Mojo - August 2011

The Oil Rush is Back on in Libya

| Mon Aug. 22, 2011 11:53 AM EDT

Too soon? While rebel forces have captured most of Tripoli, loyalists to Muammar Qaddafi are still holding onto outposts in the city and the dictator has not yet ceded power. (See our Libya explainer for more.) But BP and other oil companies are already gunning to get back in.

The Wall Street Journal reported Monday morning that although BP doesn't have any firm date yet on when it will resume work on its exploration program in Libya's Gulf of Sidra, the company is committed to returning to the country.

The U.K. oil major had begun work on a $900 million exploration program in the North African country when it halted operations in February following the uprising against Col. Gadhafi and the subsequent outbreak of civil war.

BP said it hasn't yet entered into any commercial transactions with the Transitional National Council.

Because its exploration project was still in its early stages of development, the company didn't have much infrastructure in the country when war broke out. However, a rig in the desert near Ghadames was made as "safe and secure and possible," although this will still have to be accounted for.

Libya is home to the largest oil reserves in Africa, hence the rush to develop it. As Reuters reported Monday night, the Italian oil company Eni SpA has already sent staff into the country to evaluate the oil facilities. The Dutch company Shell, the French company SA, and Qatar's national oil company are also eager to get in.

But BP in particular has a questionable past when it comes to Libya. Last year, amid the Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster, the company was accused of having negotiated the release of the terrorist convicted of bombing Pan Am Flight 103 in exchange for access to Libya's vast oil reserves. A Scottish court released Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi in August 2009 based on testimony from doctors that he was terminally ill with prostate cancer and had only three months to live. He's still alive, and one of the doctors has since come forward to claim that the Libyan government bribed him. Four Senate Democrats asked the Foreign Relations Committee to look into it, and the committee later concluded that Megrahi's release was unjustified. The committee report noted that both the Scottish and British governments "refused to respond to questions," and that the committee believes the UK government played a "direct, critical role" in Megrahi's release."

BP and other governments apparently weren't too worried about colluding with a despotic government to free a convicted terrorist in the interest of accessing oil reserves a few years ago. So we should probably be concerned about what they've got planned in Libya at a point when the situation is still so uncertain.

UPDATE: I reached out to the office of Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), who has led the effort to investigate Megrahi's release, for comment on the latest news. "With the imminent fall of the Qadaffi regime and the rise of the Transitional National Council, I hope the new government will set a course for international cooperation, and agree to extradite al-Megrahi and help the U.S. uncover the facts behind BP's dealings with Qadaffi and its role in the Lockerbie Bomber's release," said Menendez.

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"Hate Group" Affiliates Take Millions in Government Pork

| Mon Aug. 22, 2011 11:01 AM EDT
Family Research Council president Tony Perkins

Andy Birkey of the Minnesota Independent has a good report this morning on how the state affiliates of the Family Research Council have quietly taken in nearly $6 million in government funding (state and federal) over the last five years. The FRC is a leading social conservative organization that's been labeled a "hate group" by the Southern Poverty Law Center on account of its use of debunked and misleading arguments against gay rights (one FRC spokesman suggested it wouldn't be a bad idea if gays just left the country entirely). The organization and its satellites have hit Democrats hard for spending too much, but, as Birkey reports, a chunk of that spending has actually gone to the FRC's network.

For instance:

The Family Action Council of Tennessee received $10,000 from the state of Tennessee to host anti-pornography workshop in 2008. FACT supports cutting government spending. They also insinuate that the poor should pay more. "It seems to me that a major problem in Washington is that right at 50 percent of Americans no longer pay federal taxes," wrote the group's head David Fowler.

"Sexually oriented businesses often prey upon urban communities and those located along interstate routes and major state highways, especially where there are few zoning restrictions," the group said on the event invite. "Adult businesses are now pursuing their agenda through their own state association and have a lobbyist promoting their interests at the state Capitol. This is not an 'industry' your community can afford to ignore."

The hypocrisy angle strikes me as a bit off. The FRC and its network aren't calling for an end to government spending altogether—they're calling for an end to what they consider to be the wrong kind of government spending, which is anything that reeks of the nanny state. There are several reasons for that, but basically, they worry that government is in competition with the church and the family, and that government assistance programs have a perverse impact on Americans' morals. But by extension, funding that helps support "pro-family" organizations would actually be a pretty good thing in the FRC's book.

