Mojo - December 2009

Air Insecurity and the Failures of Government Oversight

| Thu Dec. 31, 2009 2:26 PM EST

In announcing January hearings of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, which he chairs, Connecticut senator Joe Lieberman promised to address the “big, urgent questions” raised by the midair bombing attempt that took place on Christmas. Lieberman said that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab “evaded our homeland security defenses,’’ adding, “We were very lucky this time but we may not be so lucky next time, which is why our defenses must be strengthened.’’

The answer to those questions may lie not far from home--in Lieberman’s own office and those of other members of Congress who have routinely turned away federal whistleblowers trying to alert the government to the weaknesses in our air security systems. These alarms were sounded even before 9/11, and have been repeated many times in years following.

Steve Elson, a former Navy Seal, served as a member of the FAA’s “Red Team”— a special ops outfit deployed to secretly probe U.S. air security defenses—from 1992 to 1999. After 9/11, as a private citizen, he continued to try to draw attention to the serious security problems in commercial aviation. Elson began working with TV reporters in setting up undercover operations and penetrated air security systems, he says, in dozens of airports around the United States, including JFK, Dulles, O’Hare, and San Francisco. In most cases, he smuggled lead protected bags, which could hide explosives, through checkpoints tailed by TV crews using hidden cameras. Elson easily made it past screeners in more than 70 percent of the cases.

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Fiore Cartoon: Year in Review

Thu Dec. 31, 2009 8:05 AM EST

2009: A year of balloon banks, balloon boy, broken promises, "God's work," socialist killers, an Afghanistan surge, and a war-time President who won the Peace Prize.

Watch satirist Mark Fiore's not-so fond memories below:

Cheney Urges Palin to Run in 2012

| Thu Dec. 31, 2009 4:01 AM EST

No, that's not true, Dick Cheney urging Sarah Palin to campaign for president—at least, as far as I know. But now that I have your attention, I'm going to hit you up for a couple of bucks.

If you're reading this, you already know that 2009 was a tough year for the media. Notice I said "the media," not "journalism." Newspapers and magazines have been taking multiple hits. The economic downturn created a crash in ad revenues, and the continuing rise of (free) online media has undercut the traditional business model (paying for news and information). All this has led news outfits to lay off reporters, downsize their products, and scale back their ambitions. Still, there's plenty of quality journalism going on. And I'm pleased to say, we in the Washington, DC, bureau of Mother Jones, are doing our share.

This past year, we've broken stories on the Tea Party movement, the Birthers, the Copenhagen climate talksSonia Sotomayor's confirmation, President Barack Obama's Afghanistan policy, the Animal House-like antics of private military contractors, a top Treasury Department aide who once tried to kill an Obama initiative to restrain CEO pay, the appointment of a former lobbyist for an Enron-like firm to a key financial watchdog position, former congressional aides lobbying for Big Finance, the big secret kept by the health insurance industry's top official, the public option's No. 1 enemy, the missing Bush White House emails, the disappearance of Bush administration torture documents, Bush's former UN ambassador appearing to back an Israeli nuclear strike on Iran,  the Watergate tapes, and yes, Palin and Cheney.

Unfortunately, all this good journalism doesn't come cheap. Mother Jones has bucked the tide by expanding its Washington bureau and setting its reporters loose on the nation's capital. That costs money. (Note to self: here's an idea for a New Yorker cartoon—a reporter stands in front of the Washington Post building and holds a sign, "Will break news for food.")

If you appreciate this sort of journalism, please support us. That means sending money. It can be $5 or $10. But we will accept more. We're trying to plug a hole in our budget, and every little bit counts.

I know things are tight for most people. But if you've read this far, you probably give a damn about independent, kick-ass journalism and recognize its importance, especially as politicians in Washington and citizens across the nation contend with some of the hardest and most complicated challenges that have ever faced the country. These days we need strong journalism more than ever.

Spare us some of your hard-earned dough, and we'll put it to good use, pursuing the important stories in Washington—and elsewhere—that need to be told. Heck, it's easy. You can donate via a credit card or through PayPal.

Increasingly, the fate of journalism is in the hands of people like you. It's quite simple; with your help, we can continue to produce quality journalism and shape the debate in Washington and beyond. The more money we receive from supporters, the more muck we can rake. And there's always plenty of muck in DC. So as you're making all those resolutions for 2010, help us keep our only one: to practice the kind of independent reporting the nation needs in the coming year. Or think of it this way: Cheney, Palin, and many others will be quite happy if you don't.

