Mojo - December 2010

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for December 24, 2010

Fri Dec. 24, 2010 5:30 AM EST

U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Salvador Guiterrez, a platoon sergeant with the 211th Armored Cavalry Regiment, prepares an opposing force surrogate vehicle (OSV) to receive a battery charge from another OSV at sunrise at the National Training Center on Fort Irwin, Calif., Dec. 5, 2010. The center is designed to train Soldiers for deployment. (DoD photo by Staff Sgt. Renae L. Saylock, U.S. Air Force)

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Corn on "Hardball": Will Obama's Roll Continue in 2011?

Fri Dec. 24, 2010 12:56 AM EST

David Corn and Lynn Sweet joined Chris Matthews on MSNBC's Hardball to discuss Obama's recent string of legislative victories and whether or not he can keep the ball rolling in 2011.

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

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for December 23, 2010

Thu Dec. 23, 2010 5:30 AM EST

U.S. Army Spc. Erik Martin (left), with the Zabul Provincial Reconstruction Team, enters the village of Khwazi, Afghanistan, while on a dismounted mission to survey the village for a new well on Dec. 14, 2010. The Zabul Provincial Reconstruction Team is comprised of Air Force, Army, U.S. Department of State, U.S. Agency for International Development and U.S. Department of Agriculture personnel who work with the government of Afghanistan to improve governance, stability and development throughout the province. DoD photo by Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson, U.S. Air Force.

CIA response to WikiLeaks: “WTF”

| Thu Dec. 23, 2010 12:01 AM EST

Guest blogger Mark Follman writes frequently about current affairs and culture at markfollman.com.

A report from the Washington Post on Wednesday describes an effort by the CIA to assess the impact of WikiLeaks on US national security. The effort is known as the WikiLeaks Task Force. Apparently it's also commonly referred to as 'WTF' around the halls in Langley. While that acronym may be cracking some sardonic grins, the Post story also reveals a CIA perspective that is no laughing matter.

To some agency veterans, WikiLeaks has vindicated the CIA's long-standing aversion to sharing secrets with other government agencies, a posture that came under sharp criticism after it was identified as a factor that contributed to the nation's failure to prevent the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Even while moving to share more information over the past decade, the agency 'has not capitulated to this business of making everything available to outsiders,' said a former high-ranking CIA official who recently retired. 'They don't even make everything available to insiders. And by and large the system has worked.'

Without a doubt the sharing of sensitive information among US agencies remains a complex and unwieldy issue—perhaps as complex and unwieldy as the US national security apparatus itself since it ballooned under George W. Bush in the wake of 9/11. But while a strong majority of Americans believe that WikiLeaks has harmed the national interest, it could be dangerously foolish to buy into a resurgent lockdown mentality.

In his indispensable 2006 book 'The Looming Tower,' journalist Lawrence Wright investigated the devastating effect of turf battles among the CIA, FBI and NSA prior to the 9/11 attacks. Wright's book, as I detailed in an essay for Salon, made a persuasive case that the 9/11 plot may well have been foiled if not for fatal duplicity on the part of the CIA, which jealously guarded its intelligence gathering from the criminal-investigation focused FBI. A crucial opportunity apparently came and went in late 2000:

In Yemen, [FBI agent] Soufan was on the trail of an al-Qaida figure closely connected with Nawaf al-Hamzi and Khaled al-Mihdhar, two Saudi-born al-Qaida operatives who would later help seize planes on 9/11. The CIA had surveillance photos of all three men together from an al-Qaida summit in Malaysia the previous January, but when Soufan came knocking for information, the CIA slammed the door shut. It was part of what Wright calls 'a bizarre trend in the US government to hide information from the people who most needed it.'

As I noted in my piece about WikiLeaks and cyber warfare earlier this month, some US officials have been warning anew about the dangers of inter-agency turf battles. Former national intelligence director Dennis C. Blair recently told Congress, 'This infuriating business about who's in charge and who gets to call the shots is just making us muscle-bound.'

What happens when the next 9/11 is in the works? The real imperative, it seems, is for the US government to better protect any necessary secrets (the definition of which is another key subject—see Thomas Blanton on 'the massive overclassification' of US national security information) while improving upon the sharing of vital information among agencies. If it fails in that mission, the fallout could ultimately be far greater than anything perpetrated by the likes of Julian Assange and company.

TomDispatch Blocked by State Department!

| Wed Dec. 22, 2010 3:37 PM EST

I have a friend who sends a note every year in December, pleading with me to pen one upbeat, hopeful piece before the next year rolls around. Mind you, I consider myself an upbeat guy in a downbeat world and, for me, when it comes to pure upbeatness, you couldn't have beaten this week if you tried. This was when my Oscar came in—or the equivalent on the political Internet anyway. On December 7th, the State Department announced its brave decision to host UNESCO's World Press Freedom Day in 2011. ("[W]e are concerned about the determination of some governments to censor and silence individuals, and to restrict the free flow of information…") Less than two weeks later, I learned that if you try to go to TomDispatch.com from a State Department computer, you can't get there. The following message appears instead:

"Access Denied for Security Risk (policy_wikileaks)

"Your requested URL has been blocked to prevent classified information from being downloaded to OpenNet."

