Mojo - July 2010

WikiLeaks' Afghanistan Bombshell

| Mon Jul. 26, 2010 6:15 AM EDT

[For more on the WikiLeaks Afghan document dump, read posts by Kevin Drum here and Adam Weinstein here.]

WikiLeaks is making headlines again with the release of an enormous trove of secret US military documents from Afghanistan. The Afghan War Diary, as WikiLeaks has dubbed it, was first given to the New York Times, The Guardian, and Der Spiegel, which have vetted, analyzed, and packaged the 92,000 documents into what amounts to the biggest story about the war since Osama bin Laden slipped away. As Kevin Drum explains, the stories don't seem to have many major surprises (besides the Taliban's use of Stinger missiles) for anyone who's been paying attention: "the basic picture is basically the one we've known for a long time: a difficult, chaotic battlefield that's shown little progress since the very beginning of the war." But considering that most Americans—and most American lawmakers—haven't really been paying attention to Afghanistan, this could prove to be the watershed moment after which no one can honestly claim ignorance of what's really happening over there.

If the Afghan leaks become the next Pentagon Papers, it would be a much sought-after feather in the hat of WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, its shadowy, image-conscious mastermind. And it could mark the beginning of a new chapter for the organization, which has gone through some strange growing pains since it leaked its "Collateral Murder" video in April. That leak marked the first time that WikiLeaks, and Assange in particular, had assumed an active role in analyzing and promoting its own material—a decision that brought it more attention while opening it up to criticism that it had strayed from its original "just the leaks, ma'am" approach. The subsequent arrest of the alleged leaker of that video spawned a series of hyperbolic rumors about Assange being on the run from American intelligence and claims that WikiLeaks was sitting on thousands of leaked State Department cables, spawning competing volleys of mis- and disinformation that mostly served to burnish WikiLeaks' mystique. In the meantime, WikiLeaks seemed busier tweeting its own horn and swatting down foes than keeping the leaks coming.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Valerie Plame Wilson: How to Dismantle 23,000 Atom Bombs

| Mon Jul. 26, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

Valerie Plame Wilson suddenly went from being a CIA covert operations officer to a household name in the summer of 2003, when the Bush administration outed her to the press in retribution for her husband, former ambassador Joe Wilson, dismantling its shaky claims about Saddam Hussein's nuclear ambitions. After unwillingly becoming a public figure, Plame laid low for a couple of years. But now she's lent her expertise as an expert on nuclear proliferation to Countdown to Zero, the new documentary from the makers of An Inconvenient Truth that aims to jumpstart a post-Cold War movement to ban the bomb. (See David Corn's recent article on the making of the film.) The film will leave you wondering why one of the world's 23,000 nuclear bombs hasn't already gone off—and how much longer it is until one does. (One expert explains that smuggling nuclear material into the U.S. is as simple as hiding it in a box of kitty litter.) Plame Wilson talked to Mother Jones about appearing in the film, how we can tackle a problem so big, and the upcoming movie about her, in which Naomi Watts plays the reluctant celebrity spy.

Mother Jones: At the CIA, you specialized in nuclear counterproliferation; Countdown to Zero is largely about how easy it would be to buy, steal, or build a nuclear weapon. Did you learn anything new from the film?

Valerie Plame Wilson: I've seen it several times now, and I was surprised at points. They talk about the flight over the Carolinas in the early '60s where a plane crashed with a nuclear weapon on board. I didn't know about that. I was not familiar with that incident in NORAD where the $1computer chip made everyone think it was the real thing instead of a training exercise. As the film talks about, there's always the potential for accident, miscalculation, or madness. Along with the terrorist threat, those are, unfortunately, very real possibilities. 

MJ: The movie identifies the three main nuclear threats as madness, accident, and miscalculation. Which do you think is the greatest?

VPW: I would not want to assign numbers to any one of them. Ask BP executives how often low-probability events happen. I think really the only rational, sane way of proceeding is to set as your objective zero [nuclear weapons] and move toward that. 

