Mojo - October 2010

Terror Trial Update: Bin Laden's Pilot Testifies

| Fri Oct. 22, 2010 5:00 AM EDT

Read Karen Greenberg's previous coverage of the trial of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, the first Guantanamo detainee to be tried in a civilian court.

On Wednesday, the Ghailani trial was dominated by the story of an al Qaeda member who had flipped. L'Houssaine Kherchtou, a soft-spoken Moroccan in his mid-forties, took the stand to describe the terrorist organization's training programs, its safe houses, its network of associates, and its military, financial, religious, and media structure.

For the first time in days, the federal courtroom in the Southern District of Manhattan was more than half full. A handful of journalists and the families of victims of the 1998 bombing of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania listened as Kherchtou spoke freely and informatively about noted figures in the Al Qaeda network, including Omar Abdel-Rahman ("the Blind Sheikh"), Ayman al-Zawahiri, Wadih el Hage, and above all, Osama bin Laden, who used Kherchtou as a pilot. He spoke about the complicity of Sudanese officials in letting al Qaeda men through customs (once with $10,000 or $20,000 in cash), the use of the relief organization Mercy International as a cover for forged travel documents, and the murders of two teenage brothers suspected of disloyalty to the organization. Khertchou's detailed memory stood in stark contrast to the reluctant, often elusive, assertions of the Tanzanian witnesses who had recently testified that they could not remember much of what took place 12 years ago.

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Rutherford B. Hayes Speaks!

| Fri Oct. 22, 2010 5:00 AM EDT

Earlier this week, I introduced you to Obama's unlikeliest 2012 challenger (well, other than the Naked Cowboy): Rutherford B. Hayes, a Navy veteran and high-school dropout who's the chief financial officer of Miss Liberty America, the first and only Tea Party beauty pageant. Yesterday, I spoke with Hayes about his campaign.

The first thing Rutherford Bert Hayes makes clear to me is that he is absolutely not related to the disgraced and undemocratically-elected nineteenth president, Rutherford Birchard Hayes. Nor is he even named for the man known to his contemporaries as "Rutherfraud." "It is a coincidence," he says. "Obviously, my dad is a Hayes. But my mother was not, obviously. And her grandpa was named Rutherford. And so it was just a coincidence, because she loved her grandfather, that she named me Rutherford. And then the last name just followed. The nineteenth president, his name was Birchard. And I'm glad I didn't get that. I had enough problems with the name Bert as a kid. You know like, 'Hey Bert, where's Ernie?'"

Hayes is not a Birchard; he is, however, something of a birther: "My birth certificate is Rutherford B. Hayes. That is my real name. And I do have a birth certificate." He explains later in our conversation, "I just kind of put that in there as a jab because [Obama's] had issues with his birth certificate. And the first thing he did when he was in office was seal his records. I mean, I don't kow all the aspects of this stuff, but there have been things that I've seen that definitely question it."

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for October 22, 2010

Fri Oct. 22, 2010 4:30 AM EDT

A village elder talks to members of the Texas Agribusiness Development Team-04 near the construction site for the Arbaba Environmental Park in Ghazni, Afghanistan, Oct. 12, 2010. 1st Lt. Edgington and other members of the ADT were checking on the progress of the park, which will provide a central location for conservation and agriculture training in Ghazni.
ISAF photo by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Joseph Swafford

Base Desires in Afghanistan

| Thu Oct. 21, 2010 1:10 PM EDT

As we know from a single April 19, 2003 New York Times piece, the Pentagon arrived in Saddam Hussein's Iraq preparing for a long stay. They already had at least four mega-military bases on the drawing boards as they entered the country (all subsequently built). "Enduring camps" they decided to call them, rather than the dicier "permanent bases." In the end, hundreds of bases were constructed in Iraq, from the tiniest combat outposts to monster installations, to the tune of untold billions of dollars. In the end, hundreds are now being left behind to be stripped, looted, or occupied by the Iraqi military.

From Baghdad, the British Guardian's correspondent Martin Chulov recently reported that part of the price Nouri al-Maliki seems to have negotiated (in Tehran, not Washington) to retain his prime ministership may involve not letting the Pentagon keep even a single monster base in Iraq after 2011. This was evidently demanded by former US nemesis, rebel cleric, and now "kingmaker" Muqtada al-Sadr, whose movement controls more than 10% of the votes in Iraq's new parliament. That can't make the Pentagon, or the US high command, happy—and the Obama administration is already kicking.

