Mojo - October 2011

NRO Fumbles Its Defense Of Walid Phares

| Mon Oct. 31, 2011 5:53 PM EDT
Walid Phares.

Mario Loyola's National Review op-ed attacking my piece on Mitt Romney's Middle East adviser Walid Phares takes several hundred words to contest exactly one fact in the entire story. He spends the rest of the time griping that Phares' involvement with the Lebanese Forces militia wasn't portrayed more favorably.

Loyola does not dispute that Phares worked with the LF training militia-men in the ideology of the organization in the early 1980s. He doesn't contest that this ideology involved a narrative of civilizational conflict between Islam and the West. He does not deny that Phares was a top adviser to former Lebanese warlord turned anti-Syrian politician Samir Geagea, or that Phares became a member of the LF executive committee days after Geagea ousted rival warlord Elie Hobeika in a battle that, according to a 1989 Los Angeles Times article, killed more than 200 people in mostly Christian East Beirut. Loyola does not contradict the recollections of Phares' colleague Toni Nissi that Geagea subsequently made Phares "responsible for training the lead officers in the ideology of the Lebanese Forces." He merely argues that Phares had "no official position with the Lebanese Forces until 1986," disproving a claim the article did not make. He then spends a couple of paragraphs absolving Phares of any personal involvement in the Sabra and Shatila massacre (again disproving an allegation Mother Jones not only didn't make, but literally stated wasn't the case) as though killing civilians wasn't a constant aspect of the war from beginning to end. 

Loyola insists that Phares' long history with the LF is of no concern because he was part of an organization "committed to resisting Syria's and Hezbollah’s domination of Lebanon (fully in line with longstanding U.S. policy)." Shorter Loyola: It doesn't matter if an organization committed atrocities, as long as it was on the right side. I'm sure the Arab and Muslim countries the US has to deal with will completely understand the distinction should Phares be placed in a high-level position in a future Republican administration.

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NATO's Libya Mission Officially Ended Monday

| Mon Oct. 31, 2011 4:45 PM EDT
A Libyan rebel fighter celebrates on the day of Qaddafi's death.

Monday marked the official end of NATO's air war in Libya. NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen was in Tripoli to formally announce the conclusion of the aerial bombing campaign that proved vital in aiding the Libyan rebel fighters. "Our operation for Libya will end on October 31," Rasmussen said during Monday's press conference. "Until then, together with our partners, we will continue to monitor the situation. And if needed, we will continue to respond to threats to civilians."

Mustafa Abdul Jalil, the chairman of Libya's National Transitional Council, thanked Rasmussen and declared that "Today, we have achieved victory by the grace of God and a resolution has been handed to put an end to NATO operation by midnight."

The announcements come four days after the UN Security Council unanimously passed a resolution ending the March 17 mandate that had authorized member states to take "all necessary measures," including a no-fly zone and direct military action, to protect civilians in Libya.

With the seven-month effort coming to a swift close, two things are becoming especially pronounced: the hypocrisy and hollowness of the right's freak-out over President Obama's approach, and the sobering difficulties for Libya that lie ahead.

Cain on Student Loans: "I Don't Have a Position"

| Mon Oct. 31, 2011 4:14 PM EDT
GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain discussed student loan reform at the National Press Club on Monday. Well, not really.

GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain just finished up a 30-minute press conference at the National Press Club in DC by singing, at the request of the moderator, "Amazing Grace." That came just a few hours after Cain was aked at the American Enterprise Institute what fellow presidential candidate he'd dress up as for Halloween (answer: Ron Paul). But, on a day he's been accused of possibly breaking federal campaign finance laws, and forced to respond to reports of sexual harassment, Cain was asked some nuts-and-bolts policy questions, too.

Specifically, the former talk radio host and Godfather's pizza CEO was asked what he would do to control the rising cost of attending college—and what actions he might take to make student loans more manageable. Cain's answers were revealing:

Wisconsin Republicans' Last-Ditch Schemes to Prevent Recalls

| Mon Oct. 31, 2011 3:17 PM EDT
A Wisconsin man protests Republican Jeff Fitzgerald, the speaker of the state Assembly.

When you think of gerrymandering, shady back-door dealings, and brazen acts of dirty politics, state capitals like Albany, Austin, and Sacramento come to mind. But the Republican-controlled legislature in Madison, Wisc., is giving the most brazen of them a run for their money with a pair of rushed bills aimed at blunting recall efforts targeting GOP Gov. Scott Walker and Republican state senators.

