Mojo - May 2009

Advancing the Story of the Anti-Torture Torture Memo

| Wed May 6, 2009 9:12 AM EDT

On April 21, Philip Zelikow, who was counselor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during the Bush administration, revealed on Foreign Policy's "Shadow Government" blog that he wrote a memo in 2005 disputing the conclusions of Bush Justice Department lawyers that torture was legal. The existence of such a memo was a surprise. But Zelikow also disclosed that the "White House attempted to collect and destroy all copies of my memo."

Now Zelikow has told Mother Jones who he thinks was behind the effort to suppress his dissenting opinion. You'll never guess who it is....

(Read the full article for that news and an exclusive preview of Zelikow's congressional testimony next week.)

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If These Are "The Best And Brightest" Pray That We Never See "The Worst and Dumbest"

| Tue May 5, 2009 6:53 PM EDT | Scheduled to publish Tue May 5, 2009 6:53 PM EDT

Though it seems impossible, everyday we hear newer and more inane arguments for why the torturing Bushies and economy-busting Wall Streeters shouldn't have to answer all our pesky questions and, you know, live with the consequences of all their besting and brightest-ing.

At Salon, Michael Lind (a former colleague) dispenses quickly with this latest argument, of which he offers the following examples: 

Government service already asks a lot of individuals. It entails sacrifice, pays little, and often violates privacy. Adding risk of prosecution to the mix will make recruiting the best and brightest that much more difficult.

 

GAO: Cybersecurity Threats 'Growing'

| Tue May 5, 2009 2:44 PM EDT

The Government Accountability Office released a report Tuesday concluding critical federal information systems are "not sufficiently protected to consistently thwart cyber threats," which are "evolving and growing."

According to the GAO, a majority of those threats come in the form of unauthorized access and improper use, from people who fall into several categories: Foreign spies, thieves, hackers, "hacktivists"—people who engage in "politically motivated" attacks on the Web to "send a political message"—terrorists and, "disgruntled insiders."

Reported incidents of attempted and successful security breaches have more than tripled since 2006, to more than 16,000, all while the GAO has, over the last several years, submitted "hundreds of recommendations to [federal] agencies...to fully implement information security programs."

The failure to completely enact those security programs has left 20 "major agencies" with "inadequate information system controls over financial systems," according to the report. The GAO also cited cybersecurity "vulnerabilities" at the Tennessee Valley Authority, which controls more than 50 nuclear, hydroelectric and fossil fuel power plants, and the Los Alamos National Laboratory, one of the US's nuclear weapons research sites.

Last month, Senators John Rockefeller (D-W. Va.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) introduced a bill that would give the President and the Secretary of Commerce broad powers to shut down internet traffic in the case of a cyber threat. Without such action, Snowe said the US would risk experiencing a "cyber-Katrina." The bill, the Cybersecurity Act of 2009, was referred to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, which has yet to vote on it.

Big Pharma Profits from Grandmother's Little Helpers

| Tue May 5, 2009 1:47 PM EDT

The Kaiser Daily Health Policy Report today summarizes two new studies from the journal Health Affairs, documenting the explosion in the use–and cost–of psychotropic drugs over the last decade. One study found that between 1996 and 2006, “prescriptions for mental health medications increased by 73% among U.S. adults and by 50% among children.”  As of 2006, one in 10 U.S. adults takes at least one prescription for this purpose.

I’ve written before about the growth of antidepressant use among the over-65 crowd (myself included), which seems to be the new way to deal with what a drag it is getting old. But the new study also finds dramatic growth in the use of other medications: ”The study found that the number of U.S. seniors receiving psychotropic medications, including dementia and antipsychotic drugs, doubled during that time period.”

This points, in particular, to the increasing treatment of older people with cognitive loss, and any kind of agitated or unruly behavior, as “psychotic.” It’s impossible to know for sure, but I suspect this has something to do with the fact that the drug companies have been pushing their lucrative psychiatric medications on this vulnerable population–the most notorious (and illegal) example being Lilly’s campaign to urge doctors to prescribe the antipsychotic drug Zyprexa for off-label use on elderly patients with dementia.

