Mojo - June 2008

In Florida Legal Case, Blackwater Demands Taliban Treatment

| Thu Jun. 19, 2008 3:02 PM EDT

There's no telling how the Iraqi legal system would have dealt with last September's shooting incident in a Baghdad traffic circle, during which Blackwater operators killed 17 Iraqi civilians and wounded 24 others. It never got the chance to weigh in because U.S. contractors—thanks to a last-minute order passed by the outgoing Coalition Provisional Authority—are immune from Iraqi law. That's how Blackwater prefers it... and perhaps with good reason; Iraq's legal system is not known for fair and principled jurisprudence. Just look at the footage of Saddam's execution.

It may seem strange then that Presidential Airways, a Blackwater sister company also owned by Erik Prince, is arguing in a Florida courtroom that its contractors in Afghanistan should be tried under Islamic Sharia law—you know, the legal code of the Taliban. The case deals with a 2004 incident, detailed in a memorandum (.pdf) released last October by Rep. Henry Waxman's Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, in which contractor pilots took a low-altitude joy ride through an uncharted area of the Afghan mountains, colliding with one of them and killing everyone aboard, including U.S. soldiers. The families are now suing Presidential Airways for damages.

So, how does Prince reconcile subjecting Presidential Airways pilots to local law, while simultaneously arguing that his contractors in Iraq are above it? Here's his answer, according to the Raleigh News & Observer:

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The Science of Gayness: Does it Really Matter?

| Thu Jun. 19, 2008 2:49 PM EDT

As California same-sex couples lined up to get married, so did the protesters. But more and more, the battle over homosexuality has moved from the social studies department to the biology classroom. A study published this week showed that gay men and straight women's brains are symmetrical, while straight men and lesbians' brains are asymmetrical. Also, gay men and straight women's amygdalas (the part ruling aggression and fear) have similar connective patterns.

So what does this mean? According to the lead researcher, Ivanka Savic, it's "robust" proof that there are biological differences between gays and heterosexuals. But even Savic admits that the study can't tell whether these differences are genetic or the result of the fetus getting too much or too little testosterone while developing in the womb.

McCain Hypocrisy on Obama's Opt-Out Decision

| Thu Jun. 19, 2008 2:10 PM EDT

The McCain campaign has sharply criticized Barack Obama's decision to become the first general election presidential candidate since the 1970s to opt out of the public financing system, a decision Obama can afford because of his stunning success with hundreds of thousands of low-dollar donors. As David notes at the link above, the McCain campaign said Obama's decision "undermines his call for a new type of politics."

But McCain, a longtime foe of Big Money in politics, once had a friendlier view of presidential fundraisers like Obama.

Here he is on the Fox News show "On the Record," in January 2004:

"I think it's wonderful that Howard Dean was able to use the Internet, $50, $75, $100 contributions. That's what we want it to be all about. We want average citizens to contribute small amounts of money, and that's a commitment to a campaign. So I'm for that. I think it's a great thing. I think the Internet is going to change American politics for the better."

And here he is on MSNBC's "Hardball," in June 2004:

"The Internet is generating more and more people involved in the political process with relatively small campaign contributions, $50, $75. That's wonderful. No longer can an office holder call up a CEO or a trial lawyer or a union leader and say, I need $1 million. And, by the way, your legislation is up before my committee again."

FISA, Compromised

| Thu Jun. 19, 2008 1:39 PM EDT

A few moments ago, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer released what he refers to as a “bipartisan” “compromise” bill: The FISA Amendment Act of 2008, which he authored along with Jay Rockefeller, Kit Bond, and Roy Blunt (respectively, the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Intelligence committee, and the House Minority whip). The word “bipartisan” is technically indisputable. The word “compromise”, by contrast, is a total farce.

The most controversial elements of the February legislation were provisions that would have allowed the White House to wiretap American citizens without a warrant, and that would have immunized telecommunications companies from participating in the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program back in the halcyon days when warrantless wiretapping was unquestionably illegal.

Here’s how the new bill deals with the immunity question.

