Political MoJo

Iraq: Kidnappers Use Victims as Unwitting Bombers

| Thu Sep. 21, 2006 2:01 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.

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Obama: Debate About National Security? Bring It.

| Thu Sep. 21, 2006 1:26 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

| Wed Sep. 20, 2006 11:09 PM 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.

Good News! Federal Court Reinstates Roadless Rule

| Wed Sep. 20, 2006 5:52 PM EDT

Via, Earthjustice: A federal district court today ordered reinstatement of the Clinton era roadless rule to protect almost 50 million acres of wild national forests and grasslands from road building, logging, and development.

The Bush administration's has long fought to open these natural areas to development. We wrote about the roadless rule in this 2003 piece, in which an environmentalist said, "The roadless rule is one of the most popular federal policies in the history of the United States. We're talking about the last remaining 58.5 million acres of roadless forest, and one of the first things President Bush did in office was to tell the forest service to halt implementation."

Today's ruling does not address the roadless areas in the Tongass National Forest in Alaska, which the Bush administration in 2003 exempted from the roadless rule in a separate procedure. The 17-million-acre Tongass is the largest federal forest and the biggest roadless area in the US. It's also the heart of the planet's largest and oldest temperate rainforest. Here's how Ted Williams described the forest a few years ago in a piece for Mother Jones.

"What had looked like another cloud bank sailing in high from the west turned out to be the ice fields of the Coast Range. Mountain bluebirds wafted along the river. Gulls wheeled and screamed over the first slug of spawning candlefish. Water ouzels on rocks and logs bobbed, dipped, then marched into and under the current. Ravens harassed bald eagles. A snowy owl patrolled the meadow at high noon. Upstream there were beavers, river otters, a freshly undenned black bear, and, though we didn't see them, brown bears, moose, Sitka black-tailed deer, mountain goats, and wolverines. The river's sandy banks were littered with the spines, jaws, and gill plates of last year's spawned-out salmon -- all five species. In the clear water, salmon-size steelhead trout, minutes out of the Pacific, surged from our shadows or eased through deadfalls."

Media Coverage of Voting Shenanigans Needs to Improve

| Wed Sep. 20, 2006 3:02 PM EDT

CJR has a good editorial on press coverage of voting snafus, mishaps, and foul play. Journalists, it points out, "not only seek to publicize truths but also help determine which truths count. A story's tone, its placement, and whether it gets followed up all have something to do with whether it is perceived by the public as a big deal. Sometimes the press seems leery of making that determination." For which, see the possibility of vote manipulation in national elections -- particularly the case of Ohio in 2004, where Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell doubled as co-chair of Bush's re-election campaign in Ohio and where numerous irregularities-- barriers to registration; purges of voting rolls; the use of an illegal mailing tactic called "caging" to strike voters from the rolls if they failed to respond in time to a letter to their address of record; extremely poor distribution of voting machines in heavily Democratic urban areas--were alleged, many (though not all) with good cause.

But it didn't get too much mileage. For one thing, unlike Florida's razor-thin 537-vote margin in 2000, Bush officially carried Ohio by some 136,000 votes. Tales of vote manipulation were generally covered either as small potatoes or as squawks from the loony left (which some were). [...] When the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, John Conyers Jr., issued a measured but blistering report that found "numerous serious election irregularities . . . which affected hundreds of thousands of votes," Ohio got another few minutes in the spotlight.

Ohio popped up again in a June 15 piece in Rolling Stone by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. The headline asked, "Was the 2004 Election Stolen?" Kennedy thought so. But most of the media yawned. The New York Times, typically strong on voting controversy, dealt with the Rolling Stone story in its abysmal Sunday Styles section with a profile of Kennedy that managed to mention the drug problem he had some twenty years ago, but not to fairly present his argument. One outlet that did not ignore the piece was Salon, where the staff writer Farhad Manjoo asserts that he takes Kennedy's argument apart, but, upon close inspection, much of the Rolling Stone analysis survives. And Manjoo does not address a lot of what went wrong in Ohio. ...

I should point out that Mark Hertsgaard took a look at the Ohio brouhaha for Mother Jones and found that yes, there were major problems but they didn't justify the claim that Bush "stole" the election. CJR similarly concludes:

We're not making the case that the election of 2004 was stolen, and we'd rather look ahead than back. But we are arguing that intolerable things happened in Ohio that merited more sustained attention from the national press. And that targeting particular groups for vote suppression is reprehensible, yet effective, and will continue unless challenged. (In late August, Salon named six states that appear ripe for trouble.) [And, ahem, this month Mother Jones examines the 11 worst places to vote in the U.S.] Guarding the democratic process is part of the journalistic mission, and with another election approaching, now is the time to think about that. Suppressing democracy is, yes, a big deal.

The Company They Keep

| Wed Sep. 20, 2006 3:01 PM EDT

James Dobson, of Focus on the Family, is well known for his extreme anti-feminist, anti-gay, pro-child- (and dog-) beating, "pro-family" philosophy. Bill Bennet, self-appointed "values" czar, is known for his compulsive gambling problems. Sen. George Allen, who recently came under fire for making racist comments, is also known to have a history of violence. Ann Coulter is known for desiring the death and destruction of a number of non-conservative ("non-conservative" is actually a stretch when desribing the New York Times, but you get my point) citizens. Jerry Falwell blamed gays, feminists and the ACLU for the attacks of September 11, 2001. And Sean Hannity's nightly broadcasts speak for themselves.

These people are all part of the Values Voter Summit that will be held September 22-24 in Washington, D.C. to help mobilize conservative Christian voters.

