Mojo - November 2011

Anthony Weiner's Revenge

| Wed Nov. 2, 2011 5:54 PM EDT
Former Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.)

When prosecutors charged executives from the precious metals company Goldline with fraud on Tuesday, it marked an unusual victory for someone who hasn't had many wins lately: former New York congressman Anthony Weiner.

Before he became infamous and ultimately resigned for tweeting photos of his private parts to women he met on the internet, Weiner had earned a reputation as a defender of consumer rights. Among his biggest campaigns was an effort to rein in sleazy gold dealers, from those who were taking advantage of the recession with dubious "cash for gold" deals to shady coin operations like Goldline, who, as Mother Jones reported last year, made millions by peddling their wares on the talk shows of right-wing hosts like Glenn Beck.

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Al Qaeda Planting Its Flag In Libya?

| Wed Nov. 2, 2011 4:50 PM EDT
The Al Qaeda flag atop a Benghazi courthouse.

Last week photographs of an Al Qaeda flag flying on top of a Benghazi courthouse posted by Vice magazine's Sherif Elhelwa provoked fresh concerns, particularly on the right, that post-Qaddafi Libya was on the verge of falling to Islamic extremists. That concern seems a bit premature.

First, a little background on the flag itself. According to Christopher Anzalone of the McGill University Institute of Islamic Studies, the flag is one that has previously been used by Al Qaeda in Iraq. The Arabic writing on the flag is the Shahada, the Muslim creed that "There is no god but God and Muhammad is His Messenger." Because the Shahada is a basic tenet of the Islamic faith, the design isn't "inherently militant or Salafi," Anzalone says, but this particular design is "often done as a statement, from what I can tell, by those sympathetic to AQ or some of its ideology." A large number of the foreign fighters who went to Iraq to fight the US were from Libya. "My guess is that some of the Libyan rebels who fought in Iraq brought the flag, or the idea for it, from there," Anzalone says.

Although it's clear that there were a number of Islamist militants among Libya's rebel fighters—Abdel Hakim Belhadj, formerly of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, was one of the main military leaders of the rebellion—the kind of militant Islamic extremist ideology espoused by Al Qaeda doesn't have much of a support base in Libya, according to Libya expert Ronald Bruce St John

"The concerns at this point about an Islamist government as we have understood it, that is an Islamist government defined as radical fundamentalists along the lines of Iran or the Taliban in Afghanistan, I don't see an immediate threat for that in Libya," St John says. "There were, particularly in the 1990s, attempts by Islamist movements to overthrow the Qaddafi regime...What was significant then in terms of today, there was never a sign of widespread interest in the kind of radical Islam the LIFG was promoting." Even former LIFG member Belhadj has promised that "we are not here to establish a Taliban-like regime through a coup d'état." (Although I suppose that leaves a popular mandate as an option.)

There are still major divisions in Libya, St John says, particularly regional conflicts, disagreements over the nature of the new government, and disputes between towns and cities who suffered during the revolution and feel they're entitled to more of a say in the new order. There's also the issue of bringing all those armed rebels under the authority of the Transitional National Council. And although St John says he sees little risk of a fundamentalist state emerging, any future Libyan government is likely be heavily influenced by Islam.

"The Libyan people are very traditional, conservative and religious," St. John says. "We'll see a government centered around Islam to some degree, and that is nothing different from what we've seen since Libya's independence in 1951." 

What about that Al Qaeda in Iraq flag though?

"I think it's a one-off kind of thing, I don't think there's any organized group promoting anything like that in Libya," St John says. "If they started popping up everywhere it might be a different story."

Michele Bachmann's Ponzi-Scheming Donor

| Wed Nov. 2, 2011 4:40 PM EDT
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) is still running for president.

Michele Bachmann (remember her?) is flailing desperately in her bid to become the first sitting member of the House to win a presidential election since James A. Garfield. There's a pretty big incentive for her to stay in the race at least through the holidays: She has a book coming out in November. But there's also a pretty strong disincentive for her to stay in the race much longer than that—in February May her biggest career donor goes on trial in federal court for fraud, and there's the potential for some pretty incriminating details to trickle out.

