Staff Sgts. Russell Johnson (right) and Stephen Adams watch as fuel barrels are airdropped July 8, 2011, from a C-17 Globemaster III above Afghanistan. The two NCOs are loadmasters assigned to the 816th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Jeffrey Allen)

Supporters of Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) sit-in protest against US drone attacks, at Netty Jetty Bridge in Karachi, Pakistan on May 21, 2011.

2011 hasn't exactly been a banner year for US-Pakistan relations. Now comes this: on Tuesday, the Department of Justice charged two US citizens with participating in a long-running conspiracy to act as agents of the Pakistani government in the United States.

The DOJ alleges that Syed Ghulam Nabi Fai and Zaheer Ahmad have spent over two decades working as agents of a foreign entity (in this case, Pakistan) without registering as required under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). According to an affidavit filed in federal court on Tuesday, Fai serves as the director of the Washington, DC-based Kashmiri American Council (KAC), an NGO that supposedly lobbies Congress on the issue of self-determination for the region. The group's purported aim was to target members of Congress and draw media attention to the issue of the Kashmir, the disputed region between India and Pakistan that has been wracked by bloody violence and served as a hotbed for insurgency for decades. But the US government doesn't buy that.

The DOJ claims that KAC is nothing more than a front group for the Pakistani government and its spy service, the Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI). Witnesses told investigators that, since the mid-1990s, KAC has helped launder some $4 million through Fai to lobby for Pakistani interests. That money, the affidavit alleges, was transferred to Fai via Ahmad and his networks in Pakistan.

ProPublica reports that Fai himself has donated $23,000 to congressional candidates, including $7,500 to Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), and $2,000 to Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Penn.), Both men are frequent critics of India's Kashmir policy. (The DOJ says there's no evidence that any elected officials who received money from Fai or KAC knew that it came from Pakistan.)

Fai was arrested Tuesday morning, but Ahmad remains at large, and is believed to be in Pakistan. Both men face a five-year prison sentence if convicted—a surprisingly light penalty given the depth of the evidence against them, ProPublica notes.

Also notable is the DOJ's chosen vehicle for moving against Fai, Ahmad, and Pakistan: FARA. The law requires lobbyists for foreign countries to register as such. But it's rarely enforced: since Congress raised the burden of proof for federal prosecutors in 1966, only three FARA-related indictments have been handed down, resulting in zero successful criminal prosecutions. As Mother Jones reported back in March, the Boston-based Monitor Group likely violated FARA by failing to register the work it did for the Qaddafi regime in Libya. Monitor retroactively registered, and no criminal investigations have followed. Given the DOJ's traditional reluctance to enforce FARA, its use of the law in this case is telling.

The US still feels it can't cut and run on Pakistan. But its aggressive actions this year—including the fallout from the Raymond Davis affair, the unprecedented indictment of an ISI officer in a Chicago court, the decision to withhold $800 million in aid to the country's military, and, of course, the killing of Osama bin Laden deep in the heart of Pakistan—suggest that while it appears the overall game hasn't changed, the US is now prepared to hold Pakistan to some level of accountability. 

The message: Play us, and we'll play you. 

A while back we told you about Rep. Michele Bachmann's longtime friendship with Jan Markell, the host of a radio show devoted to interpreting current events through the lens of Biblical prophecy. Bachmann has been a regular on Markell's program, where she's discussed topics like "one-world currency," an issue that adherents of Biblical prophecy believe to be a catalyst for the Antichrist.

Bachmann also attended and wrote a testimonial for one of Markell's annual conferences, where she praised another speaker who explained that natural disasters are God's punishment for betraying Israel. (Bachmann herself has said that the US will be cursed if it turns away from Israel.) Despite all of this, Bachmann has denied any knowledge of Markell or her ministry. According to Markell, though, the two have known each other for 30 years.

Now, in an interview with the American Family Association's OneNewsNow, Markell offers a personal endorsement for Bachmann: "This woman is a wonderful Christian; she is as pro-Israel as they come. I cannot speak highly enough of Congresswoman Michele Bachmann and her stand on all things righteous."

