Political MoJo

In the Battle for the Public's Right to Know, ACLU Wins a Round

| Tue Dec. 19, 2006 6:28 PM EST

Count one for the good guys. In the government's ongoing fight to control information in the public sphere, someone with the right combination of chutzpah, legal expertise, and media savvy finally got the government to back down in a stand off.

That "someone," of course, was the ACLU, who as of late has be enmeshed in a battle with federal prosecutors over a document detailing the Army's new internal regulations on photographing detainees. (The document is now available on the ACLU website and is relatively harmless.)

What's remarkable is that there is no national security justification for suppressing the document. It was a use of the legal apparatus by the government to quash unflattering news, which is pretty draconian. Of course, the ACLU has some boasting to do: "This was a legal stand-off with enormous implications for free speech and the public's right to know, and today the government blinked," said ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero. "The Bush Administration's attempt to suppress information using the grand jury process was truly chilling and is unprecedented in law and in our history as an organization. We could not be more pleased to have turned back the government from its strong-arm tactics."

This is part and parcel with the Bush Administration's fight with the press. "In this case," said Floyd Abrams, a First Amendment lawyer, "the ACLU's function is presslike" in that is acts as a government watchdog and delivers important information to the public. A while back, Mother Jones mentioned that the number of subpoenas that the Heart Co. has received of its lawyers has increased twentyfold over the last few years. Other examples of press suppression abound, which is why the United States tied for 53rd in the last Press Freedom Rankings.

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Brownback: Judicial Activism A-OK When It Favors Austere Religious Values

| Tue Dec. 19, 2006 5:45 PM EST

Senator Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican who sits on the Judiciary Committee, was holding up a roster of 13 judicial nominees by refusing to vote on the appointment of Judge Janet Neff to a Federal District Court. Yesterday, he relented, agreeing to vote on the nomination.

Brownback was stonewalling, as it were, because he had learned that Neff had attended the (lesbian) commitment ceremony of a longtime neighbor's daughter. That's right, Neff was a guest at one same-sex ceremony. Brownback had graciously offered to move forward if only Neff would agree to recuse herself from all cases related to same-sex unions.

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Let's follow this to its illogical extreme. Any judicial nominee who has attended a party sponsored by Budweiser or Absolut must recuse him or herself from all cases related to the alcohol industry. Any nominee who has hugged a woman or in anyway offered support after an abortion must recuse him or herself from all cases related to Roe v. Wade. And so on.

In some cases, more judicial independence could be a good thing. But Brownback hasn't taken that position in the past. Indeed, he has supported appointees who had been outspoken opponents of abortion and same-sex marriage but claimed they would rule based on their legal expertise, rather than their personal opinions. Neff, who hasn't made any outspoken claims supporting or opposing same-sex marriage, has, however, said that her legal expertise would guide her through any decisions on the matter.

What's more, legal scholars have voiced widespread concern that Senator Brownback's request that Neff agree, as a condition of his vote, to handle cases in a certain way is unconstitutional.

When (metaphorically) confronted with a copy of the constitution, Brownback was unabashed. He indicated that he needed more reassurance from Judge Neff that her presence at the ceremony did not indicate insurmountable bias. Brownback would now like Neff to testify before the Senate about her neighbor's ceremony. Neff, and everyone else involved in the private commitment ceremony, are now essentially on trial.

Compare Brownback's single-handed delay of the Senate's confirmation process to the suits filed by Gov. Mitt Romney and Vote on Marriage claiming that the Massachusetts legislature violated their right to due process by tabling an anti-gay marriage amendment. It doesn't take long to see that their homophobia is making a perverse mockery of democracy.

MoJo's Best of Books, Music, Television and Film, 2006

| Tue Dec. 19, 2006 3:18 PM EST

Just in time for the holidays (and holiday shopping), Mother Jones presents our list of 2006 media favorites. We think you'll like these books, albums, shows, and movies; act fast, before the War on Christmas ruins the gift-giving season for everyone.

