Mojo - December 2011

WATCH: Last US Convoy Leaves Iraq

| Mon Dec. 19, 2011 6:00 AM EST

Early Sunday morning, the last remaining US soldiers at Camp Adder climbed into their MRAPs and Humvees on the base, outside Iraq's southern city of Nasiriya. Slowly, their convoy of 110 vehicles ambled across the sand, through a gate at the Kuwait border. The last truck passed through just after 4:30 a.m. As the sun began to break over the horizon, a handful of troops pushed the gate closed.

Just like that, it was over:

That's a video of the last trucks entering Kuwait, and the gate closing behind them, courtesy of an Air Force Predator drone. Not exactly shock and awe, or an embassy airlift. The New York Times reports:

As an indication of the country the United States is leaving behind, for security reasons the last soldiers made no time for goodbyes to Iraqis with whom they had become acquainted. To keep details of the final trip secret from insurgents—or Iraqi security officers aligned with militias—interpreters for the last unit to leave the base called local tribal sheiks and government leaders on Saturday morning and conveyed that business would go on as usual, not letting on that all the Americans would soon be gone.

Last week, MoJo looked back at a decade's worth of reporting on Iraq—wars and rumors of wars. Add it all up, and you get something like this Sunday tweet by military analyst Andrew Exum—a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns:

US combat is over, but the war's after-effects will be keeping reporters busy for years to come. As the Washington Post's veteran Iraq correspondent, Liz Sly, reported Sunday morning, a sectarian struggle between minority Sunnis and the Shiite-led government has already broken out in Baghdad's Parliament. Even after the fighting calmed down in 2008, US soldiers and diplomats kept an uneasy modus vivendi between those groups; if Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki doesn't show some restraint (and start to root out corruption in his government), Mesopotamia may see another cycle of tyranny and insurgency.

As for America's way forward? Hard to say, but I couldn't help wondering about it as I waited to watch this Post video of the last Louisiana National Guardsmen returning home from Iraq. Before it loaded, I had to watch a 15-second pop-out commercial…for Chevron Oil.

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Your Daily Newt: Hillary Clinton's a B****

| Mon Dec. 19, 2011 6:00 AM EST

As a service to our readers, every day we are delivering a classic moment from the political life of Newt Gingrich—until he either clinches the nomination or bows out.

Like most Republicans in the 1990s, Newt Gingrich was not a fan of Hillary Clinton. Unlike most Republicans in the 1990s, his dislike for the First Lady was so great that it bubbled to the surface in the middle of a 60 Minutes interview with his mom. When CBS' Connie Chung asked Kathleen Gingrich in 1995 if her son had ever vented about Hillary Clinton, Mrs. Gingrich said she couldn't talk about it. Then Chung pulled off the journalistic equivalent of the fake-to-third-throw-to-first pick-off move:

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for December 19, 2011

Mon Dec. 19, 2011 5:57 AM EST

US Army Sgt. Nathan West, left, from Minneapolis, Mo., serving with C Troop, 6th Squadron, 4th Calvary Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, Task Force Duke, and an Afghan National Army soldier, search for a possible weapons cache, November 29, 2011, outside Camp Parsa, Khowst province, Afghanistan. Making themselves a constant presence, US and Afghan forces work to introduce themselves to the locals and discourage insurgent activity. (US Army photo by Spc. Phillip McTaggart / Released)

Sheriff Joe Arpaio: Calling Me Names Violates My Civil Rights

| Sun Dec. 18, 2011 9:35 AM EST
Sheriff Joe Arpaio at the 2011 Veteran's Day Parade in Phoenix, Arizona.

Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was accused by the Justice Department of presiding over a culture of anti-Latino discrimination in the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office last week, offers his take on what violating someone's civil rights looks like:

Likewise, the sheriff denied unlawfully targeting critics for arrest during political protests. "We don't go after anybody," he said. "Actually, they go after me. They're demonstrating in front of my building, calling me every kind of name. If you want to talk about civil-rights violations, what about that?"

Has a statement more symbolic of runaway right-wing victimhood ever been uttered? It's all there, the lack of empathy, the narrative of persecution, the ludicrous sense of self-pity, even the comically distorted understanding of the law. Naturally, the statement also actually helps confirm what Arpaio's critics are accusing him of—any sheriff thin skinned-enough to think it's illegal to call him a name is probably also enough of a megalomaniac to arrest people for criticizing him.

