Mojo - March 2008

'Merchant of Death' Viktor Bout Is Arrested in Thailand

| Thu Mar. 6, 2008 1:22 PM EST

The fictional Yuri Orlov (played by Nicholas Cage in the 2005 film, Lord of War, based on the story of real-life weapons smuggler Viktor Bout) may have excelled at breaking arms embargoes, but he was even better at evading responsibility for his actions. Some version of the above scene, in which Orlov explains why he will never be stopped to an earnest, but sadly powerless Interpol agent who's spent his entire career in a futile attempt to bust him, may now be playing itself out in a Thailand jail. The news this morning is that Bout, dubbed the "Merchant of Death" by journalists Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun in their recent book of the same title, has been arrested at a five-star hotel in Bangkok.

According to initial reports, Bout was captured by Thai police, acting on a warrant issued by Thai courts that charges the arms smuggler with "attempted mass murder." "He is now in the custody of the Crime Suppression Division," said Major General Pongpat Chayaphan of the Thai police. "We have followed him for several months. He just came back to Thailand today. We will take legal action against him here, before deporting him to another country."

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Clinton Campaign: Obama = Ken Starr

| Thu Mar. 6, 2008 12:16 PM EST

The Clinton campaign is now pushing the idea that Obama's stepped-up attacks on Hillary Clinton are mere rehashes of the Republican hit jobs that Clinton has endured for so many years. "Imitating Ken Starr is not the way to win the Democratic nomination," the campaign wrote in a memo to reporters.

It's a really crafty and well-designed line. I get the sense that there are Democrats voting in these primary states that don't necessarily want to see Hillary Clinton win the nomination, but they don't want to see her lose it either. Every time she is on her way out, they pull her back in (see NH, OH, TX). That's because after years of taken beatings at the hands of bullies and jerks on the right, she's an incredibly sympathetic figure to millions of Democrats. The Clinton campaign isn't going to convince anybody that Barack Obama is as bad as Ken Starr or Newt Gingrich, but they can remind voters that Clinton doesn't deserve to get trashed all over again.

Dean on Michigan and Florida: Do-Overs Are Possible

| Thu Mar. 6, 2008 10:37 AM EST

A statement from Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean on the subject of Michigan and Florida's contested delegates:

"We're glad to hear that the Governors of Michigan and Florida are willing to lend their weight to help resolve this issue. As we've said all along, we strongly encourage the Michigan and Florida state parties to follow the rules, so today's public overtures are good news. The rules, which were agreed to by the full DNC including representatives from Florida and Michigan over 18 months ago, allow for two options. First, either state can choose to resubmit a plan and run a party process to select delegates to the convention; second, they can wait until this summer and appeal to the Convention Credentials Committee, which determines and resolves any outstanding questions about the seating of delegates. We look forward to receiving their proposals should they decide to submit new delegate selection plans and will review those plans at that time. The Democratic Nominee will be determined in accordance with party rules, and out of respect for the presidential campaigns and the states that did not violate party rules, we are not going to change the rules in the middle of the game.
"Through all the speculation, we should also remember the overwhelming enthusiasm and turnout that we have already seen, and respect the voters of the ten states who have yet to have their say.

I read that to mean Dean is inviting Michigan and Florida to organize new primaries or caucuses. The governors of both states have indicated they are willing. My question: would do-overs be scheduled before Pennsylvania or after? If they're schedule for after, this primary season will stretch on so long that the Democrat who emerges as the nominee will be seriously handicapped.

Key question: With Michigan and Florida excluded, neither candidate can go into the convention with the 2025 pledged delegates needed to secure the nomination. They would both need superdelegates to get over the top, no matter how many of the remaining states they win. But if Florida and Michigan schedule do-overs, is there a scenario where one of the two can get 2025 on pledged delegates alone? I'll investigate.

Update: TNR is reporting Michigan is set to hold new caucuses.

Update Update: For an interesting take on what Obama should do about this situation, see Mark Schmitt at TAPPED.

