Mojo - September 2011

The Only State Dept. Employee Who May Be Fired Because of WikiLeaks

| Tue Sep. 27, 2011 8:35 AM PDT

One morning earlier this month, a man named Peter Van Buren was seated inside a drab, windowless interrogation room at the State Department and grilled for an hour and a half by agents from the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, the department's internal enforcers. The agents told Van Buren that he was under investigation for exposing classified government data, and they wanted him to come clean. "Name names!" the agents demanded.

Sounds like yet another grim episode of this country's never-ending war on terror, right? Not quite.

Peter Van Buren is no insurgent. Quite the opposite: For 23 years he's worked as a foreign service officer at the State Department, and a damn good one from the looks of it. He speaks Japanese, Mandarin Chinese, and Korean; served his country from Seoul to Sydney, Tokyo to Baghdad; and has won multiple awards for his disaster relief work. So why was Van Buren treated like a terror suspect by his own employer? For linking to a single leaked cable dumped online by WikiLeaks earlier this month.

But as Van Buren describes in a rare and fascinating glimpse inside the workings of the State Department, his interrogation more likely resulted from his new book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. It's a shocking, Catch-22-like tale of Van Buren's year running a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Iraq. The stories he recounts—a $171 million hospital "opened" by Laura Bush in 2004 that didn't see a single patient in the next six years, a $2.5 million chicken processing plant that Iraqis didn't want and never got used unless US goverment officials came to visit—should make the most rabid foreign policy hawk question the wisdom of America's nation-building efforts. (You can find some of those stories on Van Buren's blog, also titled We Meant Well.)

Here's an excerpt from Van Buren's story, with him back in the interrogation room for a second go-round:

Back in that windowless room for a second time, I faced the two DS agents clumsily trying to play semi-bad and altogether-bad cop. They once again reminded me of my obligation to protect classified information, and studiously ignored my response—that I indeed do take that obligation seriously, enough in fact to distinguish between actual disclosure and a witch-hunt.

As they raised their voices and made uncomfortable eye contact just like it says to do in any Interrogation 101 manual, you could almost imagine the hundreds of thousands of unredacted cables physically spinning through the air around us, heading—splat, splot, splat—for the web. Despite the Hollywood-style theatrics and the grim surroundings, the interrogation-style was less police state or 1984-style nightmare than a Brazil-like dark comedy.

In the end, though, it's no joke. I've been a blogger since April, but my meeting with the DS agents somehow took place only a week before the publication date of my book. Days after my second interrogation, the Principal Deputy Secretary of State wrote my publisher demanding small redactions in my book—already shipped to the bookstores—to avoid "harm to US security." One demand: to cut a vignette based on a scene from the movie version of Black Hawk Down.

The link to Wikileaks is still on my blog. The Bureau of Diplomatic Security declined my written offer to remove it, certainly an indication that however much my punishment mattered to them, the actual link mattered little. I may lose my job in State’s attempt to turn us all into mini-Bradley Mannings and so make America safe.

The full piece itself is worth a read for a rare chance to see your government hard at work.

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Huckabee Shills for Measure to Ban Abortions in Cases of Rape

| Tue Sep. 27, 2011 8:08 AM PDT

Once upon a time former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee was considered a serious presidential candidate with a long train of admirers on both the left and the right; as Jon Stewart took pains to note whenever Huckabee stopped by his show (which was frequently), Huckabee was the kind of guy you could agree with without being disagreeable. You might even consider voting for him for uncle.

But if you looked past the bass guitar and the PG-but-still-half-decent sense of humor, there was another side of Huckabee that's easy to forget about: He's really, really conservative. And that explains why, two weeks ago, he traveled to Jackson, Mississippi to raise money for the Yes on 26 campaign, in support of the Mississippi Personhood amendment, a referendum on the November ballot that would ban abortions in the state. All abortions. Even in cases of rape or incest. And that's by design: the amendment's sponsors barnstormed the state this spring on something called the "Conceived in Rape Tour," designed to show Mississippians that being forced to carry a forced pregnancy to term is actually quite rewarding.

