Mojo - November 2008

McCaffrey Says US in The "End Game" in Iraq

| Thu Nov. 13, 2008 2:41 PM EST

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Barry McCaffrey, a retired Army general who now teaches international relations at West Point, has made frequent fact-finding trips to Iraq in the years since the 2003 invasion. A decorated Vietnam veteran, leader of an Army division during the Gulf War, and a former top general of the US Southern Command, McCaffrey's experience has made him a respected voice in military circles, and a guy whose views on the Iraq War are not easily ignored.

Just back from his most recent trip to Iraq, McCaffrey—who in March 2007 characterized the US mission there as being in "strategic peril"—says in an "after action report" (.pdf) to his colleagues at West Point that the US military is "now clearly in the end game in Iraq to successfully achieve what should be our principle objectives." Among these, he includes withdrawing US troops within 36 months and leaving behind an Iraq that has a functioning civil state and security force that is not engaged in war, either with itself or any of the country's six neighboring states.

"The bottom line," McCaffrey writes, "is a dramatic and growing momentum for economic and security stability which is unlikely to be reversible. I would not characterize the situation as fragile. It is just beyond the tipping point." A sampling of recent successes, as McCaffrey describes them:

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Imagining a Revitalized Public Financing System

| Thu Nov. 13, 2008 2:25 PM EST

Now that there is an Obama-sized hole in our public financing system, we need to find a new way to fund presidential elections.

The public financing system as it existed pre-Obama gave candidates tens of millions of dollars to use after the conventions (the amount went up each cycle) in exchange for halting direct fundraising (various party organs and committees could keep raking it in). But Obama opted out of that system because he had millions of small donors who could, collectively, give him much, much more than the federal government. And that's a good thing. Legions of small donors getting behind a candidate is a manifestation of democracy that shouldn't be denied. But how do we protect our elections from the influence of large donors while still allowing these small donors their voice?

Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, took a stab at figuring it out in an op-ed in the Washington Post:

Jumpstarting the Obama Administration's Web Functionality

| Thu Nov. 13, 2008 1:25 PM EST

Obama has made a lot of promises about using technology and the web to make government more transparent. Today, the founder of PoliticsTV.com put forward a number of ways the President-Elect can make good on those promises right away, using a tool as simple as web video. Here's his shorthand list:

(1) WhiteHouse.gov/TV; (2) Weekly Obama Webcast; (3) GovTube; (4) Video Content on Non-Governmental sites; (5) in every executive branch agency, create New Media, Transparency, and Technology offices; (6) have cabinet members/agency heads give monthly Webcasts; (7) Webcast the Inauguration; (8) make the State of the Union an interactive, multimedia event; (9) make the President's annual budget a digital, multimedia document; (10) enact all of this and more first by executive order, then through legislation, so future Administrations can't just hard reboot your digital legacy.

You can read about each of these ideas in detail over at the Huffington Post. Among relatively pedestrian (but useful!) ideas like streaming White House press conferences online and hosting executive department webcasts, there are some innovative ones, like turning the federal budget into a "multimedia, dynamic document with web apps, widgets, and appendices applying Quicken-style functionalities, dynamic charts, etc." Definitely worth checking out.

Blackwater To Be Fined For Illegal Weapons Shipments to Iraq

| Thu Nov. 13, 2008 12:50 PM EST

Blackwater Worldwide is facing a "multimillion-dollar" fine from the State Department for allegedly shipping illegal weapons to its contractors in Iraq, McClatchy reports. The fine could be levied in the next few days. State officials charge that Blackwater, which holds a lucrative personnel-protection contract for US diplomats in Iraq, hid the arms inside shrink-wrapped pallets that were shipped directly from the company's sprawling Moyock, North Carolina, headquarters. About 900 weapons were sent to Iraq without permits, 119 of which were especially "erroneous," says a State Department official familiar with the shipments. Some of the weapons are thought to have wound up on Iraq's thriving black market.

The illegal weapons were first discussed publicly at a September 2007 congressional hearing about State Department inspector general Howard Krongard's alleged obstruction of a Justice Department investigation of Blackwater's activities in Iraq. It was revealed at the hearing that Krongard's brother "Buzzy," a former CIA official, had recently been recruited to Blackwater's board of advisors. Since then, former Blackwater contractors Kenneth Wayne Cashwell and William Ellsworth (Max) Grumiaux have plead guilty to illegal weapons charges and are now cooperating with federal investigators.

For its part, Blackwater says its cooperating with the investigation and has even hired a "vice president of export compliance" and appointed a three-member independent oversight panel, including former Republican congressman Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas. "Our work for the US government around the world, and the nature of teh services we offer have created compliance challenges," Blackwater founder and president Erik Prince said in a statement.

