Mojo - August 2010

Did US Bungle Viktor Bout Extradition?

| Mon Aug. 30, 2010 11:54 AM EDT

The US government would very much like to bring Viktor Bout, the alleged arms dealer who inspired the 2005 Nicolas Cage flick Lord of War, to America for trial. A Thai appeals court ordered Bout's extradition earlier this month, but the US, anticipating a different ruling, sent new charges to Thailand shortly before the decision came down. The new charges meant that if the court had ruled in Bout's favor, Thailand would still have had to hold on to him while they considered the new charges. But the US seems to have bungled the situation. If they hadn't sent the new charges, the road to extradition would be mostly clear in the wake of the appeals court's ruling. Now the US will have to wait until a court hears the new charges. (Even if the US hadn't made that miscalculation, Bout still might have been able to avoid extradition: On Monday, his lawyer filed a final appeal to the Thai prime minister in a last-ditch effort to stop Bout from being sent to America.)

Mother Jones has been following Bout's story for years. In 2007, Laura Rozen related the real-life story of the former Soviet military officer who made millions selling weapons to anyone and everyone who could afford them. In March 2008, after the first reports of Bout's arrest in Thailand, Bruce Falconer reminded readers that the "Merchant of Death" had been among the first to bring supplies into Baghdad after the city fell to invading American armies in 2003. Later that month, Falconer told the full story of the DEA-led sting that captured Bout and brought us to where we are now. That piece was called "Viktor Bout's Last Deal." The next few weeks may determine if it really was.

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Pelosi's Challenger Asks Me for Money

| Mon Aug. 30, 2010 11:07 AM EDT

This past weekend I received on my home line a call from John Dennis, the Republican long-shot candidate challenging House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. It was a recorded message in which he blamed her for "no jobs" and out-of-control debt. He warned that she "wants to raise your taxes." But after the rant, a live voice came on, a woman named Susan, who asked if I would now participate in a survey. There was but one question: "Would America be better off without Nancy Pelosi?"

Sure, I said to Susan. But first I had a question for her: who did she work for? Her first response: John Dennis for Congress. Nah, I said. You're not in his campaign office, you're obviously working for a firm he's hired. Which one? Infocision Management Corporation, she said. (The firms's website boasts it is "THE highest quality call center company in the world.") And what list are you using? I asked Susan. A series of lists, she said. Which one had my name and number, I enquired politely. "We have your name because you've supported conservative causes and campaigns," she said.

"I don't think so," I replied. Without missing a beat, she said, "You may have done more than you realize."

Perhaps. But probably not.

In any event, this call from the Dennis campaign caused me to wonder if he's wasting lots of money using lousy lists with names of unlikely potential donors across the country.

After courteously answering my questions, Susan asked if we could return to the survey question. Sure, I said. She put it to me again, and I said that I doubted America would be better off without Pelosi. In a flash, she thanked me and hung up.

Another Shot for Amateur Bin Laden Hunter?

| Mon Aug. 30, 2010 11:06 AM EDT

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the "War on Terror" is that, almost a decade after September 11, the most powerful nation in the world still hasn't captured or killed the men behind the attack, Osama bin Laden and his No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Colorado native Gary Brooks Faulkner is trying to change all that. Faulkner, like bin Laden, is on a kidney dialysis regimen. But that didn't stop him from traveling deep into Pakistan earlier this year, armed with a samurai sword and a pistol, to try to do what the US military and CIA haven't been able to: kill bin Laden. Pakistani security officials arrested him in the remote district of Chitral and returned him to the US. Faulkner says that God ordered him to kill the terrorist leader—but whether it was religious inspiration or his own know-how, some experts suspect he may have been close. The New York Times' Dexter Filkins explains

Whatever else we might conclude about Gary Faulkner, our arrested American bounty hunter, we should give him this: He was looking in the right place.

Or at least the place where many intelligence analysts think he is: the mountainous high-altitude district of Chitral. For me, the mere mention of the place evokes the image of the Saudi terrorist.

Last December, early on a Sunday morning, I sat at a long table in the basement of the Pentagon talking with an American military officer about the situation in Afghanistan. As the meeting ended, another man approached, wearing plain clothes and a plainer face.