The larger issue is that state and federal agencies are dolling out cash to an organization that believes church-state watchdogs are "cultural terrorists" and that Dan Savage's "It Gets Better" campaign, designed to combat gay teen suicides, is "disgusting." And unlike, say, the food stamp program, which wouldn't exist without a bureaucracy to manage it, holding seminars on the evils of pornography to already persuaded audiences is exactly what the Family Action Council of Tennessee would be doing, with or without that $10,000 government check.

For more, I'd suggest you consult anti-anti-smut activist and former Miami mayoral candidate Luther Campbell: 

Rick Perry vs. The Trial Lawyers

| Mon Aug. 22, 2011 9:00 AM EDT
The Torts and the Hair: Texas Governor Rick Perry has made tort reform a centerpiece of his presidential campaign.

Politico's Alexander Burns reports today that trial lawyers are gearing up for a major fundraising effort against Texas Governor Rick Perry, should he win the GOP presidential nomination:

Among litigators, there is no presidential candidate who inspires the same level of hatred — and fear — as Perry, an avowed opponent of the plaintiffs’ bar who has presided over several rounds of tort reform as governor...

That's a potential financial boon to [Obama] who has unsettled trial lawyers with his own rhetorical gestures in the direction of tort reform. A general election pitting Barack Obama against Perry could turn otherwise apathetic trial lawyers into a phalanx of pro-Obama bundlers and super PAC donors.

"If this guy emerges, if he's a serious candidate, if he doesn't blow up in the next couple weeks, it's going to motivate many in the plaintiffs' bar to dig deeper to support President Obama," said Sean Coffey, a former securities litigator who ran for attorney general of New York last year. "That will end up driving a lot of money to the Democratic side."

So that's the horse-race element of it. The larger battle here, which my colleague Stephanie Mencimer literally wrote the book about, is that conservatives and their business interests have for decades attempted to demonize trial lawyers for multiple reasons, none of which really involve your best interests. Perry makes a tort reform a major part of his stump speech; it's one of the four steps he would take as president to turn the economy around, along with lower taxes, fewer regulations, and reduced spending. And, to his credit I suppose, he has made it a priority in Texas so at least he's consistent. But as Kevin Drum points out, Perry's crusade against frivolous lawsuits has really just made it harder for people with legitimate claims to file suit, without offering the return on investment (lower health care costs, primarily) it purports to deliver.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for August 22, 2011

Mon Aug. 22, 2011 4:50 AM EDT

A marine with Headquarters and Service Company, Battalion Landing Team 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines, 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, ejects a shell casing from an M40 sniper rifle during an unknown distance shooting competition, August 17. The marines were competing against each other for a prize and bragging rights. The 31st MEU is the only continuously forward-deployed MEU and remains the nation's force in readiness in the Asia-Pacific region. Photo by Cpl. Garry J. Welch.

Behind the Story: MoJo's Investigation of Terrorism Informants

| Sun Aug. 21, 2011 1:46 PM EDT

Maybe you've wondered, on occasion of a press conference announcing another major terrorism bust: Why does it seem as if the FBI's undercover operatives actually encouraged—even thought up—the plot? Why do the targets come off as hapless losers unable to organize so much as a poker game? How come it was the government that provided the fake conspiracy, the fake car bomb or missile, even the fake Al Qaeda oath?

Trevor Aaronson wondered, too, and because he's an investigative reporter, he decided to do something about it: look at every terrorism case the government has prosecuted since 9/11 and dig through the evidence and testimony. The result is the lead story in our new magazine cover package, "Terrorists for the FBI." 

Among the project's conclusions: 

  • Nearly half the prosecutions involved the use of informants, many of them incentivized by money (operatives can be paid as much as $100,000 per assignment) or the need to work off criminal or immigration violations. 
  • Sting operations resulted in prosecutions against 158 defendants. Of that total, 49 defendants participated in plots led by an agent provocateur—an FBI operative instigating terrorist action.
  • With three exceptions, all of the high-profile domestic terror plots of the last decade were actually FBI stings.

In all, this investigation reviewed more than 500 domestic terror prosecutions (for more details, see our charts page and searchable database). How did we identify them? The federal government unwittingly helped with this research in a huge way: Attorney General Eric Holder in March 2010 testified before Congress as the Obama administration sought to put 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed on trial in Manhattan—a plan it ultimately abandoned. One of the documents submitted to Congress was a list of all successful terrorism prosecutions from 9/11 through 2009.

