Mojo - November 2010

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

Mon Nov. 22, 2010 6:30 AM EST

U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Danielle Robles, from the Paktia Provincial Reconstruction Team, provides security during an engineering mission in Rabat, Afghanistan, on Nov. 7, 2010. The team facilitates the Afghan government’s ability to provide public services and development projects with the goal of weakening insurgent influence. DoD photo by Staff Sgt. Barry Loo, U.S. Air Force. (Released)

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Ron Paul: Abolish the TSA

| Fri Nov. 19, 2010 8:30 PM EST

Kevin Drum and Nick Baumann have already weighed in on the great-TSA-junk-groping-and-porn-scanner-freakout of 2010. Now, Texas Rep. Ron Paul has introduced legislation to fix the problem. Or simply fix one problem by creating a whole host of other problems; it's unclear, really. Thankfully, the bill is only 106 words long, which means that 1.) its opponents won't be able to dramatically wave a copy of the legislation on the House floor, and 2.) I can just copy and paste the bill below, in its entirety:

No law of the United States shall be construed to confer any immunity for a Federal employee or agency or any individual or entity that receives Federal funds, who subjects an individual to any physical contact (including contact with any clothing the individual is wearing), x-rays, or millimeter waves, or aids in the creation of or views a representation of any part of a individual's body covered by clothing as a condition for such individual to be in an airport or to fly in an aircraft. The preceding sentence shall apply even if the individual or the individual's parent, guardian, or any other individual gives consent.

Paul might oppose physical violations of our civil liberties, but other liberties are fair game—which, as Adam Serwer notes, has sort of been the big elephino in the room during this whole debate. For instance, Paul told Fox News' Neil Cavuto afterwards that he supports profiling—so long as it's the privately owned airlines, and not the government employees doing the sorting. I wouldn't bet on the bill passing, but it should, if nothing else, make for a great campaign ad the next time he runs for president.

And if you haven't already, check out Nick's five-step plan for a saner TSA.

Under Fire, Foreclosure King Resigns

| Fri Nov. 19, 2010 6:55 PM EST

It's all unraveling for David J. Stern, the South Florida foreclosure attorney who built a once-formidable foreclosure empire only to see it crumble in recent months. On Friday, DJSP Enterprises, Stern's publicly traded foreclosure processing company, announced his resignation as president and CEO. Replacing him is Stephen Bernstein, a prominent real estate executive in Florida. It's Bernstein's job now to turn around a company that's lost 96 percent of its initial market capitalization of $300 million in less than a year. The company has never recovered from an unexpected dip in business that caused DJSP's stock to plummet this spring. DJSP's stock value has hovered around $.50 a share for the past week.

The downfall of DJSP, which handles non-legal processing work for Stern's law firm, stems largely from David Stern's own fallout with some of his biggest clients, both in Washington and on Wall Street. After media reports, including MoJo's own eight-month investigation exposed the questionable, dubious practices at Stern's firm (one former employee called it a "legal sweatshop") and widespread evidence of rampant corner cutting and even alleged fraud, the scrutiny of Stern's multimillion-dollar operation increased. Soon after MoJo published its story on Stern in August, the Florida attorney general announced a probe into Stern's firm to see whether bogus paperwork had been cooked up to speed up the foreclosure proceed and churn out more profit.

Before long, facing pressure from members of Congress and the public, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the taxpayer-rescued government housing corporations who'd previously counted Stern among their retained attorneys, stopped doing business with him. It was a major blow to Stern; so important (and lucrative) to him were Fannie and Freddie that he referred to them as his "babies." Citigroup, GMAC, and Wells Fargo followed Fannie and Freddie's lead soon after. As a result, Stern's new business plummeted by more than 90 percent, he wrote to employees in a November letter. His operation has laid off more than 400 of its 1000-plus employees in recent weeks as a result of the slowdown in foreclosure referrals, and is expected to fire even more.

Stern began building his foreclosure empire, which today stretches from Florida to Puerto Rico to the Philippines, nearly two decades ago, in a North Miami Beach office with "ugly blue carpet and pink walls," he once recalled. Over time, though, he built, fine-tuned, and expanded his foreclosure law firm, adding new employees and finding new ways to speed up the foreclosure process. Foreclosure mills like Stern's get paid by the case, so the faster they plow through cases, the more money they make.

