Mojo - May 2009

Psst! Wanna buy an F-22 for $360 Million?

| Thu May 14, 2009 6:04 PM EDT

In parsing costs for the F-22 program, which Defense Secretary Robert Gates rightly wants to kill, the Pentagon has cited a price tag of about $143 million per plane—no small change for something we don't need. But turns out that's the so-called "flyaway" cost. When you add in development, maintenance, training, and all those vital extras, the damage balloons to a staggering $360 million a pop. So says the Center for Defense Information in this four-minute video, "Catch F-22," which features military watchdogs like Danielle Brian from the Project on Government Oversight and Winslow Wheeler, head of CDI's Straus Military Reform Project. (Wheeler also contributed a dispatch last year to our ambitious online military package, titled Mission Creep.) The video dumbs things down a lot—thankfully for those of us who don't spend our workdays scrutinizing Pentagon spreadsheets—but it provides a glimpse of why this program, and others like it, will have to fall to earth if America ever hopes to pay the bills for basic necessities.

In the meantime, Mission Creep contributor David Vine, who wrote "Homesick for Camp Justice," on how the British cleared out Diego Garcia's population to make way for a United States military base on the island, covers the subject further in his new book, Island of Shame: The Secret History of the US Military Base on Diego Garcia. Haven't read it yet, but the New York Review of Books sure seemed to appreciate it.
 

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Why the GOP Blocked Obama's Interior Nominee

| Thu May 14, 2009 2:16 PM EDT

When Interior Secretary Ken Salazar blocked the leasing of hundreds of thousands of acres of public lands back in February, he could hardly have known that the move would leave him without a deputy for months on end. But Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) was upset about the cancelation of the leases, which would have brought hundreds of new gas wells to central Utah's beautiful Nine Mile Canyon. (The petroglyphs in the photo to the left adorn many of the cliff walls there.) In retaliation, Bennett put a senatorial hold on David Hayes, President Barack Obama's nominee to be Salazar's deputy. When Democrats tried to bypass the hold on Wednesday, Republicans stood with Bennett and filibustered Hayes' nomination.

Al-Libi, Torture, and the Case for the War in Iraq

| Thu May 14, 2009 1:08 PM EDT

On Monday, I wrote about the "suicide" of Ibn Shaikh al-Libi in a Libyan jail. Al-Libi was the man whose false confession, obtained under torture, of a link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda provided the Bush administration with its casus belli for war with Iraq. It didn't seem to matter that al-Libi's claim that Bin Laden had sent operatives to be trained in the use of weapons of mass destruction by Hussein's people didn't make any sense. "They were killing me," al-Libi later told the FBI about his torturers. "I had to tell them something." A bipartisan Senate Intelligence committee report would later conclude that al-Libi lied about the link "to avoid torture."

The al-Libi story has been moving forward at a breakneck pace since it first broke in the Arab press over the weekend. Human Rights Watch, whose staffers last spoke to al-Libi on April 27, called for an investigation into his death in a press release issued late Monday afternoon. (When HRW spoke to al-Libi on the 27th, he refused to be interviewed, instead asking, "Where were you when I was being tortured in American jails?") 

But the biggest news so far in the al-Libi case comes from former Colin Powell aide Lawrence Wilkerson. In a post on Steve Clemons' Washington Note, Wilkerson writes:

[W]hat I have learned is that as the administration authorized harsh interrogation in April and May of 2002—well before the Justice Department had rendered any legal opinion—its principal priority for intelligence was not aimed at pre-empting another terrorist attack on the U.S. but discovering a smoking gun linking Iraq and al-Qa'ida.

So furious was this effort that on one particular detainee, even when the interrogation team had reported to Cheney's office that their detainee "was compliant" (meaning the team recommended no more torture), the VP's office ordered them to continue the enhanced methods. The detainee had not revealed any al-Qa'ida-Baghdad contacts yet. This ceased only after Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, under waterboarding in Egypt, "revealed" such contacts. Of course later we learned that al-Libi revealed these contacts only to get the torture to stop.

Wilkerson is saying that getting the false "information" from al-Libi about an Iraq-Al Qaeda link wasn't an unexpected "bonus" of the torture—it was the goal of the torture. Kevin Drum's caution is very important here: "One way or another, Wilkerson is going to have to tell us how he knows this.  It's not enough just to say that he 'learned' it." But if Wilkerson's information is reliable—and he's been reliable in the past—this changes everything about the torture debate. Josh Marshall explains:

The basis of most of the anti-torture push has been the assumption that torture was used for the purpose of eliciting information about future terrorist attacks. Whether it was illegal, wrong-headed, misguided, immoral—whatever—most have been willing to at least give the benefit of the doubt that that was the goal. If the driving force was to gin up new bogus intel about the fabled Iraq-al Qaida link, politically it will put the whole story in a very different light. And rightly so.