Notwithstanding any other provision of law, a civil action may not lie or be maintained in a Federal or State court against any person for providing assistance to an element of the intelligence community, and shall be promptly dismissed, if the Attorney General certifies to the district court of the United States in which such action is pending that…the assistance alleged to have been provided by the electronic communication service provider was in connection with an intelligence activity involving communications that was authorized by the President during the period beginning on September 11, 2001, and ending on January 17, 2007.

That’s the game. Non-profit groups like the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation can sue the telecoms if they want, but if Attorney General Michael Mukasey says “presto”, the lawsuits must be dismissed.

As for the nitty gritty of surveillance powers the bill authorizes, here’s what the ACLU says: “This bill allows for mass and untargeted surveillance of Americans' communications…. The process by which this deal has come about has been as secretive as the warrantless wiretapping program it is seeking to legitimize.” And the media blackout over the last few months is testament to that. None of Congress’ civil liberties stalwarts partook in these negotiations. Neither John Conyers, nor Patrick Leahy–chairmen of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees respectively–got a say. Nor did Sens. Chris Dodd or Russel Feingold. Nor did House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Leahy says “the legislation unveiled today… is not a bill I can support.”

Nonetheless, it looks very much as if Pelosi–who has substantial power to control what does and does not appear on the floor of the House–will allow this to come to a vote.

I’ll keep my eye on the comings and goings.

Brian Beutler is the Washington correspondent for the Media Consortium, a network of progressive media organizations, including Mother Jones.

Obama Opts Out of Public Financing: Promise-Breaker or Reform-Shaker?

| Thu Jun. 19, 2008 1:00 PM EDT

In the decades after Watergate, the basic thrust of campaign finance reform was this: limit the flow of big-money private contributions to candidates. No more bags of money for the pols. Now, only donations of up to $2300 from individuals are acceptable. And in the presidential race, there is public financing: the nominees--if they agree to forgo fundraising--receive full underwriting of their general election campaigns. This year that subsidy is about $85 million.

This system has been an imperfect reform. There have been loopholes. Well-heeled private interests have poured money into independent efforts to support a preferred candidate or, more often, blast that candidate's opponent. And parties could raise money, while corporations could donate unrestricted amounts to presidential conventions. So the opportunity for one side to outspend the other (using unlimited donations from wealthy individuals, corporations or unions) has remained. The influence of big money has not been eradicated. Still, presidential candidates, once nominated, could focus on campaigning, rather than cash-hunting.

Now comes Barack Obama.

He has run for president as an agent of change who slams the money-talks ways of Washington. As an Illinois state senator and as a U.S. senator, he has passed reform measures. Yet on Thursday, in an email to his supporters, he announced that he would not participate in the public financing system in the general election, despite an earlier promise to stay within this system. He will be the first major presidential nominee to reject public financing for the general election since Watergate. Instead of relying on that check from the U.S. Treasury, he will continue his record-setting fundraising operation. John McCain's campaign immediately and predictably proclaimed that this decision "undermines his call for a new type of politics" and will "weaken and undermine the public financing system."

Obama said:

Under the Radar: The Child Abuse Bill Swap

| Thu Jun. 19, 2008 12:51 PM EDT

Below is a guest blog entry by MoJo author Maia Szalavitz:

Congressman George Miller recently introduced strong legislation to fight abuse in teen boot camps and other "tough love" residential facilities. But the version that passed the House Education and Labor Committee in May is not the version that will be voted on by the House Tuesday.

A new "bipartisan" draft of HR 5876, the "Stop Child Abuse in Residential Programs for Teens Act of 2008," has been submitted instead. And the provision most likely to hold these programs accountable and reduce abuse—a "private right of action" which would allow parents and children to sue the facilities in federal court and receive reimbursement for attorneys' fees—has been removed. Why?

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Why the Offshore Drilling Pander Might Actually Work

| Thu Jun. 19, 2008 10:59 AM EDT

It's a pander, no doubt, but it might be a successful one. Why? Because people don't know that it won't reduce gas prices. Check out these numbers from a recent Rasmussen poll:

In order to reduce the price of gas, should drilling be allowed in offshore oil wells off the coasts of California, Florida, and other states?
67% Yes
18% No
15% Not sure
If offshore oil is allowed, how likely is it that the price of gas will go down?
27% Very likely
37% Somewhat likely
21% Not very likely
6% Not at all likely
8% Not sure

I'll only add that this whole thing may not matter in the long run because offshore drilling seems bound to be one of those election-season issues that flare up for a few weeks and then disappear, never to be heard from again. Remember the gas tax holiday that we all went bonkers over?

