Mojo - April 2009

"We Could Have Done This the Right Way"

| Mon Apr. 27, 2009 12:27 PM PDT

A must-read from Michael Isikoff of Newsweek starring FBI agent Ali Soufan, the man who would have led the interrogations of America's detainees if the war on terror had been prosecuted in a different universe these past eight years:

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Republicans Stripped Flu Funding from Stimulus Package

| Mon Apr. 27, 2009 11:22 AM PDT

You can't blame everything bad that happens on right-wing policymaking--but you can usually count on it to make a bad situation worse. Conservatives didn't bring on the swine flu outbreak, any more than they caused Hurricane Katrina. But in both cases, they've made the federal government less equipped to respond to these disasters with possibly life-saving emergency services. 

As The Nation's John Nichols reported this morning, earlier this year, House Appropriations Committee chairman David Obey pushed hard for about $900 million in pandemic preparedness funding to be included in the economic stimulus legislation--but he "was ridiculed by conservative operatives and congressional Republicans." Nichols writes:

Obey and other advocates for the spending argued, correctly, that a pandemic hitting in the midst of an economic downturn could turn a recession into something far worse -- with workers ordered to remain in their homes, workplaces shuttered to avoid the spread of disease, transportation systems grinding to a halt and demand for emergency services and public health interventions skyrocketing. Indeed, they suggested, pandemic preparation was essential to any responsible plan for renewing the U.S. economy.

But former White House political czar Karl Rove and key congressional Republicans -- led by Maine Senator Susan Collins -- aggressively attacked the notion that there was a connection between pandemic preparation and economic recovery.

Nichols documents how Collins and other Republicans actually singled out the pandemic prevention funds as a prime example of profligate Democratic spending, and of unrelated projects being tacked on to the stimulus bill. They used it to score political points. Collins's vote was, of course, absolutely key to passage of the stimulus legislation in the Senate. So the only funding of this kind that that made it into the final conference version was $50 million for improving information systems at the Department of Health and Human Services. All support for frontline emergency services in the event of a pandemic was eliminated.

Wall Street Pay Already Returning to Normal

| Mon Apr. 27, 2009 11:11 AM PDT

The New York Times produces a killer chart. There are fewer jobs on Wall Street nowadays, but they aren't paying any less. (Via The Big Picture.)

Yes, We Did Execute Japanese Soldiers for Waterboarding American POWs

| Mon Apr. 27, 2009 9:04 AM PDT

It stuns me that we are still having a debate, as a country, over whether or not what the Bush Administration did to detainees in the war on terror was actually torture. I would hope that this helps settle things. The fact-checking outfit called PolitiFact confirms that a McCain statement from 2007, dredged up recently by Paul Begala, is accurate:

"I forgot to mention last night that following World War II war crime trials were convened. The Japanese were tried and convicted and hung for war crimes committed against American POWs. Among those charges for which they were convicted was waterboarding," [McCain] told reporters at a campaign event.

"If the United States is in another conflict ... and we have allowed that kind of torture to be inflicted upon people we hold captive, then there is nothing to prevent that enemy from also torturing American prisoners."

McCain is referencing the Tokyo Trials, officially known as the International Military Tribunal for the Far East. After World War II, an international coalition convened to prosecute Japanese soldiers charged with torture. At the top of the list of techniques was water-based interrogation, known variously then as "water cure," "water torture" and "waterboarding," according to the charging documents. It simulates drowning.

R. John Pritchard, a historian and lawyer who is a top scholar on the trials, said the Japanese felt the ends justified the means. "The rapid and effective collection of intelligence then, as now, was seen as vital to a successful struggle, and in addition, those who were engaged in torture often felt that whatever pain and anguish was suffered by the victims of torture was nothing less than the just deserts of the victims or people close to them," he said.

In a recent journal essay, Judge Evan Wallach, a member of the U.S. Court of International Trade and an adjunct professor in the law of war, writes that the testimony from American soldiers about this form of torture was gruesome and convincing. A number of the Japanese soldiers convicted by American judges were hanged, while others received lengthy prison sentences or time in labor camps.

