Mojo - June 2010

Campaign Finance Reform Breakthrough: NRA & Dems Unite Against Chamber

| Mon Jun. 14, 2010 2:42 PM EDT

House Democrats today reached a deal with the National Rifle Association that would roll back parts of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, the widely disdained legal precedent that opened the floodgates to corporate-funded political ads. The Dems' deal would require groups like the US Chamber of Commerce to disclose the top funders of their political ads, but would create loopholes for the NRA and other membership groups.

The deal falls short of what campaign finance watchdogs wanted, but would probably be a net gain for Democrats. According to Politico:

The new agreement would exempt organizations that have over one million members, have been in existence for more than 10 years, have members in all 50 states, and raise 15 percent or less of their funds from corporations, from the disclosure requirements.

That complicated loophole would probably exempt many (see below) not include unions, but neither would it exempt their better-funded foes, groups such as Karl Rove's American Crossroads and the US Chamber of Commerce, which consistently ranks as Washington's largest single political donor. Indeed, the Chamber would be doubly excluded under the proposed bill: First, it clearly gets most of its funds from corporations. And second, it has fewer than one million members, as I was able to establish in a series of stories published earlier this year.

The deal with the NRA smoothes the road for the bill's passage in the House, where pro-gun Democrats had feared pissing off the powerful group. But it would still face hurdles in the Senate, where it could face major procedural roadblocks from Republicans.

UPDATE: Today the SEIU confirmed to Mother Jones' Suzy Khimm that unions will not be exempted from the bill's disclosure requirement.

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Supreme Court Refuses to Hear Maher Arar Case

| Mon Jun. 14, 2010 1:16 PM EDT

On Monday, the Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal of Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen who was trying to sue top US officials under the Torture Victims Relief Act. But Arar isn't a jihadist or a crazy person. He was an engineer who was falsely identified as a terrorist by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. (They later apologized.) Here is what happened to him.

On Sept. 26, 2002, Arar was detained by American authorities during a layover at New York's John F. Kennedy airport. He was interrogated. Less than two weeks later, he shackled and hooded and placed on a plane bound for Jordan. Once in Jordan, he was transferred overland to Syria. While in Syria, Arar was tortured at the behest of the American government, according to a 1,200-page report released by a Canadian government inquiry that concluded up in 2006. Here's how Arar describes a few of his first days in Syria:

October 10, 2002

Early in the morning on October 10 Arar is taken downstairs to a basement. The guard opens the door and Arar sees for the first time the cell he will live in for the following ten months and ten days.

Arar calls the cell a “grave.” It is three feet wide, six feet deep and seven feet high. It has a metal door, with a small opening which does not let in light because of a piece of metal on the outside for sliding things into the cell. There is a one by two foot opening in the ceiling with iron bars. This opening is below another ceiling and lets in just a tiny shaft of light. Cats urinate through the ceiling traps of these cells, often onto the prisoners. Rats wander there too.

There is no light source in the cell. The only things in the cell are two blankets, two plastic bowls and two bottles. Arar later uses two small empty boxes – one as a toilet when he is not allowed to the washroom, and one for prayer water.

When Congressmen Attack

| Mon Jun. 14, 2010 12:51 PM EDT

The political gods have just smiled on Renee Elmers. She's the Republican candidate in North Carolina's second congressional district who up until a couple hours ago was thought to have almost no chance of unseating the incumbent, Democratic congressman Bob Etheridge. Her prospects may have just gotten a boost courtesy of an ambush-style video starring an irate Etheridge roughing up a young man who claims to be a student working on a "project."

The videos—posted to YouTube on Friday and highlighted by the Andrew Breitbart-run site Big Government this morning—are now burning up the intertubes. Etheridge has apololgized, but his hot-headed reaction has provided his rival with a readymade attack ad (literally). 

It's unclear whether anything took place off camera in the lead-up to this confrontation that set Etheridge off, but it's hard to imagine he could have behaved in a more unflattering manner. And there's really no excuse for getting physical. Per the video, Etheridge was simply asked whether he "fully" supports "the Obama agenda." The interviewer and camera crew may have been angling to catch the congressman acting evasive, or maybe saying something dumb or damaging. If so, he played directly into their trap and then some.

Deporting the Best and the Brightest

| Mon Jun. 14, 2010 12:00 PM EDT

An undocumented Harvard student is now facing deportation, and his case has become a rallying point for a nationwide network of immigration advocates. The AP explains:

Eric Balderas, 19, who just completed his first year at Harvard, said he was detained Monday by immigration authorities when he tried to board a plane from his hometown of San Antonio to Boston using a consulate card from Mexico and his student ID.

"I'd made it through before so I thought this time wouldn't be any different," Balderas said Friday in a phone interview with The Associated Press. "But once [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] picked me up I really didn't know what to think and I was starting to break down."…

Balderas said he is studying molecular and cellular biology at Harvard and hopes to become a cancer researcher. He said he qualified for Harvard's privately-funded scholarship package.

Some immigration reformers are now hoping to use Balderas as a test case to support the passage of the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, which would give certain undocumented high school graduates the chance to earn legal status if they graduate from college or perform military service.