Democratic Senators: Lockerbie Bomber's Release "Unjustified"

| Wed Dec. 22, 2010 2:33 PM EST

The release of convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was "unjustified," four Democratic Senators conclude in a report that was released Tuesday. Megrahi was the only person who has been convicted of the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing that killed 270 people in 1988. He was sentenced to life in prison in 2001, but was released in August 2009 on compassionate grounds after doctors told a court that he was facing terminal prostate cancer and only had three months to live. Now, 16 months later, Meraghi's still alive—and it appears that political pressure may have led to his release.

Since then, one of the doctors that testified about Megrahi's condition has said he was paid by the Libyan government to make that determination, and Megrahi could actually live another ten years. His release made it back into the news over the summer when, in the midst of BP's big Gulf oil spill, allegations were raised that BP lobbied for his release in order to secure a $900 million deal to drill in Libya's Gulf of Sidra.

In July, four Democratic senators—New Jersey's Robert Menendez and Frank Lautenberg and New York's Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand—called for an investigation by the State Department. On Tuesday, the four released their own report on the release, concluding that "the three-months-to-live prognosis was unwarranted and, thus, the basis for his release on compassionate grounds was unjustified." The report draws on available government documents in the involved countries, staff interviews with American, UK, and Scottish officials, and input from medical and business experts. The report looks at two questions: whether medical evidence actually supported al-Megrahi’s three-month prognosis, and if not, what motivated the UK and Scottish governments to support his release.

On the first, the report concludes:

The three-month prognosis given to al-Megrahi by Scottish doctors was inaccurate and unsupported by medical science. During the course of this investigation, Scottish officials presented two conflicting factual scenarios: one stating that al-Megrahi did not receive chemotherapy and another stating that he did. Neither scenario supports a three month prognosis.

On the second question, the report notes that both the Scottish and British governments "refused to respond to questions." It concludes that the UK government played a "direct, critical role" in Megrahi'S release—motivated by the "threat of commercial warfare" with Libya. In particular, energy companies in the UK gunning for access to Libya's oil and natural gas resources, the report states. The report also details some historical examples of the UK government intervening on behalf of the British oil giant BP in particular. From the report:

The U.K. knew that in order to maintain trade relations with Libya, it had to give into political demands. Faced with the threat of losing the lucrative BP oil deal and other commercial ties, the U.K. agreed to include al-Megrahi’s release in a Prisoner Transfer Agreement (PTA) with Libya. Around the same time as al-Megrahi’s release, the U.K. and Libya were moving forward with other lucrative deals. Normalizing relations with Libya – and al-Megrahi’s release – clearly benefited U.K. business interests.

The Scottish government, the report states, seems to have bowed to pressure from the UK:

Evidence suggests that U.K. officials pressured Scotland to facilitate al-Megrahi’s release. The U.K. communicated to the Scottish Government that there were significant national interests in expanding trade relations with Libya. While Scotland has enjoyed a measure of independence from the U.K. since 1998, the U.K. government retains considerable powers over Scottish affairs. Thus, it would not be surprising that the Scottish Government would be susceptible to pressure from the U.K. The Scottish Government may also have been influenced by lobbying from the Qatar government and the opportunity act independently on the world stage.

The report is an interesting read, but what will be more interesting is if anything comes of it. Both Scottish and British officials declined to appear before a hearing by the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on Megrahi's release earlier this year. The Obama administration, for its part, has said it believes Megrahi should be returned to prison.

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Republicans Heart Ethics Reform?

| Wed Dec. 22, 2010 1:00 PM EST

Setting the rules for his GOP-controlled House, incoming Speaker John Boehner has preserved the Office of Congressional Ethicsthe independent investigative panel that has been criticized for overreaching by members of both parties. Good government groups and other watchdogs had warned that the new GOP majority might try to kill off the OCE, which was created in 2008 as part of the Democrats' sweeping ethics reforms. Though Boehner and other Republicans opposed the OCE from the start, they were joined more recently by members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who believed their members were unfairly targeted by the independent panel, which can use publiceven anonymouscomplaints to initiate investigations.

But despite the bipartisan opposition to the OCE, Republicans "found it untenable to gut an ethics office while calling for greater accountability in Congress," writes Politico's Jonathan Allen, and the House GOP has preserved the rules governing the panel so far. There's still a chance that the OCE could end up being undermined during the appropriations processlawmakers will have to approve funding for staffing the panel, and cutting off the OCE's purse strings would be an easy way to defang the office without eliminating it entirely. But the GOP may have also decided that gutting the office isn't worth the risk of a public backlash. Also not lost on the GOP is the fact that Democrats have been the main targets of the office's investigations.

Boehner certainly wants to send the message that the GOP is tough on ethics: one of the new rules bars former legislators who become registered lobbyists from access to the House gym, to clamp down on informal wheeling and dealing. The party has also waged its tea party-backed war on earmarks under the auspices of cracking down on favor-trading and other blights of Beltway culture.

