Political MoJo

Latest Katrina Disaster: Waste Estimate Doubles to $2 Billion

| Tue Dec. 26, 2006 6:06 AM EST

Turns out the Bush Administration's handling of Katrina was even worse than we thought, which is saying something. The feds had previously put the amount of money wasted at $1 billion, which included money or other help provided to people who didn't qualify for help, such as tens of millions of dollars in fraudulently obtained housing assistance. But earlier this week the Government Accountability Office said its initial estimate of $1 billion was "likely understated," citing continuing problems it has found with the ways the Federal Emergency Management Association has spent money on Katrina recovery.

Now the GAO is looking into a number of relief contracts that were hastily awarded to firms with strong political ties, including the big 4: Bechtel, Shaw Group, Flour Corp. and CH2M Hill, whose four no-bid contracts together worth $400 million are now being investigated by the Department of Homeland Security's Inspector General.

Some $12 billion in relief contracts were awarded, and charges range from political favoritism to limited contract opportunities being afforded to small and minority-owned companies, which initially got only only 1.5% of the total work.

Says Clark Kent Ervin, former DHS inspector general, of the revelations: "Based on track record, it wouldn't surprise me if we saw another billion more in waste. It's a combination of laziness, ineptitude and it may well be nefarious."

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McCain Goes Looking In Slime Pool For More Questionable Staff Members

| Fri Dec. 22, 2006 9:57 PM EST

Sen. John McCain's recent hiring of Karl Rove protege Terry "Call me" Nelson didn't surprise those of us who have never bought into the "straight talker," "maverick" image that has been manufactured by McCain and his supporters. Now McCain has hired yet another morally-challenged staff member, Jill Hazelbaker, as communications director for his New Hampshire campaign.

Hazelbaker is known for posing as a liberal and stirring up trouble on liberal blogs. She was caught, too, but continued to lie about what she had done. These kinds of campaign dirty tricks, recently popularized by Rove and Karen Hughes, are probably pretty common, but in this case, the selection of both Hazelbaker and Nelson tell more about McCain than anything else.

Goodbye, Future Daughter

| Fri Dec. 22, 2006 4:43 PM EST

 asian_baby.gif Many lesbians have historically adopted Chinese babies. Lesbians, as Elizabeth Weil reported this summer, are sometimes turned away from fertility clinics. And sometimes, they make an ethical/political choice to adopt one of China's unwanted baby girls. Chinese orphans are predominantly girls because the country has long limited families to one child, and most families wait for a boy.

Many gay men also adopt babies from China, even though the country doesn't make it easy for same-sex couples. Just 8 percent of the nation's orphans are available to so-called single-parent homes and all applicants must sign a statement saying they are not gay or lesbian.

Now China is making its adoption laws even stricter. The country will no longer permit any single parents to adopt. The new rules announced yesterday will also bar those who are obese or over 50, those whose net worth is under $80,000, those who have been in a second marriage for less than five years, or those who—like millions of Americans—take medication for depression or anxiety. Although 12,000 Chinese orphans are expected to be adopted this year—two-thirds of them by Americans—the number of orphans will likely decrease as China continues to relax its one-child rule.

This writer has long thought that any babies in his future would come from China. It seems they won't after all.

Squid Gives Me Pause

| Fri Dec. 22, 2006 2:25 PM EST

I may have been too harsh in my last blog post. That giant squid story is actually kind of neat.

In Light of Haditha, Revisiting How Marines Train to Interact with Iraqi Civilians

| Fri Dec. 22, 2006 2:07 PM EST

Today's newspapers bring an update on the Haditha massacre. Four Marines are charged with murder for the killings of two dozen Iraqi civilians, including at least 10 women and children, in the Iraqi village last year. Four officers are also charged with failing to investigate and report the incident. (Odd note: As of 11:09 am PST, the CNN.com homepage has no news of this. However, "Rosie vs. The Donald" and "Giant squid filmed, captured" do make the list.)

The charges are harsh, and may indicate the first signs of real accountability within the military. The NY Times quotes a West Point law professor as saying, "This is very aggressive charging — wow... I think this illustrates the deep seriousness the Marine Corps takes with these events... I definitely think the Marine Corps is sending a message to commanders."

In light of all this, we'd like to turn your attention to a Mother Jones magazine story called "Lost in Translation: The challenges of training GIs to avoid insulting — and shooting — Iraqi civilians are being faced in California's Mojave Desert." Writer Brian Palmer visited a Marine base called Twentynine Palms and watched as young Marines trained for high-intensity civilian-interaction situations, with sometimes uplifting and sometimes distressing results. From Palmer's report:

The exercise merges traditional training and a brand-new series of simulations and classes for Iraq-bound Marines, with an emphasis on evoking the intensity of actual combat in a credibly simulated Iraqi village. The goal, said Captain Jonathan Smith, Fox Company's commanding officer, is to make each soldier "a combat vet before they get in country." Improvised explosive devices made with black powder and compressed air actually go "boom" and sometimes injure people. Marines and "insurgents" fire "sim rounds," bullets with paintball-type tips that, according to the grunts, hurt like hell. Iraqi role players speak only Arabic. Classes in language, culture, civil affairs, and policing are held alfresco before combat simulations, and instructors race through information at mind-boggling speed. One Arabic language lesson covered four words—"explosives," "rocket," "mine," and "weapons"—and lasted two minutes and 21 seconds.
...
Two different instructors backed up this scenario with a stunning statistic: "Over the last 12 months or so we killed about 1,000 Iraqis at blocking positions and checkpoints," the first coyote told the grunts. "About 60—six-zero—we could demonstrate that, yeah, he was a bad guy, he was an insurgent. Six-zero out of about 1,000. So if we don't communicate what we want them to do, all we're doing is creating more enemies." The second instructor later offered up the same figures, concluding: "So obviously, 900-something innocent Iraqis have been killed. That's pretty shitty numbers, right?"