The first bill Wisconsin Republicans are trying to ram through would force (PDF) individuals collecting signatures for a recall petition to have their own signatures notarized. Currently in Wisconsin, people who circulate petitions are required, on each petition, to sign, date, list their residence, and attest that all the signatures they gathered are real, accurate, and belong to people in the correct jurisdiction or district. Fudging signatures is no laughing matter: Filing a phony petition is a felony offense.

Can You Mail a Brick to a Bank?

| Mon Oct. 31, 2011 2:54 PM EDT

The San Francisco "poet, editor, and marketer" in the video below has a sneaky, Occupy Wall Street-inspired idea: When banks send you unsolictited credit card applications, use the postage-paid envelope to send them a bunch of junk, making them pick up the extra postage costs. It's not just about nickel and diming Wall Street into submission, he says, "The real effect of this is to force banks to react to us."  

If you can send an envelope filled with paper, wood shims, and roofing shingles, could you affix the postage-paid envelope to, say, a brick? A site called Office of Strategic Influence has a guide for sending heavy objects back to junk mailers:

You know those obnoxious "refinance your home" or credit card scams offers that you get in the mail? This is called direct marketing, where marketers use a reduced bulk postal rate to send entire forests of paper mail to you.

So this is something you can do in response.

Find a shoebox, or a storage bin, or any cardboard box you have laying around. Fill it up with bricks, big blocks of iron, or maybe cement. Tape the box up with everyday packaging tape. Use a junkmail's postage-paid envelope and tape it neatly to the top cover of the box. NEATLY. And mail it off. Envelope revenge!

The site claims that a sending an eight-pound package with prepaid postage will cost the receiver $25. (It also maintains that "[i]f we do this enough, the USPS will make so much money, that they will lower postage costs.")

But can you really get away with this? Believe it or not, Americans have been pissed off about junk mail since at least 1984, which is when this very question was posed to Straight Dope columnist Cecil Adams. His conclusion:

Unfortunately, your bricks-for-business scheme, admirable though it is in theory, won't work in practice. According to rule 917.243(b) in the Domestic Mail Manual, when a business reply card is "improperly used as a label"—e.g., when it's affixed to a brick—the item so labeled may be treated as "waste." That means the post office can toss it in the trash without further ado. 

Sure enough, current postal regulations state that business-reply mail "may not be used for any purpose other than that intended by the permit holder, even when postage is affixed." In other words, if you mail a boxload of bricks to Citibank, it may not reach its intended destination. But would a postal employee notice a really fat business-reply envelope? Probably not, right? So then the question is, how many overstuffed envelopes will it take for a bank to take notice that someone is trying to send a message?

Update: An astute reader notes below that the mail-a-brick trick can be traced back to Abbie Hoffman, who advocated it in Steal This Book:

Those ridiculous free introductory or subscription type letters that you get in the mail often have a postage-guaranteed return postcard for your convenience. The next one you get, paste it on a brick and drop it in the mailbox. The company is required by law to pay the postage. You can also get rid of all your garbage this way.

Also, a relation who's worked in the mail-processing business informs me that banks would be unlikely to notice any junk being sent to them, since their incoming credit-card applications are likely handled by contractors. Likewise, mass mailers may pay flat fees for their return postage, which means that a brick is unlikely to weigh on the conscience of a banking executive.

And Artie Moffa, the maker of the video above, has officially come out against mailing bricks, bowling balls, and rabid alligators. His advice: Stick to stuffing envelopes.

 

 

Is Herman Cain Hiding Behind a Settlement Agreement?

| Mon Oct. 31, 2011 2:24 PM EDT
2012 GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain.

GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain has emphatically denied that he ever sexually harassed anyone. He says that he was falsely accused by the women referred to in the blockbuster Politico story Sunday alleging that he had made inappropriate sexual advances and engaged in other unseemly behavior towards women while serving as head of the National Restaurant Association (NRA).

Cain may think this line of attack is a sensible media defense strategy, given that the settlement agreements between the women who said he harassed them and the NRA are confidential. But according to at least one prominent employment lawyer, calling his accusers fabricators could open Cain up to a defamation lawsuit, especially if it turns out their allegations have substance. Debra Katz, a DC employment lawyer who frequently represents plaintiffs in sexual harassment cases, says that if she were advising those women, she might suggest a counter-offensive. "These women have potentially got a claim against him. That's potentially defamatory," she says of Cain's comments.