However this ends for Washington, barely based or baseless in Iraq, surely this was not the way it was supposed to happen, not when it was still "mission accomplished" time and it seemed so self-evident that American military power, obviously unchallengeable, would be deeply entrenched on either side of Iran until "regime change" occurred there.

If you want a measure of how far the US has "fallen" in Iraq, it now has only 21 "burn pits" there—places at US bases where waste of all sorts is incinerated, regularly spewing smoke filled with toxic emissions into the air to the detriment of American soldiers (and undoubtedly local Iraqis as well). On the other hand, according to a Government Accountability Office report, there are now 221 such pits in Afghanistan and "more coming." Put another way, even as America's baseworld in Iraq dwindles, there seems to be no learning curve in Washington. As Nick Turse suggests in his most recent TomDispatch report, in Afghanistan we seem to be heading down the Iraq path on bases with a special ardor. More than nine years after our "successful" invasion, billions of US taxpayer dollars are still flowing into constructing and upgrading the massive base structure in that country—and yet, there are never enough of them.

In a recent Wall Street Journal piece on an unexpected surge of Taliban successes in northern Afghanistan, Army Colonel Bill Burleson, commander of the 10th Mountain Division, among the relatively modest US forces in the northern part of that country, is quoted as saying somewhat desperately of Taliban gains in the region: "In order to deny that terrain to the enemy you'd have to have people all over Afghanistan in combat outposts." Good point, Colonel. Why stop now?

Pay No Attention to the Superrich Donors Behind the Curtain

| Thu Oct. 21, 2010 10:51 AM EDT

A small handful of superrich businessmen and corporations are behind Karl Rove's American Crossroads, the most prominent Republican "Super PAC," which brought in an eyebrow-raising $15 million from September 1 to mid-October. Of that amount, more than $7 million came from a single contributor, Texas homebuilder Bob Perry—a longtime Republican donor who rose to infamy for backing the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth's attacks on John Kerry in 2004. Other major donors include Robert Rowling, an oil and hotel billionaire from Texas who threw in $1.5 million, and the Alliance Resource Group, a financial services firm with investments in the coal industry, which gave $2 million. Together with B. Wayne Hughes of a Kentucky-based company called Public Storage, these four donors made up two-thirds of the most recent donations to the group.

The third-quarter haul brings Americans Crossroads' total fundraising to $23 million. That doesn't even include the millions of undisclosed donations that are being funneled through the group's sister organization, American Crossroads GPS, which as a 501(c)4 isn't required to reveal its donors. And it's starting to become apparent how this torrent of cash could end up altering the political landscape. Crossroads recently launched a "House surge strategy" to pour cash into competitive districts where Democrats didn't think they would have to defend themselves. As a result, Dave Weigel reports, typically safe Democrats who'd otherwise give their funds to more endangered members have had to spend their own cash—most notably Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who loaned his own campaign $200,000 after an unexpectedly tough challenge in his home district.

Early in the summer, many observers wrote off Rove's group for only raising $200 in May, when it had just $1.25 million in the bank. The tea party, in all its raucous, pageview-generating glory held the spotlight, while establishment Republican operatives faded into the background. So no one paid much attention as Rove and his collaborators worked under the radar to court big donors and build up their shadow Republican Party. And all it took was a small handful of megadonors to change the calculus of the election.

Energy Interests Spending Big in 2010

| Thu Oct. 21, 2010 9:01 AM EDT

Energy interests are spending big this year, with a chunk of that money focused on tipping the scales toward candidates who might be more sympathetic to them next Congress. Energy companies have spent $68.5 million in 2010, mostly via the trade and interest groups that represent them, according to a new report from the left-leaning Center for American Progress Action Fund. Of that total, $17.3 million was for television ads between August and October 2010.

The biggest spender was the American Petroleum Institute, which accounted for more than half of the total at over $39 million. Another deep pocket is the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE), the coal front group, which spent more than $16 million. ACCCE, which was in the headlines last year for hiring a contractor that forged letters to Congress in 2009, has been running ads in Washington, D.C., Montana, and Texas touting the virtues of coal.

Other groups, like the National Association of Manufacturers, have targeted specific Democratic lawmakers—Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, John Rockefeller and Carte Goodwin of West Virginia, Evan Bayh of Indiana, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, and Russ Feingold and Herb Kohl in Wisconsin.

CAPAF has a neat interactive map that lets you see where these groups are spending. It's worth checking out.