But as Stern's firm grew and grew, it allegedly began to play fast and loose with due process and the law. As I reported,

Beyond the backdated assignments, employees told me that the firm routinely doctored legal filings. Case chronologies—the timeline of important events in a foreclosure—were changed "all day long" to create the appearance of propriety, notes a former Stern paralegal. Internal documents show that the firm attempted to push cases through the courts even when key documents like the assignment of mortgage—or the mortgage contract itself—were missing from the file. "Need to re-set. No original loan docs," a Stern attorney wrote in a July 2008 memo after being rebuffed at a Tampa court hearing. At a Stern hearing in April, Pinellas County Judge Anthony Rondolino got so fed up with bad behavior by the mills, he declared, "I don't have any confidence that any of the documents the court is receiving on these mass foreclosures are valid."

That same month, a Fort Lauderdale attorney filed a class-action lawsuit against Stern and his firm, accusing them of racketeering and claiming the firm deliberately hid the true ownership on mortgages in cases involving "tens of thousands" of homeowners. A second suit, filed just days later, claimed that Stern's firm had refused to hold up a foreclosure on a couple in Port St. Lucie, even after it was clear that they hadn't had so much as been late with a payment.

Those practices eventually caught up with Stern. The financial health of DJSP Enterprises had gotten so bad lately that, in a financial filing, the company revealed it had defaulted on both its office rent and a $15 million line of credit with Bank of America. You couldn't miss the irony.

While Stern still retains control of his firm, the Law Offices of David J. Stern, the future's unclear for Stern and his publicly traded outfit.

Two Clinton-Era Laws That Allow Cruel and Unusual Punishment

| Fri Nov. 19, 2010 5:04 PM EST

If the lame duck Congress is looking for legislation to pass before the Republicans take hold, it should look no farther than two laws passed as part of the so-called War on Crime, which gives the War on Terror a run for its money when it comes to violating Constitutional and human rights.

The Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), passed after the Oklahoma City bombing with broad bipartisan support, undermined habeas the corpus rights of US prisoners long before the Bush Administration sought to withhold them from "enemy combatants." AEDPA placed severe limitations on prisoners' ability to challenge death sentences—or life sentences, or any unjust convictions—in federal courts, even when they had new evidence of their innocence.

Under AEDPA, proof of "actual innocence" does not necessarily prohibit the execution or continued incarceration of prisoners. (A recent Supreme Court decision in the Troy Davis case questioned, but did not eliminate, this reality.) And while the pace of executions has slowed in recent years in spite of the AEDPA, the law still stands in the way of appeals by many prisoners across the country who might have just grounds for seeking to have their convictions overturned.

Retired Republican Rep. Warns Party: Ignore Climate at Your Own Risk

| Fri Nov. 19, 2010 4:29 PM EST

Sherwood Boehlert, the former Republican House member from New York , penned an op-ed in the Washington Post today taking members of his party to task for denying climate change. Boehlert represented New York's 24th District in Congress from 1983 until he retired in 2007, and is now a special adviser to the Project on Climate Science.

Like his fellow Republican Bob Inglis of South Carolina, Boehlert is baffled by the position of his colleagues:

It is a stance that defies the findings of our country's National Academy of Sciences, national scientific academies from around the world and 97 percent of the world's climate scientists.
Why do so many Republican senators and representatives think they are right and the world's top scientific academies and scientists are wrong? I would like to be able to chalk it up to lack of information or misinformation.
I can understand arguments over proposed policy approaches to climate change. I served in Congress for 24 years. I know these are legitimate areas for debate. What I find incomprehensible is the dogged determination by some to discredit distinguished scientists and their findings.

Boehlert continued that the "natural aversion to more government regulation" should not be used "as an excuse to deny the problem's existence." He also warned that it's short-sighted. "My fellow Republicans should understand that wholesale, ideologically based or special-interest-driven rejection of science is bad policy," he said. "And that in the long run, it's also bad politics."

