Political MoJo

Homeland Security's Revolving Door

| Mon Jun. 19, 2006 5:36 PM EDT

On Sunday, Eric Lipton of the New York Times had an astonishing story about the legions of Homeland Security officials who were leaving their jobs to work as lobbyists for companies selling technology to DHS. Now technically, there are rules about what officials can and can't do:

The law that governs the so-called post-employment life for federal officials was enacted in 1962. It prohibits senior officials from "any communication to or appearance" before their former government department or agency on behalf of another for one year from the date they leave their job. There is also a lifetime ban on communicating with anyone at the department in connection with "a particular matter" in which the former official "participated personally and substantially."

A separate law prohibits certain former federal employees, like program managers or contracting officers, from accepting a job with a company they supervised for a year afterward if a contract involved exceeded $10 million. But as one would expect, there are all sorts of loopholes here. Michael J. Petrucelli, who was formerly acting director of citizenship and immigration services, apparently left his job and was hired within months as a lobbyist for GridPoint, which was trying to sell power-supply devices to the Coast Guard. Since the Coast Guard is technically a different department of DHS, Petrucelli was allowed to take the job. Another official—Tom Blank, the former number 2 at the Transportation Security Administration—seems to have skirted around ethics regulations simply by declining to sign official documents.

At this point, it's hard to believe that the Department of Homeland Security has accomplished much besides transfer billions of dollars to private corporations. Back in 2002, Brendan Koerner wrote a piece for this magazine on the corporations lining up outside DHS with their arms outstretched for "the biggest government bonanza since the Cold War." In itself, that's not a bad thing—so long as all these contracts are going to good use. But if contracts are being handed out on the basis of convenient connections and legalized graft, how likely is that? (Here's a partial answer.)

MORE: Justin Rood says that Lipton probably took some major risks in publishing this story—namely, he'll likely have a hard time finding sources among former DHS officials from here on out. Kudos to Lipton for writing the story anyway.

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"It's a very sad day for whales."

| Mon Jun. 19, 2006 5:08 PM EDT

Okay, scratch the premature anti-whaling triumphalism. Turns out Japan, having lost several four separate votes on related matters, got a majority on the International Whaling Commission to oppose the 1986 ban on commercial whaling. "[I]t's a very sad day for whales," notes a conservationist. On the upside, a 75 percent majority is needed to overturn the moratorium, and this vote was a squeaker (33-32).

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Photo: Greenpeace

Over at the Greenpeace blog, the organization's guy on the scene puts the latest vote in perspective:

But wait a minute, what does it actually mean, what will it actually deliver for the whalers? [N]othing in real time in the real world. They already lost the first four votes, ones that actually would have changed things now, they wanted to end any IWC work on dolphins and porpoises, they wanted secret ballots, they wanted an exemption from the commercial whaling ban to kill minke Whales and Brydes whales inside their territorial waters, not for science but for sale, and they wanted the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary harpooned: these were real things that would have made a real difference.

For more on whaling and other oceans-related news, see here.

An Alternative 'Official' View of Iraq

| Mon Jun. 19, 2006 4:00 PM EDT

Greg Mitchell reports on a memo obtained by the Washington Post that was sent out by Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq. Not surprisingly, things are horrible, regardless of what Bush might be telling everyone. Real horrible. "[D]aily-worsening conditions for those who live outside the heavily guarded international zone: harassment, threats and the employees' constant fears that their neighbors will work for the U.S. government." And those who work in the "heavily guarded international zone" have to fear for their life when they go home for the night:

  • Two of the three female Iraqis in the public affairs office reported stepped-up harassment since mid-May...."some groups are pushing women to cover even their face, a step not taken in Iran even at its most conservative."
  • Embassy employees are held in such low esteem their work must remain a secret and they live with constant fear that their cover will be blown. Of nine staffers, only four have told their families where they work. They all plan for their possible abductions. No one takes home their cell phones as this gives them away.
  • The overall environment [in Iraq] is one of "frayed social networks," with frequent actual or perceived insults. None of this is helped by lack of electricity. "One colleague told us he feels 'defeated' by circumstances, citing his example of being unable to help his two-year-old son who has asthma and cannot sleep in stifling heat," which is now reaching 115 degrees. [In many places, electricity is only available for a few hours a day.
  • "Another employee tell us that life outside the Green Zone has become 'emotionally draining.' He lives in a mostly Shiite area and claims to attend a funeral 'every evening.'"The full memo is here. If there was anything positive in it, I must have missed it. No doubt it's the media's fault for suppressing all the "good news".
  • Proof That Iran Wanted Peace in 2003

