The Taliban has made news recently with its stepped-up and increasingly deadly attacks on U.S. forces in Afghanistan. But behind the scenes, its leaders have for the past two years been laboring to open a dialogue with the Afghan government aimed at bringing about peace. CNN reports today that the Saudis acted as the intermediary in the first round of talks that occurred over the weekend. Saudi Arabia is a logical choice to broker the talks, the report says, because it allows the U.S. to sidestep a troubled Pakistan, which has had mixed results at best in its counter-insurgency effort. The Saudis are also wary of Iranian meddling in Afghanistan, which could expand Tehran's zone of influence while bleeding U.S. and allied forces in the process.

Mullah Omar (pictured right) was not present in Saudi Arabia (he hasn't been seen since 9/11), but his representatives reportedly told the Afghan government that he is no longer allied with Osama Bin Laden. The parties ended the initial round of discussions by agreeing that violence will not solve the conflict in Afghanistan and agreed to meet again in two months.


It's now been over a year since Blackwater contractors opened fire in a Baghdad traffic circle, killing 17 Iraqi civilians and wounding 24 others. (To date, no one has been charged with a crime, but six Blackwater guards received target letters from the Justice Department in August, indicating that indictments could soon follow.) The shootings set off a firestorm of media criticism and a renewed effort in Congress to rein in the private security free-for-all in Iraq.

To that effect, the State Department, acknowledging problems with the collection of evidence at Baghdad's Nisoor Square, established a special force tasked with investigating suspected contractor crimes. According to State Department Undersecretary for Management, the new Force Investigation Unit (FIU) was to be "composed of State Department employees." But in a twist that should not surprise any of us at this point, it turns out that more than half of the new unit is staffed with private contractors. According to ABC News, eight members of the FIU are on loan from the U.S. Investigations Services (USIS), a private company, in an "apparent violation of federal regulations that prohibit such work by contractors."

Senator Russel Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin, recently fired off a letter to Condoleezza Rice calling the use of private contractors to investigate other private contractors "highly troubling" and demanded that all FIU positions be filled by federal employees. "Anything less will further exacerbate tensions within Iraq and the region caused by our perceived failure to hold U.S. contractors accountable for misuse of force against civilians," he wrote.

The State Department has yet to respond.

Photo used under a Creative Commons license from James Gordon.

If you take a look at today's Doonesbury, you'll notice an emerging storyline of the campaign that started here at MoJo.

In four panels, Garry Trudeau puts forward a question everyone should be asking: how can John McCain blame our financial woes on Wall Street's lobbyists when 83 current and former Wall Street lobbyists work for his campaign? Shouldn't someone get fired? McCain likes to say that as president he'll ferret out the worst earmarkers in Congress and "make 'em famous!" In that spirit, we published the names of those 83 lobbyists and the financial industry clients they work for on our blog. Now, apparently, those names are working their way into popular culture.

We don't know if Trudeau is a fan of Mother Jones, but we're fans of his.

bald_eagle_american_flag.jpg Yesterday, Vice President Dick Cheney spoke at the White House Conference on North American Wildlife Policy. In a statement that may surprise you and a number of environmental groups, Cheney said, "President Bush made wildlife conservation an early and a high priority of his administration. We've carried out that commitment in these eight years."

There's reason to question whether wildlife conservation is really a high priority in the Bush Administration. It's refusal to act on global warming for years, despite the fact that the changing climate threatens wildlife habitats, throws its commitment into doubt. The same goes for the Administration's plan to gut the Endangered Species Act, its refusal to address upcoming mass extinctions, and its willingness to let jeep enthusiasts run roughshod over the West's wide open spaces. The League of Conservation Voters says, "The Bush administration has arguably been the most anti-environmental in our nation's history."

I have another reason to doubt Cheney's commitment in particular.

On August 7, 1998, hundreds of people were killed when terrorists detonated car bombs at the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. Almost immediately, the United States had evidence that a little-known group called al Qaeda was complicit in the attacks. Though al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden had been plotting against the United States for years, this act of mass-murder won the band of Islamic terrorists and its leaders worldwide infamy. Weeks after the attack, President Clinton fired scores of Tomahawk missiles at a suspected al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan, and he also attacked a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan his administration claimed was a chemical weapons plant.

Ten years later, this past August 7, John McCain released a statement on the anniversary of the embassy bombings. It was a harsh indictment of the Clinton administration and others who in McCain's estimation had not regarded the threat of al Qaeda with sufficient seriousness back then:

Today marks the 10th anniversary of the al Qaeda terrorist attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed more than 225 people, including 12 Americans, and injured thousands others. The attacks made it painfully clear that al Qaeda's terrorist call to arms to attack Americans anywhere in the world was not an empty threat. The attacks proved the vulnerability of U.S. installations overseas, and demonstrated -- to any that needed further evidence -- that al Qaeda was a well-funded, organized and treacherous terrorist organization determined to kill Americans. Tragically, the U.S. response to the 1998 embassy bombings was wholly inadequate in addressing the threat posed by Al Qaeda despite the horrific toll of the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Too many Clinton Administration officials refused to act effectively to counter the dangers posed by al Qaeda. Three years later, al Qaeda's commitment to kill was devastatingly brought to our soil.

