Mojo - September 2011

FBI Training Materials Treat "Islam" As The Enemy

| Thu Sep. 15, 2011 6:23 AM PDT

Spencer Ackerman reports that materials from an elective training course for FBI counterterrorism agents treat all Muslims as potential radicals and Islam as the enemy: 

The FBI is teaching its counterterrorism agents that “main stream” [sic] American Muslims are likely to be terrorist sympathizers; that the Prophet Mohammed was a “cult leader”; and that the Islamic practice of giving charity is no more than a “funding mechanism for combat.”

At the Bureau’s training ground in Quantico, Virginia, agents are shown a chart contending that the more “devout” a Muslim, the more likely he is to be “violent.” Those destructive tendencies cannot be reversed, an FBI instructional presentation adds: “Any war against non-believers is justified” under Muslim law; a “moderating process cannot happen if the Koran continues to be regarded as the unalterable word of Allah.”

Echoing the theological assessments put forth by Osama bin Laden and professional Islamophobes who agree that terrorism is the "correct" interpretation of Islam, one of the briefings states that "There may not be a 'radical' threat as much as it is simply a normal assertion of the orthodox ideology....The strategic themes animating these Islamic values are not fringe; they are main stream." The briefing materials aren't old either—Ackerman reports that one of the briefings took place last March. 

That was the same month that—following a Washington Monthly investigation that showed an unknown amount of federal funds were paying for "counterterrorism training" for law enforcement conducted by professional Islamophobes, including sources cited by alleged anti-Muslim Olso terrorist Anders Breivik—Senators Joe Lieberman and Susan Collins, the chair and ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder demanding answers on the qualifications standards for trainers. They reiterated that call on Monday with another letter noting that, "Since Muslim Americans are our main allies in the fight against violent Islamist extremism domestically, any training that implies otherwise is both inaccurate and counterproductive." Lieberman and Collins are hardly mushy liberals—earlier this year the committee released a report blaming the failure to recognize Nidal Malik Hasan as a threat prior to the Ft. Hood shootings in part on "political correctness."

Whether the administration responds or not, Lieberman and Collins have asked the GAO to look into the matter. As Ackerman's report suggests, the government's Islamophobia problem is anything but past tense—and it's one that could seriously damage the government's ability to gather information and prevent future acts of terrorism. 

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Why Expanding Colleges Won't Fix Income Inequality

| Thu Sep. 15, 2011 3:47 AM PDT

On the blog of the respected Chronicle of Higher Education, Richard Vedder, a researcher at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, recently made a strikingly counterintuitive argument against expanding access to college. Using a regression analysis of 2000 census data, he found that states with higher college graduation rates had worse income inequality. He also found that the opposite was true of those states in the 1970s, when the nation's college graduation rate was much lower on average but wages were more equal.

What's going on here? "I suspect the law of diminishing returns is at work," Vedder writes. "When college attendance/graduation is relatively rare, expanding it does bring in a number of able students who graduate and become productive members of the labor force." But when the number of graduates outstrips the number of available high-paying jobs, "the incremental graduates do not fare as well economically."

Vedder is no doubt onto something here. His findings illustrate why we can't save the American middle class by investing in education alone; we'll also have to figure out how to revive unions, fix tax and trade policy, and make the kinds of investments in technology and infrastructure that put Americans back to work.

That said, Vedder's findings are no cause to give up on publicly funded higher education. The five states with the highest college graduation rates all rank above average for median income. So college graduates aren't doing worse than non-graduates per se. In economically stratified (and highly educated) places like New York, Connecticut, and Silicon Valley, income inequality is to a large degree a gap between the affluent and the spectacularly affluent.

More important, Vedder fails to account for how inequality is widening between colleges themselves. Between 1999 and 2009, private research universities increased their per-student spending by about $7,500, to almost $36,000. Meanwhile, spending on the average public community college student stayed nearly flat, at slightly more than $10,000 per student. It should come as no surprise then that graduates of prestige schools continue to outpace other collegians.

