Mojo - May 2011

Circumcision Ban On San Francisco Ballot

| Wed May 18, 2011 7:30 PM EDT

An initiative that would ban male circumcision in San Francisco officially made the ballot today. It was written by a San Diego-based nonprofit group, MGMbill.org (MGM=Male Genital Mutilation), and promoted by a flamboyant group of "intactivists" who've marched in the city's gay pride parades (left). Though circumcision is less common today than it was ten years ago, leaders of the city's Jewish community oppose the ban as a violation of religious freedom. Here's a piece that I wrote a few months ago about why people on both sides of the issue are getting snippy.

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Heckuva Book, Brownie

| Wed May 18, 2011 12:05 PM EDT

Given his less-than-stellar track record when it comes to dealing with disasters, I'm looking forward to reading Bush-era FEMA chief Michael Brown's upcoming book on Hurricane Katrina.

His publicist sent me a pitch this morning, suggesting that Brown is "someone whom you may know from the 2005 Hurricane that devastated NOLA and the areas close by." I am indeed familiar with him, along with everyone else who watched the administration's handling of Katrina with horror. Brown's book, arriving later this month, is titled Deadly Indifference: The Perfect (Political) Storm: Hurricane Katrina, The Bush White House, and Beyond, and "is about the inner workings of FEMA and his experiences inside during his terms."

"Heckuva Job Brownie" can't seem to get a mention anymore without the word "disgraced" attached to his name, but he's spent the past year trying to rehab his image. While he became the poster boy for the Bush administration's Katrina ineptitude, it was always clear that there were larger issues at play. The real questions is: will the book hold any real insights, or is it just Brown's attempt to rewrite history?

Irony Alert: Iran Launches Human Rights News Agency

| Wed May 18, 2011 12:00 PM EDT

Message to the Mac McClellands and Nick Kristofs of the world. You will soon have some new competition. As will The Onion:

A senior Iranian lawmaker says the country will soon launch an English-language news agency to report on human rights conditions in the West.

Member of the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee of the Parliament (Majlis), Mohammad Karim Abedi, told Fars News Agency on Monday that the new news agency would seek to assert human rights in the US and Britain.

Called The Human Rights News Agency, Abedi said that the new agency would report on instances of rights violation in Europe and the US. He said such abuses have gone unnoticed over the years by the world media.

Thanks to its focus on the West, the news agency can conveniently ignore the situation back home. Say, for instance, the Ahmadinejad regime's stifling censorship of the press, its penchant for juvenile executions, and its bloody crackdowns on political dissidents and religious minorities.

Gingrich, Pawlenty Perpetuate Health Waiver Myth

| Wed May 18, 2011 10:27 AM EDT

The allegation that Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) used her political clout to help businesses in her district get around new rules imposed by the Affordable Care Act has crumbled as the facts have come to light. But that hasn't stopped Republican presidential contenders from perpetuating this falsehood.

As I reported on Tuesday, the waivers that companies received in Pelosi's district—20 percent of the total reprieves granted in April—came through Flex Plan Services, a third-party insurance administrator that had applied for the exemptions on behalf of its clients without any involvement by Pelosi or her office. The waivers from Obama's Department of Health and Human Services allow the local businesses to keep limited-benefit, "mini-med" plans for employees that became prohibited under the Affordable Care Act. 

In fact, the founder of Flex Plan Services, Hilarie Aitken, confirmed that Pelosi had nothing to do with the waivers granted, calling the conservative attacks on the Democratic leader a "political power play," as The Huffington Post reports. Aitken explains the real reason there were so many waivers coming from Pelosi's district:

In actuality, Aitken explained, the high percentage of waivers is the byproduct of local law rubbing against the new national legislation. In April 2008, San Francisco passed an ordinance requiring employers to spend a minimum amount per hour on health care for their employees who work in the city. In response, a number of eateries chose to set up Health Reimbursement Arrangements, which are essentially pools of funds set aside by employers to reimburse medical expenses paid by employees...


"These are some of the administrative hiccups that, I think, when you have a giant health care overhaul like this, you're bound to have," said Aitken. "And I think that's exactly why [the Department of Health and Human Services] put in the option for waivers, because they knew that there are some players who have different types of arrangements all over the nation."

The truth, however, hasn't stopped Republicans from trying to spin the waivers as proof of a sweetheart deal. On Fox News on Tuesday night, former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty called the waivers as clear evidence of "crony politics or crony capitalism." He told Sean Hannity: "If you've got the right connections, the right lobbyists, the right interest group, you get your special deal, and the rest of us get our wallet out, and that's in the tax code, it's in earmarking, and now you see it in ObamaCare." Newt Gingrich has piled on as well. "This discretionary power wielded by unelected bureaucrats presents an enormous danger for corruption. Indeed, we have already seen how they can be abused," he wrote in a Wednesday morning newsletter for the conservative website Human Events. 