    | Mon Jun. 19, 2006 3:04 PM EDT

    Over the weekend, Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post apparently got his hands on the official overture that Iran made to the United States back in 2003, shortly after the fall of Baghdad. Iran, apparently, was full ready to agree to safeguards on its nuclear program, work with the United States to stabilize Iraq, take "decisive action" against terrorists, end "material support" for Palestinian militias and accept a Saudi proposal for a two-state solution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in exchange for negotiations and economic cooperation. These are the sorts of concessions U.S. diplomats would eat their hats for today.

    But Bush administration officials turned it down, because they were "convinced that the Iranian government was on the verge of collapse." The war in Iraq, it seemed, made some hawks a bit too giddy for diplomacy (remember, this was back in the "Mission Accomplished" days, when neoconservatives thought Baghdad had been conquered and were dreaming of marching troops into Tehran and Damascus next). So now the administration finds itself in the present situation, in which Iran is in a strong position to make demands, the U.S. is in a much weaker position to urge a halt to its nuclear program, and negotiations are still sluggish (though certainly hopeful). Nicely done.

    Exploitation of the oceans "rapidly passing the point of no return."

    | Fri Jun. 16, 2006 8:43 PM EDT

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    Okay, enough already with the good news. Via the Guardian, here's some of the other kind:

    Damage to the once pristine habitats of the deep oceans by pollution, litter and overfishing is running out of control, the United Nations warned yesterday. In a report that indicates that time is running out to save them, the U.N. said humankind's exploitation of the the deep seas and oceans was "rapidly passing the point of no return."

    Last year some 85 million tonnes of wild fish were pulled from the global oceans, 100 million sharks and related species were butchered for their fins, some 250,000 turtles became tangled in fishing gear, and 300,000 seabirds, including 100,000 albatrosses, were killed by illegal longline fishing.

    Into the water in their place went three billion individual pieces of litter - about eight million a day - joining the 46,000 pieces of discarded plastic that currently float on every square mile of ocean and kill another million seabirds each year. The water temperature rose and its alkalinity fell - both the result of climate change. Coral barriers off Australia and Belize are dying and newly discovered reefs in the Atlantic have already been destroyed by bottom trawling.

    The piece has a U.N. official saying, "Humankind's ability to exploit the deep oceans and high seas has accelerated rapidly over recent years. It is a pace of change that has outstripped our institutions and conservation efforts," and notes by way of example that mining could soon spread to the sea floor for the first time, with a Canadian company planning to dig for deposits of gold and copper off Papua New Guinea.

    For a full inventory of the woes afflicting the oceans see Julia Whitty's excellent piece from the March/April Mother Jones. And if you want to do something about this mess--and you can--click here.

    "It's a big vote for small cetaceans."

    | Fri Jun. 16, 2006 5:44 PM EDT

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    Welcome news for dolphins, porpoises, and all who wish them well: Japan today lost a vote to have the so-called "small cetaceans" (mini-whales) removed from the protective purview of the International Whaling Commission, which just began a five-day meeting in St. Kitts in the Caribbean.

    If you haven't been following this closely, Japan is pushing hard to persuade members of the 70-country IWC--whose remit is essentially to conserve whale populations--to agree to ending a 20-year old moratorium on commercial whaling. The 2/3 majority the Japanese need to overturn the ban outright seems beyond their reach for now, but there are plenty of proposals coming up for a vote short of full repeal that will loosen restrictions on whale hunting. The small-cetacean measure was one of these--another would ban groups like Greenpeace from snooping around whaling vessels--and the fact that Japan's push failed suggests it lacks the strength to win on the others. (This despite Japan's allegedly having bought the support of other countries with foreign aid.)