Meanwhile, here's an excerpt from the most recent newsletter from Markell's ministry. It's written by another minister, Heidi Swandler, but Markell includes a statement saying that she endorses Swandler's prose. It includes this passage:

"The New Age is upon us and we are witnessing the birth pangs of the new culture and the new civilization. This is now in progress. That which is old and undesirable must go . . . The spirit has gone out of the old faiths and the true spiritual light is transferring itself into a new form which will manifest on Earth eventually as the New World Religion." So said occultist Alice Bailey (1880-1949) while under the influence of her spirit guide, Djwal Khul. As I wrote in an article last March, Bailey and her demonic counterpart actually laid the foundation for the New World Order. The New World Religion piece of that coming global order is advancing successfully on at least three fronts.

The author goes on to pinpoint Oprah Winfrey as a leading advocate of the New World Order and a global religion. (That explains her new cable network!) Kooky as this might sound, it's a pretty common view. One of the first orders of the business for the Antichrist in the bestselling Left Behind novels is to create a new world religion. Not coincidentally, he also goes about converting the world—the "Global Village"—to a single, global currency. In that context, Oprah's support for New Age spirituality is seen as an existential threat, and helps to explain why some people think she's a harbinger of doom.

Anyways, given the prevalence of that line of thinking, it would be somewhat extraordinary if Bachmann was not aware of the loaded connotation of "one-world currency" when she went on Markell's Biblical prophecy radio show in 2009 and used that exact phrase. It would be all the more so considering Markell herself mentioned the Antichrist in their interview. Was it a dog-whistle, or reflective of the congresswoman's beliefs? So far Bachmann has dodged such questions, but with 17 months to go before Election Day, it's hard to see that lasting.

GOP Rep. Paul Ryan, the wonky Wisconsinite who has proposed privatizing Medicare and cutting other entitlement programs, was left red-faced a few weeks ago when he was spotted sharing two $350 bottles of wine at a posh French restaurant in Washington, DC. His drinking buddies: famed hedge fund "whiner" Clifford Asness and University of Chicago economist John Cochrane.

An embarassed Ryan told Talking Points Memo, which broke the story, that he didn't know how much the wine had cost, and said he wouldn't buy it again if given the choice.

But that wasn't the last word on Ryan's spending spree. On Wednesday, the Wisconsin Republican's constituents gave him a taste of his own Pinot, staging a faux wine-tasting protest at Ryan's office in Racine, in southeast Wisconsin, to highlight what they saw as the congressman's stunning hypocrisy. "The symbolism of Paul Ryan sipping outlandishly expensive wine at fancy Washington bistro is in many ways more powerful than all the devastating statistics about his plan to destroy Medicaid and Medicare as we know them," Robert Kraig, the executive director of Citizen Action of Wisconsin, said in a statement. "Ryan's plan shifts precious public resources needed to make good on our national commitment to fund Medicaid and Medicare to the very people who can already afford to drink grossly overpriced wine—the wealthy and health insurance industry CEOs."

Here's a video of the protest:

Paul Ryan Wine Tasting Protest at Racine Office, Tuesday July 19th from Matt Brusky on Vimeo.

Chief Navy Diver Ryan Oakley, assigned to Commander, Task Group 56.1, makes an adjustment to his Kirby Morgan 37 diving helmet before submerging underwater at the port of Umm Qasr during a joint effort between Iraqi divers and U.S. divers. The divers are raising a sunken pier as part of the partnership, strength, and presence initiative. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Peter D. Lawlor/Released)

The Institute of Medicine recommended on Tuesday that health care insurers cover the cost of birth control under the new federal health care law. This was just one of the findings on preventive health care services for women from the Institute, the branch of the National Academies of Science tasked with providing research and information on medical topics. But like pretty much everything dealing with women's health these days, this has turned into a debate about abortion.