Huckabee's message at the Yes on 26 fundraiser was simple: Give early and give often:

"I do not assume that you full comprehend the battle that you are going to face over the next couple of months in this fight for Amendment 26," Huckabee said. "You have no idea how many millions of dollars are likely to be poured into your state. And it's not stimulus money and economic development and job creation. It is hard-core political money that is designed to preserve the abortion industry, which is a multi-million-dollar industry specifically designed in order to terminate life and make people rich. Let's not kid ourselves. This is not about elevating women, this is about elevating wealth on behalf of those who profit from the sale of death."

You could make a good case that an amendment that would force women who have been raped to have the rapist's baby does not really elevate women, nor does banning certain forms of contraception like the morning-after pill (which supporters of the amendment call a "human pesticide"). Moreover, as I noted in my piece today, Mississippi only has one abortion clinic in the entire state, so there's not much of an abortion "industry" to speak of.

The larger takeway here, at least as far as Huckabee is concerned, is that this side of him has always been there. When he ran for president in 2008, reporters tended to focus on the underdog narrative and look past some of his wilder affiliations and controversial views. Whether that would have continued in 2012 is unknowable, but now it's all out in the open.

Study: As Companies Spend More on Politics, They Disclose Less

| Tue Sep. 27, 2011 7:06 AM PDT

The rise of dark-money political groups has made it much harder to tell which big companies are throwing money at elections. Often, all we know is what corporations voluntarily disclose—a big reason why transparency is becoming one of the most important aspects of corporate citizenship. With that idea in mind, the Robert Zicklin Center for Corporate Integrity at Baruch College has ranked Fortune 100 companies based on how well they disclose their political activities. The results may surprise you. Highly transparent companies include hard-knuckled lobbying powerhouses such as Pfizer and Goldman Sachs. Highly opaque ones: Corporate do-gooders such as Berkshire Hathaway, Nike, and Google (though the authors hadn't seen this Google page). 

If you're wondering what to make of this, the study found some fascinating trends. At the low end of corporate political engagement, companies tend to disclose more as they become more politically active. But as companies go from moderate to heavy involvement in politics, the trend reverses and politically active companies become increasingly opaque. Here's what this looks like on a graph, where the Baruch Index measures transparency (100=most transparent).

Robert Zicklin Center for Corporate IntegrityRobert Zicklin Center for Corporate Integrity

Okay, the graph isn't too transparent either. But here's what I think is going on: Companies that aren't involved in politics can seem opaque because they have nothing to disclose. Those with moderate political engagement disclose more on average because they want to let shareholders know that they're fighting for their interests. But those engaged in major political battles know that their heavy spending could tarnish their brands, so they find ways to hide what they're doing. In other words, political transparency comes with its own cost/benefit curve, which is basically what you see above. 

The "Sanctity" Of Marriage: Priceless

| Tue Sep. 27, 2011 6:15 AM PDT

Last Spring Maryland was poised to extend marriage rights to gays and lesbians before state Democrats withdrew the bill over fears that it would not pass. 

One of the dramatic developments in the fight over the law came when one of the bill's co-sponsors, Prince George's Delegate Tiffany Alston, decided she couldn't support it.

Alston first missed the committee vote, then voted against her own bill when she got the chance. At the time, she explained her decision with quite a bit of anxious handwringing:

"I had no idea what to do," said Alston (D-Prince George's). "I feel really strongly that people who love each other should be able to get married, no matter what their gender. But I also realize that that's not my function here. I'm here to represent the 110,000 people back home, many of whom had called and e-mailed and said, 'We don't want that bill.'

So the freshman lawmaker took a respite, in the form of a 15-minute ride around the picturesque State House with her chief of staff and longtime best friend, Nefetari Smith, and another state delegate, Jill P. Carter (D-Baltimore), who was also holding out. The break helped her come to terms with her conflict, and she returned to her office determined to vote no, as her constituents had demanded. The problem was that by the time she returned, the voting session had been postponed and the halls of the House were abuzz.

