Political MoJo

Army Digs Deep to Get Strong

The Army may have met its recruitment goal of 80,000 troops last year but these are not the soldiers of...

| Thu Jan. 4, 2007 5:25 PM EST

The Army may have met its recruitment goal of 80,000 troops last year but these are not the soldiers of yesteryear. Along with questionable recruitment tactics, the Army has rewritten its enlistment standards on everything from facial tatoos to criminal records. We break down some of the changes in our latest issue, showing how over the past few years the Army has allowed in not only older and fatter plebes, but also record numbers of recruits whose felony records and medical conditions would have disqualified them in years past.

Now the National Priorities Project has run the numbers on the latest data from the DoD, and the declines continue:

-In 2004, 61% of active-duty Army recruits were 'high quality,' (average aptitude scores or better, high school diploma). In 2006, less than half, 47%, were high quality, a 23% decrease.

-The number of high school dropouts grew from 13% in 2004 to the just released 27% in 2006, doubling in just two years.

The NPP also breaks down recruiting by income bracket and state. Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Montana had the highest recruiting rates while Connecticut, New Jersey and the District of Columbia had the lowest number of active-duty Army recruits in 2006.

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Bush Signs Away Our Civil Liberties

It's hard to imagine anything more undemocratic than a presidential signing statment -- wherein the commander-in-chief appends language to the...

| Thu Jan. 4, 2007 5:13 PM EST

It's hard to imagine anything more undemocratic than a presidential signing statment -- wherein the commander-in-chief appends language to the bill he's just signed exempting the executive branch from following various of its dictates -- but the president's latest is truly an Orwellian masterwork. Appended to the innocous sounding Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, which the president signed into law before the holidays, the statement gives the Bush adminstration the authority to open your mail without first obtaining a warrant under "exigent circumstances." As the New York Daily News reports today, "that claim is contrary to existing law and contradicted the bill he had just signed."

Most of the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act deals with mundane reform measures. But it also explicitly reinforced protections of first-class mail from searches without a court's approval.

Yet in his statement Bush said he will "construe" an exception, "which provides for opening of an item of a class of mail otherwise sealed against inspection in a manner consistent ... with the need to conduct searches in exigent circumstances."

Bush cited as examples the need to "protect human life and safety against hazardous materials and the need for physical searches specifically authorized by law for foreign intelligence collection."

White House spokeswoman Emily Lawrimore denied Bush was claiming any new authority.

"In certain circumstances - such as with the proverbial 'ticking bomb' - the Constitution does not require warrants for reasonable searches," she said.

Bush, however, cited "exigent circumstances" which could refer to an imminent danger or a longstanding state of emergency.

ExxonMobil Uses Big Tobacco's Tactics & Personnel to Deny Climate Change

Why doesn't this make headlines? The Union of Concerned Scientists issues a report offering comprehensive documentation that ExxonMobil is adopting...

| Thu Jan. 4, 2007 5:10 PM EST

Why doesn't this make headlines? The Union of Concerned Scientists issues a report offering comprehensive documentation that ExxonMobil is adopting the tobacco industry's disinformation tactics, along with some of the same organizations and personnel, to cloud the science of climate change and delay action on fixing it. From the press release:

"ExxonMobil has manufactured uncertainty about the human causes of global warming just as tobacco companies denied their product caused lung cancer," said Alden Meyer, the Union of Concerned Scientists' Director of Strategy & Policy. "A modest but effective investment has allowed the oil giant to fuel doubt about global warming to delay government action just as Big Tobacco did for over 40 years."

"As a scientist, I like to think that facts will prevail, and they do eventually," said Dr. James McCarthy, Alexander Agassiz Professor of Biological Oceanography at Harvard University and former chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's working group on climate change impacts. "It's shameful that ExxonMobil has sought to obscure the facts for so long when the future of our planet depends on the steps we take now and in the coming years."

The Christian Science Monitor reports that nontheists are challenging the growing influence of religion in government and public life by forming a Washington lobbying group, the Secular Coalition for America.

Many nontheists… have decided that keeping silent in religious America no longer makes sense. They are astonished that a majority of Americans question evolution and support teaching intelligent design in the science classroom. They are distressed over polls that show that at least half of Americans are unwilling to vote for an atheist despite the Constitution's requirement that there be no religious test for public office. And they contend that in recent years, Congress has passed bills and the president has issued executive orders that have privileged religion in inappropriate and unconstitutional ways.

Thomas Jefferson summed up religious meddling in government and science nearly 200 years ago:

Whenever... preachers, instead of a lesson in religion, put [their congregation] off with a discourse on the Copernican system, on chemical affinities, on the construction of government, or the characters or conduct of those administering it, it is a breach of contract, depriving their audience of the kind of service for which they are salaried, and giving them, instead of it, what they did not want, or, if wanted, would rather seek from better sources in that particular art of science.

