Mojo - May 2009

Is Al Qaeda's Ibn Shaikh al-Libi Dead?

| Mon May 11, 2009 11:25 AM EDT

Curious news from the Arab press by way of Andy Worthington and bmaz over at emptywheel: multiple Arabic-language sources and Algeria's English-language Ennahar Online are reporting that Ibn Shaikh al-Libi, who the Bush administration once cited as the link between Al Qaeda and Iraq, has died in a Libyan prison. There's been no independent confirmation of this news yet. If true, it's an interesting coda to the story of one of the first Al Qaeda members to be captured and tortured by the United States—and the person who provided one of the key pieces of "evidence" tying Saddam Hussein to Osama Bin Laden.

Al-Libi—whose real name was Ali Abdl Aziz al-Fakhiri—was picked up in Afghanistan on or around December 18, 2001. After that, it was the same story you've heard many times: the FBI tried traditional methods of interrogation and found some success, but the CIA wasn't satisfied, and took control of the prisoner. One of the most disappointing things to those pushing for war with Iraq had to be that al-Libi hadn't said anything tying Saddam to Al Qaeda. That would change.

Al-Libi was sent to Egypt, where he was subjected to torture, including, as David Corn and Michael Isikoff reported in their book Hubris, a mock burial. Suddenly, al-Libi was singing a different tune. He told interrogators that Bin Laden had sent two Al Qaeda members to Iraq for training in weapons of mass destruction.

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Talking Fishing With Todd Palin

| Mon May 11, 2009 10:57 AM EDT

Does Alaska's first dude hold a grudge against Mother Jones for doing some tough reporting on his wife, Sarah Palin? Attending Tammy Haddad's White House Correspondents' Dinner pre-party on Saturday, our Washington bureau chief, David Corn, thought he might be in for an earful (maybe even a fistful) when John Coale, husband of Fox's Greta Van Susteren, told him that Todd Palin wanted to meet him.

"Please don't hit me," Corn joked as he shook hands with the champion snowmobiler and all around bad-ass-looking guy. Palin laughed, and, steering clear of politics, they went on to have a pleasant discussion about having 8-year-old daughters and about commercial fishing. (Palin is gearing up for salmon season in Bristol Bay. This morning I asked Corn what the heck he knows about fishing, commercial or otherwise. He responded, "I know the difference between a gill net and a slip net, don't you?" Umm, no.)

The sight of Corn and Palin engrossed in conversation was sufficiently unusual that it warranted mentions in not one, but two papers.

Pirate "Consultants" Track Ships From London

| Mon May 11, 2009 10:56 AM EDT

You wouldn't know it from the pictures of scrawny, hungry-looking men chasing after mammoth commercial ships in faded-white speedboats with outboard motors, but Somali pirates operate what experts believe to be a sophisticated international network, complete with its own intelligence apparatus and PR flacks. Piracy is a multi-million dollar business, after all, taking in an estimated $150 million in 2008 alone, and is the only growth industry in Somalia, offering starved fisherman a taste of the good life. It's doubtful, however, that so many pirates would driving around Somalia's dusty roads in luxury cars without their coterie of undercover operatives in some of the world's busiest commercial ports.

That they have eyes and ears in key locations is not a new revelation, but a European military intelligence report, obtained by the Spanish radio station Cadena SER, lays bare the current thinking on the network's structure and function. Pirate "consultants" based in London, says the report, coordinate intelligence on ships bound for the Suez Canal by satellite phone, allowing the pirates to strategize individual hijackings long before ships enter the attack zone.

Mother's Day When Mom's on Lock Down

| Fri May 8, 2009 9:05 PM EDT

If Obama wants a way to talk about race without, you know, talking about race, here's a thought: criminal justice reform and mothers behind bars.

From CNN:

Free From Prison At Last: For an Aging Angola Inmate, Death Is the Only Release

| Fri May 8, 2009 2:51 PM EDT

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, the growth in harsh sentencing and parole restrictions are filling the nation’s prisons with old and infirm prisoners. While these prisoners couldn’t do much damage if they  tried, they are rarely shown any mercy, and there is little interest in alternatives such as letting them out for monitored house arrest as they near death, so that they can spend their final moments in the “free world.”