As a conservative, Vedder wants to see schools tighten their academic standards and teach people the kinds of skills that they need to get jobs. Those are fine ideas. But we also need to stop eviscerating the budgets of public universities and colleges even as they expand enrollment. You don't have to be a Harvard grad to understand that you get what you pay for.

BREAKING: Supreme Court Does Not Block Execution of Troy Davis

| Thu Sep. 15, 2011 3:00 AM PDT
Worldwide support: A 2008 Paris "die-in" for Davis.

UPDATE III, Wednesday, September 21: The Supreme Court rejected a stay of execution for Troy Davis. He was executed shortly after 11 p.m.

UPDATE II, Wednesday, September 21: After exhausting all other appeals, lawyers for Troy Davis sent a last-ditch plea to the United States Supreme Court. Davis was scheduled to die at 7 p.m. Eastern, but Georgia prison officials are waiting to hear the court's decision. Follow New York Times reporter Kim Severson on Twitter for the latest developments. Democracy Now is also covering the story live from outside Davis' execution chamber:

UPDATE, Tuesday, September 20: This morning, the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Parole issued its decision to deny Troy Davis clemency. The five-member board did not reveal the tally of its secret vote. In a statement, it said that its members "have not taken their responsibility lightly" and "thoroughly deliberated" the case. Davis is scheduled for execution by lethal injection Wednesday evening.

ORIGINAL POST: During last week's GOP presidential debate, Rick Perry doubled down on his support for the "ultimate justice." As the audience applauded Perry's high death-penalty record, the gunslinger said he'd "never struggled" with the idea that an innocent man may have died on his watch, despite clear evidence that at least one has. Throughout his 11 years in office, Perry has presided over 235 executions (and counting), more than any other governor since the nation's moratorium on capital punishment was lifted 35 years ago.

In 1976, the state of Georgia played a starring role in helping to break that moratorium with the landmark case Gregg v. Georgia. That explains, in part, how 42-year-old Troy Davis landed on the state's death row two decades ago for the murder of a Savannah police officer. His case has all the markings of the sort of executionary zeal that garnered applause last week: No physical evidence links him to the crime; most of the original trial's eyewitnesses have since recanted their testimony, accusing police of coercion; and several people insist that the man who tipped off the cops to Davis is the real killer. Yet despite the real doubts about his guilt, Davis has exhausted his appeals. Last week, for the fourth time in as many years, corrections officials scheduled him for execution. His new death date is September 21.

"He has one last chance," says Laura Moye, the director of Amnesty International USA's death penalty abolition campaign: Georgia's parole board, the state's sole clemency-granting authority, will take a final look at Davis' case on Monday. Beyond that, she says, "he doesn't seem to have any legal avenues open to him."

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for September 15, 2011

Thu Sep. 15, 2011 2:57 AM PDT

Senior Airman John Fitzgerald arm wrestles an Afghan child Aug. 21, 2011, in the Alingar District, Afghanistan, after completing the first phase of a multi-day operation. The operation called for a cordon and search in a village where insurgents were believed to reside. Fitzgerald is a medic assigned to the Laghman Provincial Reconstruction Team. (US Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Ryan Crane)

US Marshals: Not Watching Your Assets

| Wed Sep. 14, 2011 10:50 AM PDT
Tommy Lee Jones as US Marshall Samuel Gerard in US Marshals.

The US Marshals Service has sold off millions of dollars worth of seized assets without proper disclosure, according to a report from the Department of Justice's office of inspector general (OIG). Between 2005 and 2010, the service's Complex Asset Team disposed of over $136 million in assets with relatively little oversight or documentation, the OIG report alleges. The IG believes the team may have undervalued many of its seized assets and sold them at below-market prices—meaning taxpayers probably got less money than they deserved.

Back in November, an employee of the firm hired to help manage the Marshals' assets blew the whistle on team leader Leonard Briskman, accusing him of breaching conflict of interest rules. That employee—a CPA and former federal agent named Brian S. Aryai—filed a whistle-blower lawsuit in November against his employer, Forfeiture Support Associates, under the Federal False Claims Act.

