Mojo - September 2009

Van Jones and the 9/11 Conspiracy Theory Poison

| Mon Sep. 7, 2009 8:27 PM EDT

For years I have refrained from writing about 9/11 conspiracy theory. But Van Jones' resignation as top green jobs adviser in the Obama administration has compelled me to pick up this battering ram once again. In my PoliticsDaily.com column, I've (partly) blamed 9/11 conspiracy theorists for the downfall of Jones. Not that he's not accountable for his own behavior, but the perpetuators of the 9/11 nonsense launched a virus in left circles, and Jones was not savvy enough to keep clear of it. As I huffed: 

As far as I can tell, the only thing the so-called 9/11 Truth movement has accomplished is this: it's caused the Obama administration to lose its most prominent expert on green jobs. So well done, Truthers. Thanks to you, the federal government will now be spending about $80 billion on green economy initiatives without the guiding hand of one of the most knowledgeable experts in this field.

I went on:

I am, of course, referring to Van Jones, who resigned this weekend from his position as adviser to the head of the White House's Council on Environmental Quality. Jones, once a civil rights activist, in recent years has become a leader in the green jobs movement, and as an administration official he was given the task of making sure that billions of stimulus dollars flowing to jobs in enviro-friendly fields (say, wind power) were being deployed in an effective manner. But his (apparently) unpardonable sin was that he had signed a petition—"a "9/11 Truth Statement"—that suggested the Bush-Cheney administration either orchestrated or allowed the 9/11 attack to happen and that called for an investigation. He also had been part of an organizing committee for a 9/11 "truth" march. There were other actions dredged up by Jones' conservative antagonists, including conspiratorial rightwing Fox host Glenn Beck. (Beck was pursuing a vendetta; after Beck recently called Obama a "racist," a group that Jones had founded launched an advertising boycott of Beck's show.) Jones had once referred to Republicans as "assholes." But it was the 9/11 stuff that did him in.

In a way, I tried to prevent this from happening.

Years ago, when the 9/11 conspiracy theories were first emerging on the left, I wrote several pieces decrying them. (See here, here, and here.) My fear was that this unsound idea would infect the left and other quarters--discrediting anyone who got close to it. I even debunked a book promoting an unfounded 9/11 conspiracy theory that was published by Nation Books when I was Washington editor of The Nation magazine. (I tried to persuade the decision-makers of Nation Books that the book ought not even be published—and failed.)

The 9/11 conspiracy theory was just too tempting for many Bush critics. Van Jones says he was not fully aware of what he was signing when he put his John Hancock on that 9/11 petition. This might be true. But I can see how Jones and others on the left—without thinking too much—might have easily said, sure, sign my name to any call for any investigation of Bush and Cheney. And that sloppiness—if that's what it was—has cost him his job.

The 9/11 conspiracy—of which I have not written about in years—was always a load of bunk. You don't have to be an expert on skyscraper engineering or top-secret government communications to know that the two variants of the theory—the Bush White House orchestrated 9/11 so it could subsequently exploit the tragedy or the Bush White House knew the attack was coming and allowed it to occur so it could exploit the tragedy—make no sense.

Let's walk through some of the reasons the 9/11 theory is out of sync with reality.

From here on, I presented a tutorial that should persuade anyone that the 9/11 theory makes no sense. (Click here if you want to see it.) But I have learned from experience that people who believe this stuff are not open to persuasion. (Please do not send me emails, mail me manuscripts,  invite me to debates, or post comments accusing me of being a CIA plant.)

What is sad is that Jones, a pioneer in the green jobs field, has left the administration because he could not steer clear of the 9/11 foolishness. He certainly gave potent ammunition to his enemies—especially rightwing Fox host Glenn Beck, who targeted  Jones after a group Jones had founded launched an advertising boycott of Beck (after Beck had called President Obama a "racist"). But the country would have been better off if the White House had managed to find a way to stick with Jones.

