Mojo - September 2011

Top Pentagon Official Refutes Mullen Statement on Pakistan

| Wed Sep. 28, 2011 5:15 PM EDT
Admiral Mike Mullen meets with Pakistani General Khalid Shameem Wynne in Rawalpindi in April.

It was all a big misunderstanding. At least that's how US military officials are explaining away Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen's assertion that the Haqqani terrorist network operates with the support of Pakistani intelligence. Apparently, Mullen's inflammatory allegations were only "meant to imply broad assistance, but not necessarily direction by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency," the Washington Post reports:

Mullen’s language “overstates the case,” said a senior Pentagon official with access to classified intelligence files on Pakistan, because there is scant evidence of direction or control. If anything, the official said, the intelligence indicates that Pakistan treads a delicate if duplicitous line, providing support to insurgent groups including the Haqqani network but avoiding actions that would provoke a U.S. response.

"The Pakistani government has been dealing with Haqqani for a long time and still sees strategic value in guiding Haqqani and using them for their purposes," the Pentagon official said. But "it’s not in their interest to inflame us in a way that an attack on a [U.S.] compound would do."

U.S. officials stressed that there is broad agreement in the military and intelligence community that the Haqqani network has mounted some of the most audacious attacks of the Afghanistan war, including a 20-hour siege by gunmen this month on the U.S. Embassy compound in Kabul.

A senior aide to Mullen defended the chairman’s testimony, which was designed to prod the Pakistanis to sever ties to the Haqqani group if not contain it by force. “I don’t think the Pakistani reaction was unexpected," said Capt. John Kirby. "The chairman stands by every word of his testimony."

This kinda sorta sounds like the DoD is walking back Mullen's claims. US officials disputing Mullens statement insist that the evidence linking the Haqqani group to the ISI is "open to differences in interpretation."

Given Mullen's stature and prominence, this is a pretty serious slap in the face, and one that ignores a simple historical fact: Pakistan regularly uses extremist groups like the Haqqanis as proxies to secure its influence in Afghanistan. As one senior military official who defended Mullen explained to the Post:

"This is not new," the official said. “Can they control them like a military unit? We don’t think so. Do they encourage them? Yes. Do they provide some finance for them? Yes. Do they provide safe havens? Yes."

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Florida GOP Group Shuns Muslim-American

| Wed Sep. 28, 2011 3:19 PM EDT

In a contentious public meeting Monday night, the Broward Republican Executive Committee, a Republican group in Southern Florida, voted to deny Nezar Hamze, a Muslim-American Republican, membership. The group maintains that Hamze's religion had nothing to do with their vote, but group members told reporters that the man's affiliation with an Islamic relations group made members uneasy and could have been the basis for his rejection. 

In early September, conservatives in Broward County, where the committee is based, were outraged after hearing of Hamze's plans to apply to join their ranks. Hamze, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations of South Florida (CAIR), later explained to Salon's Justin Elliott why he applied: "A lot of Muslims I know, their values really line up with the conservative values of the Republican party. I'm a strict social conservative, a fiscal conservative, a very strict constitutionalist. The protection of civil liberties for all Americans is supreme." Furthermore, Hamze told Mother Jones that he wanted to "bring Muslims into the mainstream political process."

The Alan Simpson For President Movement Comes of Age (Video)

| Wed Sep. 28, 2011 12:34 PM EDT

When we last heard from Alan Simpson, the former Wyoming Senator and GOP co-chair of the Simpson-Bowles Debt Commission was railing against today's disrespectful youths, "walking on their pants with their caps on backwards listening to the Enema Man and Snoopy Snoopy Poop Dog." All of which make the calls for him to run for president as inevitable as they are inexplicable.

It began over the summer, when New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman said at the Aspen Ideas Festival that "If Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles want to run as president and vice president, I will vote for them." Former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer reprised the idea in an interview with Simpson on CNN a few days later. For folks like Friedman, who pride themselves on the boldness of their ideas in the face of a crippling status quo (accurate or not), Simpson is a tantalizing choice.

