Mojo - September 2009

Free Torture Trading Cards!

| Wed Sep. 2, 2009 6:00 AM EDT

It was only a matter of time. Remember those Operation Enduring Freedom trading cards that Topps put out in 2001? And who could forget those Iraq's Most Wanted trading cards released by the Pentagon back in the halcyon days of 2003. There's a card for everything nowadays. During the Clinton years, I even wrote a little piece for Mother Jones on colorful infectious disease trading cards the CDC was handing out to children—ebola, plague, meningitis and all of that fun stuff. (Sorry, it's not online.) So it comes as little surprise that the Center for Constitutional Rights has come up with its own Torture Team collectibles.

You can order up hard copies of the Torture Team cards—10 for free; all 20 for $5—but if you're just browsing, CCR has created a neat Flash widget to display them online. Check out George W. and Condi, along with Cheney and his evil sidekick David "the Shadow" Addington, arguably the most ruthless driver of Bush-era torture policies and, according to a media quote on the card, "the most powerful man you've never heard of." Don't forget White House legal pariahs like John Yoo and Jay Bybee. Or the brass—former Pentagon top dogs like Don Rumsfeld, Guantanamo CO Geoffrey Miller (who helped involve doctors in torture) and the Iraq-bungling Douglas Feith. You can click to flip the cards and reveal each player's basic stats, along with fun tidbits and quotes in their own words. (Feith: "Removal of clothing doesn't mean naked.")

Best of all, if you want to add your two cents, the site lets you sign up as part of "Team Justice" and create your own card, complete with your photo and whatever you care to say about the patriotic activities of the Torture Team. The mind reels with the possibilities. Somehow, though, I don't think Topps is gonna greelight this one. It doesn't package well enough with bubble gum.

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McDonnell's Crazy Thesis

| Tue Sep. 1, 2009 7:11 PM EDT

Bob McDonnell, Virginia's GOP gubernatorial candidate, is under fire for a college thesis he wrote two decades ago. In it, he bashes "cohabitators, homosexuals and fornicators" and claims working women are "detrimental" to the family.

Since The Washington Post first revealed the thesis Sunday, McDonnell has vehemently claimed his positions have changed, while his opponent has racked up an additional 300 donors.

The treatise is the latest erstwhile paper to come back to haunt a public figure. When Michelle Obama's Princeton thesis about race was unearthed during the presidential campaign, more than 20 years after she originally penned it, conservatives claimed it proved she hated whites. More recently, Sarah Palin accused Ezekial Emanuel of being a "death panel"-advocate based on a paper he wrote about health care 13 years ago.

But while both these cases involved word-twisting by adversaries, McDonnell's controversial views are much more explicit. It's hard to claim you're being misrepresented when you write "[W]hen the exercise of liberty takes the shape of pornography, drug abuse, or homosexuality, the government must restrain, punish, and deter," or claim public schools should teach "traditional Judeo-Christian values." (To read the whole thesis—which includes many other choice nuggets—click here.)

It's not out of the question that McDonnell's views have shifted, considering how long ago his thesis was written. But proving that's the case is going to be an extremely uphill battle.

State Department Responds to ArmorGroup Allegations

| Tue Sep. 1, 2009 4:08 PM EDT

When State Department spokesman Ian Kelly woke up this morning, he may have been anticipating some tough queries from reporters. But he probably wasn't expecting to field questions about US embassy guards in Kabul engaging in what the Project on Government Oversight has described as "deviant hazing and humiliation," acts that allegedly included "peeing on people, eating potato chips out of ass cracks, vodka shots out of ass cracks."

"These are very serious allegations and we are treating them that way," Kelly told reporters at a briefing this afternoon, after POGO sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton detailing a host of charges relating to ArmorGroup's $189 million contract to provide security for the US embassy in Kabul. Kelly said Clinton had been informed of the allegations and noted that the matter had been referred to the State Department's Inspector General. Kelly added that the State Department has "zero tolerance for the type of conduct that is alleged in these documents."

Obama Rethinking US Foreign Aid

| Tue Sep. 1, 2009 3:30 PM EDT

Yesterday, President Barack Obama ordered the federal government to conduct a broad reassessment of its global development policies. Revamping the government's approach to foreign aid has been a longtime goal of progressives, who see a smarter approach to development projects as a major non-military solution to global insecurity and environmental problems. The liberal Center for American progress cheered that the move begins to put "development alongside diplomacy and defense as a crucial instrument of US foreign policy."

In May, CAP released its "National Strategy for Global Development," a lengthy report that calls for reworking the federal government's balkanized approach to global assistance. The resources for foreign aid "are now spread across 24 government agencies, offices, and departments," it notes, "and are neither centrally coordinated nor guided by clear goals or a national strategy." Among other things, the report suggests appointing a single person to oversee global development policy, focusing on building strong government institutions abroad, and reinvigorating US AID, which had a staff of 15,000 during the Vietnam War but has languished to 3,000 today.