You can argue that the techniques used by Americans on detainees were necessary and, because of the OLC memos, legal. I would disagree with you, but you could plausibly make that argument. What you cannot do any longer is pretend that those techniques do not meet the definition of torture that America has used in the past.

Update: The state of American law on torture.

Employee-Driven Government Reform: A Good Idea?

| Mon Apr. 27, 2009 8:50 AM PDT

Over the weekend, Barack Obama spoke about various ideas for government reform that his administration will be trying out. One in particular struck me as interesting. Here's Obama:

Third, we'll look for ideas from the bottom up. After all, Americans across the country know that the best ideas often come from workers – not just management. That's why we’ll establish a process through which every government worker can submit their ideas for how their agency can save money and perform better. We’ll put the suggestions that work into practice. And later this year, I will meet with those who come up with the best ideas to hear firsthand about how they would make your government more efficient and effective.

That's pretty neat, though without routing these ideas from deep within the bureaucracy directly to the Oval Office, this could very easily turn out to be an empty PR gambit. Presumably a political appointee at the top of a federal agency can squash the ideas he or she doesn't want to see implemented.

My favorite part of this, though, is the flood of suggestions about saving money that are likely going to be little more than, "You should fire Jim, the guy in the cubicle next to me who cuts his toenails in the office."

Swine Flu: Bringing Home the Bacon

| Mon Apr. 27, 2009 7:08 AM PDT

As the world gears up once again for a flu pandemic that may or may not arrive (it actually seems possible this time), we might want to remember some of the lessons of the last flu scare. One of these is that there are winners as well as losers in every high-profile outbreak of infectious disease. First and foremost among them, of course, is Big Pharma, which can always be counted on to have its hand out wherever human misery presents an opportunity to rake in some cash.

In 2005, I reported on the bird flu scare for the Village Voice in a piece called “Capitalizing on the Flu.” We can realistically hope that our current federal government will improve upon the bungled effort made by the Bush Administration to prepare for the onslaught of avian flu—which fortunately didn’t materialize. But certain aspects of the crisis are likely to be repeated, and profiteers will surely waste no time in gathering at the trough.

Then, as now, one of the two effective antidotes was a drug called Tamiflu. But this silver bullet came with side effects, as well as a high price tag. As I reported in 2005:

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Crybabies of Wall Street

| Fri Apr. 24, 2009 12:55 PM PDT

The new issue of New York Magazine features a cover story called “The Wail of the 1%.” The piece describes what a bummer it is for rich Wall Street execs to have to put up with all the populist rage that’s being levied against them–just because they helped bring down the world economy, and got paid seven-figure salaries while doing so. It’s especially difficult for the poor bankers and brokers to endure all these bad vibes while they’re having to tighten their own hand-tooled Italian leather belts due to lost jobs and lost bonuses.

This isn’t the first time we’ve heard this sort of peevish lament from the rich–I’ve written about it before myself. But the article’s author, Gabriel Sherman, gets some truly shameless quotes out of these guys (most of whom refused to use their names). A few examples:

“No offense to Middle America, but if someone went to Columbia or Wharton, [even if] their company is a fumbling, mismanaged bank, why should they all of a sudden be paid the same as the guy down the block who delivers restaurant supplies for Sysco out of a huge, shiny truck?” e-mails an irate Citigroup executive to a colleague.

“I’m not giving to charity this year!” one hedge-fund analyst shouts into the phone, when I ask about Obama’s planned tax increases. “When people ask me for money, I tell them, ‘If you want me to give you money, send a letter to my senator asking for my taxes to be lowered.’ I feel so much less generous right now. If I have to adopt twenty poor families, I want a thank-you note and an update on their lives. At least Sally Struthers gives you an update.”

