Mojo - May 2010

Proof TSA's Full Body Scanners Are Too Invasive

| Thu May 6, 2010 5:18 PM EDT

Ever hear the joke that someone's pants were so tight you could tell what religion they were? TSA's whole-body imaging may do the job for you. Today it was reported that a TSA screener beat his co-worker with a baton after the co-worker saw his body scan and repeatedly teased him for having a small penis. The whole-body scan of the employee was taken during a TSA training workshop at Miami International Airport on how to use full-body imaging.

The Smoking Gun obtained the police report, and according to those documents, the TSA screener said that after his colleagues saw the scan of his body, he was teased on a "daily basis" about his small penis and "could not take the jokes anymore and lost his mind." He confronted one of his tormenters after work in an airport parking lot and "allegedly pulled out a police baton and began striking" the man. One witness said that the TSA employee told his coworker to "Get on your knees or I will kill you and you better apologize." Another witness said they heard the employee say, "I'm going to blow your head off."

If you've read my blog posts on the subject before, you'll know I'm definitely not a fan of the TSA. I've asked to be full-body scanned to see for myself how invasive they are and been refused. That said, I feel for this guy. If I had a penis, I wouldn't want my coworkers to know what it looked like unless it was exceptionally gorgeous and huge, in which case, carry on. But the fact that the TSA's own employees are having a bad experience with scanners is telling. Although the scanners have repeatedly been criticized for their explicit outlines of breasts and genitalia, the TSA has repeatedly assured the public that they have a privacy algorithm to hide naughty bits. But if indeed the scan was so detailed it showed the size of a man's package, it sounds invasive to me. And despite the TSA saying over and over again the scans cannot be saved, turns out they were lying. The scans can be saved, even though they're only supposed to be when in "test mode." In testimony to Congress last month, a TSA representative "did not dispute that test mode could be activated in airports, but said this 'would' not happen." So in short, the scan of your—or your child's—body can certainly be saved: it's just against the rules. According to the TSA's response to a FOIA filed by advocacy group EPIC, the TSA already has 2,000 scan images stored for "test purposes."

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Shahzad, FBI Mystery Deepens

| Thu May 6, 2010 4:47 PM EDT

The mystery deepens. Yesterday I highlighted an intriguing paragraph buried in a New York Times piece on alleged Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad. It described how George LaMonica, who purchased his Norwalk, Connecticut condo from Shahzad in 2004, had received a visit by investigators from the national Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) shortly after moving in. According to LaMonica, they questioned him about the transaction and about Shahzad. The JTTF is the same FBI-led interagency unit that caught Shahzad as he attempted to flee the country to Dubai on Monday—and, if the Times account is accurate, the implications could be significant. It suggests that Shahzad was on the radar of federal counterterrorism investigators at least six years before he parked his bomb-laden Pathfinder on West 45th Street. Recently, the intelligence and law enforcement communities have been criticized for possessing vital intelligence yet failing to put together the pieces when it came to Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan and underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. How long the FBI has been aware of Shahzad and what brought JTTF investigators to LaMonica's doorstep seems like a major unanswered question.

So I asked FBI spokesman Paul Bresson whether LaMonica's account was accurate and, if it was, why JTTF investigators had been asking questions about Shahzad back in 2004. Here's where things get strange. "We have no record of interviewing him," Bresson replied in an email.

That didn't mean it didn't happen, so I followed up:

Was Shahzad the subject of an earlier investigation that would have entailed visiting people like LaMonica? And is the FBI following up to confirm whether or not the JTTF did in fact interview LaMonica?

Bresson responded:

The answer is no to your first question. I would not comment on your second question.

What to make of this? I have a call and email in to LaMonica to see what he has to say. I'll update the post when I hear back.

UPDATE: LaMonica maintains that he was contacted by a detective for an FBI-led task force. More here.
 

Will Rubio's Flip-Flop on Arizona Help His Campaign?

| Thu May 6, 2010 4:28 PM EDT

Marco Rubio was one of a handful of prominent Republicans to criticize the harsh immigration law passed in Arizona in April. But the Florida Republican Senate hopeful and Tea Party darling is now swinging in support of it. Rubio says that the recent amendments to the legislation, which Arizona lawmakers approved last week, convinced him to change his mind. “The second one that passed hit the right note,” he tells conservative news site Human Events:

I mean no one is in favor of a bill that would force American citizens to have to interact with law enforcement in a way that wasn’t appropriate. And the first bill I thought held that door open.

Since then, the changes that have been made to the bill I think greatly improve it. Understand that what Arizona is facing is different from anything Florida has ever faced. Arizona has a physical border with Mexico. And there is kidnappings, human trafficking, drug wars coming across that border into an American city. Frankly, very few states in the country can imagine what that’s like.