    Three countries have kept on hunting whales despite the 1986 moratorium: Norway, which has ignored the ban entirely; Japan and Iceland, which have exploited a loophole that permits whaling for purposes of "scientific research." (See photo below.)

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    Why is Japan so hot to overturn the ban? Not clear. Whale meat from the "scientific" hunts is sold commercially and, thanks to the Japanese government, is a staple in school lunches; fact is, though, Japanese people don't much care for whale meat, and the industry subsists in large part on government subsidies. Puzzled outsiders apparently put Japan's whaling jihad down to "a small caucus of politicians who have turned the issue into one of 'culinary imperialism,' in which Japan is defiantly asserting that it will not be told what to eat, any more than Australians should be told not to eat kangaroo." (LAT)

    For more on whale-, dolphin-, and ocean-related developments, see Mother Jones' recent special report on the state of our oceans, which includes this article on Japanese scientific whaling and this interview with filmmaker Hardy Jones, aka the "Dolphin Defender." For up-to-the-minute coverage of the IWC meeting, see Greenpeace's "Ocean Defender" blog. And to find out what you can do to protect our oceans and the critters and plants that live in them check out "Ocean Voyager", Mother Jones' interactive online journey (video! photos! ocean sounds!) to defend our seas.

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    Polls Aren't Always Trustworthy

    | Fri Jun. 16, 2006 5:09 PM EDT

    I don't know many people who take opinion polling on policy issues as definitive in any way, but James Fishkin's piece in the Boston Review on polling had two interesting anecdotes on just how unreliable polling can really be:

    Sometimes the "opinions" reported in polls do not exist. Because respondents do not like to say "I don't know," they often pick an answer more or less at random. When George Bishop of the University of Cincinnati asked in surveys about the "Public Affairs Act of 1975," the public offered opinions even though the act was fictional…

    The second problem with conventional polling is that sometimes the responses to questions do not express real opinions but simply the first thing that comes to a respondent's mind. This phenomenon was first described by the eminent political scientist Philip Converse. A National Election Studies panel was asked the same set of questions each year from 1956 to 1960. The questions included some low-salience items about such subjects as the government's role in providing electric power.

    Converse noticed that some of the respondents offered answers that seemed to vary almost randomly over the course of the panel. They cared so little about the issue that they could not even remember what they had said the previous year in order to try to be consistent. Converse concluded that significant numbers of people were simply answering randomly.The Fishkin piece, by the way, advocates "deliberative polling," a process which would gather a representative group of people together on some weekend retreat or other, poll them on an issue, let them talk it out, and then poll them again to see what they think after some thought, discussion, and, well, deliberation. It's an interesting idea, but either way, the piece is a good reminder that people can say all sorts of things about various intricate policy programs, but that's no indication as to what they really might think about something if they gave it some actual thought.

    Hyping the China Threat

    | Fri Jun. 16, 2006 2:44 PM EDT

    Well, this is disturbing. As we all know, the Pentagon has a rather alarmist view of China. But where does this view come from? Careful analysis? Maybe not. Gregory Kulacki reports in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists that the United States' appraisal of China's intentions and military capabilities is often based on dubious sources—an essay from tabloid newspaper in one case, the writings of an amateur weapons enthusiast in another—that are then wrongly attributed to the Chinese government and deemed cause for concern.

    In 2001, for instance, a U.S. commission warned that China was preparing for, quote, a "space Pearl Harbor" and probing for weaknesses in our high-tech infrastructure that could be exploited in a possible war over Taiwan. But much of this assessment was based on an essay written in China by a junior military officer freelancing for an "outlook" magazine, who wrote a piece on U.S. vulnerabilities that exclusively cited U.S. sources, including various Pentagon reports. In no way did the essay reflect China's official intentions, much less its ability to probe for weaknesses. It was just misinterpreted by whatever analyst read it. As Kulacki says, it's "a game of telephone gone horribly wrong."

    Now China might in fact be planning some colossal space war against the United States. Or planning to dominate all of Asia. Or whatever nightmare scenario we're supposed to worry about. It's possible. But there's no reason to take the U.S. intelligence community's word on this as final—not least because, according to Kulacki, most of people gathering intelligence on China don't even speak Chinese very well, and so are quite prone to misunderstandings and mistranslations.