Just to reiterate though: This is a man whose most celebrated public gestures included forcing inmates to wear pink underwear so as to humiliate them. The Justice Department's report describes his office as systematically discriminating against Latinos as part of a crusade against illegal immigration, even at the cost of investigating serious crimes; running a jail where Latino inmates were punished by being denied basic services if they could not speak English; and retaliating against his critics using the powers of his office. But when it comes to himself, Arpaio sees name-calling as a violation of his civil rights.

VIDEO: Mass Arrests Of Occupiers At Duarte Square

| Sat Dec. 17, 2011 5:01 PM EST

Updated December 18th at 9:00 a.m.

For weeks, Occupy Wall Street has been talking about occupying a vacant lot next to Duarte Square in SoHo. On Saturday, it walked the talk. At about 3:30 p.m, several hundred marchers left the square along with two large wooden ladders concealed beneath banners. They circled the block and converged at the lot's northwest corner, where they hoisted one of the ladders up to a tall chain-link fence. The first person over was retired Bishop George Packard, who writes at Occupied Bishop. Here's a video of him entering the lot:

After Packard tumbled over the fence, he climbed onto a wooden bench and waved for the crowd to follow. Other priests mounted the ladder while the the crowd yanked up the base of the fence to make a large opening. Someone cut the lock on a gate, and dozens of people streamed inside, talking, dancing to rap music from a boom box, and urging the rest of the crowd to join them. But the party couldn't last. The police, taken off guard at first, came pouring through the gate with flex cuffs and arrested everyone who didn't flee, including Packard.  The New York Daily News reported that about 30 occupiers were loaded into police vans. Here's my video of the first arrests:

Here's Packard discussing it all with fellow occupiers while riding to jail in a paddy wagon:

That morning, things had gotten off to an ominous start when police detained and arrested Zach, one of the organizers, while he was walking across a nearby public park. Witnesses said that Zach has just delivered some t-shirts to the park and wasn't doing anything illegal, or even protesting. Police told a Democracy Now reporter that Zach was arrested on a warrant, suggesting that they're targeting key organizers for their role in planning new occupations.

Occupy Wall Street had a variety of motivations for occupying the lot, which is owned by Trinity Church but not currently being used for anything. Many occupiers desperately want to establish another physical occupation, believing that it will give them a better platform for outreach and organizing. The Trinity lot is one of the few unused parcels remotely near Wall Street, and the occupiers hoped that letters of support from prominent clergymen such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu might sway the church to their side. They've also leaned on the church by highlighting its ties to Wall Street interests.

Organizers chose December 17th to move on the lot because it marks the one-year anniversary of the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi--the Tunisian fruit vendor who is credited with sparking the Arab Spring--and the three-month anniversary of OWS. Organizers told me that it's likely to be their last major occupation attempt until the spring, and the whole thing felt nostalgic even before it was over. "I left my heart in Zuccotti Park," one sign said. After marching through the streets to Times Square--and getting kettled along the way--some organizers gathered at a popular OWS meeting spot in TriBeCa to watch video clips from the movement's early days.

"It was really incredibly optimistic of us to think that we were going to take that space and hold it," tactical team member George Machado told me afterwards. But for a moment it seemed possible: "We got the clergy in first, and we had that space, and I thought for a second that we might be able to do it."

Corn on Hardball: Why Doesn't the GOP Want Newt to Win the Nomination?

Fri Dec. 16, 2011 8:35 PM EST

David Corn and John Feehery appeared on MSNBC's Hardball to discuss why the Republican establishment—especially the conservative elite—don't want Newt Gingrich to win the 2012 GOP presidential nomination.

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The Defense Bill Passed. So What Does It Do?

| Fri Dec. 16, 2011 5:34 PM EST

Following the Obama administration's withdrawal of its veto threat Wednesday, the National Defense Authorization Act passed both houses of Congress easily and is now headed to the president's desk. 

So what exactly does the bill do? It says that the president has to hold a foreign Al Qaeda suspect captured on US soil in military detention—except it leaves enough procedural loopholes that someone like convicted underwear bomber and Nigerian citizen Umar Abdulmutallab could actually go from capture to trial without ever being held by the military. It does not, contrary to what many media outlets have reported, authorize the president to indefinitely detain without trial an American citizen suspected of terrorism who is captured in the US. A last minute compromise amendment adopted in the Senate, whose language was retained in the final bill, leaves it up to the courts to decide if the president has that power, should a future president try to exercise it. But if a future president does try to assert the authority to detain an American citizen without charge or trial, it won't be based on the authority in this bill. 

So it's simply not true, as the Guardian wrote yesterday, that the the bill "allows the military to indefinitely detain without trial American terrorism suspects arrested on US soil who could then be shipped to Guantánamo Bay." When the New York Times editorial page writes that the bill would "strip the F.B.I., federal prosecutors and federal courts of all or most of their power to arrest and prosecute terrorists and hand it off to the military," or that the "legislation could also give future presidents the authority to throw American citizens into prison for life without charges or a trial," they're simply wrong. 