Military Contractors Lose Their "Get Out of Jail" Card

Five years into the war on terror, American military contractors have finally lost some of their immunity from prosecution for...

| Thu Jan. 4, 2007 4:25 PM EST

Five years into the war on terror, American military contractors have finally lost some of their immunity from prosecution for dirty deeds done on the federal dime. In a post over on DefenseTech, the Brookings Institution's Peter Singer reports on a quiet insertion into the 2007 Pentagon budget that means "contractors' 'get out of jail free' card may have been torn to shreds." Basically, contractors are now subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which means they can be court martialed:

This means that if contractors violate the rules of engagement in a warzone or commit crimes during a contingency operation like Iraq, they can now be court-martialed (as in, Corporate Warriors, meet A Few Good Men). On face value, this appears to be a step forward for realistic accountability. Military contractor conduct can now be checked by the military investigation and court system, which unlike civilian courts, is actually ready and able both to understand the peculiarities of life and work in a warzone and kick into action when things go wrong.

The scope of new law is not entirely clear; it may include embedded journalists, too. (Not that they go around playing soldier—Judy Miller aside.) But overall, says Singer, this move brings a bit of much-needed oversight to a largely unregulated industry. "Last month," he writes , "DOJ reported to Congress that it has sat on over 20 investigations of suspected contractor crimes without action in the last year." Sounds like a good place to begin.

Fed Agency Votes No-Confidence on Voting Machine Inspection Process

Why are we still using electronic voting machines? The true outcome of one election is already lost in the...

| Thu Jan. 4, 2007 3:32 PM EST

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Why are we still using electronic voting machines?

The true outcome of one election is already lost in the bowels of a computer somewhere, to which the once and future candidate, Christine Jennings, has been denied access. Even if electronic voting machines work fine, popular concern that they don't introduces unnecessary uncertainty into the electoral process. Uncertainty that will likely grow after today's revelation in the New York Times that the company charged with inspecting the lion's share of voting machines, Ciber, Inc., has been barred from future inspections. Ciber Inc. cannot document that it conducted all of the required tests, and its quality-control practices are also in question. The federal Election Assistance Commission barred Ciber Inc. from conducting any further inspections this summer, but has only recently disclosed its actions. Many machines already in use were inspected by Ciber Inc., making the Commission's reasons for waiting until after the elections to reveal the problem fairly transparent.

Would that voting were equally transparent.

Nowhere To Run To

I wrote last month that some are warning the Iraqi refugee crisis could be the globe's most dire yet. The...

| Thu Jan. 4, 2007 3:14 PM EST

I wrote last month that some are warning the Iraqi refugee crisis could be the globe's most dire yet. The sheer number of Iraqis displaced by the war in the last 3 years -- 3.1 million -- are enough to make groups like Refugees International and Human Rights Watch take notice and demand UN and U.S. action. 1.8 million have fled their country and the remaining are displaced within Iraq's borders.

But although the crisis demands attention, the complexity of it begs the question as to whether it will only get worse. Saddam's recent execution, the handling cheered by some and reviled by others, was protested in Jordan, one of the only two countries which accepted Iraq's citizens following the U.S.-led invasion. Some think the execution was a sectarian lynching, an aggression carried out by fundamentalist Shi'ites of the Mehdi Army. Jordan already essentially closed its borders in 2005 after the hotel bombing in Amman and the treatment of refugees in this country has been on a steady decline. Iraqi refugees are now treated as temporary visitors, but attaining a visa is almost impossible, so many are deported. Others remain living in hiding within the country and some face refusal at the border.

Will the backlash from Saddam's execution make matters even worse, especially for Shi'ite refugees? Shi'ites already face the most difficult time in both Jordan and Syria (the only Middle Eastern country that still accepts refugees). What if Shi'ite refugees, those already inside Jordan and those who are fleeing due to the ever-increasing violence, are greeted with even more discrimination?

Their options are limited and waning further. The Bush administration has shown no sign that it will increase the number of Iraqi refugees allowed entry into the U.S. from the current number of 500 to the allowed 20,000 (which wouldn't come close to the tens of thousands of refugees who have shown interest in migrating to the U.S.). And even if the administration loosens its restrictions, who will be granted the privilege -- Shi'ites? Very doubtful.

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Saddam's Execution: You Call that Justice?

With all the tough talk from Congressional Democrats about the myriad investigations they are set to launch, their first order...

| Thu Jan. 4, 2007 1:33 PM EST

With all the tough talk from Congressional Democrats about the myriad investigations they are set to launch, their first order of business should be to look into just how and why the U.S. turned over its most important P.O.W., Saddam Hussein, to a death squad for barbaric execution.

Here is how Juan Cole, the respected Middle East scholar, described the situation this morning:

A Ministry of Interior official admitted to Reuters on Wednesday that Saddam's execution was carried out by militiamen rather than by IM security guards, as planned. It is alleged that militiamen infiltrated the guards. That is, the earlier Sunni charges that Saddam was handed over to the Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr for execution were more or less correct….