And now, with Republicans still freaking out about their choices for President and Friedman still pining for some sort of third-party savior capable of making tough choices and magically transcending checks and balances, the calls for a Simpson candidacy have picked up again (even though he's not running). It's not a Chris Christie-sized surge, but it’s loud enough that, for instance, Fox News’ Neil Cavuto is hosting a segment on Simpson’s presidential prospects tonight. Then there's this website, which produced the following mix tape:

Simpson is a pro-choice Republican who opposed Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and doesn't actually seem to understand how Social Security works—despite making it a signature issue. He is also, reportedly, old. But maybe this is his year.

Why Did Christie Hit Perry On Immigration?

| Wed Sep. 28, 2011 10:04 AM EDT

For some time now Republican elites have been hoping New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will enter the GOP presidential race and save the party from a lackluster presidential field. On Tuesday, Christie gave a speech reiterating that he isn't running—but he also took a strangely aggressive swipe at Texas Gov. Rick Perry for signing a law that granted in-state tuition to undocumented students brought to the US as children, saying that opposing the law wasn't "a heartless position... That is a common sense position." (Perry had suggested in the last GOP debate that people who didn't support the law "don't have a heart.")

Why is this strangely aggressive? Because Christie hasn't exactly been a border hawk up till now. Last year he called on Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform, saying that lawmakers have to "step up to the plate, they have to secure our borders, and they have to put forward a commonsense path to citizenship for people." Immigration restrictionists view any support for "comprehensive reform," which includes a path to citizenship as an admission we won't be deporting every undocumented person in the country, which for them is unacceptable.

As Dan Amira pointed out yesterday, Christie also understands the difference between being in the country illegally and entering the country illegally, the former being a civil violation and the latter a felony. The distinction, which immigration hawks don't recognize because they think of all undocumented immigrants as hardcore criminals, is usually used by people who think the US should be focused on deporting unauthorized immigrants who pose an actual threat to public safety. That's why as US Attorney Christie said, "If there are people out there committing crimes, they should be dealt with," but that "[b]eing in this country without proper documentation is not a crime."

Likewise, he hasn't exactly jumped on the Arizona bandwagon, telling Politico's Maggie Haberman and Ben Smith last July that immigration was a federal problem and that restrictive state immigration laws aren't the answer. "I'm not really comfortable with state law enforcement having a big role," he noted. He also reiterated his support for a "path to legalization"—this translates to "amnesty" in GOP-base-speak.

Christie's advantage is that, unlike Perry, he doesn't have any actual policies to apologize for just statements hinting at a moderate immigration stance. Reversing yourself on past remarks isn't as hard as explaining away something you've signed your name to. So if Christie does choose to run and tack to Perry's right on immigration (Romney's strategy of late), he'll probably have a much easier time than Perry has. The question is whether his new hard line on immigration means getting serious about running for president—or just teasing the GOPers desperate to see him enter the race. 

Americans Dislike the Tea Party More Than Ever Before

| Wed Sep. 28, 2011 6:36 AM EDT

It's hard out there for a tea partier.

The upstart conservative movement was all the rage in the summer of 2009, and channeled that energy into a wave of victories in the 2010 midterm elections, sending dozens of hard-line, intransigent Republicans to Congress. However, a new CNN/ORC poll (PDF) out Tuesday shows that the pendulum of public opinion has swung away from the tea party.

Just 28 percent of Americans hold favorable views of the tea party, an all-time low in the 19 months that CNN/ORC pollsters have gauged Americans' feelings about the movement. At the same time, 53 percent of Americans think poorly of the tea party, an all-time high. According to CNN/ORC, the movement's popularity peaked in the spring of 2010, when 38 percent of Americans said they liked the tea party and only 36 percent said they didn't.