Over at The New Republic, Mariah Blake has an excellent piece on a Bachmann story that hasn't gotten quite the attention it deserves. Partly that's because it's tougher to explain in one snappy phrase (i.e. "pray away the gay!"), and partly because it speaks to systematic problems that aren't unique to the congresswoman. Following up on reporting by Karl Bremer at Ripple in Stillwater, Blake explains how Frank Vennes and his partner, convicted Ponzi schemer Tom Petters, made millions on phony investments and then poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into political campaigns in the 2000s. Vennes' donations seemed to have a clear motive: receiving a presidential pardon for a prior felony conviction.

Many Minnesota politicians, Democrats and Republicans, received a lot of money from Ponzi schemers Tom Petters and Frank Vennes. But Bachmann was one of the few to take tangible actions in response. During her first Congressional campaign in 2006, Vennes and his associates donated $50,000 to Bachmann's campaign and PAC. Bachmann, in turn, lobbied the White House to reconsider Vennes' pardon application. Vennes and his wife then donated another $11,200. Blake writes:

Alleged Waffle House Terror Plotters Inspired By Former Militia Author

| Wed Nov. 2, 2011 2:30 PM EDT
Mike Vanderboegh, speaking at a 2010 "open carry" rally in Ft. Hunt, Virginia

It's not unusual for people cooking up a terrorist plot to take their inspiration from a novel. Timothy McVeigh was reportedly inspired to blow up the Oklahoma City federal building by the book The Turner Diaries. The Georgia seniors meeting at Waffle House who were recently apprehended by the FBI for allegedly plotting to kill millions of Americans to save the Constitution also seem to have had a literary influence: Mike Vanderboegh, and his novel, Absolved.

Vanderboegh is a longtime militia activist, often associated with the Oath Keepers (thought he says he's not a member), and he's been active in the Minutemen group that "patrols" the US border to keep illegal immigrants out of the country. His book is about small groups of underground miliita groups who plot to assassinate key law enforcement and judicial officials as a way of fighting back against gun control and gay marriage. Vanderboegh has called it "a combination field manual, technical manual and call to arms for my beloved gunnies of the armed citizenry."

I wasn’t too surprised to see Vanderboegh's name pop up in the Georgia case. That's because I saw him in action last year when he spoke at an "open carry" gun rally in Ft. Hunt, Virginia, where a handful of gun nuts and Oath Keeper-types had assembled as close as they could to the District line with a loaded weapon to press for looser gun laws.

Vanderbough claimed to be just "a fat, old scribbler with congestive heart failure and diabetic feet." But he gave a fiery speech at the event that was an invitation to violence. Vanderboegh proclaimed that he was trying to "get the attention of people who are pushing the country towards civil war and that they should back off before someone gets hurt." He led the crowd in cheers of "Oh HELL no!" and warned that "there are going to be consequences for pushing people like us back."

At the time, Vanderboegh was reveling in a spate of media attention he'd gotten thanks to his online calls for followers to throw bricks through the windows of congressional Democrats for passing health care reform. On his blog, the Sipsey Street Irregulars, he had written:

If you wish to send a message that Pelosi and her party [that they] cannot fail to hear, break their windows. Break them NOW. Break them and run to break again. Break them under cover of night. Break them in broad daylight. Break them and await arrest in willful, principled civil disobedience. Break them with rocks. Break them with slingshots. Break them with baseball bats. But BREAK THEM."

Vanderboegh expressed surprise when some people actually took him seriously and did throw bricks through the windows of congressional offices. But he wasn't sorry. He told the Washington Post that there were a lot of Americans who "are not only willing to resist this law to the very end of their lives, but are armed and are capable of making such resistance possible and perhaps even initiating a civil war."

Today again, though, he seems a bit shocked to hear that his book, which isn't even published except for a few chapters online, may have inspired some old people in Georgia to allegedly plot a bioterror attack. He has written some angry blog posts arguing that his book is in no way connected to the Waffle House Four:

Absolved is fiction. I hope it is a "useful dire warning." However, I am as much to blame for the Georgia Geriatric Terrorist Gang as Tom Clancy is for Nine Eleven.

Vanderboegh, though, seems to be enjoying the attention. He kindly linked to the Mother Jones story on the Georgia indictments in a roundup of all of his media coverage. He's even posted some stock quotes for lazy journalists seeking comment. Here's a good one:

I congratulate the FBI on their ability to sniff out and entrap old, feeble minded Georgia morons with dreams of terrorist grandeur. Now if they could just apply some of that industry to telling us the truth about the murder of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry, we'll all be better off.