At the end of this sad episode, we're left with a victorious Beck waving a scalp. (One prominent conservative tells me he is deeply upset by this, for the last thing he wants to see is Beck's credibility on the right enhanced.) And the circus will continue, with Beck now calling on his followers to dig up dirt on other Obama administration officials, and MSNBC's Keith Olbermann urging his audience to dig up dirt on Beck and Roger Ailes, the head of Fox. As for the real world, the administration will now pour tens of billions of dollars into green jobs without the benefit of Jones' widely acknowledged expertise. As I put it elsewhere, "Jones is responsible for his own actions, but the 9/11 Truthers are also responsible for concocting and spreading the poison that he drank."

You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.

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A Blast From the Past

| Mon Sep. 7, 2009 2:29 AM EDT

"There is a hate layer of opinion and emotion in America. There will be other McCarthys to come who will be hailed as its heroes."

Max Lerner

The Road Back

| Sun Sep. 6, 2009 6:10 PM EDT

All Jim knew about her was that she was thirteen years old.

That and the fact that she was Vietnamese (they were in Vietnam, after all).

He hits fast forward…

Jim is back in Vietnam. But he’s no longer a grunt walking point for the Big Red One.

He’s traded in his green jungle fatigues for a light gray two-buttoned suit, white shirt and an earth-toned tie. Jim’s also added a beard to the mustache he wore back then. They’ve both gone gray. He’s a proud "second father" walking Linh down the aisle alongside her Vietnamese father. She’s about to begin a new life, start a new family. She wears pearls in her long hair and has pink eye-shadow with glitter in it. She is beautiful.

It’s been a long, strange trip, says Jim with a laugh as soft as snow falling on a mine field.

When asked, he talks about how he first met his "daughter."

It was fate, he answers without hesitation, but just as quickly makes it clear he is not talking about a Deity.

"God died in Vietnam," he says, "and I can show you the village." It’s a line Jim heard somewhere, but it’s also what he believes.

There’s no way, Jim says, he can ever believe again in a Supreme Being who would, as he points out, "allow all that shit to happen." If there is a God, Jim adds, he doesn’t want to have anything to do with the Bastard.

Maybe it was a spirit that brought them together, he offers, echoing a belief common in Vietnam.

It had to be something pretty special, anyway, because Linh wasn’t even part of the official welcoming party that day.

He hits rewind…

They are at a school in Hanoi. It is a hot day and humid and the children are singing to Jim and a delegation of other returning American veterans. Little girls in clean white shirts present carnations to the men. The flowers are red — the color of good luck throughout Asia.

One small girl stands off to the side, shy and alone. Something about her catches Jim's eye. He smiles at the thin 13-year-old with the round, pretty face. Linh beams a big smile right back at him.

Something happens in his heart. It's all tangled up with pain and emptiness, but also with love and something else. The light of Linh’s smile probes the hole in Jim’s heart and he feels the darkness retreat a bit.

"There was just this… instant…connection between us," he says groping for the right words, but with a smile you can hear over the phone. "I can’t explain it."

Over the years, Jim has kept in contact with Linh and her family. He has made eighteen trips back to Vietnam, and always tries to spend as much time as possible with the family that has become entwined with his own. When Linh graduated from high school and her Vietnamese family didn’t have the money to send her to a university, it felt like the most natural thing in the world for Jim and his wife to pay. They also put Linh’s sister through college. You want the best for your children.

Every time he returns from Vietnam, Jim can tell the wound in his heart has healed more. "It’s closing, little by little," he says.

If things go as they have in the past, that hole should shrink even more this week, when Jim makes his 19th trip back to Vietnam. He has a new role to play on this visit: as the proud grandfather of a baby born to Linh and her husband on August 17th.

A boy: seven pounds, twelve ounces.

"I know this might sound strange to some people," Jim says. "But, what I learned more than anything in Vietnam is how to love people. I learned the value of a human life. How each one makes my life better. How can you not love someone?"