 Obama's executive order asks the National Security Council and National Economic Council to submit a joint report on US development policies by January. Any shakeup that results would come none too soon. CAP has found major flaws in how the US has provisioned aid in Afghanistan, which, along with other hotspots, may ultimately succeed or fail on the effectiveness of roads and schools as much as IEDs and smart bombs.

Homes: Underwater and Sinking Fast

| Tue Sep. 1, 2009 3:15 PM EDT

Although a few glimmers of hope for the housing market have shown through as of late, several new reports concerning houses with "underwater" mortgages—when a homeowner owes more than the total value of his or her home—foresee bleak times that could undermine a full economic recovery.

Moody's Economy.com found that 24 percent of all US homes are currently underwater, a 15 percent jump from a year ago, while 8 percent of homes have debt equal to the home's value. Online real estate site Zillow similarly calculated in its own report that 23 percent of homes were underwater. A Moody's analyst told The Washington Independent that her firm's findings mean about 16 million homes are underwater, adding that "Home prices have increased in the last month or two but I think it's too early to call an end to the downturn." More ominous, though, is a recent projection by Deutsche Bank that a whopping 48 percent of all US home mortgages will be underwater or "upside-down" by early 2011.

The fear with these kinds of statistics is that they'll stunt a more vigorous economic rebound here in the US. The housing market—as the Great Housing Meltdown so painfully illustrated—is inextricably linked to broader economic health, and if staggering totals of underwater mortgages continue to pile up, that will seriously blunt recovery efforts to turn the economy around, like stimulus spending. It also doesn't help that the goverment's mortgage relief efforts—like the largely flawed Home Affordable Modification Program—have done little so far, as the recent Hope Now statistics show.

Yet apart from these relief programs, experts admit that the only way to deal with underwater mortgages is to sit back and wait—which doesn't bode well for a V-shaped recovery anytime soon. (Think more of a W.) "For the most part, we have to let it happen. We needed a correction," Deutsche Bank’s Karen Weaver told The Washington Independent. "And, as we let the crisis play out, shore up the rest of the economy with low rates and government stimulus."

Animal House in Afghanistan

| Tue Sep. 1, 2009 12:19 PM EDT

UPDATE: Here are the jaw-dropping photos. NSFW.

Drunken brawls, prostitutes, hazing and humiliation, taking vodka shots out of buttcracks— no, the perpetrators of these Animal House-like antics aren't some depraved frat brothers. They are the private security contractors guarding the US embassy compound in Kabul.

These allegations, and many more, are contained in a letter sent to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday by the Project on Government Oversight, which has been investigating the embassy security contract held by ArmorGroup North America (a subsidiary of Wackenhut, which is in turn owned by the security behemoth G4S). The contractor was the subject of a congressional probe earlier this summer that found serious lapses in the company's handling of the embassy security contract, which internal State Department documents said left the embassy compound "in jeopardy." Nevertheless, the government opted to extend the company's 5-year, $189 million contract for another year. 

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Commonwealth Ousts Fiji Over Elections

| Tue Sep. 1, 2009 11:54 AM EDT

As writer Anna Lenzer found out first-hand, Fiji's government is run by a military junta that's suspended the national constitution and delayed elections for years. The dictatorship took power in a 2006 coup and has used the excuse of "emergency rule" to extend its reign indefinitely. Three years has been enough for the Commonwealth, however, which has suspended Fiji's membership until its government re-installs democracy.

The Commonwealth, made up of 53 former British colonies and territories, said it suspended Fiji's membership after the government failed to meet today's deadline to set a date for democratic elections. The elections were to be held before October 2010, but as Fiji only continues to insist it will hold elections in 2014, the Commonwealth lived up to its word and suspended it. Although Fiji was kicked out of the Pacific Islands Forum earlier this year, the Commonwealth may hold a bit more sway as it provides funding to the nation, and allows them to compete in the Commonwealth Games. Both funding and athletic participation are suspended until Fiji meets the Commonwealth's requirements.

Misleading Anti-Reform Calls Target Nebraskans

| Tue Sep. 1, 2009 10:29 AM EDT

The Federal Trade Commission's new rules banning certain types of robocalls may have gone into effect today, but these regs won't stop deceptive political calls like the ones blanketing Nebraska presently. The calls—the work of Americans for Prosperity, a right-wing group that has played a key role in organizing tea party and town hall protests—urge Nebraskans to pressure Senator Ben Nelson, who's come under fire by liberal groups for his far-from-enthusiastic position on the public option, to "kill" health care reform.

Greg Sargent reports:

The calls inform recipients that reform would "put Washington in charge of all health care," a misleading reference to the possible inclusion of a public option, and would "cut Medicare by $500 billion," a claim that’s also been widely denounced as misleading...

"Senator Ben Nelson is playing an important role in this debate," the call says, according to a script provided to me by AFP after I was tipped off to the call. "Would you be willing to call Senator Ben Nelson and tell him to vote for the Filibuster and kill the health care bill?"