Andrew Sullivan Took the Words Out of My Mouth

| Thu May 14, 2009 1:02 PM EDT

I've been reading all the chest-beating about Obama's perfidy in not releasing the torture photos and wondering why I seemed so alone. Sullivan was one of his harshest critics.

At first blush, and certainly after Obama's stance on trying the Bush admin torturemeisters, it seemed insupportable that the photos not be released. But the more I read, the more I wondered: what good would it do? It's like showing a jury gory photos of a murder victim; it serves no purpose but to inflame and not very subtly signal to the jury to go crazy on the perp.

I'm with Obama in believing that releasing the photos would certainly heighten the danger for our troops. And, aside from re-proving that we had indeed become a nation of torturers, why should the world witness anymore of our brutality or more degradation of our victims? After the Abu Ghraib photos, what's to be learned? Yes, it would hold those responsible just that much more responsible, but if you don't believe the obvious by now, no more photos will help, while certainly making us just that much more hated around the world. Those of us who are not ashamed by now never will be and those of us who are don't need our prurient interests satiated. Admitting to ourselves and the world the heinous things we've done is all that decency requires. It would be irresponsible to publish the photos when nothing can be gained by doing so; humbly admitting their existence is enough, as long as they're retained for use by a Truth Commission. By no means should our torture policy's architects escape justice. There, Obama and I part company.

Sullivan, to his credit, has again admitted to a change of heart. Or, more precisely, that blogging often requires one to admit when they've been too hasty:

Who Killed the Cap on Credit Card Interest Rates?

| Thu May 14, 2009 12:08 PM EDT

Public support for a crackdown on shady credit card lending practices is practically stratospheric right now, and yet Congress still couldn't bring itself to buck the industry and crack down on exorbitant interest rates. An amendment in the Senate that would have capped interest rates at 15 percent failed decisvely, winning just 33 votes. (The only Republican to back the measure was Charles Grassley; you can see the full list of senators who shot down the proposal here.)

James Ridgeway has the rundown on Congress' half-hearted feint at credit card reform here. And don't miss Kevin Drum's posts on the industry's lousy business practices and its trusty friends in Congress.     

Leaked Text of Obama's Notre Dame Degree?

| Thu May 14, 2009 11:56 AM EDT

President Barack Obama's scheduled appearance at Notre Dame's commencement on Sunday has caused a fuss, with antiabortion activists and students promising they will protest. One of those leading this effort, Randall Terry, a longtime, controversial, and extreme anti-abortion crusader, claims he's obtained a leaked copy of the text of the honorary degree Obama will receive. In a press release he zapped out on Thursday morning, Terry said the text had been given to him by "someone connected with Notre Dame" whom he would not identify, and he published the purported text:

The University of Notre Dame Confers the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa, on the 44th president of the United States, whose historic election opened a new era of hope in a country long divided by its history of slavery and racism. A community organizer who honed his advocacy for the poor, the marginalized and the worker in the streets of Chicago, he now organizes a larger community, bringing to the world stage a renewed American dedication to diplomacy and dialogue with all nations and religions committed to human rights and the global common good. Through his willingness to engage with those who disagree with him and encourage people of faith to bring their beliefs to the public debate, he is inspiring this nation to heal its divisions of religion, culture, race and politics in the audacious hope for a brighter tomorrow.
On Barack H. Obama, Washington, District of Columbia"

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The FBI's Racial Discrimination Problem...

| Thu May 14, 2009 11:39 AM EDT

Donald Rochon is back in the news. The former FBI agent settled an historic discrimination case against the bureau in 1990. Rochon, who is African-American, alleged repeated instances of harrassment by his white colleagues in the FBI's field offices in Omaha and Chicago. For example, there was the time his fellow agents taped a picture of a monkey over a framed family photo on Rochon's desk. And after Rochon learned to scuba dive, his fellow agents had great fun doctoring a photo depicting him swimming through a garbage dump. The discrimination was as clear-cut as it was offensive. Included in the out-of-court settlement was the promise that upon reaching retirement age, Rochon would receive his full FBI pension. This apparently did not happen, which is why Rochon is again locked in a legal battle with the bureau.

