the U.S. government's list of terrorist organizations. Hills said he knew that such payments were illegal, according to sources and court records, but said that he needed Chertoff's advice.
Chiquita, Hills said, would have to pull out of the country if it could not continue to pay the violent right-wing group to secure its Colombian banana plantations. Chertoff, then assistant attorney general and now secretary of homeland security, affirmed that the payments were illegal but said to wait for more feedback, according to five sources familiar with the meeting...
Sources close to Chiquita say that Chertoff never did get back to the company or its lawyers. Neither did Larry D. Thompson, the deputy attorney general, whom Chiquita officials sought out after Chertoff left his job for a federal judgeship in June 2003. And Chiquita kept making payments for nearly another year.

YKos Gossip: FCC to Weigh in on Murdoch-WSJ Deal?

| Thu Aug. 2, 2007 6:15 PM EDT

FCC Commmissioner Michael Copps told Yearly Kossacks this afternoon (at a session organized by our friends at Free Press) that he wants the FCC to review the sale of the Wall Street Journal to Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch's NewsCorp has several relicensing applications currently in front of the FCC, so Copps figures it's a good time to take a look at what legal authority the agency has to weigh in on the deal, and do their duty to protect the public interest.

Most of Copps' talk had to do with how corporate influence over U.S. telecom policy has put this country way behind others in broadband penetration (not to mention speed). He mentioned that a recent report by the International Telegraphic Union (the U.N. agency that deals with telecom and communications matters) puts the U.S. behind Estonia and tied with Slovenia in broadband penetration.

— Steve Katz

Obama Has G.I. Joe Moment

| Thu Aug. 2, 2007 6:02 PM EDT

Last night, Obama put to rest accusations that he can't be "tough" like the other hawks regarding foreign policy: He'll unilaterally attack Pakistan if General Musharraf is not doing enough to "take out" the "terrorists." To be fair, he did argue for making military aid to Pakistan conditional and that democracy in Pakistan should figure in as a top priority with our dealings with the "biggest non NATO ally."

But, what's most striking about Obama's speech is that if one were to read it without knowing it was penned by one of the "Democratic" front runners—one who is supposed to be a viable alternative to the centrist, and often hawkish, Democrats many find uninspiring—you'd think this was a rational and "compassionate" Republican talking.

I'm wondering if Obama's campaign managers are whispering in his ears, "Tell the American public that if push comes to shove, you too can be jingoistic." Well, regardless of what their strategy is, it's not a good one. A little note to BHO: Progressively becoming less progressive will only lose you votes.

The way the candidates have spoken (and continue to speak) to the American public make it seem like we are afraid of real change and that a radically different approach to how we deal with the international community is out of the question. And this is truly unfortunate, because carrying out air strikes to weed out terrorists usually ends in the loss of many innocent civilian lives, which in turn only angers people even more.

—Neha Inamdar

Bridge Collapse: Whose Roads Are They Anyway?

| Thu Aug. 2, 2007 4:53 PM EDT

Not that long ago, I rode my bike to work along Minneapolis' West River Parkway—underneath the I-35W bridge—every day, so it was particularly heartbreaking to watch CNN last night, with all that footage of twisted steel and crumpled concrete, the exhausted and frightened voices on cell phones. (And there's still more Minnesota in me than I knew—my first thought was, "Thank God it's not January.")

This morning, my inbox was full of messages from friends and relatives, assuring everyone that they are okay, noting how "every day we have is a gift." But some of my friends were also angry, and one raised a point that hasn't been picked up in the national press. She wrote,

Earlier this year, in February, the state legislature wrote a bill that would have raised the gas tax by five cents per gallon. [Congressman James Oberstar (D-Minn.), chair of the ultra-powerful Transportation Committee] had gone to the statehouse and told legislators that if they passed the bill, he'd match it with fed funds—for a total of up to $1 billion. The bill passed the House and Senate by large majorities, but Pawlenty vetoed it, citing his longstanding, budget-devastating promise of no new taxes. Instead, the governor floated a plan to pay for improvements with bonds, otherwise known as loans.

Of course, this money wouldn't have come through in time to fix 35W, and if it had there's no saying it would have been spent on improving an old freeway bridge in the city rather than build a new interchange in the suburbs. But the point is, there are only three ways of dealing with roads, bridges, and public transit (remember transit?): Decide, as a society, that we need them and will pay for them; let them fall apart; or turn them over to the private sector. The first is what we did in the great public-works era from the late 1800s to the 1970s; the second is what we've done since; and the third is what we seem about to do, as Dan Schulman and James Ridgeway documented in Mother Jones a few months ago.

Privatization sounds sweet: Companies will take these old roads off our hands, and pay us for them!. And that would be great if it worked. But to make roads profitable you have to charge tolls, and to throw off enough profit for private investors, you have to charge tolls a lot higher than the state would. So privatization means new and higher tolls; upgrades only for roads in profitable places; and, overall, more money for less service. There is a lot more collapsing in the nation's highway system than a single bridge.