The language in the bill that relates to the detention authority as far as US citizens and permanent residents are concerned is, "Nothing in this section shall be construed to affect existing law or authorities relating to the detention of United States citizens, lawful resident aliens of the United States, or any other persons who are captured or arrested in the United States."

As I've written before, this is cop-out language. It allows people who think the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force against the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks gives the president the authority to detain US citizens without charge or trial to say that, but it also allows people who can read the Constitution of the United States to argue something else. That's why Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has proposed legislation to make it clear that indefinite detention authority does not apply to US citizens arrested in the US—which at the very least, should force Congress to go on record about who exactly is opposed to detention without trial at the whim of the executive branch. 

Does the defense bill change the status quo? Yes. Though detention of non-citizen Al Qaeda suspects captured in the US is now mandatory in name only, because of procedural loopholes that allow the president to avoid placing such a suspect in military custody, the bill nevertheless writes into law an assumed role for the military in domestic counterterrorism that did not exist before. This is not a power this president is likely to use, because neither he nor his top national security officials seem to think they even need it. A future US president, even one more enamored of executive power, might still not use it for similar reasons: Because his non-political advisers tell him it's a bad idea. 

Still, the reason supporters like Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) are happy with this bill is that it codifies into law a role for the military where there was none before. It is the first concrete gesture Congress has made towards turning the homeland into the battlefield, even if the impact in the near term is more symbolic and political than concrete. 

But "symbolic" and "political" doesn't mean "meaningless." Codifying indefinite detention on American soil is a very dangerous step, and politicians who believe the military should have an even larger domestic counterterrorism role simply aren't going to be satisfied with this. In fact, if there is another attack, it's all but certain they will hammer the president should he choose not to place the suspect in military detention.

There really is no telling where inertia brings us from here. Graham and his colleagues have made no secret of the fact that they believe the president should (and does) have the ability to detain American terrorism suspects captured in the US indefinitely, and they may even have enough votes in Congress to make it happen some day. At that point, the only defense for Americans will be the Constitution and a Supreme Court willing to read what it says. 

UPDATE: In case it's not clear, I still think the president should veto the bill. What it does is bad enough. It just doesn't do what a lot of people are saying it does. 

Immigrant Rights Activists Slam Arpaio, Obama

| Fri Dec. 16, 2011 3:38 PM EST

Immigrants rights' activists had a lot of praise Friday for the Justice Department's investigation into Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, which alleged systemic discrimination against Latinos by the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office. They had less praise for President Obama, whom they say is enabling Arpaio-style anti-immigrant local policing in the first place. 

"The Obama administration bears a lot of blame for what is happening here in Maricopa county," said former Sacramento police chief Arturo Venegas, who now runs the Law Enforcement Engagement Initiative, a pro-immigration reform group. On a conference call with reporters, Venegas and other immigrants rights activists said the Obama administration's use of the Secure Communities and 287(g) federal programs—both of which use local authorities to find and deport unauthorized immigrants—is a larger problem than Arpaio. "But for those programs we wouldn't have the numbers of racial discrimination and proviling and violations of civil rights that we have, not only in Maricopa county but across the country," Venegas said.

A little background: Secure Communities is a federal program under which the indentifying information of anyone arrested in participating jurisdictions is forwarded to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, which then checks their legal status. The 287(g) program allows ICE to work with local law authorities so that they can enforce federal immigration laws. On Thursday, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced that because of the Arpaio investigation, DHS would be ending its 287(g) agreement with the Maricopa County Sheriff's office and "restricting" the county's access to Secure Communities. Both programs predate Obama, but they've been especially effective during his tenure: Obama has deported more than a million undocumented immigrants during his time in office, without doing much to advance immigration reform. 

Immigrant rights activists argue that these federal programs are a huge part of the problem. Because local authorities know that under Secure Communities arrestees will have their identifying information forwarded to ICE, cops can racially profile, knowing unauthorized immigrants will be deported even if they weren't committing crimes. Empowering local authorities to enforce federal immigration law through the 287(g) program encourages law enforcement to think and act more like Arpaio. 

"It was the climate set up by Secure Communities and the 287(g) agreement that created Arpaio," said Salvador Reza, a Phoenix civil rights activist. 

For his part, Arpaio responded to yesterday's findings from the Department of Justice with defiance, telling reporters that "President Obama and the band of his merry men might as well erect their own pink neon sign at the Arizona-Mexico border saying 'Welcome all illegals to your United States, our home is your home." (Arpaio has a thing with pink.) 