How You Know McCain's Offshore Drilling Reversal Is a Pander

| Thu Jun. 19, 2008 10:39 AM EDT

It might seem obvious that McCain's new-found support for offshore drilling is a pander: after all, the federal government itself says that if you were to drill all over the continental United States, you'd find enough oil to last America just two and a half years, meaning we're not talking about a long-term solution. Moreover, offshore drilling will cause only a marginal impact on prices, and even that tiny impact won't be felt for another seven to 10 years, according to the American Petroleum Institute, the oil industry trade group that points out that production cannot start right away.

But maybe McCain didn't check the numbers. Is there any other way you can tell that offshore drilling is actually pointless, and serves only as a base election-season pitch to voters angry about high gas prices? There is. There are no ships.

Simon Mann In Full: African Coup Plotter Points Fingers

| Wed Jun. 18, 2008 4:15 PM EDT

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You wouldn't know it from the American newspapers, but if you click on virtually any British news site today (try here, here, and here), you'll read of a courtroom drama currently unfolding in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, in which British mercenary Simon Mann is casting blame far and wide for the failed 2004 coup plot that aimed to topple the local dictator, President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo.

Details of the coup itself are already widely known, the subject of numerous magazine articles and several books, but in case you missed it: In March 2004, Mann was arrested along with 70 other mercenaries while their plane was refueling on the tarmac of an airport in Zimbabwe during a brief, late-night stopover while en route from South Africa to Equatorial Guinea. The mercenaries were carrying with them 61 AK-47s, 20 light machine guns, 50 heavy machine guns, 100 RPGs, along with tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition—equipment they said they intended to use to secure a mine in the Congo. The Zimbabwean authorities didn't buy it, and Mann spent the next several years in a Harare prison. He was later released for good behavior, but immediately extradited to face criminal charges in Equatorial Guinea, where, if convicted, he could serve up to 32 additional years in prison.

Today in the Malabo courtroom, testifying in his own defense, Mann seemed eager to bring down his co-conspirators, if only perhaps to lessen his own sentence. The Eton-educated, former British special forces officer gave detailed accounts of the plotters motivations—namely, to replace Obiang with a new president who would give conspirators a cut of the country's sizable oil wealth—as well as the leadership structure of the conspiracy.

Among Mann's accusations:

New Details About Life in Gitmo Don't Bode Well For GWOT

| Wed Jun. 18, 2008 3:50 PM EDT

McClatchy is running an excellent series this week on US overseas detention centers, focusing on the abuse, carelessness, and mismanagement that have encouraged global terrorism rather than deterred it. What's new here are the details: the news organization accumulated eight months worth of interviews, collected a number of primary source documents, and put together in-depth profiles of recently-released detainees. The specifics of these men's stories take on additional significance in the wake of the Supreme Court's recent ruling on detainees' habeas rights: Due process seems a lot more important when you realize that every day an innocent person spends in Guantanamo is essentially an al Qaeda recruitment opportunity. Things are so bad that even the former US commander of the camp acknowledges that we've more or less enabled our very own terrorist sleeper cell:

Rear Adm. Mark H. Buzby, until recently the commanding officer at Guantanamo, acknowledged that senior militant leaders gained influence and control in his prison.

"We have that full range of (Taliban and al Qaida) leadership here, why would they not continue to be functional as an organization?" he said in a telephone interview. "I must make the assumption that there's a fully functional al Qaida cell here at Guantanamo."

The commander's assumption, if true, adds another layer of complexity to the detainees' status—how do we handle the release of someone who was innocent of terrorism when we picked them up, but is now eager to work for al Qaeda? If, as alleged, such cases are common at Guantanamo, then the administration has created a self-justifying system that will be extremely difficult to disrupt. Unless we completely overhaul that system, we're stuck with this Catch-22.