"Chitral," he said, half-smiling. "If you’re looking for Osama, you might try Chitral."

He muttered something else, then walked away. The man didn’t identify himself, but he didn’t have to. He was almost certainly an intelligence analyst. If I had to guess, I’d say, given our location, that he worked for the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Why Chitral? Well, for one thing, it’s remote. Chitral is a mountainous district of Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province, in the far end of the country, abutting an Afghan region called Wakhan, notable because it’s shaped like a panhandle. In other words, it’s a long way from the Federal Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA, where many other intelligence analysts believe Mr. bin Laden is probably hiding.

There is one other reason. As he walked away, my plain-faced Pentagon acquaintance said one other thing: "We have a hard time putting Predators up there." Apparently, the drones cannot stay up long, because their bases are so far away. In a funny kind of way, he was asking for help.

Faulkner recently told the Denver Post that he hopes for another shot at bin Laden. (He claims to have already made eight trips.) Next time, he'll try to use a balloon or a glider to access Chitral, he told the newspaper—a move that he presumably hopes will allow him to elude Pakistani authorities. Good luck with that, dude. Don't get yourself killed.

If you want to know more about Faulkner and his quest, there's a profile of him in the latest GQ. The article isn't online yet. 

GOP Warming to Elizabeth Warren?

| Mon Aug. 30, 2010 10:08 AM EDT

Yes, you read that right. Apparently some GOPers are rethinking their vehement opposition to Harvard law professor and bailout watchdog Elizabeth Warren running the new Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection. A short item in the Wall Street Journal's gossipy "Heard on the Street" column today says there are whispers that "some Republicans are warming to Ms. Warren as the first consumer financial-affairs regulator over another candidate, Treasury Department Assistant Secretary Michael Barr. The thinking: Ms. Warren isn't shy about speaking her mind, so banks would know what was coming." Whereas Barr, the Journal says, might be more likely to spring big regulatory surprises on the banks, something no banker—or Republican, presumably—wants.

In one regard, the GOP is right: Warren is clear and plain-spoken in her defense of consumers and their rights. (Read David Corn's profile of Warren for more on that.) The consumer bureau, you'll remember, is largely her idea, based on a 2007 article she penned in the journal Democracy calling for a new "Financial Product Safety Commission." That commission would regulate mortgages, say, much like the existing Consumer Product Safety Commission regulates toasters.

As I reported last month, there's also been considerable opposition in the banking sector to Warren leading the new, independent consumer bureau, which will be housed in the Federal Reserve. Multiple state banking association chiefs have lobbied Congress against her potential nomination. Those same chiefs suggested that the American Bankers Association, the top banking trade association, didn't want her to run the bureau, either.

Here's my quibble with the Journal's optimistic report: Unlike the anonymous GOPers the Journal refers to, the bankers I interviewed who oppose Warren, on the record, aren't about to warm to her because she's outspoken. They oppose her because they think she doesn't understand the realities of running small community banks, the type sure to be impacted by the new consumer agency. Warren just doesn't get it, these chiefs claim. (Warren, I'm sure, would disagree.)

Sure, it's somewhat heartening for Warren supporters to hear Republicans might yet support her nomination. But don't believe for a minute that her path to running the bureau is now wide open.

Anti-Poverty Assistance Soars

| Mon Aug. 30, 2010 8:35 AM EDT

Compiling state and federal data, USA Today reports today that one in six Americans (and counting) receives some kind of government anti-poverty assistance, a new national record. That financial support includes programs like Medicaid, which serves more than 50 million people, an increase of 17 percent from nearly three years ago.

The number of food stamp recipients is equally staggering: Upwards of 40 million people, a 50 percent increase since the economy began to crumble several years back. Unemployment insurance now goes out to nearly 10 million Americans, a 400 percent increase from 2007, and welfare's national rolls include 4.4 million people, up 18 percent during the downturn.

All this growth in federal and state support, while crucial to support those out-of-work or suffering from reductions in hours and wage, costs ever more to operate. Here's more from USA Today's Richard Wolf:

As caseloads for all the programs have soared, so have costs. The federal price tag for Medicaid has jumped 36% in two years, to $273 billion. Jobless benefits have soared from $43 billion to $160 billion. The food stamps program has risen 80%, to $70 billion. Welfare is up 24%, to $22 billion. Taken together, they cost more than Medicare.