The Shreveport Times earlier this year profiled one such prisoner, Douglas Dennis, 73, a severely ill, wheelchair bound inmate at the Lousiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Dennis had been convicted of killing an accountant in the Shreveport city jail in 1957 and killing another inmate at Angola in the 1960s, and was serving two life sentences. In January, he appeared before the parole board, asking for clemency on the basis of  his recent good record and good works at Angola, and his age and health problems, saying he wanted to be set free before he died. The request–which his lawyer called his “last chance,” since it only happens once every five years–was unanimously rejected by the board. 

As the paper reported, his case was far from unusual:

Louisiana’s prison system holds 5,023 adult offenders over age 50 — more than three times the number in 1997, when about 1,500 inmates over age 50 were in the system. Age 50 is considered geriatric by corrections standards. Hard lives of drug abuse and poor health can make a 50-year-old inmate appear 10 or 20 years older, experts say….

Nationally, fewer than 5 percent of older inmates who are released commit new crimes. In Louisiana, of all inmates who were released in 2003 and who later returned to prison, only 1.3 percent were age 50 or older. For inmates age 55 or older, that figure drops to 0.6 percent, according to Louisiana Department of Corrections data as of June 30, 2008. By comparison, the highest recidivism rate for inmates released in 2003 was 9.9 percent for two age groups — 21-24 and 25-29.

At Angola, some 85 to 90 percent of those imprisoned die within its walls. Living death is such a matter of fact within Angola that the place has a hospice to ease the final passage, an elaborate funeral setup, and a large graveyard. Angola’s notorious warden, Burl Cain, has made it clear that he believes, quite literally, that the only way out of the place should be through the redempton found in embracing Christ; he has made it his mission to bring salvation to prisoners facing death by natural causes, as well as by lethal injection in Angola’s death house.  As a result of his ministry, Cain has become the subject of heroic profiles in evangelical publications, and Angola has become a popular stop for Christian fundamentalist groups, who are welcomed on tours.

AIG: The Market Leader in Chutzpah

| Fri May 8, 2009 2:44 PM EDT

Who's responsible for damaging AIG's brand? No, it's not a trick question. I ask because the insurance company's latest SEC filings (h/t Footnoted) suggest that the press, along with government officials and members of the public at large, is sullying the firm's good name, which is in turn impacting AIG's business prospects. Like me, you probably thought that AIG wrecked its own rep, by, you know, engaging in the irresponsible transactions that ultimately led to its near collapse and subsequent taxpayer funded rescue. Wrong. As the company explains in its latest 10-Q:

Adverse publicity and public reaction to events concerning AIG has had and may continue to have a material adverse effect on AIG. Since September 2008, AIG has been the subject of intense scrutiny and extensive comment by global news media, officials of governments and regulatory authorities around the world and segments of the public at large in the communities that AIG serves. At times, there has been strong criticism of actions taken by AIG, its management and its employees and of transactions in which AIG has engaged. In a few instances, such as the public reaction in March 2009 over the payment of retention awards to AIGFP employees, this criticism has included harassment of individual AIG employees or public protest affecting AIG facilities.

To date, this scrutiny and extensive commentary has adversely affected AIG by damaging AIG’s business, reputation and brand among current and potential customers, agents and other distributors of AIG products and services, thereby reducing sales of AIG products and services, and resulting in an increase in AIG policyholder surrenders and non-renewals of AIG policies. This scrutiny and commentary has also undermined employee morale and AIG’s ability to motivate and retain its employees. If this level of scrutiny and criticism continues or increases, AIG’s business may be further adversely affected and its ability to retain and motivate employees further harmed.
 

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Obama Not Telling When He'll Repeal "Don't Ask"

| Fri May 8, 2009 2:43 PM EDT

In January, Sandy Tsao, an army officer based in St. Louis, came out to her bosses as gay. She lost her job, of course—she's being discharged on May 19. But she's trying to take the discriminatory Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy down with her. Back in January, Tsao wrote a letter to President Barack Obama, asking him to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell. On Tuesday, she received a personal, hand-written reply to her letter. "Although it will take some time to complete (partly because it needs Congressional action), I intend to fulfill my commitment!" Obama wrote. He was talking about his commitment to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell. But gay soldiers like Dan Choi and Sandy Tsao are probably wondering how long "some time" will be. Choi, a West Point Graduate and Arabic linguist, received notice on Thursday that the Army National Guard is also about to fire him for being gay. He will be the first Arabic linguist fired during the Obama administration due to the DADT policy.