Katz notes that no one knows what the actual allegations are against Cain, so it's hard for the public to really know what happened. But Katz says Cain's media strategy has the potential to backfire on him. "Herman can continue talking," she says, but "he’s going to get himself in trouble in this."

If Cain was really falsely accused, Katz notes, there is one way that he could clear the air about the allegations: make the settlement agreements public. The NRA reportedly paid off at least two women who complained about Cain's behavior, and in exchange, the women signed confidentiality agreements promising not to talk about their allegations publicly and left the organization. The details of many of their charges, as well as the amounts they were paid, have not been made public. At the National Press Club Monday, Cain reiterated that his former employer has a policy against releasing personnel information, so it can't produce the documents that might back him up.

The settlement agreement makes it difficult for the women themselves to speak publicly or to instigate a change to the terms of the settlement agreement, which may carry serious financial penalties for breaching it. But Katz says that there's not much stopping the NRA from doing so, despite what Cain says. In fact, she says, NRA could also disclose many details about the allegations the women made, without revealing their names, without even violating the agreement. Cain probably just needs to ask them to do it.

"There are many way they can legally find ways to disclose the information without violating the agreement," she notes. Not releasing the details, she says, is simply "a convenient way to duck the allegations." 

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Afghan Prison Abuses: What Did Americans Know? And When Did They Know It?

| Mon Oct. 31, 2011 1:20 PM EDT
Afghan soldiers stand guard at a prison in Kandahar.

In early October, the UN released a report detailing a pattern of abuse taking place in Afghan intelligence agency detention centers, including the vaunted Department 124. The interrogation methods of choice: hanging detainees by their hands for hours, beating them with metal pipes, shocking them with electricity, and twisting their genitals until they passed out. You know, just to soften them up.

Over the past decade, American officials trained (and funded) Afghan intelligence operatives, and transferred prisoners to many of the prisons in question. So the Washington Post's Joshua Partlow and Julie Tate ask: What did they know, and when did they know it?

Department 124 was long sealed off from the outside world; the [International Committee of the Red Cross], the United Nations and other organizations concerned with human rights were barred by Afghan officials from monitoring conditions there.

But American officials frequently went inside, according to Afghan officials and others familiar with the site. U.S. Special Operations troops brought detainees there, and CIA officials met with Department 124’s leadership on a weekly basis, reviewed their interrogation reports and used the intelligence gleaned from interrogations to inform their operations, the officials said.

The detainees’ physical characteristics were entered into an American biometric database. They wore orange jumpsuits—as detainees do at the U.S.-run prison at Bagram air base, but not at other Afghan prisons—and were sometimes hooded, according to an Afghan intelligence official. Seventeen detainees said they had been transferred to the prison by international military forces; the United Nations found "compelling evidence" that those detainees were tortured once they arrived. The detainees told U.N. officials that their interrogators were Afghans.

That such harsh tactics are used to get information and extract confessions is no secret among current and former Afghan intelligence officials. One of them said their CIA partners were "totally aware" of such treatment.

"They work with us every other day, if not every day," another Afghan intelligence official said of the CIA. Because of their close collaboration and the prevalence of beatings, "the CIA guys should have known about it," he said.

American officials deny that they knew the abuse at Department 124 was systematic, and insist that prisoner transfers to the facilities in question were halted whenever allegations of abuse surfaced. In late August, they also promised to begin monitoring the detention centers for potential human rights abuses. But the State Department has yet to implement the program.

Meanwhile, the Post reports that the ICRC had been investigating detainee abuse long before the UN began its investigation in October 2010, issuing warnings to officials from the US embassy and CIA. Human rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch were reporting on the problem of detainee abuse by Afghan intelligence as far back as 2007.

Aside from the obvious ethical issues this presents for the US, there's also a legal one: According to the Leahy Amendment, the US can't provide military funding to alleged human rights abusers; the State Department is investigating whether or not the law applies in this instance. But even if it does, the US has a history of circumventing the law. And over the past two years, the Obama administration has repeatedly set aside restrictions on military aid to countries that use child soldiers.

Rep. Scott Garrett (R-N.J.): "Other Ethnicities" Are Not As "Straight-Forward" as Midwesterners

| Mon Oct. 31, 2011 12:01 PM EDT
Rep. Scott Garrett (R-N.J.).

It's a little surprising this comment last week from Rep. Scott Garrett (R-N.J.) hasn't gotten more attention. Here's Philip Molnar of the Express-Times:

[Local business leader Richard C. Spanier] said the best people to do business with are those in the American Midwest because of their "straight-forward" attitude.