Our Town: A Heartland Lynching, a Haunted Town, and the Hidden History of White America. By Cynthia Carr. A photograph of a 1930 Indiana lynching is the central mystery and motivating force behind Our Town. As Carr tries to figure out what really happened on the night captured in the picture, she uncovers her own family's shameful history. One of the most fascinating and challenging explorations of race to arrive in a long time.
Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984. By Simon Reynolds. Reynolds convincingly argues that '80s postpunk was the most fertile and influential musical period since the Summer of Love. Encompassing everything from Joy Division to Gang of Four to the Specials to Talking Heads to (gasp!) Human League—it's the perfect nostalgia trip for the perennial grad student who still rocks the stovepipe jeans.
The Discomfort Zone. By Jonathan Franzen. The novelist recounts his childhood fears ("spiders, insomnia, fish hooks, school dances, hardball, heights, bees, urinals, puberty, music teachers, dogs, the school cafeteria, censure, older teenagers, jellyfish, locker rooms, boomerangs, popular girls"), awkward adolescence, and adulthood struggle to become a wildly successful writer. Along the way, he discovers bird-watching, which becomes an obsession and his connection to environmentalism.
Pick a Bigger Weapon. The Coup. This Oakland rap duo has been around since the early '90s, but this album, its first in five years, is the most musically rich. Not that the group has smoothed down its political edge. (Sample lyrics: "War ain't about one land against the next/it's po' people dyin' so the rich cash checks.") And don't miss the catchy pre-apocalyptic slow jam, "BabyLetsHaveABabyBeforeBushDoSomethingCrazy."
The Information. Beck. Moving past Guero's cheesier, poppier tunes, Beck offers honest yet fresh melodies without sacrificing the succinct beats we've come to expect. And how can you resist an album that comes with D.I.Y. cover art and features the line, "Carry my heart like a soldier with a hand grenade"?
This Film Is Not Yet Rated. Director Kirby Dick goes on an undercover quest to expose the opacity and hypocrisy of the the folks who decide whether to slap a PG, R, or a distribution-killing NC-17 on our movies. For his trouble, he earned a NC-17, but don't let that scare you away.

For the full list, go here.

Family of Sen. Tim Johnson Expects Full Recovery

| Tue Dec. 19, 2006 2:36 PM EST

News out of South Dakota, where the Argus Leader talks with recovering Senator Tim Johnson's son. To the block quotes!

[Said Brendan Johnson,] "From my conversations with the doctors and based on the progress he has been making, I feel very confident that he is going to be getting back to work sooner rather than later."
It was the first interview given by a Johnson family member since the senator was hospitalized Dec. 13 with stroke-like symptoms followed by brain surgery at George Washington University Medical Center in Washington.
At first, he says that might require someone driving his father to the Capitol and having some physical assistance until he gains his strength.
"But the encouraging thing from what we understand is that his mental functioning and his brain functioning -- so far, all the signs are that there is no reason to believe that he will have anything less than a full recovery," he said.

Science At Its Best & Worst

| Tue Dec. 19, 2006 2:05 AM EST

A team of neuroscientists and engineers from the University of California, Berkeley, and the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, get paid to launch undergraduates on a scent trail in an open field, blindfolded, ears blocked, on their knees, following a track of chocolate essential oil. The results show that we can apparently sniff out the world better than previously believed, at least in pursuit of chocolate.

"Our sense of smell is less keen partly because we put less demand on it," says lead author Jess Porter. "But if people practice sniffing smells, they can get really good at it."

So we're more like dogs and rats than we know. But are they enough like us to make using them in medical research worthwhile? Check out this comparative analysis published at BMJ.com, a free open access online research journal. Researchers in Britain and Argentina conclude that at least half the animal studies they've examined are so flawed as to produce no data clinically relevant to human beings.

For a dose of science at its best, check out this new electric car design project inaugurated by a former BMW employee in Germany. Using the same cooperative open source movement that brought us the software Linux and the browser Firefox, Markus Merz, is asking anyone with a good idea to join the design team design for Oscar, named after the Open Source Car Project. Merz is hoping to attract designers and engineers to contribute ideas free of the restraints of secrecy, patents, or ownership. As reported by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation:

"The most effective tool you can have to get anything done is passion and creativity and that needs to be unleashed, and then it's much more powerful than money," says Lukas Neckerman, head of automotive business development at a financial services company in Munich.

Iraq: One Attack Every Ten Minutes

| Mon Dec. 18, 2006 9:26 PM EST

In a sign of how difficult things are going to be for newly-installed Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a Pentagon report released today shows that attacks in Iraq over the last three months have been the highest recorded over the course of the war. Adds the New York Times, "While the majority of attacks were directed at American forces, most of the casualties were suffered by the Iraqi military and civilians."

As for the actual numbers, in the period of early August to early November, there were an average of 959 attacks (by insurgents, sectarian militias, etc.) every week against American and Iraqi targets. That's 137 a day; roughly six per hour and one every 10 minutes.

