Mojo - January 2011

WATCH: Sheppard and Corn on "Countdown"

Tue Jan. 4, 2011 1:59 AM PST

It was double duty for MoJo's Washington bureau on Monday as both Kate Sheppard and David Corn joined Keith Olbermann on MSNBC's Countdown. First, Kate dished on the EPA's new greenhouse gas regulations and incoming chair of the energy and commerce committee Rep. Fred Upton's (R-Mich.) plans to block them.

Then David Corn joined Keith to discuss Darrell Issa's plans to investigate the Obama administration.

Kate Sheppard covers energy and environmental politics in Mother Jones' Washington bureau. For more of her stories, click here. She Tweets here. Get Kate Sheppard's RSS feed.

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

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Oakland Suspends Pot Farms

| Mon Jan. 3, 2011 2:26 PM PST

Was it all just a pipe dream? Oakland's audacious plan to legalize and tax large-scale marijuana farms is starting to sound like a totally rad idea that, upon further consideration, is only workable in a Harold and Kumar movie. Over the holidays, the city's pot-loving council members sent the plan back to the drawing board over fears that they might all go to prison. "It remains an open question" whether allowing the farms could expose the council to federal prosecution, the county DA informed them. Because, you know, the risks of building four, football-stadium-sized indoor grow operations that would together gross $200 million a year hadn't already been totally obvious. 

The council's hand-wringing is probably the result of the feds harshing their buzz. Early last month, California Watch reported that officials from the US Department of Justice had informed Oakland's city attorney that no, really, they weren't cool with the plan. The city council had been under the mistaken impression that the the farms would be left alone by the Obama DEA, which in 2009 announced that it would no longer raid legitimate medical marijuana operations.  But Oakland's plan to become "Oaksterdam" may have been a bit too Left Coast even for the O-man.

So what now? Council president Jane Brunner tells the San Francisco Chronicle that the pot farm plan is being reworded to exclude any possibility that its high-grade ganja could be used by recreational stoners (a California ballot measure that would have legalized recreational pot failed in November). In Oaksterdam, it's all about the meds now, or whatever.

Pakistan Drones' Success Rate: 2%

| Mon Jan. 3, 2011 1:13 PM PST

[Editor's Note: NAF researcher Katherine Tiedemann reminds us that US-led drone strikes in Pakistan tend to be CIA-run, not military-operated. The headline and post have been updated to reflect this.]

Our indefatigable editorial coordinator, Jen Phillips, pointed me to a New America Foundation study this morning on drone strikes in Pakistan...and the data does not inspire confidence.

According to NAF's research, there have been 215 drone attacks since 2004 in the bad-guy tromping grounds of northwest Pakistan, killing between 1,372 and 2,125 people. (The wide variation in estimates shows how difficult it is to track these stats, even with press and government reports.) Of those, 1061 to 1584 were called militants "in reliable press accounts." For those of you keeping score at home, that means that between 23 and 25 percent of all deaths from drone strikes are noncombatants. But here's the worse news:

Sarah Palin's Emails Coming Soon?

| Mon Jan. 3, 2011 10:50 AM PST

Last month, I reported that Mother Jones, several other media outlets, and a few citizen activists have been waiting for over two years for the state of Alaska to release emails Sarah Palin received and sent when she was governor. During the 2008 campaign, we each filed requests under Alaska's open records law for these materials, but the governor's office has repeatedly requested extensions from the state attorney general. And all the requests have been granted. But the work has proceeded. In the two years since the requests were filed, the governor's office has located and/or recovered 26,553 pages of emails to and from Palin (including some to and from private email accounts she used for state business). The state, though, won't release the material until all the records are reviewed by the state Department of Law. As of mid-December, that office had only evaluated 7,400 pages—less than one-third of the haul. The slow pace of review made it seem that the emails might not be made public until after the 2012 presidential election.

But late last year, state Attorney General David Sullivan demanded that the governor's office submit a work plan that would state when the request would be finished, and now there's a target date: May 31, 2011. On December 27, 2011, Linda Perez, the administrative director of the governor's office, notified the current attorney general, John Burns, that the Department of Law estimates it will complete its review of the emails by March 31, 2011. (The department has beefed up its review team.) Perez added that her office would then need an additional two months to consult with the lawyers about what material to withhold or redact.