Even the noose that hanged Saddam has ended up in the possession of Muqtada al-Sadr. A Kuwaiti businessman is trying to buy it as a memento. Saddam killed Muqtada's father and also invaded Kuwait.

People will say, of course, that this was just another internal Iraqi matter over which the U.S. had no say. Nobody believes that. Saddam was a U.S. prisoner, sentenced to death, who was turned over by U.S. authorities to a paramilitary death squad. The White House, for its part, calls this justice.

There is a theory, needless to say, that the execution was all part of some Byzantine deal whereby al-Sadr, after getting off abusing Saddam at the execution, will now act as an intermediary with the Sunnis to end the civil war. Meanwhile, al-Sadr's militiamen may get another chance to mock two more Iraqi prisoners. Next in line for the gallows are Saddam Hussein's half-brother Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti and former chief judge Awad al-Bandar.

Honeymoon Poll Shows Support for New Congress

As Nancy Pelosi is sworn in and a new Congress takes the reigns it's worth noting that on three major...

| Thu Jan. 4, 2007 1:02 PM EST

As Nancy Pelosi is sworn in and a new Congress takes the reigns it's worth noting that on three major issues Dems are set to tackle early on -- minimum wage, stem cell research and prescription drugs -- the majority of Americans, including lots of Republicans, are behind them, for now.

An Associated Press-AOL poll released yesterday finds that Congress' early goals have widespread appeal:

Nearly six in 10 U.S. adults support easing restrictions on federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research. Democratic congressional leaders this month plan to approve a bill similar to the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act. Dems are also poised to boost the federal minimum wage, which has wallowed at $5.15/hr for a full decade, and 80% of survey respondents, including 65% of Republicans, support the increase.

On the prescription drug front, where Congress will look to facilitate the purchase of more affordable drugs from other countries, seven in 10 Americans favor the government taking such steps.

Poll takers took the most pause when asked about their view of Pelosi as a leader. While equal parts, 22% each, view her favorably and non-favorably, more than half of Americans, 55%, say they just don't know enough about her yet. Surely, as her leadership begins this hour, her actions to come will vault this majority into one camp or the other.

Nancy, show us what you've got.

Whistleblowers Get Their Own Wikipedia

This could be cool. A new site, Wikileaks, is setting up an online repository for leaked information.

| Thu Jan. 4, 2007 12:46 PM EST

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This could be cool. A new site, Wikileaks, is setting up an open-source, online repository for leaked information. Using a wiki interface, it will allow anonymous whistleblowers to upload confidential info—but unlike Wikipedia, unhappy bosses and government agencies won't be able to edit or delete the entries. The site already claims to have received 1.1 million documents and plans "to numerically eclipse the content the English Wikipedia with leaked documents." Sounds like a potentially great source for activists and journalists. Not everyone is excited, though. Steven Aftergood of Secrecy News, who often passes on leaked or declassified documents from the U.S. government, writes: "In the absence of accountable editorial oversight, publication can more easily become an act of aggression or an incitement to violence, not to mention an invasion of privacy or an offense against good taste." Which gets to the heart of the wiki issue—unfettered authorship versus the demands of accuracy. Let's see what happens here.

El Nino + Emissions = Our Toastiest Year Yet

Today the U.K's weather forecasting division (why can't we have one of those?) released its projection that the one-two punch...

| Thu Jan. 4, 2007 10:04 AM EST

Today the U.K's weather forecasting division (why can't we have one of those?) released its projection that the one-two punch of El Niño and global warming could net the world's warmest ever year on record.

Each January the Met Office issues a global forecast, which takes into account solar effects, El Niño, greenhouse gases concentrations and other multi-decadal influences. Over the previous seven years the annual global temperature forecasts have been right on, with a tiny error mean of just 0.06 °C.

This year the data says there's a 60 percent chance that 2007 will be hotter than 1998, the current warmest year. The main factor behind the prediction is the onset last year of El Niño, a warming of the eastern Pacific's equatorial waters that occurs every two to seven years.

Worldwide, the 10 warmest years since 1850 have all occurred in the past 12 years. And with every year of rising temperatures we are seeing species and ecosystems altered beyond their tipping points, with everything from jellyfish to African storks feeling the burn.

In 1998, global temperatures were 0.52 degrees above the long-term average, and this year, the Met Office's central forecast is for them to be 0.54 degrees above the mean. The forecast explains that while the current El Niño effect -- warming parts of the Pacific by between 1 and 3 degrees -- isn't as strong as the 1997-1998 pattern when the ocean warmed in parts by as much as 4 degrees, the signifincantly greater volume of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is likely to make 2007 warmer still than 1998.

Later this year the U.N.-created Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will publish its fourth assessment on changing weather patterns (and the first since 2001). The report will synthesize data and predictions from thousands of climate scientists from around the world, and offer critical information on climate change. We'll see if President Bush finds it's important enough to actually read.