It's good. Read the whole thing.

Free Copies of An Inconvenient Truth - Get 'Em While They're Hot!

| Fri Dec. 22, 2006 2:05 PM EST

A couple of weeks ago, the National Science Teachers Association refused a donation of copies of Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, lest its factually challenged donors, such as Exxon, were offended. Now, Participant Productions, the film's distributor, is giving away 50,000 copies to teachers who sign up here. And, via BoingBoing, we learn that the guys who run the less-than-educational website, HotOrNot have pitched in $25K to help get the effort off the ground. And if you want to oggle and do good, there's always Al Gore's Hot or Not page.

gorehotornot.gif

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Gunboat Diplomacy Means We Aren't Bombing Iran

| Fri Dec. 22, 2006 1:42 PM EST

A few days ago, I remarked on an astonishing report coming out of the Pentagon indicating that the military is considering a buildup of Navy forces in the Persian Gulf as a show of strength against Iran. In a cheeky aside, I said, "Thanks for suggesting diplomacy with these folks, Iraq Study Group. Now get out of town."

I should have been more cautious. As Laura Rozen explains in the American Prospect's online edition today, sending naval forces to Iran's backyard is a form of diplomacy: "Gunboat Diplomacy."

Rozen quotes an unnamed official:

"The idea is definitely to keep the Iranians aware that there is a price to pay for their policies and the U.S. is not rolling over... The Iranians are being unhelpful in funding and supporting people blowing coalition forces up in Iraq… [The announced US actions] are to say, 'We have teeth, we have force. You shouldn't think we're some paper tiger.'"

First of all, how funny is the use of the word "unhelpful"? Iran is funding Shiite death squads and "blowing coalition forces up in Iraq." Unhelpful, indeed. An Iranian close to the administration tells Rozen that the buildup of troops would largely be "intimidation" and that America "needs all the demonstration of strength she could muster, should she decide to start talks with Iran." The take-home message is that it is possible sending warships to the gulf is not the first sign of a regional conflagration, but instead the inevitable posturing that comes before negotiation. We can only hope.

For Mother Jones content on the possibility of war with Iran, see the list of stories at this link.

World War III: Saudi Arabia vs. Iran?

| Fri Dec. 22, 2006 1:38 PM EST

Not to oversensationalize or anything, but it is a little unsettling when the Saudis let it be known (as they have for some time now) that if (and that's not really a very big if, is it?) Iran goes nuclear, they will too... and that they would not hesitate to intervene in Iraq's civil war on the side of the Sunnis if Shia power gets too great... and when, at the same time, the office of the Vice President comes down hard in favor of a Shia government in Iraq, butchery of Sunnis notwithstanding... and when, finally, news that there's a major struggle going on in the Saudi government over "a clash of civilizations" with Iran is buried on Page 14 in the New York Times. Peace on earth, everyone.

Scary Science & the Solstice

| Thu Dec. 21, 2006 9:30 PM EST

The BBC reports on a British government study looking ahead to the next 50 years:

"Robots could one day demand the same citizen's rights as humans… If granted, countries would be obliged to provide social benefits including housing and even "robo-healthcare."

I suppose British robots might get somewhere with that. American ones would be SOL.

NewScientist reports it's so warm bears aren't hibernating in Spain this winter. Though a Japanese man apparently pulled off the torpid feat for three rip-van-winkle weeks.

If you're in the southern hemisphere, in, say, Madagascar, this solstice and planning a balmy night under the stars without a tent, reconsider. Imagine, moths that breach your eyelids and drink your tears while you sleep. Well, birds' tears at any rate. The moths are apparently after salt not liquid. Nevertheless, it looks unnerving, the moths and their harpoonlike proboscises:

If that's too creepy, check out the University of Alaska's Geophysical Institute's online aurora borealis forecast, and plan your trip north accordingly. After all, how many more years do you want to pass without seeing this wonder?

Happy Solstice.

New Evidence on the Prevalence of Robo-Calls

| Thu Dec. 21, 2006 2:37 PM EST

Turns out, our strenuous coverage of the robo-call issue during the mid-term elections was unnecessary: if you're a voting American, you likely experienced robo-calls first hand!

A new poll by the Pew Internet and American Life project says 64% of registered voters received at least one robo-call during election season. From Pew's brief summary:

These so-called "robo-calls" were the second most popular way for campaigns and political activists to reach voters, trailing only direct mail as a key tool of political communication. Some 71% of registered voters got direct mail campaign solicitations, while 24% received phone calls from real human beings urging their vote for a particular candidate, 18% were visited at their homes, and 14% received email solicitations.

As TPMmuckraker notes, we still don't know how many people received the harassing robo-calls that called six, seven, or eight times in a row, in a GOP ploy to discourage Democratic turnout.