Political MoJo

A Look At FEMA Today

| Fri Sep. 22, 2006 8:04 PM EDT

Elva Galadas is a resident of Lacombe, Louisiana, on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. Her house was as good as destroyed by Katrina, leaving her with rotten wood, mold, and "tin roof rusted." Galatas, who is 73, has a son who is paralyzed from the waist down and who has epilepsy. He also has a broken ankle, an injured arm, and allergies that require him to get daily oxygen treatments.

Galatas applied for a FEMA trailer, but didn't get one, so she moved back into her moldy, structurally unsound house, and her son went to live in a hospital in Winnfield, Louisiana, which is nowhere near Lacombe. Finally, after months of phone calls and frustration, FEMA sent Galatas a trailer in June of this year. The trailer was designated as handicap accessible, but it was not big enough for both Galatis and her son. According to FEMA, since there were only two people who planned to live in it, there could be only one bedroom.

So Galatis began going down the trail of red tape, phone calls and frustration a second time. And this month, FEMA removed the first trailer and replaced it with a second. The problem is that the second trailer is the same size as the first. On top of that, FEMA subcontractors dismantled the handicap ramp of the first trailer but failed to build one for the second. Galatas is still living in her moldy house, and her son is still in the hospital.

A FEMA spokesman says "We want to make it happen for her."

FEMA has agreed to reimburse $217 million of $394 million worth of claims filed by the city of New Orleans alone. So far, only $117 million has reached the city. One of the most dramatic examples of loss in New Orleans is that of City Park, which sustained $43 million worth of damage. So far, FEMA has authorized only $2.6 million for repairs, and the park has actually received only $250,000.

Aside from the obvious fact that the city of New Orleans needs federal aid badly is the ugly fact that the damage within the city was not caused by a force of nature, but by the Army Corps of Engineers, who designed and built levees its engineers knew were not adequate.

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Branson Sees a Business Opportunity in the Global Warming Crisis

| Fri Sep. 22, 2006 6:43 PM EDT

Richard Branson (profile) didn't make his billions by being a sap -- and the BBC didn't get to be the BBC by taking PR at face value -- so it's no surprise the Beeb today is suggesting Branson's move to invest $3bn in renewable energy technologies is "more than green philanthropy." Could he also be "making a canny attempt to get in on the ground floor of a fast growing and innovative global industry" and "fulfill his mission to turn Virgin Fuels into a power giant in the same class as Shell or Exxon Mobil"? (Where have all the saints gone?)

There's big money to be made in renewable fuels--at least that's the general assumption--and many US biofuel firms are small-scale oufits. An unsentimental venture capitalist (not that there's any other kind) tells the BBC, "Sir Richard wants to make money in a field where returns are being made right now." Should we care that there's a commercial logic to Branson's decision? Of course not--the guy's a businessman. I just hope this venture goes better than his round-the-world balloon voyages.

Hugo Chavez: Mediocrity or Thug? (Or Both?)

| Fri Sep. 22, 2006 3:16 PM EDT

As I mentioned yesterday, I've long wanted to give Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez the benefit of the doubt (see this interview I did in 2005 with Richard Gott, a venerable British journalist who knows Chavez better than most and wrote a largely sympathetic biography of him). But with every week that passes--which is to say, with every new sign that, however sincere his commitment to his country's poor, Chavez's commitment to democracy is pretty tenuous; and with every new crackpot speech or unmistakable sign of galloping megalomania--I've found that position more difficult to sustain. Marc Cooper, who knows Latin American politics better than most, said it best this week in a blistering post occasioned by Chavez's crass, bizarre, and typically self-aggrandizing speech at the UN.

Marc Cooper:

If one ever had doubts that Hugo Chavez is at best an intellectual mediocrity (if not a thug) they should forever be confirmed by his speech Wednesday before the United Nations. I'm not going to bother to reproduce any excerpts here....