Begich Opens Substanial Lead in Alaska Senate Race

| Thu Nov. 13, 2008 12:27 PM EST

"Substantial" is relative, of course. Here's Bloomberg:

Democratic challenger Mark Begich leads by 814 votes in his bid to oust incumbent Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, according to the state's elections division.
Alaska is still counting absentee ballots from the Nov. 4 election. Anchorage Mayor Begich had been trailing Stevens by 3,257 votes until state officials started counting approximately 90,000 absentee ballots yesterday... Officials counted approximately 50,000 ballots yesterday and may finish counting the remaining 40,000 tomorrow.

The upshot? The Dems could be up to 58 Senate seats as early as tomorrow.

Update: More info from AKMuckraker:

As we move forward, Alaska's "reddest" areas have already been counted. Those outstanding districts are mainly rural and tend to go Democratic. Friday will see more than 20,000 "question ballots" (provisional ballots) counted, and the remaining absentee ballots are slated to be counted Monday.
So nothing is final yet, but the news is definitely good.

Does That Make McCain Emperor Palpatine?

| Thu Nov. 13, 2008 12:19 PM EST

yoda.jpg Noam Scheiber highlights the familiar locution of a recent Sarah Palin sentence:

"But not me personally were those cheers for."

I always felt like the woman was something out of fiction. Turns out, she's Yoda.

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Guestblogging for Drum

| Thu Nov. 13, 2008 11:02 AM EST

Howdy folks. I'll be guest-blogging for Kevin Drum today, so make sure to check this space and the one next door. (Of course, you should be doing that everyday!) We're off and running with a post about investigations of the Bush Administration and how President Obama will treat them.

Cheer Up, Californians: Same-Sex Couples Wed in Connecticut

| Wed Nov. 12, 2008 6:20 PM EST

pegandjen.JPGThough many of us on the West Coast are still despondent over the passage of Prop 8, there's reason to take heart: in Connecticut this morning, the first same-sex couples took their state-sanctioned marriage vows.

The state's supreme court legalized the marriages in October, and local courts finalized the details this morning. Last week, Connecticut voters rejected a ballot measure that would have opened the way for a constitutional challenge to the marriages, even as Californians passed Prop 8.

For me, this issue hits close to home: After sixteen years in a committed relationship, my uncle and his partner got married this past summer in Los Angeles. Prop 8's victory last week was a huge emotional blow to them, and to me.

But another personal connection gives me hope. Peg Oliveira, one of the women who got married in Connecticut this morning, was my yoga teacher while I lived in New Haven. The local online daily profiled Peg and her wife today. The two had vowed to get married, she said, "when the state of Connecticut gets around to it and catches up to us." I couldn't be happier that it finally has.

Photo of Peg Oliveira (right) and her wife, Jen Vickery, courtesy New Haven Independent.

Atheists in the Military Seek Obama's Blessing

| Wed Nov. 12, 2008 5:52 PM EST

As Barack Obama prepares to take office, all sorts of advocacy groups are angling for his attention. And atheists, too, are seeking his blessing. This week the Secular Coalition for America, a national lobbying group for "atheists, humanists and freethinkers," released its wish list. The group is not looking for Obama to remove "In God We Trust" from US currency. It has a more a modest agenda: countering what it claims is discrimination against atheists and non-Christians in the military.

The group is requesting that Obama appoint leaders who are committed to a secular military and that he issue a directive to the military that explicitly prohibits proselytization, prayers at mandatory events, and official statements endorsing a particular faith. The proposal also advocates creating a "commission for religious accommodation" within the Pentagon's Inspector General's office.

Another Indictment in Offshore UBS Shelter Case

| Wed Nov. 12, 2008 4:03 PM EST

As we reported in the current November/December 2008 issue, UBS is being pursued by the IRS and Department of Justice for helping American clients evade taxes on some $20 billion offshore assets. News today is yet another banker, Raoul Weil, has been indicted. Though the indictment does not mention UBS by name, the Washington Post reported that Weil headed UBS's wealth management department from 2002 through 2007.

UBS recently complied with IRS and Department of Justice requests for specific names of American clients with offshore accounts. It gave the names of 70 US customers (out of an estimated 20,000) to the agencies Monday, and the IRS independently found 30 more names. Though UBS has said it will no longer offer offshore accounts to US citizens, its continued pursuit by the DOJ and the IRS, along with Barack Obama's condemnation of UBS as a "tax cheat," shows some stormy skies ahead for the company's incredibly profitable wealth management division.