MJ: One of the things that really struck me is the wide range of people interviewed—you've got liberals like President Jimmy Carter, you've got conservatives like former Secretary of State James Baker. Is nuclear proliferation really a non-partisan issue? 

VPW: I think it is; it certainly should be. I think Lucy Walker, the director, went to great lengths to demonstrate that. As you noted, you have people of all political stripes who speak in the film. The well-known liberal, Ronald Reagan, started this. And I think that's a really poignant scene with Gorbachev's interview, speaking about his 1986 meeting in Reykjavik with Reagan. These were two men who genuinely wanted to see a world free of nuclear weapons,and they genuinely wanted to achieve it. Gorbachev speaks with tears in his eyes with great sadness about what they weren't able to accomplish. These two men really wanted to do that.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for July 26, 2010

Mon Jul. 26, 2010 4:00 AM EDT

 

US Army Soldiers from Charlie Company, 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division, provide security during a mission in the Zirat Mountain Area, Waza Kwah District, Paktika province, Afghanistan, on July 7. The purpose of the mission is to disrupt anti-Afghan forces and find enemy caches. Photo via the US Army.

WikiLeaks' Afghan Documents and Me

| Mon Jul. 26, 2010 12:28 AM EDT

[For more on the WikiLeaks Afghan document dump, read posts by Kevin Drum here and senior editor Dave Gilson here.]

Here's a cliche for you: A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. And here's a fact: A little knowledge is precisely what Julian Assange and his WikiLeaks cohorts have given us in the "Afghan War Diary." The intimation by Assange (and the media outlets he cherry-picked to preview the data) is that these are the Pentagon Papers of the Afghan war. Certainly there are a few eyebrow-raising details in the bunch, as Mark Mazzetti, Chris Chivers & Co. at the New York Times point out. But in truth, there's not much there. I know, because I've seen many of these reports before—at least, thousands of similar ones from Iraq, when I was a contractor there last year.

I haven't been through everything yet, but most of what you see on WikiLeaks are military SIGACTS (significant activity reports). These are theoretically accessible by anyone in Iraq, Afghanistan, or the Tampa, Florida-based US Central Command—soldiers and contractors—who have access to the military's most basic intranet for sensitive data, the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPRNet). Literally thousands of people in hundreds of locations could read them, and any one of them could be the source for WikiLeaks' data. I regularly went through the daily SIGACT reports in Iraq, not because my job required it, but because my colleagues and I were curious. We heard mortars or car bombs explode in the distance at night, and we couldn't help but wonder: What the hell was that? Every time a US unit engaged the enemy, encountered munitions, saw or heard something go boom, caught a criminal, or located a weapons cache, a report was filed. So, each morning when I entered my office on Camp Victory, I fired up my SIPR terminal and checked the SIGACTS for interesting stuff. 

The first time I did it, my pupils dilated. A vein in my throat warmed. The reporter in me did backflips. I was about to breathe pure oxygen.

By day three or four, I was bored to tears. Here's what I learned:

Corn on "Hardball": What Was Breitbart's True Motivation in the Sherrod Affair?

Fri Jul. 23, 2010 6:49 PM EDT

David Corn and Pat Buchanan joined guest host Chuck Todd on MSNBC's Hardball to discuss Andrew Breitbart's true motivation in propagating the lies and distortions surrounding Shirley Sherrod.

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter.

Denying Sex Workers HIV Funds

| Fri Jul. 23, 2010 6:17 PM EDT

Today marked the end of the biennial International AIDS Conference in Vienna, where one crucial group remained absent from news headlines but not silent at the event. This is where Peninah Mwangi fits in. Mwangi's been a sex worker in Kenya for 15 years. During that time, she's also worked with the Bar Hostess Empowerment and Support Programme and the African Sex Worker Alliance to get sex work recognized as a job and to improve access to health and social services. For several years, both of Mwangi's groups have applied for HIV/AIDS prevention funding through the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and been denied. "We couldn't understand why we were denied. Many women were dying," Mwangi tells me on the phone. Then three years ago, a PEPFAR rep told her the reason: "We cannot fund you unless you get out of sex work."