Both Boehlert and Inglis stand as rare examples in their party today; as a comprehensive survey of the scene from the Center for American Progress notes, the breakdown of the incoming class on the subject is pretty bleak:

Well over half (55 percent) of the incoming Republican caucus are climate zombies. Thirty-five of the 46 (76 percent) Republicans in the U.S. Senate next year publicly question the science of global warming. Of the 240 Republicans elected to the House of Representatives, 125 (52 percent) publicly question the science.

Rep. Jack Kingston Announces Approps Chair Bid

| Fri Nov. 19, 2010 2:47 PM EST

Since the 2010 midterms, Republican lawmakers have gone to war over earmarks. In the Senate, the battle culminated in pro-earmark Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's concession to Sen. Jim DeMint's call for a (non-binding) ban on earmarks from GOP senators on Monday.

Despite the House's similar ban on earmarks, the debate in the lower chamber hasn't generated the same fireworks as it has in the Senate. With candidates for the chairmanship of the appropriations committee—which directs a sizable chunk of federal money, including earmarks—touting their fiscal conservative bonafides in their pursuit of the gavel. But some of the top candidates for the job, including California's Jerry Lewis and Kentucky's Hal Rogers, have garnered pretty pork-friendly reputations over the years. 

In a letter to the members of the House Republican Conference, Georgia Republican Jack Kingston threw his hat in the race for committee chair. Kingston, the fifth-ranking Republican on the committee, cites his spotless conservative credentials, including perfect ratings from FreedomWorks and the Eagle Forum, and his record of cutting spending as the chairman of the Legislative Branch Subcommittee [of the Appropriations committee] "when Republican spending was at its worst." And on earmarking, he cites his 2007 bill calling for a moratorium on earmarks and bipartisan hearings on reforming the practice.

While federal spending has spun out of control, earmarks "got out of hand numerically and in the quality or the substance of them...and [are] things that the federal goernment should not be involved in," Kingston told Mother Jones recently. Given the tea party's momentum, Kingston's anti-earmark and fiscal conservative credentials could make him an attractive candidate for the powerful approps committee post.

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Ousted Texas Textbooks Czar: I Shall Return

| Fri Nov. 19, 2010 2:44 PM EST

Texas' textbook standards might not dictate the market like they used to, but the state still has a bigger public school system than just about any other state, so it's a pretty big deal when those standards encourage the teaching of, say, intelligent design or the collected works of Jefferson Davis. And for the last 12 years, the man who's done the most to lead the State Board of Education's rightward shift has been Don McLeroy, a dentist, Sunday school teacher, and board member who thinks liberals have taken the America out of American history and the God out of science.

Last spring McLeroy lost his primary and was thought to be just about done with public education. This week, McLeroy told the Texas Tribune, somewhat ominously, that he'll be back:

"I mean, golly, I love this stuff. You haven't seen the last of Don McLeroy," he says, noting that while he'll watch to see what happens during this legislative session's redistricting process, he'll likely run for his old spot on the board in two years.

Emphasis mine, obviously. But don't expect any fireworks from the Board's final lame-duck meetings. Members are set to discuss mathematics and fine arts, and while math has been subject of controvery in the past, McLeroy expects that debate to be "pretty blah," because—creeping Islamification of our textbooks notwithstanding—how can you politicize algebra?*

Bush's Biggest WMD Lie?

| Fri Nov. 19, 2010 7:00 AM EST

It's official. George W. Bush's selective and self-serving book is a best-seller. He sold 775,000 copies in the first week and the publisher has rushed to print an additional 350,000. The amount of debunking the book deserves could, well, fill a book. But there's one trenchant portion of the book that reeks with hypocrisy. In discussing the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Bush notes, "That was a massive blow to our credibility—my credibility—that would shake the confidence of the American people." He then adds: "No one was more shocked or angry than I was when we didn't find the weapons. I had a sickening feeling every time I thought about it. I still do."

A sickening feeling every time he thought about it? Really? Let's rewind the video back to a moment that crystallized the Bush-Cheney era. It was March 24, 2004. Washington's political and media elite had gathered at the Washington Hilton for the annual Radio and Television Correspondents' Association Dinner, which is something of a cousin to the yearly White House Correspondents' Association Dinner. As thousands of DC's swells enjoyed their surf-and-turf meal, Bush was the entertainment. The tradition is that at such affairs the president is the big speaker, and he has to be amusing, poking fun at himself and his political foes.