I know he’s talking mostly about his daughter, Linh, and the comfort, joy and healing she has brought. But someone else hovers over the conversation like a spirit. The other 13-year-old girl. The one whose path crossed Jim's more than a dozen years before Linh was born.

Jim doesn’t know anything about her, except that she was 13-years-old and Vietnamese and that he killed her.

He was 19-years-old at the time. The act that ended her life carved a hole in Jim’s own heart, a wound that only began to heal when he traveled back to Vietnam where a different 13-year-old girl smiled at him on a schoolyard in Hanoi and she and her family allowed him to love them.

He hits play…

--------

Osha Gray Davidson is a contributing blogger at Mother Jones and publisher of The Phoenix Sun. This piece appeared first in Brief Back.

Michael Steele, Here's a Newspaper Article You Should Read

| Fri Sep. 4, 2009 3:06 PM EDT

On slow news days—that is, when Dick Cheney or Sarah Palin haven't said anything—there's always GOP chairman Michael Steele.

He made website headlines earlier this week when he chastised a 23-year-old woman after she had interrupted him at a Howard University meeting to say that everyone in the country deserved access to good health care, citing the case of her own mother who recently died of cancer because she couldn't afford chemo medications. Then on Friday, Steele looked particularly out of it within a Washington Post story on the stimulus and the economy.

The front-page article reported that "economists generally agree that the package has played a significant part in stabilizing the economy. They are less certain about the size of the impact." The piece quoted a former assistant Treasury secretary from the Bush-Cheney administration, Phillip Swagel, who said President Obama's stimulus package is "starting to play a role, helping us to have slightly positive rather than slightly negative GDP growth." It cited IHS Global Insight, an economic consulting firm, which estimated the stimulus has added 1 percent to gross domestic product this year. Mark Zandi, chief economist of Economy.com and a former John McCain supporter, told the newspaper, "I don't think it's any accident that the economy has gone out of recession and into recovery at the same time stimulus is providing its maximum economic impact."

So there's a consensus: the stimulus package has produced results. Enter Steele. The article reported,

On Thursday, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele discounted the impact of the stimulus plan. "Vice President Biden has been trying for 200 days to convince the American people the president's economic stimulus experiment is working, but just like their government-run health-care scheme, no one is buying it," he said.

Obviously, Steele had not consulted with Zandi, Swagel, IHS Global Insight, or most economists. There are indeed questions an administration foe can raise about the stimulus. Has it been quick enough? Big enough? Targeted correctly? Is the bang worth the bucks? Only a hack with no regard for reality would insist that it has absolutely not worked and that no one believes it has had an impact. Yet that's what Steele said, proving once again that he is a guy who's hard to take seriously.

You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.

Did Embassy Fire Hazing Victims?

| Fri Sep. 4, 2009 12:53 PM EDT

UPDATE: The news POGO is getting from Afghanistan suggests that the "right people are being fired." See below.

Earlier, I noted the possibillity that the US embassy in Kabul may have fired Armor Group guards who were victims of sexually-tined hazing rituals, along with some of the perpetrators of them.  The Project on Government Oversight just released a statement from the group's executive director, Danielle Brian, and she is indeed concerned that some of "unwilling participants" may have been axed:

POGO is pleased that the State Department has finally taken decisive steps to bring the Kabul security guard scandal. under control.  We remain very concerned, however, with certain elements of this action.  POGO has no solid information of the identities of those reported to have been removed.  We have been told people are being fired for simply being in the photographs.  We do know a number of those were unwilling participants.

We also want to hear that the supervisors who were responsible for this debacle are being held fully accountable and not simply allowed to resign and go to another contractor.

I have a call into the State Department seeking comment. I'll update the post when I hear back.

UPDATE: More news is coming in from POGO.

A quick update from the ground in Kabul: we've heard that guards at the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan are very pleased with the State Department's actions so far, with one source saying guards feel as if they've been "liberated from prison."  State Department investigators have been conducting thorough, respectful interviews and are not asking guards if they shared information with POGO.  The right people are being fired and it looks like we're on the way to restoring an atmosphere of professionalism at the U.S. Embassy.