But though the pro-ethics rhetoric has flown freely, real solutions are much more murky, given all of the workarounds that are available: the GOP has welcomed influence-peddling through outside spending groups, incoming freshmen are bringing scores of ex-lobbyists on staff, and earmarks are a miniscule portion of government appropriations and designated spending on pet projects. Meanwhile, even if the OCE is preserved, the House Ethics Committeethe internal body that actually doles out punishmentsis in complete turmoil over the impending trial of Rep. Maxine Water (D-Calif.), and Boehner has yet to indicate whether such investigations with be conducted with the same fervor in the next Congress.

Obama's Tax Deal and the Future of Social Security

| Wed Dec. 22, 2010 12:36 PM EST

It’s worth pointing out once again that  last week’s  tax deal is hardly the victory for the American people it is made out to be. One of the biggest chunks -- 13 percent of the total monies — comes from Social Security and Medicare in the form of a one-year cut in payroll taxes. The government promises to pay back what it is taking from the Social Security trust fund by borrowing the money, then floating bonds to guarantee  repayment.

This one year abeyance might not seem like much. But with the coming of a right-wing Republican House, under pressure from the further fringes in the tea party, it does not augur well for the future of the program. From its inception under FDR, the Republicans have dreamed of getting rid of Social Security, along with such other things as the Federal Reserve, the income tax, the Department of Education, and the UN.

“Social Security’s dedicated funding base is jeopardized by this deal in an unprecedented way and there is a grave risk now that the retirement benefits of America’s workers will have to compete with our other priorities for a share of the general budget,” said Rep. Loyd Doggett (D-Tex.) at a press conference held by the National Committee To Preserve Social Security and Medicare. ”It would result in Social Security being as dependent on annual Congressional action as public television or our national parks.”

Vitter Blames Immigrants for Louisiana's Census Problems

| Wed Dec. 22, 2010 12:12 PM EST

Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), who was recently (and inexplicably) re-elected after a scandal involving prostitution and an alleged diaper fetish, knows who to blame for Louisiana's recent loss of a congressional seat in post-Census reapportionment: illegal immigrants in other states. He's definitely on to something here. Surely Louisiana's slower population growth relative to other states couldn't have anything to do with a certain hurricane that devastated the state's biggest city and drove a large portion of the black population out of the state entirely—making Vitter's road to re-election this year that much easier. No, it's definitely the fault of illegal immigrants. Here's what Vitter told Politico:

"Louisiana stands to lose clout in Congress, while states that welcome illegal immigrants stand to unfairly benefit from artificially inflated population totals," the Republican senator said in a statement Tuesday.

Politico notes that Louisiana "also" lost residents due to Hurricane Katrina, and reminds readers of Vitter's failed 2009 effort to try to force a question about citizenship onto the census questionnaire. What the paper doesn't mention, however, is that Vitter is really complaining about the Constitution, which mandates that the Census count "persons" (and 3/5 of every slave), not just "citizens." So sorry, Senator: to fix this "problem" of yours, you're probably going to need a constitutional amendment. Of course, it might be easier to save Louisiana's extra congressional district if you built a time machine and went back to tell your Republican friend George W. Bush not to gut the Federal Emergency Management Agency and urge him not to hand its reins to the failed, fired head of the International Arabian Horse Association. Just a thought. 

Fact-Checking Liu Xiaobo Critics

| Wed Dec. 22, 2010 10:38 AM EST

Liu Xiaobo, an imprisoned activist who was awarded this year's Peace prize for his "long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China," is best known for his participation in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and penning articles discouraging violence as a tool of pro-democracy Chinese dissidents. But according to his critics, he's also a fervent supporter of US-led wars.

Last Wednesday, Hong Kong-based professors Barry Sautman and Yan Hairong published a piece in The Guardian arguing that the Western media and Nobel committee have failed to recognize Liu's support of US war-efforts in Vietnam—and that Liu's imprisonment "was unnecessary," because "If Liu's politics were well-known, most people would not favour him for a prize, because he is a champion of war, not peace." To support this point, they cite a quote (translated below) from Liu's 1996 essay, "Lessons From the Cold War":

The free world led by the US fought almost all regimes that trampled on human rights...The major wars that the US became involved in are all ethically defensible.

Since an English translation of Liu's essay doesn't seem to exist, we read his essay in its original Mandarin, but we were unable to locate the quote Sautman and Yan mentioned. Just to be sure, we had another multilingual friend spot-check us, but he couldn't find it either. Looks like Sautman and Yan broadly misquoted the Nobel prize-winner at best. At worst, they deliberately fabricated his views about US involvement in the Vietnam and Korean Wars. One thing they didn't mention: Liu's essay was less concerned with the West's involvement in the Cold War, and is ultimately more interested in China's human rights failures [PDF], stating:

It was not the Americans that destroyed Communist authoritarianism, but that was caused by the self-destructive forces of this system's anti-human nature.