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Is Toomey Worried?

| Thu Oct. 21, 2010 8:52 AM EDT

At least one person is worried about Rep. Joe Sestak's recent surge in the polls in the Pennsylvania Senate race: his GOP opponent, former congressman (and derivatives trader) Pat Toomey. That's what Toomey's telling his most fervent supporters at least. In a message to a conservative email list, the Toomey campaign warns that "The Liberals are Coming!" and says Toomey needs help right away. Here's an excerpt [emphasis added]:

Dear Reader,

It's simple.

The agenda that President Obama and Nancy Pelosi have advanced in Washington has moved our country in the wrong direction and it's prolonged our economic downturn.

Congressman Joe Sestak has supported this agenda, without exception, 100% of the time.

We're in a very competitive race for the United States Senate here in Pennsylvania -- in fact, Fox News just called our race, "neck and neck." I'd very much appreciate your help as we close in on the campaign's final days. Please consider making a contribution of $25, $50, $100 - or even $500, $1,000 or $2,400 - right now.

 

The rest of the message is along the same lines, bashing Obama and liberals. The email list this was sent to is more conservative than Pennsylvania, and the text is more right-wing than most of what Toomey, who's tried to paint himself as a moderate, has been sending this election season. Toomey has to tread carefully though—although Obama's not nearly as popular as he once was, Pennsylvania is still a state with a strong Democratic majority. He probably needs to win some Democrats (and Democratic-leaning independents) to win. If Sestak can prevent that by demonstrating that Toomey is a radical, he could still pull off the upset. If he can do that after coming from behind in the primary against Specter, he'll be a two-time comeback kid.

 

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for October 21, 2010

Thu Oct. 21, 2010 4:30 AM EDT

U.S. Army Pfc. Justin Pierce a Cavalry scout with 1st platoon Bravo Troop, 1st Squadron of the 172nd Cavalry Regiment and a Pittsfield, Mass., resident provides security for his fellow soldiers during a visit to an Afghan National Police (ANP) outpost in the Jabal Saraj district, Parwan province, Afghanistan, Oct. 8, 2010. Bravo troop visits the ANP outpost to check on the security forces, and to conduct an area recon.U.S. Army photo by Spc Kristina Gupton.

How MoJo Exposed David J. Stern and Launched a National Investigation

| Wed Oct. 20, 2010 2:48 PM EDT

In November 2009, MoJo reporter Andy Kroll received a tip about a little-known yet powerful firm, the Law Offices of David J. Stern, which handled staggering numbers of foreclosures in southeastern Florida—the throbbing heart of nation's housing crisis. Among the allegations, the tipster had it from insiders that Stern employees were routinely falsifying legal paperwork in an effort to push borrowers out of their homes as quickly—and profitably—as possible.

Intrigued, Kroll started tracking down and interviewing people who'd worked for Stern. He pulled every public record he could find related to Stern's operation, and he called every foreclosure-defense attorney within the lawyer's Sunshine State empire. Taken together, the stories they told seemed unbelievable. Falsified evidence? Contests to see which employee could push a foreclosure case through the courts fastest? Court documents rubber stamped by rookie attorneys who hadn't even read them? Judges so swamped that they overlooked missing court filings? Foreclosures initiated on homeowners who had paid their mortgage bills on time? Lewd shenanigans by the boss? Each person Kroll contacted "gave me some new awful detail I hadn't heard yet," he says. "It just got worse and worse."

Terror Trial Update: The Fear Factor

| Wed Oct. 20, 2010 2:19 PM EDT

Read Karen Greenberg's previous coverage of the Ghailani trial here.

The courtroom for the Gitmo trial gets emptier each day, as the press turns its attention to other matters in New York's Southern District Courthouse. Today's distraction was the long-awaited terrorism conviction of four men in what's known as the Bronx synagogue case. But away from the bustle of cameramen and reporters outside the courthouse, the jury and judge in the case of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani are focused entirely on his alleged involvement in the 1998 bombings in east Africa. And for good reason, because as today's session made clear, there are challenges of a subtle nature in this Gitmo case that are likely to haunt it to the end.

On the surface, the day's proceedings took the jury one level deeper into the story of Ghailani's alleged role in the Tanzania embassy attack. Having called survivors and eyewitnesses as well as FBI forensic experts, the prosecution presented three Tanzanians who testified to unwittingly providing help—batteries, some welding, storage—to Ghailani as he allegedly modified a white Nissan truck to be a car bomb.