This is not a bad example of why fundamental rights shouldn't be subject to a popularity contest, although Alston's troubles with marriage weren't over. Last week she was indicted for theft after allegedly misappropriating campaign funds to...pay for her wedding.

Prosecutors say Alston, a Prince George’s County Democrat who took office in January and then played a focal role in the General Assembly’s debate over gay marriage, issued two campaign account checks totaling $3,560 to cover her wedding expenses last year. She also used her campaign account to make payments of $660 to a law firm employee, and also withdrew $1,250 in cash for personal use last December, prosecutors say. The checks for her wedding expenses were returned to the bank for insufficient funds.

Having trouble paying for a wedding is the kind of problem I'm sure many of Alston's gay constituents would have been happy to have. Of course, thanks to Alston and others, they can't get married at all.

San Francisco Takes on Crisis Pregnancy Centers

| Tue Sep. 27, 2011 4:00 AM PDT
A "crisis pregnancy center" in St. Paul, Minnesota.

San Francisco may be the next city to attempt to force so-called "crisis pregnancy centers" to disclose the fact that they don't actually offer abortion services. The point of a new ordinance, introduced last month by city Supervisor Malia Cohen, is to stop these largely religiously-affiliated clinics designed to deter women from having an abortion from luring in women with false claims about the services they offer.

Even though their staff may wear white lab coats and use ultrasound equipment, many of these clinics actually employ no medical professionals. They have also been found to provide medically inaccurate information in the interest of changing a woman's mind about getting an abortion. Many of them advertise as if they do offer abortion services, or are located near actual abortion providers—which can be confusing for women seeking services. The ordinance doesn't say that anti-abortion groups can't set up CPCs—just that they need to be honest in their advertising and other public information about what they actually do.

The ordinance outlines why these facilities should be more clearly marked:

When a woman is misled into believing that a clinic offers services that it does not in fact offer, she loses time crucial to the decision whether to terminate a pregnancy. Under these same circumstances a client may also lose the option to choose a particular procedure, or to terminate the pregnancy at all.

The fact that CPCs do often mislead women has been pretty well documented. Jezebel published a personal account from one young woman last week that summed up the concerns very well. Or you can take a look at the website of San Francisco-based CPC First Resort, which features cartoons of doctors and a whole "Ask the Doctor" section. That same section contains medically inaccurate information about how they can determine whether or not a woman is going to miscarry so they might not need an abortion after all. And the whole website hides the fact that the clinic doesn't actually provide abortions.

Earlier this year, New York City passed a similar law that would force CPCs to display signs about the type of services they offer. A judge struck down that law, however, deeming it "unconstitutionally vague." The worry, according to the judge, was that because the New York law "relates to the provision of emergency contraception and abortion—among the most controversial issues in our public discourse—the risk of discriminatory enforcement is high." The San Francisco version is different, in that it doesn't force CPCs to put up any particular signs; it just asks that the information that they do put out is accurate. I would guess that anti-abortion groups would also contest San Francisco's if it does pass, however.

Meanwhile, South Dakota passed a law this year that would force women seeking abortions to visit one of these centers, but a judge blocked it. The Argus-Leader reported on Monday that the state expects to spend as much as $4.15 million to defend the law in court. South Dakota readers: Behold your tax dollars at work!

Is #OccupyWallStreet Working?

| Tue Sep. 27, 2011 3:00 AM PDT

In July, Adbusters, the Canadian anti-consumerist magazine, announced an ambitious protest against corporate greed, inviting 20,000 "redeemers, rebels, and revolutionaries" to Occupy Wall Street in mid-September. "Are you ready for a Tahrir moment?" it asked, name-dropping Cairo's Tahrir Square to suggest that this would be the beginning of the American version of the Arab Spring. In response to the call to "occupy Wall Street," 500-750 fed-up Americans descended on Manhattan's Zuccotti Park last week to shake the foundations of market capitalism. Since then, 100 activists have been arrested, police have pepper-sprayed peaceful protesters, and Yahoo barred users from spreading the #occupywallstreet message via email. Yet as it enters its second week, the campaign's presence in the streets has dropped to just a few hundred supporters and its goal of kickstarting a popular movement feels a long way off.