    Even worse, though, is that a needlessly hawkish view on China can create a dangerous feedback loop. Chinese analysts read U.S. government reports, and in turn write their own analyses for Chinese military journals, which are in turn read by U.S. analysts, and so on. A bit of excess alarmism in those initial reports can be amplified over time, as both sides get increasingly alarmist, and hawkishness can quickly become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Already we have a military-industrial complex that has every incentive to hype the Chinese threat in order to justify expensive new weapons systems; we hardly need Chicken Little intelligence based on shoddy translation on top of that.

    Minnesota company never charged with theft of 45 tons of Ground Zero disaster relief supplies

    | Fri Jun. 16, 2006 12:47 PM EDT

    Following the tragedy of September 11, 2001, Kieger Enterprises of Minnesota sent trucks to a warehouse in Long Island and proceeded to steal hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of donated bottled water, clothes, tools, and generators, which were then moved to Minnesota, where the company planned to sell the items for profit. Dan L'Allier, a Kieger employee, witnessed the trucks being loaded. He and disaster specialist Chris Christopherson told a Kieger executive, who told them to keep quiet about the theft. They then told the FBI.

    As a result, the two whistleblowers lost their jobs, received death threats, and were blackballed in the disaster relief industry. They each received $30,000 (after expenses) from the government, their share in a civil suit against Kieger. Some of the company's executives were charged with fraud by the federal government, but the September 11 theft of 45 tons of needed goods was not included in the government's case.

    The former U.S. Attorney in Minnesota said it was never his intention to charge Kieger for the theft--that he had referred the September 11 part of the case to New York prosecutors. The government's explanation for excluding the theft was that fraud was at the core of the case and "we didn't need the theft." The whistleblowers say they were never even contacted by New York prosecutors.

    However, there is evidence that suggests the government was preparing to bring theft charges against Kieger. That evidence is in the form of a March, 2002 memo from the U.S. Attorney's ofice in Minnesota. However, according to an investigator for the FBI and FEMA, plans to go ahead with the theft charges were curtailed when it was discovered that an FBI agent in Minnesota had stolen a crystal globe from Ground Zero. An investigation then revealed that sixteen government employees, including a top FBI executive and and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, possessed Ground Zero or September 11 Pentagon artifacts.

    Jane Turner, the lead FBI agent, says that the FBI attempted to fire her because she brought the stolen artifacts to light. She retired in 2003.

    An attorney representing Kieger called the accusation of theft "much ado about nothing," claiming that Kieger employees tooks some water and T-shirts, and that they had permission from FEMA to do so. The FEMA official in charge says that no such permission was given.

    Fraud charges against Kieger have not been limited to the September 11 event, but also involve the June, 2000 flood in Eagan, Minnesota and the June 2001 tornado in Siren, Wisconsin.

    Where's the Food Aid?

    | Thu Jun. 15, 2006 6:06 PM EDT

    Let's rattle off some numbers here: The Pentagon is currently spending $300 million on a propaganda program to sneak stories favorable to the United States into foreign newspapers. In May, meanwhile, the United Nation's emergency food agency had collected only $14 million of the $37.3 million needed to continue its feeding programs. Across Africa, 16 million people are "facing starvation of debilitating malnutrition. And so on.

    You can see where this is going. Those figures come from this Salon piece by Samuel Lowenberg on the dire need for food aid to stave off world hunger. It's become fashionable to say that "aid doesn't work," but food aid works perfectly well—it's just underfunded. And what aid there is usually pours in long after a famine has struck, when it's too late. (Famine insurance might help alleviate this problem, however.) Most food aid from the United States, meanwhile, must be used to purchase U.S. crops, a subsidy to agribusiness that causes delays in aid delivery and usually undercuts local markets. No doubt "local corruption" makes some food aid ineffective, but there are more immediate problems that can be addressed first.

    There's also the argument that emergency food aid is just a stopgap measure. Give a man a fish and all that. True, but Africa has never received the sort of long-term agricultural development assistance that Latin America and Asia received during the Cold War—currently, only a small fraction of U.S. food aid to Africa is set aside for this purpose. This is stuff that's extremely doable. It's just not done. And people really are dying unnecessarily.