Suffice it to say it was juvenile showboating of the worst kind. And while it was chock full of applause and laugh lines as Chavez ripped at Bush, the Empire, the Fascists, the Assassins, the Israelis and the UN itself, it was -- in the end-- a completely vapid exercise. What sort of moral vision or leadership of behalf of the world's poor was voiced by the blustering buffoon of Caracas?

All I know is that if I were George W. Bush and was worried what the world thought of me, I would quickly choose Chavez as the guy to represent the global opposition. In any case, Chavez's performance is likely to backfire. His declaration that the UN is "worthless" is not likely to galvanize support for Venezuela's quest to win one of the rotating seats on the Security Council.

Amen.

U.N. Says Guantanamo Facilitates Torture

| Thu Sep. 21, 2006 8:02 PM EDT

A U.N. inquiry into U.S. practices at Guantanamo finds, unsurprisingly, that the prison facilitates torture and violates international law, and investigators criticized the Bush admin for failing to take steps to close it.

"We note with the greatest concern that the government has not taken any steps to close Guantanamo," the rights experts said in a joint statement read by Algerian Leila Zerrougui, a specialist on arbitrary detention. "Indeed, a new block has been built and is set to open this month."

The U.S. government is blowing the report off, saying it's based reports in the media and allegations from detainees' lawyers. Which may have something to do with the fact that the investigators, who've been trying to get access to Guantanamo since 2002, were told they could visit the prison but not interview detainees. They went ahead with the inquiry and say they came by "reliable accounts" of torture.

British Royal Society Slams ExxonMobil on Global Warming

| Thu Sep. 21, 2006 4:30 PM EDT

Via Crooked Timber, the British Royal Society has written to ExxonMobil, stating that 39 of the organizations listed in Exxon's 2005 WorldWide Giving Report for 'public information and policy research', feature information on their web sites that,

"misrepresented the science on climate change, either by outright denial of the evidence that greenhouse gases are driving climate change, or by overstating the amount and significance of uncertainty in knowledge, or by conveying misleading impression of the potential impacts of climate change."

The author of the letter, Bob Ward of the RS, writes:

"At our meeting in July … you indicated that ExxonMobil would not be providing any further funding to these organisations. I would be grateful if you could let me know when ExxonMobil plans to carry out this pledge."

Recall that Chris Mooney, author of The Republican War on Science, in a piece for Mother Jones detailed how ExxonMobil ExxonMobil spends millions to support "public policy" groups whose aim is to undermine the scientific consensus on global warming (that it is real; that humans contribute to it).

Copy of the Royal Society letter here (PDF). Mother Jones' special report on global warming here.

Open Season on Menhaden Again?

| Thu Sep. 21, 2006 3:35 PM EDT

Men-ha-what? Menhaden—in case you forgot—are smelly little fish that just happen to be the ecological lynchpins of the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem. As H. Bruce Franklin detailed in his story our Oceans package in March/April, "menhaden are the most important fish in North America." They're certainly the most important fish in the Bay—kill them off and you're condemning the Bay to become a giant dead zone. But menhaden are being overfished by the antiseptically named "menhaden reduction industry," a monopoly controlled by Omega Protein, which grinds them up into stuff like animal feed and fish-oil supplements. Now we learn, via Greenpeace USA, that the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Council is considering lifting a recent (and, Greenpeace says, unimplemented) cap on menhaden fishing at the behest of Virginia Governor Tim Kaine and Omega. According to Greenpeace, the Kaine plan would allow Omega to "vaccuum up" a whopping 123,000 tons of menhaden in a season. Greenpeace and other Bay watchers want a moratorium on menhaden fishing. That's not going to happen soon, but the ASMFC is still considering public comments before making its next decision. For more info on how to weigh in, download this [PDF].

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The Filibuster--It's Okay When Republicans Use It

| Thu Sep. 21, 2006 3:10 PM EDT

Remember all the threats to use the "nuclear option" when Democrats planned to filibuster Bush's racist, sexist, homophobic judicial nominees? No one was pushing harder for it than Majority Leader Sen. Bill Frist.