But they are not alone. Joining them will be White House Press Secretary Tony Snow and U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. The ersatz president's official spokesman and the highest-ranking official in the Department of Justice will gather together to discuss how to "take back" the country from people who believe in free speech, separation of church and state, and equal rights. This is compassionate conservatism at its most flagrant.

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Halliburton Tried to Shaft Its Own War Heroes

| Wed Sep. 20, 2006 2:56 PM EDT

A Senate panel investigating U.S. military contractors Monday unveiled a letter sent from Halliburton subsidiary KBR to a former employee that sought, under the guise of awarding a medal, to waive the company of any liability for the infamous Good Friday Massacre, in which six Halliburton truck drivers were killed and others injured while delivering fuel in Iraq.

The letter notified former truck driver Ray Stannard that he would "most certainly qualify" for the Pentagon's Defense of Freedom medal, an award created in the wake of 9/11 to recognize citizens injured while aiding the military. But as a condition of releasing Stannard's medical records to the military, the letter asked him to sign a form that would absolve KBR and the military "from any and all claims and any and all cause of action of any kind or character, whether known or unknown, I may have against them."

"That is almost unbelievable to me that a company would do that," said Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND), chairman of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee. Democrats held the hearing on their own, arguing Republicans who control the Senate have shown little interest in pursuing the matter, the Houston Chronicle reported.

So much for Republicans supporting our boys in Iraq.

The Other 98 Percent of Iraq

| Wed Sep. 20, 2006 1:25 PM EDT

This morning's Column One feature in the Los Angeles Times is a terrific first-person account of life in Baghdad. It is written by an unnamed Iraqi reporter for the paper, and reading almost any random paragraph shows why he had to go unbylined.

I see my neighbors less and less. When I go out, I say hello and that's it. I fear someone will ask questions about my job working for Americans, which could put me in danger. Even if he had no ill will toward me, he might talk and reveal an identifying detail. We're afraid of an enemy among us. Someone we don't know. It's a cancer.

It's a revealing look at the unspoken, and unreported, reality behind the news we do get from Iraq. Dexter Filkins, who has done terrific reporting for the New York Times from Iraq, recently said that 98 percent of Iraq, including most of Baghdad, is now off-limits to Western journalists, a startling figure that begs the question of why reports from Iraq don't include such a disclaimer

Filkin's talk at Manhattan offices of the Committee to Protect Journalists offered a revealing look behind the scenes of Iraq reporting. Editor & Publisher noted that the Times, employs "45 full-time Kalashnikov-toting security guards to patrol its two blast-wall-enclosed houses—and oversee belt-fed machine-guns on the roofs of the buildings."

American journalists, [Filkins] said, spend their days piecing together scraps of information from the Iraqi reporters to construct a picture, albeit incomplete, of what life is like these days in the war-torn country. But he says that the work is slow and difficult, and it is hard in such an atmosphere for reporters to nail down specifics. "Five people doing a run-of-the-mill story takes forever," he said.

Filkins' reading of the situation overall raises the question of where to Bush administration is getting its optimistic assessments of progress in Iraq:

Most troubling was Filkins' assessment that the U.S. military may not know much more than the Times does about what life is like on the ground in Iraq. Soldiers barely leave their bases and they don't interact very much with average Iraqis, he said, so it is hard to say who, if anyone, has an accurate picture of the current situation.

Opposing Torture Hurts McCain in 2008? (That's Sick.)

| Tue Sep. 19, 2006 8:04 PM EDT

One thing that changed after 9/11 is this: we now live in a twilight zone where it's possible that a senator, John McCain, in expressing qualms at the Bush administration's determination to interpret the Geneva conventions at whim, can be seen as hurting his own presidential prospects. See this Washington Post piece, titled, "McCain's Stand On Detainees May Pose Risk For 2008 Bid."

The Geneva Conventions say wartime detainees must be "treated humanely." Bush says the United States complies so long as CIA interrogators abide by a 2005 law barring "cruel, inhuman, or degrading" treatment of captives. McCain and his allies say that the requirement is too narrow, and that they are concerned Bush's approach would invite other nations to interpret the conventions in lax ways that could lead to abusive treatment of captive U.S. troops.

A Republican strategist tells the Post, "The politics of this for [McCain] are pretty dangerous. This is an issue that's the most important issue to the Republican base overall, and they're strongly with the president on this."

All of which goes to show that whatever changed after 9/11, very little has changed--at least not for the better--since Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.

When Even Kerry Gets Religion It's Time to Start Praying

| Tue Sep. 19, 2006 5:16 PM EDT

Liberals are falling over each other these days to show how deeply religious (make that Christian) they are, from the "Faithful Democrats" to the "Red Letter Christians." Even Howard Dean's DNC has gotten itself a "faith advisory committe."

This is all well and good (and possibly even--who knows?--sincere in some cases). But here's cause for concern: John Kerry is starting to sound like Jim Wallis, which can mean only one thing--and not a good thing. Kerry gave a speech yesterday in Malibu, California, in which he said he'd "wandered in the wilderness" after the Vietnam War but, as the Washington Post puts it, came back to the Roman Catholic Church after a sudden and moving revelation in the late 1980s. He also said he wishes he'd given the speech before the 2004 presidential election.

"For 12 years I wandered in the wilderness, went through a divorce and struggled with questions about my direction. Then suddenly and movingly, I had a revelation about the connection between the work I was doing as a public servant and my formative teachings."

Well, let's take his word for that. He also said, of his 2004 run:

"I learned that if I didn't fill in the picture myself, others would draw the caricature for me. I will never let that happen again."

"Again"?! Please, God, no!