But at the time--even after the embassy bombings--McCain, too, was slow to recognize the nature of the threat posed by al Qaeda and bin Laden. Weeks after these attacks, he even came across as dismissive of bin Laden as a danger and showed no enthusiasm for hunting down this terrorist and his al Qaeda allies. And he did so in a Mother Jones interview.

In mid-September 1998, journalist Jason Vest, on assignment for the magazine, conducted an hour-long interview with McCain. At the time, McCain's efforts to pass campaign finance reform and anti-tobacco legislation had made him, as Vest put it, "the darling of political reporters." Much of the interview covered issues of money and politics. But with the embassy bombings still in the news, Vest asked McCain about bin Laden and how to deal with terrorism. The following exchange ensued:

Throughout convention week in Denver in August, the word swirled that Bruce Springsteen would appear the final night. It did not happen. And for Democrats, that was a good thing. Barack Obama--accused by foes of being too glamorous--did not need a rock star on the set on his big night (though Sheryl Crow and Stevie Wonder did appear early in the evening). But Springsteen is indeed doing what he can.

On Saturday, Springsteen appeared at an Obama voter registration rally in Philadelphia. Tens of thousands of people were there. He performed a thirty-minute acoustic set. But he also speechified. And he practically outdid Obama in political eloquence:

I am glad to be here today for this voter registration drive and for Barack Obama, the next President of the United States. I've spent 35 years writing about America, its people, and the meaning of the American Promise. The Promise that was handed down to us, right here in this city from our founding fathers, with one instruction: Do your best to make these things real. Opportunity, equality, social and economic justice, a fair shake for all of our citizens, the American idea, as a positive influence, around the world for a more just and peaceful existence. These are the things that give our lives hope, shape, and meaning. They are the ties that bind us together and give us faith in our contract with one another.
I've spent most of my creative life measuring the distance between that American promise and American reality. For many Americans, who are today losing their jobs, their homes, seeing their retirement funds disappear, who have no healthcare, or who have been abandoned in our inner cities. The distance between that promise and that reality has never been greater or more painful.

Last night after the veep debate, my friends and I couldn't stop doing the Sarah Palin accent. But is she the only candidate on the campaign trail who sounds like where she comes from? And does she do it on purpose? I called on Robin Lakoff, a professor of sociolinguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, for some straight talk about the speech patterns of Sarah Palin, Joe Biden, John McCain, and Barack Obama.

In this podcast, Lakoff explains how Obama and McCain's speech have evolved since we talked last year during primary season—and why there's more to Palin's speech than her Wasilla ways.

If you've got 10 free minutes and a strong stomach, watch this report on a community destroyed by foreclosures. There's video of deserted houses, still filled with TVs, computers, photographs, and other belongings, and an interview with a man who lives on a cul-de-sac of empty homes. He's literally the only one left. Pretty heartbreaking stuff.

On Friday afternoon, the McCain-Palin camp released the last two years of Sarah Palin's taxes. (Only the last two?) The campaign's summary notes that Sarah and Todd Palin had a gross income of $166,080 in 2007, her first year as governor. The couple donated $2500 to charity that year and also made "non-cash" donations of $825. This represented 1.5 percent of their adjusted gross income.

The average American donates about 3.1 percent of his or her income to charity. Many churches recommend tithing 10 percent.

Aside from even one word about poverty, minorities, or the underclass in last night's VP debate, I was most waiting to hear Sarah Palin questioned about her "maverick" boss's role in making sure that America neither knew, nor cared, about the fate of its Viet Nam era POWs. If there's ever a better time to delve into exactly how the "party of patriotism" feels about inconvenient soldiers (they were slowing up the peace process), I hope I don't live to see it.

Like most Americans, I existed in a pre-war, pre-Gitmo state of annoyed disbelief whenever some bug-eyed Pinko insisted we'd left soldiers behind when we left Viet Nam. This is America: we don't, we'd never, do such a thing. But since we started extraordinarily rendering folks to places like Egypt and Syria so they could be tortured, since we continue a war aimed largely at enriching companies like KBR and Halliburton, when it's clear that Wall Street will be allowed to do absolutely anything it likes to Main Street (let alone MLK Blvd, as SNL so aptly put it) I no longer roll my eyes when presented with such evidence. Instead, I have to fight bitter tears when my kindergartener comes home proudly reciting the Pledge of Allegiance she's just learned. "With truth and justice for all?" Gets me every time. It makes me so angry and ashamed, I have to look away as I hypocritically applaud her recitation of those increasingly hollow words.