Aaronson took that document, then applied the DOJ's criteria for defining terrorism cases to new federal prosecutions and brought the case list up to date as of summer 2011. Together with researcher Lauren Ellis, he went through court documents for every case—tens of thousands of pages. "We wanted an understanding of what happened in each case," Aaronson says. "But we also wanted to ferret out patterns and connections between cases. This allowed us to identify some informants by name and then link multiple cases to specific informants. It also allowed us to see how sting operations have grown steadily, year after year, since 9/11."

Iran Sentences MoJo Contributor to 8 Years in Prison

| Sat Aug. 20, 2011 7:39 PM EDT

Two Americans who've been imprisoned in Iran for more than two years after being snatched while hiking on the Iran-Iraq border have been convicted of espionage and sentenced to eight years in prison, CNN reports. One is Shane Bauer, an investigative reporter who has contributed pieces from the Middle East for the Christian Science Monitor, the Nation, New America Media, and Mother Jones.

Espionage can carry the death penalty in Iran, but the judgment against Bauer was nonetheless unexpectedly harsh, coming not long after senior Iranian officials had suggested the men might be released as a humanitarian gesture during the current holy month of Ramadan. The New York Times reports that Ali Akbar Salehi, the foreign minister, was quoted by local media as saying he hoped the end of the trial would lead to their freedom.

Bauer, his fiancée Sarah Shourd, and his friend Joshua Fattal, all young graduates of the University of California-Berkeley, were arrested in July 2009 while hiking the scenic border region between Iraqi Kurdistan and Iran. Theories differ on how exactly the arrest took place: The three may have accidentally crossed the border, or they may have been snatched while inside Iraq. Shourd, who suffered health problems in prison, was released on $500,000 bail in September 2010.

Iran has not presented any evidence that the hikers were spies. "I want to be perfectly clear: Sarah, Shane, and Josh have never worked for the US Government," President Barack Obama said in a July 2010 statement urging their release. The detention has drawn broad condemnation from the international community, including Ban Ki-moon, the secretary general of the United Nations.

There have been reports that Iran has been seeking to swap the hikers for some of the 10 Iranians that it says are jailed in the United States, and some have suggested that the harsh sentence could be a move to up the pressure. The sentence also comes after a recent letter to President Obama from 92 US senators urging sanctions against Iran's central bank to thwart the country's nuclear weapons program.

Judging from Iran's conflicting statements about the hikers, its leaders seem uncertain how to manage the standoff. In May 2010, the government in Tehran permitted the hikers' mothers to visit, though photos of the teary reunion served only to ratchet up international opposition to the detention. The families of Bauer and Fattal, who haven't yet commented on the sentence, advocate for their release through the website freethehikers.org, and you can follow the story on Twitter via the hashtag #ssj.

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What's Happening in Libya Explained

| Sat Aug. 20, 2011 3:33 PM EDT
Libyan rebels guarding an area to the east of Tripoli on Aug. 23, 2011.

Editors' note: The following is a basic primer on what's happening in Libya. It was updated continuously from February through the beginning of April. On Thursday, October 20, the Libyan Prime Minister announced that Moammar Qaddafi had been killed as his home town of Sirte was taken by fighters seeking to complete the eight-month uprising. Jump straight to the latest news updates

In mid February, Libyan dissident Najla Aburrahman begged Western media to pay attention to the bloodbath unfolding in her country. "If the Libyan protesters are ignored," she wrote, "the fear is that [Libyan dictator Moammar] Qaddafi—a man who appears to care little what the rest of the world thinks of him—will be able to seal the country off from foreign observers, and ruthlessly crush any uprising before it even has a chance to begin."

Why are Libyans unhappy?

Libya has been ruled for 42 years by a cunning, repressive, eccentric dictator who has frequently described his own people as "backwards." More than half of his 6.5 million subjects are under 18. Despite Libya's plentiful oil revenues, which represent most of the national budget, many children suffer from malnutrition and anemia. Under Qaddafi's regime, corruption was rampant, dissidents were brutally suppressed, and many citizens were afraid to say Qaddafi's name in public or in private for fear of attracting suspicion. Instead, Qaddafi was often referred to as "the leader" and his son Seif (until now heir-apparent) as "the principal." Discussing national policy with a foreigner was punishable with three years in prison. Reporters Without Borders described press freedom in Qaddafi's Libya as "virtually non-existent."

Here Are 6 Stories You Must Read About Rick Perry

| Sat Aug. 20, 2011 5:00 AM EDT
Texas Gov. Rick Perry announced last week he would seek the GOP's presidential nomination.