There is, of course, wiggle room in these estimates. Perez noted that the spring will be a particularly busy time, with the state legislature in session. So it would be no surprise if the governor's office were to request an extension beyond May 31. But as the end of this process approaches, another question emerges: what will the state keep secret? Months before Palin was tapped by Sen. John McCain, the GOP presidential nominee, to be his running mate in 2008, her office declined to release 1,100 emails from two Palin aides in response to an open records request filed by citizen activist Andrée McLeod. The state claimed that these emails were exempt because they concerned confidential policy matters. Yet a list of the subject headings of the withheld emails referred to non-policy and political matters, suggesting that the state had taken a decidedly liberal interpretation of the available exemptions.

Might that happen again? First, we'll have to see if the state meets the May 31 date.

The Dems' Wasted Opportunity on Health Reform

| Mon Jan. 3, 2011 10:10 AM PST

Republicans have placed their assault on health care reform at the top of their agenda for the new Congress, planning to put a repeal of the federal law up for a vote as soon as possible. Full-out repeal is unlikely to go anywhere: even if the bill passed the House, it would have trouble clearing the Senate, and President Obama could always veto it in the end. But the GOP hopes the vote will give Republicans the momentum to undermine support for the law on the state level, gut smaller provisions, and pave the way for killing reform under a Republican administration.

That being said, the GOP attack also gives Democrats a second chance to sell health reform to the public, as I've previously explained earlier. The New York Times lays out the Democrats' vow to launch an "all-out effort" to defend the law, aided by outside groups who fought for the bill's passage. But Democrats have been promising to make a full-court press on health reform for months, and the party still has yet to follow through. This week, for example, would have been a prime opportunity for health reform's defenders to step up. Some of the most popular early provisions of the law went into effect on January 1: any co-pays on preventative care are prohibited; health insurers must spend a higher percentage of the cost of premiums on actual medical care; and some Medicare beneficiaries will receive a 50 percent discount on prescription drugs.

But you aren't hearing many Democrats explaining how Republicans are determined to take such benefits away from the American public. Rather, as Jonathan Chait points out, leading Democratic voices like Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY) are only complaining that Republicans are wasting time with their repeal effort. There's no way of avoiding the health care debate at this point, and simply dismissing the Republicans' sturm und drang just allows the GOP to continue dominating the conversation.

Is Michael Mukasey Helping Terrorists?

| Mon Jan. 3, 2011 9:33 AM PST

Georgetown law professor and Supreme Court lawyer David Cole has an important op-ed in Monday's New York Times about the wide reach of America's anti-terrorism laws. The country's "material support for terrorism" law is so broad, in fact, that it could possibly be applied to a handful of former Bush administration officials and other public figures who have advocated on behalf of groups the government labels as terrorist organizations. In particular, Cole points to former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, former homeland security chief Tom Ridge, and former national security adviser Frances Townsend, who all went to Paris last month to speak on behalf of the Mujahedeen Khalq, an Iranian opposition group the government has labeled as a terrorist organization. Cole explains:

The problem is that the United States government has labeled the Mujahedeen Khalq a "foreign terrorist organization," making it a crime to provide it, directly or indirectly, with any material support. And, according to the Justice Department under Mr. Mukasey himself, as well as under the current attorney general, Eric Holder, material support includes not only cash and other tangible aid, but also speech coordinated with a "foreign terrorist organization" for its benefit. It is therefore a felony, the government has argued, to file an amicus brief on behalf of a "terrorist" group, to engage in public advocacy to challenge a group's "terrorist" designation or even to encourage peaceful avenues for redress of grievances.

Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, the case Cole argued before the Supreme Court last year, was an attempt to challenge the constitutionality of the current material support laws. But Cole and the Humanitarian Law Project lost that fight. The court's five more conservative justices upheld the current statute. So now the only option is congressional action:

Congress should reform the laws governing material support of terrorism. It should make clear that speech advocating only lawful, nonviolent activities — as Michael Mukasey and Rudolph Giuliani did in Paris — is not a crime. The First Amendment protects even speech advocating criminal activity, unless it is intended and likely to incite imminent lawless conduct. The risk that speech advocating peace and human rights would further terrorism is so remote that it cannot outweigh the indispensable value of protecting dissent.

I can't imagine a Democratic Congress, let alone a Republican one, changing the anti-terror laws any time soon. But Cole's op-ed is drawing attention to the huge amount of power the current law gives to prosecutors. Many public figures appear to have violated the statute in one way or another. But many of the people who have been actually targeted for investigation and possible prosecution are leftist, pro-Palestinian, and anti-war activists. In other words, the law appears to be selectively enforced. There seem to be two sets of rules here: one for current and former government officials, who are almost never charged or even criticized for speaking on the behalf of designated terrorist groups; and another set of rules for everyone else.