Bank Drops Wikileaks Case

| Wed Mar. 5, 2008 8:22 PM EST

Julius Baer Bank and Trust dropped its case against Wikileaks today, days after a San Francisco judge reversed an injunction against the iconoclastic document-leaking site. Judge Jeffrey White had ordered Wikileaks shut down in response to arguments that it had published stolen bank documents that contained sensitive proprietary information. But Wikileaks argued that the documents exposed fraud, and the injunction prompted a firestorm in the press over concerns that White had abridged constitutionally guaranteed rights to free speech and freedom of the press. "There are serious questions of prior restraint, possible violations of the First Amendment," he said on Friday before reversing the order. Even during the time that Wikileaks went dark, shadow sites hosted in other countries continued to make the same information available, underscoring the futility of censorship in the Internet era. The bank's filing today didn't say why it was withdrawing the suit and reserved the right to refile the case later.

Obama to Clinton: We've Got Our Own Kitchen Sink

| Wed Mar. 5, 2008 4:32 PM EST

kitchen-sink.jpg Going negative worked for Hillary Clinton in Ohio and Texas and the Obama campaign knows it.

On a conference call with reporters this afternoon, Obama's chief strategist David Alexrod acknowledged Clinton's kitchen sink strategy and said, "What's good for the goose is good for the gander." Get ready for an ugly six weeks until Pennsylvania, folks.

Axelrod started in on Clinton with the tax return issue. "The vetting of Hillary Clinton has yet to start. The hard questions haven't been asked," he said. "They've talked about change you can Xerox. You can Xerox a tax return. There's not a lot of preparation... it's important people understand what the sources of income are for the household that is going to be the next president."

This all followed on the heels of a memo from the campaign earlier this morning titled, "TAX RETURNS: What does Clinton have to hide?"

Comcast Must Die

| Wed Mar. 5, 2008 3:52 PM EST

Comcast, the cable TV giant, has given its customers lots of reasons to hate the company. They've refused to embrace a la carte programming, charged people $2 to stop sending them junk mail, wrecked people's credit reports, falsely advertised its Internet speed and generally abused the people who pay for its services. Comcast's customer service problems are so acute that Advertising Age columnist Bob Garfield started a blog called Comcast Must Die to compile all the gripes about the company from consumers (see the promo video above). But Comcast doesn't really need any help generating bad press.

Last week, the company admitted that it paid people to take up all the seats at an FCC hearing examining complaints that Comcast was blocking file-sharing on its cable modem service. The reason? Comcast wanted to keep its critics out in the cold. The company apparently didn't tell the seat-warmers to stay awake through the proceedings so as not to attract attention of reporters, who immediately suspected Comcast was up to no good.

It's amazing that a company this bad could stay in business as long as it has. It's either a testament to the power of monopolies or sad proof that Americans will endure any amount of corporate abuse to get their Law and Order fix every week. Garfield is hoping his new blog will help change corporate behavior, but I think there's a better way to go than bitching online: just cancel. Pull the plug. Comcast will only die if people stop using it. Really, you can do it. The writers' strike notwithstanding, network TV has never been better, and in these bad economic times, it has the added advantage of being free.

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The Only Muslim in Congress on the Obama-Muslim Smear

| Wed Mar. 5, 2008 3:03 PM EST

Hillary Clinton is trying to take advantage of the emails that allege Barack Obama is a secret Muslim, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), the only Muslim in Congress (and a man who, unlike Obama, actually was sworn in on a Koran), tells Huffington Post. Money quote:

People are going to throw some stuff on the wall and see what sticks and at this point the Clinton camp is trying to do whatever it can to be successful. And if that means benefiting from political bigotry, I don't think they will try to put a stop to it.

Clinton told 60 Minutes straight out that she does not think Obama is a Muslim. But she also said that there was "nothing to base [the smear] on, as far as I know" (emphasis added). Ellison says the qualifier is an attempt to "seed voter doubts," according to HuffPo.