Aryai's suit convinced the OIG to take an interest in the Marshal's Complex Assets Team. But after clearing Briskman of Aryai's initial allegations, OIG found other problems, Main Justice reports:

The inspector general reported that in several instances, Briskman valued and sold the same asset himself without supervision by anyone in the marshal’s office. In addition, he failed to publicly announce the sale of some assets, which limited their availability to the general public. In one case, an assistant U.S. Attorney from the Southern District of New York objected to a decision by Briskman to sell assets that had been seized during the Bernard Madoff case–more than one million shares of a pet prescription firm and a 5 percent stake in another investment portfolio–without announcing the sale.

In at least eight of the 55 cases taken up by the asset team between 2005 and 2010, the purchaser or the price of the asset was not recorded. On top of that, the team failed to perform sufficient market research to properly value the assets it was eyeing; for some of them, it couldn’t even provide the OIG with bank statements and other basic documentation. The New York Times reports that Briskman has been transferred to another division of the Marshals Service since Aryai filed his suit, and the OIG cleared him of any criminal wrongdoing. The Marshals Service, meanwhile, says that it has implemented most of the report's recommendations.

Aryai's lawsuit is still pending. Among the loose ends waiting to be tied are allegations that assets were sold without public notice or competitive bidding, and that Briskman found buyers through his business contacts. Stay tuned.

Federal Court Considers Oklahoma Shariah Ban

| Wed Sep. 14, 2011 10:10 AM PDT

On Monday, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals began hearings on a constitutional challenge to Oklahoma's ban on Shariah law.

The amendment to the state's constitution was approved by popular vote—more than 70 percent of Oklahomans voted for it. But although singling out Muslims for official disapproval might have been a workable strategy for getting out the vote, it may doom the law in court. Reuters reports:

The panel gave no indication how it would rule, but at least one judge, Scott Matheson, asked why the measure was crafted to apply explicitly to just one religion.

"There's no mention of any other specific law," Matheson said in the hearing. "We just have Sharia law singled out."

Oklahoma Solicitor General Patrick Wyrick replied, "The intent here was to exclude Sharia law and international law."

Matheson asked, "Why is there any need to mention Sharia law," to which Wyrick answered: "To avoid confusion."

Often questions from judges during oral arguments are less about getting information than making a point, and in this case Obama-appointee Matheson (the older brother of Utah Rep. Jim Matheson, a Democrat) seemed to be offering Wyrick a chance to explain the ban's obvious problems. Instead, Wyrick just reiterated that the law was targeting a particular religion, lest anyone get confused. That's unusual. Laws explicitly singling out certain religions are rare, precisely because the authors of those laws know that doing poses obvious constitutional problems that could lead to the measures being overturned. In previous cases like this, lawmakers have at least tried to pretend that there was a compelling public interest beyond simply curtailing the religious activities of one particular group. But thanks to the language of the amendment and the public statements of Oklahoma lawmakers, there's little doubt who the amendment was targeting. 

Oklahoma's Shariah law ban was called the "Save Our State Amendment," but only in the most fevered imaginations is Tulsa in danger of being annexed by Islamic extremists. Instead, the ban will simply interfere with the ability of Muslim Oklahomans to execute wills and uphold business contracts drafted according to their religious beliefs. There is no danger of "Shariah" replacing American law. Where religious practices come into contact with civil law, the latter prevails.

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Dems: NY-9 Loss Is No Biggie

| Wed Sep. 14, 2011 10:02 AM PDT

Following the loss of Anthony Weiner's onetime congressional district in New York's special election, Demcratic National Committee Chairperson Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Shultz (D-Fla.) and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) ran damage control during a DNC conference call on Wednesday. They dismissed the idea that Democrat David Weprin's loss to Republican Bob Turner had implications for 2012 or for Democrats retaining the Jewish vote, despite Republicans insisting that the results in the heavily Jewish district portend a political shift of Jewish voters away from the Democratic Party.