Rubio, who was born in Miami to Cuban exiles, had originally opposed the law for putting law enforcement officers “in an incredibly difficult position” and warning that it could “unreasonably single out people who are here legally, including many American citizens.” Critics from across the political spectrum shared his concerns. And the amendments that were passed last week responded to some of this early blowback, as well as a number of lawsuits filed in response to the measure. One of the changes specified that law enforcement could only ask about immigration status while enforcing some other state or local ordinance, as opposed any form of "lawful contact" with an authority. Another tweaked language to try to strengthen the law’s prohibition against racial profiling.

If Rubio is truly concerned about the damaging impact the law could have on law enforcement, Latinos, and other Arizona citizens, not much has changed. The amendments passed have helped dampen some of the fears that police would interrogate victims or witnesses of crimes about their immigration status, deterring them from coming forward. Nevertheless, the revised Arizona law still gives the police broad, unprecedented authority to single out suspected illegal immigrants. An offense as minor as having “cars on blocks in the yard”--an example proferred by lawyer Kris Kobach, one of the law's authors--could give overzealous police officers an excuse to single out suspected illegal immigrants. And the law would still allow racial profiling to occur, one University of Arizona law professor tells CNN. "The law still allows the consideration of race as a factor."

What Happens When You Mix Oath Keepers and AK-47s?

| Thu May 6, 2010 3:03 PM EDT

Never a dull moment with Oath Keepers, the self-styled patriot group we profiled in our March/April issue. The latest episode involved an interesting little standoff in Tennessee between state troopers and Darren Huff, a Navy vet and gung-ho member of the group. (Oath Keepers, consisting largely of current and former soldiers and police, urges members to disobey any orders they deem unconstitutional—such as orders to confiscate citizens' firearms, herd people into detention camps, or harbor foreign troops on American soil.)

In this instance, Huff wasn't exactly standing down. Talking Points Memo reports that he was pumped up over an earlier, April 1 standoff at the Monroe County courthouse in Madisonville, where Tennessean and former Navy officer Walter Fitzpatrick had tried to conduct a citizen's arrest of Grand Jury foreman Gary Pettway. Fitzpatrick is a leading member of the Birther group American Grand Jury, which seeks to have President Obama indicted for treason, arguing that he is not a US citizen and is thus serving illegally as commander in chief. (Obama was also once a CIA operative, AGJ claims.)

So anyway, Fitz showed up, more or less made a nuisance of himself, and got himself arrested—which was probably unnecessary on all parts. But to fellow AGJ leader Carl Swensson, the authorities had crossed the proverbial line in the sand. In the video below, he calls upon all who took an oath to uphold the Constitution to march on the courthouse. "This man put his life, his honor, his fortune on the line for us in very much the same fashion as our founding fathers did," Swensson implores. "And this is it. This is the moment in time that you who have been on the fence must get off of that fence. Please, go to the courthouse en masse.…I ask you right now to honor [[your oath]]. Get down there. Get him out of jail."

Oddest Finance Amendment Awards

| Thu May 6, 2010 12:15 PM EDT

This week, the number of amendments seeking to improve or gut or merely tweak the Senate's financial reform bill has gone from a trickle to a pour. A few days into the full debate, at least 125 amendments have been offered, ranging from a major kneecapping of the bill's Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to setting caps on the size of banks and the amount of leverage they can use. As expected, nearly all of the amendments to the Senate's financial bill concern, well, financial regulation. A few, however, don't, having only the most tenuous connection to fixing Wall Street—if they have any connection at all.

Like South Carolina senator Jim DeMint's amendment that would require the completion of a 700-mile, double-layered fence along the US-Mexico border. DeMint announced yesterday that he was planning to introduce the border fence amendment because Democrats, and especially the Obama administration, had backed out on their pledge to finish the fence, he claimed. "We’ve had rhetoric and promises for four years without results," DeMint said in a statement. "It’s time we completed the fence and secured our borders to protect American citizens." What the border fence has to do with financial reform is unclear: There's no mention of financial reform in DeMint's statement announcing the amendment, and a call requesting comment from his office wasn't immediately returned.

Following in DeMint's footsteps is Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), who is planning to introduce an amendment relating to conflict minerals obtained from the Congo. While all the details on Brownback's amendment aren't available, odds are it will mirror past legislative efforts by Brownback to "brin[g] accountability and transparency to the supply chain of minerals used in the manufacturing of many electronic devices." Brownback has been a prominent voice in Congress on the issue of buying minerals from the Congo. He wants the Securities and Exchange Commission to take on the role of increasing transparency and disclosure in the mineral trade. To that effect, he co-sponsored a previous bill, the Congo Conflict Minerals Act of 2009, but the bill never made it out of committee. Again, the connection between disclosure of conflict minerals (a human rights issue, really) and financial regulatory reform seems weak. A call to Brownback's office wasn't immediately returned.