Unsurprisingly, the second study published in Health Affairs documents a steep rise in spending for mental health care during the same ten-year period–more than 30%, with ”nearly all of the increase caused by psychiatric drug costs.” Big Pharma reaps even more rewards from mental health than from other medical fields: “Drugs accounted for 51% of mental health care costs in 2006, while drugs accounted for 26% of spending for all other health care costs, according to national data.” The Kaiser article makes note of the trend toward ”greater reliance of the use of psychiatric drugs compared with other forms of psychosocial treatments such as therapist visits.”

Murtha: Keeping it in the Family

| Tue May 5, 2009 12:02 PM EDT

Ready for your daily dose of Murtha scandal news? Turns out a company belonging to the Pennsylvania Democrat's nephew, Robert Murtha Jr., has received millions in non-compete contracts from the Pentagon. Could this work have resulted from his uncle's position as chairman of the defense appropriations subcommittee or the congressman's self-styled role as the Hill's undisputed—and unapologetic—earmarker extraordinaire? Robert Murtha insists his company, Murtech, won the work on its merits, and the Pentagon contracting officer who handled one $1.4 million award says the contract was handed out on a no-bid basis because the Army "had a lot of things going on at the time." What's Murtha say? Nothing. His office didn't respond to questions from the Washington Post—hardly surprising given that the paper's Carol Leonnig has been doing some unflattering reporting on Murtha recently. A couple weeks ago, she explored the massive amounts of taxpayer money Murtha has directed to the small airport that bears his name—it's not hard to imagine why—in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. According to the Post, Murtha has steered as much as $150 million to this regional airport with a comically small clientele.

Obama's Weird Choice for CSPC

| Tue May 5, 2009 10:05 AM EDT

President Obama has made it clear he wants the Consumer Products Safety Commission to do a better job protecting the public from killer baby cribs and asbestos-tainted CSI toys. He's proposed doubling the commission's budget and expanding the commission from three to five members. All of which makes his naming today of Inez Moore Tenenbaum as the commission chair seem even weirder.

Tenenbaum is a South Carolina politico who did two terms as the state's elected schools superintendent. Her resume is heavy on education and politics. She ran for the Senate in 2004, but aside from a stint doing public interest law in the 1980s, she's not a big name in the consumer protection world. She was on the short list, in fact, for secretary of education. The CSPC post seems like a consolation prize. Apparently Obama owes Tenenbaum big time for helping him win the South Carolina primary. She and her husband are heavy democratic donors (nearly $27,000 in federal contributions in the 2008 election cycle) and she endorsed Obama early, when it was still the "risky" vote. On stage after winning the South Carolina primary, Obama hugged first his wife and then Tenenbaum.

While she's probably not an ideal choice for the job, Tenenbaum is still likely to be an improvement over the current chair, Nancy Nord, whose corporate ties have been well documented and whose attempt to fight a budget increase for her own agency didn't go over too well with Congress. Tenenbaum's eight years of fighting public school bureaucracy might even be good training for her assignment to clean house at the beleagured CSPC.

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More on Religious Freedom and Same Sex Marriage

| Mon May 4, 2009 4:00 PM EDT

A la Kevin's earlier post, we really do have lots to think about in terms of the fall out from same-sex marriage. I'm a supporter, but I have to admit, I'm having a hard time thinking through the externalities. Which is exactly what we must all do. From the op-ed at issue:

Make Billionaires Pay Taxes? Say It Ain't So!

| Mon May 4, 2009 3:31 PM EDT

Republican members of Congress must enjoy pathetic approval ratings, because they're apparently already raising hell about President Obama’s call for a Congressional crackdown on offshore tax havens. And what could beat the populist appeal of standing up for thieving billionaires! Obama figures his get-tough approach (see below) could bring the Treasury an extra $210 billion over ten years. Obama, of course, is a pragmatist. Last time we touched base with Sen. Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat, he was blaming the tax cheats for Treasury losses of $100 billion—per year.

As chair of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, Levin was then looking into dubious dealings by international banking conglomerate UBS—where our old pal Phil Gramm served as a vice chairman soon after pushing through legislation that brought down the economy. Another investigative target was IGT, the Liechtenstein bank owned by that principality's royal family. "The IRS doesn't have the money, the time, or the legal tools it needs to stop offshore abuses," Levin told Mojo contributor Peter Stone, who wrote this piece on offshore tax shenanigans for our November/December 2008 issue.

 

A Tale of Two Janets: The Right Takes Aim at Napolitano

| Mon May 4, 2009 3:04 PM EDT

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has become the woman the right loves to hate--to the point that bloggers, talk show hosts, and right-wing groups are jumping aboard a new "dump Janet" movement.

