Mojo - May 2009

The Campaign Against 'Naked' TSA Scans

| Mon May 18, 2009 3:33 PM EDT

When TSA introduced full-body scans of passengers back in 2007 as an alternative to pat-downs, privacy advocates cried foul. Two years later, there are 19 airports with body scanners and the possibility that these machines (which reveal every fold of your body) will become mandatory instead of optional. Today, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) says it will launch a national campaign against the TSA's scanning machines, gathering signatures in hopes of creating a "viral" consumer movement.

Having followed these machines for some time, I agree with EPIC's concerns. I do give the TSA props for improving their "privacy algorithm": Though nicknamed "the Peeper," millimeter wave scanners are definitely less graphic than the backscatter machines previously used by the TSA. But as you can see on the agency's site by the one, small picture of a scan they provide, the millimeter wave machines still reveal clear outlines of breasts and genetalia. And despite what's shown on the TSA's brief informational videos, not all travelers are 40-something men. The bodies of children and women and the elderly are also being scanned. I think if a news channel showed a child in the scanning machine, it would increase public concern about the machines. Few parents, I would wager, are happy to have a total stranger see a scan of their child's naked body. That said, it's a hard choice between having your daughter patted down in front of you, or having her nude image seen by some random person 100 yards away.

Although a TSA spokeswoman told CNN that staffers viewing images "aren't allowed to bring cameras, cell phones, or any recording device into the room," I just don't trust that an image won't be recorded or leaked. After all, the TSA is not particularly known for its respect for passenger privacy. (Remember that 2005 data dump lawsuit?) In fact, as the GAO found out in an investigation, TSA staffers will hassle you over your prescription shampoo, but totally miss the bomb parts you just brought through security in your carry-on. All the technology in the world ain't gonna fix human error. For my tax-payer dollar, I'd prefer that the government spend less on expensive technology that treats all passengers, even infants, as possible terrorists, and spend more on intelligence-gathering that prevents the real terrorists from making it to the airport in the first place.

(p.s. For an informative 60 Minutes look inside the TSA, click here.)

 

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The PowerPoint and the Glory

| Mon May 18, 2009 2:23 PM EDT

GQ has gotten its manicured hands on the top sheets from the top-secret intel briefings Donald Rumseld delivered to the White House in early 2003, and—holy hand grenades! Each one is adorned with a biblical verse and a thematically appropriate photo. For example, an American tank under a verse referring to "the full armor of God," or an image of Saddam under 1 Peter 2:15: "It is God's will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men." Now if only someone had put an eye-catching verse on that August 2001 daily briefing given to George W. Bush in Crawford...

Human Rights Groups Still Hopeful on Military Commissions

| Mon May 18, 2009 1:46 PM EDT

The Obama administration infuriated liberals and civil libertarians last Friday by extending the Bush administration's military commissions for terrorism suspects. But on Monday, when top officials from human rights organizations met with the Obama administration task force charged with rethinking detainee treatment, they heard a different message about the administration's ultimate plans for the tribunals.

In a conference call with reporters following the sit-down, Gabor Rona, the international legal director of Human Rights First, said that officials from the Special Interagency Task Force on Detainee Disposition told him that the administration's announcement on Friday was only prompted by the fact that it was bumping up against the 120-day suspension of the commissions that Obama ordered in January. According to Rona, administration officials worried that if they didn't act before the deadline passed, they could lose the option to use the commissions. To prevent that from happening, Rona explained, the White House will notify Congress of its proposed changes and seek another four-month delay in the proceedings that are already underway. Later, Rona told Mother Jones that he doubted the task force officials would have sought the input of the human rights groups—or tried to feed them the deadline excuse—if revised commissions were already "a fait accompli." "The administration was testing the water" on Friday, said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, who also attended the meeting. "I don't know how surprised it was by the outrage that resulted."

The Special Interagency Task Force on Detainee Disposition was created by executive order in January. Its report, which will "identify options" for changing detainee treatment, is due in late July. Roth said the task force seemed to be weighing whether to "stick with ordinary courts or move towards commissions. A "national security court," proposed by some law professors, "didn't seem to be the direction things were going," he said. According to Roth, the task force worries that trying terrorism suspects in ordinary courts might allow suspects to claim that they had Miranda rights that had been violated or to demand access to classified information used by the prosecution.

It's possible that the human rights officials are engaging in wishful thinking, hoping that Obama's decision on military tribunals is not as firm as it seems. In a statement on Friday, Obama said that (reformed) commissions are "the best way to protect our country, while upholding our deeply held values." That doesn't leave the White House much wiggle room.

Until last Friday, press secretary Robert Gibbs countered questions about detainee treatment by claiming that he didn't want to prejudge the reports of various commissions and task forces, including the interagency group. "I think what's best is to let that happen and see what happens when they come back," Gibbs said on January 22. On February 23, Gibbs deflected a question by referring to the "ongoing" process of "evaluating the detainees" at Guantanamo Bay. On May 5, he said it "wouldn't be wise to prejudge the review [of military tribunals] the president laid out." But on Friday, Obama announced his decision. The deadline for the completion of the review that was once so crucial was still more than two months away. So far, the White House has not publicly explained why it rendered a decision before the task force finished its work.