The bipartisan DREAM Act was introduced last year by Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). It’s has long been considered one of the more popular immigration reform proposals, and Balderas’ story makes it easy to see why: the bill rewards the “good kids,” the model students who—like all children of immigrants—did not make the decision to come to the US themselves. (A Facebook page supporting Balderas says that he and his family came to the US when he was 4 "due to domestic violence in their native country.") Having held hunger strikes and other protest activities in recent weeks, DREAM activists have now launched an all-out lobbying campaign focused around Balderas' case to pass the bill.

The Pentagon’s Afghan Mineral Hype

| Mon Jun. 14, 2010 11:22 AM EDT

This morning's New York Times report—"US Identifies Vast Riches of Minerals in Afghanistan"—is not news and looks like an Obama PR campaign to buttress US involvement in the war. The country's mineral wealth has been known for centuries and was mapped by the Soviets during their occupation of the country.

We were told for years of Afghanistan's potential valuable oil prospects. When oil faded from the picture there was no economic reason to be there. The place wasn't like Iraq, where international oil companies got their hands on a huge oil reserve. Now, with the Times swallowing the Pentagon's bait, we've suddenly got a reason to fight: getting our hands on a mining colony. James Risen reports :

Will a Gold Bust Bring Down Ron Paul?

| Mon Jun. 14, 2010 9:39 AM EDT

The Washington Post this morning reports that libertarians' favorite congressman, Ron Paul, has in the past few years dumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into gold investments, even as he sits on committees that oversee the gold mining industry. That conflict of interest isn't much of a surprise. The Post analysis found that plenty of members of Congress are heavily invested in the industries they oversee. But what's interesting about Paul, who has long called for a return to the gold standard, is the extent to which he has put his money where his mouth is.

A big-time promoter of gold as a hedge against a falling dollar, Paul now owns up to $1.5 million in shares of gold-production companies and about $200,000 in silver companies, according to the Post. Such investments make up nearly half of Paul's portfolio. But as with the people who take Glenn Beck's advice to buy gold now, when its price per ounce is at a record high, Paul isn't showing tremendous investing savvy. After all, any good financial advisor could tell him that his portfolio is not adequately diversified. Presumably, Paul also bought high given that he's made many of these investments relatively recently, so a burst in the gold bubble could hurt Paul's net worth considerably. And the bust is probably coming.

In May, several analysts predicted that gold will return to the $800 to $900 an ounce range within the next year, down from the $1,220 it is today, for a variety of reasons. Among them: Business is booming for all those "we buy gold here" companies and eventually the "scrap" metal market is going to be glutted. Gold also isn't used for much other than jewelry, and the demand for jewelry is way down thanks to the recession. There's no way to predict when the bust might happen, but unless Paul has the investment chops of George Soros and sees it coming in time to unload his loot beforehand, he's likely to end up like the condo developers of 2007: much poorer and saddled with a bunch of junk no one wants anymore.

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for June 13, 2010

Mon Jun. 14, 2010 5:00 AM EDT

 

An interpreter working with the Provincial Reconstruction Team Zabul crosses a creek on the way to Omarkhel village for a shura or meeting in Zabul province, Afghanistan, on May 22, 2010. Photo via the US Army photo by Staff Sgt. Manuel Martinez.

Marines Put Gay Man in Hospital. Will Anyone Prosecute?

| Mon Jun. 14, 2010 1:57 AM EDT

[UPDATE: This story is being updated regularly with information from the US military. Please check for new updates at the end of the story.]

Two young Marines are sitting in a military brig this morning, accused of beating a gay man in Savannah, Georgia, so badly he had a bruised brain and two seizures. And while details on the case are just emerging, it has huge implications for the end of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," as well as the justice system in Georgia, which lacks hate-crime laws and charged the men with a simple misdemeanor.

The service members, Keil Joseph Cronauer and Charles Stanzel, were barhopping in Savannah, just over the border from the base where they're stationed, Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, South Carolina (of The Great Santini fame.) According to the Savannah Morning News, one of the Marines grew convinced that 26-year-old Kieran Daly, who came out six months ago, winked at him.

In police parlance, an altercation ensued. Daly was punched in the back of the head so hard, he had to be taken to the hospital.

The Marines, who were caught on foot after fleeing the scene, say they were "being harassed by a gay man and wanted to get away from him," but eyewitnesses and Daly himself disputed that account:

Pakistan, Taliban: Thick as Thieves

| Mon Jun. 14, 2010 1:23 AM EDT

It's amazing that newsworthy information can hang around in the public sphere, sometimes for years, before the media stumble on it and act like they just discovered electricity. This weekend, reporters went nuts over Harvard researcher Matt Waldman's report (PDF) that the Taliban is being supported by Pakistani intelligence. "The relationship, in fact, goes far beyond contact and coexistence, with some assistance provided by elements within, or linked to, Pakistan’s intelligence service (ISI) or military," Waldman writes.

Sounds sexy. But why is this exciting editors and reporters now, though? It's not a new story—it's been pretty well reported since before 9/11. The only novel revelation in Waldman's study—if true—is that Pakistan's president met personally with Taliban prisoners to express his support and that the nation's military intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), actually has a seat on the Taliban's governing council in the border city of Quetta. But it is a report that raises a lot of questions for the US about its continued involvement in the war for Afghanistan.