Mojo - July 2010

WikiLeaks' Afghanistan Bombshell

| Mon Jul. 26, 2010 4:15 AM PDT

[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.

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

Mon Jul. 26, 2010 2:00 AM PDT

 

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

| Sun Jul. 25, 2010 10:28 PM PDT

[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 4:49 PM PDT

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 4:17 PM PDT

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.

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A Few Facts on the Deficit

| Fri Jul. 23, 2010 1:32 PM PDT

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.

A Ray of Hope for Democrats in North Carolina?

| Fri Jul. 23, 2010 8:47 AM PDT

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 8:24 AM PDT

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.