Follow Daniel Schulman on Twitter.

Coffee Beanery Foes Lose House

| Fri Sep. 4, 2009 12:05 PM EDT

Back in March, we ran a story about Deborah Williams and Richard Welshans, a Maryland couple who alleged that they’d been defrauded by the Coffee Beanery, a national coffee franchiser.  They tried to sue to recover some of the more than $1 million they lost after opening a Coffee Beanery cafe, alleging that the company had failed to disclose the fact that most of their franchises failed within three years rather than netted $250,000 in profits, as the company officials had promised. Instead, the couple landed in mandatory arbitration hell. A private arbitrator, hired by Coffee Beanery, ruled against them and ordered them to pay Coffee Beanery more than $100,000, which included the opposing counsels’ lunch tab during the hearing.

The couple fought the decision all the way through the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, which earlier this year overturned the arbitrator’s decision, paving the way for Williams and Welshans to sue the Coffee Beanery in Maryland civil court. But Welshans and Wiliams might have had a much happier ending to their story if they’d been able to access the civil justice system from the beginning, and had their complaint heard in a real court of law, with a real judge and a real jury. Instead, the failure of their franchise plus the arbitration and expensive legal battle sent them into bankruptcy. Now, they are about to lose their house. Last week, Deborah wrote to me saying that their lovely waterfront Annapolis home was going into foreclosure and they had 45 days to leave the premises. In an email she writes:

We now have nothing left to lose. We thought that if by a miracle, we should win our appeal we would finally achieve Justice. But even that was not to be. We are the first franchisee in the State of Maryland to be denied the protection of Maryland Law. I'm crying as I write this, because for the first time I realize our backs are broken and there seems to be nothing left for us. We don't know where we will go. Renting will be almost impossible, I still have not been able to find a job, and then there is the bankruptcy. As you can imagine, any landlord would determine us a high risk.

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White House Slams Israeli Settlement Expansion

| Fri Sep. 4, 2009 11:19 AM EDT

The Obama administration wants Israel to stop building and expanding settlements in the occupied territories. But Israel is approving construction of hundreds of new houses in the West Bank and finishing some 2,500 others. The White House is not pleased. Press secretary Robert Gibbs just sent out a statement that included these paragraphs:

We regret the reports of Israel's plans to approve additional settlement construction. Continued settlement activity is inconsistent with Israel's commitment under the Roadmap.
As the President has said before, the United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement expansion and we urge that it stop. We are working to create a climate in which negotiations can take place, and such actions make it harder to create such a climate.

It looks like the administration is taking a pretty hard line about holding Israel to its Roadmap commitments. How will the Israeli government respond?

In Defense of Fact-Checking

| Fri Sep. 4, 2009 11:12 AM EDT

What does Michael Kinsley have against fact-checkers? Apparently the WaPo columnist decided today was a good day to bully the little guys. Now why would he want to do that? Fact-checking, the often thankless task of anonymous magazine interns and staff, is the unsung hero and good-news story of an industry struggling to find any good news at all. Fact-checking is the meticulous and often infuriating pursuit of every detail that goes into a story, checking and rechecking, confirming with sources and scouring of databases and archives for references that may live strong on Wikipedia, but are only confirmable at their headwaters. Does Kinsley not remember the Jayson Blair era? Do we want to go back to everyone wondering if the description of the view from a porch means they're reading make-believe?

Kinsley uses the Times' Corrections as an example of why the whole practice is a waste of time:

Who can take facts seriously after reading the daily "Corrections" column in the New York Times? Although the purpose of this column is to demonstrate the Times's rectitude about taking facts seriously, the facts it corrects are generally so bizarre or trivial and its tone so schoolmarmish that the effect is to make the whole pursuit of factual accuracy seem ridiculous.

The bizarre and trivial corrections he links to include: a map of Georgia putting the 8th district on the border with Alabama rather than in the center of the state where it belongs, the wrong country where a new minerals mine is opening (Canada not Australia), and correcting the street location of a London bookstore featured in a column.