Liz Cheney Shows She's Really Her Father's Daughter

| Mon May 18, 2009 12:53 PM EDT

When it's not Dick Cheney in the media defending Dick Cheney and the Bush administration, it's Liz Cheney.

The elder daughter of Dick Cheney, who was a State Department deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs in the Bush-Cheney years, appeared on ABC News' This Week on Sunday and, no surprise, repeatedly justified her father's actions as veep, especially his support of torture--or, as she called it, "these policies." Liz Cheney also called President Barack Obama "un-American" for even considering the prosecution of any former Bush administration officials. She claimed her father's recent public interviews have postively influenced public opinion and the Obama White House--and that these media appearances have helped the Republican Party.

Well, every daughter is entitled to her opinion. And every network is entitled to a new talking head. But Cheney's appearance reminded me of a forum she attended a year ago, when she demonstrated what seems to be a family trait: putting belief above facts.

Pelosi and Waterboarding: Why all the Fuss?

| Sat May 16, 2009 12:02 PM EDT

Strangely absent from the recent coverage of Pelosi's past knowledge of U.S. torture policies is any acknowledgement that this story is old news. Really old news. Way back in December, 2007, the Washington Post ran a piece headlined, "Hill Briefed on Waterboarding in 2002." It hit Pelosi with the exact same allegations that have been so breathlessly reported as of late:

In September 2002, four members of Congress met in secret for a first look at a unique CIA program designed to wring vital information from reticent terrorism suspects in U.S. custody. For more than an hour, the bipartisan group, which included current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), was given a virtual tour of the CIA's overseas detention sites and the harsh techniques interrogators had devised to try to make their prisoners talk.

 So what's new? For one, Republicans are under intense moral and political threat and see a chance divert responsibility for their misdeeds back to Democrats.

To be sure, Pelosi should have taken action against U.S. torture policies as soon as she was briefed on them. And she's now paying the price for being too politically cowardly—or opportunistic—to address this issue head-on when the Post broke the story back in 2007. But it's disingenuous for the press and Pelosi's political rivals to feign outrage over what Pelosi knew and when. What did they know and when? Assuming they read the news, why didn't they make an issue of this back in 2007?

One politician did make an issue of the Post story at the time. Cindy Sheehan, the Peace Mom, ran a quixotic campaign against Pelosi for her House seat last year, and garnered 16 percent of the vote and very little press. Key to her electoral strategy was capitalizing on liberal outrage—surprisingly tepid outrage, it turned out—over what Pelosi knew. She even called for Pelosi to be stripped of her leadership post over the news. "I was appalled and really saddened," Sheehan told me at the time. "We can't be represented by a person like this."

Seventy two percent of San Francisco voters thought otherwise.

With Sheehan's failed challenge in mind, it's hard to put credence in today's New York Times story on Pelosi's political fate, which quotes Bay Area resident Delphine Langille of San Ramon: "I'm very skeptical of what she's saying, Langille told the Times on the steps of San Francisco City Hall, "and when she goes to get re-elected, this could really damage her credibility." Yeah right. There's simply no way a Republican could ever mount a viable challenge in San Francisco, no way the Democratic establishment would ever try, and no way--as we've seen--that a third party outsider will take her down.

Politics is morally mushy business. The political climate was clearly more pro-torture back in 2002 than it is now. A braver politician might have spoken out sooner, but also might not have risen to the Speaker post. The interesting thing about San Franciscans is that they are politically sophisticated enough to entertain a race like Sheehan's while also voting for a pragmatist like Pelosi. And they can certainly distinguish between the moral clarity—or absolutism—of someone like Sheehan, and the immoral opportunism of liberal-come-lately Republicans. Let's hope the press and the rest of the nation eventually figure this out too.

Blackwater Guards Accused of Shooting Civilians in Afghanistan

| Fri May 15, 2009 2:49 PM EDT

Now that Blackwater (renamed "Xe") has lost its Iraq contract, you might have thought it would recede from the headlines. Almost certainly, that's what the company was hoping, what with the name change and the retirement of its founder and president, Erik Prince. Its controversial work in Iraq built the company from a small-time firearms training range into an international private security heavyweight. But it also came at the cost of the company's reputation, the victim of numerous alledged infractions from gun-running to wholesale murder, and ultimately led to the cancellation of its most lucrative source of revenue. The firm's been positioning itself for new markets, notably in Africa (piracy, anyone?), but what you may not realize is that it remains a player in Afghanistan. And recent events involving its contractors there bear an eerie similarity to some of the firm's most infamous acts in Iraq.

From August Cole at the Wall Street Journal:

Four U.S. contractors affiliated with the company formerly known as Blackwater Worldwide fired on an approaching civilian vehicle in Kabul earlier this month, wounding at least two Afghan civilians, according to the company and the U.S. military.