But as bad as things were for Rochon, FBI spokesman John Miller told reporters this week that the bureau has come a long way in twenty years. It now has systems in place through which aggrieved employees can file discrimination complaints to internal investigators. Maybe so, but that doesn't mean the problem is solved. Just ask Bassem Youssef. The bureau's highest-ranking Arabic-speaking agent, Youssef was a star undercover operator who penetrated Al Qaeda years before 9/11. But after the attacks on New York and Washington, he was sidelined to a desk job. Why? Youssef claims it's because of his Egyptian ethnicity. As far as the FBI may have come in the last few decades, it still has a long way to go. Youssef's struggles with the bureau are a sad reminder that the FBI's good-ole-boy culture is in need of a serious overhaul, just as it was twenty years ago.

For more, read my profile of Bassem Youssef, which was published in the May/June 2009 issue of Mother Jones.

Wisconsin Upholds Warrantless GPS Tracking By Cops

| Thu May 14, 2009 10:58 AM EDT

From the Chicago Trib:

Wisconsin police can attach GPS to cars to secretly track anybody's movements without obtaining search warrants, an appeals court ruled Thursday.
However, the District 4 Court of Appeals said it was “more than a little troubled” by that conclusion and asked Wisconsin lawmakers to regulate GPS use to protect against abuse by police and private individuals.
As the law currently stands, the court said police can mount GPS on cars to track people without violating their constitutional rights—even if the drivers aren't suspects.
Officers do not need to get warrants beforehand because GPS tracking does not involve a search or a seizure, Judge Paul Lundsten wrote for the unanimous three-judge panel based in Madison.

The facts and legal analysis of this case read just like the kind of law school 'hypo' I sweated so hard over.

Here's what happened:

Getting to Sixty

| Wed May 13, 2009 4:31 PM EDT

Senate Republicans blocked their first Obama administration appointee on Wednesday, successfully filibustering the nomination of David Hayes to be deputy secretary of the interior department. Democrats needed 60 senators to force a final vote on Hayes, but failed, 57-38.  Senate majority leader Harry Reid voted with the Republicans so that he can bring a motion to reconsider in future. Democrats stand a decent chance of winning a re-vote—in addition to Reid's vote, they would pick up three Democrats who were absent on Wednesday. Hayes isn't the only potential casualty. The GOP is also planning to filibuster Dawn Johnsen, Obama's nominee to head the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel. So far, the Democrats can't stop them—Reid told Roll Call Wednesday that he doesn't yet have the votes he needs to overcome a filibuster.

So it seems that Republicans' strategy of using the filibuster to try to block anything they possibly can is succeeding. Use of the filibuster more than doubled between the 109th Congress, when the Republicans last had control of the Senate, and the 110th, when the Democrats took over. Republican filibustering has continued at that previously unprecedented pace in the 111th Congress.

Democrats did not filibuster early Bush administration executive branch nominees like Jay Bybee, who held the job Johnsen has been nominated for. (Bybee was confirmed by a voice vote.) Matt Yglesias writes: "I think it’s pretty obvious that the trends over the past 5-10 years are pointing in the direction of constant filibustering leading to the total paralysis of the American government."

If Yglesias is right, and constant filibustering will be the rule for the considerable future, Republicans might want to reconsider their obstructionist tactics. The Economist's (anonymous) Democracy In America blog explains that "in the long run," more filibustering is "really bad for Republicans":

Sixty seats are hard to come by; for a party to soar from 45 to 60 seats in two elections, as the Democrats did in 2006-2008, is almost unheard of. And no Republican thinks his party will achieve that soon.

The GOP has not won 60 seats since the Senate became a 100-member body, after Hawaii and Alaska became states. The last time it won 60 percent of the seats in the upper house was 1920. It has literally not held 60 seats in a century. So the standard being set here can only lead to sclerosis.

Will Republicans heed the warning? I doubt it. They haven't had much success recently in the long-term planning department.

Everything You Need To Know About Today's Torture News

| Wed May 13, 2009 3:07 PM EDT

Wednesday was a big day for torture-related news, so here's what you need to know:

  • Philip Zelikow, a former aide to Condoleezza Rice and the author of an anti-torture memo that he thinks Dick Cheney wanted destroyed, testified before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee. He outlined the campaign he and a few other Bush administration officials waged to change both the policy and the legal framework surrounding the treatment of terrorism suspects. They were, of course, unsuccessful.
  • Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse's (D-RI) subcommittee on Administration Oversight and the Courts, which held the hearing, released two unclassified 2005 memos that argued against the Bush administration's detainee treatment policies. I outlined the highlights of the anti-torture memos on Wednesday afternoon.