Test Scores Cause Some to Question Duncan's Record

| Wed Dec. 30, 2009 5:07 PM EST

Until last year, Obama's Secretary of Education choice and pick-up basketball pal Arne Duncan was chief of Chicago's public schools, a position he held for seven years and one that allowed him to forge a strong relationship with Obama, a former Chicagoan himself. Duncan's over-the-top reputation as a crusading education reformer had been trumpeted by his supporters, and in his new post Duncan will control Race to the Top funds—$3.5 billion in grants for school districts to turn around failing schools and $4 billion for states to invest in education innovation. However, the latest test scores from Chicago's public schools have some wondering if Duncan is more hype than performance: and if so, how will it affect the distribution of much-needed grant money?

Soon after Duncan left Chicago in 2008, the city's 400,000-plus students took the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), exams which are used as yearly benchmarks of school chiefs' success. The test results came in this month, but they don't show what you might expect considering Duncan's image as an iconoclast. Chicago Public Schools trailed several other districts of comparable size in math performance, and in test score gains made over the past six years, the Washington Post reports.

Districts that did better in math achievement than Chicago include Miami, Houston, and New York, while Boston, San Diego, and Atlanta had greater year-to-year performance gains. But NAEP data is just one way to measure the success of education reform. By firing under-performing and unneeded staff, shuttering schools that seemed impossible to fix, promoting charter school growth, and encouraging teachers with performance pay, Duncan helped raise Chicago's state and federal test scores along with the city's graduation rate during his 2001-2008 tenure. This new data does show that although improved, Chicago Public Schools is not leading the pack in education performance like some experts thought it was. Also, that although schools chiefs like Alberto Carvalho, Terry Grier, and Carol Johnson (from Miami, Houston and Boston, respectively) are not as well-known as Duncan, it doesn't mean they deserve any less recognition by education scholars.

Happy New Year, Geezers. Please Die Soon.

| Wed Dec. 30, 2009 3:58 PM EST

The Wall Street Journal reports today on a temporary suspension of the estate tax (what conservatives call the “death tax”), which will go into effect on January 1, 2010.  The lapse dates back to the bundle of tax cuts passed under the Bush Administration in 2001:

Congress raised estate-tax exemptions, culminating with the tax’s disappearance next year. However, due to budget constraints, lawmakers didn’t make the change permanent. So the estate tax is due to come back to life in 2011--at a higher rate and lower exemption.

The WSJ piece is titled “Rich Cling to Life to Beat Tax Man,” and its interviews demonstrate, once again, that the rich really are different: They’re really creepy. It seems quite a few of them are making end-of-life decisions based on how it will affect their inheritance taxes.

“I have two clients on life support, and the families are struggling with whether to continue heroic measures for a few more days,” says Joshua Rubenstein, a lawyer with Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP in New York. “Do they want to live for the rest of their lives having made serious medical decisions based on estate-tax law?”…

To make it easier on their heirs, some clients are putting provisions into their health-care proxies allowing whoever makes end-of-life medical decisions to consider changes in estate-tax law. “We have done this at least a dozen times, and have gotten more calls recently,” says Andrew Katzenstein, a lawyer with Proskauer Rose LLP in Los Angeles.

The article focuses on people who are trying to keep their so-called loved ones alive until 2010 begins. But you can just as easily imagine all the  greedy bastards out there who are hoping their healthy old relatives will get really sick, really soon, so they can kick off before the year ends.

On the Atlantic’s business blog today, Derek Thompson comments on the political implications of the year-long estate tax suspension. He highlights the hypocrisy of Republican policymaking, which insists upon deficit reduction while simultaneously serving the interests of wealthy people like these, whose riches have to be wrested from their cold, dead hands:

Vote Andy Martin, Gossip Queen

| Wed Dec. 30, 2009 3:45 PM EST

Shameless slander-monger Andy Martin is having a gay old time carrying out a smear campaign against Mark Kirk, his opponent in the race to fill Sen. Roland Burris's (D-Ill.) open seat. In a new radio spot this week, Martin publicly announced that, according to several well-known Republican party members, Kirk is a (gasp!) homosexual.

From the gossips queen’s radio romp:

"Today, I am fighting for the facts about Mark Kirk. Illinois Republican leader Jack Roeser says there is a 'solid rumor that Kirk is a homosexual.' Roeser suggests that Kirk is part of a Republican Party homosexual club. Lake County Illinois Republican leader Ray True says Kirk has surrounded himself with homosexuals. Mark Kirk should tell Republican voters the truth."