"Anyone who tries to extrapolate between what happened in this district and what would happen in New York City, new York state, or the country is making a big mistake," said Schumer, who once represented NY-9 as a House member. "It is among the most conservative districts in New York City."

Schumer has a point. The district isn't as liberal as Weiner's reputation might have suggested, having gone for President George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004 before going for Obama in 2008. That doesn't mean the special election sin't a bad omen for Democrats in 2012. As Ezra Klein writes, there is a fairly strong connection between special elections and subsequent general election results—even if that relationship doesn't automatically suggest defeat for Obama.

Asked whether the outcome in NY-9 suggests that Jews will start voting Republican, Wasserman-Shultz said that that wasn't going to happen. "Democrats have consistently received the Jewish vote and will again," she said. "This president, because of his incredibly strong record on Israel and strong record on domestic issues important to the Jewish community, he and Democrats up and down the ballot will receive an overwhelming majority of the Jewish vote once again."

GOPers are eager to spin NY-9 as a sign Jewish voters are finally going to start leaning Republicans. But as Ben Smith points out, the Jewish community in NY-9 is more Orthodox and conservative than the Jewish population as a whole. At the same time though, the worse the economy gets, the more likely Jewish voters are to vote against the president for the same reason non-Jewish voters will.

 

More Ethics Trouble for Clarence Thomas

| Wed Sep. 14, 2011 9:54 AM PDT
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

If Clarence Thomas was hoping that liberals might just forget about his cozy ties to a Dallas real estate developer, or his failure for a decade to disclose the hundreds of thousands of dollars his wife earned from a conservative think tank, well, he would be wrong. As President Obama's health care reform bill gets closer and closer to a hearing before the high court, liberal groups are continuing to press for some sort of disciplinary action against Thomas, or at least to force him to recuse himself from hearing the health care case.

To that end, on Tuesday, the left-leaning Alliance for Justice and the good-government group Common Cause asked the Judicial Conference of the United States, which oversees the federal courts, to investigate whether Thomas violated the Ethics in Government Act. The groups allege that Thomas may have violated the act when he failed to disclose his wife Ginny Thomas's compensation—upwards of $700,000—from the conservative think tank Heritage Foundation.

The groups also are asking the Judicial Conference to investigate whether Thomas may have failed to report travel paid for by the Texas real estate developer Harlan Crowe, as reported by the New York Times. The Judicial Conference was holding its semi-annual meeting in DC this week when the advocacy groups sent their letter. If the Conference concludes that the allegations have merit, federal law requires that if it "has reasonable cause to believe has willfully falsified or willfully failed to file information required to be reported" it must refer the case to the attorney general. Common Cause president Bob Edgar said in a statement Tuesday:

In America, no one is above the law, including Supreme Court justices. For more than a decade, Justice Thomas omitted information about his wife’s income, clearly required by the Ethics in Government Act, from his annual financial disclosure report. Surely such a repeated violation, by someone entrusted to apply laws far more complex than the Ethics Act, at least deserves a formal review by the Judicial Conference and the Attorney General.

Odds are slim that even the Judicial Conference is going to ask Eric Holder to investigate Thomas. But you can't really fault them for trying. Thomas's lapses seem egregious enough for some higher authority to take a second look.

Unfortunately, thanks the the separation of powers doctrine, there really isn't a higher authority when it comes to the Supreme Court. Some members of Congress are trying to change that. Also this week, the Alliance for Justice has been trying to rally support for congressional hearings on a bill introduced earlier this year that would force Supreme Court justices to be covered by the code of conduct that applies to other federal judges and create new procedures for when a justice may have to recuse from hearing a case. Given that virtually no Republicans have signed on, this law, too, has no hope of going anywhere, at least not any time soon. But the Democrats behind it get points for trying anyway.