The Department of Health and Human Services will get to make the ultimate decicion about whether insurers will be required to provide birth control free of charge, but this is a good indication that it will. The new health care law requires insurers to cover preventative health care, and the administration directed the Institute to determine what that should include. This could be a big deal, as many women regularly shell out large amounts for birth control copayments. (I've personally paid up to $50 a month in the past, so I'm hardly an impartial party on this particular issue.) But just like the battles over Title X family planning funds in Congress this year, this recommendation has anti-abortion groups riled up. Specifically, they're concerned that this could lead to Plan B, or the "morning after pill," being covered by insurers.

I caught this segement on NPR this morning, before the new guidelines were announced, with Jeanne Monahan, director of the Center for Human Dignity at the Family Research Council:

The other problem, says Monahan, is abortion. Specifically, abortion opponents argue that some emergency contraceptives — so called morning-after pills — can cause very early abortions by preventing the implantation of fertilized eggs into a woman's uterus.
"So those 7 to 10 days before a baby can implant, Plan B can prevent implantation and thereby cause the demise of that baby. So we'd be opposed to those drugs being included because they act as abortifacients."

Anti-abortion groups believe that this constitutes abortion, even though medical organizations like the National Institutes of Health and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists have been clear that this is factually incorrect; pregnancy does not begin until a fertilized egg is implanted. Plan B is recommended for a number of reasons: in cases of rape or incest or when a condom breaks.

The abortion debate, of course, distracts from the very real reasons that access to birth control is an important issue for women. Half of all pregnancies in the US are unplanned; reproductive rights advocates believe that access to free birth control could be a significant factor in reducing that number. And many women also use birth control for medical reasons other than preventing pregnancy, like controlling hormone imbalances, reducing the severity of menstrual cramps, or dealing with acne.

The Dallas Morning-News reports that Texas Governor Rick Perry is distancing himself from some of the participants and organizers of The Response, his August 4th prayer and fasting festival in Houston. As the likely GOP presidential candidate explained, "Just because you endorse me doesn't mean I endorse everything that you say or do."

That's a pretty standard politician defense, and there's usually a little bit of truth to it. But this kind of misses the point. Sure, the event's organizers hold some wacky views (which we've written about here and here) but the larger point is that Perry is, by holding a rally at the organizers' behest, is consciously aiding a religious movement that has a clear and consistent purpose to bring the "seven mountains"—family, religion, education, business, arts, media, and government—under the dominion of Christians. For the uninitiated, the Texas Observer's Forrest Wilder has a must-read piece on the New Apostolic Reformation—the religious movement behind The Response:

The movement’s top prophets and apostles believe they have a direct line to God. Through them, they say, He communicates specific instructions and warnings. When mankind fails to heed the prophecies, the results can be catastrophic: earthquakes in Japan, terrorist attacks in New York, and economic collapse. On the other hand, they believe their God-given decrees have ended mad cow disease in Germany and produced rain in drought-stricken Texas.

Their beliefs can tend toward the bizarre. Some consider Freemasonry a "demonic stronghold" tantamount to witchcraft. The Democratic Party, one prominent member believes, is controlled by Jezebel and three lesser demons. Some prophets even claim to have seen demons at public meetings. They've taken biblical literalism to an extreme. In Texas, they engage in elaborate ceremonies involving branding irons, plumb lines and stakes inscribed with biblical passages driven into the earth of every Texas county.

That's a sampling. Perry, who has presented himself as a Moses figure leading Americans out of slavery at the hands of "Pharaoh" (i.e. big government), worked with movement leaders to plan The Response, and as Wilder explains, uses much of the same language when he talks about his goals. He's not accountable for specific pastors' views, on, say, Oprah (one participant believes she's a forerunner to the Antichrist). But his involvement with the group goes much deeper than standard guilt by association.

All that fact-checking must be paying off for Michele Bachmann. Just over a month after officially entering the presidential race, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) has surged to the top of the GOP heap, according to a new national survey by Public Policy Polling.

Twenty-one percent of voters picked Bachmann in the PPP survey, narrowly edging out Mitt Romney who finished second at 20 percent. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who hasn't even entered the race, took third at 12 percent, with Herman Cain (11 percent) and Texas Rep. Ron Paul (7 percent) rounding out the top five.