The steady climb in safety-net program caseloads and costs has come as a result of two factors: The recession has boosted the number who qualify under existing rules. And the White House, Congress and states have expanded eligibility and benefits.

Conservatives fear expanded safety-net programs won't contract after the economy recovers. "They're much harder to unwind in the long term," says Michael Tanner of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank.

Other anti-poverty experts say the record caseloads are a necessary response to economic hardship. "We should be there to support people when the economy can't," says LaDonna Pavetti of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal-leaning think tank.

At the same time we're seeing record levels of government assistance, lawmakers have sought to slash away at these same programs to save money. This month, for instance, the Senate proposed cutting the federal food stamps program by $14.1 billion over a decade. On a per family basis, that would come out to a decrease of $59 a month beginning in November 2013. As one legal expert told the Huffington Post's Arthur Delaney, "there's no precedent" for such a massive cut to a program more Americans than ever need to get by.

Post-Beck Tea Party's Strange Bedfellows

| Mon Aug. 30, 2010 6:44 AM EDT

For tea partiers, one of the great disappointments of Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally on the National Mall Saturday was the ban on political signs. After all, sign-making seems to be half the fun of going to any good tea party. So the Tea Party Patriots, a national umbrella group for thousands of tea party activists, decided to give folks from out of town a chance to wave their "NOBama signs" in the shadow of the Capitol. On Sunday morning, they convened a tea party, complete with fiery speeches from minor celebs and organizers, plus the requisite open mic session for anyone who wanted a chance to publicly call Obama a liar or read some bad poetry they'd written about liberty.

But signs or no signs, after baking in the sun all day on Saturday (the Mall was so hot that dozens of attendees had to leave the rally in ambulances), not that many Beck fans were looking to do it again on Sunday. Only about 200 die-hards made the trek up the Hill. For their trouble, they were treated with an unusual assortment of speakers. There were the usual suspects—Tea Party Patriot organizers Mark Meckler and Jenny Beth Martin—but there was also a former FBI agent known for telling wild and dubious tales about his time in the Clinton White House, and a former Republican congressman with a long history of trampling the Constitution and trading favors with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for August 30, 2010

Mon Aug. 30, 2010 4:00 AM EDT

 

US Army ROTC Cadets assist each other in the Combat Water Survival Training and Stream Crossing obstacle. Photo via the US Army.

Glenn Beck's Great Whiteout

| Sat Aug. 28, 2010 4:34 PM EDT

As we passed the Washington Monument this morning and waded into the growing crowd of thousands at today's "Restoring Honor" rally, my friend, Chris, surveyed the turnout and then leaned in toward me. "Other than that guy back back there selling flags," he said somewhat discreetly, "I've got to be the only black person out here today."

He had a point. There were people of all shapes and sizes, young and old (though mostly old), from near and far at the rally on the Washington Mall—and, truth be told, they were almost all white. Despite the impressive turnout surrounding the Lincoln Memorial and the reflecting pool, I needed only two hands and maybe a few toes to tally the number of non-white attendees. You couldn't miss the irony: On the same day and at the same location as Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "I Have a Dream" speech—when conservative icon Glenn Beck would repeatedly invoke King's memory and message on a stage featuring a portrait of Langston Hughes and a relative of King Jr.'s as a speaker—there were few, if any, black people in sight. "I've seen more people who're black onstage than at this whole thing," Chris said at one point.

We pushed onward into the crowd, trying to get closer to the front, where Beck was. But before we could get there, a middle-aged woman suddenly reached out and grabbed Chris' arm. She pulled him close. The woman, as sweaty as the rest of us, asked Chris if he planned on attending the NAACP's rally later in the afternoon. Without waiting for Chris' response, she told us, "I kinda want to go, but I feel like I wouldn't be welcome." Hard emphasis on the wouldn't be welcome. A bit surprised, Chris looked at me and then replied, "You mean kind of like I feel right now?"