Since the truth behind the waivers has surfaced, it's clear that such attacks are purely political. That being said, given the growing scrutiny of the health reform waivers, Democrats may have to examine whether they moved too quickly to implement their new insurance regulations, pushing these companies to ask for these exemptions in the first place.

"Discipline" is not Newt Gingrich's Biggest Problem

| Wed May 18, 2011 9:54 AM EDT

GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich has had a bad week. On Sunday, he criticized GOP Rep. Paul Ryan's plan to phase out Medicare as "social engineering," prompting party leaders to declare his candidacy dead only days after he officially announced it, and forcing Gingrich to personally apologize to Ryan. On Tuesday, Politico reported that Gingrich at one point had a six-figure tab at Tiffany's, the high-end jewlery store. He had a box of glitter dumped on his head at a fundraiser for the anti-gay group Minnesota Family Council. And he co-starred in a viral video clip in which an Iowa Republican encourages him to get out of the race "before you make a bigger fool of yourself."

Not good times, in other words, if you're Newt Gingrich.

So how did things get so bad so fast? 

The emerging consensus seems to be that Gingrich's problems stem from a lack of discipline—his tendency to flip from one idea to the next, possibly contradictory idea, without properly explaining himself. As Rich Galen, a former Gingrich aide, told Mike Allen: "This is what people in Washington knew would be the great weakness of a Newt presidential campaign: that he would say whatever came into his head, the moment it came into his head."

That's true-ish; Gingrich is not incredibly disciplined. But the more fundamental problem is this: The things that Newt Gingrich says are very frequently kind of nuts, and members of both parties seem to agree. The problem isn't so much that he can't keep straight whether the country is under assault from a "gay and secular fascism" or an atheist–Islamist agenda; it's that he thinks either one of those is a distinct possibility. There's a real tendency in covering electoral politics to blame campaign implosions on "discipline." Writing last week on former Virginia GOP Sen. George Allen's comeback bid, for instance, the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza explained that Allen's famous use of the obscure racial slur "macaca" demonstrated "a lack of discipline on Allen's part." (Another way of looking at it, given that Allen once kept an actual noose in his office, is that George Allen has, or at least had, a race problem.)

Discipline is a good quality for a candidate to have. But it only counts if you have a quality candidate.

Rick Perry for President?

| Wed May 18, 2011 5:00 AM EDT

Texas Governor Rick Perry always insists that he's not running for president, but who believes him? Ever since his January inauguration speech, which sounded like a national political ad, the tea party's favorite rainmaker has been hinting at larger ambitions. There were the broadsides of Barack Obama. The lighthearted talk-show appearances. The advisors who packed off to work for Newt Gingrich (leading to speculation of a Gingrich/Perry ticket). And, as revealed yesterday, there were Perry associates talking up Goodhair's designs on the White House and poking around Iowa.

As strange as it may sound, Perry's strengths and his party's weaknesses might actually make him a serious primary contender. Four short years after George W. Bush seemingly poisoned the Texas political well, Perry has emerged as a tea party hero by practicing a form of small-government fundamentalism that makes Bush look like a moderate. Facing a $27 billion budget shortfall, Perry pushed to eviscerate funding for the state's overburdened schools and social services instead of raising taxes or even tapping the state's $9.4 billion Rainy Day Fund. He has redefined fiscal conservatism to mean not spending crisis money at a time of crisis.

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Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the Reach of Diplomatic Immunity

| Wed May 18, 2011 5:00 AM EDT

This post first appeared on the ProPublica website

The arrest of International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn for allegedly sexually assaulting a maid at a Midtown Manhattan hotel has raised many questions. One we had is what role diplomatic immunity might play—and who else gets it.

The Basics of the Case

According to Strauss-Kahn's accuser, she entered his hotel room to clean it when Strauss-Kahn emerged nude from the bathroom, locked the maid in the room and assaulted her twice before she broke free. Earlier this afternoon, Strauss-Kahn was arraigned in Manhattan Criminal Court, where he pleaded not guilty and a New York Supreme Court judge denied him bail until his next court hearing.