The head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, Thomas E. Perez, stopped short of calling for Arpaio to step down during Thursday's annoucement. On Friday's conference call, Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) was far more blunt. 

"I think the report should add energy and momentum to getting Arpaio out," Grijalva said. "Arpaio is an aberration to the rule of law."

Inside Occupy Wall Street's Next Occupation

| Fri Dec. 16, 2011 1:55 PM EST

At first glance, Occupy Wall Street's plan to take over a gravel lot in SoHo tomorrow seems a bit strange. After all, the property isn't all that close to Wall Street. It's owned by Trinity Church, which hardly seems like the kind of symbolic target that OWS found in Brookfield Office Properties, the politically connected owner of Zuccotti Park. And the occupiers have already gotten free food and meeting spaces from Trinity; they now risk the appearance of biting the hand that feeds them.

Of course, organizers behind #D17, as the occupation attempt is known on Twitter, see things differently.  Trinity Church is one of the city's largest landowners and strongly tethered to the 1 percent: Five of the 20 members of its vestry, or church parliament, for example, hail from high-ranking roles at financial firms such as Citigroup and Merrill Lynch, and others come from the insurance behemoth AIG, a market research firm for energy investors, and even Brookfield. The church's two wardens, the men directly below the rector who are responsible for its assets, run an investment bank and group of mutual funds.

"We are not against the church," says #D17 organizer Shawn Carrie. "We are against the church aligning itself with Wall Street."

The Trinity Church parcel, which sits along Canal Street next to the publicly owned Duarte Plaza, has been slated for occupation by OWS even before the eviction from Zuccotti Park. Though the parcel is several subway stops from Wall Street, OWS organizers now see it as their best shot for re-establishing the kind physical presence that many occupiers still consider vital to the movement. But with the church dug in against the idea, claiming that the site is reserved for a future school, organizers have been forced to get creative. In late November, they marched to the lot along with sympathetic clergy members and civil rights leaders to hold a candlelight vigil. They've also reached out to local politicians.

"Our community needs more people who volunteer in community service--and that is what Occupy Wall Street pledges to do," said Keen Berger, the area's Democratic District Leader, in a statement emailed to me by OWS. "Trinity and the Community Board 2 should welcome them at the Canal Street site with two provisos: That they help the local community, and that they leave when construction of the new school begins."

Still, it's far from clear how tomorrow's occupation will play with the public. "I think it's a good idea from OWS' point of view because it will continue the conversation," said Manhattan Community Board 2 member Robert Riccobono. Though he felt that the board was generally supportive of OWS' message, he would not go so far as to endorse the occupation: "You can see why Trinity is concerned. I would be too if I owned that space," he said. "So you have two opposing positions that are both understandable in many ways."

VIDEO: Tea Party Leader Arrested On Gun Charges Flees Cameras Into Boulevard of Death

| Fri Dec. 16, 2011 11:59 AM EST

Tea Party Patriots leader Mark Mecker has never seen a TV camera he didn't love. He seems to relish his Fox News appearances and hamming it up before the cameras at press conferences, rallies, and any other place he can get his mug on the big screen. But yesterday, Meckler was caught on tape literally running through oncoming traffic in New York City to avoid reporters, after he was arrested for illegally possessing a gun and charged with a felony. Meckler had gone to LaGuardia airport to catch a flight to LA and checked a locked case carrying a box that contained a Glock handgun and 19 cartridges of 9mm ammo.

A local CBS news station, which shot the footage, describes the chase:

As he left the courthouse after his arraignment he was desperate to avoid news cameras. A man accompanying Meckler put his hand over the lens of CBS 2’s camera and repeatedly tried to interfere with our photographer as Meckler raced through the courthouse to a side door.

As two photographers gave chase, Meckler ran to Queens Boulevard, the infamous “Boulevard of Death,” and ran across one lane of traffic, jumped over a wrought iron barricade and then high-tailed it to the other side before disappearing into the night.

Meckler has a concealed carry permit to carry the weapon in California, but that doesn't make it legal in New York City, where Meckler had apparently been tooling around for a few days (on a trip that his lawyer diplomatically described as "temporary transit" through the state). He claimed he brought the gun because he's gotten death threats, which raises the question of whether Meckler was actually packing heat during his entire stay in New York, which would be a big violation of the law there. After all, if he needs a gun because he's gotten death threats, it's not going to do him much good locked in a TSA-approved travel box.

Which may be why Meckler was so eager to avoid reporters. Watch his amazing fence-leaping skills as he navigates the Boulevard of Death here: