Once upon a time, people in hospital beds fresh out of surgery were off limits for bill collectors. That, apparently, is no longer the case. I spent all last week sitting at St. Mark's Hospital in Salt Lake City with my dad, who had knee replacement surgery last Tuesday morning. St. Mark's used to be a nonprofit hospital, run by the Episcopal Church. Today, though, the hospital is owned by HCA, the Nashville-based hospital chain founded by the family of former Senate majority leader Bill Frist. Frist's brother and nephew are still on the HCA board of directors. Given my dad's experience with HCA, I am greatly relieved that Frist is no longer making health care policy in this country.

Among the many hospital personnel who stopped in to see my father after surgery was a "financial counselor" from the billing office, who basically started stalking him from the minute he left the intensive care unit. After making several unsuccessful visits to his room on Tuesday and Wednesday, she slipped her card under the door asking my dad to call her. A little busy recovering from major surgery, my dad didn't get around to it. So on Thursday, the woman called him on the phone in his room, waking him from a much needed painkiller-induced nap to demand a $1500 down payment on his surgery.

Still connected to IVs, a morphine pump and creepy-looking blood drains, my dad had enough to worry about without getting hassled by the billing office, like dying from a blood clot, or acquiring a drug-resistant infection from the guy in the next room. (Family and hospital staff alike were visiting the guy barehanded despite a big sign on his door warning people not to come within three feet of him without gowns, gloves and masks.) So I went down to the billing office to complain. A supervisor informed me that the counselor was making a "courtesy call" to inform my dad of the limits of his insurance policiy, but she acknowledged that it was hospital policy to wrest as much cash as humanly possible out of patients before they leave the building.

Mississippi Governor and former RNC Chair Haley Barbour endorsed John McCain yesterday. He wasn't so excited about McCain eight years ago; in fact, he had the same criticisms of McCain that many Democrats have today. Witness:

Several things to note:

(1) Haley Barbour was once a super-lobbyist. McCain can't get rid of them!

(2) President Bush (now McCain-friendly) had the same criticism of the Arizona Senator back then. See more at AMERICAblog.

(3) Cynicism alert! This is politics. This stuff happens.

Prison.jpg What happens to the Democratic primary when you plug it into the Prisoner's Dilemma? You know, that classic game theory tool born from mathematics and economics. Well, things get unruly. Read up at The Blue Marble.

228705707_b26afccb91_m.jpg Want to find out? Take the 10-minute online Project Implicit test designed by psycholowonks at the U of Washington, the U of Virginia and Harvard. The test is fun, made me laugh, and will crack that oh-so-dark door to your secret feelings about the main candidates. Check it out at The Blue Marble.

The Torture Playlist I pulled together—based on a leaked interrogation log, news reports, and the accounts of detainees and soldiers who've been torturers—has gotten, well, a lot of play. Of the feedback, perhaps most disturbing of all comes from DEICIDE's Steve Asheim. The death metal band's drummer says he's stoked that their song F*** Your God has been used to torture detainees. "It's cool. If we're up to military standards of audio abuse, it makes me feel like DEICIDE's doing our part for the troops." Asheim's father, uncle and grandfather served in the Army, so he said, "since I was so busy with the band thing, I'm glad I was eventually able to contribute somehow."

He's not the first artist to say they're glad their music has helped "fight the terrorists." Metallica's James Hetfield told NPR's Terry Gross in a 2004 interview, "For me, the lyrics are a form of expression, a freedom to express my insanity. If the Iraqis aren't used to freedom, then I'm glad to be part of their exposure." Hetfield said his music has been bothering parents for years, so why not the terrorists. "If I listened to a death metal band for 12 hours in a row, I'd go insane, too. I'd tell you anything you wanted to know." (Metallica's Enter Sandman is on the Playlist.)

Others have made statements opposing the use of their music to torture detainees. Clive Stafford Smith, a British lawyer representing several Guantanamo detainees, is spearheading an effort to sue the military based on copyright infringement. Rage Against the Machine (also on the list) even wrote to the State Department and the Armed Forces asking them to stop.

But so far, no comment from Barney or the Meow Mix guys.

—Justine Sharrock

My former alt-weekly colleague Todd Spivak has published a sharply critical piece on Barack Obama just in time for the Texas primary. The story appears in the Houston Press, where I worked with Spivak until 2006, as well as in its sister paper, the Dallas Observer. Both are circulated by Village Voice Media in cities that happen to be Obama strongholds. The story follows the admirable Houston Press tradition of pissing people off, but it's also getting ripped up in the blogosphere.

Spivak's piece is based on his years as a cub reporter in Illinois, where he covered Obama when he was still a political unknown. In 2004 Spivak published a favorable profile of Obama in the Illinois Times, but then he felt guilty about giving him a free pass (sound familiar?). He made some calls around the state legislature and found several lawmakers who were angry at Obama for taking credit for bills that they saw as their own. After Spivak ran with the 2004 story, Obama called to berate him. Wonkette sums up the whole thing in more detail here.

The problem with Spivak's piece is that it's somewhat short on context. A slice of the lengthy rebuttal in Daily Kos:

Finally when Spivak gathered all those nasty comments about Obama he was the dark horse in a three way race for the US Senate nomination, and most of the Illinois machine was working for his opponents (namely Dan Hynes son of long time Chicago alderman and self funding millionaire Hull). Nearly all of the folks named are now outspoken advocates and supporters (but they're still hacks).

Though Spivak brings up some woefully underreported dirt on Obama, he would have been better served to shore it up and drop the whole "Obama and Me" narrative. As it stands, the story is most revealing as a cautionary tale for a schizophrenic national media. Being taken in by Obama and then coming to one's senses, so to speak, isn't the best model for coverage. Better to be skeptical from the start, and that includes skepticism of Obama's critics.


Ayman al-Zawahiri—technically Al Qaeda's second-in-command, but widely considered among terrorism analysts to have eclipsed Osama Bin Laden in his influence—began his career as an Islamic militant in the early 1980s as an organizer and recruiter for Egypt's Islamic Jihad, at the time an upstart group that focused primarily on fostering domestic mayhem. Jailed after the group's 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, al-Zawahiri's Islamist credentials were burnished under torture by Egyptian authorities while his close-quarters prison association with other influential militants, the core of which formed a sort of Islamic fundamentalist think tank, raised his profile as an emerging jihadist leader. After a period of exile, which included the usual stint fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, al-Zawahiri rose to command a reconstituted version of his old affiliation, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, which officially merged with Al Qaeda in 1998.

Such a distinguished background (from a terrorist perspective, at least) placed al-Zawahiri in a position to expound his politics from a high perch—which he did in his December 2001 e-book, Knights Under the Prophet's Banner, presumably written by torchlight in an Afghan cave while American bombs rained outside. Since then, his steady stream of video and audio propaganda has formed the ideological frame for Al Qaeda's violence.

spin_bike.jpg The conference call spin war continues. Mark Penn kicked the day off on a Clinton campaign conference call with reporters by saying that Clinton's renewed focus on national security, the Austan Goolsbee affair (also known as NAFTA-gate), and the Rezko trial opening today in Chicago are combining to create a "tipping point and change in the momentum" in the race for the Democratic nomination.

"NAFTA-gate" is the Clinton campaign's name for this bizarre saga that began when Canadian television reported a senior economic adviser to Barack Obama named Austan Goolsbee met with Canadian officials to assure them that Obama is not as protectionist on trade as his campaign rhetoric suggests. The Obama campaign and the Canadian government both denied the meeting occurred, but a memo proving the meeting was leaked (presumably by someone in the Canadian government) to the American press.

Howard Wolfson, Clinton's communications director, read a series of quotes from Obama campaign members in which they denied in no uncertain terms that the meeting ever took place. Now that the campaign is admitting the meeting took place but insisting that Goolsbee's comments on NAFTA are being misrepresented, said Wolfson, "why should we trust or believe them now?"

The Clinton campaign, probably sounding more assertive and confident than they have on any call in the recent past, also hammered Rezko-gate. The campaign helpfully distributed a memo with all the questions journalists ought to ask the Obama campaign about Obama's relationship with disgraced real estate developer Antoin "Tony" Rezko. "How many times did Senator Obama visit Tony Rezko's house? What was the purpose of these visits?" asked the memo. "Did Sen. Obama intercede on behalf of Mr. Rezko in any governmental capacity?" The implication was clear: Obama is a dangerous choice; he has not been fully vetted.

The truth is that investigations of the Rezko situation by the press has not turned up anything other than the fact that Rezko, who is definitely a sleazeball, helped Obama expand the plot of land on which his house in Chicago sits. Obama has called the fact that he entered into a business transaction with Rezko "bone-headed," but insists that nothing illegal occurred. Rezko's indictment did not mention Obama, but his trial, which begins today in Chicago, holds the possibility of embarrassment for Obama.

Speculation began on Saturday, and was refueled again today, that House Democrats, led by Intelligence Committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes, would figure out a way to--at the very least--make sure a telecom immunity provision becomes law. I haven't been able to confirm any of this myself. More specifically, I've been told both that Reyes really is likely to lead a cave-in, and also that there's no reason to think that will happen, but whatever the case is, we may find out as early as tomorrow. And if, as the L.A. Times article suggests, we're going to see a new bill or set of bills altogether, then it's possible the whole thing will become tied up in the Senate. Again.

Glenn Greenwald has written an important post on the optics of all this, if, of course, the reports from the last two days prove to be correct.

After a weekend ground operation in Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip that left more than 100 people dead, many of them civilians, Israeli Defense Forces pulled out of Gaza Monday. The withdrawal could be a gesture to placate an important visitor: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is due to arrive in Israel Tuesday to try to advance stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, and all out-warfare going on in the background to her peace mission would no doubt be an embarrassment to Washington.

But as former Israeli intelligence chief Efraim Halevy told me in a recent interview, Israel and Rice are not talking to a key player: Hamas. Halevy advocates that Israel and Washington back indirect proximity talks between Israel and Hamas, conducted by a trusted third party. He is not alone. News media report that Egypt is trying to broker a cease fire agreement between Israel and Hamas, an arrangement publicly supported by Israeli Labor minister Ami Ayalon, among others. If a cease fire is not able to be achieved and Hamas' Qhassam and Grad rockets continue to hit the Israeli towns of Sderot and Ashkelon, Israeli officials are warning that last weekend's incursion will be dwarfed by a full scale ground invasion of Gaza in coming weeks. "It makes sense to approach a possible initial understanding including Hamas—but not exclusively Hamas—at a time when they are still asking for one," Halevy told me. "No side will gain from a flare up leading to Israel re-entering the Gaza strip in strength to undo the ill-fated unilateral disengagement of 2005."

Here is the interview with Halevy.