Putting aside for a moment how fun it sounds to be part of a "Republican Party homosexual club," and the fact that being surrounded by homosexuals even qualifies as a "smear" (sounds like a typical Saturday night to me), Martin’s pouty truth-seeking could spell trouble under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. An op-ed by Morgan Hurley at San Diego Gay and Lesbian News points out that Kirk is "one of only two active drilling US Navy Reservists in Congress today," and that a potential "outing," whether or not he really even is a homosexual, could get complicated:

It clearly is not just a typical, strategic, political affront by Martin towards Kirk in the run for a US Senate seat. No way. Because with the added media attention it has already garnered, it could also easily bring to bear the professional scrutiny of one of the highest ranking military members ever, under Don't Ask Don't Tell (DADT).

Another good reason to throw that backwards policy in the garbage where it belongs. Is Martin just jealous that Kirk looks good with a puppy in his arms? Quite possibly. In case you’ve forgotten about the historical adventures of this catty rumor peddler, Martin also filed the very first lawsuit regarding Obama’s birth certificate, and was criticized by the press for originating rumors that Obama was secretly a Muslim.

Here's hoping this underhanded campaign tactic blows up in Martin's face. If anybody needs me, I'll be playing checkers and reading Elle Decor at my local Republican Party Homosexual Club.

Follow Evan James on Twitter.

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Need to Read: December 30, 2009

| Wed Dec. 30, 2009 2:51 PM EST

What you need to read as we enter the new year:

Are Gay Conservatives Welcome at CPAC?

| Wed Dec. 30, 2009 1:24 PM EST

In February, conservatives from around the country will gather in Washington for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, a major pow wow for aspiring candidates and activists alike. Anyone looking to run for the GOP presidential nomination for 2012 will likely be there to greet the faithful. But socially conservative Christians, including Jerry Falwell Jr. and the American Family Association, are threatening to boycott the influential event this year. Why? Because the American Conservative Union, which organizes CPAC, has allowed a gay group to co-sponsor the event. GOProud members, like the usual CPAC attendees, are committed to free markets, individual freedoms, and limited government. The group was formed by gay conservatives who found the Log Cabin Republicans too liberal for their tastes. But in mid-December, Liberty Counsel's Matt Barber started spreading the alarm about GOProud's participation in CPAC. He wrote in an email:

“I was disturbed to learn that CPAC is allowing the ‘Republican’ homosexual activist group GOProud to sponsor a booth at the 2010 conference. Among other things, GOProud advocates in favor of both ‘gay marriage’ and ‘civil unions,’ against pro-marriage constitutional amendments ; is pushing for the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ and advocates in favor of federal ‘partnership benefits’ for homosexuals. This group is pushing a radical leftist agenda that is an affront to the GOP platform, conservatism and, most importantly, the Word of God.”

Liberty Counsel and others have given CPAC organizers an ultimatum, threatening to urge all social conservatives to withdraw from the event if GOProud isn't booted. To its credit, CPAC seems to be standing firm. Jimmy LaSalvia, GOProud's executive director, says that while the program has yet to be set, his group has all the privileges of any other co-sponsor at this point, and he directed me to a statement from CPAC director Lisa De Pasquale, who said in response to the boycott threats, "CPAC is a coalition of nearly 100 conservative groups, some of which may disagree with one another on a handful of issues.  But, at the end of the day, we all agree on core conservative principles.... After talking with their leadership and reviewing their website, I am satisfied that they do not represent a “radical leftist agenda,” as some have stated, and should not be rejected as a CPAC cosponsor." 

CPAC's response sets up an interesting dynamic: Will conservative Christians follow through on their threat and give up their kingmaking role at CPAC and influence on the 2012 presidential election just because they don't want to be in the room with a few gay guys? My guess is that they will suck it up and still show up in force in February.

 

We're Still At War: Photo of the Day for December 30, 2009

Wed Dec. 30, 2009 8:00 AM EST

Retired Sgt. Maj. Ray Moran talks to a potential recruit from his office at Fort Meade, Md. Moran, a civilian recruiter for the Army Reserve, stands in front of photos from the "battalion" that he has recruited over the decades. (US Army photo by Jonathan E. Agee.)

MoJo or Latte? You Decide.

| Wed Dec. 30, 2009 6:33 AM EST

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