The Clinton campaign denies Ellison's allegations.

John W. McCain at the White House

| Wed Mar. 5, 2008 3:03 PM EST

bush-mccain.jpg Today, John Sidney McCain and George W. Bush were one. Bush endorsed McCain at the White House, saying, "John showed incredible courage, strength of character and perseverance in order to get to this moment and that's exactly what we need in a president." If you think Bush is so unpopular that he can't help McCain among conservatives, you're crazy. Hard-core right-wingers, the folks that don't really trust John McCain, love George Bush with an irrational passion. Of course, there's a danger that this endorsement will reinforce the notion that John McCain is running for what is essentially a third Bush term, in terms of both foreign and domestic policy. But the Democrats were going to hammer that point regardless of whether or not McCain made this trip to the Rose Garden.

The two men have a long history, displayed at right courtesy of a Think Progress photo montage.

For more on what John McCain needs to do to shore up the Republican base, see this.

Update: Bush: McCain "is not going to change" my foreign policy.

Update Update: Check out this SNL sketch on McCain swallowing his pride to endorse Bush in 2004.

FISA and Total Online Awareness

| Wed Mar. 5, 2008 1:16 PM EST

New questions have arisen about what, exactly, the government hopes to surveil. On Monday, Kenneth Wainstein, the Assistant Attorney General for National Security spelled it out:

At the breakfast yesterday, Wainstein highlighted a different problem with the current FISA law than other administration officials have emphasized. Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell, for example, has repeatedly said FISA should be changed so no warrant is needed to tap a communication that took place entirely outside the United States but happened to pass through the United States.

But in response to a question at the meeting by David Kris, a former federal prosecutor and a FISA expert, Wainstein said FISA's current strictures did not cover strictly foreign wire and radio communications, even if acquired in the United States. The real concern, he said, is primarily e-mail, because "essentially you don't know where the recipient is going to be" and so you would not know in advance whether the communication is entirely outside the United States.

Ryan Singel at Wired magazine thinks there's something to this. "That would make sense," he writes, "since email doesn't go directly to a device in most cases, it goes to a server that holds the email until the recipient(s) come to pick up the email—which could be and often is from different parts of the world—think of any business traveler."

Christians Heart Payday Lenders

| Wed Mar. 5, 2008 12:12 PM EST

payday-lender.jpgThe Christian Right has used the Bible to bolster many a political issue, from abortion to stem cell research. Strangely enough, however, they seem to have missed one of the biggies: the Bible's many injunctions against usury, or predatory lending to poor people. The Bible is far more explicit in its disapproval of usury than, say, gay marriage. (The book of Ezekiel compares usurious lending to extortion and murder for hire, in fact, and threatens major hellfire for those who practice it.) Yet in parts of the country where the Christian Right wields the most political power, usurious payday lending has flourished more than anywhere else in the U.S., according to a new study by Christopher Peterson and Steven Graves.

Today's payday lenders charge around 450 percent interest on short-term loans, rates ten times higher than the federal definition of criminal loan sharking and nearly double what the Mob charged in its heyday. Peterson's home state of heavily Mormon Utah ranked high on the list of havens for payday lenders. The state claims more payday lending outlets than McDonalds, Burger Kings, Subway sandwich chains, and 7-11s combined, and has failed to pass even modest restrictions on allowable interest rates that exceed 500 percent a year, among the highest in the nation. (One reason may be that the chairman of the Salt Lake City Republican Party, former State Senator James Evans, himself owns several payday-lending outfits.)

Peterson and Graves decline to speculate as to why devout Christians and Mormons who wield considerable political clout continue to tolerate practices that are so clearly at odds with Biblical teachings. They simply attempted to point out the correlation, writing that sadly, "Those states that have most ardently held to their pious Christian traditions have tended to become more infested with the progeny of money changers once expelled by Christ from the Hebrew temple."

Photo by Flickr user ninjapoodles used under a Creative Commons license.