A bit later on, after the rally had ended, Chris told me he didn't mean to respond to the woman quite like he did. He didn't feel any animus from the crowd, he said. Nonetheless, we agreed that for an event whose central figure, Beck, preached the importance of faith, hope, and charity, and drew heavily on King Jr.'s legacy, the paucity of non-whites in the crowd was startling. Not that it's any big surprise, though. The tea party, whose followers made up a good percentage of today's attendees, tend to be white, wealthier, male, and married, polls have shown. A racially diverse turnout at a Glenn Beck rally? In your dreams.

Glenn Beck: Televangelist

| Sat Aug. 28, 2010 4:08 PM EDT

For weeks prior to Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally, the conservative talk show host kept insisting that his demonstration on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial wasn't going to be a political event. Of course, no one believed him. Maybe they should have. Beck made it clear from the minute he jogged on to the stage that despite the presence of Sarah Palin, his much-promoted event would not be political, but religious. And if grassroots conservative activists came looking for marching orders, they might have left a little disappointed. Beck did deliver his signature rants about how the country is going to hell in a hand basket, but his prescription consisted of little more than maddeningly vague allegories about "a man with a stick" (that would be Moses) and such platitudes as, "God is the answer and he always has been." With this heavy focus on God as political savior, the rally seemed to mark Beck's official transformation from Fox News talker to Mormon televangelist. All he really needed for the revival was a tent.

Prior to the rally, critics and civil rights leaders took umbrage at Beck for promoting himself as the second coming of Martin Luther King Jr. and for planning the event on the 47th anniversary of the "I Have a Dream" speech. That didn't slow Beck down. At the rally, he talked about how much he identified with the slain civil rights leader, noting he was even staying in the same DC hotel where MLK had rested his head after his legendary speech. But the similarities ended there. King used his rally and speech to move an agenda forward. He called on the crowd before him (and people watching elsewhere) to pressure Congress to change discriminatory laws and to focus on jobs. What did Beck ask his hundreds of thousands of followers to do?

The Beckheads who'd been waiting in the hot sun for hours got these marching orders: "Pray on your knees. Recognize He is our king. Pray on your knees and let your children see their parents humbled before God." Oh, and of course, like all good televangelists, Beck asked them to give money—not to candidates or political parties, but to a church. Beck talked wistfully about the spiritual transformation he underwent after he embraced tithing, which is heavily encouraged by his Mormon church. He said at first he was resistant, happy to show off the $20 he put in the plate on Sunday morning, but not much else. But now, he said earnestly, "It is my joy and my honor to tithe 10 percent."

But the real proof of Beck's televangelist conversion came with his revelation that God answers his prayers for money. In a tale straight out of Pat Robertson's 700 Club, Beck said that as he was working on the logistics for the big rally, he discovered that his fundraising efforts had come up $600,000 short. Naturally, he prayed: "Lord, we don't have anything else left." And he said, "Within two days, without telling anyone about it, $600,000 came in."

The crowd seemed to be OK with all of this. For all the talk about how Beck's event was going to be a test of the strength of the tea party movement, I met a fair number of people who had nothing to do with the tea party. That's no shock; lots of tea partiers who don't fancy Beck wouldn't have been caught dead on the Mall today. There is a fairly serious distinction between Beck followers and those who consider themselves true tea partiers, and it rests almost entirely on the religious issue. As one attendee from upstate New York explained to me, "The tea party is just about lower taxes."

The Beck crowd, by contrast, had all the trappings of a reconstituted, 21st Century Christian Coalition. While political signs were banned from the event, the marshals didn't seem to object to the two enormous crucifixes some people brought to the front of the crowd. Lots of the people in attendance appeared deeply religious. A Boy Scout troop leader from New Hampshire was wearing a scout hat that identified him as "Elder Delevan," as in Mormon church elder. Joan DeMasi, 79, from Warwick, Rhode Island, told me that she had been drawn to the rally by "God–and Glenn Beck." She said she was tired of "people not saluting the flag and not believing in God." So from her perspective, "Restoring Honor" was simply "incredible." Whether the rest of the tea party movement will share such a glowing assessment remains to be seen.

Live Tweets From Beckapalooza

Sat Aug. 28, 2010 11:03 AM EDT

Front page photo courtesy of HA! Designs -Artbyheather/Flickr.