For detailed information on Iraqi civilian deaths, see Iraq Body Count, one of the best sources of data on the subject. And for a Mother Jones story about Iraq Body Count's strange saga, see "Dead Reckoning: Counting Iraq's Civilian Dead."

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Everyone Needs A Little Irony For Christmas

| Mon Dec. 18, 2006 9:15 PM EST

20,000 "Christmas Packs," available for a donation of $29, have been sold. 508,000 buttons, 125,000 bumper stickers, and 100,000 magnets have been sold. 12,000 legal memos have been sold. The buttons bear the message, Merry Christmas: It's Worth Saying, and the packs include two lapel pins and a 3-page legal memo.

All of this merchandise is moving as a result of the non-existent "war on Christmas,". The Christmas packs are valued at $4 each; however, the seller, the Alliance Defense Fund, says that most of them are going for less than the suggested $29 donation. There is also a "Help Save Christmas" action pack, sold by Liberty Counsel, for $25. This pack includes buttons, bumper stickers and legal advice on celebrating the holidays at work and at school.

Liberty Counsel president Anita Staver says: "When it's an issue affecting Christmas people will sit up and take notice. Then they may look at the other issues we're involved in."

Top Ten Signs that Your Gay-Hating Has Gone Too Far

| Mon Dec. 18, 2006 4:44 PM EST

Number 4 (leaving the top three spots for violent crimes): You join a church under the leadership of a Nigerian man who believes gays shouldn't be allowed to meet in public and should face jail time for their private encounters.

That is what two Virginia Anglican congregations did this weekend when they seceded from the Episcopal Church, establishing themselves as a jerry-rigged Virginia branch of the African Anglican Communion under the leadership of Archbishop Peter Akinola. The churches' votes were a reaction to Episcopalians' growing acceptance of homosexuality, which culminated in the 2003 election of an openly gay man, Gene Robinson, as bishop. (Check out what Diane wrote yesterday for more details.)

Did I mention that the two historic Virginia churches are heavily attended by the D.C. elite? True patriots, the lot of them. Perhaps they could catch a ship in their local Dubai-owned port and head for Nigeria.

Liars in Paradise, or Say Goodbye With a Lie, Don Rumsfeld

| Mon Dec. 18, 2006 3:33 PM EST

Conservative columnist David Brooks rarely gets props on MoJoBlog, but during yesterday's Meet the Press — when he commented on Cheney's farewell remarks to Donald Rumsfeld — he hit the nail on the head.

Via Think Progress, you can watch Cheney spouting,

In his regard for our people in uniform, in his unwavering strength through unprecedented challenges, in his example of leadership and patriotic service, I believe the record speaks for itself: Don Rumsfeld is the finest Secretary of Defense this nation has ever had.

Yesterday, Brooks noted that if what Cheney said were true,

Either George Bush is a fool or Dick Cheney is a liar, all right? Because either George Bush just fired at the height of a war, at the greatest national security threat of our country's current era, the greatest secretary of defense in history, or Dick Cheney thinks we're all walking around with a sign that says "Stupid" on it.

Booyakasha! But why not follow the Vice President's advice and let the record speak for itself? Try cross-referencing the Department of Defense's recent homage to Rumsfeld with the Secretary of Defense's many dubious distinctions chronicled in the Mother Jones Iraq War Timeline.

And PS -- Cheney's got an entry in the MJIWT, too.

-- Koshlan Mayer-Blackwell and Celia Perry

Now We're Holding American POWs?

| Mon Dec. 18, 2006 2:39 PM EST

Buried in the Times' stunning piece on the detention of an American whistleblower at Iraq's notorious Camp Cropper -- surreal highlight: camp psychologist tells Vance to think of himself "as a soldier who has been kidnapped, and that you still have a duty to do" -- is a no less stunning two-sentence graf:

[Pentagon spokesman First Lt. Lea Ann] Fracasso said that currently there were three Americans in military custody in Iraq. The military does not identify detainees.

Legalities aside -- and they are disputed: remember U.S. filmmaker Cyrus Kar, who came forward with his own harrowing Iraq detention story last year? He has an all-star cast of lawyers working the case -- only Kafka could have invented a nation founded on the rule of law that lawlessly detains its own citizens in squalid camps overseas, without any kind of lawyer, due process, or shred of information to loved ones. Not to mention holding citizens as enemy combatants and in the process damaging them to the point where their own guards refer to them as "a piece of furniture." AND not to mention claiming that not a single innocent man is being held at Guantanamo, days before 18 innocent men are sent home to their families. When our children grow old enough to ask, we'll have a lot of explaining to do.