What gives? There are plenty of reasons to be pissed off at the superrich and Wall Street. So why is a campaign that says it stands for the 99 percent of us lacking traction? Here are four more reasons why Zuccotti Park hasn't yet become the next Tahrir Square:

1. The kitchen-sink approach: Occupy Wall Street's lack of focus is embodied by this Adbusters post titled, "Hey President Obama, get ready for our one demand!" Here's the opening sentence: "On Saturday thousands of us will occupy Wall Street. We will wave our signs, unfurl our banners, beat our drums, chant our slogans…and then we'll get down to business and hold several people's assemblies to decide what our 'one demand' will be." First make noise, then decide what the noise is all about? 

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for September 27, 2011

Tue Sep. 27, 2011 2:57 AM PDT

Combat boots are placed in formation to represent America's Prisoners of War and Missing in Action on Sept. 15, 2011. US Air Force photo by Senior Airman Jerilyn Quintanilla.

Why Immigration Is Hurting Perry

| Mon Sep. 26, 2011 2:15 PM PDT

My colleague Kevin Drum speculates that what's hurting Texas Governor Rick Perry is not so much his positions on immigration as his resemblance to a certain half-term governor of Alaska who couldn't bothered to learn her stuff:

That's just way too Palinesque for the political pros. He looks like a guy who's had such an easy time in Texas that he doesn't really think he's going to have to work for the nomination — or the presidency. Gentleman's Cs have always been good enough, and he figures they'll be good enough again. So he's got nothing except a single set of sound bites for every occasion, and he's not prepared to put in the time and effort it takes to sound even minimally ready for prime time when he's taken out of his comfort zone.

That's a scary thought for Republicans. The economy is bad enough that Barack Obama is seriously vulnerable, but even with a bad economy he can beat somebody who's convinced that his winning personality is enough to see him through any troubles. When Perry first announced his candidacy, he had the aura of a political animal willing to do whatever it takes to win. Now he looks like he's willing to do anything except actually work hard. That's a sure way to lose in November, and that's why the GOP establishment is suddenly so nervous.

I really think Palin has nothing to do with this. According to a forthcoming study from Harvard's Theda Skocpol and two of her graduate students, Vanessa Williamson and John Coggin, immigration is among the most important issues for self-identified "Tea Party" Republicans. Why? Because it crystallizes their attitude towards "big government," namely that government assistance is entirely appropriate for those who've "earned it," and less so for those who haven't.

This impassioned opposition to illegal immigrants is often equated with racism, but Ms. Skocpol and her colleagues take great pains to point out that the Massachusetts Tea Partiers, whom they studied most closely, are vocally and actively opposed to overt racism. A racist poster to their Web site was publicly reprimanded and a plan was made to take down racist signs at a rally (though, in the event, the researchers didn’t spot any that needed removing). For the Tea Partiers, the major intellectual distinction isn’t between black and white — although that is the color of most of them — it is between deserving, hard-working citizen and unauthorized, foreign freeloader.

I think this description reduces racist statements or actions to something only people with closets full of white sheets who spend their Saturdays burning crosses ever engage in, but it really illustrates why Perry is so vulnerable on immigration. The Texas governor is on the wrong side on one of the defining ideological issues of the modern conservative movement. That's why his support for in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants brought to the US as children is so damaging—it's seen as giving the undeserving an advantage over the deserving. The David Weigel piece Drum links to contains an exchange that really illustrates the point:

"Look," admitted Clark. "Perry blew it. It's his fault that this is a discussion, because he did a bad job of explaining the program. There's no welfare for illegal immigrants. If they're in the state for three years, they're adding to the economy, they can get the tuition rates that Texans get." Van Remmen couldn't be convinced. "I have grandchildren going to college," she said. "They're struggling. Their Pell grants aren't worth as much this year. The reason why is that all this money is going to illegal immigrants."

Weigel writes that these conversations were happening all over the Florida convention center where the piece takes place. This zero-sum view of immigration is based on an economic fallacy, but it's intuitive so it persists.