Reuters, citing a report from France's RMC radio, said Strauss-Kahn has offered an alibi that contradicts the accuser's timeline: Strauss-Kahn has reportedly said he checked out of the hotel before the alleged assault took place, then left to meet his daughter for lunch and took a taxi to the airport.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for May 18, 2011

Wed May 18, 2011 5:00 AM EDT

U.S. Army Pfc. William A. Swaray, an infantryman and native of Monrovia, Liberia, assigned to Company B, 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment, Task Force No Fear, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, TF Bronco, scans for insurgent activity at Observation Post Coleman outside of Combat Outpost Monti in eastern Afghanistan's Kunar Province, May 5. Swaray joined the Army at 38 to fight for a country he has adopted as his own. Photo via US Army.

Will Rick Perry Run?

| Tue May 17, 2011 3:58 PM EDT

Rick PerryRick PerryThe conventional wisdom is that Americans aren't ready to install another Texas cowboy in the White House. But with the GOP's leading presidential contenders sinking fast, Texas Governor and tea party fave Rick Perry appears to be quietly testing the waters. From Real Clear Politics:

A Texas pol who is close to Perry has been telling a few key strategists that the nation's longest-serving governor sees a vacuum and is waiting to be summoned into the race. This source believes that could happen by late summer. . . .According to another well-connected Republican, at least one Perry confidant has been very quietly making inquiries about the political terrain in the nation's first voting state of Iowa. A third Perry associate, RCP has learned, has been heralding a small contingent of Iowans with the time-tested line that is often used by would-be candidates who are leaving their options open: "Keep your powder dry."

Perry 2012 might not be as far-fetched as it seems. Perry can argue that the Texas economy is doing comparatively well, can tap a deep bench of GOP donors, and enjoys unassailable credibility from the GOP base. On the other hand, his right-wing bona fides won't help America to forget its Bush-era hangover. More on this soon, but in the meantime, leave your thoughts in the comments.

New Terrorist Threats: Greenpeace and a Dead Elephant

| Tue May 17, 2011 3:30 PM EDT

The ongoing surveillance of environmental groups by state and federal governments under the rubric of rooting out terrorists (which I wrote about last week) can have its comical side. This was the case with one dispatch uncovered by the Public Intelligence [PDF] site.

Florida anti-terrorist watchdogs, operating in the interests of "domestic security," issued Intelligence Report 6, August 2010, labeled SENSITIVE BUT UNCLASSIFIED. It begins as follows:

This report is being created as an intelligence product for Region 5 of the Domestic Security Task Force. If you or your agency has any information or notice any trends that you would like included in this weekly report please contact the Central Florida Intelligence Exchange...

The report begins with a short account of two mosques expanding. There don't appear to be any imminent dangers here, but unpredictable situations can always occur.

Of more general interest, Florida intelligence professionals are keeping an eye out for terrorist disruptions following the death of a local zoo animal:

[A]n Asian elephant named Dondi died unexpectedly at the age of 36 at Southwick Zoo outside of Boston, Massachusetts. Although Dondi lived in Boston over the summers, she preformed [sic] at Flea World in Sanford, Florida in the winters. The group In Defense of Animals (IDA) has filed a complaint with the USDA to urge an investigation into the death.

An anti-terrorist analyst notes that this is of some interest because: "ARFF has held numerous demonstrations at the Sanford Flea Market to protest on behalf of Dondi, whom they wanted to be retired and moved to a sanctuary. Currently there are no known protests surrounding the death of Dondi."

The report then proceeds to the more serious matters at hand:

During the week of 9 August 2010, the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise will be heading to Gulf of Mexico for a three month expedition to "document the true impacts of the BP Deepwater Disaster."

Greenpeace feels that "BP has devoted inadequate resources to the oil spill response, withheld information from the American public, and denied access to spill sites". The Arctic Sunrise will leave from Tampa, Florida and visit the Florida Keys and the Dry Tortugas prior to going to the oil spill site. During the expedition, they will be examining the effects of the spill as well as looking for oiled marine life.

Analyst Notes: Although there are no known threats associated with this expedition at the time this report was created, aggressive tactics utilized by the Arctic Sunrise in the past may increase the likelihood of unforeseen incidents occurring. Since the beginning of the Gulf spill, Greenpeace have taken numerous actions against BP, including shutting down 40 BP stations throughout London, England in late July 2010. Members of the organization dropped off letters to each station and on their way out pulled a safety switch which cut off power to the station. They also covered BP signs with posters reading "Closed: Moving Beyond Petroleum."

The report ends with the following warnings and provisos:

If you have or receive any information regarding a possible threat or have questions or comments please contact the Central Florida Intelligence Exchange (CFIX).

SENSITIVE BUT UNCLASSIFIED

PUBLIC AND MEDIA RELEASE IS NOT AUTHORIZED

DISSEMINATION TO AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY

NOTE: The accuracy of this information is based solely on the sources from which it was derived.