Bush was no fan of such gatherings, and he and his aides had decided he ought to narrate a humorous slide show, instead of doing a stand-up routine. Large video screens flashed pictures of him and his aides, which he augmented with funny quips. One showed him on the phone with a finger in his ear. He explained this shot by saying he spends "a lot of time on the phone listening to our European allies." There were humorous bits about his mother and Dick Cheney.

Then Bush displayed a photo of himself looking for something out a window in the Oval Office. His narration: "Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be somewhere." The audience laughed. But the joke wasn't done. After a few more slides, there was a shot of Bush looking under furniture in the Oval Office. "Nope," he said. "No weapons over there." More laughter. Then another picture of Bush searching in his office: "Maybe under here." Laughter again.

Bush was actually joking about the missing weapons of mass destruction. He was making fun of the reason he had cited for sending Americans to war and to death, turning it into a running gag. His smile was wide and his eyes seemed bright, as the audience laughed. At the time I wrote,

Few [in the crowd] seemed to mind. His WMD gags did not prompt a how-can-you silence from the gathering. At the after-parties, I heard no complaints.I wondered what the spouse, child or parent of a soldier killed in Iraq would have felt if they had been watching C-SPAN and saw the commander-in-chief mocking the supposed justification for the war that claimed their loved ones. Bush told the nation that lives had to be sacrificed because Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction that could be used (by terrorists) against the United States. That was not true. (And as [WMD search team leader David] Kay pointed out, the evidence so far shows these weapons were not there in the first place, not that they were hidden, destroyed or spirited away.) But rather than acknowledge he misinformed the public, Bush jokes about the absence of such weapons.

In yet another act reminiscent of Soviet-style revisionism, Bush in his book does not mention this dinner and his performance there. If he indeed felt ill whenever he pondered the missing WMDs—as he insists in his memoirs—how could he turn this into a crass punchline? Asking that question provides the answer. He is fibbing in his book. Moreover, this small episode is proof of a larger truth: Bush's chronicle is not a serious accounting of his years as the decider. As for the hundreds of thousands of readers who shelled out $35.00 for the book, expecting the former president to level with them, the joke is on them.

After John Tyner: A Five-Step Plan to a Sane Airport Security System

| Fri Nov. 19, 2010 7:00 AM EST

In late October, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which handles airport security in the US, began offering passengers a choice: either submit to being imaged by the new, invasive, "backscatter" scanners, which show your genitals to the security officers manning the machine, or risk having your junk touched by those same officers. New regulations require that the TSA perform "enhanced pat-downs"—which some critics have described as "groping"—of anyone who declines the controversial full-body scan. If you decline both procedures, as Californian John Tyner did this week, you can be investigated and face fines up to $11,000

Although a recent poll showed that over 80 percent of Americans are okay with the new scanners, the forced choice between the "naked" imaging and the new pat-downs has a vocal group of fliers and airport security reformers up in arms. On October 29, Atlantic magazine writer Jeff Goldberg, who's cultivated a sort of side-career as an airport security reformer, wrote a hilarious blog post about his experience with the new pat-downs. The post, in which Goldberg banters with TSA officers about his testicles, was widely circulated on the Internet. But it wasn't until John "Don't Touch My Junk" Tyner taped his own encounter with the TSA that the story really took off, fuelling criticism of the TSA across the media and political spectrum.

My colleague Kevin Drum is tired of hearing the complaints. So on Monday, he issued a challenge

[W]hat I haven't seen is an informed take on what airport security ought to look like. We all hate taking off our shoes and pulling out our laptops and being limited to three ounces of liquid and not being allowed to meet people at the gate anymore — we hate all of that. But if it's all useless, what should we do instead? Shouldn't someone write that article?