The off-duty contractors were involved in a car accident around 9 p.m. on May 5 and fired on the approaching vehicle they believed to be a threat, according to the U.S. military. At least some of the men, who were former military personnel, had been drinking alcohol that evening, according to a person familiar with the incident. Off-duty contractors aren't supposed to carry weapons or drink alcohol.

The incident occurred as the U.S. is facing rising outrage from Afghan leaders over civilian casualties from U.S. air strikes. For Xe, which is the name Blackwater chose earlier this year to distance itself from its controversial security work in Iraq, the shooting comes as the Obama administration and Defense Secretary Robert Gates reconsider the role of military contractors, a practice that boomed during the Bush administration.

The contractors were trainers hired by Paravant LLC, a little-known subsidiary of Xe. Paravant has terminated contracts with the four men "for failure to comply with the terms of their contract," according to Xe spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell. "Contractual and or legal violations will not be tolerated," she said.

 Photo by flickr user jamesdale10 used under a Creative Commons license.

 

 

 

 

 

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Obama to Repeat Foreclosure Phil's Mistakes?

| Fri May 15, 2009 1:39 PM EDT

Is the Obama administration about to make the same mistakes in regulating Wall Street that led to the current crisis? That's what Frank Partnoy, a professor at the University of California, San Diego and a finance expert, says in a piece in Friday's New York Times. Partnoy would know. Back in the summer of 2008, he told Mother Jones about how the deregulation of financial markets championed by Phil Gramm, the former Senator and John McCain adviser, created a casino-like atmosphere on Wall Street. "Tens of trillions of dollars of transactions were done in the dark," Partnoy said. "No one had a picture of where the risks were flowing.... There was more betting on the riskiest subprime mortgages than there were actual mortgages."

The Obama administration has promised to reign in that kind of reckless, unregulated speculation. They're off to a bad start, Partnoy warns in the Times: the White House's plan calls for derivatives to be split into two categories. The first category, so-called "standardized instruments," would be exchange-traded and regulated. The second category, privately negotiated "swaps," would not be. Only a small amount of aggregate data about the swaps would be released to the public.

Why is it bad to split the "standardized" derivatives off from the swaps? Because the same idea failed before, Partnoy says. Who was responsible for turning that idea into law? Take one guess:

Pelosi vs the CIA: A Sad Fight

| Fri May 15, 2009 12:56 PM EDT

Here's a good example of what's been wrong with congressional oversight of the intelligence agencies for decades: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says the CIA did not tell her at a September 2002 briefing (when she was the senior Democrat on the House intelligence committee) that it had used waterboarding on a captured al Qaeda operative; the CIA says it did. And this dispute apparently cannot be settled. From The Washington Post:

Government officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss classified briefings, suggested that the record might never be clear as to what Pelosi and [Republican Rep. Porter] Goss were told. One official familiar with the congressional briefings acknowledged the difficulty of establishing exactly what lawmakers were told. Internal CIA memos about the briefings were "not designed to be stenography" but were based on recollections after the fact, the official said. There were no recordings or precise transcripts, he said.

Shouldn't there be better record-keeping? It's pretty absurd that the CIA cannot say what it actually told a legislator during an official briefing.

Obama's Big Transparency Test

| Fri May 15, 2009 11:17 AM EDT

When he took office, President Barack Obama claimed that "transparency and the rule of law" would be the "touchstones" of his presidency. But did he really mean it? He has a chance to keep his word by reversing a key Bush administration decision that's still shielding crucial details of the White House emails scandal from the public eye.

Back in 2007, the Bush administration abruptly decided that the obscure White House Office of Administration would be exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. For more than three decades, the OA had responded to FOIA requests just like any other government agency. But the OA is responsible for overseeing the White House email archiving system. And by 2007, those archives were missing millions of emails that could have shed light on numerous scandals: the outing of Valerie Plame, the U.S. attorney firings, and the lead-up to the war in Iraq.

The Bush administration didn't want to release documents explaining how the emails got lost. So it claimed that the OA wasn't a federal agency, but an advisory office, and therefore didn't have to respond to FOIA requests. (Mother Jones readers may recall the moment, in January 2008, when litigation surrounding this unusual claim caused a DC district court to allow limited discovery in order to find out whether OA was, in fact, a federal agency.)

Fund Manager: US Taxpayers are Suckers

| Fri May 15, 2009 10:21 AM EDT

The American taxpayers are suckers. That's essentially what Mark Patterson, chairman of the private equity firm MatlinPatterson Global Advisors, told his fellow finance industry bigwigs in a moment of perhaps too much candor at the Qatar Global Investment Forum, held this week in Doha. “The taxpayers ought to know that we are in effect receiving a subsidy," he said. "They put in 40 percent of the money but get little of the equity upside.”

Patterson is in a good position to know just how sweet a deal Wall Street is getting courtesy of our tax dollars. In January, his New York-based firm closed a deal to buy a controlling interest in Michigan's Flagstar Bancorp using $250 million in its own capital and $267 million in matching bailout funds from the Treasury Department.