CNN's polls aren't the only ones to pick up a decline in support for the tea party. In a pair of Pew Research Center polls conducted in February 2010 and August 2011, disapproval of the tea party jumped from 18 percentage points; the percentage of those who said they liked the movement increased from 33 to 36 percent. Washington Post-ABC and Wall Street Journal-NBC polls also found declining support for the tea party from 2009 to 2010.

More interesting tidbits from the new CNN/ORC poll: Hillary Clinton remains one of the most popular public figures in American politics, with a 69 percent favorable rating and a 26 just unfavorable rating. She beats out Vice President Joe Biden (42-41), First Lady Michelle Obama (65-28), House Speaker John Boehner (37-39), and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (23-33).

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for September 28, 2011

Wed Sep. 28, 2011 5:57 AM EDT

US Army soldiers from B Troop, 6th Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, Task Force Duke move towards a mission objective during Operation Tofan 2 in Suri Khel, Afghanistan, Sept. 15, 2011. The mission objective was to clear insurgents from the town of Suri Khel and prevent them from returning. US Army photo by Sgt. Joseph Watson.

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Sharp Rise In Premiums Exposes Health Insurers' Greed

| Tue Sep. 27, 2011 7:13 PM EDT

According to a study released today by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 2011 health insurance premiums for employer-sponsored family healthcare benefits rose 9 percent over last year's prices, leaving employees to pay, on average, $4,129 and employer contributions at $10,944. The number represents a surprising rise given that increases experienced in 2010 were just 3 percent.

So, why the sudden increase?

We know that Americans are using fewer medical services since the economy took a dive as people are staying away from the doctor and putting off non-life saving surgeries, such as knee and hip replacements, until they have more confidence that they will have the money required to pay deductibles and co-pays. We also know that fewer medical services are being utilized as a result of the increased popularity of Health Safety Accounts which require deductibles in excess of $2,000 per family, and employer provided policies that have increasingly large deductibles and co-pays.

As a result, can it possibly make sense that medical costs are increasing by the 9 percent reflected in the hefty premium hikes? In a word, no.

That will not stop the anti-Obamacare forces, of course, from putting the blame squarely on healthcare reform. In a sense, I suppose the Affordable Care Act does bear some of the responsibility—if you can consider motivating the health insurers to falsely inflate their prices, by forcing them to do the right thing, to be a blamable offense.

Chris Christie: No. No. No. No. No?

| Tue Sep. 27, 2011 4:55 PM EDT

Earlier this year, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie told reporters that "short of suicide, I don't really know what I'd have to do to convince you people that I'm not running" for president. Today, according to that trusted source, Fox News, he still isn't running. But between all the colorful denials, Christie has been quietly (and repeatedly) meeting with wealthy Republican donors, including—as Mother Jones recently revealed—the notorious Koch brothers.

For months, Christie has been under "huge pressure from high-ranking Republicans and fund-raisers," as one anonymous source recently put it, who are unhappy with the prospect of choosing between Rick Perry and Mitt Romney. These players include hedge-fund exec Paul Singer, who has given more than $1 million to the "Kochtopus," and Home Depot cofounder Ken Langone, who organized a July Manhattan meeting of "40-50 Republican heavy-hitters" to persuade Christie to run. Both social moderates who support gay marriage, Singer and Langone are apparently drawn to Christie's prioritizing of union-bashing, budget-slashing economic issues over moral-values plays.

On Friday, the conservative media outlet Newsmax reported, without naming names, that the Draft Christie movement "culminated in a hush-hush powwow held in the past week with Christie and several notable Republican billionaires." A source in the know told Newsmax that "Christie seemed inclined to enter the race."

Darrell Issa, the Not-So-Grand Inquisitor

| Tue Sep. 27, 2011 2:42 PM EDT
Darrell Issa chairs a hearing in Washington, DC, on January 26, 2001

When the 2010 electoral wave handed control of the House of Representatives to the Republicans, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) had finally arrived at his moment in the sun.