Here's what Kinsey doesn't get: if you get the so-called little stuff wrong then people don't believe you on what you really want them to care about. Readers are smart, and lots of them pay attention. And when they read something, even something tiny, that they know is wrong they, understandably, assume the whole article is suspect.

At Mother Jones we have a tireless team of fact-checkers who pore over all of our content, spending sometimes weeks or months on a single story. They end up amassing a veritable archive of expertise on each subject and our articles end up better, more credible, to be read without cause for pause or doubt. Because it happens that reporters, unlike Kinsley who's had a "blameless journalistic career" (we'll assume he's playing sarcastic here), are capturing and describing complex happenings that they haven't lived for decades. So it's understandable that some of the particulars get shifted, confused, transposed, whatever. We all make mistakes, it's just grand when we have people around who can help us fix them.

If you know anyone who wants to join us in our very own war on errorism have them check out MoJo's internship program. True Kinsley, it's an often bizarre job where we ask factcheckers to go to the ends of the earth to confirm dates and map locations and even oft-repeated historical asides, but we guarantee, in the end, it's far from trivial.

Embassy Scandal: Eight Guards Fired

| Fri Sep. 4, 2009 11:06 AM EDT

The US embassy in Kabul has fired eight ArmorGroup guards, all of whom appeared in a series of pictures showing the firm's employees partying half-naked and engaging in lewd acts. The AP reports:

The embassy said Friday the management team of the private contractor that provides the guards is also "being replaced immediately."

An embassy statement said the guards who were dismissed left the country Friday. Two other guards resigned and also left.

White House Does 180 on Visitor Records

| Fri Sep. 4, 2009 9:21 AM EDT

Remember those Secret Service logs of White House visits by health care and coal industry execs the Obama adminstration was refusing to make public? Or the records of visits by lobbyist Stephen Payne, who was caught on tape peddling access to senior US officials in exchange for a sizable donation to the George W. Bush presidential library, that the Bush administration fought to keep secret? Details of those visits will soon be made public by the Obama White House, which up until now had been following its predecessor's policy of blocking access to the Secret Service logs. But not just that. Going forward, the adminstration is planning to implement an historic transparency policy, releasing the names of most White House visitors, along with other information, on an ongoing base.

This policy shift comes as the Obama administration moved to settle four cases related to public access to White House visitor logs filed by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. This morning's release from CREW:

CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan praised the White House, stating, “The Obama administration has proven its pledge to usher in a new era of government transparency was more than just a campaign promise.  The Bush administration fought tooth and nail to keep secret the identities of those who visited the White House.  In contrast, the Obama administration – by putting visitor records on the White House web site – will have the most open White House in history.  Because visitor records will now be available online, CREW dismissed its lawsuits.”  Sloan continued, “Providing public access to visitor records is an important step in restoring transparency and accountability to our government.  CREW is proud to have been part of this historic decision.”

Yesterday’s agreement stems from lawsuits CREW filed after the Bush and later the Obama administration refused to provide White House visitor records in response to CREW’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.  Visitor records are created by the Secret Service as part of its statutory responsibility to protect the president, vice president, their residences, and the White House generally.

In lawsuits for records of visits by Christian conservative leaders and lobbyist Stephen Payne, the Bush administration argued the records were presidential records, not agency records of the Secret Service, and therefore exempt from the FOIA’s mandatory disclosure requirements.  U.S. District Court Judge Royce C. Lamberth disagreed, ruling twice that the records are subject to the FOIA and not within any of the claimed exemptions.  The government appealed those decisions to the District of Columbia Circuit Court.

After President Obama took office, CREW sought records of visits to the White House by health care and coal executives to determine the degree of their influence on health care and energy legislative proposals.  The government initially refused to turn over these records, but now has agreed to produce them, as well as the Bush era records, as part of the settlement.  In turn, CREW has agreed to dismiss all the pending litigation.