Anyone old enough to remember the the Clinton administration should have seen this one coming. Bill Clinton’s Attorney General, Janet Reno, was second only to Hillary on the list of conservatives’ most-loathed women–and for the far right, Reno quickly moved into the #1 slot after the Waco debacle, which took place during the first year of her tenure. Waco provided fuel for radical far-right movements for years to come: It aided the growth of the Militia Movement, and was cited by Timothy McVeigh as a reason for the Oklahoma City bombing, which took place on its second anniversary.

Janet Napolitano’s transgressions are hardly in the same league as Waco. But there’s a kind of perverse symmetry in the fact that it is a half-baked, ill-timed report on “right-wing extremism” that's helped cement Napolitano’s status as the most-reviled woman in the new Democratic administration. The April 7 Department of Homeland Security report warned law enforcement officials that the economic crisis, plus the election of a black president, were likely to aid the recruiting efforts of far-right groups. 

As I’ve written before, the report was dangerously vague and speculative, and should make civil libertarians of all stripes nervous. But it was aimed at the violent, radical far-right movement, not at mainstream or even hard-core conservatives. Yet it became a rallying point for right-wing pundits and talk radio hosts, and was brandished at ”tea parties” later that month. And at the center of it all was Janet Napolitano.

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After the story of the DHS report broke, the Drudge Report featured a picture of Napolitano above the line, “SHE IS WATCHING YOU.” Within a week, Newsmax was reporting on Republicans who had “taken to the House floor to criticize Napolitano.” The ever-present Michele Bachmann asked: “Has this homeland security secretary gone absolutely stark raving mad?” and said of Napolitano: ”She needs to come before Congress. She needs to answer a few questions.” Texas’s Michael Burgess said her actions reflected “the tactics of tyrannical governments from Red China to Venezuela.” 

Further to the right, the attacks were even more vicious (and often racist, misogynistic, and homophobic), and more explicit about the Reno parallel. The blog Theodore’s World, which proclaims itself a “PC Free Zone” recently featured side-by-side head shots of the two Janets–Napolitano and Reno–with the caption “Fascist Wench’s” (sic). The whacked-out Plain Truth blog cited Waco (for which it says Reno and Bill Clinton should be hanged) and asked: “Is Janet Napolitano in some danse macabre with Janet Reno to beat her bloody record and up the ante by aiming at veterans and others whose patriotism would never be questioned by sane people?”

Then came the swine flu outbreak. Right-wingers, already unhappy with Napolitano for her perceived softness on illegal immigration, now accused her of placing U.S. lives at risk by refusing to close the Mexican border. This offered them an opportunity to simultaneously attack two of their favorite targets: Napolitano and immigrants–as talk radio’s Michael Savage did last week:

Should We Go Dutch?

| Mon May 4, 2009 11:11 AM EDT

If you haven't already, read Russell Shorto's profile of the Dutch social welfare state. He extols the system's virtues—health care, subsidized child care, and not only a month of paid vacation, but a check (8 percent of your annual salary) from the government to pay for that trip to the Swiss Alps—before tugging us back to earth:

Then, too, one downside of a collectivist society, of which the Dutch themselves complain, is that people tend to become slaves to consensus and conformity. I asked a management consultant and a longtime American expat, Buford Alexander, former director of McKinsey & Company in the Netherlands, for his thoughts on this. “If you tell a Dutch person you’re going to raise his taxes by 500 euros and that it will go to help the poor, he’ll say O.K.,” he said. “But if you say he’s going to get a 500-euro tax cut, with the idea that he will give it to the poor, he won’t do it. The Dutch don’t do such things on their own. They believe they should be handled by the system. To an American, that’s a lack of individual initiative.”

Another corollary of collectivist thinking is a cultural tendency not to stand out or excel. “Just be normal” is a national saying, and in an earlier era children were taught, in effect, that “if you were born a dime, you’ll never be a quarter” — the very antithesis of the American ideal of upward mobility.

I read those two paragraphs and immediately thought, "Knowing that, can we really achieve something like universal health care here?" For a second, my answer was "No, we can't." Even a lefty like me shudders at the idea an individual born a dime can't become a quarter, to borrow Shorto's phrase. Most Americans, myself included, believe in an equality of opportunity, but not of outcome. I like the idea that I do not have to be normal; I can take risks and excel.