PEPFAR's condemnation of sex work is why Mwangi is currently in Vienna for the AIDS conference. During the week-long summit, amidst discussion of new HIV prevention strategies and the lack of money to disperse them, about 100 sex workers from all walks of life and their advocates marched through the IAC conference center chanting "sex worker rights are human rights." The workers were not only making their marginalized presence known, they were protesting the PEPFAR anti-prostitution clause that keeps them from receiving US HIV/AIDS prevention funds.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

A Few Facts on the Deficit

| Fri Jul. 23, 2010 3:32 PM EDT

The big Friday news dump this week is the Obama administration's projection that the federal budget deficit will reach a record $1.47 trillion this fiscal year. That is, the government will spend $1.47 trillion more than it takes in this fiscal year. There are a few things you should remember when you read about this:

  • The current deficit can be attributed almost entirely to the effects of the economic downturn (reduced tax revenue, increased transfer payments), the Bush tax cuts, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. David Leonhardt and the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities both have good articles and charts on this.
  • The $1.47 trillion number is actually slightly better than the White House's February prediction. But the forecast for next year looks worse.
  • Despite stimulus spending, which most independent experts believe improved the job picture, there is still massive unemployment in the United States.
  • The median duration of unemployment is at its highest in 50 years.
  • Liberals and conservatives will be arguing about what all this joblessness means. Derek Thompson explains: "Does it mean we must increase the duration of unemployment benefits to protect this new class of unemployed, or does it mean we need to stop subsidizing joblessness? Does it mean we need to expand federal retraining programs, or does it mean federal retraining programs aren't working? Does it mean we need more stimulus, more state aid, more infrastructure projects, more public works...or does it mean it's time to stop everything, stand back, and let business be business?" (Liberals go for the first option in each pairing.) This argument can be summed up simply as stimulus vs. austerity. Right now, stimulus seems to be fighting a losing battle.
  • Conservatives don't have a record of caring about or reducing the budget deficit. They do have a record of caring about and reducing taxes on rich people.
  • We spend almost as much on our military as the rest of the world combined. (A lot of the other countries that are spending big bucks are our allies.) If you include non-Pentagon defense-related expenditures, US defense spending in fiscal year 2010 will be somewhere between $880 billion and $1 trillion—even more if you include the interest we're paying on debt from past wars. Even if you strip out all that stuff, we're going to be spending north of $700 billion on the Pentagon and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan next year.
  • Long-term deficits are not the same as single-year deficits, and they have different causes. Our projected long-term deficits are driven almost entirely by the rapidly increasing cost of health care. (We're talking about increases driven by things other than the aging of the population.) If we could hold our health care costs at levels comparable to other countries', our long-term deficits would basically disappear. You can see this for yourself by using the Center for Economic and Policy Research's health care budget deficit calculator.
  • Social Security is not the problem.

Will Rangel's Ethics Trial Derail Dems?

| Fri Jul. 23, 2010 12:29 PM EDT

New York Rep. Charles Rangel plans to vigorously fight the ethics charges lodged against him Thursday evening by the House ethics committee. But the public ethics trial Rangel has insisted upon, which will likely start in September, is set to collide with this fall’s midterm elections season and could damage Democratic prospects as a result.

Rangel could have settled with the House ethics committee and ended the investigation behind closed doors, a resolution his party likely would have preferred. But this quieter fix would have forced Rangel to admit that he accepted four rent-controlled apartments in Manhattan and misused office stationary to solicit donations for the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at New York’s City College, among other allegations. Though he was willing to accept responsibility for some violations, Rangel would not budge on others, the Associated Press reported.