The Week in Torture

| Fri Apr. 24, 2009 11:58 AM PDT

No, Obama doesn't plan to prosecute the CIA agents who tortured prisoners during the Bush era. But will he taze the policymakers? Note to Obama: Here's a torture chain of command cheat sheet. Looks like you'll need it.

Meanwhile, the right continues to preach moral absolutism on everything except the "We're America, We Don't Fucking Torture" front; a Playboy writer gets waterboarded for kicks; and Dick Cheney still just loooooves the torture talk. Maybe Cheney tapes will make it onto the next torture playlist; in the meantime, does Jonathan Mann have to credit John Yoo after setting his torture memos to music?

Alas, we can't tell you which soldier gave us this secret footage inside the Abu Ghraib cellblocks. But you should watch it anyway for the sheer spooky matter-of-factness. Those cells are wicked small! And narrated!

Hey, did you know our special torture investigation is up for a National Magazine Award? See why: Listen to our exclusive torture playlist and re-read the secrets of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and the war on terror.

Scamming (and Spamming) the Geezer

| Fri Apr. 24, 2009 11:42 AM PDT

An article in the Lexington, Kentucky Herald-Leader this week reported on the latest scam directed against older Americans–-this one with a recession-era twist. According to the paper:

State officials are warning senior citizens and those who collect government pensions to be wary of phone calls asking for personal information in order to get one-time stimulus money.

Under the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, those who collect Social Security, Supplemental Security Income, Veterans Affairs and Railroad Retirement Board will receive a one-time payment of $250 added to their retirement checks. The money — set to be distributed by late May — will be automatically added to a pensioner’s account. No additional information will be needed to get the one-time money.

AARP’s “Scam Alert” was already issuing warnings a month ago about stimulus-related cons against old folks, which it dubbed “stimu-lies.” These include “websites, e-mails and online advertisements promising an inside track to get your piece of that $787 billion pie—via government grants”:

Some touted smiling people holding five-figure U.S. Treasury checks, with compelling testimonials of financial struggles … that ended after “I got my stimulus check in the mail in less than seven days.” Others had prominent photos of President Obama to suggest their legitimacy. Less obvious is their real purpose: to steal your money or grab personal information to conduct identity theft.

How come so many of these grifter schemes seem to target old folks? The FBI devotes a whole section of its web site to the subject, titled ”Fraud Target: Senior Citizens.” It offers a number of explanations, including the following:

Individuals who grew up in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s were generally raised to be polite and trusting. Two very important and positive personality traits, except when it comes to dealing with a con-man. The con-man will exploit these traits knowing that it is difficult or impossible for these individuals to say “no” or just hang up the phone.

Video: Why Fighting Climate Change Is So God-Dang Hard

| Fri Apr. 24, 2009 7:50 AM PDT

I'm watching a House of Representatives hearing on climate change legislation on c-span.org -- it is the most recent in a long string of such hearings that has incorporated the entire week. Former vice president Al Gore and former senator John Warner, a Republican who urges action on climate change, have just delivered extraordinary statements. Gore listed study after study that are already finding real, concrete effects of climate change. He supplied the assembled lawmakers with as much science as they could possibly want. The much older Warner spoke of growing up during the Great Depression and WWII, and the courage and inspiration that were required to meet the challenges of that time. He argued that fighting back climate change requires the same qualities today. Listening to these two men makes it's hard not to think a cultural shift has occurred and we're finally on our way to a real solution.

And then you stumble on something like the video below, and you realize why a solution has been and will continue to be so immensely difficult. Below is a man who does not care about Gore's science or Warner's call to duty. Below is a man who has found text in the Old Testament that says God, not man, will determine the end of the world, and because that text is infallible in his view all this business about global warming is a bunch of hokum.

That's Rep. John Shimkus. And in case it's not clear how he feels about global warming from the video, he said earlier this week, "I think [climate change legislation] is the largest assault on democracy and freedom in this country that I've ever experienced. I've lived through some tough times in Congress -- impeachment, two wars, terrorist attacks. I fear this more than all of the above activities that have happened." That's not just kind of nutty. It's dangerous.