UPDATE: Glenn Greenwald has more.

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Tales from the Debt Collection Crypt

| Mon Jan. 3, 2011 5:55 AM PST

When the widespread use of "robo-signers"—low-level employees signing mountains of foreclosure legal filings without actually reading what they said—bubbled to the surface this fall, it sparked public outrage and a 50-state investigation of mortgage companies by state attorneys general. But now the seamy debt-collection industry has one-upped the foreclosure industry's robo-signing disaster. One of America's largest debt collectors, Portfolio Recovery Associates, used court filings that were signed by a woman who'd died nearly a decade earlier.

Martha Kunkle died in 1995. Yet her name and hand-written signature appeared on debt-collection filings submitted by Portfolio Recovery Associates as late as 2006 and 2007, according to the Wall Street Journal. Facing a fraud lawsuit, Portfolio announced that documents with Kunkle's name were "defects" and couldn't be used in court. That was in early 2008, the Journal reports, more than a decade after Kunkle's death. But even then, Portfolio tried to use a Kunkle-signed document in July 2009 to collect on $2,892.10 of credit card debt.

The revelations have grabbed regulators' attention. Chris Koster, Missouri's attorney general, said he wants to investigate whether any Kunkle-signed documents were used for debt-collecting purposes in his state. Another attorney general, Lori Swanson of Minnesota, is already probing whether consumer debt buyers and collectors have falsified affidavits in debt-collection suits.

As shocking as it sounds, Portfolio's use of a dead woman's name to execute legal documents is right on par with the practices of the foreclosure industry. As myself and others reported this fall, for years major mortgage servicers—the underregulated middlemen who collect payments, assess late fees, and foreclose on homeowners—like GMAC and JPMorgan Chase charged employees with scrawling their name on tens of thousands of crucial foreclosure filings. The goal: to ram through foreclosures as fast as possible. Problem is, it's a violation of federal court rules to sign legal documents without reading and understanding what they say. "Foreclosuregate," which exploded into a national controversy, cast doubt on the legitimacy of foreclosures from Maine to California.

It's difficult to know how widespread dubious practices like Portfolio's are throughout the debt collection industry. But debt collectors, as you've probably heard, are hardly a bastion of ethical behavior.

What is clear, though, is how little regard certain mortgage companies and debt collectors have for the American legal system. Because, at the end of the day, that's what the robo-signing scandals tell us: that these financial heavyweights cared so little about the integrity of our judicial system that they saw nothing wrong with employing robo-signers to mass-produce faulty foreclosure documents, or with using a dead woman's name and signature to collect on old debts.

Video: Mac Talks With Quake Victims in Haiti

| Mon Jan. 3, 2011 4:00 AM PST

Read human rights reporter Mac McClelland's dispatch from Haiti, or see the full Mother Jones special report on Haiti's reconstruction.

Mac McClelland went to Haiti in September to explore the displacement camps, and we sent along a handheld Flip camera and set her up with a videographer. Below, you can see the conditions for yourselves: cramped tents, blistering sun, and torrential rainstorms that destroy the few houses people do have. In the video, Mac talks with Daniel Julian—who you'll meet here in her dispatch from Haiti—and tours the "model city" of Corail Cesselesse where there's little food, no work, and few services.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for January 3, 2011

Mon Jan. 3, 2011 3:30 AM PST

U.S. Army Sgt. Michael L. Zickefoose, a team leader assigned to Company B, 2nd Battalion, 30th Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, provides security while keeping an eye on a recent avenue of approach Taliban used at the Charkh bazaar Dec. 11. Zickefoose, a Warren, Ohio, native, recently volunteered to leave the battalion’s scout platoon to lead troops in Charkh. Photo by U.S. Army Sgt. Cooper T. Cash, Task Force Patriot

Navy Probes Captain's Tasteless Videos

| Mon Jan. 3, 2011 1:15 AM PST

And they say newspapers aren't doing good work anymore. The Norfolk, Va., Virginian-Pilot revealed Saturday that Captain Owen Honors, the commanding officer of the nuclear aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, made a series of tactless videos for the crew's entertainment a few years ago—videos whose coarse language and sexual frankness led his sailors to complain...and led the Navy to investigate. As everyone freaks out about Honors' poor judgment, it's worth noting where his generation of officers (including his commander) came from socially and culturally—and where we're all headed if they're in charge for much longer. More on that, as well as excerpts from the videos, below the jump.