If the caller responds affirmatively, the operator recites a number for one of Nelson’s district offices. "Please tell Senator Ben Nelson to vote for the Filibuster and kill the health care bill," the call continues. "Can I confirm that you will make this call within the hour?"

Nelson has refused to rule out joining GOP filibusters on major legislation, though he’s also suggested he probably won’t filibuster on health care. The call is a sign that anti-reform forces still view Nelson, who has refused to back a public option, as a potential ally with Republicans in the quest to "kill" reform.

 

Need To Read: September 1, 2009

Tue Sep. 1, 2009 6:45 AM EDT

I'm experimenting with a different style for this morning's must-reads. Please give feedback.

  • Ahmadinejad Coming To America (WaPo)
  • Top US General in Afghanistan Will Probably Ask For More Troops (WaPo)
  • Cameron Todd Willingham Was Executed. Was He Innocent? (New Yorker Investigation/NYT Editorial/Bob Herbert Op-Ed)
  • Top Health Insurance Lobby Won't Say What Its CEO's Co-Pay Is (MoJo)
  • FDIC Head Opposes Super-Regulator (NYT Op-Ed)
  • UN Chief Reaching Out To Dictators (WaPo)
  • Henry Waxman Going After Insurance Companies (FDL)
  • Bruce Bartlett On Why He's Anti-Republican (David Frum's New Majority)
  • Cheney: Screw The Law (MoJo)
  • Dukakis For Kennedy's Senate Seat? (Boston Globe Op-Ed)
  • Advice For Obama From A Reaganite (David Corn/AOL Politics Daily)
  • Virginia GOP's Gubernatorial Candidate's Thesis Demonstrates Deep Discomfort With Modern Society (WaPo)

I post goodies like these throughout the day on twitter. You can follow me, of course. David Corn, Mother Jones' DC bureau chief, also tweets. So do my colleagues Daniel Schulman and Rachel Morris and our editors-in-chief, Clara Jeffery and Monika Bauerlein. Follow them, too! (The magazine's main account is @motherjones.)

Dog Days Turn Deadly in America's Prisons

| Tue Sep. 1, 2009 6:27 AM EDT

The summer of 2009 hadn't even begun when Marcia Powell, a 48-year old inmate at Arizona’s Perryville Prison, was baked to death. Powell, whom court records show had a history of schizophrenia, substance abuse, and mild mental retardation, was serving a 27-month sentence for prostitution. At about 11 a.m. on May 19, a day when the Arizona sun had driven the temperature to 108 degrees, she was parked outdoors in an unroofed, wire-fenced holding cell while awaiting transfer to another part of the prison. A deputy warden and two guards had been stationed in a control center 20 yards away, but nearly four hours had passed when she was found collapsed on the floor of the human cage. Doctors at a local hospital pronounced Powell comatose from heat stroke, and she died later that night after being taken off life support. Two local churches stepped in to provide a proper funeral and burial.
 
Arizona Department of Corrections director Charles Ryan said the guards had been suspended pending a criminal investigation. But just yesterday, the Maricopa County Medical Examiner ruled the death an accident, caused by "complications of hyperthermia due to environmental heat exposure." This despite the fact that Powell had blistering and first and second degree "thermal injuries" on face, arms, and upper body. 
 
Ryan also expressed “condolences to Ms. Powell’s family and loved ones”–a strange statement, considering Ryan had made the decision to quickly pull the plug on his comatose prisoner because, he said, no next of kin could be found. In fact, as Stephen Lemons of the Phoenix New Times has reported, Powell was judged an “incapacitated adult” and placed under public guardianship–but her guardians were not consulted before the ADC elected to let her die. Lemons also noted some unsavory chapters in Ryan’s recent career:

Ryan’s own bio on the ADC Web site touts that he was “assistant program manager for the Department of Justice overseeing the Iraqi Prison System for almost four years.” Ryan was contracted by the DOJ to help rebuild Iraqi prisons, one of those being the notorious Abu Ghraib.

Following Powell’s death, Ryan banned most uses of unshaded outdoor holding cells in Arizona, except in “extraordinary circumstances.” Most Southern states already restrict their use. But baking in the sun is only one of many ways to die in America’s prisons in the summertime. Recent years have seen scattered reports of heat-related prison deaths in California and Texas, among others. The prevalence of mental illness among the victims may be linked to anti-psychotic drugs, which raise the body temperature and cause dehydration, and at the same time have a tranquilizing effect that may mask thirst.
 
In 2006, 21-year-old Timothy Souders, another mentally ill prisoner, died of heat exhaustion and dehydration at a Jackson, Michigan prison during an August heat wave. For the four days prior to his death, Souders had been shackled to a cement slab in solitary confinement because he had been acting up. That entire period was captured on surveillance videotapes, which according to news reports clearly showed his mental and physical deterioration.