*As a completely unrelated side note, Thomas came to mind as I was reading this article earlier this week about how NASCAR has started installing solar panels and recycling and employing flocks of sheep to mow the track lawns. I have to wonder whether Thomas, a former Monsanto employee, might have second thoughts about his anti-environmental positions now that even NASCAR has gone green. A little-known fact about Thomas is that in his spare time, he and Ginny drive their gas-guzzling, 40-foot custom-built bus to NASCAR races, where they hang out with ordinary Americans who often don't even recognize the Supreme Court's most bitter member. Perhaps some of NASCAR's new-found environmental consciousness will rub off.

Limbaugh Compares Obama To Shaft

| Wed Sep. 14, 2011 9:21 AM PDT

No one was expecting right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh to support President Barack Obama's jobs bill. But comparing Obama to blaxploitation film hero John Shaft? That's a little random: 

 The picture accompanies the latest routine from longtime Limbaugh collaborator Paul Shanklin of "Barack The Magic Negro" fame.

For those of us who weren't alive in the blaxploitation era, John Shaft is a daring private detective who sleeps with lots of women and protects Harlem from the encroachment of the exploitative white mob. So, basically the opposite of the married, conciliatory Ivy League family man in the White House. But for Limbaugh, who has spent the past few years reducing every single element of the Obama administration's agenda to an effort to take white people's hard-earned money and redistribute it to non-whites, the comparison must be obvious. I'm not even sure this goes in the top ten most offensive Limbaugh comparisons. A few weeks ago he was comparing Obama to Zimbabwean Dictator Robert Mugabe.

Big Labor to Goldman Sachs: Boot Blankfein as Chairman

| Wed Sep. 14, 2011 9:19 AM PDT
Goldman Sachs CEO and chair Lloyd Blankfein.

Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs commands one of the highest perches in American banking. Not only does he control Goldman's vast trading operations as CEO, but he also chairs Goldman's board, a who's-who of prominent business leaders and financiers.

Now, a prominent shareholder of Goldman's—the $850 million employee pension plan of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME)—is demanding that Blankfein relinquish his chairman's seat, especially in light of allegations that Goldman prioritized internal profits over those of its clients and that Blankfein perjured himself in Congressional testimony. A report by Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) released in April leveled those allegations after a two-year investigation into how Goldman assembled and sold complex securities investments. "In my judgment, Goldman clearly misled their clients and they misled the Congress," Levin said.

The AFSCME Plan, as it's known, filed a shareholder resolution Wednesday (PDF) in preparation for Goldman's 2012 shareholder meeting calling on Goldman to adopt an independent board chair. AFSCME said in a press release that an independent chair could have potentially prevented the current controversy embroiling Goldman while also maximizing returns to shareholders. "A strong, independent Board chair would focus Goldman on generating long-term value for its shareholders," AFSCME president Gerald McEntee said in a statement. "Goldman shareholders would benefit from independent leadership. A chair is supposed to oversee the CEO. It's time for Lloyd Blankfein to stop grading his own homework."

More companies are splitting the roles of CEO and chair. In 2004, 27 percent of companies on the S&P 500 had separate the CEO and chair roles; this year, 40 percent of S&P 500 companies had done so. The use of independent board chairs has climbed as well: just 10 percent of S&P 500 companies used an independent chair in 2004, but that number is now 20 percent, according to GMI research. Corporate governance experts Stephen Davis and Jon Lukomnik have written that split CEO-chair arrangements or independent chairs "are at historic highs and rising."

Corporate governance is a hot enough issue that it featured in last year's Dodd-Frank financial reform bill. Although early language in the bill would've forced companies to split the CEO and chair roles, the bill President Obama signed only requires companies to explain to investors why they were or weren't appointing an independent chair.

All this doesn't necessarily mean independent chairs are a great idea, says Jill Fisch, a corporate governance expert at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. Fisch says the academic research on the usefulness of an independent chair is "inconclusive." She adds that companies vary so greatly, from automakers to investment banks to Disney, that there's no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to who runs America's titans of business. "I'm confident there are companies that would benefit from having an independent chair," she says. "But I don't think it's some magic elixir that will help all companies, and I don't know if Goldman would necessarily benefit from it."