Gitmo Detainee Could Be Held Even If Found Innocent

| Wed Nov. 2, 2011 1:45 PM EDT
Alleged U.S.S Cole Bomber Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri.

Attorneys for accused U.S.S Cole Bomber Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri want to know if he'll be released if acquitted of all charges. The government's response? We'll think about it.

Al-Nashiri is set to be tried by military commission at Gitmo for his role in masterminding the 1998 bombing of the USS Cole in the Gulf of Aden in Yemen. The attack killed 17 US sailors and injured thirty-seven others. His defense attorneys filed an order two weeks ago demanding that the government state whether it intends to continue holding al-Nashiri in military detention should he be acquitted of war crimes. If convicted, al-Nashiri could face the death penalty. The defense expressed the concern that "if Mr. Al-Nashiri is acquitted by the Commission, he will not be released, and his detention by the United States will continue, perhaps for the rest of his life." Because Al-Nashiri is being held in military detention, he can legally be held for "the duration of hostilities." Since the "hostilities" against al-Qaeda might not ever end, even if found innocent of the charges he'd still be subject to imprisonment for the rest of his life. 

The governments response: "We don't have to tell you" and "maybe." In its response filing, the government dismisses the request saying that Congress didn't authorize the commissions to "resolve every aspect of the life of the accused," and that if al-Nashiri should be acquitted, the "appropriate components of the US government" will decide based on "circumstances which are relevant at the time, and which cannot be adequately foreseen at this point." The government has raised the possibility of post-acquittal military detention previously—both in the case of Osama bin Laden's former driver Salim Hamdan during the Bush administration and the cases of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the other alleged 9/11 conspirators during the Obama administration—but it's never actually followed through. Following his conviction by military commission, Hamdan served a short sentence and was back home in Yemen five months later.

That said, the government seems pretty confident in its case. Though al-Nashiri was subject to torture, prosecutors decided to seek the death penalty—which in military commissions requires a uninamous verdict rather than the two-thirds threshold for non-capital cases. The detainees the Obama administration doesn't feel confident trying it has simply left in indefinite military detention without plans for trial in either the military or federal systems. The defense's motion though, draws attention to the catch-22s of a legal system in which even acquittal is no guarantee of freedom. 

UPDATED: Soldier Arrested for Espionage (Video)

| Wed Nov. 2, 2011 11:56 AM EDT

Federal authorities have arrested a 22-year-old soldier from Kentucky on unspecified charges of espionage. Spc. William Colton Millay, a military police officer, was picked up in late October on his base in Alaska, Reuters reports. The arrest conjures up memories of another young soldier, Pfc. Bradley Manning, who's spent years in custody accused of passing a trove of classified documents about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to WikiLeaks. Thus far, the Army and the FBI insist that Millay's case is unrelated to those leaks. "This has nothing to do with WikiLeaks," an FBI spokesman told an Anchorage, Alaska, newspaper. That report also reveals that Millay's unit, the 164th Military Police Company, recently embarked on a difficult war deployment:

Most of that 170-member MP company, the "Arctic Enforcers," left in March for a 12-month deployment to Afghanistan, mainly to train police there. The company lost four soldiers in a roadside bomb attack in Laghman Province in June.

The accompanying photo shows soldiers from Millay's unit training in Alaska for their deployment to Afghanistan back in January. An Army spokesman made it clear to Reuters that Millay had not joined the company downrange, though: "He was part of the rear detachment," the spokesman said. "I don't know why in his particular case he was part of that (rear deployment) but that's not unusual."

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GOP Mayor Calls BS on Ohio Gov. John Kasich's Defense of Anti-Union Bill

| Wed Nov. 2, 2011 11:25 AM EDT
Members of a firefighters union protest John Kasich's SB 5.

Defenders of Ohio GOP Gov. John Kasich's SB 5 bill, a measure that strips most collective bargaining rights for public workers, claim the legislation gives local governments "the flexibility they need to protect the public, while also keeping the maximum number of safety personnel on the job." SB 5, Kasich and his allies insist, will strengthen firehouses and police forces in cities and towns throughout the Buckeye State.