Rick Perry's first week on the campaign trail was, it's pretty safe to say, an eventful one. Last Saturday, the Texas governor officially entered the GOP presidential race with a pledge to make "Washington, DC, as inconsequential in your life as I can." On Sunday, he alleged that the United States military does not respect President Obama. On Monday, he threatened to murder (or something) the Republican-appointed chairman of the Federal Reserve. On Wednesday, he blew the whistle on an international conspiracy by climatologists to secure more money for research grants. On Thursday, he disclosed that the earth was "pretty old" and that creationism should be taught in public schools.

Perry, Texas' governor since the last days of the Clinton administration, has taken the race by storm, soaring to the top of the polls in Iowa and throwing conservatives into a tizzy as to whether he's really cut out to lead the Republican party forward. So who is Rick Perry, anyway—and what has he done to Texas?

We combed the Internet to bring you our favorite deep dives on the GOP's new pony—and the people and events that made him. Enjoy:

"Trial by Fire," David Grann, The New Yorker: Cameron Todd Willingham was executed via lethal injection in 2004 for murdering his wife and three kids via arson. There was one serious problem: It now appears almost certain that Willingham was innocent. Perry, who presided over more executions than any governor in modern American history, declined to grant a stay to Willingham when presented with evidence that his case had been mishandled and key evidence was ignored. When the Texas Forensic Science Commission seemed on the verge of concluding that the fire might not have been arson after all (after taking the unprecedented step of re-examining the case), Perry promptly replaced three of its members. Grann painstakingly details the 12-year process by which Texas, under Perry's watch, killed an innocent man—and the effort he took to sweep it under the rug. The New Republic's Jonathan Chait calls this piece, "the single greatest piece of journalism I have ever read in my life." See also: "Innocence Lost," Pamela Colloff, Texas Monthly—in which a reporter succeeds in freeing a man who spent 18 years on death row for a crime he didn't commit.

"The NAFTA Superhighway," Chris Hayes, The Nation: "When completed, the highway will run from Mexico City to Toronto, slicing through the heartland like a dagger sunk into a heifer at the loins and pulled clean to the throat. It will be four football fields wide, an expansive gully of concrete, noise and exhaust, swelled with cars, trucks, trains and pipelines carrying water, wires and God knows what else. Through towns large and small it will run, plowing under family farms, subdevelopments, acres of wilderness."

At least, that's how Hayes' conspiracy theorists—which include the Montana Legislature and at least one member of Congress—saw it. Hayes cuts through the myths surrounding the Trans-Texas Corridor, one of Perry's most ambitious and controversial proposals in his decade as governor—and one that helped spawn a conservative insurrection in the 2010 gubernatorial primary.

"Bob Perry Needs a Hug," S.C. Gwynne, Texas Monthly: No one in America has given more money to Rick Perry over the last decade than Texas homebuilder and Swift Boat financier Bob Perry (no relation): $2.5 million. Perry the builder, whose business success is heavily dependent on cheap immigrant labor, is widely seen as a driving force behind the governor's relatively moderate approach to curbing undocumented immigration. Gov. Perry has been accused of being a corporatist and not an ideologue; his relationship with Bob Perry is a testament to that.

"Revisionaries," Mariah Blake, Washington Monthly: Texas public schools don't officially push creationism on students as Perry suggests, but it's not for lack of effort. Blake profiles one of Perry's most controversial appointments, his selection of a creationist dentist to chair the State Board of Education, tasked with setting the curriculum standards for classrooms across the state.

Don McLeroy is a balding, paunchy man with a thick broom-handle mustache who lives in a rambling two-story brick home in a suburb near Bryan, Texas. When he greeted me at the door one evening last October, he was clutching a thin paperback with the skeleton of a seahorse on its cover, a primer on natural selection penned by famed evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr. We sat down at his dining table, which was piled high with three-ring binders, and his wife, Nancy, brought us ice water in cut-crystal glasses with matching coasters. Then McLeroy cracked the book open…

"Rick Perry's Army of God," Forrest Wilder, Texas Observer: Before he announced his run for president Rick Perry held a massive prayer and fasting festival at an NFL stadium in Houston. You may have heard. Wilder provides valuable background on Perry's allies on the religious right—specifically a radical new movement known as the New Apostolic Reformation.

On September 28, 2009, at 1:40 p.m., God's messengers visited Rick Perry. On this day, the Lord's messengers arrived in the form of two Texas pastors, Tom Schlueter of Arlington and Bob Long of San Marcos, who called on Perry in the governor's office inside the state Capitol. Schlueter and Long both oversee small congregations, but they are more than just pastors. They consider themselves modern-day apostles and prophets, blessed with the same gifts as Old Testament prophets or New Testament apostles. The pastors told Perry of God's grand plan for Texas. A chain of powerful prophecies had proclaimed that Texas was "The Prophet State," anointed by God to lead the United States into revival and Godly government. And the governor would have a special role.

