Mojo - July 2008

An Indicted (GOP) Senator, a Disgraced (GOP-run) Justice Department, a Gagged (GOP-managed) EPA--Just Another Day in D.C.

| Tue Jul. 29, 2008 3:15 PM EDT

Corruption-o-rama in Washington on Tuesday:

On the front page is news (or confirmation) that Aberto Gonzales' Justice Department was run by partisan hacks who illegally denied jobs to applicants who were not Republicans and Christian conservatives.

The Associated Press is reporting that the "Environmental Protection Agency is telling its pollution enforcement officials not to talk with congressional investigators, reporters and even the agency's own inspector general, according to an internal e-mail." AP adds: "The EPA is currently under pressure from several congressional committees to disclose documents relating to its position on global warming and its denial of a petition by California to control greenhouse gases from motor vehicles. Last week, EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson denied a request to appear before two Senate committees to discuss whether the agency's decisions comply with its staff's technical and legal recommendations."

And Senator Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican, was indicted for making false statements on his financial disclosure forms to conceal $250,000 in goods and services he received from an oil company that sought official assistance from Stevens. The 84-year-old Stevens used to chair the powerful Senate appropriations committee.

Cronyism that undermines good government, a gag order that attempts to block the flow of information needed for oversight, and a case of (alleged) personal corruption in which a legislator exploited his office to line his own pocket--it's as if the seven-and-half years of the Bush presidency was boiled down into one news cycle. The only thing missing is a war sold on false pretenses.

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Obama, DNC Reserve $20 Million to Target Hispanic Voters

| Tue Jul. 29, 2008 12:03 PM EDT

The Obama campaign and the Democratic National Committee will announce later today a decision to commit $20 million to bringing out the Hispanic vote. According to a recent report (.pdf) from the Pew Hispanic Center, the Hispanic vote has shifted decisively in favor of the Democratic Party. Numbering about 46 million, Hispanics make up about 15 percent of the U.S. population. As a group, their influence this election cycle will be somewhat muted due to the fact that many are either not citizens or are under 18. Forecasts indicate that they will comprise only 6.5 percent of voters who turn out in November. But their influence in swing states like New Mexico, Florida, Nevada, and Colorado could be the deciding factor in which candidate wins those states—all of which fell into the Bush column in 2004 by five percentage points or less. A July 24 poll taken by the Pew Hispanic Center showed that Obama enjoys a 66-23 lead over McCain among Hispanic voters.

China to Spy on Beijing Hotels During Olympics

| Tue Jul. 29, 2008 11:32 AM EDT

The Chinese government is intent on presenting its best face to the world when the Beijing Olympics open on August 8. The construction of world-class facilities and grounds and the filtering of pollution from the air bring to mind the single-minded determination of China's Five-Year Plans of old. But as Amnesty International points out in a report (.pdf) released today, China's eagerness to have the Games go off without a hitch is also showcasing the government's worst traits, particularly in the area of human rights and press freedom. As Amnesty spokesman Sam Zarifi told Voice of America:

The Chinese government has become so obsessed with projecting an image of stability and harmony that they won't allow any voice of disagreement, however reasonable or peaceful, so we see human rights activists being targeted .... Even the promise that foreign media would be allowed to report completely freely as has been the case in previous Olympics, that has not been met.

Freedom of the press will be the subject of a news conference on Capitol Hill today, where Senator Sam Brownback, Republican of Kansas, will release several translated documents, showing that all hotels in the area of the Olympics have been required to install Internet surveillance software. The move, according to a press release, "is aimed at visiting guests and journalists." From one of the documents, translated from Chinese:

In order to ensure the smooth opening of Olympic [sic]... It is required that your company install and run the Security Management System for Internet Access from Public Places in addition to provide network interfaces consistent with the industrial technical standards on public security for the implementation the foregoing management and technical measures (the person who access the Internet must be registered in his or her real name)

Let the Games begin.

Iraq Contracts: Inspectors General Point to Waste and Fraud

| Mon Jul. 28, 2008 3:31 PM EDT

Following on my post from last week about the Senate Appropriations Committee's outrage at the scale of waste and fraud endemic to Iraq contracts, I offer two specific examples, both disclosed today in separate official audits.

To begin with, the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) released an audit (.pdf) of a $900-million, cost-plus contract awarded to Parsons Delaware Inc., in March 2004 to design and build infrastructure in support of Iraq's security and justice sectors. This was to include the construction of things like prisons, fire houses, and police stations. As of May 21, 2008, the firm had spent $333 million—of which $142 million (43 percent of the total) was wasted on projects that were never completed. Now, it's easy to point the finger at Parsons. But as SIGIR makes clear, blame also rests with the U.S. government for lack of oversight. Only 10 contract officers, for example, were assigned to the Parson's contract—a project that required about five-to-six times as many. To make matters worse, the audit itself was compromised by inadequate record-keeping by federal agencies. According to the report, SIGIR "contacted a number of responsible contracting offices, but at the conclusion of our review the U.S. government has been unable to locate the files for the contract bid and award process... SIGIR also could not locate inventory records for items purchased by the contractor in support of construction activities."

Israeli Defense Minister Meets with Cheney, Rice Today, Iran on the Agenda

| Mon Jul. 28, 2008 12:13 PM EDT

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has arrived in Washington and is scheduled to meet with Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Pentagon officials and a few members of Congress today. Iran is on the agenda. Barak is accompanied by Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni and Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz. Their visit follows that of Israeli Defense Forces chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi to Washington last week.