Debunking Norquist's Scare Tactics

| Thu May 6, 2010 11:29 AM EDT

[UPDATE]: Brian Johnson with Americans for Tax Reform responds in the comments section to my post earlier today with evidence he says supports Norquist's email. In response, I posted my own rebuttal to his attempted rebuttal, also in the comments section. Feel free to wade in and comment as you like.

You know conservatives are running out of substantive and articulate rebuttals when they fall back on the this-bill-is-a-government-takeover meme. Today, anti-tax activist Grover Norquist shot out an email blast imaginatively titled "Stop the Government Takeover of Our Banks" urging his followers to call their respective senators and plead with them to block the main financial reform bill now being debated on Senate floor. "Sen. Dodd and the Democrats are trying to force their 'Wall Street Bailout Bill,' S. 3217, the Restoring American Financial Stability Act of 2010, down the throats of the American public," Norquist's email reads. Nevermind that the bill is not a "bailout bill," as misinformed observers like Norquist and even lawmakers like, say, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, have said. That's conservative scare tactic number one in Norquist's email.

Number two: Norquist's email goes on to say, "This bill will give the government powers to monitor and track your personal bank account transactions and all of your purchases and give that information to Wall Street and Big Businesses." This statement refers to a proposed Office of Financial Research, an organization that would gather financial data for modeling and, according to the bill's summary text, "monitor emerging risks to the economy" to prevent future meltdowns. The idea of an OFR has been supported by Nobel laureates, leading economists, as well as both Democratic and Republican senators. (Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), a leading GOP figure on financial reform, supports it.) Moreover, there's no evidence—apart from the baseless claims of people like Karl Rove and Fox News host Steve Doocy—that this agency will pry into the financial data and private lives of Americans.

And number three: Finally, Norquist's says, "This bill will make permanent the same risky lending practices that contributed to the financial collapse and create Fannie Mae 2.0." The bill, as it looks now, will not "make permanent" the predatory abuses that precipitated the crisis—but will crack down on those practices. A proposed independent consumer protection agency, to be housed in the Federal Reserve, would focus on ending exactly these kinds of abuses, zeroing in on non-bank institutions like subprime and payday lenders and auto dealers. As for "Fannie Mae 2.0," it's hard to know what Norquist is even talking about here. It's true, the bill does not, in its current form, address the issues of Fannie and Freddie Mac, the two government-backed housing corporations, even though the twins are a massive headache and played a major role in fueling the subprime bubble. But lawmakers have said they'll take up legislation to fix the twins—that, indeed, separate legislation is needed given the size of their problems—when they're done with the current financial reform. And if they delay, Americans will need to pressure them to make sure it gets done.

All in all, Norquist's email shows that conservatives are running out of ways to oppose to financial reform. Instead of actually critiquing parts of the bill, they're continuing to fabricate or fudge parts of the bill to scare people into fighting it.

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I Was Not a Victim of Age Discrimination at Work (Not)

| Thu May 6, 2010 11:24 AM EDT

When I was fired by the new owners of the Village Voice in 2006, after working there for 30 years, it had nothing to do with age discrimination. At least, that's what the official documents say.

For a number of reasons, I initially suspected that age had something to do with it. But I must have been wrong, because I later signed an agreement saying I had not been discriminated against on the basis of age. The document also happened to say that I would get some severance benefits I really needed, being 69 years old and suddenly jobless—but I'm sure that didn't affect my decision to sign it.

"Sergio": An Action Film About a UN Hero

| Thu May 6, 2010 10:43 AM EDT

Government bureaucrats are often scorned. International government bureaucrats even more so—as in United Nations officials. How often have you heard a politician rant against UN bureaucrats? Anyone who ever has done so ought to be forced to watch Sergio, a new documentary airing tonight on HBO.

The film chronicles the life and the last hours of Sergio Vieira de Mello, a career UN official. Within the international organization, he was known as the "go-to" guy, the official handed the most difficult tasks. He negotiated with the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia for the sake of refugees. He helped guide a violence-plauged East Timor to independence. And in the summer of 2003, after the US invasion of Iraq, he reluctantly accepted what would be his final assignment: UN special representative in Baghdad. He was in his office on August 19, 2003, when a truck bomb went off below his window.

The blast did not kill Vieira de Mello immediately. He and a visiting American professor ended up crushed and trapped beneath the rubble. For hours, two American rescue workers attempted to save them, without the benefit of any rescue equipment. They used a woman's purse and a piece of rope to remove the bricks that covered the two men. The film, directed by Greg Barker and based on Samantha Power's biography, Sergio: One Man's Fight To Save the World, cuts back and forth between a retelling of Vieira de Mello's stunning career as a humanitarian official and the valiant effort to save him. It's no secret what happens at the end. But that doesn't undercut the drama; Sergio effectively blends biopic with action film.