"Right Place, Right Time," Paul Burka, Texas Monthly: This one's politics, plain and simple. Burka, one of Texas' most respected political analysts, explains what makes Perry tick, and makes the compelling case that the governor has been preparing for his presidential run for years.

Most people who follow Texas politics know by now the conventional wisdom about Perry: that he is an accidental governor who inherited the job when George W. Bush became president; that he is "Governor Goodhair" or "Governor 39 Percent" or some similar appellation of mild disrespect accompanied by a twist of humor; that he doesn’t really do anything well except win elections, which he has done with regularity. There is truth in the conventional wisdom, but there is also blindness. Perry has been so often viewed as a caricature that many Texans have failed to recognize his talent.

Bank of America to Rick Perry: "We will help you out!"

| Fri Aug. 19, 2011 5:24 PM EDT

The producers of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps couldn't have staged better coda: During the meet-and-greet following Texas Governor Rick Perry's appearance at the New Hampshire Politics and Eggs breakfast this week, a mysterious man approached Perry and apropos of nothing said, "Bank of America. We will help you out." Then he silently moved on. 

Politico's Ben Smith identified the exec as James Mahoney, Bank of America's director of public policy. A bank spokesperson told Smith that the only "help" Mahoney was offering was nonpartisan policy expertise. But Mahoney is also chairman of the bank's New Hampshire PAC, which doles out political cash.

The interaction takes place at precisely 40 minutes:

Rick Perry Accidentally Speaks Truth on Evolution Education

| Fri Aug. 19, 2011 11:42 AM EDT
Texas Gov. Rick Perry

Texas Governor Rick Perry caused a hulabaloo this week when he revealed to the campaign press what Texans have known for a decade: He's really not that into science. Evolution, he told a 9-year-old New Hampshire boy on Thursday, is just "a theory that's out there," which is why, "in Texas, we teach both creationism and evolution in our public schools." That came just one day after Perry revealed that the world's climatologist are engaged in a sweeping conspiracy to manipulate data to "keep the money rolling in."

But the GOP presidential candidate, who once appointed a creationist dentist (and fellow Aggie) to head the State Board of Education, has long been a public opponent of evolution, both in his policies and his rhetoric. As he explained last year, "I am a firm believer in intelligent design as a matter of faith and intellect, and I believe it should be presented in schools alongside the theories of evolution."

According to Supreme Court, public schools cannot teach creationism as science, and according to the state's most curriculum standards they're not supposed to either—which makes Perry's statement that Texas schools do teach creationism all the more noteworthy. Over at the Texas ObserverForrest Wilder recounts the governor's history of appointing ... let's say "scientifically-disoriented" officials to scientifically-oriented agencies like the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, and then offers some personal experience:

Regardless of what the official curriculum is, there are teachers in Texas who do teach creationism. I know, because I had a teacher that did so in my Central Texas high school. She proudly displayed a bumper sticker on her podium that read something like, "Big Bang Theory: God Said 'Bang' and There it Was." Her students picked up on her creationist catch-phrases—"Can't make a chain out of missing links"—and took pity on us in the AP biology class, where evolution was taught as the cornerstone of biology.

Maybe this is what Rick Perry meant when he said "we teach both creationism and evolution in our public schools." Creationism *is* taught occasionally; it's just that it's not supposed to be.

And then there's this, from PolitiFact:

Penn State University political scientist Eric Plutzer, who helped conduct a 2007 national survey of more than 950 science teachers in 49 states, including Texas, told us in an interview that in any state 10 percent to 20 percent of science teachers are "endorsing creationism in their classrooms, often devoting one to four class hours to creationism over the course of the year."

A synopsis of the survey, published in the Jan. 27, 2011, issue of Science magazine, says a "sizable number of teachers expose their students to all positions — scientific or not."

Plutzer told us: "One thing you can be certain of is that large numbers of public school science teachers in Texas are endorsing creationism."

Right. Chiding Perry on the facts in this case misses the point, because Perry wasn't revealing his ignorance; he was accidentally speaking the truth. Perry knows you can't put creationism in textbooks outright—Kitzmiller v. Dover took care of that—but the education agenda he supported was designed to achieve the same ends through a more roundabout process of enabling teachers to shoot holes in biology or making them so nervous about the subject that they avoid teaching evolution entirely.