Well, the worm--in this case, the cat-killing, TV screen-diagnosing, state medical board-deceiving Dr. Frist--has had a change of heart about the use of the filibuster. He has announced that Republicans in the Senate will indeed filibuster the bill dealing with detainee interrogation unless a few rebels from his own party rewrite sections of it opposed by George W. Bush.

The senators--John Warner, John McCain and Lindsey Graham--are opposed to the loosening of meaning of the Geneva Conventions ban on torture and other inappropriate treatment of prisoners. From the Washington Post:

For a bill to pass, Frist said, "it's got to preserve our intelligence programs," including the CIA's aggressive interrogation techniques, and it must "protect classified information from terrorists." He said that "the president's bill achieves those two goals" but that "the Warner-McCain-Graham bill falls short."

So...there are the priorities of the Senate's Republican leader. When it comes to getting around the Geneva Conventions, anything is okay--even the filibuster.

Iraq: Kidnappers Use Victims as Unwitting Bombers

| Thu Sep. 21, 2006 3:01 PM EDT

Bush "the devil"? (I've mostly wanted to give Hugo Chavez the benefit of the doubt, but what the...?) Hardly. If we're handing out devil badges, let's start with this AP story.

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Insurgents are no longer using just volunteers to drive suicide car bombs but are instead kidnapping people with their cars, rigging the vehicles with explosives, and blowing them up remotely, the Defense Ministry said Thursday.

In what appears to be a new tactic for the insurgency, the ministry said the kidnap victims do not know their cars have been loaded with explosives when they are released.

Unbelievable.

Obama: Debate About National Security? Bring It.

| Thu Sep. 21, 2006 2:26 PM EDT

Sen. Barack Obama (will he? won't he?), in a speech yesterday at Georgetown University sponsored by MoveOn.org, outlined his vision for reducing US dependence on oil (by way of ethanol and subsidies for hybrid cars), saying the energy issue shouldn't be put on the back burner (so to speak!).

Obama also called the (mystifying) notion that President Bush "has been perfect in fighting terrorism" an illusion and said Dems should tackle Republicans on the issue. "On the terrorism front, I'm happy to have that debate."

That's the spirit.

Planespotting

| Thu Sep. 21, 2006 12:09 AM EDT

Over at truthdig.com, ex-MJ intern Onnesha Roychoudhuri has a fascinating interview with the authors of Torture Taxi: On the Trail of the CIA's Rendition Flights, a new book about extraordinary rendition. It gathers a lot of information from amateur planespotters and supplements it with some on-the-ground reporting from the authors, Trevor Paglen and A.C. Thompson. One of the most telling points they make is that as they dug into the support structure of the rendition program, they "realized our neighbors were helping the CIA set up these structures. These are family lawyers in suburban Massachusetts and Reno, Nevada. People in our communities are doing dirty work for the CIA. This is not just people being snatched up from one faraway country and taken to a country that's even farther away."

It's all too easy to be outraged by the secret torture programs. It is more uncomfortable still to acknowledge that for many people—some of whose daily jobs may depend on the rendition program—it is not outrageous. One of the airplane charter companies used by the CIA was Aero Contractors, based in Smithfield, N.C., a place Thompson discussed in the interview.

What you start to figure out by spending time in Smithfield is that a lot of people know about the company and have at least an inkling of what goes on at the airport. Most don't want to talk about it and don't take a critical view of it. Folks we met there framed the debate within this religious discourse. The activists that we talked to were god-fearing devout Christians who felt like this was not what they signed up for as religious people, that it violates the religious tenets they adhere to. Interestingly, folks on the other side of the debate seem to be coming from a similar place, but just coming to a different conclusion. The subject of whether or not torture was permitted by the Bible was discussed in church there—and many congregants believed it was.

Thompson's coauthor, Trevor Paglen, is an artist and geographer at U.C.-Berkeley. Check out his site for a look at some very cool art/activism projects, some of which you can participate in. Perhaps you'd like to join a surveillance trip of your own—to Area 51.

Also, look for a review of another rendition book, Ghost Plane: The True Story of the CIA Torture Program, by Stephen Grey, in the November/December 2006 Mother Jones.