Ever dutiful, I set out to complete Kevin's assignment. I asked Goldberg, security expert Bruce Schneier, and airline pilot (and security critic) Patrick Smith about what their ideal airport security schemes would look like. After speaking to them, I think Kevin is missing the point: the elimination of existing useless security procedures is the heart of the plan. It's not about doing something "instead" of the current system—it's about not doing things that are wasting money and time and not making us safer. It's quite possible that we're already as safe as we're going to get—and every subsequent airport security "improvement" is just reducing our freedom without improving security.

Schneier is famous for explaining that "exactly two things have made us safer since 9/11: reinforcing the cockpit door and convincing passengers they need to fight back. Everything else is a waste of money." All three experts favor scrapping most of the security measures that people hate—and not necessarily replacing them with anything. Ideally, the money that was saved wouldn't be spent on airport security at all: it would be spent on trying to stop terrorists before they got to the airport. That means better-funding law enforcement and intelligence.

All that said, Goldberg, Schneier, and Smith did offer some suggestions for new or different security procedures to use "instead" of the methods we're currently relying on. Here are a few options:

  1. Enhance baggage security. All three experts mentioned this. Baggage is where the greatest danger is, and where airport security resources should be focused. "Right now the biggest threats are still bombs and explosives. That's the path of least resistance," Smith says. "All luggage going on passenger planes should be treated the same, and scanned," says Schneier. Making sure that a passenger's bags never, ever fly if he doesn't is also key. And we could do more. Here's an excerpt from a 2006 article by Schneier:
    If I were investing in security, I would fund significant research into computer-assisted screening equipment for both checked and carry-on bags, but wouldn't spend a lot of money on invasive screening procedures and secondary screening. I would much rather have well-trained security personnel wandering around the airport, both in and out of uniform, looking for suspicious actions.
  2. Pay more attention to airport workers. Schneier was an early advocate of background checks and increased screening for airport employees. If you're screening pilots, it's "completely absurd" not to screen the guy who is loading food on the plane, Smith says. This has improved in recent years, and the TSA now conducts random screening of airport employees. That could be broadened. Goldberg suggested considering biometric IDs for airport employees.
  3. Randomize enhanced screening. Schneier has suggested that any "enhanced" screening of passengers be "truly random." That means that while the majority of passengers wouldn't face the invasive security checks they face now, every passenger would face the risk of a thorough search. Terrorists can't avoid or plan for truly random enhanced searches, like they can with protocol-, background-, and profiling-based searches. You don't want terrorists to be able to plan their way around your security. You want them to have to get lucky.
  4. Make security lines less vulnerable. The huge lines of people waiting in airport security lines are themselves a huge target. "If you want to terrorize the country, you don't have to take down an airplane, you can just take people down in a security line," Goldberg says. "All these people packed in tightly waiting and waiting and waiting... The next day all the airports in America will be closed." Moving people through security quickly and efficiently will make the security lines themselves less of a target. 
  5. The Israeli model is unworkable on a large scale. But that doesn't mean you can't replicate parts of it. Some people believe that America should move to the Israeli model of airport security: intense screening based on asking passengers many, many questions and assessing their responses. But the experts I spoke to don't think that plan is workable in the United States. Israel has one medium-sized airport, and it would be next to impossible (and incredibly expensive) to enact Israeli-style security procedures in a country the size of the US. But that doesn't mean you couldn't have more (well-trained!) people observing passengers' behavior or asking key questions of randomly selected passengers. 

Scott Brown: GOP's Health Care Peace-Broker?

| Fri Nov. 19, 2010 7:00 AM EST

Thus far, the Republican war against health care reform has been one long, blaring cry to repeal the federal law. Given just how unlikely this outcome would be under the current administration, the GOP's strategy has largely come across as political posturing meant to undermine the Democrats rather than offer any constructive alternatives or changes to the Affordable Care Act.

That was until Thursday, when Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) decided to break away from his party's all-or-nothing call for repeal, proposing a reform that could actually be an improvement on the federal law. Brown has teamed up with Democrat Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) to introduce legislation that would allow states to opt out of the individual mandate to purchase health insurance more quickly. Under federal health care reform, states can appeal to the federal government for mandate waivers beginning in 2017 if they propose an acceptable alternative. Brown and Wyden want to push the start date to 2014, so that states don't have to go through the motions of complying with the federal law if they have an alternative plan in the works.