You will cry if you watch this. I saw a preview a few weeks ago with representatives of Washington's foreign policy elite, many of whom had worked with Vieira de Mello. There was audible gasping and sobbing. As the rescue workers recount the tale, up into his last moments of life, Vieira de Mello, a dashing man of James Bond good-looks, showed no concern for himself and repeatedly asked about the safety of his coworkers, many of whom were killed in the explosion. The film, which includes haunting footage shot on the day of the bombing, is visceral. It's almost as if you are witnessing his actual death.

And if you watch this, you will realize how heroic, effective, and important a UN bureaucrat can be. The Iraq war has extinguished the lives of scores of thousand, and all such casualties should count the same. But the death of Vieira de Mello, if such a thing can be said, was especially tragic. He had his faults--ask the family he left behind—but he was one of the globe's best and the brightest. There's now a generation of foreign policy and international advocates who, upon encountering a tough challenge, ask themselves, "What would Sergio do?"

Sergio is both a gripping and important movie—important because it will extend the legacy of Vieira de Mello. That's a legacy the world needs.

Donors: Give Back Our Money, Crist

| Thu May 6, 2010 10:04 AM EDT

A bloc of heavyweight Republican donors is demanding that Florida Governor Charlie Crist, who recently ditched the GOP to run as an independent in his state's US Senate race, return all of their campaign donations for his party betrayal. As of the end of March, Crist had more than $7 million in his campaign war chest, thanks in large part to his deep-pocketed friends in the GOP. The donors' demands came in a letter to Crist that read in part:

"We helped to support, and yes to bankroll, your political career. For years you have been asking us for money. And for years we have put our names and credibility on the line by asking our friends to donate to you. Those days are over."

The donors asking for their money back include the former head of the Florida Republican Party, Al Cardenas. Crist's campaign hasn't responded to the letter yet, the Associated Press reported, and he has no obligation to return any of the money.

Crist switched from the GOP to an independent last week, knowing he had little to no chance beating his Republican rival, Marco Rubio, a Tea Party darling who is the former speaker of Florida's house of representatives. Crist trailed Rubio in the polls by as much as 20 points, but as an independent, the Florida governor looks to have much more of a chance competing with Rubio and Rep. Kendrick Meek (D-Fla.), the presumed Democratic candidate.

The donors' letter is another piece of bad press for Crist, and another example of the GOP's efforts to purge him from the party. Recently, Florida Republicans began auctioning Crist-related memorabilia on eBay, like an autographed business card of Crist's and campaign buttons from his gubernatorial campaign. The party is also trying to sell off a $7,500, scandal-ridden oil portrait of Crist. Given the bad blood between Crist and the GOP—RNC chairman Michael Steele recently said there "will be no Senator Crist"—it's unclear, should Crist win in Florida, with which party he would caucus. With the way Florida's election is shaping up, that victory looks far from likely.

WorldNet Daily's Latest Snub

| Thu May 6, 2010 9:06 AM EDT

WorldNetDaily released another one of its "explosive" books this week, billing it as the most "exhaustive investigation ever performed into [President] Obama’s political background and radical ties." Written by Aaron Klein, the reporter who broke the story about Obama’s association with former Weatherman Bill Ayers during the 2008 campaign, The Manchurian President promises to reveal “shocking” new details about Obama’s association with the Nation of Islam, how his “hope” and “change” campaign slogans actually stem from communist activism, and "startling" new facts about his eligibility to serve as president. By Wednesday, the book had already hit #5 on the Amazon top seller list.

What a surprise, then, that so many journalists have refused to read it. According to WND, the mainstream journalists who received free copies for their perusal not only weren’t interested, but they sent really nasty notes to the nice publicist who sent the books:

"Ridiculous crap," retorted John Oswald, news editor for the New York Daily News.

"Never, ever contact me again," wrote Time Magazine senior writer Jeffrey Kluger.

Newsweek deputy editor Rana Foroohar quipped, "This is sensational rubbish that is of no interest to any legitimate publication."

"Absolute crap," replied Evelyn Leopold, a Huffington Post contributor who served for 17 years as U.N. bureau chief for Reuters until recently.

Nancy Gibbs, editor-at-large for Newsweek, fired, "Remove me from your list."

David Knowles, AOL's political writer, responded, "seriously, get a life."

Ben Wyskida, publicity director for The Nation, claimed Klein's book is "so offensive" and "so far afield."

(Mother Jones, sadly, was not sent a copy of the book, but for the record, we would have happily taken one.)