(Much) More on the Chrysler Bailout, Clifford Asness, and the UAW

| Fri May 8, 2009 1:42 PM EDT

Yesterday, I wrote about Clifford Asness, a hedge fund manager who is upset with President Barack Obama's plan for the Chrysler reorganization. Asness is upset because he says that senior creditors (including many hedge funds, although not his own) are being screwed in the deal. Anyway, the post provoked a long, thoughtful response from commenter ObamaDonor, which I'd like to highlight here (I can't link to it directly because ObamaDonor isn't a registered user of the site):

"Like Rick Santelli, Asness doesn't seem to understand that super-rich finance guys are not exactly the most popular demographic right now."

Actually, if you read the letter, you'll see this is exactly Asness' point. The President singled out hedge funds because they are unpopular, not because they have any special obligation to fund UAW pension shortfalls. Most of the Chrysler secured lenders were not hedge funds, and most hedge funds were not Chrysler secured lenders. But attacking bondholders is not smart when millions of not-so-rich people have lost money they thought was safe in bonds. So attack the nearest unpopular surrogate.

[...]

The secured bondholders thought they would do better in bankruptcy, as is their legal right. That's not asking for a bailout, it's asking for enforcement of a contract. The President wanted them to give up that extra value and give it to the UAW. He can want that, maybe it's even good public policy, but it's wrong to shake down a specific small group to pay for it....

[...]

Obama is a good President, but this was stupid and wrong. He should be called on it by his supporters, even more than by his detractors. Yes, it's politics and usual, but I didn't vote for politics as usual. Yes, this is a tough time with a lot of hard decisions, I don't expect them all to be correct. But if he doesn't fix the mistakes, soon none of them will be correct.

Obama's Bank Stress Tests and the April Jobs Report

| Fri May 8, 2009 12:05 PM EDT

Friday's big stories were the April jobs report and the release of the Obama administration's "stress tests" for troubled banks. The jobs report showed the economy lost 539,000 jobs in April, fewer than economists expected and fewer than were lost in March. And even though they showed that US banks are undercapitalized by some $75 billion, the stress test results were "far more upbeat than many in the industry had feared," according to the New York Times. The White House and the main stream media are spinning both the stress tests and the jobs report as good news. But some observers aren't so sure. Our own Nomi Prins, a former banker herself, writes:

Despite Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner's declaration that the results are "reassuring," the banks are likely in worse shape than the tests suggest. Just because a bank avoided the capital penalty box doesn't mean it's healthy. Some, like Goldman Sachs, are investment banks that converted to bank holding companies last fall in order to access federal money, and received a two-year grace period to standardize their books with other banks. And some happen to enjoy a symbiotic relationship with the Fed, like JPMorgan Chase, whose last two takeovers (of Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual) were government-funded. JPMorgan Chase's stock was one of the biggest losers after TARP began, yet its tests indicated that it has somehow taken care of its capital needs just fine.

Obama's "New Socialism"

| Thu May 7, 2009 4:48 PM EDT

How much of a socialist is President Obama? According to Jim Gilmore—the former Republican governor of Virginia whom Democrat Mark Warner trounced in last year's Senate race—Obama is so much of a socialist that he's created his own form of socialism.

We have learned a lot in the first one hundred days of the Obama administration. The most important lesson is that this administration’s operating ideology isn’t old-style liberalism or even old-style socialism. President Obama and his team are delivering a “New Socialism.”

Their “New Socialism” doesn’t need to capture property. It is content to control the economy through taxation and regulation and the attitudes of our citizens by the establishment of a culture through the power institutions of our society: the media, the education establishment, and powerful business interests. Moreover, the “New Socialism” seeks to create a conventional wisdom that discredits all alternative thought.

So now socialism doesn't even have to look or act like socialism to be socialism. New Socialists just have to try to control someone's "attitude" about something through the media, education, and/or powerful business interests.

That's a pretty big umbrella. (After all, trying to change an attitude about something through powerful business interests is "New Socialism." Does that make our last administration New Socialist?) So it got me thinking: What other politicos fit under Gilmore's New Socialism tent? How about Jim Gilmore? Let's see: Gilmore now heads up USA Secure, a security think tank comprised of "key national technology and infrastructure companies." What do they do?

Our goal is to gather a broad group of industries, first-responder non-profits, think tanks, and universities to speak with a steady and strong voice to all the different departments of government, particularly the Department of Homeland Security.

So it looks like Gilmore is using industry and universities to peddle influence to the government. That might end up changing or controlling some attitudes. Sounds pretty New Socialist to me.