PPP attributes Bachmann's rise to her wide support among the GOP's hard right bloc, which doesn't like Romney much at all:

Bachmann's rise has been fueled by her appeal to voters on the far right- and their skepticism about Romney. Romney has the lead with centrist Republicans (23-17) and with those defining themselves as only somewhat right of center (24-17). But among 'very conservative' voters only 48 percent have a positive opinion of Romney to 34 percent who view him negatively, weak numbers, and Bachmann's capitalizing on that with a 26-15 lead over Romney, who's in third place with that group of voters.

Oddly enough one of the best things that could happen to Romney right now is the late entry of Sarah Palin into the race. In a ballot test including her as a candidate he leads the way with 20 percent to 16 percent for Bachmann, 12 percent for Palin, and 11 percent for Perry. 44 percent of Palin's voters say they would vote for Bachmann if Palin didn't run, compared to only 6 percent who say they would otherwise vote for Romney. So basically a Palin candidacy would take a large bite out of Bachmann's support with virtually no impact on Romney.

The other big story in PPP's survey is the implosion of former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty. After winning 13 percent in a late May poll, Pawlenty has slid  to a meager 5 percent. Indeed, Pawlenty's campaign is flailing so badly that the New York Times and Bloomberg News have suggested he might drop out out of the race this year. For Pawlenty's part, he's betting his chips on the upcoming Ames Straw Poll, which could make his campaign (as it did Mike Huckabee's in 2007) or deal it a fatal blow. Today's PPP doesn't help his chances there.

Fred Karger is the first openly gay Republican to run for president.

Upstart GOP presidential candidate Fred Karger, the first gay Republican ever to run for the nomination, is not exactly raising the big bucks. Gay Republicans are either few and far between, or they're putting their money on, well, Barack Obama. But given his unusual niche, Karger isn't doing all that badly either. Lost in all the news coverage of presidential fundraising is this little tidbit: Karger reported raising $264,000 in the last quarter, more than pot-promoter and former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, who raised $180,000, and not that far behind former Pennsylvania senator and arch anti-gay candidate Rick Santorum, who raised $581,000. Of course, $230,000 of Karger's haul came from a single donor: Fred Karger.

Still, Karger seems highly skilled at getting his media coverage for free. He's made good use of all the indignities heaped on him by anti-gay Republican gatekeepers, who've refused to let him participate in any major televised debates. He's used his years of experience in the opposition research field to win coverage for his attacks on fellow candidate Mitt Romney. Then, last week, he made headlines after he challenged Rep. Michele Bachmann's husband to a debate over his support of "reparative therapy," a discredited form of psychological counseling that supposedly helps gays become straight. Karger urged Bachmann to "come out of the closet" to defend his Christian counseling clinics, which reportedly offer the therapy. Karger used the ensuing media coverage to take a few shots at Michele Bachmann as well, calling her a bigot for her anti-gay views.

Karger is certainly adding some extra color to GOP primary this year. This week, he'll campaign in New Hampshire for a few days before traveling to San Francisco, where "Real World" hottie Mike Manning will headline a big fundraiser on Thursday that could bring in a few more donors to keep Karger's show on the road.

President Barack Obama at work.

Some lawyers earn their juicy headlines by representing pop-culture-icons-turned-murderers.

Others beef-up their brand name by defending the rich and infamous.

And some lawyers simply accuse Barack Obama of perpetrating unspeakable war crimes.

Little-known Spanish lawyer Daniel Fiol has lodged a complaint with the International Criminal Court accusing Obama of crimes against humanity, according to the UK's The Daily Telegraph.

The complaint alleges that the May assassination of Osama bin Laden was a violation of both the Geneva Conventions and Pakistani sovereignty. Fiol clarified his position by stating bin Laden should have instead stood trial for "some terrible and appalling atrocities," and then went on to awkwardly joke about definitely not being on Al Qaeda's payroll.