(I recently wrote about the planned visits, and signs of a growing divergence between US and Israeli timelines and sense of urgency on the Iran issue. Israel was reportedly not informed in advance that the Bush administration planned to send a US representative to international nuclear talks with Iran. Barak's visit, which had been planned for earlier this month, was postponed several times, including because of a recent Israel-Hezbollah prisoner swap.)

Rice has given Iran until Saturday to respond to an international offer on a package of incentives in exchange for negotiations on halting its nuclear program. Accompanying the latest international incentives package to Iran, was a "freeze for freeze" proposal, under which Iran would agree to freeze further installations to its uranium enrichment program, while the international community would agree to freeze placing further economic sanctions on Iran, for a six week pre-negotiations period. In order to move to full-fledged negotiations, Iran has been asked to agree to suspend uranium enrichment for the duration of negotiations, in exchange for the UN agreeing to suspend sanctions already passed against it.

Iran reportedly did not provide a specific response to the freeze for freeze offer when it met with international representatives, including US undersecretary of state for political affairs William Burns, at international nuclear talks held in Geneva earlier this month. "What we're looking for is, at the end of the two weeks, a definitive statement through the normal channels, [Iran nuclear negotiator Saeed] Jalili to [international representative Javier] Solana, on where the Iranians stand," a State Department spokesman told reporters today.

A Potent and Populist Economic Issue for Obama?

| Mon Jul. 28, 2008 10:12 AM EDT

On Monday, Barack Obama, fresh off his triumphant overseas trip to Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel, and Europe, turned to the homeland's number-one concern: the faltering economy. He was in Washington to hold a meeting with his top economic advisers. Here's how his campaign described what would happen:

Senator Obama will be joined by leading figures from business and labor, Democrats and Republicans to talk about the recent developments in the economy: job loss, financial markets, and the rising costs of oil, food and other commodities....Participants of the early afternoon meeting include: Warren Buffett, Former Chairman of the Federal Reserve Paul Volcker, Former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, SEIU Secretary-Treasurer Anna Burger, Google Chairman and CEO Eric Schmidt and other economic leaders.

Most of the agenda is pretty obvious. And campaigns are supposed to do the obvious. But there's one economic issue that Obama ought to consider raising with these economic leaders and with the voters: transparency. So much of the economy now takes place in dark corners, where traders and speculators develop, buy and sell financial instruments that are unregulated and, perhaps worse, barely understood, except by the small number of players who trade them. This is partly what brought on the subprime meltdown. (See my description of swaps here.) Even former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin did not understand the financial products that led to the housing credit crisis.

So here's a populist issue for Obama: the U.S. economy is too important to be placed in the hands of wheeler-dealers who in the shadows engage in transactions that have the potential to send waves of harm throughout the highly-interconnected financial world. Americans are entitled to feel insecure when they see that the economy can be so severely affected by a few big firms that go off the reservation, thanks to the imaginative machinations of a small number of traders. More transparency, more regulation--whatever the policy prescriptions are (and they will be technical and hard for most of us to understand), Obama could by addressing this issue gain a political advantage over John McCain, who tends to celebrate the workings of the markets.

These days there is very good reason for commoners to be suspicious of the markets. If Obama can speak to that, it could make for good policy and good politics.

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Some Surprising New Findings on GIs, PTSD, and Crime

| Fri Jul. 25, 2008 6:43 PM EDT

A while back, I waxed all sympathetic about GIs getting what I assumed was all too needed special consideration for post-discharge, surely PTSD-based offenses. Now comes a Sacramento Bee year-long study of GI's, 'shell shock', and crime. As usual, it's far from a simple situation.

Read their findings here, here, here, and here.

Turns out that some of these supposedly-traumatized-by-war defendants had a 'war or jail' option, with serious charges hanging over their heads, and appear to have taken their criminal dispositions to war with them. Some of these folks had colorful rap sheets long before they ever donned combat boots. Of course, as Kathy Griffin would say: allegedly.

Surely, the programs I praised earlier are taking such factors into consideration in deciding how to deal with these vet offenders, but damn this makes things murky.

Kudos to prison shrink and columnist John Schwade for the hat tip.

GI Jane Hell: Don't Ask, Don't Tell

| Fri Jul. 25, 2008 5:06 PM EDT

Here's why women are taking the brunt of the military's 'don't ask, don't tell' policy.

From womensenews:

Today, more than 12,000 service members have lost their jobs because of the so-called don't ask, don't tell law. A disproportionate number of those discharges are women, according to statistics gathered by the Washington-based Servicemembers' Legal Defense Network from the government under the Freedom of Information Act...

The problem for women has worsened in recent years... In fiscal 2006, women made up 17 percent of the Army but 35 percent of discharges under the "don't ask" law. One year later, women were 15 percent of Army members, yet discharges of women increased to 45 percent of the total.

Bad as this is, it turns out that lots of these women are fingered by men whose advances they spurned.

Cartoon: We're Number One!

| Fri Jul. 25, 2008 4:24 PM EDT

Number one in lock ups, that is.

Video: When Your Mother Is Deported

| Fri Jul. 25, 2008 4:20 PM EDT

In a Texan business park named Export Plaza, the Corrections Corporation of America operates a complex of concrete buildings where illegal immigrants are locked up until they agree to leave the country.

"When you first get there, they tell you you're nobody," says Sergia Santibanez, who spent 18 months inside CCA's Houston Processing Center while she fought to remain in the United States with her children.

Watch her daughter, Luisanna, speak about her mother's detention here:

—Stokely Baksh and Renee Feltz

For more on the business of detention, don't miss MoJo reporter Stephanie Mencimer's article, Why Texas Still Holds 'Em. For more multimedia coverage of this issue by investigative reporters Renee Feltz and Stokely Baksh, go to www.businessofdetention.com.