A better question, it seems to me, is why Perry seems to be suffering so much given that in 2007, he and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney were both on record supporting President George W. Bush's comprehensive immigration reform plan. The answer may be that Romney's much-ballyhooed insincerity is serving him well here: Having vetoed an in-state tuition plan for undocumented immigrants as governor, it's much easier to see his support for comprehensive reform as the ambitious pander, rather than the other way around. Perry, on the other hand, with his remarks about those who disagree with him "not having a heart," gives Republican primary voters the sneaking suspicion that his moderation on the issue is genuine.

Government Shutdown? Now a Battle for the Soul of America

| Mon Sep. 26, 2011 12:00 PM PDT

For the third time in nine months, the threat of a government shutdown is back on the table.

For the overwhelming majority of Americans, such an event would pass mostly unnoticed.  Planes will still fly as federally paid air-traffic controllers continue to control the skies, federal law enforcement and military efforts will continue and social security checks will go out in the mail. 

However, for one very special class of Americans—the victims of this year's spate of deadly and destructive disasters—there will be nothing that is the least bit routine about such a shutdown.

At some point this week, FEMA, the federal agency struggling to keep up with the extraordinary pain and suffering created by this year's record number of disasters, will run out of money. The continued funding of the agency, plus the recognition that their budget must be increased to meet the demands of the many who have been stricken, is at the heart of the latest game of chicken being played out in Washington.

Salt is the New Death Panels

| Mon Sep. 26, 2011 11:32 AM PDT

Fox News has apparently found a new way to scare America: The War on Salt.

"I know you know the war on terror is going on, and you've accepted that," said "Fox & Friends" co-host Brian Kilmeade, leading into the segment on Monday morning (via Media Matters). "Can you accept the war on salt? It's official."

"[T]here is an official war on salt, despite recent studies that show that salt really isn't that bad for you," he continued. Then his co-host Gretchen Carlson chimed in:

So the FDA has opened up now a formal inquiry into salt reduction, so what is that going to mean? Will we now see that you can't eat salt in your own home, potentially? I mean, you know, they've already done that with smoking, et cetera. Not really sure. The interesting thing is, some people are actually told to eat more salt -- like me. Eat more salt, your blood pressure is too low. So, you know, you can't really just apply this across the board for everyone.

The outrage was sparked by the Food and Drug Administration's announcement on September 15 that the agency is opening an inquiry into whether or not to set standards on sodium intake. Not actually setting standards mind you—just looking into whether to set them. The announcement called for the "establishment of dockets to obtain comments, data, and evidence relevant to the dietary intake of sodium as well as current and emerging approaches designed to promote sodium reduction." This comes after the Institute of Medicine issued a report more than a year ago that suggested that the FDA should set limits on the amount of salt in processed foods.

As a reminder, here's why the FDA says excessive salt intake is a health problem that IT might want to regulate:

Hypertension, or high blood pressure, affects one in three U.S. adults – nearly 75 million people aged 20 or older. An additional 50 million adults suffer from pre-hypertension. High blood pressure can increase the risk for heart attacks, strokes, heart failure, and kidney failure. Too much sodium in the daily diet is a major contributor to high blood pressure.

Keep in mind that even if the FDA came out with rules, it wouldn't be deploying salt cops to your local Big Boy to confiscate all the salt shakers. It would merely be setting guidelines about the amount of salt in processed, packaged foods—the kind of foods where people unknowingly consume all kinds of sodium currently.

Fox isn't alone in the fear-mongering about a federal anti-salt crusade. The Daily Caller has also been drumming up fears that the vast government conspiracy to make your meals bland. So has the Heritage Foundation.

Most interesting, perhaps, is Fox's use of the "science isn't settled argument" when it comes to salt. Sound familiar? In this case, the network managed to find one study that contradicts the vast majority of scientific research that indicates excessive salt intake is unhealthy, and then used it to create the impression that the conclusion is somehow controversial. It's something that Fox does regularly when the subject is climate change, too. And just like in that example, it's entirely false.