With the GOP now in the majority, the twice-arrested (but never convicted) six-term Congressman, whose ability to charm and exude good humor belies behavior that would suggest the heart of a shark, ascended to the chairmanship of the powerful House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Armed with subpoena power and the authority to investigate, hassle, and obstruct the Obama White House for at least the remainder of the president's first term, Issa found himself firmly ensconced in the catbird seat.

Making the position all the sexier was the media attention that came with the job, including guest appearances on Real Time With Bill Maher, frequent visits to the cable news shows, and a busy Sunday morning network talk show schedule.

All the attention seemed to suit Rep. Issa just fine. And then…nothing.

Pakistan Doesn't Need Haqqani Help to Kill Americans

| Tue Sep. 27, 2011 11:40 AM EDT
Pakistani Army Chief Staff Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani meets with soldiers in Chitral, Pakistan.

Speaking before members of Senate last Thursday, Mike Mullen, the outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, accused Pakistani intelligence of working alongside the Pakistan-based Haqqani terrorist network. The Taliban, it appears, felt slighted:

The Taliban took the unusual step Tuesday of insisting that it, not Pakistan, controls the Haqqani network, with Islamabad under growing US pressure to cut alleged ties with the group.

The militia advised Pakistan to prioritise “Islamic and national” interests and stand firm in the face of “America’s two-faced and implacable politics”.

"Neither are our bases in Pakistan nor do we need residence outside of our country," said the English-language statement in the name of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan—the Taliban’s name for itself—on its Voice of Jihad website. . . .The respected Maulawi Jalaluddin Haqqani . . . is (one of the) Islamic Emirate’s honourable and dignified personalities and receives all guidance for operations from the leader of the Islamic Emirate."

But as The New York Times' Carlotta Gall reports, it's clear that Pakistan doesn't need Haqqani or the Taliban to act on its interests. In 2007, Pakistani soldiers killed one American major and wounded three others, along with their Afghan interpreter, during a "complex, calculated assault." The ambush apparently spun out of (what seemed like) a successful meeting to resolve a border dispute that resulted in Pakistani casualties. When Gall first reported the attack, Pakistani officials pinned the blame on "unknown assailants." But, perhaps in the wake of Mullen's allegations, people-in-the-know are speaking out:

The attack...was kept quiet by Washington, which for much of a decade has seemed to play down or ignore signals that Pakistan would pursue its own interests, or even sometimes behave as an enemy.  . . .

Pakistani officials first attributed the attack to militants, then, when pressed to investigate, to a single rogue soldier from the Frontier Corps, the poorly controlled tribal militia that guards the border region. To this day, none of the governments have publicly clarified what happened, hoping to limit damage to relations. Both the American and Pakistani military investigations remain classified.

"The official line covered over the details in the interests of keeping the relationship with Pakistan intact," said a former United Nations official who served in eastern Afghanistan and was briefed on the events immediately after they occurred.

The attack involved multiple gunmen and intelligence agents who were seemingly intent on kidnapping or drawing away senior American and Afghan officials—you know, like they do:

American officials familiar with Pakistan say that the attack fit a pattern. The Pakistanis often seemed to retaliate for losses they had suffered in an accidental attack by United States forces with a deliberate assault on American troops, most probably to maintain morale among their own troops or to make a point to the Americans that they could not be pushed around, said a former American military officer who served in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The US accepts that Pakistan is an unreliable partner. For years now, it has put up with the fact that its interests are often best-served through risky alliances with the Mullah Omars and Jalaluddin Haqqanis of the world. It's an explosive marriage for both partners, with diminishing returns.

But now, Mullen has made it safe for Af-Pak truth-tellers to come out of the closet. With that, you have to wonder how many more pieces like Gall's original 2007 dispatch will have to be updated to reflect the fact that it's not at all unusual for Pakistanis to be killing Americans.