When asked by a New York Daily News reporter if he would defend himself at trail, Rangel responded, "You bet your sweet ass. If I can testify, I will." Rangel also told reporters that he has been waiting for a chance to speak publicly and clear his name since his ethics investigation began two years ago: "Now the facts are going to get out and I think that's good. I don't have any fear at all politically or personally what they come up with."

But Rangel may not need to clear his name in Harlem, where he is the only congressman many of his constituents have ever known. Residents told NY1 that they were in no rush to judge Rangel. "I deal with the facts, so until all the facts come out, I don’t want to say, because right now it’s all speculation," one resident said. "Other people are doing the same thing, but they're after him," said another. And for those New Yorkers old enough to remember life before Rangel got elected, many recall him as a Korean War hero with a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star, accolades he campaigned on decades ago.

A Ray of Hope for Democrats in North Carolina?

| Fri Jul. 23, 2010 10:47 AM EDT

In this tough election year for Democrats comes one unexpected ray of light: Richard Burr, a first-term Republican Senator from North Carolina, appears to be within striking distance of defeat. An internal poll from Lake Research Partners shows Burr's Democratic challenger, Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, squeaking past him by 37 percent to 35 percent—with 23 percent of voters undecided and with a 4 point margin of error. Outside polling has been decidedly more mixed: a SurveyUSA poll from early July showed Burr out ahead by 10 points, while a poll from the conservative-leaning Rassmussen showed Burr with a 5-point advantage.

Even so, it's clear this has become a much tougher contest for Burr than Republicans had expected. Burr's low favorability ratings turned him into a prime target for Democrats early on in the election cycle. And it's particularly striking that Marshall—an unabashedly progressive Democrat who's campaigned on the public option—has managed to mount a serious challenge against a party-line, arch-conservative Republican. When Burr began to show signs of looking vulnerable last year, prognosticators declared that a Blue Dog Democrat like Rep. Heath Shuler or Rep. Mike McIntyre would have the best chance against him.

But after being passed over by the Democratic National Committee as its preferred candidate for the race, Marshall has seized the outsider mantle and used it to her advantage, gaining support from the liberal netroots outside the state as well as local Democratic allies. And now national Democrats are beginning to throw their full weight behind Marshall, with Vice President Joe Biden hosting a fundraiser in the state this week. If Marshall continues to pick up steam, North Carolina could end up being one Senate race in which the Democrats can use the anti-incumbency mood to their advantage.

Sharron Angle's Jobs Plan Whiff

| Fri Jul. 23, 2010 10:24 AM EDT

Heading into the 2010 midterms, there's no debate on the headline issue topping the marquee for the fall elections: jump-starting the US economy. At every turn candidates are burnishing their job-creation cred and touting plans to create jobs.

And then there's Sharron Angle, the Nevada GOP and tea party's pick to challenge Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. The Washington Post relays a telling anecdote today about Angle fielding a jobs-themed question at a friendly campaign event:

A local actress named Dee Drenta asked Angle what she would do to help people find work. But instead of seizing what seemed like an easy chance to explain her jobs plan, the candidate revealed that she didn't have one.

"It really comes from the statehouse to incentivize that kind of stuff in our state," Angle said. "Truly, the lieutenant governor, Brian Krolicki, you should have this conversation with him. That's his job, to make sure that we get business into this state. My job is to create the climate so that everybody wants to come."

The woman gave her a puzzled look. "I'm sure you're probably planning on working with these people to do these things," Drenta said, hopefully. "Because it's the end result that matters, whether it's specifically in the job description or not."

Bzzt. Wrong answer. And this wasn't some reporter trying to ambush Angle or skew her words; it was a regular Nevadan at a women's business lunch in support of Angle. If Angle can't even make use of easy set-ups like Drenta's question, how is she going to respond to reporters? That is, if she ever gives the media a chance to talk to her: Yesterday, Angle walked out of a room full of reporters, even though she was asked to make herself available to the media, after just a three-minute speech on repealing the estate tax. A pregnant reporter even chased Angle out to the parking lot to try to get a question in. And Angle wonders why news reports about her campaign have been, well, a bit negative.