"Other ethnicities are not that way," Garrett said. "They'll say yes to you constantly and then you'll realize they really didn't mean it."

Garrett said after the meeting he meant people in other countries.

The clarification doesn't really make this comment much less bizarre or offensive. (Since when do New Jersey congressmen lionize the honesty of midwesterners, anyway?)

Garrett is no congressional rookie. He was first elected in 2002 and is the "most conservative member of New Jersey's congressional delegation," according to the Almanac of American Politics. Today, he chairs the budget task force for the Republican Study Committee, which is basically a club for the GOP's hard-liners. He's also the chairman of the House subcommittee that's in charge of overseeing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two government-sponsored mortgage giants. 

Garrett's district is around 80 percent white. No word on what percentage of those folks are "straight-forward."

Third American Suicide Bomber Ever Dies In Mogadishu Attack

| Mon Oct. 31, 2011 12:00 PM EDT
Isbaheysiga Mosque in Mogadishu, Somalia.

The third American suicide bomber ever died in an attack on African Union troops in Mogadishu Saturday, the New York Times reportsAbdisalan Hussein Ali, like Farah Mohamed Beledi and Shirwa Ahmed, was an American of Somali descent who lived in the Minneapolis-St.Paul area of Minnesota. Ali was one of more than a dozen young Somali-Americans from the area who were recruited by the al-Qaeda affiliated extremist group al-Shabab.

Al-Shabab's success in recruiting young Americans has been a source of frustration for American authorities—at least 19 Somali-Americans were recruited from the United States to fight alongside al-Shabab against the Transitional Federal Government in Somalia and the African Union force, made up mostly of troops from Uganda and Burundi.  Although al-Shabab has yet to launch an attack on the United States, the worry is that the group's uncanny success in radicalizing and recruiting Americans relative to other extremist organizations could someday manifest in attacks here. 

Past military interventions in Somalia in the past have only made things worse. A US-backed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in 2006 aimed at dislodging the Islamic Courts Union resulted in the emergence of al-Shabab as it exists today. (As Jeremy Scahill writes, the ICU itself emerged in response to the excesses of American-backed warlords hunting suspected terrorists in the region.) The Transitional Federal Government, which replaced the ICU, ended up being run by a former member of the ICU anyway. Aside from purging Somalia of whatever stability had existed before the invasion, the 2006 operation led to the first and only terrorist group that has ever been able to convince an American citizen to become a suicide bomber. 

Last week, neighboring Kenya invaded Somalia, vowing to stay until, in the words of General Julius Karangi, "we feel safe enough on the common border, then we shall come back." If the history of military interventions in Somalia is any indication, the situation there may only get worse. 

Tea Party Leader to Herman Cain: Do Your Homework

| Mon Oct. 31, 2011 11:45 AM EDT

GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain was in DC this morning, ostensibly to talk about his "9-9-9" tax plan at the conservative think tank, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). While the Washington press corp was circling like vultures in the hopes of getting a crumb of a quote about the sexual harassment allegations now dogging Cain's campaign, tea party activists, who've been some of his strongest supporters, tuned in to actually listen to Cain talk about his policy proposals. And they weren't impressed by with they saw.

During the discussion, Cain was asked a specific question about whether or not his tax plan would lead to double taxation of certain types of income. Cain couldn't answer the question, and deferred to his new economic adviser, Rich Lowrie, an Ohio "wealth management adviser." The deflection outraged Kellen Guida, the founder of the NYC Tea Party who's been active in tea party politics since the movement's beginning. He tweeted angrily:

Later, he added:

Guida told me afterward that he was disappointed with Cain's ability to defend his own, bold tax plan.

Guida says he is not the only person in the tea party movement who wonders about Cain's depth of understanding of major policy issues. "I was on the phone with an organizer the other day who was ranting and raving about his inability to articulate a policy position on anything," he said, explaining that it's becoming a common sentiment among the tea party base, even as Cain is actively trying to engage tea partiers to shore up his ground operation.

Guida thinks that Cain's policy problems may be more damaging than the sexual harassment allegations that have surfaced, which he thinks, on their own, won't have much of an impact on Cain's support among tea partiers. What those allegations will do, he suspects, is exacerbate the problems Cain has in defending his own proposals, as was the case with the tax questions at AEI. "If you’re running for president, you have to be able to answer those questions," he said.