David Smith, the Republican mayor of Lancaster, Ohio, is calling BS. Smith recently laid off 15 firefighters in his city, but told the American Independent that SB 5 is far from the saving grace Kasich and Ohio Republicans make it about to be. Here's what Smith said:

"Senate Bill 5 doesn't save the day for anybody. It's still up to the local government to have a meaningful relationship with their bargaining units, which I think we do, here in Lancaster. In particular, both fire and police have taken zero-percent increases over the last two years without SB5 hanging over anyone's heads. Both fire and police [labor unions' bargaining units] had closed contracts, but they opened them up to allow us to work with them on a number of issues, not just salary."

What's ailing Lancaster, Ohio, and what forced the layoffs of those firefighters, Smith continued, wasn't out of whack pay and benefits. It was a 50 percent cut in state funding exacted by the Kasich administration, part of a wave of cuts whose impact Mother Jones' Mac McClelland depicted in this searing story. And although a slight increase in local income tax set to go into effect might help, Smith said Kasich's decision to do away with the estate tax in two years would also hit Lancaster's budget.

You can also watch Smith defend the importance of full collective bargaining rights before the House education and labor committee in March 2010:

Confederate Flag Activist Behind Georgia Terror Plot

| Wed Nov. 2, 2011 10:43 AM EDT
Waffle House: Where bad decisions are made.

My colleague Adam Serwer reported this morning on one of the more bizarre domestic terror plots in recent memory—the alleged plot by four senior citizens in north Georgia to produce and spread ricin and botulinium toxin in Atlanta and Washington, DC, in order to kill millions of people and "save the Constitution." (Because that's not strange enough, the plot was hatched at a Waffle House.)

The whole plot is pretty ridiculous, but what's also interesting is the men behind it. The affidavit names four individuals, Samuel Crump, Frederick Roberts, Ray Adams, and Dan Roberts. According to his Facebook page, Crump is a big fan of a number of conservative grassroots and astroturf organizations, including Americans for Prosperity. He's also interested in "anything about guns," and he's really offended by the concept of paying a 5 cent tax on plastic grocery bags:

Courtesy of FacebookCourtesy of Facebook

Four Senior Citizens Plotted Killing Spree At A Waffle House

| Wed Nov. 2, 2011 8:55 AM EDT

Four senior citizens walk into a Waffle House planning to go on a killing spree in order to "save the Constitution."

That's not the beginning of a joke, it's the scenario outlined by the FBI in a criminal complaint filed against four Georgia men yesterday who allegedly sought to use the online novel of a frequent Fox News guest named Mike Vanderboegh as a model for a terrorist plot against US government officials. The four men, Samuel Crump, Frederick Roberts, Ray Adams, and Dan Roberts, who named themselves "the covert group" (subtle!) allegedly fantasized about dispersing the toxic agent ricin over Washington DC and Atlanta, and hoped to ultimately obtain botulinium toxin, which Adams believed could kill millions of people in small doses.

"We need somebody to back us with some damn money so we can make that other shit," Crump said at a Waffle House in Toccoa, Georgia. according to the criminal complaint. Crump added that botulinium toxin was "worse than anthrax."

What was the ostensible purpose of all this killing? Saving the country of course. "There is no way for us, as militiamen, to save this country, to save Georgia, without doing something that’s highly, highly illegal: murder,” Thomas reportedly said. “When it comes time to saving the Constitution, that means some people have got to die.” The FBI also alleges that "Thomas, Roberts and others discussed the need to obtain unregistered silencers and explosive devices for use in attacks against federal government buildings and employees, as well as against local police."

So how much more operational was this plot than your average FBI sting involving some hapless al-Qaeda fanboy? That's not really clear. While the group demonstrated an ability to independently manufacture ricin, which is made from widely available castor beans, the criminal complaint begins with a meeting surveilled by an FBI "confidential human source" in March. While the FBI recordings showing the four men expressing an eagerness to kill large numbers of people in pursuit of their political goals will likely preclude any entrapment defense, there's no way to know from the criminal complaint what level of involvement the FBI's confidential human source had in putting together the whole plan, or even the existence of the group itself, or whether the source came upon the plot by other means. 

Bottom line: At first glance this appears to be the right-wing extremist version of the sort of al-Qaeda wannabe stings we've become so familiar with. 

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for November 2, 2011

Wed Nov. 2, 2011 5:57 AM EDT

A soldier calls in description of person of interest to higher ups. Afghanistan National Police in partnership with Charlie Company, 1-24 Infantry Regiment, search the villages of Musa Khely and Nowrak with the purpose of disrupting a recent string of IED attacks. Photo by the US Army.